Lakers might only get one shot to win a championship with Dwight Howard

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For the majority of NBA teams and their respective fan bases, each season is all about the journey. Only a select few have a real shot at winning a championship, so success is relative and can be judged on everything from individual player improvement to year-over-year win totals, or on whether or not a team simply made the playoffs.

In Los Angeles, for the Lakers, the opposite is true. The journey does not matter; it’s all about the result.

Dwight Howard has finally been added to the star-studded Laker lineup, essentially in exchange for Andrew Bynum. With Howard in the fold alongside Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace, L.A. has the best starting five in the league, and it isn’t close. With that great power comes great responsibility, of course, in that anything less than a Lakers championship next season will be considered a disappointment, and rightfully so.

Now, championship-or-bust isn’t exactly a fun way to go through an entire season — just ask the 2011 Miami Heat about that. The Lakers may, however, have to deal with something that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh didn’t in that first season together in Miami: the added pressure of having to win a title in their very first season together, if they want to stay together.

Howard is an unrestricted free agent after next season, and will sign nothing less than a max contract once he hits the open market. While the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement would allow him to net in the neighborhood of $30 million more over the life of his next deal if he stayed in L.A., money may not be everything to a player who already will have over $100 million in career earnings — even before we count endorsements — when the time comes for him to decide where he’ll play next. Additionally, let’s not forget that Howard is recovering from back surgery, and we have yet to see how quickly he may or may not return to form following his rehabilitation.

Besides the injury issue and the fact that Dwight can simply up and leave at the end of the season if he feels like it, the Lakers may think very carefully about wanting him back at the price he’ll command if he can’t mesh with the rest of the roster, pulls any of the bad teammate routine we saw from him last year in Orlando, or ends up being less than 100 percent of the player we’ve seen him be in the past.

While it seems likely that the Lakers would try to keep Howard in order to have a star in Los Angeles to build around once Bryant retires, nothing is guaranteed there because L.A. has legitimate salary concerns after next season. In 2014, Bryant is slated to make over $30 million, and Gasol will be in the last year of a deal that will pay him greater than $19 million. If Gasol doesn’t bounce back from a disappointing season, it’s reasonable to believe that the Lakers may look to move that expiring contract to cut payroll and avoid having to pay him big dollars in free agency.

All of this is to say that for the Lakers, the time is now. The acquisitions of Howard and Nash have put the team in the enviable spot of being one of the favorites to take home the title. And while the team’s journey should certainly be compelling, if the end result is anything less than a 17th NBA championship, it may be the only chance given to the team’s core to win it as currently constructed.

Nene’s 28 lead Rockets past Thunder for 3-1 series lead

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Nene scored 28 points on perfect shooting from the field, and the Houston Rockets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 113-109 on Sunday to take a 3-1 lead in their first-round playoff series.

Nene made all 12 of his shots and had 10 rebounds. He helped the Rockets overcome an off night by James Harden, who finished with 16 points on 5-for-16 shooting.

Eric Gordon and Lou Williams each scored 18 points for the Rockets. Trevor Ariza had 14.

Game 5 is Tuesday night in Houston.

Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook had a triple-double by halftime and finished with 35 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists. The Thunder said Westbrook joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to claim three consecutive playoff triple-doubles.

Steven Adams scored 18 points and Victor Oladipo added 15 for the Thunder.

Westbrook had 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists at the break. He grabbed the 10th rebound in the final second of the second quarter, and the Thunder led 58-54 at intermission. Meanwhile, Harden made just 2 of 9 shots and scored just six points in the first half.

The Thunder opened the second half with a 10-2 run, but Houston closed to 77-73 at the end of the third quarter.

Adams made the first of two free throws with 21.7 seconds remaining to cut Oklahoma City’s deficit to four. He rebounded his missed second free throw and found Westbrook for a 3-pointer that cut Houston’s lead to one point. But the Thunder lost track of Nene on the other end, and he converted a three-point play. Gordon’s two free throws with 6.2 seconds made it a four-point game.

TIP-INS

Rockets: G Patrick Beverley was fined $25,000 by the NBA for confronting a fan after Game 3. The league announced the fine about two hours before Game 4 tipped off.

Thunder: Westbrook had just one turnover in the first half. … Adams went 6 for 6 from the field in the first half. … Westbrook missed all six of his shots in the third quarter.

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.

