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

Dirk Nowitzki says he plans to re-sign with Mavericks

Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) celebrates as he leaves the court during the final minute of the second half in an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Monday, April 11, 2016, in Salt Lake City. The Mavericks won 101-92. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
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Dirk Nowitzki will opt out of the final year of a contract that would’ve paid him $8,692,184.

The big question: Why?

Does Nowitzki want a higher salary? More years? A lower salary that enables the Mavericks to upgrade their supporting cast?

He could command whichever of those he desires.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN, transcribing Nowitzki’s interview on 1310 The Ticket in Dallas:

Nowitzki reiterated Monday that he is committed to remaining with the Mavs for the rest of his career, saying that decision was essentially made when Dallas won the championship in 2011.

“That would have been the only scenario where I go somewhere at the end to kind of hang on and maybe try to win one,” Nowitzki said, referring to if he didn’t have a ring. “But ever since I won a championship here and we did that, I want to finish my career here. I always said that. The only scenario where I’ll try to go somewhere is if we’re rebuilding, if we really say, ‘This is the end of the line. We tried every which way and we can’t go any further and we’re starting basically with five rookies.’

“Obviously, that’s not what I want my last couple of years. But knowing Mark and Donnie, they always want this to be a winning franchise, so there’s no reason for me to go anywhere.”

“We had one more year on the contract, but I think this is the right thing to do,” he said. “We’re going to sit with Mark [Cuban] and Donnie [Nelson] obviously over the next few weeks and figure out how to improve this franchise again.

“Ever since after the championship, we’ve been basically a first-round exit. We’ve been a seven, eight seed. We’ve only won a few playoff games, and obviously the goal was to compete at the highest level in my last couple of years. So there is some moving to do, some thinking, some putting our heads together the next few weeks heading into free agency, heading into the draft. So this is just one move that hopefully starts a chain reaction for us to get better again, to compete really at a high level. We’ll see how it goes.”

Usually, I’d say this would at least open the door to the player leaving. But it’d be difficult for the Mavericks to pivot into rebuilding now. They don’t have their own first-round pick, and Justin Anderson is their only young player of consequence.

With Wesley Matthews and J.J. Barea signed long term and Nowitzki intent on returning, it makes far more sense to try to win now. Dallas might fail, but it’ll almost certainly be the goal.

The Mavericks project to have about $20 million in cap space accounting for cap holds for Chandler Parsons ($19,969,950), Nowitzki ($12,500,0001), Deron Williams ($6,454,769) and Dwight Powell ($1,180,431). If those players sign elsewhere or get renounced, Dallas would clear more room.

Nowitzki could accept a lower salary than his cap hold, and his first-year salary would become his cap number once signed. Essentially, he could monitor free agency and slide his salary requirement depending on the quality of free agent the Mavericks could sign with the available money. Land a star, and maybe Nowitzki would take far less to accommodate him. Strike out, and Nowitzki might want a raise.

He has leverage, though it seems he’s set on using it harmoniously with management.

Still, what if Dallas flops majorly in free agency? Could Nowitzki leave? I expect the Mavericks to land productive veterans, and I doubt Nowitzki would leave anyway. But by opting out, he has the ability to walk.

The Mavericks have an opportunity to improve this offseason. Two years ago, they leveraged Nowitzki’s commitment to the franchise into a below-market deal that helped them sign Parsons. The goal should be once again involving Nowitzki in the process and having him help.

The better Dallas does in free agency, the more likely Nowitzki will be to sacrifice for the team.

Report: LeBron James to star in Space Jam 2

FILE - In this Wed., July 15, 2015 file photo, NBA player LeBron James, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, accepts the award for best championship performance at the ESPY Awards at the Microsoft Theater, in Los Angeles. The NBA star and his company, SpringHill Entertainment, have signed a content creation deal with Warner Bros. that includes potential projects in film, television and other digital properties. Warner Bros. Chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara announced the partnership Wednesday, July 22, 2015. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)
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LeBron James said in 2012 he wanted to star in Space Jam 2.

After years of conflicting reports, renewed interests and small steps, it might actually be happening.

Rebecca Ford of The Hollywood Reporter:

Justin Lin and Andrew Dodge are ready to shoot some intergalactic hoops with LeBron James.

