NBA Season Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

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Last season: 57-25, top seed in the West, which they rode all the way to their second consecutive NBA crown. They came within half-a-quarter of losing to Boston on their home court in Game 7, but no Kendrick Perkins and no balloons in the rafters this time gave room for a dramatic comeback win.

Head Coach: Phil Jackson, who says that this is his last season coaching. Probably. Expect him to play with the media on that topic all season, but behind closed doors he will use it as motivation for the three-peat run. Because he wants to one more ring he won’t give to Jeanie Buss.

Key Departures: Jordan Farmar, who was always a poor fit in the Lakers system and talked of wanting more playing time and a starting job. For those reasons we’re not sure why he went to New Jersey to back up Devin Harris, but still not a big loss for the Lakers.

Aside that, DJ Mbenga and Josh Powell were allowed to walk.

Key Additions: Steve Blake comes in at point guard and is a perfect illustration of what GM Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers do well — get players to fit the system. Blake is a solid NBA point guard, one who struggled the second half of last season when the Clippers decided to get out and run and he had to handle the ball in space. What he does is shoot the three, not make mistakes and play reasonable defense. Which is exactly what the role of the point guard is in the triangle. Blake is an okay fit most places, but he is a guy that is exactly what the Lakers need — and he may get more minutes than the aging Derek Fisher this season.

Matt Barnes will come off the bench to spell Ron Artest and gives the Lakers a little more toughness and wing defense. He’s a guy that fits the Lakers because he is versatile — he can guard twos or threes, and if you want to go really small he can even play some four. Not that the Lakers go small much.

Also in are draftees Derrick Caracter, Devin Ebanks, free agent center Theo Ratliff, and also Shannon Brown and Derek Fisher were re-signed. (Fisher for three years, which is a little surprising considering the decline in his play.)

Best case scenario: They win a third consecutive NBA title to send Jackson off in style, and just before the end of the season the Lakers bring back Mark Madsen so he can dance at the victory parade.

For that to happen:
The Lakers need to play a little more consistently in the regular season then be healthy and stay healthy through the playoffs.

Here’s the bottom line — while everyone was looking at Miami, the two-time defending world champions got better and deeper. Their two biggest weaknesses — point guard play and depth on the wing — were addressed. This is still the team to beat in the NBA and if you think they aren’t still hungry you haven’t met Kobe and Ron Artest.

The Lakers had the best regular season record in the West last season, but they needed six dramatic Kobe game-winners to get that. Sure, that’s why you have Kobe on your team, because he is a walking highlight reel. But live by the game-winning jumper, die by the game-winning jumper. The Lakers need to rest Kobe more during the season (same with all their key players) and that means winning a few more games by 17 and not a last second shot. Which is easier said than done in a deep west when you have a target on your back, but that is the task.

Also, In the regular season last year, the Lakers got lax about ball movement on offense, if they do that this year they pay a bigger price.

Come the playoffs, the Lakers still have the most talented, well-compiled roster in the Association when they are all healthy. The key is the Lakers long and agile front line is unmatched — and it means big things on both ends of the court. On offense teams simply cannot matchup the length and quickness of Bynum and Pau Gasol (with Lamar Odom off the bench). That often leads teams to pack the paint to stop LA (or slow them, really) giving the Lakers good looks from the outside. Something the Lakers did not take great advantage of last season, but the addition of Blake and Barnes may change that. Even when teams know what is coming Gasol and Bynum still get theirs, especially when the Lakers execute the offense.

The bigger advantage is on defense — that long front line protects the rim and covers the problems the Lakers have defending quick point guards. The Lakers have three guys now — Kobe, Artest and Barnes — who they can sick on wing players to slow them, but that can be less effective with little point guards. However, everything is better when Bynum is behind the play using his long arms to erase mistakes.

More likely the Lakers will: Go back to the finals at least. Predicting who comes out of the East now and that matchup is impossible. But unless the Lakers come back to the pack in the West they are the best team by head and shoulders in the conference. There are a lot of interesting teams on the second tier in the West, but they are all on the second tier for a reason.

The finals is where health — particularly the health of Bynum — comes in. The Lakers got a title last season with Bynum dragging his leg through the playoffs, that will not happen this season. They need him to be healthier, because the task will be tougher.

