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.

Michael Carter-Williams and Tim Frazier ejected for altercation, leading to hilarious Dwight Howard free throws (video)

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Jason Smith pushed down Michael Carter-Williams while going for a rebound. Carter-Williams pulled Smith to the floor. Tim Frazier flew in heated.

It was more than a typical NBA altercation – Carter-Williams clenched his fist, though never swung – but it wasn’t quite a fight. It was just reserves getting feisty late in a blowout, the Hornets’ 133-109 win over the Wizards on Wednesday. Carter-Williams and Frazier were given double technical fouls and ejected.

One catch: Smith was called for personally fouling Carter-Williams, who was due free throws. With Carter-Williams unavailable, Washington could pick his replacement at the line.

Wizards coach Scott Brooks chose Dwight Howard, a poor free-throw shooter who’d been resting the entire fourth quarter and surely figured his night was over. Maybe it was only about Howard’s team-worst 53% shooting from the line, but it’s also possible Brooks was trying to make an opponent uncomfortable.

The Charlotte crowd went wild, and Howard only added to the fervor.

He sunk both free throws – padding his stats (18 points, 15 rebounds, two blocks and two steals) – and blew Brooks a kiss. Howard might appreciate the extra points Brooks afforded him, but they’ll likely come at a cost. Howard celebrated with the Sam Cassell/big-balls dance, which usually draws a fine from the NBA.

Kent Bazemore hits game-winner to lift Hawks over Pelicans (video)

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Just when it seemed as if the Pelicans were rolling… they lose to the lowly Hawks.

This was the second game of a back-to-back after beating the Celtics in overtime, and New Orleans looked the part, blowing a 15-point lead in the final 19 minutes.

Kent Bazemore‘s jumper with 2.1 seconds left stood as the game-winner when DeMarcus Cousins missed a rushed post-up on the other end.

Jalen Rose calls Paul Pierce petty to his face (video)

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Paul Pierce is being petty about Isaiah Thomas‘ tribute video.

And that’s from someone who empathizes with Pierce’s point of view.

When retiring a player’s number, teams tastefully use stoppages to show highlights and tributes to the player. The whole night, not just the moment of raising a number into the rafters, can be about celebrating the player. It’s reasonable for Pierce to want the entire package.

But to go on television and advocate for not showing Thomas’ video? To continue the campaign after Thomas made clear how important his video was to him? To tell the Celtics not to show a short video for Thomas during introductions?

It’s way too far.

Too many people around Pierce enabled his flawed approach. Jalen Rose put that to a pointed stop.

Rose on ESPN:

I’ve got say a word for you, fam. I think it was petty.

On Paul Pierce’s part.

I love Paul. This is my brother. Because to me, there are going to be all type of announcements that happen in the 48 minutes during that game. All types. Including Isaiah Thomas could be one of them. It does not take away from your situation. Like Kobe’s, it happened during the game. Because they’re doing yours post-game.

The look on Pierce’s face while Rose was talking!

NBA: Referees missed multiple intentional-foul attempts by Mavericks in loss to Nuggets

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The Mavericks trailed the Nuggets by 23 points in the second half and 16 points with 5:15 left in the fourth quarter last night. But Dallas rallied and cut its deficit to only one with 10.4 seconds left. Denver had the ball, so the Mavericks had to foul.

They tried… and tried… and tried before finally succeeding.

Per the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report, Dennis Smith Jr. should have been called for intentionally fouling Will Barton with 8.2 seconds left. Failing that, Wesley Matthews should have been called for intentionally fouling Barton with 6.7 seconds left. Mercifully, officials (correctly) whistled Matthews for fouling Gary Harris with 1.7 seconds left.

Harris made both free throws, and the Nuggets escaped with a 105-102 win once Dallas couldn’t get off a shot with so little time left.

The Mavericks probably would have lost even with a correct call on this sequence. They were trailing in the final 10 seconds and without the ball.

But allowing Denver to run off an extra 6.5 seconds and get the ball to a better free-throw shooter certainly hurt Dallas’ odds.

I’m not so concerned with the result of this game, though. The Mavericks are better off improving their lottery position by losing. It is a bad break for the teams jockeying with the Nuggets for playoff position, but, again, Denver probably would have won anyway.

The bigger takeaway: Even if players are more concerned about communication than calls, if referees can’t even get consecutive intentional fouls right, that doesn’t instill much confidence in the officials.