The Extra Pass: LeBron and Kobe miss each other once again, plus Wednesday’s recaps

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LOS ANGELES — The reason behind the NBA scheduling a Christmas Day marquee matchup between the Heat and the Lakers had nothing to do with the current fate of the respective franchises, and everything to do with potentially getting to see two of the game’s biggest stars competing in a rare head-to-head matchup.

A Finals rematch between Miami and San Antonio might have been more compelling in terms of how this season’s title might ultimately play out, but it’s hard to resist history by scheduling the game’s best player in LeBron James to face the best player of the previous generation in Kobe Bryant.

(It’s valid to argue that Tim Duncan was every bit as good as Bryant in the same era, but personally, I’ll take Kobe every day and twice on Christmas.)

Since LeBron and Kobe have played in separate conferences, the on-court meetings between two of the game’s all-time greats have perhaps been more rare than they should have been. The pair missed playing against one another yet again on Christmas Day, thanks to the recent knee bone fracture that has Bryant sidelined for up to six weeks.

“We understand how historic the franchise is, the Lakers, and what they mean to the league,” James said before his Heat took care of the Lakers on Wednesday. “You take the best player or the franchise player off their team, it speaks volumes. He’s meant so much to the league since he got here in ’96, and his five championships and the rest of his resume and what he’s been able to do for the league and his city, it means a lot. Especially games like today. In marquee games, you definitely want to have the best players out there, and it’s unfortunate that an injury will keep some guys out.”

Bryant and James going head-to-head will always be must-se TV, no matter the situation going on with the pair’s respective franchises. That’s why this matchup was featured in the prime slot on this holiday, one that marks the unofficial start to the NBA season for the majority of the league’s casual fans. But Bryant’s most recent injury prevented this particular meeting, no matter how benign it seemed when it initially took place.

“I was actually watching the game and I saw when it happened,” James said. “And I didn’t think he was going to return to that game. But he did, so I didn’t think too much more about it until I heard the news the next day. There’s a few guys in our league that can come back from anything, and obviously he’s one of them.”

Bryant met the L.A. media before the Christmas Day game tipped, and seemed as determined as ever to make it back. He seemed especially interested in seeing how his Lakers team would match up against the defending champs.

“This was a really big measuring stick,” Bryant said of the matchup against the Heat. “Because of their speed, their activity and their size. I was really looking forward to this game to be able to measure where I was physically, especially with the time frame I came back. I was really looking at this game to measure what I can do and what I can’t do.”

It wasn’t, however, meant to be. Just like the times when the two were so close to meeting on the game’s ultimate stage in the NBA Finals, circumstances intervened to prevent us from seeing one of the all-time great individual matchups.

“It definitely would have been great,” James said, when asked to consider what it would have been like to face Kobe in the Finals. “I think I wanted it, I think he wanted it. I didn’t do my part one year, lost to Orlando in the Conference Finals. So I didn’t do my part to meet him there, and I’m not quite sure what happened in ’07 with the Lakers, but I ended up facing San Antonio. It definitely would have been great to go against him in the Finals, but it never happened, and I don’t know whether it will happen or if it won’t. We’ll see.”

At this point, it would appear to be a long shot. James and the Heat are among the the league’s elite, while the Lakers (with or without Kobe) are merely treading water, hoping just to have a chance at a playoff berth while having no realistic expectations of coming anywhere close to the championship round in the immediate future.

Bryant’s injuries in this, his 18th professional season, have certainly played a part in that. But James, now at the height of his powers and playing in the midst of his prime, is focused on the present. And he isn’t willing to consider his NBA mortality just yet.

“The man above knows how much time he’s going to give me with this game,” James said. “Once he decides I don’t have any more time to give, then I’ll call it quits.”

