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Lakers’ big summer looms after 5 straight losing seasons

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) And now the real season begins for the Los Angeles Lakers.

At least that’s what the fans of the 16-time NBA champions repeatedly have been told while Los Angeles missed the playoffs and finished with a losing record for the fifth consecutive year.

Ever since they took over the Lakers’ basketball operations a year ago, Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka have founded their rebuilding project around the acquisition of one or two elite free agents this summer – or next summer, they’ve recently amended.

Magic firmly believes the Lakers’ championship pedigree, glamorous location and salary cap room for two enormous contracts can attract superstars near the primes of their careers to lift one of the NBA’s cornerstone franchises back to its accustomed heights. The Lakers had only missed the playoffs five previous times in their first 65 years of existence before they doubled that number during this dismal half-decade.

But while the pursuit of Paul George and LeBron James constantly loomed on the horizon, the Lakers’ day-to-day development over the past season has been downright intriguing. For all their talk of the Lakers’ irresistible lure, Johnson and Pelinka knew they probably couldn’t attract free-agent stars without an attractive young core, and the last six months suggested they have it.

“If guys want to come here, they come,” rookie Kyle Kuzma said Thursday after his exit interview with team brass. “But if not, we’re not depending on that. We want to be those great players, those max-level guys. We just think about, `How can we make the team better?”‘

Rookies Lonzo Ball, Kuzma and Josh Hart all showed clear NBA ability, while youngsters Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle continued their development into above-average pros. Los Angeles’ 35-47 record and 11th-place conference finish in the just-completed season are its best performances by a considerable margin during this woeful five-year stretch.

The Lakers aren’t good yet, but the guys who are already in purple and gold could be key pieces in a very good team.

Here are more things to watch during another long offseason in LA:

PG SWEEPSTAKES

The Lakers are expected to put a full-court press on George, the Oklahoma City Thunder star who grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant in Palmdale, just north of Los Angeles. Even if James decides to stay home in Cleveland instead of becoming a dual-threat Hollywood mogul, the addition of George’s 20-plus points per night almost certainly would make the Lakers very entertaining in coach Luke Walton’s up-tempo system this fall. If George decides to play for a franchise closer to a championship, the Lakers will undoubtedly spin the narrative to the summer of 2019, when another bumper crop of free agents will be on the market.

RANDLE’S FUTURE

Randle’s improvement was among the Lakers’ most impressive developments of the season. The formerly inconsistent power forward played in all 82 games, averaging 16.1 points and 8.0 rebounds and emerging as a dependable two-way player. Randle is a free agent this summer after the Lakers decided not to lock him down with a contract extension last year, but Randle’s outstanding year has greatly increased the chances of a long-term deal in LA. “As far as the summer, who knows what will happen?” Randle said. “I’ve never done this before. All I know is it’s going to be a longer summer than I want it to be, with us not being in the playoffs. I think it’s exciting for me, though.”

FREE AGENCY

The Lakers’ desire for plenty of cap room this summer means they’ve got four talented veterans with expiring contracts: Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye. Lopez had a strong debut season with his hometown team, which won’t be able to afford him unless it comes up empty with the top-shelf free agents. Caldwell-Pope also seems likely to leave, while the market for Thomas’ skills is unpredictable after his injury-plagued year ended with hip surgery. If Thomas doesn’t attract a big offer, he seems amenable to a return to LA – as does Frye, a dependable veteran backup.

BALL GAME

After showing incredible basketball intelligence and a distressingly inconsistent shot, Ball said he is headed into “pretty much the biggest summer of my life.” The UCLA product with the opinionated parent understands the weaknesses in his game, and he seems determined to address his offensive flaws while building his overall strength. If Ball takes significant strides as a scorer, he would quickly become one of the NBA’s most dynamic young guards with his preternatural court vision and rebounding ability.

LUKE’S FUTURE

Walton seems extremely likely to return for a third season after his Lakers made a nine-game improvement on last year’s performance. Johnson and owner Jeanie Buss continue to speak glowingly of the young coach, and Walton doesn’t seem satisfied by the Lakers’ incremental improvements. “We know this is a team that’s supposed to be in the playoffs and to contend for championships, and that’s the goal we’re all trying to reach every day,” Walton said.

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As expected, likely top-three pick Luka Doncic files to enter NBA draft

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Luka Doncic — the 6’8″ point forward who is putting up impressive numbers against men at the highest levels of European basketball — is bringing is game to the NBA. As expected.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports said the expected is now official.

