Dion Waiters,  Earl Clark

Earl Clark making the most of his opportunity with the Lakers

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Earl Clark was supposed to be nothing more than an afterthought for the Lakers this season. But a concussion to starting power forward Pau Gasol has opened the door for Clark to contribute, and he’s made more than expected of his opportunity thus far.

Clark was a throw-in as part of the trade that brought Dwight Howard to L.A. from Orlando over the summer, and had been treated like it by the Lakers coaching staff until they absolutely didn’t have a choice. Clark appeared in just 10 of L.A.’s first 33 games this season, and logged single digits in minutes in all but one of those contests.

In the last four games, however, Clark has been pressed into action — primarily due to Gasol’s absence, but also due to Jordan Hill being out for the rest of the season due to a hip injury. Clark hasn’t disappointed, averaging 10.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.4 blocked shots in 24.2 minutes of action.

Clark has been even more impressive over his last two games, getting the starter’s minutes in place of Gasol, and finished with 13 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and three blocked shots in the Lakers win over the Cavaliers on Sunday, the team’s first in its last seven games.

It isn’t just the numbers that have been impressive about Clark, it’s the way he’s developed into an athletic and intelligent NBA player, seemingly knowing when to pick his spots and playing with the right amount of energy on virtually every possession.

It didn’t always come that easily to Clark, and in fact, he struggled to develop at all in his first season and part of a second while playing for the Suns. Those were winning years in Phoenix, and the team didn’t need any help inside with Amar’e Stoudemire, Robin Lopez, Channing Frye, and Lou Amundson giving them more than enough of an inside presence, especially during Clark’s rookie season that resulted in a run to the Western Conference finals.

Clark’s minutes were limited, and he was being groomed to be more of a pick-and-pop player than he was trained to battle inside. He struggled to come along, and ended up being traded to the Magic as part of the deal that brought Marcin Gortat, Vince Carter and Hedo Turkoglu to Phoenix the following season.

Alvin Gentry spoke a bit about Clark before Monday night’s game against the Thunder, and more than anything, he seemed happy that Clark was performing while getting his shot.

“I think it’s great to see him take advantage of an opportunity to play,” Gentry said. “He’s done a good job, put up some good numbers, and rebounded the ball well. I think that’s what you have to do. If you get a chance to play and you’re given an opportunity, you’ve got to take advantage of it so that at least it’s in the back of someone’s mind.”

As for Clark coming on after three seasons, Gentry pointed to some other players you might have heard of that took a little time before coming into their own.

“It’s been that way forever in this league,” Gentry said, when asked if some players just need more time to develop than others. “Steve Nash took a little while to develop, too. There’s been other guys that have been OK and then all of a sudden after their second or third years been able to become real solid NBA basketball players. I think you can look at Paul George, he’s been a decent player but all of a sudden now you watch him play and I think you can make a strong argument for him being the most improved player in the league.”

Clark will get at least one more game with heavy minutes as a member of the starting lineup, as Gasol will miss his fifth straight game due to the concussion when the Lakers host the Bucks on Tuesday. He’s likely to remain in the rotation even after Gasol returns, largely due to the way he’s made an impact with the opportunity he’s been given.

LeBron James says he doesn’t see Cavaliers-Warriors as rivalry

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers passes while under pressure from Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on December 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. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Tyronn Lue said Cavaliers-Warriors could eventually match Celtics-Lakers as a rivalry.

First, if you ask LeBron James, Cleveland-Golden State would have to become a rivalry at all.

LeBron, via Joe Vardon Cleveland.com:

“We don’t look at it as a rival,” James said. “They’re a great team. They’ve been the best team the last couple years, last three years.”

“It’s just the next game, it’s Golden State,” James said. “They’re a helluva team, like I said the best team in the league and they’ve been that way the last three years, four years, however long it’s been, I’m not quite sure. But, listen, you guys know, we don’t put all our eggs in one basket for one game.”

Of course, Cavaliers-Warriors is a rivalry. These teams have met in the last two NBA Finals, played each other with relentless intensity, talked plenty of trash and remained elite.

LeBron just doesn’t want the Cavs to become comfortable. They’ve beat Golden State in four straight games – the last three of the 2016 Finals and on Christmas – and could extend the streak to five today. Beating a rival that frequently is a cause for celebration, and celebration leads to contentment. LeBron would rather keep Cleveland focused and hungry. Hence, saying the Warriors aren’t a rival.

Andre Drummond hits 3-pointer from inside Pistons’ own 3-point arc (video)

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Andre Drummond is really good at these deep heaves.

His 3-point percentage (44%) is even better than his free-throw percentage (38%) the last two years, though that says too much about his work from the line.

Drummond wasn’t the only Pistons player converting to end quarters. Ish Smith and Tobias Harris also stepped up in the Pistons’ 102-97 win over the Lakers:

NBA: Suns got away with offensive foul before key points in win over Spurs

Phoenix Suns Devin Booker acknowledges a foul as San Antonio Spurs Tony Parker lies crumpled on the floor, in the second half of their regular-season NBA basketball game in Mexico City, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
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Devin Booker scored 39 points in the Suns’ 108-105 win over the Spurs on Saturday in Mexico City.

But Booker’s last four – which put Phoenix up for good – came directly after incorrect calls, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report.

First, Booker drew a (legitimate) foul on Pau Gasol with 1:08 left and made both free throws. The problem: One second before that, Suns center Tyson Chandler should have been called for offensively fouling Tony Parker, according to the league:

Chandler (PHX) sets the screen on Parker (SAS) and makes leg to leg contact that affects his ability to defend the play.

That would’ve ended Phoenix’s possession rather than allowing Booker to get to the line.

The other missed call in the two-minute report is trickier, because it directly benefitted the Spurs but indirectly benefitted the Suns.

Manu Ginobili got away with travelling with 59.1 seconds left, according to  the league:

Ginobili (SAS) moves his pivot foot.

But he coughed up the ball moments later anyway, and – thrilled to gain possession with a live-ball turnover rather than a dead-ball turnover – Booker turned the miscue into a fastbreak dunk.

Rather than debate how to evaluate San Antonio getting away with a travel and it ultimately helping Phoenix more, let’s stick to just the uncalled Chandler offensive foul. That netted the Suns two points. Their lead when the Spurs began intentionally fouling? One.

Russell Westbrook puts up 20th triple-double of season, lifts Thunder past Kings (VIDEO)

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Through 41 games — half the season — Russell Westbrook is averaging 30.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.5 assists a game. Those numbers are insane, particularly considering his 42 percent usage rate. He has to put up numbers and do so fairly efficiently or the Thunder stand no chance of winning — and he has the Thunder on pace for 48 wins this season.

The Thunder picked up another of those wins Sunday night knocking off the Sacramento Kings behind Westbrook’s 20th triple-double in 41 games — 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. The video highlights are above.

It’s going to be fun watching him and James Harden go back-and-forth in the MVP race for the next few months.