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

Ex-NBA player Kermit Washington arrested in Los Angeles

ASHEVILLE, NC - APRIL 16:  Assistant coach Kermit Washington of the Asheville Altitude reacts to a call during the game against the Huntsville Flight in the NBDL semifinal playoff game at the Asheville Civic Center on April 16, 2005 in Asheville, North Carolina. The Altitude won 90-86 to advance to the championship game. 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.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2005 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Kermit Washington, a former NBA player who notoriously gave a bone-breaking face punch to the Houston Rockets’ Rudy Tomjanovich during a 1977 Lakers game, has been arrested by federal agents.

Washington was arrested on a warrant Tuesday in Los Angeles. It’s unknown if he has a lawyer.

Officials won’t discuss the arrest, but they have set a news conference for Wednesday in Kansas City, Missouri.

That’s where football Hall of Famer Ron Mix pleaded guilty Monday to filing false tax returns.

Authorities say Mix, a San Diego-area lawyer, paid someone to refer clients to him in return for donations to the charity Contact Project Africa.

Prosecutors say Mix paid $155,000, but the money went into his associate’s pocket.

Washington founded the charity, which is no longer functioning.

Dwyane Wade creates tie, sale proceeds benefit Craig Sager’s foundation

PHOENIX - FEBRUARY 13:  Assistant coach Dwyane Wade of the Rookie team is interviewed by Craig Sager during the T-Mobile Rookie Challenge & Youth Jam part of 2009 NBA All-Star Weekend at US Airways Center on February 13, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.  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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Sager Strong.

Despite undergoing chemotherapy to battle the acute myeloid leukemia that has returned to his body, Sager has been a sideline reporter for TNT through these playoffs and the Western Conference Finals, doing as many games as he can. He’s been an inspiration to everyone in the business, and to fans. Dwight Howard put together a blood drive in his honor.

Now, Dwyane Wade has partnered with The Tie Rack, creating a tie where the proceeds of the sale go the SAGERSTRONG Foundation, created by Sager.

From the Tie Rack page:

Proceeds from the sale of this tie will be donated directly to the SAGERSTRONG Foundation, Inc., founded in support of TNT sports personality Craig Sager. SAGERSTRONG works with various charitable partners to support the treatment of those suffering from blood cancers and AML.

“Together, we can play defense on cancer, one tie at a time.” Much love, Dwyane Wade.

The tie sells for $25 (and you can get a matching pocket square for $15). If you wear ties, you can join me in picking one up and helping out a good cause.

(Hat tip Eye on Basketball)

PBT’s NBA 2016 Draft Pospect Preview: Skal Labissiere

DES MOINES, IA - MARCH 17:  Skal Labissiere #1 of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts after making a basket against the Stony Brook Seawolves in the first half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 17, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Skal Labissiere had one of the weirdest freshman seasons that I can remember seeing since I’ve been doing this job. He entered the year as arguably the best prospect in college basketball, a projected top two pick and the guy expected to anchor the front line for a national title contender in Kentucky. He played well for about a month … and then totally went in the tank. John Calipari lost confidence in him. He lost confidence in himself. His minutes evaporated.

By the middle of SEC play, he was a total non-factor for the Wildcats.

But then Labissiere started to put the pieces together. There was an 11-point, 8-rebound performance at Florida that seemed to wake him up. He followed that up with 18 points, nine boards and six blocks in a dominating win over LSU and Ben Simmons, the other guy that thought to be the No. 1 recruit in his class. His numbers down the stretch weren’t all that impressive, but anyone watching him play could see the difference.

And that’s where things get interesting for Skal. Because he had a season that would make you believe he had no chance of ever playing in the NBA. Yet there’s a good chance that he’ll end up getting picked in the lottery. How is that possible?

Height: 6′ 11.75″
Weight: 216
Wingspan: 7′ 2.5″
2015-16 Stats: 6.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 15.8 mpg

STRENGTHS: Have you seen his shooting stroke?

