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.

Fake Klay Thompson almost steals show in Golden State

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Klay Thompson was everywhere Tuesday night for the Warriors.

He had 16 points, knocked down four threes, and had six boards. He was also chillin’ in the stands enjoying the game.

Well, that was “fake” Klay Thompson in the seats — fully decked out in a Golden State uniform and sitting almost right behind the team bench at Oracle — but the cameras loved him.

Heck, “fake Klay” even had a take on real Klay’s first-half performance.

I wonder if I can get fake Klay to sign my toaster?

76ers’ Markelle Fultz to make NBA debut close to home in Washington

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Markelle Fultz gets to start the next chapter of his career in a familiar setting.

The No. 1 pick in the draft will make his NBA debut for the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night at the Washington Wizards, about a half-hour from home. Fultz grew up in nearby Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in Prince George’s County and played at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and will have many friends, family members and former coaches in attendance.

“Being able to have his first game in his backyard, I’m so happy for him,” said Keith Williams, Fultz’s AAU coach, trainer and mentor. “It’s perfect. It couldn’t have worked out better.”

Not wanting to throw Fultz “into the fire,” Sixers coach Brett Brown is easing the 19-year-old in by bringing him off the bench after missing portions of the preseason with shoulder and knee injuries. Fultz will be just the third top pick since 2003 to be active and not start his season opener, joining Anthony Bennett and Andrea Bargnani.

Fultz said he’s OK with the decision to come off the bench and considers opening in Washington “almost the best thing that could happen” to him. Expectations are high on the University of Washington product, so starting in his backyard is a substantial positive for Fultz, who was cut from his high school team as a sophomore and came back to become a blue chip prospect.

“The world’s going to spin pretty quickly here,” DeMatha coach Mike Jones said. “Sometimes things are going to seem like they’re a blur to him. Him being able to get started on that journey here in front of a lot of people that supported him and looked up to him I think is a great thing.”

Fultz will face 2010 top pick John Wall, and Williams hopes Fultz doesn’t feel too many jitters in his first pro game. Because Brown said Fultz “didn’t play” enough in the preseason, perhaps getting to come off the bench eases some of the pressure.

“At the end of the day, I want to do whatever I got to do to help my team win, so if that’s coming off the bench, I’m fine with that,” Fultz said. “Just contribute in any ways I can.”

Fultz is joining a young Philadelphia team featuring Joel Embiid and 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, who will also be making his NBA debut after missing all of last season with a foot injury. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Fultz is expected to share the ball-handling duties with Simmons, and there’s plenty of intrigue about how he’ll handle the jump.

“I know he’s a strong, athletic point guard that brings a lot of toughness to the game,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “I like what I’ve seen so far, regardless of limited playing time. But he has great size. He has great size, and you can’t teach that. He’s a strong point guard that’s going to have a bright future.”

Williams thinks Fultz, if given opportunities, could average 18 to 20 points a game as a rookie. After seeing Fultz think the game beyond his age, Jones has high expectations for him.

“He’s capable of being one of the best guards in the NBA,” Jones said. “Every year he’s going to get better and better and better. I know that’s his goal, and I’ve learned through the years to never bet against him. I know that he wants to be the best player he possibly can be, and with each passing month of this season, his rookie year, he’s going to push himself to that.”

 

LeBron James on boos Kyrie Irving faced: “It was nothing”

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LeBron James knows about being booed by Cleveland fans — there was more venom thrown his way upon his return to Cleveland after bolting for Miami than Jack Tatum at a Steelers’ or Patriots’ fans bar.

He heard the boos rained down upon Kyrie Irving, upon return to Cleveland after forcing his way off the Cavaliers, and LeBron shrugged. Here is a video of his comments.

“That was nothing. What do you want me to say? I’ve experienced big boos before. That was like a pat on the back. It could never… I love our fans to death. That was nothing.”

To be fair to Cavaliers fans, the gruesome Gordon Hayward injury sucked the air out of the building and made booing someone for changing teams seem petty. The energy in the building was understandably never the same after that.

But even before the injury, this wasn’t the same level of hatred that had been reserved for LeBron before in Cleveland. In part because LeBron handled his exit poorly (not that Irving was smooth, but there were no television shows to broadcast the decision) and LeBron was the native son seen as deserting his family. It was different.

Kyrie Irving had 22 points but, with LeBron guarding him, missed a three-pointer to tie the game, and the Cavaliers won 102-99.

NBA Three Things to Know: Gordon Hayward goes down, Warriors stumble

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Every night in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, like a good Star Wars movie (so not “Phantom Menace”). Every morning we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. That starts with a wild opening night.

