Stifling defensive effort leads Spurs to Game 1 win over Lakers

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The Lakers put up a fight in Game 1 of their playoff series in San Antonio on Sunday, and hung within striking distance for most of the game. But thanks to a suffocating defensive effort from the Spurs, L.A. couldn’t score with enough frequency or enough volume the entire afternoon, and sparked offensively by Manu Ginobili off the bench, San Antonio pulled away late for the 91-79 victory.

The Spurs are the higher seed, of course, and the Lakers without Kobe Bryant were a long shot to even keep things competitive enough to push the series beyond four or five games.

But had you told Mike D’Antoni that his team would have held its opponent below 40 percent shooting for the game, stayed even in the rebounding battle, and defended well enough to where Tim Duncan and Tony Parker combined to make just 14 of 36 shot attempts from the field, I think he would have liked his chances.

The Lakers’ problems came on the offensive end, where turnovers killed any opportunity they had to get into a rhythm, especially in the first half. L.A. committed 12 of its 18 turnovers in the first two periods, with Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol combining for half of those with three apiece.

It’s easy to say the Lakers should pound the ball inside, but the Spurs were swarming defensively, often times running an extra defender or two at L.A.’s bigs to create confusion. San Antonio’s rotations were largely flawless, so even on possessions where Gasol or Howard would kick it back out, the Spurs were able to recover and close on the shooters to create tough shots.

And more than once in the second half, the Spurs were able to do this multiple times in a single possession.

As the defense stifled the Lakers’ offense, the Spurs were able to get just enough to gain separation when it mattered most. Ginobili was huge with 18 points in 19 minutes off the bench, which tied him for a team-high with Parker, who needed 21 shots over 37 minutes to accomplish the same.

In a low-scoring, low-shooting percentage game, Ginobili’s personal scoring run to end the third quarter essentially sealed it. He scored eight points in the final 1:38 of the period to push the Spurs’ lead from seven to 13 points, and the shots he made — two three-pointers in transition after a floating left-handed runner over Gasol — were ones that brought with them a palpable momentum change as the game entered its final period.

Steve Nash returned to the Lakers starting lineup after missing the last eight games of the regular season due to a combination hip and back issue that limited his hamstring, and while it was clear he was battling out there, it was also evident that he’s not yet close to 100 percent.

Nash finished with a helpful 16 points and three assists in 29 minutes, but shot an uncharacteristically poor 6-of-15 from the field. It’s unclear whether or not Nash will be ready to go again for Game 2 on Wednesday.

The defensive effort to hold the Spurs to 37.6 percent shooting, along with the way Howard and Gasol were able to rebound are positives the Lakers can take from this one, and if they’re able to repeat those efforts over the course of the series, you’d like to think the offense will come, and will at some point be enough to steal a game or two.

The Spurs, however, would like to believe otherwise. And if San Antonio continues to come up with these types of constricting defensive performances anywhere close to consistently, L.A. is going to suffer through just three more games like this one.

James Harden helped recruit Lou Williams to Houston

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The Lakers had been shopping Lou Williams around in the run-up to the trade deadline, the only question was would they get a first-round pick for him. Rumors around the league say that Houston had offered them one weeks before, it was on the table, but the Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak front office held their cards close and hoped a better deal would come through.

While all that was going on James Harden decided to ease the process and did a little recruiting calling up Williams, the sixth-man guard told Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“When James called, he asked me if I was interested in playing with them,” Williams told The Vertical. “I told him that I loved the Lakers, but James and them have a group that fit my personality, fit how I play. He said he was going to make it happen.”

Williams then laughed, sitting on the edge of a visiting court following a recent practice. “I’ve heard that before, so I didn’t really put stock into it,” Williams told The Vertical. “I guess James did put the word in, and the team made it happen.”

We all know what happened, Jeanie Buss removed her brother and Kupchak a few days before the trade deadline, Magic Johnston stepped in, called around, and quickly pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Williams to Houston (the Lakers also got Corey Brewer). Williams has averaged 14.5 points per game and had some strong performances with the Rockets, although he’s still finding his groove with the team on the court. Still, he’s been an upgrade for the Rockets’ bench.

Harden knew he would be, so he did his part to make sure it happened.

Take a look back at just how great Shaq was with the Lakers (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal was as dominant a force as the NBA has ever seen.

His peak years came with the Lakers, when paired with Kobe Bryant one the court — and Phil Jackson manipulating both of them — they won three titles (and arguably would have had more if they stayed together). Those Lakers teams were one of the NBA’s great teams.

Friday night, the Lakers unveil Shaq’s statue at Staples Center. Take a look back at some of Shaq’s Lakers highlights.

 

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”