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Lakers handle Clippers, secure mantle of best team in Los Angeles

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LOS ANGELES — This past July belonged to the Clippers — they won the offseason landing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Opening night belonged to the Clippers. Christmas Day belonged to the Clippers.

That sowed enough seeds of doubt in the Lakers’ faithful in Los Angeles that Sunday’s showdown with the Clippers — the final meaningful game between these teams before the playoffs — had the feel of a statement game. Even if everyone involved try to deny it was.

LeBron James made a statement. Undeniably.

He showed his team a roadmap to the Finals if these two teams — as expected — meet in the playoffs.

LeBron made it clear — between the Lakers beating the Bucks on Friday night behind his 37 points, and then the Clippers on Sunday — that the Lakers have to be counted as title favorites. LeBron also staked his MVP claim.

LeBron had 28 points and nine assists, breaking down the Clippers’ defense getting and into the paint, plus playing defense on Kawhi Leonard much of the night. Add in 30 points from Anthony Davis and a strong 24 points from Avery Bradley, and you get a 112-103 Lakers’ win over their building roommates on Sunday.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win. If my teammates need me to take the challenge defensively, offensively, whatever, I’ll take it,” LeBron said. “My teammates asked me to do it this weekend and the rest is history.”

What LeBron did was attack — he had nine shot attempts in the restricted area and eight everywhere else (and six of those were threes, which you want him to take). He also got to the free-throw line 14 times and had nine assists, many of which came on drive-and-kicks. LeBron James got to the rim, was physical, and it set a tone.

“I thought they were the more physical team tonight,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought they were into their game plan more tonight. I thought they trusted each other more tonight. I thought it was a good lesson for us.”

The other thing LeBron did was go right at Lou Williams in the fourth quarter. The Lakers hunted and targeted Williams in the pick-and-roll, and with Montrezl Harrell as the center on the floor for much of that time, the Clippers lacked a rim-protecting big behind Williams. The Lakers dominated that matchup and Rivers stuck with it for much of the fourth quarter anyway (that should be one of their lessons for the postseason).

Anthony Davis had another strong game for Los Angeles, but it was the addition of a big offensive night from Bradley that separated the teams. The Lakers know they have the best duo in the league, but every night they need someone to step up and be that third star. Sunday it was Bradley.

“We know what we’re going to get from him defensively, but what he gave us offensively tonight was gigantic,” LeBron said. “Every time they made a run, or we needed a three, especially in the first quarter and the third quarter when he got hot… he was wonderful.”

For the Clippers, the lessons were about the level of player movement — and not just isolation basketball — they need against the best teams.

“I didn’t think we had a lot of ball movement today, I thought our offense let us down tonight more than our defense,” Rivers said. “We made too many defensive mistakes to recover to win a close game.”

The Clippers also got away from riding the hot hand. Paul George had been their best player through three quarters (he had 31 points for the game), then in the fourth he didn’t get a shot attempt until the game was inside two minutes. There were points when the Clippers had Leonard, George, and Marcus Morris all on the court and the shot ended up being a Montrezl Harrell isolation against Markieff Morris — not their best option.

“I thought we got good shots [in the fourth],” George said postgame. “We should have had just a little more player movement, which would have gotten the ball moving around. But that is just how the game goes.”

This game had the feeling of a playoff game from the start — and Staples Center sounded like a Laker home game when they made a big play. Most of those plays came from LeBron and Davis, who had 31 of the Lakers 49 first-half points.

The Lakers were down 53-49 at the half because of depth — Lakers not named James or Davis shot 29.1 percent in the first half and the Laker bench scored just eight points (compared to the Clippers 17). More than that, the Clippers were able to rest their stars at points and for a few minutes played an all bench lineup against a LeBron Laker lineup and held their own.

The real telling stat was that both teams were 2-14 from three in the first half.

The Lakers, behind Bradley, shot 6-of-10 from three to open the second half. Combine that with an attacking LeBron and the Lakers become a very difficult team to beat.

