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

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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.

Brandon Jennings no fan of the NBA’s new Awards Ceremony event

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Come June 26, Drake will be on stage in New York City, handing out the NBA’s awards — Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, and so on. (We need to set an under/over on the number of players Drake hugs that night.)

The NFL does it. The NHL does it. And the NBA has decided to follow suit with a broadcast awards ceremony where everything — except the All-NBA Team — will be announced that night. It’s happening because the broadcast partners want it.

Brandon Jennings is not a fan. Here is what the Wizards’ point guard Tweeted:

Jennings took down a Tweet that said if he had won the award he would have wanted to get it with the organization and his teammates around him. (And no, he knows he’s not winning the award. If you were going to put that in the comments be more creative.)

There’s something to what Jennings is saying. The NBA award roll out was awkward at times in previous years, but it gave the fans a chance to celebrate the awards with their favorite player. Now, everyone will watch it unfold on television from a ballroom in NYC. That feels a little colder. Also, we will get to see the reaction of those who don’t win (particularly this season, where several players can make a strong case for MVP).

It will be interesting to see how this first year goes, and how the league tweaks it going forward. The more than two month gap between the end of the regular season and the awards could feel a bit awkward. But we’re not going to knock the idea until we’ve seen it in action.

Portland GM makes it official, Festus Ezeli will not be back with team next season

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This season the Portland Trail Blazers found their center of the future (and the present) in Jusuf Nurkic.

Which makes the next step fairly obvious: Portland will not pick up the option on Festus Ezeli for next season, GM Neil Olshay confirmed at the team exit meetings Tuesday.

Portland signed Ezeli on what they thought was a great contract (one-year, $7.4 million, with a team option for the second year) because he was coming off knee surgery last summer. However, Ezeli was never healthy, needed a second surgery, and never got on the court. After taking it slow over last summer he practiced with the team twice in mid-October, there was more swelling, so he pulled back.

This summer Ezeli will not draw any guaranteed money from teams, but some teams may take a look at him. Athletic bigs get a lot of chances in the NBA.

Gordon Hayward will play for Jazz in Game 5 without minutes restriction

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Gordon Hayward has averaged 20.5 points a game in these playoffs — and that includes a 40 point outburst in Game 3 — but what has been more impressive is he has done it efficiently, with a true shooting percentage of 61.1. While Joe Johnson and others have stepped up, Utah will need Hayward’s shot creation if they are going to win this series.

They will have it Tuesday night in Game 5.

After missing the second half of Game 4 due to food poisoning (he tried to play but was ineffective in the first half), he is back and ready to go this time around.

So is Rudy Gobert. The Jazz will be at full health, while the Clippers remain without Blake Griffin for the remainder of the playoffs.

Having those two back is a boost for the Jazz, they need to score more consistently against the Clippers, but the bigger key will be defensively trying to deal with Chris Paul on the pick-and-roll. He has been masterful this series, and the Jazz need to keep him in check to give their offense a chance.

When NBA switches to Nike uniforms next season, Hornets will move to Jordan Brand

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There are not going to be dramatic changes to the look of the NBA when Nike takes over the apparel contract for next season, replacing Adidas. Instead of the Adidas logo, there will be a swoosh, sleeved jerseys will fade away, and some teams will modify their alternate jerseys, but the league is not getting a total uniform makeover next season. Things will look basically the same.

Except in Charlotte — they will not have a swoosh, they will have the Jordan Jumpman logo.

The why is obvious — Michael Jordan is the primary owner of the Hornets and, obviously, the guy the Jordan brand was named after. The Jordan Brand is part of Nike. The Hornets made the announcement this week buried in a press release about moving the fan shop at the arena, hat tip to Sole Collector for finding this. Here is what the release says:

The re-opening of the Hornets Fan Shop will coincide with the launch of the team’s new Jordan Brand uniforms as Nike becomes the NBA’s uniform provider beginning this season.  The Hornets will be the only team in the NBA wearing Jordan Brand uniforms, and with the agreement taking effect, the Hornets Fan Shop will have even more of the popular Jordan Brand Hornets merchandise than it has had previously.

While it’s not like the Lakers or Celtics are going to be changing up their traditional uniforms, even teams like the Hornets will keep a similar look under Nike.

What should be interesting to see is what the Christmas Day and All-Star uniforms look like under a Nike touch.