1) Celtics season turned upside down with traumatic Gordon Hayward injury. Just 5:15 into his first game as a Celtic, Gordon Hayward suffered as gruesome an injury as you will see on the basketball court — he landed awkwardly on an alley-oop attempt and his ankle was caught under him, ultimately twisting sideways in a way the foot was not meant to do. He suffered a dislocated ankle and a fractured tibia and was instantly flown back to Boston for more evaluation and eventual surgery on the foot.

There is no timeline yet on his recovery, and while some reports out of Boston suggested a sixth-month window that could have him back for the playoffs, that seems optimistic. We don’t know what the doctors will decide, but the Celtics and their Big Kahuna Danny Ainge have always thought long term, about contending not this season but in future ones, and they are not going to rush Hayward back for this postseason. I wish him the best in his recovery, but I’d be surprised to see him this year.

With Hawyard down, the Celtics fought back in the second half Tuesday to make it a game against the Cavaliers, ultimately falling 102-99 (LeBron James had 29 points, 16 rebounds, 9 assists). What we saw in that game was likely what we will see a lot more of this season, a Celtics team that plays a lot like last season’s Celtics just with Kyrie Irving in the Isaiah Thomas role. Irving is going to have a heavy scoring load (22 points in this one) plus be the primary shot creator for others. He doesn’t have a good secondary playmaking option now. Irving’s teammates stepped up in this one, starting with Jaylen Brown who led the Celtics with 25 points.

Celtics’ rookie Jayson Tatum had 14 (he got the start with Marcus Smart still injured). Marcus Smart stepped up some off the bench but was 0-of-4 from three, and as a team the Celtics were 8-of-32 from three (25 percent). This team is still going to take a lot of threes for Brad Stevens, but they are going to make a lot fewer of them now (the nights those shots fall they will be dangerous, the nights they don’t they can lose to anyone). Bottom line: Kyrie Irving can create shots but will the other players knock those shots down consistently? I had this team as a low 50s win squad, this injury probably drops now by five games (at least). They will miss Hayward on both ends of the court.

2) Draymond Green leaves game and Warriors stumble without him, falling to Rockets. Golden State was already without Andre Iguodala, who sat the opener out with back issues, then in the third quarter and with the Warriors consistently holding a lead Draymond Green tweaked his knee coming down on a shot. He was diagnosed with a knee strain, and while it’s not serious — he was not on crutches after the game and is not going to miss much time — he did not return in the fourth quarter of this game.

Without him the Rockets surged — they outscored the Warriors 34-20 in the fourth, they made plays down the stretch, and ultimately beat the Warriors 122-121. James Harden had 27 points and 10 assists, and he was making plays down the stretch, but the Rockets got a strong fourth quarter from Eric Gordon and Luc Mbah a Moute as well, each scoring seven points. The Rockets could not get stops, but they could score with the Warriors and that’s what they did.

The Warriors still almost won thanks to a Kevin Durant game-winner, except it was correctly waived off after review.

Of note for the Rockets, Chris Paul sat the final 4:30 of the game, he has been battling knee issues and wasn’t himself. Don’t be shocked if Mike D’Antoni gives him more time off.

For the Warriors, they got blown out by 29 last season on opening night (San Antonio), they are not going to read much into this loss (nor should they, but 82-0 is dead). What this does show is how much Green means to the team, he’s not their best player but may be their most important. It also shows how, once again, the teams that come back from the NBA’s annual excursion to China take a while to get their legs fully under them again.

3) The Bulls can’t even wait until the regular season to have things go very, very wrong. This was already going to ba a long season for Bulls fans. Yes, Chicago made a good move by ultimately committing to a plan and going all-in on a rebuild, but that doesn’t make the process pretty. The Bulls were going to lose a lot of games and probably be the worst team in the NBA. But they couldn’t wait until Thursday when the season starts for things to go wrong.

Bobby Portis sucker punched Nikola Mirotic, dropping the just re-signed player to the floor with a broken upper jaw and a concussion. According to multiple reports, this started out as a battle for position under the glass during a scrimmage, and that turned into a shoving match — nothing uncommon here so far, those happen all the time on teams. But after the players were separated Portis threw the cheap-shot punch and changed the start of the Bulls season. There are some reports Mirotic lunged at Portis before the punch and this was not a cheap shot, it depends on who you talk to. Not that it matters. The Bulls will likely treat it as one.

Mirotic will be out “weeks” I’ve been told. Portis might have been in line for the starting spot with Mirotic out but not now, he will be punished by the team, likely with a lengthy suspension. This will mean even more minutes for rookie Lauri Markkanen in Chicago.