NBA finals Lakers Celtics Game 7: Kobe Bryant and a legacy at war

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bryantcelebrate.jpgThat’s one for the thumb. 

Kobe Bryant won his fifth title in 2009-2010, nesting a clutch jumper and a series of icing free throws. The storybook ending was written, with Bryant further cementing his legacy as one of the truly great players in NBA history. His veteran leadership and indomitable will to win is second to none and tonight he proved that, finishing with 23 points and 15 rebounds. It was another season, another championship, in his long line of jewels in the crown of his career. 
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. How about this?
Kobe Bryant won his fifth title in 2009-2010, despite shooting 6 of 24 from the field, routinely taking shots out of the flow of the offense, and generally failing to deliver in the most important game of his career. Luckily for him, his teammates who were so often derided for their contributions,  stepped in to cover for him and delivered him his fifth title. Bryant had four turnovers, routinely dribbling into double coverage and failing to deliver as he heaved shot after shot in double to triple coverage. While Bryant clearly has his place among the legends, this performance even more clearly elucidates the difference between Kobe and Jordan.
No, that’s not right either. No, here’s the real story. 
Kobe Bryant once again collected an NBA championship ring behind a stellar playoff performance, while also fanning the flames of debate about what exactly his legacy is. 
There. That’s it. 
Kobe Bryant is, and has been for some time, the most divisive player in the league. Adored by his fans in an idealistic manner, and razed by his critics. He is simultaneously considered the hardest working player in the NBA, one of the hardest working in the history of the league, and one of the most unlikeable players. Players are on record calling him a certain term for an orifice. That’s the reaction he gets from people. Many of whom are his friends. He is considered arguably the finest pure offensive player of all time, and a selfish gunner that can hurt his team with his quick trigger. 
He is the hero, he is the villain, he is the warrior, he is the prat. Beyond all of that he is the champion, again.
This is the real legacy of Kobe Bryant. In Game 7, he forced up shots, and fought fiercely for rebounds, collecting 15. He foolishly handled the ball into traffic, and played stellar defense on Ray Allen. As always, Bryant lifted his fans to greatness and kept his critics’ cross-hairs squarely on him.
And that’s who he is. The player who manages to constantly keep us all talking about him. His life, his attitude, his behavior, his game, his future, his place in history next to the greatest of all time. 
When the buzzer sounded and Bryant collected the ring that pushed him ahead of Shaq, (which he mentioned in the post-game presser), Bryant gave us another chapter to marvel at, and debate, to defend and attack. Jordan was idolized, universally loved. It’s not hard to reach out and grasp the concept that he may have been a more heartless personality than Bryant, and yet Jordan never faced the scrutiny and passionate distaste Bryant has. Kobe has been the lightning rod for the ring. He is still considered the anti-LeBron. His legacy of raising the interest of the league is not the product of his play or the jewelry on his fingers. It’s the product of those rings and the way in which they accumulated. 
To say that Kobe doesn’t care about his critics is a lie. He’s propelled by the same obsessive desire to crush those who doubt him that Jordan was. It is the single strongest thread between the two players. Kobe’s stats don’t rack up, But his attitude and willpower does. Just the fact that he’s compared to Jordan is a huge compliment in and of itself, and yet it’s treated as a derogatory comment. As if “not as good as Jordan” was some sort of bad place, which the rest of the basketball playing universe occupies. 
Bryant’s legacy is build upon the fierce debate he has created in the sports world. He holds something for everyone, even if that something is a deep despise for his every move. And the more the world rallies behind him and throws stones at his glass house, the more he feeds on it and continues his quest to be the very best he can be. 
And that’s what he wants his legacy to be. 

Reports: Phil Jackson attending Shaq statue ceremony, Magic Johnson missing it to scout UCLA-Kentucky

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The Lakers are formally unveiling Shaquille O’Neal’s statue outside their arena tonight. Also tonight: UCLA-Kentucky in the Sweet 16, which features NBA prospects Lonzo Ball, Ike Anigbogu, T.J. Leaf, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo.

That makes an interesting choice for the NBA’s two highest-profile team presidents – the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Knicks’ Phil Jackson (who coached Shaq in Los Angeles), both of whose teams are headed toward a high picks in the upcoming draft.

And the front-office heads are going different directions.

Arash Markazi of ESPN:

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Watching a single game in person is unlikely to swing anything. Both Johnson and Jackson could send scouts to watch UCLA-Kentucky live and then the presidents could watch video later.

But attending in person is ideal, and there are already questions about Jackson’s work ethic. This will only fuel them.

