NBA Playoffs: Lakers lock down Durant, Thunder to win Game 1

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Bynum_Durant.jpgOn a superficial level, the Lakers and Thunder appear to be polar opposites in a lot of ways. The Lakers are the defending champions. The Thunder have never been to the playoffs before. The Lakers are the #1 seed. The Thunder are the #8 seed. The Lakers are a veteran team. The Thunder are the youngest team in the league. The Lakers play in Los Angeles. The Thunder play in Oklahoma City. On the court, however, the two teams are more the same than different. Both teams hung their hat on defense this year, struggled offensively at times, and have a transcendent scorer in their employ. 

The problem for the Thunder is that the Lakers, when healthy, are a great defensive team and above-average offensively; the Thunder are a very good defensive team and below-average offensively. On Sunday afternoon, the game that was billed as a Kobe-Durant showdown turned into a defensive battle, and the Lakers were able to take the win home by establishing some semblance of offensive production. The Thunder played their hearts out and challenged the Lakers at times, but in the end they couldn’t find enough ways to score to get over the hump. 
I was at the game, so here are my notes from the contest in chronological order:
-The pre-game introductions are sponsored by the upcoming film “The Losers,” which means the word “Losers” is prominently displayed beneath the Lakers’ starting lineup. This is the last time the Lakers would be called “Losers” all afternoon. 
-The Lakers go to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to start the game, and both of them score in the post. Bynum looks spry, and it looks like the Thunder may not have an answer for the Lakers if both of their 7-footers are on their game. 
-After three minutes of action, Nenad Kristic scores the first basket in Thunder postseason history on a put-back. 
-Durant misses his first two jumpers, and unsuccessfully attempts to draw a foul on Ron Artest with his patented “rip” move. He doesn’t get the whistle, and the shot misses badly. Not a good start for Durant. 
-The Lakers are using their size to punish the Thunder inside, while the Thunder are surviving by pushing off of turnovers and getting transition hoops. 
-Durant finally has some success against Artest when he nearly causes Artest to fall down with a crossover and uses the resulting space to drain a three. This looked like a glimmer of hope at the time, but it turned out to be Durant’s only made three of the night.
                                                                                                                
-Sefolosha and Green both do a good job on Bryant early, but Bryant immediately gets aggressive when James Harden is on him, taking him to the post and hitting a turnaround. 
-The Lakers absolutely dominate the first quarter, outscoring the Thunder by a margin of 27-13. They established their inside-out game perfectly, attacking the paint early in the quarter and hitting open threes when the defense started collapsing. Of the Lakers’ 27 points in the quarter, 23 came on shots in the paint or on shots from behind the arc.
-The Thunder get back into the game while Kobe sits, but the Lakers get back in the driver’s seat. Over the course of one critical sequence, Bryant hit a contested three, Durant got stripped not once but when he tried to answer, and Andrew Bynum got deep position on the ensuing semi-transition possession and threw down an absolutely crushing slam. The Lakers are now up 17, and the crowd is going insane. Big trouble for the Thunder. 
-Russell Westbrook prevents the game from becoming a blowout with his play in the second half of the quarter. The Thunder start to get out in transition, and Westbrook scores or assists on all of the Thunder’s 17 points in the last six minutes of the half. Even though Oklahoma City got convincingly outplayed for much of the half, they enter the locker room only down eight. 
-More Westbrook to start the 2nd half for the Thunder. Save for one technical free throw by Kevin Durant, all of the Thunder’s points were scored or assisted by Westbrook until the 2:29 mark of the third quarter. For those of you keeping score at home, Westbrook scored or assisted on all of the Thunder’s field goals for a 15-minute stretch of game time. That’s not going to get it done against the Lakers. 
-Fouth quarter. Durant, who’s continued to struggle against Artest, gets a rare opportunity to play while Artest sets. He looks to score, pulls up for a three…and air-balls it so badly it barely hits the floor. Not Kevin Durant’s night. 
-Durant did start to get to the line late in the game, and drew Artest’s fifth foul with 6:52 remaining in the game. With Artest in foul trouble and the Thunder only down seven, it looks like the Thunder might have a chance, but Kobe hits a cold-blooded three over Jeff Green to push the lead back to double digits. Durant answers with a sweet 19-footer, but Odom comes right back to hit a big three.
-Here was the backbreaking sequence for the Thunder. Down only six with 3:14 to play, Durant misses a 15-footer. With the Thunder needing a stop, they fail to get the rebound after a missed Artest three. Gasol goes back up with it, Westbrook blocks it from behind…and gets whistled for a foul. The block looked clean on replay, but he caught Gasol’s head with his follow-through and that’s a very tough call to make in the first place. After Gasol makes the free throws and Fisher hits a three a few possessions later, it’s all over but the crying. 
A few general notes:
-Artest was the difference in this game. Durant didn’t want to drive on him, and he was never able to lose him. The Thunder tried running him around the baseline, giving him staggered screens, using him on curls and pin-downs, everything. No matter what they tried, Artest stayed stuck to Durant, and Durant was never able to get to the rim in a half-court situation. With Durant shut down, the Thunder had no success with their half-court offense at all, and that was what gave the Lakers the win.                                                                                                                                                                           
-Bynum looked much healthier than I expected he would. A very scary sight for the rest of the league.
-The Thunder did a great job of defending Kobe Bryant and held him to 6-19 shooting from the field. If the Lakers and Thunder switched their supporting casts, it would be Sefolosha and Green getting the game ball instead of Artest, but alas. Also, how scary is it that the Lakers can win in fairly
convincing fashion with Bryant so far off his game. 
-I don’t see how the Thunder can win this series if they don’t drastically pick up the pace or Durant starts going off on Artest. The Lakers are just too big inside and too good on defense; Bynum coming back healthy gives them a whole new dimension. My only caveat is that if the Thunder do manage to steal one in LA, the impact of the OKC crowd during their team’s first home playoff games shouldn’t be underestimated.
Post-Game Quotes:
Thunder Coach Scott Brooks: “I thought our effort was really good this afternoon. Offensively, we just didn’t have anything going. The Lakers are a good defensive team. We allowed that…our offense didn’t really work tonight because we were holding the ball and standing around to much. I give the Lakers a lot of credit because they’re a long, athletic team and they do a good job of protecting the basket.”
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson on how the Lakers defended Durant: “I thought the team was much more alert as to where [Kevin Durant] was on the floor. I thought they helped out, keep their arms out of there so he couldn’t get the reach-in fouls and get to the line. He still got there 11 times, which is incredible. But his shooting was off today. I think he’ll shoot much better than he did today.”
Kevin Durant, on whether he thinks the Thunder can win the series if he continues to play like he did on Sunday: “No, I don’t think so. I make four or five more shots, maybe it could have been a different game. Like I said, I just have to keep improving, keep working. Gotta work. That’s what it’s all about, getting better. Hopefully come game 2 I’ll start knocking some of those shots down.” 
Phil Jackson has won the first game of a playoff series 44 times in his career. He’s gone on to win 44 of those series. The Thunder will need to find a way to get their best player going and establish some type of half-court offense if they don’t want to be #45. 
  

