NBA Playoffs: Artest, Fisher came up big when they needed to

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Artest_layup.jpgComing into this year’s playoffs, a lot of people would have pointed to Ron Artest and Derek Fisher as potential weaknesses for the Lakers. Both players are battle-tested veterans who bring hustle and toughness to the floor every time they play. However, Artest and Fisher are also a step or three slow for their positions at this point in their careers, and both struggled to make shots all season. (Artest shot 41.4% from the floor; Fisher shot an abysmal 38%.)

Artest’s struggles from the field and occasionally questionable decision-making were to be expected to some degree; even so, many fans questioned whether the Lakers would have been better off simply keeping Trevor Ariza in the off-season. Artest’s brand of defense was a welcome addition to the Lakers, but it often looked like he was throwing away possessions when the Lakers had the ball. Role players on a team like the Lakers are expected to abide by one cardinal rule — know your role. It seemed like Artest forgot that edict at times, and fans noticed. (Witness the Laker crowd audibly shouting “Nooooo!” at Artest whenever he’s lined up an early-in-the-clock three this postseason.) 
Fisher was much more widely derided than Artest, and for good reason. Fisher has always been more valuable than the numbers show, but Fisher’s numbers were truly horrific this season. Of the 67 qualifying point guards, Derek Fisher finished the regular season 63rd in PER. In fact, because of his low PER and how many minutes he played, Fisher ranked 324 out of 331 NBA players in Estimated Wins Added: Basically, the stat says that only six players cost their teams more wins than Derek Fisher cost the Lakers this season. Not something you generally read about the starting point guard on a team heading to the Finals. Fisher was bad enough during the regular season that many Lakers fans were openly begging for GM Mitch Kupchak to get Kirk Hinrich or Devin Harris at the trade deadline, even though both of them were struggling as well.
Amid all the calls for change in the roster or the rotation during the regular season, Phil Jackson and the Laker front office stood behind their oldest player and their newest acquisition, keeping both of them in the starting lineup throughout the regular season. After the last two games of the Western Conference Finals, it looks like Jackson and Co. put their faith in the right people. 
In game five of the Lakers-Suns series, Fisher was quietly spectacular; he tallied 22 points and six assists on 7-12 shooting from the field. Artest was terrible for the first 47:58 of the game, but more than made up for it with his spectacular game-winning put-back as time expired. 
That game-winner clearly gave Artest confidence for game six, because he did absolutely everything right on Saturday night. Artest played with aggression and hustle, beating the Suns to every loose ball and taking the ball right at the teeth of the Phoenix defense whenever they gave him a chance to do so. Artest’s infamously streaky outside shot made the trip to Phoenix as well; he went 4-7 from beyond the arc in game six, leading all players in made three-pointers. Count on Ron Artest to finally put it all together in front of a hostile crowd during the most important game of the season. 
For his part, Fisher wasn’t as effective as he was in game five, but he did what he needed to do in key moments to help the Lakers get the win. When the Suns made their big post-flagrant run in the fourth quarter, it was Fisher who made the key plays that got the Lakers back on track. Not only did Fisher make two big jumpers when the Lakers desperately needed to get some offense going, but he drew a key charge on Amar’e Stoudemire that took away some of Phoenix’s momentum. However old Derek Fisher gets, it seems like he can always be counted on to hit big shots and use his savvy to draw fouls on unsuspecting opponents. 
Before the playoffs, Derek Fisher and Ron Artest looked like two old, slow players whose lack of explosiveness and streaky outside shots were bogging the Laker offense down. After the conference finals, they look like two crafty veterans whose defensive intensity, toughness, and savvy allowed the Lakers to get into the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year. I wonder what they’ll look like after the finals. 

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.