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.

Three questions the Boston Celtics must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season:
53-29, lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

I know what you did last summer: Sent Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons, a move they could potentially regret after dealing Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. The Celtics also signed big time free agent Gordon Hayward away from the Utah Jazz. Finally, Boston took Jayson Tatum in the 2017 NBA Draft.

THREE QUESTIONS THE CELTICS MUST ANSWER:

1) Can Irving lead without diminishing the role of other starters? I think it’s a complete misnomer to think that Irving is solely a one-on-one, isolation type player. However, fans do like to get in a very black-and-white mode when analyzing players, and bias can show strongly here.

Irving has said that he wants to be more of a team player when it comes to the Celtics, which is good news for Brad Stevens and company. Irving is an excellent offensive player, and his talents should not be wasted, but there is some concern that he might dominate too much of the ball and won’t give a guy like Hayward and enough room to operate. That might’ve worked okay last season when Thomas was the engine that made the Celtics go, but Boston arguably has a better starting five this season than last.

I think there is real issues here when it comes to fit moving forward, and it is going to center around whether Irving can play team defense and handle the leeway he will be given on offense. Remember, the other thing here that hasn’t been talked about much is the extra operating space that Irving will be granted now that he is out of LeBron James‘s shadow. It might be very tantalizing to take advantage of that situation, but for Boston’s success he will need to find a happy place in between.

2) What kind of bench depth can the young players produce? Boston didn’t want to trade Avery Bradley away, but they also didn’t want to pay him. That issue becomes doubly as important now that they used Jae Crowder, the successor that wing spot, to deal for Irving.

The Celtics are a top-heavy team this season even if they did get better. They will rely more and more on guys like Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and the rookie Tatum.

Marcus Morris will be a huge part of their rotation as will Aron Banes with Kelly Olynyk in Miami. Danny Ainge is playing the long term look here, so it won’t necessarily matter if the team isn’t on par next season to him. However, a championship style run for this season will depend on immediate production from the three young wing players.

3) Are they good enough to get past the Cavaliers this time around? This is the big question that everyone in Boston wants to answer. The Cavaliers are their longtime rivals in the Eastern Conference, and now that they have swapped roster pieces it will be more than just basketball on the floor. It will be a social curiosity.

Whether or not the Celtics will be good enough to get past LeBron James will really depend on the answers to questions one and two above. The only way that Boston can replicate their production from last season will be to jell together quickly. That means getting a real rhythm on offense between Hayward, Horford, and Irving.

It also means finding a way to play defense with Irving at the point guard position. It’s all well and good to say that both Thomas and Irving have been liabilities on defense, but now teams have game tape on what Stevens did with his squad on that end of the floor come playoff time. This team will need to stiffen and do some things to mix it up to make sure they aren’t beat by their own game film next spring.

Bill Russell takes a knee while wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom

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When we talk of Bill Russell, it’s often the on-the-court accomplishments — an 11-time NBA champion and five-time MVP who anchored the Boston Celtics through the greatest dynasty in NBA history, one of the best defensive players ever to set foot on the court. He’s more than simply a Hall of Famer, he is one of the game’s all-time greatest players.

With that, we often overlook Russell the activist, who took part in the Civil Rights movement. A man who faced plenty of racism as a player — being jeered by white students in college while he played, not being allowed to stay in the same hotel as white players in North Carolina during an All-Star tour in 1958, and much more — he was public in his refusal to tolerate any of it. It was his efforts on that front as much as basketball that led then President Barack Obama to award Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Russell tweeted out this photo of himself wearing that medal and supporting the NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem.

Russell is not going to be silenced. Not now, not ever. He remains a strong voice that the NBA should heed.

Following in the footsteps of Colin Kaepernick’s protests against violence and social injustice last season by taking a knee during the national anthem, more players were doing so this season. When President Donald Trump called on NFL owners to “fire” the players taking a knee during the anthem, it led to a backlash among players and a much more widespread adopting of players taking a knee this past weekend. Even backers of the president — Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, both of whom donated to Trump last election — called Trump out for his comments.

It will be interesting to see how NBA teams handle anthem protests this season. Last season teams linked arms in a show of solidarity (the NBA has a rule that players must stand during the anthem) but you can be sure the league and players union are already discussing this. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was among the multitude of voices calling out Trump for what he said, let along high-ranking union members such as Chris Paul and LeBron Jamesthe latter of whom called the president a “bum.” Those slams of the president continued on media day Monday.

