NBA Playoffs: The Hornets stun the Lakers

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You could hear a pin drop in the Staples Center. The Lakers were supposed to steamroll the short-handed New Orleans Hornets in the first round on their way to a potential three-peat, but the Hornets stunned the NBA world and took game one in the Staples Center. And unlike the Grizzlies’ win, the Hornets’ win didn’t come down to a single possession. While the Hornets never opened up a huge lead on the Lakers, they rarely trailed in the game, and were able to pull away at the end. Pau Gasol was invisible. Kobe Bryant was outplayed by Chris Paul down the stretch. For the first time in the Phil Jackson era, the Lakers lost a 1st-round series opener at home.

From the very beginning of the game, something didn’t seem quite right for the Lakers. As Jackson put it after the game, “I think we were late on everything. They were the aggressors, they stayed aggressive and beat us to balls…We’re not really good in morning games. Our just just weren’t really sharp all year. We really weren’t animated and really aggressive. I thought Ron Artest was probably our best player out there today.”

The Lakers seemed reluctant to get the ball inside, which is where their biggest advantage against the Hornets — or any other team, for that matter — should be. The ball rarely came to Pau Gasol in the post, and Gasol was passive when it did — at one point, he had Jarret Jack guarding him after a switch, but immediately passed the ball back out to the perimeter.

The Hornets were able to use their speed advantage to get into the paint, and outscored the Lakers 52-34 in the painted area. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol combined for one offensive rebound. Kobe Bryant had a great shooting night and looked unstoppable at times, but found himself playing one-on-five far more often than Phil Jackson would have liked.

When the Lakers fail to establish their inside game and are forced to rely on Kobe creating from the perimeter, there’s always a chicken-or-egg question: were the Lakers forced to rely on Kobe because their interior game wasn’t working, or because Bryant didn’t work hard enough to establish their interior game? In the post-game press conference, a visibly frustrated Jackson seemed to be of the latter opinion, saying that “There wasn’t a lot of direction towards [Pau Gasol]. There weren’t a lot of balls in the post. We didn’t get the ball inside, which is one of our strengths.”

Hornets coach Monty Williams, who admitted that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the way his team was able to handle the defending champions, seemed completely dumbfounded by Gasol’s ineffectiveness, and noted that Gasol shot over 70% against the Hornets when the two teams played each other in the regular season. Ron Artest came to play on Sunday, and was more than willing to bang for tough baskets and offensive rebounds inside, but for most of the game, the Lakers reverted to Kobe vs. The World offensively.

On defense, the Lakers had nothing resembling an answer for Chris Paul, who looked like the best point guard in the world on Sunday. He picked apart the Laker defense with precise passes. He used his ballhandling ability to work in between the Laker defenders and get easy pull-up jumpers before the help could react. He was active on defense and on the glass. He went hard to the basket and either made the basket or drew a foul. He had perfect control of the offense, and was the biggest reason the Hornets only turned the ball over three times all game. He was regularly able to force the Lakers to switch a big man onto him and break down the defense from there. With the precision of a surgeon, Paul rendered the Laker defense completely helpless.
After the game, Kobe was frustrated with the way his team defended Paul and the rest of the Hornets, saying “We didn’t do the coverages, defensively, that we  were supposed to do. We just didn’t do ’em.”

In the last five minutes of the game, Paul accounted for 15 points and one assist while Kobe went 0-4 with one turnover. Paul has been inconsistent for the last two seasons, and Kobe has the last two Finals MVP awards on his mantle, but Paul was the superior player in game one.

One thing that both teams should be worry about is the play and injury status of Aaron Gray — the little-known center made all five of his shots off the bench, was a game-high +25, and, according to Phil Jackson, outplayed the Laker bigs. Unfortunately for the Hornets, Gray twisted his ankle and suffered a mild sprain with about a minute left in the game. If he’s back at 100% on Wednesday, it’s bad news for the Lakers. If he’s not, the Hornets are going to be forced to give more minutes to D.J. Mbenga.

Was this game a fluke, or do the Lakers have to worry about whether or not they will advance to the second round? It’s clear that the Lakers will need to have Bynum and especially Gasol playing at a higher level than they did tonight. If the Lakers don’t use the advantage they have inside against the Hornets, they will make this into a much more even series than it should be on paper. They will need to get more out of their bench, especially Lamar Odom. They will need to find some way to stop Chris Paul, or at least slow him down.

If they do those things, the Lakers can easily take this series in five or six games, even with the setback they suffered tonight. But if the Lakers continue to allow Paul to run rampant and forget that two of the best big men in the NBA play for their team, Phil Jackson’s legendary career could end on a very low note.

