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.

LeBron James locked in for Cavaliers-Celtics Game 4 after being locked out in Game 3

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James had that look – faraway, yet focused.

The Boston Celtics have his undivided attention.

Following one of the worst postseason games of his career, James provided a candid review of his performance after breaking down film of Game 3 in the Eastern Conference finals.

“It wasn’t tough to watch,” he said as the Cavaliers prepared for Tuesday night’s Game 4. “We had opportunities. It is what it is. They played a hell of a game and they took it to us and we weren’t able to stop the runs that they made.

“Some of the plays that we made, some of the plays that I made, I was like, `What are we doing?’ or `What could I have done better?’ But you figure out the next game and go forward.”

James scored just 11 points and committed six turnovers in Game 2 on Sunday night, when the Celtics overcame a 21-point deficit in the third quarter to pull off an upset the odds makers in Las Vegas said was the biggest in the NBA playoffs over the past 20 years.

It was the fourth-lowest point total for James in 210 career playoff games. The point total was stunning considering it broke James’ streak of scoring at least 30 points in eight straight playoff games. It was the first time in 11 games in this postseason in which he scored fewer than 25.

Typically, James bounces back following poor games.

“It’s fun to watch knowing that when he has bad nights, a lot of times some very, very, very good nights follow,” said Cavs forward James Jones, who has been James’ teammate the past seven years. “It’s what he does.”

James went just 4 of 13 from the field in Game 3. More unusual was that he didn’t attack the basket with his customary tenacity.

And while James was criticized in some circles for not doing more, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was understandably cautious in his analysis.

His team is back in the series after being blown out in Games 1 and 2 at home, and Stevens probably didn’t want to rankle James.

“I thought LeBron made a lot of the right plays,” he said. “When you’ve got guys that are all on fire the way they are, the right basketball play is to find them. He just made it over and over. The guy is a tremendous basketball player. He makes the right play over and over, and he thinks the game, he sees the game. He’s a really good defender. He can read situations. So I thought he was pretty darned good. I’m not going to be critical of the best player in the world.”

James, who didn’t speak to the media Monday, didn’t provide many detailed answers during a brief interview session at the team’s practice facility.

Asked for the keys to Game 4, he simply said “win” and walked away.

Report: Magic hiring Bucks GM John Hammond to serve under Jeff Weltman

AP Photo/Morry Gash
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Bucks general manager John Hammond interviewed to run the Magic’s front office – a job that ultimately went to Raptors general manager Jeff Weltman.

But there’s still room for Hammond in Orlando.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Why would Hammond leave Milwaukee, where he held the highest title in the front office for the No. 2 job in Orlando? The Bucks seemed ready to part ways for a while. Coach Jason Kidd assumed plenty of player-personnel control, and Milwaukee hired Justin Zanik to work under and eventually succeed Hammond.

Hammond’s move elevates Zanik now with the Bucks. We’ll see whether he or Kidd actually steers the ship.

Hammond had Kidd thrust upon him in Milwaukee due to the coach’s closeness with Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry. Considering he worked with Weltman in Detroit and Milwaukee, Hammond should have better working relationships in Orlando.

Under Hammond, the Bucks have built a nice young core featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Khris Middleton, Greg Monroe, Tony Snell, Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. Hammond probably deserves more credit for that, but Milwaukee’s loss is the Magic’s gain. At least Zanik is qualified to step up.

Now, Orlando must hope Hammond can help turn around its underwhelming roster.

Kawhi Leonard injury an all-time "what if?"

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Eight days ago, we didn’t know whether Kawhi Leonard – who injured his ankle when Zaza Pachulia slid under his jumper – would play again this postseason.

But as a frustrated Gregg Popovich ranted about Pachulia’s dirtiness, I suspect the Spurs coach knew. I think Popovich knew, after years of anticipating a playoff matchup with the high-octane Warriors, Leonard’s injury had robbed San Antonio of a competitive conference finals – and maybe a championship.