Report: T.J. Warren agrees to $50 million extension to stay in Phoenix

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T.J. Warren has potential — he’s an athletic wing who averaged 14.4 points per game last season, who loves to play in transition and can finish when he gets to the rim, plus he can defend multiple positions. Part of the motivation for the Suns in trading P.J. Tucker was to open up more time for Warren. However, injuries have held that potential back, he played in just 66 games last season and that is the most in his young career (he suffered a broken foot that required surgery the season before and it delayed his entry into last season).

The Suns bet on that potential Monday, agreeing to a four-year, $50 million rookie contract extension, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Phoenix Suns forward TJ Warren has agreed to a four-year, $50 million contract extension, league sources told ESPN…

Warren has shown tremendous potential as a versatile wing with significant scoring potential. He had his best — and healthiest — pro season in 2016-17, averaging 14.4 points and 5.1 rebounds while starting 59 of his 66 games played.

That $12.5 million average salary — basically fourth/fifth starter money — is higher than the market for Warren likely would have been, to put it kindly. That the Suns were willing to pay it speaks to how high they see his potential. If he can develop a more dangerous jumper he becomes is worth that money, but he has yet to show real shooting range. A lot of people saw the drafting of Josh Jackson last summer by Phoenix as a sign they were not sold on Warren, but GM Ryan McDonough clearly isn’t one of those people

The Suns have an athletic young core on the wings that they like with Warren, Jackson, and second-year players Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. This is a team with a couple of veterans such as Jared Dudley and Eric Bledsoe (the latter of whom is available via trade) to help guide that young core. The Suns were less sure about how big man Alex Len fits into that mix, and he just signed a $4.2 million qualifying offer and will be a free agent next season.

The Suns were less sure about how big man Alex Len fits into that mix, and he just signed a $4.2 million qualifying offer and will be a free agent next season.

Lakers are happy with the hype surrounding rookie Lonzo Ball

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) He has a Facebook reality show and a family shoe brand. His dad talks big on ESPN. He was the No. 2 overall draft pick and expects to transform one of the NBA’s glamor franchises.

Other than that, Lonzo Ball is an ordinary teenager.

The 19-year-old guard comes with otherworldly expectations, with the Los Angeles Lakers having fallen on hard times. They hope the local product can help them rejoin the NBA’s elite.

Ball’s journey officially begins Tuesday when the Lakers open training camp, but he appears to have already won over his new teammates during summer workouts.

“When you play with a pure point guard like that, it just makes it easier for everyone,” center Brook Lopez said. “He elevates players to a whole other level.

“I know it’s going to be great for me, just being on the receiving end of his passes. He’s going to gift-wrap baskets for me. He’s so good at turning other players into impact, amazing players. He’s going to be a transcendent talent.”

That has been the plan all along, particularly from his outspoken father LaVar Ball, who almost seemed to will his son’s journey from Chino Hills High School to UCLA to the Lakers.

If Lonzo Ball seems to arrive with the trappings of circus, he appears the calm in the center of the storm.

“Honestly, Zo is relaxed,” forward Julius Randle said. “Zo is chill. He’s one of the guys. For as much as he has going around him, you would never know.”

Ball doesn’t say a lot himself, and what he does say comes out in rapid-fire fashion. Reporters circled around some eight deep Monday at the team’s media day, but Ball appeared to take it in stride.

“I’ve been kinda like this my whole life, so I really don’t feel anything to be honest,” he said. “It’s just playing a game, the game I love.”

That approach has hardly gone unnoticed by legendary point guard Magic Johnson, now the Lakers’ president of basketball operations.

“I told him, he’s just like me,” Johnson said. “When I came here there were a lot of expectations put on my shoulders and the Lakers as an organization. Now I’m his boss, but I’m also his big brother.”

When those comments were relayed to Ball, the rookie responded: “More like an uncle. He looks older than my brother.”

It was a rare glimpse of the sense of humor that teammates say is not uncommon when the cameras are off.

As for those lofty expectations? Like most everything else, Ball just shrugs and flashes a hint of his confidence.

“I think I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ve been playing basketball my whole life and I’m pretty good at it.”

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