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Kobe reflects on LeBron before final matchup in Cleveland

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Kobe Bryant remembers giving a pair of his sneakers to LeBron James as a gift and offering the teenager some advice.

The years in between have passed in a blur.

On his final visit to Cleveland to play against James on Wednesday night, Bryant reflected on his relationship with a player who once hung a poster of him on his bedroom wall in Akron, Ohio, and has grown into a valued friend.

And as gets ready to say goodbye to the NBA after two decades, Bryant was stunned to learn that James, too, is on the back half of his career.

“Is this his 10th year?” Bryant asked, before being told that James has been in the league longer. “Eleventh year? Thirteenth year! He’s a true, true vet. It’s strange. To me, it still seems like he just got into the league. Pretty crazy. … He might retire soon, too.”

Bryant was at ease during his interview session with reporters before the Los Angeles Lakers played the Cavaliers. This is Bryant’s sendoff, his farewell tour, and the 37-year-old is trying to savor every moment.

When he was in high school and on the verge of becoming a household name, James met Bryant before playing against Carmelo Anthony in an All-Star game in Philadelphia. It was then that Bryant dropped some knowledge on James.

“I remember sitting down and talking with him,” Bryant said. “The advice I gave him, because he would have so much coming at him, was focus on the game. Stay true to the craft. Everything else would sort out. That was the most important piece of advice I could give him.”

On several occasions this season, James has spoken with reverence toward Bryant, one of the game’s most celebrated players with whom he is often compared. The two didn’t always have the strongest connection, but is has matured over the years, helped by them playing together on the U.S. Olympic team.

Bryant and James once seemed on a collision course to meet in the NBA Finals, but the matchup never materialized, disappointing a basketball world wanting to see the greats go head-to-head with everything on the line.

“We never crossed paths unfortunately,” Bryant said. “I just wanted to win the damn thing. I didn’t care who we played. For the fans it probably stinks because it would have been a great matchup, but from a player’s perspective it doesn’t matter who you play. … Just want to win the championship.”

Bryant recalled previous visits to Cleveland, including the 1997 All-Star Game when he participated in the dunk contest as a rookie. That year the showcased the game’s Top 50 players, a who’s who of hoops immortality that had Bryant in a daze.

“Man, I remember walking around the hotel, I remember walking around this arena, and just running into a great after great after great after great after great,” Bryant said. “I grew up watching all of these players. So I watched all of the classic videos, the films, the books. So to see these players all walking around, it was pretty amazing.”

This weekend, Bryant will take his All-Star bow. It will be the last time he mingles with his peers, who will undoubtedly honor him throughout the festivities in Toronto.

Bryant’s career has come full circle.

“I can’t wait to be around them and talk to them and see how far the game has progressed, see all this young talent the different generations of players,” said the 16-time All-Star. “To me, LeBron is still young. I can’t fathom this is his 13th season and the generations that come after him – the Durant generations, the Curry generations. There are so many generations in between that. It’s going to be fun for me to be around.

“When I first played in an All-Star game, imagine an 18-year-old, 19-year-old kid walking into a locker room and here’s John Stockton with his little itty-bitty shorts. There’s Barkley. There’s Clyde Drexler. There’s Gary Payton. I was a 19-year-kid.”

Report: Terry Stotts to remain Trail Blazers coach next season

Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts
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The Trail Blazers had big expectations after reaching the 2019 Western Conference finals and signing their top players, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, to lucrative contract extensions.

Instead, Portland (26-32) is in a dogfight with the Grizzlies, Pelicans, Spurs, Suns and Kings for the No. 8 seed.

Often, teams underperforming like that fire their coach.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

A source with knowledge of coach Terry Stotts’ situation said there’s no reason to believe he’s in any danger this summer, regardless of how this turns out.

Stotts has a few things working in his favor:

So expect Stotts back next season. But also expect him to face a little more pressure. Even if a lot of what wrong this season wasn’t his fault, losing tends to increase scrutiny on the coach.

