What’s Up With The Denver Nuggets?

In this second segment of “What’s Up With…?” we’re taking a look at a team that was supposed to contend with Oklahoma City and Los Angeles in the Western Conference: the Denver Nuggets. At 11-11, the Nuggets are currently clinging to the eighth spot in the West and they aren’t struggling nearly as much as their fellow, supposed contender in the Los Angeles Lakers. However, this season has been pretty disappointing for Denver fans thus far and the question has to be asked this year just like I asked early on last season:

What’s up with the Denver Nuggets?

In taking a look at why Denver is struggling so much to start this season, there are three main problems that I see. There are minor problems, such as Danilo Gallinari’s largely inconsistent shooting and Kenneth Faried’s production falling off the map recently. But the first major problem has been Ty Lawson. Lawson has started to turn his season around with a couple of dominant performances, but there’s no denying he started off in a bit of a slump this year. After averaging 16.4 points, 6.6 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals last year, this was supposed to be Lawson’s breakout season. Instead, Denver’s point guard has seen dips in his points and rebounds, averaging 14.7 points, 7 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 2 steals. Not scrub numbers by any means, but not a breakout year either (and keep in mind those averages were slightly raised by more impressive performances in the past week). What happened to the dynamic and lightening-quick point guard that decimated the Lakers in the postseason last year and almost send Kobe and company home early? He’s looked timid at times and almost reluctant to take the same jumpshots he was consistently draining last season. Lawson looks like he’s breaking out of his slump, but if he regresses at all, or even takes a night off, Denver will continue to struggle.

Lawson's showed signs of life recently, but he's got a ways to go to help turn things around in Denver.

Lawson’s showed signs of life recently, but he’s got a ways to go to help turn things around.

The second major problem is the trade the Nuggets made over the offseason, a trade that a lot of Denver fans were excited about. In exchanging Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington in the very unbalanced Dwight Howard deal that sent Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia, Denver was supposed to get back a defensive presence and a decent amount of offense in Andre Iguodala. But with Iggy in a Denver jersey, the Nuggets are 26th in the league in points allowed, giving up 100.7 points per game. To his credit, Iguodala has adjusted his game to fulfill whatever Denver needs from him on the offensive end (namely, scoring), but the balanced game we saw from him in Denver is gone while Afflalo’s having his best season so far down in Orlando. Many thought Iguodala would be the piece to elevate Denver to title contenders in the West, but instead, it’s looked like Iggy has disrupted the team’s chemistry with inconsistent offense.

Was trading for Iggy the right move for Denver? I'm not convinced just yet.

Was trading for Iggy the right move for Denver? I’m not convinced just yet.

The final problem is one that I’m surprised to see myself write, but it seems that George Karl doesn’t have a firm grip on his team’s success anymore. When Denver fans, some of the most loyal basketball fans I’ve seen, are complaining about Karl, you know something’s not right. Just a few years ago, this man inspired them when he beat cancer. This is the man who’s turned the Nuggets into a consistent threat in the West. But unfortunately, those days look like a thing of the past. Again, we could be overreacting here; the Nuggets are at .500 and still have 75 percent of the seaon left to fine-tune. But it’s in the subtle things that you notice how poorly Karl has coached this season. It’s in his refusal to start JaVale McGee, a guy who’s been incredibly efficient in limited minutes and could be an All-Star if Karl took the time to develop him over Kosta Koufos. It’s in a couple of bad losses (Phoenix, Orlando, Los Angeles) and a really underwhelming 0-3 start to the season. It’s in the team’s inconsistency that borderlines bipolarity. And it’s in that angry expression that’s constantly on Karl’s face when his team is struggling, a look that he wears while sitting on the bench and saying nothing. Karl needs to take a more hands-on approach with this group and that’s evident to anyone watching the lifeless disdain on his face whenever the opposing team goes on a run. I believe Karl is a tremendous coach and that he’ll turn things around, but he needs to take a different approach to get wins and appease Denver fans.

How many times have we seen Karl make this face on the bench? Yell at 'em, George!

How many times have we seen Karl make this face on the bench? Yell at ’em, George!

Like the Lakers, the Nuggets still have time to turn things around. To their credit, they have looked a lot better in recent games, but they’re still 3-5 in their last eight games. In their defense though, Denver’s had one of the tougher schedules in the NBA (UPDATED: one of my friends, an avid Nuggets fan, brought it to my attention that Denver has only played six home games this year. It’s hard to win games when 16 of your first 22 are on the road). But it’s hard to tell how good the Nuggets can be because twice this season they’ve put together a nice string of games with four wins in a row, but both times they’ve gone on to drop their next three in a row. Because of how close the race in the West always is, the Nuggets have a very good shot at keeping their playoff spot and an even better shot at moving up the chain if they start meshing. But like the Lakers, the time for saying, “We’ve still got time to fix things,” has just about wrapped up. Time will tell if Lawson’s recent resurgence is for real, but the Denver Nuggets haven’t looked like a contender in the West just yet.