Doncic, 19, submitted draft paperwork this week to formally enter his name, league sources said. Doncic is arguably the most decorated European player to make a jump to the NBA, a wunderkind who’s been playing in the EuroLeague since 2015. He is currently leading Real Madrid in the EuroLeague playoffs, averaging 14.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists this season.

The 6-foot-7 Doncic has the ability to play multiple positions, from being a primary ball-handler to shooting and playmaking off the ball. His season in Europe could continue into late May or June. NBA executives have long been intrigued by Doncic’s potential stardom, and several are continuing to make scouting trips for him.

Doncic is expected to go in the top three (likely the top two) come this June’s draft.

If you’re about to bring up Darko Milicic or some other European bust, just stop. This Slovenian has proven he can play — in 54 games this season between Liga ACB (Spain’s league, second best in the NBA) and the Euroleague, Doncic is averaging 14.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists a game. He has shown a gift for passing that should blossom in the more open play of the NBA, plus he just knows how to run a team and make plays. He can score when called upon and has three-point range, can shoot off the bounce, and if you switch a smaller guy onto him, Doncic can just post him up.

He’s not going to be a bust.

However, what his ceiling is remains the debate. He’s not an elite athlete by NBA standards who has struggled at points for Real Madrid when guarded by borderline-NBA level Americans in Europe. Can he defend at the NBA level? Can he be consistent with his jumper? He may be elite, but it’s no given.

He’s going to be good, and his floor is higher than a lot of the other top prospects in this draft class. However, if a GM thinks that Marvin Bagley III or Mohamed Bamba both have a higher ceiling and can reach it, they may go with the Americans. Doncic is going to put some GMs in an interesting position.

Ben Simmons earns triple-double, Sixers own fourth to win Game 4 vs. Heat, take 3-1 lead

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Joel Embiid’s biggest battle in Game 4 was with his mask — he hates that thing. A couple of times Saturday he tried to sneak into the game with it off, only to force Brett Brown to be the parent and threaten to bench him if he didn’t put it on immediately (winning Game 4 is not worth risking permanent eye/vision damage). Embiid was also battling his offensive game at times, still looking a little rusty.

More importantly, Embiid was also battling the Heat in the paint — when he was in the game Miami struggled to get good looks inside, allowing Sixers defenders to more aggressively challenge shooters on the wings.

That — and Ben Simmons’ triple-double — sparked a comeback from 12 late in the third as the Sixers held on to take Game 4 106-102, and that gives Philly a commanding 3-1 series lead heading back to the City of Brotherly Love for Game 5.

Simmons is the first rookie since Magic Johnson in 1980 to post a triple-double in the playoffs, with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

This was the nail in the coffin of the Heat’s season — if the Sixers turn the ball over 26 times, shoot 7-of-31 from three and still win on the road, the Heat are overmatched.

For much of the game, Miami did not look overmatched in the least and this looked like a game they could win.

Miami brought the defense in this game, and they did it by getting physical and using their length to force turnovers — through three quarters the Sixers had turned the ball over on 28.2 percent of their possessions, more than one in four trips down the court. Miami also did a better job contesting threes in this game, and the Sixers struggled from there all game (22.6 percent from deep).

The physicality led to a chippy game.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

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Miami led by a dozen late in the third, but Philadelphia closed the third on a run and carried over to the fourth, a 14-0 run that put the Heat in front as they found their defense. Ersan Ilyasova was key in that stretch with a driving and-one and the next time down the court a three, two plays that changed the momentum of the game.

All series long, the Sixers have been the better team down the stretch — which is unexpected for a young team taking on a more veteran squad. Now that we’re four games in, this is a thing.

In Game 4, the Sixers kept running “horns” sets and the Heat seemed to have no answers. Then late with the game on the line Miami had a couple of terrible defensive breakdowns, one allowing Simmons a clear path to the basket without help rotations that led to a dunk, and the other was Hassan Whiteside not going out to challenge J.J. Redick in the corner and letting him have a clean look (Redick’s foot was on the line so the expected three was a two, but still).

Meanwhile, Joel Embiid owned the paint on defense. When he sat for a little fourth quarter rest, Brett Brown went to the “Ben Simmons and shooters” lineup that was so effective through the final eight games of the season for them when Embiid was out, and that worked. The Sixers kept executing and getting the shots they wanted, the Heat kept hoping Dwyane Wade would bail them out again. He couldn’t, despite a strong 25 point game. Miami also shot itself in the foot going 13-of-25 from the free throw line for the game.

