Gasol returns, Lakers barely slip by Bobcats. But you can start to see the plan.

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There are a couple ways Lakers fans will look their team barely escaping the Charlotte Bobcats with a 101-100 win Tuesday night.

Some will say “a win is a win and right now the Lakers need wins.” Plus they got Gasol back — he had 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocks but look rusty like you’d expect after missing eight games with knee tendonitis. His return improved the team in some areas, particularly interior defense (although he was clearly rusty).

Some will say “they barely beat the Bobcats and they suck.” And they are right too — the Lakers had to come from 18 back because their flaws of inconsistent offense and lazy transition were exposed by a team that came in losers of 11 straight. If this had been virtually any other NBA team, the Lakers would have lost.

But what you really started to see was Mike D’Antoni’s plans for this team taking shape — they went small for extended periods with Metta World Peace at the four and Kobe Bryant at the three, and D’Antoni said you will see a lot more of that. You saw a lot of Jodie Meeks (39 minutes) and pretty soon you could see him start at the two. You saw a lot of Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol but limited time with both of them. You even saw flashes of good defense. Just flashes but they were there.

Will all that come together and work? The Magic 8 Ball says “cannot predict now” and “ask again later.” And by later I mean about a month from now.

But it is becoming clear direction D’Antoni is taking the Lakers.

“I want (World Peace) at the four and we have to be able to change our team…” D’Antoni said after the game. “But for us to have a different team, a different look, Metta has to play the four.”

Or D’Antoni on Meeks, who had 17 points off the bench, hitting 5-of-12 from three.

“We are a different look when he is on the floor. He spreads the floor and he is always a three point shot ready to happen.”

The rotations are getting set and the Lakers are going smaller. Meeks says the team is good with that and adjusting (although of course he says that, he’s the guy getting more run).

“I thought it looked good,” Meeks said of the Lakers going small. “I think myself, Kobe, Darius Morris, Metta, we brought a lot of intensity when we got out there and it looked good.”

They did, and it saved the Lakers bacon in a game they really didn’t deserve to win.

Charlotte can really only do one thing well on offense — run in transition and go straight to the rim. They have athletes and a couple solid guards (Kemba Walker and Ramon Sessions). But stopping them isn’t complex.

However, the Lakers couldn’t do it for two and a half quarters — the Lakers transition defense was atrocious. Charlotte shot 57 percent in the second quarter and led 58-53 at the half. The Lakers went cold shooting in the 10 minutes of the second quarter, and that let the Bobcats run. That lead climbed up to 18 the third quarter as the Bobcats started to gain confidence, got to loose balls, kept knocking down shots, and even Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hit a jumper. The Lakers are not a good perimeter defensive team right now, not consistently, and Steve Nash is not going to fix that.

Credit the Bobcats for doing what coach Mike Dunlap had in the game plan — he said before the game he wanted to test the Lakers defense in transition and early in the shot clock, before Dwight Howard was planted in the paint. It worked. They executed it.

But when the Lakers went small and cranked up the intensity on defense — World Peace and Morris in particular started to play some perimeter defense — the Bobcats had no answer. They don’t have the talent to hang in. Los Angeles went on a 30-4 run and took the lead. Down the stretch it was a ballgame again.

Kobe Bryant bailed them out — he had the final four points (a driving layup and an elbow jumper coming off a Howard screen) and that was enough to hang on. Kobe scored 30 to lead everyone in this game.

The final play was a wild scramble where the Bobcats could have won – Kemba Walker drove but Howard blocked it, the ball went to Gerald Henderson whose putback layup rattled rolled around the rim and went out, then Byron Mullens missed a rushed shot in the paint to win it.

For Charlotte, it’s a moral victory. Which feels pretty hollow. But it’s a process for them to improve.

It wasn’t pretty for the Lakers, but it’s a win. And you can start to see what will be coming from them.

What we will find out is if that is enough.

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.

Spurs playoffs hopes remain alive with 123-105 win over Rockets

Spurs playoffs
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The Spurs aren’t out of it yet.

Keldon Johnson had 24 points and 11 rebounds, and San Antonio kept alive its chances of becoming the first team in NBA history to make 23 consecutive playoff appearances with a 123-105 victory over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday.

San Antonio has won three straight and five out of seven since arriving in the Florida bubble.

DeMar DeRozan added 23 points. Jakob Poeltl finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Johnson said his mindset since the season restarted has been to fill in whatever role is asked of him.

“Whether it’s hustling, running the floor – just doing whatever I need to do to help us win,” he said. “Help from my teammates has definitely helped the game slow down for me.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Johnson is playing with the confidence they saw when they drafted him 29th overall last year.

“That’s what he does,” Popovich said. “He’s a high-energy guy. He’s very physical. Very competitive. Very coachable. He’s just a winner.”

The Western Conference is guaranteed to have a play-in for its final playoff spot, with Memphis beginning the day with just a half-game over Portland and one game ahead of Phoenix and San Antonio.

The Spurs will need help to be one of the teams playing this weekend for the final spot in the Western Conference, but made sure they couldn’t be eliminated Tuesday with their win.

Russell Westbrook had 20 points and seven turnovers in his first game back in the lineup for Houston after missing two games with a bruised right quadriceps. Jeff Green had 17 points. Ben McLemore added 16.

The Rockets played without guards James Harden (rest) and Eric Gordon (ankle).

The Spurs took control in the second quarter, outscoring the Rockets 35-24. San Antonio led by as many as 29 points.

San Antonio built a 19-point lead in the first half. DeRozan set the tone with 15 points in the opening 24 minutes, with Lonnie Waker IV, Poeltl and Johnson each scoring 10.

Regardless of whether the Spurs make the playoffs or not, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is proud of how his young players have stepped up in during their time in the bubble.

“Part of it is you have to be realistic,” Popovich said. “I don’t think our chances of winning the championship were great at the beginning of this, nor are they now. If that’s a fact, then you need to do everything you can to develop and be prepared for next season.

“The development has been off the charts. We’re thrilled with it. So it’s a win-win no matter what.”

Popovich said it would be “thrilling” to get some help and have a chance to extend their season, but he’s not using it as a measuring stick for the season.

“We’ve already accomplished what we thought we were capable of accomplishing, that’s what’s important. If we got in now it would be icing on the cake.”