ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

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Last season: The Lakers finished with a record of just 27 wins against 55 losses, and the primary reason for that can be summed up with one word: injuries. L.A. was decimated by them at all positions for most of the year, and saw its players miss an absurd total of 319 games due to them — among the highest recorded in the past 30 years. The team wasn’t going to contend for a title with a roster that dropped off significantly from a talent perspective once you got past Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash. But contending for a spot in the playoffs might have been a possibility, had Bryant and Nash managed to appear in more than 21 combined games.

Signature highlight from last season: It was tempting to run this one of Nick Young prematurely celebrating a three-pointer that he ultimately missed, because that’s really the kind of season it was in Los Angeles — embarrassing by the franchise’s lofty standards. But early in the year, before the injuries spun out of control and as the pieces began to fit into place, the Lakers came away with a victory in Houston over a much more talented Rockets team on a three-pointer near the end of regulation from Steve Blake — who was traded to the Warriors later in the season.

Key offseason moves:

Keys to the Lakers season:

Kobe Bryant: It isn’t only the health of Kobe Bryant, who appeared in just six games for the Lakers last season, that will determine the team’s fate in the upcoming campaign. Merely staying on the court won’t be enough, as the roster construction faces severe challenges on both ends of the floor. In order for L.A. to compete most nights, it will need Bryant to return to an All-Star level, scoring on a consistent yet efficient basis, while being a focal point offensively who can facilitate things on the possessions where he isn’t the one taking the shots. It may be too much to ask at this stage of Bryant’s career to do so much, and once again, the health concern is real after the two major injuries he’s suffered in the last two seasons. But if he can simply be the one who holds it all together, there’s a slim chance this team could exceed expectations.

Byron Scott: L.A. hired Scott as head coach this offseason, after an extensive search that included interviews with candidates that seemed far better suited to lead the team into its long-term future. The reasons given were dubious at best, especially the one about wanting a head coach with a defensive-minded reputation. Scott’s Cavaliers teams, where he coached most recently, were historically bad on the defensive end of the floor, and improved immediately the season after he was gone with Mike Brown hired as his replacement in Cleveland — an uninspiring fact, to say the least. Scott was hired for his ties to the organization, to be someone who understands the championship culture and to remind fans of the team’s storied past. But his decisions thus far have been cause for concern, and coaching as much as anything could be the team’s downfall if the thin level of talent in place isn’t properly utilized.

Defense: The Lakers were 28th in defensive efficiency last season, and despite Scott’s wishes, there isn’t much hope that the team is in a position to greatly improve its ranking. Boozer’s defense has been the biggest weakness in his game, and was exposed even more playing alongside such committed defenders while with the Bulls. Nash has always struggled to contain the other team’s guards, and Bryant, who has historically been able to defend extremely well when focusing his attention there, has been less interested in doing so in recent seasons. With an offense expected to struggle (especially if L.A. chases inefficient midrange shots more than it does three-pointers and shots at the basket), the Lakers aren’t going to be able to outscore very many opponents. Defense will be an important determining factor in the team’s quest for victories, and given the personnel in place, that shouldn’t exactly inspire an outlook here that’s overly-optimistic.

Why you should watch: Kobe Bryant essentially missed all of last season, and is one of the game’s all-time greatest players. He has two years remaining on his contract with the Lakers, and then will likely disappear from the NBA landscape forever. It’s worth tuning in to see the highlights he can still provide, even on a Lakers team that isn’t expected to be very good this season. Oh, and the same goes for Steve Nash, who is similarly in the twilight of his career, and is likely done after this season.

Prediction: If everything were to go perfectly for the Lakers this season, it would still be tough to envision a win total of more than 45 games — and even then, that probably wouldn’t be enough to reach the postseason in a traditionally loaded Western Conference. What’s far more likely is that Bryant and Nash miss time at some point due to injury (whether major or minor), and that the roster simply doesn’t have enough from a talent perspective to be able to compete on a nightly basis. A total of 35 wins and another trip to the Draft Lottery feels about right.

Watch Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic dunk all over Bol Bol

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Bol Bol had some impressive blocked shots during exhibition games at the NBA’s restart, but he hadn’t gotten one in his 16 limited minutes since the seeding games started. He wanted one.

So Bol tried to get in front of Jusuf Nurkic of Denver on Thursday and… that did not go well.

Bol did later get a blocked shot on Hassan Whiteside.

Nurkic, however, ended the night with 22 points, seven rebounds, and the Trail Blazers got a 125-115 win that has Portland comfortably as the ninth seed, just half-a-game back of eight-seed Memphis. Portland is setting itself up with a better-than-average chance make the playoffs

Kawhi Leonard’s 29 leads Clippers past Mavericks in potential first-round preview

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points to help the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 126-111 on Thursday night in a possible playoff preview.