Prediction: 58-24, first in the West and another trip to the finals. Then it will all be about health, because if they are the Heat are going to find the same problems with that long front line everyone else does. Well, the Heat will find problems with that and Kobe.

DeMar DeRozan scores 36, Raptors top Magic 131-112 for 6th in row

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TORONTO (AP) — DeMar DeRozan scored 36 points and Cory Joseph had 15 points and 13 assists as the Toronto Raptors defeated the Orlando Magic 131-112 on Monday night for their sixth straight victory.

DeRozan, selected the Eastern Conference player of the week earlier in the day, set the pace early by scoring 18 in the first quarter. Joseph added six rebounds and Jonas Valanciunas had 17 points and nine rebounds for the Raptors (45-29).

Elfrid Payton had 22 points and nine assists for Orlando (27-47). Evan Fournier added 20 points, and Nikola Vucevic had 12 points and 15 assists.

It was the first game between the teams since the Raptors traded Terrence Ross to the Magic for Serge Ibaka in February. Ross finished with 17 points and two rebounds, while Ibaka had 16 points and seven rebounds.

The Raptors took a 99-89 lead into the fourth quarter.

DeRozan’s basket gave Toronto a 19-point lead with 8:15 to go in the third. But the Magic, winners of seven games this season after falling behind by double digits, fought back.

Bismack Biyombo made a pair of free throws to cut Toronto’s lead to five with 12 seconds left in the period.

But after DeRozan hit a jumper to widen the lead to seven, Delon Wright stole the inbounds pass and hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Toronto its double-digit lead back going into the fourth.

Payton paced the Magic surge, hitting all four field goals he attempted in the quarter. He led all scorers with 10 points in the period, as Orlando outscored Toronto 32-26.

After four ties and seven lead changes in the game’s first 15 minutes, the Raptors took charge over the final nine minutes of the second quarter to take a 73-57 lead into halftime.

The Raptors hit all four 3s they attempted in the quarter, three by Norman Powell, who led all scorers with 11 points in the period.

Eight different Toronto players scored in the quarter as the Raptors outscored the Magic 33-17 over that nine-minute stretch and led by as many as 18 points.

The Magic cooled off from a torrid shooting pace in the first quarter to a still-respectable 48 percent in the second. Fournier led the way with nine points in the period.

Toronto led 35-34 after a first quarter that featured terrific shooting by both teams.

The Magic led by seven points early as Ross hit four of his first five shots and Aaron Gordon poured in 10 points. Orlando shot 13 for 29 (62 percent) from the field in the period.

DeRozan was 7 for 10 from the field in the opening quarter and hit his only 3-point attempt.

Toronto shot 15 for 24 (63 percent) as each starter had at least one field goal in the first period.

TIP-INS

Magic: Ross received a standing ovation after a tribute commemorating his 4 1/2 seasons in Toronto was played on the scoreboard during the first timeout. . Orlando has hit a 3 in 812 consecutive games, the fifth-longest active streak in the NBA. . The Magic had a 66-58 edge on points in the paint.

Raptors: DeRozan’s conference player of the week award was his fourth of the season. He averaged a league-best 33.3 points in three games last week. . Valanciunas pulled down the 3,000th rebound of his career in the second quarter, second to Chris Bosh (4,776) on Toronto’s all-time list. . The 73 points were the most the Raptors have scored in the first half this season.

 

Kawhi Leonard scores 25 as Spurs dismantle ailing Cavaliers, 103-74

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points and the San Antonio Spurs dismantled the ailing Cleveland Cavaliers 103-74 on Monday night in a showdown that turned into a major letdown for the defending NBA champions.

LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol added 14 points apiece for the Spurs, who won their fifth straight.

Cleveland (47-26) dropped its second in a row, set a season low for points and fell a half-game behind Boston (48-26) for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Cavaliers star LeBron James was injured late in the third quarter after taking an elbow to the base of his neck. He remained on the bench for a while receiving medical attention, then headed toward the locker room and didn’t return to the game.

His status was not immediately known.