Thunder convert missed FT to 3-pointer, refs miss James Harden push as Rockets win Game 4

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As if the end of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers Game 4 wasn’t wild enough, the finish to the matchup between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder was just as odd.

The final quarter of Sunday’s game was laden with poor play and heavy fouling, including a ploy by Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni to put Thunder forward Andre Roberson at the line as part of a hacking strategy.

But the final minute was what really caught everyone’s eye, as the Thunder converted a purposely-missed free-throw attempt by Steven Adams into a Russell Westbrook 3-pointer with just 21 seconds left.

Via Twitter:

The Thunder then broke down on the inbounds play a few seconds later, allowing Nene — who had a great game, scoring 28 points off the bench on 12-of-12 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds — to score an and-1 at the other end of the floor.

Oklahoma City then scored again on a tip.

That’s when it got REAL weird.

Houston inbounded the ball to James Harden, who got away with a gigantic, and frankly hilarious push off on Alex Abrines. OKC nearly stole the ball, but instead were called for a foul.

Via Twitter:

This game was wild, weird, terrible, and both sides have something to gripe about when it came to fouls.

Houston beat OKC, 113-109, and take a 3-1 lead back to Texas.

Russell Westbrook clinches triple-double in first half vs. Rockets

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Thunder guard Russell Westbrook achieved a triple-double in the first half of Sunday’s playoff game against the Houston Rockets.

Westbrook had 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists at halftime. He grabbed the 10th rebound in the final second of the second quarter. The Thunder led 58-54 at the break.

According to the Thunder, Westbrook became the second player to claim three consecutive triple-doubles in the playoffs. Wilt Chamberlain had three straight in 1967.

Westbrook entered the game averaging a triple-double in the series. He just set the record for triple-doubles in a regular season with 42.

Houston leads the series 2-1.

LeBron James helps Cavaliers hold off Pacers, earn sweep into 2nd round

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) LeBron James made a 3-pointer with 68 seconds left Sunday and the Cleveland Cavaliers hung on for a 106-102 series-clinching victory at Indiana.

James finished with 33 points and 10 rebounds as he became the first player under the current playoff format to win 21 straight first-round games. He also set a league record with his 10th career playoff sweep.

It sure wasn’t easy. After taking a 96-83 lead with 9:29 to go, the Cavs found themselves in a 102-100 deficit with 1:31 left.

But James answered with the go-ahead 3-pointer and Cleveland sealed the win on James’ free throw with 1 second left.

Lance Stephenson scored 22 points and Paul George added 15 but missed a 3-pointer that could have forced overtime in the closing seconds. It’s the first time the Pacers have lost a series 4-0 in their NBA history.

Kyrie Irving added 28 points for the Cavs, who await the winner of the Bucks-Raptors series.

Indiana got back into the game with a 7-0 spurt early in the in the fourth, then methodically continued chipping away at the lead until Thaddeus Young tied the score at 100 with a short jumper and broke the tie on a tip-in with 1:31 left.

But James, whose teams were 51-0 when starting the fourth quarter with double-digit leads in the postseason, made sure the perfect record remained intact.

Cleveland has won seven straight playoff games overall and 11 straight in the first round since James returned to his hometown team.

It was another milestone day for James, who moved past Michael Cooper, Magic Johnson and James Worthy on the league’s list of consecutive first-round wins, and past Tim Duncan for most career sweeps, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

James also went 13 off 25 from the field, tying Kobe Bryant for fourth on the career playoff list for field goals. Each have 2,014 baskets.

Indiana has lost five straight postseason games and six of its last eight.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: Will make their 11th appearance in the conference semifinals. … Cleveland has swept all eight series in which it has taken a 3-0 lead. … Tristan Thompson grabbed 11 rebounds Sunday, giving him double digits in all four games. … Deron Williams scored 14 points and Kevin Love had 16 rebounds.

Pacers: George finished with a series-low point total Sunday and was 3 of 9 on 3s after entering the game with a league-high 15 3s in the playoffs. … Teague scored 15 points and was the catalyst in the final spurt, including blocking one of James’ shots. He can become a free agent this summer. …Myles Turner had 20 points and nine rebounds, while Young had 13 points and 10 rebounds.

UP NEXT

Cleveland gets some extra rest before finding out who it will play in the second round. Indiana embarks on a crucial offseason that could dictate the franchise’s future.

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