Charlotte Bobcats v Los Angeles Lakers

Gasol returns, Lakers barely slip by Bobcats. But you can start to see the plan.

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There are a couple ways Lakers fans will look their team barely escaping the Charlotte Bobcats with a 101-100 win Tuesday night.

Some will say “a win is a win and right now the Lakers need wins.” Plus they got Gasol back — he had 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocks but look rusty like you’d expect after missing eight games with knee tendonitis. His return improved the team in some areas, particularly interior defense (although he was clearly rusty).

Some will say “they barely beat the Bobcats and they suck.” And they are right too — the Lakers had to come from 18 back because their flaws of inconsistent offense and lazy transition were exposed by a team that came in losers of 11 straight. If this had been virtually any other NBA team, the Lakers would have lost.

But what you really started to see was Mike D’Antoni’s plans for this team taking shape — they went small for extended periods with Metta World Peace at the four and Kobe Bryant at the three, and D’Antoni said you will see a lot more of that. You saw a lot of Jodie Meeks (39 minutes) and pretty soon you could see him start at the two. You saw a lot of Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol but limited time with both of them. You even saw flashes of good defense. Just flashes but they were there.

Will all that come together and work? The Magic 8 Ball says “cannot predict now” and “ask again later.” And by later I mean about a month from now.

But it is becoming clear direction D’Antoni is taking the Lakers.

“I want (World Peace) at the four and we have to be able to change our team…” D’Antoni said after the game. “But for us to have a different team, a different look, Metta has to play the four.”

Or D’Antoni on Meeks, who had 17 points off the bench, hitting 5-of-12 from three.

“We are a different look when he is on the floor. He spreads the floor and he is always a three point shot ready to happen.”

The rotations are getting set and the Lakers are going smaller. Meeks says the team is good with that and adjusting (although of course he says that, he’s the guy getting more run).

“I thought it looked good,” Meeks said of the Lakers going small. “I think myself, Kobe, Darius Morris, Metta, we brought a lot of intensity when we got out there and it looked good.”

They did, and it saved the Lakers bacon in a game they really didn’t deserve to win.

Charlotte can really only do one thing well on offense — run in transition and go straight to the rim. They have athletes and a couple solid guards (Kemba Walker and Ramon Sessions). But stopping them isn’t complex.

However, the Lakers couldn’t do it for two and a half quarters — the Lakers transition defense was atrocious. Charlotte shot 57 percent in the second quarter and led 58-53 at the half. The Lakers went cold shooting in the 10 minutes of the second quarter, and that let the Bobcats run. That lead climbed up to 18 the third quarter as the Bobcats started to gain confidence, got to loose balls, kept knocking down shots, and even Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hit a jumper. The Lakers are not a good perimeter defensive team right now, not consistently, and Steve Nash is not going to fix that.

Credit the Bobcats for doing what coach Mike Dunlap had in the game plan — he said before the game he wanted to test the Lakers defense in transition and early in the shot clock, before Dwight Howard was planted in the paint. It worked. They executed it.

But when the Lakers went small and cranked up the intensity on defense — World Peace and Morris in particular started to play some perimeter defense — the Bobcats had no answer. They don’t have the talent to hang in. Los Angeles went on a 30-4 run and took the lead. Down the stretch it was a ballgame again.

Kobe Bryant bailed them out — he had the final four points (a driving layup and an elbow jumper coming off a Howard screen) and that was enough to hang on. Kobe scored 30 to lead everyone in this game.

The final play was a wild scramble where the Bobcats could have won – Kemba Walker drove but Howard blocked it, the ball went to Gerald Henderson whose putback layup rattled rolled around the rim and went out, then Byron Mullens missed a rushed shot in the paint to win it.

For Charlotte, it’s a moral victory. Which feels pretty hollow. But it’s a process for them to improve.

It wasn’t pretty for the Lakers, but it’s a win. And you can start to see what will be coming from them.

What we will find out is if that is enough.

Wall has to work for recognition among top NBA point guards

Washington Wizards guard John Wall dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Associated Press
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Fresh off scoring 51 points against the Washington Wizards, reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry praised John Wall, who dropped a quiet 41 against the Warriors.

“He’s a top-tier point guard,” Curry said, “and it’s like that – not his caliber every night – but obviously at the point guard position you’re going to have some talent on the other side of the ball most nights.”

Wall has never played better in what is now a point-guard league.

It doesn’t stop with Curry. The talent pool includes Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, Portland’s Damian Lillard, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul, to name a few.

“I think I’m having a career year,” Wall said. “I can say I’m playing my best basketball, but not the way I want to play because it’s not equaling up to wins.”

Wall is an All-Star for the third time but gets lost in the packed field of “top-tier” point guards. His 20.1 points a game are sixth at the position, while his 9.9 assists are third behind only Sacramento’s Rajon Rondo and Westbrook.

But some nights there is just no denying his talents.

Like Tuesday at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Wall had 28 points and 17 assists to lead Washington past the Knicks. It was another showcase performance during a season that hasn’t gone the way he or the Wizards have wanted.

The Wizards will be a sub-.500 team and outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture at the All-Star break. Injuries to sidekick Bradley Beal and many others have hampered Washington this season.

