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

Craig Sager and his flashy suits return to All-Star weekend

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TORONTO (AP) — The All-Star game in New York was a little less colorful last year.

Craig Sager, the TNT sideline reporter known for wearing flashy suits, missed the NBA’s annual midseason gala for the first time since he started doing them in 1988. Another bout with the leukemia he’s been battling for the last few years resurfaced, and Sager was forced to sit out while undergoing more treatments.

Sager considers the All-Star festivities the most important weekend of the season for him, and so it pained him to have to watch on television while receiving his treatments.

“It was hard for me not to be there, but I had to address my health,” Sager said. “To be able to get that in remission and be able to go through this year, it’s going to be extra special for me. I’ve really been looking forward to this a long time.”

That’s right. Sager is back for All-Star weekend in Toronto this year.

He spent the week leading up to it in Houston receiving his monthly treatment, which included a blood transfusion, to make sure he was healthy enough for the trip. Once he arrived in Canada, he was easy to spot.

“I just saw him,” Spurs coach and longtime foil Gregg Popovich said after the Western Conference team practiced on Saturday. “His suit spoke to me. It blinded me for a second.”

It’s been an emotional run for Sager, the longtime fixture at NBA games. He has needed two bone marrow transplants and still has to make those treks to Houston once a month. He has returned to the sideline for games this season and is feeling so well that he was scheduled to do both the Saturday night activities that include the 3-point shootout and the dunk contest as well as the game on Sunday.

“I feel great. Got my weight back. Got my strength back,” Sager said. “I’m back to playing golf.”

Two of his youngest children – daughter Riley and son Ryan – will be with him on the court this weekend serving as a ball boy and ball girl.

And of course, Sager will do a round with Popovich on television during a quarter break on Sunday. The two have turned the sideline interview into a passion play,

“He’s been an iconic figure in the NBA. He does a great job,” Popovich said. “His sense of humor is obvious. we have a lot of fun going back and forth with that. To have him back where he belongs, obviously we’re happy for him and his health. But for the league it’s great too, because he’s a fixture that everybody enjoys.”

Sager called the support he has received from Commissioner Adam Silver, coaches, players and fans “humbling” and said he was looking forward to coming back to his favorite event of the season.

“It’s been very uplifting, very therapeutic,” Sager said. “Very supportive on their part. That really has been very helpful to me, my treatment and my drive to get back.”

Kevin Hart, Draymond Green get in All-Star Saturday three-point shootout

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TORONTO — This is going to come up in the Golden State locker room.

Right before Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry put on a three-point shooting exhibition, actor/comedian/self-promotor Kevin Hart came out and challenged Draymond Green to a shooting contest. Green was ready to go. They did the three-point shooting contest, and Green put up a total of 12 (which would have been dead last in the actual three-point contest, for the record).

Then Hart stepped up — and tied him with 12 points.

Steve Kerr, if you’re ever looking for a lineup to go REALLY small….

Other All-Stars pay tribute to Kobe Bryant’s legacy

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TORONTO — This is Kobe Bryant‘s weekend.

In what will be his final All-Star Game, he has been an absolute rock star in Toronto — huge ovations, huge crowds (of fans and media), and cameras trained on him everywhere he goes. The weekend has been a celebration of one of the game’s all-time greats and a storied career.

Over the course of the weekend, nearly every other All-Star has been asked about Kobe and the impact he’s had both on the game and on the players, personally. For many of them, this is personal, the younger NBA players grew up idolizing him. Here are a sampling of their responses.

James Harden (Houston Rockets):
“He’s been my idol growing up, my basketball idol. Like I said, just watching him play meant everything to me. So this is his last year, and he’s going to retire, and there’s going to be no more Kobe Bryant playing basketball, it’s kind of sad. It’s kind of sad about that, but at some point he had to go.”

Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors):
“He’s the Michael Jordan of our era. He’s the most competitive player we’ve played against, and the thing he’s done throughout his career and the things he’s done to change the game, to motivate the players is unbelievable.”

Chris Bosh (Miami Heat):
“Kobe, this is his weekend. I know he probably would never say that or admit that, but, yeah, he’s one of the iconic players of this — greatest iconic players this league has ever had. He’s had such an imprint on our childhood. I know he had an imprint on my childhood. And then I was in that mix where I was a kid, and then I was trying to figure it out in the NBA, and next thing you know you’re competing against him. So, it’s been crazy.”

DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors):
“I grew up watching the Lakers. I grew up watching him his whole career and getting a chance to have a relationship with him and kind of, you know, patterned my game after him so to speak, so definitely speaks volumes.”

Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder):
“Me growing up in Los Angeles and being able to see Kobe, obviously he’s one of the greatest players to play the game. It was a true honor to be able to learn from him. It’s a great experience to be able to learn different things from him, not just on the floor but off the floor as well and very different experiences.”

Tyrone Lue (Coach, Cleveland Cavaliers):
“When I first got there (playing for the Lakers) he was still young. He was Kobe, but he hadn’t been a starter yet. And that third year of his career, that was my first year, Rick Fox went down, and he stepped in and took a starting role. But just seeing the film he watched all the time, the players he was talking about, the Oscar Robertsons, Michael Jordans, the Magics, he knew from day one who he wanted to be like. He knew that to be the best, you had to work hard. That’s what he did every single day. Not one day did I see him take off.”

Paul George (Indiana Pacers):
“He was just fearless. He’s a champion. To get to where you want to get to, you have to put the work in. His work ethic is one thing that he has. That’s the reason why he’s so great.”

Paul Millsap (Atlanta Hawks):
“The only thing I can remember is him always beating us when I was at Utah in the playoffs. We always had to try to overcome the Lakers and Kobe Bryant and just could never do it.”

John Wall (Washington Wizards):
“Basically, the Michael Jordan of our era is what I see with all of his dedication to the game, his competitive drive. He’s one of those guys that always wants the ball in a tough situation. No matter the circumstances, he believes in himself, no matter what.”

Aaron Gordon (Orlando Magic):
“I watched Kobe growing up and watched him in the All-Star Game. The impact he’s had on my basketball game and in my life and so many other people, it’s really big. It’s astronomical. That’s Kobe. That’s the man.”

Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors):
“He’s meant so much to the game. Growing up in the era that I did, Kobe was that guy. So to play in an All-Star Game with him, I mean, that’s special. I grew up a Kobe fan, so it’s something that’s really special.”

C.J. McCollum (Portland Trail Blazers):
“He’s had a huge impact (on me). Obviously for us, he was the Michael Jordan of our era, a guy we watched. He emulated Michael. He had a lot of the same fadeaways, sticking out his tongue, winning championships. Just a sense of self to understand exactly what it takes to be successful. So for us, he was a guy I looked up to. His work ethic, his understanding and he knew how to bounce back from losses and shooting air balls in the playoffs as a rookie to hitting game winners.”

Watch it again: Epic dunk contest duel between Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon

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TORONTO — I am always hesitant to say a player/team/situation is one of the best of ever because the history of the NBA is filled with greats. We tend to overstate how good something current can be.  That said…

That was one of the best dunk contests ever.

Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon put on a show for the ages. Gordon had the best dunks of the night (in my opinion), but LaVine is consistently amazing, every dunk he does is flat out ridiculous.

Officially, LaVine won. In reality, we all won. Enjoy watching it one more time.