Turnovers, offensive rebounds doom Lakers, spark Nuggets in win

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There was a moment Sunday night’s game that seemed to sum up the Lakers’ season to this point.

With just over seven minutes left, Lakers ran a set that got sloppy and directionless, but with clock running down they got the ball in the post to Pau Gasol; then Kobe Bryant knifed through the lane and got a pass from Gasol. Kobe made a difficult shot over JaVale McGee, a shot that seemed flat but found its way through the net.

Denver quickly inbounded the ball, made a long pass to nearly half court to Ty Lawson and he raced down the floor, ahead of most every Laker. Steve Nash was back and tried, but Lawson went around him and went off the glass for a layup. Two quick points.

It was the story of the night. It has been the story of the season — the Lakers have to work hard for their basket, then the other team gets an easy one because they are not ready on defense.

In some ways they Lakers played their best offensive game in a while and outshot Denver on the night. But the Lakers had 18 turnovers (17.7 percent of their possessions) and allowed Denver 17 offensive rebounds (32.7 percent of their missed shots) and those 35 free possessions for Denver was enough to doom Los Angeles. Again.

Denver won 112-105 in exactly the kind of game the Lakers need to win — at home against a team on the second night of a back-to-back, an opponent that is one of the teams they are fighting for a playoffs spot in the bottom half of the West.

And while a lot of people — myself included — keep expecting the Lakers to figure it out enough to make the playoffs, it’s games like this that give me pause. And games like this that make it a lot harder for them.

Credit Denver — they know who they are. They are a team that wants to run and they did (the game had 102 possessions). They are a team that trusts their point guard to run the show, and Lawson did with 21 points and 10 assists as he outplayed Steve Nash. They have long players in the paint on defense to make it hard on you and challenge shots then grab rebounds. They hustle.

Those are all things the Lakers want to do, but Denver executes them better right now. The Nuggets have balance — six players in double figures scoring — and they can overcome a bad shooting night from a key scorer (Danilo Gallinari had 20 points but on 6-of-20 shooting).

The Lakers had Kobe with 29 points (but on 26 shots) and seven assists, Howard had 14 points and a career high in rebounds with 26. Nash had 10 points and 13 assists. The Lakers has six players in double figures as well.

But the Lakers defense was worse than Denvers (which wasn’t all that good). Defense continues to be what does the Lakers in — a defense that is hurt by those turnovers that can lead to fast break points the other way. A defense hurting itself by giving up offensive rebounds so the opponents get another look. The Lakers gave up 107.6 points per 100 possessions in this game, which is pretty much what they gave up in December and that was 26th in the league for the month.

With the boards and some defensive plays, this looked like a better, healthier Dwight Howard for the Lakers, but he was pitching into the night of mental errors. Inside two minutes in the game, down four, Howard severely altered a Lawson shot then grabbed the rebound — then threw it away, tipped by Gallinari. Then inside the final minute Howard blocked an Andre Miller shot — right to Gallinari who drained the dagger three.

Part of the problem is Gasol — he is thinking now, not just playing basketball. He’s unsure where to go in the offense, and it’s in his head. And in his shot, so he gets the ball and is thinking pass, not about being aggressive.

For Denver, they are now 20-16 with 12 of their next 14 games at home. This is a big road win for them, if they can have a hot home stand they can start to solidify a playoff spot in the West.

The Lakers are now 15-18 on the season, currently the 11 seed and three games back of the 8 seed Trail Blazers. It’s easy to say they will make that up, it’s not much, but it’s not going to be tough with Denver playing well, Houston playing better and good teams like Portland and Utah to climb over. The Lakers have the Spurs, Rockets and Thunder on the schedule for this week. They need wins. Now. Before the hole they are in becomes too deep to climb out of.

Bam Adebayo: “I played like s***… I’ll put that game on me.”

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The Miami Heat were one half of basketball away from the NBA Finals when a desperate Boston team cranked up its defensive intensity, started attacking the rim, and started playing at a level Miami didn’t match. The Celtics dominated the final 24 minutes of Game 5, forcing a Game 6 and keeping the Heat out of the Finals for now.

Bam Adebayo took the blame for the Heat loss. Via Manny Navarro of The Athletic.

“I played like s***. Bottom line: I can’t. I’ll put that game on me. It’s not my teammates’ fault. It’s not my coaches’ fault. It’s me. I missed too many shots I should have made… I wasn’t being the defensive anchor I should’ve been. I don’t think I was communicating fast enough. I feel like I was a step behind today. I wasn’t a difference-maker today. I didn’t get us into fast enough triggers. That’s on me.”

Game 5 was not Adebayo’s best outing: 13 points, eight rebounds, and Boston did a better job with its scheme pulling him away from the basket to defend smaller players on the perimeter, opening up the paint. Adebayo and the Heat as a whole struggled to slow the Celtics’ pick-and-roll actions, and Boston has figured out how to play against Miami’s zone (so the Heat have gone away from it).

“It’s not (Adebayo’s fault). It’s on everybody,” Jimmy Butler said after the game. “He does so much for us that it can feel like that at times but it’s definitely not on him. It’s on us as a whole. We all understand that because nobody was playing the way that we are supposed to play; the way that we have to play in order for us to win, nobody. And for him to say that, I respect it. I love him for it. But he can’t do it by himself. We’ve got to be there with him.”

