Lakers cruise to win over Sixers thanks to an efficient 34 points from Kobe Bryant

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It’s not often we use the word “efficient” in the same sentence while describing the offensive play of the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant. But in Sunday’s easy 111-98 victory over the Sixers, it was not only appropriate, but it fit the description exactly.

Bryant finished with 34 points on 12-of-21 shooting, to go along with four rebounds and six assists. He opened the game with 11 first-quarter points, while scoring from both inside and out.

Right around 20 shot attempts is probably where Bryant should be on a nightly basis in order for his teammates to remain involved and engaged on both ends of the floor, and with Bryant excelling in this range in this one, there was plenty of offensive opportunity to go around.

Metta World Peace matched Bryant’s first quarter with 11 points of his own, and finished with 19 points and a career-high 16 rebounds.

The Lakers got going offensively early, and did so as a team, with Bryant and World Peace leading the way. It’s been nine games since L.A. has scored at least this many points, so as you might imagine, players who aren’t accustomed to having great performances offensively got going a bit in Philadelphia.

Darius Morris, who remains replaced in the starting lineup by Chris Duhon, had a breakout game with 15 points, all of which were scored in the first half, and 12 of which came in the second period.

He only managed to stay in the game for 18 minutes, with Mike D’Antoni wisely keeping him on a short leash given his propensity to turn the ball over, combined with his inability to consistently initiate the offense. Morris made the most of his opportunity on this night by making his first five shots, but didn’t score after halftime.

Not that the Lakers needed him at that point, anyway.

The team leaned on its stars to get its second straight victory, and beyond Bryant and World Peace, Dwight Howard finished with 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting, 11 rebounds, five assists, three steals, and two blocked shots. He played a pretty complete game, even if Kwame Brown got the better of him on an early offensive possession.

On the Sixers’ side, Nick Young ended up with 30 points in 41 minutes, but got 11 of those by playing the entire fourth quarter in a game that had already been decided. Evan Turner was strong early and his dribble penetration helped keep Philadelphia in it, but when you have the Lakers going 10-of-15 from three-point distance in the first half, there aren’t a lot of answers.

This makes two wins in a row for a Lakers team that is still three games under .500, but hope is on the horizon. L.A. plays next on Tuesday at home against a Bobcats team that has lost 11 straight, and they may have Pau Gasol back in the lineup then, with Steve Nash possibly to follow by the end of the week.

If the offense can continue to improve with a true team effort like this one, the Lakers might be able to begin to climb out of the early-season hole they dug for themselves. But that will only happen if we get the efficient version of Kobe Bryant, the one that so effortlessly helped dismantle the Sixers in Philadelphia, and did so while taking just 21 shots.

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”

Remember when Shaq started practice naked? His former Lakers teammates do

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The Lakers are unveiling a statue for Shaquille O’Neal tonight, a perfect opportunity for his former teammates to share their favorite Shaq stories.

Mark Medina of The Orange County Register:

“We had a rule you can’t be late to the center huddle,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, who played with O’Neal as a rookie in 2003-04. “He got here where he didn’t have time to get his clothes on. So he made sure he was on time in the center circle.”

“I’m just scarred by the one where he ran out into the middle of the court naked before practice,” said former Lakers forward Rick Fox, who played with O’Neal from 1997 to 2004. “I can’t get that image out of my mind.”

“Shaq walked onto the court, put his hands up and said ‘I’m ready to practice,’ said Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen, who was O’Neal’s teammate from 2000 to 2003. “He had not one inch of clothing on. So he was there in all of his glory.”

“He would start running around looking for guys to hug. Everybody was trying to get out of the way,” mused former Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who played with O’Neal from 1996 to 2004. “That’s’ why when I hit that shot in San Antonio in 2004, that’s why we were so good at sprinting off of the court.”

As much as he toed the line with his wardrobe choices before practice started, O’Neal always practiced with his actual uniform. Fox expressed the views of many saying he’s “not guarding him, not doubling down in the post and digging for the ball” sans uniform. As Madsen mused, “that would’ve been the day I would’ve submitted my resignation papers.”

Want to criticize Shaq for not setting a better tone of punctuality? It’s a fair argument, and you might have had Kobe Bryant on your side.

But Shaq keeping the Lakers loose was instrumental in their high-pressure pursuit of championships. Don’t discount that contribution to their three titles with him.

Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, probable top-10 pick, declares for NBA draft

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Jonathan Isaac explored bursting through a loophole to declare for the 2016 NBA draft straight out of high school.

Instead, he went to Florida State. Now, he’ll enter the 2017 draft.

Isaac:

If he doesn’t hire an agent, Isaac can maintain college eligibility, but this message seems pretty final. Expect Isaac to remain in the draft, and expect him to go in the top 10.

What I like most about the 6-foot-11 forward: Despite being so lanky, he was an elite defensive rebounder. That shows an underlying technical proficiency and physicality that should serve him well.

And then there are the drool-inducing flashes – his ability to go up and get alley-oops above the rim and a sweet-looking jumper.

He’s still a work in progress, and he deferred a lot at Florida State. But he’s just 19, and he has the tools to do more. I’d love to get him on my team as he learns to assert himself.