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Becoming Lonzo Ball in an impatient NBA world

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LOS ANGELES — Ten games into his NBA career, Lonzo Ball is a basketball Rorschach test.

What do you see when you look at him play? Do you see the playmaker averaging 6.8 assists per game, the guy who keeps the ball moving and rebounds surprisingly well, the one who is pushing the Lakers to the third fastest pace in the league, the one energized their athletic bigs to get out and run the floor, and the guy who has been crucial to L.A.s unexpected 5-5 start?

Or do you see the player who is shooting 29.9 percent this season, the one shooting just 39 percent at the rim and struggling with decisions when the defense collapses, the one that teams are sagging off and daring to shoot, the guy struggling on defense, the one searching to find his way in the half court? Do you see the player some are comparing to Ricky Rubio and are saying will never be an All-NBA (or maybe All-Star) player?

It’s a Rorschach test, the answer says more about you — and your biases about Ball and the Lakers — than it does the player himself.

Ball is both those things — an impressive playmaker and a guy struggling with his shot and defense at the next level.

What is Ball? A just turned 20-year-old rookie 10 games into an NBA career. He’s a guy developing, but in an impatient world that does not want to wait for him. He’s a guy for whom the game is still moving a million miles an hour and he is trying to keep up. What did you expect from him at this point, consistency? The next Magic Johnson?

“Those two young guys, they’re a handful,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said Sunday of Ball and Brandon Ingram, after the pair helped the Lakers beat Memphis. “I think as their shooting becomes more consistent, they are going to become a problem Everybody is looking at the body of work right now, but these kids get better and they got a heck of a staff down there that I know is going to develop them.”

Not to go all Sam Hinkie, but it’s a process. Players take time to develop. To make any long-term comparisons at this point, to suggest he may not live up to the standards of a No. 2 pick, is foolish this early in his career. We just don’t know.

Ball is a young man going against grown-ass men being physical with him nightly in a way he has never had to deal with before. NBA scouts and staffs are now getting a body of film to study, tendencies to put into scouting reports, and they will take away what he wants to do (like get back and take away the long look-ahead pass). It falls on Ball to adjust (something that didn’t happen the same way at UCLA). The good news for Lakers fans is Ball puts in the work.

Pass first point guards tend to come along slower in the NBA than their scoring counterparts, just look at the first 10 games of Jason Kidd (his and Ball’s numbers are similar). That’s especially true for pass first point guards who don’t have great shooters around them — Ball does not. Brook Lopez is the best three-point shooter among the other Lakers starters (Brandon Ingram has a nice three-point percentage overall but was just 6-of-16 shooting in spot-up situations coming into Sunday, he has to get his buckets with the ball in his hands.)

Ball was not expected to be an elite scorer, he never was (he averaged 14.6 points a game at UCLA). Yet scoring, and making better decision on when to attack and look for his shot, is going to be the first hard lesson to learn. He has to start with being more comfortable with his jumper — until he becomes a bigger threat to score teams are sagging off him and daring him to shoot. When he did, lining up a wide open three deep in the fourth quarter Sunday while Memphis was making a comeback, there were audible murmurs of concern in Staples center from fans (they were right, he missed it and was 1-of-8 from three on the night, 3-of-13 overall).

“I want him to keep shooting. I’m glad he’s not turning them down,” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said. “I’m glad he’s trying to put pressure on the rim. The way to break through (his rough start shooting) is to keep working, at practice coming in early and get the shots up, then keep doing it in the game. Eventually you will figure it out, especially if you’ve been a good shooter your entire life.”

“A lot of shots that are open I’m getting, now I just got to knock them down,” Ball said.

Ball had his best success in the half court Sunday when he was aggressive and drove into and attacked the space the defender was giving him playing off him, something he needs to do more consistently. He has struggled in the past with his decision making on those drives — shooting over long defenders when kick-out passes were open, or passing when he had the better shot — but that is improving. What Walton said he wants is for Ball to remain aggressive.

“I feel I’m getting better at it,” Ball said of attacking that space. “Especially in transition, there’s a lot of gaps I can get into and I’m just trying to get better at it every time.”

It’s partially a matter of better decision making, something that comes with time and experience.

“Like he had a couple today that felt like heat checks, and if he hit the one before and the crowd’s behind it I’m okay with that,” Walton said. “But there are other quick threes he took when they were on a run. It’s pretty much the same shot, but within the game the momentum is different, so you got to learn the difference between those.”

Ball, like most rookies, is still a raw lump of clay being molded into an NBA player. Watching Ball a lot this season, it’s tempting to think that another ball-dominant playmaker — like the kind of big names the Lakers will target in free agency next summer, LeBron James and Paul George — would help Ball’s game. It would give the floor spacing and open up passing lanes (but again, Ball’s jumper needs to improve to really make that work).

We can see the gifts, not just the passing but the eagerness to do it at tempo that has started to transform the Lakers’ culture. This is a fast team (sometimes a little too fast and out of control, as young teams do), an athletic team in the way the Lakers have not been in a very long time. Like Showtime era long.

But Ball isn’t Magic Johnson, coming in after a few years of college (and being tested there by the likes of Larry Bird), then entering on a championship level team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar putting up 25 and 10 still, and with Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes stroking baseline jumpers to the tune of 20 points a night.

Ball is young and developing, joining a team with the core players young and learning just like him (plus a couple of veterans, such as Brook Lopez, helping them win games). It was Magic that drafted Ball, and what he wanted was leadership and a guy to shift the culture of this team — and he has gotten that. This is a much better Lakers team than a year ago. A team with a long way to go, a team that’s likely watching the playoffs from home this spring, but a team that has a direction now.

