Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Joel Anthony

Improving Lakers get moral victory. Heat get impressive actual victory.

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A week ago, with Los Angeles’ big men sitting in suits on the sideline, the Thunder routed the Lakers.

Since that game the Lakers have played better, particularly on defense. Dwight Howard had become more active, the offense has been more crisp. The defensive improvement happened again for the most part on Thursday — Los Angeles held the Miami Heat to 40.9 percent shooting in the first half, plus Kobe Bryant and teammates hit key shots down the stretch and tied the game 90-90 with 2:30 left.

But that’s when the Heat put it in another gear — one of defensive pressure and good execution of their sets — that the Lakers simply could not match. Not even close.

Miami looked like a champion, closed the game on a 9-0 run behind five points and two assists from LeBron James and won 99-90.

The Lakers looked like a team that could once again not overcome their self-inflicted wounds.

The game was a reminder that when the Heat are focused on defense they are more than just contenders, they are the reigning title holders and you are going to have to rip that trophy from their hands if you want it. They still have the best player in the game in LeBron James.

It also was a reminder that the Lakers limitations as they get to know each other. It was a moral victory for a 17-22 team that is past the point of having time for moral victories. They need actual ones and they are going to have to get a bunch on the road (10 of next 13 are away from Staples).

LeBron had a “might want to think about making me MVP again” type game with 39 points on 17-of-25 shooting, 7 rebounds, 8 assists and three steals thrown in for good measure. He had 10 of those points in the fourth quarter and hit the dagger shots down the stretch. Kobe Bryant was good (22 points but on 8-of-25 shooting with six turnovers) but LeBron switched on to him defensively near the end and made Kobe’s life very difficult.

Early on, it felt like this could be a Heat runaway — Miami’s first eight points came off four Lakers turnovers and four Heat highlight transition dunks. The Lakers wanted to move the ball quickly, away from the Heat’s pressure, but the result was rushed and errant passes.

The trend continued. Los Angeles had 9 first-quarter turnovers, 16 for the half and 20 for the game. It plays right into the Heat’s hands — easy transition buckets fuel the Heat. LeBron started 7-of-9 from the floor and 14 points before he sat the first time. Miami had 13 steals at half (Chris Bosh had five by himself). Steve Nash had four first-half turnovers under intense Heat ball pressure (they went hard at him).

But Miami never pulled away. The Lakers made a few shots, got a couple of stops and hung around, and eventually they caught and passed the Heat, leading 45-44 at the half.

The reason is the book on the Heat is right — size can give them trouble. The presence of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol (returned from a concussion) forced Miami away from its preferred small-lineups and three point shooting for a while. When Miami did go small they struggled a little with their shooting. Miami had no good answer for Howard, but the Lakers only got him four first-half shots.

The problem is Howard only got 7 shots, finishing with 13 points. The Lakers didn’t go to their strength.

The game remained close in the second half, with the Heat taking little leads and the Lakers making runs to get back in it. The last of those included a Steve Nash three, then a vintage Kobe three coming off a baseline screen. That shot tied the game at 90-90 with 2:32 left.

It was the last points the Lakers would score — Miami has switched to put LeBron on Kobe, Dwyane Wade on Steve Nash, and fouling Dwight Howard before he shot. It worked.

First Miami took the lead back with an elbow action that had Wade curling in for a clean look. Then Shane Battier fouled Howard in the paint rather than giving up the easy bucket and Howard obliged missing both free throws. Then the Heat took a four point lead off a Ray Allen rainbow shot, a catch-and-shoot he got off a curl.

Next trip down Wade smothered Steve Nash and then blocked his shot. Miami got its chance, LeBron drove hard then pulled up at the elbow and nailed it, at this point there were just :49 seconds left and the Heat were up 96-60. The Lakers needed a big shot but Metta World Peace and Kobe missed threes on the same possession (but you need to credit LeBron for part of that as he smothered Kobe and took away a lot of good options).

After that, there was a LeBron slam that put a cap on it.

It was an impressive last few minutes by the Heat that reminds you how good they can be.

And was a reminder to Lakers fans how far they are from that level right now

Are Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant on speaking terms after apparent conversation? Westbrook: ‘Nah’ (video)

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Russell Westbrook deleted Kevin Durant‘s goodbye text and, months later, told the whole world they still hadn’t talked.

That apparently changed during the Warriors’ win over the Thunder yesterday – though not if you ask Westbrook.

Westbrook dunked in the third quarter, and according to ESPN commentator Mark Jackson, Westbrook told Durant, “Don’t jump.” Anthony Slater of The Mercury News also wrote of the same quote.

ESPN’s telecast caught Durant clearly speaking to Westbrook shortly after. It appears Westbrook is talking back, but his back is to the camera.

After the game, Westbrook denied the exchange:

 

  • Reporter: “Are you and KD on speaking terms?”
  • Westbrook: “Nah.”
  • Reporter: “You guys had a little exchange in the third quarter.”
  • Westbrook: “What exchange?”
  • Reporter: “You and KD said something to each other.”
  • Westbrook: “Oh. You gotta maybe sit closer to the game. You maybe didn’t see clearly.”

