Turnovers, offensive rebounds doom Lakers, spark Nuggets in win

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There was a moment Sunday night’s game that seemed to sum up the Lakers’ season to this point.

With just over seven minutes left, Lakers ran a set that got sloppy and directionless, but with clock running down they got the ball in the post to Pau Gasol; then Kobe Bryant knifed through the lane and got a pass from Gasol. Kobe made a difficult shot over JaVale McGee, a shot that seemed flat but found its way through the net.

Denver quickly inbounded the ball, made a long pass to nearly half court to Ty Lawson and he raced down the floor, ahead of most every Laker. Steve Nash was back and tried, but Lawson went around him and went off the glass for a layup. Two quick points.

It was the story of the night. It has been the story of the season — the Lakers have to work hard for their basket, then the other team gets an easy one because they are not ready on defense.

In some ways they Lakers played their best offensive game in a while and outshot Denver on the night. But the Lakers had 18 turnovers (17.7 percent of their possessions) and allowed Denver 17 offensive rebounds (32.7 percent of their missed shots) and those 35 free possessions for Denver was enough to doom Los Angeles. Again.

Denver won 112-105 in exactly the kind of game the Lakers need to win — at home against a team on the second night of a back-to-back, an opponent that is one of the teams they are fighting for a playoffs spot in the bottom half of the West.

And while a lot of people — myself included — keep expecting the Lakers to figure it out enough to make the playoffs, it’s games like this that give me pause. And games like this that make it a lot harder for them.

Credit Denver — they know who they are. They are a team that wants to run and they did (the game had 102 possessions). They are a team that trusts their point guard to run the show, and Lawson did with 21 points and 10 assists as he outplayed Steve Nash. They have long players in the paint on defense to make it hard on you and challenge shots then grab rebounds. They hustle.

Those are all things the Lakers want to do, but Denver executes them better right now. The Nuggets have balance — six players in double figures scoring — and they can overcome a bad shooting night from a key scorer (Danilo Gallinari had 20 points but on 6-of-20 shooting).

The Lakers had Kobe with 29 points (but on 26 shots) and seven assists, Howard had 14 points and a career high in rebounds with 26. Nash had 10 points and 13 assists. The Lakers has six players in double figures as well.

But the Lakers defense was worse than Denvers (which wasn’t all that good). Defense continues to be what does the Lakers in — a defense that is hurt by those turnovers that can lead to fast break points the other way. A defense hurting itself by giving up offensive rebounds so the opponents get another look. The Lakers gave up 107.6 points per 100 possessions in this game, which is pretty much what they gave up in December and that was 26th in the league for the month.

With the boards and some defensive plays, this looked like a better, healthier Dwight Howard for the Lakers, but he was pitching into the night of mental errors. Inside two minutes in the game, down four, Howard severely altered a Lawson shot then grabbed the rebound — then threw it away, tipped by Gallinari. Then inside the final minute Howard blocked an Andre Miller shot — right to Gallinari who drained the dagger three.

Part of the problem is Gasol — he is thinking now, not just playing basketball. He’s unsure where to go in the offense, and it’s in his head. And in his shot, so he gets the ball and is thinking pass, not about being aggressive.

For Denver, they are now 20-16 with 12 of their next 14 games at home. This is a big road win for them, if they can have a hot home stand they can start to solidify a playoff spot in the West.

The Lakers are now 15-18 on the season, currently the 11 seed and three games back of the 8 seed Trail Blazers. It’s easy to say they will make that up, it’s not much, but it’s not going to be tough with Denver playing well, Houston playing better and good teams like Portland and Utah to climb over. The Lakers have the Spurs, Rockets and Thunder on the schedule for this week. They need wins. Now. Before the hole they are in becomes too deep to climb out of.

PBT Podcast: All-Star starters mock draft, picking reserves

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The votes are in, and LeBron James and Stephen Curry are your All-Star captains.

For the first time in NBA All-Star history, that means they are picking their own teams, playground style, first from the pool of starters, then the pool of reserves. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports take on the roles of LeBron and Curry and pick their All-Star starters, from James Harden through Kyrie Irving.

Then the pair gets into who should be the All-Star Game reserves — and choosing among the Western Conference guards is brutal. Do they leave out Damian Lillard? Lou Williams? Klay Thompson? And that’s not even getting into Paul George being a bubble All-Star in a deep West.

Kurt and Dan break it all down, plus talk some Kemba Walker trade scenarios.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Aaron Gordon forgoes desperation attempt to win, sinks halfcourt shot instead (video)

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The Magic were in dire straights near the end of their game against the Cavaliers last night. Orlando trailed 104-103 with 0.2 seconds and a jump ball to be tossed at center court. By rule, the Magic didn’t have time to catch-and-shoot, let alone recover the jump ball then shoot. Aaron Gordon had to tip the jump ball through the hoop from halfcourt – nearly impossible, but technically possible.

Instead, Gordon grabbed the jump ball – a violation – then sank a halfcourt shot. What an ironic end.

Cleveland then harmlessly inbounded the ball to seal the win.

Can Kemba Walker save the sinking Hornets? He doesn’t want to jump the ship he’s (barely) keeping afloat

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DETROIT – Around this time last year, Kemba Walker‘s reputation peaked.

