Kobe is back but loss to Raptors shows Lakers still have a lot of work to do

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LOS ANGELES — Kobe passed the first challenge he has set before himself.

Eight months of never-ending therapy sessions and workouts to return to the court paid off — Kobe is back. He was introduced with Darth Vader’s theme music and Staples Center was buzzing like it was a playoff game. Kobe was on the court with the ball in his hands, particularly in the fourth quarter. It was what the Lakers nation had been waiting to see.

But what they saw wasn’t pretty.

“Right now my form is a horse s— form,” Bryant said bluntly after the game.

Fixing that and getting in sync with his teammates is the next challenge Kobe has to set his mind to.

Kobe said physically he felt right, but he looked understandably very rusty — like a guy who hadn’t played in an NBA game for eight months after Achilles surgery at age 35. Kobe was 2-of-9 shooting with eight turnovers. He led a group Lakers starters that shot 25 percent — not one of them scored in double digits.

Which is why the Lakers fell to the Raptors 106-94 to spoil Kobe’s much anticipated return.

This kind of rough start had to be expected (at least by anyone not seeing the world through purple and gold glasses). Not only was Kobe bound to be rusty but also the Lakers were going from a team where the ball was often in Steve Blake’s hands to one where Kobe controlled the flow of the offense.

“I felt good that I was able to get into the lane…” Kobe said after the loss. “I felt like I could penetrate and turn the corner, which was a big question mark for me. And then once I got in there I didn’t make the proper reads most of the time, but the fact of the matter I was able to get in there. The reads you can improve, the explosiveness you can’t.”

The other Lakers players (particularly the starters) were simply hesitant and guys were passive when Kobe was on the court. It wasn’t so much guys were just watching him (as has been an issue in the past) as much as just the movements in the offense were out of sync.

“We’re all trying to get used to playing with one another,” Lakers starting center Robert Sacre said. “It’s definitely been growing pains. I think we can handle it, nothing we haven’t seen before…

“I think it’s going to take a couple of games and unfortunately it’s not some easy games we’ve got coming down the pipe.”

The Lakers may not have a few games (they play the Suns Tuesday night followed by a four game road trip which includes Oklahoma City). In the deep Western Conference the 10-10 Lakers are the 10 seed and 1.5 games out of the playoffs. While it’s early and that’s not much, they can’t dig a much deeper hole if they plan to climb out of it and make the postseason because other teams are going to step over them. There is little forgiveness for slumps in the West.

Kobe showed some moments where he looked like his old self. For example his first bucket came with a pump fake lefty 10-foot bank with 5:07 left in second that was vintage. Late in the second quarter he used his jab step to create space for an 18-footer he nailed.

But mostly early we saw facilitator Kobe — and that is where the rust and lack of having played with guys through training camp and 19 games to start the season showed. Kobe was turning the ball over, clearly just not used yet to the speed of the NBA game and where the lanes to make passes would appear.

“He was as good as he can be, it’s going to take a while,” coach Mike D’Antoni said, repeating the mantra you heard from anyone in the Lakers locker room. “There’s no way he could do that, I know everybody thought he could but no way he could be out eight months, have no training camp, and come out and be in mid-season form.

“We knew that, which is why we needed the other guys needed to step up around him and we didn’t do that.”

What the Lakers did do was hide Kobe Bryant on defense — he guarded Landry Fields to start and later Steve Novak. He got switched onto DeMar DeRozan a few times and while he got an early steal that way generally that was a good matchup for the Raptors.

There were a lot of good matchups for the Raptors, particularly anyone in white trying to cover Amir Johnson who led Toronto with 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting. Toronto got 60 points in the paint with Johnson muscling his way in and DeRozan slashing his way (26 points). Without Rudy Gay (traded earlier in the day) Toronto moved the ball well and the Lakers had no good answers on that end.

Kobe knows the Lakers need to turn this around quickly. And planning to do his part of that in the most Kobe of ways.

“I couldn’t wait to start watching film and criticizing every little thing and I’ll go home tonight and watching over again, but that’s the exciting part,” Bryant said. “The exciting part is you got a challenge and you got some improvements to make and you sit and you watch them and you break it down and you get ready for the next game and carry it from there.”

It’s the next challenge and Kobe is ready for it. The fact that Kobe was back on the court just 240 days after having his Achilles torn is an accomplishment of a high magnitude. And some were able to really appreciate that.

“It’s my first time playing with Kobe, it’s something I can tell my son,” Shawne Williams said. “It was history to me.”

But Kobe is not one to dwell on history. He wants the next mountain to climb.

Timberwolves to unveil new logo at final home game

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The Timberwolves’ were the trendy pick for a breakout team this season with Tom Thibodeau coaching Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine.

Instead, Minnesota fell flat. At, 28-42 the Timberwolves will miss the playoffs for the 13th straight year – the NBA’s longest active postseason draught.

But they’ve shown progress lately and could carry that momentum into next season.

It’ll be a fresh start in at least one way.

Timberwolves release:

The Minnesota Timberwolves begin a new chapter in their franchise history by unveiling a new team logo as part of Fan Appreciation Night at Target Center on Tuesday, April 11. The Wolves will conclude the home portion of their regular season schedule that evening by hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder at 7 p.m.

The logo will be unveiled during a special halftime show and all fans in attendance will receive a commemorative t-shirt with the new identity featured.

While the new identity won’t fully take effect until the 2017-18 season, the unveiling marks only the fourth identity in the franchise’s 28-year history.  The announcement is also the beginning of an eventful summer as the Wolves brand continues to evolve. There will be several future announcements regarding the unveiling of the new team uniforms, new court designs and additional events throughout the coming months.