The Spurs led Game 1 by 23 when Leonard got hurt. He never returned, and San Antonio blew its opening-game lead then lost Games 2-4 by 36, 12 and 14. None of the final three games were competitive down the stretch.

In all, the Spurs outscored Golden State by 21 in Leonard’s 23 minutes and got outscored by 85 otherwise.

The Warriors advance to their third straight NBA Finals. San Antonio is left wondering, what if?

Popovich’s Spurs have beaten nearly every highly touted team to come along during his reign as coach – the Chris Webber/Vlade Divac/Mike Bibby/Peja Stojakovic Kings, Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Goin’ To Work Pistons, Steve Nash/Mike D’Antoni Suns, LeBron James Cavaliers, Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks, Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook Thunder, LeBron/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Heat.

But these Warriors escaped San Antonio. The Spurs beat Golden State in the 2013 second round, but that wasn’t the same team. Those Warriors hadn’t started Draymond Green, signed Andre Iguodala or hired Steve Kerr – three people integral to Golden State’s identity. And of course, the Warriors hadn’t signed Kevin Durant, who turned this year’s squad into possible the greatest super team of all time.

At the same time, San Antonio was loading up. The Spurs were the second-best regular-season team over the last three years behind Golden State, but the teams didn’t meet in the playoffs.

Despite having the NBA’s third-best net rating, San Antonio had to face the Clippers (NBA’s second-best net rating) in the 2015 first round thanks to conference imbalance and a since-changed seeding system for division winners. The Clippers won a hard-fought seven-game series.

In 2016, the Spurs had an even higher net rating than Golden State, which went 73-9. But they ran into the Thunder, whose athleticism buzz-sawed them and nearly toppled the Warriors.

This year was San Antonio’s chance.

The Spurs showed an ability to adjust to spread attacks while topping the Rockets in the second round. In its next-level challenge, San Antonio – behind Leonard’s 26 points on 13 shots, eight rebounds and three assists – dominated early.

But as soon as Leonard went down, the entire series turned.

The Spurs outscored Golden State by 42 points per 48 minutes with Leonard and got outscored by 24 points per 48 minutes without him – one of the greatest disparities in a playoff series this era.

Here are all the series where a team performed at least 60 points better per 48 minutes with a certain player on the court rather than off since 2001, which is as far back as Basketball-Reference records go (requiring more than 10 minutes played, as to eliminate extreme garbage-time examples):

  • Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player off
  • Right: Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player on
  • Center: Difference

image

Raw totals:

Player On Off
Chauncey Billups (2002 MIN 0, DAL 3) 0 in 134 min. -32 in 10 min.
Draymond Green (2015 GSW 4, NOP 0) +77 in 166 min. -45 in 31 min.
Gilbert Arenas (2005 WAS 4, CHI 2) +31 in 276 min. -20 in 12 min.
Pascal Siakam (2017 TOR 0, CLE 4) +14 in 10 min. -75 in 182 min.
Kobe Bryant (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +66 in 119 min. -22 in 26 min.
Kevin Garnett (2004 MIN 4, DEN 1) +58 in 206 min. -38 in 34 min.
Luke Jackson (2007 TOR 2, BRK 4) +14 in 11 min. -46 in 277 min.
LeBron James (2007 CLE 4, WAS 0) +47 in 182 min. -12 in 11 min.
Allen Iverson (2001 PHI 1, LAL 4) -25 in 239 min. -9 in 6 min.
Kawhi Leonard (2017 SAS 0, GSW 4) +21 in 24 min. -85 in 168 min.
Shawn Marion (2003 PHO 2, SAS 4) -17 in 283 min. -15 in 10 min.
Tariq Abdul-Wahad (2003 DAL 2, SAS 4) +19 in 16 min. -49 in 272 min.
Russell Westbrook (2017 OKC 1, HOU 4) +15 in 195 min. -58 in 46 min.
Shaquille O’Neal (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +55 in 131 min. -11 in 13 min.
Chris Webber (2001 SAC 3, PHO 1) +59 in 169 min. -21 in 23 min.
Tim Duncan (2001 SAS 4, DAL 1) +89 in 202 min. -31 in 38 min.
Kirk Hinrich (2016 ATL 0, CLE 4) +11 in 12 min. -61 in 180 min.
Thomas Gardner (2009 ATL 0, CLE 4) +12 in 16 min. -84 in 177 min.

