Bet I’d take: Lakers still make playoffs without Kobe

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When teams lose a star player, there is often this short period where they play a little better without him — everyone else raises their game, the team plays with passion and commitment, and they get a few wins they shouldn’t. Grantland founder Bill Simmons called it the “Ewing effect” after the 1999 Knicks, who lost Patrick Ewing to an Achilles injury but beat a good Pacers squad without him and made it to the NBA finals (where they fell to the Spurs).

The Lakers only need two games of this effect to make the playoffs with Kobe Bryant now out with a torn Achilles. I bet they get it.

The Lakers (behind Kobe , before his injury) came back to beat the Warriors on Friday night, so they remain one game ahead of Utah for the final playoff spot in the West with two games to play. Utah has the tiebreaker, so the Lakers may need to win both games to hold their advantage.

The Lakers can get that if they feed their big men — Kobe provided an outside balance but the hardest part of the Lakers lineup for other teams to matchup with was always Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol on the front line. Get Gasol the ball at the elbow, have Howard out high for some pick-and-rolls and moving off the ball, and the Lakers will get their points.

But let’s be honest – the Lakers playoff road remains a bumpy one.

The Lakers two remaining games are hosting San Antonio on Sunday night and Houston next Wednesday. Utah is on the road — at Minnesota then at Memphis.

The big variable in this schedule is “who will the playoff teams put on the court.” That starts with the Spurs Sunday. Tony Parker returned to action Sunday for San Antonio, a team still in the mix trying to get the top overall seed in the West. The Spurs may well play both Parker and Tim Duncan Sunday against the Lakers because they will need the win. Then again, this is Gregg Popovich, so he might just sit everyone but Matt Bonner. Who knows.

Then the Lakers get the Rockets. This is a bad matchup for the Lakers — the Rockets play at the fastest pace in the league and the Lakers have a horrible transition defense, plus the Lakers are a bad pick-and-roll defensive team and both Jeremy Lin and James Harden run that play well.

The question we will not know until then is “will Houston be playing for anything?” If Houston rolls out their stars because they have a chance to get up to the six seed (and avoid San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round) they will play their stars. But they may not have anything to play for and Kevin McHale will empty out his bench for the game.

Utah needs to win both games it has left to have a chance. They should beat Minnesota but the Timberwolves are feisty, particularly at home. Then in the final game they get Memphis and face a similar situation as the Lakers — Memphis is the better team if they play their regular rotations, but if they don’t have anything to play for the Jazz may facing reserves.

Logic suggests the Jazz are looking like the playoff favorites. I just have a feeling the Lakers are going to find their way in. At that point, any Ewing effect will not be enough to save them. But the Lakers get in.

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.