Gasol, Bryant end Lakers’ losing streak, spoil Paul’s return to the court

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The Los Angeles Clippers held the lead over the Lakers for most of the game on Wednesday night, but were unable to put the game away at any point, and ended up succumbing to the Lakers because of Pau Gasol’s aggressive play and yet another late-game takeover by a Mr. Kobe Bryant.

The Clippers got off to a hot start against the Lakers, and they might have gone into halftime with a double-digit lead if it weren’t for Pau Gasol’s excellent play. Gasol absolutely eviscerated the Clippers’ interior defense by making contested shots in the post, aggressive drives to the rim, attacking the offensive glass and swishing jumpers from both short and mid-range. Gasol came into Wednesday night’s game averaging just over 15 points a game — by halftime, he already had 17 points on 7-9 shooting.

After the game, Mike Brown, who mentioned both before and after the game that he had stopped a prior day’s practice to hug Gasol after he made an aggressive rim-run and get post position in transition, expressed how pleased he was with Gasol’s play, saying “he was impressive the whole night, whether he got the ball in the high or low post. We like to move him around; he’s a versatile guy, he’s a guy that doesn’t need to post all the time, he can face up and shoot jumpers, he can face up and take you off the dribble, he can pass the ball out of the post and you saw that all tonight. His aggressiveness was phenomenal.”

Gasol’s defense on Blake Griffin was also excellent — Griffin scored 4 of his first 5 baskets on 3 turnaround jumpers from the post and a spot-up jumper from midrange, but after Gasol allowed one dunk by biting on a Griffin shot-fake, he stayed grounded and refused to bite on any of Griffin’s shot-fakes, which allowed him to use his size advantage to bottle him up. Griffin finished with 26 points, but he didn’t make a free throw all game, needed 22 field goal attempts to get his points, and shot an abnormally good 6-10 on shots outside of the paint, so all in all Mike Brown has to have been pleased with the job he did on the Clippers’ superstar power forward.

While Gasol’s play kept the Lakers within striking distance for most of the game, it was, unsurprisingly, Kobe Bryant that triggered the run that ultimately gave the Lakers the win in the fourth quarter. Bryant made three fourth-quarter jumpers to put the Lakers up by one point with five minutes remaining, then pulled down a crucial offensive rebound minutes later and dished the ball to a wide-open Metta World Peace, who calmly swished the open three to give the Lakers a five-point lead and control of the game. With the Lakers up 2 with 40 seconds to play, Bryant lofted a perfect lob pass to Andrew Bynum, who made the catch, came down, and softly laid the ball in to officially put the game out of reach for Del Negro’s Clippers, whose late-game execution was absolutely miserable — on a key possession, a Clipper play out of a time-out resulted in Blake Griffin shooting a three, which he missed while getting called for stepping out of bounds.

While Chris Paul managed to dish out 12 assists in his 1st game back from a hamstring injury, he looked tentative on offense, and finished with only four points on 2-8 shooting from the field — in fact, Laker rookie guard Andrew Goudelock, who had a breakout 14-point performance, managed to handily outscore one of the best scoring point guards in the league. After the game, Mike Brown was glad that the Lakers made Paul “work for his shots” and noted that the Laker bigs did a very good job of getting up the floor on pick-and-rolls and not allowing Paul to have too much space to operate, which led to him having to go through two or more Laker defenders on each possession.

It was a chippy game, with a flagrant foul, six combined technical fouls, one ejection, and lots and lots of trash-talking between the two teams, but after the game neither the players or the coaches seemed to have an issue with the “chippiness” of the game, although nobody seemed eager to admit that the Lakers and Clippers are now rivals, either. The Clippers certainly played with intensity under the rim, but they were unable to make that intensity work for them — they finished the game with 15 fewer made free throws than the Lakers, and while they did a great job of grabbing offensive rebounds, they shot only 4-15 on 2nd-chance opportunities, something Mike Brown was very pleased about after the game.

Overall, it was a hard-fought game, and it looks like a fun new rivalry is brewing in the City of Angels, even if nobody will admit it. The Clippers have shown all season that they’re not just LA’s “other team” anymore, and continued to show it in the first three and a half quarters of Wednesday’s game, but when it was all said and done they simply didn’t have enough to hold off an apparently rejuvenated Gasol and a vintage close-out performance from a five-time NBA champion.

Pacers’ Myles Turner fined $15,000 for flipping bird at Sixers fans

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Myles Turner had to know this was coming.

Frustrated after fouling Joel Embiid under the basket and being taken out of the game, the Pacers’ big man flipped off some Sixers fans as he walked to the bench.

Saturday the league announced Turner was fined $15,000 for “making an inappropriate gesture toward the spectator stands.” The league, understandably, is not a fan of its players flipping off fans.

That fine is pretty much the going rate for these kinds of incidences.

Embiid went on to score 40 Friday night in a dominant performance, but the Pacers won the game 113-101.

Why are Lakers saving their young core? Reportedly to chase Anthony Davis.

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Anthony Davis is the target at the top of the Lakers’ wish list.

He’s also at the top of the wish list for the Boston Celtics and about 27 other teams, too. But if Davis is put on the trade block — something that is not likely until this summer, New Orleans is working to keep him — the Lakers and Celtics will be at the front of the line.

