NBA Playoffs: Is Kevin Durant really a Kobe stopper? Or was Kobe the Kobe stopper?

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Bryant_Durant.jpgKevin Durant is being treated like basketball royalty today — he stepped up like a superstar should. With the game on the line, he asked to cover the other team’s best player. He went mano a mano with Kobe Bryant. That takes stones. He deserves the praise.

And the Thunder won. That is ultimately how we measure success. We see these things as black and white that way.

“It was a matchup that caught me by surprise. I think he did a great job,” Bryant said in his post-game press conference.

But what exactly did Durant do? Thanks to our friends at Synergy I rewatched every Kobe Bryant shot with Durant on him in the fourth. And as it always, things are not black-and-white so much as shades of grey. Durant deserves credit, but Kobe was passive and has hit many of those shots.

Durant didn’t take on Kobe until just more than nine minutes left in the game (Kobe’s first three shots of the fourth were against James Harden, where he was 1 of 3 but had looks he normally drains). What follows is a breakdown of the seven Bryant fourth quarter attempts where Durant was on him.

1. Kobe is isolated on the weakside wing, gets the ball then tries to drive Durant to the left to the middle of the court, the free throw line, then spins back to the elbow for a quick shot. Most defenders are nowhere near this and Kobe gets an unobstructed look, but Durant’s length makes it a shot he can contest. Kobe hits the back rim. Kobe’s shot was long all night, particularly in the fourth.

2. Kobe gets the handoff on the left wing then kind of dribbles until he gets a clear out, makes a couple of more dribbles like he’s going to make a move then goes the quick-release pull-up three. Durant contests and the shot misses. Not a great look, no motion in the Lakers offense, but Kobe has hit those.

3. The Lakers actually got the ball to Pau Gasol on the low block, he goes to the middle and draws three defenders so he kicks out to Fisher in the corner, who hesitated just enough for a defensive recovery. Fisher needs a bailout so he throws to Kobe on the high left wing, who launches a catch-and-shoot three from three feet behind the arc. Back rim again. Not a good shot for that possession again.

4. Just 5:30 and left and Kobe really tries to take him here — and Durant does his best defensive job of the night. From the top of the key Kobe drives left, then quickly comes behind his back to the right — and Durant is right with him, cutting off the lane. So Kobe steps back and goes to more of a power-drive left where once he gets to the baseline 12 feet out he tries a fade away, but Durant is not only there he blocks it. That was great defense from Durant.

5. Next possession and the Lakers offense is stagnant, they can’t get the ball inside with a post pass (it’s amazing how bad the Lakers guards are at that) and nobody creates a shot outside, so it is kicked to Kobe and he goes with another catch-and-shoot long three with Durant contesting, Flat and a miss.

6. The Lakers went away from Kobe for the next four minutes, and are now down four with less than a minute to go. This time after nothing develops for the Lakers on the strong side it becomes a weakside isolation for Kobe, again a couple steps beyond the arc. He takes one hard step to get Durant to step back then goes for the pull-up three. Contested and back rim.

7. Westbrook misses and Kobe gets the rebound and just races in transition. Durant is back and tries to pick him up a the free throw line but Kobe is going too fast with a full head of steam, gets by and lays it in, the block is just late.

So what did Durant do? He has quick enough feet to take away easy driving angles, and the Lakers not once came out and set a high pick for Kobe to come off of so he could get an angle. It was isolations. Durant’s length meant he could at least get a hand up on all these shots, sometimes making Kobe adjust. Durant did as well as could be done on Kobe late game.

But Kobe has also hit some of those shots before, we’ve all seen him drain those long threes. But he (and all the Lakers) were passive, settling for jumpers. It’s not good offense, but it works often enough for them. The Thunder would rather have the Lakers shooting those jumpers rather than getting the ball inside. But be careful what you wish for, the Lakers can hit those shots. It will be interesting to see if they do next game.

Stephen Curry goes berserk, Warriors beat Rockets by 41 in Game 3

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Stephen Curry had yet another big third quarter. Who could have seen that coming?

