Lakers hold off Pistons, have now won five of their last six

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It certainly wasn’t pretty, and at times it seemed as though the Lakers were trying to give this game away more than they were trying to win it. But ultimately, L.A. held off the Pistons for a 98-97 victory, the team’s fifth win in its last six games.

Dwight Howard missed his second straight game after re-aggravating the torn labrum in his right shoulder, but Pau Gasol responded well, playing at center and getting the start in Howard’s absence.

Gasol was aggressive and engaged from the start, and finished with 23 points on 10-of-18 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds while playing 40 minutes. Earl Clark had a nice game alongside him on the front line, and finished with 17 and 10 of his own.

Playing at the Palace apparently brought Metta World Peace back to his Ron Artest days, as he was whistled for a flagrant foul on Brandon Knight late in the second quarter after catching him with a subtle shot to the face.

The Lakers played well on both ends of the floor for approximately two-and-a-half quarters, before their habit of blowing double-digit leads crept up once again. L.A. led by 18 points with 6:45 to play in the third, before Will Bynum checked in for Detroit and helped to lead a rally that began cutting into the Pistons’ deficit.

Bynum’s speed on the perimeter and ability to get into the paint and either score or distribute to his teammates for easy looks was huge in bringing Detroit back, as was Charlie Villanueva’s 10 fourth-quarter points on 4-of-5 shooting.

After Bynum’s layup cut the Lakers lead to one with a minute left to play, neither team scored the rest of the way. But both had plenty of opportunities.

Gasol missed a short jumper that would have extended the lead to three, followed by Andre Drummond missing one from less than 10 feet out that would have given the Pistons the lead. With just 16 seconds remaining, the Pistons were forced to foul, so they did, and sent Clark to the line to give L.A. another chance to extend its lead.

Clark, who shoots better than 68 percent from the free throw line on the season, missed them both.

Detroit got a great look on its next possession, with Bynum getting inside and all the way to the rim for what seemed sure to be a potential game-winner, but the shot rattled out, and Steve Nash secured the rebound before getting fouled with two seconds remaining.

Nash is literally the all-time leader in free throw percentage, but even he managed to miss both of his attempts. In case you needed one more sign pointing to this season being cursed for the Lakers, there it was.

Regardless of the blown 19-point lead and the late-game stuggles, the Lakers will take the win. They now get into the meat of this road trip over the next few games, beginning on Tuesday with a stop in Brooklyn to take on the Nets.

Orlando’s James Ennis admits he had COVID-19, is now recovered and practicing

James Ennis
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Add James Ennis — who has started most games at the three for Orlando since being traded there at the deadline — to the list of players who had COVID-19.

Ennis is recovered and Wednesday returned to practice but admitted to reporters in a zoom he was one of the players who had tested positive for the disease. From Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel.

James Ennis is an example of why the NBA started its testing in the home markets of teams back on June 23: find the players who had the virus, get them treatment as needed, help them recover, and keep the virus itself out of the NBA campus/bubble in Orlando. How well that ultimately works remains an unanswered question, but the Ennis is an example of the concept working.

Ennis’ move into the starting lineup in Orlando not-so-coincidentally timed out with when the Magic offense took off (a 117.8 offensive rating after the All-Star break, best in the NBA). Ennis, the lone Long Beach State player in the NBA now, provides shooting to space the floor on the wing (career 35.4% from three), and that opened up driving lanes for Aaron Gordon and room for others to operate. He quickly became a critical piece of the Magic offense. Ennis was traded to Orlando from Philadephia at the deadline for a second-round pick.

Orlando enters the NBA restart as the eighth seed in the East, but with a realistic shot to pass a depleted Brooklyn team for the seven seed. Healthy, with an explosive offense and balanced roster, the Magic will not be an easy out in the first round of the playoffs.

Coaches, players compare NBA Orlando restart to USA Basketball experience

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Formulating a plan to get a team ready for the restart of the NBA season wasn’t as difficult as one might expect for Indiana coach Nate McMillan.

Turns out, he’s been through something similar to this before.

Spending an extended stretch away from home during the summer, while unprecedented as part of an NBA season, isn’t exactly a foreign concept for those with USA Basketball experience like the Olympics and the World Cup. Plenty of players and coaches at Walt Disney World see parallels between those experiences and this challenge.

“I had that opportunity to work with the Olympic team and preparation was very similar to what we’re going through here,” said McMillan, who was an assistant under Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski on the USA Basketball staff from 2006 through 2012. “Having a training camp, basically, at a hotel and getting ready for a 45- to 60-day season. … We’re going to have three scrimmage games, eight so-called regular season games and then we’re in the playoffs so it’s very similar to preparing to play for the gold medal.”

Players who have been through the World Cup or Olympic grinds agree that there’s a level of familiarity with this sort of schedule and situation.

