Los Angeles Lakers' Bryant chews on his jersey during NBA game in Los Angeles

The Imperative: Kobe Bryant and the variance of injury

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The imperative is an element of urgency based off of observation with some evidence to back it up. But like most anything in the NBA, the imperative is rarely black and white, cut and dried. Basically I’m hedging in case Bryant averages 35 points per game over the next seven games. 

Kobe Bryant scored 39 points on 28 shots Friday night, with 7 assists and 4 rebounds in 41 minutes. He had the entire arsenal going. Jab-step three. Spin to the elbow pull-up jumper. It was as impressive a display of basketball playing as you will see in your lifetime and he did it on the second night of a back-to-back against a much-improved Warriors team.

And it was the worst thing that could have happened to Bryant and Lakers fans.

Last year, there were signs. Games where he would shoot a high volume and the efficiency wasn’t just off, it was bad. It wasn’t because the offense wasn’t working or because he defense was stout. It was very clearly about proving a point. Every player has bad games. Bryant’s had some in his long and brilliant career. But last season was the first time when you could really point to decisions Bryant made in the flow of the offense and say “That cost the Lakers.” Bryant would rise up from 35 to 40 feet for pull-up threes with time on the clock because “he was feeling it” regardless of how his night was going. There’s no way to say that his teammates were in need of a shot like that, that the team needed a boost and that was the way to do it, that that’s the kind of shot that gets him going (it’s not, his one-spin elbow pull-up does that like nothing else; he hits that and you can see the blood flowing through his skin). It was just a mistake.

But it wasn’t just shooting. I started noticing an odd element. Half-court traps started working on Bryant when he would allow them to snare him, which was more often than you’d think. At the time, I believed it had to do with his finger injury, and it doesn’t seem to be a product of age. But the result is the same. It’s carried over.

This year, consider the following.

Bryant is averaging 23 FGA per game. That’s going to fluctuate, but given the kind of role he’s tried to take with the Lakers this season and with Lamar Odom gone, it’s a decent barometer. After last night’s game against the Warriors, the Lakers are 2-4 when he shoots 23 times or more. They are undefeated (3-0) when he shoots less, but that point isn’t really salient; if Kobe’s not involved in the offense, the Lakers will start losing all the same. Also consider that after last night, Bryant has been tied or lead the game in turnovers for either team in five of the Lakers’ nine games. Now, some of that’s expected when he handles the ball as much as he does, his usage rate is ridiculously high as he handles the load for the Lakers’ offense. His turnover ratio is right at the league average. But the cumulative effect is damaging for the Lakers who don’t have possessions to spare.

So what’s the point of all this? Is Kobe Bryant over the hill? Is his effectiveness over? Is he selfish ball-hog that needs to stop hogging the ball and being selfish with his selfish ball-hogging?

Don’t be ridiculous.

He dropped 39 points last night!

But Bryant needs to rein it in. Not because of the damage he’s causing the Lakers’ efforts to win, but because that wrist needs to heal.

It’s clearly bothering him. There have been jokes about Bryant holding it when he gets dunked on, has the ball stolen, or misses. But he has a torn ligament in his wrist. I’ve never torn a ligament in my wrist. But I know enough of medical science to know THAT HURTS REALLY REALLY BADLY. And when the diagnosis was released, everyone said the same thing “If he’s not going to have surgery, he’s got to get it some rest.” Bryant could still play basketball while not putting unnecessary strain on it. But he’s not. He’s shooting more. Let me restate that.

With an injured wrist that is clearly affecting his shot and ability to handle the ball, Kobe Bryant is shooting more.

It’s his body, he gets to do what he wants with it, and Lord knows his rings give him a certain amount of leeway in decision making. But the results have spoken for themselves. Despite Friday night’s barrage, he’s struggled, and the team struggled with them. What’s worse is that this approach to Bryant’s game actually works counter to what the Lakers want to do.

With this assembly of players, guys like Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy, Matt Barnes, you don’t want to try and overwhelm the opponent with talent. You want to play smart, crafty offense designed to confuse and get the opponent rotating to create open looks. When the Lakers have played their best, this is what they’ve done. Bryant can shoot 20 times in the flow of an offense off catch-and-shoot and high post opportunities without going to the dribble ISO.

According to Synergy Sports, Bryant scored 1.02 points per possession in ISO last season, in the 91st percentile of the entire league. He turned the ball over in ISO just 8.3% of the time. In short, he was Kobe freaking Bryant one-on-one.

This year? He’s scoring .763 points per possession in ISO and turning it over 11.3 percent of the time. And that’s accounting for 35% of all his possessions. That’s a huge number.

