LeBron James

Heat grind out a win against pesky Suns


Kevin Durant may very well win the MVP this season, due to a combination of the incredible individual performances he’s strung together along with the voter fatigue that surrounds LeBron James.

But it won’t be because James has slipped, even in the slightest.

Tuesday night in Phoenix, LeBron put together a performance that reminded us just how good he can be, leading the Heat to a 103-97 win over a pesky Suns team that wouldn’t go away until the final buzzer had sounded.

Miami was without Dwyane Wade in this one, who was forced to miss this game due to a migraine headache that crept up in the afternoon. That just meant that James had to shoulder more of the load, which he seemed more than happy to do. He finished the first half with eight shot attempts, but seven of those came in the paint on attacking moves to the basket, or on runouts in transition.

LeBron finished with 37 points, nine rebounds, three assists and five steals. The steals were critical, because most if not all of them led to fast break opportunities that demoralized the opposition. He scored 25 of those points in the second half, and closed the game with a brilliant 14-point fourth quarter on just seven shots.

The Suns finished the game with 16 turnovers, which isn’t a number that’s insurmountable. Against the Heat, however, when almost all of them are of the live ball variety that lead to monster dunks in transition, it can become a bit tiresome.

Goran Dragic has played at an All-Star level this season, but had an off night against the defending champs. Dragic finished with 15 points, nine assists and four steals, but shot just 4-of-12 from the field.

The Suns were on the verge of being blown out of their own building in the third quarter, after leading by as many as 12 early on. Miami put together an 11-0 run that featured a three-pointer from Chris Bosh, and was ended with back-to-back dunks from James. Gerald Green scored eight straight Suns points to bring his team back from the edge, and things were tight the rest of the way.

Green led the Suns with 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting, and consistently got buckets when his team needed them the most.

But while the Suns need to get a nearly flawless performance to beat one of the league’s elite, the Heat, even without Wade, only need the MVP version of LeBron to show up in order to close the other team out.

Clippers’ Chris Paul exits game with “rib muscle strain” may miss time

Chris Paul, Gerald Henderson, Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, C.J. McCollum
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It happened in the third quarter, although it’s not clear exactly how. All anyone saw was Chris Paul calling a timeout to remove himself from the game (an eventual Clippers’ victory over the Trail Blazers) and grabbing his left side.

After the game, the Clippers said that Paul had suffered a “rib muscle strain.” CP3 will be re-evaluated on Tuesday, and then a timetable for his return will be set. It looks like he could miss a little time. Since the term “rib muscle strain” is intentionally vague we’re left to speculate a little: This could be an oblique muscle strain and if so they can be tricky, and it takes a couple of weeks (or more) to get back.

The Clippers might be wise to give Paul a little time away from the game; he has battled through a fractured finger and a strained groin this season. A little time off could help all of this. Paul played in all 82 regular season games for the Clippers last season, the first time he had done that in his career.

Paul is averaging 17.5 points and 8.4 assists per game, and the Clippers elite offense is 13.9 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the floor rather than sitting. Look at it this way, the Clippers’ most used lineup (Paul, J.J. Redick, Lance Stephenson, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan) outscores opponents by 19 points per 100 possessions, but sub Austin Rivers in for Paul and they get outscored by 13.8 per 100 and their defense falls apart. (For the record, I know that they are trying different players at the three and that Luc Mbah a Moute got the chance Monday, but I was using the lineups with the most played minutes to lessen the sample size error.)

The Clippers are not the same without Chris Paul, if he is out for any stretch of time, it’s a setback for a team that had seemed to start finding it groove.

Will Kobe Bryant’s pending retirement change how Lakers use him?

Kobe Bryant, D'Angelo Russell, Byron Scott
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This is Kobe Bryant‘s final season in the NBA; he made that clear with his announcement on Sunday. If for the Lakers organization that means they want Kobe to go out playing his way — still trying to create and make tough shots — then go right ahead. As evidenced by the reactions at Staples Center Sunday night, the fans love it.

But what should have been the Lakers’ primary goal for this season — developing young players D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance — has seemed at cross purposes with that. At least in the mind of coach Byron Scott.

So there it was in crunch time against the Pacers’ Sunday and Kobe and Nick Young were on the court while Russell watched from the bench. It gives the perception the Lakers don’t embrace the future.

Will how they use Kobe Bryant — and by extension the younger players — change now that Kobe has made it official this is his final season?

“I don’t know that I’ll change that much, as far as I want him to play,” Scott said. “I still want him to go out on a very positive note. And there’s a part of me that feels he is going to have those glimmers, having some of those games I know he’s capable of having.”

