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.

Watch Lonzo Ball’s 29 point, 11 rebound, 9 assist game Friday night

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This was more of what fans expected from Lonzo Ball.

After a rough first game against the Clippers — with Patrick Beverley in his face all night — Ball found plenty of room to operate against the soft defense of the Phoenix Suns. With room to operate Ball had 29 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists — just one assist short of a triple-double. He helped the Lakers pull away to a lead in the third then hold on for a 132-130 win over the Suns.

Ball wasn’t terribly efficient, 12-of-27 shooting, but he was 4-of-9 from three, he played with great pace, he was decisive, and was finding guys with his passes. It was a step forward, even if it was against a sad defense (Eric Bledsoe can be a good defender, but he has seemed disinterested in recent years).

Ball and the Lakers are going to be up and down this season, the goal is for there to be more ups near the end of the season.

LeBron James rejects Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim

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Through the first couple games of the season, Giannis Antetokounmpo has put up impressive numbers — he dropped 34 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on the Cavaliers Friday night.

But the Cavaliers still have LeBron James.

He had 24 points and 8 assists, leading Cleveland to the win.

LeBron also reminded the Greek Freak just how good a rim protector he is. Few people can slow Antetokounmpo on the drive, but LeBron is one of them.

Is it too early to root for a Cavs vs. Bucks playoff series?

Hawks’ DeAndre’ Bembry out with fractured wrist

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In their season opener Wednesday, Atlanta second-year man DeAndre’ Bembry came off the bench and played 17:45, scored six points and was +13 on the night. It was a good start to his career.

But now he is going to miss some time with a fractured wrist.

Bembry underwent an MRI, which revealed a fracture in his right wrist, the Hawks announced Friday. He will return to Atlanta with the team (the Hawks lost to the Hornets Friday night) and will meet with team doctors at the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center on Monday. His status will be updated after that.

“We just may play some other guys more, we may use some of the young guys,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer told the AP before Friday night’s game. “We’ll just figure it out tonight and as we move forward. I don’t think there’s anything guaranteed for anybody, it’s unfortunate for DeAndre’ and for us.”

 

Danny Ainge says Celtics will apply for Disabled Player Exception

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It’s not likely Gordon Hayward returns this season. His agent said as much, although a return in March is not out of the question. (It’s better PR wise for the Celtics to say he is out for the season, then if he returns early great, it’s better than setting a deadline he doesn’t meet.)

With that, the Celtics are going to apply for the Disabled Player Exception, which could help them land a replacement player, Danny Ainge told Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.

President of basketball operations Danny Ainge told the Globe on Friday the club is applying for the Disabled Player Exception, which would provide the Celtics $8.4 million to pursue a player to fill Hayward’s roster spot.

“We’re in the process of doing that,’’ Ainge said. “We have a while to do that. There’s no urgency, but we will apply for that.”

There are limits to what that money can get the Celtics. The money is the same as the mid-level exception, the Celtics can go over the cap to use it, and the player can be obtained via free agency or trade. However, the player must be in the last year of his contract.

It gives the Celtics options. It also does not mean Hayward cannot return, it only means NBA-approved doctors determined he is not likely to return before a mid-June deadline.