1. Could Thunder Win Playoff Game In L.A.?
LOS ANGELES -- It doesn't matter that the Thunder have their best midpoint record since they moved to Oklahoma City (27-14) or that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have evolved into the top-scoring tandem in the NBA (50.8 points per game). The relevant number, the one inhibiting the franchise's growth, is 11.
It's the consecutive games in Los Angeles the Lakers have won in this series including last year's playoffs, a stretch that covers the Thunder's entire reincarnation since the move from Seattle. As it stands now, the Thunder will have to win in LA to emerge from the Western Conference, a road that took a step from dirt to concrete when the Lakers beat them 101-94 Monday night.
The Thunder sit in the third spot in the Western Conference standings, three games behind the No. 2 Lakers (31-12). Oklahoma City's progress is measured in attempts at self-confidence and some praise from the Lakers locker room, rather than results.
"We don't look at them as kids anymore," Lamar Odom said. "That team pushed us last year."
So far the Thunder have pushed but haven't toppled LA. It's because the Lakers have more options than the Thunder do. The Lakers can utilize their height advantage and pound away inside. They can rely on their superior half-court offense and move the ball to an open shooter. And they can always turn to Kobe Bryant.
You'd think the Thunder would simply counter with Kevin Durant. After all, Durant is the league's leading scorer at 28.5 points per. Except Durant isn't the answer against the Lakers.
He shot 35 percent in last season's playoffs against the Lakers and was held to 33 percent (8-for-24) Monday, with only eight of his 24 points coming in the second half. Ron Artest can bump Durant away from his favorite spots or poke and prod him into annoyance, and if Durant gets by Artest, there is plenty of help from the long arms of Pau Gasol. We don't think of the Lakers as a defensive nemesis, but they're turning into the Detroit Pistons to Durant's youngMichael Jordan. (This is all relative; Durant gets the Jordan role only in comparison to Greg Oden as Sam Bowie. Durant can't truly advance along the Jordan evolutionary path until the Thunder star turns in some legendary performances in road playoff games.) Westbrook is the one who keeps looking legendary against the Lakers. He sprinted into the lane for 32 points and 12 assists, although he missed two free throws and air-balled a 3-pointer in the final minute.
Westbrook's speed is really the only advantage the Thunder have against the Lakers. The Thunder converted 15 Lakers turnovers into 18 points and held a 16-5 advantage in fast-break points, thanks in large part to Russell.
Westbrook and Durant couldn't overcome the Lakers' balanced attack, which featured five players in double figures, with shots distributed throughout the starting lineup and top two reserves. The Thunder, the 25th-ranked 3-point shooting team in the league, even dropped below their standards by missing 20-of-22 behind the arc.
"We fought hard, we played hard, we just didn't close the game out," Durant said.
When it comes to explaining his team's inability to win on the purple-and-gold court in LA, Durant said, "I wish I could tell you. They're a tough team at home, like every team in this league is. Their fans bring them so much energy. I think we got some great looks tonight. We've got to continue to play hard."
Bryant didn't offer a solution either.
"We've just been able to finish games out here for whatever reason," he said. "But they played extremely well."
We've seen them do that before. It still resulted in a first-round playoff exit.
Based on the current West standings and their first meeting of 2011, only the timing is likely to change. This time, the second round.
2. Garnett Gives Boston That Certain Something
BOSTON -- Call him The Subtle Ticket.
In his first game back after a nine-game absence, Kevin Garnett didn't put up any gaudy offensive numbers (19 points on 7-of-13 shooting) and he didn't inspire the Boston Celtics to play the sort of lockdown defense we've come to expect when he's on the floor.
But Garnett did all the little things, the sort of stuff that blends harmlessly into the box score but might have made the difference in Monday's 109-106 win over the Orlando Magic.
Take Garnett's two assists, both passes that few big men in the league can make. The first was a beautiful lob to a cutting Ray Allen for a reverse layup in the opening moments of the game. The other came when he made an extra pass in the paint to Shaquille O'Neal for an old-school, rim-rocking dunk.
Then there were his two steals, the second of which was decidedly more noteworthy than the first. With Orlando seeking a tying basket, down three with less than 30 seconds to play, Ryan Anderson came down with an offensive rebound of a Hedo Turkoglu miss. Jameer Nelson ended up with the ball and, after catching Boston in a switch off the pick-and-roll, was looking to feed it back to the top of the key where Jason Richardson, one of Orlando's top 3-point threats, would have had a wide-open look.