2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

Fourth Of July Free Agency Wrap-Up

In a particularly dry free agency day, one piece of news immediately jumped out and turned the whole day on its head. Here are the major headlines from the Fourth of July:

Steve Nash Heads to Rival Lakers:

The biggest news of the day was Steve Nash’s decision to play with Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix’s biggest and most hated divisional rival. Although calling what the Lakers and Suns have a “rivalry” might not be completely accurate since Los Angeles seems to get the best of Phoenix every time these two teams meet, Nash’s decision quickly dissolved the happy memories of his time in Phoenix into outrage over his decision to put on the yellow and purple colors. Nash explained that the decision was influenced by his desire to be close to his three children in Phoenix and wished the Suns organization nothing but the best for the future, but there’s no question his departure for LA is still a stab in the back to the city of Phoenix. Nash signed a three-year deal with Los Angeles worth around $25 million, instantly turning Los Angeles into title contenders once again. How Nash and Kobe will function on offense remains to be seen, as both guards need the ball to be effective, but there’s no question that having a quality point guard like Nash increases a team’s pick-and-roll game and overall success. Suns management continued to baffle fans with this trade, as the Suns only got four future draft picks for their beloved marquee player who will now leave to join Phoenix’s hated rival. Phoenix received first-round picks in 2013 and 2015 and second-rounders in 2013 and 2014. Not bad overall, but certainly not worth Nash and definitely not enough to raise a fan base’s faith in their management, especially considering Phoenix’s history of wasting draft picks in exchange for cash considerations. To make matters worse for his former team, Nash will try and talk Grant Hill into joining him in LA. Hill said he would either join the Lakers or retire, but considering the fact that he went to Germany for a knee procedure (the same one that revitalized Kobe Bryant’s knee), it doesn’t seem that Hill is ready to retire just yet. If Hill does head to LA to join Nash, the Lakers could be looking at a potential lineup of Nash, Kobe, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum with Hill, Steve Blake and Jordan Hill on the bench. Not bad at all, especially since the Lakers could look into Dwight Howard either next year or in a trade for Gasol/Bynum. Overall, it was a horrible day for Phoenix fans and a glorious one for LA supporters.

Nash will be joining Kobe in Los Angeles, much to the chagrin of every basketball fan in Phoenix.

Suns Sign Dragic and Beasley:

In a feeble attempt to compensate for Steve Nash’s departure for LA, the Suns signed Goran Dragic and Michael Beasley. Dragic was signed to a four-year deal worth $34 million and Beasley was signed to an $18 million deal for three years. Dragic was a very good signing by the Suns, especially now that Nash is gone. Considering how Dragic thrived in Houston as a starter when Kyle Lowry sat out, the Suns are getting a quality player who deserves a better contract as a starting point guard. As an added bonus, Phoenix was always particularly fond of Dragic when he backed up Nash and will be happy to welcome his back. Unfortunately, the signing of Beasley won’t get many (smart) Suns fans excited. Beasley is a decent player at best and considering how many of those are already on the roster, this isn’t the kind of quality player Phoenix needs, especially with Nash and possibly Hill leaving.

Nash is gone, but the Suns got a consolation prize in potential breakout star Goran Dragic.

Houston Offers Jeremy Lin a Deal: 

The Rockets have offered Jeremy Lin a four-year deal worth around $30 million. The Knicks can almost match Houston’s offer (four years, $24.5 million), but have made it clear they would have to think hard about matching other teams’ high offers for the breakout point guard. After losing Dragic to Phoenix, the Rockets could use a quality backup for Kyle Lowry in Lin, but keep in mind that Lin and the Knicks both want a reunion. What offer New York puts on the table could decide where Lin ends up.

Could Jeremy Lin be heading back to the Houston Rockets?

Jason Kidd and Mavs Close to Signing Deal:

Jason Kidd and the Mavericks are closing in on a multi-year deal that will allow the Dallas veteran to end his career where it all began. The amount is unknown, but it will likely be a bit higher than Kidd would normally be worth after the Mavs were unable to bring Deron Williams or Goran Dragic to Dallas.

Jason Kidd will most likely be ending his career in Dallas.

