Game of the Night: Spurs oust Lakers with a great play at the end

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On a night where Kobe Bryant was brilliant and the best player on the floor, it was the Spurs and a great play design by Greg Popovich that was the difference at the end.

With the Lakers up by a single point with 19 seconds left, the Spurs inbounded the ball in the back court and walked the ball up with Tony Parker.

When he crossed half court he passed the ball to Tim Duncan who then handed the ball off to Kawhi Leonard. After giving the ball up, Duncan slid down the right lane line and set another screen for Danny Green who had just set a pick for Stephen Jackson along the baseline. Green popped free outside the three point line, got the pass in rhythm, and knocked down the jumper as Kobe couldn’t get out to him in time.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XT8cn0ccnl4&w=560&h=315%5D

With the Lakers now trailing they had their own shot to win but couldn’t come up with nearly as creative a play to get off a good shot. Pau Gasol got the inbound in the corner, looked for Kobe to break open, and when it didn’t happen he fired up a three pointer of his own that bounced harmlessly off the rim. Ball game, Spurs.

While the final possessions will get most of the attention, this game was about much more than those last 20 seconds.

The Lakers fought hard in looking to get their third straight win. If they’d played this hard for Mike Brown, he still might be pacing the Lakers’ sidelines.  Instead, Bernie Bickerstaff benefitted from the defensive effort to stifle the Spurs’ offense (San Antonio shot 38.9% from the floor) and the board work his team provided (the Lakers outrebounded the Spurs 48-38) to give his team a shot to win the game.

The Spurs also played well on defense and that’s reflected in the 84-82 final score. San Antonio crowded the paint and dared the Lakers to hit shots form the outside. But when the Lakers had trouble hitting their jumpers, it only encouraged the Spurs to double team the Lakers’ big men more. Dwight Howard (6 turnovers) struggled with the extra defensive attention and Pau Gasol couldn’t hit enough shots (3-10 from the floor, 10 points) to make the defense pay for leaving him open.

That led to Kobe Bryant having the carry the Lakers’ offense and he did a fine job of it. Kobe hit 12-19 shots from the floor to score 28 points (chipping in 8 assists too) and did a great job of breaking down the Spurs defense all night. Multiple defenders got their shot at Kobe but one by one he mowed them down with an array of drives and made jumpers that had Greg Popovich frustrated and his Lakers’ teammates celebrating from the bench.

It wasn’t enough, though. In the second half the Spurs clamped down on defense and started to pressure the ball more and force the Lakers to use up the shot clock and take tougher shots. They started to blitz ball handlers coming off the pick and roll while flooding the strong side with extra defenders. The Lakers needed to knock down jumpers when the ball was swung to the opposite side but simply couldn’t do it.

And in the end, this was the difference. The Spurs found a way to keep the game close through effective defense and timely shot making. In the second half, they found enough scoring (Tim Duncan scored 12 of his 18 points in the final 24 minutes while Stephen Jackson’s two 3 pointers were also big shots) and hung close. Meanwhile, the Lakers couldn’t get the stops they needed nor hit the big basket that could have given them the separation to outlast their opponent.

So the Spurs improve their record to 7-1 and remain at the top of the western conference alone. The Lakers, meanwhile, can’t get to .500 and can only stew over a game they could have won while they wait for their new head coach to arrive later this week.

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.

Antetokounmpo talks about plans for his 28th birthday while holding Simpsons plush

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Happy birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak turns 28 today.

After he dropped a casual (for him) 34-13-5 line in the Bucks’ win over the Magic last night, Antetokounmpo discussed his birthday plans. He’s not going out, maybe just dinner, playing with his kids, and once they are asleep… ya know.

I feel safe saying Antetokounmpo is the first NBA player to talk about birthday sex while holding a Homer J. Simpson plush doll.

If you’re asking, why the Simpson doll… why not? Bucks reserve forward Sandro Mamukelashvili won it at Universal Studios, brought it to the game, left it behind in the locker room and Antetokounmpo appropriated it.

In a world where most postgame press conferences are formulaic and filled with cliches it’s good to see a player willing just to be himself and have some fun behind the mic.