Los Angeles Lakers: Kevin Durant

Lakers defense faces another tough test

March, 8, 2014
Mar 8
2:53
PM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – After giving up a whopping 408 points in their last three games – the most ever allowed over a three-game span in franchise history -- the Los Angeles Lakers will welcome the league’s leading scorer in Kevin Durant to Staples Center on Sunday.

It will be the first of four straight games against the top two teams in the Western Conference – two against the Oklahoma City Thunder, followed by two against the San Antonio Spurs.

[+] EnlargeDurant
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Durant is averaging 37 points while shooting a perfect 20-for-20 from the foul line in two games against the Lakers this season.
“Tough times, tough schedule,” said Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni on Saturday after the team held a brief shootaround in preparation for an early 12:30 game against the Thunder the following day that will seem even earlier because of daylight savings time.

The challenge come tipoff will be trying to keep Durant, who is averaging a career-high 31.8 points, from shooting the lights out. In two games against the Lakers this season, Durant is averaging 37 points while shooting a perfect 20-for-20 from the foul line.

“I don’t think anybody has ever figured that out,” D’Antoni said when asked how the Lakers could stop the seventh-year forward. “You just try to contain him. You try not to foul him. If you do that, then you’re in for a long night. Try to make him make hard 2s, contested 2s. If he makes 15 or 20 of them, then you live with it. But you can’t take away everything, or you’ll give him everything.”

Then there’s Russell Westbrook, seven games back from a knee injury, averaging 21 points on 50 percent from the field and 48.4 percent from 3-point range in that span.

“He’s an element that’s hard to handle, and he’s playing extremely well, especially shooting the basketball,” D’Antoni said. “That’s something that’s scary to think that with all that athleticism, now he’s starting to shoot the ball well. That’s scary.”

Westbrook had 19 points and 12 assists when the Thunder beat the Lakers in Oklahoma City in December, 122-97. Westbrook missed the next game in February, but the Thunder still won, albeit in a closer contest, 107-103.

The Lakers will have to protect the paint against the rim-running Westbrook if they hope to have a chance. Pau Gasol (sore left ankle) is probable after going through shootaround Saturday. If Gasol can’t go, the team will likely look to second-year center Robert Sacre.

Despite the Lakers’ struggles as a team their last three game, D’Antoni gave credit to Sacre for his improvement.

“Those are the little victories that we have to have,” D’Antoni said of Sacre, who is averaging 8.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in 17.5 minutes in four games this month. “We have to develop guys to get better to be able to go forward with what the franchise wants to do in the future. Those are other goals that we have, without losing. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

They’re also trying to correct their defense which has been virtually nonexistent of late.

(Read full post)

Rapid Reaction: Thunder 122, Lakers 97

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
8:18
PM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kobe Bryant was pass-first. He was a facilitator, a creator. The Mamba channeled Magic out there against the Oklahoma City Thunder, owners of some magic of their own at Chesapeake Energy Arena with a perfect 10-0 home record coming into Friday night.

But as much Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni ended up being right for preaching confidence in Bryant's point guard abilities, it was another statement he made before tipoff that rang even more true.

"We spend 90 percent of the time talking about offense when our problem is defense and our problem is toughness and that's where we got to get to," D'Antoni said. "Sometimes we don't play hard enough and if we get that, you know what? The other stuff works out. It's amazing how it works out."

Yes, Bryant racked up double-digit assists (falling two shy of his career high with 13 in 23 minutes) and filled in at point guard for the Lakers' point guard-less roster, but L.A. provided about as much resistance as a porcelain plate against the Thunder's raucous offense.

Oklahoma City put it on L.A. with 122 total points, marking the third time this season the Lakers (who scored 97 of their own) have given up 120 points or more, with 50 of those Thunder points coming in the lane after D'Antoni specifically started Jordan Hill alongside Pau Gasol to try to curb that paint production.

It's going to take a lot more than Bryant collecting dimes to get the Lakers through this trip.

How it happened: The Thunder led by 10 after the first quarter, 15 at halftime and 20 heading into the fourth. Then they pushed the lead to as many as 30 in the final frame. This wasn't a game, it was a mockery.

What it means: The Lakers are now 10-12 and look like a team at a crossroads. After taking so long to find some sort of identity they could lean on from game to game, injuries to Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar and the reintegration of the still-rusty Bryant back into the mix have this team in a tailspin.

Hits: Wesley Johnson returned to the starting lineup with a solid 13 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block and 1 assist.

Nick Young scored 17 points off the bench.

Gasol scored 14 points on 6-for-10 shooting in 23 minutes, sitting out the fourth because the game was out of hand.

Chris Kaman snapped a streak of nine straight DNPs by putting up nine points in the fourth quarter.

The Lakers scored a season-high 22 fast-break points.

Robert Sacre pulled down a career-high eight rebounds.

