Kobe says he was ‘fighting back tears’ following ovation from Staples Center crowd after surgery

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The vast majority of days that I work in arenas covering live events, I am not subjected to filing a game story on deadline. It’s by far the worst part of the industry, and it’s what many of the best writers covering the NBA face on a daily basis out of necessity as part of their gigs working for newspapers around the country.

The online model is quite different, and the details will be spared here and saved for another time. But immediacy is rarely required unless something monumental occurs, so usually the first story can wait for some depth, context, and texture from the players involved speaking in post-game locker rooms long after the final buzzer has sounded.

On the afternoon of Sunday, April 28, however, there was no reason to wait. The Lakers were getting predictably shellacked in Game 4 of their first round playoff series against the Spurs, and the game was effectively over early in the second half. The brief initial story was done before the final buzzer, and only a couple of minor details needed to be included for the sake of accuracy.

The first was Dwight Howard intentionally getting ejected in a blowout of an elimination game, in what at the time appeared to be (and ultimately was) his last in a Lakers uniform. That moment was a microcosm of how he handled his entire season in Los Angeles, so it was somewhat fitting that he ultimately chose to bail on his teammates before the game was officially finished.

But there was a more important moment following Dwight’s ejection, and one that will resonate much longer than Howard’s ill-fated stint in Los Angeles.

Kobe Bryant emerged from the locker room on crutches after Howard had departed, early in the third quarter with the Lakers down by 30-plus points and the game having already been decided.

It was his first appearance since undergoing surgery to repair the torn Achilles that ended his season, and the Staples Center fans responded with a loud and passionate greeting that drowned out the disappointing basketball being played by what was left of their team on the floor below. 

Bryant was affected by the emotional outpouring, as detailed in a fantastic piece by Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated:

As he limps out, center Dwight Howard cruises in. “What the f— is going on?” Bryant asks a trainer. “Dwight got ejected,” he is informed. In the retelling, Bryant waits eight seconds to utter another word, looking as if he might literally bite his tongue. “Sports have a funny way of doing s— like that,” he says.

L.A. is about to be swept and Howard is about to leave for Houston, where he will forfeit $30 million and avoid discomfort. But Bryant is the rare modern athlete whose presence can transcend playoff results and free-agent decisions. Sometimes, just seeing him is enough. “The long year, the injuries, the Shaq stuff, the Phil stuff, it all came to a head when I walked out to the bench,” says Bryant, who was serenaded with a standing ovation and MVP chants. “It was the first time I ever felt that kind of love from a crowd. Oh, my God, I was fighting back the tears.”

It could be argued that Bryant has received that kind of love from the hometown faithful plenty of times over the 17 years he’s played in Los Angeles. But every time previously, it was in response to his on-court heroics, so in his mind, the adulation was deserved.

Only in this rarest of moments of vulnerability was Bryant truly moved by the reception he received.

Dennis Schroder insists reeling Hawks OK despite seven-game skid

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ATLANTA (AP) — Dennis Schroder insists the Atlanta Hawks will be fine when their three injures starters return.

The point guard also believes the Eastern Conference playoff standings are too tight for the Hawks to wait for Paul Millsap, Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha to return from their injuries.

Schroder said the Hawks must snap their seven-game losing streak with their current limited roster, which will be without the three starters for at least one more game.

“I’m saying now we have to change something,” Schroder said Monday. “We can’t wait until they come back. Maybe it’s too late then.”

The Hawks are in a three-way tie for fifth in the Eastern Conference playoff standings. They are only 2 games ahead of eighth-place Miami, which currently has the final playoff spot, and 2 + ahead of ninth-place Chicago.

The Hawks see they could drop out of the playoff standings if they don’t quickly end the losing streak.

“The NBA isn’t easy,” Schroder said. “You’ve got to win games to make it in the playoffs.”

Coach Mike Budenholzer said Millsap, the four-time All-Star who has missed five straight games with left knee tightness, and the other two injured starters will not play in Tuesday night’s home game against Phoenix.

Bazemore, who has missed four straight games with a right knee bone bruise, said he hopes to return for Wednesday’s game at Philadelphia.

Sefolosha, held out against the Nets with a right groin strain, was seen working on an elliptical machine at the portion of Monday’s practice open to media. There is no timetable on Millsap’s return.

