NBA Playoffs: The Hornets stun the Lakers

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You could hear a pin drop in the Staples Center. The Lakers were supposed to steamroll the short-handed New Orleans Hornets in the first round on their way to a potential three-peat, but the Hornets stunned the NBA world and took game one in the Staples Center. And unlike the Grizzlies’ win, the Hornets’ win didn’t come down to a single possession. While the Hornets never opened up a huge lead on the Lakers, they rarely trailed in the game, and were able to pull away at the end. Pau Gasol was invisible. Kobe Bryant was outplayed by Chris Paul down the stretch. For the first time in the Phil Jackson era, the Lakers lost a 1st-round series opener at home.

From the very beginning of the game, something didn’t seem quite right for the Lakers. As Jackson put it after the game, “I think we were late on everything. They were the aggressors, they stayed aggressive and beat us to balls…We’re not really good in morning games. Our just just weren’t really sharp all year. We really weren’t animated and really aggressive. I thought Ron Artest was probably our best player out there today.”

The Lakers seemed reluctant to get the ball inside, which is where their biggest advantage against the Hornets — or any other team, for that matter — should be. The ball rarely came to Pau Gasol in the post, and Gasol was passive when it did — at one point, he had Jarret Jack guarding him after a switch, but immediately passed the ball back out to the perimeter.

The Hornets were able to use their speed advantage to get into the paint, and outscored the Lakers 52-34 in the painted area. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol combined for one offensive rebound. Kobe Bryant had a great shooting night and looked unstoppable at times, but found himself playing one-on-five far more often than Phil Jackson would have liked.

When the Lakers fail to establish their inside game and are forced to rely on Kobe creating from the perimeter, there’s always a chicken-or-egg question: were the Lakers forced to rely on Kobe because their interior game wasn’t working, or because Bryant didn’t work hard enough to establish their interior game? In the post-game press conference, a visibly frustrated Jackson seemed to be of the latter opinion, saying that “There wasn’t a lot of direction towards [Pau Gasol]. There weren’t a lot of balls in the post. We didn’t get the ball inside, which is one of our strengths.”

Hornets coach Monty Williams, who admitted that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the way his team was able to handle the defending champions, seemed completely dumbfounded by Gasol’s ineffectiveness, and noted that Gasol shot over 70% against the Hornets when the two teams played each other in the regular season. Ron Artest came to play on Sunday, and was more than willing to bang for tough baskets and offensive rebounds inside, but for most of the game, the Lakers reverted to Kobe vs. The World offensively.

On defense, the Lakers had nothing resembling an answer for Chris Paul, who looked like the best point guard in the world on Sunday. He picked apart the Laker defense with precise passes. He used his ballhandling ability to work in between the Laker defenders and get easy pull-up jumpers before the help could react. He was active on defense and on the glass. He went hard to the basket and either made the basket or drew a foul. He had perfect control of the offense, and was the biggest reason the Hornets only turned the ball over three times all game. He was regularly able to force the Lakers to switch a big man onto him and break down the defense from there. With the precision of a surgeon, Paul rendered the Laker defense completely helpless.
After the game, Kobe was frustrated with the way his team defended Paul and the rest of the Hornets, saying “We didn’t do the coverages, defensively, that we  were supposed to do. We just didn’t do ’em.”

In the last five minutes of the game, Paul accounted for 15 points and one assist while Kobe went 0-4 with one turnover. Paul has been inconsistent for the last two seasons, and Kobe has the last two Finals MVP awards on his mantle, but Paul was the superior player in game one.

One thing that both teams should be worry about is the play and injury status of Aaron Gray — the little-known center made all five of his shots off the bench, was a game-high +25, and, according to Phil Jackson, outplayed the Laker bigs. Unfortunately for the Hornets, Gray twisted his ankle and suffered a mild sprain with about a minute left in the game. If he’s back at 100% on Wednesday, it’s bad news for the Lakers. If he’s not, the Hornets are going to be forced to give more minutes to D.J. Mbenga.

Was this game a fluke, or do the Lakers have to worry about whether or not they will advance to the second round? It’s clear that the Lakers will need to have Bynum and especially Gasol playing at a higher level than they did tonight. If the Lakers don’t use the advantage they have inside against the Hornets, they will make this into a much more even series than it should be on paper. They will need to get more out of their bench, especially Lamar Odom. They will need to find some way to stop Chris Paul, or at least slow him down.

If they do those things, the Lakers can easily take this series in five or six games, even with the setback they suffered tonight. But if the Lakers continue to allow Paul to run rampant and forget that two of the best big men in the NBA play for their team, Phil Jackson’s legendary career could end on a very low note.

