NBA Playoffs: The Lakers get back on track

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There was no one matchup that swung in the Lakers’ favor on Tuesday night. There wasn’t one key play that ended up making all the difference late in the game, although Kobe Bryant’s turn-back-the-clock dunk in the second quarter did help swing the momentum their way. There wasn’t a noticeable change in their offensive strategy, and they still had trouble containing Chris Paul. None of that ended up mattering.

As it turned out, the Lakers didn’t need to make any big adjustments to power through the New Orleans Hornets and take a 3-2 series lead — they simply needed to play the way everyone knows they are capable of playing. Even though the Hornets have managed to take two tough games from the Lakers in this series, and still have a chance to win two more if the Lakers stop executing and Chris Paul goes off again, Game Five showed that the Hornets don’t have any answers for the Lakers when they play their game. There’s a reason why it can be so frustrating to watch the Lakers when they lose — when they win, they make it look so easy.

Even though the Hornets were able to shoot the ball well against the Lakers, the defending champions outclassed them in every area. Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Ron Artest were able to manhandle the Hornets in the paint and on the boards. The Lakers scored 67 of their 106 points from the paint or the free-throw line, and outscored the Hornets 22-2 in second chance points.

After the game, Phil Jackson said that the “hustle points” went the Lakers’ way on Tuesday, and that the second-chance points were “the key to the win.” Hornets coach Monty Williams also noted that his team needs to figure out a way to match the Lakers’ physicality, saying “there was more focus to be physical” in Game 5 and that a lot of what occurred was “just not basketball, so it’s just one of those things we have to recognize that kind of play and overcome it.” Chris Paul also acknowledged the Hornets’ physicality, saying that the Hornets “need to figure out a way to play physical without fouling.” It will be hard for the Hornets to overcome the Lakers’ massive size advantage up front, but they will clearly need to figure something out in order to stay alive in this series.

Out on the perimeter, Kobe Bryant found the perfect balance between patience and aggression. He was content to run the offense and set up his teammates for most of the game, but he also had a few key scoring bursts, most notably at the end of the second quarter. After Bryant was called for a questionable continuation foul on Trevor Ariza, he came right back down the court and unleashed an electrifying dunk on Emeka Okafor that completely galvanized the Staples Center. After the game, Shannon Brown said that it was Kobe’s biggest dunk “since he had an afro,” and Kobe said that the dunk was a message to his teammates that “the series is important — they know I don’t have many of those left in me anymore.” Needless to say, Bryant’s ankle was much less of a concern after the game than it was before it.

Kobe and the Laker bigs had it going, and the Lakers’ role players did their part as well. The Lakers’ second unit didn’t shoot particularly well from the floor, but they were able to hit some timely threes, and their energy provided what Phil Jackson called “a major boost” to the Lakers when they checked in. When the Lakers are locked in like that on offense, there’s not much that a defense can do to slow them down.

Offensively, the Hornets didn’t do poorly by any stretch of the imagination. Chris Paul didn’t dominate the game like he did in the Hornets’ wins, but he still finished with 20 points on 12 shots and 12 assists. Marco Belinelli and Trevor Ariza shot as well as anyone can possibly expect Marco Belinelli and Trevor Ariza to shoot, and Willie Green continued to make impossible floaters. Even though the Hornets barely got any offensive production out of their bigs and turned the ball over 17 times, their loss was more a product of the Lakers’ offensive execution and dominance on the glass than anything they did wrong offensively.

As Trevor Ariza put it after the game, “[The Lakers] played well. There’s nothing that we can say. I don’t think we didn’t fight or we didn’t play well, I just feel like they played better than us. That’s it.” Unfortunately for the Hornets, there’s a lot of truth in what Ariza said. The Hornets are a scrappy team that plays good defense, has some outside shooting, and has Chris Paul, but there are reasons why the Lakers won 11 more games than the Hornets did in the regular season. The Lakers’ big men are both bigger and more skilled than the Hornet bigs, the Lakers are deeper than the Hornets are, and while Chris Paul has arguably outplayed Kobe in this series, Kobe is still Kobe.

The Hornets have put up a great fight in this series, and it’s hard to count them out with the way Chris Paul has been playing. However, it’s even harder to shake the feeling that if the Lakers play like this one more time in the next two games, there’s not going to be a lot that the Hornets can do to avoid elimination.

Clippers reportedly plan on playing Kawhi Leonard more than Raptors did last season

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Kawhi Leonard was the poster child for load management last season.

The Raptors essentially let him set his own schedule in a return from the quadricep tendon issue that cost him the previous season (and, ultimately, helped ruin his relationship with the Spurs). Leonard played in just 60 regular season game — and it worked. He was a force in the playoffs, leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning Finals MVP again.

So the Clippers are going to follow that same script, right? Nope. Expect to see more Leonard, according to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this. One is that Leonard may be feeling a little healthier and that he can take on more now. With a deep Clippers roster (especially once Paul George returns from his shoulder surgeries) it’s also possible the Clippers can limit Leonard’s in-game minutes, he averaged 34 a game when he played, which was top 20 in the league.

The bigger factor is the West is so deep with good teams the Clippers simply can’t have him sit as much and still get a good seed. Toronto could let Leonard rest and still won 58 games and had the two seed. That’s not how the West — with the Lakers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors — is going to go. The Clippers are going to need Leonard to win games most nights, and they certainly want to get a top-four seed and be home to start the postseason.

Leonard may play more early in the season and get more rest on the back half, once George returns to form and takes over some of the load on the wing. But he’s going to play.

The Clippers simply need him.

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.