Another game, another fourth quarter collapse, another Lakers loss, this time to Rockets

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It boils down to this — the Lakers are not good enough right now for their stars to make mistakes and still win, while the Rockets were just good enough to exploit those mistakes.

For two games in a row the Lakers have taken leads deep into the fourth quarter. Then blown them as the other team hacked-a-Dwight and the Lakers fell apart. Los Angeles has given up 74 fourth quarter points in those two losses.

This time it was Houston making the plays late – and hitting their free throws and key threes — to get a 107-105 win. Houston improves to 9-8 on the season, the Lakers fall to 8-10 and 1-5 on the road. By the way, six of their next seven are on the road.

And after the last two games, you can bet every one of those teams is ready and willing to start fouling Dwight Howard late in the game.

It’s not hack-a-Dwight alone that costs the Lakers games, rather it is when teams start fouling Howard the entire Lakers rhythm on both ends of the floor becomes disrupted. They revert to choices on offense — Kobe Bryant took the last six shots alone, on his way to a 39-point performance — and even their defense falls apart.

This time that included Kobe missing key defensive assignments late as Tony Douglas was wide open for a corner three plus got to the line for key free throws.

The Lakers can’t have mistakes from their stars because the talent after Kobe and Howard the talent level takes a steep drop off a cliff with Steve Nash and Pau Gasol out. The Lakers bench got outscored 57-20 by the Rockets bench.

Still the Lakers should have won this. Los Angeles led from the start of this game and seemed in control — while they weren’t getting as many stops as Lakers fans might like the Lakers had a comfortable lead most of the way. Following a Jordan Hill dunk the Lakers were up 11 with just more than seven minutes left.

But the Rockets made a little run then went to hack-a-Dwight down four — 97-93 — with 3:18 on the clock. You can argue it didn’t work all that well because Howard hit 5-of-10 free throws before the clock reached two minutes (when hack-a-Dwight would mean free throw and the ball out of bounds for the Lakers). When hack-a-Dwight ended, the Lakers were still up two points.

But their rhythm was off, and it showed the rest of the way.

Greg Smith of Houston was the best player on the floor in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 points on 4-of-4 shooting plus getting three rebounds. He finished with 21. Douglas had 22 for Houston. The Rockets got this win with James Harden (15 points), Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin combining to shoot 10-for-43. But Harden had a key offensive rebound and guys just found a way to contribute and make plays.

The Lakers don’t have that. Right now they don’t have enough down the stretch to win games unless their stars are perfect. And Howard is not perfect at all from the line.

Paul Millsap says the expected, he will “most likely” opt out of contract

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This is ranked right next to “overeating can lead to weight gain” on the list of surprising things, but we will dutifully report it anyway:

Paul Millsap is going to opt out and officially become a free agent this summer.

Atlanta’s owner as well as Mike Budenholzer, the coach and head of basketball operations, have both said they plan to do whatever it takes to re-sign Millsap with the Hawks. Millsap didn’t sound like someone eager to leave after the Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs Friday.

“It’s been great. I’m looking to expand this and see where the franchise can go. These last four years has been great. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Even with both sides singing Kumbaya, keeping Millsap in Atlanta likely means a five-year contract at or near the max, which for a 32-year-old player means the Hawks would regret the last year or two of that deal.

Not that the Hawks have much of a choice here, they have to come in big and keep him. For one, they can’t afford to lose Al Horford and then Millsap for nothing in back-to-back years. If they were going down the rebuilding road, they needed to trade Millsap at the deadline (or last summer) to make sure they got something in return. Atlanta explored trade options at the deadline, but then pulled back (rumored to be because of an edict from ownership, which didn’t want to see the team blown up after the Kyle Korver trade).

By not making that trade the Hawks signaled their intention to remain a good team — a 43-win team this season that got them the five seed — with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, one that draws well at an arena that historically has not been that full, and see if they can add on. They strike me as a team that will win between 42-50 games a year and be middle of the pack in the East for the next few years, unless they can find a way to add an elite player (which is incredibly difficult).

But if the Hawks can’t re-sign Millsap, then the plan gets blown up. So expect them to come in with a big offer come July 1.

Milwaukee Bucks eager to build after strong finish to season

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — With the sting of their frantic but failed Game 6 comeback effort still fresh in their minds, the Milwaukee Bucks returned to their practice facility Friday morning to pack their things and head their separate ways.

The Bucks consider themselves a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference, a belief no doubt reinforced by a furious 14-4 run late in the season that propelled them to sixth place in the East and solidified by a strong, though inconsistent, effort against Toronto in the playoffs.

“We thought we were the better team,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We thought we could beat the Raptors and go to the second round. We feel like we got the Raptors’ attention so hopefully next year … we can go deeper in the playoffs.”

To get to that next step, which includes gaining home-court advantage and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2001, a lot of work needs to be done. Milwaukee needs Antetokounmpo to continue his rapid development, but will be looking to young additions like Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks’ two picks in last year’s draft, to refine their bodies and their games this summer.

Maker was one of the biggest surprises in the league. The 15th overall pick was a relative unknown and figured, at the outset, to be a draft-and-develop pick. Instead, he made a strong impression on the coaching staff with his commitment to defense and made opposing teams panic with his ability to shoot the 3 and wound up starting all six playoff games.