Indiana museum to tell story of basketball great Larry Bird

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TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — A museum is being planned to tell the story of basketball great Larry Bird, an Indiana native.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Saturday that the museum will be located in a new convention center that’s being built in Terre Haute in western Indiana. The Tribune-Star reports Bird plans to donate personal items and memorabilia from his career with the Boston Celtics, Indiana State University, the U.S. Olympic team and beyond.

Holcomb predicts the museum will be a global draw, describing Bird as “Larry the Legend – Indiana’s favorite son.”

Details about the museum are still being developed, but plans include interactive displays to detail Bird’s life and career. He won three NBA championships with the Celtics.

Construction on the convention center is expected to start in the spring.

Kris Dunn to miss 4-6 weeks for Bulls with knee injury

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Kris Dunn is trying to convince the Bulls he can be their long-term point guard.

This won’t help.

Mark Strotman of NBC Sports Chicago:

Dunn will still have plenty of time to show he’s continuing his progress from last season. But this narrows the window to prove himself before becoming extension-eligible next offseason.

Dunn’s injury also increases the chances Chicago (0-3) will have its pick of point guards in the draft next year. In the meantime, the Bulls will turn to a hodgepodge of Cameron Payne, Ryan Arcidiacono, Tyler Ulis and now Shaquille Harrison.

Too early to panic about Lakers, but this is a flawed team

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LOS ANGELES — The Lakers are going to be a quality NBA team. Sooner rather than later.

Don’t take my word for it, take Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich’s.

“They’re just going to get better and better,” Popovich said after his team became the latest to execute better in the clutch and knock off the Lakers this season. “Luke (Walton) has done a great job with this group, still a very young group… and LeBron’s a great teacher, a great role model, and they’ll just get better and better and better. By that I mean mentally, as much as physically…

“The leadership of LeBron, he’ll demand a lot and he’ll help them all raise to another level for sure.”

Nobody around the Lakers doubts that.

Nobody expected a 0-3 start with the sixth-worst defense in the NBA, either. Los Angeles is allowing 131.7 points per game through three games (their top three pace is part of the reason for that eye-popping number, the Lakers play fast so the opposing team gets more chances against a porous defense).

The Lakers’ shooting was a concern going into the season and those worries have proven justified — Los Angeles is taking 31.4 percent of their shots from three (close to the league average) but are hitting just 29.3 percent of those shots, third worst in the NBA. While their shooting has had hot streaks — L.A. hit 6-of-7 at one point against the Spurs Monday, after starting 4-of-20 —the lack of consistency is not keeping opposing defenses honest. Opposing defenders are packing the paint and making it difficult to execute in the halfcourt, cutting off post passes, jumping in lanes and closing off angles used by the brilliant passers the Lakers have on their roster.

It’s been frustrating. For the team and the fans (who came in with wild expectations with LeBron James in purple and gold).

Yet, nobody around the Lakers is reaching for a panic button, or even looking to see where it is located yet.

“We’re going to continue to get better. I like the direction we’re going in,” LeBron James said after the latest loss. “Obviously, we don’t have too many wins right now but it’s such a long process….

“We want to defend, we know that’s going to be our staple. We know we’re going to have to defend. When we defend and rebound, we’re very good, just trying to figure out how to defend without fouling.”

“We still have to get used to each other defensively,” Josh Hart added. “We have to know individually when [we] have guys contained and work on not overhelping, not giving up open threes like that. We’re good. We have a young team and it’s a learning experience.”

“We’ve gotten better. It’s only been a month together,” said coach Luke Walton (whose name came up on the top of a gambling site’s list of odds for the first coach to be fired). “We’re rebounding the ball better, we might even have had more rebounds than they did tonight (the Lakers did have more rebounds and more offensive rebounds total than the Spurs). Our assist numbers are up where we want them and we haven’t even started hitting shots yet….

“The way we want to play, I think the pace has been great. All these things as far as who we are as a team are happening. And now we’ve got to close out games and get stops down the stretch and not foul down the stretch. I feel very good about where we’re headed.”

This Laker team is going to find its footing and win games (next up is the Suns, in Phoenix, on Friday).

However, this is also a flawed roster, and how far LeBron and the offense can lift this team is a question back in the spotlight after this start.

Continuity is one problem for Los Angeles.

In each of Lakers’ three losses — Portland opening night, Houston, San Antonio — have come to playoff teams from last season, and teams that have a strong identity. Continuity matters early in the NBA season and the Lakers don’t have any after a lot of roster turnover last summer. That lack of familiarity has come to a head in crunch time in each game — especially the first two. However, against the Spurs, it was the Lakers making plays when down 8 with 1:10 left in regulation, and a LeBron three sent it to overtime. An overtime the Lakers dominated, they were up 6 with :55 left… and then the continuity issues returned, the Spurs executed better, LeBron missed two free throws, and San Antonio went on a 7-0 run to get the win.

