New Orleans Hornets v Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe lifts Lakers to win, back into playoff picture (with help of Utah loss)

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To say the Lakers had to beat the Hornets on Tuesday is to state the obvious — they need to win just about every game from here on out to get the eight seed and make the playoffs.

But the one they really have to have now is Wednesday night in Portland.

The Lakers stumbled and bumbled but then Kobe Bryant took over with 23 fourth quarter points and lifted the Lakers to a 104-96 win over New Orleans..

Great players lifted Oklahoma City over Utah earlier in the evening — Kevin Durant had 21 points and 12 rebounds, Russell Westbrook 25 points including a final bucket on a steal and breakaway dunk that was the dagger. OKC won 90-80 and are now half a game back of San Antonio for the top spot in the West.

With the Lakers win and the Jazz’s loss Los Angeles moves half a game ahead and into the eighth and final playoff spot — and now Los Angeles control’s its own destiny. Win out and they get in the postseason.

But it’s not going to be easy — they have Portland on the second night of a back-to-back Wednesday night. While the Trail Blazers have struggled lately they have long played the Lakers tough in the Rose Garden. And they should be motivated to play spoiler. Win and the Lakers are one game up with three to play. Lose in Portland and the Lakers and Jazz are tied — and Utah has the tiebreaker. Tough spot. And the way the Lakers won this certainly didn’t alleviate any concerns about would happen to them if they make the playoffs — they still are not a great team, they just have a great player.

At least on Tuesday enough things went the Lakers way. Starting with a Utah loss.

The Jazz were going to be overmatched against the Thunder on the best of days. But add on that the Thunder were frustrated and looking for a little redemption after an ugly defensive performance against the Knicks Sunday. OKC cranked up the pressure and he Jazz shot 39.5 percent for the game and were just 7-of-25 from the 3-point line and despite that size up front had only six offensive rebounds.

The Thunder also did in the Jazz defense by moving the ball much better than they did against the Knicks. That led to a lot of easy buckets for the Thunder, who pulled away and held off the Jazz runs.

The Lakers held off the Hornets charges mostly because their stars stepped up. Kobe had 30, Gasol had 22 points and 11 boards as he went right at Anthony Davis all game. The Lakers finally started to give Gasol touches in the post (which may have been more Kobe’s orders rather than Mike D’Antoni’s) and it worked, creating mismatches to exploit.

Eric Gordon kept the Hornets in it with a 13 point second quarter (22 for the game), but it just wasn’t enough when Kobe flipped the switch. The Lakers couldn’t pull away — it was a tie game 80-80 as the Hornets made their runs, but the Lakers kept staving them off one Kobe jumper at a time. Plus Kobe had a strong defensive game against Gordon.

Los Angeles got what it wanted through all of this — they are in the playoffs as of right now. They control their own destiny. But they were inconsistent against the Hornets, a team that couldn’t exploit those lapses — the Lakers defense was hit and miss all night. Do that against the playoff teams left on the Lakers schedule — Golden State, San Antonio and Dallas — and those lapses will be much more costly.

But for now, the Lakers got what they needed. For a night.

Cavaliers’ defense foundation for blowout win

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers gestures in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 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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Cleveland blitzed Toronto from the opening tip.

Literally.

Cleveland cranked up their defensive pressure by getting back to aggressively blitzing Raptors’ guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan every time they came off a pick. Or they would chase DeRozan over the top of the pick and trail him, never letting him get comfortable to pull up from the midrange. Whatever the defensive scheme, the Cavaliers were physical with Lowry and DeRozan — the pair was 4-of-14 shooting in the first half.

From the start, the Cavaliers defense dictated the flow of the game and set the tone for a 38-point blowout win.

It is that defense they will need to close out this series on the road Friday night.

“We understood that coming back from Game 3 and Game 4 we just didn’t play our defense the right way,” LeBron James said after the game. “We didn’t play how we should have played, and they took advantage of every moment. We had to get back to our staple; we had to get back to what we wanted to do defensively in order for us to play a complete game. That’s the most satisfying thing, the way we defended, holding these guys to 39 percent shooting.”

Defense triggered the offensive runs by the Cavaliers in the first half — Cleveland had eight steals and scored 20 points off turnovers before halftime. Playing with a renewed energy, the Cavs did a fantastic job fighting over screens and disrupting plays, and they closed out on shooters at the arc. It was their best defensive game of the series. It was the polar opposite of how they played in Toronto.

“I think our intensity picked up, our aggressiveness picked up, we were very physical to start the game and it just kind of led to us getting out in transition, us getting steals and getting easy baskets,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.

“They were locked in, from the start to the finish,” according to Raptors coach Dwane Casey.”The force that they play with is different here and we didn’t meet it.”

Back home and with their backs against the wall, you can expect a very different, very desperate Raptors team. Lowry and DeRozan will shoot better.

But if the Cavaliers pack their defense and take it north of the border this time, they should close out the series.

LeBron James was dunking all over the Raptors (VIDEO)

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With their defense creating turnovers to get breaks — and the Raptors’ defense just breaking down — the Cavaliers put on a dunking exhibition against Toronto Wednesday.

LeBron James led the way, with 23 points and plenty of dunks. Here is another.

To change things up, here is an and-1.

Cavaliers retake series lead at home with rout of Raptors

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket in the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 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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The Eastern Conference Finals have been all about the comforts of home. Through five games between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, the home team has come out on top convincingly every time. Wednesday’s Game 5 was no different, with the Cavs destroying the Raptors, 116-78 to take a 3-2 series lead.

After a pair of awful games in Toronto, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving stepped up at home to score 25 and 23 points, respectively, to go along with 23 from LeBron James. The big production from their stars was enough to keep the Raptors at bay — the only other Cavs player to score in double figures was Richard Jefferson, who had 11 points, but it didn’t matter.

On the other side, after coming up huge at home in Games 3 and 4, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot 7-for-20 from the field Wednesday, and nobody else did much to pick up the slack. After not trailing by 30 at a half at any point this season, Toronto trailed by 31 at halftime, and the lead ballooned to 100-60 at the end of the third quarter. From the beginning, this game was one-sided.

The Cavs can close out the series on the road on Friday, ensuring James’ sixth straight trip to the Finals. But the Raptors have been a different team at home during this series, and in a do-or-die situation they should come out with more fight. It’s hard to imagine things going much worse than they did Wednesday.

Report: Joakim Noah having “positive dialogue” with Bulls about future

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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And the spin keeps on happening.

First came the report that Joakim Noah was telling teammates he was out of Chicago. Followed by Noah’s agent — the person charged with keeping Noah’s options open — saying that was not true.

Now comes team management — the people who said they want to keep Noah with the Bulls — saying the sides are still talking, and they want him to stay. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Veteran Bulls center Joakim Noah, his representatives and the Chicago front office continue to have a “positive dialogue” about a new contract amid a report that Noah has been telling teammates he’s ready to leave the franchise, a league source told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Those close to Noah, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, are still hopeful that he will be able to work out an agreement to stay in Chicago long term.

I’m going to let you in on a real insider bit of knowledge on what team Noah will play for next season:

Whatever team pays him the most money.

I know, it’s crazy, but sometimes people make a decision about where to work based on pay. Right now, everything is posturing. Come July 1, money will go on the table, and then Noah will know just how badly the Bulls want to keep him vs. other teams wanting to bring him in. Once the money is out there, if things are roughly even, then minutes and role on the team, lifestyle, weather and all the rest come into play.

But Puffy had it right — it’s all about the Benjamins.