Especially four games out of seven. Which is ultimately what the Clippers have to do if they want to take the crown of the best team in Los Angeles.

Are plans for a play-in tournament just to get Zion Williamson in the bubble?

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The cleanest, most straightforward, fewest extra people in the “bubble” way for the NBA to return to play is to invite the 16 teams already in the playoffs — eight from each conference — and skip right to the postseason.

However, there is a lot of momentum around the league for a play-in tournament with 20 teams (or more). Specifically, one that brings in the four teams in the West clumped three-and-a-half to four games behind Memphis for the last playoff spot (Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, and San Antonio).

Why those teams? Because they had a real chance to catch the Grizzlies if play had not stopped?

Or, is it because the league wants Zion Williamson — its bright young star who spiked ratings and interest when he returned from injury mid-season — in the bubble? On ESPN’s Hoop Collective podcast, Brian Windhorst said some other teams seem to think the play-in plan is all about Williamson.

“Let me just say how do you get to 20 [teams in the bubble] though? Because if you just go by the straight records, because to me, this is what I’ve already heard, alright. I’ve already heard people in this league say this is an elaborate game to get Zion Williamson into this bubble…

“I’m not saying the NBA is going this route, I’m just saying I’ve already heard this scenario that no matter what happens, the cutoff line will be the Pelicans. They’ll be in.”

Windhorst is very well connected and I don’t know who his sources were for this, but if you’re with the Wizards or Hornets (or maybe even Bulls and Knicks), you would push for the nine and 10 seed in each conference to be in the bubble, not the next four best records (which are all in the West).

The NBA is a star-based league, of course getting its hottest new property into more televised games is a discussion taking place. You’d be naive to think otherwise. Whether Zion and the Pelicans end up in Orlando ultimately is another question.

All the lobbying and leaking of restart plans to the media — and even the pronouncements of Damian Lillard saying he will play if there’s no shot at the postseason — are spin. This is teams lobbying for what is best for them and their chances. Elite teams like the Lakers and Bucks want no part of a soccer-style group stage that is more likely to produce upsets, they want something more traditional. The Bucks are no fans of 1-16 seedings because then they would have to go through both the Clippers and Lakers to win it all (while the Lakers should love that plan, it sets up perfectly for LeBron James and company). Teams back different play-in plans that better lineup for them. It’s all politicking.

This Friday, in a conference call with owners, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is going to lay out a series of return-to-play options. A week or two after that, the owners will get on a conference call again and vote. Until then, everyone is going to lobby for their own self-interest.

That restart likely has teams reporting to Orlando for training camps in mid-July with games starting in late July or early August. How long the season runs depends on the format chosen. Next season almost certainly will start around Christmas (or maybe a week or two earlier, at most).

When a retired Michael Jordan showed up, dominated a Warriors practice

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It was the winter of 1995, major league baseball was on strike and Michael Jordan — at that time still a member of the Chicago White Sox organization — refused to be a scab and cross the picket lines.

“Mike was thinking about coming back (to the NBA), he was getting that itch again, it was a lockout in baseball, and he just wanted to play some basketball,” NBA legend Tim Hardaway told NBC Sports.

The Last Dance documentary covered how Jordan was secretly taking part in Bulls’ practices at that time. What it didn’t cover was the time Jordan flew out to California to see his friend, Rod Higgins (a Warriors assistant coach), and absolutely dominated a Warriors practice.

“It was kind of embarrassing for a guy to take that many months off then to come into our practice and dominate the way he did,” Hardaway said. “But of course, he’s MJ.”

Warriors players tell the story on The Sports Uncovered podcast, which launched today by NBC and takes a unique look at some of the most significant moments in sports. Like Jordan saying, “I’m back.” You can listen to the podcast below or download it at Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your pods.

Jordan was always looking for a test, and the Warriors at the time provided one: Hardaway was one of the game’s great scorers (but was still coming off a torn ACL) and trash talkers, and Golden State had the game’s “it” up-and-coming player in Latrell Sprewell.

