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.

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).