NBA Playoffs: Bynum, Lakers win an ugly one

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It wasn’t pretty, but the Los Angeles Lakers were able to even up their series against the New Orleans Hornets with relative ease.

The Hornets were able to shock the Lakers in Game 1 because Los Angeles failed in two fundamental areas: they didn’t establish their big men on offense, and they didn’t contain Chris Paul on pick-and-rolls. On Wednesday, Phil Jackson showed why he has more rings as a head coach than he has fingers; he knows how to make adjustments.

Before the game, Jackson said that the Lakers defended “more than half” of the 70 screen-rolls the Hornets ran on Sunday incorrectly, which allowed Chris Paul to run amok. In Game 2, the Lakers were able to keep Paul in check by putting bigger defenders on him (Kobe Bryant started the game on Paul, and Ron Artest even guarded him for a few possessions), putting the quicker Steve Blake on him for a stretch, and trapping him effectively to make him give up the ball:

“They tried to shrink the floor on me,” Paul said after the game. “They didn’t want me to wiggle and dance with the ball as much. It worked for them to a certain extent.” Paul was indeed somewhat limited on Wednesday. He still recorded 20 points and 9 assists, but most of his shots were contested jumpers (six of his points came on buzzer-beating threes), and only two of his assists led to a dunk or a layup.

When the ball wasn’t in Paul’s hands, the Hornets weren’t able to generate anything resembling offense. Carl Landry tried to take the ball to the basket, but he was stifled time and time again by the hulking Laker frontline. Marco Belinelli couldn’t buy a jumper. Emeka Okafor was invisible on offense for the second straight game. Willie Green and Aaron Gray, who were both instrumental in New Orleans’ Game 1 win, turned back into pumpkins. Trevor Ariza was active and managed to hit shots, but the Hornets had almost no offensive cohesion whatsoever in Game 2.

When the Lakers had the ball, they showed tremendous discipline. Kobe Bryant finished the game with one of the worst box score lines of his career (11 points on 3-10 shooting, three rebounds, two assists), but he was more passive than ineffective. Bryant didn’t look for his own shot until late in the fourth quarter, when the game had essentially already been decided.

Instead of  having Kobe look to shoot or drive to the basket, the Lakers stayed in their triangle offense all game long, and tossed the ball into the post on nearly every possession and playing their offense from there. Pau Gasol, who was the goat after Game 1, didn’t do much better in Game 2. Even though the Staples Center crowd practically begged Gasol to be aggressive every time he caught the ball, Gasol wasn’t able to get into any kind of a groove. He struggled to get position, he never got his defender off-balance, his shooting touch was off, and he ended up shooting 2-10 from the field with one assist and three turnovers.

The Lakers’ first and second offensive options didn’t do much on Wednesday, something that Phil Jackson attributed to the Hornets’ defensive strategy, saying that”Their philosophy is to take the two main scorers out of the mix and make the other people beat us.”

Fortunately for Jackson, the Lakers’ third and fourth offensive options stepped up in a major way. The Lakers fed Andrew Bynum in the post time and time again, and he was able to punish the Hornets. By not bringing doubles on Bynum very much, New Orleans dared the Lakers to beat them with Bynum as their primary offensive option, and that’s exactly what they did.He bullied his defender under the basket, showed great touch at the rim, and was even able to step out and hit a few mid-range jumpers. He finished the game with 17 points on only 11 shots, was just as much of a force defensively as he was offensively, and was almost certainly the single biggest reason for the Lakers’ success.

“We know that [Bynum] is the one that plays well against this team because of his size,” Phil Jackson said after the game. “He really carries things pretty well, so we’re confident in him having a good game…we think he can play at an even higher level than this.” That last sentence is a scary thought for Laker opponents, considering how good Bynum looked tonight and that the Lakers have won the last two championships with Bynum playing a much more limited role than he has this season.

Newly minted Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom was no slouch either, and poured in 16 points off the bench on a variety of mid-range jumpers and drives to the rim. With Matt Barnes making all four of his shots and Steve Blake and Shannon Brown providing some quality energy off the bench, the Lakers looked infinitely deeper than they did in Game 1.

