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Three things we learned Sunday: Roller coaster Laker season has some deep, deep dips

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With a couple of important football games Sunday you may have missed some other things. Like why a highway was covered in red Skittles. Or, the handful of NBA Games that took place. We can help you with the latter, here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) On the anniversary of Kobe’s 81-point game, Lakers only score 73.
I keep waiting for the day Luke Walton snaps.

He has been the model of the patient, developmental basketball coach of a young team this season — it’s about progress, about lessons learned, about laying a foundation that helps this young core grow into something more dangerous in future years. He has been what the Lakers needed, a departure from last year and he who shall not be named. However, the lack of effort and growth on defense — the continued inability to defend the pick-and-roll — has to be eating at him inside. This is a young team, it’s going to have ups and downs, but the downs have been deep and pronounced, and at some point I expect Walton to just unload on his young charges.

Although if it didn’t happen after Sunday, it might never happen. On the 11th anniversary of Kobe’s 81-point game, the Lakers as a team scored just 73 points. Los Angeles lost by 49 points, a franchise record for worst loss ever. Walton said after the game the Lakers lacked the kind of veteran or natural leader on this team who would take charge on the court and call out his teammates off it in moments like this. Maybe he needs to be that guy.

Comments about the Lakers often talk about a quality young core for them to build around. There is some truth to that. Brandon Ingram has had some better games of late, although on Sunday he was asked to start for the injured D’Angelo Russell and be a playmaker and that failed. Ingram missed his first shot and it got in his head for the rest of the day, throwing off his game. Ingram needs to be a better shot creator (and get stronger). Jordan Clarkson can score the rock, and both he and Larry Nance Jr. are future NBA rotation players who can contribute to very good teams. Then there is Russell — nobody has been more up and down this season than the second-year point guard. A few weeks back I wrote about how he had finally developed a game-day routine and seemed to be turning a corner with a string of strong games. Since then he’s pretty much stunk. He’s developing, although it’s fair to ask if he’s doing that fast enough?

(Still, the Lakers really missed Russell Sunday — he’s the only guard they have who is a threat to score from three or getting into the lane, he’s a good passer who sees the angles on the court, and when he’s out there the ball moves better. This Lakers team lacks shot creators and when Russell is out the offense can stagnate quickly, reverting to one-on-one plays.)

It’s fair to ask why the inconsistent defensive efforts? Well, consistently bad may be the more accurate description. They make bad decisions constantly, and the veterans they have either are not great defenders — Nick Young, Lou Williams — or can be drawn into bad positions, such as Timofey Mozgov having to defend Dirk Nowitzki Sunday.

It’s also fair to ask if the Lakers really have an alpha in this core? Do they have a top 15 NBA player that can be the cornerstone of a future contender? I don’t see it. Maybe Ingram with some muscle and experience on him can get there — scouts are still very high on his game — but I do not see it elsewhere. Plus, I don’t see the alpha, ultra-competitive personality that doesn’t accept losing gracefully. Again, maybe Russell or someone has that and is just not confident showing it yet, but this team lacks it.

With all that, the Lakers development roller coaster seems to have bigger dips than highs. Which has to frustrate Walton. And at some point, he’s going to lose it.

2) The Suns beat the Raptors, and Eric Bledsoe was the reason.
Phoenix has won a couple of game in a row, and while beating the Knicks does not earn guys high praise, beating the Toronto Raptors will do that. Quietly Eric Bledsoe has had a borderline All-Star season — he’s not going to make the team due to the depth of talent in the West and the fact the Suns suck — and he showed it Sunday with an impressive 40 points to get Phoenix the win.

3) The Warriors punish Magic to end week where they asserted themselves. Last week for the Warriors started with a rematch against Cleveland, and Golden State earned a measure of confidence blowing them out. Then the Warriors beat Russell Westbrook and the Thunder thanks to a “look at what you’re missing” game from Kevin Durant. Then the Warriors knocked off the surging Rockets and James Harden.