Seriously, have you? Look at this:

This dude measured in a quarter-inch short of seven-feet, and he’s out here shooting like that. I’m not really concerned about what his shooting numbers were this season  — he shot 41.5 percent on jumpers, which isn’t good considering he shot just one three — because I think what happened to Skal at Kentucky had a whole lot more to do with confidence than ability — we’ll get to all that — but anyone with even a minor sense of basketball intellect can watch him shoot and see a guy that can make NBA threes at a very good clip.

Now think about where the NBA is heading these days. They call it small-ball, right? But it’s less about “small-ball” than it is about spacing the floor with shooters, and it just so happens that most of the guys that can shoot are small. Put another way, big dudes that can shoot have real value. Channing Frye has a four-year, $32-million contract with Cleveland right now. Marreese Speights might win his second straight NBA title with the Warriors. What do those guys have in common? They’re big and they can shoot.

And not only that, but Skal is fluid and agile, meaning he doesn’t just project as a pick-and-pop threat. He’s got a post game. He’s got a face-up game. He could, one day, be a really, really good offensive weapon. He’s also a much better shot-blocker than he gets credit for, averaging over four blocks per-40 minutes as a freshman. He’s got issues defensively — again, we’ll get to that — but they don’t include length, athleticism and a sense of timing as a shot-blocker.

There’s a reason that scouts have loved his potential for a long time.

WEAKNESSES: There are many, which is the reason why people are fairly shocked to see where he stands in mock drafts.

Physically, the biggest weakness for Skal right now is, simply, that he’s too weak. He weighs all of 216 pounds, according to the measurements at the NBA Combine. He needs to add a good 20-30 pounds of muscle if he’s going to have a prayer of holding his own in the post in the NBA. And as he gets stronger physically he’s going to get stronger with the ball. Not only did he get beaten up in the paint last season but he had trouble corralling rebounds and holding onto the ball in traffic.

Toughness was also a problem for him. Some bigs love going bow-for-bow in the post. Some don’t. Skal may be the latter. He’s got no ‘dog’ to him. He’s never going to be Draymond Green or Steven Adams. And while that will likely improve as he gets stronger, he may just be a kid that’s too nice for his own good. Given the role he’s projected to play, that may not end up being too much of a problem if he’s at least strong enough to hold position on the block; his long-term value is as a guy that can guard fives while pulling them away from the rim at the other end of the floor.

His mental toughness, or lack thereof, will be, but I’ll get to that in a second.

For me, the single biggest issue Skal is facing is that he lacks feel and basketball IQ because he just hasn’t played all that much basketball in his life. He didn’t play his junior season in high school because of a stress fracture in his back. His senior season he spent at something called Reach Your Dream Prep, which was a prep school team created out of thin air after his guardian totally mishandled a transfer of high schools. In other words, prior to Kentucky, he had never really been coached before.

And you can see that in the way that he played. I think the best way to describe it is that he was robotic. He didn’t react to plays. He didn’t read what was happening around him. He had to think it through, and as the adage goes, ‘when you think, you stink’. He strikes me as a kid that was spent far too much of his basketball life working through drills and has no idea has to translate what he’s been working on into an actual game.

He was slow to react offensively. He was even slower to react defensively, where his quick feet and knack for shot-blocking helped hide the fact that he was more or less clueless on positional defending for the majority of the season. That’s part of the reason he was seemingly always in foul trouble. Being too weak was a major cause as well, and after every mistake he made he got an earful from head coach John Calipari back on the bench.

And when you put all of that together, what you got was a player whose confidence was totally shattered by the middle of the season.

That’s where the issue of mental toughness comes into play. Coach Cal has a philosophy with these perimeter-oriented bigs: he’s going to play them in the post. It worked for Karl-Anthony Towns. It didn’t work quite as well with Skal, but you could see him start to put the pieces together by the end of the season.

Put another way, Skal’s flaws were exacerbated and magnified because he was broken mentally. He didn’t believe in himself, partly because he wasn’t ready to handle what he had to handle at Kentucky. The question NBA teams have to answer: Will that change once he learns how to play the game?