—Brett Pollakoff

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I generally am not of huge fan of Reggie Miller the analyst but he summed up the mood on twitter after Blake Griffin got ejected for a second technical, when in both cases a Warriors player instigated a flagrant foul on him. No way Griffin should have been tossed (frankly the Andrew Bogut flagrant was really nothing, let alone Griffin’s Tech). It felt like the refs wanted to get control of a game that was in no way out of control. — Kurt Helin

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Bulls 95, Nets 78: Ugh, the Nets. This game was close for two and a half quarters, but when Deron Williams left in the third quarter after tweaking his ankle the Bulls went on a run and were soon up 23. Chicago had a balanced attack with six guys in double figures, led by Taj Gibson’s 20, but you couldn’t watch this game and think anything other than the Nets just are not playing with any real passion or fight right now. — KH

Thunder 123, Knicks 94: Carmelo Anthony was out and with that this game pretty much followed the form we all expected. Kevin Durant started the game 6-of-6 shooting, hitting step-back threes and finishing alley-oops, on his way to 29 points (and he got to rest the fourth). J.R. Smith had 20 points for the Knicks but needed 22 shots to get there, This loss was the worst home loss any team has suffered on Christmas Day in NBA history. — KH

Miami 101, Lakers 95: The banged-up Lakers were actually on top through much of the first half here, going on an 11-0 run and getting 10 first half points from Jodie Meeks. Eventually Miami responded — Chris Bosh had 13 points in the second quarter and the Heat pushed into the lead. LeBron James finished with 19 and Dwyane Wade 23… but the Heat could never fully shake the Lakers. Credit Nick Young and his 20 off the bench, but the Lakers stayed within 10 pretty much the whole way and made the Heat work for it. The Lakers get a nice moral victory, the Heat the actual win. — KH

Rockets 111, Spurs 98: Houston never trailed in this game — they scored the first 6 points, had a 13-0 run later in the first quarter and dropped 40 on the Spurs in the first quarter (Chandler Parsons had 13 of his 21 in the quarter to lead the way). But the spurs chipped away at it as they tend to do, Manu Ginobili being the big spark with 22 points. The Spurs got the Rockets lead down to 5 in the fourth, then James Harden came in and hit four straight shots, scoring 11 in a row and 16 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter to squelch any Spurs comebacks. — KH

Warriors 105, Clippers 103: This game got a little feisty and featured a ridiculous ejection of Blake Griffin, but in the end the Warriors made plays to come from behind in this one. Klay Thompson had 23 points in this one plus a key block on Chris Paul late. David Lee added 23 and 13 rebounds. Chris Paul had 26 for the Clippers but a couple shots at the end to tie and just could not make the plays. Good win for a Warriors team trying to find its groove again. — KH

Hassan Whiteside knows Heat’s problem: Not enough Hassan Whiteside

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In 10 minutes on the court in Game 5, Hassan Whiteside was 0-of-4 from the field, picked up three fouls, and was -14. He couldn’t handle Joel Embiid physically on either end, and Miami had better success against the Sixers big man with Kelly Olynyk or other shooters at the five, pulling Embiid away from the basket some.

In the three games since Embiid returned to the Sixers, when Whiteside was on the court the Heat were outscored by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. For the entire five-game series Whiteside shot just 45 percent (50.5 true shooting percentage, well below the league average). Outside of grabbing some rebounds, Whiteside was not a positive for the Heat against the Sixers.

Whiteside said after the Heat were eliminated the problem was he didn’t get enough of a chance.

That’s not how the playoffs work. When something doesn’t work — and Hassan being able to hang with Embiid clearly did not work, they are not on the same level — coaches don’t have time to let a guy play through it. Time and possessions are too precious in the postseason, if something doesn’t work the coach needs to look for something that does.

Not that if he’d been given “a chance to fight” it would have made a difference. Whiteside likes to think of himself as an elite NBA center near the class of Whiteside. He’s not.

The question is will he be back with Miami next season? On the court, coach Erik Spoelstra appears ready to go another direction. However, trading Whiteside — who is owed $25.4 million next season and has a player option for $27 million the season after that — will not be easy. Teams are not going to want to take on that much salary for Whiteside’s level of production (and style that doesn’t completely mesh with where the game is going for big men). The Heat would have to attach a pick or another player that teams would want, a sweetener in the deal. That may be too rich for Miami to play that hand.

It’s something to watch over the summer. Whiteside and Spoelstra are not on the same page right now and so something needs to change, the question is what?