Xavier Henry attempted a career-high 16 free throws (but made only nine) en route to 15 points.

Ryan Kelly scored the first two-point basket of his young career.

Misses: The much-ballyhooed matchup of Bryant checking Russell Westbrook lasted all of one possession. Westbrook hit a 3-pointer the first time down the court for OKC with Bryant contesting and suddenly it was Bryant on Andre Roberson and Jodie Meeks sliding over to Westbrook the next time L.A. was on defense.

Kevin Durant scored 31 points in 31 minutes. Westbrook had 19 and 12 assists.

Bryant, who came into the game averaging 5.5 turnovers in his first two games back, had seven against the Thunder.

Meeks shot just 3-for-16.

Stat of the game: 0-3. That's the Lakers' record since Bryant's return.

Up next: L.A. plays in Charlotte on Saturday on the second night of a back-to-back set. The Lakers are 1-3 so far this season in the second game of these setups. They finish their four-game trip with another back-to-back Monday and Tuesday in Atlanta and Memphis.

At Drew, stars and aspiring stars square off

July, 16, 2013
7/16/13
11:32
AM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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There was a time when Mike Taylor was a bit of a phenomenon on the Los Angeles hoops scene.

Drafted by Portland in the second round in 2008 out of Iowa State, the 6-2, 165-pound guard was traded to the L.A. Clippers on draft night.

Taylor was overshadowed by fellow Clippers rookies Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan and was buried in the depth chart on a cluttered roster that was led by a rehabbing Baron Davis and a trio of big men -- Chris Kaman, Zach Randolph and Marcus Camby -- who could never seem to stay healthy at the same time.

But in late March of that forgotten Clippers season, Taylor caught lightning in a bottle. The Clips were on the tail end of a brutal late season six-game road trip. They had lost the first three games of the trip, and 11 of 13 overall, when they arrived at Madison Square Garden to play the New York Knicks. Taylor, who averaged 5.7 points his rookie season, exploded for 35 points on 14-for-20 shooting, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals. The Clippers won. The rook was rewarded with major minutes in the Clippers next game in San Antonio. He came through again with 23 points on 10-for-13 shooting.

Taylor averaged 29 points on 72.7 shooting in those two games, yet hasn’t played a game in the NBA since the end of that season.

Fast forward four years later. Taylor is on the court playing against a team that includes James Harden, DeMar DeRozan and Terrance Jones. It’s not the NBA, it’s a Sunday at the Drew League -- L.A.’s own summer pro-am league -- and Taylor is up to his old tricks, scoring the game’s first bucket and crowding Harden immediately after the ball fell through the hoop, unapologetically playing full court defense against a guy who outweighs him by about 60 pounds and who was both an All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist in the last calendar year.

“It’s professional basketball,” Taylor said after the game was over. His team, Kings of L.A., trailed team Money Gang by 16 at the half but battled all the way back, losing 103-100 when Taylor missed a desperation 3 at the buzzer.

Taylor finished with 30 points on 10-for-18 shooting, six rebounds, four assists and three steals. Two other players scored 30 -- Harden, who signed a five-year, $80 million deal with Houston last fall, had 35. Dorrell Wright, Taylor’s teammate, who signed a two-year, $6 million deal with Portland this summer, had 33. Taylor, who played in the Czech Republic last season and later with the L.A. D-Fenders, the Lakers’ D-League affiliate, is simply looking for a training camp invite where he can show what he can do against that competition the same way he does it in the Drew.

“We got high-level professionals out there,” Taylor said. “Even though it is kind of recreational, summer league basketball, when you have that caliber of players out there, it gets kind of serious.”

The Drew League in South Central L.A. is celebrating its 40th anniversary this season.

It’s serious and big time and mom-and-pop all at the same time. Some of the headliners who show up are the same names you’re likely to see participating in NBA All-Star weekend (and Nike has stepped up as a corporate sponsor), yet at the concession stand you can purchase a cup of homemade “Drew Aid” for just $1.50.

The games don’t matter nearly as much to the big-name players who run in them as an NBA regular-season game would, yet in a way, they matter more. Admission is free and many of the NBA stars that are regulars grew up in the area, so the stands are filled with family, friends and neighbors who usually only get to see them play games on TV.

For a guy like Taylor, it’s about proving something.

“It’s just being a competitor,” Taylor said. “I like to compete and from the very first jump, it doesn’t matter who’s out there. I’m going to give my 200 percent.”

For a guy like Harden, it’s about getting a good run in, not getting embarrassed and putting on a bit of a show in the process. While it seemed like Harden was coasting for much of Sunday’s game, he still ended up as the game’s high scorer and did most of his damage in the fourth quarter to make sure his team -- a star-studded collection of talent culled by the rapper The Game -- held on for the win.

