NBA Playoffs: What the Thunder need to do to win in Los Angeles

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Durant_game3.jpgWith the Lakers stumbling a bit coming into the playoffs and the Thunder being anything but a typical eight-seed, many people believed that the Lakers-Thunder series would be a lot more competitive than #1-#8 matchups usually are. 
In game 1, things didn’t work out that way; the Thunder looked completely outmatched on both ends of the floor by the Lakers. The Lakers used Bynum and Gasol to punish the Thunder on the blocks. They made timely shots whenever Oklahoma tried to get within striking distance. The Lakers completely shut down the Thunder in the half-court, holding Durant to a 7-24 shooting night. Even though they only shot 41% from the field, the Lakers looked too big, too strong, and too talented for the Thunder to deal with on Sunday afternoon. 
What can the Thunder do to prevent a repeat performance on Tuesday night? Here are some adjustments that could help the Thunder steal a game on the road:
1. Get Kevin Durant Going

This is absolutely imperative for the Thunder. Durant is the Thunder’s franchise player, the league’s leading scorer, and Oklahoma City’s only consistent offensive weapon in the half-court. If Durant continues to shoot 29% from the field, the Thunder simply do not have enough firepower to score points against the Lakers. 
Durant seems extremely hesitant to take the ball at Ron Artest. He almost never drove on Artest when the Thunder played the Lakers in the regular season, and he didn’t take it to the rack against Artest in game one. Artest is a great man-to-man defender, but Durant is letting Artest take him out of his game and cause him to settle for jumpers. Durant is a good shooter, and he’ll make more of his jumpers on Tuesday night than he did on Sunday, but he’s got to get some points at the rim and trips to the free throw line. 
The Thunder also have to do a better job getting Durant some better catches. The baseline screens, pin-downs, and staggered screens the Thunder have used to try and get Durant free haven’t been getting him good looks. The Thunder need to try and use their other players moving with the ball to free up Durant on the weak side instead of continuing to give it to him on the strong side. 
2. Make an Effort To Push The Ball

Russell Westbrook did most of his damage in transition on Sunday and shot 10-16 from the field. The rest of the Thunder shot 19-56 from the field. The Thunder out-scored the Lakers 14-2 in fast-break points; if you take each team’s fast-break points away, the Lakers outscored Oklahoma City 85-65. Getting out in transition is always easier said than done, but the Thunder need to do their best to make it a full-court game. 
3. Do Everything They Can To Stop Bynum and Gasol

The Thunder played great perimeter defense against the Lakers on Sunday. In fact, Lakers not named Bynum or Gasol combined to shoot only 19-54 from the field while attempting a combined total of 14 free throws. The Thunder don’t have the size to play Bynum or Gasol straight-up, but they need to do whatever they can to front them, bring aggressive double-teams, and make the Laker perimeter players work for their points or try to win with outside shooting. The Lakers aren’t a good three-point shooting team, and more long rebounds mean more Westbrook in transition.
There’s always the chance Kobe could go off, but that can happen regardless of what kind of defense you play. The Thunder can’t allow Bynum and Gasol to run a Mikan drill if they want to have a chance. 
4. Get Some Production from their two-guard spot

In 37 minutes of play, Sefolosha and Harden combined for two points on 0-7 shooting from the field on Sunday. That’s not good. Sefolosha is in there for his defense, but he needs to make a few wide-open shots from time to time. Harden is a much better offensive player, but Kobe licked his chops and went right at Harden every time he saw him on Sunday. I’m not sure how long the Thunder can get away with keeping him on the floor for. 
5. Use the Bench to their advantage

The Lakers bench has been notoriously weak this season. The Thunder bring Nick Collison, Eric Manor, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden off their bench. On paper, the Thunder’s second unit should be able to get the Thunder some points, but the Lakers were actually +1 in the seven minutes Kobe sat on Sunday. If the Lakers play the Thunder even while Kobe sits, that’s a major win for them.
Well, that’s my list of adjustments. Oklahoma City definitely has their work cut out for them for the remainder of the series, but they’re 48 good minutes away from stealing a game at Staples and having all the momentum in the series. 

Three Things to Know: Rockets beat Jazz behind Harden’s 47, has Houston turned it around?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Rockets beat Jazz behind James Harden’s 47, is Houston turning it around? It was a “battle” of the two most disappointing teams in the Western Conference — just about every pundit (myself included) projected the Rockets and Jazz to finish second and third in the West in some order. They came into the night 10th and 13th in the West — both out of the playoffs if they started today.

And both needed a win — in the tight Western Conference any game between playoff contenders counts double (and there seems to be a game or three like this every night now).

Houston got the win, 102-97, because MVP James Harden showed up and took over: 47 points, six rebounds, five assists, and five steals.

That’s the second time in four days Harden has been in vintage form, he dropped 50 on the Lakers and frustrated them just days before. Harden is the master and showing the ball and drawing fouls, and he has the best step-back in the game — although this one was more than a gather and step. Harden got away with one.

The Rockets have now won four in a row, are over .500 at 15-14 for the first time since Nov. 23rd. They are just half a game back of the final playoff slot in the West.

Have the Rockets turned it around?

Depends on how you define “turned it around.”

The Rockets offense has been elite and their defense average — which is a big step up, they are still fifth worst in the league on the season — in these four games. Harden has taken over two of them. That recipe, if it continues, should get Houston into the playoffs in the West. In that sense, they have turned it around, they are performing at the level of a playoff team, which is a step up.

