NBA Playoffs: Russell Westbrook must find his groove. Fast.

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Memphis has become something of a mythological team.

Beating them suddenly sounds like a task of Herculean proportions, where one must battle a seven-headed hydra and Zach Randolph. Nobody — not even the legendary Tim Duncan — could slay the beast.

But the Oklahoma City Thunder are supposed to have the tools. They are supposed to be the better team. And two things are going to have happen if they are going to even this series — and they had better even this series, because if they head to Memphis down 2-0 they might as well try to slay a hydra.

One is Kendrick Perkins simply must play better. He was brought in to be the defensive enforcer but he let Randolph get the position he wanted and the result was baskets no matter what he did. As Randolph likes to get the ball 15-to-18 feet from the basket denying him position and the ball is hard, but he must be pushed out and his preferred angles cut off. Both Perkins and Serge Ibaka need not let the Grizzlies bigs get comfortable. Send late doubles from guards looking for steals. Make Randolph and Gasol pass. Make the Memphis perimeter players take on more of the offense.

Randolph is not going to be stopped totally — he’s always been able to score, from his days in Portland on. What is different in Memphis is he is disciplined. He’s not just taking bad shot after bad shot now. Maybe the Thunder can lure him into some bad ones, but for the most part they need to make someone else bat them.

The other key for the Thunder is Russell Westbrook must be better. The Grizzlies were the best team in the NBA at forcing turnovers this season, but Westbrook had seven. And hit just 9-of-23 shots. He had patches like that during the season but often they were masked by wins against lesser opponents. He must be more efficient, he must be smarter with the ball. He is not Derrick Rose — he has help, he has Kevin Durant. Look to take what the defense gives you, do not force what you want.

What does Memphis need to do? Keep doing what they are doing. They have been smart about going to their strengths and exploiting it this season. Find what works and keep doing it. Defend hard. Just keep doing all that.

Look for Oklahoma City to try and establish themselves as the more physical team. Maybe that will throw the Grizzlies off their game. Because the Thunder need to find something fast.

Kobe Bryant’s helicopter was in holding pattern, advised of flying too low

Kobe Bryant helicopter crash site
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Kobe Bryant’s shocking death has left millions trying to cope.

For many, questions turn to the technical: How? How did Bryant, whose helicopter rides had become famous, go down this time?

RadarOnline.com:

“Hold outside Burbank, I have an aircraft,” the recording revealed the tower employee advising Bryant’s helicopter during the communication.

“He’s been holding for about 15 minutes,” a flight tower employee said about Bryant’s helicopter around 9:30 a.m.

Emma Parry and Chris Spargo of The U.S. Sun:

The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was told he was flying too close to the ground.

Per audio from before the crash, Zobayan said: “OK, we’ll continue holding.”

RadarOnline.com:

As the flight towers try to assist in the helicopter landing, they are cautioned about the “overcast” weather and their low flight level, meaning they were dangerously close to the ground.

“You’re still too low level for flight following at this time,” the flight toward warned the pilot on the audio.

Bryant’s helicopter was reportedly traveling north along the 118 freeway, turned west and followed the 101 freeway. After hitting heavy fog around 9:40 a.m., the helicopter turned south and made a steep climb from 1200 feet to 2000 feet.

Moments later they reportedly flew into the mountain at 1700 feet and the vehicle was traveling at 161 knots.

There’s still more to learn, including whether the helicopter had mechanical issues. Perhaps, we’ll never get that answer. If we do, it won’t change anything.

Still, it feels natural to search for greater understanding of this inexplicable tragedy.

In Europe, Kobe Bryant recalled for his “Italian qualities”

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ROME (AP) — In Europe, where Kobe Bryant grew up, the retired NBA star was being remembered for his “Italian qualities.”

“All of the NBA players are important, because they’re legends, but he’s particularly important to us because he knew Italy so well, having lived in several cities here,” Italian basketball federation president Giovanni Petrucci told The Associated Press. “He had a lot of Italian qualities.”

“He spoke Italian very well. He even knew the local slang,” Petrucci added.

Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died Sunday in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, California. He was 41.

Bryant lived in Italy between the ages of 6 and 13 while his father, Joe Bryant, played for several teams in the country before returning to Pennsylvania for high school. Kobe Bryant spoke fluent Italian and often said it would be a “dream” to play in the country.

