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

Watch Nerlens Noel say goodbye to Joel Embiid after learning of trade

Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
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Nerlens Noel had a plane to catch — he is headed to Minneapolis because that is where his new team the Dallas Mavericks are right now (Dallas faces Minnesota on Friday night).

But first, Noel wanted to say goodbye to his buddy Joel Embiid.

Noel was traded to the Mavericks for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut (who will be traded again by the deadline or waived by Philly after), and a protected first-round pick in the 2017 draft that will almost certainly convert to two second-round picks (2017 and 2018). It’s a great landing spot for Noel, Dallas will re-sign him this summer and see him as the future of the franchise at the five.

What we as fans tend to focus on is things like that last paragraph — who “won” or who “lost” the trade, how it fits on the court — and we can forget these are human beings. They are leaving their home, their friends, and in many cases asking family to pack up and move with them. There is a human side, a human cost to these trades, which we can’t overlook.

Report: Boston finally willing to put Nets pick in Paul George trade talks, still may not be enough

Eastern Conference forward Paul George of the Indiana Pacers (13) reacts during the second half of the NBA All-Star basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)
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They are the two biggest pieces on the trade deadline day chess board: Boston has the rights to swap picks with Brooklyn’s first-round pick this season (and the Nets will finish with the worst record in the league), and then Boston owns the Brooklyn pick outright next season.

So far, Boston hasn’t been willing to put those pieces into play, even for an elite player such as Jimmy Butler or Paul George. The thinking in Boston has been very logical: Cleveland is in the middle of its title window, Toronto also is a win-now team (hence the Serge Ibaka trade), and Washington is in the same boat. However, with those Brooklyn picks the Celtics are not going to peak until three years or so from now, right as those other teams fade. Boston could be patient because they have next.

But that attitude seems to be shifting a little — Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reports one of the Nets picks may be in play for George.

We don’t know which pick (17 or 18) nor do we know what other pieces are involved. There’s a lot of variables and more than likely this deal doesn’t happen.

This seems to signal a shift in Boston’s thinking — they may be sliding into a win-now space. It means they see the Cavaliers as vulnerable (maybe due to the rash of injuries and the heavy minutes for LeBron James) and they want to pounce now rather than wait.

Report: Sixers trade Nerlens Noel to Mavericks for Bogut, Anderson, first-round pick

CAMDEN, NJ - SEPTEMBER 26: Nerlens Noel #4 of the Philadelphia 76ers poses for a portrait during media day on September 26, 2016 in Camden, New Jersey. 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 Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Philadephia has been trying to unclog its frontcourt logjam for a while, but finding little out there in a market with a glut of big men — Brook Lopez, Tyson Chandler, Gregg Monroe, and so on. They have not found a deal they like for Jahlil Okafor despite months of trying.

However, they now have found one for Nerlens Noel.

Dallas has been looking for the big man of their future and has jumped on landing the former Kentucky star, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Marc Stein and Zach Lowe of ESPN added these crucial details.

Those protections make it almost certain Dallas keeps its first round pick this year, so the Sixers get a couple of seconds.

I love this trade for Dallas, but they have to re-sign Noel this summer as a restricted free agent. Dallas has chased the right big man for a while (remember DeAndre Jordan?), and Noel fits what they want at the five — he can protect the rim, he has hops, and he can finish around the rim (63.4 percent of his shots come in the restricted area, and he shoots 72 percent on those). He gets most of his offense off cuts or being the roll man — get him the rock near the basket and he’ll do the rest, but he’s not going to create or step out. Noel provides rim protection in the paint on defense, but if you have a big that can pull him out of the paint it gives him trouble. He’s also young and his game can develop.

Noel can be a piece along with Harrison Barnes in the post-Dirk era coming to Dallas.

I’ve been told (as have other reporters) to expect the Sixers to buy out Bogut, which will make him a very sought after free agent by contenders in a few days (Cleveland? He is not allowed by rule to return to Warriors this season). Unless they can flip him again before the deadline.

What Philly gets out of this of value is not only the pick (eventually) but also Justin Anderson, who shows promise as a “3&D” wing. He’s still got to work on the three part of that, he’s hitting just 30.3 percent from three this season, but he’s a strong defender already able to cover twos, threes, and small fours. Good rebounder as well for his position. You could see him growing into Brett Brown’s rotation.

Reports: Minnesota working hard to trade Ricky Rubio by deadline; Knicks swap for Rose possible

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 28: Ricky Rubio #9 of the Minnesota Timberwolves brings the ball down court against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center on December 28, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. 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 Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
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On paper, Ricky Rubio seemed a good fit for the Tom Thibodeau’s Timberwolves: He’s a gifted passer and strong defender who knows how to run a team. In practice, his lack of shooting on a team of slashers and a big man inside — Karl-Anthony Towns — allowed teams to clog the lane.

So the Timberwolves are working hard to find a landing spot for him before the trade deadline at 3 p.m. Eastern, according to multiple reports.

This has led to talks with the Knicks of a Ricky Rubio for Derrick Rose swap, and there is more than just smoke with this. Although, if there is enough fire to get a deal done is another question entirely.

A Rose/Rubio swap is a small win for the Knicks — Rubio would find a way to get the ball to Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony, plus he improves their defense. Also, it means they don’t have to overpay Rose or another point guard this summer as Rubio is under contract for next season.

For the Timberwolves, they get a guy who will get them some buckets on the drive but who also takes opportunities out of the hands of Towns, Andrew Wiggins and everyone else. Plus Minnesota’s defense gets worse. I’m not sure how that gets them to the playoffs.