Pau Gasol with the monster slam dunk to seal Lakers win over Knicks (VIDEO)

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LOS ANGELES — With the game on the line and the Lakers clinging to a three-point lead with possession of the ball, it wasn’t Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, or Steve Nash who found themselves taking the final shot.

No, that honor went to Pau Gasol, whose diminished role on a newly-stacked team this season hasn’t impacted his will to win, or his ability to remain engaged.

Gasol’s emphatic drive and dunk down the middle of the lane sealed the Lakers win over the Knicks, a hard-fought and competitive 100-94 victory that finally brought L.A.’s record to the .500 mark on the season.

Nash was inbounding along the baseline, and appeared to be looking to get the ball to Bryant initially. As Bryant tried to free himself, however, he found two defenders right there with him — Jason Kidd, and Carmelo Anthony.

Anthony initially was checking Gasol, but passed him off to Kidd on the switch in order to stay close to a streaking Bryant. Kidd followed Bryant as well, which probably wasn’t a bad decision considering the Lakers propensity to force the ball into his hands in virtually every end-of-game situation.

After Gasol set that brief screen and once he was left by both Knicks defenders, he wisely drifted to the three-point line, where Nash found him.

Gasol had a clear path to the basket, and didn’t hesitate for a second. He immediately put the ball on the floor and drove down the lane for a powerful two-handed slam dunk that put the game in the win column for the Lakers.

Anthony was asked afterward how he saw it all unfold.

“I think Jason was trying to set a trap on Kobe,” he said. “I was trying to switch. I switched off and I think Jason was trying to trap, so it was just a miscommunication on both our behalfs.”

Anthony was also asked if he thought the play made by Nash to find Gasol was a special one that maybe not a lot of players in the league were capable of. But he laughed off that notion when giving his response.

“Well, I mean, s—, he was wide open,” Anthony said with a laugh. “You could find him. Anybody would have found that, he was wide open down the lane, and he made a crucial play.”

Gasol simply basked in the moment afterward, as well he should have. He’s been heavily criticized both this season and last, but showed in this one just how capable he remains, even as merely the occasional fourth option on a team loaded with talent.

“I don’t dunk as often as I used to so it felt good,” Gasol said. “I took it right down the lane and finished strong.”

Marreese Speights opts out of Clippers contract

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The Clippers are unraveling.

Of course, whether they can re-sign Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are the big questions. But they also must deal with smaller matters in free agency – like Marreese Speights.

Speights will opt out, his agent tweeted:

The Clippers will hold Speights’ Non-Bird Rights (technically a form of Bird Rights), allowing them to give him a starting salary up to $2,540,346 without using cap space or the mid-level exception.

The 29-year-old Speights, a stretch five who takes charges, fits the modern NBA. He could probably get more if he seeks it.

The Clippers won’t have cap space unless they lose Paul and Griffin, and at that point, re-signing a veteran like Speights is of little use. So, it would likely require the taxpayer mid-level exception or Speights taking a discount to keep him.

Luc Mbah a Moute can and likely will also opt out, and he’ll fall in the same Non-Bird situation. The Clippers would likely prioritize their mid-level exception for him – if it’s enough for either player.

Keeping Paul and Griffin is of the utmost importance, but that’s not the Clippers’ only challenge. Even if they keep those two stars, assembling even a decent supporting cast will difficult. Possibly losing J.J. Redick is the main issue there, but handling Speights’ and Mbah a Moute’s roster spots will also be pivotal.

Warriors struggle to get Zaza Pachulia’s 2017 NBA Finals hat on his big head (video)

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Zaza Pachulia became the villain of the Western Conference finals when he injured Kawhi Leonard and torpedoed the Spurs chances of upsetting the Warriors.

But his teammates stood by him – then shared this fun moment with him after Golden State won the West.

Reporter asks Spanish-speaking Manu Ginobili whether he just announced retirement (video)

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Manu Ginobili received an emotional sendoff in the Spurs’ season-ending – and maybe Ginobili’s career-ending – loss to the Warriors last night.

The postgame press conference featured a lighthearted moment when, after the Argentinian guard answered a couple questions in Spanish, an American reporter – not wanting to miss big news – asked whether Ginobili had just announced his retirement.

No, Ginobili assured the reporter. He says he plans to take a few weeks to consider his options.

Warriors make most dominant playoff run ever to NBA Finals

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Moses Malone famously predicted the 76ers team would go “”Fo’, Fo’, Fo'” in the 1983 playoffs, sweeping all three rounds in four games. Philadelphia didn’t quite do it – sweeping the Knicks, beating the Bucks in five then sweeping the Lakers for the title.

Thirty-four years later, an NBA team went “”Fo’, Fo’, Fo'” for the first time.

Golden State swept the Trail Blazers, Jazz and Spurs in four-game series. But with an extra playoff round, the Warriors’ 12-0 run merely gets them to the Finals.

It’s the ninth undefeated run to the Finals, third since the league adopted four playoff rounds in 1984 and first since the first round became best-of-seven. The Lakers went 11-0 in the playoffs en route to the Finals in 2001 and 1989.

By winning an extra game and outscoring opponents by 16.3 points per game, Golden State now claims the most dominant postseason run to the NBA Finals ever.

Here are the top paths to the Finals, with Finals results, by playoff…

Record (point difference per game in parentheses):

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Point difference per game (record in parentheses):

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This doesn’t guarantee Golden State a championship. The Cavaliers (10-1, +11.9) are on track for an elite run to the Finals themselves, and they have LeBron James.

But the Warriors put ridiculous expectations on themselves by signing Kevin Durant to join a 73-win team featuring Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. I’m unsure a Golden State title this year will be properly appreciated, but so far, the Warriors are doing all they can to clear a bar set unreasonably high.