Knicks talk defense, Lakers play it and win handily

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The talk coming into the season was how Tyson Chandler was going to change the Knicks defense.

He might, eventually. But Mike Brown has brought new energy and physicality to the Lakers defense right now — the Knicks shot 31.7 percent Thursday night (and for the season opponents are shooting only 38 percent against the Lakers).

The result was a 99-82 win for the Lakers over the Knicks at Staples. That means the Lakers are 2-2 after having started the season with a back-to-back-to-back without Andrew Bynum. Finishing .500 is a good result. Denver gets to face a better Lakers team with Bynum on Saturday.

This wasn’t a particularly pretty game. Both teams had their moments of sloppy play, like we have seen everywhere the first week of the season due to the lockout. Plus, you can blame it on both teams having poor point guard play. Or you can blame it on tired legs — the Knicks on back-to-back, Lakers on fourth game in five nights.

The difference was the Lakers attacked the rim and the Knicks settled. For example, to start the game, the Lakers were up 14-0 on points in the paint, they pounded the ball in to Pau Gasol. In the end, the Lakers had 44 points in the paint to the Knicks 26 (and a number of those Knicks points seemed to come in garbage time). Tyson Chandler tries but the Knicks team defense leaves him stranded too much.

The Lakers were up 63-51 and the half, then Kobe Bryant asserted himself in the third quarter to make sure the Lakers did not fade. Kobe had 13 points in the third alone as he abused Renaldo Balkman —including a four-point play in the third quarter where Balkman fouled Kobe 26 feet from the basket. Balkman was on Kobe a lot in this game, which is good for Kobe.

Meanwhile, the Knicks started the fourth quarter 1-8 shooting, the Lakers went on a 17-3 run and that was pretty much the ballgame. The Knicks tried to hang around but never made a serious run.

For the Lakers, it’s two wins in a row after a tough start. Their defense has been their strong suit and it is only going to improve with the return of Bynum. In the Phil Jackson era the Lakers usually went as far as their defense would take them. This is a different team, but if they keep defending like this they will win a lot of games.

For the Knicks, they are still trying to figure it out — and they are frustrated about it enough that Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler took technical fouls. After a hard-fought Christmas day win over Boston the Knicks have lost two straight on their West Coast swing. This was the second night of a back-to-back against a good team, you can just write it off. But the Knicks defense has not looked sharp and when the offense matches — a rating of 94.3 points per 100 possessions in this game — it will be hard for them to win.

No reason to panic, but New York needs to get Stoudemire attacking and not floating on the wing as much (he was 4-of-17 shooting). They need to steady their defensive rotations. They need better point guard play out of Toney Douglas and Mike Bibby. They need Carmelo Anthony to keep being this efficient (27 points on 14 shots). They need more offensive games like this from Tyson Chandler (13 points, 11 rebounds).

Overall, the Knicks look sloppy, like a team that needed a longer training camp to prepare for the season. Like the defensive message has yet to sink in.

The Lakers look like a team that hears their new coach and has made defense a priority.

Rudy Gobert re-energized ahead of Jazz at Thunder

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Rudy Gobert didn’t hide his disappointment at not making the NBA All-Star Game for the first time despite averaging 15.2 points and 12.9 rebounds while leading the league in field-goal percentage.

But coming off the 10-day break, the Utah Jazz center says he’s re-energized heading into Friday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“Just recharge, completely — mentally, physically,” Gobert said. “For me, I was able to get a little bit of sun and feel a lot better when I get back.

“The next two months, I feel like, will be a lot better.”

The Jazz, who have won 13 of their last 16 games, come out of the break sixth in the Western Conference but with one of the NBA’s easiest schedules down the stretch.

Utah plays just eight of its final 25 games against teams that are above .500.

One of those, though, is Friday night’s game in Oklahoma City, which sits third in the West after winning 11 of 13 before the break.

The Thunder, on the other hand, have one of the league’s most challenging schedules moving forward. Oklahoma City plays 17 of its remaining 25 games against teams above .500 including each of the first five out of the break.

The Thunder have won the first two meetings between the teams, including a 122-113 win on Dec. 10 in Oklahoma City.

An Oklahoma City win would clinch the season series for the Thunder after Utah eliminated Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs last season.

