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Are there really no twists in this plot?

Nearly eight weeks removed from their lone, 24-hour peek over the .500 threshold, and losers of five straight since last sporting as many wins as losses, the Lakers took the Staples Center floor Friday night desperate, desperate to put a tally in the left hand column of 2013’s ledger, desperate to the salvage something from this week’s run through the Western Conference, desperate to resuscitate a heretofore stillborn season for the ages.

Admittedly, an encounter with the OKC is hardly an elixir for what ails the depleted and downtrodden Lakers. The defending Western Conference champions – hardly averse to putting a thumping on Kobe & Co. – entered Friday’s tilt in need of a victory to maintain a share of the NBA’s best record with the Clippers (yep, we’re there), the league’s most devastating wing attack in tow.

And then, in a game that tipped off against the backdrop of inevitable defeat, for 12 magical minutes, Lakers succeeded in not only in keeping the Thunder within striking distance, but actually had the score level. Despite seven shot attempts (and just one make) by Metta in the game’s first seven minutes, the offensive styling’s of Kobe Bryant, Jordan Hill 2.0, err, Earl Clark and evolutionary-Jack-Haley-turned-starting-center Robert Sacre, the Lakers weathered an early Thunderstorm (I am SO sorry for that) and, thanks to an 11-0 run that took place with Kevin Durant on the bench, and entered the second quarter tied at 25.

Then, as I drafted the official charter for the Earl Jam Fan Club while Etch-a-Sketching Bobby Sacre’s corporeal mural, oddly secure in the misguided pregame belief that the confluence of SO many antagonists had merely set the stage for contrarianism’s latest triumph, the worm began to turn. And man, what a pirouette it was. That Kobe Bryant and Earl Clark combined to outscore Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the opening stanza (13-12) was soon a distant memory, as the Thunder blitzed the Lakers, hanging 39 in the second quarter to open up a 64-48 halftime lead, a lead they’d extend to 73-52 two and a half minutes into the third quarter (yep, that’s 48-27 in 14.5 post-first quarter minutes), and ultimately stretch to 27 points.

With Russell Westbrook at less than his devastating best for much of the night, it was tempting to envision a scenario in which the Lakers might cobble together a scrappy collective effort and steal perhaps their unlikeliest victory of the season. But then, y’know, Kevin Durant.

In 39 minutes, KD delivered a soul-crushing 42 points (on 16-of-25 shooting), with 8 rebounds, 5 assists. Upon scoring his 38th point, Durant had seen the floor for all of 21 minutes, and attempted just 20. From the beautiful three-point play in transition that signaled his intent for the evening, to his 16-pont barrage in the second quarter, to his 13-point effort in third, Kevin Durant was nothing short of sublime on Friday night.

Stop me if you read this on Twitter during the game (or don’t – you can read it twice), but to say that Durant torched the Lakers is to grossly overrate the destructive power of fire.

By the time the story of this game was written, nightmare scenarios – both micro and macro – had become the Lakers’ reality. An inspiring start fizzled into yet another dispirited defeat. Laying down the bassline for tonight’s symphony of disappointment were two men from whom a significant contribution was expected at both ends, Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison. Not only did the duo fail to extract maximum effort from Durant in exchange for his points, they turned up the volume scoring to earsplitting levels, connecting on just 13 of 35 shots (1-of-12 on 3’s) en route to 31 points.

ALL of that said…

On a night on which the Oklahoma City Thunder could have elected to sit out the fourth quarter and still only lost by eight points, the most depressing development came from the Lakers’ bench. Tests on the hip that’s already relegated Jordan Hill to spectator status revealed that the heart of Lakers’ second unit, the team’s hardest worker and spark plug, will require season-ending surgery.

I will not suggest that Hill’s presence would elevate, frankly, a subpar unit often devoid of grit and determination to the heights to which we aspired over the summer, but his absence all but ensures the Lakers’ absence from such heights. A team in a desperate need of youthful exuberance and a blue-collar work ethic had found its man in Jordan Hill, and Hill, a year ago deemed a lottery bust, had grabbed his lunch pail and embraced his role on this team. I wish Jordan the best on the upcoming surgery and a very speedy recovery. He will be missed.

There is more to be said about this Lakers season. It’s swirling around. I just can’t get a handle on it.

I leave you with this: in order to reach the presumably playoff-worthy 45-win threshold, the now-15-21 Lakers will need to finish the regular season a 30-16 run.

Welcome to our nightmare.

