With Kobe’s return on horizon, so is shift in Lakers’ identity

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LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant is back practicing with the Lakers (as of this past weekend), creating a lot of buzz around the team. However that doesn’t mean his return to the court is imminent. Kobe said previously it likely would be two to three weeks after he returned to practice that he could play again, but around the Lakers caution and vague timetables remain the order of the day.

“He’s a presence, no doubt, and we need that presence, especially at the end of games,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said Sunday. “But we’ve got games to win and there’s going to be a bunch of them before he comes back. “

Still, his return begs another question:

What will be the Lakers’ identity when he returns?

They are just starting to find something resembling an identity now. They are up-tempo (fourth fastest in NBA) with solid shooters running to the arc. They move the ball well and defend better than people think (17th in the NBA). They are playing a D’Antoni style.

But D’Antoni understands that changes when Kobe gets back on the court

“The identity (now) is going to be we have to play full out for 48, and then Kobe comes back and the identity changes, so we’re OK,” D’Antoni said. “We just need to win as many as we can, get as good as we can, and then try to get some guys back that causes the identity changes a little bit….

“I just hope our identity will be a good team.”

To quote Andy Dufresne: “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” Thing is, Dufresne also had a plan of action to make the hope a reality. We’ll see if D’Antoni and the Lakers have that kind of plan.

Kobe — even a 35-year-old Kobe coming off an Achilles tendon surgery — should help a mediocre offense (25th in the NBA), in part because they don’t get to the free-throw line as much. The Lakers offense doesn’t have a focal point, something that hurts them in tight contests. Kobe brings that.

But right now the ball moves. You could see against the sad Pistons’ defense Sunday — there is something forming there. The question is: Can that seed take root when the force of nature that is Kobe Bryant returns? Or will it get blown away?

Put another way, will the Lakers have to adjust their identity upon his return?

“We don’t have to,” said Wesley Johnson. “I think he’s a very intelligent player and he’ll already know how to fit in, and then with him, he’s just going to play right with us. It’s going to be good, this whole week of practice we’ll see what’s going to happen, but we’re improving and ready to welcome him back with open arms.”

There’s a sense around the Lakers that if they can stay around .500 (they are 5-7 right now) until they get Kobe back (and hopefully Steve Nash) then everything will work itself out.

I’m skeptical it’s that simple. You are introducing a new dynamic to the team and one that doesn’t necessarily fit with the running style seen so far. We have seen the scenario of a ball-dominating player returning from injury to a D’Antoni team before. Remember Carmelo Anthony returning to the “Linsanity” Knicks? This is a different situation — these Lakers aren’t playing as well as those Knicks and Kobe is a more versatile player than ‘Melo — but you wonder if the same kind of difficult adjustment period is ahead of the Lakers.

That’s not how the Lakers see it at all. They just want Kobe back, the sooner the better.

“All I did was watch him growing up,” Nick Young said. “Now I’m going to try to play my role as best I can, I know he’s going to need me….

“We just deal with (the changes) when it happens. I don’t know, I haven’t played with him, but I know it’s going to be fun to see.”

That it is. That it is.

Joel Embiid blocks and stares down Donovan Mitchell, who then pushes flopping 76ers center (video)

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Joel Embiid (when healthy) is running wild over the NBA.

Last night was no different, with Embiid (15 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, two blocks +16) excelling in the 76ers’ 107-86 win over the Jazz. And he let Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell know about it.

After blocking Mitchell in the fourth quarter, Embiid stared down a fallen Mitchell. Mitchell got up and pushed Embiid – listed at nine inches and 35 pounds heavier – to the floor.

Embiid, via NBC Sports Philadelphia:

I flopped, and he got a technical for it. So, that was basically how it happened. But it’s all fun. After the game, we shook hands. It’s just about having fun.

Embiid is having fun. That’s for sure.

LeBron James, Tyronn Lue say LeBron’s minutes no big deal

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LeBron James was on the court a very reasonable 27:16 Monday night, only because the Cavaliers had thrashed the upstart Pistons so badly he didn’t need to play the fourth quarter (116-88 final in that one).

However, on the season LeBron is averaging 37.9 minutes per game, the most in the NBA. He has played 644 total minutes, also tops in the NBA. All this in his 15th year in the league, about to turn 33, with more regular season games played in his career than Michael Jordan. Even Draymond Green has wondered about LeBron’s workload. LeBron himself didn’t disagree, saying the goal is to get the minutes down.

However, as this has become a thing, the Cavaliers are playing it down. Here is Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue after the Detroit win, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I hear about that all the time,” a somewhat perturbed Lue said. “I played with Michael Jordan when he was 39, he played 37 minutes a night. Karl Malone was 37, played 38 minutes a night, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe [Bryant]. Everybody’s built different. If you’re one of the greats, sometimes you’ve got to play, sometimes you get rest like tonight.”

The way Kobe’s body broke down on him at the end of his career, is he the guy you want as an example here?

LeBron was not that worried about his minutes after the Detroit win, either.

“You make so much a big thing about my minutes,” James said. “It’s not a huge issue. But at the end of the day, when we can get a win like this, everybody benefits from it. Not just me. Everybody.”

The concern isn’t just the heavy minutes, but the workload — with Isaiah Thomas still out, and right now Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert as well, basically all the playmaking duties on the team fall on LeBron. He has to carry the Cavs.

With most players, you would say this will distinctly wear on them and could be an issue down the line. With LeBron, normal human rules do not apply. He’s playing at MVP consideration level again early — 28.3 points, 8.5 assists, and 7.4 rebounds a game while shooting 58.2 percent from the floor — and nothing seems to slow him. Maybe eventually the Cavaliers will play well enough consistently there will be more light nights for LeBron, and he can have some games off. For now, however, they need him on the court and performing like a superstar.

