James Harden Traded to Rockets

James Harden was one of the most important offseason players to keep an eye on, and it seems the Thunder decided to part ways with their trademark beard and a key member of OKC’s championship-contending team. Yahoo Sports broke the story, reporting that Harden declined a $55 million extension to stay with the Thunder. At that point, Thunder management immediately decided to ship him to Houston in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and future draft picks. The Rockets will also receive Cole Aldrich, Lazar Haywood and Daequan Cook.

Harden’s success last season off the bench earned him the Sixth Man of the Year Award and his trademark beard made him a fan favorite in Oklahoma City. After playing in the Olympics, Harden expressed interest in re-signing with the Thunder and staying with his “brothers” Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in OKC. These sentiments were echoed by Thunder management as well, but those notions were put in serious doubt when they signed Serge Ibaka for a four-year, $48 million deal, coming dangerously close to luxury tax territory. Once Harden declined their offer, the Thunder immediately pulled the trigger in making a trade with the Rockets. The offered deal is reported as being worth four years and $55 million, compared to the $60 million over four years he will get in Houston.

Apparently the difference was too much for Harden, who will now have an incredibly giant task in front of him in Houston, playing for a Rockets squad that will need a lot of offensive production out of him. Kevin Martin and Houston coach Kevin McHale had clashed a few times last season, making Martin’s departure a healthy breakup for both sides, but the Thunder certainly didn’t get better with this trade. While Martin can score and Jeremy Lamb has a lot of upside, there’s no replacing the team chemistry and sixth man role that James Harden brought to the team, beard or not. He fit in perfectly with Durant and Westbrook off the bench because he didn’t have a lot of pressure on him (until the Finals, where he struggled).

However, the Thunder did the right thing in offering such a back-breaking amount. Harden will be the one held responsible for breaking up such a dynamic trio after they made it to the Finals just last year. This decision is not only questionable, it’s downright senseless. Harden thrived in a sixth man role off the bench, not a starting role where he was expected to do all the heavy lifting on offense. And considering the lackluster season Martin had last year, the Thunder didn’t benefit from this trade either, at least in the short-term. They lost an instrumental part of the team whose presence was appreciated by fans and teammates alike, which hurts OKC’s chances of seriously contending for a title this year.

It’s important to point out however, that the Thunder might have something up their sleeve next year, and their future still looks bright. Harden and Martin’s contracts both expire at the end of this season, meaning they would both be free agents. If they let Martin go, they might have enough cap space to bring in a big piece to join Durant and Westbrook. And since they got two first-round picks and one second-round pick, the Thunder will be able to bring in solid talent in upcoming drafts. But regardless of future plans, Harden breaking up a core that took a team to the Finals last year just seems heartless and foolish right now. He will soon learn it’s better to be a contributing member on a championship team than the big fish in a little pond.

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NBA Finals Game 5 Preview

After a furious second half rally that won Game 1 at home, the Oklahoma City Thunder were flying high and had a 1-0 lead on the series. Three games later, they’re fighting to keep their championship hopes alive by becoming the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. Miami took Game 2 on the road after a questionable no-call at the end of the game before proceeding to defend home-court in two straight games. Because of the pesky 2-3-2 Finals format (which gives WAY too much advantage to the away team, by the way), the Heat have the prime opportunity to end the Thunder’s impressive season and give LeBron James his first Larry O’Brien trophy on Miami’s own floor. Obviously, Oklahoma City doesn’t want that to happen, but history isn’t exactly on their side since the previous 30 teams to attempt such a monumental comeback in a series have all failed.