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
63

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,325

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks
Feb. 11 at Warriors
Feb. 13 at Trail Blazers

When is LeBron projected to break the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 9 at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, although a hot game on Feb. 7 against the Thunder could make that game a possibility.

How long has Kareem held the scoring record?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the all-time scoring record — to far less fanfare than is happening with LeBron — on April 5, 1984, when he scored his 31,420th point, breaking the record which had been held by Wilt Chamberlain. This was the height of the Showtime Lakers era and the team made the Finals that season but lost in seven games to Larry Bird and the Celtics. The Lakers would win the NBA title three of the next four years and Kareem would keep adding to that point total and his legacy until he retired after the 1989 season.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron scored 26 points and added seven rebounds and seven assists on Thursday night. He also gave the Lakers their first lead of the game on a 3-pointer with 2:35 left, and the Lakers held on to beat the Pacers 112-111. LeBron shot 11-of-19 from the floor and 2-of-5 from 3 for the game.

• LeBron had his first triple-double of the season — and became the first player ever with one in his 20th season — scoring 28 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists — to help lead the Lakers past the Knicks in overtime on Tuesday night. With those 11 assits LeBron moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to be fourth on the NBA’s all-time assists list.

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”

Watch altercation that leads to Donovan Mitchell, Dillon Brooks ejections

Memphis Grizzlies v Cleveland Cavaliers
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images
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Donovan Mitchell was already having a rough night — six points on 2-of-11 shooting — but at the end of the third quarter it got worse.

With a little less than six minutes left in the third quarter, the Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks drove the lane and went right into the body of Michell, knocking him back. Brooks went up to shoot, but the Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley slid in for the block and knocked Brooks to the ground. The ball bounced to Mitchell, who started to go the other way when Brooks swung his arm and — it looked like intentionally — hit Mitchel in the, um, family jewels. Mitchell fell to the ground, threw the ball at Brooks, and then the two had to be separated.

Both Brooks and Mitchell were given Flagrant 2 fouls and ejected.

While Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff complained that what Mitchell did was a justified reaction — and it was the reaction most of us would have had — throwing the ball at another player then trying to go at him is an ejection every time. After the game, Mitchell said he would appeal the flagrant and any fine, saying he should be able to defend himself.

Both Mitchell and Brooks can expect to hand over some of their next paychecks to the league.

The incident initially sparked a little run from Ja Morant, but then the Cavaliers picked up their offense and Cleveland pulled away for a 128-113 win behind 32 from Darius Garland.

