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.

Frustrated Kyrie Irving on another ring: “And I want more. I’m going to go take it.”

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Since the All-Star break, the Cleveland Cavaliers have not looked like a championship team. They have been in a malaise going 8-10 with the second-worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. The Cavs like a team that is just waiting for the games to have meaning again in the playoffs. It makes one tempted to say this will come back to bite them in the postseason, but which team in the East is going to beat them?

The Cavaliers players are frustrated with their play of late, too.  Kyrie Irving vented about it after practice, as reported by Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“Obviously it was just a frustrating game and there have been a few frustrating games for all of us,” Irving said. “Just getting back to what we do, having fun with one another and being truthful with one another — we’ll be good…

And then Irving said: “You can’t rely on just thinking that one championship is enough. It’s natural for human beings to just get comfortable. To rely on just having won a championship. But if you a (competitor) you want two, you want three, you want four. And if you dedicate yourself more like you say you do, then you want more. And I want more. I’m going to go take it.”

Injuries have had key players, most recently Kevin Love and J.R. Smith out of the rotation of late, and working them back in has not gone smoothly. Still, this is the same core from the team that won the title last season, it shouldn’t be that difficult to get back into a groove.

Cleveland is acting like a team that thinks it can flip the switch.

Maybe they can, but there are some powerful teams out West who seemed to have flipped theirs long ago.

 

Rumor: Bulls ready to move on from Jimmy Butler this summer

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Predicting what the Chicago Bulls front office will do this summer is a game of roulette — the ball can land anywhere and it wouldn’t be a surprise. Is Dwyane Wade coming back? Is Nikola Mirotic part of the future? Fred Hoiberg? What kind of team are the Bulls trying to build, anyway?

Then there is the biggest one: Is Jimmy Butler still part of the long-term plan? Or is he going to be moved to facilitate a rebuilding process?

Last summer when the Bulls had the chance to trade him, they kept Butler to build around him… then made some interesting choices in trying to do that. They didn’t get enough shooting, players didn’t fit well, and others didn’t develop, and the Bulls are struggling to even make the postseason.

So what do the Bulls do this summer? One exec told Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer that the Bulls were going to move Butler.

Paul George and Jimmy Butler were involved in trade rumors at the deadline, and all indications are that those conversations will resume this offseason. One front-office source told me recently that Butler is “as good as gone,” while George sounds like a player who wants out.”

Paul George wanting to contend (or if not, be in Los Angeles) is not news, but whether the Pacers decide to be serious about trading him this summer depends on a number of factors that we’re not going to get into here. This article is about Butler.

Do the Bulls want to trade Butler? Some in the front office do, some don’t. There were reports the Bulls wanted an All-Star level player for him so the team did not take a step back, but nobody was giving that up. Everyone in Chicago from ownership through management is not on the same page, which helps explain some of the stop-gap team building moves by the team. Chicago needs to decide if it wants to go for the full rebuild, which is what happens if they trade Butler. The playoffs are out of the questions for a few years if they do, but that’s not a bad thing if they draft well and commit to the plan. However, there is a sense that ownership thinks “this is Chicago, we don’t rebuild.”

All of which is to say, if the Bulls trade Butler it’s not a huge surprise. If they keep him, it’s not a huge surprise. But other teams — hello Boston — may be prepping for him to come back on the trade market around the draft.

PBT Podcast: Future of Isaiah Thomas, Ricky Rubio, also award talk with Dan Feldman

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We asked for your questions on Twitter and Facebook, and you gave myself and Dan Feldman got some fascinating discussion points:

If the Celtics land a top two pick, what does that mean for the future of Isaiah Thomas in Boston?

Is Ricky Rubio‘s run of strong play mean he remains the point guard of the future in Minnesota?

How good is Devin Booker?

We discuss all of that plus the NBA end of season awards that we are still looking at and trying to make up our minds about.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

Rumor: Dell Demps out, Joe Dumars in with Pelicans?

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Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry is on shaky ground.

What about New Orleans general manager Dell Demps?

A long-swirling rumor is getting renewed.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

A few league sources peg the New Orleans Pelicans as a team that is going to make sweeping changes once their season ends in eight games.

The Pelicans have long been rumored to be the next stop for former Piston’s executive Joe Dumars, who is a Shreveport, Louisiana native and has close ties to the ownership and leadership of the Pelicans and Saints organization.

League sources said recently that Dumars has been active in the NBA front office circles, scouting players and reconnecting to the process.

Demps has done a lousy job building a supporting cast around Davis. Part of the reason trading for the risky DeMarcus Cousins made so much sense: The Pelicans were so underwhelming, they wouldn’t be much worse off if Cousins destroyed their culture and/or bolted in 2018 free agency.

But it’s not too late to salvage Davis’ tenure in New Orleans. He’s locked up for three more seasons, and Cousins is an extremely talented No. 2.

Is Dumars the right man to bring it all together?

He masterfully built the Pistons into the 2004 NBA champions. He also played an integral role in the team’s downfall.

Another factor: There appears to be a mutual respect between Cousins and Dumars, who coveted the big man since he was coming out of Kentucky. That could help the Pelicans re-sign Cousins in 2018.

Dumars’ success should get him general-manager job interviews, but his more-recent failings demand tough questions. I’m unconvinced the Pelicans are scrutinizing Dumars enough, and they’d probably benefit from a more-thorough search.

But Dumars might be a fine hire. Dumping Demps would at least be step in the right direction.