For guys like Bobby Brown, Marcus Williams and Hassan Adams, who all had brief stints in the NBA at one point and played in the game that tipped off just before Harden and Taylor’s, it’s about pride. Their Drew League team, L.A. Unified, is consistently a top squad every summer.

For guys like Gilbert Arenas and Nick Young, who played on the same team even earlier in the day (Arenas scored 33, Young scored 31), it’s about continuing a brotherhood that started back when Arenas’ father coached Young’s AAU team and continued when they became teammates on the Washington Wizards.

(Read full post)

Kobe Bryant interview: The best of the rest

June, 4, 2013
6/04/13
11:16
AM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Kobe Bryant shuffled into a conference room on the second floor of the Los Angeles Lakers' practice facility Monday with crutches under his arm and special Nike "Medical Mambas" on his feet and sat down for a near 30-minute interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com.

The discussion included a wide range of topics, including Bryant's thoughts on his rehab, Dwight Howard and Phil Jackson comparing him to Michael Jordan that have already been covered on the site.

Here's the best of the rest:

On tearing his Achilles tendon against Golden State ...

"I haven’t watched it, but just being in the moment, I knew what happened. I knew that was it. I was done. Walking back to the bench, I tried to figure out where I could put pressure on my foot to try to minimize the pain and just try to get through the these last two minutes of the game. I tried walking on my heel and I felt like that was going to work, believe it or not, for a little bit and then it kind of just feels like the tendon in your Achilles is just rolling up your calf and I thought, ‘You know what? Probably not a good idea, but I got to shoot these two free throws.’ These last two minutes, whatever it is left, all this work that we’ve done to get to this point, I got to step up and knock these down."

On where those free throws rank with the best shots of his career ...

"I’d say in terms of a moment, it’s right up there at the top because of what we went through as a team -- all the injuries we went through as a team. For me, I just felt like, just go up there and make them. You can’t let your team down. If you’re going to shoot them, you better make sure you make them. That’s where my focus was. And my teammates, I don’t think any of them really knew how severe it was. I looked at Steve. I think Steve was the one who committed the foul and I just looked at him like, ‘Dude, that’s it. I’m done.’"

On the size of his hands compared to Jordan's ...

"Michael was blessed with massive hands and Dr. J (Julius Erving) as well and some of these other players. I wasn’t. I have big hands, but (Jordan and Erving) can literally pick up the ball like an orange, so I’ve had to do things to strengthen my hands, strengthen my forearms to make sure I have that grip to be able to do it. They obviously had the natural capabilities to do it. I had to work to get that strength to be able to do it."

On which young players he appreciates ...

"There’s a few of them. I really like KD (Kevin Durant) quite a lot and what he does and how he plays and how he works. There are several other young players I really enjoy, (Russell) Westbrook being another one and they just both happen to be on the same team. James Harden, who is now in Houston and Carmelo Anthony, obviously, we’ve had a long relationship. But, just as a whole, players who get injured and go down: David Lee -- I felt it was my responsibility to reach out to him and make sure that he was alright. Harrison Barnes, he’s like a little brother to me. There’s guys in the league that I definitely look out for and try to steer them in the right direction."

On Tim Duncan ...

"There’s all this competition about who does this generation belong to, in terms of Tim and myself, and I enjoy hearing those conversations. I think what he’s done, I think he’s a great example for kids who grow up playing the game and understanding and learning the fundamentals and the work ethic.

"This last summer he’s done things with his body in terms of monitoring his diet and changing up some of his training and he’s come back in phenomenal shape at a lower weight and you can see the results. As a competitor, that’s what you want to see. People get caught up a lot in the results and this, that and the other, but I really can appreciate from afar what players do to get to that level."

On his level of admiration for Gregg Popovich ...

"Huge. I don’t understand how he does it. Just year after year, getting guys to buy into the system and plugging in the supporting cast around Manu (Ginobili), Tony (Parker) and Tim just year after year after year. We’ve been saying the Spurs have been done for how long now? As a Laker fan, we thought we put the nail in the coffin back in ’08. Like, that was it, and they just keep coming back."

(Read full post)

Rapid Reaction: Thunder 122, Lakers 105

March, 5, 2013
3/05/13
9:42
PM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Before the game Tuesday night, Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said he believed his team had truly turned the corner and it had "stuck" for the previous 18 games, with L.A. winning 13 of them.

The second of those wins was against the Oklahoma City Thunder back in January, when the Lakers held OKC's potent offense to just 96 points. It was a needed win at the time.

But to do it again at Chesapeake Energy Arena, where the Thunder were 26-4, could really legitimize the run the Lakers have been on.

"You look at the schedule, you look at OKC, and I use it more as a measuring stick of where we need to go," D'Antoni said. "What we have to improve on."

They can start with protecting the basketball.

