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How Lakers-Celtics paved the way for the Cavaliers-Warriors

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By the time the Los Angeles Lakers met the Boston Celtics for the third time in the NBA Finals in the 1980s, defensive stopper Michael Cooper had enough with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and the rest of the Celtics.

“It’s respectful to acknowledge the person that you’re playing, but I’m not taking you out to dinner,” Cooper said, thinking back on those days. “I’ll spit in your food before I eat with you.”

Lakers vs. Celtics. Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. East Coast vs. West Coast.

It’s the rivalry against which all others are measured, the one essentially responsible for the modern NBA evolving from a fringe sport that put its championship series on tape delay to a global sensation built around the most recognizable athletes in American sports. And as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors prepare to face off in the finals for the third straight season, the two teams that have grabbed a stranglehold on the rest of the league over the last three seasons are drawing comparisons to the game’s greatest matchup.

“I think basketball-wise it’s going to be great,” said Celtics Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, now an analyst for NBATV. “That is going to lend itself to people talking about it years from now. But really, (the Lakers-Celtics) was the birth of the NBA and the average fan across the country was that Larry-Magic time. It was completely unique unto itself.”

McHale was directly involved in one of the defining moments of the rivalry, when he clotheslined Lakers forward Kurt Rambis on a breakaway layup during Game 4 of the 1984 finals in Los Angeles. It’s a play that lives in Celtics lore, the gritty, Northern Minnesota forward blasting the Showtime Lakers right in front of Jack Nicholson. The play touched off a mini-brawl between the two teams and helped spark a Boston comeback that evened the series that the Celtics went on to win in seven games.

“We knew how dirty they could get. I loved it back then,” said Cooper, who now coaches the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA. “In today’s game, he would’ve got a two or three-game suspension. Back then, it made it fun. Rambis’s neck wasn’t broken? OK, get up. Kevin got dunked on a couple times and we made a big melee out of it. You come out and live to play another day.”

The more often the teams met on the big stage, the more heated the rivalry became. Celtics forward Cedric Maxwell gave James Worthy a choke sign after he missed a free throw. Bird went toe-to-toe with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

It’s the kind of edge and nastiness that is often said to be lacking in the modern NBA with the high salaries and player movement. But last year’s series – won by Cleveland in seven games – had its share of tension, from LeBron James‘ dismissive scoff at Stephen Curry after blocking his shot in Game 6 to Klay Thompson suggesting James “got his feelings hurt” to James stepping over Draymond Green in Game 4, a confrontation that led to Green’s suspension and the turning point of the series.

“I’m hoping there’s some real fiery competitiveness and some dustups and guys willing to fight each other for it,” McHale said. “I think that’s fine. There should be that feeling.”

The Lakers and Celtics met three times in four years, with Los Angeles winning in 1985 and 1987. The only thing that prevented four straight meetings was a Houston Rockets upset of the Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference finals, something that McHale laments to this day. The Celtics desperately wanted the Lakers because they knew Magic and Worthy and Kareem would push them to their competitive limits.

“I think the Lakers were one of those teams that you knew you could play well and still lose. We had a good enough team where if we played well, normally it just took care of itself,” McHale said. “We’d win. If we played well, the outcome was determined just by our play. Against the Lakers, you could play really well and still lose.”

When two teams play that often at the highest level, there are no more secrets, no tricks to be pulled, no gimmicks said Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, whose Detroit Pistons faced the Lakers in back-to-back finals in 1988 and 1989.

“The intensity level is off the charts, just in terms of the team competition and also the individual competitions on the court,” said Thomas, now an analyst for NBATV. “Both of you really do know each other so well. You know all of their tendencies, all of their habits, all of their plays.

“Then it becomes a game of concentration. Who can concentrate for that two-and-a-half hour period without making a mistake?”

For the most part, the Cavs and Warriors have tried to downplay any talk of acrimony or tension, with Curry saying this week “you can call it a rivalry, but it’s still in development.”

In many ways, when Game 1 tips off on Thursday night in Oakland, California, a new generation of NBA fans will get to understand what it felt like to watch the Lakers and Celtics battles from the 1980s that their fathers and grandfathers still rave about.

But McHale remembers sitting in his office as an executive with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the mid-90s and finally reflecting on how far the league had come. Salaries were skyrocketing. The game’s influence was growing overseas and the NBA Finals – the ones that were shown on tape delay during McHale’s first championship with the Celtics in 1980 – were now must-see, primetime television.

All that success couldn’t have happened without Larry, without Magic, without those three epic showdowns between the Lakers and the Celtics.

“It was like somebody seeing color TV for the first time,” McHale said of being a part of that history. “There was a whole different vibe that had nothing to do with the game. It was the NBA just growing. It’s different. That was like watching the moon walk. There’s never another thing like that. That was just amazing.”