 

Records: Lakers: 40-23 (3rd in the West), Thunder: 46-17 (2nd in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 106.1 (11th in the NBA), Thunder: 109.8 (2nd in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 104.3 (13th in the NBA), Thunder: 102.9 (9th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha
Injuries: Lakers: none; Thunder: none

The Lakers Coming In: With 96 minutes of ball remaining in a breakneck regular season, and just one day between the end of Game 66 and the beginning of the postseason, veteran playoff-bound squads – particularly those with a nicked-up superstar – are likely engaging in some late-stage R&R. Not in Lakerland, where the Purple and Gold – full complement of talent now in tow – are hustling to get back up to speed while locked in a tooth-and-nail, cross-hallway battle for playoff position and a division title.

After a seven-game absence, Kobe Bryant and his presumably less sore shin returned to action on Friday night in San Antonio. After a slow start in which he made just two of six shots, Kobe found his footing, finishing 7-of-12 from the field for 18 points in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, much of the remainder of the starting five – be it Pau Gasol (4-10 FG, 11 points in 30 minutes), Andrew Bynum (TWO rebounds, just days after grabbing 30 against the same squad) or Ramon Sessions (5 points on 2-of-9 in 24 minutes) – fell well short of the standards they’d set in the Mamba’s absence. With Tim Duncan and Tony Parker scoring an efficient 41 and Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Daniel Green and Gary Neal connecting on 80% (8-of-10) of their 3-point attempts, I’m not sure any team has the bullets in its gun to down the Spurs, but at this time of year, there’s really no excuse for putting forth that lackluster an effort on the boards and offering so little resistance in the midst of a third quarter blitz.

Looking forward, the Lakers welcome to Staples an OKC squad that’s given them fits in both meetings this season – running the Lakers ragged in a 15-point home win on February 23, then overcoming a brutal start in L.A. on March 29 and riding Russ Westbrook’s 36 to a nine-point win on the Lakers’ home floor.

The Thunder Coming In: The Thunder enter Sunday’s showdown in a situation similar to that of Lakers, trailing San Antonio by one-half game for the West’s top spot. Though they’ve won four of five, OKC is hardly firing on all cylinders. Since April 1, they’ve not only failed (in five opportunities) to notch a victory against playoff-bound opposition, but have fallen short of the 100-mark on each occasion and only once connected on better than 45% of their field goal (45.2% v. Memphis on 4/2) and 32% of their 3-point attempts (46.2% on 4/11 v. Clippers).

Rightfully, all eyes with be on OKC’s dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but it’s the remainder of the roster, and their ability to neutralize the Lakers trio of stars. In the paint, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins (averaging 17 points, 19.5 rebounds and 5 blocks in the previous two meetings), with glue guy extraordinaire Nick Collison off the bench, will lock horns with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, whom they’ve “held” to a combined 37 points and 20 rebounds per game.

Meanwhile, in the backcourt, Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden will look to extend Kobe’s struggles against the Thunder. In the two previous meetings, Kobe has managed a combined 47 points on an awful 14-of-49 (28.6%) from the field, due in large part to the length and athleticism of OKC’s defenders.

Thunder Blogs: For the latest news and insight on the crew from OKC, check out the excellent work done by Daily Thunder and Welcome To Loud City.

Keys to the Game: Win the battle of the bigs. It’s tough to imagine Kobe hitting the floor in full facilitator mode, but he will do well to work off of his elite duo of seven-footers on the inside. Conversely, I’d look for the Thunder to pack the middle in an effort to entice not just Kobe, but all of the Lakers perimeter players (I am including Gasol here) to abandon the inside-out approach in favor of a jump-shot heavy approach. Be it via strong entry passes or dribble penetration, a top priority for the Lakers on Sunday will be to knife into the paint and take advantage of the defensive aggressiveness of the OKC bigs to earn frequent trips to the foul line and frequent, foul-induced trips to the bench for Perk and Ibaka (especially Ibaka, with whom on the floor, the Lakers’ offensive efficiency drops to just 86.7, compared with 108.6 without; great stat from Matt Moore, via Twitter).

Additionally, and thanks to Darius for his great input here, there are two areas of great importance. First, the Lakers’ ability to deal with Westbrook in the pick and roll will be vital. In the teams’ last match up, Russ was dialed in from mid-range, which, combined with the Lakers’ bigs (namely Bynum) sagging below the screens proved deadly. It will be interesting to see if the Lakers maintain this approach on Sunday, or tweak their scheme by having the bigs play the screen a bit more aggressively. This is not to say that the bigs will must hedge hard, but by playing a bit higher on the screen, Westbrook will have to deal with a defender – one prepared to contest the mid-range J – earlier, and perhaps be forced into more rushed decisions.

Finally, and every bit as importantly, the Lakers must get back in transition. It is vital that the Lakers effectively “build a wall” against Westbrook’s penetration, while also staying with the Thunder players filling the lanes. The keys here will be better floor balance and the perimeter guys prioritizing transition D over crashing the offensive glass. With Pau and Bynum – two of the best in the biz – already attacking the offensive boards, MWP and Matt Barnes will be far better served in working to limit OKC’s easy buckets by limiting run out opportunities.