Scott’s job as coach, at least in his mind, seems to have been to make the last couple seasons of Kobe’s career comfortable. He said that Kobe has earned the right to take his tough, contested shots but has benched the players he’s tried to develop for their mistakes (and not clearly communicated to those players why they are sitting, if you ask the youngsters).

Beyond the coach, this is an organizational decision and priority.

“We have to huddle up and decide if there is going to be anything different in terms of minutes,” Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak said. “It’s not something that’s going to be decided today. But since he has made it clear this will be the last season for him, it will be more enjoyable and I think people can appreciate and will appreciate what he’s accomplished, not only in our building — with loads of love — but even more so on the road.”

Kobe isn’t going to change.

“I gave up hoping he would change his approach 15, 18 years ago,” Kupchak joked. “He is what he is. And I’m thankful for it.”

I understand the need to let the fans see Kobe be Kobe, to let him go out on his terms (although playing him 30+ minutes a night and saying the goal is to have him standing at the end of the season is an odd mix, Scott). The Lakers are selling Kobe while they try to develop their young players.

The question of how well they are developing them remains.

One thing I would like to see is more Kobe with the second unit, and by extension less with Russell and Randle. Kobe’s going to take his shots, but if he is taking those away from Nick Young or Lou Williams, so what? Let those guys fight over the ball a little (that would be entertaining). But then rest him and let Russell and Randle and the other youth learn to work together for long stretches without any of those ball dominating players on the court. That includes letting the kids close some games, even if it’s not pretty.

This was always going to be a rough Lakers’ season, although it is uglier than the team and its fans imagined. But that’s okay if the young players are getting their minutes, being coached up, and developing. The Lakers can’t let the Kobe farewell tour get in the way of that.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert with the crazy high alley-oop finish (VIDEO)

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I love that the Jazz were going to be themselves against the Warriors — two of our three best players are big men in Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, and we are going to use them whether you go small or not. Those two have the athleticism to make that work in a way few teams can’t. The result was a close game, one ultimately won by the Warriors because Stephen Curry can do Stephen Curry things, but you had to love the way the Jazz played.

And you had to love this finish by Gobert in the fourth quarter.

This alley-oop is pretty well defended, but there’s not much a defender can do when you can lob the ball above the box on the backboard, and Gobert can just go get it and finish.

Kobe Bryant farewell tour starts in his hometown of Philadelphia

Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets

Tuesday night’s Lakers/76ers game a “showdown” of the two worst teams in the NBA — and it’s Philadelphia’s best chance to get its first win of the season.

But that storyline is being overshadowed — Kobe Bryant announced this is his last NBA season, and that makes Tuesday night his farewell to his hometown of Philadelphia.

“So much of my game was developed in Philadelphia,” Kobe said Sunday while talking about this game. “At Lower Merion High School and coach (Greg) Downer, playing in the Sunny Hill League and all the great coaches, playing at Tustin playground and Ardmore playground and so many great memories there. It’s going to be a very special night.”

As they are known to do, Sixers fans have had a love/hate relationship with Kobe. He has been booed there before — most notably during the 2002 All-Star Game (after Kobe’s Lakers beat the Sixers in the Finals the season before, when Kobe said he was coming to Philly to “cut the heart out” of a gritty Sixers’ team). But this is one of the higher hoops IQ fan bases around the league too — they know the game, and they know greatness.

With that, expect Kobe to get a warm reception in his final trip to his hometown. And expect Kobe to savor it.

If you’re a Sixers’ fan living in the Philadephia area and are a Comcast Sportsnet Philadephia subscriber, you can watch a live stream of Kobe and the Lakers’ visit. Just follow this link or go to the NBC Sports Live Extra app.

“I would hope that he has more fun, and appears less frustrated, and also gets more appreciation,” Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak said of Kobe making his announcement. “He’ll get it at home, but on the road too, because people will have to recognize this is his last year and they are watching one of the all-time greats.”

Sixers fans will recognize that before the game, but once the ball goes in the air for the opening tip those same fans will want to see their team get a win after starting the season 18-0.

The fact is the Sixers play harder more consistently than the Lakers, but they haven’t been able to close out games. Miami needed a big comeback to beat them, Boston only won by four, the Grizzlies had to come from behind as well, and Houston beat them by two. Brett Brown has his charges putting out the effort, and they are desperate for a win.

The problem is late in games, when other teams tighten up their defense, the talent gap shows and the Sixers cannot hang on. Their advantage now is that the talent gap with the Lakers is much smaller — the Lakers have shooters (Kobe, Lou Williams, Nick Young) but not ones who take smart shots. You can defend the Lakers late.

Is that enough to get the Sixers their first win of the season?

If so, that is a rough way for Kobe to start his farewell tour.