Lakers survive and advance, eliminate Nuggets in Game 7

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It wasn’t easy for the Lakers in Game 7, just as it wasn’t easy for them the entire series. But in the end, L.A. was at full strength for the first time this postseason, and played to its strengths for much of the night, ending Denver’s season 96-87 at Staples Center on Saturday, and advancing to a second-round date with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the process.

Lakers starting forward Metta World Peace, playing for the first time in these playoffs after serving his seven-game suspension for elbowing James Harden in the head a couple of weeks back, made his impact felt on the defensive end all night long, holding Danilo Gallinari to just three points on 1-of-9 shooting.

The reintroduction of World Peace into the Lakers lineup was noticeable, but more important was the assertion and re-emergence of Pau Gasol as a dominant presence inside.

Gasol played like we all know he can in this one, after two consecutive dismal playoff performances that left us wondering what needed to happen in order to snap him out of whatever funk he happened to be in. Gasol was aggressive from the start in Game 7, and dominated on the glass with 17 rebounds — 11 offensive — while leading the Lakers in scoring with 23 points.

Andrew Bynum had 18 rebounds of his own, and finished with 17 points, but did so on just 4-of-15 shooting.

Kobe Bryant finished with 17 points and eight assists, but for the most part, deferred to his teammates when he saw consistent double teams from the Denver defense all night long. Bryant uncharacteristically took just two field goal attempts in the fourth quarter, and scored just three points on an attempt behind the arc with under a mintue to play that pushed the Laker lead to eight, and out of reach for a Nuggets team that had fought back time and again all night, and all series long.

In addition to the return of World Peace and the re-assertion of Gasol, Steve Blake was huge offensively for Los Angeles. He made timely buckets throughout the game, and finished with a big 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting off the bench.

It was a tightly-contested game for most of the night, but the Lakers were able to get out to a 16-point lead with less then seven minutes to play in the third. The Nuggets refused to fold, however, and played with the heart, desire, and drive that they had all series long. Denver was able to come back to tie the game before the third quarter was through, and trailed by just a single point heading into the fourth.

Bryant’s defense took center stage at that point, as he switched onto Lawson for the remainder of the game. Lawson was controlling the game for Denver at every turn, and had 24 points on 11-of-14 shooting through three quarters. But in the fourth, with Bryant defending, he was unable to get anything going, and went 0-for-5 in the final period without a single point and just two assists.

There weren’t too many surprises in this Game 7; with World Peace back in the starting lineup, the Lakers’ defense was stronger, and with Gasol showing up and giving maximum effort, the Lakers are always going to be tough to stop. As L.A. looks forward to its matchup with Oklahoma City, consistency will be the word thrown around the most in the Lakers’ camp, especially when discussing the play of the bigs inside.

Bryant is always going to be there as an offensive option that is scary for his opponent. But if OKC chooses to take him out of the equation with frequent hard double teams as Denver did in Game 7, the Lakers now know that they have plenty of other options.

Whether or not the Lakers can stop the weapons the Thunder have offensively is another matter entirely. But at least after Saturday night’s win to closeout the Nuggets, they’ve earned themselves the opportunity to give it their best shot.

Report: Gordon Hayward’s earliest possible return is March

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Gordon Hayward‘s agent, Mark Bartelstein, said the Celtics wing was unlikely to return this season following surgery for a broken leg and dislocated ankle.

We’re obviously dealing with unknowns and probabilities, but there’s another spin to the timeline.

Mike Lynch of WCVB:

It’d be great for Hayward and the Celtics if he can return in March. That’d give him time to acclimate before the playoffs, which Boston could still make.

However, this report casts doubt whether the Celtics will receive a disabled-player exception for Hayward. The NBA grants the exception – worth $8,406,000 in this case – if a league-appointed physician rules Hayward is “substantially more likely than not” to be unable to play through June 15.

When he said Hayward would likely miss the season, did Bartelstein mean the regular season, Boston’s season or the entire postseason? Those could be quite different dates. How likely is a player with at least a chance of returning in March to remain out through June 15?

The NBA is fairly lenient on granting disabled-player exceptions. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Celtics got one.

But I also wouldn’t be surprised if they’re denied – which, in a way, would signal good news for them and Hayward.

Three Things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo spoils Boston home opener

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Every night in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, especially on this, the real opening night of the NBA with 22 teams in action. 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. Tonight, that includes a few historic numbers… good and bad.

1) Brad Stevens, Celtics have no answer on how to slow Giannis Antetokounmpo either. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re getting mentioned in the record books with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you’re doing something very right. Monday night, the Greek Freak was rolling to the rim and finishing alley-oops over defenders, hitting floaters and leaners in the lane, and generally using his length to get any shot he wanted against the Celtics on his way to a 37-point, 13 rebound night in Boston. The only other Buck to have an opening night of at least 35 and 10? Yup, one Mr. Abdul-Jabbar.

Put a smaller defender on Antetokounmpo and he shoots right over them. Put a bigger defender on him and he goes around them — or just over them too. Brad Stevens tried a lot of things on defense, and while Al Horford had a little first-half success slowing him nobody did all game as he shot 59.1 percent on his way to dropping 37.