Heading into Game 5 in Miami, with the Heat having a chance to close out the NBA Finals at home, do the Thunder really stand a chance? They’ve lost three in a row now and don’t look like the same team that came back from a 2-0 deficit against the Spurs to win the West. No team has EVER won the NBA Finals after trailing 3-1, and since the Finals format was changed to the 2-3-2 format in 1985, no team has even extended the series to Game 7. Oklahoma City has come back from two games down before in these playoffs, but this time they’ll have to win an elimination game in Miami, where the Heat are now 10-2 during the playoffs this year. Then they would have to go back to Oklahoma City and face the team that has physically outmatched them, the only team that has beaten the Thunder in Chesapeake Arena. And they’d have to do that twice. The odds are certainly not in the Thunder’s favor, but if OKC somehow does get the win in Game 5 on the road, I don’t know any Miami fan that will be comfortable with the series shifting back to Oklahoma City, where the Thunder have only lost one game in the postseason. For the Thunder, James Harden absolutely has to show up. The Thunder have been so terrific throughout the playoffs up until now because they’ve had a third scorer to back up Durant and Westbrook, but they haven’t enjoyed that luxury in the Finals so far. Harden’s been completely absent in this series after thrilling spectators all year long with his 3-point shooting, relentless attacks to the basket and of course, the beard. But so far, Harden’s shied away from the spotlight on the big stage and the Thunder have been losing games. That’s got to change for Oklahoma City to take Game 5 on the road.

If James Harden’s struggles continue, the Thunder are done. But if Harden can pick up his game again and make an impact on offense, they will send the series back to Oklahoma City for Game 6.

But the improvements don’t stop there. Westbrook has to hit shots like he did in Game 4’s memorable performance, and although no one can expect another legendary performance like this, he needs to consistently hit shots. Kevin Durant needs to take over in the second half like his did in Games 1 and 2. Believe it or not, 29 points isn’t good enough for Durant. He needs to completely dominate from beyond the 3-point line and in the paint. Superstars need to step up in the playoffs, and an elimination game makes that need even greater. Durant can’t just have a great game; he needs to drop 35-40 points and have a phenomenal game. The Oklahoma City Thunder need to execute down the stretch, as they’ve been outplayed in the fourth quarter for the second game in a row. They need to make 3-point shots, as they’ve shot 21 of 77 (about 27 percent) from downtown in the series. They need to force referees to blow their whistles by attacking the basket. And if Harden continues to falter in the spotlight, the Thunder need a third scorer to step up like Mario Chalmers did tonight. Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha have been extremely quiet the last few games. They were huge pieces of the equation that bested the Spurs in six games, but have done very little to slow down Miami’s prolific scorers or counter them with points of their own. The Thunder have had problems keeping two big men on the floor at a time in the series because Erik Spoelstra has smartly kept a small lineup on the floor. This has forced Scott Brooks to do the same, taking away Oklahoma City’s advantage of Ibaka and Perkins in the paint against lackluster scorers like Udonis Haslem and the other centers that now occupy Miami’s bench. But even though the Thunder have a lot to improve on, closing out a team like OKC won’t be easy for the Heat. The Thunder are young, athletic, resilient and now their backs are up against the wall. The last thing Miami wants is for this series to shift back to Oklahoma City, because even though no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the Finals, if there ever was such a team, I’ve gotta think it would be the Thunder.

For the Heat, they are one game away from the crown. LeBron is so close to winning his first ring and clearly isn’t playing nervous like he did in last year’s Finals. Every game has been close in this series so far, so there’s no room for shrinking from the moment, which has been LeBron’s defining characteristic in Miami until this postseason. LeBron has to continue to play his dominant style of basketball, Wade needs to show up once again, and Miami’s perimeter shooters, who have traded great games up until this point, need to show up for just one more. All Miami really has to do is keeping the same ball they’ve played in the last three games. Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole have all been big for the Heat in a few games by knocking down perimeter shots and spreading Oklahoma City’s defense even thiner than before. With Chris Bosh not getting back into the full swing of the game yet, the Heat need that third scorer to complement LeBron and Dwyane Wade, which is something Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook haven’t been getting out of James Harden. If Miami can have a third member to back up their two superstars in the scoring column, the Thunder are in trouble unless Harden harnesses the power of that magic beard again. LeBron has been magnificent in this series and Wade has rightful deferred to him in the biggest moments of games, but now they’ll need him to be extraordinary one more time. I’m assuming that despite going down in Game 4 with leg cramps, he’ll be back on the floor and at 100 percent for the biggest game of his career, meaning he’ll need another concentrated effort. Getting wins is one thing, closing out a talented and desperate team to win a championship is another thing. If he is able to do it, LeBron will silence a lot of haters and rightfully win his first ring. But if he doesn’t, and if the Heat drop Game 5 at home, they will have missed out on a prime opportunity to go for the kill and open the door of conversation for doubters predicting that the Thunder might be capable of such a momentous comeback. And to be honest, if the Heat don’t win Game 5, I might be one of them. Despite dropping Game 2 at home, the Thunder are still 10-1 at home and you have to think if OKC somehow sends this thing back home, they will be greeted by a delirious crowd that will believe those last two wins are possible. The Heat need to end this series and not even mess around with the inevitable “LeBron and the Heat are going to choke in the Finals again” or “Oklahoma City might be able to pull this thing off!” conversations. The Heat have put themselves in fantastic position, but there can be no room for error if they want to avoid risking the biggest collapse in NBA Finals history.

