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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.

Kings make it official: Rudy Gay out for season with torn Achilles

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We all knew this was coming, but the MRI made it official:

Kings’ wing Rudy Gay is out for the season with a torn left Achilles, the team confirmed Thursday. He will have surgery to repair the Achilles soon, but a date has not yet been set. Recovery from this injury lasts at least nine months, often closer to a year.

This was expected after the initial diagnoses Wednesday. Still, it’s a blow to Sacramento and its playoff dreams.

Gay was the Kings’ second-leading scorer at 18.7 points per game, plus pulling down 6.4 rebounds a night, and this season the team gets outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions when he is off the court. Matt Barnes and, once he returns from his calf injury in a couple of weeks, Omri Casspi will be asked to pick up the slack. Those two are a drop off from what Gay brought to the Kings in terms of scoring.

The big picture for Gay also gets cloudy. Gay made it very clear he was not happy in Sacramento and planned to opt out of the $14.3 million final year of his contract to be a free agent next summer. That led to him being a potential trade deadline target. Those trades are off the table. At age 30 and trying to come back from a traumatic injury, it’s fair to question if Gay will even opt out.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry lead NBA All-Star starters to New Orleans

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The fans had their say — they wanted Stephen Curry as a starter in the All-Star Game and they got it. But that leaves Russell Westbrook on the outside looking in.

The NBA All-Star Starters for the Feb. 19 game in New Orleans were announced Thursday. Remember, the fan vote — which used to be the only vote — now only counts for 50 percent, with the players and media each getting 25 percent (call it The Pachulia Effect). The rules were all voters had to choose two guards and three frontcourt players for each conference (there is no longer a center position).

Here were the guys who earned starting spots.

ALL-STAR STARTERS

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry (Golden State)
James Harden (Houston)
Kevin Durant (Golden State)
Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio)
Anthony Davis (New Orleans)

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving (Cleveland)
DeMar DeRozan (Toronto)
LeBron James (Cleveland)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)
Jimmy Butler (Chicago)

Here are some thoughts on the selections:

• The biggest oversight? How is Russell Westbrook not a starter? You can thank the fans for that. The man averaging a triple-double for the season was third in the fan voting behind Curry (first) and Harden (second). The media and players both had it Westbrook, then Harden, with Curry third. Once all the math was done Curry, Harden, and Westbrook all tied in points so the fan vote was the tie-breaker. That sent Westbrook to the bench. Westbrook is guaranteed to get a spot from the coaches on the reserves, and you can bet he will still get some run with Harden in the backcourt. Still, if anyone got screwed it’s him.

• Sorry people reading in the Republic of Georgia, we know you all stuffed the ballot box online, but Zaza Pachulia did not make the cut as a starter. While he was second in the fan voting thanks to your effort, he came in way, way, way back with the other parties — 12th in player voting, 10th in media — and so he is out. Also, that still seems high from the players and media for him.

Isaiah Thomas was tied with DeRozan in total points — fan, media, and player votes — but DeRozan gets the tie breaker because he was third in the fan voting and Thomas was fourth. Thomas is a lock to be selected by the coaches for a reserve spot.

Joel Embiid finished third in the fan voting for the East frontcourt, edging out Kevin Love, and Butler was sixth with the fans. However, the players and media had Butler third, while Embiid was fifth in the media voting and eighth with the players. So Butler leapfrogged Embiid and got to be a starter.

• Giannis Antetokounmpo, at age 22, is the youngest international starter in NBA All-Star Game history, breaking the record of Yao Ming back in 2003.

Dwyane Wade came in second in the fan voting in the East for the guard spot, but he came in sixth in media and player voting (which still is too high if you ask me) and so he fell out.

• The players have pushed to have their say in these kinds of situations and, well…

• The NBA coaches vote for the remaining bench spots in each conference (two backcourt, three frontcourt, two wild card) and that will be announced in one week on Jan. 26 on TNT.

Hakeem Olajuwon has nothing but praise for Joel Embiid, can “see himself” in rookie

Hakeem Olajuwon
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The most interesting comparison I heard a scout make about Joel Embiid was this is what people expected Greg Oden to be, before Oden’s body betrayed him.

