Kobe plays with injured ankle, finishes scoreless as Lakers beat Pacers

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Kobe Bryant surprised many by appearing in the Lakers starting lineup in Indiana on Friday, but the ankle injury he suffered on Wednesday in Atlanta proved to be too limiting for him to do any damage against the Pacers.

Bryant played the entire first quarter, but went 0-4 from the field and asked out of the game after playing its first 12 minutes. He did not return and finished scoreless for the first time since 2004, but the Lakers got scoring from five others who finished in double figures as they beat the Pacers 99-93.

Dwight Howard led L.A. in scoring with 20 points, to go along with 12 rebounds, four assists, and four blocked shots. But the real offensive heroes in this one were Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison, and Metta World Peace, all of whom scored more than expected, and did so while shooting a high percentage.

The Lakers won this one on the strength of their three-point shooting, which has always been a big part of the team’s offense throughout the season, at least in terms of attempts. L.A. ranks third in the league in that category, but is just a middle of the pack squad in terms of the percentage of those shots it gets to go down.

Against the Pacers, the Lakers used dribble penetration from Steve Nash to set up shooters on the perimeter, or post-ups from Howard to do the same as the defense attempted to double.

Given the numbers, Indiana’s defensive plan wasn’t a bad one; the Lakers simply made a higher percentage of long range shots on this night than they have consistently all season. Jamison and Blake combined to shoot 9-14 from beyond the arc, World Peace made two of four, and the Lakers as a team knocked down 13 of 26 from three-point distance.

On the Pacers side, both David West and Roy Hibbert were brutal, combining to go just 7-25 from the field, while finishing with just eight and seven points, respectively. Paul George struggled to score consistently as well, and a huge 31-9 run by the Lakers that lasted from about two and a half minutes to go in the first until there were under three minutes remaining in the half put the Pacers in a tough spot the rest of the way.

It was clear watching Bryant play that the ankle was simply too limiting for him to be able to contribute. None of his four shot attempts were close, and his movement on the perimeter was extremely limited, to the point where he was hurting his team more than he was helping it.

Credit Bryant for mustering the will to play at all with an injury that severe, and credit him even more for knowing after 12 minutes that he was completely ineffective, to the point where he decided to take himself out.

This was a good opportunity for the Lakers to beat a quality team on the road, but on paper, they were supposed to beat the Hawks and they were supposed to lose to the Pacers. Ultimately, the two games ended with L.A. getting the one win that was expected, but the bounce-back effort on a night where Bryant literally provided nothing offensively was impressive nonetheless.

Pelicans reportedly pick up option year on coach Alvin Gentry

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David Griffin, the guy with the hammer in New Orleans, likes Alvin Gentry. They have a relationship that goes back to Phoenix, where Gentry was the coach and Griffin was in the front office (and was eventually GM).

Gentry also has a style of play — he wants to run and be up-tempo. That should fit very well with soon-to-be No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise the Griffin and the Pelicans want to keep Gentry around, as reported by Malika Andrews of ESPN.

This is another smart, stabilizing move by Griffin. The Pelicans want to build an athletic, fast-paced team and Gentry is the right coach for that style.  Maybe it doesn’t pan out, maybe the Pelicans ultimately need to go another direction with their coach, but right now this seems a good fit.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.