Fatigue catches up with shorthanded Lakers in blowout loss to Suns

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PHOENIX — The Lakers haven’t won both games of a back-to-back set all season long, and thanks to Kobe Bryant missing his second straight game with an ankle injury, along with Mike D’Antoni refusing to expand his rotation beyond the seven remaining healthy players he trusts, L.A. continued that tradition as it suffered a 99-76 loss at the hands of the Suns.

“I just wasn’t ready to grasp at straws,” D’Antoni said afterward, when asked about only going seven deep into his rotation until the final few minutes. “After it’s over with, yeah [I would have used more players], if you would have told me it was going to be that way.”

There was energy from the Lakers early on, as both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard were extremely active to start things off. Howard had 11 points and six rebounds in just nine first quarter minutes, while Nash took a more proactive approach to the offense by scoring 10 first quarter points of his own.

As the game wore on, the offense was tougher to come by. Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison, who had both contributed so much to the Lakers’ last two wins, were largely ineffective, while Nash and Howard managed just nine and five points respectively the rest of the way after their fast starts.

Howard seemed particularly affected by fatigue, on both ends of the floor.

“I tried to do my best to get in certain spots, but they did a good job of spreading the floor tonight,” he said of his defensive effort. “They forced me to make longer returns back to my man. It’s not easy. They’ve got [Goran Dragic] coming down the lane trying to make plays, then he kicks it out to my man on the perimeter, and I have to make a long run. So it’s tough, but we’ve just got to keep fighting.”

When asked if that’s something he can improve upon, Howard stressed the difficulty of that task.

“I don’t think it’s easy for anybody to do that,” he said. “Protect the basket as a big, close out to a guy shooting the ball at the three-point line. It’s not that easy, but we’ll continue to get better, continue to push through fatigue, and I’ll get myself in better shape for the playoffs.”

Offensively, while Howard’s activity level was high to start the game, he managed to shoot just 4-11 in the first quarter, and finished just 2-7 over the game’s final three quarters. D’Antoni seemed to think Howard was pressing to get through the physical way the Suns were defending him a bit too much.

“I just thought he kind of took it personal and tried to go at ’em,” D’Antoni said of Howard’s offensive struggles. “We need to do more pick and rolls, roll him into the post, get him a little bit on the move, get the ball into him. And we just kind of — because I think we were tired — we just kind of got stuck in mud and tried to wrestle our way through it.”

Howard paused and chuckled a bit when asked if the physical play affected his game, presumably due to the fact that he would need to choose his words carefully to avoid being fined for his comments. But the contact that was being allowed seemed excessive at times, yet Howard did his best to take the high road, both during the game and afterward.

“A lot of stuff happened in the paint, and for me, I’ve just got to do my best and not say anything to the refs,” Howard said. “It’s hard, but I continue to talk to myself, push myself to leave the referees alone, and hopefully they might look down there a couple times.”

The Lakers weren’t taking this loss too hard, as seemingly everyone was aware that the circumstances of playing without Bryant, on the second night of a back-to-back, with only a seven-man rotation had as much to do with it as did the Suns’ inspired play. Nash in particular seemed to have his explanation chambered for the assembled media that came looking for post-game answers.

“We just kind of hit the wall,” he said. “It was our ninth game in 14 days in seven cities, and you could just kind of see the wheels fall off. Especially lately, with guys injured we’ve been playing a seven-man rotation, and I think it caught up with us a little bit.”

Serge Ibaka, Giannis Antetokounmpo trade massive blocks during Raptors-Bucks (VIDEO)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is a long dude. So is Toronto Raptors big man Serge Ibaka. The two faced off in Game 6 at the Bradley Center on Thursday night, so it makes sense the two wound up using one of their most impressive physical assets against each other.

Let the battle of length begin!

Via Twitter:

That’s Ibaka blocking the Milwaukee Bucks star on an attempt at the rim, on a dunk no less. That was impressive, no doubt, but just a minute later, it was Antetokounpmo coming through with a big time block on DeMar DeRozan:

But DeRozan got his revenge later in the fourth quarter, throwing down a dunk over the Bucks defense that was perhaps the finger in the wall needed to stop the leak that was Toronto’s disastrous final period.

DeRozan and the Raptors got the last laugh, winning the closeout game on the road, 92-89. Toronto will go on to play the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semi finals.

Should the Trail Blazers go after Pacers star Paul George? CJ McCollum says yes

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The Portland Trail Blazers need to do something drastic this offseason. Fans in Oregon should be expecting something big with a roster of players prime for the trade market and three first round picks in GM Neil Olshey’s pocket for the 2017 NBA Draft.

Who should Portland go after? That is a tough question to answer.

The Blazers are not exactly a huge free agent destination, although the city is changing its reputation toward NBA players in recent years with the help of star players Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who have fully embraced Oregon’s largest city.

McCollum, in fact, has his own opinion on who the Blazers should go after this summer: Indiana Pacers star Paul George.

Via Twitter:

George, who is under contract for 2017-18 but has a player option for 2018-19, has been rumored to desire playing in Los Angeles. In any case, fans around the league are looking at George as a potential trade candidate.

