It wasn’t pretty but Howard lifts Lakers within step of playoffs

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LOS ANGELES — Maybe it was every Laker knowing they had to step up their game with Kobe Bryant sidelined.

Maybe it was the desperation of a Lakers team trying to salvage something from a train wreck season, playing much harder than a Spurs team Gregg Popovich described as “floating” through the game

Maybe it was the law of averages — eventually somebody had to hit a shot after a rough first three-quarters of the game. It just happened to be the Lakers.

Whatever the reason the Lakers found the stroke from three when it mattered — the Lakers hit 5-of-9 threes in the fourth — and finished with a 91-86 win over San Antonio that makes the playoffs likely for them — their magic number is now one.

Utah has to beat Minnesota on Monday and Memphis on Tuesday (both on the road) or the Lakers are in. And even if the Jazz do that, the Lakers are still in if they beat the Rockets Wednesday. There are scenarios where the Lakers could finish with the six or seven seed, although smart money says they are eighth.

The Lakers are going to need to play better to do any damage in the playoffs — not harder though. You can’t question the Lakers’ effort.

“The Lakers played with a log of energy obviously for a lot of different reasons and tonight we didn’t match that,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said.

That would be the Parker who was 1-10 shooting for 4 points on the night and was on the bench when the game mattered in the fourth quarter.

“It wasn’t because he was resting, he was playing awful,” coach Popovich said of why he benched Parker down the stretch.

It wasn’t just Parker, this was just a flat out sloppy game. Especially for the first three quarters: The score was 61-61 entering fourth, with the Spurs shooting 33.3 percent, the Lakers 31.8 percent through the first three. Pau Gasol shot 3-of-17 on the night. Some of that was good defense, a lot of it was just guys missing good looks.

But when it mattered, the Lakers made shots — they shot 52.6 percent overall and hit 5-of-9 threes in the fourth. Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks each knocked down two threes in the fourth.

The Lakers wouldn’t have been in position for the win if it wasn’t for Dwight Howard. He was aggressive from the opening tip, working to establish his position on the block, bullying his way to the rim, running the floor and being active on defense. The Lakers looked like a pretty conventional team in the first half working inside out. Howard finished with 26 points and 17 rebounds.

Steve Blake also stepped up with 18 points in the first quarter, forcing the Spurs to adjust and put a better defender in Danny Green on him in the second half. The Spurs also started to double Howard, but that is when Jamison and Meeks hit key shots.

As for the Spurs, this almost certainly assures they are the two seed — Oklahoma City would need to lose its last two and the Spurs would need to win out to get that top spot.

But there was more to it than that and a clearly frustrated Popovich knew it. San Antonio is 5-5 in its last 10 games. Tim Duncan showed up to ball —23 points and 10 rebounds — but the rest of the Spurs seemed taken aback by the Lakers desperate energy.

“We didn’t match their energy at all, I just though we sort of floated through the game…” Popovich said. “(Duncan was) really the only guy on the team that played like somebody who wanted to win a championship. I thought other than that the group was in float most of the night. Again, a lot of that was because of the Lakers energy.”

The Lakers know that the rough start they had in this game needs to smooth out and they need to play better going forward. But they will take the win.

“We’ve seen teams where their star player goes out and they play with a ton of energy, you get a couple wins,” Blake said. “It’s when the teams start figuring you out and see what you’re running now that you’re gone that it starts to get tougher. We’re going to have to be prepared for that.”

James Harden on recruiting Chris Paul from LA: “He didn’t seem happy”

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One of the most interesting storylines of the first month of this upcoming NBA season will be the Houston Rockets.

The team has paired MVP candidate James Harden with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul, but it remains to be seen whether the two will be able to work together with the kind of efficiency that Mike D’Antoni’s team had in 2016-17.

Harden has been the subject of some chatter already this offseason after a photo of him surfaced on Instagram. In it, Harden looked to have added a significant portion of muscle this summer, which may help him as he moves back to a more off-ball style of play with Paul in the fold.

Harden was also the subject of significant scrutiny at the end of last season, where he failed in the playoffs in spectacular fashion against the San Antonio Spurs.

In a recent interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Harden said his newfound weight gain has been part of his plan to combat late-season fatigue. Harden has also introduced yoga and pilates into his workout routine.

Perhaps more interesting information from Harden’s interview with Amick revealed just how much impact he had recruiting Chris Paul in the trade from Los Angeles Clippers, and Paul’s attitude at the end of the season toward his former team.

