Game of the night: Kobe can’t will the Lakers past the Spurs

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From the opening tip, it was obvious this was one of those games Kobe Bryant wanted to take over. Call it ego, call it leadership, just know that it has worked before. Many times. He has elevated the Lakers by his sheer will.

It worked Tuesday on one level — this was the most energy and activity the Lakers have played with in weeks. The effort was there from the team.

What was lacking was execution, or the ability to knock down shots against a stout Spurs defense. What was not there was the ability to stop Tony Parker in transition and as he penetrated off the dribble, shredding the Lakers hesitant defense.

The result was a 97-82 win for the Spurs that was further evidence that right now in December they are better than the Lakers.

This was not a statement game, no message for the playoffs. The Lakers and Spurs make their statements in the second season, not late December. But it was an accurate snapshot of where the two teams are right now.

The Spurs are executing. They have revamped their offense but the efficiency is still there. Parker and Manu Ginobili are masterful and the two did a good job of attacking early in the clock before the Lakers got set defensively. Plus the Spurs still play good defense — and on that end of the floor and on the boards Tim Duncan is still key to this team.

The Lakers are not executing. They came out with the energy to right the ship tonight but they have not spent the first two months of the season building a base of good habits, and that has to be rebuilt now. That is not a switch to flip — the Lakers can get there faster because they’ve been there before, but they still have to travel the road.

Kobe came out and scored 8 of the Lakers first 10 — and on the couple plays where Ron Artest got the shot (and good looks) Kobe was still calling for the rock. He wanted to own the game and he hit 4 of 5 to start the game. Then he went cold, hitting 4 of 22 the rest of the night.

Part of that was the Spurs, part of that was Kobe — and the rest of the Lakers. As a team the Lakers shot 35.4 percent for the game and in a key stretch in the fourth quarter where they got some stops they just could not hit shots consistently. That includes Lamar Odom missing a layup driving to his left that is his go-to shot. Or Kobe open in the midrange. Shannon Brown was 1-11.

The one exception was Andrew Bynum, who was 4 for 4 and seems to be finding his touch — his shot was softer than it has been.

The Spurs just continued to impress as they have all season. The Lakers had no answer for Parker, who finished with 23 points on 10 of 18 shooting with two rebounds, three assists, and two steals. Parker blew by whomever the Lakers put on him on the perimeter and with both slow transition defense and hesitant rotations in the halfcourt Parker could pretty much do what he wanted inside.

Same with DeJuan Blair, who was the best big on the court and finished with 17 points and 15 boards.

The Spurs took control of this game at the start of the second half as they picked up the defensive intensity and the Lakers countered that with less player movement and more dribbling. Bad idea.

Kobe tried to carry his team and by the end looked exhausted on the court. This is not the end for the Lakers, but in the last two games they have seen where the bar is set and how far short of it they are right now. The Spurs and Heat are two of the four best teams in the league right now (with Dallas and Boston). The Lakers are on the next tier. They are the one team on that tier fully capable of making the jump up to the elite, but they have to get their execution back.

Something the Spurs already have down.

Report: Knicks to discuss coaching vacancy with Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer

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Mike Budenholzer is restless in Atlanta, seeing a rebuild coming and looking at other jobs (something Hawks management is fine with). He went down the road a ways with the Suns before pulling out of that process, but he’s still looking around.

The Knicks are casting a wide net in their search, talking to virtually everyone looking for coaching jobs.

So, this seemed inevitable, right? Budenholzer and the Knicks are going to talk, according to Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

This will be very preliminary. The Knicks have already had some level of conversation with Mark Jackson, David Fizdale, Jerry Stackhouse, David Blatt, Mike Woodson, and TNT analyst Kenny Smith (Jackson and Fizdale are the rumored early leaders). Budenholzer has established a style and culture in Atlanta, giving the franchise a path forward. New York could certainly use that.

However, the Knicks job comes with real challenges, too. That starts with James Dolan as owner and the erratic, at times paranoid culture he has created there. Also, expectations in New York are always high, but the team will be without Kristaps Porzigis for at least half (maybe all) of the upcoming season as he recovers from an ACL injury, and that puts a ceiling on the team in the short term. Is all that worth leaving Atlanta for?