This is so Westbrook – stubborn to the point of denying reality.

That approach worked for him when everyone rightly told him he was a significantly lesser player than Durant. Westbrook ignored that fact until it became false.

I suspect he wants to forget this exchange so he can maintain a cold animosity toward someone he prefers to resent.

Russell Westbrook on Zaza Pachulia: ‘I’m going to get his ass back’

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Russell Westbrook has spent a lot of time bagging on Kevin Durant since Durant left the Thunder for the Warriors.

In a move that can’t help but be seen as a response, Golden State center Zaza Pachulia laid out and stood over Westbrook last night.

Of course, the Oklahoma City guard didn’t see that as rightful comeuppance.

Westbrook:

I don’t know. He me kind of hard. But it’s alright. I’m going to get his ass back. Straight up.

I didn’t see that [Pachulia standing over him] until just now, but I don’t play that game. I’m going to get his ass back. Whenever that is, I don’t know when it’s going to be, but I don’t play that game.

Pachulia:

I can’t worry about those kind of comments. I’m part of the amazing team, amazing group. We have a great goal of winning a championship. So, I’m all in with my energy. One hundred percent, I’m all in. So we’re thinking about this team and staying healthy, moving forward, getting better, getting to the playoffs and we’re ending up playing for the championship.

That’s what I’m thinking about. I’m not thinking about those kind of comments.

That team is not there. So, they might be thinking about other stuff like getting me back. OK, you can get me back. But again, it’s my 14th year. We all know what my game is, to play hard and not dirty, but to play hard. If it was a hard foul, it was a hard foul. It wasn’t dirty at all. So, I’m not worried about this.

Pachulia continued, via Tim Bontemps of The Washington Post:

“Bring it on,” he said. “Bring it on.

“I’ll be there. I’ll be in OKC, too, so whenever he wants, my pleasure. My pleasure.”

And via Royce Young of ESPN:

Both Westbrook’s and Pachulia’s competitiveness and toughness are beyond reproach. These are not the type of players to back down.

What does Westbrook have in mind? I believe him when he says he doesn’t know. But I’m intrigued to find out.

As if the Warriors visit to Oklahoma City next month didn’t already have enough storylines.

Should he be an All-Star? Kemba Walker: ‘Not really, if you ask me’

Charlotte Hornets' Kemba Walker (15) shoots over Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard (0) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Kemba Walker is focused on Charlotte’s record. He isn’t very interested in the All-Star game right now.

Walker scored 23 points, and the Hornets stopped a five-game slide with a 107-85 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night.

Walker went 4 for 8 from behind the arc against Portland and 8 for 14 from the field overall. But he said he doesn’t think he has done enough this year to make the All-Star game for the first time, citing the team’s 21-21 record.

“Not really, if you ask me,” Walker said. “Especially because of where my team is. But like I said, I really don’t care honestly.”

“We haven’t been doing a great job of winning consistently (so) the All-Star game is the last thing I’m going to think about right now.”

While Walker is brushing off talk about next month’s game in New Orleans, he is making a strong case for a spot on the Eastern Conference team. He is averaging 23 points and shooting 41.3 percent from 3-point range this season.

 

Coach Steve Clifford said Walker is playing at an All-Star level, but doesn’t know if he will be selected.

“It’s not a question of whether or not he’s playing like an All-Star – he’s an All-Star-caliber guard, no question about it,” Clifford said. “The factors will be looking at the other point guards in the East. The East is loaded. Point guard is the best position in our league right now and also, a lot of other guys are playing on teams with better records than ours. It’s about winning.”

The Hornets snapped an eight-game streak of allowing at least 100 points.

Charlotte led 79-72 after three quarters but blew the game open in the fourth behind eight quick points from Frank Kaminsky. The reserve had all 11 of his points in the final quarter, including three 3-pointers.

Walker had a big first half, hitting 6 of 9 shots and three 3-pointers to help the Hornets build a 54-46 lead.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Made all 11 free throws, but shot 8 of 31 from beyond the 3-point arc.

Hornets: Bench outscored Portland’s reserves 44-22.

HIBBERT’S BIG NIGHT

Charlotte center Roy Hibbert played what Clifford called the best game of his season.

The 7-foot-2 Hibbert, who came in averaging 5.2 points per game, had a season-high 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting and provided two of the game’s biggest highlights.

He brought the crowd to its feet on a drop-step drive through the lane and an unexpected one-handed dunk over Meyers Leonard. A few minutes later, Hibbert threw a backdoor alley-oop pass intended for Kaminsky that inadvertently went in. Hibbert didn’t even crack a smile as he jogged back down court.

“That was a helluva pass, shot – I don’t know what it was,” Walker said with a laugh. “I’m just glad it went in.”

