Lakers-Thunder Game 2: A Thunder magic trick, a Lakers disappearing act, and a change of the guard

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In Game 1, everything went wrong for the Lakers, everything went right for the Thunder. Thunder won. In Game 2, for 46 minutes, at least some things went right for the Lakers, everything went wrong for the Thunder. The pace was slow. The defense was incredible for the Lakers. The Thunder weren’t hitting jumpers. A seven-point lead with two minutes. Hold onto the ball, hold onto the lead, gain control of the series, go back to L.A. having rattled the kids in blue.

And then.

Disaster.

77-75 OKC over L.A.

As the Thunder closed on a 9-0 run, you couldn’t help but think of how often the Lakers had done this exact thing to so many teams. They were the ones who made the key steals late. They were the ones who waited for the opponent to crack. They were the ones who made clutch plays. But now? Now it’s OKC. They won when they played flawless, they won when they played terribly. And now it’s 2-0 OKC.

For Oklahoma City, there are reasons to be concerned but a ton of reasons for confidence. When the shots didn’t fall, they won. They had just a 92 offensive efficiency Wednesday night, and yet got the win. They had an off night offensively for the second-best scoring machine in the league, and they walk away with a 2-0 lead. Defensively, they stepped up to the challenge. Had they bent more inside, the game could have broken open. Had Thabo Sefolosha not done such a marvelous job on Kobe Bryant, helping him to a 9-25 night, they may not have sustained. The Thunder defense kept them in it, the Thunder’s athletes took the momentum, the Lakers’ ineptitude opened the door, and Kevin Durant slammed it shut.

And for a fun twist on a narrative, instead of LeBron James failing in the clutch, it was Kobe Bryant with this line: 0-2, zero points, 1 turnover, one bad pass knocked out off of him, one bad miss, one airball, no final shot, and a whole lot of frustration.  Bryant was clearly livid both after Kevin Durant’s game winner and upon turning around to see Steve Blake taking a three-pointer for the win instead of, you know, him.

It’s not wise to get riled up about Blake, however. This is a shooter who hit five threes against the Denver Nuggets in Game 7. He was wide open. I mean, wide open. The pass had to be made, the shot had to be taken. It just didn’t fall. This is life in the NBA, the reality of clutch vs. the myth. Bryant, though, certainly struggled and his play down the stretch may have thrown a little dirt on the Lakers.

But this series is far from over. The Lakers proved Wednesday that they can throw some kinks in the chain of OKC’s mighty system, and headed back to L.A. they have to be hopeful a few more things will go their way. The question is whether they can force OKC into the same halfcourt troubles it had Wednesday night, or if they get busted open by the same team that torched them in Game 1.

The Lakers can get right back into this thing with a win on Friday. But it’s a back to back set against a younger, fresher, hungrier team that seems to have all the answers, that can cross the finish line even when they stumble. The Lakers? They’re just trying to get the dust out of their mouth.

The Lakers had answers for the Thunder until the end. Then the ghosts that the Lakers usually wreak on their opponents grabbed hold of L.A.. By the throat.

Closing note: Andrew Bynum laughed as he left the floor.

Report: Houston kicking tires on J.R. Smith trade with Cavaliers

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The Houston Rockets desperately need help on the wing (among other things, but wing is the personnel focus). The Rockets would also like to have less salary on the books next season, giving them some flexibility and lowering the tax bill.

J.R. Smith fits both of those bills, so Houston and GM Daryl Morey are at least taking a look at a potential trade, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

While there is some logic to this, we are a long way from it being a reality. Smith does not exactly have a positive trade value, at least as a player right now.

Smith was part of the rotation that helped the LeBron-led Cavaliers reach the NBA Finals last season, but he will be best remembered for the Game 1 blunder in the Finals that deflated the Cavs. Without the playmaking of LeBron, Smith struggled to start this season, shooting 34 percent for the Cavaliers in limited minutes, before going on hiatus from the team. That said, in a better situation where he was asked to play a small and specific role, maybe he could still help.

Smith is guaranteed $18.59 million this season but only $3.87 million of his $15.68 million salary for next season is guaranteed.

Houston seems a logical fit. Money wise, a Brandon Knight for Smith trade works, but the Rockets will have to throw in picks or other sweeteners to get the Cavaliers interested. Cleveland also likely will be patient, hoping that as the deadline gets closer there is a little bidding war for Smith.

Still, the Rockets are active on the trade market (as always), and they need wings, so this is worth keeping an eye on.

Lakers’ Rajon Rondo has fluid drained from hand slowing his recovery from surgery

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Rajon Rondo has been out more than three weeks following surgery to repair the third metacarpal bone in his shooting hand (his right hand), and while there has been no official timeline he was expected back in the next week or two. He’s been out on the court before recent Lakers’ games getting in some work.

