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.

Former Pacers’ star Danny Granger on Paul George: “you can’t fault him if he leaves Indiana”

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There was a time when Paul George was an up-and-coming but raw young player on an Indiana team led by Danny Granger. It was when Granger went down injured that George was thrust into a larger role, where he thrived in the trial by fire.

Granger knows what it’s like to be the star player of the Pacers, and he knows George, so on Bill Reiter asked Granger his thoughts during an episode of CBS’ “Reiter Than You” and Granger’s answer was not what Pacers fans wanted to hear.

“You look at him in that press conference (after losing to Cleveland) and his face and the dejection on it – the guy wants to win. Money don’t make everybody happy, but winning and success and your craft, that does fill a void that a lot of these players have. So you can’t fault him if he leaves Indiana, I’ll tell you that.”

Oh, Pacers fans will fault him. Even if he’s traded.

Pacers’ decision maker Larry Bird isn’t going to do anything until he sees if George makes an All-NBA Team, because if he does Indiana can offer him the new “designated player” contract this summer worth around $80 million more guaranteed than any other team can offer. George will not walk away from that.

However, if, as expected, George doesn’t make an All-NBA team, Bird is going to have to revisit the idea of trading George, who can be a free agent in 2018 — and the sense around the league is he will walk away at that point if the Pacers are not contenders. (There are a lot of Lakers’ rumors there, but whether George would leave a team where he is dragging lesser players to a low playoff seed and a first-round exit in Indiana for the same situation in his old hometown is up for debate.)

Bird isn’t going to deal George for pennies on the dollar at this point — think the Kings’ trading DeMarcus Cousins — but if some team comes through with a legitimate quality offer of young players that can help jump start the rebuild in Indiana, he may have to jump at it.

Either way, Granger is right that you can’t blame George for wanting to move on, but plenty of fans will anyway.

Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley keep trading insults in postgame press conferences

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Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley were having their war of words during Tuesday night’s close-out game that ended the Thunder season, and they both picked up technical fouls for it.

The two continued that postgame speaking to the media.

Westbrook was up first, and he was asked what happened between him and Beverley (see the video above).

“He was talking about he was first team all-defense, but I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about because I had 42 at the time, I don’t know, maybe he was dreaming or some s—.”

You know the media was going to ask Beverley about that.

“He said no can guard me I’ve got 40 points, I’m like, that’s nice but you took 34 shots to get it.”

So, no Christmas card exchange for those two.

For the record, Westbrook finished the game with 47 points on 15-of-34 shooting, but he was 2-of-11 in the fourth quarter as he started to wear down. The Thunder were +12 in the 41:52 that Westbrook played, but were -18 in the 6:07 he sat to get rest. The game was almost a Rorschach test for what you think of Westbrook on the season — he wasn’t terribly efficient, but he carried OKC as far as he could, that just wasn’t as far as James Harden could take a superior Rockets’ team. If you were in the Harden (or Kawhi Leonard) for MVP camp, you can point to the inefficiency and the end result. If you’re team Westbrook you can point to the raw numbers and what happened in the limited time he sat.

Also, Beverley is going to make an NBA All-Defensive team. If he doesn’t make the first team, that’s more about the time he missed due to injury (and a good field of guards who can defend) than his play.

Beverley has the advantage now of being able to turn his attention to how to defend Tony Parker (or maybe Mike Conley), as the Rockets are advancing to the next round.

 

Watch Gordon Hayward, Chris Paul get double technical fouls after wrestling for ball (VIDEO)

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I said earlier on Tuesday that the double technical foul handed out to Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley during Game 5 of the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder series was the weakest of the playoffs so far.

All I had to do was wait about two hours. The NBA fixed that right up for me.

Late in the game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz, Chris Paul and Gordon Hayward got tied up on a jump ball. The two ended up on the floor, and neither wanted to let go of the ball.

Hayward and Paul wrestled for the ball, with Hayward eventually winning. Paul then gave him a little shove in the back. Both, somehow, wound up with a technical foul.

I … what?