Paul George scored 24 points and Ivica Zubac added 21 points on 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds for the Clippers, who strengthened their hold on the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference standings.

The Clippers entered the night a just half game ahead of Denver, but they shot 54% against the Mavericks to improve to 2-2 in the restart.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 30 points and Luka Doncic added 29 for Dallas, which fell to 1-3 in the restart.

Dallas likely will finish as the No. 7 seed, making a first-round matchup with the Clippers a strong possibility.

“That’s obviously going to be a tough matchup,” Porzingis said. “They’re one of the favorites to win it all. They have multiple guys that have been there already. But we’re looking forward to the challenge and getting experience in that.”

Doncic was coming off a monster game — 34 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday. He made 10 of 21 shots against the Clippers, including 6 of 13 3-pointers.

“Luka’s just a handful,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “It takes a whole team to guard him. I thought our guys did a pretty good job overall. We lost him a couple times, which you can never do. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

The Clippers led Dallas by 12 in the third quarter before the Mavericks rallied and tied the game at 101 midway through the fourth. Los Angeles responded with a 9-0 run to regain control. The Clippers shot 62% in the fourth quarter to pull away.

“I just liked how we played overall,” Rivers said. “We played like a team tonight, on both ends.”

Though the Mavericks fell to 1-3 in the restart, Doncic remained confident.

“We’re a great team,” he said. “We’ve always got chances, no matter what. I think some people count us out, but we’re not out. We’ll give our max.”

Devin Booker says after latest Suns’ win ‘Kobe’s with me every day’

Devin Booker Kobe
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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Devin Booker grew up a huge Kobe Bryant fan. When Booker made the league in 2016 he got to play against his idol and threw up 28 points on the night. Kobe was impressed. The two talked after the game and Kobe gave him an autographed pair of shoes with an inspirational message:

“Be Legendary.”

Booker took that to heart. He got the phrase as a tattoo. He’s been writing “Be Legendary” on his Nike’s before every game in the bubble. And after he scored 20 against the Pacers Thursday, helping the Suns remain undefeated for the restart, he said Kobe is still inspiring him every day.

“Kobe’s with me every day. You guys see what I put on my shoes with the ‘Be Legendary.’ It’s a reminder.”

Whatever he’s doing, it is working. Booker hit a Kobe-like turnaround game-winner to beat the Clippers. He’s averaging 28 points and 6.5 assists a game for the restart, and shooting 40% from three. Defenses are keying on him, but with a healthy Deandre Ayton and other players stepping up — Cameron Johnson has been a surprise standout in Orlando — the Suns look sharp and keep on winning.

Kobe would be proud.

Giannis Antetokounmpo drops 33 on Heat, Bucks secure No. 1 seed

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton scored 33 points each, and the Milwaukee Bucks overcame a huge early deficit to get a 130-116 win over the Miami Heat on Thursday to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Heat led by as many as 23 points in a first half where the team piled up 73 points despite playing without Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. Miami cooled off after the break and the Bucks took the lead in the third quarter but were down by 6 to start the fourth.

Antetokounmpo, the favorite to win his second MVP award, sat out about five minutes of the fourth quarter after collecting his fifth foul with 11 minutes to go. Milwaukee trailed by 1 with about five minutes remaining before using a 20-0 run, with three dunks from Antetokounmpo, to make it 130-111 with less than a minute to go and cruise to the victory.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton played 30 and 34 minutes respectively after the stars both sat out the entire second half of their last game on Tuesday.

Duncan Robinson had 21 points for the Heat, who lost to Milwaukee for the first time this season after winning the first two meetings.

The Heat led by 6 with about 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo picked up his fifth foul on a charge and headed to the bench. Andre Iguodala made a 3 for Miami before the Bucks scored the next 13 points, capped by a 3 from Bledsoe, to take a 107-103 lead with about seven minutes remaining.

Robinson made a 3-pointer to end a scoring drought of almost four minutes for Miami with about 6 ½ minutes to go and Antetokounmpo re-entered the game soon after that.

The Heat led by 12 with about 10 minutes left in third quarter before Milwaukee used a 16-3 run to take an 82-81 lead with five minutes left in the quarter. Antetokounmpo and Wesley Matthews each had five points each in that span to help close the gap.

The Bucks cut the lead to 3 with a dunk by Antetokounmpo late in the third. But the Heat wrapped up the quarter with a 5-2 spurt to take a 98-92 lead into the fourth.