Five Takeaways from NBA Sunday: Kobe Bryant makes it official, shows why it’s time

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It’s time. If you’ve watched Kobe play at all the past couple years, you could see it was time. But it took a while for Kobe to realize that. His announcement that he would step down after the season became the story of the night in the NBA Sunday. By far.

1) Kobe Bryant makes it official, he is going to walk away from the game after this season. Kobe Bryant’s body has been telling him for a while it was time to hang it up, but Kobe is as fierce and stubborn a competitor as the league has ever seen and he wasn’t going to listen. The man who willed himself to be one of the game’s greats was going to will away 37 years, 55,000 NBA minutes, and the effects of a torn Achilles and blown out knee.

Except he couldn’t. And now he has come to accept it is time to retire at the end of the season, as you could see from his postgame comments on Sunday night.

“I’ve known for a while. I’ve always said if anything changes, I’ll change my mind. The problem for me, you can’t make a decision like this based on outside circumstances. It has to be an internal decision. Finally, I just had to accept it, I don’t want to go through this anymore. And I’m okay with that….

“I honestly feel really good about it. I really do. I’m at peace with it… I’ve worked so hard and I continue to work really hard even though I played like s—, I’ve worked really, really hard not to play like crap and I do everything I possibly can. And I feel good about that.”

Laker GM Mitch Kupchak was honest about the Laker organization needing to rebuild and that being tough on Bryant.

“Well, we didn’t make it any easier on him with the team we have on the court — and that’s not to say that they’re not a talented group of players, but they’re certainly young and unaccomplished. And at an advanced age, I think we witnessed it’s difficult to play this game, and I think he’s struggled at a tempo and a pace that I think younger players (prefer).”

2) Then Sunday night Kobe shot 4-of-20 and showed why it was time for him to step down. His game against the Pacers Sunday summed up where Kobe is right now with his game. He was struggling from the field against a good Pacers’ defense, shooting 2-of-15, yet Byron Scott kept him out there, so Kobe kept gunning.

Then suddenly for a flash it was vintage Kobe — he hit two late three-pointers that made it a game and brought the Lakers within two points of the Pacers late.

Then vintage suddenly looked old. With the chance to tie the game and Staples Center on its feet willing the storybook ending, Kobe popped out off a down screen, caught the inbounded ball, curled around the top of the arc and…. air balled it. Pacers win. Kobe finished the night with 13 points on 4-of-20 shooting, bringing him to shooting 30.5 percent for the season.

3) Meanwhile, Paul George remains a beast, showed it against Lakers. The Pacers’ star was nothing short of brilliant wearing the Hickory High throwback uniform against the Lakers. He was pressuring on defense and had a couple steals (and disrupted more plays), plus poured in 39 points on 21 shots.

4) The Sixers lost, falling to 0-18, setting up a “showdown” with the Lakers on Tuesday. This has happened a few times lately: The Philadelphia 76ers hustle, scrap, play hard and are in a game, only to get crushed late in the game because when the other team cranks up the defensive pressure and gets serious the Sixers are overmatched. It happened again Sunday, the Sixers led by three going into the fourth quarter against the Grizzlies, but Memphis won the fourth 28-17 and the game 92-84.

That drops the Sixers to 0-18 on the season, tying the NBA record for the worst start ever. It also sets up a showdown on Tuesday night — the Lakers come to town. A “showdown” game. These are the two worst teams in the NBA, and the Lakers don’t have the talent (or comfort with their style of play) to crank it up and just out-talent the Sixers late, so this could be a real game — and a real shot for Philly.

5) Stan Van Gundy called out Andre Drummond’s effort after Nets beat Pistons. Andre Drummond put up another big line — 20 points and 18 rebounds — but after a loss to the lowly Nets, Pistons’ coach Stan Van Gundy was not impressed:

“I didn’t think he brought much energy to the Milwaukee game, and I didn’t think he brought much energy tonight. Why that is, I don’t know. But we need a lot more from him than we got tonight.”