On the heels of the Houston Rockets’ 22-point win in Game 2, the Golden State Warriors decided to turn up the intensity as they returned home to Oakland on Sunday. The Warriors leapt out of the gate, scoring 31 points in the first quarter and playing monumental defense at the rim. Houston suffered from blown attempts in the paint for the entire first half, but it was their 3-point defense that stabilized their offense. The Rockets shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc in the first two quarters.

Then, perhaps expectedly, came the third quarter. The realm of 2-time NBA MVP Curry.

Golden State’s golden point guard failed to miss a single field goal in the quarter, helping the Warriors rally to start the half as well as fend off a Houston charge midway through the period. Curry completely took over with around six minutes left, dropping five of the Warriors’ next six made baskets.

It was enchanting, and everything we’ve come to expect from Curry when he’s at his best. After a made bucket, there was a shimmy. After a follow-up layup, a defiant stance on the baseline as he yelled to the crowd about Oracle Arena being his house.

Indeed, it was.

Curry and the Warriors did not let off the gas in the fourth quarter, finally burying the Rockets that both sides called a truce with 5:11 left, subbing out their big stars.

Houston was led by James Harden, who scored 20 points with nine assists and five rebounds, although he turned the ball over four times. Chris Paul had 13 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. Eric Gordon helped with 11 points off the bench. The Rockets turned the ball over 20 times, allowing 28 points off turnovers to the Warriors.

For Golden State it was Curry’s 35 points and six rebounds as the big story. Kevin Durant added 25 points, six rebounds, and six assists. The Warriors shot 41 percent from 3-point range as every starter scored in double-digits. Golden State was also able to limit its turnovers to just eight.

Game 3 exemplified the stratification between the two teams. Houston was arguably the best team of the regular season, with the caveat being that Curry was out for huge swaths of time due to injury. With Curry back on the floor and playing at full tilt, Golden State again looks unbeatable.

Steve Kerr was able to counter the Game 2 strategy from Mike D’Antoni, who ran everything during Houston’s win directly at Curry on defense to tire out the recently-returned star. Kerr’s tweaks resulted in a complete eruption from Curry, one Houston was powerless to stop. Coupled with the continuous pounding from Durant and the incessant, extra pass 3-pointers, the Rockets didn’t have a counterstrike option.

Game 4 is in Oakland on Tuesday at 6:00 PM PST. We’ll see if D’Antoni can work his magic and come up with another new strategy to try and slow the Warriors.

Marcus Morris: “I did a s–t job defensively against LeBron”

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The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t dead. Not yet, at least.

LeBron James helped lead his team to a victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday, 116-86, to set the series at 2-1 with the Cavaliers trailing.

James was efficient, scoring 27 points on 8-of-12 shooting while adding 12 assists, five rebounds, two blocks, and two steals. As a team Cleveland shot an impressive 50 percent from 3-point range, dwarfing their marks from Games 1 and 2 in the series.

Meanwhile, the team-first strategy implemented by the Celtics finally got its first big test of the Eastern Conference Finals. A top defensive team, Boston was embarrassed by how it played in Game 3 and they weren’t afraid to admit it. Four of its five starters were double-digit minuses in the box score, including Marcus Morris, who many were touting as a LeBron stopper (or LeBron slower).

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Morris gave his honest opinion of how he played vs. LeBron. Meanwhile, Jaylen Brown said he was embarrassed.

Via Twitter:

Sounds about right.

Because you play the same team over and over again, by the time you get to the conference finals it’s all about finding counters to your opponent’s counters. The game-by-game strategy changes so much, and out of necessity.

The Cavaliers finally found their sweet spot, not only from beyond the 3-point line but in limiting the offensive contributions of both Morris and guys like Al Horford.

How Brad Stevens counters Ty Lue’s Game 3 strategy should be fun to watch, and reciprocal changes in the coming games will be the story of the series. Boston still has the edge, but the Cavaliers aren’t letting someone take The King’s crown without a fight.