LeBron is one game away from his first title. If ever there were a time to prove everyone wrong and be clutch, it’ll be Game 5.

Westbrook’s Memorable Night Ends In Defeat, Miami Takes 3-1 Finals Lead

Russell Westbrook kept his team in Game 4 with an array of impossible layups and deadly accurate mid-range jumpers. He was on his way to a truly transcendent performance with 43 points on 20-of-32 shooting to go along with seven rebounds and five assists. In fact, it was one of the most impressive games in NBA Finals history, and it put the Thunder in position to tie the series at 2-2. But in one moment, it was permanently stained by one mental error that ended up costing Oklahoma City the win, giving Miami a 3-1 series advantage in a 104-98 victory.

With the Heat up by three with 17 seconds to play and five seconds on the shot clock, James Harden and Udonis Haslem tied up and faced off for a jump ball. Harden surprisingly won the tip, but Shane Battier got his hand on it over Kevin Durant and tipped it to Mario Chalmers. In that moment, the Heat had less than five seconds to shoot, but Westbrook was unaware of the situation and made the bonehead play of the game by fouling Chalmers. Chalmers went to the line, sank two free throws and put the game completely out of reach. The free throws capped off a terrific game for Chalmers, who finished with 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting, in addition to tainting Westbrook’s legendary performance, which was wasted in the disappointing defeat that puts the Thunder in a nearly impossible position.

Westbrook had a fantastic Game 4, but it wasn’t enough for the Thunder to get the win, especially after a late-game mistake sealed the win for Miami and gave them a 3-1 series lead.

However, Westbrook shouldn’t bear the burden of the game because of that one mistake. Westbrook carried the Thunder down the stretch, scoring 13 straight points for OKC at one point in the fourth quarter. Rather, the majority of the blame should fall on James Harden, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year. But with the way Harden has played in the Finals, you would never have known who he was. Blame it on the pressure, blame it on off shooting nights, or blame it on the beard losing its power. But whatever the case, Harden has been completely absent for the Thunder, which is a huge reason they aren’t winning ballgames. Yes, Miami is a tough place to play and yes, LeBron James has been terrific in the Finals. But there’s no way the series wouldn’t be tied at 2-2 if Harden had shown up to play for even one complete game so far in the Finals. Westbrook broke 40, Durant had 28, but the third member of OKC’s big three registered just eight points on 2-of-10 shooting in addition to 10 rebounds. Westbrook’s foul was a horrible mistake that proved to be a memorable turning point that decided the game, but Harden missed a wide open layup that would have given OKC its first lead in an extended period of time. That missed layup lead to a Chalmers layup that gave Miami the lead and momentum right back. In addition to Harden, the rest of the Thunder’s role players failed to show up as well. Serge Ibaka, after running his mouth about LeBron James’ defensive skills, only put up four points and seven rebounds. Kendrick Perkins also only had four points. Sefolosha scored five. And Nick Collison, who came in and played extremely well early with Ibaka in foul trouble, didn’t see the floor much after that despite dropping six points and a few rebounds in a few minutes.

Once again, the referees were another big factor in the game. I hate to blame the outcome of games on the refs, but the league needs to take a serious look at the quality of officiating, especially during the playoffs. Despite Westbrook driving and attacking the basket like a man possessed, he only got to the line three times. The Thunder took only 16 free throws compared to Miami’s 25. Don’t get me wrong, blaming the entire outcome of a game on poor officiating is a definite cop-out. But when every 50-50 call goes Miami’s way and when the foul difference in this series is so great, it’s hard not to question the integrity of the officials. In the third quarter, numerous questionable calls sent the Heat to the line and kept them in the game. There were numerous reasons OKC lost Game 4, but if you write off the refereeing as a valid one, you don’t know basketball as well as you think you do.

