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.

NBA refs admit they missed James Harden’s shuffle-step travel

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Did James Harden travel on Monday night? Obviously.

But was Harden called for a travel by officials? No. At least, not at first.

Video of Harden’s ridiculous shuffle was circulated on social media after the Houston Rockets beat the Utah Jazz, 102-97. Harden was asked about the move by media, and said that he wasn’t going to tell on himself, which is fair enough.

On Tuesday the official NBA referee Twitter page decided to comment on the play at hand, admitting that they had made a mistake and had missed a travel.

Via Twitter:

Having a Twitter account hasn’t always worked out for the NBRA. Their explanations of what many would consider to be violations have often stood in the face of common sense. To that end, they’ve sometimes been mocked on social media, which is against their goal of having the social channel in the first place. But this play with Harden was a particular sore subject with fans around the league, and it was right of them in to make a comment.

At least they got it right.

Watch LeBron James get blocked at the rim by Jarrett Allen

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LeBron James is seemingly and ageless wonder. The Los Angeles Lakers forward is still one of the most athletic players to ever grace an NBA court, and despite his obvious physical decline, that’s not to say he’s a slouch out there. He’s not exactly late-career Boris Diaw just yet.

But LeBron is now 34 years old, and as such there are other players on the floor with him at any given time that have a bit more bounce than The King. James found that out the hard way on Tuesday night as the Lakers took on the Brooklyn Nets in New York.

During a play early in the first quarter, James drove to the basket only to be rejected by Brooklyn’s Jarrett Allen at the rim.

The result was striking.

Via Twitter:

Good for Allen. It’s one thing to say you have played against the best player of all time, but it’s another thing altogether to swat him on a play that creates a turnover.

Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore fined $10,000 for bouncing ball into stands

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It wasn’t intentional.

With 9:09 remaining in what would be a Nets win over the Hawks in Brooklyn, D'Angelo Russell and Eric Davis completed a 2-on-1 fast break that Kent Bazemore could not stop. The Hawks called timeout, Bazemore had the ball in his hands and, in frustration, tried to throw a hard bounce pass off the stanchion and back to himself.

Except Bazemore missed and the ball went flying into the stands.

Tuesday the League announced Bazemore was fined $10,000 for “throwing the ball into the spectator stands.”

It’s understandable why the NBA does not want players launching the ball into where fans are sitting, so they fine players when it happens. And, thanks to precedent, those fine are whether the move was intentional or not. So, Bazemore takes a hit.

Bucks, 76ers, other teams practicing with “4 point line” to improve spacing instincts

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Space is the name of the game in the modern NBA.

Milwaukee is thriving in part because of the addition of three-point bomber Brook Lopez (still weird to type that) and a coach in Mike Budenholzer who encourages his players to shoot from deep, opening up the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo to drive the lane.

How Budenholzer reinforces that spacing — adding a four-point line on the practice floor and color-coding parts of the court — is part of a fascinating story by ESPN’s Malika Andrews on how coaches are “gamifying” practices to get through to players. The 76ers, Hawks, Nets, Bulls, and Bucks are the teams we know are using a four-point line in practice right now.

To explain how the Hawks’ 4-point line — which is painted onto the floor 5 feet beyond the regular 3-point line — helps his team, [Atlanta Hawks coach Paul] Pierce walks onto the court to physically demonstrate. The condensed version of Pierce’s 36-minute explanation, which is punctuated by wild gesticulation, is this: “Spacing changes the whole game.”

Atlanta targeted Young out of Oklahoma in the 2018 draft lottery, with hopes of building an offense around his long-range shooting and passing skills. Because Young is willing and able to shoot off the dribble from well beyond the 3-point arc, defenders are forced to step out to defend him almost as soon as he crosses half court. Although he already had that range before he joined the Hawks, Young acknowledges that not everybody has the natural instinct to pull up from that deep, so it helps to have a visual reminder…

Lloyd not only wants Young to shoot from the 4-point line but to make plays from there, too. Expanding the floor outward, in turn, creates space in the paint for big men such as second-year breakout John Collins. If a guard like Young can initiate a play from behind the 4-point line, defenses are forced to cover more ground and, eventually, make difficult choices and compromises.

While Young is struggling with those deep shots this season — 24.1 percent from three — the principle is still valid, and just his and the Hawks’ willingness to shoot from there has stretched defenses (they just don’t have the talent and experience yet to exploit those defenses properly). It’s what Stephen Curry brings naturally to the Warriors (that team has the talent and experience yet to exploit defenses).

It’s not just the four-point line. In Philadelphia, the corner-three spot on the court is a different color, a reminder to players they want to be and shoot from there. In Milwaukee, there are five taped-off boxes on the court, each about the size a person takes up standing there, a reminder of where Budenholzer wants players to be in a five-out offense.

For young players raised on computer learning and video games, the color coding — what Brett Brown called “gamification” of the court — works as reminders. Ones that, ideally, carry over into games themselves.