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How they can win it all: The Los Angeles Lakers

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As the two-time defending champions, the Lakers rightfully began the regular season as the favorites to win a third straight title. Despite the team’s predictable ups and downs that come with having a veteran-heavy club that’s been to the Finals three straight years, they remain the favorites in most people’s eyes as the playoffs are set to begin on Saturday.

Just how heavily the Lakers are favored, however, is open to serious debate. The Bulls and the Spurs both finished with win totals north of 60, and even though L.A. put it together brilliantly for a stretch after the All-Star break in which the team went 17-1, they limped to the finish line, dropping five in a row before barely beating San Antonio’s reserves, and giving back all of a 20-point lead in Sacramento before winning in overtime to secure the two-seed in the last game of the regular season.

So, while L.A. might still be the favorites, the team has definitely given the league’s other top contenders reason to believe that they’ll have more than a fighting chance when they get their shot at the champs. Here’s how the Lakers can remove all doubt and engineer yet another NBA title:

1. Use your tremendous size advantage to make things easy offensively

There’s a reason that the league and its fans collectively held their breath while awaiting the result of Andrew Bynum’s MRI exam, after he left Tuesday night’s game with a knee injury. Without him, the Lakers would immediately turn from favorites into long shots to repeat (yet again) as champions.

It’s no secret that the combination of Bynum and Pau Gasol in the Lakers starting lineup is a huge advantage over most, if not all of the teams in the playoffs, and L.A. needs to use them more than occasionally in order to be consistently successful. That means getting both bigs more touches offensively, which also means that the likes of Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, and Derek Fisher need to be more judicious with their shot selection, and let the offense flow through the post more often.

As the playoff pace slows and the games become more half-court oriented, avoiding quick launches from long range early in the shot clock will help the Lakers be a more efficient unit offensively, as well as limit the transition opportunities for their opponents. It’s not as easy as it sounds, however, and will take some discipline — even from guys who have the veteran experience to know better.

2. Get Kobe Bryant to play within himself

If you’ve watched any nationally televised Celtics games over the past few seasons, when they put the microphone in the timeout huddle at crucial points in the game, you always hear Doc Rivers remind his team not to play “hero ball.”

Kobe Bryant would be wise to at least consider this advice, at least for his team’s run through the playoffs.

It’s a little bit different for the Lakers, of course, because it’s not exactly an offensive democracy in L.A. the way it is for other teams. Bryant is a superstar of the highest order, and demands a high volume of touches, and an unhealthy-at-times amount of shots — especially considering the amount of talent on that roster. And yet, there are times when the Lakers simply need his spectacular ability to score in a variety of situations.

But they don’t need “hero ball,” and they don’t need Bryant to play offensively like he’s the only person on the team who can score. Everyone needs to be involved and engaged for this Lakers team to play at its highest level; Bryant needs to recognize that, and measure his play accordingly.

3. Give consistent and sustained maximum effort for the entire postseason

This might be the tallest of orders for the Lakers. It is an extremely long grind just to get to the playoffs, especially for a team that is looking to play well into June for the fourth straight season. The occasional lapse on that road is to be expected for a championship group of veterans, but now that the postseason has arrived, the focus needs to be there for every single game.

It’s important for L.A. to bring it every night now that the regular season is through, and not only because closing out the weaker, early-round opponents as quickly as possible gets the team some added rest for the tougher series that lie ahead. The Lakers have shown this year that once they drift and lose that focus, it’s not so easy for them to get it back.

When the Lakers have lapsed mentally and lost games that on paper they should have won, they haven’t shown any consistent ability to bounce back the next game and blow somebody out. The focus has taken far too long to return, as evidenced by losing streaks of four and five games that the team has uncharacteristically suffered over the course of the year.

Any losing streak in the playoffs obviously puts an end to a team’s season, so the Lakers must avoid their lengthy lapses at all costs if they are to once again take home the title.

Watch Klay Thompson’s record 11 playoff three pointers

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Klay Thompson was ridiculous. His shooting was some of the most incredible shooting you will ever see.”

That was how Warrior coach Steve Kerr described Thompson’s night — a playoff record 11 three pointers on his way to 41 points, sparking Golden State’s Game 6 win on the road. It wasn’t just the threes, it was the degree of difficulty on some of those shots — he was just in the zone. Not the Blake Griffin commercial zone, the real one.

 

Klay Thompson shoots Warriors to comeback win in Oklahoma City, forces Game 7

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors handles the ball during the second half against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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What. A. Game.

In the most intense game of these playoffs, Golden State came from eight down in the fourth quarter behind the red-hot shooting of Klay Thompson — he set an NBA record with 11 threes in a playoff game and had 19 points in the fourth quarter. Thompson had help — on defense, it was Andre Iguodala making plays on both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and shutting guys down through the stretch.

The Warriors outscored the Thunder 16-4 in the final 4:40 of the game, at a time each possession was crucial.

