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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.

Wade, Butler lead Bulls over Suns 128-121 in overtime

Chicago Bulls' Dwyane Wade (3) drives on Phoenix Suns' Alan Williams (15) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Chicago. The Bulls won in overtime 128-121. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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CHICAGO (AP) — Dwyane Wade scored 23 points, Jimmy Butler added 22 and the Chicago Bulls rallied to beat the Phoenix Suns 128-121 in overtime Friday night.

Devin Booker scored 27 points for Phoenix, but missed a chance to win it in regulation after Wade fouled him on a 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds left. Booker hit the first two free throws to tie it, then missed the third.

Wade and Butler led the Bulls as they rallied from 11 down in the fourth quarter to beat the Western Conference’s last-place team. Both players scored 14 points after the third quarter to help the Bulls win their third straight.

Nikola Mirotic scored 20 points and hit four 3-pointers. Robin Lopez added 19 points. Denzel Valentine, who figures to get more playing time after Doug McDermott was traded to Oklahoma City along with Taj Gibson on Thursday, had 15 points. The rookie hit 5 of 8 3-pointers.

Eric Bledsoe added 17 points and 10 assists for Phoenix. The Suns lost for the sixth time in eight games.

The Bulls scored 20 points in overtime and were leading 116-110 after a seven-point spurt that Mirotic started with a 3.

Wade put back Butler’s airball and hit two free throws to make it 122-115. And he had the crowd roaring in the closing minute when he drove for a dunk on Alex Lin and gave the raise-the-roof gesture.

The Suns appeared to be in good shape leading 102-91 with 4:32 remaining in regulation after Booker nailed a 3 to finish a 14-2 run, but the Bulls came storming back.

A dunk by Wade and 3 by Mirotic with 1:53 left cut it to 104-103 and drew a huge roar from the crowd.

Butler hit a 3 to tie it at 106-all with 48 seconds remaining, and after a driving Bledsoe lost the ball out of bounds, he nailed a baseline jumper to give Chicago a two-point lead with 9.1 seconds left.

TIP-INS

Suns: The Suns waived F Mike Scott and C/F Jared Sullinger on Friday, a day after acquiring them in trades. … The Suns also signed G Ronnie Price for the rest of the season.

Bulls: Rajon Rondo will remain in the backup point guard role, coach Fred Hoiberg said. … G Cameron Payne (flu), acquired from Oklahoma City, was unavailable.

 

DeMar DeRozan drops career-high 43, Raptors beat Celtics 107-97

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TORONTO (AP) — DeMar DeRozan scored a career-high 43 points and the Toronto Raptors rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat the Boston Celtics 107-97 on Friday night.

DeRozan shot 15 of 28 from the floor as he surpassed his 42-point effort against the Houston Rockets on March 30, 2015, helping the Raptors overcome the absence of fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry. Lowry sat out with a right wrist injury.

Serge Ibaka, acquired by trade from the Orlando Magic last week, scored 15 points in his debut, while fellow newcomer P.J. Tucker, picked up from the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, had a game-high 10 rebounds and nine points in his first game for his new team.

Isaiah Thomas scored 20 points for Boston, which also got 19 points each from Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart.

Down 91-88 with 4:11 to play, the Raptors went on a 9-1 run to lead by five with 2:01 to play. Though Crowder cut that lead to three with a jump shot with 1:46 remaining, DeRozan drilled a jump shot with a minute remaining to put the Raptors up by five.

Tucker was unable to convert either free throw after being fouled by Al Horford with 47 seconds left, but Thomas missed the next time down the court, and after being fouled by Smart, DeRozan converted both free throws with 33 seconds to play. He then followed up with two more after a three-point play from Smart to take the game away from Boston with 27.5 seconds to go.

The Celtics found their range early, connecting on 55 percent of their shots from the floor and 40 percent from 3-point range in the first quarter. The Raptors could only hit 40 percent and went 0 for 3 from beyond the arc, and while DeRozan topped all scorers with 10 points, they were trailing 29-18 after 12 minutes.

Boston pushed its lead to 17 on a 3-point shot from Jaylen Brown with 1:29 to play in the half, but Toronto closed on a 7-0 run following a flagrant foul by Thomas on DeRozan.

The Raptors continued their comeback effort in the third quarter, with Ibaka’s 3-pointer with 5:58 to go capping a 27-8 Toronto run to give the Raptors their first lead since the 3:54 mark of the first quarter. Smart’s 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining handed Boston a 77-74 edge entering the final 12 minutes.

TIP-INS

Celtics: G Avery Bradley (right Achilles) sat out and coach Brad Stevens said G Gerald Green (left heel) would miss both Friday and Sunday’s games. Thomas extended his franchise record of consecutive 20-point games to 42.

Raptors: Cory Joseph replaced Lowry in the starting lineup.

UNITED NATIONS

The addition of Ibaka (Republic of Congo) means the Raptors now have seven players on their roster born outside of the United States, tied with Utah for the most in the NBA.

