Los Angeles Lakers Steve Nash of Canada intervenes as Kobe Bryant berates Metta World Peace for committing a foul during their NBA game in Los Angeles

Lakers continue to build chemistry, move into the playoff picture with win over Bulls


LOS ANGELES — It’s been a long time in the making, and there’s plenty more work to be done over the regular season’s final 18 games. But for the first time all year, the Lakers can look at the standings and see themselves as an official part of the playoff picture after Sunday’s 90-81 win over the Bulls at Staples Center.

The Lakers are now 33-31 on the season, and sit in the eighth spot in the Western Conference standings, a half-game ahead of the Utah Jazz.

In Friday night’s win over the Raptors, the Lakers needed several shots that were both miraculous and heroic from Kobe Bryant down the stretch to come back and get the overtime victory. They didn’t need much from him offensively in this one, however, thanks to a balanced attack and a strong third quarter from Steve Nash, who scored 10 of his 16 points in the period.

Bryant didn’t even reach double figures in scoring until he hit a three-pointer with 4:52 remaining in the third quarter, which pushed the Lakers lead to 15. He finished with a team-high 19 points, to go along with seven rebounds and nine assists, while five of his teammates finished in double digits.

The Bulls are not known for their offense, and struggled to score in this one. Chicago shot a dismal 37.1 percent from the field, and went just 4-16 from three-point distance. But the defensive effort from the Lakers was stronger than usual, led by an increasingly more active Dwight Howard, whose 21 rebounds helped L.A. dominate the Bulls on the glass for most of the contest.

Chicago was able to cut a lead that once reached 18 points down to eight with just over eight minutes remaining in the fourth, but the Lakers responded by scoring the next five points, while holding the Bulls scoreless for the next three and a half minutes.

More important than this single game victory and the temporary playoff position that it earned the Lakers is the improved chemistry the team is showing on the court. The communication was constant in this one defensively, with players giving their all on loose ball and rebound opportunities, while the body language overall was genuinely positive. The change from the way these guys interacted with each other in the opening months of the season is both noticeable and substantial.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some bumps along the way — Bryant was furious with Metta World Peace at the end of the first half, after he committed an offensive foul while Bryant was dribbling down the clock to get off a final shot. He yelled at Metta as the two walked back down the floor, but all was forgiven later when Bryant was seen with his arm around his teammate on the bench early in the fourth.

The extent of how much Howard can improve from a health standpoint as the Lakers close out the regular season, along with the amount of chemistry the team can continue to build during that time will largely determine its postseason fate.

Winning can cure a lot of issues, and certainly helps the team-building a lot more than it hurts. At least after Sunday’s victory, L.A. can now, if only briefly, officially see itself as part of the playoff picture.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade make fashionable World Series bet

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 30: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat shake hands during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on October 30, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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LeBron James is an Akron guy born and raised, who is caught up in Indians fever like the rest of Northeast Ohio.

Dwyane Wade is Chicago born and raised, a Cubs fan who wants to see the team end its 108-year drought.

So the two have made a World Series bet — loser has to show up at the winner’s arena in the World Series champ’s gear.

After Game 1 — on the night he was collecting his latest ring — LeBron has to feel pretty good.

Either way, the payoff should be good.

Watch Utah’s Rodney Hood with monster dunk over Evan Turner

PORTLAND, OR - SEPTEMBER 25: Rodney Hood #5 of the Utah Jazz goes up for a dunk on Evan Turner #1 of the Portland Trail Blazers in the third quarter of an NBA game at the Moda Center on September 25, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The Blazers won 113-104. 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 Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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Evan Turner‘s Portland debut was a rough one: 1-of-7 shooting for three points, and while he did have five assists mostly he looked like a guy still trying to figure out how to play with his new teammates.

Oh, and he got dunked on by Rodney Hood.

That was not on Turner, he was on his man and just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even if he instantly morphed into 1977 Bill Walton he’s still getting dunked on there. Hood had a strong night with 26 points for the Jazz.

Portland got the home-opening win behind 39 points from Damian Lillard.

