Westbrook’s stellar first half helps Thunder bury the Lakers

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The Lakers weren’t expected by anyone to go into Oklahoma City on Friday and take down a Thunder team that was not only playing its best basketball of the young season, but was also riding a six-game winning streak.

But it didn’t have to go down like this.

Russell Westbrook destroyed the Lakers with a 27-point first half, where he drained a career-high five three-pointers while also managing to dish out five assists. Oklahoma City put up 67 points in the game’s first two quarters, running out to a lead that L.A.wouldn’t be able to come back from on the way to a 114-108 victory, the Thunder’s seventh straight.

Westbrook was in full attack mode, and while he did have a vicious dunk or two, his aggressiveness resulted in hot outside shooting of pull-up jumpers from all distances. He’s among the fiercest players in the game when he gets going, and he was rolling unlike any other time we’ve seen from him in the recent past.

As we continue to try to dissect the Lakers struggles, this game was once again proof that it’s all about the defense. No one on L.A.’s roster can contain Westbrook individually, but the team’s schemes and rotations remained a step slow, and allowed easy buckets even when Westbrook cooled off considerably in the second half.

Westbrook was just 2-of-10 from the field for six points after the break, but by then, the damage was done. And, unlike Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, Westbrook has help when the shots stop falling, in the form of the league’s leading scorer over the past few years in Kevin Durant.

Durant had 18 second half points to keep the party going for the Thunder, who also got sound performances from Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison that the Lakers couldn’t find a way to answer.

Bryant finished with 35 points and seven assists, but committed five turnovers and connected on just 11 of his 24 field goal attempts. It was the sixth straight time the Lakers lost when Braynt has scored 30 or more points, and that’s in no way a coincidence — when the offense stagnates, Bryant gets impatient and takes matters into his own hands.

Dwight Howard had 10 rebounds in the first period, five of which were offensive that helped L.A. to eight second chance points that allowed them to hang close, if only for a quarter. But he finished with just eight more the entire game, mainly because there weren’t many rebounds to be had with the Thunder making half of their shots.

If there was a bright spot for the Lakers in this blowout of a contest that showed just how far away the team is from true title contention, it’s the fact that there was no intentional fouling of Howard, and at least for one night, the “Hack-A-Dwight” nonsense was left on the shelf.

That’s really more due to the quality of L.A.’s opponent, however, because a superior team that has no trouble beating the Lakers doesn’t need to resort to such questionable tactics.

The Thunder simply did what was expected on Friday, although Westbrook made sure that the win came with a power and a fury that should stick with the Lakers for quite some time. Meanwhile, L.A. now has 48 more minutes of game film from which to teach, and defensively, the lessons to be learned right now seem limitless.

Jeremy Lin says “at times it kind of sucks” being only Asian-American in NBA

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When Jeremy Lin landed in Toronto — after being bought out and waived by the Hawks, clearing the way for him to sign with the Raptors for the playoff push — the number of cameras and reporters in the Raptors locker room instantly ballooned. Lin remains one of the most popular players worldwide in the NBA, he’s a social media phenom, and there are cameras there to track his every move and send it around the world, particularly back to Asia.

Lin isn’t in the NBA because he’s famous and sells tickets — he’s a quality guard who can help a team, there’s a reason the contending Raptors picked him up — but he inhabits the role of both player and groundbreaker.

Lin talked about that (and Asians in popular culture) with Cary Chow of the Undefeated in an interesting Q&A at The Undefeated, where he said being the only Asian-American in the NBA is not easy.

At times it kind of sucks. At other times it’s amazing. Amazing because you get to challenge everyone’s viewpoints and perspectives. I’m rooting for so many more Asians to come in. Last year, when I was with Brooklyn and we had Ding [Yanyuhang] on the summer league team, I was like, ‘Dude, please make the team. We’d have so much fun together during the season.’

On the feeling that he has to represent an entire race.

