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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.

Doc Rivers calls anthem protests “the most patriotic thing we can do”

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 23:  Head coach Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers shouts to his team during their game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on March 23, 2016 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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With the NBA season around the corner, there are a lot of eyes on how teams and players will handle the national anthem protests that have become prominent in the NFL. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers wholeheartedly supports the notion of his players participating, and hopes the whole team can figure out a statement to make together. Via Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“Listen, we need social change. If anyone wants to deny that, they just need to study the history of our country,” he told the Southern California News Group on Friday. “… I’ve said it 100 times. There’s no more American thing to do than to protest. It’s the most patriotic thing we can do. There are protests I like and protests I don’t like. It doesn’t matter. …Protests are meant to start conversation. The conversation, you hope, leads to acknowledgement, and the acknowledgement leads to action. We’re, right now, still in the conversation.”

“I hope we do it as a group. I know whenever you protest as one solid group, the protest has more teeth if you want to protest,” he said. “… I’m supporting our guys’ right to protest. I’m saying that up front. My hope is you believe it and do it for the right reasons and not just because it’s a hot topic on Instagram.

Rivers has a unique perspective — his father was a police officer, but he’s seen plenty of racism in his life. This won’t be his first time leading a team when it comes to social issues — he was able to unite the Clippers in the spring of 2014 when the Donald Sterling racism scandal broke. It’s encouraging to see NBA coaches trending towards fostering open dialogue on their teams about these issues.

Harden focused on helping Rockets improve after tough season

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 24:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets warms up before playing the Golden State Warriors in game four of the first round playoffs at Toyota Center on April 24, 2016 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dowloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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HOUSTON (AP) James Harden was second in the NBA with 29 points per game last season and his 7.5 rebounds were a career high.

Still, it was a disappointing year for Harden and the Houston Rockets, who were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by Golden State, and the star knew he had to adjust things to take the team farther this year.

“Last year was frustrating, numbers individually was pretty solid, but just the love and excitement wasn’t there,” he said. “So I had to look in the mirror this summer and realize that I got to change and I got to get back to how I was.”

To that end, he refocused this offseason and put an emphasis on becoming a better leader. He organized players-only training and outings in both Miami and Las Vegas in an attempt to create cohesiveness within the group before camp.

“Just getting to know somebody and hanging out … it was really good,” he said. “That’s going to carry over onto the court.”

The way his embraced his role as the undisputed leader of this team has impressed everyone in the organization, starting with owner Leslie Alexander.

“It shows that James wants to win very badly,” Alexander said. “He’s a winning player … James is one of the top three or four players we’ve ever had here and he wants to win as much as (Hakeem) Olajuwon and (Clyde) Drexler and everybody else.”

Trevor Ariza is entering his 13th NBA season, but had the excitement of a rookie on Friday as he talked about how much better things feel entering this season than they did last year. It was a season that saw coach Kevin McHale fired after just 11 games and the Rockets take a step back after reaching the Western Conference finals in 2015.

“I think just last season was frustrating for everybody because we just couldn’t figure it out together,” Ariza said. “I don’t even know how to explain. It was just a weird, weird, weird year.”

So how have things changed now?

“The vibe has just been totally different,” Ariza said. “Everybody is excited to show what they’ve worked on and excited just to be around each other.”

These positive-attitude Rockets enter the season with new coach Mike D’Antoni and without eight-time All-Star center Dwight Howard, who signed with Atlanta in the offseason. A big question for this team will be who will step in to make up for Howard’s absence.

Their top options are Clint Capela, a third-year player who saw limited action the past two seasons as Howard’s backup, and Nene, who played 53 games for Washington last year before joining Houston in the offseason.

General manager Daryl Morey raved about Capela’s improvement in his first year, but knows he’ll have to do more this season if the Rockets hope to be a force in the Western Conference.

“Clint is going to have to take a big step forward and it’s not an easy step,” Morey said. “To go from playing 15-20 minutes against often not the starting center to playing 25-plus minutes against front-line guys, that’s a big step forward. It’s more physical. It takes a big toll on your body to do that night-in and night-out.”