But Wall is holding up his end and is playing like a top-five point guard.

He has an all-around game – the ability to beat defenders off the dribble, to spot up, pass, use his court vision and rebound. As Celtics coach Brad Stevens said recently, “you have to pick your poison” when defending Wall.

“Being able to shoot the ball off the pick and roll with great consistency – that’s what makes defenses choose what to do next,” Stevens said. “He’s been a great passer off the pick and roll.”

There’s no shortage of admiration around the league for Wall, who Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown deemed “the fastest guard in the NBA.” Brown compared Wall to a Maserati sports car and said the 25-year-old has improved because “you learn how to drive your Maserati better.”

Much of Wall’s game has improved in his six pro seasons since he was the first overall pick out of Kentucky in 2010.

“His speed is probably second to none in the NBA. … He’s a one-man fast break and it’s crazy because he logs so many minutes,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “His midrange jumper is also so much improved. You can tell he’s been working on his game a lot, and you like to see that from guys.”

Wall doesn’t get the headlines like Curry, Irving or even Thomas, of late. He has only scored the most points in a game he’s played in eight times this season, but Wall is the kind of player that teams have to game-plan against.

“You’ve got to build a wall against Wall,” Cavaliers star LeBron James said. “You let him play in open court one-on-one, he’s too fast, he’s too strong. He’s going to put your defense at bay.”

Opponents have tried to close off Wall’s drives to the basket and force him to take jump shots. At times, it has worked, like when the Trail Blazers limited him to 4 of 17 shooting in a victory last month.

“When you’re playing against an All-Star-caliber player like him, you work as hard as you can, you try and contain his penetration and hope he misses some jumpers,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said.

More often than not, Wall makes the most of his time and space. Even so, Washington coach Randy Wittman believes Curry should get more recognition than Wall because of team results.

“John’s body of work has been pretty good; he’s been recognized with that,” Wittman said. “You’ve got to go out and play, you’ve got to go out and win. Those are the two things in our league. You want recognition? Be a winner and play your butt off. That’s how you get recognition, and John’s gotten it.”

NBA writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this report.

Report: “Al Horford is a legitimate possibility for the Celtics”

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The Boston Celtics have assets, a collection of good role players but lacking the true stars, the alpha, the No. 1 option that any team needs to really win in the NBA.

How about Al Horford?

The Hawks are testing the waters for Horford, and as you can see in the video above, Chirs Mannix of Comcast Sportsnet New England (as well as The Vertical at Yahoo Sports) sees a fit.

“I think Boston, Al Horford is a legitimate possibility for the Celtics. I think that is one of the guys across the league that Danny Ainge is the most excited about. He is a four man that would fit right into what Boston is trying to do. It would cost a lot of money to re-sign him in the offseason, but I think Boston is willing to play it, because they haven’t paid a lot of money for players in recent years.”

The question here, of course, is the cost going back. All sources around the league right now say the Hawks are asking for the moon (as Mannix mentions). The givens in this kind of deal would be David Lee‘s expiring contract (for salary reasons), and the Nets unprotected pick. But it’s going to take more. Jae Crowder? Marcus Smart? Avery Bradley? Kelly Olynyk? Isaiah Thomas? It’s going to take a couple of those guys on top of Lee and the pick.

But if you’re the Celtics, that’s the move — you have put together all these assets, now you need to consolidate them into a couple of stars. Horford’s good-at-everything will fit beautifully in Brad Stevens’s system.

Just something to keep your eyes on. Unless the Hawks decide not to move Horford at all. Which is still a possibility, they may not break this thing up.

Damian Lillard added to Team USA Olympic roster pool

Damian Lillard
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If you’re looking for a point guard who can flat-out score the rock, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many better than Damian Lillard. The Trail Blazers’ guard is averaging 24.2 points and 7.3 assists per game, with an above-average true shooting percentage of 54.6 percent, and a very high usage rate of 30.9.

He’s the kind of guy who might have a place on the Team USA Roster.

Which is why USA Basketball has added him to the pool to be considered for the Rio Olympics summer. The reason for the change is both Lillard’s level of play this season, and the fact he called USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo to ask for a spot, as reported by Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports.

Lillard deserves consideration, but there are two key reasons he likely doesn’t make the team:

1) He is still a terrible defender.

2) The list of guards for the USA Roster is ridiculous: Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Klay Thompson, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook. And now Lillard. That’s 10 guys for likely five spots. It’s hard to see Lillard making that cut.

But he deserves consideration.

Kings co-owner Shaq: Vivek Ranadivé told me George Karl would coach rest of season

Shaquille O'Neal
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
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Kings general manager Vlade Divac said keeping George Karl as coach was right move “for now.”

How long is “for now”?

Shaquille O’Neal, a Kings minority owner, shares insight.

Sam Amick of USA Today:

This would mean a little more if Vivek Ranadivé weren’t prone to wild swings. Remember, the Kings said Tyrone Corbin would finish last season as coach before firing him for Karl.

Divac also said in November that Karl would coach the rest of the season, and that came up for debate fewer than three months later.

Shaq’s revelation is as likely to embarrass the Kings in a few weeks as it is to signal Karl’s job security.