Is Bryant going to get better as the wrist heals? Yes. But that process is exacerbated with every shot he takes, with every foul he gets on the wrist off jumpers and layups, with the more strain he puts on it. Bryant won’t sit, he can’t sit, it’s not in his DNA. And there are going to be plenty of games like Friday night for the second best shooting guard in NBA history.

But for the Lakers to be the best they’re going to be, Bryant needs to look his game and his wrist in the mirror and understand that he doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore. There are so many ways he can be great, and no one will take his adapting his game to an injury and a new offense as he gets older as anything but another sign of his basketball cerebral greatness. Kobe’s trying to be Kobe, but he’s not Kobe the scoring shooting guard right now. He just needs to be Kobe Bryant, one of the best basketball players in the NBA.

Watch some of Hawks 12 blocked shots in close-out Game 6 vs. Celtics

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Atlanta got to the playoffs on the strength of their defense.

That also won the Hawks their first-round series against the Celtics — Boston struggled to get score consistently against Atlanta. On Thursday night that included 12 blocked shots as the Hawks took away the paint and the Celtics could not make them play.

Well done by the Hawks but that defense is about to be put to the test in the next round — the Cleveland Cavaliers have much more dangerous weapons.

No longer rebuilding, Pistons hope to improve in offseason

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 20: Tobias Harris #34 Andre Drummond #0 and Marcus Morris #13 of the Detroit Pistons celebrates during the first half of the NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on April 20, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) The Detroit Pistons have finally moved beyond the rebuilding stage.

After their first playoff appearance since 2009, Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons can look ahead to the offseason knowing that if they simply keep their current starting lineup intact, the future could be fairly bright. That’s not to say that Detroit will stand pat, but the team’s key players are young enough that the Pistons can envision more success if this group stays together.

“We’re now not at the time of wholesale change anymore. We went through that,” said Van Gundy, who just wrapped up his second season as Detroit’s coach and team president. “We’re not making deals just to make deals. We like the guys we have, but we’ve got to add to it, and if there’s ever a chance to make a significant upgrade – yeah.”

The Pistons went 44-38, their best record since 2008, before being swept in the first round of the playoffs by top-seeded Cleveland. When Van Gundy met with reporters Thursday, he talked about a lot of potential improvements that can come from within – such as Andre Drummond‘s free throw shooting, Stanley Johnson‘s skill set and the team’s overall defensive approach.

The 22-year-old Drummond remains the Pistons’ biggest star. As he enters restricted free agency, the team has not expressed any reservations about trying to sign him long term – despite his sub-40 percent free throw shooting, an issue which occasionally relegated him to the bench during crunch time.

“He’s a 22-year-old All-Star center. There aren’t very many guys in the league who have the abilities that he has,” Van Gundy said. “We’ll move forward and obviously do everything we possibly can to try to get him re-signed.”

Detroit’s starting lineup of Drummond, Reggie Jackson (26 years old), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (23), Tobias Harris (23) and Marcus Morris (26) was good enough to lift the Pistons into the postseason, and the team also has the 19-year-old Johnson, a lottery pick last year. Van Gundy says he wants Johnson to work on developing his individual skills in the offseason, which isn’t always easy for players in the years before they reach the NBA.

“They don’t really get, or haven’t had summers where they could take an extended period of time and really focus on skill development,” Van Gundy said. “They’re always playing AAU, then with Stanley, USA Basketball, then they have a summer where they’re going to draft workout after draft workout after draft workout, and then right after that, they’re just going into summer league.”

As for Drummond’s woeful foul shooting, Van Gundy says it’s wrong to view it purely as a mechanics problem. Drummond shot 35.5 percent this season from the line and was 11 of 34 in the playoffs.

Van Gundy was asked if having Drummond try to shoot underhanded could be an option.

“I think right now everything’s on the table,” Van Gundy said. “We all know it’s an important thing, Andre more than any of us. I think he’s pretty open to anything, but there’s a lot of ways to attack this problem, and we’ll all have a hand in it.”

Although the Pistons don’t have to worry much about losing Drummond before next season, Anthony Tolliver and Steve Blake are both unrestricted free agents. They combined for only 69 minutes in the playoff series, and Van Gundy was somewhat noncommittal about their future.

“In just a very general sense, I like the idea of having both of them back,” he said. “But – and I was honest with them – there’s priorities ahead of re-signing them.”

Follow Noah Trister at http://www.Twitter.com/noahtrister

Hawks close out Celtics, advance to face Cavaliers

<> during the first quarter of Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden on April 28, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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The first Eastern Conference semifinals matchup is set: the Atlanta Hawks closed out the Boston Celtics 104-92 on the road to win their first-round series in six games and advance to the second round, where they will face the Cleveland Cavaliers beginning on Monday.

