Associated Press

Three Things to Know: Playoff Lakers activated, come from 19 down to upset Rockets

5 Comments

Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Lakers activated, come from 19 down to beat Rockets — now can they sustain it. Led by “playoff mode activated” LeBon James, Thursday night was exactly the kind of win the Lakers need if they are going to climb back into the postseason in the West.

But only if can they build on it. Remember that the Lakers’ biggest win of the season, on Christmas Day over the Warriors? That was followed up by losing 5-of-6. LeBon lifted up his teammates and his team on Thursday night — now he needs to do it again. And again. One good win is not enough at this point.

However, make no mistake: Thursday night was a good win for Los Angeles. Trailing by 19 midway through the third quarter, LeBron James (16 points in the game’s final 18 minutes, 29 for the game) and Kyle Kuzma (18 points on the night) sparked the comeback.

Los Angeles won 111-106, moved back to .500 (29-29), are just 2.5 games back of the Clippers, and it helps that the Kings lost, too (now just one game up on the Lakers).

James Harden kept his streak of 30-point games alive with a floater late in the fourth (32 in a row now at 30+), but he shot just 2-of-7 overall and 0-of-4 from three in the fourth quarter and fouled out late in the game. Harden was frustrated with the calls — and had a right to be. Harden picked up three offensive fouls late, one on a nothing contact at midcourt with Rajon Rondo that Rondo sold, and one on a charge call where Kuzma slid under Harden while he was in the air. The Rockets are convinced referee Scott Foster is out to get them (Chris Paul fouled out, too) and the game film from this one will fuel their paranoia for a while.

Of course, the referees didn’t force the Rockets to miss wide open shots down the stretch, either. The Rockets finally had their full team back — Clint Caplela and Chris Paul played — but looked like a team rusty after a week off.

LeBron and the Lakers got an aggressive, attacking game from Brandon Ingram — something else that has come and gone this season — on his way to 27 points. Reggie Bullock knocked down a key three and — in something incredibly rare for the Lakers — hit his free throws when it mattered on his way to 14 points. Josh Hart looked healthy and moved well, he had his best game in a while.

The Lakers’ next two games are winnable — at New Orleans and at Memphis — and if they are serious about making the postseason, those are games they have to pick up. For a night playoff mode was activated, but the real test for LeBron and company remains ahead of them.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks every bit the MVP — especially on defense — and the Bucks remind everyone they are for real. In an often-sloppy one-point game every play matters, and Giannis Antetokounmpo not giving up on this one and getting the chase down block on Jayson Tatum was one that mattered a lot.

That was an MVP-level play. Antetokounmpo had 30 points and 13 boards on the night and was just rock steady on a night little else was.

With the 98-97 win in a sloppy game, the Bucks improved to 8-3 this season against the other elite teams in the East (Toronto, Indiana, Philadelphia, and Boston). Milwaukee has won 15-of-17.

It’s fair to wonder what happens in the playoffs when the defensive pressure is cranked up on Eric Bledsoe (he’s struggled before), and will the Bucks’ shooters keep hitting through the smaller windows afforded them in the postseason. But don’t doubt this — they are capable of hitting those shots and playing under pressure. They are more than capable of winning. The Bucks are real contenders and want to show that on the biggest of stages.

Boston was frustrated not getting some calls, including thinking the Greek Freak fouled Tatum on that breakaway dunk above. Then on the final play, with Boston down one, Brad Stevens drew up something where Kyrie Irving set a backscreen and Marcus Morris cut to the rim and he was coming open — until Khris Middleton fouled him. The Bucks ended up just getting the ball to Irving, who drove and put up a wild shot that missed, but Morris was hot after the game about the no-call. He was right. However: 1) The Bucks had a foul to give so it still would have been ball out of bounds; 2) That one play was not why they lost the game — Irving was 9-of-27 shooting and the Celtics as a team shot just 38.2 percent on the night. The Celtics had their chances but just missed.

3) Stephen Curry dunks! Oh, and hit 10 threes in Warriors win. Stephen Curry had zero dunks this season (according to Basketball-Reference), but he ended the All-Star Game in Charlotte with a reverse throwdown, then on Thursday night he did this.

The bench’s reaction is the best.

Curry also did Curry things — 10-of-16 from three on his way to 36 points.

The Warriors won 125-123 and swept the season series from the Kings — but every game was close, every game hard-fought and the Kings made the Warriors work. It would make a fun first-round playoff series. Sacramento had a chance to steal this game but Buddy Hield passed up a three from a spot he’d hit one 12 seconds before to drive the lane and miss the floater to tie. If the Kings are going to get into the playoffs and face the Warriors in the first round they can’t hesitate — Hield has to take that shot.

