Kobe says controlling the pace will be key for Lakers in Game 4 vs. Thunder

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The Lakers’ Game 3 win over the Thunder on Friday was gritty, hard-fought, and earned largely at the free throw line. With the game slowed and the clock stopped is where L.A. did most of its damage offensively, scoring 41 of the team’s 99 points from the foul line on 42 attempts.

The free throw percentage of 97.6 was the second best in NBA playoff history, with a minimum of 30 attempts. It’s unlikely that the Lakers will get that many tries again in Game 4, but if nothing else, they’ll try to recreate the offensive stylings that helped get them to that point in Game 3.

“It’s two games in a row now where we’ve controlled the tempo,” said Kobe Bryant after Game 3. “We’ve done a pretty good job controlling the pace of the game being physical. But as you see, even tonight there were stretches where, (with) their explosiveness, they just go on runs quickly. In 45 seconds to a minute they can go on a 7-0, 8-0 run. So we’ve got to be careful with the ball and keep them out of transition.”

Bryant wasn’t kidding about the Thunder’s explosiveness. One such run came in a 36-second span midway through the fourth quarter, where OKC was able to score seven straight points in the blink of an eye. He was also dead-on about the turnovers.

The Lakers played excellent halfcourt defense for the second straight game, and really only struggled for extended periods when they were careless with the ball and allowed the Thunder to get out in transition for easier looks.

It truly is all about pace and tempo for the Lakers in this series, especially with such a short turnaround time between Games 3 and 4. The first back-to-back set of these playoffs will have these teams back at Staples Center for tip-off less than 24 hours after Game 3 was in the books.

That would appear to favor the youth and energy of this Thunder team, and Bryant knows if his team doesn’t play with the same discipline it has in the past two games, the Lakers will be in serious trouble.

“No, not if it’s an up-and-down game, no. We don’t have a shot,” Bryant said, when asked if the Lakers could play with a more energetic Thunder team in Game 4. “We could both be extremely well-rested and not have a shot. Just slow the game down, play our pace and play our tempo, and we’ll be fine. Whether it’s back-to-back or three nights in a row, it doesn’t matter. If we control the pace, we’ll give ourselves a great opportunity.”

The opportunity will indeed be there for the Lakers to even the series if they can execute their plan to perfection. They’ll need to take full advantage of it, too. Because as exhilarating as beating the Thunder to get back into the series was on Friday, all will be lost if they can’t repeat the performance on Saturday, and the team has to head back to Oklahoma City on the wrong end of a three-games-to-one series deficit.

Twitter reaction All-Star pre-game, Fergie’s national anthem vicious, priceless

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LOS ANGLES — In an intensely polarized nation, few things unite Americans anymore. Sunday night the NBA and its All-Star Game broadcast gave us one of those unifying forces — a pre-game run-up so bad it was universally panned.

The NBA is lucky the new format seemed to work and we had a dramatic, actual basketball game to talk about, helping us move on a pre-game show that, to put it kindly, simply did not work.

It started with a roughly 20-minute singing and dancing skit that was supposed to be about comedian Kevin Hart’s journey to being an NBA player (I think that’s what it was, anyway, it made as much sense as the movie “Wild, Wild West”). It felt forced, was not funny, and just dragged on and on. Even a Kardashian thought this was terrible television.

And that wasn’t even the worst part of the pregame, nor the part that sparked the most outrage online.

Fergie’s sexy, slow, bluesy rendition of the national anthem became the lightning rod.

Charles Barkley joked on TNT that he “needed a cigarette” after the Black Eye’d Peas’ singer’s performance. Shaquille O’Neal jumped in quickly to defend her (“Fergie, I love you. It was different. It was sexy. I liked it.”) as the broadcast quickly pivoted away from that topic.

Twitter was not so kind, and Draymond Green‘s face caught by camera’s during the anthem became a quick meme.

Twitter had a field day with Fergie’s rendition.

Now, let us never discuss this All-Star opening ever again. Please.

Three things to know from All-Star Weekend: New format worked, for now

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LOS ANGELES — Our regular feature “Three Things to Know” usually wraps up and breaks down the news of the day in the NBA, but in this case we are stepping back to take in all of All-Star Weekend. Three Things will then be off this week until Friday (there are no games until Thursday night as the league takes a little break).

1) The new “captains pick teams” format may have worked as intended. But will it last? This much we can agree on: This was the best played, most dramatic All-Star Game we have seen in a while. There was some actual defense played, guys tried and played with a little pride, they played hard, we had a close and intense ending, and (unlike last season) the night featured something that resembled basketball. There was even a game-tying and game-winning shot.

The new format — where captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry (the highest vote-getters from fans) picked the teams playground-style — got the credit for the change.

“The great thing about our commissioner, he’s absolutely okay with trying something new, to change the format, and it definitely worked out for everybody,” said LeBron, who scored 29 points including the go-ahead bucket late, and was named MVP. “It worked out not only for the players, not only for the league but for our fans, for everybody. It was a great weekend, and we capped it off the right way.”

Was it really the format that led to the change? Tune in next year, and frankly the next few years, to find out.

First off, the players were genuinely embarrassed by the lack of defense and level of play in last year’s game, they talked about it afterwards in New Orleans and it was players’ union president Chris Paul who first pushed for the format change as a way to inject some energy into the game. To a man, the players and coaches talked about “changing the narrative” around the game.

The reality is the game was close, and often in the past when the All-Star Game was close late we got real energy and something resembling defense the final six minutes or so of the game. This year’s game was close, so the genuine energy late was not wildly out of character.