That’s a good week, although the Warriors still had to face the Magic on Sunday. That had the makings of a potential let down game but the Warriors pulled away for the win.

Golden State has established itself as the best team in the NBA this regular season. There’s still a lot of season (nearly half) to go, and they will get tested in the playoffs, but they have set the mark to beat. Did they set the bar last year, too? Yes. And they made the Finals (and would have won if Draymond Green could keep his hands to himself), not something to ignore. But this season feels different with Durant in the fold. We’ll see. But for right now, they keep right on rolling at 38-6.

Jayson Tatum throws down epic dunk on LeBron James (VIDEO)

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The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers held a barnburner of a Game 7 on Sunday, with Boston’s Jayson Tatum going head-to-head with LeBron James.

For his part, LeBron was everything we expected in a Game 7. The King played spectacularly, willing his Cavaliers squad to yet another NBA Finals appearance as Cleveland edged Boston.

But before things were sealed, and the game decided, Tatum got off a raucous dunk right in James’ eye that made many wonder if the torch was on the cusp of being passed.

The play came with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter with Tatum driving down the lane and LeBron moving over to help recover on defense. It would have been easy to anticipate another big LeBron playoff block, but Tatum continued his surprising season by dunking all over The King.

Via Twitter:

Cleveland won the game, 87-79, but Tatum’s dunk on the big stage is just one of many reasons why the Celtics are going to be a complete hassle next year when they’re back to being fully healthy.

LeBron James is the greatest player of all-time

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He’s done it again. LeBron James, the King in the East, played 48 minutes en route to his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance after beating the Boston Celtics in Game 7 at TD Garden on Sunday, 87-79.

Bow down to the greatest player of all-time.

Much has been made of LeBron’s place in history as his legacy has began to galvanize toward the end of his career. The conversation has raged on about LeBron vs. Michael Jordan, or Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Preference varies greatly between fans, while some still pick the centrist route and say there’s no simple way to compare across eras. There’s been mathematical attempts to rank the two, and even MJ’s old teammates have said LeBron is a more complete player.

On Sunday, James bounced yet another Eastern Conference Finals opponent, carrying his teammates on his shoulders and playing without All-Star Kevin Love. There was never a doubt for many watching Sunday’s matchup in Massachusetts. Before the final buzzer, LeBron had won 23 straight Eastern Conference playoff series. His determination was absolute, and the cards were always stacked against Boston even given their postseason record at home.

You could sort of just see it coming.

James was the motivating force in the first half for Cleveland, scoring 17 points while no other teammates tallied in double digits. The Cavaliers shot an abysmal 12 percent from beyond the arc, and the Celtics looked like they would be able to control the rest of the game as the crowd at home motivated them forward.

But Cleveland came roaring back in the second half, continuing to put on a defensive show, the kind we would not have expected of them during the regular season. Without Love, the Cavs had to make do with Jeff Green, who turned in a surprising performance. Green scored 19 points, shot 50 percent from the field, and grabbed eight rebounds.

In the face of a strengthening Cavaliers attack, the Celtics seems to retreat. Boston’s final offensive possessions in the fourth quarter were hectic, slow, and unsuccessful. While the Cavaliers tried their hardest during the final eight minutes to get Al Horford switched on to LeBron in isolation sets, the Celtics surprisingly mirrored the same offensive tactics. Instead of playing their regular offense, or running plays to get shooters free, or trying to attack the paint against James (who was in foul trouble) Boston resorted to trying to exploit any mismatches found through Cleveland’s switches.

The result was four field goals inside the 3-point line for LeBron in the fourth quarter, as much as the entire Celtics roster combined.

The play of the game came with 1:04 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Cavaliers leading by nine. LeBron was out on the break, with Marcus Morris trailing behind him. Morris went to foul LeBron, making no obvious attempts on the ball as he grabbed onto the Cavaliers star’s shoulders. Even with all of his might, Morris couldn’t stop James from scoring while drawing the foul. It was indicative of the entire fourth quarter for the Celtics, who scraped, clutched and grabbed as much as they could but did not have an answer for LeBron.

