The Extra Pass: Pau Gasol returns just as Lakers need him

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In the fleeting moments this season when the Lakers have had their cover of the media guide starting five together — Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard — they have gone 0-5.

That lineup could take the floor again Friday night against the Wizards — both Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol will start for the Lakers Friday night against the Washington Wizards, coach Mike D’Antoni confirmed after shootaround.

Pau Gasol is back from his plantar fasciitis. Previously, coach Mike D’Antoni has said he wants to start and finish with the big Spaniard (although that may not happen Friday in his first game back). D’Antoni says with the playoffs coming he is going to lean more on Gasol

Is that the smart thing to do considering the Lakers are 7-3 with Earl Clark starting and Gasol not even playing in the last 10 games?

Yes. Yes it is.

First and foremost, talent wins in the NBA. And, with all due respect to Clark, Gasol is the more talented player. Much more. Gasol remains as fundamentally solid and as smooth a big man as there is in the game, and he can get your team efficient buckets in the post, at the elbow, face up or back to the basket. Basically he can score anywhere so long as you don’t ask him to be a stretch four and stand in the corner.

Remember that before Gasol went down he was playing well — he anchored the Lakers second unit plus was developing some chemistry passing to Dwight Howard when Howard moved off the ball (which he has done much better of late). Gasol can rebound, pass and is an underrated defender. Plus, this is a guy who has playoff experience — the Lakers have that 2009 ring because Gasol outplayed Howard (then with Orlando) in the finals.

But more than that, Earl Clark has regressed. The Lakers need to cut his minutes.

When D’Antoni first started using him the Lakers were still trying to shoehorn this roster into D’Antoni’s traditional system and Clark was the kind of athletic player the Lakers lacked. But as the Lakers have modified their offensive system — and as teams got the scouting reports back on Clark — his effectiveness has dropped off the table.

Our own Darius Soriano, writing at his blog ForumBlueandGold, broke down the numbers. And they are not pretty.

In his last 20 games Clark is only shooting 41.4% from the field, including 32.4% from 15-19 feet and 23.8% (10-42) from behind the arc. The increased rate of misses can be attributed to a variety of factors, but the fact is the numbers don’t lie.

But it’s not just a decline on offense that has plagued Clark. His defense has also taken a hit. Clark is getting lost off the ball more when guarding perimeter players, giving up open jump shots in the process…. What we’re seeing with our eyes also bears out in the Lakers defensive numbers with Clark on the floor. In the last 20 games the Lakers post a defensive efficiency of 110.6 when Clark is in the game. That mark is nearly 4 points per 100 possessions worse than Jamison’s number and 6 points per 100 possessions worse than Nash’s (the two players who are often cited as the team’s worst defenders and who hurt the team the most on that end of the floor).

Simply put, with Gasol in the lineup the Lakers will be better.

As Jerry West said, the Lakers have become he team everyone at the top of the West would like to avoid. San Antonio and Oklahoma City would still be heavy favorites, but they are going to have to work a lot harder and face a lot more challenges against Los Angeles than in a matchup with Houston or Golden State. The Lakers are a threat, they are figuring out how to win with this group and Gasol makes that lineup better.

Oh, they’ll still shop him around this summer and likely trade him. But that’s another post for another day.

Right now, the Lakers need Gasol back for a playoff run.

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

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What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

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It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.

NBA Finals schedule drops, Game 1 Thursday, May 31

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We don’t know where the NBA Finals will be played, but we know when.

Next Thursday the eyes of the NBA world could be focused on Oakland or Houston, and the following Wednesday that may shift to Boston or Cleveland. All four of those teams still have a chance to make the NBA Finals.

What we know is the dates for the games. Here is the schedule:

Game 1, Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 2, Sunday, June 3, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 3, Wednesday, June 6, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 4, Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 5, Monday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 6, Thursday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 7, Sunday, June 17, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Games 5, 6, and 7 are if necessary. All games will be broadcast on ABC.

There were no surprises here. The date of the start of the NBA Finals has been set since before the season started (it always is, to help broadcast partners and international media plan). The game pattern follows the same as last year, when the NBA changed it to make sure there was at least one day off in addition to travel days when the venue switches cities.

James Harden on shooting struggles: ‘Who cares?’

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A couple of years ago, could anyone have imagined James Harden not only saying he’s willing to give up scoring to do the little things to win but then actually doing it?

That’s exactly what Harden has done through five games against Golden State, and it’s why his Houston team is up 3-2.

Harden has struggled with his shot the past two games: He has shot 16-of-47 overall the past two games (34 percent) but also 3-of-23 from three. Yet he has done a good job setting up others. In Game 5, in particular, he did a better job getting into the middle of the paint, opening up passing lanes when the defense collapsed on him. He’s also worked hard on the defensive end, played Stephen Curry reasonably well, and been a solid team defender.

With his team one game from the Finals, he’s not concerned about his shot.

“Who cares?” Harden said to reporters after the game. “I’m just missing shots. But we’re winning, and I’m trying to compete on the defensive end and do other things to help my team win. But if we’ve got a guy like Eric Gordon making shots and being aggressive, who cares?”

A lot of players give that idea lip service, but in recent games Harden has backed it up.

“It’s just the shots [are] not falling, and a lot of it has to do with how hard everybody is playing,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Probably his legs aren’t the freshest things in the world. But he’s invaluable to the defense and offense.”

The Rockets are going to need more scoring from Harden to close this series out — Chris Paul is out for Game 6 with a strained hamstring, and it’s unlikely he plays if there is a Game 7. Eric Gordon will get the start and has lit it up the past couple of games (he led the Rockets with 24 points in Game 5), but more scoring and shot creation will fall on the Harden’s shoulders.

If the Rockets are going to close this series out, Harden is going to have to look every bit the presumptive MVP. The little things are great, but Houston needs him to get buckets now.