A tale of two contenders

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The Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers are the crown jewels of the league. Both lead their respective conferences, both will have homecourt advantage through their conference Finals, both are elite.

And Wednesday they provide a fascinating cross-examination of one another.

The Lakers mailed one in in Atlanta, getting wiped off the map by the Hawks 109-92. It was not pretty. The Lakers have very little to blame. It wasn’t a matchup problem. It wasn’t a back to back. It was the tail end of a road trip, but still. To be down by double digits nearly the entire second half is pretty incredible for a team many consider to still be the best in the league. The answer? Even the Hawks announcers knew, the Lakers had no interest in being on the floor tonight.

It’s nothing new for the Lakers, who have lost three of their last five, two by double digits in routs. This team has simply played lazy for the majority of the season, turning it on for select quarters in most games, and yet there they are, top of the standings, top of the world. For all this team’s talent and ability, their effort indicates that they simply do not care about the regular season. I could spout off to you something about how true champions give their all in every game, every contest, but that’s a lie.

This is the NBA, and 82 game death march, and only the strongest survive, sure, but part of being strong is knowing when to drag your feet to conserve strength. The Lakers just happen to be dragging their feet, occasionally coming to a complete stop and getting trod over. Even the most confident Laker fan has to wonder how much is simple boredom and how much is actual problems with the team, most notably their play inside. They’ve earned the faith of the acolytes, but they’d better deliver at the altar.

Meanwhile, the Cavs let the Bucks who, no lie, they could very well end up seeing in the second round, hang around for 48 minutes, needing a LeBron James steal on the last possession off a horrible Luke Ridnour pass to ice it. This despite a 45-9 free throw advantage for the Cavs, at home. What’s more, if you watched the game, the Cavs were plugged into this one. While the Lakers were FedExing theirs in, the Cavs were locked in, putting forth the same effort that’s gotten them where they’re at. Yet the result was still in doubt, even with everything that was in their favor.

Last year the Cavs blistered the regular season, torching their way into the Conference Finals, laughing and dancing all the way. And all they got for it was a lousy t-shirt that said “Dwight Howard WUZ HERE.” And a win’s better than a loss. But so much of a team’s success depends on the ability to “turn it on” and get hot at the right time. Peak too early and you’re Cleveland last year. Peak too late and you’re the Pistons nearly every year in the 2000’s.

We’ve got two contenders who are still the favorites. Two titans who are still the Lords of their conferences. But to pretend that the Lakers loss is meaningless is as shortsighted as putting too much stock in it and equally foolish. And to assert that all is well with Cleveland because they got the W is to forget their history, and to ignore that the Lakers got blown out, but they also didn’t give anything, either.

Report: Clippers’ Austin Rivers has broken hand, out 4-6 weeks

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Austin Rivers #25 of the Los Angeles Clippers scores on a layup past D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during a 105-93 win at Staples Center on January 29, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Clippers are without Blake Griffin for the next few weeks as he recovers from a broken hand stemming from an altercation with an equipment manager. Now, the Clippers have lost backup point guard Austin Rivers to the exact same injury, albeit not in the same circumstances, obviously.

The loss of Rivers isn’t as devastating as the loss of Griffin, but given the Clippers’ lack of depth, it’s certainly not ideal. Now, Chris Paul‘s only backup is Pablo Prigioni.

Warriors hold off late Thunder run to remain undefeated at home

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For once, a marquee matchup involving the Golden State Warriors lived up to its billing. Their much-hyped meetings with the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs were anticlimactic blowouts nearly free of drama. And for the first half on Saturday night’s 116-108 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, it seemed like the defending champions were headed for another snoozer. They led by as much as 20, and completely outmatched the Thunder on both ends of the floor.

But the Thunder rallied behind a surprising defensive effort in the second half and some solid play from Enes Kanter. Plus, you know, Kevin Durant, who led all scorers with 40 points and gave the normally unflappable Draymond Green fits defensively. They tied the game at 104 before Golden State pulled away.

