Monday, March 26, 2012
Biggest storylines in the NBA
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
The Thunder beat the Heat by 16.
Kobe got benched. Vinny Del Negro is still on the hot seat in Clipperland. We break down the latest developments in the NBA.
1. What's your main OKC takeaway from its win over the Heat?
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: That the schedule reawakened the Thunder at just the right time. The Lakers and Spurs have, for the most part, displayed some growth of late, while OKC has been underwhelming. Playing the Heat at home in a highlighted game got this team playing to its potential, and it reminded us all, and the Thunder, just how dangerous a team it is.
Brian Kamenetzky, ESPN Los Angeles: That the Thunder have a top gear that will be difficult for teams to keep up with on either side of the ball. Whether they can get there four times over seven games against elite competition in a Western Conference finals or Finals is hard to say, but if they can the rest of the league is in trouble.
Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: Kevin Durant is smart enough not to try to go it alone. On the grandest stage the Thunder have played on so far in 2012, he recorded a season high in assists. He's wise, this one.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: That the Thunder have five players who can take over the game at one end of the court or the other and beat you. Miami has its Big Three, especially when Chris Bosh plays to expectation. But Oklahoma City, based on Sunday's game, played with a Big Five, counting Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins beyond Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. At home, OKC can overwhelm you in waves.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: The Thunder match up in almost every way with the Heat, which is something not many teams can do. Kevin Durant can defend LeBron James; Thabo Sefolosha can guard Dwyane Wade; and Serge Ibaka can guard Chris Bosh. In Sunday's game, a lot of the explanations around why OKC dominated Miami centered around the Heat not looking energized or focused. But a lot of it certainly had to do with the fact that the Thunder had a better game plan, swarmed Miami defensively and matched the Heat star for star.
2. What's your main Miami takeaway from the game?
Gutierrez: It's almost a replay of last season's post-All-Star story. There remain kinks to work out, and the issues are showing up with enough time to address them before the postseason. You can expect LeBron James to force his way out of this current malaise. What that means for Dwyane Wade, who was clearly frustrated with the fourth-quarter offense Sunday, is TBD.
Kamenetzky: Miami's offense can still put a lot of pressure on its defense. LeBron James has fallen into a mini-slump, and an offense averaging over 101 points a game hasn't cracked 100 in five straight. The Heat are still explosive and present a brutal challenge for any defense, but they aren't any less top-heavy than they were last year and still lack credible scoring in the post.
Sunnergren: I'm somewhere between very worried and apoplectic about LeBron James' brain. Despite being too tough for concussions, he hasn't been the same player since his tumble against the Suns. Though we're still data-poor in this department, in Major League Baseball players performed substantially worse even 60 days after a concussion. Can the Heat afford to enter June with a below-average LeBron?
Wallace: That the Heat pulled this same sort of disappearing act during the regular season last year against Boston and Chicago, and it meant absolutely nothing when the playoffs arrived. Miami certainly showed some familiar warts in the loss to OKC (Bosh's inconsistency and LeBron's fourth-quarter passivity quickly come to mind), but the Heat are a team impossible to judge until the postseason. Still, check back with me after the April 4 return game in Miami.
Young: The Heat aren't anywhere close to good enough to sleepwalk to wins. It's an easy excuse for people to write off Oklahoma City's win because the Heat didn't look ready. But there's something to be said for folding when a team comes out far more physical and tougher than you. The Heat weren't ready for what the Thunder brought Sunday. Probably an isolated incident, but there's something to be said for being mentally and physically tough, two things the Heat weren't at all Sunday.
3. Was Brown's benching of Kobe Bryant a blip or a sign of larger issues?
Gutierrez: These kinds of issues are always a blip with Kobe. He's coming off a week in which he proclaimed his team a legitimate title contender, so no brief rift with his coach is going to deter him from pursuing ring No. 6. If there are any larger issues between the two, expect them to be addressed after the season.
Kamenetzky: Blip. Kobe did a great job taking all the air from the controversy balloon after the game, once again sticking up for Brown and telling the media he wasn't going to give them a story (literally). The adjustment for Kobe and the Lakers to Brown hasn't been seamless and there will continue to be bumps, but Bryant won't blow things up.
