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Three things we learned Sunday: Roller coaster Laker season has some deep, deep dips

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With a couple of important football games Sunday you may have missed some other things. Like why a highway was covered in red Skittles. Or, the handful of NBA Games that took place. We can help you with the latter, here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) On the anniversary of Kobe’s 81-point game, Lakers only score 73.
I keep waiting for the day Luke Walton snaps.

He has been the model of the patient, developmental basketball coach of a young team this season — it’s about progress, about lessons learned, about laying a foundation that helps this young core grow into something more dangerous in future years. He has been what the Lakers needed, a departure from last year and he who shall not be named. However, the lack of effort and growth on defense — the continued inability to defend the pick-and-roll — has to be eating at him inside. This is a young team, it’s going to have ups and downs, but the downs have been deep and pronounced, and at some point I expect Walton to just unload on his young charges.

Although if it didn’t happen after Sunday, it might never happen. On the 11th anniversary of Kobe’s 81-point game, the Lakers as a team scored just 73 points. Los Angeles lost by 49 points, a franchise record for worst loss ever. Walton said after the game the Lakers lacked the kind of veteran or natural leader on this team who would take charge on the court and call out his teammates off it in moments like this. Maybe he needs to be that guy.

Comments about the Lakers often talk about a quality young core for them to build around. There is some truth to that. Brandon Ingram has had some better games of late, although on Sunday he was asked to start for the injured D’Angelo Russell and be a playmaker and that failed. Ingram missed his first shot and it got in his head for the rest of the day, throwing off his game. Ingram needs to be a better shot creator (and get stronger). Jordan Clarkson can score the rock, and both he and Larry Nance Jr. are future NBA rotation players who can contribute to very good teams. Then there is Russell — nobody has been more up and down this season than the second-year point guard. A few weeks back I wrote about how he had finally developed a game-day routine and seemed to be turning a corner with a string of strong games. Since then he’s pretty much stunk. He’s developing, although it’s fair to ask if he’s doing that fast enough?

(Still, the Lakers really missed Russell Sunday — he’s the only guard they have who is a threat to score from three or getting into the lane, he’s a good passer who sees the angles on the court, and when he’s out there the ball moves better. This Lakers team lacks shot creators and when Russell is out the offense can stagnate quickly, reverting to one-on-one plays.)

It’s fair to ask why the inconsistent defensive efforts? Well, consistently bad may be the more accurate description. They make bad decisions constantly, and the veterans they have either are not great defenders — Nick Young, Lou Williams — or can be drawn into bad positions, such as Timofey Mozgov having to defend Dirk Nowitzki Sunday.

It’s also fair to ask if the Lakers really have an alpha in this core? Do they have a top 15 NBA player that can be the cornerstone of a future contender? I don’t see it. Maybe Ingram with some muscle and experience on him can get there — scouts are still very high on his game — but I do not see it elsewhere. Plus, I don’t see the alpha, ultra-competitive personality that doesn’t accept losing gracefully. Again, maybe Russell or someone has that and is just not confident showing it yet, but this team lacks it.

With all that, the Lakers development roller coaster seems to have bigger dips than highs. Which has to frustrate Walton. And at some point, he’s going to lose it.

2) The Suns beat the Raptors, and Eric Bledsoe was the reason.
Phoenix has won a couple of game in a row, and while beating the Knicks does not earn guys high praise, beating the Toronto Raptors will do that. Quietly Eric Bledsoe has had a borderline All-Star season — he’s not going to make the team due to the depth of talent in the West and the fact the Suns suck — and he showed it Sunday with an impressive 40 points to get Phoenix the win.

3) The Warriors punish Magic to end week where they asserted themselves. Last week for the Warriors started with a rematch against Cleveland, and Golden State earned a measure of confidence blowing them out. Then the Warriors beat Russell Westbrook and the Thunder thanks to a “look at what you’re missing” game from Kevin Durant. Then the Warriors knocked off the surging Rockets and James Harden.

That’s a good week, although the Warriors still had to face the Magic on Sunday. That had the makings of a potential let down game but the Warriors pulled away for the win.

Golden State has established itself as the best team in the NBA this regular season. There’s still a lot of season (nearly half) to go, and they will get tested in the playoffs, but they have set the mark to beat. Did they set the bar last year, too? Yes. And they made the Finals (and would have won if Draymond Green could keep his hands to himself), not something to ignore. But this season feels different with Durant in the fold. We’ll see. But for right now, they keep right on rolling at 38-6.