 

Embiid, Morant, Lillard headline list of All-Star Game reserves

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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Joel Embiid was a lock. Few others were.

The fans made their voice heard and selected the five All-Star game starters from each conference. Embiid was the odd man out in the East frontcourt (there was going to be a snub no matter who was left off), and we can debate if Zion Williamson has played enough games to deserve being named a starter, but there were no egregious choices.

The brutal selections are always the last couple of reserves — there are more deserving players than spots — and that choice falls to the league’s coaches, who vote to pick the seven bench players from each conference (three frontcourt players, two guards, and two wildcards).

Here are the 2023 All-Star Game reserves.

WEST

Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies)
Domantas Sabonis (Sacramento Kings)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Paul George (Los Angeles Clippers)
Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
Lauri Markkanen (Utah Jazz)
Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis Grizzlies)

West Biggest Snubs: Anthony Davis, Devin Booker, De'Aaron Fox, Anthony Edwards

EAST

Joel Embiid (Philadephia 76ers)
DeMar DeRozan (Chicago Bulls)
Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
Jrue Holiday (Milwaukee Bucks)
Julius Randle (New York Knicks)
Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana Pacers)

East Biggest Snubs: Trae Young, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam, Jalen Brunson

Here are some thoughts and notes on the selections:

• This is the first All-Star game for Gilgeous-Alexander, Jackson and Haliburton — and they all deserved it.

• For my money, the biggest snub is Pascal Siakam of the Raptors. While the team has disappointed, Siakam has played not just at an All-Star level but at an All-NBA level averaging 24.9 points, 8 rebounds and 6.2 assists a game, plus solid defense. He is a top 15 player in the league, let alone top 24.

• Davis and Booker not making the roster must be solely a matter of games missed for the coaches, because both are deserving.

• Jaren Jackson Jr. making it may be the biggest surprise — he’s an elite defender and solid offensive player, but he also missed the first 14 games of the season and defense-first players have a hard time getting the nod for a fan exhibition. The coaches voting in Adebayo from the Heat over Butler was thinking along the same lines, the coaches appreciate the defense and well-rounded game of the Miami big man.

• The coaches put one Heat player and one Knick on the team, balancing the scales for two teams who could have made a case for two players.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks) and LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) will be the team captains this season (as voted by the fans), who will select their starters from a pool consisting of Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets), Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics), Donovan Mitchell (Cleveland Cavaliers), Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn Nets), Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans), Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors), and Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks).

• In a change to the format this year, James and Antetokounmpo will pick their teams on the court — playground style — just before the All-Star Game. They will choose from a pool of starters, and then the backups from the group of reserves above.

• The Celtics’ Joe Mazzulla will coach Team Giannis, while the Nuggets’ Michael Malone will coach Team LeBron.

• The All-Star Game will take place Feb. 19 in Salt Lake City. The entire weekend of events will be broadcast on TNT.

• As it has been the past few years, teams will play the first three quarters somewhat traditionally (although the winner of each quarter individually raises money for its team charity). Then the clock will be turned off for the fourth quarter and the first team to reach a target score — 24 points (in honor of Kobe) higher than the total of the team leading after three quarters. Meaning simply, if team Giannis leads 100-99 after three quarters, the first team to get to 124 wins.

Anunoby hottest name at trade deadline… or would be if Raptors decide to trade him

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns
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The Knicks are standing at the front of the line, but if the door opens Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans will be among the teams trying to push their way through the door.

O.G. Anunoby trade rumors are maybe the hottest topic around the league in the run-up to the trade deadline, something sources have told NBC Sports but is not breaking news at this point, recent reporting by both Zach Lowe of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have detailed exactly that. Lowe said on his podcast that the “entire league” is interested in the young wing. Teams are calling Massai Ujiri about Anunoby, but the Raptors have yet to tip their hand about whether they will be sellers at the deadline, stand pat, or become buyers.

Anunoby has not publicly or privately asked for a trade, but would “embrace a change of scenery” Haynes said on the podcast (it should be noted there are similar rumblings about a number of dispirited Raptors this season, the losing has worn on them). Haynes added that part of the motivation for the Grizzlies and Pelicans in this case is to keep the other team from landing him.

The Knicks are reportedly offering three first-round picks for Anunoby, and while it’s up for debate which of the seven first-round picks they control are in the mix — and how protected they are — that is now the floor for an offer to interest the Raptors. Lowe said Anunoby could draw a Donovan Mitchellsized trade package.

There are obvious reasons the league is calling, Anunoby is an All-Defensive Team level wing averaging 16.9 points per game, can finish at the rim and hit threes. It doesn’t hurt that he is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million.

Everybody wants to talk about Anunoby, but it’s all moot until Ujiri and the Raptors do.