Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard

Lakers snap six-game losing streak with blowout win over Cavaliers

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Mike D’Antoni has a long way to go before his stint as Lakers head coach will be viewed as anything close to a success. But he picked his motivational spot wisely, calling Sunday’s game against the Cavaliers essentially a must-win, and a starting point for L.A. to begin to get its miserable season back on track and pointed in the right direction.

For a single night, against a substandard opponent, the Lakers responded to the challenge. They came out focused and aggressive from the very start, and used a 37-point first quarter as a launching pad for an easy 113-93 victory, the team’s first since Dec. 28 to snap a six-game losing streak.

D’Antoni’s message to his team after Friday night’s loss to the Thunder was simple.

“I told the team, the biggest thing is our season starts Sunday,” he said. “We’ve got to make a run. We’ve got one shot at it, and everybody needs to get ready mentally and physically.”

The team was as focused mentally as we’ve seen in weeks, but physically wasn’t all the way there just yet. Pau Gasol missed his fourth straight game, still not medically cleared to return after suffering a concussion a week ago against Denver.

Dwight Howard was back, however, after missing the last three games with a shoulder injury. His presence was felt immediately, as he piled up 10 points and five rebounds in just over eight minutes of action in the first quarter, against a Cavaliers team missing the injured Anderson Varejao and having no one else on its roster remotely capable of slowing him. He ended up finishing with a dominant 22 points and 14 rebounds.

Kobe Bryant had 12 of his 23 points in the opening frame to go along with five assists, and he and Howard combined to go 8-of-11 from the field in that first quarter, while the Lakers defensively held their opponent to just over 36 percent shooting.

L.A. finished the night shooting 58 percent as a team, including hitting 13 of its 25 attempts from three-point distance, while holding Cleveland to just over 41 percent.

The thing that was most impressive about the Lakers performance on this night wasn’t necessarily the win over a far less-talented opponent. It was the way they came out from the opening tip and took care of business with an efficiency and effectiveness we’ve seen only in flashes that was the difference. The offense was executed with purpose, the ball moved fluidly to find the open man, and all five players on the floor were active and engaged defensively.

It doesn’t seem so impossible on a night like this one when it all comes together.

The Lakers lead didn’t dip below double digits the entire second half, and reached as many as 30 late in the fourth quarter when the Cavaliers had relented and the final period turned into nothing more than extended garbage time.

No one in L.A. is going to mistake this Cleveland team, now with a record of just 9-30 on the season, with one of the league’s elite. Their only threat to score in bunches comes from Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, and the latter is more of a volume shooter than an efficient scorer at this early stage of his career.

But D’Antoni was right when he said that the turnaround has to start sometime, and to the Lakers credit, at least for a single night, they finally stepped up and responded to the challenge.

NBA: Kenneth Faried got away with foul on decisive basket in Nuggets’ win over Bulls

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The Bulls’ biggest loss Friday was Jimmy Butler to injury. His absence certainly contributed to a loss to the Timberwolves the following night.

But Chicago also lost to the Nuggets on Friday, and perhaps that wouldn’t have happened if the game were called correctly down the stretch.

With Denver up two points and 21.1 seconds remaining, Kenneth Faried offensively rebounded a free throw and scored. The Bulls then intentionally fouled down the stretch, and Faried and Danilo Gallinari added a few free throws in the Nuggets’ 115-110 win.

One problem: Faried should’ve been called for offensively fouling Taj Gibson on the key putback, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report:

Faried (DEN) extends his arm into Gibson (CHI) and dislodges him, affecting his ability to retrieve the rebound.

This was a huge swing. Instead of Taj Gibson – a 69% career free-throw shooter – going to the line for two attempts with Chicago down two points, Faried put the Nuggets up four. Even if Gibson split at the line, the Bulls would have been in significantly better shape.

As usual, we can’t know what would’ve happened if this call were made correctly. But it significantly set back Chicago.

NBA considering if jump-on-back foul should be flagrant foul

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The video above is an intentional foul — Chris Paul jumped on the back of Dwight Howard. The same thing has happened to Andre Drummond.

Is it a flagrant foul?

The Boston Celtics tweeted this out on Sunday.

The NBA was quick to let people know that this is just something under consideration — there has been no change in the rules. This may well be where the league is headed, but it’s not there yet.

The NBA defines a flagrant foul as “unnecessary contact committed by a player against an opponent.” To me, leaping on a player’s back like that qualifies. (A flagrant two foul is “unnecessary and excessive contact” and leads to an ejection; this is not that.)

Jared Dudley — one of the more vocal players on union issues — added a good point.

Consider this part of the coming changes on the intentional fouling rules period. But this one tweak could come much faster.

NBA: Foul on Cavaliers that sparked Celtics’ comeback called in error

Cleveland Cavaliers' J.R. Smith makes a move on Boston Celtics' Evan Turner (11) during the third quarter of a NBA basketball game in Boston Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
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The Cavaliers were in great shape against the Celtics on Friday, leading by four points with seven seconds left.

Then, it all went so wrong for Cleveland.

J.R. Smith was called for fouling Evan Turner on a made layup, cutting the margin to two points. Turner missed the free throw, but the ball went out of bounds off the Cavs. Then, Avery Bradley made a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Boston the win.

Rewind, though, and an incorrect call drove the sequence, according to the NBA.

Smith shouldn’t have been called for fouling Turner, per the Last Two Minute Report:

Smith (CLE) makes incidental contact with Turner’s (BOS) body as he attempts the layup.

If this were officiated correctly, the Cavs would’ve had the ball and a two-point lead with 5.9 seconds left. That’s not a lock to win – they’d still have to inbound the ball and make their free throws – but it’s close.

Cleveland is definitely entitled to feel the refs wronged them out of a victory.

Report: Kevin Durant has “done his due diligence on the Bay Area”

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Kevin Durant has not made up his mind about what he will do as a free agent this summer. Until his playoff run ends, whenever that may be for the Thunder, his focus will be on bringing a title to Oklahoma City.

But even he admits he can’t help but think about free agency a little.

The buzz around the league is Golden State is at the front of the line if Durant decides to leave OKC, and he has done some research, reports Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports.

The Warriors play in front of an intimidating Oracle Arena crowd and are expected to debut a new San Francisco arena in 2019. Durant has quietly done his due diligence on the Bay Area, too, sources told Yahoo Sports.

His people — specifically agent Rich Kleiman and personal manager Charlie Bell — would be stupid not to have done some research on not only Golden State but on every other team he might consider: Houston, Miami, Washington, both teams in Los Angeles, the Knicks, and on down the line. Golden State, playing with Stephen Curry, certainly would have its attractions.

I’m still in the camp that Durant signs a 1+1 deal to stay in Oklahoma City (meaning he can opt out after one more season, in 2017), and it’s all about the cash. While he could get 30 percent of a $90 million cap this summer (about $27 million a season to start), with one more year of service in 2017 Durant could get 35 percent of $108 million ($37.8 million to start). That’s a lot of cash. Plus he gets one more chance at a ring with Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, who both are 2017 free agents.

But you can be sure whatever Durant decides, it will be well researched and thought out. And he’s not going to announce it in a live special on ESPN.