Spurs avoid total meltdown, hand Lakers their 5th straight loss

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In what’s been a familiar site lately, the Lakers lost a game on Wednesday night, this time to the Spurs 108-105. The loss drops them to 15-20 on the season and represents another shovel of dirt on their playoff chances in what’s been their most disappointing season…maybe ever.

The win gave the Spurs their 15th win (in only 17 games) in San Antonio this season and allows them to keep pace with the red hot Clippers and Thunder in the standings by pushing their record to 28-10 on the year. The win also allows the Spurs to bounce back from a loss in their most recent game, un unsettling defeat to the Hornets.

The result to this game, for nearly everyone, was a foregone conclusion. The Lakers have stunk, were missing Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, and were on the second night of a back to back. Meanwhile, the Spurs are the Spurs and were playing at home. It really should have been that simple.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. I guess that’s why they play the games.

Early on the game went mostly as expected. The Spurs were able to build a relatively comfortable lead, using a combination of good off ball movement and their size advantage to get easy shots inside. The Lakers, as they have all year, struggled to defend for multiple passes and were thus beat by back door cuts when the ball was reversed while also falling victim to offensive rebounds when they didn’t help the helper on San Antonio dribble penetration.

As the game went on, the Lakers did well to stay within striking distance with Metta World Peace (23 points) able to take advantage of his match up with Tiago Splitter by scoring inside off dribble penetration and out by making deep jumpers when Splitter got sucked into the paint.

The Lakers were also bolstered by a career night from Earl Clark who, thrust into the rotation due to L.A.’s injuries, found creases in the Spurs’ defense. Clark used his athleticism and active legs to slash into the lane and get shots close to the basket and then hit his mid-range jumper when the defense sagged off him. Clark’s 22 points (on only 12 FGA’s) were surely found money for the Lakers but desperately needed someone to offset the cold shooting night Kobe Bryant was having.

However, even with the Lakers keeping it close the Spurs were right there to snuff out any attempt for an upset. Whenever the Spurs needed a bucket, Tony Parker (24 points, 6 assists, 10-16 shooting) would drive to the rim or hit a mid-range jumper. If not Parker, then Ginobili (19 points, 8 rebounds) would go on the attack and either hit a key shot or draw a foul that sent him to the foul line.

If the game had actually continued in this fashion — and it certainly looked like it would — no one would have batted an eyelash at the result. After all, it’s what we all expected.

But in the lead in to the fourth quarter, the Lakers started to make one more push that felt different. Down by 17, World Peace hit a three pointer. After a Ginobili turnover, Kobe then hit a short jumper to cut the Spurs’ lead to 12. A Parker miss was followed by an Earl Clark long 2 and suddenly it was 10. The quarter would end with Kobe hitting another jumper to cut make it a single digit game, but with Manu getting it back to 10 with free throws.

With the stage set, the 4th quarter became a drama filled period with both sides showing some clutch shot making to give their side a boost. A running Nash jumper from 19 feet was countered by a Gary Neal three pointer. A Clark lay in off a Nash pass would only give a short momentum boost as Stephen Jackson hit a three, and then another. Before you knew it the Spurs were back up by 16 and with only 7 minutes to go the game was over.

Not so fast. Here is where the game got really good.

Furiously, the Lakers began their final try at a win. And, in one of the more un-Spurs like performance you’ll see, it looked like San Antonio wanted the Lakers to have it. Spurs turnovers became Laker baskets. Made shots by Antawn Jamison, World Peace, and Kobe seemed to only further unravel the Spurs.

With Stephen Jackson arguing a non-foul call, he earned himself an ejection after two technicals and, with the ensuing FT’s the Lakers would only trail by 5. The possession that followed was the Lakers best of the game where nearly every player touched the ball and it ended with a Jamison lay up off a nifty pass from Nash. Three point game.