A game after coughing it up 21 times against Atlanta, leading to 29 points for the Hawks, the Lakers had 16 turnovers Tuesday against the Thunder that led to 22 points.

Shoring up their defense overall would help, too.

Despite Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard stating repeatedly that the Lakers would have to control the tempo and slow down the rolling Thunder in order to have a chance in the game, Oklahoma City scored 71 points in the first half en route to 122 for the game.

Even if the Lakers accomplish their goal of making the playoffs, they have a long ways to go to have a chance of knocking off a team such as the Thunder in a seven-game series. Here’s a quick overview of Tuesday’s tilt:

How it happened: Things looked mighty bleak in the early going, with Bryant going to the locker room with an ulnar nerve contusion in his right arm and Howard needing a timeout to attend to his sore right shoulder. All the while, the Thunder kept putting up points like the scoreboard was a pinball machine. The Lakers crawled their way back within five in the fourth, thanks to 10 points in the final period from Metta World Peace and Steve Nash's finding his stroke (finishing 7-for-15 for 20 points, after going just 1-for-7 in the first half).

What it means: The Lakers’ time at .500 was short lived, and they'll have to wait until at least Friday against Toronto to get back over .500 for the first time since Nov. 20. Meanwhile, L.A. still doesn't have an answer for Russell Westbrook (37 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) or Kevin Durant (26 points, nine rebounds, five assists, three steals, three blocks).

Hits: Bryant scored 30 points on 8-for-19 shooting, despite the right elbow injury. He hit three big 3s and helped keep L.A. within striking distance for most of the game.

Earl Clark (13 points, 11 rebounds) had another double-double, but his five first-half turnovers made D'Antoni start Antawn Jamison in the second half.

Misses: Howard fouled out with just six points on 1-for-7 shooting. (He did manage 16 rebounds.)

The Lakers were outscored 52-22 in points in the paint.

The Lakers' bench was outscored 39-20, with Derek Fisher pouring in 10 points on 3-for-4 shooting for the Thunder.

Stat of the game: The Thunder finished with just two turnovers, tying the NBA record for fewest turnovers in a game.

What's next: The Lakers play the second night of their road back-to-back in New Orleans on Wednesday. The Hornets are just 21-40 on the season, but they are full of young legs and had Tuesday off to rest in anticipation of L.A.’s visit.

Rapid Reaction: Lakers 105, Thunder 96

January, 27, 2013
1/27/13
3:23
PM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The restarted season actually seems to have worked this time.

After a winless preseason, coaching change and injuries galore, the Los Angeles Lakers' 2012-13 season finally has some momentum moving in the right direction.

The Lakers still have a lot of work to do at 19-25 to fully get back in the playoff picture, but if they play like this on a consistent basis and stay healthy, that shouldn't be a problem.

How it happened: Quite simply, the Lakers battled. They battled for rebounds (winning the boards 43-39). They battled on defense (holding the Thunder to 44.4 percent shooting overall and 25 percent from 3-point range). They battled all the questions and doubt that has surrounded them to put together their best game of the season.

What it means: If the Lakers stick to the game plan they've employed in their past two games against Utah and Oklahoma City -- digging in on defense and sharing the ball on offense -- playoffs, here they come. They still have a major challenge ahead of them -- taking their 5-15 road record on a seven-game road trip starting Wednesday -- but they have clearly found something that works and have the momentum they need to get some wins away from Staples Center.

Hits: Kobe Bryant (21 points, 14 assists, 9 rebounds) just missed a triple-double for the second straight game and matched his 14-assist total against Utah.

Six Lakers scored in double figures including Bryant, Metta World Peace (15 points), Steve Nash (17), Pau Gasol (16), Earl Clark (11) and even Antawn Jamison, who chipped in 12 points in 13 minutes.

Misses: Dwight Howard got saddled by five fouls and had trouble finding his rhythm, finishing just 3-for-7 from the field and 2-for-10 from the foul line for eight points to go along with 10 rebounds.

Stat of the night: Russell Westbrook shot just 6-for-22 from the field after starting the game 1-for-13.

What's next: The Lakers host the New Orleans Hornets on Tuesday and expect to get Steve Blake back in the lineup for the first time since Nov. 11 before they head out on the road.

Rapid Reaction: Thunder 116, Lakers 101

January, 11, 2013
1/11/13
10:18
PM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers came into this season thinking they did enough in the summer to retool from their second-round loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder that a run back to the championship was in store.

Well, then. To quote Paul Simon, those were the days of miracle and wonder.

If the Lakers weren't aware of just how bad things have gotten for them this season, Friday was as rude of an awakening as any.

How it happened: Just like when the Lakers lost in Oklahoma City on Dec. 7 when they were outscored 41-25 in the second quarter, it was an atrocious effort in the second quarter that did them in Friday. Oklahoma City outscored L.A. 39-23 in the second quarter this time around, going 16-for-23 from the field, and it was never a game after that.