Before the losing streak, which matches the team’s longest of the season, the Hawks were competing with Toronto for the fourth seed in the East and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Home-court advantage is now a distant dream.

Atlanta is tied with Milwaukee and Indiana for fifth following Sunday’s 107-92 loss to New Jersey, which owns the NBA’s worst record.

The latest ugly loss left Atlanta in what Bazemore described as “a dark time.” Even so, he insists the players’ spirit is not broken.

Bazemore pointed to players taking extra shots after practice and said “My teammates are still laughing. … We’re still alive and kicking.”

Budenholzer’s message is for players to avoid trying to do too much to fill the void left by the injured starters.

“I think to some degree we’re all pressing,” Budenholzer said. “Coaches pressing, each guy individually. It comes from actually a good place. They want to win. They want to have success and it’s just remembering that the best way for us to have success is to do it as a group and do it together.”

Budenholzer said rookie Taurean Price, who had 17 points, six rebounds and three steals in his first start against the Nets, likely will remain in the lineup against Phoenix.

Ersan Ilyasova and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined to make only 8 of 30 shots against the Nets. Atlanta’s depleted bench was outscored 46-7 by the Nets’ backups.

Budenholzer said Bazemore is “very close” to playing and could be cleared after “another good day.”

Bazemore said has done “pretty much everything” on the court in testing his knee, including change-of-direction drills.

“I’m starting to feel good,” Bazemore said. “… Things are trending in the right direction.”

Sixers’ Ben Simmons throws down impressive dunk in pregame workout (VIDEO)

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Consider this a look at what might have been this past season. Or a look into what will be next season.

Philadelphia has shut No. 1 pick Ben Simmons down for the season as they wait for the Jones fracture in his foot to heal properly, but he is traveling with the team and working out on its current road trip. Before the game in Indianapolis, Simmons got in a workout on the court.

Then casually threw down a between-the-legs, off the backboard self alley-oop.

What does that mean? Nothing. Other than next season in Philadelphia could be a lot of fun.

Serge Ibaka says he asked Magic to play more small ball with him at center

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The Magic traded Victor Oladipo and the rights to Domantas Sabonis for Serge Ibaka then, after a failed half season in Orlando, flipped an unhappy Ibaka for a lesser shooting guard (Terrence Ross) and a lesser draft pick (the lower of the Raptors’ and Clippers’ first-rounders).

What went wrong in Orlando?

The Magic built a roster overloaded on big men, forcing Ibaka to play power forward nearly exclusively, next to Bismack Biyombo or Nikola Vucevic. It a bad plan that worked predictably poorly.

And Ibaka indicates he knew it would, asking Orlando coach Frank Vogel to play more center.

Ibaka, via Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:

“At some point, I spoke with Coach about playing small ball,” Ibaka said. “At some point, he agreed with me. But we never did it. We never did it.”

The Magic used Ibaka just 88 minutes with neither Biyombo nor Vucevic on the court, per nbawoy!. Orlando played opponents even in that span — not bad for a team that has been for a team that been outscored by 6.3 points per 100 possessions, better than only the Nets and Lakers, this season.

But reducing minutes of Biyombo and Vucevic would have created its own complications. They wouldn’t have been happy to sit.

One way or another, this roster was going to cause problems. That’s why Orlando general manager Rob Hennigan is on the hot seat.

Report: Becky Hammon rejects offer to become Florida women’s head coach, stays with Spurs

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Becky Hammon, the NBA’s first female full-time coach, faced an intriguing choice: Remain a Spurs assistant or become the head coach of Florida’s women’s basketball team.

She apparently chose the former.

Mike Robinson of Swish Appeal:

Hammon has decided she will not take the coaching position at Florida. Instead, she will remain an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs under Gregg Popovich.

The Florida job would’ve offered a higher salary and full charge of a program.

It also would’ve taken her further from her goal of becoming the NBA’s first female head coach.

Perhaps unfairly, it would have been too easy for NBA teams to forget about Hammon if she returned to women’s basketball. Her road is already difficulty enough. An opportunity for teams to typecast her as only a women’s-basketball coach could’ve debilitated her NBA-coaching prospects

Hammon still faces a long road, but the more time she spends coaching men, the more barriers she erases. Her staying in San Antonio goes a long way toward normalizing the idea of women coaching in the NBA.