NBA Playoffs: Now we find out what the Lakers are really made of

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Kobe_Artest.jpgThe Lakers meandered through the second half of the season without a care in the world. At least they played like it.

So Los Angeles fans and media set up imaginary tests for them. The five game road trip was one. Late season matchups with the Thunder, the Magic, a couple with the Spurs all got that “test game” billing. There were others.

Those weren’t real tests. There were no consequences for failure. They were the pop quizzes of the NBA season, and the Lakers treated them as such.

Now game five Tuesday night — that is a real test. Lose and it’s may be a final exam.

Winner of game five wins the series 83 percent of the time. Los Angeles drops game five and the odds of winning two straight — one in Oklahoma City — against a good and growingly confident team are not good. Climbing Mount Everest in shorts might be easier.

Does anybody really have any idea what Lakers team will show up?

Not in terms of pure effort — backs against the wall, the Lakers always come out with energy. It’s a matter of execution and matchups. The Lakers know what they need to do, but for the last two games (three, really, despite the win) they have not been able to execute it. Credit Oklahoma City with some of that – they are a very good team. This is not the Lakers rolling over, they are getting knocked to the ground.

Still, the Lakers have a game plan. First, they have to slow the Thunder down. Kobe Bryant compared the two teams to deer and elephants, and the Lakers were not the nimble ones. Los Angeles can slow the pace down by not turning the ball over — they have been pretty good about that — and making shots. That second part has been the problem.

In game four, Los Angeles focused on getting the ball inside to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, but didn’t get as many points out of that as they would hope. The reason is the Thunder can afford to collapse down on the Lakers close to the basket because LA is not making them pay with three pointers. Inside only works if there is an outside to balance it. Ying and Yang.

It was the little things in game four — a couple times the double came down on the Laker big, who tried to reach around the defender for a kick-out pass, but the shooter never moved to a good position to receive the pass. The result was a deflection out of bounds.

In game three the Lakers shot okay from the outside but stopped trying to get the ball inside and jacked up 31 threes. There is no balance. No inside at the same time as the outside.

So they just expect Kobe to bail them out. And that isn’t working. Again credit the Thunder, who have the athletes to defend him. Is there anything Kevin Durant can’t do?

Game five is going to be telling. These Thunder do not back down, not for anyone. Their confidence is growing. The Lakers have, when they have needed it, been able to summon another gear. But now they need one they haven’t reached all season. They need a level of execution that has not been seen.

It’s not going to be easy. But no real test is. However, passing tests like this is what champions do.

Bulls’ Denzel Valentine likely to miss entire season

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Bulls wing Denzel Valentine has had a rough go of it.

A lottery pick two years ago, battled ankle injuries during his rookie year and underwent ankle surgery after the season. He stayed mostly healthy last year, but his season still ended early for knee surgery. Then, over the summer, he got torched in the Drew League by Frank “Nitty” Session, who questioned how Valentine was in the NBA:

And now…

Mark Strotman of NBC Sports Chicago:

Denzel Valentine was originally expected to miss one to two weeks after suffering a sprained ankle on the second day of training camp. One setback led to another, and on Monday the Bulls announced that the third year guard will undergo surgical reconstruction on that left ankle. He’ll miss four to six months, the team announced, effectively ending his season.

The long end of that timeline will keep Valentine sidelined the entire season. The short end would allow him to return late in the year, but with Chicago so dismal, there’s little incentive to rush him back.

Valentine is under contract next season, the final year of his rookie-scale deal. He might need to prove himself to make Nitty’s question still relevant.

Report: J.R. Smith and Cavaliers separating as they seek trade

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DETROIT – Yesterday – yesterday! – J.R. Smith explained why he didn’t leave the Cavaliers when, a few weeks ago, they pulled him from the rotation and gave him the offer to step away.

“I can’t do that to the city and the fans,” Smith said. “A lot of people have been backing me since I’ve been here. I feel like it’s been a new start since I came here. The way the fans embraced me, the way that I’ve embraced the city, my teammates, I can’t do that to them.”

But Smith also said Cleveland is tanking and reaffirmed his desire to be traded. That probably set wheels in motion.

Joe Vardon of The Athletic:

Smith – who’s guaranteed $18.59 million on a contract that will surely end after this season – carries negative trade value. The Cavs shouldn’t attach the sweetener necessary to dump him. They’re better off just paying him for now.

Because just $3.87 million of his $15.68 million salary for next season is guaranteed, Smith’s contract could prove useful in a trade.

If Smith would reduce his guarantee with a buyout, let him go. But Smith probably shouldn’t do that without a new job lined up.

So, the stalemate continues.

If everyone is happier apart, all the better. Smith wasn’t making a difference on the court for a team he correctly identified as tanking.

Report: ‘At the direction of his attorney,’ 76ers G Markelle Fultz to stop playing and practicing, see specialist

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Markelle Fultz said his shooting problems were due to injury, and just a couple weeks ago, he insisted he was generally healthy.

But something is clearly amiss.

The 76ers guard finally appears to be acknowledging it.

David Aldridge of The Athletic:

Should we read into Brothers – usually identified as Fultz’s agent – being referred to as Fultz’s attorney? That sounds ominous.

There has been back-and-forth between Fultz’s and the 76ers about who deserves blame for his struggles.

J.R. Smith: Cavaliers are tanking

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J.R. Smith said he wants the Cavaliers to trade him.

But that was right after they told Smith he’d be shut down. He has been playing regularly lately.

Still, Smith isn’t pleased with Cleveland.

J.R. Smith, via Jason Lloyd of The Athletic:

“I don’t think the goal is to win. The goal isn’t to go out there and try to get as many wins as you can,” Smith said. “I think the goal is to develop and lose to get lottery picks. I think that was always the plan.”

And as long as the Cavs are operating this way, Smith is not interested in being part of it.

“Not if the goal isn’t to compete, to win,” he said.

If that’s what the Cavaliers are doing, that’s smart. They need premier young talent, and a high draft pick is the best way to acquire it. Because they owe the Hawks a top-10-protected first-rounder, the Cavs need to tank hard rather taking half-measures.

But I also understand why Smith wants no part of it. He’s 33 years old, and he doesn’t have time to wait around for a rebuild. He wants to win now.

Smith should shame the Cavaliers for tanking. That should be a consequence of their plan, even if it’s the right one. He is a casualty of it. If he shames Cleveland into trading or buying him out, all the better.