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.

Report: J.B. Bickerstaff agrees to three-year deal to coach Memphis Grizzlies

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We heard rumblings that the Memphis Grizzlies were looking to remove the interim distinction from J.B. Bickerstaff’s title and make him acting head coach. Now, the team has made their move.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Memphis agreed to a three-year deal with Bickerstaff on Thursday, making him the new head coach of the team.

Bickerstaff, 39, was previously the associate head coach of the Grizzlies under David Fizdale. Fizdale was fired in November, and Bickerstaff took over as interim head coach.

This has been a long time coming for Bickerstaff, who was a longtime assistant coach in Charlotte, Minnesota, and Houston. Bickerstaff took over the Rockets job in 2015 when the team fired head coach Kevin McHale.

The task ahead of Bickerstaff will not be easy. Next season he will get Mike Conley back from injury, but the roster is still in the process of being rebuilt and Marc Gasol, 33, seems like constant trade bait. The Western Conference is tough, but finally Bickerstaff gets his shot at the big job on a permanent basis.

Enes Kanter helps pardon Thunder fans who left playoff game early (VIDEO)

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Enes Kanter may be leaning toward opting in to his $18 million player option with the New York Knicks this summer (I would) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have love for fans in Oklahoma City.

In a video posted to social media on Thursday, Oklahoma City mayor David Holt and Kanter appeared together to give pardons to the Thunder fans who left early during the team’s Game 5 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony staved off elimination with their win against Utah, giving the Jazz a 3-2 series lead as they head back to Salt Lake City on Friday night.

Kanter, who played for the Thunder from 2015-2017, says he is still friendly with many of the players on the Oklahoma City roster. Kanter also played for the Jazz for the first three-and-a-half years of his career.

Via Twitter:

I personally don’t understand leaving a game early. Your car is trapped underground or is parked six miles away on some back alley, you’re not leaving any game quickly. The train is going to be jam packed and will sit at the stadium station for like 28 more minutes after you board, no matter when you board.

Don’t leave games early, folks. Try to haggle with the people working the concession stands to give you another soft pretzel for free. Get your money’s worth.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

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