I get the idea of calling out your star in the media to both motivate him and light a fire under the rest of the team. It’s a solid tactic. But I’ll add in some ways it seemed a more mature performance from Drummond. A couple of seasons ago, when he got frustrated as he did early in this one, he would have hung his head and mentally checked out of the game, he fought through it to put up numbers Sunday. That’s a start.

Lakers LeBron James “pissed” about NBA MVP voting

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LeBron James, like many of the great players ever, gets his motivation wherever he can find it.

Like, for example, only getting 16 first-place votes for MVP. It was announced Friday that Giannis Antetokounmpo won his second consecutive MVP award, with LeBron second. Of the 101 votes from select media members, Antetokounmpo got 85 first-place votes, LeBron 16. LeBron vented about it on Twitter.

After the Lakers won Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, LeBron talked about how unhappy he was with the voting.

“It pissed me off. That’s my true answer,” LeBron said. “It pissed me off because out of 101 votes I got 16 first-place votes. That’s what pissed me off more than anything. I’m not saying that the winner wasn’t deserving of the MVP, but that pissed me off. I finished second a lot in my career, either from a championship, and now four times as the MVP.

“Like I said, I never came into the league saying ‘I’m gonna be MVP’ or ‘I’m gonna be champion,’ I’ve always said I just want to get better every single day and those things will take care of themselves. Some things are just out of my hands, some things you can’t control, but it pissed me off…

“The voting scale is a little weird to me sometimes… And then I looked at the Most Improved this year, and rightfully so, Brandon Ingram was amazing and I thought he should’ve won it, but did you see the votes Devonte' Graham got? He averaged four points last year compared to 17.5. If that’s not improving, what is? It’s just a weird thing sometimes that, I don’t know how much we are really watching the game of basketball, or are we just in the narration mode? The narrative.”

LeBron is right, sometimes the media voters can get sucked into a narrative for MVP and other awards. However, this year the narrative favored LeBron, not Antetokounmpo — having that kind of season at age 35 and lifting the Lakers franchise back to the postseason after six years, that all had voters leaning toward LeBron.

Why did voters pick Antetokounmpo? Because on offense he scored more points and did it more efficiently than LeBron. While LeBron had his best defensive season since he played in Miami, Antetokounmpo was better on that end of the court as well. Antetokounmpo led his team to more wins than LeBron. And if you want to make the argument about LeBron lifting up his teammates you’re right, the Lakers were +11.4 points per 100 with LeBron on the court this season before the bubble (which is the time frame voters had to consider, bubble games didn’t count toward the award, per league rules). The Buck were +12 per 100 with Antetokounmpo on the court.

(To be transparent: I am one of the NBA’s award voters, and I had Antetokounmpo first and LeBron second.)

LeBron had an unbelievable season, at any age, and for a playoff run this season I would rather have had LeBron than Antetokounmpo even before the games tipped of. Other players around the league respect Antetokounmpo, but not the way they respect LeBron or other players who have gotten it done in the playoffs. That’s understandable. That’s also not the award — it’s an NBA regular-season award.

But LeBron is going to find his fuel where he can, like saying earlier this season people were calling him washed when nobody said that. Or saying the Lakers won the No. 1 seed when nobody said they could do it when, again, not exactly sure who said that.

If LeBron wants to use the MVP voting for fuel, go for it. It’s just bad news for Denver.

 

 

Anthony Davis scores 37 as it was all too easy for Lakers in blowout win

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It was all too easy for the Lakers.

Too easy for them to get out in transition, or even run on made baskets and beat Denver down the court.

Too easy for Anthony Davis to rack up 37 points.

Too easy for an attacking Lakers team to get key Nuggets players — including Nikola Jokic — in foul trouble.

Too easy for the Lakers’ defense to bottle up the Nuggets guards in the pick-and-roll, never letting Denver’s offense get on track after the first quarter.

And the “too easy” list goes on and on. It resulted in a 126-114 Lakers’ win where the Lakers led by 27 at one point and never felt truly threatened in the second half. The Lakers now lead the Western Conference Finals 1-0 with Game 2 on Sunday.

“Even in that first quarter, we didn’t guard anybody… Nuggets’ coach Mike Malone said, trying to target his team’s troubles in Game 1. “There was little defense.”

