The Lakers problem isn’t Kobe, it’s Gasol. And defense.

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It’s easy and maybe even trendy to say it was Kobe’s fault.

It wasn’t.

True, Sunday the Lakers offense against Boston Celtics was a heavy dose of Kobe Bryant. And way too much Kobe in isolation. It’s an easy storyline to say Kobe shot too much, but it’s not wholly accurate.

The reality is there is a much more symbiotic relationship between Kobe taking over and his teammates not stepping up. Kobe doesn’t need a lot of provocation to step into a vacuum and fill it up with shots (shots he was largely hitting against the Celtics Sunday, going 16 of 29). His teammates are fully capable of laying back, and, well, you’ve seen the result. It’s a spiral — as Kobe tries to fill in more his teammates tend to stand around more and the result is stagnant isolation. That’s what happened Sunday, and Phil Jackson for one backed Kobe saying it was more about his teammates.

The hard truth, it was more about Pau Gasol.

He all too often gets referred to as Kobe’s sidekick, but that’s not accurate. They are, if not equals, equally important to the Lakers winning. And Sunday Kevin Garnett took Gasol out of his game. Gasol was 5-of-13 shooting overall but just 1-6 from the midrange. His normally deadly elbow jumper ended up 0-3. He looked uncomfortable.

Darius Soriano at the Laker blog Forum Blue & Gold said that the Lakers have been inconsistent this season because Gasol has been inconsistent.

This year, we’ve seen a less consistent Gasol. In December, Pau had nearly as many games where he scored 10 or less points (3) as he did 20 or more (4). In January, if you raise that standard to the number of games he’s scored 13 or less points (6) and compare it to games of 20 or more points (8) you see a similar trend. And while his rebounding numbers have not fluctuated as much, the point still stands: I’m having trouble recalling a time during Pau’s stint as Laker where there’s been as much wonder surrounding what he’ll produce on a given night.

Gasol’s most recent 5 game stretch is a perfect example of this. Against the Mavs, Nuggets, and Jazz here are Pau’s numbers (points/rebounds): 23/5, 19/13, 20/7. However, in the two most recent contests versus the Kings and Celtics, Gasol gave the Lakers 9/11 and 12/7.

In looking at Lakers’ losses, you see a similar trend. In those 15 games that the Lakers trailed at the final buzzer, Gasol has had 13 or less points in 7 of them. Against the top 4 teams (Dallas, Miami, San Antonio, Boston) he’s scored 23, 17, 9, and 12 points respectively.

The question needs to be asked if the Gasol is the problem or a bellweather for the problem. But his inconsistencies mirror the team.

Gasol isn’t the only thing that has been inconsistent for the Lakers, so has their defensive effort.

The Lakers have had stretches of good defense, particularly since the return of Andrew Bynum to the lineup. That coincided with a change in defensive philosophy about wing defenders working to keep guys on the perimeter in front of them rather than just funneling to big men. It worked for a stretch.

But there are all sorts of problems, ones that lead to inconsistent play. Derek Fisher no longer can keep a guy in front of him on the perimeter, and his backup Steve Blake has ben just as bad. The Lakers Sunday went with the defense they used in the finals last year — Kobe on Rondo begging him to shoot the jumper and Fisher chasing Ray Allen off screens — but it didn’t work. Ray Allen shot 8-of-12 and had 21 points as he found gaps. Rondo has become much better at using that space he is given by defenders this year. The Celtics improved, the Lakers found out the hard way.

Speaking of inconsistent, meet Ron Artest. The guy who won the Lakers Game 7 of the NBA finals was an anchor on them Sunday. Call it an off game — letting Pierce put up 32 while shooting 1-of-10 himself — but there have been more of those games this season than last.

Because the Lakers have the last two NBA championship rings, there is still the feeling that at some point they will flip the switch again. And if they do the Spurs won’t be able to do anything about it.

Maybe. Maybe not. It’s not time to panic for Lakers fans, but it is time for them to be concerned. If the inconsistencies of the regular season carry over to the playoffs the Lakers will have problems. They are not so much more talented than other teams that they can just coast into the finals again. Maybe they are bored and come the playoffs that will be different.

But will the instant recognition and execution honed over playing 82 games be there to draw on? Or will the playoff Lakers be inconsistent too?

If so, they will be gone long before Jackson gets his chance to make a last stand in the finals.

Report: Isaiah Thomas scheduled to fly from Chicago to Washington after Celtics-Bulls Game 6

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Isaiah Thomas has played – and played well – in all five games of the Celtics’ first-round series against the Bulls, which Boston leads 3-2.

But he has done so while travelling more than his teammates, flying home to Washington to be with his family after Game 2, following his sister’s death in a car crash. He’ll again make the extra trip after Game 6 tonight.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

After the Celtics and Bulls play Game 6 at the United Center on Friday night, Thomas is scheduled to fly to Tacoma to attend his sister’s funeral at noon on Saturday. If the Celtics win Game 6, this series will be over. But if Chicago wins, Game 7 will be played in Boston at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

Teams up 3-2 with a road Game 6 in a 2-2-1-1-1 have won Game 6 just over half the time. The Celtics have been inspired to play for Thomas, who is admittedly emotionally exhausted, and I suspect this will only intensify his teammates’ desire to win for him.

I can’t imagine how Thomas has handled such a heavy burden, but it’d be nice if he had a little relief rather than the pressure to return to Boston by early Sunday afternoon.

Bruno Caboclo leads Raptors 905 to NBA D-League title

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MISSISSAUGA, Ontario (AP) Bruno Coboclo led Raptors 905 to the NBA Development League title Thursday night, scoring 31 points and adding 11 rebounds in a 122-96 victory over the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

Raptors 905 won the best-of-three series 2-1, taking the last two at home after dropping the opener at Rio Grande.

