NBA Playoffs: Bryant takes over with passing down the stretch

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We all know who Kobe Bryant is — one of the most successful, dynamic, creative, and audacious scorers to have ever played in the NBA. Kobe’s passing has always been very good, but he’s generally preferred to take over games with his scoring throughout his career. 
Yet in crunch-time on Thursday night, while passing virtuoso Steve Nash kept the Suns in the game by making tough shot after tough shot, Kobe was the one making pinpoint passes and trusting his teammates to make big finishes. 

Kobe wasn’t as red-hot from the field in game five as he was in game four, but he made enough tough shots in the first 7/8ths of the game to give the Lakers a 88-83 lead with just over six minutes remaining in the game. From that point on, Kobe did most of his damage by picking apart the Phoenix zone with passes that led to layups and wide-open jumpers rather than trying to win the game by himself with contested jumper after contested jumper.
Kobe’s playmaking takeover stared when Bryant found Pau Gasol for a layup with 6:16 left to play. After that, Kobe drew the defense and found Derek Fisher, his longtime backcourt partner and big-shot specialist, in the corner for an open three that put the Lakers up eight. After answering a Steve Nash mid-range jumper with one of his own, Kobe flared up on the weak side to draw the defense away from the corner, where Fisher went to make another catch-and-shoot jumper. 
As Nash kept dribbling around the perimeter and making shot after shot, Kobe remained content to set up his teammates with beautiful passes, finding Pau with a pass in the lane that led to two free throws and Lamar Odom in the “blind spot” of the zone for a layup. With 20 seconds left, Bryant made a beautiful pass to set Gasol up with a dunk opportunity that should have put the game away, but Gasol’s dunk bounced off the rim, allowing the Suns to tie the game with a third-chance three. 
With three seconds left, Kobe forced a game-winner attempt and missed badly, but Ron Artest was there to clean it up and give the Lakers the win, making up for Gasol’s gaffe less than a minute earlier. Just goes to show that trusting your teammates can pay off in all sorts of ways that you can’t expect. 
Kobe couldn’t miss from the field for much of game four, but the Suns were able to take him out of the game late by aggressively doubling Bryant in the fourth. Since the Lakers’ offense had been four guys standing around and watching Kobe up to that point, they had no idea how to attack the zone when the Suns took the ball out of Kobe’s hands. 
In game five, Kobe and Co. made the necessary adjustment. When the Suns forced the ball out of Kobe’s hands, his teammates knew where the weak spots in the zone would be, and Kobe knew where and when to find them when they flashed open. With the Staples crowd and their years of playoff experience giving the Laker role players confidence, they were able to step up and put the game away when the Suns tried to throw double and triple teams at Kobe on the perimeter. 
I could talk about how Kobe willing to set up his teammates in such a big game is an example of how he’s matured over the years, but I’ve never quite believed in the new/old Kobe thing. The defense was giving Kobe passing lanes rather than easy shots, and Kobe has players around him who he can trust to make big plays late in the game rather than the terrible supporting cast he had in his early post-Shaq years. If the Suns go man-to-man late in game six and his teammates are struggling to make shots, I would wager that Kobe would take that game over with his scoring. 
Forget the new Kobe. Forget the old Kobe. Forget looking at each of Kobe’s big playoff performances like a window into his psyche. If you get caught up in all that stuff, you might miss the player who’s been doing the same, mostly amazing thing for a number of years now: the most complete player in basketball, and maybe the most complete player ever, doing whatever he can to try and get his team as many wins as possible, especially when it matters most. 

Lakers headed to second straight Summer League title game

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Josh Hart scored 37 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a 112-109 double-overtime victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday in the semifinals of the NBA Summer League.

Los Angeles advanced to the championship game for a second straight year after winning the 2017 title behind game MVP Kyle Kuzma and league MVP Lonzo Ball.

The Lakers will play Portland, which knocked off Memphis in the other semi-final.

Xavier Rathan-Mayes made the play of the game when he snatched a loose ball and fed Jeff Ayres with a pretty touch pass under the basket with 45 seconds left in the second overtime. Rathan-Mayes followed Ayres’ lay-in with a slashing lay-up to put the Lakers up 110-106 with 22 seconds left.

Cleveland’s Billy Preston missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Svi Mykhailiuk scored 31 points for the Lakers (6-0), while Ayres added 20.

Collin Sexton led the Cavaliers with 27 points, while Jamel Artis and John Holland each scored 17.

Trailing 105-102 in the first overtime after Sexton made a short jumper, Rathan-Mayes buried a 3-pointer to tie the score. Hart made it 106-105 by hitting the second of two free throws with 5.7 seconds remaining. Sexton did the same at the other end, splitting two free throws and tying it at 106 with 3.3 seconds left.