NBA COMPARISON: Channing Frye.

I really like Skal’s potential, but I’m not sure he quite reaches his ceiling. The role I see him playing in the NBA for the next 10-12 years is as a center that thrives in a pace-and-space offense. That’s Channing Frye. He’s never averaged more than 12.7 points or 6.7 boards in a season, but he’s now been in the league for 11 years and just signed a contract with $32 million over four years because he’s 6-foot-11 and shoots 38.6 percent from three.

And this isn’t a perfect comparison, either, because Frye has never been a shot-blocker. There have only been 14 players in NBA history that have shot better than 35 percent from three (attempting at least one three per game) and averaged 1.5 blocks in a season. Donyell Marshall in 2003-04 is the only player that did so and shot better than 40 percent from three.

OUTLOOK: Skal is something of a lottery ticket. His size, his fluidity and his shooting ability gives him a ceiling close to LaMarcus Aldridge, but it’s inarguable that he has a long, long way to go to get there. The issues surrounding his in-game experience is something that people seem to gloss over when discussing him.

The fact that he’s still quite raw is good and bad. Whatever organization picks him is going to have to come to terms with the fact that he won’t be an impact NBA player for a year or two. But they’re also not going to have to erase any bad habits. He’s more or less a blank canvas that can be molded into whatever that coach wants him to be. He’s also a hard-worker — a jump-shot like that doesn’t just come naturally — and I think that, eventually, he’ll add the strength that will allow him to handle the rigors of playing this level of basketball.

The question is whether or not he’ll ever develop that feel or those basketball instincts that he lacks. I don’t have an answer for that, but in a draft that is this week, a guy with his potential in a role that has extreme value in this iteration of the NBA, I think he’s absolutely worth a first round pick, maybe even a late lottery pick. Just hope that he ends up in a good situation.

Tyronn Lue says Cavaliers have “seen what we need to do;” expect more Channing Frye

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 19:  Head coach Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts during the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game two of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 19, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Coming into the Eastern Conference Finals, when Kevin Love and Channing Frye shared the court and the Cavaliers played small it was a devastating lineup for opponents. Other teams struggled to match up with the shooting and spacing.

Against the Raptors, it hasn’t worked that way. Love and Fry have played only 12 minutes together and are +4.8 points per 100 possessions in that very small sample size (below the team average of +6.8 for the series). The last couple games Love has sat the fourth and Frye has played — because Frye is making his shots, which starts to pull Bismack Biyombo out of the post. Tyronn Lue ran plays for Love early on in Game 4, he was aggressive and he got good looks, he just missed them.

After watching the tape from Game 4, Lue said he has a plan — expect more Frye and more small ball from Cleveland. Via Chris Fedor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“We had a great film session today and we’ve seen what we need to do,” Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said. “We’re ready and prepared for it…

They have used a “take what the defense gives” approach, which will continue to be the plan, even after it led to 82 3-pointers in the last two games despite dominating the paint in the first two games.

“I think when you penetrate and they collapse the floor, you’ve got to make the right play, and if the play’s a kick out, the guy’s got an open shot, he has to take it and he has to knock it down,” Lue said. “We’re not really coming down, looking and saying we want to force 3-point shots. That’s not what we’re trying to do. You could see that in the first two games. We just took what the defense gave us and now the defense gives us a three-point shot, so we got to step up and make them….

“I liked it a lot,” Lue said of the (small ball) lineup before admitting it would be used more moving forward.

That’s part of the equation. But as our own Dan Feldman pointed out today, the Cavaliers are generating open looks, they just aren’t knocking them down. The offense works, and going small could create even more opportunities.

However, if you can generate looks, well, it’s still a make or miss league (to use the coaching cliché). Cleveland just needs those looks to fall.

On the other side, will Lowry and Biyombo continue their hot play once they leave Toronto? They have a lot to prove as well, and likely against a Cavs team playing much better ball.