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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.

Report: Trail Blazers signing Tim Quarterman to partially guaranteed contract

BATON ROUGE, LA - JANUARY 30:  Tim Quarterman #55 of the LSU Tigers drives around Isaiah Cousins #11 of the Oklahoma Sooners during the second half of a game at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on January 30, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Oklahoma defeated LSU 77-75. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
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The Trail Blazers have only one point guard behind Damain Lillard:

Shabazz Napier, who hasn’t shown much in the NBA.

Recently extended C.J. McCollum and Evan Turner provide playmaking on the wing, so this isn’t a huge need. But Portland would probably like a third point guard.

How about Tim Quarterman?

Tim Quarterman:

Partially guaranteed deals like this are often about waiving a player after training camp and assigning his D-League rights to the NBA’s team’s affiliate. But the Trail Blazers don’t have a D-League affiliate, so this is more likely about giving Quarterman a chance to earn a regular-season roster spot.

Portland has 13 players with guaranteed salaries plus Luis Montero (unguaranteed) and Maurice Harkless (qualifying offer). So, there’s room for Quarterman — at least as the roster stands right now.

The 6-foot-6 Quarterman uses his height well to see the floor and rebound for his position. But he’ll need to improve as a shooter and get stronger. There’s a reason he went undrafted.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Trail Blazers add a more stable veteran guard to compete with Quarterman.

Carmelo Anthony on Michael Jordan’s donation/comment: “I thought it was brilliant…and about time that he stepped up”

Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan pumps his fist as he watches his team against the Washington Wizards in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015. The Hornets won 101-87. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Associated Press
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Michael Jordan has been saddled for years with a line he and those around him have denied he ever said, in relation to his involvement in political matters: “Republicans buy shoes too.” (That comment was allegedly a North Carolina Senate race where Jordan actually did donate to the opponent of Jessie Helms, despite what is rumored.)

While that line may not be his, Jordan has rarely used his standing to weigh in on political events, which is why his donation Monday of $2 million — $1 million each to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s newly established Institute for Community-Police Relations, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — was news. In doing so he said, “…I am saddened and frustrated by the divisive rhetoric and racial tensions that seem to be getting worse as of late. I know this country is better than that, and I can no longer stay silent.”

He didn’t stay silent, but he didn’t pick a side, either. He played it safe and down the middle.

Carmelo Anthony was asked about that and said this, according to J.A. Adande of ESPN.

“I thought it was brilliant…and about time that he stepped up.”

There is the backhanded compliment you’ve been waiting for.

Anthony stood up at the ESPYs with Chris Paul, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade to make a plea both for peace and for athletes to use their voice to speak to the nation in what are turbulent, divided times. Jordan would have a unique standing to do that, he often just chooses a more cautious path. Like he did with this donation, playing it right down the middle.

Report: DeJuan Blair cited for misdemeanor battery against woman

Washington Wizards center DeJuan Blair sits in the front row seats as the Milwaukee Bucks are introduced before an NBA basketball game Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Darren Hauck)
AP Photo/Darren Hauck
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DeJuan Blair played for the Wizards last season before being traded to the Suns, who waived him.

Now, he’s facing legal trouble.

TMZ:

Las Vegas Metro PD has confirmed … officers were called to Drai’s nightclub at The Cromwell hotel around 1 AM Sunday morning to respond to a report of a man who allegedly got physical with a woman.

The alleged victim told police … she was arguing with Blair over the line into the club when he picked her up and tossed her off to the side. The woman was pissed and retaliated by striking him back — before calling for help.

Sources tell us … when cops arrived they checked security video and decided there was enough evidence to issue a citation to Blair for misdemeanor battery.  He was NOT arrested.

However, cops tell TMZ Sports Blair was also issued a “trespassing warning” from the property and told to leave immediately.

The 27-year-old Blair is a free agent. He has played for the Spurs, Mavericks and Wizards in a seven-year NBA career.

Report: Dion Waiters signing one-year, $2.9 million contract with Heat

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Dion Waiters #3 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts during the first half against the Golden State Warriors 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 J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
J Pat Carter/Getty Images
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If there’s anyone who won’t fear replacing Dwyane Wade with the Heat, it’s Dion Waiters.

For better or worse.

Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press:

This is presumably for the $2,898,000 room exception. At that price, it’s hard to argue with taking a chance on the talented 24-year-old. For a brief stretch in the playoffs, Waiters put it all together and looked like the complementary scorer and defender the Thunder desired.

But that was surrounded by more sober assessments of his value.

Oklahoma City didn’t extend Waiters’ contract before the season and yanked his qualifying offer last week. This must be a disappointing outcome for Waiters, but at least he can hit the market again in a year.

Erik Spoelstra and the Heat have a reputation for boosting the stock of wayward talented players. Just look at Hassan Whiteside, who became the first player in NBA history to go from a minimum salary one season to the max the next.

Waiters must play with more purpose on both ends of the floor. Too often, it appears he’s just drifting until his next opportunity to jack up a shot — which he does frequently and inefficiently.

Joining Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for a season reduced Waiters absurdly high usage, but he’s still a gunner. One benefit of Wade leaving — easing the tension between point guard Goran Dragic and a ball-dominant shooting guard — has been reduced.

At least Miami can turn to Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson in the backcourt if Waiters sees this as an opportunity to hunt his own shot without abandon once again.

Waiters has ability as a shooter and ball-handler. He’s strong enough to defend well. There is upside for the Heat here and little downside.

But there’s a reason Waiters had to settle for the room exception even as he’s entering his athletic prime.