NBA Playoffs: Thunder to taste playoff experience, do the Lakers have too much of it?

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durant.jpgThe Lakers and the Thunder are a lot alike in some ways. Think about it this way:

Dominant superstar? Check. Second offensive option who is a borderline All-Star? Check. Long, lanky versatile forward? Check. Guys who can come in off the bench and change the game? Check.

But off the court these franchises are totally different. Night and day. The Los Angeles Lakers have 15 NBA championship banners hanging at one end of Staples Center. They won the title last year. Their coach has a ring for every finger. On both hands. They ooze experience to the point of boredom with everything before the playoffs (which could cost them).

The Oklahoma City Thunder are so excited to have made the playoffs the franchise is throwing a parade before the first game. A parade before the ball is thrown up in one playoff game.

All that gets to the real question at the heart of this series: Does the Lakers experience overcome their banged up bodies and sloppy play coming in? Can Oklahoma City have fun and not flinch under a new level of pressure? The stats will tell you this one is very close. But as Portland learned last year, the playoffs are a different kind and level of basketball. Does Oklahoma City have to learn how to win at this level, or can they walk out Sunday and say, “why not now?”

Of course, there are some fun matchups, starting with the ones at the top of the marquee.

There is Kevin Durant, the NBA’s newest superstar, a 6’10” guy with point guard skills, who can hit the three or drive he lane. Stopping him (or guys like him) is why the Lakers got Ron Artest, everyone’s favorite physical defender, blonde (today) and loose cannon. Artest will try to be physical with Durant, and if the refs allow him to be like Phil Jackson he wants he stands a chance of making Durant less efficient.

On the other end, Kobe Bryant is going to face Thabo Sefolosha, who has had success in this matchup — in the team’s last meeting that he held Kobe to 11 points and Kobe actually admitted Sefolosha bothered him. The Thunder are a good defensive team, too, and Sefolosha will get help.


The two key matchups, however, will be elsewhere. UCLA alumni Russell
Westbrook returns to LA to piss off his former fans. We all know the
Lakers have struggled to stop quick point guards for a couple seasons,
and there are few quicker than Westbrook. Here’s a little stat to tell
you how important Westbrook is — when the Thunder blew out the Lakers
last month, Westbrook was 10 of 13 shooting; but in the Lakers three
wins in this series this season, he shot 39 percent.

Derek Fisher is going to need help — and that’s where a healthy Andrew
Bynum comes a key. Westbrook is great in finishing at the rim, but if
Bynum can force him to shoot before that, well, Westbrook takes some of
the ugliest 8-foot shots in the NBA.

The Lakers advantage is Pau Gasol, who has beasted lately  — shooting 65
percent and scoring 26 points per game in the Lakers last five (before
the Clipper game Wednesday). The 7’0″ Gasol will be guarded by the 6’9″
Jeff Green, who is a quality player but cannot bother Gasol when he gets
the ball. The Lakers all to often inexplicably go away from Gasol, if
they do it here they play into the Thunder’s hands.

There is James Harden sparking the Thunder off the bench, versus the
Lamar Odom spark. There is Green trying to pull the Laker bigs away from
the basket. There are a lot of Xs and Os to watch.

Still, the question is how much does experience matter? The Lakers do
not tighten up under pressure; they tend to thrive in it. They don’t
always win but they seem to revel in it. They have won a title because
of it. Look at what Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak told Mike Trudell of
Lakers.com in their series preview:

“At the end of the day, we’re not talking about an inexperienced roster
or coaching staff, he said. “This team, based on what they’ve
accomplished and not just recently deserves the chance to go into the
playoffs and make any adjustments that they feel necessary. We all know
that no matter what happened 10 days ago or three weeks ago, everybody
will be evaluated based on how the season ends.”

The Thunder run their sets but often seem of short-arm shots in the last
five minutes of a game. When the defensive pressure steps up, they seem
to get tight, and with Harden on the bench (in favor of Thabo’s
defense) they rely heavily on Durant to do everything. With more on the
line then their core has ever faced, how will the Thunder execute?
Carefree, like a team with nothing to lose? Or do they get tight?