Whether it ultimately results in a victory remains to be seen, but with the Clippers nipping at their heels, a possible second round matchup looming and third career scoring title in the balance (27.9 per game, v. Durant’s 27.8; yeah, you’re right, Kobe probably doesn’t care at all about that), look for Kobe and the Lakers to ratchet up the intensity on Sunday afternoon.

Where you can watch: 12:30 PM start time on ABC. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Records: Lakers 20-13 (5th in West), Thunder 26-7 (1st in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.3 (15th in NBA), Thunder 108.9 (2nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.7 (11th in NBA), Thunder 102.4 (14th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Thunder: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Daequan Cook
Injuries: Lakers: none; Thunder: Nick Collison (questionable), Thabo Sefolosha (out), Eric Maynor (out for the season)

The Lakers Coming In: As Darius pointed out yesterday, on the floor the Lakers have fared pretty well of late, and will be looking to kick off All Star Weekend with what would be their biggest victory of the season.

Not coincidentally, the bigs are in great form, with Andrew Bynum averaging 16.1 (on 56.3%), 13.9 rebounds, 2.3 blocked shots and just two personal fouls per game in February, while Pau Gasol has averaged 17.9 and 13.1, while connecting on 47% of his field goal attempts. Kobe continues to be Kobe, delivering roughly 26- 5- 4 this month, though he’s struggled with his shot, as evidenced by field goal and free throw percentages of just 40.6% and 79% (compared with his season averages of 43.9% and 82.5%, respectively). And the bench – deservedly much-maligned all season – has been not-atrocious (small victories, people), led by Matt Barnes (8.5 points, 5.8 rebounds in his last 8 games) and Steve Blake, who’s recorded 3+ assists in 6 of his last 7, the lone exception being his 5-triple, 17-point outburst against Portland Monday night.

However, as Darius also pointed out yesterday, the Lakers’ recent run of solid form is not the main story swirling around this team. If it’s not one with this team, it’s sure to be another. Between The Veto, the charitable contribution of Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks Repeat Fund, incessant Dwight chatter, Kobe’s divorce and Metta’s media squabbling with Mike Brown, there’s arguably been more to monitor off the floor with these guys than there has on it. And now we have the latest episode of The Adventures of Team Turmoil.

An ugly, remnant of December’s near-acquisition of Chris Paul (y’know, other than the lack of a point guard worthy of NBA starter status), the Lakers’ desire (or lack thereof) to part ways with Pau Gasol – and everyone’s thoughts on the matter –are the hot topic du jour. However, as speculation about the Lakers’ need (and preparedness) to make a major move have ramped up, a more troubling issue seems to be simmering just beneath the surface – the Lakers’ front office, once the NBA’s paragon of stability and leadership, has begun to more closely resemble Gob Bluth’s gaming ship, anchored to past greatness only by an increasingly embattled Mitch Kupchak.

We know for a fact that the Lakers are willing to surrender Pau Gasol in exchange for a young franchise cornerstone. We also know that Pau, one of the league’s top 15 players and arguably its most skilled big man, always the consummate professional, is at least slightly (I’d wager more) upset by this. Finally, Pau Gasol remains a Laker, and a damn good one at that. That’s about it.

Meanwhile, however, this episode has greased the tracks for Kobe, who – in both a show of support for Pau and a desire to maximize his chances at Ring #6 – has hinted at his growing frustration with the organization’s new regime. Since, we’ve gotten a “you do your job and let me do mine” rebuttal from Kupchak and a players-only meeting (usually good for a short-term boost), but nothing to suggest that calmer waters are imminent.

With all of that said, the Lakers have now won 6 of their last 8 outings (including 4 of the last 5), including wins over the Blazers and Mavericks in their last two, and at 20-13, sit a single game behind the greatest Clipper team ever for the West’s #3 seed. It’s conceivable (if not likely) that given the torrent of frustration and distraction that continually washes over this team, moments spent on the court are among their least stressful these days. With the All-Star break (and a few days to refuel) imminent, look for the Lakers, win or lose, to put forth maximum effort against the class of Western Conference.

The Thunder Coming In: I feel like there is an inordinate amount of chatter these days centered on the Thunder’s flaws and the “wide openness” of the West come playoff time.

It’s true. This is by no means a perfect team – they are turnover-prone (a league-high 15.9% of the time), mediocre on the boards (15th in Offensive Rebound Rate and 24th in Defensive Rebound Rate), lack a traditional low post scorer and have seen their second unit hamstrung by injury, but make no mistake, these guys are good. Really, really good.

For starters, only the Miami Heat are more efficient offensively (by one point/100 possessions) and boasts a higher True Shooting Percentage (57%, v. 56.9%) than the Thunder.

