Game of the night: Where you can’t throw anything new at Kobe

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Kobe has seen it before. On much bigger stage.

He knows how a Tom Thibodeau team is going to defend him. Whenever and wherever he got the ball Tuesday night he patiently waited to see where the double would come from, then he would try to pass to the cutter. Or he kicks it to a pressure-release guard and watches the ball get whipped quickly to the weak side for an open look. Or if the double doesn’t come he goes to work.

He knows how to beat it. The Bulls are a solid defensive team but they don’t have Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo making life even harder, really taking away those passes and punishing cutters. Kobe was able to execute, to facilitate. And he did it best when it mattered most.

Against the Bulls he had 20 points and an unknown but impressive number of hockey assists. A couple of those came on a string of threes in the fourth quarter from Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes and Steve Blake that sparked the Lakers 98-89 win over the Bulls.

The threes were the show but the real key to the Lakers pulling away was a defense that held the Bulls to 18 fourth-quarter points.

“I think we packed it in a little tighter, we didn’t let them extend us out (on the pick and roll) because (Rose) was breaking us down,” Blake said. “I think it was a little but of us, but at the same time they probably didn’t play as well in the fourth.”

Brown continues to just blow people’s doors off this season. The guy known for high flying dunks hit his first four three point attempts and finished with 21 points, mostly from the outside.

“He’s shooting the ball well this year and he’s got a lot of confidence,” Derrick Rose said of Brown. “He’s doing great for them. We should have made him a driver.”

That somebody said they should make Brown a driver tells you just how well he is shooting.

Rose had 30. An impressive 30, but that is the usual for him. He is one of the guys in he league that if you can you should pay to see live. You know he’s quick from watching him on television, you’ve seen the highlights of the crossover, but in person it just wows you. The jaded crowd at Staples Center — which gets to see Kobe heroics and Brown fly — audibly gasped at Rose’s crossovers. His herky jerkey drives are a beautiful creation of space his body control unmatched.

Ron Artest came out on Rose and did a good job with ball denial and keeping Rose from getting comfortable. As opposed to later in the first half when Steve Blake was on him and Rose was as comfortable as your dads recliner in front of the television. He was going to get his.

Joakim Noah did a good job limiting Pau Gasol to 12 points on 3 of 10 shooting. What Gasol did have was five blocks — he’s a better defender of the paint and rim than he gets credit for.

He helped anchor the Lakers defense, and that is still not bad. Combine it with a patient and smart offense, and there is a reason the Lakers are 13-2.

Doc Rivers out as Los Angeles Clippers coach

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When the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets and never got out of the second round of the NBA playoffs, changes were going to be coming to Los Angeles. A team with lofty aspirations — and that gave up a lot of their future to contend now — can’t fall on its face like that without consequences.

But nobody saw Doc Rivers being out as the Clippers head coach.

That’s just what happened, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Rivers confirmed it on Twitter.

Kawhi Leonard came to the Clippers as a free agent in part to play for Rivers, and the coach was instrumental in recruiting Leonard to Los Angeles. That was the reason most around the league thought Rivers’ job was safe despite some questionable coaching rotation moves against the Nuggets (staying small and trusting Montrezl Harrell against Nikola Jokic when that clearly was not working).

There is no way Doc Rivers is out without Leonard giving his okay to the move.

Rivers signed an extension a year ago and Woj said he had two years remaining on his contract. That suggests a firing, no Rivers choosing to walk away.

As for who is next, Tyronn Lue has been the Rivers’ lead assistant and makes a logical choice to step in and take over. He is popular with the team’s players and has won a ring as a coach before.

However, it’s possible the Clippers look elsewhere. Jeff Van Gundy was suggested by Wojnarowski. Mike D’Antoni is out there if the Clippers want to make a radical move.