Hibbert, who has battled through knee issues this season, said he wasn’t trying to score, but glad it went in.

“That was a bad pass and a bad shot, that’s all I can say,” Hibbert said.

LOSING WAYS

Damian Lillard scored 21 points and C.J. McCollum had 18 for Portland, which has lost three straight and 16 of 22 since Dec. 5.

“As a group we have to let last year go,” Portland center Mason Plumlee said. “If it was the first 10 games of the season we could talk about building on last year. This is a new team, this is a new group and we aren’t playing how we did last year so it’s a new season, new challenges. We have to make the most of this group and this team, and the situation we are in.”

TURNOVERS

Charlotte turned 16 Portland turnovers into 21 points.

“We had some turnovers and they took advantage of every little thing,” Lillard said. “It seemed like they were getting what they wanted. They played a comfortable game and we didn’t make them very uncomfortable.”

UP NEXT

Trail Blazers: Travel to face the improving Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night.

Hornets: Back home on Friday night to host another high-scoring team in the Toronto Raptors.

Three Things We Learned Wednesday: Kevin Durant saves his best games for Thunder

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 18:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles past Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at ORACLE Arena on January 18, 2017 in Oakland, California.  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.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Here are the big takeaways from a busy night around the NBA:

1) Kevin Durant saves his best games for Russell Westbrook, Thunder. Prior to Wednesday night, Kevin Durant’s highest-scoring game this season was 39 points, something he broke out the first time his new Warriors team faced his old Thunder squad. Then Wednesday Durant an incredibly efficient 40 points on 16 shots — again against the Thunder. Just in case there wasn’t enough salt rubbed in that OKC wound (Golden State won the game 121-100).

Whatever you think of his choice, Durant’s team is way better than Westbrook’s, which is both expected and why KD made the move — he is closer to a ring now. (If you say that winning rings is the ultimate defining factor in a player’s legacy then rip his moves to make it easier to get said ring, you’re a hypocrite.) Part of the gap between the sides is obviously what Durant brings to the Golden State offense — and how efficiently he’s been doing it this season, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9, his career best (for some perspective, the league average is around 52). But also he’s been bringing it on the defensive end this season, particularly of late, having a strong game against LeBron James Monday then doing well when switched onto Westbrook a couple of times in this game. Durant would be having an MVP-level season most years, but Westbrook and James Harden change the equation this time around.

Westbrook himself had a triple-double (that’s 21 this season) in the loss… actually, it was a quadruple-double when you throw in the 10 turnovers. Westbrook wasn’t efficient, hitting 8-of-23 from the field, and when he isn’t this team struggles to win, they rely on him that much. Of course, that’s not the play everyone is talking about — rather, it’s Zaza Pachulia with the hard foul, and then taunting Westbrook by standing over him.

When Westbrook saw that, he promised to “get his ass back.” These teams meet again Feb. 11 — when Durant returns to Oklahoma City for the first time in a Warriors’ uniform.

Bonus thing we saw: Russell Westbrook had the travel of the year.
Even in the NBA, this is a travel — and a funny one.



2) The Sixers beat the Raptors and have now won 7-of-9.
When this run of wins from the Sixers started, it was easy to say “they are just beating other weak teams.” Then they beat the Bucks. Wednesday night they beat the Raptors. Brett Brown has settled on a 10-man rotation, found lineups he likes with Joel Embiid starting (surrounded by shooters) and Nerlens Noel relieving him off the bench. Plus, the Sixers are finding their defensive identity. It’s coming together.

Still, this is all about Embiid — the Sixers are outscoring teams by 3.5 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court this season. He had 26 points — including 12-of-14 from the free throw line — plus nine rebounds against Toronto. The man is a force. The only question the next couple of weeks is will he be an All-Star?


3) Rudy Gay is out for the season, which changes West playoff chase and trade picture.
This is bad news for the Kings, and it is worse news for Rudy Gay himself — trying to drive out of the right corner Wednesday night, Gay tore his left Achilles tendon (something the team announced, although it needs to be confirmed by an MRI Thursday).

Gay is done for this season and likely the start of the next one.

In the short term, that is a blow to the Kings’ playoff chances. Technically they are just 1.5 games out of the eight seed after Wednesday’s loss to the Pacers, but the Kings have been outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions this season when Gay is off the court. This isn’t the same team without him. Gay has scored 18.7 points per game, which was second-best on the team, and now that role falls to Matt Barnes and Omri Casspi (once Casspi returns from his calf injury in a couple of weeks). Those two are a drop off from what Gay brought to the Kings, meaning don’t be surprised if Sacramento tries to add a scorer at the trade deadline.

It also changes the trade deadline. Gay was clear he wanted out of Sacramento and said he planned to opt out of the $14.3 million final year of his contract to be a free agent next summer, which made him someone on the trade block. Teams were calling about him, including the Thunder (although the Kings being in the playoff hunt impacted what the team might do). Now obviously that is off the table, and the question becomes will Gay even opt out?