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.

LeBron James rejects Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim

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Through the first couple games of the season, Giannis Antetokounmpo has put up impressive numbers — he dropped 34 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on the Cavaliers Friday night.

But the Cavaliers still have LeBron James.

He had 24 points and 8 assists, leading Cleveland to the win.

LeBron also reminded the Greek Freak just how good a rim protector he is. Few people can slow Antetokounmpo on the drive, but LeBron is one of them.

Is it too early to root for a Cavs vs. Bucks playoff series?

Hawks’ DeAndre’ Bembry out with fractured wrist

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In their season opener Wednesday, Atlanta second-year man DeAndre’ Bembry came off the bench and played 17:45, scored six points and was +13 on the night. It was a good start to his career.

But now he is going to miss some time with a fractured wrist.

Bembry underwent an MRI, which revealed a fracture in his right wrist, the Hawks announced Friday. He will return to Atlanta with the team (the Hawks lost to the Hornets Friday night) and will meet with team doctors at the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center on Monday. His status will be updated after that.

“We just may play some other guys more, we may use some of the young guys,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer told the AP before Friday night’s game. “We’ll just figure it out tonight and as we move forward. I don’t think there’s anything guaranteed for anybody, it’s unfortunate for DeAndre’ and for us.”

 

Danny Ainge says Celtics will apply for Disabled Player Exception

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It’s not likely Gordon Hayward returns this season. His agent said as much, although a return in March is not out of the question. (It’s better PR wise for the Celtics to say he is out for the season, then if he returns early great, it’s better than setting a deadline he doesn’t meet.)

With that, the Celtics are going to apply for the Disabled Player Exception, which could help them land a replacement player, Danny Ainge told Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.

President of basketball operations Danny Ainge told the Globe on Friday the club is applying for the Disabled Player Exception, which would provide the Celtics $8.4 million to pursue a player to fill Hayward’s roster spot.

“We’re in the process of doing that,’’ Ainge said. “We have a while to do that. There’s no urgency, but we will apply for that.”

There are limits to what that money can get the Celtics. The money is the same as the mid-level exception, the Celtics can go over the cap to use it, and the player can be obtained via free agency or trade. However, the player must be in the last year of his contract.

It gives the Celtics options. It also does not mean Hayward cannot return, it only means NBA-approved doctors determined he is not likely to return before a mid-June deadline.

Kings hire former WNBA Seattle coach Jenny Boucek as assistant

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The NBA now has a third female assistant coach.

The first was Becky Hammon, who has been part of Gregg Popovich’s Spurs staff for several years (and has coached their Summer League team). The second was Nancy Leiberman, who has been on the staff in Sacramento for a couple of seasons now.

Now the Kings have hired former Seattle Storm coach Jenny Boucek as an assistant coach on Dave Joerger’s staff. She will work as an assistant player development coach.

A former WNBA player in the league’s inaugural season, the past three years she has coached the WNBA’s Seattle Storm (she was fired midway through the last season), and prior to that had been the head coach of the Sacramento Monarchs from 2007-09.