Caboclo was 13 for 19 from the field, going 5 of 7 from 3-point range. Fred VanVleet added 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting and 14 rebounds, and Pascal Siakim had 17 points. Troy Williams led the Vipers with 23 points.

Raptors 905 is affiliated with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, and Rio Grande with the Houston Rockets.

Gregg Popovich: “Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now”

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The Spurs are on to the second round of the playoffs, and the reason is Kawhi Leonard. Through six games he averaged 31.2 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting overall and 48.3 percent from three. Plus he was taking on Mike Conley — the toughest Grizzly to defend — for stretches of the game. Leonard has a PER of 36.4 through the first round of the playoffs, which is flat-out ridiculous.

That comes on the heels of a season where Leonard was a legitimate MVP candidate who will draw a lot of votes.

“We have a knack for hanging in ’cause things happen, and obviously Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said in his postgame press conference. “He’s the best two-way player, and does it all with such class, it’s impressive.”

“His conditioning is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale added about Leonard. “I mean, the guy, he just keeps coming and keeps coming and keeps coming and he finds a way to make a play, a winning play, whether it’s a steal, a block, a rebound, a drive, pass. He made plays tonight off the dribble.”

If Leonard isn’t the best player in the game — LeBron James can stake a claim, among others — he’s damn close. He’s a Swiss Army knife who can do whatever a team needs to win — get buckets driving the lane, hit threes, grab a board, or lock down an opponent on a key play. That kind of versatility is rare.

It just feels like an MVP trophy and some more rings are in Leonard’s future, although probably not this season. On either count.

Spurs advance: San Antonio beats Grizzlies 103-96 in Game 6

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The San Antonio Spurs wanted no part of playing a seventh game against the Grizzlies, not with the Houston Rockets looming in the next round.

Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points, and the Spurs advanced to the Western Conference semifinals by beating Memphis 103-96 on Thursday night to take the series 4-2.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich congratulated Memphis on a great year, especially rookie coach David Fizdale.

“I’m seriously thrilled that we were able to get through that first round,” Popovich said. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that now we have to go play Houston.”

The Spurs now have beaten Memphis four of the five playoff series between these teams, and this was San Antonio’s second straight win over the Grizzlies in the first round. But this was the first time all season that the visiting team won.

“It’s huge for us,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. “Memphis, you have to give them a lot of credit. They played unbelievable. They’re a great team, and they made it hard on us and so we didn’t want to come back for Game 7. We treated this game as if it was Game 7. We wanted those days off before playing Houston because it’s going to be a fast-paced game against them.”

Parker added 27 points on 11-of-14 shooting, while LaMarcus Aldridge had 17 points and 12 rebounds. San Antonio outrebounded Memphis 46-28, with 16 of those offensive boards. That led to 17 second-chance points.

Fizdale said rebounds, points in the paint and who pressured the best impacted each game in the series.

“I kept stressing that to our guys,” Fizdale said. “To their credit, (the Spurs) won it more games than we did. But it definitely wasn’t from a lack of competition on our part. I can sleep at night knowing my guys battled and competed their tails off.”

The Spurs’ semifinal with Houston will start Monday night in San Antonio.

Mike Conley scored 26 points, leading the five Memphis starters in double digits. Marc Gasol added 18.

The Grizzlies fell to 3-10 in elimination games, losing six straight.

This was a taut game with 16 ties and nine lead changes, especially with four ties in the fourth quarter.

The Spurs took control after the Grizzlies went up 88-81 on three free throws from Conley with 6:29 left. Then Leonard scored eight straight for San Antonio, starting a 22-8 run to finish the game.

“The guys were amazing in the fourth quarter,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “Huge plays. Great defense too. So, happy to go back home with a win and win the series.”

Even with Conley and Gasol a combined 2 of 10 in the first quarter, the Grizzlies trailed only 24-22 after Conley knocked down a 3 at the end of the quarter for his first bucket of the game. Conley hit another 3 for the final shot in the second quarter, putting Memphis up 50-45. The team that led at halftime won each of the first five games.

Parker hit his first six shots before finally missing his seventh with 29 seconds left in the first half.

The Grizzlies took their biggest lead at 57-47 on a 3-pointer by James Ennis III. That gave Memphis as many made 3s (9 of 17) as the Spurs had attempted (3 of 9) at that point. Randolph’s layup with 7:19 left matched that 10-point lead at 63-53.

Then the Spurs went on a 13-3 run over a 4-minute span to erase that lead on Aldridge’s three-point play at 67-66. Aldridge finished with nine points in helping the Spurs lead 75-74 at the end of the quarter.

TIP-INS

Spurs: They improved to 36-15 with a chance to clinch a series under Popovich, who took over in the 1996-97 season. … Ginobili converted a four-point play with 1:31 left in the third, putting the Spurs up 73-69. … The Spurs wound up tying the Grizzlies’ reserves with 16 points thanks to Mills.

Grizzlies: The Grizzlies set a franchise record hitting eight 3-pointers in the first half, topping the previous mark of seven in the second half May 1, 2005, against Phoenix. … Conley has 20 or more points in five straight playoff games, the longest such streak in franchise history.

HE SAID IT

Popovich: “I’m thrilled we were able to win because if we played 10 times, we each would probably win five.”

FREE THROW WATCH

Fizdale earned a $30,000 fine from the NBA for his “Take that for data” rant about the free throw discrepancy in Game 2. Well, Leonard was 9 of 10 at the free throw line through three quarters compared to the Grizzlies’ 7 of 8. The Spurs were 18 of 20 through three quarters. The Spurs finished 22 of 25 compared to 20 of 24 for Memphis.