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. 
  

Clippers use ridiculously steep arc to fit Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s last name on jersey (photo)

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In NBA history, there have been eight players with at least a 15-character last name (including spaces):

They’re no match for Clippers rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who has an 18-character last name.

The Clippers had to go to extreme angles to get Gilgeous-Alexander’s name onto the back of his jersey. We already saw this humorous setup when Gilgeous-Alexander held up a jersey in his post-draft press conference (see above), but the jersey looks even more absurd on his back.

Darren Rovell of ESPN:

It doesn’t help that Gilgeous-Alexander is so lanky. As he bulks up, maybe this won’t stand out quite so much.

Evan Fournier takes shot at LeBron’s hairline with Tweet of media day photo

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Just because LeBron James is in the Western Conference doesn’t mean you want to give him fuel for motivation when he does see your team.

Orlando’s Evan Fournier decided to have a little fun at the expense of LeBron’s hairline when Tweeting out his media day photos.

LeBron may have a whole show based in a barber shop, but he did have a little more forehead going today.

Still, Evan, is that really where you wanted to go?

Dwight Howard could miss start of Wizards camp with bad back

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Dwight Howard joked Monday about the sore back that’s expected to keep him out for the start of training camp with the Washington Wizards.

Coach Scott Brooks downplayed the significance of the injury, too. Still, it’s not ideal that the team needs to put off incorporating its one offseason addition to the starting lineup.

“I’ve been having to do a lot of traveling with shoe companies and stuff like that in China. So just from training, traveling – and airplanes weren’t made for tall people. … It kind of sucks to fly 15 hours curled up in the fetal position,” said Howard, a 6-foot-11 center entering his 15th NBA season.

“So just a minor setback. It shouldn’t take that long for me to get back on the court,” he added. “I’ve been feeling great all summer. Just something that we’ll have to deal with, and it shouldn’t keep me out too long.”

The Wizards traded away starting center Marcin Gortat to the Los Angeles Clippers and added Howard, who’ll turn 33 in December, on a two-year, $11 million contract with a player option. He averaged 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds last season for a Charlotte Hornets team that missed the playoffs and now is with his fourth team in four years.

That means adjusting yet again – to new teammates, to a new coach, to a new system.

In Washington, everything revolves around the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal.

Last season, when Wall appeared in only 41 of 82 games, the Wizards went 43-39 and were eighth in the Eastern Conference, losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Toronto Raptors.

Howard, an eight-time All-Star, said that he has not had a chance to get on a court with Wall and Beal to start getting a feel for one another.

“But one thing that I have done is I’ve watched a lot of film to really learn the tendencies of my teammates. Where they like the ball. Where they like to get screened at. Just things that will really help them get to their sweet spots,” Howard said. “A lot of times, the best way to really understand your teammate is by watching film.”

Brooks, Beal and others said all the right things at Monday’s media day about Howard.

“He’s going to make my job a lot easier. He’s going to make everybody’s job a lot easier on both ends of the floor, because you still have to respect his ability at the rim. He averaged 16 and 13 last year. Those are great numbers, you know? In our system, those can increase, easily,” said Beal, who led Washington in scoring by averaging 22.6 points and was an All-Star for the first time.

“Watching him, if you don’t hit him, it’s over. He’s going to dunk on you. And I love it. Because I think that’s going to get me hyped – just being able to have a big who’ll just flush it on you every time and somebody who will block some shots if you get beat on defense,” Beal said. “He’s a threat on both ends of the floor.”

Now it’s just a matter of getting Howard out on that floor with the rest of the Wizards.

“We’re just going to be careful. Not sure if he will practice tomorrow” when camp opens, Brooks said at the club’s media day.

Brooks listed Howard’s status as “day-to-day,” saying he wasn’t “overly concerned.”

“But we’re not going to rush him to get back,” the coach said.

 

LeBron James forcefully shoots down idea he came to Los Angeles for showbiz

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LeBron James is a smart man, one who knows what his empire is built upon:

Basketball.

And him being better than anyone else in the world at it.

While his post-career life is in Los Angeles — his production company has “The Wall” on NBC, is in the early stages of putting together an NBC comedy about the family life of Ben Simmons, is producing “The Shop” on HBO, is making “Space Jam 2” with LeBron as the star, and more — do not suggest to LeBron that might get in the way of basketball.

“I’m a basketball player. I play ball, that’s what I do,” LeBron said earlier in his press conference. “That’s what I live by and when I do it at the level I do it at everything else takes care of itself.

“As far as my business, those things have been taking care of themselves long before I came out here to be part of the Lakers franchise.”

LeBron is right about that. His production company — led by Maverick Carter — has been working on Space Jam for a couple of years now, and if LeBron had decided to stay in Cleveland or sign in Philadephia or anywhere else that project would still be going forward. They’d still be filming next summer in the off-season, regardless of where he played.

LeBron is very good at compartmentalizing his life. The great ones are. Kobe Bryant had side projects, but it never slowed down the effort he put into the game. Same is going on right now with Stephen Curry and James Harden. Michael Jordan did it before them, and Magic Johnson before him. Those guys have brands that are empires of their own now, but they all know what the foundation of that success is.

And they don’t let anything get in the way of basketball. Not like that.