“I don’t like to use moral victories, but kind of bodes well,” Kyle Kuzma said. “The three teams we have played all played together for quite sometime. We are a new team and to be in every single game, it sort of means something.”

The Laker offense will be fine, mostly because of the commitment to run (27.3 percent of the Lakers’ possessions this season started in transition, the highest in the league, stat via Cleaning The Glass). The concern is the Lakers lack the shooting needed in the modern game — something Magic Johnson said the Lakers did consciously, they wanted to put more playmakers around LeBron, not just shooters as had been done in Miami and Cleveland — but LeBron is right that when the Lakers get stops and run they are a good team.

Whether they can get enough stops is another question.

When JaVale McGee is on the court this season, the Lakers are a good defensive team (allowing 103 points per 100 possessions, which would be fifth best as a team in the league). However, the team is a dismal 18.1 per 100 worse when he sits. JaVale’s rim protection and rebounding matter that much in the paint. Luke Walton has rolled McGee out there for 23.3 minutes per game, the most he has played since the 2011-12 season, and he was on the court more than 28 minutes vs. San Antonio. McGee only has so many minutes in him a night, and the Lakers may be bumping up against that.

For the Lakers, much of their issues are about communication and recognition on defense — things that come with time and familiarity. Or, continuity. The Lakers look like a team assembled this summer that is still figuring everything out.

Which is exactly what they are. What they should have been expected to be, rather than the pressure some put on them of a three-seed and 50+ win team. This was always going to take time. The only challenge is, in the deep West, time can run out much more quickly.

“It’s early in the season, it’s three losses,” Hart said. “Like you said, it’s always tight in the West. Sometimes getting into the playoffs can be one game, or half a game. It’s tough. But I feel like once we get that first win, the team will be rolling. We just have to get that first one.”

The optimism remains. And there’s not a panic button in sight in Los Angeles.

Rajon Rondo calls Chris Paul ‘horrible teammate,’ denies intentionally spitting on Rockets star

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Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul don’t like each other. Rondo’s girlfriend and Paul’s wife don’t like each other.

And Rondo isn’t letting sleeping dogs lie after the league concluded Rondo spit on Paul and suspended both players for their roles in the Lakers-Rockets fight Saturday.

Rondo, via ESPN:

“Everyone wants to believe Chris Paul is a good guy. They don’t know he’s a horrible teammate. They don’t know how he treats people. Look at what he did last year when he was in LA; trying to get to the Clippers locker room. They don’t want to believe he’s capable of taunting and igniting an incident.

“Exasperating and spitting are two different things. He comes out and says I spit and the media sides with that.”

“Y’all are playing me with these tricks or these mind games, tampering with the evidence,” Rondo told ESPN on Tuesday. “Ain’t no way that I intentionally spit on you with my body language the way it was.

“One, if I spit on you, bottom line, there is not going to be no finger-pointing. If you felt that I just spit on you, then all bets are off. Two, look at my body language. If I spit on you on purpose, I’m going to be ready for a man to swing on me. You ain’t going to have my hands on my hip and my head look away at someone if I spit on them. After the [expletive] goes down, within 30 seconds, you run and tell the sideline reporters that I spit on you? If I spit on you, you are trying to get to me. You not trying to make up a story so you can look like a good guy. It makes no sense to me.

“I was going to let it rest. I wasn’t going to say much. But now I have kids and I teach my kids to speak up for themselves and don’t let the world tell their story.”

Video clearly shows Rondo spitting on Paul. Was it intentional? I can’t read Rondo’s mind. But intent should matter only to a degree. Rondo didn’t control his saliva well enough to ensure he didn’t spit on Paul. That alone should be a violation. Otherwise, players would fill their mouths with spit, start jawing with foes and let it fly wherever it goes.

Was the video we saw tampered with? I’d love to hear more about this conspiracy theory. That’s juicy, though for now (and probably forever), completely unsupported.

Rondo’s explanation that he would have looked more ready to fight if he intentionally spit on Paul also lacks credibility. I mean, maybe. But I’m also not convinced Rondo (or anyone) was acting completely rationally in that heated moment. Assigning cold logic to his actions after the fact doesn’t sway me.

Rondo also brings up the Rockets trying to fight the Clippers, Paul’s former team, after a game last season as evidence of Paul being a poor teammate. If anything, that shows how great of a teammate Paul can be. He wasn’t even with Houston a full year, and his new teammates were already ready to support Paul in his own battle.

Of course, Paul can also be a bad teammate in some ways. So can Rondo.

They’re both intensely competitive. I believe Paul can escalate a confrontation, just as I believe Rondo could.

But I saw Rondo do it this time.