INSTANT IMPACT

Ibaka quickly made himself at home on Friday, blocking Thomas’s shot inside of three minutes, before following that up with his first points as a Raptor on a jump shot seconds later, bringing an enthusiastic Air Canada Centre crowd to its feet.

POWER PLAYER

While Raptors coach Dwane Casey patrolled one sideline, his Toronto Maple Leafs counterpart, Mike Babcock, took in the game from the opposing sideline, sitting courtside alongside Toronto’s chief of police. With the Leafs currently on a three-game homestand, the Stanley Cup-winning coach was able to enjoy an evening off before his team hosts the rival Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night.

 

Magic President: Season has been ‘incredibly disappointing’

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 18:  Aaron Gordon #00 of the Orlando Magic competes in the 2017 Verizon Slam Dunk Contest at Smoothie King Center on February 18, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Gerald Herbert - Pool/Getty Images)
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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Orlando Magic president Alex Martins entered the season believing this was the franchise’s best chance to break into the playoffs for first time in the post-Dwight Howard era.

With 23 games remaining, Martins realizes that’s a longshot at best.

“The season to date has been incredibly disappointing,” Martins told The Associated Press. “We didn’t expect to be in mix for one of the top seeds by any stretch as we are progressing. Our hope was to get in there and make the playoffs.”

The team brought in two key veteran front-court additions to fuse with a young nucleus and hired an experienced playoff coach in Frank Vogel. The pieces seemed in place to end a five-year playoff drought.

But Orlando has the third-worst record in the NBA at 21-28 and have scrapped their dominant front-court plan, shipping Serge Ibaka to Toronto. Their slim postseason chances are quickly fading.

It’s other setback for 34-year-old general manager Rob Hennigan, who has not delivered on putting Orlando back into the playoffs during his nearly five-year tenure. The roster has been consistently re-made and three different head coaches have been hired during Hennigan’s tenure.

Martins expressed his excitement about the future of a young nucleus of players that includes Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier and now nearly acquired swingman Terrence Ross. He also spoke highly of Vogel, who was hired last May after a successful run with the Indiana Pacers .

But Martins didn’t mention Hennigan, who has one more year remaining on his contract.

When asked about the GM, the president said Hennigan’s future will be evaluated at the end of the season, along with the rest of the basketball operations staff.

“We feel that you have to have the complete book of business for the year to be able to evaluate them and we are going to do that,” Martins said. “Everybody is accountable to all of the results and we will evaluate our basketball operations staff extensively at the end of the year and make any decision that we need to make.”

Hennigan has not shied away from discussing his job security, acknowledging that things have not worked out as he had hoped to this point.

“The seat is always hot,” Hennigan said last week. “That’s something that comes with the territory and it’s just something that comes with the job. It’s a difficult job with a lot of complexities. We feel like we are figuring it out.”

But the results don’t seem to support Hennigan’s assertion that they are any closer to figuring it out than when he came aboard in June 2012. Draft picks haven’t panned out, free agents have been brought in and shipped out as quickly and there has seemed to be a revolving door at the head coaches’ office.

The latest fallout was the Ibaka acquisition that fell apart quickly. The Magic gave up a promising young player in Victor Oladipo and other assets in order to get Ibaka from Oklahoma City.

Ibaka, who entered the season on the final year of his contract, turned out not to be a good fit for the two-big men defensive scheme and wasn’t giving indication he would be willing to re-sign with the Magic this summer.

“We certainly didn’t want to put ourselves in that position if Serge were to make a decision to go elsewhere and not have anything to show for it,” Martins said. “We wanted to protect ourselves against that.”

There were reports Orlando would be active in trade market before Thursday’s deadline, but the only trade they ended up pulling off was the Ibaka-Ross deal. Martins said the team had hoped to add what it considered to be significant pieces as late as Thursday, but that it all fell through.

“As they say it takes two trade partners to make a deal happen but unfortunately nothing came to fruition,” he said.

Now the focus becomes finishing strong, eyeing what is being touted as one of the deepest drafts in years and then free agency. Martins anticipates having as much as $30 million in salary cap space to spend in free agency.

“If we can get lucky for the first time in several years in the lottery and get up into the top 3, obviously you have a difference maker in this draft,” Martins said. “We also expect to be aggressive in free agency this summer. So we will see.”

Report: Pelicans to waive Omri Casspi after broken thumb leaves them shorthanded

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 23:  Omri Casspi #18 of the New Orleans Pelicans warms up before a game against the Houston Rockets at the Smoothie King Center on February 23, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
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In his first game in New Orleans, coach Alvin Gentry threw forward Omri Casspi right into the rotation, and he scored a dozen points.

Casspi also broke his thumb and will be out 4-6 weeks.

Because there is so little time in the season and the Pelicans want to make the playoffs, they have decided to waive Casspi, reports Sams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The idea is to create a roster spot to either grab someone waived by another team over the next few days or to get players on 10-day contracts.

Casspi will be a free agent this summer, and there are a number of teams that think he has real potential once unleashed outside what was going on in Sacramento.