The Kings are now 1.5 games behind the Clippers for the final playoff slot in the West, and LeBron and the Lakers are one game behind the Kings. It’s going to be a wild ride the rest of the way at the bottom of the West.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images
1 Comment

The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
7 Comments

Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.

Under new anti-tampering rules, Adam Silver empowered to suspend execs, take away picks, void contracts

SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images
4 Comments

LeBron James publicly courted Anthony Davis. Many free agents seemingly struck deals before free agency even began. Kawhi Leonard‘s uncle/advisor reportedly sought prohibited extra benefits from teams.

The NBA finally reached its breaking point on tampering and circumvention.

After late apprehension, the league will enact stricter enforcement.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m not surprised this passed unanimously. NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted this to happen and wasn’t going to have owners vote unless he knew it’d pass. At that point, any protest-voting owners would just put themselves at odds with the commissioner. Not worth it.

We’ll see how long this crackdown lasts. I think that anonymous general manager represents many. If nobody is tampering, it’s fine not to tamper. But if some teams tamper, nobody wants to be at a disadvantage.

This could slowly creep back toward the old status quo. But if there’s a clear violator early, Silver will have an opportunity to send a message. We’ll see whether he takes it.

This should be less about which communication is or isn’t allowed. It’s about fairness.

That’s why it’s important the NBA has rules it will enforce and only rules it will enforce. That hasn’t been the case. If it is now, this will be a success.

Knicks’ offseason a giant flop

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
5 Comments

NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

In the midst of agreeing to sign Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock, the Knicks released a statement.

“While we understand that some Knicks fans could be disappointed with tonight’s news, we continue to be upbeat and confident in our plans to rebuild the Knicks to compete for championships in the future, through both the draft and targeted free agents,” Knicks president Steve Mills said.

This is as close as we’ll ever get to a team apologizing for its transactions in real time.

What an embarrassment.

Knicks owner James Dolan went on TV in March and strongly suggested top free agents would sign with the Knicks this summer. Everyone inferred Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Instead, Durant and Irving signed with the crosstown Nets without even meeting with the Knicks. The Knicks pathetically put out word they didn’t offer Durant the max due to his injury (as if they would’ve balked had he actually wanted to come) and cancelled a meeting with Kawhi Leonard, who was never coming.

All New York’s planning – stretching Joakim Noah, trading Kristaps Porzingis to clear salary, hyping itself – went to waste on mediocre free agents.

At least the Knicks remain flexible. It’s just tough to see how they turn that flexibility into winning.

Dolan said no incumbent players will become the centerpiece. New York is already acknowledging how disappointing the newly signed free agents look.

That leaves a lot of pressure on No. 3 pick R.J. Barrett, himself a disapointment.

Despite an 86% chance of not getting the No. 1 pick, Knicks fans treated Zion Williamson as a near-inevitability. He was viewed as the rightful reward for a miserable 17-65 season.

This was the wrong lottery to slip. There’s a huge drop in prospect quality from Williamson to Ja Morant to Barrett. Barrett profiles as a leading player, and maybe he’ll be good enough to fill that role on a good team. But this draft was always going to leave the third-picking team with unreliable options.

Randle (three years, $56.7 million with $4 million of $19.8 million guaranteed in year three) was the big addition in free agency. He’ll put up numbers. He’s also only 24 and has shown improvement throughout his career. Maybe he’ll develop defensively and better contribute to winning. Still, it’ll take major modifications to their games for Randle and Barrett to flourish together long-term.

Not that this team represents much of whatever the Knicks are building toward.

Portis ($15 million), Gibson ($9 million), Ellington ($8 million), Payton ($8 million) and Bullock ($4 million) look like stopgaps. After those starting salaries, each has a barely/unguaranteed second season. They all look like trade chips, though most must exceed expectations on the court to hold more than neutral value. Ellington looks like the best deal.

Really, the short contract I like most is Marcus Morris‘ (one year, $15 million). New York signed him after Bullock failed his physical and agreed to a smaller contract. I don’t know why the Knicks prioritized so many other players over Morris, who committed to the Spurs before Bullock’s spine injury gave New York more cap space.

The Knicks could really use a young player like Porzingis now. He’d provide plenty of optimism amid their listless present.

Still, New York can still come out ahead in the Porzingis trade. He was an injury-prone player on the verge of getting a max contract. The Knicks got a couple extra first-rounders.

But clearing Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s an Courtney Lee‘s burdensome contracts was a key part of the trade. That aspect has now gone for naught.

New York is heading toward another lost season. A weak free agent class follows. It’ll take a while for the Knicks to build back up.

This summer – which the Knicks began with the best lottery position, massive cap space and a premier market – was a huge missed opportunity. Even getting past the New York noise and the misplaced expectations this franchise incites, that burns.

Offseason grade: D