Lakers win in Denver to take 3-1 series lead over Nuggets, but it certainly wasn’t easy

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It took until the game’s final few possessions, but ultimately, the outcome ended up being what we all expected. The Lakers took Game 4 from the Nuggets in Denver 92-88, but the heroes for L.A. weren’t necessarily the likely ones, and the game was anything but easy for the victors.

The Lakers didn’t come close to dominating the way they did in Game 1, but equally important was the fact that they didn’t fall behind big early on the road as they did in Game 3. They were able to keep pace, despite an inefficient night from Kobe Bryant (10-25 shooting), a deficit in production off the bench, and virtually nothing in 20 minutes from starting forward Devin Ebanks.

L.A. controlled the boards in this one, which was a significant change from the way the last two games had played out. Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee were monsters in Game 3, but were virtual non-factors Sunday, combining for just 11 rebounds in total after the two dominated the glass for 30-plus in Game 3.

The offensive rebounding was especially key for the Lakers, getting six more than their opponent which led to an advantage of plus-10 in second-chance points.

Denver executed its game plan nearly to perfection: the Nuggets consistently doubled L.A.’s bigs down low, daring the Lakers to hit three-pointers or anything even remotely resembling a mid-range shot. Time and again, L.A. failed to be crisp enough in swinging the ball to get the open look, and even when the shots were pure, they largely failed to go down from the outside — at least until there was under a minute left to play.

With the game tied at 86, Pau Gasol set a solid screen on Danilo Gallinari. Gallo went down like he had been shot — seemingly a classic flop, one that those of us who love the game simply despise — and stayed down for what seemed to be longer than necessary. As he lied on the court, the Lakers got the ball to Kobe in the lane, who kicked it out to a wide-open Ramon Sessions, who drained the three-pointer with 48.1 seconds remaining that gave the Lakers the lead for good.

On the telecast, this didn’t appear to be your garden-variety flop; it was a turbo-flop of sorts, one that extended well beyond the grace period for the referee to make the call, and one that ultimately damaged the Nuggets’ chances on defense due to the fact that they were, quite literally, down a man in their half-court defensive set.

Gallinari said afterward that the pain was legit, and that he got hit hard in his throat on the play (via my man Benjamin Hochman on Twitter). But Kobe was less sympathetic, saying “You can’t flop like that” in his postgame presser, while Gasol said “I was surprised he stayed down” (via Kevin Ding on Twitter).

That play was huge, as was the next Lakers’ possession that saw Steve Blake knock down an open three off of a pass from Bryant that pushed the L.A. lead to six with 18.9 seconds to play, and put the game out of reach for the Nuggets.

Sessions and Blake aren’t the ones you’d expect to be closing out playoff games for the Lakers, and George Karl said afterward that forcing them to take those shots instead of Bryant, Gasol, or Andrew Bynum was essentially by design. But they came through this time, and now Denver is on the brink of elimination, while the Lakers are one game away from heading to the second round to face an opponent that many believe has more than a legitimate shot of ending their season, as well.

Potential No. 1 pick James Wiseman suspended by NCAA 11 more games

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Starting on Jan. 12, James Wiseman can return to playing for the University of Memphis.

The NCAA — the self-appointed arbiters protecting the myth of amateurism — have investigated the fact that then high school coach Penny Hardaway, paid $11,500 to help Wiseman’s family move to Memphis. Hardaway, a graduate of Memphis, has since become the coach of the Tigers, and before that was considered a booster. That made helping Wiseman move an illegal benefit, and the NCAA has made its ruling to punish Wiseman for this.

Memphis reportedly plans to appeal the ruling. Wiseman had this reaction to the decision:

Here’s why fans of certain teams near the bottom of the standings — and the front offices of those teams — care: Wiseman has the potential to be elite.

He could be the top pick in next June’s draft and is a lock top-three selection. He is by far the best big man in a guard-heavy draft class coming up.

Wiseman was ranked 37th by the basketball writers here at NBC in our “50 Best Players in Five Years” project this past summer. Here is what College Basketball Talk’s Rob Dauster wrote about Wiseman for that project:

Wiseman has a chance to be really good. He stands 7-foot. He has the kind of length, mobility and athleticism that should allow him to thrive at the five in the modern NBA. He is a capable defender with the potential to be very, very good with some added strength and a bit of motivation. And he is skilled enough where he has the potential of one day doing all four things modern fives are asked to do – protect the rim, switch ball-screens, space the floor to the three-point line, be a lob target as a roll-man in ball-screens…

If Wiseman embraces the fact that he can be a top five center in the NBA doing the four things I listed above at an elite level, then he’ll make himself a lot of money while making some NBA GM very, very happy.

Wiseman also has worked on a face-up game and wants to add some Greek Freak like skills to his game. We’ll see how that goes, but his floor seems to be a very good NBA big man. A lot of teams could use that.

Rob Gronkowski, Venus Williams dance with Laker Girls (video)

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Former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said he doesn’t plan to play football this season.

How is he spending his time?

Dancing with the Laker Girls cheerleaders along with tennis legend Venus Williams. They put on quite a show. I’m sure comedians James Corden and Ian Karmel, mostly off camera, were also great.

But the most-impressive stoppage entertainment in Los Angeles last night? That might be Maxx.

Portland waives Pau Gasol as he tries to recover from foot surgery

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Portland signed Pau Gasol to a one-year contract this summer, hoping the aging Spaniard could help the team stay afloat while Jusuf Nurkic recovers from surgery on his leg.

It didn’t work out that way. Gasol suffered a foot injury that required surgery and he has yet to recover enough to get back on the court. Meanwhile, an injury to Zach Collins left Portland even more shorthanded up front. Wednesday, the Trail Blazers waived Gasol, something the player confirmed.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news and had more details.

Is this the end of Gasol’s Hall of Fame career? He’s 39 years old, and last season with the Bucks he looked like a shell of the All-NBA big man who joined forces with Kobe Bryant to win the Lakers a couple of titles. Injuries limited him to 30 games last season, he doesn’t move like he once did, and he averaged a career-low 3.9 points per game.

If so, one of the good guys of the NBA will be missed.

If not, if he can get healthy, some teams certainly would be interested in having him for depth and his locker room presence during a playoff run.

Report: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George to play first game together on Wednesday

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The way they tell it, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard wanted to play together on the Spurs in 2017.

They’ll finally share the court as teammates tonight.

The Clippers signed Leonard and traded for George this summer. But alternating injuries have prevented the forwards from playing together. That’ll change against the Celtics tonight.

Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN:

George dominated three games without Leonard, scoring like crazy and hitting a game-winner against the Thunder. Leonard excelled before his knee injury.

It’s scary to imagine how Leonard and George will perform together.

Boston could provide a stiff first test. The Celtics have plenty of wings – Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Semi Ojeleye – to throw at the Clippers stars.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an adjustment period for Leonard and George. They have similar styles, and that can create complications. But Leonard and George are so versatile and talented. I expect them to thrive together in the long run.

There’s certainly excitement surrounding tonight’s game, but it’s only one night in what should be a long season in L.A.