The Cavaliers (5-2) erased an early 11-point deficit and tied the score at 95, when Vladimir Brodziansky buried a 3-pointer with 2:00 left in regulation.

After Mykhailiuk made one of two free throws to give the Lakers a 96-95 lead with a little more than a minute left, Hart grabbed a defensive rebound and at the other end dished to Mykhailiuk, who hit a running jumper just above the free throw line to push the lead to 98-95.

But Sexton answered with a 3-pointer to tie the score with 26 seconds left. Hart missed a 3-pointer with 3.0 seconds left, and Sexton missed one from long range at the buzzer.

The Lakers went on an 18-2 run to take a 28-17 lead led by Mykhailiuk, who was 4-for-4 from long-range in the first quarter. Los Angeles shot 50 percent (9 of 18) in the opening period and was 5 for 9 (55 percent) from beyond the 3-point line.

Hart took over in the second quarter, scoring 10 of his 14 first-half points to help the Lakers take a 50-47 lead at halftime.

USA Basketball to host World Cup qualifier vs. Uruguay on Sept. 14 in Las Vegas

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (AP) — USA Basketball’s quest to qualify for next year’s FIBA World Cup will resume Sept. 14 in Las Vegas, where the Americans will face Uruguay.

That will be the first U.S. game in the second qualifying round for next year’s world championships in China.

Like the first round, the U.S. will continue being coached by Jeff Van Gundy and will have a roster made up primarily of G League players. The Americans went 5-1 in the first round.

The U.S. and Uruguay are among 12 teams from the Americas zone vying for seven World Cup spots. The others are Argentina, Panama, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Canada, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The United States is a heavy favorite to qualify, then will send NBA players to China for the World Championships (there is a workout for some of those players coming up in Las Vegas in a week).

Second-round qualifying ends in late February. The World Cup begins in August 2019.

Mavericks sign second-round pick Jalen Brunson to first-rounder style contract

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Dallas is excited about the potential of Jalen Brunson.

The point guard who led Villanova to a national championship last April fell to the 33rd pick in the draft last June, high in the second round, and Dallas traded up a spot to get him from Atlanta. The Mavericks were ecstatic, and to the surprise of nobody they have reached terms on a contract with him.

What is a bit of a surprise is the Mavericks gave him a first-rounder style contract — four years with some guaranteed money for the first three of them — reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

At Summer League in Las Vegas Brunson showed the qualities that Dallas liked in him — he’s a high IQ player with polish, and he’s a pass-first floor general — but his weaknesses were also exposed. He has to shoot better (23 percent in Summer League) and his defense needs to improve.

Both of those can happen, Summer League is more of a chance for teams to benchmark players than make decisions about them. Brunson reportedly has a great work ethic, he can figure the NBA game out.

Dallas is betting that he will.

Kemba Walker: “As far as seeing me in New York, I doubt it”

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Kemba Walker is an All-Star level point guard who is heading into a contract season — he is a free agent in 2019. Walker is also a New York native, born in the Bronx he attended Rice High School in Harlem.

Combine all that with the fact both the Knicks and Nets will have enough cap space for a max (or more than one max) contract next summer, and you’ve got yourself a rumor.

One Walker shot down talking to Michael Scotto of The Athletic.

“As far as seeing me in New York, I doubt it,” Walker replied. “I’m a Hornet, and I’m planning on being a Hornet for a long time, so, yeah, I’m not sure about that (New York).”

Walker has said many times he wants to stay in Charlotte (providing they pay the market rate and are trying to compete).

That said, this is the NBA, so never say never.

A lot of NBA teams have been poised, waiting to see if new Hornets’ GM Mitch Kupchak — with the approval of Michael Jordan — decided to go full rebuild and trade Walker this summer. He has not, talking only about keeping this squad together. The Hornets are a solid team with Walker and Nicolas Batum leading the way, one that could make the playoffs in the East if things break right for new coach James Borrego. However, they will not be anywhere near contenders and if things don’t fall their way they may well miss the playoffs next season. Again. The Hornets also are not a bad team, meaning they are not going to get a high pick (without some lottery luck). They are stuck in the NBA’s middle ground, a place most GMs want to avoid.

Trading Walker could jump-start the rebuild in Charlotte, but the Hornets don’t seem to be going that direction. Yet. This summer they signed Tony Parker, Malik Monk looked good in Summer League, and they got Dwight Howard out of the locker room. They say they are a team poised to make a playoff push.

If that push falls apart early in Charlotte, watch and see if their plans change. And what that could mean for Walker. And the Knicks.

However, as of now, Walker wants to remain a Hornet, and they want to keep him. Which crowds New York out of the picture.