Spencer Hawes Signs Extension:

Spencer Hawes will be staying in Philadelphia next year after signing a two-year, $13 million deal with the Sixers. Nothing much to report here other than the fact that the 76ers could be shaping up to be a pretty consistent threat in the playoffs for the next few years if they continue to keep so many pieces together (especially with so much youth).

Spencer Hawes will be staying in Philly after signing a two-year extension.

Thunder Add Hasheem Thabeet:

The Oklahoma City Thunder signed former number two draft pick Hasheem Thabeet to a two-year deal. Thabeet has never really panned out to be the quality player with potential he promised to be, with career averages of just over two points and two rebounds per game in his limited time on the floor. This is a questionable signing by the Thunder, especially because Serge Ibaka’s return to OKC is not guaranteed at this point.

The Thunder signed Hasheem Thabeet. For some reason.

Thunder Finish Lakers Off, Advance To Western Conference Finals

I predicted the Oklahoma City Thunder would finish off the Lakers in six games, but it turns out they were more dangerous than I anticipated. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder got the job done in five games and made it look relatively easy in the process, either blowing LA out or coming back in the game’s final minutes with a relentless fury that the Lakers couldn’t match. With their convincing 106-90 victory on Monday, the Thunder sent Kobe Bryant and the Lakers home and advanced to their second straight Western Conference Finals.

Russell Westbrook led OKC with 28 points, Kevin Durant followed up with 25 and James Harden added 17 off the bench. No one else reached double digits for the Thunder, but their role players each pitched something in. Serge Ibaka had eight, Nazr Mohammed had seven off the bench, and Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison each had six. Kobe Bryant led all scorers with a dominant 42 points on 18-of-33 shooting, but as has been the case in this series and the majority of the playoffs, received little help from his teammates. The Lakers were out-rebounded 51-35 as LA’s bigs continued to underachieve. Andrew Bynum finished with just 10 points and four rebounds and Pau Gasol had 16 rebounds but could only muster 14 points, which didn’t help the sentiments that he needs to be shipped off after this season. Kobe looked like the only one who cared and couldn’t carry the burden of having no bench and disappointing stars around him against this tough Thunder team.

Westbrook was a problem for the Lakers all series long, but it was his circus shot that sent Kobe and his disappointing supporting cast home early.

For the Lakers, their inability to compete has to be a little disconcerting. Knowing LA’s history of success and how they’ve been competitive each and every year for such a long time, some offseason moves are going to happen. A year for the Lakers without a championship is a failure in LA’s book and because of how competitive Kobe is, management will be forced to make some changes to give their superstar one more chance to win his sixth ring before he finally retires.

Kobe was able to keep the Lakers relatively even with the Thunder for almost three quarters, but when Russell Westbrook picked off Ramon Sessions’ pass and made a spectacular circus shot for a three-point play, the crowd ignited and Oklahoma City never looked back, outscoring the Lakers by ten in the fourth. Oklahoma City’s two elite superstars and their superb Sixth Man of the Year proved to be too much for LA’s one-man attack, as Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka were able to bother Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol just enough to limit their contributions. Ramon Sessions was completely underwhelming for the entire series, Steve Blake and the rest of the bench completely disappeared at times and the Thunder will able to storm back in two games to get huge wins. The Thunder will meet the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, which is sure to be a battle between two unstoppable forces; the Thunder have lost one game in the postseason so far and the Spurs have won 18 games straight. This series will really be a pick ’em, but you can be sure whoever comes out of the West will be hard-pressed to not win it all.

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers need to make some changes this summer.

Late Kevin Durant Three Caps Off Thunder Comeback

The Thunder’s come-from-behind win at Staples Center last night revealed one important truth about this Oklahoma City-Los Angeles series: no lead is safe in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, that truth has stung them twice and left them on the wrong side of a 3-1 series advantage after the Thunder’s 103-100 win in Game 4. Russell Westbrook took over in the fourth quarter rally and led the Thunder with 37 points and five assists, but it was Kevin Durant who put the final nail in the coffin with a clutch 3-pointer to put OKC up 101-98 with 13 seconds to go.

Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 38 points, eight rebounds and five assists, but his struggles in the fourth quarter opened the door for the Thunder’s comeback that will now send the series back to Oklahoma City for an elimination game. Andrew Bynum had 18 points and nine rebounds and everyone in LA’s starting five scored in double digits. But the Lake Show made critical mistakes down the stretch and couldn’t stop the Durant-Westbrook tandem down the stretch and gave up a nine point lead with less that six minutes to play after leading by as many as 12 in the third quarter. In fact, the Lakers were ahead for the majority of the game, racking up points in the paint and physically abusing the Thunder on both ends of the floor. But OKC hung around and as is the case with any great team, if you let them hang around, you will come to regret it in the end. After the 42 free throws debacle in Game 3, the refs (relatively) shortened up on the whistles, which meant the Lakers greatly benefitted from their advantage in being able physically push the Thunder around in the paint and on the defensive end for the majority of the game. LA was the aggressor for almost the entire game, abusing OKC’s bigs, getting to the foul line and letting the Thunder settle for contested jumpers because Oklahoma City couldn’t get anything going to the basket against the Lakers’ physical defense. Serge Ibaka finished with 14 but the Thunder didn’t really get much out of anyone else. James Harden had an off night, shooting 2-for-11 from the field to finish with just 12 points, but Westbrook made up for it as he caught fire with 10 points in the fourth quarter. Durant finished with 31 points and 13 rebounds and the Thunder ended the game on a 22-8 run, capped off by the Durant 3-pointer and two Harden free throws that sealed the Lakers’ fate.

Kobe Bryant helped the Lakers build a 12 point lead in the 3rd quarter, but he struggled down the stretch once again, going 2-for-10 in the 4th.

The series now heads back to Oklahoma City for Game 5. This is a pretty demoralizing loss for the Lakers, who led for the majority of the night and did everything they needed to to win except finish. The Thunder outscored LA 32-20 in the game’s final period and after three quarters of being dominated in the post, OKC turned the game on its head by becoming the aggressor. The Lakers reverted to the Thunder’s patented style of basketball by shooting a large number of long distance jump shots as OKC got to the basket and started hitting mid rand jumpers. Kobe Bryant, who choked down the stretch in Game 2, once again had problems living up to his distant accolades as a clutch performer by going 2-for-10 in the fourth quarter, jacking up a large number of perimeter shots that didn’t find their mark. So even though Ron Artest knocked down a few critical jump shots with Kobe on the bench to keep the Lakers’ lead alive, as soon as Kobe returned to the floor, the ball never made it back inside the paint to Bynum and Kobe launched it every time he got it. Pau Gasol, who has been criticized throughout the playoffs for playing soft and disappearing on the offensive end, once again disappointed Laker fans not only because of his 10-point, 5-rebound night, but also because of his critical turnover that led to Kevin Durant’s 3-pointer to seal the game.

All the momentum is now with the Oklahoma City Thunder. They’ve got home court advantage, they were able to overcome a (relatively) balanced scoring effort from the Lakers without Harden playing well and they once again showed their resilience, grit and determination in the fourth quarter, even facing a deficit against a tough team on the road. Kobe is doing all that he can do and since Bynum has mentally checked out, as long as he’s putting up double doubles Los Angeles will be satisfied. But if the Lakers don’t get a lot more out of Gasol, Kevin Durant and the Thunder should have the killer instinct to put this series away on their own terms at home in Game 5.

Kevin Durant proved how clutch he is in the playoffs and gave the Thunder a 3-1 lead.

Lakers Hit Free Throws, Beat Thunder At Home

Credit the Lakers for swapping roles with the Thunder from Game 2 by coming back from a five point deficit with just under three minutes to play in Game 3. But Kobe Bryant and his team greatly benefitted from an overly aggressive and controlling referee crew (led by Joey Crawford, of course) that awarded the home team with 42 free throws and completely slowed down the pace of the game throughout. There were a total of 70 free throws in this game, a complete travesty for NBA Playoff basketball. But whatever the case, Los Angeles handled business at home, hit 41 of those 42 free throws and breathed new life into this series with a 99-96 win. Oklahoma City still leads the series 2-1, but the Lakers finally got over the hurdle and proved they can beat this offensively powered Thunder team.

Kobe led the Lakers with 36 points (18-for-18 from the line) and made up for his fourth quarter collapse in Game 2 by making so many free throws Game 3’s waning minutes. But the biggest difference in this game, other than the shamefully high number of fouls, was that he finally got some help from his supporting cast. Ramon Sessions, who I criticized in my last post for not showing up at all in the Lakers’ last three playoff games, finally reached double digits again with 12 points. In fact, Sessions, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest and Steve Blake all scored in double digits. On the Thunder side of the ball, Kevin Durant led OKC with 31 points and Russell Westbrook and James Harden each added 21. But whereas Los Angeles had six players in double digits, the Thunder only had three and couldn’t get much out of their role players. Serge Ibaka went 4-for-10 for just eight, Kendrick Perkins had six, Derek Fisher had four and Thabo Sefolosha had just three. The Lakers’ supporting cast has been incredibly weak for the entire postseason, so any game where the Thunder’s role players are outplayed by LA’s does not hold a promising result for OKC, no matter how proficient Durant, Westbrook and Harden might be.

