Kyrie Irving is back and sends Lakers to new low, new loss

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If you’re a Lakers fan you have to believe that at some point they reach rock bottom and start to bounce back. It’s just that they hadn’t reached it yet.

The Lakers offense took a vacation and their defense had no answer Kyrie Irving and the result of all that is the Lakers falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers 100-94. The Lakers have dropped four of their last five and are now 9-13 on the season (this was Cleveland’s fifth win).

While there was a lot of talk about the Lakers defense — specifically how Kyrie Irving carved them up in his first game back from injury for 28 points (on 21 shots) and 11 assists — that actually wasn’t the biggest problem for a change. It wasn’t good, but it has been worse. The Lakers held the Cavaliers to 44 percent shooting as a team and just 98.6 points per 100 possessions. While the Cavs put up 100 points they weren’t efficient.

The Lakers offense was just worse.

It comes back to a matter of identity — the Lakers offense looks nothing like a Mike D’Antoni offense. Early in the game the Lakers played without tempo and spacing. They lived in the half court in the first half and most of their offense was a direct post up — throw the ball into Dwight Howard in the post and stand at the arc and watch him work (and shoot if he kicks it out). There was almost no movement off the ball.

And the Lakers big men were not getting the job done — Howard, Jordan Hill and Metta World Peace combined to shoot 9-of-27 on the night. (Howard did end with 19 points.)

What we saw from the Lakers as a whole was not ball movement and player movement, it was flashback to 1990s isolation basketball.

Which means it all fell to Kobe Bryant and he did what he could — 42 points on 16-of-28 shooting, he continues to be efficient — but it is simply not enough.

Then there was the issue of turnovers — the Lakers finished with 18 turnovers, or 19.7 percent of their possessions. Nearly one in five times down the court, the Lakers didn’t get a shot off.

Compared to that, the Cavaliers offense looked good. Of course, the Lakers defense helped with that.

Irving was back and showing his speed and ball handling, splitting double teams and getting to the rim faster than the sad Lakers rotations could cover. He carved the Lakers up all night off the pick-and-roll or in isolation. Just before the end of the first half the Lakers sent two guys to trap full court and Irving just blew past Kobe and Darius Morris, out-running them both even though Irving was dribbling. He was more athletic than the Lakers, and he was finding guys who were open for shots.

Guys like C.J. Miles — someone shooting 28.3 percent from three coming into the game (and just 32.7 percent for his career) but when he gets to set his feet and take his time he hit 5-of-10 from beyond the arc.

That was a theme much of the night, with Cavaliers shooters getting good looks. If the Lakers do that Thursday night against the hot-shooting Knicks it will get ugly fast.

This was a close game until midway through the second quarter when the Cavaliers went on a 14-2 run and took an 11-point lead. The Lakers defensive communication and help was again poor, but this was as much an offensive dead patch for the Lakers as a defensive one. And when Kobe or another Laker tried to respond, Irving had an answer.

The Lakers were never quite out of it, they got the game down to four points in the fourth quarter, but they could never fully recover from the second quarter lapse. They also never had an answer for Irving, who the Cavs missed desperately.

Team USA plays down loss to Australia: The real thing doesn’t start until China”

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It was the first time Team USA has lost an international game since 2006 — 78 straight wins. That seemed like a big deal.

It absolutely was huge for the 52,000 in attendance in Melbourne, where Australia was the one that upset the USA. This was validation for a strong basketball country and program — remember in the 2016 Olympics they lost by just 10 to a USA team with Kevin Durant, and it took a late push from Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony to secure that win — that has never quite gotten the huge win on the international stage.

But after the loss, members of Team USA chalked it up as a learning experience. Coach Gregg Popovich said that, and the players followed suit. Quotes via Eric Nehm of The Athletic.

Kemba Walker: “Teams lose. We are just going to take this loss and build from it, that’s all we can do is continue to try our best to get better. The real thing doesn’t start until China, so we’ve got one more game. We’re going to head to Sydney and focus on Canada and from that point out the real thing starts. That’s all we are worried about, just continuing to get better, continuing to learn each other.”

Donovan Mitchell: “To be honest, this game doesn’t mean anything. Obviously it hurts to lose, but I look at this and we look at this as more of a learning experience as opposed to we just lost. That’s the mindset. If you think of this as a loss, you start to get carried away with all that.”

Technically, all of that is true. If the USA goes on to win gold at the World Cup, this will be but a blip on the radar.

But the loss also showed just far Team USA is away from that goal and how much work there is to do. Watch the game and what stood out — besides Patty Mills getting red hot and dropping 30, with 13 of that in the fourth quarter — was the difference in cohesion and chemistry. The core of this Australian squad has been playing together for a decade, and with Andrew Bogut as the offensive fulcrum (and Joe Ingles playing that role some) guys were cutting, moving with purpose, and seemingly always in the right place to get an open look or layup.