This list is essentially divided into three groups:

  • Bench-warmers who played a few good minutes while their team got torched throughout the series. Pascal Siakam, Luke Jackson, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Kirk Hinrich and Thomas Gardner fit this category.
  • Stars who dominated while on the court and saw their teams torched when they sat. For example, in the massive leader in this stat, the Timberwolves played the Mavericks even in the 2002 first round with Chauncey Billups on the court. But Minnesota got outscored by 32 in the 10 minutes Billups sat the entire series and got swept. (Billups was starting for an injured Terrell Brandon, so Robert Pack got pressed into duty behind Billups.)
  • Kawhi Leonard. Every other star played a high majority of his teams’ minutes, essentially as much as he could handle. Then, his team just hoped to hang on in the star’s brief breathers. Leonard was stuck on the bench nearly the entire series, watching the the Spurs look helpless after he led them to a commanding advantage.

To be fair, San Antonio wouldn’t have necessarily won with Leonard.

Golden State was better than the Spurs throughout the season, and the lopsided start was a small sample. Simple regression to the mean could have tilted the series.

Also, the Warriors are at their best with Draymond Green at center, and they used that lineup just 11 seconds before Leonard’s injury. In 59 minutes with Green at center in the series, Golden State posted offensive/defensive/net ratings of 123.9/90.3/+33.5. If they needed to lean on those lineups more to beat a Leonard-led Spurs, they could have.

Yet, I can’t stop wondering what would have happened if Leonard stayed healthy.

The question towers over the last great playoff-injury fascination – whether the Cavaliers would have won the 2015 Finals if Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were healthy.

I contend no. The Warriors were better than Cleveland overall each of the last two years, and they were a stylistic problem for the Cavs – especially Love and especially in 2015. The Cavaliers winning in 2016 adds doubt, but Stephen Curry was hobbled and Draymond Green got suspended for a game. A hungrier and more available 2015 Golden State team was more primed to win than the 2016 edition that lost to Cleveland.

Perhaps, a 2017 Finals rubber match will inform my opinion how Love’s and Irving’s injuries affected the 2015 NBA championship. For now, I’m sticking with the Warriors winning anyway.

But with Leonard’s injury in this year’s conference finals, I just don’t have a feel for whether the Spurs would have prevailed.

And that’s the most frustrating part.

Kevin Durant apologizes for telling fans ‘If you don’t like it, don’t watch it,’ reiterates stance

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Kevin Durant told fans, dismayed by the lack of competitive games and series this postseason, “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”

Daring customers to choose another form of entertainment might not be good business for the NBA, but it’s not as if many fans needed an invitation. I doubt anyone was on the fence about watching then made up their minds after hearing Durant’s comments.

Yet, the Warriors star offered an apology.

Durant, via Chris Haynes of ESPN:

“I mean, life can be simple, man, Durant told ESPN. “If you don’t like the way the game is going, just turn it off. If you’re enjoying it, just keep it on. Life is simple. I didn’t mean it to disrespect anybody, but if you felt disrespected, I’m sorry. But if you don’t enjoy the game, turn it off [and] turn something else on. If you do, enjoy the rest of it, man.”

This is just a softer touch on the same sentiment – and just as reasonable.

People who love the NBA will watch. People who hate the NBA won’t. And people in the middle will fluctuate depending on the quality of the product.

Anyone mad at Durant the first time was just looking for a reason to get upset. That group will probably find a source of irritation in the follow-up quote, too.

The rest of us didn’t need this (half-hearted) apology, anyway.