Dwight Howard leads Lakers to win over Celtics

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Dwight Howard spent much of his media time in Houston over All-Star weekend deflecting questions about his future. If he can play out the remainder of the season the way he performed on Wednesday, the answers will speak for themselves.

Howard was active from the very start, and helped set the tone for his team as the Lakers led wire to wire in their 113-99 win over the Celtics.

It was an emotional night in Los Angeles, as the team honored owner Jerry Buss, who passed away at the age of 80 on Monday, with a video tribute and a speech to the crowd before tip-off from Kobe Bryant. The Lakers came out strong in the first quarter as a result, and Howard’s play was the catalyst for the effort that extended through to the final buzzer.

The criticism with Howard’s play to this point of the season can be partially blamed on injury. He began the season not fully recovered from back surgery, and then has played through the pain of a torn labrum in his right shoulder, while missing time due to the injury in two separate stretches.

But there’s also been an effort and body language issue which has been even more troublesome, and on display far more often than the team would like to see, especially given the franchise’s long-term vision that has Howard firmly in the picture.

Neither the injury nor a lack of effort was present in this one, as Howard went to work early, and looked every bit as dominant as we’ve seen him be in the past. Offensively, he was constantly working to establish good position inside, while setting solid screens for Steve Nash out top instead of slipping them too soon as he’s done the majority of the season.

Howard finished with a team-high 24 points and 12 rebounds on 10-13 shooting, and he helped get Nash going by clearing space with those screens. Nash finished with 14 points and seven assists on 6-7 shooting, and with his fifth assist of the night passed Magic Johnson to move into fourth place all-time in that category.

Howard and Nash played together in this one, and gave us a glimpse of exactly what the Lakers envisioned was possible when assembling this team over the summer. It’s only one game, of course, but the possibilities are exciting when you see the two play in this way, even for small stretches.

This game was never in doubt for the Lakers — the team led by as many as 14 in the first half, 19 in the third quarter, and 22 in the fourth, with Boston getting no closer than 12 points at any time in the final 12 minutes.

It was an off night offensively for Kobe Bryant, who finished with 16 points on just 5-15 shooting. But he, like the rest of the team played with a high level of energy, and matched Nash with seven assists. Earl Clark continued to produce inside, and hauled down a career-high 16 rebounds.

The Lakers had a lot going for them in this game in terms of motivation. They were waxed by the Celtics just two weeks ago, so there was some payback in order. There’s the increased desperation in place to make a run to the postseason now that the All-Star break is behind us. And of course, there was the emotion behind playing the team’s first game since the passing of its legendary owner.

It wasn’t a surprise that the Lakers were able to come out and play harder than a Celtics team known for effort above all else on this night. The play of Howard might have been, however, and if he can find a way to consistently perform at that level for the team’s remaining games, there won’t be any lingering questions about his future, or of who will be the star to anchor the Lakers franchise in the years to come.

Aggressive, attacking Boston drives right into heart of Miami defense, wins Game 3

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On Boston’s first possession of the game, Marcus Smart drove right to the rim and got an and-1 on a reverse layup.

Next possession, Jaylen Brown got a bucket cutting for a layup, with the assist from Smart. Next possession, Brown drove the lane and banked in a floater. The next Boston bucket was a Jayson Tatum driving layup.

The first nine Boston points came with them attacking the heart of the Miami defense (going at Duncan Robinson in particular), and that continued all game with the Celtics getting 60 points in the paint.

“Boston came out with great force. You have to give them credit for that,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said after the game.

Throw in 31 quality minutes from Gordon Hayward in his return from a sprained ankle — providing more quality wing play and good decision making — and Boston raced out to a comfortable lead then hung on at the end for a 117-106 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 not until Wednesday night (a little delay to allow the West to catch up).

After a sloppy Game 2 loss where the Celtics became passive in the face of Miami’s zone defense in the second half, followed by a postgame meltdown and meeting of the minds, the guys at the heart of the Celtics young core stepped up their game.

Particularly Brown, who had 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting and was getting to the rim all game. He also was playing smothering defense.

Smart — an All-Defensive Team player — had his best game of the series, blanketing Goran Dragic, who had been the Heat’s best scorer and shot creator through two games. Without Dragic breaking down the Celtics’ defense and getting points in the paint, Miami has to live by the three and the Celtics defenders did a better job staying home.

