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.   

Watch Stephen Curry’s mother Sonya hit underhand half-court shot

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sonya Curry wins the game of H-O-R-S-E.

It’s all things Curry at All-Star weekend in Charlotte. Father Dell Demps has his number hanging from the rafters in the Spectrum Center (and is now the Hornets’ broadcast color commentator). Stephen Curry is coming home and will play in the big game, his brother Seth Curry will go up against him in the three-point contest.

And the shot of the weekend may go to Sonya Curry, who drained an underhand half-courter to win a family shootout at the unveiling of a refurbished at a community center in Charlotte during All-Star weekend.

Sonya may have the shot of the weekend. I’d say no way Stephen can hit that shot, but I think we all know better.

 

Russell Westbrook doesn’t sound enthused about being All-Star teammate of Joel Embiid

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CHARLOTTE – Is Russell Westbrook cool with Joel Embiid? “F— no,” Westbrook famously said.

Embiid committed a hard foul on Westbrook in the Thunder’s win over the 76ers last month, and Westbrook wasn’t letting it go.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said he wanted to pick both players in the All-Star draft, help them resolve their conflict. Instead, Westbrook and Embiid both wound up on LeBron James‘ All-Star team.

Rob Perez of The Action Network:

Embiid:

I don’t care. To me, the whole situation is fine. Who cares? I’m willing to do whatever, but when we get on the court as opponents, I don’t care. I don’t like him. I don’t like anybody, anybody else. But if we’re on the same team, I’m willing to work it out.

Westbrook:

Next question, champ.

A couple years ago, Westbrook-Kevin Durant was the big intra-All-Star-team rivalry. But they still connected on an alley-oop during the game.

I bet Westbrook and Embiid will connect just fine on the court tomorrow. Still, I’ll be watching those two closely.

Anthony Davis: “I never said Boston wasn’t on my list”

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If anyone came into All-Star weekend expecting some clarity on Anthony Davis’ situation and where he will play next, they came away sadly disappointed.

Saturday, Davis made things even murkier by throwing the door open to more possiblities.

First, Davis was asked about the leaked list of his preferred destinations — Lakers, Knicks, Bucks, Clippers — and if that was accurate.

“That list that came out, it’s between my agent and the Pelicans,” Davis said, but then added:

“It’s true.”

That list never included Boston, which now is one of the front-runners to be able to trade for him.

“They are on my list, I never said Boston wasn’t on my list,” Davis said.

So, is Boston on your list?

“I never said they wasn’t on my list,” he reiterated.

It went around like that in a circle for a while. When asked about the Knicks being on his list specifically he praised them.

“It’s a great franchise. Playing in, obviously, the Garden, the city,” Davis said, but then he pivoted to a theme he stuck with all day. “But Milwaukee was on that list too. It doesn’t matter about big market, small market. It’s about winning for me.”

Later, on NBA TV, Davis said all 29 other NBA teams were on his list, which felt like him trying to cover himself after his earlier comments. Rather than coming into media day Saturday with a prepared set answer for the inevitable trade questions, Davis seemed to wing it. He was open, but also did muddied the waters.

“I’m just keeping it real, to be honest,” Davis said. “I knew that’s all you guys (the assembled media) wanted to talk about. I just stated how I feel, stated my intentions, and we’ll go on from there.”

One thing Davis was clear about, saying it multiple times through the day, was that winning was his priority — over market size, money, or anything else.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to get to play the game, I want to be able to win. No matter where it is. I have no preferred destination,” Davis said. “I just felt it was time for me to move forward, take charge of my career, and try to win.”

That winning wasn’t happening in New Orleans, which is why a few weeks before the trade deadline his agent, Rich Paul, reached out to the Pelicans, told them Davis would not re-sign with the team and gave them a list of preferred destinations. Paul then leaked the trade request to the media, which both got Davis fined and turned the entire thing into a full-on circus.

