kobe crutches game 4 ovation

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.

Chris Paul finds brilliant counter to hack-a-DeAndre Jordan (video)

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I originally favored allowing Hack-a-Shaq as the NBA currently does. I found the strategy fascinated – why and when teams would use it and how their opponents would counter.

But it just became too common. Far too many games featured a parade of trips to the line, a boring stretch that made games too long. I thought the intrigue had run its course.

Then, Chris Paul pulled this move last night.

The Clippers guard saw Jonas Jerebko charging toward DeAndre Jordan to commit an intentional foul, so Paul stepped in front of an unsuspecting Jerebko and took the foul himself. That’s sent a good free-throw shooter to the line instead of the dismal Jordan.

Just an awesome heady play by Paul.

PBT Podcast: NBA All-Star Weekend talk, predictions with Sean Highkin

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NBA All-Star weekend descends upon frigid Toronto starting Friday, with everything from the Rookie/Sophomore… er, Rising Stars Challenge on Friday, the Dunk Contest/Three-Point Contest on Saturday, and the main event on Sunday.

Kurt Helin and Sean Highkin of NBC’s ProBasketballTalk break it all down, from Pau Gasol replacing Jimmy Butler to predictions on the Dunk Contest and if anyone can knock off Zach LaVine. Plus, there is plenty of “why Sting?” talk.

PBT will be in Toronto with reports from the event all weekend, so come back early and often for all the latest (plus trade talk, as all the GMs get together in one city where it’s too cold for them to go outside).

As always, you can listen to the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunesdownload it directly here, or you can check out our new PBT Podcast homepage, which has the most recent episodes available. If you have the Stitcher app, you can listen there as well.

Pistons retire Chauncey Billups’ jersey at halftime (VIDEO)

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Moments before his jersey went up to the rafters, Chauncey Billups spoke to the crowd about the night the Detroit Pistons wrapped up the 2004 NBA title by routing the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 5 of the Finals.

“We had one motivation,” he said. “We wanted to win it here at home.”

Billups was the most valuable player in the Finals that year, and he had his No. 1 jersey retired by the Pistons on Wednesday night at halftime of their game against Denver.

He was the second player from that 2004 team honored by the Pistons this year. The Pistons retired Ben Wallace’s jersey last month at a similar ceremony – in front of a packed house on a night Detroit beat Golden State.

There were some empty seats in the upper level Wednesday, but Billups wanted to be honored while the Pistons were playing the Nuggets. Billups is a Denver native and played for the Nuggets for two stints during his career.

“This was by design, only because there’s a lot of people that contributed to my success as a player and as a man, in Denver, my hometown,” Billups said before the game. “There were several dates that I could have chosen. This one obviously stuck out.”

Billups does have a mild regret about his run of success with the Pistons. He figures they could have won more titles.

“I felt like, two and maybe three championships – we were that good,” he said.

Ben Wallace was on hand Wednesday, and so were Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince from the 2004 champions. Pistons great Isiah Thomas was also at the Palace for the ceremony.

“This is what tradition looks like,” Thomas told the crowd. “This is what it feels like.”

Five Takeaways from NBA Wednesday: How ‘Bout them Celtics!

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Traditionally, NBA players treat the last game before the All-Star break like you treated the last day of school before summer vacation. But through the slop, there were some entertaining games on Wednesday, here is what you need to know:

1) If you weren’t taking the Celtics seriously before, the Clippers think you should start. The Boston Celtics are 32-23, have the third-best defense in the NBA, and in their last 10 games are outscoring opponents by 7.9 points per 100 possessions (fifth best in the NBA in that stretch). They are legitimate. Not title contenders, but they are looking like the third best team in the East and a second-round showdown with Toronto could be interesting (especially if Danny Ainge can pull off a big move at the trade deadline — he’s trying). Brad Stevens is earning Coach of the Year votes every time the Celtics step on the court.

The latest sign the Celtics are for real — winning a shootout against the Los Angeles Clippers. Two good defensive teams decided to take the night off on that end, which was entertaining and fit the “last day of school before break” theme. Isaiah Thomas just shredded the Clippers perimeter defense on his way to 36 points and 11 assists (watching how quick he is on the dribble, he’s got to be the favorite at the All-Star Saturday skills challenge). Chris Paul countered with 35 points and 13 assists. It was an old-fashioned, 1980s-style barn burner that went to overtime when the Clippers didn’t score a field goal in the final 3:29 of regulation and the Celtics completed a comeback in a Thomas jumper. In OT, J.J. Redick started out hot, but the Celtics closed hotter and got the win. The one bit of bad news for Boston Kelly Olynyk suffered a shoulder subluxation, he will have the week off to let that rest. (We will now note that happened on the same night Kevin Love suffered a shoulder injury, too. His was just a stinger, and he will be back after the break.)

2) Kawhi Leonard drains game winner to give Spurs another win. A couple of seasons back, when the Spurs motion offense was clicking, with the game on the line they would have run a play, four guys would touch the ball, and they would get a clean look. But this is how much Gregg Popovich trusts Kawhi Leonard now: Tie game with 13.3 seconds remaining, and the play design is a 1-4 flat isolation for Leonard. That’s what you call for LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Popovich called it for Leonard. And he was rewarded with the win.



3) Chauncey Billups got his number retired in Detroit.
There is a 2004 championship banner hanging above the Detroit Pistons court in large part because for a stretch Billups was not only the ultimate leader but played as well as anyone in the league. Just ask Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Wednesday night they honored Billups in the Motor City (well, in Auburn Hills) by retiring his number.

4) Portland beats Houston to take over final playoff spot in the Western Conference. If the playoffs started today, the Trail Blazers would be the eight seed in the West and the Rockets would be golfing. That’s because Portland beat Houston 116-103 to move to .500 and ahead of Houston in the standings by half a game. Houston had some success scoring in the first quarter thanks to some old school Dwight Howard in the post and James Harden on the drive. The problem is, when Portland adjusted and Houston’s offense sputtered, they had no defense to fall back on — Portland scored at will all night. Damian Lillard finished with 31 points, the Trail Blazers had an offensive rating on the night of 115.6, and the Rockets head into the break trying to answer the same questions they had back when Kevin McHale got fired. Houston thinks things can come together, and they can make another playoff run, but a playoff run would be based on defense and the Rockets don’t play four quarters on that end nightly.

5) Suns Markieff Morris, Aaron Goodwin scuffle on bench. After the game — a 112-104 loss to Golden State — Morris said this was no more than two guys as close as brothers having a disagreement. It’s just a little hard considering everything that has gone on in Phoenix this season — including Morris’ poor play and the towel throwing incident with now-fired coach Jeff Hornacek — to think this is not another window into the chemistry problem in the Suns locker room.