What it means: The teams that earned the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference over the last five full NBA seasons averaged about 48 wins to get there. For the Lakers to hit that mark, they'd have to go 33-13 the rest of the way. The conference is slightly down at the bottom this year, so let's say they just need 45 wins to make the playoffs. That would require them to go 30-16. Consider 16 the Lakers' magic number for the rest of the season. Keep a tally on your wall. Write a note on your fridge. Once L.A. adds 16 more losses to its record, this season is over. And considering the Lakers have now lost six straight, that 16 could come a whole lot quicker than you would think.

Hits: Antawn Jamison had 19 points and 10 rebounds off the bench and Earl Clark had 10 points and 10 rebounds while getting the start after his breakout game in San Antonio.

Misses: The Thunder shot 50.6 percent from the field with the Lakers' defense having no answer for Kevin Durant (42 points on 16-for-25 shooting) or Russell Westbrook (27 points on 10-for-21 shooting with 10 assists).

Stat of the night: L.A. has allowed its opponent to score 100 points or more in nine out of the last 11 games.

What's next: The Lakers host the 9-29 Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday. If the Lakers lose that one we'll all have a new definition of what "rock bottom" truly means.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Lakers at Thunder: What to watch

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
9:22
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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When the Oklahoma City Thunder shocked the world by trading James Harden just days before the season opener, many wondered whether the franchise was prioritizing the bottom line ahead of winning. On and off the court, Harden's been a critical factor in the Thunder's steady rise since 2010, and his do-it-all skill set was often the grease for the dual engines of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Kevin Martin may be a talented scorer, but he's not the same player, and a shorter financial commitment doesn't change that. Clearly, OKC couldn't be written off without Harden, but last season's Western Conference champions appeared poised for a slow start while adjusting to a new dynamic.

That lull lasted precisely three games.

After a 1-2 start, the 15-4 Thunder have lost just two games. They're riding a six-game winning streak, and have put up 100-plus in 10 consecutive contests. Fourth quarters still present times when the reigning sixth man of the year might come in handy, but overall, OKC has moved forward in strong fashion. A game in Oklahoma City always represents a tough challenge, and this one doesn't figure to buck any trends.

For more perspective on OKC, I conducted an IM conversation with Royce Young, who covers the team for the True Hoop network's Daily Thunder blog. Below is the transcript.

Andy Kamenetzky: On the surface, it appears the post-Harden era has commenced without a hitch. Has it been that smooth?

Royce Young: Honestly, it has. I recently looked over the schedule and the only game I thought the Thunder probably would've won with Harden around was the opener against the Spurs. They clearly hadn't adjusted to not having him -- that was only about four days after the trade -- and they didn't close well. Otherwise, by pretty much any metric, not only are the Thunder winning, they're winning better this season. Bigger margin of victory. Better offensive efficiency. Better assist rate. Better defensive efficiency. I guess that's not all that difficult when Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are still on your team.

AK: We've seen Harden serve as an important bridge between Durant and Westbrook in the fourth quarter. How do they operate down the stretch of close games without him?

RY: Basically it's all Westbrook and Durant, all the time. Like you said, Harden was an extremely valuable late-game player. When "Bad Russell" was in the building and playing wild and reckless, the Thunder could just take the ball away from him and let Harden run point and create. And don't get me wrong. There's still a very real fear about crunch-time situations in the postseason. Kevin Martin has fit in extremely well, except during late-game situations. Serge Ibaka is a bit more involved, but it's mostly all Durant and Westbrook. So far, it's worked pretty well. But that doesn't mean it's a lock to work smoothly in May.

This is off the wall, but I'd love to hear your thoughts. In OKC recently, there's been a discussion over who's better: Serge Ibaka or Pau Gasol. Who would you rather have?

AK: Ibaka. He's got two good knees (to the best of my knowledge) which makes him more immediately valuable than Pau. He's also nearly 10 years younger, a huge plus for the long term. And while Ibaka may not be as versatile, he seems like an incredibly hard worker intent on improving weaknesses. (Witness the improved jumper.) Plus, he and Howard would form an absolute wrecking-crew defensive frontcourt. Pau certainly has a better understanding of the game, and is light-years ahead at running an offense. But were Sam Presti to offer a straight swap, I'd say yes in a heartbeat.

You mentioned Martin's snug fit with the second unit, but how has Eric Maynor performed since returning from injury? I thought his absence flew under the radar last season.

(Read full post)

How the James Harden trade affects the Lakers

October, 28, 2012
10/28/12
4:23
PM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Well, this was unexpected.

Not because I thought moving James Harden would be unfathomable for the Oklahoma City Thunder. I actually expected OKC to explore trade options if contract extension terms weren't agreed upon come Oct. 31.

