NBA Free Agency Update – July 16

For the latest news and analysis on all the action of NBA free agency over the last few days, check out my article via Reup Sports. Today’s post includes Jeremy Lin heading to Houston, Phoenix picking up Luis Scola, the ongoing battle for Nicolas Batum and more!

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.

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.

Nuggets Obliterate Lakers In Game 6

Ty Lawson and the Denver Nuggets wasted no time in showing the Lakers they meant business in Game 6, which quickly turned into a complete rout of an ill Kobe Bryant and the complacent Los Angeles Lakers. After starting the game on a 13-0 run, the Nuggets never looked back, taking care of business at home with a 113-96 victory and forcing a decisive Game 7 back in LA on Saturday.

Lawson led the Nuggets with 32 points, six assists and five rebounds, shooting 5-of-6 from downtown. Kenneth Faried had 15 points and 12 rebounds, Corey Brewer had 18 points off the bench, Danilo Gallinari finished with 12 points and seven rebounds and Andre Miller backed up his terrific Game 5 performance with a 12-point effort in Game 6. And although Arron Afflalo only had six points and JaVale McGee only had two, Timofey Mozgov not only continued his excellent defense on Andrew Bynum, but he even pitched in eight points as well. It was as close to a perfect effort as Denver can conjure up, but that’s the way it looked at the end of Game 5 too. For the Lakers, the only player really worth mentioning was Kobe Bryant, who scored 31 points while playing with a stomach virus (Quick side note: Do NOT compare this game to Michael Jordan’s Flu Game. This was against the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs and his team lost by about 20. MJ’s legendary performance was in the NBA Finals against Stockton and Malone and his team won thanks to that incredible performance. The two aren’t even remotely close). Ramon Sessions was LA’s second leading scorer with 14 points. Andrew Bynum had another underwhelming night with 11 points and 16 rebounds while Pau Gasol disappeared completely with just three points and three rebounds on 1-of-10 shooting.

Ty Lawson started out hot and put the Lakers away early. If the Nuggets have another fast start in LA, the Lakers could be in trouble.

At the start of the playoffs, I predicted Denver would give Los Angeles all they could handle, but I picked the Lakers to win the series in six games. I said the Lakers’ size would overwhelm the Nuggets’ bigs and that stopping Kobe, Bynum and Gasol over the course of a seven game series would be too much for the balanced Nuggets. It seems as though I (and everyone else in the NBA analyst department) underestimated just how effective Denver’s depth and frontcourt defense could be; despite dropping the first two games, the Nuggets have roared back in this series and now carry all the momentum and confidence into Game 7. The Lakers will benefit from having a rocking Staples Center trying to rouse them out of their apparent apathy (everyone except Kobe, that is). They will also be getting Ron Artest back after missing the last seven games (for his ludicrous elbow on Sixth Man of the Year James Harden). But after the effort we’ve seen from this Los Angeles squad in the past few games and because Artest will likely be rusty, it’s hard to pick against the Denver Nuggets.

Kobe is the only guy in purple and yellow who looks like he wants it. Bynum has allowed himself to be taken out of the series and instead of reasserting himself with a dominant performance, he’s completely faded out of the picture. Credit Mozgov, Faried and McGee for their aggressive and physical defense on him, but Bynum was the best active center in the league coming into the playoffs, and his effort and performance since dropping a triple double in Game 1 has been absolutely disappointing. But as bad as Bynum has been, Pau Gasol has been completely appalling. Game 6 will be the one that truly reveals how absent Gasol has been, but the truth is, he hasn’t had an impact on a single game in this series. Gasol is the Lakers’ third most important player and without him scoring, the Nuggets can focus all their attention on shutting Bynum down. Gasol has phased himself out, missing easy shots and being pushed around by Denver’s motivated post players. Unless Gasol and Bynum completely turn things around in Game 7, the Lakers will become just the ninth team in NBA history to lose a series after leading 3-1. Now I’m not fully predicting Denver will win Game 7 on the road against the uber-competitive Kobe Bryant. Kobe has time to rest up and prepare for an elimination game, and you know he’ll be doing everything he can to motivate his teammates, which will make them dangerous in front of their home crowd. No doubt, the Nuggets still have their work cut out for them. But as lethal as Kobe can be, this series may be out of his control if his teammates fail to show up again. And do you know who the last team was to lose a series after leading 3-1? The Los Angeles Lakers.

Kobe Bryant has done all he can do in this series, but his teammates don’t seem to share his motivation.