NBA Playoffs, Lakers v. Suns Game 2: Showcasing the impressive, empowered, and balanced Laker offense

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bryant.pngAfter the Lakers’ dominant performance in Game 1, Alvin Gentry wisely noted that “[the Suns] can survive a Kobe game, but [they] can’t survive a Lamar game, and
then Pau playing extremely well, and then Jordan Farmar really coming
in and having a solid game and then Artest playing the way he is.”

He was right, in a sense. Gentry’s statement deserves clarification, though: the Suns can survive a big scoring game from Kobe, but not necessarily a big game from Kobe. Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals could be Bryant’s best performance of the postseason so far, and he only scored 21 points on 8-of-18 shooting. The real gem in Kobe’s stat line was his 13-assist mark, and it was Bryant’s facilitation of a brilliant Laker offense that brought L.A. their eighth consecutive win.

Kobe’s 13 assists not only set a personal best for his playoff career, but according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic, it was the highest assist total by any Laker since Magic Johnson matched the mark in 1997.

Of course, the immediate relevance of Kobe’s terrific performance is far more pressing than its historical context. It’s nice to know how this one game stacks up in comparison to Kobe’s other playoff performances and those of his fellow Lakers, but it’s far more crucial at this stage to understand and embrace just how much he helped his team to take a commanding 2-0 series lead last night.

The Suns are not a strong defensive team, regardless of their current reputation. That said, the most prominent story coming out of Game 2 should not be how Phoenix lost the game, but how Los Angeles won it. Stories of failure make for far more compelling theater, but in this case the Suns’ poor defense was only the catalyst for the loss. The Lakers, fueled by ball movement that was epitomized but not limited to Bryant’s assists, played like the elite offensive outfit that they are.

It’s a bit unfair that Bryant’s performance stole the show, especially considering how ridiculously effective Pau Gasol (29 points, nine rebounds, five assists) was in the fourth quarter. Gasol was a go-to option for the Lakers down the stretch, and though the Suns were within striking distance at points in the fourth, it was Pau’s scoring — not Bryant’s — that pushed Los Angeles over the top.

I think what makes Kobe’s night stand out amongst that of his teammates was how unique his playmaking was. A number of Lakers were productive scorers — Ron Artest finished with 18 points, Lamar Odom with 17, Andrew Bynum with 13, and Jordan Farmar with 11 — and all of them willing passers as well, but none of those contributors are in a position to defer.

Gasol was fantastic. He was put in a situation to succeed due to his skills, match-up, and circumstances, and he came through in flying colors. He’s still the second fiddle on this team though, and his dominance was by design. The Lakers (or more appropriately, Kobe) worked through Gasol with the game on the line, and he produced.

I know this all may seem like undue lavishing of an oft-praised star, but Kobe will always lie at the crux of what the Lakers hope to accomplish. In Game 2, he faced pressure but did anything but struggle. There will obviously be times between now and the end of the Lakers’ season where L.A. will need more than 21 points from Bryant to win, but his scoring in those situations is no more important than his willing deference in others.

That’s when Gasol will truly shine. It’s when Odom will go from from invisible to ever-present, and when Artest will command defensive attention. As the Celtics continue their quest to upset the Magic in the East, keep these Lakers at the back of your mind. They’re out for blood, championship-ready, and clicking both mentally and physically.

Three questions the Minnesota Timberwolves must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season:
31-51, missed the playoffs.

I know what you did last summer: A whole lot. Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague, and Jamal Crawford are the notable additions from this summer. It was a disappointing end to Ricky Rubio‘s tenure with the franchise, but the swap for the No. 7 pick in the draft to the Bulls brought over one of head coach Tom Thibodeau’s favorite former players from Chicago. Add on Gibson, Teague, and a still-able-to-score Crawford and the Wolves roster looks markedly better than it has in years past.

THREE QUESTIONS THE TIMBERWOLVES MUST ANSWER:

1) What will the play look like between Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins? Wiggins played 93% of his minutes at SF in his first year under Thibodeau last season. Meanwhile, Butler played most of his minutes under Thibodeau as a shooting guard. That means the two will be on the floor together, and it will be interesting to see how they play off of each other. Wiggins clearly made a move to try to be a better 3-point shooter last season, and if that continues there could be a real benefit as Butler works as the second ball handler in the pick-and-roll.

That of course is the hope, but as we’ve seen in other circumstances — Al-Farouq Aminu in Portland — when the 3-point shooting of players strongly rises and then dips again they can become a liability. It’s easy to imagine Wiggins clogging the interior of the arc when Butler has the ball and vice versa, with some serious kinks to potentially work out.

2) What exactly are they going to do with Jamal Crawford? Thibodeau typically hasn’t had players like Crawford during his tenure as a head coach, save for perhaps Nate Robinson in 2012-13 with Chicago. Crawford has 17 years of experience in this league, and although he has slowed down a little bit, he is still an excellent ball handler and streaky scorer.

