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Lakers make it interesting late before eventually falling to Heat

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The Lakers don’t have much in the way of talent these days, and looking at a starting lineup that includes Ryan Kelly, Kendall Marshall and Wesley Johnson may feel like a strong sign that the basketball equivalent of the apocalypse has descended on Los Angeles.

But what the team does have is an above average level of fight and grit under Mike D’Antoni this season that would appear to be tough to muster under the circumstances.

That spirit showed itself again on Thursday, when a Lakers team that seemed to be simply going through the motions for much of the proceedings found a way to turn things around enough to cut a 16-point second half deficit to just four, before ultimately falling to the defending champs by a final of 109-102.

D’Antoni changed up his normal substitution pattern by letting Pau Gasol open the fourth quarter while LeBron James and Chris Bosh were on the bench getting their customary rest to start the period, and Gasol responded by grabbing a couple of steals and getting past Greg Oden for an and-1 finish that cut the Miami lead to just seven. Nick Young followed that up with a layup, and it was a five-point game with under 10 minutes remaining.

The Heat brought James and Bosh back in, and immediately stabilized. But some tough shots made by Young and Jodie Meeks had the Lakers back within four with under three minutes remaining, before a three from James demoralized L.A. and all but sealed the victory.

D’Antoni said afterward that his team’s problem isn’t scoring but defense, and the fact that the Heat shot 10-of-14 from the field (71.4 percent) in the final period when the game was actually tight leads us to believe this was an accurate assessment.

Dwyane Wade missed this one due to soreness in his knees, the fourth straight contest he’s been held out by the team simply to rest. Chris Bosh picked up the slack and led all scorers with 31 points on 15-of-22 shooting, and LeBron added 27 points on 15 shots, to go along with 13 rebounds and six assists.

Nine-year veteran Eric Gordon finally chose his team, and he’s clicking with Rockets

AUBURN HILLS, MI - NOVEMBER 21: Eric Gordon #10 of the Houston Rockets tires to get a shot off against the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills on November 21, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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A New Orleans restricted free agent in 2012, Eric Gordon signed a max offer sheet with the Suns and infamously declared his heart to be in Phoenix.

New Orleans matched anyway.

“I knew it wasn’t going to happen,” Gordon said. “I knew they were going to bring me back all along.”

So why make those statements? Why alienate New Orleans fans?

“You just never know what a team might do or not,” Gordon said.

Gordon been around long enough now to know you never know, even when you’re certain you do. But this much he clearly believes: In his ninth NBA season and on the first team he picked, he’s happy with the Rockets.

Gordon was drafted onto the Donald Sterling, pre-Blake Griffin Clippers, who had made the playoffs just four times in the previous 32 years and had developed a reputation for cheapness and disarray. They went 19-63, 29-53 and 32-50 in Gordon’s three years in Los Angeles. Yet he says, “I enjoyed my time there.”

He was traded to New Orleans as the centerpiece of the Clippers’ package for Chris Paul, and he doesn’t look back on his time with the Hornets/Pelicans quite so fondly. “Nobody was on the same page over there,” Gordon said. “It was just different. We had the talent there, and things just didn’t work out.”

Gordon admits he sometimes wonders what would’ve happened if he had gone to the Suns. But they haven’t made the playoffs and are on their fourth coach since his offer sheet. “After looking back on it now, they had a lot of chaos and turmoil there, too,” Gordon said.

So, Houston is a welcome reprieve.

Gordon’s first unrestricted free agency yielded a four-year contract worth more than $52 million. He’s averaging 17.0 points per game, his highest mark in five years. He has been healthy after after missing 173 games in five years with New Orleans. And the Rockets are 15-7, on pace for what would easily be Gordon’s most successful season.

Playing with James Harden and for Mike D’Antoni – whose fondness for Gordon dates back to their gold-medal run with Team USA in the 2010 World Championship – has treated Gordon well. Houston is focused on offense, Gordon’s specialty, and its system accentuates his strengths.

Gordon leads the NBA with seven open 3-pointers per game, which he’s converting at 41.3% clip:

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Notice the other Rockets on that list: Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza. Benefitting from playing alongside Harden – an attention-tracker and willing passer – is not unique.

But Gordon does more than just rely on Harden to get him open shots. Since moving to the bench with Patrick Beverley healthy, Gordon has proven particularly valuable when Harden sits.

Houston scores 118.7 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor, per NBAwowy!. That mark obviously plummets without Harden, one of the NBA’s best offensive players.

Gordon has prevented it from falling too far, though.

