Chris Paul leads Clippers to convincing win over Lakers

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The battle of Los Angeles turned out to be not much of a contest after all, and if you’ve been paying attention to the fortunes of the Lakers and Clippers to this point in the season, the end result shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise.

Chris Paul controlled the game from the very start, and behind a brilliant 30-point, 13-assist performance, he helped lead his team to a 107-102 win over L.A.’s substandard NBA squad.

The win propelled the Clips to a record of 26-8 on the season — a half-game ahead of the Spurs, and just percentage points behind the Thunder for the best record in the crowded and competitive Western Conference. The Lakers fell to two games below .500, good enough for just 11th place in an eight-team race for the postseason.

Paul was the reason why, and despite a couple of Laker runs, including a furious fourth quarter rally that cut a 19-point deficit to just two with a minute and a half to play, the Clippers proved to be the stronger team multiple times over the game’s 48 minutes.

Nine of Paul’s assists came in the game’s first 16 minutes, and by the time he left the game for the first time midway through the second quarter, he had his team up by 17 points.

The Lakers went on a huge run to cut that deficit to four, but it was back up to double-digits seemingly instantly after a reverse dunk from Blake Griffin that resulted in an and-one, after Pau Gasol defended like his shoes were made of stone.

Griffin finished with 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting in 29 minutes. Gasol was essentially nonexistent, finishing just 1-of-6 from the field for two points and four rebounds; a highlight reel of his performance from this game would be clips of him slowly taking the ball out of the basket to inbound it over and over again after the Clippers just scored.

Metta World Peace returned to the Lakers starting lineup, with Mike D’Antoni preferring to return Kobe Bryant to the two-guard spot for this matchup. It certainly helped Bryant, who was sensational on this night and ended up with 38 points on 15-of-25 shooting. But World Peace equalled Gasol’s shooting numbers, and with Bryant trying to carry the offensive load of essentially three starters, it simply wasn’t enough.

The Lakers needed a more aggressive offensive performance from Steve Nash in this one, on a night where no one beyond Bryant was able to do much of anything offensively on a consistent basis. He’s capable of much more than 12 points and 10 assists against four turnovers, and this was a game where he perhaps could have impacted the game offensively more than he chose to.

As expected, the much deeper Clippers team got a boost from its reserves, including active performances from former Lakers Matt Barnes and Lamar Odom. It just seemed as the Lakers fought their way back from large deficits again and again, that ultimately the Clippers would have an answer before things could get fully out of hand and swing entirely in the Lakers favor.

The final Lakers run came near the game’s finish, when they put together a 24-7 run that lasted over nine minutes, and brought the game back within a single possession. But Paul made sure his team would hang on, and hit the step-back 21-foot dagger over Bryant with 19 seconds left that all but sealed it.

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”

Remember when Shaq started practice naked? His former Lakers teammates do

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The Lakers are unveiling a statue for Shaquille O’Neal tonight, a perfect opportunity for his former teammates to share their favorite Shaq stories.

Mark Medina of The Orange County Register:

“We had a rule you can’t be late to the center huddle,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, who played with O’Neal as a rookie in 2003-04. “He got here where he didn’t have time to get his clothes on. So he made sure he was on time in the center circle.”

“I’m just scarred by the one where he ran out into the middle of the court naked before practice,” said former Lakers forward Rick Fox, who played with O’Neal from 1997 to 2004. “I can’t get that image out of my mind.”

“Shaq walked onto the court, put his hands up and said ‘I’m ready to practice,’ said Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen, who was O’Neal’s teammate from 2000 to 2003. “He had not one inch of clothing on. So he was there in all of his glory.”

“He would start running around looking for guys to hug. Everybody was trying to get out of the way,” mused former Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who played with O’Neal from 1996 to 2004. “That’s’ why when I hit that shot in San Antonio in 2004, that’s why we were so good at sprinting off of the court.”

As much as he toed the line with his wardrobe choices before practice started, O’Neal always practiced with his actual uniform. Fox expressed the views of many saying he’s “not guarding him, not doubling down in the post and digging for the ball” sans uniform. As Madsen mused, “that would’ve been the day I would’ve submitted my resignation papers.”

Want to criticize Shaq for not setting a better tone of punctuality? It’s a fair argument, and you might have had Kobe Bryant on your side.

But Shaq keeping the Lakers loose was instrumental in their high-pressure pursuit of championships. Don’t discount that contribution to their three titles with him.

Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, probable top-10 pick, declares for NBA draft

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Jonathan Isaac explored bursting through a loophole to declare for the 2016 NBA draft straight out of high school.

Instead, he went to Florida State. Now, he’ll enter the 2017 draft.

Isaac:

If he doesn’t hire an agent, Isaac can maintain college eligibility, but this message seems pretty final. Expect Isaac to remain in the draft, and expect him to go in the top 10.

What I like most about the 6-foot-11 forward: Despite being so lanky, he was an elite defensive rebounder. That shows an underlying technical proficiency and physicality that should serve him well.

And then there are the drool-inducing flashes – his ability to go up and get alley-oops above the rim and a sweet-looking jumper.

He’s still a work in progress, and he deferred a lot at Florida State. But he’s just 19, and he has the tools to do more. I’d love to get him on my team as he learns to assert himself.