The Fast & Furious 6 and Star Trek Beyond helmer is in talks to direct Warner Bros.’ sequel Space Jam 2 while Dodge will write.

The Cleveland Cavaliers NBA player, who recently appeared in Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck, will star in Space Jam 2.

The original Space Jam with Michael Jordan was a huge success. If they can parlay that popularity into a profitable sequel, good for everyone involved. Many NBA players – including Blake Griffin and Isaiah Thomaswill vie for parts.

It probably won’t even matter if the movie is good. Basketball fans – younger ones and those nostalgic for the 90s, huge cross sections – will flock to see it regardless. So, let’s hope it’s good.

Raptors gaining ground on Cavaliers when adjusting for playoff rotations

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) drives past Toronto Raptors' DeMar DeRozan, left, and Patrick Patterson during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, March 4, 2015, in Toronto. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)
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The Warriors and Cavaliers were clearly the best teams in their conferences during the regular season.

Adjusting for playoff rotations only furthered those teams’ advantages.

But Golden State fell back into the Western Conference pack when reevaluating for the second round, because of Stephen Curry‘s injury.

Does Cleveland maintain its big lead in the East?

I’ve used nba wowy! to rank Eastern Conference playoff teams by net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) during the regular season and first round, counting only lineups that include five players in the team’s postseason rotation. Here’s each team’s rating, from the regular season adjusted to only lineups that include five players projected to be in the second-round rotation:

Eastern Conference

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Offensive rating: 111.4 to 117.4
  • Defensive rating: 105.1 to 106.8
  • Net rating: +6.3 to +10.6

2. Toronto Raptors

  • Offensive rating: 110.9 to 113.7
  • Defensive rating: 106.0 to 104.2
  • Net rating: +4.9 to +9.5

3. Miami Heat

  • Offensive rating: 107.2 to 112.5
  • Defensive rating: 105.3 to 106.7
  • Net rating: +1.9 to +5.8

4. Atlanta Hawks

  • Offensive rating: 105.9 to 105.4
  • Defensive rating: 103.0 to 101.8
  • Net rating: +2.9 to +3.6

Observations:

  • The order of these teams matches seed, which leaves the Cavs at the top.
  • The Raptors narrowed the gap – from where they stood overall in the regular season and adjusted for playoff rotation entering the first round – with Cleveland. Key for Toronto: Removing Luis Scola from the rotation. Though he’s a fine player, the Raptors have fared better with him off the court.
  • Gerald Green was barely in the Heat’s first-round rotation. Remove him, and Miami’s adjusted offensive/defensive/net rating jumps to 115.3/106.8/+8.5. That’s still not as good as the Raptors’, but it’s much closer.
  • The Hawks have less ability to change their adjusted rating by trimming their fringe rotation players, Mike Muscala and Tim Hardaway Jr. Drop those two and Atlanta’s adjusted rating gets a little worse: 105.6/102.3/+3.3. If the Cavs play up to their potential, I’m not sure the Hawks have a gear that can match hit. But it will be interesting to see the conference’s best adjusted offense (Cleveland) face its best adjusted defense (Atlanta).

David Blatt expected to interview with Rockets, still in Knicks mix

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Head coach David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavaliers speaks to the media after their loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game Six of the 2015 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2015 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 Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Are the Knicks actually interested in David Blatt?

Though Kurt Rambis remains the apparent frontrunner, Phil Jackson seems to keep pushing the idea that there’s another candidate.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

David Blatt “still is in the mix” for the Knicks head job, according to an NBA source.

Blatt is expected to be interviewed for the vacancies with the Rockets and Kings

The Kings’ interest was known, but the expected Houston interview is news. The Lakers and Nets were both reportedly interested in Blatt before they hired Luke Walton and Kenny Atkinson, respectively.

Blatt won 67% of his games and reached the NBA Finals in his only full season. Yes, he had LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and an expensive supporting cast, but that’s still impressive. Blatt has replaced Mark Jackson as the preeminent “I’m not sure he’s actually a good coach, but his record was so darn good that I have to take a look” coaching candidate. That’s clearly getting him interviews, but will it get him a job offer?