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.

Watch Stephen Curry’s mother Sonya hit underhand half-court shot

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sonya Curry wins the game of H-O-R-S-E.

It’s all things Curry at All-Star weekend in Charlotte. Father Dell Demps has his number hanging from the rafters in the Spectrum Center (and is now the Hornets’ broadcast color commentator). Stephen Curry is coming home and will play in the big game, his brother Seth Curry will go up against him in the three-point contest.

And the shot of the weekend may go to Sonya Curry, who drained an underhand half-courter to win a family shootout at the unveiling of a refurbished at a community center in Charlotte during All-Star weekend.

Sonya may have the shot of the weekend. I’d say no way Stephen can hit that shot, but I think we all know better.

 

Russell Westbrook doesn’t sound enthused about being All-Star teammate of Joel Embiid

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CHARLOTTE – Is Russell Westbrook cool with Joel Embiid? “F— no,” Westbrook famously said.

Embiid committed a hard foul on Westbrook in the Thunder’s win over the 76ers last month, and Westbrook wasn’t letting it go.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said he wanted to pick both players in the All-Star draft, help them resolve their conflict. Instead, Westbrook and Embiid both wound up on LeBron James‘ All-Star team.

Rob Perez of The Action Network:

Embiid:

I don’t care. To me, the whole situation is fine. Who cares? I’m willing to do whatever, but when we get on the court as opponents, I don’t care. I don’t like him. I don’t like anybody, anybody else. But if we’re on the same team, I’m willing to work it out.

Westbrook:

Next question, champ.

A couple years ago, Westbrook-Kevin Durant was the big intra-All-Star-team rivalry. But they still connected on an alley-oop during the game.

I bet Westbrook and Embiid will connect just fine on the court tomorrow. Still, I’ll be watching those two closely.

Anthony Davis: “I never said Boston wasn’t on my list”

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If anyone came into All-Star weekend expecting some clarity on Anthony Davis’ situation and where he will play next, they came away sadly disappointed.

Saturday, Davis made things even murkier by throwing the door open to more possiblities.

First, Davis was asked about the leaked list of his preferred destinations — Lakers, Knicks, Bucks, Clippers — and if that was accurate.

“That list that came out, it’s between my agent and the Pelicans,” Davis said, but then added:

“It’s true.”

That list never included Boston, which now is one of the front-runners to be able to trade for him.

“They are on my list, I never said Boston wasn’t on my list,” Davis said.

So, is Boston on your list?

“I never said they wasn’t on my list,” he reiterated.

It went around like that in a circle for a while. When asked about the Knicks being on his list specifically he praised them.

“It’s a great franchise. Playing in, obviously, the Garden, the city,” Davis said, but then he pivoted to a theme he stuck with all day. “But Milwaukee was on that list too. It doesn’t matter about big market, small market. It’s about winning for me.”

Later, on NBA TV, Davis said all 29 other NBA teams were on his list, which felt like him trying to cover himself after his earlier comments. Rather than coming into media day Saturday with a prepared set answer for the inevitable trade questions, Davis seemed to wing it. He was open, but also did muddied the waters.

“I’m just keeping it real, to be honest,” Davis said. “I knew that’s all you guys (the assembled media) wanted to talk about. I just stated how I feel, stated my intentions, and we’ll go on from there.”

One thing Davis was clear about, saying it multiple times through the day, was that winning was his priority — over market size, money, or anything else.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to get to play the game, I want to be able to win. No matter where it is. I have no preferred destination,” Davis said. “I just felt it was time for me to move forward, take charge of my career, and try to win.”

That winning wasn’t happening in New Orleans, which is why a few weeks before the trade deadline his agent, Rich Paul, reached out to the Pelicans, told them Davis would not re-sign with the team and gave them a list of preferred destinations. Paul then leaked the trade request to the media, which both got Davis fined and turned the entire thing into a full-on circus.