Notice all those shots are close to the rim. Antetokounmpo was a ridiculous 10-of-12 at the rim and 12-of-18 in the paint overall, but just 1-of-4 outside the key. It’s easy to say “make him a jump shooter” but good luck finding anyone who can stay in front of him, or that he can’t just finish over. The man was dunking over Aron Baynes, how do you get anyone much bigger in front of him?

Boston was up four points entering the fourth quarter when the second night of a back-to-back seemed to hit them, they scored just 20 points on 8-of-25 shooting in the final frame, 4-of-21 outside the restricted area. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo went off for 16 in the fourth as he ramped up his aggressiveness and Brad Stevens and the Celtics had no answer. Marcus Smart was fiery and got into it with Matthew Dellavedova, that may have exemplified Boston’s spirit, but Celtics looked physically and emotionally worn down by the end. Hard to blame them.

Rough start to the season for Boston, who lost Gordon Hayward just minutes into the opener (he’s out for the season), they fell to the Celtics Tuesday night and now are off to an 0-2 start. They will bounce back, but just now how the team with all these new players thought things would start.

2) Jeremy Lin injures knee and there is “tremendous” concern it is serious. Midway through the fourth quarter against the Pacers, Jeremy Lin drove the lane and finished a layup at the rim that looked ordinary — except when he landed he went to the ground grabbing his knee and did not get back up.

This isn’t good. Neither were the reports during and after the play.

Brooklyn was counting on Lin to help stabilize the point guard position and the backcourt with D'Angelo Russell (who had 30 on the night in a losing effort). If Lin is done for all or most of the season, it’s a huge setback for a team that, while bad, was expected to be a little better than in previous seasons. Remember, the Cavaliers have Brooklyn’s first-round pick this season unprotected (part of the Kyrie Irving trade from Boston).

• While we’re on the injury front, Boston’s Gordon Hayward underwent surgery on his dislocated ankle and fractured tibia on Wednesday, and according to his agent he is “unlikely” to return this season. Hayward did send a video message to Celtics fans thanking them. Boston will try to move on, but it’s been a difficult and emotional start to the season for the Celtics.

3) Suns’ season opening performance wasn’t just bad, it was the worst ever. The record for worst opening night loss in NBA history belonged to the 1987 Los Angeles Clippers coached by Gene Shue, who were blown out by Denver by 46 points.

No more. That record now belongs to the Phoenix Suns, who fell at home to the Portland Trail Blazers 124-76 — a 48 point loss. The Suns shot 31.5 percent as a team — Devin Booker was 6-of-17 and didn’t hit a three, Eric Bledsoe was sloppy and reckless all night and finished 5-of-18 with five turnovers and three assists, while Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss combined to go 1-of-10 off the bench. The Phoenix offense was about as in synch as the left shark, and many possessions ended with a terrible shot being jacked up because, well, somebody had to shoot it.

I’d like to say this was a good omen for the Trail Blazers’ defense, but really it’s impossible to judge how good it was against this offense. It was still a win the Blazers will gladly take, Damian Lillard had 24 points while Pat Connaughton came off the bench for 22.

PBT Extra: Bobby Portis punch adds to challenges for Bulls this season

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Nikola Mirotic will be out 4-6 weeks due to his concussion and fractured jaw.

Bobby Portis has been suspended for the first eight games of the season for causing those injuries to Mirotic with a punch at practice.

What does this mean for a Bulls locker room that was already going to have to deal with the weight of losing a lot of games.  I get into all these questions in this latest PBT Extra.

It’s going to be a long season in Chicago.

Gordon Hayward’s agent says return this season unlikely

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Wednesday night in Boston Gordon Hayward underwent surgery to repair his dislocated ankle and fractured tibia suffered just five minutes into the season-opening game, a gruesome injury that put a pall over the rest of the night.

There had been hope from some Celtics fans that Hayward could return this season, likely for the playoffs, but now that the surgery is complete Hayward’s agent told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN not to expect him back until next season.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who saw the injury. Hayward is in the first year of a four-year deal with the Celtics, they were always going to choose a cautious path rather than rush him back. Under Danny Ainge Boston has always taken the long view, even with all their moves this summer — specifically bringing in Hayward and Kyrie Irving — the target was to be the team set up for next as LeBron James and the Cavaliers faded. That plan does not change now.

Earlier in the day, Hayward had sent a video message out to Celtics fans thanking them for their support in the past 24 hours.

Without Hayward, the Celtics now will focus more on smaller lineups, rookie Jayson Tatum will get more run, as will Marcus Smart in his contract year. Jaylen Brown will be thrust into a more significant role. Also, Kyrie Irving will be asked to do more as the team’s second-best playmaker is now out for the season.

The Celtics will take a step back this season without Hayward, who was going to be crucial for them on both ends of the floor. That’s evidenced by their 0-2 start, falling to the Cavaliers and Bucks on the first couple nights of the season. Boston should still be a team well above .500 and in the playoffs, but they will not be quite the same this season.