Chicago 88, L.A. Lakers 87: Bulls erase a six-point deficit in the final minute to steal it

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The Lakers surprised many with their play for most of Christmas Day, hanging with the Bulls without suspended center Andrew Bynum and integrating a lot of new pieces into a new head coach’s system.

L.A. erased a seven-point halftime deficit quickly, built its lead to as many as 11 late in the fourth quarter, and led by six with under a minute to play. But turnovers and poor free throw shooting down the stretch, along with some clutch play from the reigning MVP Derrick Rose, turned a winnable game into a one-point loss by the time the final buzzer had sounded. Here’s how it transpired.

First Quarter – CHI 22, LAL 20

The new-look Lakers, missing Andrew Bynum due to suspension and with Lamar Odom gone to Dallas, started Josh McRoberts and Devin Ebanks alongside Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Derek Fisher. The Bulls also had a new addition to their starting lineup in the form of Rip Hamilton, who got the privilege of checking Bryant. Hamilton didn’t even last the game’s first three minutes, however, and was sent to the bench after picking up two quick personal fouls, both of which came with him guarding Kobe.

Speaking of Bryant, plenty of attention will be paid to how he performs while playing with a torn wrist ligament on his shooting hand. He did have two turnovers early trying to dribble through traffic in the paint, but his first jumper from 20 feet out looked smooth.

Gasol got off to a strong start for L.A., and led all scorers in the period with eight points on 4-of-7 shooting. He seemed comfortable scoring against Chicago’s defenders, and will need to continue if the Lakers are to have a shot today.

Rip hamilton picked up two quick fouls trying to check Kobe, and was sent to the bench after less than three minutes of game time. Derrick Rose did absolutely nothing, going scoreless with just one field goal attempt and one assist in just over nine minutes of action.

Second Quarter – CHI 56, LAL 49

After the secondary players did the heavy lifting in the first quarter, the stars got involved in the second.

Kobe Bryant had eight points in the period, including a stretch where he scored on three straight Lakers possessions. Luol Deng made sure he wouldn’t do the same on the fourth, crowding Bryant near the sideline and forcing him into committing his fifth turnover of the game. Bryant has 14 points at the break.

Derrick Rose made a huge impact in the period, after being essentially nonexistent in the first. He scored 10 in the quarter, two of which came in highlight-reel fashion after using a behind-the-back dribble to escape Metta World Peace on the perimeter and then banking home a floater in the paint.

The teams played close throughout the half, but it ended disastrously for the Lakers. Chicago ended the period with six straight points from Deng, on a three-pointer followed by a layup and-1 at the rim which has the Bulls sitting with their biggest lead of the game at the half.

Chicago is getting balanced scoring with 10 each from Rose, Deng, and Boozer, and is converting its attempts at a high percentage. The Lakers will need to do a better job of challenging shots and limiting turnovers in the second half (L.A. has 10 for the game) if they want to close things up.

Third Quarter — LAL 69, CHI 68

The Lakers opened the period on a 10-3 run to tie it at 59, and the Bulls cooled off considerably from the field, shooting 21.7 percent while managing to score just 12 third-quarter points. Deng went 1-of-6 in the period, while Noah was 0-for-4. The one-point lead after three came courtesy of a wide open, two-handed jam from Josh McRoberts off of a pass from Steve Blake.

Fourth Quarter — CHI 88, LAL 87

It really shouldn’t have come to this for the Lakers. L.A. led by 11 points with 3:44 to play, and after the Bulls cut it to five two possessions later, Bryant found Blake in the corner for a three-pointer that pushed the lead back to eight with 2:33 to go. That should have done it, but credit the Bulls for attacking defensively to force turnovers, and going to the basket and creating contact to get to the line to get easy points.

And for making free throws.

Deng made five straight free throws down the stretch, while Gasol and McRoberts each missed a pair. Had they converted, the game might not have been lost. The same can be said of Kobe’s last couple of touches.

After Bryant hit a spinning, fadeaway jumper from the baseline that pushed the Laker lead back to six with under a minute to play — a shot that felt like classic Kobe, and one that again, should have helped put this game away — he found himself with the ball in his hands and his team up a point, with 20 seconds to play.

The shot clock was off. The Bulls would need to foul or get a steal to regain possession, and Bryant helped them achieve the latter. He was trapped by two Bulls up top, and decided to try a jump pass to Gasol, who didn’t have his defender sealed and was unable to get to the errant pass. Deng got the steal, the Bulls put the ball in Rose’s hands, and he went to his right and converted a floater in the lane that turned out to be the game-winning shot.

Bryant had one final chance, and the Lakers ran an iso for him to try to win the game, But he drove right to the baseline, and the Bulls rotated perfectly defensively, and had three defenders all skying to prevent Bryant’s heroics. Deng got a piece of the shot and the game was over.

Fans to vote on “Best Dunk,” “Best Assist,” other categories handed out at NBA Awards show

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Fans are going to get their say at the NBA Awards Show, coming June 26 on TNT. Drake will be the host, and we to come up with an under/over on the number of players Drake gives a bro hug to during the ceremony.

That’s the night the NBA will hand out its Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, and every other major postseason award — except for All-NBA Team, which has to come earlier. The media have already cast their votes for these awards.

Where the fans get to come in is the fun awards, categories created just for this event:

• Dunk of the Year
• Best Style
• Block of the Year
• Assist of the Year
• Game Winner of the Year
• Top Performance of the Year

The NBA already narrowed down the list of choices for each category to three, and voting opens tonight. Just go to  www.nba.com/nbaawards and cast your ballot, or on Twitter or Facebook just post the #AwardName and First/Last Name of their winner (for example, #DunkOfTheYear  Larry Nance).