Via USA Today:

Harden, who signed a four-year extension this summer and will earn a combined $228 million by the end of the 2022-23 season, had everything to do with the move.

“I just knew that in the summertime obviously (Paul) was a free agent, and I wanted to see where his head was,” Harden said of Paul, who will now be a free agent next summer. “He didn’t seem happy, so after that we just took it from there.

“Obviously Golden State has been in the Finals and won two out of three, so that’s what everybody is trying to build up against. But we’re right there. We’re right there. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but it definitely puts us in a better chance.”

It certainly makes sense that after years of perpetual playoff failure by the Clippers that Paul would want to move on. Harden and CP3 seem to enjoy each other at the moment, and a pairing does seem to make sense on paper. We will see how that plays out over the course of next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo announces he will not play for Greece in Eurobasket

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said had big plans to play for the Greek national team this summer, taking his country back to the top of the European ladder at EuroBasket (they had won the tournament a dozen years ago).

Instead, a sore knee will keep the Greek Freak out of EuroBasket. He made the announcement on his Facebook page.

Antetokounmpo had missed all but one of Greece’s early EuroBasket tune-ups due to a sore knee. That, understandably, concerned the Bucks, especially with his four-year, $100 million contract extension about to kick in next season.

Antetokounmpo is in China promoting shoes, but said he on Facebook he took a physical while there and was not able to complete the exercises due to pain.

“It is by far the biggest disappointment in my career. I must deal with the problem,” Antetokounmpo said in the Facebook post (written in Greek).

Within hours of the post going up, the Greek basketball federation released a statement slamming the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, saying they had done an MRI of his knee and found no damage.

“The simultaneous report by the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself, by phone and social media from faraway China, and not by the appropriate official manner, of his inability to join the national men’s team saddens us … but is not surprising… A series of indications … had convinced us of the existence of an organized and well-staged plan by (the Bucks), with the full knowledge if not encouragement of the NBA that put the athlete on the spot and forced him to announce today that he is no longer part of the men’s national team.”

Great, just what the world needs, another conspiracy theory.

While NBA teams generally are not huge fans of their stars playing in national team tournaments (due to the injury risk), teams cannot stop a healthy player from playing. Antetokounmpo said this was his decision because he is in pain and has to think about the upcoming NBA season.

Whatever the Greek Federation believes internally, slamming the player and his team publicly like this is one good way to make sure he will not want to play for them in the future. He’s got knee pain, they are saying “you’re fine, walk it off, ” and that must have Antetokounmpo and the people around him wondering if the Greek Federation has his best interests — or theirs — at heart.

Akron store already selling “Stay Home 23” shirts, hats as LeBron decision looms

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We’ve seen this movie before.

There is all sorts of buzz around the league that LeBron James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. While people around LeBron denied he the rumor he is “100 percent” leaving, good luck finding any league source who thinks he is staying put next summer. Nothing is set in stone, his options — including staying — remain open, but we’ve all been down this road before.

The hometown fans are going to do their part to urge LeBron to stay.

Fan sentiment has some pull with LeBron (he came back to win the city a title). However, what matters more is a sense of a plan to keep the Cavaliers as title contenders for the coming years — and that is more than just Dan Gilbert paying the tax. The Cavs did nothing this summer that got them closer to beating Golden State, and while they swung for the fences with Paul George, what they really needed was wing defenders and athletes, and they didn’t get those either. Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year deal for the minimum somewhere else. Instead, Cleveland overpaid Kyle Korver.

Despite all that, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the East. If Cleveland gets to the Finals — LeBron’s eighth in a row — and they win or make it close, he may see staying as his best option. A season can be a lifetime in the NBA in terms of shifting attitudes. Still, I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

Marshall Plumlee gets camp invite, partially guaranteed contract from Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers have 14 fully guaranteed contracts on their roster, plus a partial guarantee for DeAndre Liggins (who likely is on the roster opening day). They also are pretty much set at center with DeAndre Jordan and Willie Reed (plus when they go small they can play Blake Griffin there, something I wish they’d do a little more).

That said, Doc Rivers — just a coach now — needs bodies for camp, so in comes former Duke star and Knick Marshall Plumlee, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Plumlee played in 21 games for the Knicks last season, logging a total of 190 minutes. He bounced between New York and the D-League Westchester Knicks, when down he averaged 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

He’s not making the Clippers’ squad (barring injury), but he could show well and get noticed by other teams. Over the course of a season, there will be a need for bigs as guys go down injured, Plumlee is getting a chance to show how his game has developed. And he makes some money in the process.