NBA Playoffs: Bryant, Lakers hold on against Oklahoma City

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The Lakers-Thunder series promised a showdown between two of the best defensive teams in the Western Conference and two of the best scorers in the league. When Durant and Kobe struggled on Sunday, the game became an ugly, grind-it out affair. On Tuesday night, both Durant and Kobe showed up. The result was one of the best first-round games so far. 
Before the game, Phil Jackson talked about how he wanted to establish the Lakers’ inside game and had become concerned about Kobe Bryant’s number of shot attempts. Naturally, Kobe came out gunning, and the Lakers didn’t even make their first entry pass into the post until four minutes had gone by in the quarter. 
Kobe made a contested jumper on the Lakers’ first possession of the game, and was clearly looking to get himself going early. He had mixed results in the first half, going 6-16 from the field, but his confidence ended up paying major dividends late. 

Meanwhile, Kevin Durant was out to remind the viewing public that he didn’t win the scoring title by accident. He made a big adjustment in his offensive game, getting his catches backing down Artest in the mid-post area and rising over him for 15-20 foot jumpers rather than relying on off-ball movement and screens to free him up with good looks on the perimeter. When I asked him about this after the game, Durant said that “I was trying to mix it up a little bit. Artest is so strong, it’s hard to post him up. But I was able to use my length a little bit to shoot over him. It’s about playing physical, and I think I did a better job of that on both ends of the ball tonight.
Durant still wasn’t able to have success at the rim in game two, going 2-6 on shots at the rim and only shooting six free throws all night. In fact, Durant had serious problems whenever he put the ball on the floor, as he turned it over eight times. Just by virtue of taking his mid-range shots closer to the basket and getting set up with some catch-and-shoot threes, Durant was able to drop 32 on the Lakers. If he can have this kind of success from the perimeter and find a way to get to the rim, he could explode. 
Both the Thunder and the Lakers played great interior defensive. The Thunder only shot 10/22 from the paint, and the Lakers got blocked 17 times on their way to an 18/45 performance from inside the painted area. Seven Thunder players recorded a block on Tuesday, Kevin Durant had four, and rookie Serge Ibaka introduced himself to a national audience with seven blocks. And believe me, each of the seven were memorable. Ibaka’s been a fan favorite on Oklahoma City all year, and now a much wider audience has been introduced to Ibaka’s shot-blocking prowess. 
The 17 blocks were somewhat of a two-edged sword for the Thunder. Thanks to the Lakers’ length advantage and the Thunder’s eagerness to go for the block, the Lakers absolutely dominated the Thunder on the boards. They had 19 offensive rebounds to the Thunder’s seven, and gave the Lakers second chances in crucial situations down the stretch. 
There were other key mistakes by the Thunder that look bad in what turned out to be a one-possession game. Durant flubbed a wide-open fast-break slam in the first half. The Thunder turned it over with a chance to run out the clock at the end of Q1, allowing the Lakers to score. Russell Westbrook sent himself to the bench by tripping Derek Fisher with one second left on the shot clock and picking up his third foul. There were a few plays like throughout the game, all of which will likely cost Scott Brooks some sleep tonight. 
As soon as Kobe Bryant came out to play the second half, he had that look in his eye. He started the quarter off with two deep, flat-footed threes from the left wing. He absolutely embarrassed Thabo Sefolosha with a gorgeous mid-post spin halfway through the quarter. When he re-entered the game with 8:23 remaining in the fourth quarter, he ripped off five points in 50 seconds to put the Lakers up four. Bryant ended up with 15 points in the fourth quarter. While Durant was holding his own trying to match Bryant’s production, the former MVP got the better of the 21-year old on Tuesday night. 
After Bryant hit a contested jumper and a pair of free throws to push the Laker lead to four with 1:31 remaining, missed free throws by the Lakers left the door open for the Thunder. Shannon Brown split a pair, and Russell Westbrook came back down to draw a foul and make both free throws. After an OKC stop and a Jeff Green leaner in the lane, Kobe was intentionally fouled and split the pair to give the Thunder a chance to go for the tie or the win down two with 15 seconds to play. Scott Brooks elected to go for the win, and Durant missed a three-point attempt off a screen that would have given the Thunder the lead. After Pau Gasol split yet another pair of free throws, the Thunder had no timeouts and seven seconds to get a three. They set Jeff Green up with a good look behind a back-screen, but no dice. Lakers lead the series 2-0. 
There are some problems with this Laker team. They can neglect to use their bigs and exploit their size advantage inside. Artest and Fisher will take things off the table offensively. The bench is paper-thin. Even Kobe isn’t quite as dominant on a night-in, night-out basis as he once was. 
But this Laker team manages to find ways to win as well as any team I can ever remember seeing. When they miss a big shot, they come up with the offensive rebound. When they need a stop, they get one. Artest, Fisher, and even Odom aren’t great three-point shooters, but they’re all capable of delivering a dagger three at the worst possible time for their opponents. And Kobe Bryant is pretty good when the game is on the line. The Lakers aren’t a juggernaut like they were last year or the year before, but somehow they keep winning basketball games. They did it in the regular season, and now they’ve done it in the playoffs. Call it luck, call it experience, call it skill. Whatever it is, the Lakers need to do it fourteen more times to repeat as NBA champions.   

James Ennis opting out of 76ers contract

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James Ennis was the 76ers’ lone reliably good backup this postseason.

He’s hoping to parlay that success into a salary above $1,845,301 next season.

Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

James Ennis will decline his player option and become a free agent, his agent, Scott Nichols from Rize Management, confirmed Monday morning.

Teams can’t get enough versatile forwards like Ennis. He can defend multiple positions and, sometimes, shoot adequately from outside. The 28-year-old should remain a helpful player.