 

Steve Ballmer: “Difficult” Blake Griffin trade moves Clippers toward modern NBA

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Last summer, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer went all-in on Blake Griffin. They wooed him with a mini-museum tour of his life, did a mock jersey retirement, told him they wanted him to be a “Clipper for life,” then sealed the deal with a five-year, $173 million maximum contract offer. Griffin accepted and never even met with another team.

Within eight months, the Clippers traded Griffin to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovich, and a lightly protected 2018 first-round pick.

What changed? Was it another injury to Griffin that sidelined him and had the Clippers questioning their investment? Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN asked Ballmer about the decision.

“[Griffin] is obviously a superstar player,” said Ballmer. “But if you look at what happened injury-wise, if you look at the kind of chemistry we were getting on our team, the thing you can see at the high level with the numbers when I started — one guy got all the assists, one guy got all the points and one guy got all the rebounds. It’s not all quite that way, but I think in the modern NBA, we were seeing it more and more — there’s a greater distribution of responsibility….

“We have to add some pieces obviously, but I think we’re building for what I think is the modern NBA, and that trend has only accelerated since we signed Blake last summer.”

Ballmer thinks he can use this trade and the Chris Paul one last summer to begin to retool a roster in that fashion, saying that winning a ring is his goal. Maybe he can, but…

The Clippers are a long way from being that kind of a modern NBA team.

Talent still wins out in basketball. Those elite “modern NBA” have superstars — Stephen Curry, James Harden, etc. — who rack up a lot of numbers, but also where the other players are versatile threats. With Brad Stevens in charge, Boston runs a modern, egalitarian offense, but at the heart of it is Kyrie Irving and, eventually, Gordon Hayward as stars who can just get buckets and use their gravity to draw defenders, opening things up for others. Then there are All-Star level players around them such as Al Horford.

Without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick this season, the Clippers had to run the offense through Griffin because, well, who else? Danilo Gallinari can create some when healthy, but he’s really a second or third option and works better of the ball. DeAndre Jordan is a threat as a roll man but it takes a special point guard and passer to bring out the best in him. Austin Rivers has developed into a solid rotation point guard in the NBA, but he’s not a No. 1 option. Lou Williams is really their only other guy who can create at that level. The Clippers may have leaned on Griffin too much, but it’s not like Doc Rivers had better choices sitting around.

What is going to be interesting is to see what the Clippers do this summer — do they back up the Brinks truck and re-sign DeAndre Jordan? Do they try to bring back Bradley and Patrick Beverley? Do they keep or trade Lou Williams, who just extended with the team but at a very reasonable price ($8 million per year)? Can they move Danilo Gallinari (which would require attaching a first-round pick)?

Ballmer says he doesn’t want to bottom out and rebuild, but if Jordan leaves how much does that change the scenario? The Clippers 2019 first-round pick belongs to Boston but is lottery protected. What the Clippers don’t want is for a year from now to be exactly where they are today in the standings — on the cusp of the playoffs trying to get in. While the lottery odds change in 2019, they need to either be a rebuilding team that’s going to keep that pick, or find a way to push up into the standings (which is not going to be easy in a deep West).

It’s good to be moving toward a more modern NBA, but it’s going to be a process for the Clippers.

 

Lonzo Ball rusty in return, likes playing with Isaiah Thomas

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — Lonzo Ball took the pass and set his feet at the arc. Dallas’ Dennis Smith Jr. gave him space, so Ball put up the shot — and drained it.

And Staples Center erupted.

Lonzo Ball returned to the Lakers for the first time in 15 games following an MCL sprain. He was up and down (3-of-8 shooting) as to be expected, but had nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists in 17 minutes. (He will not play Saturday in a back-to-back in Sacramento.)

“I feel pretty good, only played 17 minutes so nothing crazy out there…” Ball said. “I could feel (his MCL), but the doc says I can get no worse. Just sliding a little bit, especially going right. Other than that it was OK.”

“I thought he looked good, I thought his shot looked good,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, noting that he could have played Ball a little more under the minutes restriction.

Ball had three three-pointers on the night (3-of-6 from three). His shooting motion isn’t any quicker or less quirky, but he’s gotten much better and knowing when he has the room to get it off. When his feet are set and he has room, he can knock it down.

His ability to push the pace, find teammates and pick up the pace is a welcome return to the Lakers.

Ball fit in well as part of a blowout win over a Dallas team that, to use coach Rick Carlisle’s words, “played without any force.” The final was 124-102 and it was never really in doubt for Los Angeles. The Mavs looked like a team tanking, not that their owner would ever tell them to… oh, wait. Carlise and the Mavs are not trying to lose, but this is a time when Dallas needs to get a look at its players about to be free agents — Nerlens Noel, Doug McDermott, Yogi Ferrell — and young players to see who will be part of the future. The question is how to best utilize them.