The dream almost came true when Bryant nearly joined Virtus Bologna in 2011 during an NBA lockout, only for the deal to fall apart.

“He was a supernatural,” Italian coach Ettore Messina, who worked with Bryant as an assistant for the Lakers, told the AP via text message while traveling with his current club, Olimpia Milano.

“To hear him speak and joke in our language and to remember when his father played here and he was a kid drew a lot of people to the NBA,” Messina said. “He was also always very attentive to help Italian kids arriving in the NBA and to help them enter such a tough and competitive world. He also did that with me when I arrived at the Lakers and I’m still very grateful to him for that. It’s very sad that his family has been devastated like this.”

Dating from his time in Italy, Bryant was a lifelong soccer fan.

AC Milan, one of the clubs that Bryant supported, tweeted: “We have no words to express how shocked we are to hear of the tragic passing of one of the greatest sportsmen of all time and Rossonero fan, Kobe Bryant. All our thoughts are with the families of those affected by this tragic accident. You will forever be missed, Kobe.”

The International Olympic Committee noted in a tweet that Bryant was a two-time gold medalist, adding: “Rest In Peace #KobeBryant You will always stay in our hearts.”

 

Miami’s Dion Waiters accepts responsibility for issues that led to suspensions

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MIAMI (AP) — Dion Waiters spoke about his issues for the first time in months Sunday, accepting responsibility for the matters that led him to being suspended by the Miami Heat on three separate occasions already this season.

Waiters didn’t specifically address any incidents, including his decision to take cannabis-infused gummies on the team plane and needing emergency medical attention when that flight landed in Los Angeles. That led to a 10-game suspension in November; his other banishments were for the season opener after complaining about playing time, then a two-week one in December for continued violations of team policy.

“I’m a grown man. I don’t point fingers. I’m could easily say this and that, but at the end of the day, it’s me,” Waiters said. “I made immature decisions. So, you know, I take full responsibility.”

Waiters finally made his season debut for Miami on Friday, scoring 14 points in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Miami plays again Monday against Orlando and Tuesday against Boston, and with several players — including perimeter players Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic and Kendrick Nunn all dealing with injuries — there still could be a spot for Waiters in Miami’s rotation.

“There’s so many moving parts right now,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You just want everybody to put in the time behind the scenes and get into a healthy head space where you can contribute when your number is called and he did that. He still has a ways to go with his conditioning, particularly game conditioning. That’s to be expected. But he’s a gamer.”

Waiters’ suspensions have cost him about $1.4 million in salary this season. That doesn’t include a $1.1 million bonus that he could have earned by appearing in 70 games, a level that has been mathematically out of reach for months already.

“I’m happy for him. I’m very happy for him,” Heat teammate Jimmy Butler said. “He’s working. He was ready to go out there and hoop and that’s all we were saying, just say ready. Now it’s all about trying to stack up however many good days you can.”

Waiters said he relied on family to get him through the suspensions and not playing, saying he would not let going through it all break him.

“I’m not going to lie to you, man. My kids. My kids, my family, my support system is so strong,” Waiters said. “I’ve got a lot of good people in my life. You find that out when you go through them times. This is the first time I’ve been through something like this in my life. … I don’t feel like I lost anything, besides my money.”

Waiters had a simple answer on whether he expects to keep playing.

“Hopefully,” he said.

 

Thunder’s Nerlens Noel to miss time after surgery to face

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Friday night against the Hawks, Thunder big man Nerlens Noel took an incidental shot to the face and left the game. He went back to the locker room, had it checked out by the team medical staff, and returned to the game.

Turns out, he needed surgery to repair his face after the incident, the team announced.

The zygomatic arch is the bone that connects the area around the eye to the rest of the skull, a smaller bone basically between the eye and the ear.

The good news is Noel is not expected to miss much time due to this surgery. Stephen Adams returned from his ankle issue to start on Saturday, and Mike Muscala will get more run with Noel out.

Noel is playing nearly 19 minutes a night for OKC averaging 8.2 points and 5.2 rebounds a game, plus shooting 67.8 percent (with 61.5 percent of his shots at the rim).