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. 
  

James Harden working on one-legged step-back three for next season

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As if James Harden wasn’t unstoppable enough.

Harden’s step-back three has become probably the most unstoppable shot in the NBA. Now video has gone viral in NBA circles of Harden working on a one-legged, step-back three. Think Dirk Nowitzki’s one-legged jumper, but from three and with a little more side-to-side to it. (You can see the video above.) Harden talked to Tim MacMahon of ESPN about it.

“I’m not sure; it’s something that I work on,” Harden said when asked if he’ll use the one-legged, step-back 3 this season. “But you know how Mike [Jordan] has his fadeaway and Dirk [Nowitzki] has his one-leg and [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] had the sky hook, I want my step-back to be one of those moves that last forever. So when I travel around the world and I see little kids that [say], ‘Hey James, I got a step-back!’ — I love to see that.

“It’s me being a creator and me being an innovator and paving the way in basketball in my own way, doing it how I want to do it, and that’s what it’s all about. As a little kid playing in these parks, that’s what I imagined, that’s what I dreamed of. Now it’s coming to reality, so it’s pretty cool.”

Harden is going to score a lot of points… or, maybe the better way to say that is he’s going to score even more points if he gets to a point he unleashes that in a game.

The challenge this season for Harden will be balance — he’s got to share the court and the ball with Russell Westbrook. Both of them are at their best with the ball in their hands, creating in isolation, but they need to be more than that. While coach Mike D’Antoni can do some things to help with that balance (staggering their minutes as much as possible) for the Rockets to become the contenders they want to be Harden and Westbrook have to be more than “your turn, now it’s my turn” on offense.

But when it’s Harden’s turn, that one-legged step back will be fun to watch.

Derrick White didn’t lose teeth, passes concussion test after nasty fall in USA loss

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There were plenty of ugly things for Team USA in its loss to Australia on Saturday — most of them on the defensive end — but later in the day on Saturday there was some good news.

It sounds like point guard Derrick White will be fine after his nasty fall and face plant during the game, reports Tom Osborne of the San Antonio Express-News.

In the middle of the fourth quarter, White was pushing the ball upcourt after an Australia miss and either got clipped from behind — there was a foul called — or stumbled over his own feet. I lean clipped, but the video is not conclusive.

White fell and faceplanted, with his head bouncing off the court. If he got away with just stitches, that’s good news for Team USA. If White had a concussion it is possible he would have missed the start of the World Cup, and the USA is not deep at the point guard spot on this roster (Kemba Walker and White are the only true point guards, a couple of players such as Marcus Smart can play a few minutes there but aren’t really suited to the position).

Team USA has one more exhibition game against Canada, then opens World Cup play on Sept. 1 in China against the Czech Republic.

Grizzlies officially waive Dwight Howard, first step on his path to Lakers

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Lakers fans are uncomfortable with it, but the Lakers did a good job hedging their bet with a non-guaranteed contract: Dwight Howard is coming to the Lakers.

That process started on Saturday with the Grizzlies officially waiving Howard.

In theory, any team could claim Howard off waivers. In practice, no team is picking up his full $5.6 million salary.

Howard gave back $2.6 million in his buyout with the Grizzlies, which is exactly how much his veteran minimum contract with the Lakers will pay him.

Howard and JaVale McGee will have to tag team to play all the minutes at the five the Lakers need. Anthony Davis is their best center (and it’s not close, he’s arguably the best center in the NBA) but he wants to play the four most of the game, so for 30 minutes a night the Lakers need another big body at the five.

Howard has the potential to fill that role. For three seasons, from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Howard averaged 13+ points and 12 rebounds a night, was a big body on defense, and played at least 71 games in averaging 30 minutes a night. Exactly the kind of player the Lakers could use. The problem was Howard was never happy those years just playing that defense/set-a-pick-and-roll/rebound role. He wanted more touches and particularly in the post, which led to disruptions as he pushed for a larger role. It’s why he bounced around. Then last season he played just nine games due to more back and hamstring issues.

Howard is saying all the right things about accepting that role, and he convinced the Lakers to a degree, but that non-guaranteed contract shows the Lakers go into this eyes wide open. If Howard is up to his old antics, the Lakers can cut bait and move on.

It’s among the many things to watch in what should be an entertaining Lakers’ training camp this year.

On Mamba Day (8/24), former Lakers’ trainer Gary Vitti talks about what made Kobe great

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Kobe Bryant’s work ethic is legend.

It takes talent to become an MVP, 15-time All-NBA, 18-time All-Star, and lock future Hall of Famer. However, it was how Kobe got the most out of his talent that separated him from his peers. Long-time Lakers trainer Gary Vitti retired a couple of years ago and will soon publish an autobiography, “32 Years of Titles and Tears from the Best Seat in the House: What I Learned about Happiness, Greatness, Leadership and the Evolution of Sports Science.”

Vitti joined Hall of Fame photographer Andrew D. Bernstein this week on an episode of Legends of Sport to discuss his upcoming book, and he talked about Kobe (hat tip to CNBC).

“He was talented, but what if I told you he wasn’t the most talented guy out there? I’m telling you, and I’ve had them all, there’s nothing really special about Kobe. I mean he’s a big guy, but he’s not that big. He was quick, but he’s not that quick. He’s fast, he wasn’t that fast. He was powerful, but he wasn’t that powerful. I mean, there were other players that had more talent than he did, so what was there about him that more talented players had zero rings and he ended up with five?…

“He was tough in the sense that he took ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ out of his lexicon and he just believed that he could do it. Kobe taught me that talent is the most overrated thing in life; it’s what you do with your talent.”

Nobody in NBA history did as much with the talent they had as Kobe.

On Mamba Day, enjoy his ultimate mixtape highlights above and remember what it took for Kobe to get there.