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.”

Sprained ankle has LeBron James questionable for opener vs. Celtics

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James‘ playing status for Tuesday’s season opener against Boston remains unclear.

James has been slowed by a sprained left ankle for more than two weeks and it’s still not known whether he’ll be on the floor when the Cavaliers take on the Celtics and Kyrie Irving, who asked to be traded by Cleveland this summer.

Following Monday’s practice, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said “I really don’t know” when asked if James will play.

James took part in some post-practice shooting drills with teammates. He did not speak with the media as the Cavaliers prepared for their opener, a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference finals.

James has never missed an opener in his NBA career, and teammate J.R. Smith doesn’t expect him to miss this one.

“Oh, he’s going to go,” Smith said. “He’s going to go, trust me that. I don’t care what he’s got to do, he’s going to play.”

 

Report: Richard Jefferson signing with Nuggets

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Update: The Nuggets will waive Jameer Nelson, according to Wojnarowski:

It looks like Denver will ride with the younger Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard — a risky proposition. Nelson stabilized the position in the event Murray or Mudiay weren’t ready for bigger roles. The Nuggets aren’t hedging their bets now, which puts plenty of pressure on Murray and Mudiay.

Murray should be fine eventually. Mudiay’s promise is far less certain. But this is a team trying to reach the playoffs now, and it might have to ride out growing pains from its point guards without Nelson as a safety net.

 

Richard Jefferson became a late entrant into free agency when the Cavaliers traded him and the Hawks waived him.

But the forward is landing on his feet.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Jefferson could help the Nuggets, who look primed to end a four-season playoff drought. They were set to squeeze backup small-forward minutes behind Wilson Chandler out of the undersized Will Barton and oversized Juan Hernangomez. Jefferson is far more comfortable at the position.

He’s 37 and doesn’t offer long-term upside, but he’s a savvy defender and still pretty athletic. He picks his spots well enough offensively to help on that end, too.

But Denver also has a deep roster that already had 15 players on standard contracts. There’s not an obvious cut to make room for Jefferson, though the Nuggets clearly have something planned.

Sixers to keep Joel Embiid’s minutes in teens to start season, he’s not happy

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Joel Embiid wants to get on the court, he wants to unleash himself on the NBA this season. After three seasons of being bottled up — even in the 31 games he has played there was a minutes restriction — Embiid wants to impose his will on the league.

He’s going to have to do that in less than 20 minutes a night, at least to start the season.

Sixers coach Brett Brown says to start the season there will be a tight minutes limit on Embiid, who averaged less than 15 minutes in two preseason games after finally being cleared to play. Embiid does not like that. Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia has the quotes.

“I don’t really know if there’s a solid number,” Brett Brown said Monday after practice. “I can tell if you were to choose a number, it’s somewhere in the teens.”

“I didn’t know about that, but that’s very disappointing,” Embiid said Monday of the minutes restriction. “I feel great and hopefully that changes based on today’s practice and tomorrow’s practice.”

The Sixers being cautious with Embiid is about as surprising as the last Transformers movie sucking.

That said, if any particular game is close going into the fourth quarter don’t be shocked if Embiid breaks his minutes limit — this is a team that wants to start winning, and that means keeping their best players on the court longer. If Saturday night against the Raptors Brett Brown thinks giving Embiid 22-23 minutes helps get them the win, he will. The goal will be to get him up to the high 20s by the end of the season.

The real test for these Sixers will not be how the offense fairs with Embiid sitting — they have guys that can create and knock down shots if needed, such as Ben Simmons or J.J. Redick – instead it’s how well they can defend with him resting.

Report: Spurs signing LaMarcus Aldridge to two-year, $50 million contract extension

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From troubled to extended, LaMarcus Aldridge‘s Spurs tenure has changed directions in a hurry.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Piecing this together, Aldridge is exercising a $22,347,015 player option for 2018-19. That means his extension is worth $50 million over two years will carry him through age 35. All in all, Aldridge is now under contract for four more seasons.

Aldridge is a borderline All-Star, and he raises San Antonio’s floor. His back-to-the-bask mid-range games remains reliable, and he’s a willing defender. Him signing this deal should end pining for greener pastures, but it certainly won’t force him into diligent acceptance of his role forever. Players can become discontent whenever they please.

This extension significantly limits the Spurs flexibility the next two summers and maybe even in 2020, depending on Aldridge’s guarantee in the second year of his extension. They seem fine with that, perhaps believing they already have enough to topple the Warriors if Kawhi Leonard is healthy.

With Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Patty Mills all under contract for the few years around Leonard, San Antonio should remain stably good. But will these deals for aging veterans limit the Spurs’ ceiling? That’s the risk for an organization that has built its identity on championships and already has a young, in-his-prime superstar who has proven capable of being the best player on a title team.