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.

Steve Kerr on Warriors’ late possession vs. Rockets: “I wanted the timeout”

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The Houston Rockets leveled the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night by a margin of 95-92. The win for the Rockets was ugly, but it leveled the series at 2-2 heading back to Houston.

It was a close game down the stretch, and it looked like Golden State’s last chance to get the win was going to come on a possession with 11 seconds to go following a missed James Harden jumper.

The Warriors immediately turned up the floor and did not call a timeout. The resulting possession was messy, and it wound up ending on a difficult Klay Thompson turnaround jumper. Golden State would get another shot at a 3-pointer with half a second left thanks to a foul on Thompson’s miss, but many were still left wondering why Steve Kerr did not choose to call a timeout during the possession before.

Kerr addressed the decision after the game.

Via Twitter:

You sort of have to side with Kerr in principle, but if you’d seen the way the Warriors played the rest of that fourth quarter you would probably err on calling a timeout and letting them set something up. Curry was 1-of-8 in the fourth, Durant shot poorly most of the game, and Golden State scored 12 total points in the final period.

When you consider Curry got a look at a wide open 3-pointer in the corner with 0.5 seconds left on the clock when the Warriors did call a timeout on the next possession, it makes it look even worse.

In any case, Houston beat out Golden State in a close game and we’re headed back to Texas for Game 5 on Thursday.

Rockets survive gut punch from Warriors, even Western Conference Finals at 2-2

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The Houston Rockets can only win against the Golden State Warriors in one way: ugly.

During their Game 2 blowout against the defending champions, Houston’s 22-point victory was ugly for the Warriors. In Tuesday’s Game 4 win, it was ugly for the Rockets despite the 95-92 score in their favor.

Golden State came out of the gates hot, scoring the first 12 points of the game as it was clear that the Warriors were drawing off of the home crowd back in Oakland. Houston eventually settled, coming back with a massive 34-point second quarter. Mike D’Antoni, using an abbreviated rotation, found a way to up his team’s defense on the Warriors, clamping down on Golden State from the 3-point line.

The Rockets took a 53-46 lead into the half, and needed to brace for the coming changes from Steve Kerr’s squad.

Unsurprisingly, the Warriors answered with a 34 point quarter of their own to open the second half. Golden State found their range from 3-point land as — guess who — Stephen Curry started to go nuclear. Kevin Durant, who scored 27 points but shot a woeful 37.5 percent from the field, started to slow even as he got open looks off jumpers above smaller defenders.

Then came the fourth quarter.

Houston remained resolute, and full of energy as PJ Tucker and Chris Paul jumped for loose balls and battled for rebounds. Meanwhile, Golden State appeared to slowly run out of gas. Steve Kerr said as much after the game, intimating that his own shortened lineup without Andre Iguodala could have played a role.

D’Antoni, who obviously had a game plan to better defend Durant, then focused his attention toward Curry. The Warriors point guard finished the game shooting 1-for-8 in the fourth quarter, including a miss on the final shot of the game.

Curry scored 28 points with six rebounds and two assists. Durant added 12 rebounds and three assists to his scoring total. Draymond Green contributed 11 points, 14 rebounds, and eight assists.

For Houston it was Harden who led the way with 30 points, four rebounds, and four assists. Paul had 27 points to go with four assists and two rebounds. PJ Tucker, who scored just four points, grabbed a whopping 16 boards. Clint Capela was much the same, scoring eight points while grabbing 13 rebounds.

This season’s Western Conference fighters has been both puzzling and Expected. Well the variants of victory margin has been much greater than any of us anticipated for both sides, the fact that the coaches on each bench are trying to out dual each other each game Runs with the idea we have of some of the best playoff series in NBA history. In fact, the back-and-forth battle between two teams as they trade winds is perhaps what makes be later rounds of the NBA playoffs so worth watching.

Houston’s victory was gritty, and defensive, and not much to look at. True to his persona, after the final horn Rockets point guard Paul called it, “A fun game.”

While we finally got ourselves a close conference finals game out West, the question now turns to what the teams will do for Game 5 back in Houston. Will this series become more competitive? Or will Houston and Golden State continue the back-and-forth, big-margin victories we’ve seen thus far?

No matter what, there’s no doubt the Rockets will be trying to recapture the defensive aura they held in Game 4 as Golden State tries to find a way to break through it.

Report: Suns could have traded for Kristaps Porzingis last season

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I’m going to need New York Knicks fans to read this one with their eyes closed. Ready? Here we go.

The Phoenix Suns recently won the right to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. That means they will be adding a player like Luka Doncic, Deandre Ayton, or Marvin Bagley to their young roster. Last season, Phoenix selected fourth and picked Josh Jackson. It’s a rebuilding process, to be sure.

But a new report says that if Phoenix would have decided to instead trade the pick they used on Jackson, they could have had Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis.

Seriously.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Phoenix had an opportunity to put together a package that would have sent Porzingis to Arizona. That anything the Suns had, plus the No. 4 pick, would have made that happen is just another testament to why Phil Jackson had to go in New York.

Via the Ryen Russillo show:

The Knicks actually hit on Porzingis, and although he may be out for the entire year next season, he’s a keeper to build around, not to trade. On the other side of things, why the Suns didn’t include that pick and pull the trigger is a head scratcher, although we don’t know the full details of the proposed package.

No doubt New York fans are glad the Suns didn’t decide to accept the offer without that pick.

Watch James Harden dunk all over Draymond Green (VIDEO)

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Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals started off hot for the Golden State Warriors. The defending champs scored the first 12 points of the game, but the Houston Rockets rallied before the half was over to take the lead, 53-46, at the break.

One of the biggest highlight plays from Houston came courtesy of James Harden late in the second quarter.

The play came with 6:06 left to play in the half and with the Rockets pushing on the Warriors in transition. Harden found himself with the ball at the top of the key and with an open lane. That forced Draymond Green to slide over as a help defender, and the result was a thunderous dunk for Harden over the Golden State defensive stalwart.

We’ll forget that Chris Paul probably either travelled or double-dribbled before Harden got the ball on the play.

Golden State leads the series, 2-1.