Ball brought that. How much more will he bring? That we have to wait and see, we just don’t know yet.

Celtics top Cavaliers in Game 5, setting up Game 7 in Boston?

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LeBron James and a couple Cavaliers teammates left the court well before the Celtics dribbled out their 96-83 Game 5 win Wednesday.

The Cavs are already moving on.

Game 6 will be Friday in Cleveland, and the Cavaliers – down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals – must win to avoid elimination. The way Boston has played on the road, it’s even easy to look ahead to Game 7, which is scheduled for Sunday in Boston.

Still, the Celtics bought themselves leeway with their decisive win in Boston tonight. They led by double digits the final 20 minutes, breaking the Cavs’ momentum after two straight wins in Cleveland.

“It’s tough going on the road, playing against somebody else in their house with their crowd,” said Jayson Tatum, who had 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks tonight. “So, we were just comfortable. We came back home and defended home-court like we have all playoffs.”

Boston is now 10-0 at home this postseason – but just 1-6 away. Fueled in part by that historic split, no game in this series has been close. All five have been decided by at least nine points, and the average margin of victory – 18 – is in the 97th percentile for largest ever in a 3-2 best-of-seven series.

So, just as two big Celtics wins in Games 1 and 2 didn’t deter the Cavaliers, this one likely won’t, either. The Cavs should be heavily favorited in Game 6.

Beyond, if it gets that far? That’s a much bigger tossup.

Teams up 3-2 in a best-of-seven series have won 85% of the time. But Boston is missing a key reason it secured home-court advantage, including a chance to break the 2-2 at home rather than on the road – Kyrie Irving. And LeBron James is downright scary in a Game 7, even on the road.

The Celtics at least took care of business tonight, showing a far greater sense of urgency than Cleveland. Brad Stevens changed his starting lineup, inserting Aron Baynes for Marcus Morris, and tightened his rotation to just seven players until garbage time. Boston ran the floor much harder than the Cavs, decisively outrebounded them and beat them to loose balls. Even in altercations, the Celtics had a man advantage.

LeBron (26 points, 10 rebounds five assists and six turnovers) never made his presence felt in the way usually necessary for the Cavaliers to win. Cleveland’s four other starters combined to score just 24 points, two fewer than LeBron did himself.

After Boston seized control early, the Cavaliers made few adjustments in strategy or effort – as if they’re saving those for later.

LeBron James says we don’t know full story of his upbringing, but he’ll reveal it after retirement

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LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in high school – as a junior.

He has been in the spotlight ever since, somehow living up to the outsized expectations set while he was a teenager. His story has been told and retold – how he and his mom moved around Akron as she struggled to provide for him, how his athletic ability lifted himself and those around him.

But are we missing key details?

Upon passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most shots made in the playoffs, LeBron reflected on his journey.

LeBron:

To know where I come from, you guys know a little bit of the story. But you guys don’t know the full story about where I come from and the struggle that I had. You guys know about the single-parent struggle, and y’all done heard that story. But there’s a lot more to it, which I’ll talk about when I’m done playing ball.

But to know where I come from, small city 35 miles south of here, and to hear I’m in the same category or talked about and jumping these greats in the playoffs — it’s like I was a kid and I watched the playoffs so much and I was like, I would love to be a part of that, that moment, that atmosphere. I think it’s pretty cool. You hear the scoring, the field goals made, and for a kid that really doesn’t care much about scoring.

Like with LeBron’s secret motivation a couple years ago, I’m totally intrigued. When LeBron decides to share, I’ll be all ears.

Larry Nance Jr., Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier exchange shoves after whistle (video)

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Marcus Morris fouled Larry Nance Jr. in Celtics-Cavaliers Game 5 tonight. Nance didn’t like that, got up and shoved Morris. Morris and Terry Rozier didn’t like that, and both shoved Morris.

All three received a technical foul, which seems fair.

Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala questionable for Game 5

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Andre Iguodala missed the Warriors’ Game 4 loss to the Rockets with a leg injury.

It’s not certain he – or Klay Thompson, who played through a knee injury suffered in Game 4 – will be available for Game 5 tomorrow.

NBC Sports Bay Area:

Klay Thompson, who suffered a left knee strain during the first half of Game 4, is listed as questionable, the team announced Wednesday afternoon.

Iguodala missed Game 4 with a left lateral leg contusion and is questionable for Game 5.

Anthony Slater of The Athletic:

Warriors coach Steve Kerr on Iguodala:

He’s feeling a little better today, and he’s out on the floor. Not doing a whole lot, but making progress.

Kerr on Thompson:

Klay is moving around really well. I think Klay is going to be fine.

That sounds better than “questionable” for Thompson.

The Warriors need one, maybe both, of those two on the court. Golden State’s depth, especially on the wing, is looking shaky.

In Game 4, Golden State outscored Houston by 20 in the 31 minutes Stephen Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green played together. In the in the 17 minutes they played without even one of those stars, the Warriors got outscored by 23. Nick Young, who received more playing time when Thompson left the court area due to his injury, looked particularly overwhelmed.

James Harden‘s defense is a huge bellwether in this series. The Warriors spend a lot of focus trying to exploit him, and if that fails, the shot clock gets low before they move into another action. If Thompson is even just slowed, that’d make it easier for Harden to keep up.