He scores more points per 36 minutes (15.5 to 28.5) and does so with a higher true shooting percentage (56.0 to 62.5) from with Harden to without. He also handles more playmaking, increasing his assists per 36 minutes (2.4 to 4.1), though also, disproportionally, his turnovers per 36 minutes (1.5 to 3.6).

Still, Gordon’s effect on the Rockets’ offense without Harden is tremendously positive.

  • Houston’s offensive rating without Harden – with Gordon: 107.7
  • Houston’s offensive rating without Harden – without Gordon: 86.7

Propping up the Rockets’ Harden-less offense has made Gordon an early contender for Sixth Man of the Year. Here are the win-share leaders among eligible players:

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Given voting history, ranking eligible players by points per game is probably more predictive. It’s at least even more flattering to Gordon:

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Lakers guard Lou Williams deserves to be the early favorite for the award. I’m also quite high on Spurs guard Patty Mills.

But Gordon belongs solidly in the mix.

It might not be the stardom the Clippers predicted when they drafted him No. 7 or New Orleans envisioned when it twice acquired him, but at least Gordon is happily contributing to a winner. After so much controversy – both invited (his Suns saga) and uninvited (being part of the Chris Paul trade) – he sounds happy in Houston.

“You just try to stride it out with whatever team you’re on. So, you know, it’s been a unique situation,” Gordon said. “But here, it’s been good.”

Kyle Lowry to critical DeMar DeRozan: ‘Every shot you shoot is a bad shot, analytic-wise’ (video)

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Your reminder that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the best together.

DeRozan was asked about Lowry’s long 3-pointers after the Raptors’ win over the Timberwolves last night.

  • DeRozan: “”Them shots be lucky. … To me, it’s a bad shot.”
  • Lowry (off camera): “Every shot you shoot is a bad shot, analytic-wise.”

That’s not quite what the analytics say, but I won’t let the facts get in the way of a superb diss.

Gregg Popovich pins Spurs’ effort problems on players: ‘I don’t remember playing tonight’ (video)

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich gives instructions against the Detroit Pistons in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Monday, Oct. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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The Spurs fell behind by 18 and eventually lost to the Bulls, 95-91, last night – which begged the question:

Does San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich bear any responsibility for his team’s lack of early intensity?

Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News:

Popovich:

I don’t remember playing tonight. I didn’t play. Guys get a lot of money to be ready to play. No Knute Rockne speeches. It’s your job. If you’re a plumber and you don’t do your job, you don’t get any work. I don’t think a plumber needs a pep talk. If a doctor botches operations, he’s not a doctor anymore. If you’re a basketball player, you come ready. It’s called maturity. It’s your job.

Like it or not, motivation is part of an NBA coach’s job.

But that’s also precisely what Popovich is doing.

His credentials dwarf any other coach’s. He can play to his own ego and absolve himself of responsibility – and players will seek to please him. His years of success have earned him the ability to motivate this way, a method no other coach could use without alienating his team.

Donatas Motiejunas signing four-year, $35 million contract with Rockets

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  Donatas Motiejunas #20 of the Houston Rockets is helped to his feet by teammates James Harden #13 and Patrick Beverley #2 of the Houston Rockets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Once the Rockets let Donatas Motiejunas back into free agency, this was only a matter of time.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

This sounds remarkably similar to the salaries and incentives set in the original offer sheet from the Nets. But remember, the Rockets didn’t match some of those bonuses that Brooklyn would have been bound to.

So, why not hold Motiejunas to what became a four-year, $31 million offer sheet once matched? Houston got something in return – a later trigger date on guaranteeing Motiejunas’ 2017-18 salary. Originally, that decision had to be made March 1 – which would’ve meant dropping Motiejunas from the team this season to prevent his salary from counting next season. Now, the Rockets can make that call in July, after this season is complete.

The following two Julys, Houston will also have a choice on guaranteeing Motiejunas’ upcoming salary or dropping him.

Essentially, Motiejunas is signing the most lucrative Hinkie Special in NBA history. If he plays well and stays healthy, the Rockets have Motiejunas at an affordable rate. If he struggles or his back injuries flare up, they can drop him with little to no penalty.

After they backed themselves into this corner, Motiejunas and his agent, B.J. Armstrong, didn’t do so bad. Considering the similarity between this contract and the Nets’ original offer sheet, it seems Houston helped Armstrong save face after a bungled free agency (which is easier to accept when you’re adding a talented reserve to a formidable team).

But for how little is guaranteed and how much control the Rockets hold over the next four years, wouldn’t Motiejunas have been better off accepting the $4,433,683 qualifying offer?