Cleveland has been out of sync recently, losing three of five, and those struggles only got worse against San Antonio. The Spurs led by as many as 33 points to the delight of the sold-out crowd.

San Antonio (57-16) is two games behind Golden State (59-14) for the league’s best record entering a home showdown with the Warriors on Wednesday.

Cleveland opted to play its stars rather than sit them for rest, but the trio of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sat out the fourth quarter of its second rout in the past two weeks.

James exited with 25 seconds remaining in the third after taking an elbow to his neck from David Lee on a rebound. James continually rubbed the area before collapsing after he crossed midcourt and remained on the floor for about a minute before walking unassisted to the bench. He left for the locker room early in the fourth quarter during a timeout.

James finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 29 minutes.

The Spurs held the Cavaliers scoreless for three minutes after San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was issued a technical foul during a timeout with 6:38 remaining in the first half.

Leonard hit a right-handed runner as the second quarter closed to give the Spurs a 64-40 lead.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: Cleveland completed its schedule against the West, finishing 16-14. In addition to losing to the Spurs by 29 points, the Cavaliers lost by 35 to Golden State and 30 to the Los Angeles Clippers. . Cleveland F Kyle Korver missed his third straight game with a sore left foot, and the team plans to sit him for several games to see if rest and treatment helps. Korver will sit out Thursday in Chicago and Friday at home against Philadelphia before being re-evaluated, a team spokesman said. The shooting specialist missed seven games earlier this month with an inflamed tendon in his foot. . G Iman Shumpert missed his second consecutive game with a sore right knee. . James needs 24 points to pass Shaquille O’Neal for seventh overall in career scoring. O’Neal has 28,596 career points. . The Cavaliers averaged 116.3 points in their previous four games.

Spurs: San Antonio is holding its opponents to an average of less than 100 points for the 22nd straight season. . Danny Green tied his season high with four blocked shots. . Leonard has scored in double figures in 100 straight games.

 

Russell Westbrook dominates final minutes, hits game winner for Thunder (VIDEO)

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This game looked over. The Dallas Mavericks were up 13 with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to take the loss.

Then Russell Westbrook happened.

He scored 12 points in a 14-0 Thunder run to close out the game, then capped it off hitting the game winner for the Thunder (video above). For the game-winner, the Thunder almost went 1-4 flat and just let Westbrook work in isolation on his defender, a smart play when you have a guy this talented.

It was the kind of game that the Westbrook for MVP crowd will point to — he had 37 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists, and he absolutely dominated the final minutes of the game (he shot 5-of-9 down the stretch).

This was Westbrook’s 37th triple-double of the season, and the Thunder are 30-7 when he does reaches that mark. Westbrook takes heat in some quarters for “empty stats” or trying to pad his numbers, but the fact is the Thunder are 11-24 when he doesn’t put up the huge numbers and carry the offense. If you’re going to define “MVP” by value to his team, it’s hard not to choose Westbrook this season, this team is toast without him.

Paul Millsap out at least three more games with knee issue, Hawks 0-8 without him

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The Atlanta Hawks have come apart at the worst time. They have lost seven in a row and have fallen from comfortably in the playoffs to tied for the 5-6-7 seed in the East, just 2.5 games out of falling out of the playoffs altogether.

It has all happened with Paul Millsap out, and that is going to continue for about a week more the team announced Monday.

Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap has been diagnosed with left knee synovitis and has undergone a non-surgical procedure at Emory (Orthopaedics & Spine Center in Atlanta). He will be listed as out for the next three games and his status will be updated as appropriate.

Synovitis is when the synovial membrane — which encases joints and helps lubricate them with synovial fluid — becomes inflamed. It’s usually a sign of another issue causing the inflammation.

The Hawks problem is they are 0-8 this season when Millsap is out.

It still feels unlikely Atlanta will fall all the way out of the playoffs (they have a slightly easier schedule than everyone they’re competing against for the slot), but they are more likely than Indiana or Milwaukee to slip. Also, the odds of them finishing with the seven or eight seed seem high, and that likely means a quick one-and-done visit to the postseason.

After that would come some real questions in Atlanta about how much they want to pay Millsap to keep him as a free agent (it’s going to have to be near max money and for five years, or he will look hard at his other options).