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Five early takeaways on LeBron James’ Lakers

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LOS ANGELES — The Lakers have played just two preseason games, and preseason contests matter as much as the new basketball Yeezys. Maybe even less. If that’s possible. So take any sweeping conclusions with a full box of Morton’s Kosher salt.

That said, after LeBron James’ preseason debut at home Tuesday night, here are five takeaways about these Lakers so far.

1) LeBron is very, very good at basketball. Thanks, Capt. Obvious. We know that like we know Meryl Streep will get nominated for an Oscar.

Still, watching him take over a game — even a preseason game — reminds us of what a force of nature he can be. And why nobody wants to pick against these Lakers.

Tuesday night against Denver the Lakers got off to a slow start, with LeBron deferring (there was a concerted effort to get Brandon Ingram into a playmaking role) and the offense looking slow and stagnant. Out of an early timeout, LeBron decided it was time to flex his muscles. First, the Lakers ran a horns set with LeBron on one elbow, and he made a clever pass to the cutting JaVale McGee for a bucket. Then LeBron rebounded the ball and led the break before hitting a running jumper that has been a staple his entire career. Next play he gets the rebound and finds Josh Hart on the leak out — LeBron took over, the team got three quick buckets, and the Lakers looked fast and efficient. Plus, he did things like this.

Already you can see how much LeBron is going to have to carry for the Lakers to succeed this season. As SI’s Ben Golliver of noted the Lakers are +14 in two games with LeBron on the court and -33 when he is on the bench (he’s been on the bench for twice as many minutes as he’s played). Yes, there is a lot of noise in that stat — who LeBron is with on the court matters in the mix — but when he is out this team looks lost and when he is in, they make plays.

Bottom line, the Lakers’ playoff hopes are all about LeBron taking over stretches of games. Two preseason games in, we know he can still do this as well as anyone.

2) Does Luke Walton trust the young Lakers or veteran Lakers more? Tuesday night, Walton started second-year player Josh Hart at the two guard spot over Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. It’s just one preseason game, but that’s a very good sign.

There are a few big questions about these Lakers, but none matters more to the team’s future than this: Does Walton trust and lean on the young Lakers — Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, etc. — when the pressure is on, or does he go with the veterans such as Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and Lance Stephenson?

So far things seem split, but starting Hart over KCP is a sign which direction things are going.

“Whenever I start, I’m usually a little more aggressive on the offensive end,” Hart said after the game. “It was really good to get out and run with those guys. I didn’t have the opportunity to get out and run with those guys as much in the first game, so it was good to get out there with the ball movement.”

None of those veterans on one-year deals are part of the future in Los Angeles. For the Lakers’ long-term success with LeBron (the three seasons after this one), they need this young core to become guys who can give quality minutes on a contending team. Ingram is at the top of that list, he needs to prove to be a No. 2 or No. 3 option on a title team, which is why we saw such a concerted effort to get him the ball early. Ingram said after the game he and LeBron are developing some real chemistry.

Rondo and McGee have played well so far as starters and both certainly have key roles on this team. However, for the long-haul, it has to be the youth. Expect Walton to lean on those young stars more and more as the season goes on… if he doesn’t, that’s a troubling sign.

3) When they ran, the Lakers’ had moments of genuine promise. The Lakers’ spurts in this game came when they ran — the passing was sharp, the ball moved, and the energy was up. The Lakers looked dynamic in transition.

That should only get better when Lonzo Ball returns to the rotation.

The Lakers’ chemistry is a work in progress, but when they get out and run they have a real flow — and they’re fun. If the Lakers are going to succeed this year they will be playing at one of the faster paces in the NBA.

However…

4) To run consistently requires defense and rebounding, and the Lakers have not been dedicated to that. The best transition teams — from the Showtime Lakers through the current Warriors — know that to truly be elite in transition means getting stops. For the second game in a row, the Nikola Jokic-led Nuggets carved up the Lakers�� defense with their passing, although the Lakers thought Game 2 went better than their first preseason game. Still, the Lakers were not consistently communicating well on screens or closing out on shooters. When the Lakers did play good defense and force a miss, they too often struggled to secure the defensive rebound, and so the process restarted itself.