Crawford should fit that bench scorer role for Minny, and even if Thibodeau does play his starters a thousand minutes a game you can be sure that they will still need the veteran presence of Crawford. The year that Robinson played for Thibodeau he shot 40% from three-point range, and perhaps that could be the role that Crawford slots into here. If there is one offseason acquisition that doesn’t quite fit in for the Timberwolves, Crawford does seem to be it. He has a real potential to get lost in the mix. That, or it could go the other direction and they might need to rely on him as a ball handler off the bench more than they would like. I can see both happening.

3) Can they find a groove to keep their head above water in the playoff race in the Western Conference? Set aside the reigning NBA champions in the Golden State Warriors, the Western Conference is still an absolute meatgrinder. So many big name free agents either were traded to or signed with teams out West. Paul Millsap, Brook Lopez, Paul George, Chris Paul to the Rockets, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Thabo Sefolosha are all on the list outside of the guys already mentioned in Minnesota.

The NBA League Pass fan has high expectations of the Timberwolves for the upcoming season, especially after adding an MVP candidate like Butler. However, with so many new players in the Western Conference I think we will still have some of the same questions we have had in years prior about the Timberwolves. That is, what is their development path and how soon should we expect their dominance?

Building a super team doesn’t necessarily mean immediate contention — we know that by now. Yes, having players who have played under Thibodeau before might help this team get through some of their growing pains quicker as the year starts. But there also seems to be a huge potential for a slow start out of the Timberwolves and if that happens it could take some of the wind out of their sails as they try to make up for it going into the All-Star break.

Make no bones about it, Minnesota is likely a playoff team out West. That should feel like a win for Timberwolves fans — because it is. However, I think it’ll take some time for them to jell, and if that’s the case they might end up toward the bottom of the seeding with an uphill battle in April.

Jimmer Fredette has signature shoe line in China, and they are outstanding

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Jimmer Fredette was the leading scorer in China last season, averaging 37.6 points a night and dropping 73 in one game. He’s big time.

And big time guys get their own shoe lines.

Jimmer got a signature shoe line teaming up with 361 shoes out of China, as ESPN’s Nick DePaula reports.

I’d wear a pair of those on the court. I have no idea what the price point is (they are not on the 361 website yet), but those could sell.

Is Jimmer going to be the new Stephon Marbury of China?

Reports: Lakers to sign Andrew Bogut to one-year deal

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Brook Lopez will start at center for the Lakers. Behind him, they have a couple young players they want to groom, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant.

Those youngsters just got bumped a notch down the ladder — Andrew Bogut is about to become a Laker. Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports broke the news, and other reports have confirmed it.

Lakers’ coach Luke Walton coached Bogut at Golden State, and that connection helped get him to Los Angeles when Boston, Minnesota, and Cleveland were also trying to land his services. Bogut gets the system Walton wants to run and wants to be part of this new Lakers team.

The question with Bogut is always health. He can be a solid defensive big in the paint and is a good passer, but last season he broke his tibia in his first game with the Cavaliers, the latest in a long line of health concerns. Bogut’s doctors have cleared him to play.

The Lakers also add a solid veteran presence to help mentor those young bigs (although if Bogut is taking minutes from them it seems counterproductive). Bogut can show Zubac and Bryant the art of setting the best illegal screens in the league (he’s a master, Lonzo Ball will love him). We’ll see how many minutes Bogut gets when it matters.

This one-year deal gives the Lakers another potential trade chip and does not mess with their cap space next summer, when they want to clear out room and go after two max free agents (which will mean dumping the contract of Luol Deng, likely with Julius Randle or someone as a sweetener, to get the space). For Bogut, stay healthy and play well and he might come back on a minimum contract to a stacked Lakers team next season.

Report: Grizzlies to sign Ivan Rabb, adds to already crowded roster

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The Memphis Grizzlies have 15 guaranteed contracts on the roster already — and that’s not counting a deal for JaMychal Green and the non-guaranteed deal for Mario Chalmers.

Which makes this signing interesting, via Marc Spears of ESPN.

The Grizzlies and second-round pick Ivan Rabb are close to agreeing terms on a three-year contract, a source told The Undefeated.

Two years of that are rumored to be guaranteed. If so, that leads to questions about who gets cut from the roster and paid anyway? Or, are the Grizzlies setting themselves up for a trade during camp? Also, Mario Chalmers is going to have to show enough skill for another team to grab him.

Rabb is a 6’10” guy with potential but a lot of development to do. He may be more of a four than a small ball five, but he needs time on the court to find out and show off his game. He didn’t get a lot of that time to show what he can do in Summer League due to a sprained ankle. He should get run in Grizzlies camp, where there are going to be some interesting roster battles.