But do you see some Hakeem Olajuwon in his game?

Olajuwon does, and he has nothing but praise for the rookie, as you can see in this video via the NBA’s Twitter account.

https://twitter.com/i/web/status/821424375819685888

I can see it in terms of mobility — Embiid is agile for a big man. He’s also a good passer and has a good feel for the game.

But he’d be the first to admit he has a long way to go to be in the same club with one of the greatest centers ever to play the game. Embiid needs to become a much better defender, and he needs a lot more polish on the offensive end.

Embiid has the potential to get there. That’s what we all see.

It’s official: NBA, NBPA announce new CBA signed

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 12:  NBA commissioner, Adam Silver speaks during a press conference prior to the NBA match between Indiana Pacers and Denver Nuggets at the O2 Arena on January 12, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
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When was the last time you saw any labor contract — not just the NBA, not just pro sports, but in any business — get done before either side could opt-out, let alone the actual deadline?

That’s what happened with the NBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The teams had until Dec. 15 of last year to opt out, with the real deadline for a new deal being July 1 of this year. Yet the two sides reached a deal before either side even opted out.

Thursday the NBA and National Basketball Players’ Association announced that the new CBA had been signed. It’s a seven-year deal that kicks in July 1.

The deal got done primarily for two reasons. One, the league is awash in cash with the new television deal and neither side wanted to put that at risk. Second, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA Executive Director Michelle Roberts do not have the long, scarred history of their predecessors (David Stern and Billy Hunter), so they didn’t come to the table with distrust and looking to settle old scores.

The new CBA is largely status quo, which is another reason it got done quickly. Here are the highlights.

• The roughly 50/50 split of revenue remains in place (the players get between 49-51 percent of “basketball-related income” depending on if the league meets revenue goals). It’s always about the money, once this got done the rest tends to fall in line. The rising tide of the new national television contract has floated all boats and nobody wanted to rock that boat.

• The college one-and-done rule will remain. However, both sides will continue to look at the issue. (Will it change eventually? It’s a negotiation, if one side really wants the limit moved they are going to have to give something else up.)

• A new “designated player” rule, which we should just call the Kevin Durant rule. The rule allows teams that have a player they drafted that is entering their seventh or eighth year in the NBA to be offered a longer, larger contract extension — five years starting at 35 percent of the salary cap, same as 10-year veterans. The qualifications are the player has to be with the team that drafted him (or have been traded during his rookie deal, the first three seasons), and have been MVP or made the All-NBA team that season (or two of the previous three). Other teams could only offer four years starting at 30 percent of the cap. For example, Golden State can and will offer Stephen Curry that extension this summer. The more interesting test will be DeMarcus Cousins — the Kings say they will offer it and Cousins has said he will sign it.

• The NBA players’ union now will handle negotiations for player-likeness rights (such as those used in video games). This is something the union wanted and they see as a growth area of revenue, and how were the owners going to push back on the idea of players controlling their own images?

• The preseason will be shortened by three or four games, allowing the regular season to start a week to 10 days earlier. That additional time will be used to reduce the number of back-to-backs and nearly eliminate four games in five nights situations.

• The scaled salaries for rookies will increase.

• There will be some changes to cap holds that will make it harder to do what Kawhi Leonard and Andre Drummond did with their rookie deals, delaying signing an obvious max extension to allow the team to use that cap space to put a better team around them.

• The NBA will create a fund to help with medical expenses and more for retired players who need it.

• NBA teams can have up to three “two-way contracts” that will pay between $50,000 and $75,000. This is something the NBA borrowed from the NHL. These players will have two salaries on the books, their D-League salary and an NBA salary (the minimum, most likely) and will get pro-rated portions of said salaries depending on where they are playing. Teams will be able to move the player between the leagues much more freely.

• There will be changes to the NBA’s domestic violence policy which will clarify the disciplinary procedures in dealing with domestic violence incidents. This will include fines and suspensions, but also will go beyond that and include counseling and other steps to end the cycle.