Denver is an elite offense that makes a lot of defenses look bad, but in a deep West the Lakers are going to run into great offenses, or at least good ones, every night. The Laker defense was solid last season, it cannot take a step back.

The Lakers’ got boards and made stops in stretches (which led to their transition game), but it wasn’t consistent. The issues were particularly noticeable when they went small. Which brings us to…

5) Los Angeles is trying to make small ball work, but they have a way to go. It’s a strange thing to type, but the Lakers really need JaVale McGee right now. After him, the Lakers are thin at center and the quality drops off fast.

Luke Walton knew that going into camp, which is why the Kyle Kuzma at center experiment continues — sliding a natural three down to the five slot is a fun preseason experiment, but defensively it can’t last. For two games in a row, Nikola Jokic has eaten Kuzma’s lunch. Granted, Jokic is a top 20-25 NBA player (and on the rise) who a lot of regular centers struggle to slow down, but even if Kuzma is matched up against a natural four he will struggle to stop them. It’s not his game.

To reiterate a theme here, Lakers’ offense looks great when they get out in transition — we’ve covered that in No. 3 above — and the small ball look is an effort to capitalize on it. However, the small ball lineups may require a superhuman LeBron (something that can happen nightly) to really work for now. The Lakers will be fun and fast when they go small, but if it’s just a shootout and they don’t get some stops it doesn’t help as much as it should.

LeBron James drops 31, leads Lakers comeback to beat Rockets

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HOUSTON (AP) — LeBron James had 31 points and 12 assists and the Los Angeles Lakers rode a big third quarter to a a 124-115 win over the Houston Rockets on Saturday night.

The Lakers bounced back after a loss to Orlando on Wednesday night that snapped their nine-game winning streak. The loss was the third straight for the Rockets, which ties a season high, and they have dropped four of five.

Kyle Kuzma scored 23 points, and Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each had 20 for the Lakers.

Russell Westbrook scored 35 points for his fourth straight 30-point game and James Harden had 34 for the Rockets, who also lost three in a row in late November.

Los Angeles didn’t lead in the first half but used a 32-point third quarter to take a nine-point lead into the fourth.

Houston used a 6-0 run to cut the lead to 10 with about seven minutes left, but the Lakers scored the next six points to extend it to 110-94 midway through the quarter. That sent many Rockets fans streaming for the exits and caused a large contingent of Lakers fans to start chanting, “Let’s go Lakers.”

The Rockets did not get closer than seven points the rest of the way.

The Lakers opened the second half with a 10-3 run to take their first lead of the game, 69-68, with about eight minutes left in the third quarter. James capped that run by making a basket and then added another one seconds later after JaVale McGee blocked a dunk attempt by Clint Capela. McGee beat his chest and screamed after in Capela’s direction after the play and received a technical foul for taunting.

There were about seven minutes left in the third when Westbrook and Anthony Davis, who missed the game with an injury, both received technical fouls for jawing at each other.

The Lakers led by three later in the third when Kuzma scored the first four points of a 9-2 run that stretched the lead to 85-75.

Houston had a chance to cut the deficit at the end of the third quarter, but Westbrook missed two free throws to leave the Lakers up 91-82 entering the fourth.

 

Watch Kawhi Leonard’s 39 points spark Clippers rally past Pelicans 133-130

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 39 points and the Los Angeles Clippers rallied to beat the New Orleans Pelicans 133-130 on Saturday.

Lou Williams scored 14 of his 32 points during a dominant fourth quarter for Los Angeles, which outscored the Pelicans 31-20 in the final 12 minutes.

Williams’ 3 with 31.6 seconds left, after Patrick Beverley had rebounded Leonard’s miss, gave the Clippers a 133-127 lead and sent numerous fans toward the exits.

But JJ Redick hit a quick 3, and after Leonard ran down the shot clock and missed a 3, New Orleans had 2.4 seconds to attempt a tying 3 that Redick missed off the back rim.

Montrezl Harrell scored 24 points for the Clippers, who trailed by 10 in the final seconds of the third quarter, but turned a steal into two free throws and then opened the fourth with an 8-0 run to tie it at 110.

After shooting 58.5% (38 of 65) in the first three quarters, the Pelicans made just 8 of 21 shots in the fourth as the game slipped away from them.