Andre Iguodala’s flopping game is in midseason form (VIDEO)


The Golden State Warriors “superteam” is clearly still a work in progress, it’s going to take them some time this season to iron out the kinks. Most of which were on the defensive side of the ball.

But Andre Iguodala‘s flopping game is in mid-season form.

Kawhi Leonard came off a screen and reaching out his hand grazed the… um, midsection of Iguodala. There was light contact. But it’s the delayed reaction sending him into the first row that could earn Iguodala an Oscar.

If the league deems that a flop, Andre Iguodala will get a warning from the league. If he gets a second one over the course of the season, that will cost him $5,000. Iguodala is making $11.1 million this season.

It’s time: Russell Westbrook looks to fill void after Durant’s exit

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nick Collison (4), head coach Billy Donovan, guard Russell Westbrook (0) and center Steven Adams pose for a photo during the 2016-2017 Oklahoma City Thunder Media Day in Oklahoma City, Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — There were few indications before August that Russell Westbrook would be so willing to be the hero downtrodden Thunder fans needed.

For years, the sometimes combustible Westbrook toiled in Kevin Durant‘s shadow. He often was viewed as the talented, selfish player who was as likely to get in Durant’s way as he was to make a winning play. His flashy style seemed at odds with small-market Oklahoma City so when Durant, who seemingly was a better fit in OKC, left for rival Golden State, fear that Westbrook would bolt for a larger market increased.

He didn’t. He chose to re-sign with the Thunder and now that he has answered the call, it’s time to deliver.

“We know a few things about Russell at this point,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “He’s going to bring his lunch pail every day. He’s going to compete. He’s going to inspire. He’s going to show great conviction and courage to his teammates, to the city, to the organization. And from there, we have to figure out how that comes together.”

That trek begins Wednesday in Philadelphia when Oklahoma City officially tips off the post-Durant era in its season opener against the 76ers.

Westbrook is now the unquestioned leader of the Thunder and player folks behind the scenes knew – the thoughtful, humble, giving man – has more readily come to the surface. He has gone to great lengths to connect with Thunder fans in recent months.

Among other things, he unveiled his new line of True Religion clothing near downtown Oklahoma City and he attended an Oklahoma home football game against Louisiana-Monroe wearing a custom-made Sooners jersey. When he was introduced to the crowd before the Thunder’s preseason home opener, he got the kinds of cheers normally reserved for a return from injury.

Westbrook seems more at ease on the court, too. His preseason play seemed more effortless than electric, with an occasional flourish.

“I want the team to play how they want to play,” Westbrook said. “I mean, it’s not totally up to me how we play. You have to adjust to the team you have and adjust on a night-in, night-out basis on how you want to play. You want to play fast some nights and you want to play slow. I think it depends on the game, on the situation, who is on the floor.”

He is poised to put up astronomical numbers this season as he tries to keep the Thunder among the NBA elite.

Last season Westbrook averaged 23.5 points and career highs of 10.4 assists and 7.8 rebounds. He posted 18 triple-doubles, the most for a player since Magic Johnson had 18 during the 1981-82 season. The two-time All-Star MVP and former scoring champion could do more damage without Durant, but the Thunder don’t want too much pressure on him.

“I think we have to be able to play in a way that’s not just relying on him to do everything and create every single shot, whether it’s him making the shot or making the play for another guy,” Thunder forward Nick Collison said.

Westbrook already has left an impression on his new backcourt mate Victor Oladipo, who was acquired in the trade that sent defensive enforcer Serge Ibaka to Orlando.

“After working with Russ, I can see the intensity in how serious he was about his craft,” Oladipo said. “But one thing that I realized that after guarding him for three years – I can see why he’s so effective at what he does. I definitely stole that from him, and I’m going to take it and run as fast as I can with it.”

How Oladipo and the rest of the Thunder do in keeping up with Russell will determine how much success the team will have. Oklahoma City is no longer considered the team to beat in championship conversations, and that’s fine with Westbrook. He said the team embraces the underdog role.

“I love it,” he said. “I love it, man. I think it’s a great challenge, not just for myself, but for our whole team. I think just from talking to the guys throughout the summer, they understand that. They want to win. They want to get better.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter (at)CliffBruntAP .