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Eighty percent of LeBron James is enough to get Lakers critical win against Clippers

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LOS ANGELES — There was unquestionably rust.

“The first quarter was just kind of a feel out quarter to see how my groin would react,” LeBron James said of his return to the court after a 17-game absence due to a strained groin, a stretch where the Lakers went 6-11 and fell out of playoff position. “I didn’t really run as hard as I’m accustomed to on breaks. I had a couple of drives, just trying to mentally get into it….

“I’m not there all the way, as far as physically. My timing, like I (said during a postgame television interview) is 80 percent right now, but it felt good to be 80 and be back on the floor and put on a Lakers’ uniform again.”

That 80 percent was enough to have a true LeBron effect — he settled them. In the fourth quarter Thursday night, the Clippers went on a 7-0 run that cut the lead down to six. LeBron stepped up and hit a three. It was like that all night.

More importantly, the Laker halfcourt offense was just smoother, with better passing and spacing. When he sat during this game, the looks the Lakers got were more often difficult ones.

That LeBron effect turned into 24 points, 14 rebounds, and nine assists leading the Lakers to a 123-120 overtime win against the Clippers.

This was not only a big win because LeBron returned, but also because the Lakers have 7-of-8 on the road coming up (their toughest stretch of the schedule all season). Also because the Clippers are the team the Lakers are chasing for the final playoff spot in the West. With the win, the Lakers are just one game back of the eight seed Clippers.

The Laker halfcourt offense struggled with LeBron out since Christmas, it had a much better flow on Thursday (even with LeBron’s rust).

“He made the right plays, he got guys open, he finished when he had to,” Laker guard Josh Hart said. “He’s just so smart. He’s such a good veteran player. He gets guys in their spots to get easy buckets. His basketball IQ is just through the roof.”

LeBron also got some help — good Lance Stephenson showed up (you never know which one you will get), and he had 20 points off the bench plus hit 5-of-8 from three. Brandon Ingram added 19 on 12 shots.

The Clippers got 24 points from Lou Williams off the bench, and beyond that we saw their usual balanced attack — six other players were in double figures. However, late in games, the Clippers lacked someone beyond Williams they could count on to create and make plays. It led to sloppy offense.

The Lakers had no such questions, they knew who they wanted to run the offense through.

LeBron played 40 minutes — and the Lakers needed every one to get the win. But there’s a price for that.

“I’m not feeling particularly great right now,” LeBron said of his condition after the game….

“It’s a little bit of everything. The groin is a little sore right now, but I already knew that. I hadn’t played an NBA game in over a month, so I knew that was going to be a bit of a problem. My wind wasn’t going to be where I wanted it to be, the timing on my shots (was off)…

“I’m looking forward to see how I feel tomorrow. It’s going to be a tell-tale sign of all the rehab, work, everything I’ve been putting in for the past five weeks.”

LeBron gets a day to rest, the Lakers are off on Friday but fly up to the Bay Area for a nationally televised game against the Warriors on Saturday. LeBron plans to suit up for that one — the playoffs have essentially started for the Lakers, they need to make a push to get in starting now, and he’s not going to sit out any longer.

“I love clothes. I love suits. But I didn’t come here to put on a suit every day, I came to put on a jersey,” LeBron said.

C.J.McCollum, Eric Gordon both withdraw from USA Basketball for World Cup

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First Anthony Davis. Then James Harden.

Now add C.J. McCollum and Eric Gordon to the list, as reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Don’t be surprised if a couple of new players are added to the USA roster for training camp.

The loss of those four stars strips the Team USA of some international experience. As pointed out by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, now only four members invited to USA camp have played in the World Cup or Olympics: Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, and Kyle Lowry — and Lowry just had thumb surgery and is questionable for the playing in China.

USA Basketball can still roll out this starting five:

Damian Lillard
Bradley Beal
Khris Middleton
Tobias Harris
Andre Drummond

Then off the bench have Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Lowry, Jayson Tatum, P.J. Tucker, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez.

That’s still enough talent, coached by Gregg Popovich, to win the World Cup. The USA remains the heavy favorites for a reason.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

James Harden reiterates it was ‘false talk’ he and Chris Paul were at odds

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The Houston Rockets — not in an anonymous way, but in a “we are putting our names on this, quote me” kind of way — have pushed back hard on the narrative that there was tension between Chris Paul and James Harden that led to the Rockets trading CP3 for Russell Westbrook this offseason. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has denied it, team leader P.J. Tucker called it fake news, and Paul himself has pushed back.

Harden has done that again, speaking at his camp on Saturday.

The counter-argument to this: Chris Paul is in Oklahoma City right now.

People will believe what they want to believe, but the Rockets guys have all gone on the record about this. Nothing leaked and anonymous.

From the Rockets’ perspective, they made a trade for Westbrook that is a roster upgrade. Houston has a dynamic duo that can compete with the Los Angeles teams and the other contenders around the league, and whatever questions fans and the media may have about the ultimate fit of Harden and Westbrook the talent level is not in question.

Do the Rockets make that trade if everything is great between Harden and Paul? Probably, if they saw CP3 as in decline and Westbrook as a talent upgrade (which they did). The Rockets can be a cold, business-like organization in terms of their pursuit of a title.

We will see next season if that calculation paid off. Whether or not Harden and CP3 got along.

Report: Kyle Korver reaches one-year deal to join Milwaukee Bucks

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The Bucks can never have enough shooting around a driving Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Enter Kyle Korver. The veteran sharpshooter will be headed to Milwaukee on a one-year contract, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a quality pickup at the minimum (it is a veteran minimum contract). Korver averaged 8.6 points per game last season, taking 72 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and knocking down 39.7 percent of them. The man has gravity and pulls a defender because even at age 38 defenders cannot leave him. Shooting is a skill always in demand.

The Bucks will start Wesley Matthews at the two and have Sterling Brown behind him. They have Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton at the three. Now they have some reliable veteran depth at those spots and a guy who can hit the big shot for them.

James Harden buys piece of MLS Houston Dynamo

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NBA players being minority owners in a soccer team is not new, LeBron James owns a small piece of Champions’ League winner Liverpool, for example.

James Harden is keeping it closer to home — he bought a share of the Dynamo, Houston’s MLS franchise.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity to join the ownership group of the Houston Dynamo and Houston Dash and proud to be a part of a club with tremendous history and a great future,” Harden said in a statement. “Houston is my home now, and I saw this as a way to invest in my city and expand my business interests at the same time. Soccer in general, and especially MLS, have exploded in this country throughout my lifetime. I’ve been a fan of the game for several years, and I know that Houston has a massive soccer fanbase, so it was an easy decision for me when this opportunity arose.”

Harden reportedly purchased a five percent stake in the team.

The Dynamo — a former MLS cup champion and a franchise that has consistently been strong — is primarily owned by Gabriel Brener, and it has boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya as one of its minority owners.

Harden has earned more than $141 million in NBA salary in his 10 NBA seasons and has four years left on the $228 million contract extension he signed with the team in 2017. In addition, he has a large shoe contract with Adidas and other endorsements.