I've heard people saying the Thunder should have just played out the season, then traded Harden in the offseason if need be, because you don't break up a young, ever-improving core fresh off a NBA Finals appearance. I understand that rationale but, at the same time, you don't want a potentially acrimonious situation hanging over the campaign -- and perhaps bleeding into the locker room and onto the court. I'm also a firm believer that if it's a foregone conclusion your star player will eventually be dealt, better to do it sooner than later. The haul is typically better -- Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and some draft picks ain't peanuts -- and you've cut off any drama at the knees.

Ultimately, I just thought "Team Harden" and Thunder GM Sam Presti would discover common ground. I was wrong. As to whether Harden would have been better served taking OKC's offer and remaining part of a perennial juggernaut or the Thunder bricked the negotiations, I'll reserve judgment until I see the inevitable extension from the Houston Rockets. Those particulars provide critical information and, in the meantime, what really matters in this neck of the woods is how this affects the Los Angeles Lakers.

In the long run, I'm guessing OKC didn't dramatically hurt itself. Martin can either be flipped for a more desired piece or becomes more than $12 million in cap relief, either of which allows the Thunder to keep building on a good thing. Lamb is a lottery pick guard who could slide into the role Harden once played. There's no such thing as too many draft picks, whether to fortify your own house or entice a trade partner. Plus, a trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, all in their early 20s, remains quite the enviable core. Even as a big admirer of what Harden brings to the table -- if he's not a true "max" player, he's certainly close -- I'm not convinced this will become an incontrovertible turning point in franchise history.

In the short run, however, it could weaken OKC during the 2013 season, particularly when it comes to matching up against the Lakers.

(Read full post)

PodKast: Paper champs, Cap's statue and theoretical turmoil

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
11:49
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Everyone else keeps talking about the Lakers. Why shouldn't we?

The show can be heard by clicking on the module and a list of talking points is below:



Play Download

- (1:30): Basketball players are often reticent to shower the opposition with more than generic or obligatory praise. Thus, eyebrows raised when Chris Bosh of the reigning champion Miami Heat recently declared the Lakers the best team "on paper." Interestingly enough, Academy Award front-runner Kevin Durant, whose OKC Thunder squad took out the Lakers en route to reaching the Finals, seconded that statement.

Is this a case of gamesmanship or self-motivation from Bosh and Durant or just a begrudgingly honest assessment? In a world made of paper, are the Lakers really the best team?

- (10:50): Seven years ago, I conducted a wide-ranging interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but forgot to seek a critical bit of clarification about his role in 'Airplane.' This brain cramp has eaten away at my soul ever since. Kinda like the way not having a statue in front of Staples Center seemed to have eaten away at Cap's soul. That honor is finally (and deservedly) a scheduled event, but it's fair to wonder if Kareem's previous complaints will put a damper on the impending ceremony.

- (20:16): The Lakers loaded their roster this offseason, but with those stars comes the fear of clashing egos. Factor in the Lakers' well-documented history with this problem, and it stands to reason the media is licking its chops in anticipation of an implosion.

Or not.

As part of its "Summer Forecast" series, 100 ESPN.com "experts" (quotation marks added since Brian and I are part of that panel) voted on which team would be most likely to experience turmoil this season. Not surprisingly, the Knicks led the pack with 41 votes. But in what might be considered a minor shock, the Lakers only received two votes. Whether that's because smooth sailing is expected or the talent on hand is simply immune to tension, the results caught BK by surprise.

(And speaking of surprises... Ramon Sessions: Team killer? It feels like one voter considered this a very real danger.

How the new Lakers might have helped

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
10:05
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
Aug. 23, otherwise known as "the day Kobe Bryant turned 34," recently came and went with NBA TV airing a slew of games featuring #24. Among those chosen was Lakers-Thunder, Game 4 of the 2012 Western Conference semifinals, the second of two games in that series marred by epic Lakers collapses down the stretch. (This odd way of celebrating The Mamba's birthday undoubtedly will serve to Kobe zealots as Example No. 1,374,810 of the world conspiring against him.)

This particular game saw the Lakers up nine points to begin the fourth quarter, 13 with 8:02 remaining, then back down to nine with half of the quarter to go. The bottom eventually fell out with a series of clumsy and/or empty possessions, capped by the mother of all unforced turnovers from Pau Gasol.


Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Westbrook shredded the Lakers as they fell apart down the stretch.


I was able to DVR only the final seven minutes of the loss, but during that time noted plenty of occasions where Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison and even Jodie Meeks could have contributed to possibly prevent a loss. In a general sense, all four could have improved the collective scoring punch.

Nash and Howard are among the best pick-and-roll players in the league, which could have provided cohesion desperately missing during this stretch. Beyond his proven resume at getting buckets, Jamison can create his own shot, a skill set in short supply last season. And while the odds of Meeks on the floor down the stretch are dicier, there were a few occasions where a credible outside shooter was glaringly absent.

