Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe’s triple-double fuels Lakers high-powered offense in win over Rockets

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LOS ANGELES — Mike D’Antoni was forced to postpone his debut as Lakers head coach, opting instead to wait a few more days after being talked out of coaching Sunday night’s game by the team’s training staff.

But you didn’t need to see D’Antoni in a suit on the sidelines to know that he had his fingerprints all over this one — it was evident from the very start.

The Lakers had 40 points by the end of the first quarter, Kobe Bryant finished with a triple-double, and the offense was everything their fans could ask for in a 119-108 destruction of the Houston Rockets.

Bryant notched the 18th triple-double of his career by finishing with 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists, but downplayed the statistical achievement afterward.

“I’m a scorer, I’m not a triple-double kind of player,” he said. “But it’s cool when it happens.”

L.A. was in blowout mode from the opening tip, and there were plenty of highlights on the way to gaining an 11-point lead by the end of the first quarter, one in which the Lakers as a team shot a ridiculous 73.9 percent.

To say that the offense was clicking would be an understatement. Bryant initiated plenty of high pick-and-rolls that resulted in good looks inside and out, the three-point shooting was solid at 45 percent, and the team pushed the tempo to play at a quicker pace which kept the defense on its heels and allowed for high-percentage shots.

D’Antoni-style basketball, at its finest.

The turnaround has seemed to come relatively quickly for these Lakers, after firing head coach Mike Brown just five games into the season once the team suffered through a 1-4 start. Since Bernie Bickerstaff has taken command on an interim basis, the team has gone 4-1 to get back to .500, but he said there were some signs that this might be coming.

“They were in the process,” Bickerstaff said. “If you go back to the day before we played [that first game he coached against Golden State], we talked about how we were prepared to play that game. We had one of the best practices that we’ve had. The progress from that point, I think the guys have been playing, and when you have some success your confidence goes up and you believe in certain things.”

It’s worth wondering how much of this recent success is due to D’Antoni’s system, versus just letting some of the best players in the world play the game the way they know how — intelligently, fluidly, and with few restrictions. The players seem to think it’s been a combination of the two so far.

“We’re just picking apart the defense,” Bryant said. “We’re putting the defense in predicaments where they have to choose, and we’re making them pay.”

Dwight Howard echoed the sentiment.

“We’re doing D’Antoni’s offense, but we’re just playing at the same time,” he said.

Howard finished with 28 points, 13 rebounds, and three blocked shots. He looked every bit the beast the Lakers hoped they’d be getting when they traded for him, but even after putting together a dominant performance like this one, Howard says he’s still not yet at 100 percent.

“No, I’m not there,” he said. “But I’m happy with the progress, I’m happy with my teammates finding me in great spots to score, and I’m just trying to have fun and play as hard as I can.”

If there’s a way to play harder offensively than the Lakers did as a team on this night, the rest of the league will be running for cover. Steve Nash will return at some point, which will only make things that much easier offensively, and that much more ridiculous for opposing defenses to have to deal with on a nightly basis.

“We just want to continue to roll, just continue to improve on what we’re doing, and continue to improve our execution,” Bryant said.

Presumably, there will be an additional boost from the full-time presence of Mike D’Antoni patrolling the sidelines. But whether that debut comes in the Lakers next game or the game after, it hardly matters. It’s very clear that D’Antoni and the pieces of his system are already firmly in place.

Karl-Anthony Towns beats out Isaiah Thomas to take Skills Challenge title

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 09:  Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves reacts after hitting a basket against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on November 9, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — In a new twist to the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the NBA made the decision this year to add big men to a competition that has traditionally focused on point guards. The new wrinkle created new layers of intrigue, an unusual amount of controversy and, ultimately, a new champion: Timberwolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns.

C.J. McCollum beat out Jordan Clarkson in the first round, and Isaiah Thomas took care of Emmanuel Mudiay. In something of an upset, Towns handled Draymond Green, who is the NBA’s leader in triple-doubles.

The other matchup in the first round came with some controversy: DeMarcus Cousins missed all three attempts at the chest pass into the ring but moved on in the obstacle course and ultimately defeated Anthony Davis. This led to widespread criticism on social media for Cousins being allowed to advance without completing all the drills.

But Towns beat out Cousins in the semifinals, thereby preventing a nightmare scenario where a winner might have to have an asterisk next to his title.

Thomas beat McCollum in the guards’ semifinals. McCollum lost his dribble early on in the round and never really recovered.

The final round between Towns and Thomas went down to the wire, but Towns’ three-pointer went down first, giving him the title.

