Lakers make improbable comeback, survive the Hornets

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The Lakers entered the 4th quarter against the Hornets trailing by 18 points, 93-75.

Up to that point in the game there was little reason to think that anything but a disappointing loss for the Lakers was on tap. Sure, they were on the 2nd night of a back to back and were coming off a tough loss to the Thunder the night before. But to lose to a team 21 games under .500 was not just going to make for an extra long flight home, it was going to put a real dent in their hopes to make the playoffs.

Then a funny thing happened in those final 12 minutes — the Lakers found their game and the Hornets fell apart.

Spurred on by a brilliant offensive performance from Kobe Bryant and a dominant defensive effort from Dwight Howard, the Lakers went on a 20-0 nothing run in the final 6:46 of the game and outscored the Hornets 33 to 9 in that final quarter to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. What was once a 25 point deficit in the 2nd half became a 108-102 Laker victory.

There really aren’t enough adjectives to describe how good Kobe was to close this game. In the 4th quarter he scored 18 of his game high 42 points and dished out 2 of his game high 12 assists. He missed only one shot in the period (and only 7 of his 21 on the night) and completely dominated a Hornet defense that had no answers for his all court attack. He hit jumpers, got to the rim in isolation, and even found ways to shake free in transition.

Meanwhile, Dwight Howard had his best defensive stretch of the season playing with 4, then 5 fouls for most of the quarter. The Hornets continuously tried to run the same isolation and pick and roll heavy attack that got them their big lead throughout the game, but Howard was there to snuff out nearly every action. He cut off driving angles, patrolled the paint, and challenged shots at the rim expertly all while avoiding the type of contact that would have sidelined him. And on the Lakers’ most important defensive possession of the contest, he had the game clinching block on a Robin Lopez dunk attempt that put the exclamation point on his dominant evening.

Of course, the Lakers wouldn’t have needed such heroics down the stretch if it wasn’t for how poorly they played in tandem with a how well a game Hornets team played.

As bad as New Orleans was down the stretch, they were just as good through three quarters. They dominated the Lakers with heady passing and hot shooting, torturing any and all defense the Lakers attempted (and that’s being kind) to play. Led by their backcourt tandem of Eric Gordon (18 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists) and Greivis Vasquez (15 points, 12 assists, 5 rebounds), the Hornets attacked the slow footed defense of the Lakers and got to their spots on the floor to set up makable shots for themselves and their teammates.

But when it came time to close out the game and put their foot on the necks of the Lakers, the Hornets didn’t have enough. Their hot shooting went cold and the plays that were so easily made before disappeared as the Lakers clamped down defensively. The Hornets closed the game by missing their last 12 shots and committing 5 turnovers, essentially giving the game away just as easily as they had taken it from the Lakers up to that point.

At the end of the contest, Kobe raised his arms, almost defiantly, as he walked off the court. His brilliance and that of his teammates turned what should have been a sure loss into a victory. They had no business winning that game, but sometimes the improbable happens.

James Harden on recruiting Chris Paul from LA: “He didn’t seem happy”

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One of the most interesting storylines of the first month of this upcoming NBA season will be the Houston Rockets.

The team has paired MVP candidate James Harden with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul, but it remains to be seen whether the two will be able to work together with the kind of efficiency that Mike D’Antoni’s team had in 2016-17.

Harden has been the subject of some chatter already this offseason after a photo of him surfaced on Instagram. In it, Harden looked to have added a significant portion of muscle this summer, which may help him as he moves back to a more off-ball style of play with Paul in the fold.

Harden was also the subject of significant scrutiny at the end of last season, where he failed in the playoffs in spectacular fashion against the San Antonio Spurs.

In a recent interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Harden said his newfound weight gain has been part of his plan to combat late-season fatigue. Harden has also introduced yoga and pilates into his workout routine.

Perhaps more interesting information from Harden’s interview with Amick revealed just how much impact he had recruiting Chris Paul in the trade from Los Angeles Clippers, and Paul’s attitude at the end of the season toward his former team.

Via USA Today:

Harden, who signed a four-year extension this summer and will earn a combined $228 million by the end of the 2022-23 season, had everything to do with the move.

“I just knew that in the summertime obviously (Paul) was a free agent, and I wanted to see where his head was,” Harden said of Paul, who will now be a free agent next summer. “He didn’t seem happy, so after that we just took it from there.