PBT Extra: What coaches are on hot seat? Alvin Gentry at front of list.

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This season, for the first time in 46 years, no NBA coach will be fired during the season (nobody is getting canned at this point).

However, once the off-season starts, there will be a few changes.

Alvin Gentry in New Orleans and Fred Hoiberg in Chicago are the names most mentioned, but there will be an unexpected firing somewhere around the league. Some GMs are on the hot seat also (Rob Hennigan in Orlando leads that parade).

I get into all of it in this latest PBT Extra.

Raptors’ Serge Ibaka, Bulls’ Robin Lopez each suspended one game for thrown punches

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It was obvious this was coming. Get in a shoving match “fight” in the NBA and you get a fine. However, actually throw punches and…

Toronto’s Serge Ibaka and Chicago’s Robin Lopez each have been suspended for one game by the NBA “for throwing punches at one another during an altercation,” the league announced. What that works out to is a $120,715 hit for Lopez and a $111,364 ding for Ibaka.

Also, Raptors assistant coach Jamaal Magloire earned a $15,000 fine shoving the Bulls Nikola Mirotic and “acting as other than a peacemaker as part of the same altercation.”

This all came out of what seemed a rather innocuous play. Ibaka and Lopez were battling for rebounding positioning, it went on for a second after the ball went through the hoop, Ibaka caught Lopez with a little chicken wing elbow in the back, Lopez spun, and, boy, that escalated quickly. Lopez’s punch missed, while Ibaka’s caught Lopez in the hair more than the body.

Both men got technicals and were ejected.

Report: Sixers Joel Embiid “very likely” to undergo off-season surgery on knee

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When the Philadelphia 76ers formally announced they were shutting down Joel Embiid for the season, the team’s chief medical director Dr. Jonathan Glashow said:

“The assessment of Monday’s follow-up MRI of Joel Embiid’s left knee appears to reveal that the area affected by the bone bruise has improved significantly, while the previously identified meniscus tear appears more pronounced in this most recent scan.”

That meniscus may require off-season surgery, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

As described, this would be a minor surgery that likely has a 4-6 week recovery period. That said, you know the Sixers will bring him along slowly after this. Also, that’s just time Embiid is not on a practice court or in a pick-up game with Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, and the rest of the team’s young core. That’s the time the foundations of chemistry on a team are built.

Embiid averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game despite a minutes restriction all season. He was incredibly efficient in getting his numbers — he had an All-Star level PER of 24.2 — and when he was on the court the Sixers outscored their opponents by 3 points per 100 possessions. He’s still likely a top three finisher in Rookie of the Year balloting despite playing in just 31 games.

Hopefully getting his knee cleaned up now means Embiid will be able to play in more games next season.

Report: Kevin Durant’s recovery going well, could return before end of season

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Back on Feb. 28, the Warriors’ leading scorer Kevin Durant suffered a grade 2 MCL sprain and a tibial bone bruise, an injury that happened when Zaza Pachulia fell into his knee. They planned to evaluate him at the end of the month, but this injury is often a 6-8 week issue, which would have him back around the start of the playoffs or in the first round.

The Warriors are optimistic it will be earlier than that, probably by the end of the season, reports Marc Stein and Chris Haynes of ESPN.

The Golden State Warriors aren’t scheduled to formally update the status of Kevin Durant’s left knee until next week, but there is cautious optimism within the organization that Durant — should he maintain his current recovery arc — will indeed be able to return to the court before the end of the regular season, according to league sources.

While noting that Durant is roughly at the halfway stage of his recovery journey, sources told ESPN.com that the Warriors are encouraged by the progress Durant has made in the 22 days since he suffered a sprained MCL and tibial bone bruise in his left knee on Feb. 28.

Durant was getting in some on-court work before the Warriors took on the Mavericks Tuesday.

The Warriors lost Durant at the start of their toughest schedule stretch of the season, and they stumbled some through that. However, after getting home (and playing some lesser teams in that stretch) the Warriors have gotten right, Stephen Curry is shooting well again, Matt Barnes and Patrick McCaw are playing well enough, and the Warriors have won five in a row. They are in the driver’s seat to be the No. 1 seed in the West (the biggest challenge to that is a road back-to-back in Houston and San Antonio next week, get a split there and the Warriors become tough to catch).

Between the end of the season and an easy first round — neither Denver nor Portland play enough good defense to slow the Warriors — the Warriors will have time to blend Durant back into the fold. If the Warriors can find their stride again with him, they are the favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June.