Lakers earn fifth straight victory with Christmas Day win over Knicks

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LOS ANGELES — The Lakers beat the Knicks 100-94 on Christmas Day to earn their fifth straight victory, one that came in an intense and competitive game that came down to the final few possessions.

Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony each finished with 34 points, J.R. Smith had 25 off the bench for New York, while Metta World Peace chipped in 20 for L.A., along with some stellar physical defense on Anthony in the game’s first half.

1ST QUARTER: LAKERS 25, KNICKS 23

Darius Morris started again for the Lakers alongside Steve Nash in the backcourt, with Mike D’Antoni saying before the game that he didn’t want to continually change his lineups, especially while riding a four-game win streak. He also started off with the defensive assignment on Carmelo Anthony, but with Anthony having a significant size (and skill) advantage on Morris, he scored easily over him on jumpers the first two possessions.

D’Antoni had enough of that nonsense after a little over four minutes, when he sent in Metta World Peace for Morris to check Anthony instead.

Carmelo finished just 2-of-7 from the field for five points, while playing all 12 minutes. The Knicks got a nice boost from Kurt Thomas, who led the team with six points by making all three of his jumpers after good ball movement found him for essentially wide open looks.

On the Lakers side, it was nice to see Nash initiating the offense on virtually every possession, and he ended up with four points and four assists in 10 minutes.

Highlights for L.A. included Pau Gasol finding Dwight Howard for an alley-oop slam, and World Peace finding Kobe Bryant on a backdoor cut for an acrobatic flying reverse layup.

Bryant finished the period with 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting, and drove to the basket for an and-1 after holding for the team’s final shot of the period for a good 18 seconds, dribbling the clock down on the wing for one of the longest isolation sets you’ll ever see.

2ND QUARTER: LAKERS 51, KNICKS 49

The intensity picked up considerably in the second period, and each team had a breakout offensive performance from one of its reserves.

J.R. Smith had 10 points in the period, on 4-of-6 shooting, hitting an impressive array of jumpers in the process.

But World Peace was absolutely dominant for the Lakers, scoring 16 second-quarter points on just four shots, including hitting all three of his attempts from three-point distance. World Peace also made life miserable for Anthony, who was 2-of-4 from the field in seven minutes, and suffered some bumps and bruises along the way during those one-on-one battles.

The Lakers offense looks to be much improved in terms of ball movement, and players moving to their spots with high activity and a sense of purpose. Nash and Bryant had one such sequence that exemplified this, where Bryant received the ball in down low, kicked it back out to Nash, who allowed Bryant to re-post before dumping it back in, which resulted in a bucket inside.

Lakers not named World Peace are shooting 1-of-10 from three-point distance, with Pau Gasol being the lone made basket from beyond the arc on a somewhat silly three first-half long range attempts.

3RD QUARTER: KNICKS 78, LAKERS 77

Now things are getting interesting.

Metta World Peace started the second half in place of Darius Morris, presumably to continue the stellar defensive job he did on Anthony. But Anthony had other ideas.

Carmelo was electric in the period, switching his strategy of trying to score inside on World Peace in favor of hitting his patented jumper. He hit his first three for 7 quick points in the third quarter’s first two minutes, and that sparked a 12-2 New York run to open up an eight-point Knicks lead at 61-53.

Anthony continued to do damage to the tune of 17 points in the period, to give him 27 for the game through three.

Kobe Bryant got going in the second half of the period, helping to cut into the Knicks lead with 11 points of his own, including an and-1 bucket with the clock winding down to end the third.

4TH QUARTER: LAKERS 100, KNICKS 94

The Knicks offense that was so red-hot in the third began to stall in the final period, and the Lakers ball movement, led by the exceptional play of Nash, was the difference.

Tyson Chandler and Metta World peace fouled out on consecutive possessions, on equally questionable calls with a little over two minutes to play.

Pau Gasol was relatively quiet with 13 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists, but made two huge plays down the stretch that helped seal it — the first coming on an aggressive post-up attack while Anthony was defending which got him to the free throw line, and the final coming with the Lakers clinging to a 97-94 lead.

With 12 seconds to play, Nash found Gasol streaking down the center of the lane for the powerful slam, which blew the roof off the Staples Center and cemented the Lakers big win over a very good New York Knicks squad.

Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant betting odds favorites to win MVP

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Unlike the early projections for the NBA title next season, the MVP race seems wide open.