“Obviously Golden State has been in the Finals and won two out of three, so that’s what everybody is trying to build up against. But we’re right there. We’re right there. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but it definitely puts us in a better chance.”

It certainly makes sense that after years of perpetual playoff failure by the Clippers that Paul would want to move on. Harden and CP3 seem to enjoy each other at the moment, and a pairing does seem to make sense on paper. We will see how that plays out over the course of next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo announces he will not play for Greece in Eurobasket

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said had big plans to play for the Greek national team this summer, taking his country back to the top of the European ladder at EuroBasket (they had won the tournament a dozen years ago).

Instead, a sore knee will keep the Greek Freak out of EuroBasket. He made the announcement on his Facebook page.

Antetokounmpo had missed all but one of Greece’s early EuroBasket tune-ups due to a sore knee. That, understandably, concerned the Bucks, especially with his four-year, $100 million contract extension about to kick in next season.

Antetokounmpo is in China promoting shoes, but said he on Facebook he took a physical while there and was not able to complete the exercises due to pain.

“It is by far the biggest disappointment in my career. I must deal with the problem,” Antetokounmpo said in the Facebook post (written in Greek).

Within hours of the post going up, the Greek basketball federation released a statement slamming the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, saying they had done an MRI of his knee and found no damage.

“The simultaneous report by the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself, by phone and social media from faraway China, and not by the appropriate official manner, of his inability to join the national men’s team saddens us … but is not surprising… A series of indications … had convinced us of the existence of an organized and well-staged plan by (the Bucks), with the full knowledge if not encouragement of the NBA that put the athlete on the spot and forced him to announce today that he is no longer part of the men’s national team.”

Great, just what the world needs, another conspiracy theory.

While NBA teams generally are not huge fans of their stars playing in national team tournaments (due to the injury risk), teams cannot stop a healthy player from playing. Antetokounmpo said this was his decision because he is in pain and has to think about the upcoming NBA season.

Whatever the Greek Federation believes internally, slamming the player and his team publicly like this is one good way to make sure he will not want to play for them in the future. He’s got knee pain, they are saying “you’re fine, walk it off, ” and that must have Antetokounmpo and the people around him wondering if the Greek Federation has his best interests — or theirs — at heart.

Akron store already selling “Stay Home 23” shirts, hats as LeBron decision looms

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We’ve seen this movie before.

There is all sorts of buzz around the league that LeBron James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. While people around LeBron denied he the rumor he is “100 percent” leaving, good luck finding any league source who thinks he is staying put next summer. Nothing is set in stone, his options — including staying — remain open, but we’ve all been down this road before.

The hometown fans are going to do their part to urge LeBron to stay.

Fan sentiment has some pull with LeBron (he came back to win the city a title). However, what matters more is a sense of a plan to keep the Cavaliers as title contenders for the coming years — and that is more than just Dan Gilbert paying the tax. The Cavs did nothing this summer that got them closer to beating Golden State, and while they swung for the fences with Paul George, what they really needed was wing defenders and athletes, and they didn’t get those either. Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year deal for the minimum somewhere else. Instead, Cleveland overpaid Kyle Korver.

Despite all that, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the East. If Cleveland gets to the Finals — LeBron’s eighth in a row — and they win or make it close, he may see staying as his best option. A season can be a lifetime in the NBA in terms of shifting attitudes. Still, I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

Marshall Plumlee gets camp invite, partially guaranteed contract from Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers have 14 fully guaranteed contracts on their roster, plus a partial guarantee for DeAndre Liggins (who likely is on the roster opening day). They also are pretty much set at center with DeAndre Jordan and Willie Reed (plus when they go small they can play Blake Griffin there, something I wish they’d do a little more).

That said, Doc Rivers — just a coach now — needs bodies for camp, so in comes former Duke star and Knick Marshall Plumlee, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Plumlee played in 21 games for the Knicks last season, logging a total of 190 minutes. He bounced between New York and the D-League Westchester Knicks, when down he averaged 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

He’s not making the Clippers’ squad (barring injury), but he could show well and get noticed by other teams. Over the course of a season, there will be a need for bigs as guys go down injured, Plumlee is getting a chance to show how his game has developed. And he makes some money in the process.