Much of the nation, pretty tired of Kobe and the Lakers, will be pulling
for the upstarts. Oklahoma City will have America’s hearts. If they can
keep their heads, they have the talent to hang.

But would you really bet against the Lakers here? Neither would I.

Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson out 2-4 weeks

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Tristan Thompson has been one of the biggest bright spots in an otherwise miserable Cavaliers season. The center is averaging 12.0 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. He has also taken on more leadership.

And now he’s out.

Cavaliers release:

Cavaliers forward/center Tristan Thompson will miss approximately 2-4 weeks with a left foot sprain. Thompson was injured in last night’s road game at Milwaukee late in the third quarter

This will help Cleveland improve its draft position, though it’s not as if Cleveland (6-21) was having much issue losing even with Thompson.

At least the Cavs have plenty of options at center. Expect Larry Nance Jr. to take a larger role. Ante Zizic likely joins the rotation. Cleveland could dust off Channing Frye. Kevin Love might return before Thompson.

Magic suspended Mohamed Bamba for being late to walk-through

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Seven of the top eight picks in the 2018 NBA draft are scoring double-digit points per game.

The exception: Magic center Mohamed Bamba.

Bamba certainly hasn’t been bad. He’s just acclimating to the NBA at a more common rate than peers like Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Deandre Ayton. This is an exceptionally good rookie class.

But this won’t help Bamba catch up. He missed Orlando’s 101-76 loss to the Mavericks last night.

Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel:

Bamba, who was suspended for a game for being late for the team walk-through at the hotel in Dallas on Monday

“It was a violation of team rules,” Clifford said. “It’s just a one-game thing. Mo will play again on Thursday, but that’s what it was.”

“It’s just bad on my part and I just need to be better … just gotta be on time,” Bamba said. “It’s very difficult because you want to be out there and impact the game in any way possible and hope for a different outcome.”

I doubt Magic coach Steve Clifford suspended Bamba for a single instance of tardiness. This was likely a culmination.

Orlando (12-15) is eighth in the Eastern Conference, in the thick of the playoff race. If the Magic are going to take advantage of the low bar for making the postseason, they need all hands on deck – including Bamba.

Lonzo Ball bypasses open layup for no-look backward bounce pass, leaves Luke Walton staring into abyss (video)

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Lonzo Ball missed a layup early last night. That might have made him overthink later, when he was ahead of the pack on another fastbreak. Instead of shooting the open layup, Ball bounced the ball behind him without looking, leading to a turnover and open Heat 3-pointer.

On the bright side for the Lakers, they still beat Miami.

On the bright side for us, we got this great Luke Walton reaction GIF:

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LeBron James says he was referring to only arena, not consideration of signing with Knicks

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After the Lakers beat the Heat in LeBron James‘ and Dwyane Wade‘s final game together, the stars shared an eyebrow-raising conversation on the court:

  • Wade: “I appreciate you letting it end here. I appreciate you bringing us here today.”
  • LeBron: “It was either here or at the Garden. That’s it. That’s the only places we could end it at, man.”

That prompted immense speculation about whether LeBron considered signing with the Knicks. After all, how else would he and Wade – who said he’d re-sign with Miami or retire – have played at Madison Square Garden?

Michael Duarte of NBC Los Angeles

This was always the most likely explanation. The arenas in Los Angeles in New York are the NBA’s biggest stages, and LeBron has repeatedly stated his affection for Madison Square Garden. He didn’t have to think through all the implications to say those were the only appropriate locations.

But I’m still a little skeptical.

LeBron sure was speaking up for the cameras with Wade. And that was after an on-court conversation with Wade a few years ago blew up into a big deal. LeBron also got reminded just last year, with Lonzo Ball, about how much attention those on-court talks generate.

Plus, ever since Phil Jackson bothered him with his “posse” comment, LeBron has repeatedly gone out of his way to tease the Knicks.

Ultimately, I believe the given explanation that this was just about the arena’s allure and nothing more. An offhand remark needn’t completely follow the logic that either LeBron or Wade must play for the Knicks for them to meet at Madison Square Garden. But I’m not completely sold this wasn’t a passive-aggressive dig at the Knicks.