The Hawks controlled the game from start to finish, neutralizing Boston’s offense and attacking Isaiah Thomas on the other end. Thomas finished with 25 points, leading all scorers, but shot just 9-for-24 from the field.

In the second half, Atlanta’s lead stretched as far as 28 points, before a Marcus Smart-led comeback in the fourth quarter cut it to 12 and Atlanta was able to put the game away.

From a talent standpoint, this series was always going to be skewed away from the Celtics, especially after Avery Bradley‘s hamstring injury in the first round of the playoffs. And Atlanta’s superior talent won out in Game 6, with every Hawks starter reaching double figures.

From here, Atlanta will face Cleveland in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, this time with everybody fully healthy for both teams. Boston is set up for an interesting offseason, with a high lottery pick coming from Brooklyn, a ton of cap space and dark-horse status in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes.

Livingston enjoying the moment filling in for injured Curry

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors and Shaun Livingston #34 celebrate during a second half time out against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on February 3, 2016 in Washington, DC. The Warriors defeated the Wizards 134 to 121. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Shaun Livingston‘s left leg could have been amputated nine years ago.

The knee injury he suffered while with the Clippers in 2007 was that severe. Going for a layup, Livingston’s leg buckled backward, parallel to the court, when he fell in a freak accident. He screamed and writhed in agony.

Now, healthy and reliable, Livingston is making a new name for himself on the NBA’s postseason stage. He has filled in admirably for the NBA’s best player as Golden State moves on to the second round of the playoffs without injured MVP Stephen Curry.

Livingston scored 16 points in each of his three starts in place of Curry during Golden State’s 4-1 first-round series win against the Houston Rockets.

“I think when you go through traumatic events like that, you understand,” Livingston said. “Now, being in this position and playing with guys like Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry, Draymond (Green), All-Stars, being on this team, there was a time I was getting waived off teams that weren’t winning 20 games.”

Journeyman for this guy is practically an understatement. Just 30, the Warriors are already his ninth NBA team. Livingston has played in the most games of his career the past two seasons, 78 each, and emerged as a trustworthy backup to Curry when he comes off the bench with high energy and an aggressive style.

That night of Feb. 26, 2007, still fuels him. Livingston overcame long medical odds just to get back on the court, and for that he is so grateful each time he laces up his shoes for practice or game day.

Livingston tore three major ligaments in his knee – the anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral – as well as his lateral meniscus, then required extensive surgery performed by renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Alabama.

Livingston also dislocated his knee cap and tibiofemoral joint. Though the injury could have potentially ended his career at age 21, he still believed he would play again. First he had to walk again.

After all that, the Warriors love watching him contribute in such a meaningful way as they chase a second straight championship.

“He’s been huge. Not just this series, all year,” Green said after Golden State eliminated Houston on Wednesday night, 114-81. “But really stepping in for Steph, and it’s different. It’s not the same thing that you’re used to, which is so unique about it. But he’s been incredible for us, always steady, somebody we know we can go to if we need a basket, and taking care of the ball and really running the offense.”

Livingston’s remarkable comeback inspired coach Steve Kerr this season when he was coping with his own trying ordeal, a long leave of absence following complications from two back surgeries.

“I admire Shaun Livingston. Shaun had probably the worst knee injury that I’ve ever seen, that anybody’s ever seen in NBA history, almost had his leg amputated,” Kerr said this week after being named Coach of the Year. “Think about what it took for Shaun to get back to the point where he is now, several years of rehabilitation. That inspires me, my players inspire me. … People may forget, but if it weren’t for the knee injury, Shaun was headed for a superstar career.”

Livingston, drafted fourth overall by the Clippers in 2004 out of Peoria Central High in Illinois, was hit with plenty of injury hard luck well before the frightening knee blowout and had yet to even play a full NBA season because of injuries.

“Going through those experiences, it’s humbling, and never getting too high or too low,” Livingston said. “Just respecting the process, keeping your head down and keep grinding.”

He has vowed to be aggressive and make things happen at every chance to keep Golden State’s record-setting season going. The Warriors had an NBA-best 24-0 start on the way to a 73-9 record that topped the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ previous-best finish of 72-10.

Kerr was on that team. The encouraging words from the coach mean so much to Livingston.

“He’s played and won championships as a player, and he’s been around,” Livingston said. “He’s played with the greatest and been coached by the greatest. So to hear those words, it’s very humbling. I’m grateful. I take it in stride, and I just try to let it fuel me.”

At 6-foot-7, Livingston is a tough matchup because of his length and athletic ability.

His teammates don’t want him to change a thing.

“He’s been phenomenal, so we’re going to need him to continue to be that way,” Green said. “We’re not sure how long Steph will be out, but until then Shaun will be holding it down for us. So he’s been big, and we look forward to him continuing to do that.”