Lakers’ backs against wall after Thunder hands L.A. sixth straight loss

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“I told the team that the biggest thing is that our season starts Sunday,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after the latest in a parade of losses. “And we have got one run and have one shot at it and they need to get ready mentally and physically.”

That is the sound of a desperate coach. A coach who knows his team needs wins right now, needs to win two-thirds of its games from here on out to have a chance of even making the playoffs.

Lakers fans have been mentally in that desperate space for a while now, but it felt and sounded like the Lakers team is finally getting there after getting thumped 116-101 by a genuine contender in the Oklahoma City Thunder Friday night. Kevin Durant had a season high 42 points. Russell Westbrook had 27 points and 10 assists. Oklahoma defended, ran the break, executed with crispness, and basically did whatever they wanted. Oklahoma City was up 16 at halftime and the game felt like glorified garbage time in the second half.

The Lakers have plenty of excuses — they were without Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol again in this game, plus now comes the news Jordan Hill will be out for the season with hip surgery. Westbrook’s eyes lit up when asked what it was like to turn the corner and not see the Lakers’ seven-footers protecting the rim, but he caught himself and just said it was “different.”

“It’s true, but people aren’t going to remember all the excuses of the season,” said Kobe Bryant, who finished with 28 points but on 8-of-23 shooting.

The Lakers have had injury excuses all season but the fact is with this loss they fall to 15-21. They will need to go better than 30-16 the rest of the way to make the playoffs (that record would get them to 45 wins, which is the lowest number the West’s eighth seed has had in five years). And remember they still have the Grammy road trip ahead of them.

But more than that, Friday night’s drubbing was evidence of just how far away from a contender the Lakers are right now. And how much better the Thunder are even than last season.

Early on, with fresh legs, the Lakers starters hung around in the game. Then the run everyone knew the Thunder would go on came with a Thabo Sefolosha three and a Durant runner in the lane. Suddenly it was a 9-point OKC lead.

But at the end of the first quarter the Lakers fought back to tie it up with a stretch of good defense — an Antawn Jamison steal under the basket, an Earl Clark block of Serge Ibaka, a Kobe steal. They tied the game at 25.

But the problem for the Lakers all season has been the defense has only been good in stretches. Then it goes away.

It went away in the second quarter — Oklahoma City put up 39 points quarter shooting 70 percent. They got shots in the lane, they were draining threes and most of their shots seem to be open ones created off the dribble or with the extra pass. The Thunder shot 59.1 percent for the first half, were up 16 at the break and the game was all over but the shouting.

Durant was 10-of-15 shooting for 25 points in the first half, and he was fired up. He drove around Earl Clark at one point and just threw down a dunk then displayed the kind of anger we don’t usually see from the NBA’s golden child.

“We moved the ball so well,” Durant said. “We were finding open shots, guys were getting into the lane.”

And when that didn’t work, Durant or Westbrook would just blow by their defender off the dribble. Westbrook in particular looked sharp with his game. And the Lakers lacked any real rim protection to slow them.

“Well they have a good team but like I say you can’t expect to be at your best when you don’t have your best players on the floor,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “There is just no way around that. When you get them back it takes time to gel and get rhythm and chemistry.”

The Lakers just don’t have that time anymore. And they know it.

Whether they can do anything about it remains to be seen.

Celtics: Romeo Langford out rest of playoffs after wrist surgery

Celtics guard Romeo Langford
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The Celtics don’t have quite enough dependable players to fill a playoff rotation. So, beyond its core, Boston has juggled deep-bench minutes throughout the postseason.

One of those options – Romeo Langford – will no longer be available.

Celtics release:

Celtics guard Romeo Langford this morning underwent successful surgery to repair the scapholunate ligament in his right wrist. He will miss the remainder of the 2019-20 NBA season.

A rookie, Langford also suffered a right-hand injury last season at Indiana. A pattern? Probably not. But it’s another interruption in the 20-year-old’s development.

For Boston’s playoff hopes, this is a minor setback – one made even smaller by Gordon Hayward returning (and staying). Though more of a forward, Hayward clears the way for Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart to handle more guard minutes, a few of which could have gone to Langford.

Adam Silver: It’s on U.S. government whether American companies, like NBA, operate in China

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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Politicians have repeatedly criticized the NBA for its involvement in China.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is defending his league.

Sopan Deb of The New York Times:

Senators have power to affect the United State’s foreign policy, including where American companies are permitted to operate. The NBA shouldn’t face unique scrutiny for acting like a business, seeking to maximize profit, within legal parameters.

Silver is generally right: There is value in exposing American values to countries with authoritarian regimes. Basketball can be a good vehicle for doing so. Those connections can inspire change for the better.

But the league has repeatedly failed to uphold American values it espouses in its dealings in China. That warrants criticism and leaves Silver’s response quite lacking.

Adam Silver: Next NBA season will likely start in 2021

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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The NBA said next season would begin on Christmas at the earliest.

But get it straight: That’s a best-case scenario.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, via CNN:

My best guess is that – even though, as you said, it will be the 2020-21 season – is that season won’t start until 21. We said a week or so ago that the earliest we’d start is Christmas of this year, but the more I’m learning – even listening to Dr. Fauci this morning – I continue to believe that we’re going to be better off getting into January. The goal for us next season is to play a standard season – the other part of your question – 82-game season and playoffs. And further, the goal would be to play games in home arenas in front of fans. But there’s still a lot that we need to learn in terms of rapid testing, for example. Would that be a means of getting fans into our buildings?