 

Russell Westbrook on Lakers speculation: “Nah, I like where I am now”

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 08:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 8, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Thunder defeated the Suns 122-106.  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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — No matter what Russell Westbrook does, he cannot escape the rumors that have followed him for years. He grew up in Los Angeles and played college basketball at UCLA—so, it’s only logical that when he hits free agency in the summer of 2017, he’ll look to sign with the Lakers, right?

Westbrook did his best to shut that down on Saturday after practice with the Western Conference All-Stars.

“Nah,” Westbrook said. “I like where I am now. Oklahoma City is a great place for me.”

Westbrook admitted that he grew up a Lakers fan, but said he never thought of playing there as a kid.

“I never thought I’d play in the NBA,” he said. “I was just watching them.”

Westbrook has another full season to go before his contract with the Thunder is up, so it’s going to be a while before there’s any resolution here. A lot, of course, will depend on what Kevin Durant does this summer.

If Durant sticks around and the Thunder make another deep playoff run next season, it becomes more likely that Westbrook will stay. But if Durant goes somewhere else, there’s a good chance Westbrook follows suit. For now, all they can do is deflect the speculation that will be there no matter what they say.

Gregg Popovich says he thinks more about Warriors than any team he ever faced

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Gregg Popovich and his Spurs have gone up against some powerhouse teams in the past 17 years. There were the Shaq/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Steve Nash and the seven-seconds-or-less Suns, The Kobe/Pau Gasol Lakers, LeBron James‘ Miami Heat teams, and the list goes on.

But nobody has given him more to think about than Stephen Curry and the Warriors.

That’s what he said on ESPN Radio Friday, as reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.

“I’ve spent more time thinking about Golden State than I have any other team I’ve ever thought about in my whole career,” Popovich told ESPN Radio on Friday. “Because they are really fun. I’d go buy a ticket and go watch them play. And when I see them move the ball, I get very envious. When I see them shoot uncontested shots more than anybody else in the league, it’s inspiring. It’s just great basketball.

“So I’m actually enjoying them very much. You try to solve them, but they’re in a sense unsolvable because it’s a particular mix of talent that they have. It’s not just that Steph [Curry] can make shots or that Klay can make shots or that Draymond Green is versatile. Everybody on the court can pass, catch and shoot. And they all get it.”

When you think about those legendary teams Popovich faced, they may have been a little less mentally taxing to gameplan for. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers ran the triangle (an offense Popovich was familiar with), but most of what made them great was exceptional talent — two future Hall of Famers at their peaks. The Spurs tried to bully the Suns, and then they developed a motion offense that eventually shredded the Heat.

The Warriors are different, and Popovich gets to a fundamental problem in defeating them:

“They’re talented. But they’re also very, very smart.”

That’s what’s hard to plan for — smart players and smart teams adjust, and the Warriors by design loaded their roster with high IQ guys. If you adjust, they counter. And for the last season-and-a-half, that has worked brilliantly.

LeBron James on Kevin Love trade rumors: “They’re false”

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TORONTO — The rumors were out there: the Boston Celtics were interested in Kevin Love and were talking trade with Cleveland.

LeBron James would have none of that.

“It’s false,” LeBron said of the rumors when speaking to the media after the Eastern Conference’s All-Star Game practice Saturday. “It’s the only thing I can look at it and say it’s false. That’s the last thing guys are worried about right now are trade talks from our team.”

That echoed what Carmelo Anthony said. The buzz around Toronto (where the NBA has gathered for All-Star Weekend) that there wasn’t a lot of to the talks and if there was any momentum has stalled out.

Still, there will be talks, and there will be plenty of Cavaliers trade rumors in the run-up to the Feb. 18 trade deadline. Cleveland could use some shooting from the wing and quality depth to provide versatility going up against Golden State or San Antonio in the Finals.

LeBron just wants to make sure the talks don’t impact the locker room.

“One thing about this business is you can only control what you can control. Things that you can’t control, you can’t let it bother you, and I’ve learned that over the years,” LeBron said. “There is so much that goes on in professional sports that if you just focus on what you can control, everything else will take care of itself.”

The Love rumors likely will continue to flare up this week, but they are not going to move him unless another team makes a Godfather offer.

The Cavaliers have been 10.1 points per 100 possessions better this season when Love is on the court compared to off it (and their defense does get marginally better when he plays). When Love, LeBron, and Kyrie Irving are on the court together the Cavaliers outscore opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions. Those are massive numbers.

The Cavaliers are a win-now team, if you’re going to break up part of that trio it has to be for something that makes the team demonstrably better. And that kind of superstar trade is rare at the February deadline anymore.