NBA Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Lakers vs. New Orleans

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SEASON RECORDS
Lakers: 57-25 (No. 2 seed)
Hornets: 46-36 (No. 7 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Lakers sweep 4-0.

KEY INJURIES
Lakers: Andrew Bynum, he has a bone bruise in his surgically-repaired right knee due to a fall Tuesday night against San Antonio, he said he could play but the Lakers may be cautious with Game 1; Matt Barnes has had a knee problem but is expected to go for the playoffs; Steve Blake has the chicken pox and could be out a week or more. And stop laughing at him, it’s not funny.
Hornets: David West, the team’s leading scorer, will be out for the series after having his knee reconstructed.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Lakers: Off. 107.9 (7th in NBA); 101.3 (6th in NBA)
Hornets: Off. 103.8 (19th in NBA); 102.5 (10th in NBA)

THREE KEY LAKERS

Pau Gasol: The question is not if Pau Gasol is capable off scoring on the Hornets, he can score on anyone. The question is will the Lakers guards get him the rock? The Lakers have this habit of just going away from getting the ball into the post because… well, nobody knows why. Phil Jackson would like to know why. Without David West the Hornets have to use Carl Landry to cover Pau Gasol, and last meeting Gasol had 23 points on 14 shots in that situation. The Lakers need to exploit that matchup until the Hornets adjust.

Lamar Odom: The Hornets are not a very deep team, when the two teams go to the bench the Lakers have a big advantage, and soon to be Sixth Man of the Year is key to that. The Hornets have nobody who can match up with him, he can get Bynum some rest for that knee and present serious matchup issues for the Hornets.

Andrew Bynum: The Hornets are going to run a lot of pick-and-roll, about 21 percent of their offense either comes from the ball-handler (Chris Paul) or the roll man on this play. Plus they got a lot of spot up opportunities off this play. The Lakers center has started to lay back on those — by design — and give up jumpers to take away penetration, but when asked can he show out on Paul and recover with Emeka Okafor? It matters this series, it will matter more in future rounds.

THREE KEY HORNETS

Carl Landry: David West was at the heart of everything the Hornets did, and Landry is his replacement. He has stepped up on offense — in the team’s last 10 games he has been the leading scorer at 14.9 points per game on 51.8 shooting. He is going to have to keep that up and then go to the other end of the floor and defend Gasol. If the Hornets are to have any chance Landry is key.

Chris Paul: The Lakers do not defend point guards well, and there is no better point guard in the league than CP3. The Lakers will likely try to hide Derek Fisher by asking him to cover Hornets coach Monty Williams (“Hey, just go stand by the guy in the suit”) and that means a combination of Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant on CP3. Paul has shot 41.5 percent in the Hornets last 10 and 20 percent from three. That will not do it here. Simply put, he is going to have to be amazing both scoring and passing to steal a game from Los Angeles.

Trevor Ariza: The former Lakers will be looking for a measure of revenge. He also will draw the Kobe Bryant cover. You need to get Kobe shooting a lot, particularly jumpers, and not running the offense to beat the Lakers and Ariza has to goad and challenge Kobe into that mode.

OUTLOOK

With all due respect to how well Landry has played, the Hornets really need David West here. The offensive problems that West created would have challenged Pau Gasol more and maybe tiered the Spaniard out some.

Look for the Hornets to try to pick-and-roll the Lakers to death, the Lakers strategy has been to lay back on that and dare you to beat them with the jump shot. Paul is going to have to both knock down shots and find ways to get some easy buckets inside for his teammates. They need to get Andrew Bynum and his balky knee on the move, the problem is the Hornets are not really a running team.

Emeka Okafor also is going to have to have a monster series on the glass for the Hornets to have a chance.

PREDICTION

Without West the Hornets do not have the firepower. They didn’t really with him, but without him the Hornets (like most teams) just cannot match up with the length and skill of the Lakers front line.

Lakers in 5.

Ryan Saunders reportedly likely to stay on as Minnesota head coach

Associated Press
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When Glen Taylor, the owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, said this a few weeks back, it was pretty clear interim coach Ryan Saunders was probably staying on after the season and getting the job full time.

“I think he has a good chance [to get the job]. It’s like everything, we’re going to wait until we play out these last 20-some games and I think we’ll know and he’ll know at that time if it works out. But he is off to a good start. I would just say I really like him as a person. I have known him since he was a young man, and I am really pleased with how he is starting out coaching this team.”<

Saunders was thrust into the big chair after Jimmy Butler sabotaged the team’s season early on in a push to get out of town, a move that came with a high price coach/GM Tom Thibodeau. Remember Thibodeau wanted to speed up the winning and to get Butler traded Zach LaVine and just drafted Lauri Markkanen, but when Butler didn’t work out in Minny Thibs was doomed.

If you want more evidence that Saunders is staying on, there is this reporting from the well-connected Marc Stein of The New York Times in his weekly newsletter.

Saunders, who turns 33 in April, is known to have a strong relationship with the All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns, who has played some of the best basketball of his career since the departures of Butler and Thibodeau.

The growing expectation around the league is that the credit Saunders will get for his impact on and the buy-in from Towns will more than offset ownership’s disappointment about returning to the draft lottery.