Redick had 24 for the Sixers, while Embiid had 14 points and 12 rebounds. Goran Dragic had 20 points for Miami, and James Johnson added 15.

Tempers flare in chippy Game 4 between Heat, Sixers

Associated Press
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Miami is a physical defensive team, and in Game 4 at home Saturday they cranked that up. The Heat also are a handsy team they clutch, grab, hold, and get away with what they can (that isn’t new to this playoff series).

The Sixers are getting weary of it, and in a game with plenty of double technicals thanks to the referees trying to keep control. The game bubbled over a little midway through the second quarter when Robert Covington made sure Goran Dragic didn’t get off a shot after a foul.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

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Ben Simmons also leaned into Wade on a screen and pancaked him. But drew a foul.

😅

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Miami had the lead after three, but the Sixers have owned the games late this series. It’s going to go down to the wire.

Advantage Utah? Jazz’s Derrick Favors “100 percent” back

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — When Derrick Favors can find ways to impose his will, good things happen for the Utah Jazz.

Favors has been quietly, albeit effectively, getting it done against the Oklahoma City Thunder, playing in the shadows of Utah rookie of the year candidate Donovan Mitchell and Jazz center Rudy Gobert.

But a healthy Favors is making an impact.

The Jazz have returned to Utah with the series tied 1-1, thanks in no small part to Favors. He tallied career playoff highs of 20 points and 16 rebounds in Utah’s 102-95 road win on Wednesday.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder will start Favors at power forward alongside Gobert beginning with Game 3 on Saturday. But he will also utilize him as a backup center to spell Gobert. Favors has done his part to make playing alongside Gobert work by extending his shooting range to improve offensive spacing. He has also made himself an effective roller.

“He’s always been a good pick-and-roll player, regardless of `position,”‘ Snyder said. “We’ve never really thought of him as one position or the other. We’ve thought of him as a basketball player and tried to have him understand his strengths and then play to his strengths.”

Indeed. In the first two playoff games against the Thunder, Favors is averaging 13.5 points on 52 percent shooting and 10.5 rebounds.

It is exactly the type of impact Favors envisioned making when fighting to reclaim his body from knee and back injuries that afflicted him for the better part of two seasons.

“I’m back to being 100 percent,” Favors said. “Back healthy. Back moving the way I know I can move and playing the way I know I can play. It’s a big advantage for us.”

There’s no question having Favors at full strength has improved Utah’s ability to counter a Thunder team featuring the potent trio of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. The veteran forward/center offers versatility on both ends of the court honed through playing multiple positions as circumstances dictate.

Crashing the boards definitely tops the list when checking off Favors’ strengths. He ranks second on the Jazz roster in rebounding behind Gobert with 7.2 rebounds per game.

When Favors is active on the glass, it can change the direction of a game for Utah. In Game 2 against Oklahoma City, he grabbed eight offensive rebounds through the first 2 1/2 quarters. By contrast, the Thunder totaled six offensive boards as a team in the same stretch.

“His length and his strength allow him to get his hands on balls,” Snyder said. “He’s got such good hands that even when he keeps the ball alive, usually something good happens.”

Favors’ willingness to go full throttle around the basket has turned him into a reliable complimentary player on offense. He rolls to the basket with consistency and, more often than not, it pays off for him.

It has turned Favors into a legitimate offensive presence again. He averaged 9.5 points on 48.7 percent shooting while limited to 50 games a year ago. This season, Favors is scoring 12.3 points per game while shooting 56.3 percent from the floor.

“Other teams and other opponents, they look and see I’m 6-foot-10 and think I’m a 5 man or whatever, so they try to take advantage of it,” Favors said. “It just feels good to be able to go out there and move the way that I know that I can move and be able to play the way I know that I can play and teams can’t take advantage of it.”

Favors is focused on staying aggressive as the series with the Thunder shifts to Utah. He is having fun playing basketball again and wants to make sure Oklahoma City continues to feel his presence on both ends of the court.

His teammates certainly do and they understand what a difference it can potentially make as the Jazz battle to keep going in the postseason.

“He’s been like that all year,” Mitchell said, “but he’s definitely turned it up with what he can do.”