What injury? Kobe challenges Howard to step up with Gasol out.

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Kobe Bryant is done with the injury excuse.

No doubt injuries have set the Lakers back this season, they’ve been part of the reason they have never really coalesced as a team. But the best teams step up when players are injured. The Chicago Bulls are 29-19 and haven’t had Derrick Rose all season. The Pacers are 31-16 without their leading scorer Danny Granger. Even recently, the Lakers opponent Thursday night — the Boston Celtics — have gone 5-0 since Rajon Rondo went down.

For Kobe it is past time for injuries to be an excuse — for Lakers fans it was past time like a month ago, but that’s another post. The Lakers have won six of seven games and if they are going to make a playoff push the time is now.

The Lakers were dealt a blow with Pau Gasol being out at least six weeks and all the pressure of that falls on Dwight Howard’s achy shoulders. The Lakers need the Dwight Howard they expected this summer and they need him now, Kobe said speaking to Jackie MacMullan of ESPN.com.

“We don’t have time for (Howard’s shoulder) to heal,” Bryant said Wednesday in an exclusive interview with ESPNBoston.com’s Jackie MacMullan. “We need some urgency….

“Dwight worries too much about what people think,” Bryant told MacMullan. “I told him, ‘You can’t worry about that. It’s holding you back.’ He says, ‘OK, OK, OK,’ but it’s always hovering around him. He just wants people to like him. He doesn’t want to let anyone down, and that gets him away from what he should be doing.”

The question isn’t “is Kobe right?” The question that matters becomes “is this how you motivate Dwight Howard? Or does this push him away?”

When Howard was traded to Los Angeles following the Dwightmare we noted what we had learned from Kobe and LeBron James — the only thing that swings public opinion back in your favor after a PR disaster is winning. Playing well and winning because of it. Kobe isn’t loved but he is respected. LeBron isn’t on the least liked athletes lists anymore after a gold medal and a title last season.

Howard isn’t on those lists yet either, but only winning will change his reputation that has taken a beating among sports fan. A reputation further hurt by his play this season — no doubt injuries have hampered that play, but fans in Los Angeles don’t want to hear it anymore. They know the winning needs to start right now if the Lakers are going to win enough to even make the playoffs this season. They know Howard is the key to that.

Howard will be a game-time call for the Lakers on Thursday. For the next six weeks, fair or not, the Lakers success will be on his shoulders. We’ll see if he can carry that.

Victor Oladipo’s practice dunk better than anything he – or maybe anyone – did in dunk contest (video)

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Victor Oladipo has grown into far more than just a dunker.

In fact, in Saturday’s dunk contest, he didn’t look like a dunker at all.

The Pacers star missed all three attempts of his first dunk, and a Black Panther mask was by far the biggest draw of his second. Oladipo was eliminated after the first round.

Maybe Dennis Smith Jr. wasn’t the only eliminated dunker who left something in his bag. This Oladipo dunk – 180 degrees, throwing ball off the backboard with his left hand while in mid-air, dunking with his right hand – while preparing in Los Angeles was awesome.

Larry Nance Jr. had the contest’s best dunk. This would have rivaled it.

Pelicans owner Tom Benson hospitalized with flu symptoms

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — New Orleans Saints and Pelicans Owner Tom Benson has been hospitalized with flu symptoms.

A statement released Wednesday by the NFL and NBA clubs says their 90-year-old owner is resting comfortably at Ochsner Medical Center, a hospital which also serves as a major sponsor and which owns naming rights to the teams’ training headquarters.

Benson has owned the New Orleans Saints since 1985 and bought the New Orleans Pelicans in 2012.

In recent years, Benson has overhauled his estate plan so that his third wife, Gayle, would be first in line to inherit control of the two major professional franchises.

 

Report: Seattle hosting Kings-Warriors preseason game

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Kevin Durant spent his rookie season in Seattle, before the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. He has said Seattle fans deserved to see him grow up in the NBA after supporting his promising start.

They’ll get their chance.

Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:

The Kings and Golden State Warriors have scheduled a preseason game next season in Seattle, according to multiple league sources.

The Oct. 6 meeting between Northern California teams will be the first NBA game in the Key Arena since the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season and became the Thunder.

This game will be loaded with storylines. Not only Durant, but the Kings considered moving to Seattle a few years ago. And of course, the return of NBA basketball to Seattle.

At some point, Seattle will get its own team again. For now, this preseason game creates intrigue there.

Report: Kawhi Leonard cleared medically, seeking second opinion

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again this season, a stark reversal from just a month ago. Back then, even while announcing Leonard was out indefinitely with a quad injury, the San Antonio coach said Leonard wouldn’t miss the rest of the season.

What’s going on?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

After spending 10 days before the All-Star break in New York consulting with a specialist to gather a second opinion on his right quad injury, All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard bears the burden of determining when he’s prepared to play again, sources told ESPN.

Leonard has been medically cleared to return from the right quad tendinopathy injury, but since shutting down a nine-game return to the Spurs that ended Jan. 13, he has elected against returning to the active roster, sources said.

The uncertainty surrounding this season — and Leonard’s future which could include free agency in the summer of 2019 — has inspired a palpable stress around the organization, league sources said.

At first glance, this sounds like Derrick Rose five years ago. Even after he was cleared to play following a torn ACL, the then-Bulls star remained mysterious about when he’d suit up. His confidence in his physical abilities seemed to be a major issue, and he was never the same player since (suffering more leg injuries).

But the Spurs famously favor resting players to preserve long-term health. They seem unlikely to rush back Leonard. They might even sit players who want to play more often. And Leonard isn’t Rose.

Still, it’s clear something is amiss in San Antonio. Maybe not amiss enough to end Leonard’s tenure there, but the longer this lingers, the more time for tension to percolate.