Towns is the franchise cornerstone, one of the top centers and top 10-12 players in the league, if Saunders can get the most out of him — and so far he has — then that is a good reason to keep him around.

When Sauders got the coaching job, Scott Layden took over as GM. His job is not as secure. There have been rumors about Taylor wanting to go big game hunting — specifically Chauncey Billups — but it seems the Timberwolves are likely to go another direction.

Calvin Booth, a Denver executive who the Nuggets hired away from the Timberwolves before the 2017-18 season, is increasingly mentioned as a strong candidate to replace Layden if Taylor does make a change.

Whoever gets the GM job, retooling the Timberwolves roster around Towns will now be difficult — Thibodeau showed no patience and now they are paying the price. Towns’ well-deserved max extension kicks in next season and that gives Minnesota two of max deals for young players — Andrew Wiggins is maxed out as well and an anchor on any rebuild (he has four years at the max after this season, good luck trading that). Don’t forget Gorgui Dieng will make $16.2 million next season. If Jeff Teague opts into his $19 million for next season, the Timberwolves will have very little room to maneuver and shore up the roster.

All of that will make Saunder’s job a real challenge.

Report: Knicks talked Kristaps Porzingis for De’Aaron Fox trade with Kings last draft

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The Knicks had made their minds up and were considering moving on from Kristaps Porzingis long before this trade deadline (when he was sent to Dallas), they were testing the waters all the way back to last June and the draft.

Last draft, the Sacramento Kings had a decision to make, too: How much did they believe in De'Aaron Fox? As a rookie, Fox had shown flashes and promise, but at No. 2 the Kings could pick Luka Doncic (or even Trae Young) and have gone in another direction.

That led to an interesting story from last June’s draft: The Knicks reached out to the Kings about a possible Porzingis for Fox swap, reports Zach Lowe of ESPN (in a fascinating piece on how this season changed things in Sacramento).

Sacramento moved up in the lottery again — to No. 2 — and faced a pivotal moment: the chance to reorient their team around Luka Doncic. Rivals sensed the dilemma and made offers for Fox — including a template from the New York Knicks centered around Kristaps Porzingis that would have required Sacramento to either send something beyond Fox or take unwanted Knicks salary (or both), sources say.

The Kings might have been able to leverage Doncic fever by trading down, but they wanted a guaranteed chance at Marvin Bagley III. The pick doubled as a vote of confidence in Fox. They didn’t need another ball handler. They wanted a springy big who could run with perhaps the league’s fastest player.

The Kings bet big on Fox. In the short term, that has worked out incredibly well for them, Fox made the kind of leap this season that will earn him a lot of Most Improved Player votes. He found his identity in pace and dragged the Kings with him to maybe the most surprising season of any team (and they were everyone’s league pass favorites). Bagley started to come on the second half of the season as he figured out how to fit his game in the NBA. How it works out long term for both teams remains to be seen, but the Kings have to feel good about how things look now.

Talks like this happen more than fans think — a lot of things are explored, very become trades. Kings fans should be glad this one didn’t.

 

Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic undergoes surgery to repair leg, full recovery expected. Eventually.

Associated Press
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As expected, Jusuf Nurkic underwent surgery on Tuesday repair the frightening leg injury he suffered on Monday night, a fractured left tibia and fibula that left his leg bending in a way that no leg should ever bend.

The good news is the surgery went as well as could be hoped, according to the team and Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Even with a successful surgery, this is going to take a long time to come back from.

As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes noted, the only comparable injury like this in the NBA was Paul George‘s frightening leg injury with Team USA. George made a full recovery, but it was eight months before he got back on the court and much longer until he was comfortable enough to be the MVP candidate he is this season.

Nurkic had made a leap this season, averaging a career-high 15.4 points per game this season on 50.7 percent shooting. The advanced stats loved him — his PER of 23.1, true shooting percentage of 57, value over replacement player of 3.5, and other advanced stats are all career bests. He was the anchor in the middle of the Portland defense, using his big body to cut off drives on pick-and-rolls. He was serving as a playmaker on offense: When he’d set a high pick for Damian Lillard, teams would trap the guard, Lillard would pass to Nurkic, and the Bosnian had become a good passer or he just take it in and scores himself

All of that came after Nurkic signed a four-year, $48 million contract extension last summer.

His injury also devastates the Blazers heading into the postseason, where they could have been a tough matchup but have now lost a key piece of their puzzle.

 

Celtics’ Kyrie Irving to rest against Cavaliers, his former team

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Kyrie Irving said returning to Cleveland tonight won’t mean anything to him.

He won’t even play.

The Celtics will rest rest the star against his old team, the Cavaliers.

Irving is averaging 23.8 points and the Celtics want to keep him as fresh as possible going into the postseason.

The Celtics have lost four straight and are fifth in the Eastern Conference entering Tuesday night’s game in Cleveland.

Irving played his first six seasons with Cleveland. The six-time All-Star demanded a trade following the 2016-17 season and was dealt to Boston. He hasn’t played in Cleveland since the 2017-18 opener.

Celtics center Al Horford (sore left knee) and forward Jayson Tatum (back contusion) could return Tuesday. Coach Brad Stevens said both were “questionable to probable” at the team’s shootaround.