Along with Nene, the Rockets also added outside shooters Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon this offseason. Houston expects the addition of those two to fill a void that this team has had in recent years.

“We were able to upgrade our shooting … for the style we want to play,” Morey said. “I don’t feel like we had enough shooting (before). We do have that.”

Everyone is saying the right things and Morey believes he made the upgrades necessary for the team to succeed in D’Antoni’s system. But with all the improvements other teams made in the West, it’s hard to know what to expect from this team.

Alexander was confident, yet tempered when asked about his expectations.

“I think we’ll win more games than people anticipate,” he said. “But when the season rolls on we’ll see how well we do.”

Front desk at new Sixers practice facility made out of court from Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 23:  Ben Simmons walks on stage after being drafted first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 23, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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The Philadelphia 76ers have just opened a new, state-of-the-art practice facility, and maybe the coolest part is a unique touch that nods to one of the iconic moments in the history of Philadelphia basketball. The reception desk in the lobby of the building is made out of hardwood, but not just any hardwood — it’s a part of the court from Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game on March 2, 1962. Here’s a photo, via CSN Philly’s Jessica Camerato:

When Chamberlain scored 100 points, it was for the Philadelphia Warriors, not the 76ers, but it’s still a piece of the city’s sports history, and this is a cool, unique way to honor it.

51 Q: Will Tom Thibodeau fast-track the Timberwolves’ ascension?

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 05:  Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves is congratulated by Ricky Rubio #9 after he made a basket against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on April 5, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Minnesota Timberwolves won just 29 games last season, but few teams have more crowded bandwagons right now, or brighter futures. In many ways, their position isn’t too dissimilar to the Oklahoma City Thunder circa 2009 — still a lottery team, but the talent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was obvious. The Wolves have a similarly promising young core with the last two Rookie of the Year winners, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the latter of whom has all the makings of a once-in-a-generation, MVP-caliber big man and an unbelievable amount of poise and polish for his age.

Young teams take time to come together, but the Timberwolves set themselves up to make a leap with their biggest offseason move, parting ways with interim head coach Sam Mitchell (who filled in admirably following the passing of Flip Saunders before last season) and hiring Tom Thibodeau. Because of this alone, the Timberwolves will win more games than they did last year. That’s what Thibodeau does — he wins games, no matter what his roster looks like. He does this by treating every game like it’s Game 7 of the Finals, and unlike the injury-riddled Bulls teams he got to overachieve, this Wolves group is young, healthy and unproven.

But even though any group with Wiggins, Towns and Thibodeau projects long-term to be in the title race, it would be unfair and unreasonable to expect contention overnight. Even Thibodeau, who expects the absolute most out of any group he coaches, is fully aware of that. Here’s what he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in July:

“We like our young core a lot,” Thibodeau said, “and I would say this: We’re also not fooling ourselves. We know we’re in a very competitive conference. We won 29 games last year.”

Short of the kind of offseason haul of superstars that transforms a roster (think the Celtics getting Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007, or the Cavaliers getting LeBron James and Kevin Love in 2014), going from a bottom-tier lottery team to a contender overnight just doesn’t happen. A more realistic expectation of a best-case scenario for the Timberwolves under the first year of Thibodeau would be the 2009-10 Thunder. After winning just 23 games in 2009, Oklahoma City went 50-32 in 2009-10, grabbed the eighth seed in the Western Conference and lost to the eventual champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. A playoff berth and a competitive first-round loss to the Warriors or Spurs is only incremental progress, but considering what the starting point is, and the fact that the Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2004, a similar season would be a resounding success for the first year under Thibodeau.

The bottom of the Western Conference playoff race is going to be an uphill battle for the Wolves to break into. Beyond the top tier (Golden State, San Antonio and the Clippers), it seems to be a safe bet that the Jazz, Blazers, Thunder and Grizzlies will be in the playoffs. The Timberwolves will be one of the teams fighting for the final spot, but they’ll have stiff competition with the Rockets, Pelicans and Mavericks in the hunt. It’s not hard to picture the Wolves edging those teams out, but it’s far from a sure thing.

Long-term, it’s hard to think of a team with a higher ceiling than this Timberwolves group. In the here and now, though, it’s best to keep expectations in check.