More specifically, here are some possessions where Nash and Howard especially seemed capable of making a difference.

6:31: Russell Westbrook uses a screen to reach the right elbow, is met with a hesitant challenge from Andrew Bynum, then drains a jumper before Steve Blake recovers. Nash might not have defended the possession any better, but Westbrook took over this game down the stretch, in part because less energy is sapped checking Blake or Ramon Sessions than Nash. Granted, Westbrook's elbow J is often deadly, but who knows how much gas would have been left in the tank after guarding Nash all game? (LAL 92, OKC 85)

6:03: This point above is ironically demonstrated as Blake (of all people) takes the ball to the rim for a layup. Blake was able to take Westbrook off the dribble because the Lakers point went completely ignored on a backdoor baseline cut, then Russ got caught on his heels in scramble mode. For that matter, Blake's game-winning 3-ball attempt in Game 2 came after Westbrook fell asleep guarding him. Call me crazy, but I don't think he'd treat Nash with the same ambivalence. (LAL 94, OKC 85)

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The Forum: How good are the Lakers?

August, 28, 2012
8/28/12
10:41
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
After acquiring Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Jodie Meeks and re-signing Jordan Hill, how do the Lakers stack up against the rest of the league? We evaluate the matchups against the Thunder, Heat and the next tier of competition.

 

How the Lakers match up: Oklahoma City Thunder

August, 15, 2012
8/15/12
9:41
AM PT
Kamenetzky By Brian Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
On the off chance there was still any question after the 2010-11 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder proved unequivocally they'd passed the Lakers in the Western Conference pecking order. Whipped past, like Russell Westbrook on the break. Six more wins in the regular season (no small figure in a 66-game schedule, and bigger than the gap between L.A. as the W.C.'s third best team and Utah in the eight spot). Then came the playoffs, when OKC romped in five games.

Don't give me any of that "Yeah, but the Lakers could have won!" stuff, either. In the NBA, when a team beats another 4-1 over a seven-game series, it's better, and usually by a lot. Period.

Of course, that Lakers team didn't have Dwight Howard. Or Steve Nash. Or bench scoring in the form of Antawn Jamison. Needless to say, the Summer of Jitch (Jim and Mitch -- feel free to go with Miim if you'd like) has changed the conversation significantly. With that in mind, how do the new-look Lakers match up with other contenders around the NBA? In an effort to froth up some preseason debate, we're chatting up bloggers around the Association, starting in OKC with our man Royce Young, proprietor of the outstanding Daily Thunder:

Brian Kamenetzky, Land O’Lakers: So what was the reaction in Oklahoma City to the Dwight trade?

Royce Young, Daily Thunder: I'm not going to go all Kevin Durant and pretend it didn't catch my attention. Because it's huge. It's unavoidable to act like this doesn't shift the balance of power toward Los Angeles. The Thunder very likely had a fairly wide open road back to the Finals next season, but now there is a legitimate road block in the way. I wouldn't say it was complete fear. Oklahoma City didn't start shaking or anything. But it was definitely attention-grabbing. The Thunder are still very good, match up well and have weapons to combat what the Lakers have, but to try and ignore what L.A. has done is silly.

LOL: Yeah, he's very McKayla Moroney about it all. (Note: Joke stolen from J.A. Adande.)

RY: Jimmy Fallon asked KD and Harden about it Monday night and that was the exact thing they did.

LOL: I can see why they'd be annoyed. They're young, and don't want to look like they're concerned about anything other than themselves and their team. But how do you think Howard impacts the matchup? This is even before we get to Nash, and an improving bench for L.A.

RY: See, I thought the Nash signing was maybe a bigger deal, at least in terms of impacting the Thunder. Because nothing really changes too much for OKC. Kendrick Perkins was on the roster to defend Andrew Bynum and now he just moves to defending Dwight Howard. But Nash, he makes everybody more threatening. Pau Gasol is a fourth option, but with Nash running the controls, he's a monster, massive threat. Howard improves the Lakers defensively, no doubt. He makes them a little more versatile. But I don't think too much has changed in the way the Thunder will approach playing the Lakers. Not to say there's an advantage there now for L.A., but OKC won't have to adjust too much to match up.

Perkins has to be thankful, too. Mitch Kupchak just kept him relevant.

LOL: Mitch is a giver, there's no question.

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Potentially bad news for the Lakers, the Heat and maybe the entire NBA

June, 24, 2012
6/24/12
2:09
PM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
It's not the craziest of talk to suggest the recent Finals between the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City could be a preview of many championship matchups to come. Both teams are clearly the best in their divisions. Both feature a trio of stars in their primes or (in the case of the Thunder, scarily) a few years away. And both clearly carry the potential to get even better. Miami (and in particular, LeBron James) may now exhale with a championship, and the byplay between LBJ and Dwyane Wade can only improve. And there's reason to doubt OKC's steady evolution since 2010 will suddenly screech to a halt.