What does this game mean for both teams? For the Lakers, it means that they can beat the Hornets as long as they stick to their fundamentals on both ends of the floor. The Hornets can’t stop the Lakers consistently if they continue to pound it inside, and the Lakers can stop the Hornets if they contain Chris Paul and force the other Hornets to make plays. For those reasons, the Lakers should feel very good about their chances in this series, even though they need to win in New Orleans to stave off elimination.

Even though the Lakers can generate a good amount of offense by simply pounding the Hornets inside, they haven’t been able to roll on all cylinders offensively against the Hornets. As Monty Williams said after the game “We held them to 87 points. If you told us ‘the Lakers are going to score 87 points against your defense, would you take that?’ If you asked me that question, I would say yes.”

The Hornets’ defense does give New Orleans a chance in this series if they figure out how to score. It might take three more superhero performances from Chris Paul, or it might take the Hornets figuring out some way to generate good offense when the ball isn’t in Paul’s hands. I’m not sure which one is more unlikely at this point, but the Hornets will definitely need to do one of those things to pull off a series upset.

Watch Jerry West’s emotional memories of trading for/his relationship with Kobe Bryant

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Jerry West has never understood why people thought he was brilliant for recognizing the talent of a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant coming out of high school. To him it was obvious.

If it had been obvious (and if that era had not frowned on the development that came with drafting high school players), Kobe wouldn’t have been a Laker, and NBA history might be very different.

For West, Kobe was not just another player, he was like a son. West talked about it on the well done TNT special commemorating Kobe Tuesday night.

What those neatly packaged TNT clip does not show is just how difficult and emotional it was for West to talk about Kobe.

West has had a life of incredible highs, but also more lows and pain than many — abused by his father and battling depression his entire life — and this is another emotional tax on the NBA legend.

Joel Embiid returns to Philadelphia rotation after nine-game absence

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When you saw the image of Joel Embiid‘s dislocated ring finger facing a direction no finger should face, you knew he was going to miss some time (even though he had it taped up and returned to that game). Embiid had surgery to repair a torn radial collateral ligament on the ring finger of his left hand. Ultimately he missed nine games while he recovered.

Tuesday night against the Warriors, Embiid will be back.

He will have a soft wrap on his left hand that has been cleared by the league.

Philadelphia went 6-3 while Embiid was out.

Ben Simmons stepped up — in his last five games (before Tuesday) he averaged 24 points a game on 70.6 percent shooting, plus 10 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game. Without Embiid in the paint or taking up touches, Simmons took over the offense and looked much more comfortable in his role.

However, the Sixers’ offensive rating in those nine Embiid-less games was 104.9, 29th in the NBA (even in the last five it was 103.2, still 29th in the league). Simmons may have been playing better but the offense was not.

When Simmons and Embiid share the court this season, their offensive rating is 106.7 — not great, but better than without Embiid playing.

Victor Oladipo returns to Pacers Wednesday, likely off bench with minutes limit

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Indiana has gone 30-17 this season and sits as the five seed in the Eastern Conference — and Wednesday they get their best player back.

Victor Oladipo — the former Most Improved Player and All-NBA team member who has been out for most of a year with a right quad tendon rupture — practiced with the Pacers on Tuesday and, as expected, will make his return to the court Wednesday night against the Bulls.

Coach Nate McMillan would not say how he planned to use Oladipo but, considering the minutes limit, off the bench seems the most likely move. McMillan said the team would revisit the minutes and role after the All-Star break.

While Milwaukee has separated itself atop the East, the next five teams — Miami, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Indiana — are all within 2.5 games of each other and could end up in any order. If Oladipo can return close to the All-NBA form he was in prior to his injury, the Pacers become a big threat to break out of that group. If nothing else, they become a much tougher out in the postseason.

Giannis Antetokounmpo out for Bucks-Wizards (shoulder)

Giannis Antetokounmpo
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Giannis Antetokounmpo is on track to repeat as Most Valuable Player.

So, any game he misses is notable.

Bucks:

Expect to see more Ersan Ilyasova and D.J. Wilson. With the trade deadline approaching, this could even be a showcase game for Wilson.

Milwaukee is still favored over the Wizards. The Bucks have outscored opponents by 7.8 points per possession without Antetokounmpo this season. They’re deep.

Of course, anything can happen. It’s only one game in a long NBA regular season.

Which might something to do with Antetokounmpo sitting. Even if he plays in Milwaukee’s next game, vs. the Nuggets on Friday, he’ll get six straight days off. That’s a nice break.