NBA Playoffs: The Lakers get back on track

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There was no one matchup that swung in the Lakers’ favor on Tuesday night. There wasn’t one key play that ended up making all the difference late in the game, although Kobe Bryant’s turn-back-the-clock dunk in the second quarter did help swing the momentum their way. There wasn’t a noticeable change in their offensive strategy, and they still had trouble containing Chris Paul. None of that ended up mattering.

As it turned out, the Lakers didn’t need to make any big adjustments to power through the New Orleans Hornets and take a 3-2 series lead — they simply needed to play the way everyone knows they are capable of playing. Even though the Hornets have managed to take two tough games from the Lakers in this series, and still have a chance to win two more if the Lakers stop executing and Chris Paul goes off again, Game Five showed that the Hornets don’t have any answers for the Lakers when they play their game. There’s a reason why it can be so frustrating to watch the Lakers when they lose — when they win, they make it look so easy.

Even though the Hornets were able to shoot the ball well against the Lakers, the defending champions outclassed them in every area. Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Ron Artest were able to manhandle the Hornets in the paint and on the boards. The Lakers scored 67 of their 106 points from the paint or the free-throw line, and outscored the Hornets 22-2 in second chance points.

After the game, Phil Jackson said that the “hustle points” went the Lakers’ way on Tuesday, and that the second-chance points were “the key to the win.” Hornets coach Monty Williams also noted that his team needs to figure out a way to match the Lakers’ physicality, saying “there was more focus to be physical” in Game 5 and that a lot of what occurred was “just not basketball, so it’s just one of those things we have to recognize that kind of play and overcome it.” Chris Paul also acknowledged the Hornets’ physicality, saying that the Hornets “need to figure out a way to play physical without fouling.” It will be hard for the Hornets to overcome the Lakers’ massive size advantage up front, but they will clearly need to figure something out in order to stay alive in this series.

Out on the perimeter, Kobe Bryant found the perfect balance between patience and aggression. He was content to run the offense and set up his teammates for most of the game, but he also had a few key scoring bursts, most notably at the end of the second quarter. After Bryant was called for a questionable continuation foul on Trevor Ariza, he came right back down the court and unleashed an electrifying dunk on Emeka Okafor that completely galvanized the Staples Center. After the game, Shannon Brown said that it was Kobe’s biggest dunk “since he had an afro,” and Kobe said that the dunk was a message to his teammates that “the series is important — they know I don’t have many of those left in me anymore.” Needless to say, Bryant’s ankle was much less of a concern after the game than it was before it.

Kobe and the Laker bigs had it going, and the Lakers’ role players did their part as well. The Lakers’ second unit didn’t shoot particularly well from the floor, but they were able to hit some timely threes, and their energy provided what Phil Jackson called “a major boost” to the Lakers when they checked in. When the Lakers are locked in like that on offense, there’s not much that a defense can do to slow them down.

Offensively, the Hornets didn’t do poorly by any stretch of the imagination. Chris Paul didn’t dominate the game like he did in the Hornets’ wins, but he still finished with 20 points on 12 shots and 12 assists. Marco Belinelli and Trevor Ariza shot as well as anyone can possibly expect Marco Belinelli and Trevor Ariza to shoot, and Willie Green continued to make impossible floaters. Even though the Hornets barely got any offensive production out of their bigs and turned the ball over 17 times, their loss was more a product of the Lakers’ offensive execution and dominance on the glass than anything they did wrong offensively.

As Trevor Ariza put it after the game, “[The Lakers] played well. There’s nothing that we can say. I don’t think we didn’t fight or we didn’t play well, I just feel like they played better than us. That’s it.” Unfortunately for the Hornets, there’s a lot of truth in what Ariza said. The Hornets are a scrappy team that plays good defense, has some outside shooting, and has Chris Paul, but there are reasons why the Lakers won 11 more games than the Hornets did in the regular season. The Lakers’ big men are both bigger and more skilled than the Hornet bigs, the Lakers are deeper than the Hornets are, and while Chris Paul has arguably outplayed Kobe in this series, Kobe is still Kobe.

The Hornets have put up a great fight in this series, and it’s hard to count them out with the way Chris Paul has been playing. However, it’s even harder to shake the feeling that if the Lakers play like this one more time in the next two games, there’s not going to be a lot that the Hornets can do to avoid elimination.

Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. throws down 360 dunk against Wizards (video)

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The Wizards are in a rough place.

They’ve lost three of four, including a 23-point setback to the Mavericks last night, and Dennis Smith Jr. is out here practicing for a dunk contest on them.

Report: Damian Lillard meets with Trail Blazers owner, but doesn’t request trade as Paul Allen feared

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Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen was reportedly investigating whether his team’s problem was roster or coaching. In other words, it sounded as if he were determining whether he should fire general manager Neil Olshey or coach Terry Stotts amid a disappointing season. Portland has the NBA’s fifth-largest payroll and is on track to pay the luxury tax, but the team is just 25-22 and seventh in the Western Conference.

In these turbulent times, Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard – who has strongly supported Stotts publicly – wanted to address Allen directly.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard met with team owner Paul Allen to gather an understanding of the organization’s direction, league sources told ESPN.

Lillard, who turns 28 on July 15, requested the meeting in part to reaffirm his commitment to the only professional franchise he has ever suited up for, but also to gain assurances that the organization was just as devoted to expeditiously crafting a title-contending team, sources said.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Allen feared Lillard would request a trade, sources said, but a trade request was not made.

The meeting, which sources described as a productive, open forum to share opinions and express concerns, could also lead to more sit-downs in the future.

Lillard issued a heartfelt vote of confidence for head coach Terry Stotts, sources said.

They also discussed players to target.

In addition, Lillard sought an explanation from Allen as to why Will Barton was traded to Denver in February of 2015, sources said. Lillard made it known he didn’t agree with the move.

The Trail Blazers traded Barton, because he wasn’t ready to lock down a rotation spot. They got Arron Afflalo, who was more ready to help a team still trying to win with LaMarcus Aldridge. The move was completely logical at the time, and it’s the type of gripe brought up now because Barton has developed with the Nuggets, and Portland is frustrated and in a funk.

Lillard surely suggested win-now moves leading up to the trade deadline, because that’s what players prioritize. I wouldn’t be surprised if Allen would rather shed a few million in salary to avoid the luxury tax in an underwhelming season.

How would Lillard feel about that? Did this meeting open a productive line of communication? Or would he just feel ignored?

Lillard has repeatedly pledged his loyalty to the Trail Blazers. A trade request would have been a huge reversal from his public statements. But did Allen have any reason to suspect Lillard would ask out other than the meeting request and Portland’s middling record?

That Lillard would seek this meeting shows his growth as a player. He’s taking an active role in his team’s fortunes, spreading his reach beyond the court – or at least trying to.

The big question now: Where will that lead him and the Trail Blazers?

Three Things to Know: Jason Kidd out in Milwaukee, now what for Bucks?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Milwaukee fires Jason Kidd as coach. It’s the right move, but now what? It’s a move that caught the players in Milwaukee off guard, a move that will be trashed by some of the NBA’s old boy network, but something expected by many officials from other teams and league observers (although most thought it would be an offseason move).

Jason Kidd was fired as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks Monday.

It was the right move. Individual players grew under Kidd — Giannis Antetokounmpo blossomed into a superstar with the ball in his hands, and he was so unhappy with the move he offered to intervene and try to save Kidd’s job — but the team did not. Last season the Bucks went 42-40 in the regular season and were up 2-1 in their first-round playoff series against Toronto before ultimately losing in six, but as had happened too much with this team it was two steps up and one step back. The Bucks didn’t grow from there. The team entered this season with players talking of 50-win season and a top four seed (Las Vegas oddsmakers set the wins under/over at 47.5), and the expectation was the defense would finally come around. It didn’t. Kidd blamed the team’s youth to everyone — the media publicly and team management privately, asking for more veterans — yet he made some, shall we say, “interesting” end of game coaching decisions that left everyone bewildered. Kidd eventually backed off some on the ultra aggressive, trapping defensive style this team played — a style teams figured out how to beat with ball movement — but it wasn’t enough. The Bucks are 25th in the NBA in defense. With that they are 24-22, but with a negative point differential that suggests a 20-26 team, not one clinging to a playoff slot (currently seventh in the East, 1.5 games up on ninth-seed Detroit and missing the playoffs all together, fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 68 percent chance of making the postseason).

Now what?

