Time to see if the Lakers have figured out the Spurs puzzle

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If it is not Lakers vs. Spurs in a May best-of-seven series to be the Western Conference champion, it will be a little disappointing.

Sorry Mr. Cuban, Mr. Durant. It’s not personal, we do like you. You’re teams are entertaining and quite good. But Lakers/Spurs would match the two teams in the West best built for a title run right now, and it carries the weight of tradition.

Right now, if the Lakers and Spurs met, the Spurs should be the favorite.

They are 51-11, they have beat the Lakers both times the teams met this season. They are playing better than any team in the NBA right now — they dismantled the Heat by 30 points in a dominating performance just a few days ago. It was a clinic. They made 17 threes and shot 60.7 percent from beyond the arc. They still had 42 points in the paint. They had 22 points in transition. They had eight players in double figures scoring and nobody took more than 15 shots. The Spurs are not just defense anymore — although they still are seven in the league in points given up per possession.

And the Laker have yet to figure the Spurs out. They have yet to score 90 points on them in a game this season. In the teams first meeting the Spurs just crushed the Lakers. A more recent meeting saw the Lakers score about 11 points per 100 possessions below their season average against the Spurs.

Sunday, we’ll see if the improved Lakers that have found their own defensive energy of late and won six in a row can figure out these Spurs. This is not a statement game, because veteran teams like this don’t really take any one regular season game that seriously. But it is a test. It will show us where the teams are now and if the Spurs match up advantages are still that dramatic.

Here are three things to watch:

• Do the Lakers run the triangle offense? The Lakers need to run their sets, start the ball inside and work cutters off Pau Gasol in the high post, they need to establish the paint. Not only because they score more efficiently that way, but also because that can help slow the Spurs fast break attack. With that, the Lakers need to attack the offensive glass with their length and make the Spurs pay a price for running. Watch how many offensive rebounds the Lakers get, it will be telling. On the other hand, if Kobe Bryant decides to go rogue and take over the offense early, it could be a bad sign for the Lakers.

• Ron Artest on Manu Ginobili. The Lakers defensive surge since the All-Star break has been about Andrew Bynum playing well in the paint and Ron Artest on the perimeter. Can he slow down Manu? See if he can keep Ginobili from getting into the middle — the Argentinian likes to drive middle no matter where he gets the ball on the court, if you can keep him on the wings he is less effective (but still pretty effective).

• Tony Parker and Derek Fisher. Tony Parker should just dominate this matchup, but to the extent that Fisher can pull tricks out of his veteran bag of tricks to not let Parker take over — if he can force him to drive to help and not knock down floaters in the lane — the better for the Lakers.

LeBron James starts game with protective goggles. That lasts about a minute.

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LeBron James suffered a scratched cornea Friday night when he went up for a layup late in the third quarter and Jeremy Lamb tried to contest and caught him clean across the face. LeBron got the and-1, but had trouble keeping his eye open in postgame interviews Friday.

Saturday he did play — wearing protective goggles. As you can see above.

That lasted about a minute.

LeBron was likely frustrated as the Cavaliers defensive woes had the Wizards up double digits much of the first half.

Kobe Bryant says he’s “only a phone call away” if organization needs his advice

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For the first time since he walked off the court in his final game, Kobe Bryant was back at Staples Center Friday night.

The reason was Shaquille O’Neal was getting a statue out in front of Staples Center (a building that may not have gotten built without the two of them). The two famed feuders sat next to each other and joked around through the ceremony. Time heals all wounds.

With the new management of the Lakers — specifically Kobe’s former agent Rob Pelinka as GM — there has been speculation Kobe could take on a role. He’s not looking for something formal, according to reports, but he didn’t say no, either, when asked.

I picture Kobe as a guy who someday buys a team, not a guy who wants to haggle with agents over the details of a contract. He’s not going to take on a day-to-day role, he likes the retired life and what he is building with the Kobe brand.

That said, the Lakers front office can use all the smart voices it can get as they try speed up a rebuild. They should give him a call every once in a while.

Clippers win likely playoff preview 108-95 over Jazz

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jamal Crawford scored 28 points off the bench, and the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Utah Jazz 108-95 on Saturday to clinch a playoff berth for the sixth straight year.

The Clippers trail the Jazz by a half-game in their race for the No. 4 playoff seed in the West. The teams are likely to face in the first round of the postseason.

Blake Griffin added 15 points and DeAndre Jordan had 15 rebounds for the Clippers.

Rudy Gobert had 26 points and 14 rebounds for Utah, and reserve Joe Johnson added 17 points. The Jazz have dropped four of five.

Utah rallied in the third, putting together a 20-6 spurt to trim Los Angeles’ lead to 72-70 heading into the final period. Gobert had nine points and Johnson scored seven during the run that included 10 straight points for the Jazz over one stretch.

Chris Paul and Crawford both got technicals while the Clippers struggled to score and defend.

But Los Angeles turned things around in the fourth, scoring the first eight points for an 80-70 lead. Crawford had 17 points in the quarter, scoring six in a row to push the Clippers’ lead to 103-84. He was 9 of 9 at the free-throw line for the game.

The Clippers grabbed control early on, shooting 52 percent in the first quarter while building a 15-point lead.

The Jazz got within seven to start the second before the Clippers restored their 15-point margin and eventually led 49-41 at halftime.

Utah’s top two scorers, Gordon Hayward and George Hill, struggled. Hayward, who averages 22 points, had 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting. Hill, who averages 17.1, had nine points while shooting 4 of 11.

TIP-INS

Jazz: Gobert was coming off a career-high 35-point, 15-rebound performance against the Knicks on Tuesday. … G Sheldon Mack missed his 11th straight game with a left ankle sprain. … F/C Derrick Favors remains out with a left knee bone contusion.

Clippers: Their six-year playoff run is the longest in franchise history. … They have won 18 of 20 against the Jazz dating to Feb. 1, 2012. … They won the season series 3-1.

 

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Sixers’ Joel Embiid officially has knee surgery, expected to be back on court in summer

Associated Press
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“The… follow-up MRI of Joel Embiid‘s left knee appears to reveal… the previously identified meniscus tear appears more pronounced in this most recent scan.”

When Philadelphia’s chief medical director Dr. Jonathan Glashow said that in a statement announcing Joel Embiid was being shut down for the season, the chance of knee surgery to clean up that meniscus was possible. Friday it became a reality, the team announced.

CSNPhilly.com had the details.

The team expects Embiid to resume basketball activities during this summer, according to Sixers director of performance research and development Dr. David T. Martin. Embiid will begin his rehab in Los Angeles with specialists and Sixers medical and training staff members.

“The overall status of Joel’s lateral meniscus and his cartilage is very good,” surgeon Dr. Neal S. ElAttrache, M.D., who performed the surgery, said in a statement. “Today’s procedure focused on removing a small portion of the meniscus that was responsible for his symptoms.

“The recovery program that has been established targets Joel transitioning back to full weight-bearing in approximately two weeks, at which point a conservative approach to his rehabilitation will be introduced.”

After Embiid missed two seasons with foot issues, there is a tendency to lump everything together and call him injury prone. This, however, was a minor surgery with a relatively short recovery period, even as the Sixers bring him along slowly. There is reason for concern, but this shouldn’t be an issue by next training camp.

Embiid averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game despite a minutes restriction all season. He was incredibly efficient in getting his numbers — he had an All-Star level PER of 24.2 — and when he was on the court the Sixers outscored their opponents by 3 points per 100 possessions. He’s still likely a top three finisher in Rookie of the Year balloting despite playing in just 31 games.