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.

Tristan Thompson: Cavaliers’ stated 3-4-week timeline for my injury was never realistic

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When Tristan Thompson suffered a calf injury early last month, the Cavaliers announced he’d miss 3-4 weeks.

More than five weeks later, Thompson still hasn’t played.

Tom Withers of the Associated Press:

Thompson:

Who said that was the real timetable? They told you guys three to four weeks. That was never the case. The first week, I was on crutches the whole time. So, there was no chance. So, I don’t know. I don’t know who told you three to four weeks. For that, I’m sorry.

Thompson sounds close to returning, so this issue should pass. But teams are usually conservative in these estimates so as not to expose their players to criticism for not working hard enough in rehab. Thompson was left hung out to dry here.

Maybe Thompson, who’s famously low-maintenance, doesn’t mind. But if a 3-4-week timeline was never realistic, I wouldn’t blame him for resenting the Cavs.

Poor communication on injuries might not be limited to only the 76ers.

Heat’s Dion Waiters: ‘I’m not coming off no bench’

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Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Dion Waiters must be more efficient.

But Waiters’ effective field-goal percentage this season (46.1) is nearly precisely his career mark (46.2). It appears last season’s career high (48.8) in a contract year was the outlier.

What if Waiters just can’t change? Could Miami bring him off the bench?

Waiters, via Tom D’Angelo of The Palm Beach Post:

“I’m a starter in this league, man, that’s who I am. We’re going to nip that in the bud right now. I’m not coming off no bench.”

This is peak Waiters, supremely confident/cocky. He’s not good enough to demand a starting spot, but here he is doing it anyway.

That make’s Spoelstra’s job trickier if he’s considering bringing Waiters off the bench. It might be the optimal basketball move, but NBA coaches must also deal with their players egos.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Waiters should come off the bench. Miami’s starting lineup – Goran Dragic, Waiters, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Hassan Whiteside – is outscoring opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. (The Heat are -3.4 per 100 overall.) That unit defends, and Waiters eases the playmaking burden on Dragic.

But if I were the Heat, I also wouldn’t take the possibility of not starting Waiters off the table. At an underwhelming 12-13, they don’t have the luxury of never experimenting – even if it might upset Waiters.

Bradley Beal: Wizards lost to Clippers after what referees described as a ‘s— rule’

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The Clippers beat the Wizards on Saturday, but not without a controversial finish.

Washington trailed 113-112 with 1.2 seconds left and inbounded the ball from the sideline to Bradley Beal, who made a shot, but after the buzzer sounded. However, the clock started early.

The sequence:

After review, officials gave the Wizards the ball in the corner with 1.1 seconds left. In a tough position with less time and on its secondary play, Washington didn’t score.

Beal, via Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington:

“Excuse my language because I’m going to say verbatim what they said,” Beal said. “They said it’s kind of a ‘some s*** rule,’ it’s a freak rule. To me, it didn’t really make sense because you take a basket away. You go back and he says we get the same amount of time, but we didn’t get the same amount of time and then we get the ball in the corner. It’s kind of the tough s*** rule. I don’t understand it. I don’t get it. We ran a great play and now that you take that away, we’ve gotta set up with a different play and they get a chance to set up and change some things. Now we’ve gotta do a different play with the ball in the corner.”

Referee Bill Spooner, via the NBA:

Spooner contradicts himself here. Was the time lost 0.1 seconds or 1.1 seconds? He said both at different points. He also clearly means the game clock, not the shot clock.

Here’s the relevant example from the NBA’s casebook:

Player A1 inbounds the ball at 0.8 of the period and the game clock starts early when the timer thought the ball was deflected. Player A2 receives the ball and the game horn sounds as he immediately turns to shoot a successful basket. How is this handled?

The on-court officials will signal for replay and the Replay Center Official will determine how much time ran off the clock prior to it being legally touched. If the successful basket was released prior to 0:00, the basket will be scored and if from the ball being legally touched until it cleared the net is less than 0.8, the game clock shall be reset to that amount of time. If the ball is still in Player A1’s hands at 0:00, the field goal cannot be scored and Team A will retain possession on the sideline nearest the point of interruption and the game clock reset to the amount of lost time.

Why would the game clock be set to the amount of lost time? I can see the game clock being reduced by the amount of lost time, which seemingly happened – in error, according to Spooner – Saturday. But just setting the clock to the amount of lost time unfairly punishes the team that is already disadvantaged by the timekeeping error.

From the rule to the enforcement, this was just sloppy.

Kevin Garnett: I want to help buy out Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, not partner with him

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Kevin Garnett’s rift with the Timberwolves – specifically owner Glen Taylor – is still going strong.

Garnett, via Shlomo Sprung of Awful Announcing:

“I don’t want to be partners with Glen [Taylor], and I wouldn’t want to be partners with Glen in Minnesota,” he said. “I would love to be part of a group that buys him out and kind of removes him and go forward.”

Taylor recently said he’s not interested in selling the franchise. That could be a bargaining tactic, but at face value, Garnett isn’t getting involved anytime soon.

Garnett and Taylor could break the ice with a clearly joyous occasion, a simple number-retirement ceremony. But even that is too much for the two.