Lakers resurgence reminds us bigger is better

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Why, every year, do people fall for this?

Back in December Lakers fans were freaking out — and the rest of the league hoped they were right — because something seemed off about the Lakers. They weren’t bad, but the two-time defending champions were not dominating everyone, were not focused, were not defending, were not healthy and were not turning water into wine as their fans expect. Meanwhile the Spurs and Mavericks were steamrolling everyone in their path. People started working on their epitaphs for the Lakers tombstones.

But scouts warned us back then that it was really about the Lakers, not their opponents. If the Lakers got it together, they were the class of the West and maybe again the class of the NBA.

Well, the Lakers have got it together.

The Lakers are 13-1 since the All-Star break and have been the best team in the league. They are focused, they are defending, they are healthy (relatively) and they have the swagger that champions can bring.

And they remind us that bigger is better.

Or as our own Matt Moore tweeted after the Lakers beat the revamped Mavericks recently, it’s not just the sheer length of the Lakers front line, but the skill.

Basically, the lesson from this game is: You can add all the size depth you want but it doesn’t matter if none of it is as good as LA’s.

Sure, there is Kobe Bryant, and he will do Kobe Bryant things. He will get his 20-plus points and take some bad shots (and make a number of them). He will dominate the ball late in games.

But it is the Lakers size and skill that sets them apart. Bigger is better in basketball. Every one of their three key big men is at least 6’10” and with a crazy wingspan.

Andrew Bynum is the defensive anchor — the Lakers have him playing back and work at funneling penetration to him, forcing a pass or a shot over his long wingspan. He also can be a beast on the offensive glass and has a respectable jump hook. For scoring they have Pau Gasol, the most fundamentally sound big man in the game — he has the best footwork of any big in the Association, can score effectively with either hand and is probably the best passer out of the high post in the league. Then there is Lamar Odom, the likely NBA Sixth Man of the Year who is having a career season. He’s the tallest point forward in the league who can score in the post or lead the break off the dribble.

Or look at it this way: Odom has a PER of 20, Bynum 21.6 and Gasol 23.4. (For the uninitiated, PER is a measure of basketball impact and efficiency.)

Lakers blog Forum Blue & Gold (my old stomping grounds) and Neil Paine from Basketball-Reference teamed up recently to see if any team ever had three big men with PER’s as high as the Lakers did.

Nope.

Not since the NBA/ABA merger in the mid 1970s. No team has had three forwards/centers with PERs that high. No team has had three big men having seasons like this, three big men who can change the game on the offensive end with their skills.

Bigger is better. It is impossible for other teams to match up with. And that is the reason that for all the drama in December, taking the Larry O’Brien trophy away from the Lakers is going to be monumentally difficult.

Maybe next December people won’t fall for this… but probably not.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.

Meek Mill gets out of jail, takes helicopter to 76ers-Heat, rings bell pregame

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Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid had been one of the most notable NBA players leading the charge for the #FreeMeekMill movement. The rapper Meek Mill, a Philadelphia native and Sixers fan, has been incarcerated for violating the terms of his probation multiple times.

At the heart of the movement to free Meek Mill is the idea of comparative justice, that he has been unfairly targeted because of his race as an absorber of punishment from the penal system despite it being a decade since he committed his crime. People from Embiid to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft have made their voices heard on the subject.

Today, Meek Mill was released from prison and was sent a special gift: the opportunity to fly via helicopter, provided by 76ers minority owner Michael Rubin, to Game 5 between the Sixers and Miami Heat.

When he arrived at the game, the rapper rung the ceremonial bell before tip-off.

Not a couple of hours fresh out of the joint.

Russell Westbrook fined $10,000 for confrontation with Gobert, no suspension

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The rule in the NBA is clear and strictly enforced (just ask Amar’e Stoudemire and the Suns): Leave the bench during an altercation and you get suspended for a game.

Monday night, in the fourth quarter of the chippy game Monday where the Jazz beat the Thunder, Russell Westbrook was set to check into the game when there was a little dust-up between Rudy Gobert in Raymond Felton, and Westbrook came in and escalated it. Did he leave the bench, or was he coming into the game and that’s different.

The NBA decided he was coming into the game already — Westbrook got a $10,000 fine and an after-the-fact technical, but no suspension.

OKC needs Westbrook — and an aggressive Westbrook who is knocking down his midrange shot — to have a chance to avoid elimination in Game 5 Wednesday. The Thunder have had their strengths turned against them, and have not shown the versatility to adjust in this series, and if Westbrook and company cannot change that Wednesday their season will end.

Nets hire Pablo Prigioni as assistant coach, Tiago Splitter as scout

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired former NBA player and Argentine guard Pablo Prigioni as an assistant coach.

The Nets also announced Tuesday that former Spurs center Tiago Splitter was hired as a pro scout.

Prigioni spent most of his professional career in Spain and won a bronze medal with Argentina in the 2008 Olympics before coming to the New York Knicks in 2012 as a 35-year-old rookie. He spent four years in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets and Clippers.

Splitter helped San Antonio win the 2014 NBA championship before spending the final two seasons of his seven-year career with Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nets said Splitter, who also played for Brazil’s national team, will have added duties related to player on-court development.