Kobe Bryant made all 18 of his free throws as the Lakers made the series 2-1.

For the Thunder, this was a pretty costly loss. Not only did they give the Lakers hope in this series by surrendering that five point lead, but they completely abandoned attacking the basket and settled for numerous contested jump shots down the stretch. Even Harden, who has been OKC’s voice of reason in the past with his incessant ability to get to the rim, settled for a jumper late in the fourth quarter. In a game where the refs completely controlled the tempo by calling so many fouls (including at least three questionable calls on Harden), it was a huge mistake to keep taking those jumpers instead of attacking the basket and drawing whistles from the refs. The Thunder have now shot the ball poorly in the past two games, which is the main reason why the games have been so close. A jump-shooting team can’t afford to miss so many shots on the road, so you combine that with Ramon Sessions’ resurgence and the ridiculous amount of free throws taken in this game and it makes sense why the Lakers came out on top. However, this loss is not the end of the world for OKC either. The Thunder probably would have liked to take Game 3 and go for the sweep today in Game 4, but as long as they get one victory on the road, they’ll have taken care of business in Staples Center and put themselves in position to close the series at home.

Game 4 becomes a must-win for the Lakers and it might as well be one for the Thunder. If the Lakers can defend their home court and tie the series up at two games apiece, this series suddenly becomes competitive again. You can never count out a Kobe Bryant playoff team, no matter how superior the Thunder may appear in the postseason so far. Don’t forget that Kobe’s been in this situation before: The Lakers were down 2-0 to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the 2004 NBA Playoffs before winning four straight to advance to the Western Conference Finals. For the Thunder, the worst possible thing would be to let the Lakers take Game 4 and inspire confidence in a supporting cast that has only played one good game in the series so far. If the Thunder hit their shots and the foul count stays low (or at least lower than Game 3), OKC should get a win on the road and finish the Lake Show in five games.

Kevin Durant dropped 31 but the Thunder didn’t get much out of their supporting cast.

Thunder Storm Back Late In 4th, Take 2-0 Lead

After a 29-point rout in Game 1, it was fairly obvious Game 2 would be a little more competitive. But despite a drastically improved effort from Los Angeles and an off shooting night for OKC, the Thunder stormed back from a seven point deficit with two minutes to play and stunned the Lakers with a 77-75 win in Game 3. Oklahoma City took a 2-0 lead on the series after the Lakers crumbled down the stretch in the hands of the man they usually trust to hit game-winners: Kobe Bryant.

Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists, including the go-ahead basket with 18 seconds to go. James Harden was also critical for OKC down the stretch, driving to the basket after the Thunder had fallen in love with jump shots and hitting two critical, contested layups in traffic. In fact, Durant and Harden were the only two Thunder players behind OKC’s 9-0 run to close the game and send the Lakers back to LA facing a 2-0 deficit. Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka took too many shots away from Durant and Harden in this one, even if OKC should keep trying to exploit LA’s weakness guarding point guards (and even though Ibaka’s seven blocks certainly earned him some offensive looks). But as much as the Thunder came back and took this game, Los Angeles definitely helped them out a bit by offering such little resistance.

Kobe Bryant, who has been a hero and savior for the Lakers many times throughout his career, surprised everyone by making a few key mistakes down the stretch that cost his team the game. After a Harden layup cut the Lakers’ lead to five with just under two minutes left in the fourth quarter, Kobe quickly made a bad pass that Durant easily stole and turned into a dunk at the other end. On the next possession, Steve Blake threw a bad pass and it looked like it was tipped by Russell Westbrook, but after the officials looked at the replay, they discovered it really just went through Kobe’s hands and out of bounds. The Thunder didn’t convert on the ensuing possession, but the second turnover fired the crowd up and Harden got his hands on Kobe’s next shot that fell way short of the target. Then Harden made another layup and Kobe bricked a 3-pointer with 36 seconds left. Durant then gave the Thunder the lead with his floater over Pau Gasol, leaving LA with 18 seconds to try and reclaim the lead.

LeBron James is getting a lot of scrutiny for his recent fourth quarter struggles, but Kobe was no better down the stretch last night in Game 2.

