Submitted by Jim Hurley on Sunday, April 22, 2012 at 11:47 PM
Everyone’s been talking about Ron Artest and his elbow assault. As handicappers, you need to avoid the sermonizing about the evil of athletes, and focus on the ramifications of Sunday’s Thunder-Lakers game. There were many.
*First, there’s a chance that the Lakers will be without Artest for the rest of this season. You have to assume there’s going to be a suspension. Given his notorious past, that suspension could last through the playoffs and into next year. Can the Lakers defend the best teams in the West without Artest doing the dirty work? He’s one of the few veterans on the team who can move on that side of the ball. Andrew Bynum and Pao Gasol are tall, but lack quickness. Kobe Bryant is old, and can’t move like he used to in terms of chasing around shooters. Is there anyone on the bench that can take up the slack?
*Second, the Lakers offense continues to struggle badly with Kobe Bryant hogging the ball. This game provided a constant reminder of that, even if the team did ultimately rally from a big deficit and win. They were largely doing that in spite of Bryant, who was 9 of 26 shooting, and worse than that percentage-wise until a couple of very late makes. He did register some assists to his credit. But, the pure ball movement you see from other contenders just isn’t there when Kobe is on the floor for the Lakers.
*What about Oklahoma City? Russell Westbrook continues to fall prey to “hero ball,” particularly against playoff caliber teams who get his juices flowing. He mis-channels that juice into trying to do too much himself. If you watched the game, you know that Westbrook was 3 of 22 from the field. He was forcing up bad shots. He was shooting from places where he’s ALWAYS had trouble. Yes, there were some extenuating circumstances because Harden got knocked out of the game. But…we haven’t seen any progression from last year. Westbrook is a fitness machine. But, he’s not a thinking machine when challenged. He’s got to play smarter.
*Why is Kevin Durant settling for so many jumpers? And, when did he become so easy to defend inside the arc? Durant was 7 of 24 on two-point shots Sunday in Staples Center. That gives you a sense of how hard it is to reach the basket against the tall trees of the Lakers. But, it also tells you that Durant can be contained by a good defense in a best of seven series. That may seem odd to you after watching him score 35 points Sunday. Just remember that 35 points on 34 shots isn’t really great. Oklahoma City only scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, and 39 in the second half because Durant wasn’t rising to the occasion when it mattered.
Let’s crunch the numbers than talk some more about these two teams…
LA LAKERS 114, OKLAHOMA CITY 106 (in double overtime)
Field Goal Pct: Oklahoma City 37%, Lakers 39%
Three-Pointers: Oklahoma City 8/24, Lakers 5/16
Free Throws: Oklahoma City 24/28, Lakers 27/40
Rebounds: Oklahoma City 54, Lakers 67
Turnovers: Oklahoma City 17, Lakers 13
Vegas Line: Oklahoma City by 1, total of 198
Right now, Harden is a better player than Artest in terms of overall contribution (though we would have it closer than many analysts because we reward Artest for defense and rebounding). Oklahoma City probably would have won the game in regulation if that ugly incident never happened. It’s pretty ridiculous that they lost anyway given that they were ahead by 16 points entering the fourth quarter.
Negatives for Oklahoma City:
Fourth quarter composure.
Positives for Oklahoma City:
The guys who earn free throws make most of them
They built a big lead even while missing one of their three big scorers
We have to say…in recent days…Oklahoma City isn’t looking like they’ve learned anything from last year’s near miss in the West. They’ve dropped two games to the LA Clippers in very similar fashion. The team as a whole didn’t shine here in a big game that MATTERED to them in the race for top seed even after you adjust for the injury to Harden. The West may be wide open once again just because the top seeds have vulnerabilities that can show up in playoff basketball. Somebody’s going to win…and it might be OKC. We need to see more maturity from Westbrook before we endorse them with confidence in a big series.
The Lakers? We’ll have to see what happens with Artest. They’re unlikely to be a serious seven-game threat from the second round on if he’s not in the lineup. The bench isn’t good enough to make up for his absence. The two bad losses to the Spurs made them look like a longshot anyway. Today’s developments didn’t help.
Let’s take a look at the key stats from one additional game since we had playoff teams bringing some intensity to the New York-Atlanta showdown…
NEW YORK 113, ATLANTA 112
Field Goal Pct: New York 54%, Atlanta 54%
Three-Pointers: New York 12/19, Atlanta 15/23
Free Throws: New York 15/20, Atlanta 15/23
Rebounds: New York 37, Atlanta 33
Turnovers: New York 17, Atlanta 19
Vegas Line: Atlanta by 2.5, total of 194
Well, offensive intensity rather than defensive intensity. Pretty amazing that Atlanta shot the same from three-point land as they did on free throws. That should be impossible. Both teams shot lights out from long range, which tells you that the defenses weren’t interested in chasing. That’s a negative development for Atlanta, because Boston’s been making defenses like that pay dearly in recent days. New York can’t really expect to compete with either Chicago or Miami with just long range shooting and soft defense. Amare Stoudemire’s return strengthens the offense and hurts the defense. That meant Over today, and might mean the same thing in a first round series.
There are six NBA games on the Monday Night Card. We’ll only get involved if we get great information from our sources. There are some lame ducks in the mix. Teams who are trying are priced at an extreme premium. You don’t beat Vegas by paying premiums. The top plays tonight may well be in Major League Baseball. Let’s check the schedule there for possibilities…
Monday Marquee MLB Matchups:
NY Yankees at Texas on ESPN
Boston at Minnesota (can Valentine save his job?!)
Philadelphia at Arizona
Atlanta at LA Dodgers
Good games here, particularly with the Yankees and Rangers joining Detroit on the short list right now for probable American League finalists. Texas is just dominating right now. Injuries have often jumped up and bitten this team, and that could happen again soon. Right now, they’re a juggernaut top to bottom. The Yankees better bring their A-game…and they’d better be prepared to go at least 27 innings with it.
Bad weather on the East Coast may have given Bobby Valentine a respite. You can’t get swept in a three-game home series against the Yankees if you only play two games! Minnesota is a softer foe. Things BETTER get turned around right now or Red Sox Nation will get their wish for a new manager.
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The NBA Playoffs are now just days away. Early season baseball is the easiest to beat because linesmakers take forever to adjust. DON’T SIT ON THE SIDELINES, GET IN THE GAME!