Off-season priority for Spurs: Meet with Kawhi Leonard, resolve that issue

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There are other questions the San Antonio Spurs have to answer this summer: If Danny Green opts out of his $10 million deal (as many around the league expect him to) how hard do they chase him? Same with Rudy Gay and his $8.8 million option (he is a little more likely to pick it up). Tony Parker is a free agent, do they bring him back, and if so at what price? How do the Spurs add athleticism to this roster, something they clearly needed against the Warriors?

But all of that pales in comparison to the big question:

Can the Spurs mend their relationship with Kawhi Leonard and get back on the same page?

While the Spurs struggled through the first round against the Warriors, Leonard was sealed off from the team, spending time with his inner circle (led by his agent and uncle), seeing his doctors in New York (who did not clear him to play due to a quadriceps tendon issue) and working out at the NBPA facilities there. There is a disconnect right now, one that has other teams around the league planning trade packages in case one of the league’s elite players becomes available. Right now, those teams are being told he is not.

The Spurs want to fix this and keep him in the fold. He is eligible for a “designated veteran” max contract extension of roughly $219 million over six years (the last year of his current deal plus five more at 35 percent of the salary cap, the deal Russell Westbrook and James Harden just got). But before the Spurs put that on the table they want to see where Leonard is at. The goal is a meeting between Popovich and Leonard, as reported by Michael C. Wright of ESPN.

With head coach Gregg Popovich expected to take the lead, the Spurs plan to meet with Leonard over the summer to gauge whether the sides can work out their differences and continue what has been largely a positive and productive partnership, sources said…

While the decision regarding whether to offer Leonard a $219 million super-max extension rests with management — and even the current players, according to a source — ownership ultimately makes the final call. Convincing the team’s former chairman and CEO, Peter Holt, and his wife, Julianna Hawn Holt, could prove to be a difficult sell for general manager R.C. Buford. The couple is currently embroiled in divorce proceedings.

Last summer, Popovich had LaMarcus Aldridge walk into his office and ask to be traded. Popovich smoothed over that relationship, put Aldridge in spots he was more comfortable on the court this year, and the Spurs big man had an All-NBA level season.

The key was Popovich was able to sit down with Aldridge over dinner and talk it out, with both sides having an open mind. Will he get that chance with Leonard?

The players and team management want Leonard back in the fold, and they have the ultimate hammer with that extension — put $219 million on the table and Leonard isn’t walking away from it. The question is will the Spurs even put that offer on the table, and that right now is not clear at all.

All the other decisions around this team hinge on what happens with Leonard — with him they are potential contenders. Without him, a trade package back likely would be loaded with young players and picks that would have the Spurs thinking about a few years down the road more than the immediate future.

Now, Dwyane Wade must decide if this was the end

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MIAMI (AP) — Dwyane Wade‘s first NBA game was in Philadelphia.

His last NBA game may have been there as well.

Retirement is a very real option for Wade, who has been not-so-quietly saying for weeks that he isn’t sure if he’ll be back next season. The offseason is here now, after the Miami Heat were ousted by the 76ers on Tuesday night in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference first-round series, and the face of the franchise may have taken his jersey off for the final time.

He has not decided.

But some of his closest friends believe this could really be the end.

“I appreciate y’all concern,” Wade said in Philadelphia on Tuesday night. “But we’ll worry about that later.”

Of course, his fans want him to come back. One prominent fan — his wife — cast her vote before he even left the floor after Game 5.

No one, not even Wade, knows how long this process will take. He’s going to talk to his wife. He’s going to talk to his kids. He’s going to talk to the Heat, and he’s going to talk to the people within his inner circle that are trusted most.

Wade isn’t a starter, but it could be argued the three-time NBA champion is still Miami’s best player. Wade carried the Heat to victory in Game 2 and got them on the brink of a win in Game 4. He doesn’t run as fast or jump as high as the version of himself known as Flash did, but he’s still capable of delivering big moments.

If Wade is done, the last visions fans will have of his career will be with him in a Heat uniform, still doing his thing. That matters to him. He isn’t Michael Jordan going out in a Washington jersey, or Patrick Ewing playing his last game with Orlando, or Shaquille O’Neal limping away from his NBA finale in Boston colors.

