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.

Bulls’ Kris Dunn breaks teeth on dunk landing (video)

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Kris Dunn struggled in the first three quarters of the Bulls’ 119-112 loss to the Warriors last night. Then, he and Chicago played better in the fourth quarter.

Yet, that was the worst period for Dunn – because this happened.

Bulls:

Ouch.

Dennis Rodman checks into rehab after DUI arrest

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The agent for former NBA star Dennis Rodman says the Hall of Famer has checked into an alcohol rehabilitation center after a weekend DUI arrest.

Rodman’s agent, Darren Prince, tells The Associated Press that Rodman checked into Turning Point Rehabilitation Center in Paterson, New Jersey, on Wednesday to deal with his longtime struggle with alcoholism.

Rodman was arrested in Southern California late Saturday on suspicion of DUI after being pulled over for a traffic violation. Newport Beach police say Rodman failed field sobriety and breath tests.

This is Rodman’s second time in rehab. He spent three weeks at Turning Point in 2014 after returning from North Korea, where he organized an exhibition basketball game involving retired NBA players for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Rodman said he needed to decompress from the trip.

Three Things to Know: Two game suspension for Ariza, Green, without punch being thrown

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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) NBA suspends Trevor Ariza, Gerald Green two games for Clippers’ locker room incident.
The NBA wanted to send a clear message: Try to enter another team’s locker room and you will pay the price. Literally. Players who do this will lose multiple game checks with a suspension. I get that — a locker room brawl has the potential to erupt into something very ugly. (James Harden and Chris Paul were not suspended because the league found them to be in more of a peacemaker role, not being the aggressors.)

However, what about guys who throw actual punches in games? On the court. That gets less of a suspension? The NBA’s suspension criteria is off.

Just a quick recap of what happened Monday night at Staples Center: It got to be a very chippy game between the Rockets and Clippers. It had been an emotional game from the start with Chris Paul’s return against his former team — an organization he ripped a couple of times since leaving. On the court Blake Griffin bumped into Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and those two exchanged heated words. Ariza ripped Griffin’s leg tights during a play with a foul. Austin Rivers – out for the game and wearing a suit on the sidelines – was incredibly vocal (remember Paul called out nepotism between Austin and Doc) and Ariza responded, which led to another argument with Griffin. After the game, Ariza and Gerald Green tried to use a not-really-secret tunnel behind the locker rooms (where players often meet after games to talk) to try to enter the Clippers locker room and confront Rivers. There was a lot of yelling and insulting, but no punches were thrown.

My quick thoughts, in bullet points:

• I get wanting to send the “you can’t enter the opposing locker room looking to fight” message, but does that really warrant a larger suspension than guys who throw actual punches while on the floor? Serge Ibaka and James Johnson each got one game suspensions for throwing punches in full view of the cameras, so the video could be re-shown on every highlight package coast-to-coast for 24 hours. That seems soft if you get two games for yelling at a locker room door.

• If it’s two games for Ariza and Green, how many does Aaron Afflalo get for his wild haymaker punch attempt the other day? Does he get less than Ariza/Green because Nemanja Bjelica has some Floyd Mayweather in him and knew how to duck the punch?

• Nothing for Griffin running into D’Antoni? Watch the video and it’s pretty evident to me Griffin intentionally tried to brush back the Rockets’ coach — something Mark Jackson pointed out in the broadcast Wednesday Griffin has done before. However, Griffin gets off scot-free in this. Was D’Antoni out of the coach’s box? Yes. But if that’s the enforcement rule then every coach since Phil Jackson didn’t get out of his chair can be run into because they all go out of the box and venture near (or in many cases) the court. Where D’Antoni stood was not the least bit uncommon. Griffin got lucky.

2) Those Clippers won again Wednesday, beating the Nuggets and shaking up both the West playoff race and the trade deadline. Lost in all this: The Clippers are playing good basketball right now. Wednesday night they beat the Denver Nuggets 109-104 behind 20 points from Griffin and 17 from Lou Williams, who is playing well enough coaches have to consider him for the All-Star Game next month in Staples. That’s six wins in a row for Los Angeles and if the playoffs started today they would be in. Doc Rivers has to get some consideration for Coach of the Year considering where he has this team despite losing CP3 and then a rash of injuries.

The best race to watch the second half of this season is for the final three playoff slots in the West: As of Thursday morning the Pelicans, Clippers and the Trail Blazers are all tied with records of 23-21, and the Nuggets are just half-a-game back at 23-22. (Oklahoma City is just 1.5 games ahead of the tied three, but it feels unlikely they get caught; Utah is 4.5 games behind Denver, but with the injuries to the Jazz it’s hard to imagine them making up the ground.) Using its algorithm, fivethirtyeight.com says the Clippers (78 percent chance), Pelicans (77 percent) and Nuggets (73 percent) will get in, while the Trail Blazers have just a 57 percent chance of beating one of those teams out. Over at Cleaning the Glass, Ben Falk projects the Pelicans in the sixth slot at 45 wins, Denver with 43, and the Clippers and Blazers each with 42 (he has the Clippers just slightly ahead in projected wins). The reality is much more boring: The teams among those four that can stay the healthiest the second half of the season will get in.

Unless there is a trade. The Clippers have been listening to offers for DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams (but reportedly so far have been unimpressed with what other teams are pitching). We can talk about what team president Lawrence Frank wants to do, but in reality this is an ownership-level question: Do Steve Ballmer want to hold on to two of his three best players and make a run at a bottom three seed in the playoffs because he just wants to win, or does he approve getting a jump-start on the rebuild with whatever assets they can land in this deal. Fans love to say “blow it up” but Ballmer and the Clippers could have done that last summer when CP3 forced a trade, they didn’t. So now they’re going to do it at the deadline when they could get less back in deals? Plus, does Ballmer want to try to get approvals for his new arena while his team struggles on the court?

3) Kawhi Leonard out indefinitely. Again. Ugh. Kawhi Leonard has played in just nine NBA games this season. He didn’t return from a quad injury (which he played through last season and bothered him through the summer) until Dec. 12. He was rounding into form when he had to sit for a few games due to an injured shoulder, then on the day he was rumored to be re-entering the lineup the Spurs announced he is out again indefinitely with the same quad injury. The reports were the Spurs expect this to be shorter than the last time he was out, but there is no timetable.

With LaMarcus Aldridge playing at an All-Star level and the Spurs being the Spurs and not beating themselves, they will be fine in the regular season. They are projected to win about 50 games, and they will make the playoffs as the three or four seed.

However, in the playoffs they need a fully-functioning Leonard to be a real threat to anyone. The Spurs need his defense and his athleticism, they are too old and slow without him and that can get exposed in a series. If Leonard is still out as we get into March, then it’s time to be concerned. Until then, the Spurs are just going to Spur — for example beating the Nets 100-95 Wednesday behind 34 from Aldridge.

PBT Extra: Better communication needed between NBA players, referees

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NBA players are frustrated. They feel the calls from NBA officials are inconsistent, but if they try to talk to an official about it they are pushed aside or handed a technical.

NBA referees feel that players seem to complain about every call and that there has been a decline in civility — players are more aggressive now toward them.

In this PBT Extra, I discuss how there needs to be a better level of communication between the two sides. There is always going to be tension between players and refs, it’s the nature of the roles. But both sides can handle this a whole lot better than they have.