“Marcus’ ball pressure on Dragic was important,” Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens said postgame. “It’s something we need to continue to look at. Marcus did a great job on a guy who is playing better than I’ve ever seen him.”

Boston also got more minutes from Gordon Hayward than expected, minutes Stevens called a “stabilizing force” for the team.

“I’m extremely tired right now. My ankle is pretty sore,” Hayward said postgame, adding with the extra days off he should be good to go for Game 4.

Hayward’s presence also allowed Boston to play small ball without Daniel Theis or any true center on the floor, the Celtics switched everything defensively, and Miami didn’t take advantage. Look for Eric Spoelstra to turn to more Bam Adebayo against that small lineup next game.

“They got us on our heels. They were out there hooping and having fun. I guess that was the difference in the game,” Bam Adebayo said postgame.

Miami didn’t shoot the ball well Saturday night, hitting just 27.3% from three. Jae Crowder, who had been hot, was 2-of-8 from deep, while Tyler Herro was 4-of-12. Adebayo had 27 points and 16 boards to lead the Heat.

Boston had four players with more than 20 points: Brown (26), Tatum (25), Kemba Walker (21), and Smart (20).

Boston will need another game like that — and they will need to close better, Miami made it interesting late — to even the series on Wednesday.

Miami said postgame they saw what happened in this game as a challenge to them. Game 4 is going to be intense.

Ja Morant points out one person who didn’t vote him Rookie of the Year

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Ja Morant was not the unanimous Rookie of the Year — 99 out of 100 media members voted for him, one voted for Zion Williamson.

When the media votes became public Saturday, Morant got to see who the one voter who voted for someone else was: Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Crowley stood up for his vote, and everything was good between them (at least on social media).

While the votes come from media members, the NBA goes out of its way to put together voters who see things differently, something ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne talked about is an excellent thread on Twitter, although she was speaking about the case for LeBron James over Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP.

To be clear, I was one of the Morant voters, and I will readily admit that Zion is the better player (at least right now). I consider the impact on winning heavily when voting, which led me to Morant because he played 59 games before the bubble and had his team in a playoff position, while Zion played only 19 and did not (only games before the NBA restart in Orlando were to be considered, per NBA rules). I also expect and respect the fact that not everyone will see it that way, or even define what matters most in winning the award the same way. Diversity of thought and views is a good thing, it leads to better outcomes. Crowley should vote what he sees and believes, and that should be respected.

Unanimous or not, Morant will go down as the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year. The voting will be a footnote at most.

Boston’s Gordon Hayward warming up, available to play in Game 3

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The Celtics are getting their X-factor back — Gordon Hayward is available for the must-win Game 3 for Boston.

This had been expected, but he was out warming up pregame as reports he would be available started to bounce around the web.

Even 20 minutes of Hayward would be a big boost for the Celtics. Hayward suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He’s been out ever since, even leaving the bubble for a while to get treatment.

Hayward’s return gives the Celtics another versatile player who can create his own shot and knock down the open looks others create for him. Hayward can run pick-and-rolls with the second unit while Tatum and Walker get rest. He’s the Celtics’ fourth-best scoring option right now, but he’s more dangerous than any other team’s fourth scorer.

Miami leads the series 0-2. If Boston doesn’t find a way to break down Miami’s zone defense and defend the rim better themselves this series is going to be short. Maybe Hayward can help with that on Saturday night.

Ty Lawson dropped by team, reportedly banned from Chinese league after social media posts

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Ty Lawson’s off the court challenges were among the reasons he was playing in China and not the NBA this season. He signed for good money in China instead.

That era of his career after some social media posts, apparently of him at a strip club in China, has him dropped by his team and rumored to be banned from the league.

Lawson’s team, the Fujian Sturgeons, apparently gave this statement to Chinese news agency Xinhua:

“His inappropriate words are inconsistent with the social responsibilities and values abided by our club and have brought serious adverse social impacts to the club and the league. We will not sign him for the new season.”

Emiliano Carchia, the CEO of Sportando, reports that Lawson is out of the Chinese Basketball Association for good.

Lawson’s quickness and ability to create space and score could help some NBA teams, but incidents like this make it less likely an NBA team would roll the dice on the 32-year-old point guard. Lawson spent eight seasons in the NBA then the last two in China.