The new coach will take over the ultimate win-now team. Los Angeles has elite talent in Leonard and Paul George, the Sixth Man of the Year depth (Harrell, a free agent, and Lou Williams), and quality perimeter defenders. In the clutch, they could turn to the two-time Finals MVP. 

Except all that talent really never meshed together, in part due to injuries and other things keeping the team’s core from playing much together. Yet there was a sense of entitlement around this team — the Clippers acted like they could flip the switch and win.

“I think a lot of the issues that we ran into, talent bailed us out; chemistry it didn’t,” Williams said after the Clippers were eliminated. “In this series, it failed us. We know this is our first year together. We are a highly talented group and we came up short. Chemistry is something that you’ve got to build. You build it over time.”

The Clippers are all in with this roster. To get George (and with him, Leonard as a free agent), Los Angeles traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, their own first-round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, two other first-round picks belonging to Miami (2021 and 2023), and agreed to pick-swaps with Oklahoma City 2023 and 2025. 

The Clippers pushed all their chips into the middle of the table to get two years, two playoff runs with those stars. They wasted the first one of them.

The new coach, whoever it is, will have a lot of pressure not to let another season slip away.

Report: Victor Oladipo looking to leave Pacers this offseason

Pacers star Victor Oladipo
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Victor Oladipo was reportedly leaning toward leaving the Pacers in 2021 free agency.

He might prefer to exit sooner.

Jared Weiss of The Athletic:

Victor Oladipo looking to move on this offseason, according to sources

Oladipo has had an enjoyable and fruitful time in Indiana.

It’s also easy to see how he’d hold bigger ambitions on and off the court.

The Pacers control the situation for now. Oladipo is under contract next season at $21 million. But the specter of him leaving in 2021 unrestricted free agency applies implicit pressure. Indiana could trade him rather than risk him walking for nothing.

Of course it’s not fait accompli Oladipo would leave the Pacers in 2021 free agency. They’re looking for a new coach, and maybe that hire would help motivate Oladipo to stay. Indiana could take the upcoming season to sell him on a new direction. If going that route, the Pacers could still pivot before the trade deadline. That plan would allow Oladipo time to get healthy and boost his trade value (or suffer a setback and tank his stock).

Oladipo’s impending free agency also gives him some leverage in trade talks. He can signal an intent to re-sign with only certain teams, motivating those teams to trade for him (and dissuading other teams).

But at this stage, even if Oladipo is ready to leave, Indiana still holds most of the cards.

LeBron James first star in decades to face former team in NBA Finals

Lakers star LeBron James vs. Heat
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When LeBron James left the Heat in 2014, he claims someone from Miami told him, “You’re making the biggest mistake of your career.”

Heat president Pat Riley said his plan for Miami “all of a sudden came crashing down.”

Six years later, LeBron and the Heat are in the NBA Finals.

LeBron remains a driving force of championship contention. After Miami, he led the Cavaliers to the 2016 title (proving wrong his doubter with the Heat). Now, he’s flourishing with the Lakers. Even at age 35, LeBron is a superstar who held the allure to recruit a co-star in Anthony Davis. That’s a championship recipe.

The Heat have nearly completely turned over their roster since LeBron left. (Only Udonis Haslem remains.) Riley remained committed to winning immediately throughout this post-LeBron era and hit on the right combination of players for this moment. Miami lured Jimmy Butler, drafted and developed Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, traded for capable veterans Goran Dragic, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala and found undrafted gems Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn. It’s a remarkable story of team-building.

Now, LeBron and his former team meet on the biggest stage.

This is just the third time an All-Star has faced his former team in the NBA Finals:

  • LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) vs. Miami Heat in 2020
  • Wilt Chamberlain (Philadelphia 76ers) vs. San Francisco Warriors in 1967
  • Ed Macauley (St. Louis Hawks) vs. Boston Celtics in 1957

After years of coming up short, Wilt Chamberlain and the Warriors grew tired of each. San Francisco traded him to Philadelphia, bottomed out and drafted Rick Barry. Barry and Nate Thurmond – who moved from power forward to his more-natural center with Chamberlain’s exit – lifted the Warriors to the 1967 NBA Finals, where they lost to Chamberlain and the 76ers.