Russell Westbrook put up ridiculous numbers on his way to the award last season, but now he is going to share the rock with Paul George. James Harden made a legitimate case and would have won most seasons, but now he will have the ball in his hands less with Chris Paul running the show.

Who is going to win? Westbrook and Golden State’s Kevin Durant are the early betting line favorites, with these odds courtesy of online gaming site Bovada.

Russell Westbrook (OKC) 7/2
Kevin Durant (GS) 9/2
Kawhi Leonard (SAN) 13/2
LeBron James (CLE) 15/2
James Harden (HOU) 8/1
Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL) 17/2
Steph Curry (GS) 11/1
Anthony Davis (NOP) 16/1
Paul George (OKC) 25/1
Chris Paul (HOU) 25/1
Isaiah Thomas (BOS) 25/1
DeMarcus Cousins (NOP) 33/1
Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) 33/1
John Wall (WAS) 33/1
Blake Griffin (LAC) 40/1
Nikola Jokic (DEN) 40/1
DeMar DeRozan (TOR) 50/1
Joel Embiid (PHI) 50/1
Kyrie Irving (CLE) 50/1
Damian Lillard (POR) 50/1
Draymond Green (GS) 60/1
Ben Simmons (PHI) 66/1
Gordon Hayward (BOS) 70/1
Carmelo Anthony (NYK) 75/1
Jimmy Butler (MIN) 75/1
Andrew Wiggins (MIN) 75/1
Kevin Love (CLE) 100/1
Kyle Lowry (TOR) 100/1
Kristaps Porzingis (NYK) 100/1

Yes, it is far too early to discuss this. As a voter, I don’t even start to make a list of serious candidates until midway through the season (then that list evolves as the season wears on). But it’s fun to speculate about.

To me, the smartest bet on the board seems to be Kawhi Leonard — he could have won last year, and if anything the Spurs are going to ask more of him this season. I think Harden has a chance to win it this season even with CP3, same with Westbrook, but it feels less likely. It’s hard to imagine one Warrior being picked above the others for the award. If Giannis Antetokounmpo finds his jumper it could happen, but that feels more like something a couple seasons away. Same with Karl-Anthony Towns being in consideration.

If you’re going to bet on Kevin Love, just donate that money to charity where it will do some good.

If Jeff Hornacek doesn’t work out with Knicks, is David Blatt next in line?

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It’s not fair to judge Jeff Hornacek of his first season as coach of the New York Knicks. Phil Jackson made some poor roster decisions — don’t hire a coach that likes to play fast then go sign Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah — and then there was the on again, off again, on again triangle offense looming over everything.

This season Hornacek will sink or swim on his own terms, and his ability to develop Kristaps Porzingis into a true franchise cornerstone and put Tim Hardaway Jr. and other young players in good positions around them.

If not, is former Cavaliers coach David Blatt lurking? Frank Isola of the New York Daily News says it’s something to watch.

Blatt, who has enjoyed tremendous success abroad, owns an impressive resume. No question about it. But you know the old saying, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And Blatt has connections with people in high places inside the Knicks front office, namely team president Steve Mills and newly hired front office executive Craig Robinson…

Mills is going to give Hornacek every opportunity to succeed in New York but Mills, who is said to have strong opinions about how the team should be coached, also wants to see results. That begins with Hornacek repairing his relationship with Kristaps Porzingis, who did not connect with the head coach last season and ultimately skipped his exit meeting with Jackson, Hornacek and Mills in April.

Repairing that relationship with Porzingis is crucial. We’ll see if Hornacek can do that and get this team moving in the right direction.

Blatt wants to return to the NBA, but his he the guy to connect with Porzingis? Blatt’s problems in Cleveland had far less to do with Xs and Os than it did relationships with players — Blatt was saying he wanted to team to play faster long before Tyronn Lue said that when he took over, but Lue could get players to buy in and listen. Blatt couldn’t. Blatt came in expecting to be handed respect, touting his European resume (that NBA players shrugged at), and demanding deference rather than building partnerships with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Blatt came off as needing to be the smartest guy in the room, always. Basically, Blatt could not handle the player/power dynamic in the NBA (coming out of Europe, where coaches have absolute power, like an American college coach). Has he learned how to deal with it?

Before we get to that question, Hornaced gets his shot. The real test for the Knicks comes after Christmas, when they spend most of a couple of weeks on the road (due to the Grammys coming to Madison Square Garden), it’s a tough couple of weeks, and the team could struggle in that stretch and not recover. Hornacek has to have the team playing well enough, and buying in enough by then, to survive that trip. Do that and he will stick around. If not, the sharks are circling.