The season prior, he led Charlotte to its first playoff-game wins since the franchise reemerged as the Bobcats. The Hornets were on pace to make the playoff again, which would have been their first back-to-back postseason appearances in the second Charlotte era. And Walker made his first All-Star team.

While basking in his personal and team success, Walker found one downer: The NBA moved the All-Star game from his home arena to New Orleans due to North Carolina’s anti-gay law.

“It would have been really special if this had been in Charlotte,” Walker said.

The Hornets have gone south since.

They stumbled in the second half and missed the playoffs last season. They’re even worse this season, 18-25 and 11th in the Eastern Conference. As a result, Walker’s stock has tanked. He’s treated as a fringe All-Star candidate at best.

Yet – as trade speculation emerges – Walker has come to a conclusion similar to his a year ago: His experience would be more special in Charlotte.

“I would definitely be devastated if I was to get traded,” Walker said. “I do want to be here.”

Walker is one of the most intriguing cases as the trade deadline approaches. The 27-year-old is earning $12 million this season and is due the same salary next season before his contract expires. It’s not clear the Hornets would trade him. It’s not clear they should trade him.

Charlotte is bad around Walker, not because of him. The Hornets have played better with Walker on the floor (+5.2 points per 100 possessions) than the Cavaliers have with LeBron James (+0.3), Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo (+3.7) and Pelicans with Anthony Davis (+5.1).

Put another way, using Pythagorean win percentage, Charlotte has played like 55-win team when Walker plays and a 12-win team when he doesn’t. That 43-win-pace drop is the fourth largest league-wide (minimum: 20 games):

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The Hornets have struggled with Michael Carter-Williams at backup point guard and even more with rookie Malik Monk (a natural shooting guard) in the role while Carter-Williams was hurt. Backup point guard was a glaring weak spot last season, too, and Charlotte signed Carter-Williams to stop the bleeding.

But he was a budget choice. The Hornets’ mid-level exception sits mostly unused as they duck the luxury tax.

Using starting shooting guard Nicolas Batum as the primary playmaker when Walker sits has worked better than most alternatives. Staggering those two more often could right Charlotte.

However, even if Batum is the solution to the micro problem, he’s central to the macro problem.

The Hornets’ payroll has become bloated with prohibitive long-term deals. Several players are owed major money after this season:

With those constraints, it will be difficult to build a winner around Walker without paying the luxury tax, which Charlotte has never paid.

Walker is the Hornets’ most valuable asset, and trading him could make their second-most valuable asset – their upcoming first-round pick – even more valuable. Charlotte also use Walker as enticement to unload a bad contract, a tactic Adrian Wojnarowski reports is being explored. Still, the Hornets are in so deep, it’d be difficult to escape salary-cap purgatory, even while shedding Walker.

Because he signed his rookie-scale extension before the national TV deals carried the salary cap into the stratosphere and before he rose into stardom, Walker has a low salary for his status. That could open the door for trades not possible with other stars, especially if the Hornets want to attach an albatross.

Only Isaiah Thomas has a lower salary among reigning All-Stars:

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Of course, teams looking to upgrade at point guard for the stretch run – Pistons? Pacers? Jazz? Nuggets? Cavaliers? Spurs? – would be interested in Walker. But because he has an another season left on his contract, other teams – Knicks? Magic? Suns? – could trade for him as a head start on next year. The best analogue: The Jazz getting out ahead by trading Deron Williams to the Nets before his contract entered its final year.

A team must also prepare to pay Walker in 2019, when he’ll be 30 years old. Though the $48 million over four years he’s earning now is nothing to sneeze at, free agency will be his first opportunity to really cash in on the new TV money. In the extremely likely event he doesn’t make an All-NBA team next season, the largest extension he could sign (starting July 1) would be four years, $64,512,000. That probably won’t cut it. So, Walker’s team – unless it has cap space to renegotiate-and-extend his deal – will likely have to ride out his unrestricted free agency.

“Of course, it would be nice to get a big contract like a lot of the guys around the league are getting,” Walker said. “But, at the same time, I just try to take it one day at a time.”

All these discussions have thrown Walker for a loss. Charlotte drafted him and built around him. He’s not quite sure how to handle this.

“I’ve never really been in trade rumors like that, like I’ve been hearing lately about myself,” Walker said. “But I mean, I don’t know. I don’t even know. I don’t know.

“This is very new, and I really just don’t know.”

Walker said management hasn’t told him anything, and he won’t ask. It’s easy to read the writing on the wall: Walker is a good player on a losing team, and those players are always ripe to get dealt. On the other hand, a team owned by Michael Jordan is probably less inclined to enter rebuilding voluntarily.

“I’m here,” Walker said, “and I’m just trying to play and trying to win and trying to do what I can for this organization and try to get back in the playoff hunt. That’s the main priority.”

The Hornets have won two in a row, and head coach Steve Clifford is back. A surge into playoff contention isn’t out of the question.

If it happens, it’ll probably be on Walker’s shouldeers.

“We put so much pressure on Kemba to do so much,” said assistant coach Stephen Silas, who served as acting head coach in Clifford’s absence.

Too much pressure?

“At times, it can be,” Silas said. “But that’s what he signed up for, and that’s how we’re built.”

For now, at least.

Joel Embiid whacks Jaylen Brown in face while celebrating basket (video)

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Joel Embiid‘s antics – the Instagram victory laps, trash-talking and taunting – can rub people the wrong way.

With Jaylen Brown last night, literally.