Lakers win in Denver to take 3-1 series lead over Nuggets, but it certainly wasn’t easy

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It took until the game’s final few possessions, but ultimately, the outcome ended up being what we all expected. The Lakers took Game 4 from the Nuggets in Denver 92-88, but the heroes for L.A. weren’t necessarily the likely ones, and the game was anything but easy for the victors.

The Lakers didn’t come close to dominating the way they did in Game 1, but equally important was the fact that they didn’t fall behind big early on the road as they did in Game 3. They were able to keep pace, despite an inefficient night from Kobe Bryant (10-25 shooting), a deficit in production off the bench, and virtually nothing in 20 minutes from starting forward Devin Ebanks.

L.A. controlled the boards in this one, which was a significant change from the way the last two games had played out. Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee were monsters in Game 3, but were virtual non-factors Sunday, combining for just 11 rebounds in total after the two dominated the glass for 30-plus in Game 3.

The offensive rebounding was especially key for the Lakers, getting six more than their opponent which led to an advantage of plus-10 in second-chance points.

Denver executed its game plan nearly to perfection: the Nuggets consistently doubled L.A.’s bigs down low, daring the Lakers to hit three-pointers or anything even remotely resembling a mid-range shot. Time and again, L.A. failed to be crisp enough in swinging the ball to get the open look, and even when the shots were pure, they largely failed to go down from the outside — at least until there was under a minute left to play.

With the game tied at 86, Pau Gasol set a solid screen on Danilo Gallinari. Gallo went down like he had been shot — seemingly a classic flop, one that those of us who love the game simply despise — and stayed down for what seemed to be longer than necessary. As he lied on the court, the Lakers got the ball to Kobe in the lane, who kicked it out to a wide-open Ramon Sessions, who drained the three-pointer with 48.1 seconds remaining that gave the Lakers the lead for good.

On the telecast, this didn’t appear to be your garden-variety flop; it was a turbo-flop of sorts, one that extended well beyond the grace period for the referee to make the call, and one that ultimately damaged the Nuggets’ chances on defense due to the fact that they were, quite literally, down a man in their half-court defensive set.

Gallinari said afterward that the pain was legit, and that he got hit hard in his throat on the play (via my man Benjamin Hochman on Twitter). But Kobe was less sympathetic, saying “You can’t flop like that” in his postgame presser, while Gasol said “I was surprised he stayed down” (via Kevin Ding on Twitter).

That play was huge, as was the next Lakers’ possession that saw Steve Blake knock down an open three off of a pass from Bryant that pushed the L.A. lead to six with 18.9 seconds to play, and put the game out of reach for the Nuggets.

Sessions and Blake aren’t the ones you’d expect to be closing out playoff games for the Lakers, and George Karl said afterward that forcing them to take those shots instead of Bryant, Gasol, or Andrew Bynum was essentially by design. But they came through this time, and now Denver is on the brink of elimination, while the Lakers are one game away from heading to the second round to face an opponent that many believe has more than a legitimate shot of ending their season, as well.

Sixers’ Robert Covington to miss at least one game after crashing into stands

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NBA fans love hustle from their players, but sometimes things go awry.

That’s what happened on Saturday night after Philadelphia 76ers forward Robert Covington dove into the stands to try to save a loose ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The play came in the fourth quarter with under two minutes left and the Sixers down by just one point. Covington leapt into the far sideline just near the Cavaliers bench. He appeared to turn his ankle and land awkwardly on his back. The Cleveland floor has a small lip after the first row of seats that may have played a part in the injury.

Cleveland would go on to score on the play, and Covington had to be helped off the floor. The Cavaliers went on to win, 105-98.

Meanwhile, the 76ers will play Sunday in New Orleans against the Pelicans. According to NBC Sports Philadelphia, Covington will miss the game with a lower back contusion.

Via NBCSN Philadelphia:

X-rays and a CT scan came back negative. Covington is with the team in New Orleans and is doubtful for Tuesday’s game in Minnesota.

Covington tumbled out of bounds and over courtside seats while he tried to save a possession during a Sixers comeback attempt. There is an approximate four-to-five inch drop between the court and the area where Covington landed. Many of his teammates were unaware of Covington’s injury at first because it was out of their vision.

“It’s scary to see your teammate like that,” guard JJ Redick said. “They said he fell on his back. I wanted to make sure he’s walking and not in too much pain. But I just wish the best for him and hope he’s OK.”