Add to that this Laker offense is relentless and will punish mismatches and mistakes in a way that other Staples Center team rarely did. Denver lear

After an even first quarter, what changed was that the Lakers started locking down on defense — the Nuggets had seven second-quarter turnovers, which led to the Lakers getting out in transition on plays like this.

But the Lakers were running on everything, including made shots, and beating Denver down the court for buckets.

Denver scored 41 points over the second and third quarters combined, with an 88 offensive rating. Part of the frustration from the Nuggets was the foul calls, which they thought bent toward the Lakers, but also Los Angels was the more aggressive team. The Lakers simply outhustled the Nuggets down the court time after time.

L.A. went on a 19-3 run from the end of the first half to early in the second, never looking back from there. Los Angeles was led by the 37 from Davis, while LeBron James had 15 points and 12 assists. As a team, the Lakers were 11-of-26 from three (42.3%).

Denver had 21 points each from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, and both played far fewer minutes than normal due to foul trouble. Michael Porter Jr. had 14, and the game was such a blowout that by the end Bol Bol was in and had a bucket.

Denver needs to consider this a game spent to learn more about their opponent and how they will have to play the rest of the series. Not exactly a game to flush completely, but it’s pretty close.

The Lakers need to remember that Denver has come back twice in playoff series already, the Nuggets learn from their mistakes and improve. Things are not always going to be this easy.

But the Lakers could not have asked for a better start.

Watch the Alex Caruso to LeBron James alley-oop

LeBron Caruso
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One of the keys to Denver having a shot in the Western Conference Finals: Keep the Lakers out of transition.

That did not go so well to start.

Denver had seven second-quarter turnovers, which allowed the Lakers to get out an run and the result was this highlight, Alex Caruso to LeBron James for the monster alley-oop.

The Lakers added more points per 100 possessions in transition than any other team in the league, and the Lakers have started a higher percentage of their offense in transition than any other team in the playoffs (16.5% of their plays start that way, stats via Cleaning the Glass). Denver has improved halfcourt defense this postseason, but their transition defense has struggled in the playoffs. That is potentially a bad combo for the Nuggets.

 

Report: Heat tried to trade Goran Dragic away in Jimmy Butler deal

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The Miami Heat are not in control of the Eastern Conference Finals — just two wins from the NBA Finals — without the combination of Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. They are the shot creators, the two penetrating into the paint, breaking down the Celtics’ defense, then kicking out to shooters. Butler is an All-NBA player, and Dragic is playing like the All-NBA player he was six years ago.

That pairing almost never happened.

Michael Lee at the Athletic told the story.

What’s hilarious about the Dragic-Butler partnership – a bromance that has found them bonding in the bubble over bottles of Michelob Ultras, cups of Big Head coffee, and singing the “Bad Boys” theme song from “Cops” – is it nearly didn’t happen. The initial three-team trade [Heat president Pat] Riley facilitated to get Butler involved sending Dragic to Dallas. Dragic would’ve teamed up with his Slovenian little homie, Luka Doncic, but would’ve said farewell to what he intended to do with the Heat.

The Mavericks had no interest in taking on Dragic – a 30-something hobbling on a surgically-repaired knee whose best years were way in the rearview – so the Heat had to get more creative, while remaining stuck with seemingly damaged goods. Again, nothing went according to plan.

We knew this at the time, consider this a reminder. Also, don’t blame Dallas on this one. Dragic played 36 games last season, had knee issues, and had looked like a shell of the All-NBA player he used to be, and on top of it he was getting paid $19.2 million. There were not a lot of teams looking to get in the Dragic business before this season started.

Instead, Dragic stayed, got healthy, accepted a sixth-man role (until the playoffs, before that Kendrick Nunn started and Dragic was the change of pace off the bench), and found his stride.

In the bubble, Dragic has taken off as the second scoring/shot-creating option in the Heat offense. Erik Spoelstra, as he does, has put Dragic in positions to succeed.

And, after these playoffs, get paid this offseason when Dragic is a free agent.