NBA Playoffs: Artest, Fisher came up big when they needed to


Artest_layup.jpgComing into this year’s playoffs, a lot of people would have pointed to Ron Artest and Derek Fisher as potential weaknesses for the Lakers. Both players are battle-tested veterans who bring hustle and toughness to the floor every time they play. However, Artest and Fisher are also a step or three slow for their positions at this point in their careers, and both struggled to make shots all season. (Artest shot 41.4% from the floor; Fisher shot an abysmal 38%.)

Artest’s struggles from the field and occasionally questionable decision-making were to be expected to some degree; even so, many fans questioned whether the Lakers would have been better off simply keeping Trevor Ariza in the off-season. Artest’s brand of defense was a welcome addition to the Lakers, but it often looked like he was throwing away possessions when the Lakers had the ball. Role players on a team like the Lakers are expected to abide by one cardinal rule — know your role. It seemed like Artest forgot that edict at times, and fans noticed. (Witness the Laker crowd audibly shouting “Nooooo!” at Artest whenever he’s lined up an early-in-the-clock three this postseason.) 
Fisher was much more widely derided than Artest, and for good reason. Fisher has always been more valuable than the numbers show, but Fisher’s numbers were truly horrific this season. Of the 67 qualifying point guards, Derek Fisher finished the regular season 63rd in PER. In fact, because of his low PER and how many minutes he played, Fisher ranked 324 out of 331 NBA players in Estimated Wins Added: Basically, the stat says that only six players cost their teams more wins than Derek Fisher cost the Lakers this season. Not something you generally read about the starting point guard on a team heading to the Finals. Fisher was bad enough during the regular season that many Lakers fans were openly begging for GM Mitch Kupchak to get Kirk Hinrich or Devin Harris at the trade deadline, even though both of them were struggling as well.
Amid all the calls for change in the roster or the rotation during the regular season, Phil Jackson and the Laker front office stood behind their oldest player and their newest acquisition, keeping both of them in the starting lineup throughout the regular season. After the last two games of the Western Conference Finals, it looks like Jackson and Co. put their faith in the right people. 
In game five of the Lakers-Suns series, Fisher was quietly spectacular; he tallied 22 points and six assists on 7-12 shooting from the field. Artest was terrible for the first 47:58 of the game, but more than made up for it with his spectacular game-winning put-back as time expired. 
That game-winner clearly gave Artest confidence for game six, because he did absolutely everything right on Saturday night. Artest played with aggression and hustle, beating the Suns to every loose ball and taking the ball right at the teeth of the Phoenix defense whenever they gave him a chance to do so. Artest’s infamously streaky outside shot made the trip to Phoenix as well; he went 4-7 from beyond the arc in game six, leading all players in made three-pointers. Count on Ron Artest to finally put it all together in front of a hostile crowd during the most important game of the season. 
For his part, Fisher wasn’t as effective as he was in game five, but he did what he needed to do in key moments to help the Lakers get the win. When the Suns made their big post-flagrant run in the fourth quarter, it was Fisher who made the key plays that got the Lakers back on track. Not only did Fisher make two big jumpers when the Lakers desperately needed to get some offense going, but he drew a key charge on Amar’e Stoudemire that took away some of Phoenix’s momentum. However old Derek Fisher gets, it seems like he can always be counted on to hit big shots and use his savvy to draw fouls on unsuspecting opponents. 
Before the playoffs, Derek Fisher and Ron Artest looked like two old, slow players whose lack of explosiveness and streaky outside shots were bogging the Laker offense down. After the conference finals, they look like two crafty veterans whose defensive intensity, toughness, and savvy allowed the Lakers to get into the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year. I wonder what they’ll look like after the finals. 

76ers tie NBA-record losing streak, dropping heartbreaker to Celtics

Isaiah Thomas, T.J. McConnell

After a rare period of on-court competence, the 76ers led the Celtics by five with two minutes left tonight.

Then, Philadelphia snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

The 76ers yielded a 9-0 run to close an 84-80 setback.

They’re now 0-16. Combined with their 0-10 finish to last season, that’s a 26-game losing streak – tied for longest in NBA history. Last year’s 76ers already shared the record.

Philadelphia is also in danger of the worst start to a season. The 2009-10 New Jersey Nets began 0-18, and last year’s 76ers won only one game sooner.

The 76ers will try to avoid the all-time longest streak at the Rockets on Friday. If that goes unsuccessfully, they’ll try to avoid matching the worst season start at the Grizzlies on Sunday. And if both fail, they could set the worst-start record against the Lakers on Tuesday.

76ers-Lakers – it’s shaping up to be a big one.

Timberwolves read mean tweets about themselves (video)

Flip Saunders, Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus Jones
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The Timberwolves didn’t select the meanest tweets about these players, but credit Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus Jones, Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine for being good sports.

LeBron James: I’m healthier than a year ago


LeBron James received an injection in his back before the season.

It’s working.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

LeBron James now says he feels better than he did even a year ago.

“I feel better in the mornings; I feel better throughout the games; I feel better throughout the day,” James said before a Cavs shootaround Wednesday in preparation for their game against the Toronto Raptors. “It was a rough start to the season for me last year and for our team. Obviously the way we’ve been playing, a lot is predicated on my health and being able to lead these guys out on the floor and not from the sidelines.”

LeBron certainly looks healthier than he did at this point last year. He’s moving much better and giving more effort.

But comparing November to November means very little for the Cavaliers, who hope to play deep into June.

The key question: Did LeBron properly time his injection? There’s a limit on the number he can have in a year, and it takes time to recover after one. Cleveland doesn’t want LeBron to peak to early.

It’s good for the Cavs that LeBron feels better now, but his health in the playoffs remains the priority.

Report: Suns signing Bryce Cotton

Bryce Cotton
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Eric Bledsoe missed the Suns’ loss to the Spurs on Monday with a knee injury.

So, Phoenix is bringing in a reinforcement – Bryce Cotton.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The Jazz waived Cotton before the season despite Dante Exum‘s injury leaving them with just two other healthy point guards. That says something about Cotton – but also Utah’s depth.

Cotton – who went undrafted out of Providence last year – is quick, varies his speed well and can leap. There’s reason to believe in his potential at age 23. But his 6-foot-1 frame limits him defensively, and he’s not much of a distributor.

Phoenix will rely on Brandon Knight and Ronnie Price at point guard if Bledsoe is unavailable. The Suns can also use fewer two-point guard lineups – giving more minutes at shooting guard to Devin Booker, Archie Goodwin and Sunny Weems.

Cotton provides insurance while Bledsoe is banged-up with what seems to be a minor injury. But he might have to show something to keep drawing an NBA paycheck once Bledsoe gets healthy.