NBA Playoffs: Tonight is OKC and Durant's time to shine

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Thumbnail image for Durant_game3.jpgThe Thunder are outmatched. Make no mistake about it. They’re in over their heads, a young team of athletic defenders facing arguably the most talented juggernaut in the league. They don’t have the depth inside to dominate the Lakers, though their block efforts in Game 2 helped. They don’t have the star power to draw calls like the whisper fouls Kobe Bryant got off his and-ones, nor the power to avoid such calls like the one whistled on their star player when a 7 foot Spaniard, known for his acting chops was felled as if he was struck by a hammer. They are out-manned, out-starred, and though they have the Coach of the Year, likely outwitted by the 10-ring-fingered man across the scorer’s table.

And none of that matters.

Because tonight, the Oklahoma City Thunder can announce to the world that they are a major league sports town, and that their star is as worthy as anyone’s.

Kevin Durant shook off the stab-him-if-you-have-to defense of Ron Artest in Game 1 to finish with an incomplete, but still impressive performance in Game 2. While Artest was still able to body, beleaguer, and bother Durant quite a bit, the young man they call Durantula still got his, seeming to get better and more confident as the game went along, and came within a hair of knocking down the shot to win it, under the bright lights and taco-chanting masses of Staples.

All year the Thunder have impressed with how even-handed they’ve been. They don’t get up or down; they seem to possess a wisdom far beyond their handful of years in the league. But in front of a crowd that’s welcomed them, a small town community that they’ve made their home in and which the team has been very honest about genuinely loving, you can expect the emotions to run high. Oklahoma City fans are new to the sport, still finding their way, still learning about the salary cap and superstar calls and the rest. But the one thing I can tell you as Midwest native is that these people will be there, and they will be loud. There will be no getting to the arena late because of traffic, no gawking at starlets who couldn’t tell a fast break from fast food, no excitement over the Jack-In-The-Box. They’ll be out for blood. And the roars for their star, Kevin Durant, will be deafening.

Durant has an opportunity to make a statement tonight, to everyone who thought he was an inefficient scorer, that his offensive prowess was a detriment to the club, who doesn’t think he’s on the level with Bryant, LeBron, Wade, and the rest, despite the fact that he led the National Basketball Association in scoring this season. He can put himself onto another level, rise up, fire, and let the world know that the Thunder are not a part of the future, they are a part of the present, and they are to be feared.

Which isn’t to say they’ll win, of course. It would take a nearly flawless combination of the emotion, execution, level-headed communication on defense, and probably a stroke of good fortune for the Thunder to pull out a win tonight. The Lakers simply have too much length. Too much power, too much Kobe, as inefficient as he may be right now. But the Thunder have exposed cracks in Camelot’s facade. Fisher can’t stay in front of Westbrook. Durant is figuring out Artest like a Rubix cube, and Artest’s due for an outburst. Serge I-BLOCK-A Ibaka has become a force inside, sending the Lakers back from whence they came. And Jeff Green won’t be quieted for four games.

The Lakers know a jugular stab tonight ends the series. There will be a game four in function but not in spirit if they should quiet the “commoner” crowd  in OKC. But this Laker team also has a rare penchant for failing when things are going their way, for lacking the focus to close teams out, and to routinely get shoved around if the opponent shows enough fire.

There may be Thunder in the sky  tonight, but there will be fire in the stands.

Key Matchup: Ron Artest v. Kevin Durant
The Thunder did a much better job in Game Two of freeing up Durant, sending him off screens for catch and shoot opportunities and Durant simply out-willed Artest, though Artest always had an arm up. Going to the high elbow post could be especially good for Durant, keeping the ball away from Artest’s swiping arms. For his part, Crazy Pills needs to maintain the same ball-denial-or-die-trying approach he’s worked in this series, side fronting Durant on the wing, where he usually receives his passes. He needs to avoid getting caught up in a confrontation, because I’d bet one of the Thunder are going to level him on a screen tonight.

Key Matchup 2: Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar v. Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor
Why isn’t Derek Fisher listed here? Because Derek Fisher has a better chance of chasing down a unicorn and riding it to “MyPullUpJumpersAreStillAGoodIdeaLand” than keeping Westbrook in front of him. But what the Lakers have done is let Westbrook get his while the team focuses on keeping Green and Durant semi-cool, then putting in the more athletic Farm and Brown for an up-tempo counter on Westbrook late. Eric Maynor could be a huge swing factor tonight, as his ability to get to the rim for floaters could mean more rest for Westbrook heading into crunch time and allow him to counter Phil Jackson’s point guard rope-a-dope.

Rumor: Kawhi Leonard directly told Gregg Popovich he wanted to leave Spurs

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Kawhi Leonard and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich met in San Diego yesterday.

How did the discussion go? Reports have been mixed about even the nature of the meeting, let alone a resolution from either side.

But here’s an update with a reportedly direct conclusion.

Stephen A. Smith on ESPN:

From what my sources told me, Kawhi Leonard met with Gregg Popovich face-to-face, looked him dead in his face and told him “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in San Antonio any longer.”

Leonard put out word he wanted to leave San Antonio, ideally for the Lakers, last week. There was some hope Popovich could mend the relationship, but that seems to running thin. There is so much bitterness between both sides.

The next question: What do the Spurs do about it?

Do they keep trying to ease tension with the 26-year-old superstar? Do they trade him? If so, when? Before or during the draft?

No matter what Leonard told Popovich yesterday, San Antonio has big decisions to make and soon. Leonard firmly stating a desire to leave would be clarifying, but it’d hardly make this situation easy to handle.