Mario Chalmers had a huge impact  thanks to Norris Cole’s immediate presence off the bench.

Refereeing aside, credit is due to the Heat for quickly battling back from a big double-digit deficit in the first quarter. When the Thunder jumped out to a 17-point lead in the first, it looked like Miami was in for a rough night. But thanks to rookie Norris Cole, OKC’s run stopped and the wheels were set in motion for a big performance from someone the Heat hadn’t gotten much out of in quite some time. Cole hit a 3-pointer to end the first and cut Oklahoma City’s lead to 14 heading into the second. Chalmers, who was pulled before that after starting 0-for-3, watched on the bench as Cole nailed another three to start the second quarter, putting his totals at eight points in less than four minutes. There’s no question this did not motivate Chalmers to step up his game, and from then on, he had a huge impact on the outcome of the game by knocking down monumental 3-pointers and deflating shots from all over the floor that kept Miami in the game. With Chalmers knocking down shots, the Heat went on a run and rapidly erased OKC’s double digit lead to pull within three at halftime. After a 33-point quarter filled with defensive stops and fast break points, the Thunder’s offense went stagnant and couldn’t get out in transition with Miami’s perimeter shooters sinking threes. OKC only had 16 points in the second quarter, which once again showed the Thunder’s tendency to have one bad quarter in a game that hurts their chances of winning. LeBron was terrific and was one rebound shy of a triple double with 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, and Wade had another quality game with 25, but the Thunder lost this game as much as the Heat won it.

After the teams exchanged blows in the third quarter (there were nine lead changes in a four-minute span), the Heat jumped out to a four-point lead heading into the fourth. The Thunder had many opportunities to seize momentum, but couldn’t capitalize like they’ve consistently done up until the Finals. Harden missed the wide open layup. Derek Fisher then took an ill-advised layup with the score knotted at 90 that was blocked by Wade when he had wide open shooters sitting in the corners. That block led to a LeBron bank shot that gave Miami a two-point lead, despite the fact that he went down the play before and was limping from then on. LeBron struggled with cramps and was taken out after that shot and was being tended to on the bench. The Thunder went on a 4-0 run and took the lead with LeBron out, but once he returned, OKC was outscored 12-4 the rest of the way. Despite the fact that he was limping around and would eventually leave the game for good, LeBron hit a monumental three to put Miami up 97-94 with less than three minutes to play and gave Miami all the momentum they needed to finish, even with him off the floor. Why Sefolosha gave the limping LeBron so much room with four seconds on the shot clock, I’ll never know, but Chalmers finished the game off with free throws despite a few Westbrook buckets that kept OKC on life support. And just like that, the Thunder put themselves in the historically uncomfortable position of a 3-1 Finals deficit; no team had ever come back from that position to win the Finals. Which is exactly what the young Thunder now need to do if they want to shock the world and win Oklahoma City its first NBA championship.

LeBron James left the game with cramps but should be fine for Game 5, meaning the Thunder’s impossible task ahead won’t be any easier.

Thunder Grab Control, Take Game 5 In San Antonio

The home team has dominated in the Western Conference Finals this year, leaving a lot of doubt as to whether or not the Oklahoma City Thunder had any chance of advancing with two of the series’ final three games in San Antonio. After Kevin Durant and James Harden willed their team to victory on the road in a 106-103 win in Game 5, that might be all but assured.

Durant led Oklahoma City with 27 points, Harden chipped in 20 off the bench and the Thunder withstood a furious rally from Manu Ginobili and the Spurs to take a 3-2 lead with the series shifting back to OKC for an elimination Game 6. The Thunder have now won three straight and will look to close out San Antonio at home, where they are 6-0 in the postseason so far. Ginobil led the Spurs with 34 points, seven assists and six rebounds and he and Tony Parker went on a tear in the second half, but the Thunder will able to cling to a narrow lead after a 13-point advantage dwindled to just two with 50 seconds to play. Parker had 20 but was once again corralled all night by Thabo Sefolosha’s tremendous defense. However, Ginobili’s insertion into the starting lineup for Daniel Green almost proved to be deadly for the Thunder, as the Spurs’ sixth man was nearly unstoppable all night, drilling five 3-pointers and willing his team back into the game in the third and fourth quarters.