But what will stand out the most after this game is the Lakers’ last possession. Everyone in the arena knew who Ron Artest would be looking for on the inbounds pass, and after Kobe’s last few possessions, there was a justifiable fear that he was going to somehow put the Lakers back on top in typical Kobe fashion. But the double screen they ran for Kobe didn’t work and Artest didn’t wait long enough for him to come off the flare screen. Why? Because Steve Blake was sitting wide open in the corner as Russell Westbrook momentarily forgot his defensive duties and moved further toward the paint where all the action was. Artest got the ball to a completely unguarded Blake, who bricked the wide open 3-pointer. Kobe couldn’t get the rebound, Thabo Sefolosha was fouled with one second left and the game was basically over. Kobe clapped his hands in disgust at not getting the chance to right the ship and make up for his mistakes down the stretch, but was Artest wrong for getting the ball to Blake? The answer to that question is absolutely not. Kobe had two defenders on him, Westbrook made a mental error and Blake was wide open. Blake was the dagger in Denver’s playoff hopes in the last series, so getting him a good look for the win wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Obviously Laker fans would have loved to see Kobe get the ball, but you should blame Mike Brown for not drawing up a better play to get Kobe open if that’s your main gripe.

The Lakers’ defense was a lot better, but a fair amount of that can be attributed to the Thunder’s poor shooting and terrible shot selection. Westbrook took too many shots (he went 5-for-17) and so did Serge Ibaka (4-for-11) while Los Angeles made sure its best players got all the looks (Kobe, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol took 55 of LA’s 78 shots). The Thunder will need to improve their shot selections and turnovers after committing 13 in Game 2, but other than that, they proved they can grind a game out when their perimeter shots aren’t falling, a real testament to Harden’s value driving to the basket. However, the Lakers are really running out of options. Bynum had 20 points and nine rebounds while Gasol had 14 points and 11 rebounds, so LA’s bigs were actually involved. The Lakers’ defense was fine and other than falling apart down the stretch, Kobe Bryant was fine too. But they haven’t been able to get anything out of their supporting cast. Blake missed a potential game-winner and had five points. Ron Artest went 2-for-10. Matt Barnes put up a goose egg. And Jordan Hill only had six. But the biggest disappointment has to be Ramon Sessions; Sessions was seen as the missing piece to the puzzle when the Lakers acquired him a few months ago, now he’s just a missing piece. Sessions put up two points last night and is averaging 2.7 points and 1.7 assists in his last three playoff games. Not what you want from your starting point guard. Kobe, Bynum and Gasol all have to step it up at home and be wary of how dangerous the Thunder can be at any time, especially in the fourth quarter. They also would really benefit from anything their supporting cast could provide, but at this point, all OKC needs to do to lock up this series is win one of the next two games at Staples Center.

Kevin Durant didn’t get many shots, but made the most of them and gave the Thunder a 2-0 lead.

Thunder Throttle Lakers In Game 1

The Oklahoma City Thunder unleashed their full offensive power on Los Angeles in Game 1 last night, throttling Kobe and the Lakers in a 119-90 victory that left no doubt OKC means business in the postseason in this growing rivalry matchup. The last time these two teams met, Ron Artest gave James Harden a concussion with a vicious elbow to the head that earned a seven game suspension. After tonight’s beatdown, there’s no doubt that the Thunder haven’t forgotten.

Russell Westbrook lit up the Lakers’ defense in the first half, finishing with 27 points, nine assists and seven rebounds while Kevin Durant came alive in the third quarter, scoring 13 points and leading the Thunder on a 15-2 that put them up by 29 points and left no hope of coming back for the weary Lakers. Durant finished with 25 points and eight rebounds while James Harden had 17 off the bench. Everyone came to play for the well-rested and clearly eager Thunder team in what quickly turned into a rout. Thabo Sefolosha had seven,  Serge Ibaka had six, Kendrick Perkins had four and the Thunder bench outscored LA’s by a huge margin, 50-26. Everyone contributed, with guys like Daequan Cook, Nazr Mohammed and Derek Fisher putting up a decent amount of points. The lead got to as many as 35 and it was such a complete blowout that the Thunder will able to rest their starters with a minute left in the third quarter and complete backups like Cole Aldrich and Royal Ivey got to play significant minutes in the fourth.

The Lakers had no answer for Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant and got smoked in Game 1.

For the Lakers, nothing went right. Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum led LA with 20 points each, Ron Artest had 12 and Pau Gasol chipped in 10. Unfortunately, Kobe went 7-for-18 and even though the Lakers out-rebounded the Thunder 43-41, they committed 15 turnovers while the Thunder only had four. The Lakers looked exhausted by the time the second quarter came around and the Thunder were relentless in knocking down jumpers. OKC shot 53 percent from the field on the night. But what should have been just a bad game got even worse when Lakers’ sub Devin Ebanks was involved in a tussle late in the fourth quarter and was ejected. As Ebanks walked to the locker room, he struck a chair on the bench and took his shirt off in a disgraceful manner reminiscent of Andrew Bynum in the playoffs last year. Ebanks’ actions seemed to be a slight reflection of what the entire Lakers team was feeling after getting thoroughly pounded in Game 1. Even though it’s just one game, last night’s rout showed just how vulnerable LA is and how deadly the Thunder can be, especially when they’re knocking down shots.

