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: Dennis Smith Jr. planned to have J. Cole dunk in dunk-contest routine

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. seemed pretty steamed about getting eliminated in the first round of the dunk contest:

The dunk-contest scoring system – five judges ranking dunks on a scale of 6-10 – is plenty flawed. There should have been a larger difference between the Smith and Victor Oladipo dunks the Dallas point guard mentioned. But Oladipo didn’t advance, either. Personally, I thought the right two players – eventual-winner Donovan Mitchell and runner-up Larry Nance Jr. – advanced.

Maybe Smith was more upset about the missed opportunity – dunks (plural!) involving rapper J. Cole.

Amin El-Hassan of ESPN on Black Opinions Matter:

If Dennis had made it to the finals, Cole was going to throw him the alley-oop. But then the plan was, he was going to throw him the oop, Dennis would dunk it, and then Cole would catch the ball, and then he’d dunk it too. That was going to be the ill, craziest dunk-contest use of a prop or a person ever. But we never got to saw it, because they were holding out until the final round. They didn’t want to bring it out in the first round.

This certainly would have been unprecedented and cool. But unless Smith had something amazing planned for the alley-oop, the best element would have been Cole dunking. That would have upstaged Smith, who’s presumably the one being judged.

For what it’s worth, Cole can dunk. We’ve seen it in the celebrity game:

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard returns this season

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When announcing last month Kawhi Leonard was out indefinitely due to a lingering quad injury, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dismissed the idea his star forward would miss the rest of the season:

Apparently, Popovich’s expectation has changed.

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

The Spurs (35-24) are third in the West despite Leonard playing just nine games. Popovich has done a great job (maybe Coach of the Year-worthy). LaMarcus Aldridge is having a bounce-back season in a leading role. Pau Gasol leads a supporting cast of players good in their roles.

But San Antonio’s ceiling is so much lower without Leonard.

He’s an elite defender who shuts down opposing scorers on the perimeter and can comfortably switch inside. He can isolate offensively to score efficiently, and he spaces the floor off the ball with strong 3-point shooting. Those are all skills that translate to the playoffs.

Without him, the Spurs rely too heavily on older, slower defenders. That’s ripe to be exploited in the postseason.

Teams might even jockey to match up with San Antonio – the most vulnerable-appearing Western Conference team in line to get home-court advantage in the first round.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of Leonard returning. Popovich could just be trying to shut down speculation. He clearly doesn’t like discussing this issue.

But the Spurs are the most cautious team on injuries. If Leonard risks further injury, they’ll keep him sidelined.

This injury has already caused tension. This won’t help.

Mark Cuban’s fine third-largest known fine in NBA history

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While explaining how he told his players the team was better off losing this season, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said “I’m probably not supposed to say this” and “Adam would hate hearing that.”

Cuban was right.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver fined Cuban $600,000 for “public statements detrimental to the NBA.” The league doesn’t announce all its fines, but that’s the third-largest known fine in NBA history.

The leaderboard:

1. Timberwolves, $3.5 million in 2000 (signing under-the-table agreement with Joe Smith)

2. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, $2.5 million in 2014 (making racist comments)

3. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, $600,000 in 2018 (saying he told his players the team is better off losing)

4. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, $500,000 in 2002 (criticizing officiating)

4. Knicks, $500,000 in 2006 (fighting Nuggets)

4. Nuggets, $500,000 2006 (fighting Knicks)

4. Vladimir Radmanovic, $500,000 in 2007 (injuring his shoulder while snowboarding)

4. Pistons general manager Joe Dumars, $500,000 in 2010 (leaking confidential league memos)

4. Heat owner Micky Arison, $500,000 in 2011 (tweets during the lockout breaking rank with other owners)

I’d be on Cuban (and/or the Mavericks) getting yet another spot on this list following the investigation of the franchise for a culture tolerant of sexual harassment and domestic abuse. That one will probably be deserved – not just the league trying to preserve the illusion of pure competition amid a system that incentivizes losing.

Mark Cuban fined $600,000 for telling team “losing is our best option”

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Of all the hot water Mark Cuban is in right now with the Mavericks and the NBA league office, this is probably the smallest tub. And the least expensive fine.

Cuban recently went on Julius Erving’s podcast, House Call with Dr. J, and said:

“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night. And here we are, we weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, “Look, losing is our best option.” Adam would hate hearing that, but at least I sat down, and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again.”

You were not supposed to say that — the NBA Wednesday fined Cuban $600,000 for “for public statements detrimental to the NBA.”

Cuban’s not wrong, it’s just a matter of perception. The NBA has worked very hard to lessen the image that teams are tanking for draft position (why do you think there was pressure on the Sixers to replace Sam Hinkie?), they don’t need an owner saying it’s the smart thing to do. Even though it is. Teams tank — it is still the only way for a small or medium market team to get a superstar, get high in the draft and hopefully pick one (it’s not that simple, ask the Magic) — but the league wants at least the facade that all of its teams are competitive. All the way through the end of the season.

As you read this, the bottom eight teams in the NBA are within three games of each other for the worst record — and a higher lottery slot. Does anyone think any of them are not going to roll out young, less-talented rosters in the name of development when the real goal is to lose as many games as they can the rest of the way? Most scouts think there is some real talent at the top of this draft, and teams are going to try to get up there and get it.

Just nobody can talk about it.