He would certainly do well on the Blazers, who had a disappointing 41-41 season in 2016-17. After a surprising effort last year, the Trail Blazers were slotted to expand upon their finish in 2016. But a sluggish start from Damian Lillard mixed with one of the worst defensive rosters in the NBA found them battling for the No. 8 seed come the end of the season. Even still, a miraculous stretch of good play after the All-Star Game was what it took for the Blazers to beat out the likes of Denver, Dallas, and Sacramento for the final playoff spot.

We know now that the Blazers were swept by the top-seeded Golden State Warriors, and up here in the Northwest it only solidified the fact Portland needs to get better on the wing.

Last season, Al-Farouq Aminu showed he could shoot a league average percentage from 3-point range, which helped relieve some pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. But Aminu regressed to shooting 33 percent from deep in 2017, and although Maurice Harkless did an excellent job as a young starter he’s not yet the kind of dynamic offensive player the Blazers need to be a Top 4 team in the West.

Aminu projects for Portland better as a 4, and with Jusuf Nurkic now anchoring the center position, the goal for Portland will be to strengthen the wing and flesh out the bench.

George would be an excellent get, but the Blazers would need to have the salaries match in any trade with Indiana. Allen Crabbe seems the most likely option, given his RFA match for Portland was a clear move to retain an asset. Evan Turner occupied a lot of guard minutes for Portland, and it seems the Blazers aim to keep him.

Meanwhile, you have other players like Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis who still have some value and could help Portland’s cap situation or work as part of a trade with Indiana.

Having watched Portland closely the past six seasons or so, and seeing how parts of this roster has developed, it would make the most sense to add a third star to this team. Turner hamstrings the bench unit with his gargantuan $17 million salary next season, so building out the bench unit under him still won’t put the Blazers in a position to compete with the top teams in the West without another star.

I think the clearest way to capitalize on the prime part of the careers for Lillard and McCollum is to grab another star right now. George might be out of reach — and he reportedly wants to play in LA anyway — but I think the Blazers should think big this offseason. Whether that means trading for George or doing something else bold remains to be seen.

Report: Clippers’ management remains committed to re-signing Blake Griffin

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Maybe Friday night in Utah, maybe not for a few weeks, but the Clippers season is going to end before they reach the conference finals, and with Blake Griffin sidelined by injury. It’s an all-too-familiar scene. It will be six seasons of the Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Griffin experience in Los Angeles, and they will not have gotten out of the second round (unless you think they can come back on the Jazz from down 3-2, then beat the Warriors).

That has come with a lot of talk about the Clippers breaking up the core. Jordan remains under contract, Paul would be too hard to replace, and that leads to a lot of speculation — inside and outside the league — that Griffin could be on the move this summer, when he becomes a free agent.

That’s not what the Clippers want, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports in a video essay.

Management remains committed to signing him to a long-term deal this summer, league sources tell me.

Doc Rivers has said he wants to bring back this core. Multiple times. His argument is that this is a 50+ win team that is one of the better teams in the NBA, why would you take a big step back rather than look for the tweaks that get the team to a title?

Steve Ballmer has the checkbook deep enough to pay both Paul and Griffin max money (although keeping fellow free agent J.J. Redick as well would be difficult). The Clippers will have one of the highest payrolls in the NBA, and is this team worth that? Especially in a conference where the Mount Everest of Golden State is not going anywhere for a few years, not to mention the Spurs and Rockets will remain good, Utah is on the rise, and so are teams like the Wolves. The Clippers will be a good team that needs a lot of breaks to go their way to really contend — how much would Ballmer pay for that?

The Clippers need to do some soul searching this offseason.

Just don’t be shocked if the result of that is them running this team back again.

Playing through sore knee, Jimmy Butler says “I’m good,” will go in Game 6

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At this point in the season, everyone is banged up. It’s just a matter of degree.

But with Rajon Rondo listed as out for Game 6, the Bulls’ need a big game from Jimmy Butler if they are going to extend this series to a Game 7. And he is not near 100 percent.

In Game 4, Butler banged knees with a Celtic and it impacted him during Game 5, as Vincent Goodwill detailed at CSNChicago.com.

But he could only muster two shots and barely seemed to push off on his left foot—his lead foot, and it hampered what the Bulls could do late as he was their prime fourth-quarter performer.

He couldn’t even go straight up on a jumper over the diminutive Isaiah Thomas without pump-faking, throwing off his rhythm. He wouldn’t elaborate on the injury, although he said it happened during the second half of Game 4 on Sunday night when he collided with a Celtics player.

“I’m good. Everyone’s a little nicked up; I’ll be all right,” Butler said in the locker room.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune added this detail.

Boston has done a good job of limiting the number of times Isaiah Thomas is exposed on defense, having to cover Wade or Butler. Essentially, the Celtics switch in sort of a matchup zone to keep IT covering a shooter on the wing, even if his man goes up and sets the pick. Zone’s can be exposed (there’s a reason they’re more a change-of-pace rather than a basic set defense in the NBA), but it involves getting into the middle, getting into the paint. Which comes back to driving the ball and pushing off, things that Butler is struggling to do at his usual level.

There are a lot of other factors favoring Boston in Game 6, but if Chicago is going to force a Game 7 Sunday they need Butler to be an All-NBA level player.