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

Larry Sanders considering making NBA comeback soon

Larry Sanders
Associated Press
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It was one year ago that Larry Sanders came to terms for a mutual parting of the ways with the Bucks, a buyout of his contract that let him get away from basketball. He had personal demons to deal with. Sanders had played just 50 games the previous two seasons for the Bucks, had been a nightclub brawl left him with an injured thumb in need of surgery, been charged with animal cruelty, had been suspended a couple of times by the league for marijuana use, and the list went on. It was best for both sides to walk away.

Sanders checked himself into a hospital program for anxiety, depression, and mood disorders. At the time, he wrote he still loved basketball, but he needed better coping skills to handle the pressure and lifestyle.

“If I get to a point where I feel I’m capable of playing basketball again, I will.”

We may be reaching that time. From Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports:

After accepting a buyout from the Milwaukee Bucks to step away from the NBA last season, Larry Sanders told The Vertical he plans to pursue a return to the NBA once his off-court ventures stabilize.

“Once my art, music and passions off the court feel stable, I will look into coming back,” Sanders told The Vertical. “I still love basketball. I want stability around me, and part of my mindset to leave was not to put all my eggs in one basket.

“I feel highly valuable on any team. There aren’t a lot of people who can bring my game to a team. I still play basketball all the time, staying in shape. I will need to make sure the situation is right for me.”

Sanders would draw interest from teams (he already has this season), there aren’t a lot of athletic 6’11” defenders in the league. In the 2013 season, before he signed his contract extension, Sanders averaged 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks a game. Teams would be willing to roll the dice.

Sanders is now working on his music, plus running a management company for artists. His buyout from the Bucks will give him $1.9 million a season until 2022, so a return to the league is not necessarily about the cash.

If he does come back, I hope for his sake his head is in the right space and can handle it. He needs to take care of himself first.

Will Phil Jackson ultimately leave Knicks to run Lakers?

Phil Jackson Jeanie Buss
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Phil Jackson has been thrust back into the New York spotlight with the firing of Derek Fisher for not being ready to be an NBA coach — who could have seen that coming? — and speculation about what moves he’ll make next. While you can point to misfires as the guy with the hammer in the Knicks organization, he nailed the Kristaps Porzingis pick and no doubt this Knicks roster is in far better shape than the one he took over. Plus, he’s kept owner James Dolan out of the basketball decision-making process, which is a huge step forward.

But if/when he gets the chance, will he bolt New York to team up with fiancée Jeanie Buss and run the Lakers?

Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports writes there is a “strong belief” in some quarters that it will happen.

Golden State assistant Luke Walton is closest to a legitimately coveted candidate with ties to Jackson and the triangle – and he’s still largely unproven, too. Walton intrigues Jackson, but truth be told: Why would Walton come East without an assurance Jackson is committed to the long run in New York? There’s still a strong belief Jackson will eventually find his way to his fiancée Jeanie Buss and the Los Angeles Lakers. Walton will be competing with Thibodeau for the Lakers job in the spring, and who knows: Jackson and Walton could be reunited there.

Would Jackson leave the Knicks? The better question is, did anyone think he would stay the entire five years of his contract? Not many around the league did. Knicks fans should be legitimately concerned about who is next.

Lakers fans would welcome Jackson’s return because it means no Jim Buss. Fairly or not, Buss has become a scapegoat for a healthy segment of the fan base.

But this would be far from simple.

Jim Buss is in charge of the basketball side of the Lakers’ operation as empowered by the complex trust his father Jerry Buss used to leave the team to his six children. They all have roles, they all have pieces of the team, and truth be told they all have big aspirations. It sets up like a Shakespearean drama. Jeanie Buss is the ultimate power and the person the league recognizes as the owner for official votes of the board of governors, but this is not like other ownership situations where she has ultimate power and can fire whomever she wants and replace them — she can’t just ax family members and sideline them. Again, it’s a complex trust with shared power and responsibilities.

Jim has said if the Lakers are not a contender by 2017 he would step aside, although how he defines that time (the end of the summer of 2017, at the earliest) and how Jeanie defines it (more like early 2017, before that loaded free agency summer) differ. Nothing that happens with the Lakers will be clean and bloodless.

But if Jim steps aside and lets Jeanie bring in her own basketball people, Phil Jackson could well return to L.A.

Then we can have a discussion if that’s really best for the Lakers’ brand.

Add Kobe Bryant to don’t change hack-a-player crowd

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant gestures after hitting a three point shot during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press
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LeBron James is already there. So is Kevin Durant. Same with a lot of other old-school GMs and coaches around the league.

Their response to the rapid rise in hack-a-player (shouldn’t it always be hack-a-Shaq?) instances is “tell the guy to hit the free throws.”

Add Kobe Bryant to their ranks, reports Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report.

Personally, I hate the “won’t somebody please think of the children” argument — plenty of people have said emulating Kobe’s penchant for isolation basketball and contested jumpers was bad for children growing up playing the game.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is starting to feel differently. He realizes he runs an entertainment business and a parade of guys to the free throw line because of a non-basketball play — you can’t begin to tell me fouling a guy 50 feet from the ball is a basketball play in the spirit of the rules — is bad for business. It is unwatchable. And while every coach in the NBA  says “I hate to do it” they all do it with increasing frequency. There will be more than twice as many instances this season of hack-a-player fouls as there were a year ago, with more and more players involved. Because it works, and because those coaches are paid to win, not play beautiful basketball.

Change is coming. Old-school types always bemoan change, and that’s not just a basketball thing. But the rest of the world has rules in place to stop this because they realize it’s not basketball, it’s gaming the system. And it needs to change.

Timofey Mozgov with maybe “best” missed dunk of the season (VIDEO)

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On this play the Sacramento Kings played defense like only they can — and you wonder why George Karl’s job is in danger — and gave Cleveland’s Timofey Mozgov a wide-open lane right down the middle for an easy dunk.

Ooof.

LeBron James had a triple-double (the 40th of his career) and the Cavaliers got a needed easy win, but this is the play you’ll remember.