Not to say either team is bullet-proof. The Heat's supporting cast, the Finals notwithstanding, hasn't been a beacon of reliability, and the same can be said about Wade's health. And some have wondered whether the Thunder's core will ultimately fall apart over money. James Harden and Serge Ibaka are eligible for extensions this offseason, and both, particularly Harden, could command a pretty penny. Could the Thunder get priced out in their bid to build a powerhouse?

Well, based on the reports from Saturday's exit interviews over at Daily Thunder, the mood is optimistic. Royce Young has the details:

Extending Harden is probably the first order of business and by the way he spoke Saturday, it doesn’t seem to be a concern.

“I’m just leaving it up to my agent and Sam,” Harden said. “They’ll do a pretty good job of working it out. I’m focused on several other things right now. But when the time is [right], they’ll figure it out and it’ll be done.”

He did say he loves playing in Oklahoma City about 20 times, so that’s something. And also this: “This is something special here,” he said. “A dynasty is being built here. So we’re winning, we’re having fun and we’re brothers. The other stuff, you can’t buy it.”

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A purple and gold guide to rooting in the Finals

June, 12, 2012
6/12/12
1:41
PM PT
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive


For any Lakers fan, any NBA finals without the purple and gold is by definition a disappointing series. The Lakers are a franchise that openly cries "championship or bust," and that standard has been enthusiastically adopted by the faithful. Thus, being on the outside looking into a trophy chase always leaves a bitter taste.

However, this particular Finals may really stick in the Laker Nation's craw. The Miami Heat aren't just a super-team distastefully forged, and the Oklahoma City aren't just scary good, scary young and Western conference residents. They both feature foils to the supremacy of Kobe Bryant. LeBron James has long been viewed by Lakers fans as prematurely crowned "King" at Kobe's expense and Dwyane Wade has received favorable Mamba comparisons as well. (That Flash broke Bryant's nose/concussed him during a freakin' All-Star Game doesn't help, either.) In the meantime, Kevin Durant has already lapped Bryant as a scoring machine, but a title could make it impossible to argue, career achievement aside, he hasn't passed Bryant altogether. Thus, either teams basking in championship glory packs a potential double-whammy for Lakers fans.


AP Photo, Getty Images
Unless we're talking Smush, once Lakers, always Lakers, right?

Still, from a pure basketball perspective, this should be a massively entertaining series, and I'd hate to see Lakers fans sulk themselves out of any sense of enjoyment. The solution is to tab one team as the lesser of two evils, then root hard against the other. With that in mind, I'm here to help break some ties.

Pros to the Heat Winning

Ronny Turiaf and Pat Riley, ex-Lakers still held in good esteem amongst the fan base, will get their first and seventh rings respectively.

• Over the last few years, some have questioned James' drive, and whether he's more consumed by his game or brand. Granted, his improved outside shooting and post game have quieted that criticism to some degree. But for those unconvinced, perhaps the championship demons exorcised will result in complacency, along with opportunity knocking for a revamped Laker squad to capitalize.

• Whenever the Heat falter, the rumor mill kicks into overdrive with scenarios bringing Dwight Howard to South Beach. Obviously, all gossip must be treated with a grain of salt, but it stands to reason a title decreases the odds of Miami dealing for Superman, which keeps hope alive for an L.A. landing.

• Realistically speaking, the odds favor this bunch winning one title. I mean, let's just be honest. So if they are destined to break through, it might as well happen during an "asterisk" season, right? With any luck, that will be the only "Heatle" title, and their time together will carry as little gravitas as possible.

• For that matter, they Heat would also win without having to go through either Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard in the East. Let the discrediting process begin!

• Despite logging just 83 minutes in the regular season and (likely) none in the postseason, Eddy Curry will get a ring, making Kwame Brown the lone member of the Brown-Curry-Tyson Chandler "straight from high school into the 2001 NBA lottery" trio without a championship. And Laker fans never tire of jokes at Kwame's expense.

• The Heat knocked Boston out of the playoffs the last two seasons, which didn't just allow Lakers fans to rejoice, but also prevented the Pierce-KG-Allen Celts from tying or even besting the title count of the Kobe-Gasol Lakers. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the old saying goes.

• South Beach + June weather + championship parade = wall-to-wall eye candy. And this celebration will be televised. I'm just sayin'.

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SPONSORED HEADLINES

TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Nick Young
PTS AST STL MIN
17.9 1.5 0.7 28.3
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsP. Gasol 9.7
AssistsK. Marshall 8.8
StealsJ. Meeks 1.4
BlocksP. Gasol 1.5