Improved Lakers get measuring stick game against Thunder

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There was a time not so long ago when the up-and-coming Thunder were measuring their improvement against the Lakers.

Now, it’s the Western Conference champion Thunder that are the measuring stick and the Lakers who want to see where they stand after a run of better play. The two face off Tuesday night in Oklahoma City.

It’s been well documented that after Lakers started the season an unimpressive 17-25 they have started to turn it around and gone 13-5 since. The thing is, it’s not that the Lakers are dramatically better in their last 18 overall — their point differential per 100 possessions +2.5, less than one point per 100 better than it was when they were eight games below .500.

What has changed is they got healthy, and with their key guys got to play together for a stretch modified Mike D’Antoni system, and with all that they started to find there identity. It’s taken a lot of Kobe Bryant — sometimes as scorer, sometimes as facilitator. It’s taken Steve Nash to work a lot off the ball. It’s taken Dwight Howard defending and playing more pick-and-roll. It’s been the role players finding their way.

It’s been the Lakers finally forming an identity like was expected of them in training camp (but injuries and a coaching change to a radically different system delayed that cohesion). Now that they have a sense of self the Lakers are winning the close ones they lost earlier in the season. Such as the 99-98 win over the Hawks on Sunday. John Schuhmann has all the numbers to back this up over at NBA.com — the Lakers with an identity are playing much better in the clutch than they did. They are now a .500 team.

But the Thunder are a whole new level of challenge. They are the measuring stick. They are still the favorites to make the finals out of the West, they have the best scorer in the game in Kevin Durant.

What are the keys for Tuesday night? They all revolve around the Lakers defense, because the Lakers will score some (that Kobe Bryant guy is pretty good) but the question is can they slow the Thunder at all:

1) The Lakers transition defense. Among all their many weaknesses this season, this has been the biggest — if you can run on the Lakers you can beat them. Los Angeles allows teams to shoot 58.1 percent in transition and score 1.16 points per possession, 23rd in the NBA. In the first meeting between these teams this year the Thunder shot 9-of-11 in transition and 3-of-3 from three. If this is an up-tempo game it will not be a close one.

2) Lakers pick-and-roll defense against Westbrook. It’s been improved in recent weeks but in the first meeting the Lakers struggled to stop Russell Westbrook (33 points) on this play. Westbrook has 60 points combined in the first two meetings this season. If Westbrook in particular, but also Kevin Durant and others, are allowed to probe and create off the pick-and-roll the Lakers defense will get picked apart and they will struggle.

On the other hand, when Westbrook went cold — 6-of-22 in the last meeting of these teams — the Lakers got the win. I say went cold because Westbrook completed just 3-of-8 shots inside the restricted area and I’m not sure the Lakers should count on that again. But the Lakers also turned him into a jump shooter and he struggled in that role — Dwight Howard is key here taking away the paint from Westbrook on drives.

3) Can Los Angeles slow Kevin Durant. I know, everyone writes they want to do this and he’s the league’s three-time leading scoring champ for a reason. He dropped 42 on them in a game this season. However, in the last meeting the Lakers had some success with Earl Clark — Durant was 3-of-11 with Clark on him. I’m not sure I’d want to bet on that trend continuing, but you can bet the Lakers go back to that well and if Clark can even just slow Durant and make him work for his baskets it will help.

Shaq doesn’t want LeBron James to chase rings to close his career

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Shaquille O’Neal was a dominant NBA center, playing with the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, and Miami Heat.

He was also a ring chaser.

At the end of his career, O’Neal decided to switch between teams, including the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Boston Celtics. It was an open and futile effort to beat his rival and former Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant in number of championships won.

After they retired, O’Neal finished with four championships to Bryant’s five.

Now, as Cavaliers star LeBron James starts to wrap up his own career, Shaq says that James should not follow in his footsteps. Specifically, O’Neal said that he thinks LeBron’s story has already been written, and that he should not try to chase rings elsewhere.

Via ESPN:

“Somebody told me a long time ago — they said your book is already set [before the later stages of your career]. You can add index pages toward the end, but your book is already set. So LeBron’s book is already set,” O’Neal said. “He done already passed up legends; he done already made his mark — he has three rings

I think I tend to agree with O’Neal on this point. Specifically, because the only thing that LeBron could do to boost his resume would be to win multiple championships, consecutively, to close his career. He would need to surpass Michael Jordan at six rings, and approach Bill Russell with 11.

I don’t particularly think that LeBron is trying to ring chase. He’s just trying to get with one good team to close his career (or the Lakers). I don’t think we will ever see LeBron skip around from team to team the way that O’Neal did in the twilight of his playing career.

We’re launching the PBT Mailbag, so what questions do you want answered?

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The 2017-18 NBA season is over, and the Golden State Warriors are champions once again. What that means the offseason is here, and for many fans that is the best time of the year. The summer in the NBA the past few years has given us some incredible stories. For many, this past postseason was rather boring, and the outcome was all but decided.

And so it is time to dig into our postseason favorites, starting with the 2018 NBA Draft. We here at Pro Basketball Talk would like to announce the start of our weekly mail bag, which will run each week on Wednesday mornings.

The first of mailbag will run this Wednesday, the day before the draft. Questions can be submitted via Twitter or by sending us an email directly at pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

The draft is obviously the big focus for many fans as we approach this next week, and much about the situation for many teams heading up into the event in Brooklyn is murky. If you have a burning question about the draft, now is the time to ask it.

Of course, you are encouraged to ask any kind of question you want to hear about from the Pro Basketball Talk crew such as:

  • Where is LeBron going?
  • Is a hotdog a sandwich?
  • Has Nick Young put his shirt back on yet?
  • Will Jordan Bell run out of Hennessy ever again?
  • Where will Kawhi Leonard play next season?

All of these questions are fair game, and more.

We are looking forward to the kind of queries you need answered on a weekly basis as we roll through the summer in anticipation for the start of the 2018-19 NBA season.

Report: Cavaliers have made calls to Spurs about Kawhi Leonard

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We still don’t know where San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard will end up playing at the start of the 2018-2019 NBA season.

The former NBA Finals MVP reportedly wants to head to Los Angeles, apparently to play for the Lakers. However, there are other teams in the mix for Leonard, and the Spurs themselves want to try to keep him and mend the relationship.

One intriguing team for Leonard is the Cleveland Cavaliers, who reportedly have made calls to San Antonio about landing their star. According to Cleveland.com writer Terry Pluto, the Cavs have made it known they are interested in Leonard.

It’s not clear whether that call was simple due diligence, a whack at trying to entice LeBron James to stay, or a long shot way to replace James if he decides to leave this summer.

The Cavaliers are hilariously over the cap for next season, and don’t have much to offer the Spurs that they’d likely want. The best player on the roster that helps match most of Leonard’s salary is Kevin Love, who already plays the position occupied by LaMarcus Aldridge.

Cleveland does have the No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, but that’s not enough to snag Leonard. If the Cavaliers had a realistic shot at getting Leonard, it would likely need to be in the form of a three-team deal with another party that has a need for Love.

NBA trades can be weird, and this summer is wrapping up to be a special one. However, Cleveland grabbing Leonard from San Antonio is still a long shot.

NBA players celebrate Father’s Day on social media

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Sunday was Father’s Day in the United States, and as such several players around the league decided to share their feelings on the national day of appreciation.

Many got together with their kids or with their fathers, posting photos and giving us a nice little peek into the family lives of some of the league’s players.

Some guys, like Baron Davis and Jameer Nelson, sent out messages wishing well to those whose fathers had passed on.

Via Instagram and Twitter:

Make sure you appreciate your pops today.