Back injuries can be a complete hassle to recover from, especially when you’re deep in the middle of the season. Let’s hope the Sixers get Covington back soon.

Giannis Antetokounmpo dunked all over Rudy Gobert (VIDEO)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks a lot. The Milwaukee Bucks forward is big, strong, and aggressive when it comes to attacking the rim.

But he doesn’t typically dunk this hard or this emphatically over perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidates like Rudy Gobert.

That’s what made this one special.

As time was winding down in Milwaukee’s eventual 117-100 win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday night, Antetokounmpo put the exclamation point at the end of the sentence for the Bucks.

Gobert took the brunt of it. Via Twitter:

Goodness.

Gordon Hayward on playing this season: “It’s definitely in the back of my mind”

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Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward has been going through some grueling physical therapy to aid his recovery from a horrible leg injury he suffered during his first game with the team back in October. Hayward wound up breaking his ankle, likely putting him out for the season.

Meanwhile, whether Hayward plays or not during the 2017-18 campaign is still up for debate. Hayward is making progress in his recovery — he recently was able to take his walking boot off and go for a smaller ankle brace.

For his part, Hayward has said that he is still thinking about the possibility of returning this season to the Celtics, who have earned themselves the top spot in the Eastern Conference in his absence.

Speaking to Adam Himmelsbach over at the Boston Globe, Hayward detailed not only his recovery routine but his thinking when it came to planning his return.

Via The Boston Globe:

“It’s definitely in the back of my mind,” Hayward said. “I’m definitely pushing to get back as fast as I can, while making sure that I still have a lot of good years of basketball in me. And coming back early and hurting something else is not part of that plan. So I’m making sure that if I come back, I’m 1,000 percent confident in myself and my leg. I hope more than anything I can play this season. That would be awesome. But that’s not something I’m stressing about. I’m stressing about what I can do today to help myself get better.”

That’s smart thinking on Hayward’s part. Too often it seems like guys are jonesing to come back, and when they do it’s cause for concern that they’re damaging their long-term playing health.

Hayward is making some real progress — the Globe story details him doing tasks like picking up marbles with his toes and shooting baskets from a chair as part of his PT — but whether he’ll be ready this season is doubtful.

It doesn’t sound like Hayward wants to rush things, but you never know. His agent did say that his return this year is unlikely, but another report has said that his earliest return would be March. Just in time to make a run for an Eastern Conference Finals showdown against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers?

We’ll have to wait and see.

EDIT: Shortly after this story and the Boston Globe one was published on Sunday morning, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said the team isn’t planning for Hayward to come back. The plot thickens!

Kobe Bryant’s advice to Lonzo Ball, young Lakers: “push, push, push, get better now”

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Kobe Bryant was never a patient man.

Veteran Lakers of that era tell stories of Kobe entering Lakers practices at age 18 and wanting to take on the older players in games of one-on-one after practice, and trying to dominate them. He wanted to establish his credentials early and never backed off. He pushed himself, his teammates, everyone around him, and that was part of his success.

So it shouldn’t be a shock that in an interview on the Lakers’ cable channel in Los Angeles, Spectrum SportsNet, Kobe’s advice to Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and the rest of the young Lakers was to push themselves. Hard. (Hat tip Bleacher Report.)

“We never thought, ‘OK, we’re gonna win four years from now.’ We really thought, ‘This is our year. We’re gonna get this done. We’re gonna push, push, push, push, push, get better now.’ And in the process of having that kind of impatience, you develop. If you’re just patiently going about it, you’ll never get there. For players, it’s a kind of patient impatience.”

Kobe entered the league in a very different situation, an NBA team that had Shaquille O’Neal at his peak in the post, quality veteran role players around him, a team that was nearly ready to contend. Still, it took them four years — and a lot of pushing and maturing from Kobe — to win a title.

However, Kobe would never look at it that way. He would want to push hard and push through. And that’s what he’s telling the young Lakers now.

The Lakers are taking little steps forward — Brandon Ingram’s confidence and game are turning a corner and he is impressing of late, Lonzo Ball’s decision making is getting better (the game seems to be slowing down for him a little), and Kyle Kuzma has been one of the league’s best rookies this season. But there is a long way to go. Kobe knows that, and is telling them to not let up. Which is what you’d expect him to say and what fans want.

But those fans need to be patient, too. This is a process in Los Angeles, and a long one.