“You got to trust your gut in a lot of instances,” Carlisle said of how to evaluate his young players. “It’s not rocket science, certain things become obvious. But it’s important to compete.

Luke Walton is doing the exact same thing and he liked how his team competed. He tried something different playing Ball and Isaiah Thomas together for stretches.

“I liked it a lot,” Ball said of being on the court with IT. “Two playmakers on the court, I think we benefit from it. Look forward to playing with him all the time.”

The two were -6 when on the court in a game the Lakers won in a blowout. Still, expect to see more of that and some other odd combos the rest of the way.

Nikola Jokic’s third straight triple-double leads Nuggets over Spurs, 122-119

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DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic had 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists before fouling out, Wilson Chandler had 18 points and a season-high 16 rebounds, and the Denver Nuggets beat the San Antonio Spurs 122-119 on Friday night.

Jokic has a triple-double in three straight games and six this season, but didn’t stick around for the finish. He was called for five fouls in the fourth quarter and fouled out on a charge with 1:46 left.

Gary Harris scored 23 points to help Denver win its fourth straight and seventh in its last eight.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 36 points and Patty Mills scored 20 for San Antonio. The Spurs lost for the sixth time in seven games despite the return of Aldridge, who missed the last two games before the All-Star break to rest his sore right knee. He looked strong Friday, hitting 13 of 23 shots and 12 of 14 free throws.

The Spurs rallied from down nine in the fourth to take a two-point lead late in the game. They were 14 of 17 from the line in the fourth quarter but couldn’t hold on.

With the game tied at 114, Harris made a layup to put Denver up for good. Mills made a free throw and Harris scored on a step-back jumper and then a dunk with 45 seconds left to make it 120-115.

After Aldridge hit a jumper to cut it to three with 33 seconds left, Mason Plumlee‘s dunk with 10 seconds to play sealed it.

 

Mavericks don’t use scandals as excuse for poor play vs. Lakers

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — It’s been a long week for the Dallas Mavericks. First Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for saying on Dr. J’s podcast that he told the team they would be better off losing. That was quickly overshadowed by the bombshell report of sexual harassment run rampant — starting with the team CEO — and a corporate culture on the Mavericks’ business side that allowed it this behavior to flourish. Then on Friday, Mavericks’ star rookie Dennis Smith Jr. was named in a report about players who took money from agents while in college.

Did all that bleed over to the slow start and ultimate 124-102 blowout loss to the Lakers Friday night?

“I don’t know, we had some good looks…” Dirk Nowitzki said of the impact of the scandals, adding the rust from the All-Star break may have impacted the team’s play more. “Once you’re out there, you don’t necessarily really think about what is going on off the floor. You’re in a zone, you play, you compete with your team, we just didn’t play hard enough, compete hard enough at times.”

“I’m not going there, I think this is just a situation where Los Angeles jumped on us and we didn’t have enough answers,” said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, also blowing off the idea of the scandals getting in the players’ heads. “The guys we have in this locker room, we just have to show up the right way, and our level of force was not there.”

It’s difficult to say if the Mavericks did feel any impact from the controversies swirling around the team — they were already one of the worst teams in basketball (18-41, and they have been outscored by an average of 3.2 points per 100 possession). They have a bottom 10 offense and defense. A bad outing vs. the Lakers isn’t necessarily tied to everything outside the locker room, especially for a team in the middle of the Tankapaloza going on around the NBA (their owner said as much). Put simply, Dallas was already bad before the waves of controversies hit.

Cuban was right, even if it cost him — this team should tank, lose a lot of games the rest of the way, and work to get a better draft position.

The code words for that is “developing younger players.” Which Dallas is and should be doing.

They are also trying to evaluate their free agents coming up this offseason — Nerlens Noel, Doug McDermott, Yogi Ferrell — to see if they are part of the future. How does Carlise divide up the minutes over the final stretch of the season to help make those decisions?

“You got to trust your gut in a lot of instances,” Carlisle said. “It’s not rocket science, certain things become obvious. But it’s important to compete. Last year’s team went through a tough year, won 33 games, and was one of my favorite teams to coach because of the character of the guys — but this year’s probably been even more fun. All these undrafted guys are so grateful to be here, they want to get better, and do compete hard, and that’s an exciting thing….

“Nerlens won’t play tonight (Friday), won’t play tomorrow, but will be available Monday and I want to get him out there and see how he plays with some of our other younger guys. We’ve got to look at what this could potentially look like, because some of these guys are free agents and decisions will have to be made.”

The Mavericks also will learn how those players deal with scandals.

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