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.

President Donald Trump awarding Medal of Freedom to NBA star Bob Cousy

Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
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WASHINGTON (AP) President Donald Trump is set to present basketball legend Bob Cousy (KOO’-zee) with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The award is being handed out Thursday. It celebrates individuals with a wide range of achievements and is the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The 91-year-old Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame member played for the Boston Celtics from 1950 to 1963. He won six league championships and the 1957 MVP title.

Cousy is also known for speaking out against racism. He was an ardent supporter of black teammates who faced discrimination during the civil rights movement.

Cousy will be the second person to receive the award this year from Trump. Golfer Tiger Woods received the honor in May.

Report: Shelly Sterling, members of Clippers organization heard Donald Sterling audio in advance and didn’t act

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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In 2014, published audio of a racist rant by then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling rocked the country.

It shouldn’t have. Sterling’s racism and sexism were well-established by then. But few cared. The audio poured gasoline on the fire and moved people to act. I wish it didn’t require that. But it did.

What if the audio didn’t become public through TMZ? Apparently, there might have been opportunity for another outcome.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

The fact is Shelly and several people in the Clippers organization heard the recording and decided not to act on it or weren’t appalled enough to act on it. Maybe they didn’t understand how big a splash this tape could make.

It’s unclear when Shelly Sterling (Donald’s wife) and other members of the Clippers organization heard the audio. Maybe it was while TMZ was doing due diligence. If so, it was probably too late to change the course of history.

But perhaps it was when V. Stiviano – Donald’s girlfriend who made the original recording and was being sued by Shelly – was still the only one in possession of it. Stiviano was clearly upset with how things were going financially between her and the Sterlings. For the right price, maybe the audio would have gone away before becoming public.

I’m glad it didn’t happen that way. The world is better off knowing exactly who Donald Sterling is.

Yet, this leads to an incredible “what if?” What if the people who heard the audio in advance understood the magnitude, acted in Sterling’s best interest and paid to have the audio kept secret? Would Sterling still own the Clippers today?

Kyle Kuzma scores on own basket in Team USA-Australia game (video)

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The Lakers are desperate at center. They might even need Kyle Kuzma to play the position. He’ll have to work on, among other things, rebounding.

At least it usually won’t go as poorly as this play in Team USA’s exhibition win over Australia.

Rockets betting on talent of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, everything else be damned

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

There is a tried-and-true method for winning an NBA championship: Get two recent MVPs. It has worked every time.

The Celtics paired Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. Won a title.

The 76ers paired Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Won a title.

The Warriors paired Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Won a title.

By acquiring 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook to join 2018 MVP James Harden, the Rockets are testing the limits of this plan.

Houston upgraded from Chris Paul to Westbrook in its trade with the Thunder. There’s certainly logic to that. Harden is in his prime, so this is the time to push in. It’s almost impossible to win a championship without stars. Stars are also hard to come by. Sometimes, you must just get whichever stars you can and hope for the best.

But Westbrook came at a significant cost.

Houston had to send Oklahoma City top-four-protected first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, a top-four-protected pick swap in 2021 and a top-10-protected pick swap in 2025. By the time most of those picks convey, the Rockets could be far worse.

The trade is salary neutral for the next three seasons, which partially explains why Houston gave up so much. Most teams would require a sweetener for taking Paul’s contract. But Westbrook’s contract runs a season longer, and the Rockets will owe him $47,063,478 at age 34.

There will be diminishing returns with Harden and Westbrook, two ball-dominant guards. They have the talent to figure it out offensively, though it will require major adjustments to how they’ve played lately. The defensive concerns are far bigger. Both players have frequent lapses on that end.

Westbrook, 30, has also declined the last few years. He remains quite good. But the way he relies on his athleticism, he could fall rapidly.

Based on name recognition on both sides, this is the most monumental trade in NBA history. In Houston, it will likely define the rest of Harden’s prime then – with those picks outgoing – the Rockets’ next phase.

Beyond that, Houston did well to build depth on a budget. The Rockets re-signed Danuel House (three years, $11,151,000 million), Austin Rivers (1+1, minimum) and Gerald Green (one year, minimum) and signed Tyson Chandler (one year, minimum). Most of the mid-level exception remains unused with the free-agent market largely dried up. But hey, luxury tax. Houston could still re-sign Iman Shumpert through Bird Rights.

The Rockets look pretty similar to last year – except Westbrook replacing Paul. That’s the enormous move.

I’m not even sure it will help next year, though. Houston could’ve kept Paul and fit squarely into a wide-open championship race. At least on paper.

The big unknown: How toxic was the relationship between Harden and Paul? Several Rockets denied a problem, but there was plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Westbrook is better than Paul. The two stars will likely get along better.

But will Westbrook add enough value to justify the high cost? All those draft considerations could have gone toward addressing other needs. Really, just needs. Houston didn’t need another ball-dominant guard one bit.

I support the Rockets prioritizing the present. Westbrook could propel them to a championship.

But given the fit concerns, the cost was too steep for my liking.

Offseason grade: C-