If not for Garnett.
Despite basically being pinned behind Orlando's point guard, Garnett managed to reach out his long arms and bat down the pass as it left Nelson's hands. He then tracked down the loose ball and fed it ahead to the Celtics' Ray Allen, who drew the foul and made the free throws that sealed the game.
"I'm just trying to be active," Garnett said. "I just recall seeing the passing lane and the steal was there."
Garnett made the play sound so much simpler than it was. Across the hall in the visitors locker room, Nelson told reporters that Garnett, operating with five personal fouls, was probably the only player who could have swiped the pass the way he did.
To be sure, Garnett displayed rust from a near three-week absence. He turned the ball over four times and, after grabbing six first-quarter rebounds, hauled in only two more caroms the rest of the night. He looked gassed after his initial nine-minute shift.
But Garnett still found a way to leave his mark, even if it was just his typically bombastic voice, alternating between shouting out defensive assignments to barking at Brandon Bass and Turkoglu to screaming at the Boston bench to get his teammates pumped up in the second half.
"They all talk, but no one talks like Kevin," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He's the best talker in the league, when you're talking defense.
"It was clear tonight. I didn't think we had a great defensive night; I thought we were actually average. But it was clear the communication, especially those last four possessions, you could hear it. [Garnett] was calling their sets out. He's a defensive coach on the floor."
3. Daily Dime Live
Zach Harper, TrueHoop Network bloggers and fans gave their in-game opinions throughout Monday's daylong slate of NBA games in Daily Dime Live.
4. Extreme Behavior
Blake Griffin, Clippers: Whew. Nets NBA season's highest point total of 47 points with 19-for-24 field goal shooting in a 114-107 win over Indy. His 14 rebounds also gave him 33 double-doubles.
Scoreless point guards: Future HOFer Jason Kidd dished 13 assists for the Mavs, but missed all 7 shots (all 3-point attempts) in a loss to lowly Detroit. Jose Calderon also had 13 dimes for the Raptors, missing all five of his shots and committing 7 turnovers in New Orleans.
TWEET OF THE NIGHT
Warriors guard Stephen Curry, linking to an image of an enormous pasta dinner. Look out, "Man v. Food."
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"It's not a matter of it slipping away. It's a matter of [Blake] Griffin's performance taking it away."
-- Pacers coach Jim O'Brien, saluting the Clippers rookie's big night
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Dusting Off House
So after a recent surge in playing time over the past two games, it's no wonder House sounded more like he was emerging from retirement than simply coming off the bench for his first action in weeks.
"When you don't get to play the game, you miss the game," House said of falling out of the rotation in late November and not playing for most of December. "That was one of the things I was telling my family -- that I really missed the game, getting out there and competing. But what can you do? You just try to stay ready for when your number gets called."
While waiting, House assumed a new identity: Stay Ready Eddie.
"I just tried to keep my mind right, keep my wind right," House said. "When I got practice time, that became more like my game time. I had to stay in it mentally, stay into the game every game. That's pretty much it. Just stay with your regular routine."
7. Defending KG
8. Chatting With Wilbon
Spann (Detroit): Do you think Dwyane Wade will ever get a good reception when he comes home to play the Bulls with all that happened this past offseason? Some even cheered when he hit the deck in the game the other night.
Michael Wilbon, ESPN: Yeah, the cheering when he landed hard on the floor was tacky and classless; I don't care where he plays or what he decided or who in Chicago might have been disappointed. That was tasteless.
I think it'll pass though, largely because Wade lives here in Chicago in the offseason. He's visible. He's involved in tons of charitable efforts, some of which he leads. And I know people are aware of that. Wade is a Chicagoan. He doesn't have to play here professionally to be treated accordingly, and I think the good relations will pay off, long-term.
9. Carter Hits 20,000
Vince Carter on Monday became the 37th player in NBA history, and the eighth active player, to reach the 20,000-point mark; he scored 29 points for the Suns in their 129-121 win over the Knicks, lifting his career total to 20,020 points. Carter, whom Phoenix acquired in the big trade with Orlando earlier this season, was playing only his 10th game with the Suns, the second-fewest games played for an NBA team for which someone was playing when he reached the 20,000-point plateau. In November 2004, Gary Payton reached the 20,000-point mark while playing in his fourth game with the Celtics.