Sadly, for the Lakers, that would be as close as they’d get, though the last minute of the game was just as exciting. A Ginobili three pointer to push the Spurs back up to 6 was quickly countered by a triple by Clark. On the Spurs final possession they’d turn the ball over and give the Lakers one last shot.

However, in the most anticlimactic of endings the final Laker shot would be what we’ve all seen countless times. Even though the team was down three, Mike D’Antoni eschewed a set play call and instead gave the ball to Kobe to work in isolation deep on the wing. He rose up a foot behind the three point line and missed a contested jumper that bounced harmlessly off the rim. Ball game.

As it stands, the Lakers, though shorthanded, are showing more fight than they have all year. But, it’s just not making a difference in the win column. This game offered excitement, but like so many other games this season it ended in disappointment.

Meanwhile the Spurs just keep trucking. They came into the game with the league’s 5th ranked offense and defense in terms of points per possession. This game did nothing to show they can’t continue to keep that up, though I’m sure Coach Popovich would have liked a cleaner finish.

I’m also sure he’s not going to give this win back. No matter how much the Lakers could have used it.

 

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.

LeBron James passes Magic Johnson for sixth all-time in assists

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Magic Johnson is one of the greatest, most creative passers the game has ever seen.

Friday night, LeBron James passed Magic for sixth all-time in assists in the NBA. For LeBron, doing that in a Lakers’ jersey like Magic wore was special.

It happened with 8:41 remaining left in the game, LeBron found Anthony Davis for a 3-pointer on the right wing.

LeBron finished the night with 11 assists and 28 points, which along with a monster 44-point night from Anthony Davis led the Lakers to an impressive win over the Bucks in Milwaukee.

 

 

 

Jimmy Butler returns, hits clutch shots to lift Heat past Celtics

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics
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BOSTON (AP) — Bam Adebayo scored 28 points, Tyler Herro had 26 and the Miami Heat completed a split of two games in Boston, beating the Celtics 120-116 on Friday night after Jaylen Brown banked in a long 3-pointer to force overtime.

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup and had 25 points in 36 minutes after missing the previous seven games with a sore right knee. He added 15 rebounds.

“Obviously having JB back is big time for us,” Herro said. “He helps us in so many different ways.”

Kyle Lowry chipped in with 20 points before fouling out in OT for the Heat, who sent Boston to just its second loss in 16 games.

“My team welcomed me back and let me do what I do,” Butler said. “It was a big `W’ for the team.”

Brown sent the game to overtime by banking in his long 3 with 1.7 seconds to play in regulation. He finished with 37 points.

“It felt good coming off my hand,” Brown said. “I know we wanted to get a shot up off the rim as fast as possible, just in case we missed we could get a rebound, a tip out.”

The Celtics had won 10 straight at TD Garden.

Boston star Jayson Tatum scored just 14 points on a cold shooting night, going 5 of 18 from the floor, including 0 of 7 on 3-point attempts. He had 49 points in the Celtics’ 134-121 victory on Wednesday night.

“That’s the biggest thing about the league; you’re not going to stop anybody from just scoring,” Adebayo said. “I feel like (we’re) making him take tough shots every time we play him and living with the result.”

Butler hit a clutch jumper over Al Horford, making it 110-107 with 5.1 seconds left in regulation before Brown took a pass near midcourt, dribbled to his right and nailed his shot.

In OT, the teams were tied twice before Butler nailed a foul-line jumper over Horford with 1:45 left, but Brown hit two free throws to tie it.

Adebayo nailed two free throws and, after Tatum misfired on a 3, Butler hit a jumper to seal it.

“Jimmy made two tough, tough baskets,” Brown said. “That’s just a credit to his work and his skill and his development. He gets going in games like this; on the road in a hostile environment. … Tonight, two shots that in our defensive scheme we could live with, but Jimmy a big-time player made both of them.”

Unlike Wednesday, when shots were open more and both teams were making them effectively (each shot over 50%), defense was tighter and it resembled more of the postseason matchup last season between the pair that went seven games before Boston captured the Eastern Conference title.