Associated Press

No moral victory, but Lakers show Spurs they will not roll over


LOS ANGELES — In the end, the Spurs were the Spurs.

They executed, they played smart, they moved the ball and found the open man/mismatch, they were disciplined, and when the defense made things difficult LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard (23 points a piece) hit the shot anyway. That’s what they do.

But the Lakers did not make it easy Friday night.

Los Angeles, the biggest surprise team in the NBA this season, started off a brutal stretch of their schedule showing the kind of fight any coach can respect.

“Luke’s (Walton) done a great job of making them believe and playing aggressively, and you can really see it,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “They came back and stuck it to us… We got after it and executed better, but I am just so impressed with what he has done with this group.”

“I thought we did a good job of fighting,” said Lakers’ forward Julius Randle. “A decent job of executing. It’s just any mistake that you make on the defensive end, they’re going to make you pay.”

In each half, the Spurs starters would pull away to a comfortable double-digit lead in the first 10 minutes, and in each half the Lakers bench sparked a comeback that made things interesting Friday night at Staples Center. Los Angeles got 57 points from its bench on the night, the Spurs 28.

“We just compete,” Jordan Clarkson said of the Laker bench. “You know we get some stops during those times. We’re pushing the ball and getting easy buckets in transition.”

When it was getting tight late the Spurs did the things they always do — they destroy opponents’ runs by just making shots — and San Antonio got the 116-107 win. There may be no moral victories, but a season ago the Lakers would have rolled over in a game like this. No more. These Lakers are learning and they are gaining respect along the way.

“They’re talented, they’re playing hard — it looks like they want to play hard for Luke, and they play with a lot of energy and they have great pieces…” said Spurs point guard Tony Parker. “I give them credit. In the first half we had a good lead, they came back. They played physical, they got into us, they created turnovers, and in the second half we had to play a lot better, a lot smarter, and cut our turnovers to win the game.”

Los Angeles has a rough stretch coming up the next couple weeks — including a home-and-home with the Warriors — but they looked like a team that can compete through that stretch (and they need to if they are serious about their playoff dreams).

The Lakers’ core needs to step up like it did on Friday. Julius Randle bullied former Laker Pau Gasol at times, going right at him in transition (that got harder when the Spurs moved Aldridge onto Randle, people underestimate how big and strong Aldridge is and Randle could not push him around).

“It was good for him, going against Pau and Aldridge, two of the best in the game,” Luke Walton said of Randle. “I thought he did a good job, he still needs to do better doing his work early, especially against players that talented. Julius has the belief and strength to fight and defend bigger players.”

Los Angeles played without point guard D’Angelo Russell who was out with left knee soreness and will be re-evaluated Sunday. That meant this was a duel of older European point guards — Tony Parker vs. Jose Calderon.

Los Angeles missed Russell’s shot creation and attacking the rim in the half court. Combine that with the always-executing Spurs defense and the Lakers were just 6-of-22 shooting in the first quarter, had just two points in the paint, turned the ball over five times, and trailed 26-16. And the game didn’t feel that close.

Then in the second quarter, the Laker bench picks up the energy, gets a few stops, goes on an 8-0 run and cuts the lead to five, forcing Popovich to call a couple of timeouts. And get David Lee out of the game. But the Lakers had gained some confidence and the shots were falling — particularly for Nick Young, who had 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the first half alone (22 for the game). The Lakers were pushing the pace and attacking in the half court, getting buckets in the paint.

Los Angeles tried to carry that over to the third quarter, but then a 7-0 Tony Parker run had the Spurs starters back in a groove. The Spurs ran more pick-and-rolls to go at specific mismatches in the second half, and pretty quickly the Spurs were up a dozen. San Antonio hit 11 shots in a row, and put up 39 points on 74 percent shooting in the third, and by the end of the quarter it was 91-76 Spurs.

Tell me if you’ve heard this before, but in the fourth David Lee came in and the Spurs couldn’t get a stop — the Lakers got hot again and the lead got all the way down to five. The Spurs countered going small — Aldridge at the five — and it worked when he picked up a couple of quick buckets. But still there was no quit in these Lakers, and they cut the lead down to five when Nick Young and Jordan Clarkson hit threes while Spurs miss wide open ones on the other end.

However, in the end, the Spurs executed. Like they always do.

The Lakers can learn from that.

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

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The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.

Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young among players attending Rockets’ mini-camp

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The Houston Rockets have potential roster spots open.

With Iman Shumpert turning them down, the Rockets have just nine fully guaranteed contracts right now, plus eight guys on temporary deals. When the season starts, Houston has to have at least 13, and likely will have 14 or 15, players on the roster, even if some of those remain temporary contracts. In an NBA where guaranteed contracts are the norm, leaving very little drama for training camp, the Rockets are an exception.

Which is why a number of veterans — Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young, Thabo Sefolosha among them — are going to Houston’s mini-camp, reports Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Mbah a Moute has since changed his plans and will not show up.

Can Brewer and Felton — at their age — beat out guys such as Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Frazier, Ben McLemore, and Gary Clark for spots on the Rockets’ roster? I’m not sold that they can (Hartenstein is very likely to make the final roster), but the first step is a good showing at mini-camp, which can lead to a training camp invite.

The Rockets are not a deep team, at this point in the summer they may present the best opportunity for anyone to earn their way into an NBA contract.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.