In his eighth season with the Trail Blazers, Stotts is the NBA’s fourth-longest-tenured coach (behind only the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, Heat’s Erick Spoelstra and Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle). It just becomes increasingly more difficult for Stotts to meet the high expectations he has helped set in Portland.

For now, though, Stotts appears to remain ahead of the curve.

Stephen Curry reportedly will return to Warriors lineup Sunday vs. Wizards

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After four months off, the Warriors were looking for a soft landing spot to ease Stephen Curry back into the rotation.

How about Sunday, vs. Washington and the worst defense in the NBA this season?

That’s the plan, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Curry has said for some time he was targeting March 1 for a return, this would be that exact date (to be fair to the Wizards, they have played better defense of late). After that, Golden State plays at Denver on the third, has a Finals rematch against Toronto at the Chase Center on March 5, then the 76ers visit the Warriors on the seventh.

Curry suffered a fractured hand just four games into the season when Suns’ center Aron Baynes fell on him. Recovery required two surgeries, one to put pins in to stabilize the bone through the healing process, then a second one to remove those pins once the recovery was far enough along.

While some fans had called for Curry to sit out the season and tank, Warriors coach Steve Kerr emphatically shot that idea down. As he should.

For one thing, Kerr wants to build some familiarity and chemistry between Curry and newly acquired Andrew Wiggins this season. Having Curry back may mean the Warriors don’t finish with the worst record in the league this season (which they have right now) but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not as big an issue. Besides, this is not a deep draft. This is not a situation where the Warriors will get instant help — in our podcast recently, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons. The Warriors may ultimately try to trade their pick for a player who can help more next season.

Ben Simmons has nerve impingement in lower back, to be re-evaluated in two weeks

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The biggest concern with Ben Simmons back issue is not that it will have him out weeks, it’s that nobody is saying what exactly is causing it.

Simmons has a nerve impingement in his lower back that will have him getting treatment daily, and he will be re-evaluated in two weeks, something first reported  by Shams Charania of The Athletic and confirmed by NBC Sports Philadelphia. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski provided some context, but nothing that is very encouraging.

A nerve impingement — what is commonly referred to as a pinched nerve — is exactly what it sounds like: Something is pressing on the nerve, “pinching” it and causing pain.

The big question: What is impinging on the nerve? That’s what Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes asked.

This does not sound like something that is going to be resolved in two weeks and Simmons will be back to normal.

Simmons injured his back last Wednesday in practice while grabbing a rebound, according to coach Brett Brown. Simmons sat out last Thursday’s Sixers game against the Nets, tried to play on Saturday vs. the Bucks but had to come out after one quarter, and has not set foot on the court since.

Simmons averages 16.9 points, 8.3 assists, 7.9 rebounds a game, not to mention a league-best 2.2 steals a night. The All-Star is a core part of the Sixers rotation and will miss significant time they try to climb up into the top four in the East and get home court for the first round of the playoffs. Shake Milton started Monday in Simmons place.

Tilman Ferttita: Rockets don’t fear Lakers, Clippers like they did Warriors

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta
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Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta likes to talk.

Volume 48.

Fertitta, via Kirk Bohls of Statesman:

“I think Milwaukee is head over heels above everybody else,” said Fertitta

“We just need to get home court for the first and second rounds and see what happens.”

“None of us fear L.A. or the Clippers or Denver like we feared Golden State,” he said. “It’s not like how we were scared of them. We could easily win the West this year or get knocked out in the first round. Both L.A. teams, Denver, Houston, we’re all excellent teams. Just comes down to somebody gets hot and makes a shot. Our chances are as good as they’ve ever been.”

The Rockets stood up to the Warriors far more than any other team. But that was most true before Fertitta put his imprint on the franchise. He’s somewhat culpable for Houston cowering to Golden State.

As far as this season, Fertitta is right all around: The Bucks are great, combining last year’s success with important playoff lessons. Houston could easily win the West or lose in the first round. The Lakers, Clippers and Nuggets shouldn’t be feared. (Nobody fears the Nuggets, though they are a real championship contender.)

But the Lakers and Clippers also look like darned good playoff teams. Even if not predicting victory, Fertitta’s comments could become bulletin-board material in Los Angeles.