I’m glad these uniforms are coming out next year. I always enjoy when a style change coincides with a team changing on the court, and it seems the Timberwolves could truly do that.

Shaq on flat-earth claim: ‘I’m joking, you idiots’

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After Kyrie Irving claimed the Earth is flat, he doubled down and insisted he truly believed that.

After Shaquille O’Neal claimed the Earth is flat

Shaq on Art of Charm (hat tip: Ben Rohrbach of Yahoo Sports):

The Earth is flat. Would you like to hear my theory?

The first part of the theory is, I’m joking, you idiots. That’s the first part of the theory.

This world we live in, people take things too seriously. But I’m going to give the people answers to my test. Knowing that I’m a funny guy, if something seems controversial or boom, boom, boom, you’ve got to have my funny points on, right? So now, once you have my funny points on, that should eradicate and get rid of all your negative thoughts, right? That’s what you should do when you hear Shaquille O’Neal’s statement, OK? You should know that he has funny points right over here, and what did he say? The guy had, boom, boom, boom. Add the funny points. You either laugh, or you don’t laugh. But don’t take me seriously. When I want you to take me seriously, you will know by the tone of my voice that I’m being serious.

Shaq is excellent at drawing attention to himself. The only surprise is that he didn’t keep this ruse up longer.

If Irving is pulling our collective legs to put the focus on him, at least credit the Cavaliers guard for maintaining the story longer. That Shaq lasted only a few days is revelatory.

Earl Watson, amid UCLA rumors, says ‘main focus’ is with Suns

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At least the college-coaching rumors surrounding the Celtics’ Brad Stevens and Thunder’s Billy Donovan are about an actual vacancy: Indiana.

With Suns coach Earl Watson, it’s a step removed.

But here’s the gambit: UCLA coach Steve Alford is an Indiana alum, and many believe he’ll fill the Hoosiers’ opening. That’d leave UCLA in the market for a new coach – maybe Watson, an alum.

Watson, via Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic:

“There’s no doubt that I love my school,” Watson said. “It took me out of a poverty situation and gave me hope. The school is an amazing place. I feel like it saved me. But I also feel like (former Memphis coach) Hubie Brown saved me in another way. Playing for the Utah Jazz, they were there during a difficult part of my personal life and they helped me a ton. And then, of course, the San Antonio Spurs, after the death of my brother, the love they gave me is what I needed most, and that love is genuine. So you have different points in your life where people and groups come into your life and none of them are family and they impact you for the positive.”

At the same time:

“I’m more focused on creating value for our (organization), to give management and ownership many options to build a championship contender here,” Watson said. “What I mean by that is, building the value of the young players so that their value and their game and their confidence give them the option to be financially secure in this league when they become free agents; giving our ownership the option to build around them or give ownership and management the option to make moves because their value is so high to put us in contention quicker. That’s all I can do is build value. The winning will happen. There’s a lot of questions with our program, but one thing I do realize is these players are playing amazing for their age. I love them, they’re like my little brothers. My main focus is here.”

There’s little evidence Watson is a good NBA coach. He’s 31-73 in a season and a half in Phoenix, and his players have looked especially undisciplined.

That said, the Suns are very young. Maybe they’d look even more undisciplined under another coach.

Watson’s player-development experience could suit him well for college. As little as he’s done to prove he’s a good NBA coach, he hasn’t done much to prove he’s a bad NBA coach, either.

If Alford bolts, Watson’s history with UCLA probably warrants an interview if he wants it. But if I were the Bruins, I’d also consider other candidates.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim keeps fabricating NBA draft stats

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Sophomore forward Tyler Lydon declared for the NBA draft, which Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim seized as an opportunity to spew more nonsense.

Connor Grossman of The Daily Orange:

Boeheim cautioned Lydon about jumping into the NBA Draft now, knowing he lacked the “monster year” it would’ve taken for him to get lottery pick consideration.

“He didn’t demonstrate this year that he can be a lottery pick,” Boeheim said, “but next year I know he can be. That’s what I told him. I think he can come back here and demonstrate that he can be a lottery pick.

“I think it’s a better way to go to the NBA. You make money, they draft you high, they play you. Half the picks between 20-30 are out of the league within three years.”

We don’t yet know whether anyone drafted in 2014 or later will last more than three years in the NBA. So, let’s examine the prior 10-year period: 2004-2013. I exempted Nikola Mirotic, who jumped late to the NBA and is in his third season right now (even though I’d be shocked if he’s not in the NBA next season).

In that span, 22% of players picked between 20-30 were out of the league within in three years.

That’s not even half of Boeheim’s stated figure.

A third of those picks who washed out so quickly were international players. NBA teams are pretty good at scouting and developing college players, who face fewer hurdles in translating to the to the league. So, Lydon being projected to go in the first round means something.

The most recent college player picked in this range to fall out of the league, Perry Jones, got paid for a fourth season. Even the cases that count for Boeheim are poor examples.

And who’s to say Lydon would develop into a lottery pick if he stayed another year at Syracuse? The only guarantee would be missing an opportunity at a year of NBA earnings. Lydon’s stock could fall, a precarious possibility for someone who doesn’t excel at creating shots. Lydon can develop with an NBA team, maybe even spending time in the D-League – while earning far more than the college-sports cartel allows.

Boeheim’s self-serving approach is painfully evident. He enriches himself on the backs of young college players, and when the most talented among them leave early, that hurts his stature. So, he makes up bogus figures in attempt to get what he wants.

It’s shameful.