February seems like a reasonable expectation. But so much is changing with our handling of coronavirus. Predictions are weak at this stage.

Of course, the NBA wants to play a full 82-game season with fans at arenas. That’s how to most directly maximize revenue.

But when will it be safe for fans to attend games? How long will owners and players be content to wait while making practically no revenue? At some point, will it be better to play games and draw some revenue?

Assuming next season begins on a date the NBA doesn’t want to use as its start date going forward, how will the league get its annual calendar back on track if not reducing the schedule length? Fewer off days? Shorter offseason?

Like with many things, coronavirus creates many difficult complications.

The time Shaquille O’Neal slapped Kobe Bryant

Lakers stars Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal
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Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant fighting is stuff of legend in their highly productive (three championships!) and oftentumultuous relationship.

Now, that incident during the 1999 lockout is getting detailed like never before.

Jeff Pearlman’s “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty,” via ESPN:

On one particular day, both O’Neal and Bryant arrived at Southwest College, ready to play. It was the first week of January, not long after the Kobe-is-the-next-Jordan piece ran in L.A. Magazine. Some other Lakers were in attendance, as was Olden Polynice, the veteran center who’d spent the preceding four and a half seasons with Sacramento. He was hoping the Lakers would sign him to a free agent contract, and had been told that Mitch Kupchak, the team’s general manager, was planning on showing up. Though they’d battled for years, Polynice and O’Neal enjoyed a friendly relationship. “All I wanted to do was go there and play with Shaq,” Polynice recalled. “The Lakers were my favorite team as a boy. It would have been a dream. I wanted to show Mitch I was serious.”

The players straggled in, loosened up, stretched, shot some jumpers. They proceeded to divide into teams — some guys over here, some guys over there. O’Neal and Polynice — dueling 7-footers — were on different sides. “Kobe was on my squad,” Polynice recalled. “Opposite Shaq.”

It was just another run, until it was no longer just another run. As he was prone to do in pickup, O’Neal called a series of iffy fouls whenever he missed a shot.

Miss.

“Foul!”

Miss.

“Foul!”

“I’m tired of this s—,” Bryant finally said. “Just play.”

“One more comment like that,” O’Neal snapped, “and I slap the s— out of you.”

A few possessions later, Bryant drove toward the rim, leaned into O’Neal’s body, and scooped the ball beneath his raised arm and into the hoop. It was a pretty move, but nothing otherworldly.

“F— you!” he screamed at O’Neal. “This is my team! My motherf—ing team!”

It felt edgy. Everything stopped. “He wasn’t talking about the pickup team,” Polynice recalled. “He was talking about the Lakers.”

O’Neal wasn’t having it. “No, motherf—er!” he screamed. “This is my team!”

“F— you!” Bryant replied. “Seriously — f— you! You’re not a leader. You’re nothing!”

What did he just say?

“I will get your ass traded,” O’Neal said. “Not a problem.”

Several of the participants stepped in to separate the two, and the game eventually continued. But it no longer felt even slightly relaxed or friendly. “We probably went up and down the court two more times,” Polynice said. “Kobe goes to the basket, scores, screams at Shaq, ‘Yeah, motherf—er! That s— ain’t gonna stop me!'”

O’Neal grabbed the ball in order to freeze action.

“Say another motherf—ing word,” he said, staring directly at Bryant.

“Aw, f— you,” Bryant said. “You don’t kn–”

Smack!

O’Neal slapped Bryant across the face. Hard.

“His hands are huge,” said Blount, who was playing in the game. “The noise was loud.”

Here is Polynice’s recollection: “Then Shaq swung again at Kobe, but he missed. S—! I run over and grab Shaq, because I’m big enough to do so. And Shaq keeps swinging, but everything’s missing because I have his arms. I’m grabbing on to Shaq, holding on for dear life, yelling, ‘Somebody grab Kobe! Seriously — somebody grab him!’ Because I’m holding Shaq and Kobe’s taking swings at him. At one point Shaq gets an arm loose and he pops me in the head. Seriously, no good deed goes unpunished. And I’m telling you, if Shaq gets loose he would have killed Kobe Bryant. I am not exaggerating. It was along the lines of an I-want-to-kill-you-right-now punch. He wanted to end Kobe’s life in that moment.”

Bryant was undeterred. “You’re soft!” he barked. “Is that all you’ve got? You’re soft!” Blount begged Bryant to stop talking. “You’re not helping,” he said. “Just shut up.” The altercation was finally broken up when Jerome Crawford, O’Neal’s bodyguard, walked onto the floor and calmed his friend down. O’Neal was furious. “You can’t touch him in practice,” he wrote of Bryant. “He’s acting like Jordan, where some players thought you couldn’t touch Mike. Whenever somebody ripped Kobe, he’d call a foul. After a while, I’m like, ‘Listen, man, you don’t have to start calling that punk s—.'” As he walked from the court, Polynice looked at a shaken Kupchak and said, loudly, “You should sign me just for that.”

This book sounds good. Even the extended excerpt is compelling. What a closing line from Olden Polynice.

Bryant said that fight brought O’Neal’s respect. Of course, they still had their differences. But they won through their squabbling. That commitment to team success and the success itself have endured.