NBA Playoffs, Lakers Thunder game 5: Kobe brings the tough defense and the Lakers bring the blowout

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Bryant_Gasol.jpgKobe Bryant is too old. He’s too injured. He’s no longer explosive. He’s played to many minutes over too many years. He’s lost a couple steps. He’s not THAT Kobe Bryant anymore.

Don’t try to sell that to Thunder coach Scott Brooks.

“Kobe had an impact on the game the stat sheet doesn’t show,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “The guy was competing and set the tone defensively… He won the game with this toughness tonight.”

Kobe took on the job of stopping Russell Westbrook and sparked the Lakers best game of this season. It was over at half, frankly, but you have to play the full 48 so after extensive garbage time (like the entire fourth quarter) it ended 111-87 Lakers. Los Angeles now leads the series three games to two.

The Lakers have thrown a big punch, but not a knockout one — game six is Friday night back in the thunderous Ford Center. The Thunder will get up off the mat, the test goes to them to see how much fight they have left.

After film session on Monday Bryant asked Phil Jackson if he could guard Westbrook, the strong and speedy point guard that had torn up the Lakers defense for two games. Westbrook had triggered a Thunder fast break that ran past the Lakers and made them look old in tying up the series.

The switch changed the defensive attitude of the Lakers. After giving up 61 points at the rim in two games in Oklahoma City — largely on transition plays — the Lakers held the Thunder to 7 fast break points in this game. Another part of that was a strategy that had Fisher go in to rebound and Ron Artest rotate back to be on defense. But the Lakers as a team hustled back and were physical (something the referees were letting go).

“It was going to be contested,” Kobe said of the Lakers defensive tone. “They weren’t going to just get to drive the ball to the basket and get layups and dunks uncontested. They were going to have to make tough shots.”

In the half-court, shooting jumpers, the Thunder have struggled all series. Tuesday night was no different. The Lakers got the game they wanted and raced out to a 14-1 lead — and unlike the fast lead in game three in Oklahoma City, the Lakers never let the Thunder back in. In the first half, the Thunder were 6 of 21 on jump shots. Nothing would fall. Nothing would change. It was just one of those nights for Oklahoma City.

On offense, the Lakers had the best ball movement they have had in months. Swinging side-to-side opened up passing lanes inside. It also opened up driving lanes for Kobe, who fed his big men. Kobe added he was good with that.

“I’ll tell you what, if I didn’t have Pau, Andrew, the crew that I have, I’d score 45 and everybody’d say ‘he shoots too much’,” Bryant said. “I have a great crew, I don’t need to do that. I can pick my poison, so when I get in the paint teams have to make choices. If they play me I’ll pass to my guys and they’ll have a big night. If not I’ll have a big night. It’s as simple as that.”

The Thunder tried everything – even a zone defense for a while in the third — but nothing worked. Gasol had 25, Bynum had 21. This was the Lakers night. This was Kobe’s night.

Friday night… that remains to be seen. The Oklahoma City fans will come to play, and Kevin Durant admitted the team really feeds on that. The Lakers will throw another big punch and try to end this thing. What remains to be seen is if the young Thunder are good enough counterpunchers to extend the series to game seven.

Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan finally buried the hatchet

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Deron Williams or Chris Paul? That was the conversation in the NBA just a decade ago, a conversation that now seems practically ridiculous. I never personally thought it was very close between the two, being an adamant Paul supporter. Now, CP3 is with the Houston Rockets and Williams is out of the league, despite Paul being just 200 days younger than the former Utah Jazz star (but having played more games).

Williams was part of a two-man attack, along with Carlos Boozer, that helped fuel the Jazz during the first decade of this century as they churned through the Western Conference. But Williams played just five-and-a-half seasons in Salt Lake City, traded after a blow-up with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Things were unsteady between the two during the 2010-11 season, and Sloan famously decided to retire after a game in February of 2011 in which the Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls. During halftime of that game, there was a disagreement between Sloan and Williams that apparently pushed the legendary head coach to his tipping point.

Sloan retired and Williams was traded on February 23rd.

Now, it appears that the two have at least made amends. In a story of appearing on UtahJazz.com, Williams recently went to Sloan’s house to talk about the divide between the two and what happened some seven years ago.

Via UtahJazz.com:

“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”

“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” [Jazz CEO Greg] Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”

“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” [Jazz president Steve] Starks said.

Sloan, 76, is living with Parkinson’s and reportedly not in the best of health. It’s good to hear that Williams was remorseful about how he acted, and that the two great sportsmen were able to come together and at least see each other’s point of view as a sort of armistice.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.