But just making the playoffs was never the goal in Houston — this was a team that was ahead of Golden State at halftime of games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals last season and within a step of reaching the Finals (and winning a ring). This season they wanted to take that next step.

The Rockets aren’t at that level yet, and this roster — as currently constructed — cannot get there. Houston was a top-10 defense last season and this roster has not shown it can get near, let alone sustain, that level. Houston’s defensive switching isn’t as smooth as a season ago, and teams are attacking it differently (not just trying to post up Harden or Chris Paul). Houston doesn’t have the personnel on this roster to adapt and thrive against the way the NBA is adjusting, they are thin at the wings, and come the playoffs they are farther away from Golden State, not closer.

Which is why everyone expected them to go harder for a Trevor Ariza trade, not only do they miss him the Rockets need wing help and he’s the best one available. They didn’t. And here we are:

Houston is playing a lot better, but not at the level they had hoped. If you want to call that turning it around, go ahead.

2) Milestones night in Bay Area: Stephen Curry reaches 15,000 points, Kevin Durant passes Larry Bird on the all-time scoring list. For Stephen Curry, it appropriately happened on a deep pull-up three — he passed the 15,000 point mark in his career.

Curry is the fifth Warrior to score 15K all in a Warriors’ uniform, and the other names are all legends and Hall of Famers: Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Paul Arizin and Chris Mullin. Chamberlain scored the most as a Warrior at 17,783, a number Curry likely passes next season.

With all the attention paid to Curry — still the golden child for Bay Area fans — nobody seemed to notice Kevin Durant passed Hall of Famer Larry Bird for 33rd on the all-time scoring list during the same game. (Durant is 38th if you count ABA scoring in the mix, just for the record.) KD is going to finish way up that list by the time his career ends.

By the way, the Warriors cruised past the Grizzlies 110-93 in the kind of easy win Golden State hasn’t seen enough of this season.

3) Taj Gibson doesn’t need two shoes to play good defense. Credit Tom Thibodeau for coming up with a new way to play defense.

Taj Gibson had the ball in his hands and had gone at the Kings’ Nemanja Bjelica in the post, eventually scoring but losing his shoe. Gibson picked up his shoe and ran back down the court with it in his hands, but Sacramento pushed the ball back up the floor and decided to have Bjelica attack the one shoe/one sock Gibson.

Gibson was up to the challenge and got a little help from Karl-Anthony Towns.

Pretty sure that’s coming up in a Kings’ film session.

Report: Suns to waive Austin Rivers, who becomes unrestricted free agent

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The Phoenix Suns need a ball handling guard to go next to Devin Booker, so when they picked up Austin Rivers as part of the Trevor Ariza trade with Washington it made some sense. Rivers is a below replacement level NBA player (who has been serviceable the past couple of seasons), but that’s an upgrade over what the Suns had.

Except Rivers didn’t want to be part of the rebuild in Phoenix. In an unusual and unexpected move, the Suns have agreed to waive him, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It’s an odd move on a few levels. Why didn’t Rivers want to stay in a place the ball would be in his hands more, giving himself a chance to build up his value before free agency next summer? Why didn’t the Suns first try to shop him around and offer to take on another team’s bad/dead contract if they got a pick or other asset? (Rivers can’t be packaged with another player in a trade but he can be moved straight up.)

Finally, how much demand is there among good teams for Rivers, even on a minimum contract?

Rivers, the son of Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers, is in his seventh NBA season. Rivers is averaging 7.2 points per game on 39.2 percent shooting this season.

It’s an odd move. Without Rivers Suns will keep leaning on rookie De'Anthony Melton as a potential future backcourt mate with Booker and hope he develops into something.

Bulls’ Kris Dunn shoves Russell Westbrook, scuffle breaks out (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook has a way of getting under an opponent’s skin.

Monday night it was the Bulls’ Kris Dunn‘s turn.

While moving over in position on the strong side, Westbrook and Dunn made contact, and after the whistle blew for a foul (with the ball handler), Westbrook made a grand gesture of pushing Dunn off him. Dunn responded with an outsized shove. And then it was on.

There’s more stuff to break down here than the Zapruder film.

• Jeremi Grant of the Thunder came in and tried to go at Dunn a little, in front of Westbrook (protect the star).

Bobby Portis tried to slide Grant out of the way, but…

Robin Lopez came in and went at Grant getting in his face, so Grant basically throws Lopez into the first row.

• Which just made Lopez even madder, leading to a meme-worthy angry face.

• Bulls’ coach Jim Boylen gets Grant in a headlock and pulls him out of the situation.

Steven Adams calmly makes sure Portis is out of the picture, then walks back over to Lopez and then Adams and Lopez get separated.

• In the end, the officials handed out for technicals: Westbrook, Dunn, Grant, and Lopez.

A few minutes later, Lopez blocked a Grant shot, decided to taunt him, and that got Lopez a second technical and he was tossed (Lopez is a veteran, he has to know the officials are going to call everything tight at that point). Watch Adams pat Lopez on the back as the Bulls’ big man makes the walk to the locker room.

James Harden scores 47, including sinking dagger into Jazz (VIDEO)

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Utah and Houston met in a battle of the disappointing early season Western teams — predicted by most to finish 2/3 in the West, they came into the night 10th and 13th — and in the tight West these kinds of games matter.

So James Harden turned it up a notch.

The reigning MVP looked every bit that guys scoring 47 points and adding six rebounds, five assists, and five steals in what was a Houston win, 102-97. It was Harden that sank the dagger into Utah.

That’s four wins in a row for Houston as they try to climb out of the hole they dug themselves early this season.