Lakers to measure themselves against Celtics: What to look for

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The Lakers are the two-time NBA defending champions. They have the newest shiny rings and the banner has barely had time to gather dust. Every time they step on the court they are the team the opposition wants to measure itself against.

Except Thursday night. Then the roles will be reversed — the Lakers will be measuring themselves against the Celtics.

It’s not about last June, it’s about this season now. And this season Boston has looked every bit the championship force, the veteran team on top of their conference with their own championship pedigree. They look better than the team that went seven games into the NBA finals last season.

On the other hand the Lakers have looked lackluster, at least as lackluster as a 36-16 team can. They have been inconsistent and uninspired, especially in big games (which they are supposed to win). That includes in a 109-96 win by the Celtics a week ago in Los Angeles, where Boston shot 60.3 percent for the game and pulled away in the second half. The Celtics looked much the better side.

That loss was the straw that broke Mitch Kupchak’s back and had the reserved Laker GM saying publicly maybe it was time to think about trades. It was the first domino to fall, leading us to the current Lakers/Carmelo Anthony silliness.

The Lakers have been more focused of late, especially on the road. Thursday we see if that change was real or cosmetic and the problems in Los Angeles more systemic.

Here are a few things to watch for:

Who controls the boards. These are two of the longest front lines in the NBA and both are used to controlling the glass. In the last 10 meetings, the team that won the battle on the glass won 9. Boston did it in last week’s meeting, but they had Shaquille O’Neal who will be out Thursday with roughly a sore everything. Watch the offensive rebound numbers, if one team has a significant advantage they will have, um, a significant advantage.

Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol. Gasol is the most skilled big man in the NBA, but in the meeting last week Garnett never let him get comfortable. Gasol couldn’t get the ball where he wanted on the floor. Gasol is the hub of the Lakers offense, they need to get him the ball and cut off him. If he can the Lakers offense will click.

Paul Pierce vs. Ron Artest. This is fun to watch just because neither guy gives an inch. Pierce won the battle last go around.

Rajon Rondo vs. Kobe Bryant. In the second half of the last meeting, Rajon Rondo shredded the Lakers defensive plan for him that helped the Lakers get that ring last June. Kobe usually covers Rondo and plays off him, daring him to shoot. Rondo this year has been far better about how to use that space to create passing angles and set up teammates. Or, as he did against the Bobcats a couple nights ago, he can just knock down the shots now. The Lakers need to adjust, it will be interesting to see how.

Ball movement. Both teams use a similar defensive principle — bring a big man over early on the side where the ball is to stymie dribble penetration (get past your defender and Kendrick Perkins or Andrew Bynum is there to greet you). The way you defeat that is quick ball movement to the weak side. Boston recovers and resets quickly, the Lakers do when they are on. But whichever team is getting buckets from the weak side will be the team hitting the easier looks. And in this game the team with more easy looks will likely win.

Three Things to Know: What you need to know about race for West play-in

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What you need to know about race for West play-in

Four teams were alive in the chase for the final playoff spot in the West when they got out of bed Tuesday morning — Memphis, Portland, Phoenix, and San Antonio — and four were still alive when they went to bed Tuesday night.

But things looked very different by the end of the day. Portland — by virtue of a 61-point game by Damian Lillard, and helped by a Memphis loss — was the eighth seed and the team everyone else was chasing. The eighth seed has a huge advantage in the play-in series that is coming (it only has to win one of two games, the nine seed must sweep them both), and Portland had taken that away from Memphis. Still, nothing was secure yet.

Here are the play-in scenarios for each team (all four teams play Thursday).

Portland: Beat Brooklyn and the Trail Blazers are the eighth seed. It’s that simple. They control their own fate. If the Trail Blazers lose they only keep the eighth seed if everyone else loses. If Portland loses but two of the other three teams also lose, then the Blazers are the nine seed.

Memphis: Beat Milwaukee — who likely will be without Giannis Antetokounmpo after his headbutt of Moe Wagner — and Memphis can finish no worse than ninth. If the Grizzlies win and Trail Blazers lose, then Memphis regains the eighth seed. If the Grizzlies lose, they need both the Suns and Spurs to stay in the playoffs.

Phoenix: The Suns must beat the Mavericks to go 8-0 in the bubble, or they are out. And even going 8-0 may not be enough, Phoenix still needs Memphis and/or Portland to lose to move into either of the top two seeds (if both lose the Suns can be eight, just one and they finish ninth).

San Antonio: The Spurs must beat the Jazz to have any chance, lose and they are out. Even with a win San Antonio needs at least two of Portland/Memphis/Phoenix to lose to become the nine seed (if all three lose the Spurs can be the eighth seed, but that is a longshot).

2) Damian Lillard ties career-high 61 to will Portland to critical win

Paul George and Patrick Beverley talked smack from the bench, and it made Damian Lillard mad. You wouldn’t like Lillard when he’s mad…

If you’re an opponent. For the rest of us, it’s pure basketball joy. In the two games since the Clippers ran their mouths in a win, Lillard has scored 112 points on 55% shooting (hitting 33-of-34 free throws) and willing Portland to two wins and the eighth seed. On Tuesday, Lillard dropped 61 on Dallas.

You had better respect his f****** name and his game.

3) Devin Booker should be the bubble MVP, drops 35 to keep bubble Suns perfect

The NBA is giving out awards for the bubble — an NBA Player of the Seeding Games and NBA All-Seeding Games Team — and Devin Booker is going to pick up some hardware. Or should, at least.

The Suns remained perfect at 7-0 in the bubble on Tuesday beating what’s left of Philadelphia 130-117 behind 35 from Booker.

Booker has craved respect he feels he hasn’t gotten up to this point, mostly because the Suns’ teams he has been on are terrible (and the defensive issues of those teams fall partly on him, although there is much more at play as well). In the bubble, he has earned that respect.

Respect alone won’t get the Suns into the play-in series, another win won’t even do that (as noted above, the Suns still need help even with a win). But the respect is there, and that is something.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.