But he has now hit a bit of a setback, Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said on Wednesday. Here is what Walton said, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“There’s a little bit of swelling,” Walton said at Lakers shootaround on Monday in advance of his team’s game against the Miami Heat. “We’re going to shut him down for a few days then get back out after it again.”

It’s not clear when Rondo will return. He was averaging 8.5 points, 6.5 assists, and 4.5 rebounds a game before the injury.

The Lakers have gone 8-4 since Rondo went to the bench with his fractured hand. Without the veteran point guard, LeBron James has had the ball in his hands more as a playmaker (to Magic Johnson’s frustration at times), paired with Lonzo Ball (who has started to show some real chemistry with LeBron). The Lakers offense hasn’t been particularly good in these past dozen games, bottom 10 in the league, but they have balanced that with a top 7 defense. The Lakers are getting wins thanks to that defense and enough LeBron shot creation to get it done.

The Lakers are going to have to keep getting it done and now without Brandon Ingram, too, who is expected to miss a few more games with a sprained ankle.

Report: Bulls execs John Paxson and Gar Forman backing Jim Boylen

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Bulls players have made clear their thoughts on new coach Jim Boylen’s abnormally frequent and lengthy practices, his harsh public critiques, his five-man substitutions:

They don’t like it.

Not every player feels the exact same way, but enough were fed up to refuse to practice yesterday – the day after a back-to-back, a time teams almost never practice. Everyone compromised on a team meeting, though players reportedly also complained to their union.

But Boylen says he isn’t backing down – and it sounds as if his superiors support him.

Boylen, via Mark Strotman of NBC Sports Chicago:

“My job…is to try to push our guys to a place they can’t take themselves,” he said. “That’s pushing them outside their comfort zone. That’s what my job is. That’s what the Reinsdorfs are paying me for.

“I explained that to them – ‘Hey guys, everybody wants it comfortable, everybody wants it safe. Well, I don’t think you become great in that.’ So it’s going to be a little raw for a while, it’s going to be a little rough for a while. And maybe there’s a point where it gets not as rough but all of a sudden it’s got to be rough again.”

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

The fact Boylen cited ownership is telling. Phil Jackson praised Boylen to Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf after Boylen met with the Hall of Fame coach last summer. And according to team and league sources, executive vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman raved to ownership about Boylen’s message during Sunday’s meeting, which Paxson and Forman attended.

I wonder whether Paxson and Forman actually believe in Boylen or just feel as if they have no choice but to support him. Their last coaching hire, Fred Hoiberg, flopped to the point questions emerged about Forman’s job security. Paxson already declared a plan to keep Boylen for next season. Maybe Paxson and Forman can’t dump Boylen without bringing too much scrutiny upon themselves.

But the status quo isn’t sustainable. Boylen can’t keep belittling his players and running them into the ground without inciting a rebellion. He must ease up at least a little.

A theory that gives the Bulls the benefit of the doubt (that they don’t necessarily deserve): They already know this is a lost season, and playing for a higher draft pick is their best strategy. Boylen’s harsh practices will both help them lose and instill good long-term habits. Plus, his presence ensures players will welcome Chicago’s next coach. Even someone more demanding than Hoiberg would now suddenly be a reprieve.

Bulls coach Jim Boylen: ‘It’s going to be rough for a while’

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For the past few years, as the lead assistant to Fred Hoiberg with the Bulls, Jim Boylen got to be the “bad cop” to Hoiberg’s more mild personality. When Hoiberg was fired and Boylen moved into the big chair, he ramped up that old-school style — he called out the team’s conditioning and had them running suicides and doing pushups in practice (things rarely seen at the NBA level). Boylen was running long, grueling practices — including one the day after the team got back from a four-game road trip. He had film sessions right after games when guys were still emotional. Boylen did hockey substitutions a couple of times, taking out all five starters at once.

When he called for a practice the day after a back-to-back that ended with a 56-point loss to the Celtics, players pushed back. There were team meetings called by the players (and coaches, there’s a lot of people trying to spin this). Boylen said this is how he coached and he learned from Greg Popovich, the players had to trust him, and the players said you’re no Gregg Popovich and that trust is not there yet. It’s earned, not given.

The day after a series of meetings, the tone was a little softer, although Boylen was not about to back down. He said that it was only a couple of players who pushed back against the practice, not all of them, and he is clearly frustrated in this NBC Sports Chicago video.

Boylen also admitted things would not be easy, but he wants the players to trust him, as several Bulls writers Tweeted.

Boylen feels he’s in the right place. Will the players learn to trust him? One day after the meetings, things appeared better.

That’s easy to say at practice, we’ll see what it’s like when adversity hits.