Which is why, when reports that the Lakers would not include any of their young core in a trade for Trevor Ariza came out, it fit with the Lakers’ long-term thinking. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN discussed this on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“Here’s the line [the Lakers] have to walk: they’re not going to give away picks and their top young players in some deal that makes them incrementally better this season because they have to save all those assets for Anthony Davis, a big trade this summer either pre or post free agency…

“The absolute dream scenario, people talk about (how) they can trade for Anthony Davis or sign a free agent. The dream scenario is they do both.”

The dream is to sign Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant and get Davis, and while that dream may be a long shot the only chance they have is if they still have their core players to throw in a package.

The larger point also is valid — the Lakers are not going to beat the Warriors come the playoffs this season (assuming the Warriors are healthy) and L.A. should keep its powder dry for bigger battles. And Davis will be the biggest of battles.

New Orleans wants to keep Davis, they are actively trying to be buyers at the trade deadline, not sellers. Sources have told me the Pelicans’ plan is to win as much as possible this season and show Davis they are serious, then come July 1 offer Davis a designated veteran contract extension worth $230 million (or a little more, depending upon the cap). It’s roughly $40 million more than any other team can offer guaranteed. If Davis and his agent Rich Paul — the same agent as LeBron James — turn down that contract then the Pelicans will be forced to consider a trade.

If we get to that point, then all bets are off and the Lakers are all in. Until then, the Lakers are wise just to be patient.

Despite fast start in Toronto, Kawhi Leonard reportedly still eyeing return to Los Angeles

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The Toronto Raptors are making their case to Kawhi Leonard this season — Toronto is 23-8, in first place in the East by 2.5 games, and look like a real threat to make the NBA Finals. Leonard, averaging 26.2 points and 8.2 rebounds a game, is a guy who has returned to the MVP conversation.

Still, the Raptors don’t know if he’s staying, or what he’s thinking, because Leonard doesn’t talk about it in a meaningful way.

“It’s been good so far,” Leonard told NBC Sports of the fit in Toronto. “Like I said, we’ve been winning, everyone’s playing well. Can’t complain.”

Nothing he’s done has slowed the speculation and buzz about what Leonard will do as a free agent next summer… which Leonard is working to ignore.

“I don’t buy into reading media, don’t have no social media, so just focus on what’s in front of me,” Leonard said before the Raptors faced the Clippers last week. “At that time it’s either my family or playing basketball.”

A lot of the speculation around the league has remained that Leonard is headed back to Los Angeles next summer, most likely with the Clippers. Here is what Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN said on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“They can’t change the geography. They can’t change the weather in Toronto. Those were always be things against them in this,” said Adrian Wojnarowski. “Home and L.A. has been the focus for Kawhi Leonard through all of this.”

“Just wear a jacket,” Leonard said about the weather. “We’re in a building. We’re not outside playing in the snow. And it’s good scenery.”

Clippers president Lawrence Frank and other Clippers executives have been a fixture at Raptors games this season, doing their part to recruit him early. They are going to make a strong play for him. So will the Lakers, although I have heard from multiple sources he’s not likely to play with LeBron and in that spotlight.

Nobody knows what Leonard will do next summer, or even what he’s thinking. Leonard doesn’t speak much, and when he does it’s in cautious cliches providing little if any insight. As long as that is the case, the speculation will continue.

Why didn’t Lakers trade for Trevor Ariza? Suns owner reportedly blocked it.

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There were eight teams (that we know of) having some level of contact with Phoenix about getting in on a Trevor Ariza trade. The Lakers were one and — as with all things Lakers — were the most talked about.

But the Lakers were never going to pull off that trade because the Suns’ owner, Robert Sarver, didn’t want it to happen, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Sarver — a very hands-on owner when it comes to basketball decisions — is probably still stung by buying out Tyson Chandler and watching him go to the Lakers and dramatically helping their defense (the Lakers are allowing less than a point per possession when Chandler is on the court). And certainly spiting the Lakers will play well with the Suns’ fan base.

However, the best franchises put aside petty thinking and do what’s best for them. If the Lakers had made the best offer (and we don’t know if it was) then take it. If it makes the Lakers better this season, or even the next few seasons, so what? If you’re the Suns, you’re in a rebuilding process and should be focused on the long term.

That said, the Laker trade was always going to be complicated and hard to pull off, LeBron James wasn’t going to be able to call up Suns GM James Jones and make this one happen. The Lakers wanted to land Ariza but also wanted to send out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and KCP doesn’t fit with what the Suns wanted (a point guard and young players or draft assets). That means a third team was going to have to get involved, maybe Philadelphia, and possibly even a fourth. The Lakers were not going to trade any of their four core young players, making this trade even harder.

What the Suns got in the trade with Washington was what they wanted: A point guard (Austin Rivers, who is not all that good, as evidenced by his 7.1 PER this season, but is better than anyone the Suns have) and a young wing in Kelly Oubre who fits on the timeline of Devin Booker and the other young Suns. Phoenix did reasonably well in this trade.

Could they have done better? Doesn’t matter, if the owner is shooting down an idea then it’s dead. That’s his prerogative.