If nothing else, this is an opportunity for Johnson, new on the job, to establish an image. He can clearly juxtapose himself with the failing Jackson and establish himself as a diligent alternative. The Lakers hired Johnson at least in part due to his high profile, but that needn’t stop him from grinding now that he has the position. Anyone doubting him would respect that.

Tyreke Evans: Giannis Antetokounmpo is like a taller me

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Giannis Antetokounmpo torched the Kings for 32 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two steals in the Bucks’ 18-point win Wednesday.

Afterward, Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans paid the Greek Freak the ultimate compliment.

Sean Cunningham of ABC 10:

Do you see many players like Antetokounmpo? Evans:

Nah. He like me, but 6-7 – I mean like almost 6-8, 6-7, whatever height he is. He just long, athletic. He get to where he want to go. He got good handle for his size, and he athletic. Once he get around the rim, he can finish.

If only you were an inch taller? Evans:

That’d be a problem. I mean, it’s still a problem, I think, for me to get where I want. But just the athleticism he have and the way he get up off the ground – he got quick bounce. He pretty good at it.

Antetokounmpo is listed at 6-foot-11, Evans 6-foot-6.

This isn’t totally unreasonable. Make Evans five inches taller and add none of the dexterity awkwardness that tends to accompany growth, and he might look a lot like Antetokounmpo. Both are usually slotted at forward while possessing point-guard skills.

But Evans isn’t 6-foot-11, and most 6-foot-11 players can’t move like Antetokounmpo. That fluidity for his size is a big part of what makes Antetokounmpo special. If Evans grew up to be 6-foot-11, he likely would have developed a different skill set than he has now.

Antetokounmpo is the rare player with both the height of a big man and skills of a guard. Evans didn’t miss out on that just because his genes kept him from growing another five inches.

This discussion is also silly for another reason. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s 6-foot-1 and certain he’d be as good as Evans if only he were five inches taller.

Rumor: Blake Griffin increasingly believed to be open to leaving Clippers in free agency

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The Clippers were rumored to have already verbally agreed to terms with pending unrestricted free agents Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.

But with formal contract extensions unviable, L.A. was always going to have to play out the season and hope those players remained committed into July.

There might be a hitch in that plan.

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

That Griffin would also stay and reap the biggest payday he can seems likely, too—in theory. But more and more people around the league believe he would be open to a fresh start—perhaps with the Lakers or the Boston Celtics, who have coveted Griffin for years and would offer a new chance to win.

Does Ding have credible information to suggest Griffin could join the Lakers or Celtics, or is that just speculation on the writer’s part about potential fits? It’s unclear. This is already fairly loosely sourced.

But we should gather more information quickly once free agency begins. Griffin reportedly planned to re-sign quickly. If he shows the faintest hint of exploring the market, that could open the floodgates.

Griffin had been frequently linked to his home-state Thunder, but Oklahoma City would interfere with his burgeoning Hollywood connections.* The same issue would exist with Boston, though obviously not the Lakers. That said, the Celtics are WAY better than the Lakers – and maybe soon the Clippers and Thunder, considering those Nets picks headed to Boston.

*Oklahoma City also since nuked its cap space with contract extensions for Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo, though trades could always clear room if Griffin wants to come home.

The Clippers are in a bad place right now. One one hand, that forebodes another disappointing end to the season. On the other hand, there’s still time to overcome and send Griffin into free agency on a more positive note.

These are dangerous times for the Clippers, who wouldn’t have cap space to adequately replace Griffin, Paul or Redick if one leaves. So, if one bolts, the others seems more likely to follow. Interpersonal relationships matter, but the Clippers’ primary selling points were always going to be money and winning (with Hollywood proximity a bonus). Winning gets harder if talent walks.

They can still offer the most money, and they’re not leaving L.A. But the Clippers better win more to help avoid what could be a tenser-than-expected summer.

Suns use youngest starting lineup in NBA history

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The Suns have shut down their veterans or been shut down by their veterans with two goals in mind – developing young talent and tanking.

Incidentally, Phoenix also made history.

Against the Nets last night, the Suns started:

ESPN:

Elias on ESPN:

The previous youngest was the Clippers’ starting five consisting of guards Eric Bledsoe and Eric Gordon, forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Blake Griffin, and center DeAndre Jordan, who averaged 21 years and 143 days old in a matchup with the Nets on November 15, 2010.

The young Suns gained quality experience – and helped their team to an important loss, 126-98 to Brooklyn.

Phoenix is still 1.5 games “behind” the Lakers for the No. 2 seed in the lottery, but the Suns are within striking distance in case the Lakers screw up and win too much down the stretch.