Rumor: Add Denver Nuggets to list of teams talking to Bulls about Jimmy Butler

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The Denver Nuggets are starting to build something. Mike Malone has brought a needed new culture to the locker room, they have found a franchise cornerstone in Nikola Jokic and running the offense through him, and they have quality young pieces around him such as Gary Harris and Jamal Murray. The Nuggets just missed the playoffs last year, and they — and hopefully their defense — are poised to take a step forward next season.

Jimmy Butler would fit in well with that.

Denver is part of the long list of teams that have reached out to the Bulls about the star wing, reports Jeff Goodman of ESPN.

Denver has spoken to the Bulls about Jimmy Butler, source told ESPN. Would include multiple young players, not Nikola Jokic, and picks.

Jokic is about as close to untradable as it gets in the NBA.

Would a pick or two with Harris, Emanual Mudiay, and a veteran that can help now such as Wilson Chandler get the job done? Maybe not, the Bulls have been asking a lot for Butler which is why deals have withered. However, Denver has the assets to make this potentially work so the conversation should move forward.

Smart money is on Butler in a Bulls uniform to start next season, but the rumors are not going to stop.

Report: Cavaliers, Spurs have discussed Danny Green trade

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While the majority of teams in the NBA are thinking more about trying to contend in 2020 and beyond — when LeBron James has, in theory, faded in the East, and maybe the Warriors have slowed or broken apart a little — there are a handful of teams that should be targeting a run at the top of the mountain next season.

San Antonio and Cleveland are two of those teams.

Which is why the Spurs and Cavaliers are talking about a potential Danny Green trade, reports Brian Windhorst of ESPN.

On the surface, you can see how this works for both sides. Green fills an obvious need for shooters and wing defenders for the Cavaliers. Since none of the Cavaliers’ role players would be an upgrade in return, for the Spurs this is more likely about clearing cap space to make a run at Chris Paul or another elite free agent.

Most likely this deal does not go through. The Spurs are going to want something specific in return, and the Cavaliers have limited options considering their roster. But it’s something worth watching.

Reports: Utah Jazz talking about Patrick Beverley trade, active in trying to move up in draft

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The buzz around the league has been for a while that momentum has Gordon Hayward leaving Utah this summer as a free agent. That’s not set in stone, however, and the Jazz are not going quietly into that good night.

They are being very active in the run-up to Thursday night, and a team known for not allowing leaks has seen some things get out about how hard they are pushing. For example, with it likely George Hill is gone as a free agent this summer, they are looking at Patrick Beverley to replace him, reports Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune.

That is not the only activity going on, the Jazz want to move up in the draft to land some shooting, reports Jody Genessy of the Deseret News.

Utah is not an organization that is going to do anything rash, they are not going to overpay. If they end up making their multiple picks at the end of the first round, they will bring them into one of the best player development programs in the league and see what happens.

However, if they can do something that shows Hayward they will do what it takes, they will. Genessy says the Jazz are “pretty comfortable” that Hayward will return. Much of the rest of the league sees it differently, but only one person knows for sure and his mind is not made up on the issue.

All the Jazz can do is remind him how committed they are to him, and draft night moves could help that.

Report: Timberwolves active in trying to land Paul George or Jimmy Butler

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Minnesota is one of the NBA’s best positioned up-and-coming teams. They have a franchise cornerstone in Karl-Anthony Towns, a quality No. 2 in Andrew Wiggins, maybe like Zach LaVine can blossom into an All-Star, and players such as Gorgui Dieng and Nemanja Bjelica could be part of the picture. Maybe Ricky Rubio, too, although he’s further along his career arc. A lot of people look at this team and think around 2020, when the Warriors fade (or break apart), the Timberwolves can step up to elite.

Tom Thibodeau is apparently not willing to be that patient — he’s looking to get in the Paul George/Jimmy Butler talks, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of the Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Thibodeau helped develop Butler in Chicago and they have a great relationship, he certainly makes the Timberwolves better next season. Same with George, although he’s a rental who almost certainly bolts after the coming season

My question to the Timberwolves: Why?

What was wrong with the building trajectory they are on? I get it, they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2004, a ton of money was just sunk into upgrades at the Target Center, and the owner is not getting younger. Those are all non-basketball reasons to screw up what the basketball side is doing right. It’s the mistake of poor franchises to let that happen.

I also get Thibodeau wants a veteran voice to help lead this young core and help show them how to win. That doesn’t need to be an elite player that comes at a high price, however.

Could the Timberwolves use a point guard of the future, more depth on the wings and better defenders all around? You bet. But they don’t need to rush the development program either. If Minnesota can land Butler only giving up Rubio and a protected future first or something, sure, but the Bulls continue to ask a very high price for a deal.

Outside of personal feelings, why would the Timberwolves do that?