Bam Adebayo was wearing a sleeve over his left arm, where he aggravated a wrist injury at the end of Game 4. Both Adebayo and coach Erik Spoelstra said that was nothing and not what led to his off night.

Miami needs a lot of things to go differently in Game 6: It needs to start hitting its threes again (19.4% from beyond the arc in Game 5, and below 30% from deep in each of the last three games). Miami has to take care of the ball and it has to get back in transition defense — Boston ran right past the Heat in the second half and got a lot of easy transition buckets. Mostly, however, it comes back to Miami shooters hitting more of their threes — the Heat halfcourt offense needs that.

The Game 5 loss was not on Adebayo. But he can be part of the solution.

Backs against the wall, Celtics play dominant half to beat Heat, force Game 6

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For Boston, it was the worst of halves, it was the best of halves. It was a half of foolishness, it was a half of wisdom. It was a half of tight play, it was a half of free-flowing offense. It was a half of despair, it was a half of renewed hope.

With its season on the line down 3-1, Boston came out tight in the first half of Game 5, with guys trying to do everything themselves, showing no patience, no ball movement, players gunning from three, and nobody in green was defending well. Boston shot 5-of-20 in the first quarter, and while things settled down Boston was lucky to be only down seven at the half.

Then a different Boston team came out in the second half — a team that was defending with intent, pushing the pace, and watching their best player, Jayson Tatum, attack to the tune of 17 third quarter points. At the end of the third, Brad Stevens told his team, “with all sincerity, that’s the first time I’ve seen Celtics basketball in the past few games” (via the ESPN mic’d up segment of the broadcast).

The Celtics pulled away in the fourth to win 121-108. The Heat still lead the series 3-2, with Game 6 coming on Sunday.

“We did not compete hard enough defensively and we paid the price for that,” Erik Spoelstra said of his Heat team.

“I thought we played with great tenacity defensively, and I think our offense followed suit,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the second-half turnaround.

That defense included much more ball pressure out high on Miami and it worked. The Heat shot 19.4% from three, that’s the third straight game under 30% from three for the Heat, but Tyler Herro wasn’t able to bail them out this time around.

For Boston, Tatum finished with 31 points and 10 rebounds, and his third quarter helped save the Boston season.

Boston needs that Tatum from the opening tip on Sunday, not after 24 minutes (as we have seen the last couple of games). Boston is a good team but it needs Tatum to play at an All-NBA level to look like a contender.

Jaylen Brown added 28 points for the Celtics, while Daniel Theis proved an important role with 15 points and 13 rebounds plus some critical defensive plays down the stretch.

Miami may have led at the half, but when Boston started playing better out of desperation the Heat had no answers.

“No one was playing the way we’re supposed to play, the way we have to play for us to win,” Butler said.

Miami got 23 points from Goran Dragic and 20 from Duncan Robinson, who was a big part of Miami’s strong first half.

Miami was up 3-1, and they have seen how little that lead has meant in the bubble.

“I don’t think those series have anything to do with this. Our guys are well aware,” Spoelstra said. “We have great respect for Boston. We’re not expecting it to be easy. You have to earn it.”

Kings keeping Luke Walton, plan to play faster next season

Kings coach Luke Walton
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Kings coach Luke Walton works for a general manager who didn’t hire him and an owner who has shown frustration with him.

But Walton will keep his job.

New Sacramento general Monte McNair, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Luke is going to be our coach next year, I’m really excited to work with him and I think we’re aligned in our vision and we’re going to start implementing it,” McNair said.

“This team showed some flashes last year,” McNair said. “I think De’Aaron is certainly a great young talent and I think his speed ability offensively to create really is going to be a huge catalyst for how coach Walton and I envision this team being up-tempo, creating the space to shoot threes and attack the rim.”

Walton has had four losing seasons in four years as a head coach between the Lakers and Kings. But this is how it works out for him.

A distressing aspect of Walton’s first season in Sacramento: The Kings played far slower than they did the previous season under Dave Joerger, who successfully implemented a fastbreak-heavy attack that particularly suited De'Aaron Fox.

Walton can coach that way. His Lakers teams typically played quickly. But Sacramento too often stagnated last season.

The Kings are still building around Fox. It’s on Walton to figure out how to maximize the point guard. For now.

Anthony Davis listed as questionable for Game 5 with sprained ankle

Anthony Davis
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When Anthony Davis has been on the court in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers have outscored the Nuggets by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, the Lakers are -21.3 (stats via NBA.com).

Why that stat matters: Anthony Davis is officially questionable for Game 5 after spraining his ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 4.

“[My] Ankle feels fine. Got tonight, tomorrow before the game to get it back to, I don’t want to say back to where it was, but good enough to play,” Davis said postgame Thursday. “Rolled it pretty bad but not too bad. I’ll be fine.”

Players also are the worst judges of their returns from injuries. This is the playoffs, the Lakers need him on the court, and Davis wants to play. However, ankles are very easy to re-injure once the ligament is stretched, and the issue can become chronic. If Davis missing one game helps the ankle heal to the point it doesn’t linger into the NBA Finals the Lakers have to consider that option.

That said, expect Davis to play.

Davis has been the best Laker throughout the Western Conference Finals. He is averaging 32.3 points a game while shooting 55.3% from the floor, and as noted above the Lakers are dramatically better with him on the court.

The Los Angeles Lakers are up 3-1 on the Denver Nuggets and can advance to the NBA Finals with a win Saturday night in Game 5.