Despite the huge first-half lead, the Warriors weren’t their usual selves. Stephen Curry shot 1-for-8 from behind the three-point line, and triple-double machine Draymond Green scored just nine points. Golden State’s most consistent player was Harrison Barnes, who has probably read the speculation that the Warriors would have to dump him to land Durant this summer. He hit three three-pointers and shot 8-for-14 overall on the way to 19 points.

The Warriors’ bench carried them for stretches, outscoring Oklahoma City’s reserves 42-17.

Despite the Thunder’s late run, this was a statement win for the Warriors. They sent the message that, even when they aren’t in total control from start to finish, they can still pull away from other elite teams. The Thunder have given them the toughest challenge of any team they’ll likely have to face in the late rounds of the playoffs this spring, and it’s to their credit that they took the first-half punch and came back to make it a game. But the Warriors are on a different level from the rest of the league, and they showed that clearly on Saturday.

Kevin Durant brushes off free-agency speculation: “Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision”

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 05:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives on Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 5, 2015 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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It goes without saying that with the Thunder and Warriors playing each other for the first time on Saturday night, Kevin Durant free-agency talk has been at an all-time high. The hot rumor this week is that the Warriors are the frontrunners to land Durant this summer, which would shake up the league like nothing since LeBron James going to Miami.

Obviously, all parties were going to be asked about it before the hotly anticipated game. And obviously, all parties were going to downplay it. That’s exactly what happened.

Here’s what Durant said, via the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Rusty Simmons:

“Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision. I’ll sit down and talk to my closest friends and family and figure it out, but right now, I’m just trying to be the best basketball player I can be every single day. I have to be at a high level to lead every day at practices, shootarounds and games, and that’s a tough task. I can’t focus on anything else, other than that.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr also downplayed the speculation:

“I don’t know why anybody would talk about anything but the fact that we’re 45-4 and have a hell of a team,” said Kerr, who hasn’t addressed rumors about Durant favoring the Bay Area as a future destination with his players. “Why would anybody talk about some different team, future stuff and other players?

“Focus on our team. We’re pretty good.”

On both sides, that’s the appropriate way to respond publicly. Not that this is going to go away anytime soon. They play each other two more times this season, once in Oklahoma City and once more in Oakland, and this is going to get brought up then, too. And just like Saturday, nobody will give a definitive answer. Nor should they. Nobody will know anything until July 1. But until then, it will be impossible to quiet the chatter.

Pelicans shut down Tyreke Evans until after All-Star break

MEMPHIS, TN - NOVEMBER 06: Tyreke Evans #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans dribbles the ball during the NBA game against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum on November 6, 2013 in Memphis, Tennessee.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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the Pelicans have dealt with an inordinate amount of injuries so far this season to nearly every key payer on their roster. Tyreke Evans has missed the last five games with a lingering knee issue, and the team says he’s going to sit out their final four games before the All-Star break, as a precaution to make sure he’s healthy for the second half of the season.

From the Pelicans’ official site:

“We’re probably going to hold him out until after the All-Star break,” Alvin Gentry said during pregame at Quicken Loans Arena. “That gives him a situation where he has almost two weeks where he can rehab it and hopefully get it back. Hopefully he’ll be ready to go right after the All-Star break and we’ll be able to play him for the rest of the stretch (of the schedule).”

Evans initially missed the Jan. 2 game at Dallas due to the injury, then was sidelined again Jan. 18 at Memphis. Against Houston, he only played 16 minutes before being taken out of the game, suffering from the same issue.

“I think it’s just rest,” Gentry said of what it may take for Evans to get past the injury. “It’s one of those situations with tendinitis, where you rest and it feels better. That’s better than having him play two games, then sit out one (and have his status in flux). This may help him be able to play the last part of the season, without sitting out.”

Despite being 18-31, the Pelicans are just six games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Their resting of Evans could be read two ways—it could be gearing up to make a push for the playoffs, as much of a long shot as that may be; or it could be the first in a series of instances of shutting down or resting key players to try to position themselves for a lottery pick, effectively hitting the reset button after a season as ravaged by injuries as the one they’ve had.