Utah won an exciting game at the wire, 96-92, to take a 3-2 series lead.

Hayward, Johnson, good ball movement lift Jazz past Clippers 98-94, Utah up 3-2

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LOS ANGELES — Chris Paul is the best player on the floor in the Los Angeles vs. Utah first round series. He’s also the best playmaker on either team, a guy who can survey the court and quickly decide whether he should score or what teammate he can set up. He also gets the Clippers points and plays solid defense.

However, for lengthy stretches of the game, he’s the only playmaker on the court for the Clippers. He has to be Mr. Everything.

Utah has multiple guys they can lean on to create looks — George Hill, Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson — and with that has come better team ball movement and open shots.

That ball movement — and again some key johnson buckets — led to a crucial Game 5 win over Utah, 98-94, putting the Jazz up 3-2 heading to Utah for Game 6 on Friday night.

Historically, if the road team wins Game 5 of a 2-2 series it has gone on to win the series 63.8 percent of the time.Friday night, Utah has the chance to advance past the first round for the first time since 2010, when Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer were at their peaks, and Jerry Sloan was still patrolling the sidelines.

Gordon Hayward is Utah’s big star now, and he returned from missing much of Game 4 with food poisoning to play much of this one (despite saying postgame he didn’t have his legs). This time he made the Clippers sick, scoring 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting, plus he made the little plays like a tip-out offensive rebound to Johnson with just under three minutes left that turned into a key made three for the Jazz.

“Hayward killed us early,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought Hayward set the tone tonight in the first six or seven minutes of the game (Gordon had 11 first quarter points on 4-of-6 shooting).”

The Clippers often use Blake Griffin as a secondary playmaker, because he has good handles and is a smart passer. However, with Griffin out for the rest of the series with a foot injury that will require surgery, the Clippers are stuck. Backup point guard Austin Rivers returned to the Clipper lineup, but he could only play 16 minutes. Too much of the time it felt like CP3 against the world to create shots for the Clippers. That’s rough against a long, disciplined Jazz defense.

Meanwhile, the Jazz were moving the ball and getting better looks — if guys such as Joe Ingles (0-of-4 from three) or George Hill (1-of-7) had knocked down their shots, this game may have been decided much earlier. Utah’s drive-and-kick game was in full force, and with Griffin out the Jazz have nobody who can check Joe Johnson effectively.

“That’s beating us off the dribble way too much and making us rotate,” Rivers said. “Also, we did a good job — we took the ball out of Joe (Johnson’s) hands… by doing that they’re going to get open threes. And listen, we were fortunate tonight with them being on the road, their role players didn’t make some of those.”

That’s what the first half felt like. The Jazz pushed the pace at times, moved the ball well in the half court, exploited mismatches, and largely got better looks than the Clippers, but missed enough good shots that the game was always close. It was 21-19 Clippers after one, led by six points from Paul Pierce nailing a couple open threes. By the half the Jazz had a small 46-43 lead behind 14 from Hayward on 5-of-8 shooting. But neither team was able to take control.

The third quarter was just ugly basketball — it was slow, physical, and Utah missed shot after shot. So did both teams — Utah “won” the quarter 18-15 to have at 64-58 lead after three. Still, it just felt like Utah was playing better and just missing opportunities.

Utah took advantage of those opportunites early in the fourth to push the lead to 11 after some threes started to fall, but the Clippers went on their own 11-0 run sparked by Paul to tie the game up 69-69. Staples Center was getting loud. But out of a time out the Jazz scored five quick points off well-designed plays, and order was restored (as far as Utah was concerned). From there Utah just held on.

Hayward finished with 27 to lead the Jazz, followed by Rodney Hood who came off the bench with 10. Utah had six players in double figures. Paul had 28 for the Clippers, J.J. Redick had his best game of the series and added 26.

There was little pretty about this game, or for that matter the series. It’s become slowed down and grinding. It’s not a style the Clippers thrive in, but they’re going to have to find a way — or pick up the pace — by Friday night, or their season will come to an end. Then the real questions will begin.