These awards should add some energy — and good highlights — to what has the potential to be a stuffy event. It’s a bunch of NBA players in suits in a ballroom in New York, this is going to feel like a branding event at times. The NBA is hoping the fans can liven it up.

Here are the categories, with the hashtags for voting:

#DunkOfTheYear
• Los Angeles Lakers’ Larry Nance, Jr. vs. Brooklyn

• Minnesota’s Zach LaVine vs. Phoenix

• Oklahoma City’s Victor Oladipo vs. Atlanta

#BestStyle
• Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert
• Chicago’s Dwyane Wade
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook

#BlockOfTheYear
• San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard vs. Houston
• New York’s Kristaps Porzingis vs. Brooklyn
• Miami’s Hassan Whiteside vs. Toronto

#GameWinnerOfTheYear
• Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving vs. Golden State
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook vs. Denver
• Phoenix’s Tyler Ulis vs. Boston

#TopPerformanceOfTheYear
• Phoenix’s Devin Booker 70-point game vs. Boston
• Houston’s James Harden nets 53-16-17 triple double vs. New York
• Golden State’s Klay Thompson scores 60 in three quarters vs. Indiana
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook with most points in a triple-double, 57-13-11, vs. Orlando

#AssistOfTheYear
• Golden State’s Draymond Green to Stephen Curry to Kevin Durant
• Denver’s Nikola Jokic with no-look pass
• LA Clippers’ Chris Paul with wraparound pass

Report: USC’s Elijah Stewart intended to declare for NBA draft, forgot

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Declaring for the NBA draft is like declaring bankruptcy: You can’t just bellow it and expect it to take effect. You actually have to fill out the paperwork.

That’s why USC’s Elijah Stewart wasn’t among the 192 early entrants to the 2017 NBA draft.

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:

Stewart:

Givony’s report will do little but embarrass Stewart. It’s unlikely Stewart would’ve been drafted, and he likely would have withdrawn to return to USC for his senior season. Perhaps, he would’ve gotten helpful feedback from the NBA before that point, but that’s minimal.

The real problem, though, isn’t Stewart’s inattentiveness, to whatever extent is exists. It’s that the NCAA won’t allow players to maintain eligibility while having an agent.

If Stewart had proper representation, there’d be no questioning whether he intended to declare for the draft. His agent would’ve handled it, one way or the other.

If the NCAA were truly about educating players, it’d allow them to have guidance from experienced professional agents. Agents don’t have to conflict with amateurism (not that amateurism is a worthy goal, anyway).

But teaching players is not the NCAA’s true goal. The NCAA prioritizes keeping its cartel in tact and money flowing to coaches and administrators.

Agents might steer players from that corrupt system entirely or at least help them leverage their immense power to gain better compensation than a wage-fixed scholarship.

This incident should spark discussion about the unseemly lengths the NCAA goes to to protect its money-makers from its revenue-generators. Instead, it’s much easier to make Stewart a punchline.

Kevin Durant gets a hoot out of meme with Draymond Green

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You’ve seen the Draymond GreenKevin Durant meme, right?

Here’s the video with my favorite caption:

In the latest episode of “Still KD,” Durant watches the meme, reads other captions and calls it “hilarious.”

Russell Westbrook: ‘Oklahoma City is a place that I want to be’

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The Thunder want to sign Russell Westbrook to a contract extension that projects to be worth about $207 million over five years.

But does he want to sign it?

Westbrook, via Royce Young of ESPN:

“That’s something, like I said, I haven’t thought about anything, obviously,” Westbrook said. “Everybody knows that I like Oklahoma City and I love being here and I love everybody here. But I haven’t even thought about that. Obviously, Oklahoma City is a place that I want to be.”

Westbrook noted that his wife is expecting their first child in May, and that’s where his focus is right now. Asked whether there’s a timetable on his decision about a potential extension, Westbrook lightheartedly jabbed back.

“No. What did I just say? Like you don’t care about my baby?” he said. “You must not. You didn’t hear that part, huh?”

Though it was painted as Westbrook showing his loyalty to the Thunder in stark contrast to the departed Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s renegotiation-and-extension last summer was also his way of receiving the highest-possible salary.

This is a different case.*

*So, it seems. It’s unclear whether the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will allow Oklahoma City to renegotiate Westbrook’s 2017-18 salary up to the designated-veteran-player rate, but I’m presuming not.

Westbrook will have 10 years of experience when an extension would kick in. A typical advantage of a designated-veteran-player contract is allowing a player with eight or nine years experience, who’s typically limited to a starting salary of 30% of the salary cap, to receive a starting salary of 35% of the salary cap. But Westbrook will be eligible for 35% of the salary by then simply due to his years of service.

In other words, an extension signed this summer would pay Westbrook the exact same amount he could receive as a free agent in 2018.

So, would Westbrook sign that extension? It’d guarantee him a huge salary and protect him in the event of injury or decline. But Westbrook is so good, he’s extremely likely to get the max in 2018-19 no matter what. With only minimal risk, maybe he’d rather maintain flexibility.

Westbrook appeared to embrace leading the team, and he truly seems happy in Oklahoma City in a way I didn’t expect when he signed last summer. His image is so tied to loyalty to the Thunder, it’d be tough to spin an exit.

But Oklahoma City is relatively locked into a roster that will have a hard time winning multiple playoff series. Westbrook wants to win.

I don’t know whether he’ll accept an extension this summer rather than delaying a year, but if he won’t ink a deal this year, that should be a concerning indicator to the Thunder about their chances of re-signing him in 2018.