Manu Ginobili was masterful, but it wasn’t enough for the Spurs.

Despite foul trouble for Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and James Harden early on, the Thunder build up a 14-point lead in the first half. Daequan Cook had valuable minutes off the bench with Sefolosha and Harden in foul trouble, knocking down all three of his shots to score eight points in just four minutes of play. However, Ginobili and company stormed back, by minimizing their turnovers during a critical stretch to cut it to eight right before halftime. San Antonio continued their run into the third quarter, taking advantage of sloppy offense and numerous turnovers from the Thunder to take a four-point lead after Ginobili hit back-to-back threes. Unfortunately for San Antonio, just like in Game 4’s masterful performance, Kevin Durant saved his best for the second half, once again warming up in the third and taking control to put his team further ahead. Durant had only five points on 1-of-6 shooting in the first half, but helped his team weather the storm and eventually a 15-4 run overcame a stretch where Ginobili scored 13 of San Antonio’s 15 points. Good defense and a solid shooting stretch from Russell Westbrook (including this mammoth alley-oop) characterized the critical third quarter run, which was capped off by a Durant buzzer-beater that extended OKC’s lead to nine heading into the fourth quarter.

Now the Thunder had built up a nine point lead on the road heading into the fourth before; in Game 1, Oklahoma City was in the exact same situation before allowing Parker and the Spurs to storm back and steal the series opener. And although San Antonio threatened to do the same in Game 5, Harden’s brilliant fourth quarter performance prevented a full on collapse and gave the Thunder the pivotal victory on the road. Harden scored 12 of his 20 points in the fourth, draining three 3-pointers. These included a four-point play that extended the Thunder’s lead to 13 with five minutes to play and the shot of the game, a long-range bomb and dagger three that was the definition of clutch, putting the Thunder up five with 28 seconds to play and effectively sealing the win. But Westbrook turnovers and OKC’s sometimes annoying tendency to not put the ball in the hands of the NBA’s leading scorer resurfaced as the Spurs made a last-ditch effort to comeback. Westbrook had 23 points, 12 assists and big bucket down the stretch to give OKC a four-point advantage when the Spurs looked like they were about to take over, but he also had six turnovers and didn’t get the ball to Durant down the stretch. Some of the blame should lie with Scott Brooks, but the Thunder will need to do a better job of getting the ball to their clutch closer in tight games in the future if they want to advance and win an NBA championship.

Westbrook has struggled with poor shooting and turnovers so far. Will it matter in Game 6?

After Harden’s critical 3-pointer, Ginobili was able to score a quick layup before the Spurs set up a half court press. Another coaching error was committed by Brooks, who should have called a timeout to draw up an inbounds play. Instead, Durant was trapped and threw the ball to Sefolosha, who lost it out of bounds because of great pressure from Kawhi Leonard, giving the Spurs a chance to hit a 3-pointer with 15 seconds to go. Unfortunately for San Antonio, Ginobili couldn’t hit the one that mattered and Durant iced the game with two free throws before Stephen Jackson knocked down a last-second three that didn’t matter.

With Game 6 in Oklahoma City, the Spurs playoff hopes are steadily dwindling. The Thunder have now won three straight and are undefeated at home in the playoffs this year. Switching Sefolosha onto Parker has made a huge difference in the series and the Thunder’s role players have learned how to step up and contribute. In fact, the depth that was one of the Spurs’ greatest assets has begun to fade as Oklahoma City’s bench outscored San Antonio’s 40-22. Without Parker creating havoc in the lane and the Spurs’ bench knocking down threes, Gregg Popovich has had to rely fully on Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to carry the load. Ginobili and Duncan (18 points and 12 rebounds) had great games last night, but it wasn’t enough to overcome OKC’s balanced play combined with great games from their big three of Durant, Harden and Westbrook. Now the Spurs face elimination in a hostile road environment, and history isn’t on their side. The last time the Spurs went up 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals, they lost four straight to fall to the Los Angeles Lakers in six. With a youthful and championship-hungry team led by such a high-caliber superstar in Kevin Durant standing in the way, the aging Spurs have little chance now. The Thunder need to finish them off at home (because they certainly don’t want to mess around and let this go to a Game 7 in San Antonio), but I think they will understand the gravity of winning Game 6 at home and my prediction that OKC would advance in six games is looking like it’ll be right on the money.

