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

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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.

Kevin Durant on return to Washington D.C. that never was: “I really just didn’t want to play at home”

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 07:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors during the game against the LA Clippers at Staples Center on December 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  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 Harry How/Getty Images)
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A year or two ago, there was a palpable buzz among Wizards fans — they had a shot to get Kevin Durant. LeBron James had just returned like a prodigal son to Cleveland, and there seemed to be a sense from fans that other stars wanted to go home to play. The Wizards needed another star, they had the cap space, so some saw a path for Durant to return to his native D.C.

Except, a lot of players don’t want to go home again. Not to play.

Durant was one of them, as he confirmed to the Washington Post.

“I don’t want to open up anything in the past, but I really just didn’t want to play at home,” Durant said. “It was nothing about the fans. Being at home, I was so happy with that part of my life — playing at home, being in front of friends, hanging with friends and family every day. That was a part of my life that has come and gone.

“I was like, I’m trying to build a second part of my life as a man living in a different part of the country, just trying to do different things. I did everything I was supposed to do in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, I felt. Now it’s time to do something new. I didn’t want to come back. That’s just my thought process behind it. It had nothing to do with basketball, the fans, the city.”

Not every Wizards fan will see it this way, but that’s an entirely reasonable thought process. Sometimes in life, we need a change of direction, and for Durant this would have been a step back into the past. The one he made to go to Golden State has worked out pretty well for him so far.

KD is not alone in this. Players see a lot of added stress returning home, both in terms of expectations and the demands of family and friends (asking for tickets, etc.), and some are just not into the idea of a return. The idea that Blake Griffin wants to return to Oklahoma and play for the Thunder may not fit with who he is right now. Russell Westbrook seems to like it in OKC and isn’t itching to get back to Los Angeles (but Paul George might be). Each player is a different case — how they view their hometown, whether they would want to play for the team there  — and each will make his decision.

Durant made his and is comfortable with it.

Pat Riley says Magic Johnson will win with the Lakers

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 22:  Los Angeles Dodgers part owner and former Los Angeles Laker Magic Johnson (R) talks with Miami Heat President and former Lakers head coach Pat Riley during the game with the San Francisco Giants on August 22, 2012 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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MIAMI (AP) — Pat Riley has never doubted Magic Johnson, and isn’t about to start now.

Riley believes Johnson will succeed in what looks like a daunting task of getting the Los Angeles Lakers back to prominence. After the Lakers cleaned house this past week, Johnson and Riley are contemporaries – Riley as president of the Miami Heat, Johnson in the same role out in L.A., where they won four titles together in the 1980s.

Trade talks, he cautioned, will be dangerous for both sides.

“He’s going to try to rifle my pockets and I’m going to try to rifle his,” Riley said. “But I’m happy for him, and I’m also happy for the Lakers.”

The news took Riley back to 1991, when Johnson delivered the shocking word that he was HIV-positive and had to retire from basketball. Riley was gone from Los Angeles by that point, and was then coach of the New York Knicks. But it resonated deeply within Riley, who has maintained a very close relationship with Johnson.

Hearing Johnson speak about taking over the Lakers this past week moved Riley as well, albeit in an obviously different fashion.

“Back then, all of us and I think everybody in the country not knowing exactly what HIV was all about, we all sort of looked at that as a very difficult time and possibly a death sentence for the kid,” Riley said. “Now 25 years later, he stands at the press conference saying that he’s president of the team. Deja vu, you know?”

Riley said Johnson didn’t seek his counsel on what life is like as a team president before taking the Lakers job. Riley said Johnson already knew the answer to anything he would ask, simply from being around his former coach so many times in recent years.

The news wasn’t entirely easy for Riley to digest, since he also holds now-former general manager Mitch Kupchak in high regard. Kupchak, who played for Riley, was let go as part of the front-office sweepout by the Lakers this past week.

But he sounded completely confident in what Johnson will accomplish.

“There couldn’t be a better person and worker, I think, to be the sort of face and also to spearhead,” Riley said. “He’ll get the job done out there.”

 

Jose Calderon, Andrew Bogut, Brandon Jennings all officially waived; contenders line up for their services

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It was only a question of when, not if, but it has happened.

Jose Calderon, Andrew Bogut, and Brandon Jennings have been waived and are about to hit the free agent market, according to reports.

They have to clear waivers (Wednesday) before they can sign with a new team. However, all three seem to be headed to teams with dreams of going deep into the playoffs.

The Golden State Warriors want a little depth at the point for the postseason, and they are going with the steady but aged veteran Calderon. He will have limited run behind Stephen Curry and Shaun Livingston, but he will have a role in the playoffs and as a steadying force.

The Washington Wizards are going another, more talented but more combustible direction, and appear the frontrunners to sign Brandon Jennings (Chris Haynes of ESPN had that link. . The Wizards have not loved the play of Trey Burke this season and have leaned on Tomas Satoransky to run some point, expect Jennings to get some healthy run if and when he arrives in Washington.

Bogut is expected to sign with the Cavaliers, although the Spurs could have a shot at him and other teams are asking to get in the mix (not his former team the Warriors, however).

NBA: Bulls beat Suns after two key missed calls late in fourth quarter

Chicago Bulls' Jimmy Butler (21) celebrates his game-tying shot late in the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Chicago. The Bulls won in overtime,p 128-121. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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The collective ‘we’ were happy the Bulls reached overtime against the Suns on Friday, because we saw Dwyane Wade‘s fantastic dagger dunk.

The Bulls were happy they reached overtime, because they won the game in the extra period.

But with correct officiating down the stretch, Phoenix probably would have won in regulation.

The Bulls got away with two key violations late in the fourth quarter, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report.

First, Jimmy Butler got away with traveling with 1:58 left, per the league:

Butler (CHI) move his pivot foot.

Instead of a Chicago turnover, Butler kicked the ball to Nikola Mirotic, who hit a 3-pointer.

Then, Denzel Valentine got away with a defensive three-second violation with a minute left, per the league:

Valentine (CHI) is in the paint without actively guarding an opponent for longer than three seconds.

A correct call would’ve given any Sun on the court — either Eric Bledsoe (who’s making 85% of his free throws this season and 80% for his career) or Devin Booker (82%, 83%) — a single free throw and Phoenix a fresh shot clock.

Instead, the Suns — facing a tougher road penetrating the paint — turned the ball over.

On their own, those missed calls were each big swings. Together, they were huge in Chicago’s win.