Brendan Haywood: Former Hornets teammates ‘sick and tired’ of Dwight Howard’s act

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It has become an annual tradition – Dwight Howard getting traded then his former teammates celebrating his exit.

It happened with the Hawks last year. Now, it’s happening with the Hornets, who sent Howard to the Nets.

Brendan Haywood, via Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:

Now retired, Haywood played with current Hornets Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist his final season. He also knows many other players throughout the league.

Howard went to Charlotte and declared himself team leader – despite the presence of Walker, the franchise player. Howard’s immaturity and ego have rubbed teammates and coaches the wrong way for years.

But at least this is progress. Howard’s time with the Magic, Lakers and Rockets devolved into interpersonal strife well before he left those teams.

Rumor: Knicks will take Villanova’s Mikal Bridges at No. 9

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Most mock drafts have the Philadelphia 76ers taking Mikal Bridges at No. 10, keeping the Villanova star in Philly.

But what if he’s not on the board?

Marc Berman of the New York Post reports the Knicks are going to take Bridges at No. 9.

Sources have indicated Bridges still is the favorite to be the Knicks’ selection at nine Thursday — even if Michael Porter Jr. falls. The Knicks are starting to get cold feet on the uber-talented Porter after his latest mishap last week, when he incurred hip spasms before his on-again, off-again, on-again public workout in Chicago….

In the big picture, president Steve Mills and (new GM Scott) Perry need to land a central building block that will contribute next season to show Kristaps Porzingis, a restricted free agent in 2019, there’s a future, and also to entice a 2019 free agent. Point guard Kyrie Irving is squarely on the Knicks’ radar.

While Kentucky freshman forward Kevin Knox opened the Knicks’ eyes with a surprising workout and has gotten consideration late in the process, Bridges is the best bet. Perry said recently adding “a solid rotational player” at nine is as important as shooting for an All-Star.

It’s unlikely Porter is on the board at No. 9. The Cavaliers like him a lot and will take him if he falls to No. 8, the Bulls could grab his one spot earlier, and there are teams farther down the draft board looking to trade up and snag Porter.

Bridges projects to be just what Mills may want — a solid rotational player, and one who can step in soon and contribute.

But the Knicks need talent, and Knox out of Kentucky has the higher ceiling thanks to elite athleticism (he has climbed a lot of teams’ draft boards during workouts). He can play some three or be a small ball four, and if he shows consistency with his jumper, he has the athleticism to be part of a team’s core.

 

Knox may have the higher ceiling, but the Knicks need not to miss, and Bridges is that.

Ayton, Young, Porter and more: PBT’s in-depth draft prospect breakdowns

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In the days before the draft, there’s more smoke clouding the picture around the NBA draft than there is at a Snoop Dogg concert.

What you need to cut through all that is someone who knows these players, has seen them multiple times over the years, spoken to them, knows their game.

That’s where Rob Dauster comes in. The lead writer at NBC’s CollegeBasketballTalk, he has seen these players while they were in high school, spoken to them, followed their college careers — and he broke down their games for us at NBC. It’s what you need to know about the top guys in the draft.

Check these stories out:

DEANDRE AYTON

He has the size. He has the length. He has the athleticism, explosiveness, fluidity, and mobility. He can space the floor and, in theory, both protect the rim and handle his own if forced to guard on the perimeter. In theory, Ayton is the total package and an ideal five for the modern NBA.

Whether or not he will live up to his considerable potential is a different story.

MARVIN BAGLEY III

Offensively, he’s everything that you want from a small-ball five. He can dominate in the paint, he can space the floor and he is aggressive and productive on the glass. He was a walking double-double in college and it’s not hard to project him being the same in the NBA.

The problem is that he is not a five on the defensive end of the floor.

JAREN JACKSON JR.

He will fit seamlessly into the modern NBA given the combination of skills that he has while the other four players projected to go in the top five this year have more question marks….

He’s 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. He shot 39.6 percent from three after shooting 43.8 percent from three on the EYBL circuit in 2016. He averaged 3.0 blocks despite playing just under 22 minutes a night as a freshman. He is as switchable as any big man in this class defensively because of his ability to move his feet. 

MO BAMBA

A 7-foot-0.5 center with a 7-foot-10 wingspan — which will be the longest in the NBA as soon as he steps onto an NBA court — Bamba’s ability as a game-changing defensive presence is at the core of what makes him such an appealing prospect. He finished with freshman season with a block rate of 13.2, averaging 4.9 blocks per 40 minutes and anchoring a Texas defense that finished the year ranked 12th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric…

There are questions about his strength and his toughness and his love for the game. Does he play because he’s addicted to the game, or is it simply because he was blessed with the physical gifts that will makes NBA teams salivate and invest millions and millions of dollars into him in the hopes that he pays dividends as the NBA’s preeminent defensive anchor?

MICHAEL PORTER JR.

He is a tantalizing talent that can do things athletically and as a shooter that 6-foot-11 people are not supposed to be able to do… He was good enough at Hoop Summit and on the all-star circuit that there were people that were projecting him as the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft as recently as November.

But all of that changed in the course of the last seven months. It starts with the back injury… And that’s before you get into the questions about his position and his makeup.

Porter has a ceiling as high as anyone in this draft, but when the floor is as low as his is, it makes him a scary — and risky — player to take.

TRAE YOUNG

He became the first player in Division I history to lead the nation in scoring and assists, but he did it as a player that doesn’t like to play defense on a team that couldn’t figure out how to win late in the year.

Is he the second-coming of Steph Curry?

Or is he Jimmer Fredette?