Every move Davis makes now is scrutinized as media and fans try to read the tea leaves of his intentions. He’s also been booed by his hometown fans, the first real negativity he has faced in his career.

“That doesn’t bother me,” Davis said. “I have a great team around me making sure I’m fine, always checking on me, there to support me. There’s only a handful of people whose opinions matter to me.”

He also just avoids NBA Twitter.

“The biggest thing, especially nowadays, is social media. I stay off social media, nobody’s opinion (there) matters to me,” Davis said.

The scrutiny even extends to All-Star weekend in Charlotte. For Sunday’s game, LeBron James drafted a team full of potential free agents — Davis, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard — which led to jokes even on the All-Star draft show about tampering. How much are the players talking about their futures with each other?

“Zero,” Davis said. “All that tampering stuff that comes out in the media, nobody really talks about that. At least not to me… When I’m around we talk about games more than anything. We talk about how it’s hard to play in Denver, the air up there, things like that.”

Davis said his plan is to play in the All-Star Game despite leaving the last game before the break with what has been diagnosed as a shoulder contusion, although he will see how he feels on Sunday.

Beyond that, the plan the rest of the season is much the same.

“My intent is to play, to continue to play. And that’s it…

“My job is to play these final 20-something games in New Orleans, then we’ll see where it goes from there,” Davis said.

Mike Conley returns to All-Star Weekend 11 years later, but still not as All-Star

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CHARLOTTE – Mike Conley arrived about 15 minutes late to his press conference this morning. He said arena personnel initially didn’t allow him in, forcing him to go around until someone let him through.

It’s the story of his career and getting to All-Star.

“Just going to make me go around in circles until one day letting me in, right?” Conley said.

The Grizzlies point guard is widely recognized as the best active player never to be an All-Star. But Conley – who will compete in the Skills Challenge tonight – is back at All-Star Weekend for the first time since his rookie year, when he played in the 2008 Rookie Challenge.

Back then, Conley was still hyped as the No. 4 pick in the 2007 draft. He figured the Rookie Challenge would be just the start of many trips to All-Star Weekend. But he didn’t progress in his second season enough to get picked for even the sophomore team in the Rookie Challenge.

“It was tough,” Conley said. “The first year you get invited, you feel like you’re doing good things. The second year, you don’t get invited, and it’s frustrating.”

“But stuff like that helped drive you a little bit, helped give you that motivation to put yourself out there again and hopefully one day you’ll be coming back as an All-Star.”

Time is running out.

Conley will be in his 13th season next year. Nobody has ever made their first All-Star game that late in their career. Kyle Korver (2015 Hawks), Tyson Chandler (2013 Knicks) and Vlade Divac (2001 Kings) first became All-Stars in their 12th seasons.

So, Conley made his way to Charlotte for the Skills Challenge this year. He fondly recalls his dad – Mike Conley Sr., an Olympic gold-medal triple jumper – taking him to events as a kid and getting pictures with him and famous people. Conley said he has already gotten pictures this weekend of his children with Fabolous, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.

The vacation also timed up well for Conley, who was subject of numerous rumors before last week’s trade deadline. Memphis traded Marc Gasol to the Raptors but kept Conley.

“I just needed a break from all the hoopla and trade rumors and trade talks, and just get away, get my family out here, try to have fun with these guys and experience something other than reading Twitter and Instagram about where I’m going to be at next, “Conley said.

Conley called All-Star Weekend “a big party” and said he particularly appreciated the camaraderie with fellow players. Even in a crowd of stars, Conley stands out.

“The players really respect me and every one of them, like, ‘Man, I can’t believe you haven’t been an All-Star. You should be one. You should have been one this year,'” Conley said. “It’s the same thing over and over. But it’s cool to know they at least recognize it.”

Is there something special about being known as the best player in the game who hasn’t been an All-Star?

“I’d rather have just been an All-Star,” Conley said.