Sunnergren: A blip. I'm assuming Brown found one of Phil Jackson's pop-psychology books hanging around the coach's office at Staples, blew off the dust and decided to give it a whirl. Zen and the Art of Superstar Maintenance.
Wallace: It better be a blip, as in a temporary loss in common sense for the coach. Who does Mike Brown think he is? Phil Jackson? If the Lakers' front office is intent on internally self-destructing this team, Brown is doing a heck of a job as the front man ticking off his top players. No reason to cross Kobe right now. For the Lakers' sake, they better hope this one gets swept under the rug quickly.
Young: Probably a blip. But I think it's something to keep an eye on. We all like to make a lot of very little because the headline "Mike Brown benches Kobe" is definitely a pretty eye-catching thing. But coaches have the license to run a game the way they want, and Kobe is a mature enough player to handle it.
4. Do you expect Vinny Del Negro to finish the season with the Clippers?
Gutierrez: Yes, if only because there are no replacements on the current staff, or outside the team, who can fix this team with so little time before the playoffs. This could be one of those occasions in which the stars, namely Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, put the burden of improving on their backs rather than going the easier route and blaming the coach.
Kamenetzky: Yes, mostly because Donald Sterling lacks the giddy-up to replace him, whether because of misplaced affection for VDN, because Del Negro coaches cheap or because, all that notwithstanding, he doesn't want to pay a guy not to coach.
Sunnergren: No. The job of a head coach, and I don't think I'm going out on too far of a limb here, is to take the talent the GM has given him and coax as many victories out of it as possible. The Clippers aren't the brains of this business, but I think they're well acquainted enough with this principle to see that VDN has failed it.
Wallace: Yes, I see Del Negro staying for now. The Clippers are very much still in the hunt for a top-four seed in the West. It's almost like some have forgotten that this team was just put together this season. It was a bit much to expect an overnight championship-level sensation. Plus, there have been adversity and injuries. Marc Iavaroni is on staff if the Clips decide to dump Del Negro, but he's certainly no Mike Woodson based on track record.
Young: Yes, if only because there's not a good interim option. Marc Iavaroni would be more of the same, especially if Del Negro's butting heads with players, and Robert Pack doesn't have any kind of experience. And you're not going to see them install a new outside coach with just weeks before the playoffs. Del Negro's time is certainly short right now as the mayor of Lob City, but he's at least going to have a chance to see this through.
5. What game are you looking forward to most in the next week?
Gutierrez: A tie between Magic-Knicks on Wednesday and Thunder-Lakers on Thursday. The Knicks need to prove they can beat the top-tier East teams, especially at home, while the Magic are trying to separate themselves from teams such as New York and leap into the category with the Heat and Bulls. The Lakers, meanwhile, have an opportunity to support Kobe's claim that they're true title contenders.
Kamenetzky: Thunder at Lakers, Thursday night. The new-look Lakers get a test against the Western Conference's best team, and Derek Fisher makes his return to Staples in another uniform. Sounds like a full evening to me.
Sunnergren: I'll take OKC and the Lakers. Memphis loss notwithstanding, Kobe & Co. seem to be cresting with the addition of Ramon Sessions (and I expect Mr. Bryant will respond favorably to the benching), and the Thunder are just ... well, the Thunder. Western Conference finals preview. Write it down.
Wallace: I'm going with Oklahoma City's visit to L.A. to face the Lakers on Thursday. The storylines are extensive, from this being a potential showdown in the Western Conference finals to banished veteran guard Derek Fisher returning to face his former team. The Kevin Durant-Kobe Bryant angle makes this a marquee matchup -- that is, if Mike Brown hasn't somehow suspended Kobe for conduct detrimental to the team by then.
Young: It's Bulls-Thunder on Sunday. If the Heat-Thunder game was a potential Finals preview, this is just more of the same. Because unlike the Miami game, this one will actually feature the top team in each conference. That is assuming Derrick Rose is healthy. Because if not, while still an interesting game, John Lucas III head to head with Russell Westbrook doesn't have that same intrigue as Westbrook versus Rose.