Hardaway takes the story from there.

“[Jordan] and [then Warriors assistant coach] Rod Higgins are really good friends, he just came to visit Rod and said, ‘Hey, Rod, you think [Don Nelson] would let me just come to practice and with y’all?’ And Rod asked him and coach was like, ‘s ***, why not, of course.’

“He just wanted to see where he was at, where his skills was at — and of course they was still there. The same skills, without much rust, that he left with. He was practicing with us, and I came up and was egging him on, ‘Let’s see what you got, s***, let’s see it.’ He said, ‘Alright, now, I’m still MJ.’ And I was like, ‘You had guys throwing balls at you, you been out two years, I heard you been shooting around but this here, this is the real deal now, you got to come and lace your s*** up.”

“It was him, Rony Seikaly, Chris Mullin, some other point guard, against me, Sprewell, some other guys, and man, we was playing for like two hours, and I wanted to go some more because he was bustin’ our a**. He wouldn’t let Sprewell dribble the ball at all — he kinda knew exactly what Sprewell could do, what he couldn’t do, his weaknesses and his strengths.

“It was like he never missed a beat, man. He was out there shooting fadeaways, dunking, playing defense, getting through screens, denying, jumping through passing lanes. It was a little rust, of course, but once he got going each game he got stronger and stronger, his timing got better, you could just tell. He was kinda tired at the end, but it was something to see.”

Hardaway, always the competitor, didn’t want to stop.

“I was kinda upset because I think his team took it more seriously than our team,” Hardaway said. “But he came in and put on a show in practice…

“He said ‘I can play all night, but you all have a game tomorrow and I don’t want to wear you out.’ I was not playing that much anyway so I wanted to get as much run as I can.”

Find out more about that legendary practice, and Jordan’s return, on The Sports Uncovered podcast.

 

NBA veteran Jason Terry takes job as assistant coach at Arizona

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Jason Terry played four years for the legendary Lute Olsen at Arizona, winning a national championship in 1997 and averaging 21.9 points a game his senior year. The Jet went on from there to play 19 years in the NBA, winning a Sixth Man of the Year award in 2009, and he was part of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks championship team.

Terry had moved into the front office side of the business and was serving as the assistant GM of the Texas Legends, Dallas’ G-League affiliate. Now, however, he is jumping back to his alma mater, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

This is a smart hire by Arizona and head coach Sean Miller. High schoolers going to a major D-1 school all have NBA dreams and having a respected NBA veteran who can say “this is what it takes” on staff is a big plus. Besides, Terry was a smart player who knows the game and had a mentality suited to coaching.

For Terry, he’s back in a place he likes, he’s young (42) and has a world of options ahead of him.

Scott Foster says it’s going to be different officiating without fans in building

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The noise from 18,000 people can cover up a lot of sounds in an NBA arena. So when a back-bench assistant coach yells “bulls****” after a call he doesn’t like, the official never hears it and the game moves on.

Not when NBA games restart in fan-less facilities in Orlando in a couple of months. Without those fans, referees are going to get to hear that coach. And a whole lot more.

It’s going to be weird for referees in Orlando, just like for players, veteran official Scott Foster said recently on NBA TV.

I know I don’t want everything that we normally say to each other going out. But normally we’re all in a professional manner out there. But it is going to be different. There’s going to be some assistant coaches that we haven’t really heard from before sitting in the second row that we’ll be able to hear now, so there’s going to be some adjustment there. And then I think we’re going to need to really talk about and analyze what is OK for the public to hear and how we’re going to go about our business.

But it’s definitely going to be a different thing. I’m definitely looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a really unique experience for the referees, players, coaches, everybody who’s going to go through this.”

It is going to be unique. Everybody is going to hear everything, and that is going to be very different from most nights when coaches have to go to hand signals because it’s too loud just to call out a play. It’s going to lead to some awkward and tense moments.

Everyone is going to have to adjust to the new reality, and that includes the referees, too.