DeMarcus Cousins on re-signing with Pelicans: ‘I’m very open to that’

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New Orleans Pelicans big man DeMarcus Cousins is still nursing a torn Achilles injury, the one that kept him from being part of his team’s sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs this year. But he’s getting better, and this summer should be a big one for the 27-year-old. It’s the first time Cousins will be a true free agent, having signed an extension with the Sacramento Kings back in 2013.

There have been rumblings that the Pelicans might not want or need Cousins back. They played incredible small ball against the Blazers, although they fell apart while matched up against the Golden State Warriors in the second round. Cousins, meanwhile, is one of the best centers in the NBA and should demand a sizable salary. Signing Cousins would put the Pelicans deep into the luxury tax without other moves to cut money from the books.

Then there’s the question of whether Cousins wants to be back in New Orleans. He’s said all the right things, but Cousins recently unfollowed the Pelicans on Instagram and it caused folks around the NBA to shift their biases every so slightly on his re-signing in Louisiana.

Still, Cousins says he would gladly return to New Orleans. Speaking to The Undefeated, Cousins maintained that he was going to look out for himself but that he did not hold any grudges, and he would be happy to be a Pelican.

Via The Undefeated:

Are you open to re-signing with New Orleans if the deal is right?

Oh yeah, for sure. This is my first time in free agency, but I’ve been around this business long enough. I know how things work. I’m not out here trying to hold a grudge or anything like that. I’m going to make the best decision for me, and I believe teams are going to do the same thing.

What’s your mindset, your view of how to approach free agency? Do you feel like you owe it to yourself to do your due diligence and hear what everybody has to say?

Yeah, like I said I don’t plan on rushing through this process. I’m going to make the absolute best decision for DeMarcus Cousins. We’ll see what that is. As of right now, I don’t really know. I can’t answer that. Would I like to go back to New Orleans? I’m very open to that. I love what we created. I love what was created after I went down. I would love to be part of it. But I’m going to do what’s best for me, and I feel they’ll do the same.

These are basically the things you expect to hear from a pending free agent, but the NBA is a business and obviously Cousins made reference to that several times.

The “grudge” part is the most interesting part to me. Why would Cousins hold a grudge against the Pelicans? Or is this a reference to the fact the Kings have significant cap space this summer?

I’m mostly kidding about that, but the NBA is crazy. Where Cousins ends up is anyone’s guess, and it’s hard to get true free agents to sign there, even with Anthony Davis on board. The Pelicans are in a position like many other teams in the NBA, where the harsh reality is you need to pursue the best talent you have available to you.

This summer is going to be wild, man.

Could Kansas City be potential expansion city for NBA?

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Most talk around expansion or team movement revolves around one city: Seattle. Obviously, the league hurts from not having the Sonics among its ranks, and the move of the team during the last decade was one of the messier business storylines of that era.

As a resident of Seattle, it always strikes me how odd it is a metro area of this size — one that’s still focused on basketball — doesn’t have an NBA team. It just feels weird, even considering the context of Howard Schultz, Clay Bennett, and Key Arena. “Soon but not that soon” is the general feeling about getting an NBA team here in Washington.

Then again, some other cities may be in the mix, too.

According to a rumor from SEC Network’s Jarrett Sutton, at least one NBA executive thinks that Kansas City is another potential spot for expansion.

Via Twitter:

Kansas City does have the advantage of already being a sports town, a top 33 TV market, and it has an NBA-sized arena in the Sprint Center. KC is also the host city for the Big 12 tournament.

Still, the city hasn’t had an NBA team since the Kings left in 1985, and Adam Silver has said that expansion isn’t really on the docket for the league in the near future.

The question is also whether the NBA needs more teams or fewer. Some folks have started to take the stance that they would actually prefer contraction away from markets that never seem to compete. I’m not sure if that’s realistic, but re-arrangement by teams moving also seems less likely in this day and age, too, especially after the last-ditch effort to keep the Kings in Sacramento in 2013.

When will Seattle get an NBA team? Will Kansas City get a team? Will it be in tandem? This is fun speculation at this point, but we won’t get our answer for some time.