The Americans are trying to build chemistry on the fly and it comes and goes. Particularly on the defensive end. Team USA members lose guys on cuts, don’t help the helper consistently, and for stretches look like a team just thrown together. Especially under pressure, when the ball movement stops and there is too much one-on-one on offense.

This American squad still has the talent to overwhelm and beat most of the world. However, with some of the USA’s top talent staying home, there are a handful of teams out there — Serbia, Spain, Australia, France — with the talent to hang, and then it becomes about chemistry and execution. Team USA was beaten badly in those hard-to-quantify categories by Australia. The American’s margin for error is much smaller in this World Cup.

Maybe the loss galvanizes Team USA in a way nothing else could. Maybe. And the players are right that things don’t really matter for the USA until the games in China.

But Team USA still has a lot to prove.

James Harden working on one-legged step-back three for next season

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As if James Harden wasn’t unstoppable enough.

Harden’s step-back three has become probably the most unstoppable shot in the NBA. Now video has gone viral in NBA circles of Harden working on a one-legged, step-back three. Think Dirk Nowitzki’s one-legged jumper, but from three and with a little more side-to-side to it. (You can see the video above.) Harden talked to Tim MacMahon of ESPN about it.

“I’m not sure; it’s something that I work on,” Harden said when asked if he’ll use the one-legged, step-back 3 this season. “But you know how Mike [Jordan] has his fadeaway and Dirk [Nowitzki] has his one-leg and [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] had the sky hook, I want my step-back to be one of those moves that last forever. So when I travel around the world and I see little kids that [say], ‘Hey James, I got a step-back!’ — I love to see that.

“It’s me being a creator and me being an innovator and paving the way in basketball in my own way, doing it how I want to do it, and that’s what it’s all about. As a little kid playing in these parks, that’s what I imagined, that’s what I dreamed of. Now it’s coming to reality, so it’s pretty cool.”

Harden is going to score a lot of points… or, maybe the better way to say that is he’s going to score even more points if he gets to a point he unleashes that in a game.

The challenge this season for Harden will be balance — he’s got to share the court and the ball with Russell Westbrook. Both of them are at their best with the ball in their hands, creating in isolation, but they need to be more than that. While coach Mike D’Antoni can do some things to help with that balance (staggering their minutes as much as possible) for the Rockets to become the contenders they want to be Harden and Westbrook have to be more than “your turn, now it’s my turn” on offense.

But when it’s Harden’s turn, that one-legged step back will be fun to watch.

Derrick White didn’t lose teeth, passes concussion test after nasty fall in USA loss

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There were plenty of ugly things for Team USA in its loss to Australia on Saturday — most of them on the defensive end — but later in the day on Saturday there was some good news.

It sounds like point guard Derrick White will be fine after his nasty fall and face plant during the game, reports Tom Osborne of the San Antonio Express-News.

In the middle of the fourth quarter, White was pushing the ball upcourt after an Australia miss and either got clipped from behind — there was a foul called — or stumbled over his own feet. I lean clipped, but the video is not conclusive.

White fell and faceplanted, with his head bouncing off the court. If he got away with just stitches, that’s good news for Team USA. If White had a concussion it is possible he would have missed the start of the World Cup, and the USA is not deep at the point guard spot on this roster (Kemba Walker and White are the only true point guards, a couple of players such as Marcus Smart can play a few minutes there but aren’t really suited to the position).

Team USA has one more exhibition game against Canada, then opens World Cup play on Sept. 1 in China against the Czech Republic.

Grizzlies officially waive Dwight Howard, first step on his path to Lakers

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Lakers fans are uncomfortable with it, but the Lakers did a good job hedging their bet with a non-guaranteed contract: Dwight Howard is coming to the Lakers.

That process started on Saturday with the Grizzlies officially waiving Howard.

In theory, any team could claim Howard off waivers. In practice, no team is picking up his full $5.6 million salary.

Howard gave back $2.6 million in his buyout with the Grizzlies, which is exactly how much his veteran minimum contract with the Lakers will pay him.

Howard and JaVale McGee will have to tag team to play all the minutes at the five the Lakers need. Anthony Davis is their best center (and it’s not close, he’s arguably the best center in the NBA) but he wants to play the four most of the game, so for 30 minutes a night the Lakers need another big body at the five.

Howard has the potential to fill that role. For three seasons, from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Howard averaged 13+ points and 12 rebounds a night, was a big body on defense, and played at least 71 games in averaging 30 minutes a night. Exactly the kind of player the Lakers could use. The problem was Howard was never happy those years just playing that defense/set-a-pick-and-roll/rebound role. He wanted more touches and particularly in the post, which led to disruptions as he pushed for a larger role. It’s why he bounced around. Then last season he played just nine games due to more back and hamstring issues.

Howard is saying all the right things about accepting that role, and he convinced the Lakers to a degree, but that non-guaranteed contract shows the Lakers go into this eyes wide open. If Howard is up to his old antics, the Lakers can cut bait and move on.

It’s among the many things to watch in what should be an entertaining Lakers’ training camp this year.