The result was a 108-101 Golden State win in Oklahoma City to even the series at 3-3 and force a Game 7 Monday night at Oracle Arena.

Which is just good for fans of basketball because this series has been thrilling.

It didn’t feel thrilling to OKC, this was a punch to the gut for the Thunder, who had a 13 point lead in the first half at seemed in complete control early of a game that could have sent them to the Finals. However, as the game got tight late they reverted to bad habits — everyone standing around watching Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook go one-on-one. The result was the two Thunder stars combined for 12 points on 3-of-14 shooting with six turnovers in the fourth quarter alone, four in the final two minutes. For the game, the Thunder shot 13 percent from three.

Meanwhile, the Warriors’ Thompson wasn’t just making threes, he was making ridiculously high degree of difficulty threes on his way to 41 points on the night.

“Klay Thompson was ridiculous,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “His shooting was some of the most incredible shooting you will ever see. I think he set a record for threes (he did), but our defense was fantastic. We kept getting stops, but we couldn’t get the board, but we stayed with it.”

Stephen Curry, who had struggled again in the first half and still doesn’t look 100 percent except in flashes, had one of those flashes in the fourth quarter — six points which included a dagger driving layup and the steal that sealed the win.

Curry and Thompson combined for 61 of the Warriors last 81 points in the game.

That finish was the opposite of how everything started for Golden State.

The Warriors opened the game 8-of-28 from the field and shot just 36 percent overall, plus had 10 turnovers in the first half. It was the Thunder defense that seemed to be back to form and under that pressure the Warriors reverted to some sloppy play — Curry trying to make a playground pass to a shooter in the corner when a floater or layup was available being the most obvious one (Kevin Durant stole that pass). Curry once again seemed hesitant early on in this game. Also, Steve Kerr oddly sat Thompson, Curry and Draymond Green all at the same time in the first half and that fueled a quick OKC run — and their building was rocking.

“That hasn’t been us the last month and a half,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of his team’s performance in the fourth. “I thought we got a little stagnant coming down the stretch, and then I thought us defensively, we were a little bit late.”

For much of the game the Thunder played well — Steven Adams was a beast again, Serge Ibaka made plays — but they couldn’t put the Warriors away. Part of that was Durant, who started just 2-of-10 from the field and was shooting to quickly too often, and he was 6-of-19 shooting for the half and 10-of-31 for the game.

However, behind Russell Westbrook, the Thunder led by as many as 13 in the first half. Then Warriors got a few stops, and the three ball (Curry and Thompson were 6-of-12 from deep in the first half) kept it close, it was just a five-point game at the break, 53-48.

Thompson drained a couple of threes to open the second half and with that the game was close through the third, however, Curry started to find his groove and scored 11 straight for the Warriors at one point. The Thunder made a push at the end of the quarter — with Anthony Morrow and Enes Kanter on the court — and led by eight heading into the fourth.

It wasn’t enough. There was the long Curry three over Adams to make it a one-point game with four minutes left. Westbrook hit a couple of free throws but on the next Thunder possession Durant called for a clear out that the Warriors doubled, got the steal, then got the Curry three in transition to tie it with 2:47 left.

In the end, it was too much of the shooting magic that got the Warriors 73 wins. And they got the Game 7 they needed.

“I don’t think there can be any more pressure on us in Game 7 than there was tonight,” Kerr said.

 

Steven Adams gets his revenge, dunks all over Draymond Green (VIDEO)

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That’s a piece of revenge.

Draymond Green twice kicked Steven Adams in the nether regions this series, but with the chance to close out the Warriors in Game 6 Adams got some revenge — he put Green in a poster and dunked all over him.

This came as part of a second quarter run when the Thunder stretched the lead out to double digits.

Jordan Clarkson says he wants to return to Lakers, play for Luke Walton

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 13: Jordan Clarkson of the Los Angeles Lakers is introduced for the Taco Bell Skills Challenge during NBA All-Star Weekend 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 13, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson is a restricted free agent, and he is the kind of quality rotation player that teams with cash to burn may well try to poach. The Lakers have the right to match and likely will unless the offer is way over the top. But make no mistake, Clarkson will go with the team that offers him the most money.

That’s July, right now Clarkson is saying the right things about wanting to stay with the Lakers and play for new coach Luke Walton.

Clarkson was interviewed by Chris McGee of Time Warner Cable, as reported by lakersnation.com.

I want to stay in LA….I don’t really look at it as me being a free agent; I want to be here…

He (Luke) called me a few days after he got hired. We talked about the offensive system, what he sees in us young guys, where he sees the organization, the style we’re gonna play. I’m excited for him to come and work with us.

Most likely he gets a chance, the Lakers want to keep him. They see him as part of the future (or at least as an asset they can trade to get parts for their future). He’s saying all the right things to make Laker nation happy.

But it’s going to be about the money. It always is.