For the rest of this season, long-time assistant Joe Prunty will run the show, and he will get the chance to Frank Vogel his way into the job if the team excels under him (and the moved was timed as the Bucks enter a soft part of the schedule, they can rack up some wins right now). However, more likely is a big off-season search where the biggest names in coaching without a job will come calling. Already two names bandied about are Jeff Van Gundy and former Pelicans coach Monty Williams. David Fizdale has to be considered. Every coach without a job will want this one — with Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and a host of long, athletic, quality role players (such as Thon Maker, Jon Henson and others) this team has a world of potential. It should be talked about with Minnesota and Philadelphia as the teams who have next in the NBA.

The Bucks have been rumored to be interested in DeAndre Jordan, is that still the case or will they try to make their moves in the off-season (when they can’t afford to sign Jordan or much of anyone else of consequence without shedding salary)? My guess is now the team now waits, it will want to consult with whoever is hired as coach.

Also, how will the Bucks at times feuding ownership play into all of this? New Yorkers Mark Lasry and Wes Edens have had their differences — Jon Horst is the GM now because the two sides could not agree on a candidate so they compromised on him, someone farther down on both lists. On the court this team is seen as one of the league’s best jobs with the most potential, but the coach may need to navigate ownership landmines along the way.

The Bucks move into their new arena next fall and there will be pressure on the new coach to bring the team up to the level of the building — the Bucks have the pieces to be one of the top teams in the East (a conference that could open up depending on what LeBron James chooses to do next summer). It’s a coveted job, but not an easy one.

2) DeMarcus Cousins has the kind of night nobody has had in 46 years. All-Star starter DeMarcus Cousins went off on the Bulls Monday night — 44 points, 24 rebounds, and 10 assists in the Pelicans’ double OT win against Chicago. These were not meaningless points, Cousins picked up seven of them in the second overtime.

The last time somebody had a 40/20/10 night in the NBA Elton John had just released “Rocket Man” — Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1972 when he was still playing in Milwaukee.

3) Locker room issues bubble up in San Antonio and Cleveland, but will it matter? Two things that can lead to locker room dissent in the NBA? Struggling teams on losing streaks pointing fingers, and guys with lingering injuries that were expected back.

We saw both of those creep up Monday, in San Antonio and Cleveland. The question is, will it matter to either organization come the playoffs? Probably not.

In Cleveland, losers of 8-of-11 and heading into a tough stretch of games, they held an emotional team meeting Monday’s practice, and Kevin Love became the whipping boy. Because the more things change, the more it’s still always Kevin Love’s fault. Other players questioned the illness that Love said he suffered that forced him to sit out much of Saturday’s blowout loss to the Thunder (he left the building before the game was over) and then miss practice Sunday. The meeting got heated, but Love spoke to the team to explain himself and that seemed to calm things down, mostly. For now. These team meetings make headlines, but most of the time prove to be meaningless on the court. Are the Cavaliers going to start to care and at least give some effort on defense after this? We’ll see. I wouldn’t bet on it lasting, it almost never does, but we’ll see.

In San Antonio, reports came up that the always quiet Kawhi Leonard has become “disconnected” from the team while dealing with the thigh injury that has let him play just nine games this season. Leonard and Popovich have always been on the same page, is this just frustration with a rehab on a quad injury that is just not healing as fast as anyone hoped and expected? Is it more than that? Both GM R.C. Buford and Leonard’s uncle denied any rift.

What happened with LaMarcus Aldridge shows us how this likely plays out. Aldridge demanded a trade last summer, but rather than panic and ship him out (for less than fair market value) Popovich sat down with Aldridge, figured out why he was frustrated, adjusted how he used him, and now Aldridge is happy — he signed an extension — and is having an All-Star season. Expect Popovich to figure out how to work with Leonard, too.

Are these leaked black and white uniforms the All-Star Game jerseys?

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Nike faced a challenge with this year’s All-Star Game in designing the uniforms — there is no East vs. West. How do you design a uniform for the teams captained — and selected — by Stephen Curry and LeBron James? Maybe go back to 1997 (and a few years after) where players just wore their team’s uniform, either home whites or road colors.

It looks like Nike has solved the problem by going black-and-white.

Conrad Burry of Sportslogos.net — who in the past has nailed early leaks of NBA uniforms — confirmed ongoing Web rumors that the league is going black and white (hat tip ESPN).

What do you think? I’m with Conrad here — if these are the really the uniforms they don’t work for me. Maybe it will work better in person and on the broadcast, but I don’t know. We’ll see.