Every move Davis makes now is scrutinized as media and fans try to read the tea leaves of his intentions. He’s also been booed by his hometown fans, the first real negativity he has faced in his career.

“That doesn’t bother me,” Davis said. “I have a great team around me making sure I’m fine, always checking on me, there to support me. There’s only a handful of people whose opinions matter to me.”

He also just avoids NBA Twitter.

“The biggest thing, especially nowadays, is social media. I stay off social media, nobody’s opinion (there) matters to me,” Davis said.

The scrutiny even extends to All-Star weekend in Charlotte. For Sunday’s game, LeBron James drafted a team full of potential free agents — Davis, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard — which led to jokes even on the All-Star draft show about tampering. How much are the players talking about their futures with each other?

“Zero,” Davis said. “All that tampering stuff that comes out in the media, nobody really talks about that. At least not to me… When I’m around we talk about games more than anything. We talk about how it’s hard to play in Denver, the air up there, things like that.”

Davis said his plan is to play in the All-Star Game despite leaving the last game before the break with what has been diagnosed as a shoulder contusion, although he will see how he feels on Sunday.

Beyond that, the plan the rest of the season is much the same.

“My intent is to play, to continue to play. And that’s it…

“My job is to play these final 20-something games in New Orleans, then we’ll see where it goes from there,” Davis said.

Mike Conley returns to All-Star Weekend 11 years later, but still not as All-Star

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CHARLOTTE – Mike Conley arrived about 15 minutes late to his press conference this morning. He said arena personnel initially didn’t allow him in, forcing him to go around until someone let him through.

It’s the story of his career and getting to All-Star.

“Just going to make me go around in circles until one day letting me in, right?” Conley said.

The Grizzlies point guard is widely recognized as the best active player never to be an All-Star. But Conley – who will compete in the Skills Challenge tonight – is back at All-Star Weekend for the first time since his rookie year, when he played in the 2008 Rookie Challenge.

Back then, Conley was still hyped as the No. 4 pick in the 2007 draft. He figured the Rookie Challenge would be just the start of many trips to All-Star Weekend. But he didn’t progress in his second season enough to get picked for even the sophomore team in the Rookie Challenge.

“It was tough,” Conley said. “The first year you get invited, you feel like you’re doing good things. The second year, you don’t get invited, and it’s frustrating.”

“But stuff like that helped drive you a little bit, helped give you that motivation to put yourself out there again and hopefully one day you’ll be coming back as an All-Star.”

Time is running out.

Conley will be in his 13th season next year. Nobody has ever made their first All-Star game that late in their career. Kyle Korver (2015 Hawks), Tyson Chandler (2013 Knicks) and Vlade Divac (2001 Kings) first became All-Stars in their 12th seasons.

So, Conley made his way to Charlotte for the Skills Challenge this year. He fondly recalls his dad – Mike Conley Sr., an Olympic gold-medal triple jumper – taking him to events as a kid and getting pictures with him and famous people. Conley said he has already gotten pictures this weekend of his children with Fabolous, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.

The vacation also timed up well for Conley, who was subject of numerous rumors before last week’s trade deadline. Memphis traded Marc Gasol to the Raptors but kept Conley.

“I just needed a break from all the hoopla and trade rumors and trade talks, and just get away, get my family out here, try to have fun with these guys and experience something other than reading Twitter and Instagram about where I’m going to be at next, “Conley said.

Conley called All-Star Weekend “a big party” and said he particularly appreciated the camaraderie with fellow players. Even in a crowd of stars, Conley stands out.

“The players really respect me and every one of them, like, ‘Man, I can’t believe you haven’t been an All-Star. You should be one. You should have been one this year,'” Conley said. “It’s the same thing over and over. But it’s cool to know they at least recognize it.”

Is there something special about being known as the best player in the game who hasn’t been an All-Star?

“I’d rather have just been an All-Star,” Conley said.