Yeah. At first it was something I ran from and really struggled with. Now I embrace it way more and am more equipped to handle it. I’m not perfect, but I kind of know who I want to be at this point in my career, so I keep trucking along and doing things the right way and stay above all the distractions.

Lin has handled his fame deftly over the years. He has challenges and opportunities not open to other players, and that’s the balancing act. It takes someone smart, but also grounded and balanced to pull it all off. The Raptors got all that, along with the extra cameras around the team.

Mostly, though, the Raptors got a player who is going to help them make a deep playoff run.

 

Rudy Gobert re-energized ahead of Jazz at Thunder

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Rudy Gobert didn’t hide his disappointment at not making the NBA All-Star Game for the first time despite averaging 15.2 points and 12.9 rebounds while leading the league in field-goal percentage.

But coming off the 10-day break, the Utah Jazz center says he’s re-energized heading into Friday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“Just recharge, completely — mentally, physically,” Gobert said. “For me, I was able to get a little bit of sun and feel a lot better when I get back.

“The next two months, I feel like, will be a lot better.”

The Jazz, who have won 13 of their last 16 games, come out of the break sixth in the Western Conference but with one of the NBA’s easiest schedules down the stretch.

Utah plays just eight of its final 25 games against teams that are above .500.

One of those, though, is Friday night’s game in Oklahoma City, which sits third in the West after winning 11 of 13 before the break.

The Thunder, on the other hand, have one of the league’s most challenging schedules moving forward. Oklahoma City plays 17 of its remaining 25 games against teams above .500 including each of the first five out of the break.

The Thunder have won the first two meetings between the teams, including a 122-113 win on Dec. 10 in Oklahoma City.

An Oklahoma City win would clinch the season series for the Thunder after Utah eliminated Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs last season.

The Thunder’s Russell Westbrook has a streak of 10 consecutive triple-doubles. During that stretch, he’s averaged 21.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 13.5 assists.

Utah is hopeful backup point guard Dante Exum, who has missed the last 17 games with a left ankle sprain, will be able to return against the Thunder.

“I think when he’s playing well, he can have a big impact for us and having him back soon is going to help us a lot,” Gobert said.

The Thunder could have forward Markieff Morris available for the first time. Morris signed with Oklahoma City over the All-Star break after being waived by New Orleans following his trade from Washington on Feb. 7.

Morris was averaging 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds for the Wizards this season before suffering a neck injury in late December that has kept him out since. Morris was cleared to play two weeks ago.

“We got a big piece in Markieff that we’re excited for, and we’re going to be ready for the second half after this break,” Oklahoma City’s Paul George said.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said, “We’ll see,” when asked Thursday if Morris would play against the Jazz.

The Thunder also figure to have both starting forward Jerami Grant and backup point guard Dennis Schroder back after each missed the last two games before the break, Grant with an ankle injury and Schroder after the birth of his child.

Friday’s game is the start of a back-to-back for both teams, with the Jazz hosting Dallas on Saturday and Oklahoma City hosting Sacramento.

 

Raptors fans welcome DeMar DeRozan back with loud, standing ovation

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DeMar DeRozan was the greatest Raptor ever. He was an All-Star, he presided over the best seasons in franchise history, and he’s the one guy who re-signed and stood up for a city that has an inferiority complex around its basketball team.

Toronto fans understood the trade that brought Kawhi Leonard to the team — it’s an upgrade on the court — but their love for DeRozan is real.

They showed that on Friday night when DeRozan returned to Toronto for the first time as a member of the Spurs — he got a raucous ovation upon his introduction.

Early in the game he gave them a taste of what he did for them for years, getting the and-1 bucket on the drive.

Marcus Smart hits halfcourt shot at practice, celebrates with a back flip

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The celebration is more impressive than the shot.

After a tough loss to Milwaukee on Thursday, the Celtics traveled to Chicago to take on the Bulls on Saturday. Friday they had a practice in the Northwestern University facility.

It’s there Marcus Smart drains a halfcourt shot. Impressive. But not nearly as impressive as the backflip celebration.

I did not know Smart had that in him.