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

Serge Ibaka says he wants to stay with Magic forever, and they want him long-term

Serge Ibaka jokes around while posing for a photo holding a plastic Flamingo during Orlando Magic's NBA basketball media day, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
AP Photo/John Raoux
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The Magic took a major risk trading for Serge Ibaka, who’s heading into unrestricted free agency next summer. Rather than have Victor Oladipo (who’ll be a restricted free agent) and the No. 11 pick (who’s on a four-year contract), Orlando could come away empty-handed within a year if Ibaka leaves.

So far, everyone is saying the right things.

Ibaka, via Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:

“I’m looking to stay here to play forever — for [as] many, many years as possible,” Serge Ibaka said during the Magic’s media day.

“I’m not really worried about my contract year or my long-term,” Ibaka said.

“One of the things I learned playing on a good team is when the team wins, when you make the playoffs, everybody looks good. So that’s what will be my focus right now, because if we win and make the playoffs, everything will take care of itself.”

Magic general manager Rob Hennigan, via Robbins:

“We certainly traded for Serge thinking long-term, and that’s our expectation,” Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said.

I’d be surprised if the Magic and Ibaka didn’t discuss the parameters of his next contract, with the Thunder’s permission, before making the trade. But the Collective Bargaining Agreement prevents any binding unofficial arrangements, so nothing is set in stone.

Ibaka is already talking about making the playoffs, and that would go a long way toward convincing him to stay in Orlando. But what if the Magic miss the postseason, a distinct possibility? How keen will Ibaka be on returning then?

He’ll have other suitors – unless he has a down year. Then, how badly will Orlando want him back?

That Ibaka and the Magic are entering the season with the stated intention of a long-term arrangement means something. But it means only so much.

Quote of the Day: Karl-Anthony Towns wants to learn how to be great

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns celebrates after hitting the game-winning shot in an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers in Portland, Ore., Saturday, April 9, 2016. The Timberwolves won 106-105. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
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“There are so many talented players in the league. But only a few of them are remembered as being great — because they were willing to say they don’t know. And I’m willing to say that I don’t know everything. I do not know how it is to be a great player, to be a Hall of Famer. I want to learn.”

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (via Kyle Ratke on Twitter)

There were a lot of things to like about Towns’ rookie campaign — it was impressive enough to make him the clear Rookie of the Year — he averaged 18.3 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, shot 54.2 percent from the floor, and had a PER of 22.3.

But if you talk to people around the league, what really impressed them was his work ethic and drive. He puts in the time, he’s driven, and he listens. There’s a reason Kevin Garnett took to him.

KAT is going to be great. No question.

Jamaal Wilkes auctions off Basketball Hall of Fame ring, nets $25,000

SPRINGFIELD, MA - SEPTEMBER 7:  Jamaal Wilkes speaks during the Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony at Symphony Hall on September 7, 2012 in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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Jamaal Wilkes spent a brilliant basketball career always being overshadowed by an all-time great. At UCLA he won two titles and 88 straight games as part of John Wooden’s legacy on squads remembered as Bill Walton’s teams; in the NBA he won championships on teams led by Rick Berry first, then Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Look at it this way: when the Lakers clinched the NBA title in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, Wilkes had 37 points and 10 rebounds. But what do we remember from that game? Magic scoring 42 points with 15 rebounds and 7 assists as he played all five positions.

Wilkes finally was recognized for his greatness when he was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame back in 2012.

This week he put his Hall of Fame ring up for auction online via Nate Sanders and got $25,000 for it. From the official press release:

The 10k Jostens ring features a diamond set on a square red stone. “Basketball Hall of Fame” is engraved in the gold surrounding the stones. Wilkes’ name is engraved on one side above two basketball players in relief. The opposite side has the year “2012” engraved above the Hall of Fame’s official logo.

The ring comes with a letter of authenticity from Wilkes.

Wilkes had previously auctioned off his Hall of Fame trophy, too.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  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: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.