For OKC, they really don’t have many areas to improve, although an injury to Kendrick Perkins might raise some concern. Perkins left the game after a dunk that left him gingerly limping down the court. Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Perkins could have returned but he’ll be reevaluated today just to be safe. But that was really the only negative of the night and considering how well Nick Collison played on the defensive end against LA’s inconsistent bigs, the Thunder don’t have much to worry about at this point. For Los Angeles, there have to be a lot of major improvements for Game 2. Kobe has to play lights out. Bynum and Gasol can’t disappear and have to have big games. Ron Artest has to keep knocking down outside shots and find a way to limit Kevin Durant. Steve Blake has to be useful like he was in the first round, which will require him to take more than one shot. But most importantly, Ramon Sessions has got to show up. Sessions has been a complete no-show for the Lakers this entire postseason. What happened to the guy that was supposed to be the missing piece to the puzzle? Sessions has been non-existent on offense and even worse on defense. It’s a tough job to try and stop guys like Ty Lawson and Russell Westbrook every night, but LA has been getting abused by quick point guards so far and Sessions and Blake are the direct cause of that. Mike Brown has got to find a way to emphasize the defense he is so well known for and the Lakers have got to completely regroup for another tough Game 2. But if the Thunder shoot like they did in Game 1, this series could very well be over in four or five games.

James Harden got a little revenge out of the Game 1 rout, but the Thunder aren’t just looking for one convincing victory.

Second Round Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder Vs. Los Angeles Lakers

In what will be the most competitive second round series of the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be taking on the Los Angeles Lakers as this growing rivalry continues to gain steam. Although Los Angeles has definitely shown that it can play with just about anybody when Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol show up, the Thunder should be big favorites to win this series in convincing fashion.

Los Angeles is coming fresh off a hard-fought Game 7 against the Denver Nuggets that reinvigorated life into Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest. The game revived Gasol, Bynum and Steve Blake’s confidence as Kobe Bryant looked primarily to facilitate. A confident Laker team is a dangerous one, but Denver provided a blueprint for the Oklahoma City Thunder on how to beat LA: If Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins can play physical and aggressive defense against Bynum and Gasol, they will disappear again and the Lakers will be left with just Kobe to fend off the offensively proficient Thunder. Kevin Durant started shooting the ball better at the end of the first round and Russell Westbrook played consistently well throughout the series. Just like the Nuggets, the Thunder will also have an advantage at the point guard position, as Westbrook will be able to use his speed to get by Ramon Sessions and Blake. The only difference is that Westbrook can actually finish better than Ty Lawson at the basket, meaning the Lakers will really have their work cut out for them to stop a speedy point guard’s penetration. Meanwhile, Durant is a much better scorer than Artest faced in Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller, so he’ll have his work cut out for him on the defensive end. You can expect Durant and Westbrook to get their 20-30 points per game, but the X-factor, as always, will be James Harden.

Aside from wanting to win a championship, the Thunder need little more motivation to beat LA than this image right here.

When Artest elbowed Harden in the head in their last meeting, the Lakers were able to come back from a double-digit deficit at home because Harden was not on the floor. Harden has been the glue that holds the Thunder together and the voice of reason that attacks the basket when Durant and Westbrook start jacking up too many jump shots, evidenced by his complete takeover of Game 4 against the Mavs. Harden also has emerged as a quality defender and has been able to slow Kobe down a little bit in their previous meetings. But even if Harden didn’t have such a significant impact coming off the bench for OKC, the concussion he sustained at the hands of Artest would still serve as the galvanizing force that motivates this dangerous team to hit the Lakers with everything they’ve got. Oklahoma City is a tightly-knit unit and you can be guaranteed they wanted to play the Lakers just to have this chance for revenge.