The Thunder’s Russell Westbrook has a streak of 10 consecutive triple-doubles. During that stretch, he’s averaged 21.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 13.5 assists.

Utah is hopeful backup point guard Dante Exum, who has missed the last 17 games with a left ankle sprain, will be able to return against the Thunder.

“I think when he’s playing well, he can have a big impact for us and having him back soon is going to help us a lot,” Gobert said.

The Thunder could have forward Markieff Morris available for the first time. Morris signed with Oklahoma City over the All-Star break after being waived by New Orleans following his trade from Washington on Feb. 7.

Morris was averaging 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds for the Wizards this season before suffering a neck injury in late December that has kept him out since. Morris was cleared to play two weeks ago.

“We got a big piece in Markieff that we’re excited for, and we’re going to be ready for the second half after this break,” Oklahoma City’s Paul George said.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said, “We’ll see,” when asked Thursday if Morris would play against the Jazz.

The Thunder also figure to have both starting forward Jerami Grant and backup point guard Dennis Schroder back after each missed the last two games before the break, Grant with an ankle injury and Schroder after the birth of his child.

Friday’s game is the start of a back-to-back for both teams, with the Jazz hosting Dallas on Saturday and Oklahoma City hosting Sacramento.

 

Raptors fans welcome DeMar DeRozan back with loud, standing ovation

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DeMar DeRozan was the greatest Raptor ever. He was an All-Star, he presided over the best seasons in franchise history, and he’s the one guy who re-signed and stood up for a city that has an inferiority complex around its basketball team.

Toronto fans understood the trade that brought Kawhi Leonard to the team — it’s an upgrade on the court — but their love for DeRozan is real.

They showed that on Friday night when DeRozan returned to Toronto for the first time as a member of the Spurs — he got a raucous ovation upon his introduction.

Early in the game he gave them a taste of what he did for them for years, getting the and-1 bucket on the drive.

Marcus Smart hits halfcourt shot at practice, celebrates with a back flip

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The celebration is more impressive than the shot.

After a tough loss to Milwaukee on Thursday, the Celtics traveled to Chicago to take on the Bulls on Saturday. Friday they had a practice in the Northwestern University facility.

It’s there Marcus Smart drains a halfcourt shot. Impressive. But not nearly as impressive as the backflip celebration.

I did not know Smart had that in him.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer reportedly tells organization he still wants playoff push

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When the Clippers traded their best player — Tobias Harris — right before the trade deadline, it was a move generally seen as throwing in the towel on this season’s playoffs, but it was applauded around the league because of the haul it brought back to L.A. It set the Clippers up with one max cap slot this summer and a reasonable path to a second one, plus the Clippers landed rookie shooting guard Landry Shamet, Philadelphia’s 2020 first-round pick (lottery protected) and the Miami Heat’s 2021 first-round pick unprotected.

Except then the Clippers not long after traded for Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green — boosting the roster’s depth in needed spots. Not a move a team looking to fall out of the playoffs makes.

That’s because owner Steve Ballmer doesn’t want them to fall out of the playoffs, reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

Sources say Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has let it be known throughout the organization that he wants to keep making this playoff push. Never mind that such an accomplishment would cost them their first-round pick this season.

The coach and players should never be told to lose games, they need to go all-out every time they are on the court. That goes to the culture of an organization. If a decision is made to focus on the future, then it’s about roster decisions at the GM level. That is what the Clippers did, and there is nothing wrong — or even strange — about the owner telling them to push and try to make the playoffs.

Either way, it works for Los Angeles.

Make the playoffs as the eight seed and the Clippers are likely just the first-round appetizer for the Warriors as they chase a three-peat, but it shows potential free agents the role players on the team have grit and just need a star and leader. Their young stars would gain a little playoff experience. While the Clippers would lose this year’s first-round pick, giving up a late teens pick in what is considered a down draft (especially after No. 1) is not that painful a loss. It’s one less asset to throw in a potential trade (Anthony Davis anyone?), but it’s not devastating.

Miss the playoffs and they get a late-lottery pick and things go as expected.

Make or miss the playoffs, the Clippers are focused on July 1 and landing a couple of free agents, with Kawhi Leonard at the top of the list (and a lot of sources around the league think that’s where they are headed).