Heat get some confidence, Kobe gets some fuel — everybody wins

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Here is what you need to know about what Thursday night meant to the Lakers, and why Kobe Bryant has pushed his teams to two consecutive titles.

Thirty minutes after the Heat defeated the Lakers 94-88 in a game where Kobe’s shot was off after the first quarter (8-21 overall after starting 4-4) and his shot selection down the stretch was terrible, he was back on the court and started shooting. In an empty AmericanAirlines Arena after a tough game Kobe was putting himself through a workout and trying to fix his jumper. He was out there for an extended period just trying to fix what went wrong.

In the end, both the Lakers and the Heat may be better because of what happened Thursday night.

For the Heat, it was a confidence boost they needed and a reminder they can play with the big boys. This game was tied 88-88, but after a week of hearing how they couldn’t do this it was Wade and the Heat that were clutch.

First Wade stripped Kobe of the ball and was able to get it ahead to LeBron James on a run-out for a breakaway dunk. Then after a ridiculously rushed fade-away three from Kobe (with 23 seconds on the shot clock off an inbound play) Wade came down and the Heat executed a beautiful play. They used Zydrunas Ilgausksas and his threat of a 15-foot jumper to draw Bynum away from the basket. Then Wade went away from a LeBron James screen, a move  that totally threw Kobe (guarding Wade). Wade blew past Kobe and was in the lane before help could arrive. Wade laid it in and the Heat were up four.

Let’s be clear — reading too much into one regular season game is a mistake, but the Heat have plenty of things to build off of from this win.

Quality end of game execution is a place to start. They went out and made better decisions and shots in crunch time than the defending NBA champions.

Then there is the play of Chris Bosh, who attacked the rim all night. He did a great job sliding to the rim when his man (Pau Gasol) came over to help. The result was passes to him, offensive rebounds and a good night. Bosh was aggressive and took control of the ball. Early on, when Wade and James struggled it was Bosh that kept the Heat in this game.

For the Lakers, the lessons are ones they know, but bad habits that they fall back on anyway. In the second half they went away from Gasol and working their offense inside-out completely. And Bynum and Gasol got utterly and totally  outworked on the glass by some pretty pedestrian rebounders. Bynum had one rebound in the first half (he improved in the second half and finished with 12). Los Angeles lost focus on its strengths and at the end had Kobe launching desperation threes early in the shot clock.

We learned nothing new about the Lakers, we were simply reminded that they can still fall prey to bad habits. We learned nothing about the Heat — unless you really thought this recent slide meant they were not contenders. They are. They have flaws but they also have great talent at three spots on the floor that can make up for any deficiency. We were reminded that Wade knows how to play in the clutch.

That is something the Heat can build off of tomorrow. Kobe is trying to build off his mistakes right now.

Dwight Howard still feeling ‘super’ expectations with Hornets

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DETROIT – Dwight Howard went from leading Orlando in the NBA Finals to playing in star-studded Los Angeles to joining a Houston team that also fancied itself a contender to being the highest-paid player in his hometown Atlanta to… landing in Charlotte, a small-market franchise with modest ambitions.

The spotlight finally off the former No. 1 pick, Howard doesn’t feel reduced pressure.

“Everybody expects me to be Superman every single night,” Howard said.

Howard is diving into his new situation – his third team in three years – headfirst. He’s leading pregame huddles and the Hornets onto the court.

“I have the most experience,” said Howard, in his 14th season. “So, it’s not to come in and fit in. It’s to come in and be a leader.”

This is the latest referendum on Howard. Despite eight All-NBA selections (most of them first-team) and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he faces relentless criticism of his legacy.

His exit from the Magic was so ugly, it’s known as the Dwightmare. His feuding with the Lakers great is the stuff of legend in Kobe Bryant mythology. Howard never clicked with James Harden with the Rockets. The Hawks unloaded him for a paltry return in what was more salary rearrangement than salary dump, and his former teammates reportedly cheered.

Howard just seems to rub people the wrong way.