“It was amazing,” Maker said. “Unexpected. I thought I was just going to be on `Project: Build Maker’ and build my body but that’s (what I’m doing) this summer now. I thought that’s what this year was going to be about but everything turned around. I worked hard and it turned out to be way more than I expected. I don’t like the end results – it could have been way better – but you live with the results and you learn.”

Brogdon might have been an even bigger surprise. He was Milwaukee’s second-round pick and began the season on the bench behind free agent acquisition Matthew Dellavedova. But he, too, put in the work and by season’s end, was not only the starting point guard but a key piece of the Bucks’ core.

“I think it’s strong,” Brogdon said of Milwaukee’s nucleus. “I think it’s going to be one of the strongest in the NBA, as long as we’re able to stay together and as long as we’re able to stay healthy. I think we’re going to be one of the best teams in the NBA.”

The Bucks have been in this position before. They were considered a team on the rise in 2010, when they forced the Hawks to seven games but stumbled the next season and didn’t return to the postseason until sneaking into the eighth spot in 2013.

Two years later, Milwaukee was thought to be a sleeper after the Bucks finished .500 in Kidd’s first season at the helm, but again they faltered the next season and missed the playoffs.

Maintaining the momentum will be a major focus as preparations begin for the next season.

“My first year we had seven or eight free agents, so we knew that wasn’t going to be the same team,” forward John Henson said. “(The) second year we had a new coach, more free agents.

My third year coach Kidd coming in, we knew there was going to be some stability. He’s had the same core guys and this is what happens; not have a letdown like we did the year before.”

Milwaukee should benefit with some roster stability. The team’s young core appears set in place with Antetokounmpo, Henson and Khris Middleton locked into long-term contracts, as are Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic.

Tony Snell, who went on to start 80 games after being acquired late in training camp, is a restricted free agent. Greg Monroe, who became one of the league’s best sixth men, holds a player option for next season.

The Bucks will likely be open to bringing back veteran guard Jason Terry for a 19th season, too.

“I think that’s how you become a team that doesn’t regress next year – keeping some of the pieces together,” Henson said.

General manager John Hammond also faces a tough question with Jabari Parker, who will miss at least the first half of the 2017-18 season after tearing his ACL in February. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft is eligible for a contract extension this summer and was in line to earn something close to the $100 million Milwaukee gave Antetokounmpo last year.

Lonzo Ball, other top draft picks expected to skip NBA Combine

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The NBA Draft Combine invites started going out Saturday — about 60-70 players are expected to be invited to a gym in Chicago for a couple of days of measurements, interviews, and tests, with a little basketball thrown in. The idea is for teams to get an up-close look (and accurate measurements) with guys they are going to invest time and, in some cases, millions of dollars in over the next several years.

However, the guys at the top of the draft are not going to be in Chicago, as Shams Charania and Bobby Marks of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports noted.

This is the same as with the NFL combine, the top picks see only bad things that can happen by taking part, there’s no upside but their stock could fall, so they stay away.

That’s not about to change. Also, a lot of international players skip the combine. That opens up some slots for more fringe guys, players who may or may not get drafted in the second round, to come in and impress. (Check out Jonathan Givony’s Twitter timeline to get a sense of who got invited and who didn’t.)

Teams looking at drafting the top handful, the elite guys, have already had scouts watch every college and many high school games, not to mention seeing their AAU teams and catching them at things like the Nike Summit or Adidas Nations events. They’ve talked to the guy’s former coaches and others around him, they have a good sense of who he is and is not.

Well, as much as one can in any draft. It’s still a crap shoot. A player can have all the skills, all the physical gifts, be a good person, but what happens once they face real adversity? Or, have to deal with money and temptations? What would you have been like at age 20 with millions of dollars and all the hedonistic temptations of the NBA lifestyle thrown at you? Or, how do does a team know which young players with some very raw skills have the drive and passion for maximizing those talents? Predicting how a 19- or 20-year-old will mature is not an easy task.

Dwyane Wade says he wants to see plan for Bulls before deciding on player option

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I can think of $23.8 million reasons Dwyane Wade will be back with the Chicago Bulls next season. Sure, he’s made more than $175 million on the court and more in endorsements during his Hall of Fame career. Still, that’s a lot of money to walk away from and he has the player option. It’s Wade’s call.

When asked on Saturday, a day after the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs by the Boston Celtics (a game in which Wade was 1-of-10 shooting and -27), whether he planned to return to Chicago or test the free agent market again this summer, Wade only said that he wanted to get a sense of what the Bulls were going to do this summer before he decided. Here are some Tweets from the Wade interview from Vincent Goodwill of CSNChicago.com and K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.

Wade wants a clear plan and direction from Bulls management? That’s a long line. Like the line at an Apple Store the day the new iPhone comes out length. Wade is way at the back of it.

If the Bulls rebuild, they will trade Butler, if not they will run it back with Wade, Butler, and likely Rondo. Obviously, if they do keep this core together a lot of pieces around them need to change and start to fit some kind of cohesive system.

Wade also defended coach Fred Hoiberg in the wake of “fire Hoiberg” chants from Bulls fans at the end of the game.

This is the one wish Wade will get, after firing Tom Thibodeau and hand-picking Hoiberg out of the college ranks, no way GarPax is going to fire him this summer and admit its mistake.

Everything else with Wade is up in the air.