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Kyle Kuzma shedding Lakers’-other-rookie label

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LOS ANGELES – Kyle Kuzma was effectively trapped.

Dozens of media members surrounded Lonzo Ball – who wouldn’t even play that night – at the adjoining locker. The swarm extended so far, it blocked Kuzma in his chair in the corner of the Lakers’ locker room.

Later that night, Kuzma scored 31 points, the most by a rookie on Christmas since LeBron James.

Ball is the Lakers’ highest-profile rookie. Kuzma is their best rookie.

Slowly but surely, Kuzma is claiming the credit he has earned.

Ball joined the Lakers with a headline-grabbing father, a thrilling up-tempo skill set, a signature shoe, overlapping fans from UCLA and the pedigree of the No. 2 pick. He was immediately tabbed Rookie of the Year favorite. His summer-league debut was an event. Lakers president Magic Johnson hyped Ball, still just a teenager, as a leader.

Kuzma, by contrast, grew up in Flint, Mich. – a city known for its high crime rate and poverty until it became known for its poisoned water. According to his mom, the family moved nine times in 16 years. He played for small high schools in the city’s suburbs then transferred out of state to a couple prep schools. At one in Philadelphia, he became a major recruit. But his grades were so poor, he had to take the GED in Denver just to get eligible.

He spent his first year on campus at Utah gray-shirting, not allowed to practice or even join team meals, let alone play in actual games. He worked his way up Utah’s rotation over the next three seasons, peaking with an All-Pac-12 selection last season (an honor shared with Ball, who, of course, got more attention for it).

Kuzma declared for the NBA draft, but was commonly viewed as a second-round pick. He aced the combine and individual workouts, and the Lakers took him No. 27. After his torturous journey, he had finally made it to the big time.

“There’s a lot of adversity within Flint, just growing up there,” Kuzma said. “So, I feel like, if I can get out of there, I can do anything.”

Kuzma hasn’t faced much adversity this season – not individually, at least.

He flourished in summer league (though Ball won MVP). A strong preseason only raised expectations higher in star-hungry Los Angeles.

Somehow, Kuzma is meeting them.

He’s averaging 17.5 points per game. Most rookies who scored so much over a full season won Rookie of the Year.

Kuzma probably won’t. Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell is scoring even more (18.3 points per game), and the 76ers’ Ben Simmons has outplayed both.

But for Kuzma to even enter the conversation is remarkable, considering where he was – even as recently as draft night. As long as he averages at least 16.1 points per game, Kuzma will break the rookie scoring record for someone drafted so low (currently held by John Long, whom the Pistons drafted No. 29 in 1978).

The 6-foot-9 Kuzma is quick and agile. His 7-foot wingspan only enhances the amount of ground he can cover. Advanced footwork shows his basketball intelligence.

But what really separates Kuzma is outside shooting.

Kuzma made a blistering 24-of-50 (48%) of his 3-pointers at summer league – an eye-popping mark considering he shot just 30.2% on 3s at Utah, including 32.1% his final season. On one hand, regression to the mean seemed inevitable. On the other hand, his stroke looked good.

While taking a healthy 5.3 3-point attempts per game in the regular season, Kuzma is making 39.6% of them. No rookie has ever matched that combination of volume and efficiency over a full season.

Kuzma said NBA distance agrees with him because it forces him to use his legs more.

“The college 3 is so short, it’s like, in reference, shooting a pop-a-shot,” Kuzma said. “It’s a different motion.”

Kuzma shoots well in part because he’s so confident. And as he converts from distance, he becomes even more confident.

The idea of a gradual adjustment to the NBA sounds practically foreign to him. He might not have been able to predict all this, but he sure won’t admit it surprises him.

“He believes he’s the best player on the court all the time,” said Ball, who has developed a friendship with Kuzma.

Kuzma has ascended so quickly, his playing time can now be taken for granted. While most players drafted in his range are just trying to claw their way into the rotation, Kuzma has earned big minutes.

That means the Lakers aren’t just relishing in his successes, but focusing on his flaws – chiefly defense. Kuzma has the size and fluidity to defend better, but he sometimes loses focus on that end.

“There’s no rookies that are elite defenders in the NBA,” Kuzma said.

There aren’t, and Kuzma won’t come close to breaking the mold. Still, there are glimpses of potential.

After Kuzma became the first Lakers rookie since Jerry West to score 25 points in three straight games, Lakers coach Luke Walton texted Kuzma, “great job defensively” with no mention of the offensive output.

“It’s important for him to know, one, that we’re watching that,” Walton said, “and, two, that we need him to be a really good defender for our team to have success.”

The Lakers haven’t had much of that. They’re a Western Conference-worst 11-26 and have lost eight straight. After the latest defeat, Kuzma scolded his team for giving up.

It’s the latest example of Kuzma coming to the forefront.

Kuzma’s dinner with Kobe Bryant became a fascination of fans. Kuzma addressed the home crowd before the Christmas game, a responsibility usually given to a veteran. He gets MVP chants at the free-throw line. The rookie even cracked the initial All-Star-voting leaderboard, getting more votes than John Wall, Chris Paul and, yes, Ball.

Though Kuzma is outperforming his acclaimed rookie teammate on the court, Ball can authoritatively offer praise in one area.

“He,” Ball said of Kuzma, “does good with the spotlight, as well.”

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.