He wouldn’t be going out on top, but he’d be going out in the right uniform and still playing at a high level.

One way or another, his career always was going to end in Heat colors anyway. He wasn’t going out in a Chicago jersey, nor a Cleveland jersey. He had to wear “Heat” across his chest again, and when the Cavaliers traded him to Miami in February, it immediately became obvious that Wade was changing franchises for the final time.

Resume-wise, he’s more than good. He’s got three NBA championships. He’s got an Olympic gold medal. He’s going to the Basketball Hall of Fame. He’s going to go down as one of the best two or three shooting guards in the history of the game. The only guys with as many points, rebounds, assists and blocked shots in their regular season and playoff careers as Wade? Jordan is one, LeBron James is the other.

Here’s something else to consider: Wade has never wanted a farewell tour. He watched Kobe Bryant go through it, noted how much of a grind it was for the Lakers star, and doesn’t want to hear the same questions in every road stop next season.

What’s the motivation to return?

That’s the unknown.

Wade is set financially. So this decision won’t primarily be about money. Even after a brutal divorce and custody battle a few years ago, Wade will never worry about cash. He’s well-invested, has deals that will continue working for him well after his playing days end, and will make millions next year whether he’s wearing sneakers or suits.

The Heat have serious cap challenges and won’t have a bank-breaking deal to offer Wade this summer. He won’t play for the minimum. He won’t get anywhere near the maximum. For him to return, it’ll have to be worth his while. He spends a ton of money to keep his body right. And if Wade can make more off the court than on it next year, it might make sense for him to retire.

Plus, put simply, Wade wants more time with his family.

His oldest son, 16-year-old Zaire, is finishing his sophomore year of high school. Zaire can play. He gets attention because of his father’s name, but his game is real. The next couple years will be critical to his development as a ballplayer, and his dad wants to have the time to share as much wisdom as he can.

So clearly, there are good reasons for Wade to retire.

But he can still play. And that might be the reason to come back, one more time.

 

Warriors eliminate Spurs, advance to face Pelicans

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Kevin Durant drained a pull-up 3-pointer reminiscent of his signature NBA Finals shot in the final minute of the third quarter. The Spurs ended the quarter with a flurry and kept coming.

Durant made consecutive mid-range jumpers over Kyle Anderson midway through the fourth quarter. The Spurs called timeout, subbed  Rudy Gay for Anderson and kept coming.

Durant drove past Gay and dunked. The Spurs called another timeout and kept coming.

Each of those Durant shots seemed as if they could be the backbreaker. Credit San Antonio for continuing to play hard.

But without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were just overmatched against the superstar small forward in the Warriors’ 4-1 first-round victory – which ended with Golden State’s 99-91 Game 5 win Tuesday.

The Warriors’ next opponent – the Pelicans, who open their second-round series Saturday – could soon learn the feeling.

New Orleans relies on E'Twaun Moore, Darius Miller and Solomon Hill at small forward – not the slate of stoppers that seems ready for Durant. Even on an off night (1-for-8 on 3-pointers, five turnovers), Durant scored 25 in Game 5. He’s a tough cover. But those three Pelicans – Moore (size), Miller (fundamentals) and Hill (speed) – each have major defensive liabilities Durant can exploit.

And Durant will have plenty of help.

Klay Thompson (24 points) appears headed back on track after a clunker in Game 4. Draymond Green (17 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists) looks locked in.

And, of course, Stephen Curry is poised to return sometime against the Pelicans.

The Warriors weren’t very impressive in the San Antonio series. Nor did they need to be. The Spurs were just overmatched, unable to summon nearly enough offense.

But Golden State showed enough focus and reminders of its talent to retain favored status even against better opponents – like New Orleans, which swept the Trail Blazers. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday lead a surging team.

The Spurs want to get back on that level, and that stars with solving the Leonard dilemma this summer.

Will they offer him a super-max extension? Would he take it? Will they trade him? Will he request a trade?

With questions like that facing San Antonio, by comparison, the Pelicans are stable at small forward.