With his Non-Bird Rights, Philadelphia can offer him a starting salary up to 120% of his minimum salary. That projects to be about $2.3 million. Paying Ennis more would require using another exception (like the mid-level) or cap space.

Of course, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are the main priorities in free agency. But the 76ers sacrificed a lot of depth to acquire those two. Philadelphia must build back up its roster.

So, whether or not they re-sign Ennis, the 76ers should keep pursuing more capable reserves.

Rob Pelinka: Magic Johnson saying I betrayed him ‘simply not true’

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Frank Vogel – at was ostensibly his own introductory press conference – sat quietly while Lakers general manager Pelinka fielded six straight questions.

Finally, at Pelinka’s urging, Vogel chimed in.

“What I’d like to add, quite frankly, is the perception of our organization is very far from the reality,” Vogel said, “from my experience coming in here, of just the thoroughness of the work, the collaboration of how things are being done with the decision-making.”

Vogel has worked one week for the Lakers. His claims of stability carry far less weight than the description Magic Johnson – who ran the front office for two years before stunningly resigning last month – gave in an explosive interview earlier in the day.

Johnson said Pelinka betrayed him. Johnson said business-side executive Tim Harris interfered in basketball operations. Johnson said mid-level employees Joey Buss and Jesse Buss thought they should be general manager or president.

And Johnson said Lakers owner Jeanie Buss enabled this toxic environment.

Pelinka stressed how much he enjoyed working with Johnson. Pelinka said he had spoken positively with Johnson several times in the last month. So, Pelinka called Johnson’s characterizations “saddening and disheartening.”

“They’re just simply not true,” Pelinka said. “I stand beside him. I stand with him as a colleague and a partner. I’ve always supported everything he’s done and will continue to.”

Pelinka is fighting an uphill battle on his reputation. Johnson remains so popular because of his greatness as a player and endearing personality.

Johnson effectively admitted today to being an absentee executive. He even contradicted his own tweet:

But most still view Johnson as more credible than Pelinka.

Really, this whole saga was sad for Frank, who was clearly excited about this opportunity after failing with the Magic. He was often a bystander at his own press conference.

Ultimately, it won’t matter Johnson-Pelinka drama upstaged Frank. He still takes over a team with LeBron James. a good amount of young talent, the No. 4 pick and max cap space. Vogel can succeed in this job.

If he does, everyone will come around. Pelinka was right about one thing: Winning will solve most of the Lakers’ issues.

But it’ll be harder for them to win because of their issues.

Frank can do his part by coaching well and, as he said he was up for, instilling energy and cohesion around him.

He can’t simply say the Lakers have their act together and expect us to believe him. Neither can Pelinka. And Johnson is obviously saying the opposite.

The next big question: How will they pitch free agents and stop these problems from spiraling even further?

Magic Johnson: Former Pelicans GM Dell Demps leaked Anthony Davis trade-talk details

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The Pelicans reportedly blame the Lakers for details of Anthony Davis trade negotiations leaking.

Former Lakers president Magic Johnson blames former Pelicans general manager Dell Demps.

Johnson on ESPN:

I told Dell Demps, “Let’s just do it in private. What we offer, let’s keep it between us.” Well, Dell didn’t do that. So, that’s how it got out.”

The Lakers have intriguing assets – Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, the No. 4 pick, all their own future first-round picks. Los Angeles will likely try again to land Davis.

Johnson and Demps are out. So, maybe these sour grapes don’t matter.

But enough people remain in each organization – including Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, whom Johnson blasted today – from those winter trade talks. Whether or not there’s an edict in New Orleans forbidding new lead executive David Griffin from sending Davis to the Lakers, there’s clearly mistrust between these franchises. That makes it harder to reach a deal.

Lakers haven for failed coaches

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In the last two decades, 16 teams changed coaches, gave a majority of their minutes to returning players the following season and won 15 more games than the year prior (or equivalent in lockout-shortened season).

Only one of those 16 deposed coaches has gotten another non-interim NBA head-coaching job.

The Lakers will introduce him today.

His lead assistant is also one of the 16. Another member of the 16 was instrumental in hiring them.

Frank Vogel, Jason Kidd and Kurt Rambis make quite a trio.

The Lakers’ new head coach, Vogel is only one year removed from guiding Orlando to a 25-57 record. The Magic’s roster seemed to be the main culprit when they fired him, but Steve Clifford led a similar roster to a 42-40 record. That certainly didn’t reflect well on Vogel.

Ditto how the Bucks responded to Kidd’s departure. After going 44-38 and losing in the first round last season, Milwaukee ascended to 60-22 and is leading the Eastern Conference finals this season under Mike Budenholzer. Yet, Kidd – who’ll assist Vogel – was clearly a priority for the Lakers.

In 2011, the Timberwolves finished 17-65 and fired Rambis. Minnesota went 26-40 the following year under Rick Adelman. After bouncing around other jobs, Rambis is now playing a leading role in Rob Pelinka’s front office.

Every team changes between seasons. Players come and go. Those who stay get older and develop. Injuries happen inconsistently. The NBA hardly runs controlled experiments on coaches.

But these situations don’t instill confidence in Vogel, Kidd and Rambis. That they’re all working together now is remarkable.

Vogel has the most prominent role. Fortunately for the Lakers, he’s also the one least likely to be defined by his fixed-after-he-left tenure. Before Orlando, Vogel had plenty of success with the Pacers.

Kidd also did some positive things with the Bucks. Rambis…

People can learn from their mistakes. Second chances are sometimes warranted.

But the Lakers have LeBron James, whose prime years are dwindling. They’re a prestigious franchise in a premier market. High-end coaches and executives are particularly important and attainable.

The Lakers have given power to this group – maybe for good reason, maybe not.

I hope they explain why today, though there are several other issues they’ll have to address, too.