 

Stephen Curry to begin “modified” practices with Warriors

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Golden State has flipped the switch in the first round, going up 3-0 on overmatched San Antonio. The Warriors have been outscoring the Spurs by 20.2 points per 100 possessions in the series, allowing less than a point per possession on defense and scoring when and where they want. Kevin Durant is averaging 27.3 points per game, Klay Thompson is shooting 63.3 percent from three and scoring 25.7 points per game, and the Warriors are clicking.

But they are not yet whole — they need Stephen Curry back. Not for this round, but before the Western Conference Finals for sure.

Curry was re-evaluated Friday and will begin practicing with the team in a limited — or “modified” to use the team’s term — way.

The target has always been a return somewhere during the second round, and that still seems to be on track. That is also a little faster than traditional for a Grade 2 MCL sprain, which can take up to two months to heal (not the 4-6 weeks of the Warriors timeline), but the Warriors are being cautious here for now.

Eventually, the Warriors will need him back — their offense is built around Curry and his ball movement and movement off the ball. Curry’s gravity to draw defenders, even when he doesn’t have the ball, opens up the floor for others. Put simply, if he’s 28 feet from the bucket on the weak side defenders still have to watch and be near him, and help defenders need to be aware, which pulls the defense to wherever he is. Without Curry and the Warriors take more midrange jumpers, it’s just in the first round series against the Spurs they are hitting them.

 

Kenyon Martin: I once played high

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Former NBA commissioner David Stern said the league began testing for marijuana because players complained of other players playing high. Chauncey Billups said he knew teammates who played better high.

But Stephen Jackson is the rare former NBA player who admitted to playing high.

Now, he has company.

Kenyon Martin – who played for the Nets, Nuggets, Clippers, Knicks and Bucks in a 15-year career – via Bleacher Report:

We were playing in Indiana one day. I wasn’t feeling well. I had a hamstring, a hip or something. So, I smoked. I wasn’t going to play originally. So, we got to the arena, and I’m like, “I feel good.” I went and told the trainer, “I’m going to go today.” I went out there and had a great game.

If you want to guess which game this was, here are the possibilities.

This was part of a great feature on marijuana in the NBA and NFL. Matt Barnes, Al Harrington and Gary Paton also participate. I highly recommend (pun intended) watching it in full.

Nuggets president Tim Connelly: Next season playoffs or bust

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The Nuggets have steadily improved over the last four years – 30-52 to 33-49 to 40-42 to 46-36.

But even 46 wins weren’t enough to get Denver into the playoff this season, extending the postseason drought to five years.

Nuggets president Connelly, via Gina Mizell of The Denver Post:

On if next season is “playoffs or bust”:

“I think we’re there. How many times can you be the bridesmaid? Our young core, three of our best players are 23 (Gary Harris), 22 (Jokic) and 21 (Jamal Murray), and they’ve proven they’re capable of doing it at the highest level. I think all of us are, quite frankly, sick of this time of the year having a press conference.”

There’s certainly something to be said for injecting urgency. The Nuggets are already good enough to make the playoffs. They just happened to play in a historically deep Western Conference. But that doesn’t mean they can’t take more responsibility.

Denver lost to the Hawks (twice), Grizzlies (twice without Mikey Conley), Mavericks, Kings and Nets this season. Flip any of those games, and the Nuggets would have made the playoffs.

But I’m not sure what “or bust” means.

Connelly said Michael Malone would return as coach next season. If Denver misses the playoffs, would he get fired? Would Connelly come on the hot seat? What if the Nuggets again produce a record that typically qualifies for the postseason?

Even if Denver misses the playoffs next year, the 2019-20 team would have a 22-year-old Jamal Murray, 25-year-old Gary Harris and probably a 24-year-old Nikola Jokic under contract. That’s still a pretty good place to be.

Because of Jokic’s rapid ascent, the Nuggets are trying to accelerate the timeline. They most notably signed Paul Millsap last summer. (Injury cost him most of the season and contributed to Denver falling short.) They could also emphasize the present by re-signing Will Barton this offseason.

But playoffs or not next year, the Nuggets have a bright future. Connelly just doesn’t want them leaning on that excuse, though following through on his edict could create complications if Denver again narrowly misses the postseason with a good record.