If the league had stuck with East vs. West (but upped the payout to winners and kept the new charity component) would the players have come out and played with this same energy and defense from the start to change the narrative anyway? My sense is probably, again they didn’t want to embarrass themselves again. We’ll never know for sure, but the format got credit for bringing a new energy to the game that may have been coming anyway.

The NBA is going to keep this format — although expect the player draft to be televised next time around — so we will see in Charlotte next February and in Chicago in 2020 if the change was about the format or just a conscious effort by the players to make the product better.

Either way, let’s hope it continues.

2) Donovan Mitchell, welcome to the spotlight. Utah’s rookie Donovan Mitchell is averaging 19.6 points and 4.5 assists a game (and much more than that the past couple of months), has become the Jazz’s go-to scorer and shot creator late in games, and for my money is the current frontrunner for Rookie of the Year (with Ben Simmons a close second). Yet for casual fans Mitchell was flying under the radar — people don’t really tune in to see the Jazz play (they don’t get on national television much) and in a deep rookie class with big names the No. 13 pick out of Louisville was not one of the pre-draft hype guys.

People know who he is now — he took over the spotlight in Los Angeles for a while. He was featured Friday’s Rising Stars challenge, then on Saturday went out and won the Dunk Contest.

“I’ve always been a player who’s not really been talked about a lot,” Mitchell told NBC Sports heading into the weekend. “Never really hyped coming out of high school — I was ranked top 50, but I wasn’t a name that was all over Ball is Life and all those platforms. Then coming into college I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, I wasn’t one of those guys averaging 30.

“Playing under (Rick) Pitino (in college), it’s grit and grind basketball, and that’s how I was perceived. That just adds to the chip I have on my shoulder.”

Mitchell had plenty of style and flash in Los Angeles. First, he brought out a second backboard, and did a self-alley-oop off one to the other.

Then he sealed his Dunk Contest win with a tribute to Vince Carter and one of his legendary dunks.

No player did more for his national profile over the three-days in Los Angeles than Donovan Mitchell.

3) Dunk of the weekend? Give that one to Larry Nance Jr. The newly-minted Cleveland Cavalier Larry Nance Jr. (he was traded from the Lakers at the deadline just more than a week before) may have come in second in the Dunk Contest to Mitchell, but he had the best dunk of the weekend. No doubt.

It was the double self-alley-oop off the backboard.

That was the dunk we’ll be talking about out of the weekend.

‘Tired’ Jimmy Butler sits out All-Star Game at his own request

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LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game at 37.3. He’s ninth in the league in total minutes played and played 77:35 minutes in the two games leading up to All-Star Weekend.

Butler was tired and asked Mike D’Antoni to give him some rest, according to both parties (despite speculation this was really a win for the Los Angeles nightlife). Butler did not play in Sunday’s All-Star Game.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

“He was tired and he just felt like his legs weren’t there,” Team Stephen head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He didn’t practice yesterday or play today. You have to respect that. He plays hard. Sometimes your body just needs a rest.”

Butler is having the kind of season that has him in the discussion for a place on the MVP ballot. He’s averaging 22.4 points per game with a very efficient true shooting percentage of 59.3, plus he’s playing strong defense. He and Karl-Anthony Towns have led the Timberwolves to a 36-25 record that has them as the current four seed in the West, poised to break an 11-year playoff drought for the franchise.

Still thankful, LeBron James breaks Michael Jordan’s record for years between All-Star MVPs

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Los Angeles – When LeBron James became the youngest-ever NBA All-Star MVP in 2006, he said during the trophy presentation: “I’d like to thank the fans for voting me in as a starter.”

Twelve years later, he sounds similar, maybe just a little more thoughtful: “It’s always been my fans who voted me in. For 14 straight years, my fans have voted me in as an All-Star starter, and it’s been up to me to go out and let them know and show them, listen, I appreciate that, and here’s what I’m going to give to you every time you vote me in.”

He plays similarly, too.

LeBron again won All-Star MVP, leading his team to a 148-145 victory Sunday. He finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“Every night I step on the floor, I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level,” said LeBron, 33. “I feel great.”

The 12-year gap between LeBron’s first and last All-Star MVP – he also won in 2008 – is the longest in NBA history. It tops the 10 years between Michael Jordan’s first (1988) and last (1998).

Here’s the difference between the first and last All-Star MVP for every multi-time winner:

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Players’ effort in this exhibition game comes and goes, but LeBron appeared invigorated .

When LeBron’s team trailed by 15 in the second quarter, he checked in and quickly led it back into the lead. When his team fell behind by 13 midway through the fourth quarter, he again led a spirited comeback. He hit the go-ahead bucket.

Despite playing a game-high 31 minutes, his intensity lasted all the way through the final buzzer.

His coach, the Raptors’ Dwane Casey, said he asked LeBron whether to foul or defend on the final possession while up three. LeBron said defend.

“If he says that, or any great players say that, you want to go with them because it was their idea, their belief, and he had it,” Casey said. “…He got the guys jacked up and juiced up as far as wanting to get a stop.”

LeBron and Kevin Durant swarmed Stephen Curry, who couldn’t shoot and could barely pass. Curry’s team didn’t even get a shot off:

“As you can hear in my voice, that tells how competitive it was,” LeBron said scratchily.

Again, his message echoed 2006: “We’re competitors, and our competitive nature kicked in and said let’s get some defensive stops.”

A lot will get made about the format change, and it might have mattered.

But maybe LeBron is just uniquely capable of dominating and embracing of this stage all these years later.