Next, and I feel like we are beginning to take this a bit for granted, OKC’s 1-2 punch is nothing short of devastating. In Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (or, in the interest of staying neutral, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant), OKC features a top-two duo that is an absolute nightmare for perimeter defenders, getting to the rim at will (11.8 attempts per game), finishing once they get there (66.1%) and delivering from distance (47.4% on long 2s; Durant is 36.7% from 3).

Once you’ve got your brain wrapped around that pair of potential 40-pointers, it’s time to deal with the NBA’s best bench player, (I cannot remember where I saw this comp – apologies to whomever I am stealing this from) this era’s Manu Ginobili, James Harden. In addition an extremely impressive stat line (16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, 47/37/86 from FG/3-pt/FT and 21.1 PER), Harden is the ultimate glue guy, as Royce Young describes:

It’s really hard to explain to people how important Harden is to the team. He’s not just a great sixth man. He’s like the mediator between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. What he provides is just so necessary to the flow of the team. It’s like he’s a pressure-release valve so that Durant and Westbrook don’t have to do everything. He scores, passes and operates a terrific two-man game with Nick Collison. He plays well with Durant and Westbrook and plays really well running the Thunder’s second unit by himself. It’s hard to say he’s more valuable than Durant or Westbrook, but it’s closer than you think.

And finally, while OKC does not rank among the NBA’s elite at the defensive end, the shortcomings of a susceptible perimeter defense (27.4 FGA at the rim – 2nd worst in the NBA) are masked effectively by Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and (when healthy) Nick Collison, a last line of defense that effectively defends the rim (7th lowest FG% allowed at the rim; #1 Block Rate) and does not give away points at the free throw line (a league-average .215 FT Rate allowed).

Flawed? Yes. But warts and all, this is the best team in the West.

Thunder Blogs: Daily Thunder consistently cranks out some really excellent work (check out some of Royce Young’s thoughts on tonight’s matchup here), as does Welcome To Loud City on SB Nation.

Keys to the game: It’s impossible (well, maybe not impossible, but pretty tough) to predict what the Lakers’ roster will look like following the trade deadline. What we do know, however, is that Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are here now, while Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Gilbert Arenas are not. All BS aside, let’s see where this Laker team is at. For all of the gaping holes on the roster and turmoil surrounding this team, the Lakers have managed to win more than 60% of their games thus far and remain well-positioned to finish in the top half of the West playoff picture.

OKC represents a brutal matchup for, well, anyone. While it would be silly to expect Thursday night to deviate much from that script, there are a couple of factors that could play out in the Lakers favor.

First and foremost, the Lakers must rely on their interior defense and rebounding, particularly at the offensive end, to control the tempo of the game (at 93.8 possessions per game, OKC plays at the third-highest pace in the league; at 89.9, the Lakers are 21st) and keep the West’s most potent offensive attack under control. This entails keeping Gasol and Bynum, both of whom are rebounding at an elite level and are playing excellent defensive ball this season, out of harm’s way, with harm in this represented by OKC’s pair of whistle-drawing projectiles.

To this end, the perimeter D will be called upon to challenge OKC’s perimeter scorers. In addition to providing the clamored-for offensive spark that too-often has been missing, this is an area in which the Laker bench, namely Matt Barnes (and, though not a bench player, MWP), must provide value. If MWP still possesses any of the elite defensive skill he exhibited in the 2010 playoffs against Durant, this would be an opportune time to conjure it up. Another defensive matchup that could loom large is Barnes on Westbrook, as RW’s speed, power and perpetual motion are too much for Kobe to deal with while also trying to offset OKC’s firepower at the offensive end, and Derek Fisher and Steve Blake… HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!

Sorry. Moving on…

Provided the Lakers are able to keep Bynum and Gasol on the floor for big minutes, the massive duo in the middle will be vital to the team’s success on the offensive end as well. Bynum has a decided size advantage over any front line defense the Thunder can put forth, and the Lakers will do well to feed the beast in an attempt to control tempo, collect some easy buckets and use the aggressiveness of OKC’s bigs (particularly Ibaka) against them to lure them into foul trouble. This become double important with Nick Collison banged up – he will be limited by a biceps injury if he plays at all, as with AS break looming, and no worse than 26-8 in the bank, this may be a good opportunity to get him an extended period of rest.

In spite of all that’s gone (and continues to go) wrong, the Lakers still rank among the NBA’s better teams. These trying times, rather than tearing the team apart, appear to be having something of a galvanizing effect on this crew. Even so, it is admittedly a tall order ask any team to roll into OKC and down the Thunder. However, I would not put it past this frustrating, but talent, but oh so exasperatingly frustrating team to notch a signature road wins against a legitimately elite opponent when no one expects them to do so.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TNT and KCAL.