The Thunder should be big favorites to win this series. Ibaka and Perkins shut down Dirk Nowitzki in a convincing sweep of the defending champion Mavs in the first round and should be able to limit Bynum and Gasol to some degree, especially if they lose motivation again. Steve Blake proved to be a dagger in Denver’s playoff hopes, but I seriously doubt he will continue to play at such a high level, especially against a more talented team like the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook should be able to put up their regular numbers and the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year will do damage off the bench. But most importantly, OKC has a real reason to come out and squash LA because of Artest’s ridiculous elbow to James Harden and his ignorant comments about not apologizing or shaking his hand just a few days ago. Durant, Westbrook and Harden should come out incredibly focused and look to make a statement after being eager with anticipation to get back on the court. You combine all of that with Oklahoma City’s home-court advantage and you’re looking at pretty difficult odds for the Lakers. If LA struggled with a physical and quick team like the Denver Nuggets, they’re going to really have problems against a team with a similar DNA that has even more talent. The only concern is that OKC’s time off might result in them being rusty for an important, tone-setting Game 1, but something tells me the Thunder will rise above it and play as the superior team that they are.

Prediction: Oklahoma City over Los Angeles in 6 games

Ron Artest helped the Lakers win Game 7, but no one can shut Kevin Durant down for a whole series.

Lakers Win Game 7, Advance

Some credit goes to George Karl and the resilient Denver Nuggets for pushing their series with the Los Angeles Lakers to a seventh game after trailing 3-1, but more credit goes to Kobe Bryant and the rest of his supporting cast after outlasting the Nuggets in Game 7 with a 96-87 victory. Pau Gasol had a breakout performance with 23 points, 17 rebounds, six assists and four blocks, Andrew Bynum responded as well with 16 points, 18 rebounds and six blocks, and even Steve Blake had a monster game with 19 points after knocking down five 3-pointers, but it was Kobe Bryant that moved the Lakers into the second round.

How, you ask? He completely deferred to his teammates. After a two-day stretch of speculation and talk about how pathetic Kobe’s supporting cast had become, Bryant allowed his teammates to prove everyone wrong by passing the ball. So even though his 17-point, 8-assist performance doesn’t look impressive on paper, it was his continued commitment to giving up the ball that allowed his teammates to excel. Yes, Kobe-haters, I understand your reluctance to praise a guy for simply passing the ball to talented teammates. But with the way this series was going, it had turned into Denver vs. Kobe, and Kobe wasn’t going to win that battle. So he deserves credit for getting in his teammates’ ear and then allowing them to display their heart and commitment to winning a championship. That being said, Ron Artest’s return (I’m still not referring to him as “Metta World Peace) made a big difference on both ends of the floor. Without Artest, I’m not convinced the Lakers win Game 7. Artest made the invaluable contribution of shutting Danilo Gallinari down, who finished with only three points on 1-of-9 shooting. He also guarded Andre Miller, who had a similarly frustrating offensive night with three points on 1-of-10 shooting. But Artest’s impact didn’t stop there, as he knocked down four 3-pointers and ended up with 15 points in his first game back.

Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Steve Blake and Ron Artest all got the chance to shine thanks to Kobe Bryant being a team player in Game 7.

For Denver, it was yet another disappointing first round loss. Al Harrington had a breakout game with 24 points off the bench, while Ty Lawson also put up 24 in addition to six assists and five rebounds. Arron Afflalo pitched in 15 points, but other than that, Denver’s offense struggled despite balanced distribution. Gallinari and Miller were taken out of the game by Artest. Kenneth Faried had just six points to go with his 10 rebounds. McGee finished with six points as well, but grabbed 14 boards. The Lakers outplayed the Nuggets in every way necessary to get the series win in Game 7: they cut down on turnovers, they scored inside the paint and they had 14 blocks and 10 steals compared to Denver’s nine rejections and five steals. But the biggest factor was 3-point shooting. Los Angeles hit 11 3-pointers and shot just under 46 percent from downtown while Denver made seven and hit less than 27 percent of their 3-point attempts. Gasol and Bynum’s resurgent performances definitely hurt, but Blake and Artest knocking down shots from the outside gave them little chance to pull off the upset. However, the Nuggets have a very bright future with, especially if they have room to resign JaVale McGee, who had a breakout series despite falling short in Game 7. They have young and talented players like Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried and experience veterans that give them depth and defense. Look for Denver to be a tough playoff team next year if they can bring everybody back.

Looking ahead, Denver probably matched up better with the Thunder because of their depth and clever defensive strategies. The Lakers’ struggles against the Nuggets provided a blueprint for how to beat LA and you can be sure OKC made note of it. If Gasol and Bynum disappear in the second round like they did in the first, the Thunder’s overall talent will completely overwhelm the Lakers, especially considering that OKC has home-court advantage and a real reason to come out strong against LA after Artest gave James Harden a concussion just a few weeks ago. Unless Kobe, Bynum and Gasol all have a stellar series, the Thunder could run away with this one.

Ty Lawson and the young Denver Nuggets played a valiant series and have a promising future despite the disappointing loss.