The Celtics were so smitten with a young center from University of San Francisco, they traded star center Ed Macauley to the St. Louis Hawks for the No. 2 pick in the 1956 NBA Draft… Bill Russell. Russell led Boston to more than a decade of dominance, NBA Finals trips in his first two seasons coming against Macauley’s Hawks. The teams split, the Celtics winning in 1957 and St. Louis winning in 1958.

A few other players were All-Stars in another season and still producing near – using that term generously in some cases – that level when facing their former team the NBA Finals:

  • Adrian Dantley (Detroit Pistons) vs. Los Angeles Lakers in 1988
  • Paul Westphal (Phoenix Suns) vs. Boston Celtics in 1976
  • Charlie Scott (Boston Celtics) vs. Phoenix Suns in 1976
  • Paul Silas (Boston Celtics) vs. Phoenix Suns in 1976
  • Dick Barnett (New York Knicks) vs. Los Angeles Lakers in 1970
  • Ed Macauley (St. Louis Hawks) vs. Boston Celtics in 1958

It’s obvious why these situations are rare. When on a team that could be good enough to reach the Finals without him, stars usually stay put. After losing a star, teams usually fall off.

But these are unique circumstances.

A Northeast Ohio native, LeBron wanted to win in Cleveland. Then, he wanted to live in Los Angeles. He still has the talent to dominate and the power to get his teams to mortgage their futures to surround him with immediate talent.

Riley is one of the greatest executives in league history. He created a culture in Miami that helps the Heat get through thick and thin. It’s one of the reasons LeBron joined the organization. Even after he left, the Heat focused on winning quickly and player development – then hit enough right breaks on this run through the bubble.

Make no mistake: Miami is the underdog of this story. LeBron’s continued reign was far more predictable. The Heat have been in precarious situations over the last few years before coming out ahead now.

That’s why Riley was so upset in 2014. He said he even considered going Dan Gilbert until a friend talked him out of it.

In his infamous letter, Gilbert wrote, “I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE.” Of course, the Cavs came up comically short. They were awful while LeBron won two titles in Miami.

And LeBron has already won a ring since leaving the Heat. But Miami has the opportunity for revenge that Gilbert could only dream of.

LeBron has an opportunity, too. In 2016, when the Cavaliers and Heat had a chance to play in the Eastern Conference finals, LeBron called it his preferred matchup. That was somewhat about his friendship with Miami star Dwyane Wade, who has since retired. But there are are still plenty of familiar faces in the Heat organization.

You know what they say about familiarity…

Report: 76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons don’t get along

76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
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76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons aren’t the cleanest on-court fit. Occasionally, they’ve shown signs of personal animosity.

But is there a full-blown rift between Embiid and Simmons?

Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer (writing about Tyronn Lue’s coaching candidacy, which has taken a backseat to Mike D’Antoni’s):

As a Los Angeles Lakers player, Lue won NBA titles in 2000 and 2001 while playing with Hall of Famers and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, who like Simmons and Embiid didn’t get along.

The Shaq-Kobe feud cut wide and deep. Does the Embiid-Simmons situation really match that?

It doesn’t have to in order to be a problem.

Shaq and Kobe were such good basketball players, they won three championships together despite their issues. Winning cures most ills. Shaq and Kobe worked through their differences while the Lakers were on top.

Though premier young talents, Embiid and Simmons aren’t Shaq and Kobe as players. The 76ers lost in the first round, a disappointing result that only increases pressure and tension.

For years, Philadelphia has committed to building around Embiid and Simmons. That appears to remain the plan.

That’s tricky enough simply based on their skill sets. It’s even more difficult if those two don’t get along.