Three Things to Know: The streaks continue, the Celtics keep winning, Clippers keep losing

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Celtics need overtime, Kyrie Irving to be dominant with 47 points, but win streak reaches 16. It was the team with the best record in the league against the team with the worst record — that meant Boston was either going to blow Dallas out, or Boston was going to look past Dallas and get itself in trouble. This game was the latter. For the third game in a row, Boston had to come from double-digits down to win and keep its streak alive — Brad Stevens called that “resilient” after the game. Either that or living very dangerously.

The Celtics raced out to a 15-point first quarter lead thanks to a hot start from Kyrie Irving, who had 25 points in the first half.

Then Boston took its foot off the gas. Harrison Barnes had 19 points over the second and third quarters, and Dallas chipped away at the lead, eventually retaking it. After a 10-2 run early in the fourth, Dallas led by 13.

The Celtics responded with a 22-9 run and eventually forced overtime. Marcus Smart was making defensive plays and some impressive passes, while Irving and Jayson Tatum (15 points on the night) were getting buckets. With the game close late, then into overtime, Irving took charge — he had 10 points in OT to get to 47 on the night. He has been clutch all season.

The Celtics win streak has been living on borrowed time in recent games (Barnes had a good look at an 18-foot fadeaway to win it in regulation for Dallas, but missed). Boston’s defense — which was fantastic down the stretch against Dallas after some sloppy stretches — and Irving have kept it afloat. But even when the streak — now the fourth longest in Celtics’ history — does end, it will be remembered as the time this Boston team stepped up as a contender. This team has announced its presence ready for the NBA’s biggest stages.

2) On the other side, Clippers losing streak reaches nine after 22-point loss to Knicks. First, let’s give the Knicks their due — this team is playing quality basketball. Better than I (and many) expected out of them season. Kristaps Porzingis has taken a step forward as the face of the franchise, doing whatever it takes to get them wins. Also Enes Kanter has given them buckets and boards they need, Jarrett Jack has been a steadying force at the point, and each night someone else steps up, such as Doug McDermott with 16 on Monday night.

However, beating the Clippers right now is no feat — Los Angeles has lost nine in a row and the wheels have come off.

The Clipper offense isn’t bad when the ball moves and players move off it, but they don’t do that consistently, falling back into habits of isolation and “you take a turn, then I take a turn” that they don’t have the talent to pull off. However, that’s not the real problem — their defense is a disaster. The effort is not there, and through the last nine games Los Angeles has the worst defense in the NBA, allowing 110 points per 100 possessions. Injuries play a part in this, no Danilo Gallinari or Milos Teodosic in this game forces Wesley Johnson and Austin Rivers into starting roles, and that thins the bench. But the best teams overcome injuries and still have effort and a system that works, the Clippers do not.

Doc Rivers’ seat has to be getting warm. How long he would be around after he was stripped of his GM powers over the summer was a fair question, but Rivers is making more than $10 million a year and his contract runs through the summer of 2019 — that’s a lot of money for even Steve Ballmer to eat. However, there will come a time he may be willing to do that, and if the Clippers keep playing like this the question is not “if” but “when.”

3) Boogie Cousins ejected. Russell Westbrook with triple-double. Pelicans still win. If I told you that first DeMarcus Cousins would get ejected for elbowing Russell Westbrook in the head (not the most flagrant 2 I’ve seen, but the league has cracked down on blows to the head).

Then I told you Westbrook stayed in the game and got a triple-double (22 points, 16 rebounds, 12 assists), you would think that the Thunder picked up a road win in New Orleans.

You’d be wrong. The late-game woes that have plagued the Thunder all season — an offense that becomes isolation heavy, and a defense that is 10.6 points per 100 possessions worse in the fourth quarter than the rest of the game — came back to bite them. Again. The Thunder raced out to a 25-6 lead but had given all that back by the middle of the second quarter. Then down the stretch, OKC again could not execute.

Meanwhile, Anthony Davis put up 36 points and 15 boards, 14 of his points came in the fourth as OKC had no answers for him, and without Cousins, Davis carried the Pelicans to the 114-107 win.

Irving’s 47 lead Celtics past Mavericks to maintain streak

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DALLAS (AP) — Kyrie Irving scored 10 of his season-high 47 points in overtime as the Boston Celtics rallied once again from a double-digit deficit to beat the Dallas Mavericks 110-102 on Monday night and extend their winning streak to 16 games.

The Mavericks led by as many as 13 points in the fourth quarter, but as they have several times during their winning streak, the Celtics stormed back.

The winning streak ties the fourth-longest in Celtics history.

Boston tied the game at 96 when Irving stole the ball from Dirk Nowitzki and fed Jayson Tatum for an alley-oop lay-up that hung on the rim for a full second before dropping through.

Irving scored his team’s first six points of overtime. Then after Jaylen Brown gave Boston a 104-102 lead with a jumper with 1:39 to play, Irving went to work on Yogi Ferrell, backing him down and drawing contact on a lay-up with 48.5 seconds to play. Though Irving missed the free throw to keep the score 106-102, Dallas never got closer.

Harrison Barnes scored 31 points and Wesley Matthews had 18 for Dallas, which came back from an early double-digit deficit as the Celtics went cold for much of the second and third quarters.

Irving and Barnes had chances in the final 30 seconds but both missed shots that would have given their teams the lead.

The Mavericks fell behind by as many as 15 points in the first half, outscoring the Celtics 55-35 over the second and third quarters.

Dallas took its biggest lead of the game when Yogi Ferrell fed a cutting Dwight Powell for a lay-up to make it 87-74 with 7:47 to play before the Celtics rallied.

Boston shot just 10-for-34 over the two middle quarters after building the early lead.