So here we are, with LeBron having won another Game 7 out in the Eastern Conference as he heads to another Finals. He probably won’t match Jordan’s championship mark. But Jordan didn’t match Russell’s. Or Horry’s. Or Havlichek’s, either.

Instead, we have to rely on what we see in front of our eyes combined with their dominance, weighted for context. Sunday night’s performance should help push LeBron over Jordan, if he wasn’t there already. James is a more complete player, which has always been apparent, and now he’s survived every challenge that’s been thrown at him. Declaring James the best player of all-time did not come because of Sunday’s game. It’s been years in the making, throughout the entirety of his 15-year career. The win over Boston was just an indication of his place in history.

LeBron has gone nuclear with 40+ point performances. He was part of the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history against the Golden State Warriors. He beat the Indiana Pacers all by himself, in the playoffs, just this very season. James has had a career season at age 33, playing 48 minutes in the 100th game of the 2017-18 season. LeBron has willed his way to yet another NBA Finals, with perhaps his worst team since the 2007 squad that was swept by the San Antonio Spurs. To add further insult to injury, LeBron pushed this team past a very good team in the Celtics, on the road, and without Love.

James is the greatest American sports story of our generation, and he’s the best player the NBA has ever seen. If you disagree, that’s OK. But after Sunday night, you’d be hard-pressed to convince me otherwise.

Watch Victor Oladipo drive the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 (VIDEO)

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Victor Oladipo is Indiana’s favorite son after the Indiana Pacers guard blasted through the competition during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Oladipo averaged 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and led the league with 2.4 steals per game. Oladipo’s 3-point shooting improved year-over-year, and his VORP skyrocketed in his new leadership role. Many feel the Pacers won the Paul George trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder thanks to Oladipo.

Thanks in part to his stellar play, Oladipo was invited to drive the pace car at the start of the 2018 Indianapolis 500. Turns out he was pretty good at it.

Via Twitter:

Oladipo is apparently going to be honored with the steering wheel from the pace car he drove. No doubt taking part in a classic local sporting event like the Indy 500 will help ingrain Oladipo into the sports fabric in Indianapolis even further.

Steve Kerr on Chris Paul: ‘More than anything, I feel bad for Chris’

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Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul didn’t play in Game 6 on Saturday night. The Rockets failed to eliminate the Golden State Warriors, who forced a Game 7 with a 115-86 win in Oakland.

Paul’s status for Game 7 is still unclear, although things aren’t looking good. Paul’s hamstring injury will be hard to heal in such a short amount of time, even with round the clock treatment and the power of will the veteran point guard brings to the table.

The Point God has a tendency to get hurt at just the wrong time. Paul famously broke his hand in April of 2016, and along with Blake Griffin‘s quad injury, allowed the Portland Trail Blazers to get the better of the Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs that year. Paul also missed two games against the Rockets in the playoffs with a sore hamstring in 2015, a series the Clippers and Paul lost in seven games.

The NBA is not blind to Paul’s bad luck, either. Opposing head coach Steve Kerr commented on it to reporters, outlining not only what he thought they might do rotationally but his feelings about Paul’s injury history.

Via ESPN:

“More than anything, I feel bad for Chris,” Kerr said before the Warriors’ 115-86 rout of the Rockets at Oracle Arena. “The guy’s a phenomenal player and competitor and pretty much willed his team the last two games. He’s just been haunted by these types of injuries in his career, and it’s a shame. I hate when anybody gets hurt.”

Kerr mentioned that he knew the reality of the situation is that by the end of the season, not everyone is going to be healthy. No doubt it’s a good thing for Kerr and the Warriors that Paul will likely miss Game 7. It’s unfortunate for a veteran like Paul, whose stellar career is dogged by unfair narratives of playoff failures.

Maybe Houston can try again next year when they have LeBron James?