“It helps tremendously,” said Toronto guard Kyle Lowry, who was part of the U.S. gold-medal-winning team at the Olympics in 2016. “In Rio it was a lot more strict and tighter because we were living on a boat. That experience was pretty awesome. … But living on a boat, to be in a smaller room and not have as many amenities it really kind of prepared me for this.”

Even players who have been part of USA Basketball’s events for younger players, like Under-18 or Under-19 tournaments internationally, know the drill when it comes to living in a hotel for a few weeks and not having a lot of latitude when it comes to being free to roam. Players at Disney cannot leave the campus because of coronavirus protocols, though the league has made plenty of entertainment options — fishing, golf, boating, table tennis and more — available to them.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said he would follow much of the same policies that the U.S. program used when he was an assistant on those national-team staffs, such as a heavy reliance on medical personnel to determine what days to have a hard practice and what days to take it a bit easier. Phoenix coach Monty Williams said he also refreshed his memory on national-team days when putting together a plan for his team’s stay at Disney.

“It has forced me to dig into the archives of that time with USA Basketball,” said Williams, another former national team assistant under Krzyzewski. “I’ve heard a lot of the players say that it reminds them of AAU, but for me it reminds me so much of my time in Spain at the World Cup. It’s a bit longer than the Olympics … and you have a lot of free time.”

Pacers center Myles Turner was with the U.S. team that competed in China last summer at the World Cup, a group that spent more than seven weeks together between training camp, exhibition games in the U.S. and Australia, and then the tournament itself.

The Pacers have clinched a playoff spot, so they’re assured of spending at least seven weeks at Disney this summer. It’s another long summer for Turner, and he’s not complaining.

“There is a lot of similarity in how it’s set up, but for me personally, I just think that it’s a great time for everybody to kind of stay focused,” Turner said. “There’s no distractions. Everybody’s locked in and focused. So, there’s really not a lot that can go wrong in a basketball sense.”

One difference at Disney is that nobody has family members with them until at least the second round of the playoffs. At an Olympics, it’s typical for family and friends to make the trip — and at last year’s World Cup, a small number of players also made arrangements for family to join them in China.

“This is a little bit different than that, but certainly the timing is similar and the timing for us as far as preparation is probably more like a FIBA-type schedule than it is like a training camp,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “You’re practicing for a couple weeks and then you’re playing a few games and then it really, really counts.”

NOTES: San Antonio assistant Tim Duncan is not with the Spurs at Disney; the team said he has remained home to help LaMarcus Aldridge with his rehab from season-ending shoulder surgery. … Of the 22 teams in the restart, eight opted to take Tuesday off from practice.

Jason Kidd reportedly wows in interview, but Tom Thibodeau still Knicks’ frontrunner

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Head coach of the New York Knicks was always Tom Thibodeau’s job to lose — the guy running the show now at Madison Square Garden used to be Thibodeau’s agent.

Jason Kidd may have come the closest to taking the job with an impressive interview, but Thibodeau is still likely to land the hob, writes Marc Berman at the New York Post.

While sources says Jason Kidd wowed Knicks brass with “a great interview,” it might not be enough to topple Thibodeau, whose relationship with Knicks president Leon Rose and senior vice president William Wesley should prove insurmountable. They repped Thibodeau at Creative Artists Agency…

ESPN’s Jalen Rose told The Post over the weekend that Kidd, now a Lakers assistant, is a better choice because of his potential in either developing stars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo or attracting them.

It’s mostly the latter that will keep Kidd in the mix. It remains unlikely that Antetokounmpo will both choose to leave Milwaukee and come to New York, but Kidd’s strong relationship with the Greek Freak would at least put the Knick in the running if the reigning MVP decides to look around. Beyond that, players respect Kidd, a Hall of Fame point guard.

Thibodeau has been the Knicks’ guy from the start. Whether he is the right fit is the big question. New York has a couple of players that could be part of a long-term rebuild — RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson — but also feels it is well positioned to trade for a star if one becomes available. A slow rebuild built around young talent isn’t New York’s style, more likely they will stockpile good young players, develop them, but when the opportunity to land a star comes trade them (think Anthony Davis to the Lakers style deal). The new coach needs to build a player-development program in New York to make that scenario work. Is that Thibodeau?

The sense around the league is he will get the chance. If it falls through, look for Kidd to get another shot.

Shaq helps out stranded Florida driver after her tire blew out

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A woman whose car was left stranded along a Florida interstate when her tire blew out got a little unexpected help from former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, sheriff’s officials say.

O’Neal, who lives in the Orlando area, was traveling on Interstate 75 near Gainesville on Monday when he saw the woman pull onto the side of the road, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office said on a Facebook post.

He stayed with the woman until deputies arrived at the scene.

In the video posted to Facebook, deputies thanked O’Neal for his assistance. The driver is heard telling deputies that the tire blew out, forcing her to pull over and that O’Neal stopped to help.

“He fist-bumped Deputies Purington and Dillon before going on his way,” the sheriff’s office wrote on Facebook. “Hey Basketball Cop Foundation you’re not the only one that knows Shaq.”