Since Kevin Durant wasn’t getting looks, James Harden stepped up as OKC’s clutch player for the night, giving them control of the series.

Spurs Rally In Fourth To Take Game 1

It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t convincing, but Manu Ginobili and the Spurs edged Oklahoma City in a 101-98 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. San Antonio extended their winning streak to 19 and took a 1-0 lead on the series, but the Thunder played uncharacteristically lackluster down the stretch and still ended up within one basket of what could have been a crucial road victory to start the series.

Ginobili led the Spurs with 26 points off the bench, hitting big baskets down the stretch to help San Antonio come back from a nine point deficit to start the fourth quarter. Tim Duncan finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds while Tony Parker had 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists. The Thunder were outscored 39-27 in the game’s final period after allowing just 62 points through three quarters. Gary Neal pitched in 12 points and Stephen Jackson, who ended up with only five points, hit a back-breaking 3-pointer down the stretch to stop the rolling Thunder from stealing Game 1 on the road. But despite getting the victory in the series opener, I still like OKC in this series. In a highly competitive game in San Antonio, the Thunder only lost by three points after Ginobili played out of his mind and James Harden and Russell Westbrook had awful performances. The likelihood of all three of these things happening at once in a single game again is extremely little. Harden, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, was completely outplayed by Ginobili, who shot 9-of-14 from the field and played an outstanding game. Not that Ginobili isn’t capable of doing so again, but Harden won’t shoot 7-of-17 again (two 3-pointers came him garbage time) while committing four turnovers and five fouls. Russell Westbrook was even worse, finishing with 17 points on an appalling 7-of-21 shooting. That shouldn’t happen again. Tony Parker is a solid defender, but Westbrook has nowhere to go but up after such a disappointing Game 1 performance.

Manu Ginobili led the Spurs with a huge performance off the bench.

The series opener between these two high-octane teams revealed a few things to keep an eye on in the next few games. First of all, role players will be a deciding factor throughout this series. James Harden failed to make an impact until the game’s waning seconds, which the Thunder cannot afford to happen in Game 2. On the plus side though, Derek Fisher made a huge and unexpected impact with 13 points off the bench. For the Spurs, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal also made an impact off the bench, but Stephen Jackson’s defense swayed momentum in San Antonio’s favor. Meanwhile, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka all failed to have significant impacts on the offensive end. The big three on each team is the biggest factor, but how the role players perform on each side will make the difference. Another key factor will be how each team performs down the stretch. Last night, the Spurs got the best of the Thunder in the fourth quarter, which is entirely uncharacteristic of how the Thunder have played so far in the postseason. Defense another key point of impact in this series; the Thunder held the Spurs to just 62 points after three quarters but San Antonio still ended up getting to 100 points. For Oklahoma City, or any team with a nine-point lead entering the final quarter of a huge Game 1, getting outscored like that to lose this very winnable game is completely unacceptable.

Despite the fact that the Spurs pulled out the win, all of these factors lead me to believe that the Thunder will be just fine in this series. Barring that fourth quarter meltdown by the Thunder and Manu Ginobili’s prolific night, Oklahoma City was in good position to win on the road. However, they still have Game 2 to improve and steal a game on the road before the series shits back to OKC. All the Thunder really need to improve is getting more out of Westbrook and Harden, playing defense for a full four quarters, and hoping that Ginobili doesn’t have such an incredible performance again. I think that all three of these things are entirely possible and the Spurs’ Game 1 victory doesn’t fully impress me just yet. Credit San Antonio for taking care of business at home, but if the Thunder can sneak in a win in Game 2, this series is still completely wide open. We could be looking at a long series and despite the fact that neither team played particularly well in the series opener, the Thunder have more upside after this loss than the Spurs despite playing so poorly.

I still like the Thunder in this series, but James Harden and Russell Westbrook will need to pick it up offensively.

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.