Lakers Bryant reacts after hitting a three-point shot against the 76ers during their NBA game in Philadelphia

Is the Lakers biggest problem really Kobe Bryant? No.

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While Steve Nash and Pau Gasol were out, Kobe Bryant has carried the Lakers. He is leading the league with 29.5 points per game, scoring more points per game than he has since before Pau Gasol arrived as a Laker. Back when Kobe had to carry Kwame Brown and Smush Parker (remember they both started).

But the Lakers have struggled to a 12-14 record — and that is after a three game win streak.

It has led some people to say, “Kobe Bryant is shooting too much.” He is back to being a ball hog and that is what is holding the Lakers back.

I think those people are wrong — Kobe is playing as many minutes but taking fewer shots per game than either of the Lakers most recent title years. With Nash out, the playmaking has to fall to him because you can’t let Chris Duhon do it. But that is different than being an inefficient gunner.

Still you hear it — “Kobe is shooting too much.” And it’s not just fans. This is an assistant coach from another team, speaking to Chris Broussard if ESPN (the story is behind their pay wall).

“Absolutely, Kobe’s shooting too much. When we played them, we told our guys, ‘Look, we don’t necessarily want Kobe going for 50. I mean, we’re going to guard him. But we’re not going to double him, and we’re not going to try to get the ball out of his hands.’ Our main concerns were not to let [Antawn] Jamison hit a bunch of 3s and not to let Dwight [Howard] go crazy down low. There’s no question they would be a better team if Kobe shot less. Why do you think [Pau] Gasol struggles? He’s going to struggle in any offense where he doesn’t touch it.

“[At] the end of the day, it has nothing to do with [Mike] D’Antoni and his system. It’s all about what Kobe will allow to happen. When you play the Lakers, it’s like they don’t have a system. It’s whatever Kobe chooses it to be. If he wants to take all the shots, he’ll do that. He’ll pacify his teammates early in the game, but then he’ll throw up a heat check and if he’s got it going, nobody else touches the ball.

Thing is, who else on that roster (with Nash out) do you want to handle the ball? Darius Morris?

I think this scout hits the nail more on the head.

“Watching the Lakers play the Knicks this year was hard to watch because the other Lakers were just so bad. It was like Kobe was trying to do all he could just to keep that game close. And hey, if Dwight’s not going to try his butt off and if other guys aren’t going to try their butts off, then I’m going to give the ball to the guy that’s going to go for it, and that’s Kobe. I don’t think it’s that Kobe doesn’t trust his teammates; it’s just that he trusts himself more. A questionable shot by him still might be better than a good look for one of those other guys.

That has always been Kobe — he trusts himself to make plays more than he trusts anyone. If other guys are not knocking down shots early he will do it. The only question was always was he hitting shots and efficient or was he a gunner? This season has been his most efficient in a long, long time.

But it is no different than Kobe from any of the Lakers title years, particularly the most recent. He is who he is.

Let’s see what Kobe and the Lakers look like with Steve Nash in the lineup, then we can discuss what needs to change. But through it all, Kobe is not.

Cavaliers’ defense foundation for blowout win

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers gestures in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Cleveland blitzed Toronto from the opening tip.

Literally.

Cleveland cranked up their defensive pressure by getting back to aggressively blitzing Raptors’ guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan every time they came off a pick. Or they would chase DeRozan over the top of the pick and trail him, never letting him get comfortable to pull up from the midrange. Whatever the defensive scheme, the Cavaliers were physical with Lowry and DeRozan — the pair was 4-of-14 shooting in the first half.

From the start, the Cavaliers defense dictated the flow of the game and set the tone for a 38-point blowout win.

It is that defense they will need to close out this series on the road Friday night.

“We understood that coming back from Game 3 and Game 4 we just didn’t play our defense the right way,” LeBron James said after the game. “We didn’t play how we should have played, and they took advantage of every moment. We had to get back to our staple; we had to get back to what we wanted to do defensively in order for us to play a complete game. That’s the most satisfying thing, the way we defended, holding these guys to 39 percent shooting.”

Defense triggered the offensive runs by the Cavaliers in the first half — Cleveland had eight steals and scored 20 points off turnovers before halftime. Playing with a renewed energy, the Cavs did a fantastic job fighting over screens and disrupting plays, and they closed out on shooters at the arc. It was their best defensive game of the series. It was the polar opposite of how they played in Toronto.

“I think our intensity picked up, our aggressiveness picked up, we were very physical to start the game and it just kind of led to us getting out in transition, us getting steals and getting easy baskets,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.

“They were locked in, from the start to the finish,” according to Raptors coach Dwane Casey.”The force that they play with is different here and we didn’t meet it.”

Back home and with their backs against the wall, you can expect a very different, very desperate Raptors team. Lowry and DeRozan will shoot better.

But if the Cavaliers pack their defense and take it north of the border this time, they should close out the series.

LeBron James was dunking all over the Raptors (VIDEO)

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With their defense creating turnovers to get breaks — and the Raptors’ defense just breaking down — the Cavaliers put on a dunking exhibition against Toronto Wednesday.

LeBron James led the way, with 23 points and plenty of dunks. Here is another.

To change things up, here is an and-1.

Cavaliers retake series lead at home with rout of Raptors

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket in the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Eastern Conference Finals have been all about the comforts of home. Through five games between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, the home team has come out on top convincingly every time. Wednesday’s Game 5 was no different, with the Cavs destroying the Raptors, 116-78 to take a 3-2 series lead.

After a pair of awful games in Toronto, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving stepped up at home to score 25 and 23 points, respectively, to go along with 23 from LeBron James. The big production from their stars was enough to keep the Raptors at bay — the only other Cavs player to score in double figures was Richard Jefferson, who had 11 points, but it didn’t matter.

On the other side, after coming up huge at home in Games 3 and 4, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot 7-for-20 from the field Wednesday, and nobody else did much to pick up the slack. After not trailing by 30 at a half at any point this season, Toronto trailed by 31 at halftime, and the lead ballooned to 100-60 at the end of the third quarter. From the beginning, this game was one-sided.

The Cavs can close out the series on the road on Friday, ensuring James’ sixth straight trip to the Finals. But the Raptors have been a different team at home during this series, and in a do-or-die situation they should come out with more fight. It’s hard to imagine things going much worse than they did Wednesday.

Report: Joakim Noah having “positive dialogue” with Bulls about future

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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And the spin keeps on happening.

First came the report that Joakim Noah was telling teammates he was out of Chicago. Followed by Noah’s agent — the person charged with keeping Noah’s options open — saying that was not true.

Now comes team management — the people who said they want to keep Noah with the Bulls — saying the sides are still talking, and they want him to stay. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Veteran Bulls center Joakim Noah, his representatives and the Chicago front office continue to have a “positive dialogue” about a new contract amid a report that Noah has been telling teammates he’s ready to leave the franchise, a league source told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Those close to Noah, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, are still hopeful that he will be able to work out an agreement to stay in Chicago long term.

I’m going to let you in on a real insider bit of knowledge on what team Noah will play for next season:

Whatever team pays him the most money.

I know, it’s crazy, but sometimes people make a decision about where to work based on pay. Right now, everything is posturing. Come July 1, money will go on the table, and then Noah will know just how badly the Bulls want to keep him vs. other teams wanting to bring him in. Once the money is out there, if things are roughly even, then minutes and role on the team, lifestyle, weather and all the rest come into play.

But Puffy had it right — it’s all about the Benjamins.