How the Lakers can win the championship

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So it’s come to this. After losing two straight games in Boston and having their backs shoved up against the wall, the Los Angeles Lakers are fresh off a series-tying blowout and one home win away from defending their NBA championship. One win away from getting Kobe one for the thumb and Phil getting #11. One win away from Derek Fisher going into the history books as one of the greatest clutch players ever. One win away from Andrew Bynum being legendarily gutsy instead of infamously brittle. One win away from all of it. 
What do the Lakers need to do tonight to make it all happen? Here are a few thoughts:
Put points on the board early

Boston’s defense leads to its offense. Hence, Los Angeles’ offense leads to its defense. When Boston can induce turnovers and long misses that lead to fast-breaks, they’re deadly. When they have to go to a pick-and-roll set for Rondo or an ISO for Pierce, they can be stopped. In game six, the Lakers scored 28 points in the first quarter, and the Celtics never recovered.
The Lakers don’t need to establish anything in particular early: they just need to score points. Kobe Bryant started off game six red-hot, and that was the catalyst for the ensuing Laker blowout. He should start out looking for his shot the exact same way in game seven. Late-game dramatics would in a Finals Game 7 are what everyone expects from Kobe, but what he does in the first quarter may actually end up being just as important.
-Attack the boards

Boston doesn’t have Perkins. This much we know. What that does not mean is that the Lakers should try and force-feed Andrew Bynum; Boston’s backup centers are scrappy defenders, and Bynum has almost no lift left on that knee. What Bynum does give the Lakers is a degree of size and toughness that can hurt the Celtics, particularly on the glass. The Lakers need to get inside, scramble the Boston defense, and use their size to snag caroms when Boston is out of position.
The rebounding numbers from game six were almost as ugly as the final score: 52-39 in favors of the Lakers, and it was a lot worse early. The team that has won the rebounding battle has won every game in this series. If the Lakers can keep track of Rondo and fight for every rebound, they should be able to control the glass in game seven. 
Make Pierce, Garnett, and Rondo work for their points

They say this about every superstar, but it’s particularly true for three of Boston’s big four. (Ray Allen always works for his points, which is why he can go 0-13.) They need to stop Rondo in transition and keep KG from running the floor with him. Don’t let KG sneak backdoor and catch the lob for an alley-oop or a layup. Don’t let Pierce trail the break for threes, bite on his pump fakes, or let him saunter into the lane with that slow-motion crossover. 
If they force Rondo to go to free-throw line jumpers or tough floaters, KG to turnarounds from the post, and Pierce to mid-range jumpers off the dribble, the Lakers will be fine. They just need to keep Boston’s big four from playing off of one another and becoming more than the sum of their talents. 
Get Pau Gasol playing like the best big man in basketball

Gasol wasn’t a machine on the blocks in game six, but he did a great job running the floor and crashing the boards to get his points. Gasol needs to take that energy and add some confidence to it; he’s more than capable of running the offense from the high post and scoring on KG on the blocks. If he can do it in game one and the regular season, he can do it in game seven. Pau needs to realize he’s 48 minutes away from never being called “Gasoft” again by some ill-informed NBA fan. 
Role players: Confident with the lead, smart if it’s close

The Lakers need to pour it on if they have the chance. If the ball is moving, Boston is on their heels, and Ron Artest or any other role player has an open three, he should let fly and take the roof off the building. If the Lakers are down or it’s close, he has to get the ball to the money players, contribute with his energy and defense, and only shoot when necessary. The Lakers won’t win playing one-on-five, but taking the ball out of Kobe’s hands when he needs it is a recipe for catastrophe. 
There you have it — if the Lakers do all those things and a few more, the old NBA champs will be your new NBA champs. Only a few hours left until we get to see if they can pull it off or not. 


‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, right, drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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When the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, he named his rookie goals: “Get to the playoffs, go for the championship.” But the NBA humbled the young player, as Sacramento went just 24-58 and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year. Cousins emerged for his second season resolute on a more-modest goal: “Playoffs. We’ve got to make the playoffs this year. It’s not even a goal. It’s basically in our contract, I believe. So, we’ve got to make the playoffs this year.”

Five seasons later, Cousins is still chasing that elusive postseason trip.

“It’s eating me alive,” Cousins said. “Every loss or every time another team wins in battling for the eighth spot, it’s eating me alive. Our only goal is to be in the playoffs this season.”

A depressing chase for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, where every team in the race is at least seven games under .500, has opened the door for the 17-27 Kings. They’re 1.5 games and three teams out of playoff position – a more daunting challenge than often realized. Not only must they play better, they must hope a couple teams ahead of them don’t also heat up. 538 gives Sacramento just a 5% chance of reaching the postseason, and ESPN is even more pessimistic at 3.8%.

