NBA Playoffs, Lakers Thunder game 6: The Thunder learn some hard lessons, are eliminated by Lakers

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Gasol_celebrate.jpgChin up, Oklahoma City. Sure, losing sucks, we get that. But you have to learn how to win in the NBA playoffs — people remember Michael Jordan the champion, not the guy who lost to the Detroit Pistons three straight years on the playoffs.

Enjoy the ride, you have a fun team, a special team. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are captivating to watch. The Thunder have become what the Phoenix Suns were five years ago — everybody’s second favorite team. They took a big first step.

But for the Lakers this was just another step, albeit one they had to fight for. LA won the game 95-94, and the series 4-2. Next up for the Lakers is the Utah Jazz, starting Sunday at Staples Center.

The Lakers taught the Thunder some hard lessons.  LA’s star Kobe Bryant saved his best game for an elimination game, Kevin Durant did not. Pau Gasol knew how to time a sneak inside for a game-winning putback, Serge Ibaka did not box him out, he lost track of fundamentals in the clutch. Derek Fisher knew how to step up and hit big threes, Russell Westbrook did not.

It will not be that way in a couple years. It was tonight.

The Lakers largely did what they had done in game four — they controlled the tempo and took away a lot of the Thunders’ easy baskets. The Thunder had just 13 fast break points, and forced into the halfcourt they shot just 36.5 percent, 26.3 percent from three.

The Lakers, however, were lighting it up from three. The last two games the Lakers did much better about setting up angles for entry passes to the post, or getting the ball inside off penetration, and that led to kick-outs and good look threes for LA. They hit 12 of 24 from three in this one, and shot 46.8 percent overall.
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But the Thunder never went away. That is not who they are, they fight.  A few turnovers and fast breaks off misses — flashes of the transition game they thrive on — and Lakers leads would disappear in an instant.

The difference was the Lakers big names know how to step it up in the clutch.  Kobe in 16 in the third when the Lakers looked like they might pull away, hitting some just pull up threes that were the kind he missed in game three.

Late in the game the Lakers got good shots from Artest (and up and under move on the perimeter and it works?), but their offense became a lot of isolation. So did the Thunder, as has been their pattern. And it worked for a while, they went a 10-0 run late to take the lead.

However, the Kobe Bryant underbite came out – so did a stupid running shot over two defenders that barely moved the net going through with less than a minute left. Sick. Kobe was making plays all night.

The Thunder were up one with 15 seconds when Westbrook had a clean look at the jumper from 10 feet baseline. Oh, the midrange game continues to be his challenge. On the season from the right side baseline there Westbrook was shooting just 25.7% (thank you NBA Hot Spots). He missed.

On the final play I loved the Thunder choosing not to double Kobe, showing confidence in Thabo Sefolosha to shut him down. The rest of his team got caught ball watching. When Kobe made his move and started to go up Nenade Kristic and Durant were under the basket wrestling with Artest, while Serge Ibaka was watching the ball, not bodying his man. Gasol stepped inside Ibaka, got the tip in and that was that.

Thunder fans get it – they stayed late to applaud their young team. They know to savor it in a way that jaded Lakers fans often cannot. Fans from both teams should soak up this series, it was a fun one and about as good as one could ever hope for in the first round.

Three Things to Know: What you need to know about race for West play-in

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What you need to know about race for West play-in

Four teams were alive in the chase for the final playoff spot in the West when they got out of bed Tuesday morning — Memphis, Portland, Phoenix, and San Antonio — and four were still alive when they went to bed Tuesday night.

But things looked very different by the end of the day. Portland — by virtue of a 61-point game by Damian Lillard, and helped by a Memphis loss — was the eighth seed and the team everyone else was chasing. The eighth seed has a huge advantage in the play-in series that is coming (it only has to win one of two games, the nine seed must sweep them both), and Portland had taken that away from Memphis. Still, nothing was secure yet.

Here are the play-in scenarios for each team (all four teams play Thursday).

Portland: Beat Brooklyn and the Trail Blazers are the eighth seed. It’s that simple. They control their own fate. If the Trail Blazers lose they only keep the eighth seed if everyone else loses. If Portland loses but two of the other three teams also lose, then the Blazers are the nine seed.

Memphis: Beat Milwaukee — who likely will be without Giannis Antetokounmpo after his headbutt of Moe Wagner — and Memphis can finish no worse than ninth. If the Grizzlies win and Trail Blazers lose, then Memphis regains the eighth seed. If the Grizzlies lose, they need both the Suns and Spurs to stay in the playoffs.

Phoenix: The Suns must beat the Mavericks to go 8-0 in the bubble, or they are out. And even going 8-0 may not be enough, Phoenix still needs Memphis and/or Portland to lose to move into either of the top two seeds (if both lose the Suns can be eight, just one and they finish ninth).

San Antonio: The Spurs must beat the Jazz to have any chance, lose and they are out. Even with a win San Antonio needs at least two of Portland/Memphis/Phoenix to lose to become the nine seed (if all three lose the Spurs can be the eighth seed, but that is a longshot).

2) Damian Lillard ties career-high 61 to will Portland to critical win

Paul George and Patrick Beverley talked smack from the bench, and it made Damian Lillard mad. You wouldn’t like Lillard when he’s mad…

If you’re an opponent. For the rest of us, it’s pure basketball joy. In the two games since the Clippers ran their mouths in a win, Lillard has scored 112 points on 55% shooting (hitting 33-of-34 free throws) and willing Portland to two wins and the eighth seed. On Tuesday, Lillard dropped 61 on Dallas.

You had better respect his f****** name and his game.

3) Devin Booker should be the bubble MVP, drops 35 to keep bubble Suns perfect

The NBA is giving out awards for the bubble — an NBA Player of the Seeding Games and NBA All-Seeding Games Team — and Devin Booker is going to pick up some hardware. Or should, at least.

The Suns remained perfect at 7-0 in the bubble on Tuesday beating what’s left of Philadelphia 130-117 behind 35 from Booker.

Booker has craved respect he feels he hasn’t gotten up to this point, mostly because the Suns’ teams he has been on are terrible (and the defensive issues of those teams fall partly on him, although there is much more at play as well). In the bubble, he has earned that respect.

Respect alone won’t get the Suns into the play-in series, another win won’t even do that (as noted above, the Suns still need help even with a win). But the respect is there, and that is something.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.