That makes his latest test in Charlotte so interesting. Howard is supplanting maybe Kemba Walker as the face of the team and definitely Cody Zeller as starting center. The Hornets have found success with Zeller, going 63-53 when he starts and 57-73 otherwise the last three seasons.

“The nature of his game, he plays in a way to help other people play better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Zeller. “He is a screener. He is a ball-mover.”

In other words, the type of player teammates love.

Is Howard?

Howard is still solidly productive. In Charlotte’s season-opening loss to the Pistons, he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks – and ruffled a few feathers. Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

https://twitter.com/Vincent_Ellis56/status/921100491362365440

Dirty-work players who irritate opponents are revered. High-priced players who irritate their teammates are loathed.

Howard walks a fine line.

He returned to Atlanta with emotion and expectations. By the end of his time with the Hawks, everyone seemed unhappy. Still, Howard says he’s grateful for the opportunity to play in front of people, especially his grandparents, who watched him grow up.

“Atlanta is going to be my home,” Howard said. “The Hawks is always going to be my favorite team.”

It’s just never easy for Howard.

Even a career Basketball Reference pegs as 99% likely to end in the Hall of Fame based on his tangible accomplishments stirs controversy.

“He’s a Hall of Famer right now if he never played another game,” Clifford said.

Said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando: “It’s mind-boggling to me that would be any debate there.”

It’s probably easier for Van Gundy and Howard to recall their time together fondly than it was to enjoy it while partnered. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles while Howard was there, is just getting into his time as Howard’s head coach.

It’s those middle moments, in the throes of long seasons, that have proven difficult for Howard and those around him.

Here he is in Charlotte, hosting the Hawks tonight, and facing another challenge. The Hornets would probably be happy just making the playoffs and ecstatic advancing, which would be their first playoff-series victory since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Howard, who has reached three conference finals, is counting on himself to lead them there – even if nobody else is anymore.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.

Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala cleared to play vs. Pelicans Friday

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Without Draymond Green in the fourth quarter Tuesday night in the opener, and with Andre Iguodala out for the game, the Warriors defense fell apart against Houston. The Rockets scored 34 points in the quarter and came from behind to beat a Warriors team that had been in control of the game up to that point. There was more to it than just Green’s balky knee, but without the Defensive Player of the Year they are not the same.

Bad news for the Pelicans: Green and Iguodala have been cleared to play in New Orleans Friday. Green had an MRI and it came back negative.

Green admitted he was concerned that the injury, via Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

Now it is the Pelicans who should be concerned. The Warriors will want to wash the feeling of that opening night loss off them.

Report: Kevin Love was frustrated with move to center

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With Derrick Rose having to start at point guard (until Isiah Thomas returns sometime in early 2018) and Dwyane Wade starting at the two, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had no choice but to move Kevin Love to starting at center. The Cavaliers desperately need the floor spacing to open up driving lanes and options for LeBron James. Start Tristan Thompson at the five (with Love at the four and Jae Crowder coming off the bench) and it adds another non-shooter to the mix that allows opposing defenses to just pack the paint and force LeBron to be a jump shooter.

That doesn’t mean everyone liked the change.

Love admitted to Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he was frustrated with the move at first.

“It’s been a little bit of a change for me,” Love admitted. “I still find myself spacing a little bit wanting to roll a little bit more and on the defensive end just playing the primary big on their team the whole time on the defensive end. It’s been a little bit different figuring things out on that end, but it comes with the growth I’m talking about. We need to do that and hopefully be a machine when things start clicking.”

Lue put it this way.

“We’re going to try it out and see how it works. He was frustrated at first, but now he’s enjoying it.”

While in certain matchups, when the opposition has a more traditional center, the Cavs may go back to the Love/Thompson front line for a stretch. But the small ball lineup is the way Cleveland should be leaning, even with its clear defensive deficiencies. We saw that in the opener with Love’s dagger three in the fourth quarter.

Love is adjusting, he’s already sacrificed a lot to play with LeBron. This is just another step in that evolution.