Beginning his career with seven straight lottery trips would be another crushing blow to Cousins, who has built a credible case as the NBA’s best center. Greg Monroe is the only current player with more win shares who hasn’t reached the playoffs:

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Nobody nears Cousins besides Monroe, and the next-closest player, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, likely makes the playoffs this year. Monroe leads in win shares, because he entered the league more polished than Cousins and built a head start (and because this stat probably inflates’ Monroe’s contributions relative to Cousins’.) Monroe has never neared Cousins’ peak, and Monroe is now a backup for the Bucks. The only thing second-team about Cousins is his two All-NBA appearances.

Kevin Love is the only other player since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA teams before his first playoff season. He, of course, left the Timberwolves for the Cavaliers to escape lists like these.

On the other hand, there have been indications from both sides Cousins will soon sign a veteran-designated-player contract extension projected to be worth more than $219 million over five years. Staying in Sacramento and playing for owner Vivek Ranadive seems like the surest bet to keep Cousins’ postseason drought active.

Cousins already ranks in the top 25 all-time in win shares before a player’s first playoff season (which doesn’t count this season, because playoff teams aren’t yet determined):

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Cousins has 5.2 win shares this season and counting. Missing the playoffs again would launch him into the top 10 of this dubious list – and he could keep climbing.

Not only do the Kings face daunting odds to reach the postseason this year, it’s difficult to project them into the playoffs for the foreseeable future. Years of roster mismanagement have taken a toll.

Since drafting Cousins, Sacramento has held top-10 picks every year. Those have netted on draft night: Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic – who’ve combined for a measly 2.2 win shares this season. And most of those win shares come from Stauskas and Robinson, who no longer play for the Kings.

In fact, Stauskas was sent out in a disastrous trade that gives the 76ers swap rights on Sacramento’s 2017 first-rounder* and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder.

*The Kings’ first-round pick must fall in the top to be swap-eligible. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulls, the result of another botched trade.

Sacramento has also recently struck out on major free agents and then settled for Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson. That adds up to one mediocre supporting cast.

Meanwhile, Cousins is better than ever. He has taken a larger offensive burden, including as a distributor and suddenly dangerous 3-point shooter, while cutting down his turnover rate. Defenders are often overmatched, and they foul him more than anyone in the league. And while Cousins’ defense comes and goes, it can be quite impressive while he’s locked in.

The result is a team that plays at a 41-win pace with Cousins on the floor and a 17-win pace when he sits, continuing a disparity seen over the last few years. Hera are the Kings win paces over 82 games with Cousins on (purple) and off (black):

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Obviously, teams generally play better with their stars and starters on the court, and Cousins is a star who usually shares the court with other starters. But this gap is particularly egregious, and Cousins’ fellow starters have underwhelmed.

So, more and more falls on Cousins’ shoulders.

Playing for his sixth head coach and third general manager in seven seasons, Cousins sets the tone for the Kings, for better or worse. He plays with a unique rage, sneering resentfully at anyone who gets in his way on the court – like players trying to defend him or referees, gasp, calling a foul on him. He leads the league with 12 technical fouls and is on pace to get (at least) 16 and an automatic suspension, which he also triggered last year.

His highs are incredibly high and his lows are unnecessarily low.

That moodiness has frustrated coaches and teammates, but it also sometimes works himself and his teammates into a productive frenzy. Sacramento usually plays passionately, which is both to its credit and a sign of a talent scarcity considering the team still loses so frequently.

“I’m still confident,” Cousins said, “and I still believe we’re going to make that push for the playoffs.”

For the last few years, Cousins has looked unstoppable while the Kings have been quite easily stoppable. He’s trying to drag the franchise up with him, but optimism and desire might not be enough. At a certain point we must ask: What more can Cousins do?

Russell Westbrook keeps trying to show up Rudy Gobert

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) goes to the basket as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends in the second quarter during a NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Jazz center Rudy Gobert is having an awesome season, credibly putting himself in the mix with Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol as the NBA’s best big men.

But that doesn’t mean Russell Westbrook respects him.

Before the Thunder’s win over Utah yesterday, Westbrook was asked how Oklahoma City would contain Gobert. Westbrook just laughed and walked off.

Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript:

Then, in the game, Westbrook tried to jump right over the 7-foot-1 Gobert and dunk on him:

I would say Gobert proved his ability by successfully protecting the paint, but I’m just too astounded by Westbrook’s leap.

Zaza Pachulia, running up court, turns back to smack Luke Babbitt in face (video)

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Is Zaza Pachulia a dirty player?

That debate can be rekindled after the Warriors center earned this flagrant foul for smacking Heat forward Luke Babbitt.

Just don’t forget: Pachulia is more than an unskilled enforcer. He brings plenty to the table as Golden State’s fifth starter, and his ability was on display earlier in the game:

Three Hawks lose uncontested rebound out of bounds (video)

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How did Mike Scott, Mike Dunleavy and Malcolm Delaney fail to secure this rebound?

No wonder the Hawks lost to a Clippers team playing without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.