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.

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).