Hawks commit more earnestly to rebuild, but enough?

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hawks were pretty good without a clear path forward.

Now, they’re pretty bad without a clear path forward.

Luckily for them – and despite their best efforts – they might be bad enough.

Atlanta continued its descent from its 60-win peak two years ago by losing its two best players. The Hawks let Paul Millsap leave for the Nuggets and traded Dwight Howard to the Hornets in what could be described as a salary rearrangement more than a salary dump.

After multiple half-measures toward rebuilding – refusing to offer Al Horford the max, trading Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver for first-round picks – Atlanta finally committed.

Kind of.

The Hawks hedged against full-on tanking by signing Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova. Those two big men – Dedmon in his prime, Ilyasova close enough to it – supply enough hustle and basketball intelligence to sabotage a proper tank. Coach Mike Budenholzer, whose teams tend to exceed the sum of their parts, won’t help Atlanta bottom out.

I can see breaking up a team with a playoff chance to torpedo high into the lottery. The Hawks aren’t doing that – not purposefully, at least. It appears they’re trying to remain credibly competitive, which could only undermine their rebuild.

Atlanta is rebuilding around Dennis Schroder, John Collins, Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry. The Hawks also have all their own first-rounders plus protected first-rounders from the Rockets, Timberwolves, and Cavaliers. But the Houston pick is the only one of those extras that can ever land in the top 10, and that’s just top-three protected this season, a season in which the Rockets project to pick in the low 20s.

Simply, this is not an encouraging asset pool to begin a rebuild with. Atlanta would benefit greatly from a high 2018 pick.

The Hawks just don’t seem interested enough in securing one.

They also lost Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha in free agency. Like the 32-year-old Millsap, the 33-year-old Sefolosha had no place on a team mostly rebuilding. The 25-year-old Hardaway could have fit into the next era or even as a trade chip, but not on the four-year, $71 million offer sheet the Knicks signed him to. Though Atlanta wisely passed on matching, it’s a shame to lose an asset for nothing.

That’s really the story of the Hawks’ descent. Millsap, Horford, Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll all walked in free agency. Atlanta was always reluctant to trade those players for value while it could.

I’m trying to grade only this offseason, not prior decisions. General manager Travis Schlenk took over this offseason, and he has the runway for a patient rebuild.

The Hawks wisely got a first-rounder for taking and buying out Jamal Crawford. Could they have found similar deals rather than signing Dedmon and Ilyasova? Could they have signed younger players instead?

The Hawks might hope they can trade Dedmon (two years, $12.3 million) and Ilyasova (one-year, $6 million) for even greater value, but that comes with complications. Dedmon has a $6.3 million player option for next season, so if his deal goes south, Atlanta is on the hook for another year. (If it goes well, Dedmon will become an unrestricted free agent and – fitting the theme – could just leave.) As a returning player on a one-year contract, Ilyasova can veto any trade.

If the Hawks had re-signed Millsap (and maybe Sefolosha, too), they could have made a decent case to return to the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Atlanta has the NBA’s second-longest active playoff streak, 10 seasons. That isn’t nothing, and continuing it would have been fine.

If the Hawks tried to return to the playoffs and failed, they would have ended up in a similar position to where they are now – somewhere in the lottery, but not necessarily high in it. They could have even traded Millsap – whose Denver deal guarantees him just $61 million over two years – for value.

If the future is murky either way, I’d rather be better in the interim.

Perhaps, Atlanta just tired of losing in the first or second round (though ownership and management has recently changed). That would have been the team’s likely ceiling if it re-signed Millsap.

But I just don’t see winning about 30 games as more pleasurable than reaching the playoffs, even with an early-round exit. A 30-win season doesn’t bring enough value in the draft to offset the difference.

Here’s the good news: The Hawks’ hedging probably didn’t go far enough. They might be downright terrible, anyway – positioning them to draft the elite young talent they badly need to galvanize their rebuild.

This was a D+ effort that stumbled into a slightly more favorable position – i.e., a team that struggles more than it expects.

Offseason grade: C-

Dunker Max Pearce throws down another impressive one (VIDEO)

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These are the kinds of dunks that make me ask, should the NBA allow pro dunkers in the All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest. Some years you get the great Zach LaVine shows, but other years it’s down. NBA players need to focus on their game, not highlight dunks.

Guys like Max Pearce on the other hand…

Here is his latest.

But head to his Instagram page and you get to see a lot of dunks like this.

Stay creative 👍🏽 #Flynance 🏆

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