Lonzo Ball had 18 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for the Pelicans, who were seeking their 11th victory in 15 games despite the recent absence of guard Jrue Holiday, who has missed seven games with an elbow injury.

Derrick Favors had 22 points and 11 rebounds for New Orleans, while Brandon Ingram had 21 points and Redick scored 19.

The teams combined for 152 points in a fast-paced first half, during which New Orleans tied a franchise record with 80 points.

Favors made his first seven shots and had 15 of his points in the opening 24 minutes, when the Pelicans shot 63.6%, including 11-of-21 shooting from 3-point range.

Ball hit three 3s in the first half, his last giving the Pelicans an 80-72 lead that stood at halftime.

Leonard has scored at least 30 points in each of his last five games.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: NBA system wants you to flop, but ‘that’s not who I am’

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden
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Giannis Antetokounmpo scores inside unlike anyone since Shaq.

Like with Shaquille O’Neal, Antetokounmpo has sparked a conversation about how much contacts he absorbs.

Antetokounmpo, via Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

“It’s kind of hard because in the NBA, the way it’s built, they want you to flop,” Antetokounmpo said of playing physically. “It wants you to be weak, kind of, because sometimes I think when you’re strong and you’re going through contact, they don’t call the foul. But when you’re flopping and kind of going into the contact and throwing the ball out, they’re just going to call foul, but that’s not who I am, that’s not what I’m gonna do.

“I’m just gonna try to power through contact. It’s going to be … where if a guy grabs me or pushes me, I’ve got to show it more, but I think I’ve done a better job of showing it more so the refs can see that the guys are holding me, pushing me and just being physical.”

James Harden and Antetokounmpo have traded barbs since last year’s MVP vote, which Antetokounmpo won over Harden. Was this another shot across Harden’s bow?

Harden isn’t the only player who flops. But Harden has earned a reputation as the NBA’s foremost flopper.

Antetokounmpo could do a better job of selling contact. But his tenaciousness sets a tone for the Bucks. His teammates see his determination and follow his lead. There’s a real positive effect to Antetokounmpo’s style.

Also, Antetokounmpo already averages 10.4 free throws per game. How many more fouls would he draw by flopping? Officials could be reluctant to give him even more whistles. Though each call should be evaluated independently, there can be a tendency not to call too many fouls.

Report: LeBron James views Jason Kidd as only living peer for basketball intelligence

LeBron James and Jason Kidd
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LeBron James is a basketball genius.

That somewhat explains why, since becoming a superstar, he has clashed with all previous his coaches – Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra, David Blatt, Tyronn Lue and Luke Walton. Traditional roles make coaches the brains behind the operation. But what happens when LeBron is the smartest person in the room? At best, it creates complications.

So, of course there were questions about how LeBron would take to new Lakers coach Frank Vogel. Vogel is a coach. That’s enough.

But LeBron also previously spread word of his desire to be coached by a former player. Vogel never played professionally. However, one of his assistants was a Hall of Fame player with previous head-coaching experience – Jason Kidd.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

One of those primary assistants would be Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, whom two sources have independently said James regards as the only person alive who sees the game of basketball with his level of clarity.

This is probably hyperbolic. But Kidd was an incredibly smart player. His court vision, defensive recognition and ability to find ways to contribute all over the floor were elite. I can see why LeBron would enjoy talking basketball with Kidd.

But that alone doesn’t make Kidd a good coach. Playing ability doesn’t always translate to coaching ability. His record with the Bucks and Nets leaves a lot to be desired. Interpersonal issues were glaring. Dated thinking became even more apparent when Mike Budenholzer succeeded Kidd and immediately guided Milwaukee to the next level. Kidd’s record of player development is mixed.

Still, that level of endorsement from LeBron carries major weight.

Kidd has been trying to become an NBA head coach again. He lobbied for the Lakers job while Luke Walton held it and interviewed for it before Vogel got it.

Vogel said he wasn’t worried about Kidd undermining him and acted as if he truly isn’t. The Lakers are 33-8, and Vogel is endearing himself in Los Angeles. To better understand how he’s doing it, I highly recommend reading Arnovitz’s article.