Three takeaways from Lakers holding off Rockets to even series

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When you have LeBron James and Anthony Davis on your roster, you win a lot of games.

Sunday night in Game 2 of the Western Conference semi-finals, the Los Angeles Lakers defended well but not consistently. They got out in transition and attacked the rim, but not consistently. The Rockets launched three balls but did not make them consistently (well, Russell Westbrook was consistent, but not in a good way).

In the end, it was LeBron and Davis combining for 62 points that pushed the Lakers past a Houston Rockets team that made 10 more threes. Los Angeles won 117-109, tying the series at 1-1. Game 3 is Tuesday night.

Here are the three big takeaways from Game 2:

1) Los Angeles was running in transition again.

Los Angeles and its veteran-laden roster may not look like a fast break threat on paper, but no team added more points per possession through transition than the Lakers this season.

After a stagnant Game 1, the Lakers were off and running again in Game 2, with 16 fast-break points in the first half alone, plus they had some key ones late when Los Angeles pulled away for the win. The defense forcing six steals in the first half led to a lot of transition opportunities for Los Angeles.

When the Lakers are running they are attacking, and that carries over to their halfcourt offense. That’s what Davis was doing. He was getting to the rim, facing up and at least getting into the lane, then shooting over PJ Tucker or any undersized defender Houston threw at him.

The Lakers went with a lot of Davis at the five in this game, as an injured JaVale McGee (ankle injury) played only eight minutes, and Dwight Howard never touched the court. That was hit or miss for the Lakers as Davis was actually -7 for the game (there’s a lot of noise in that statistic, but you get the idea). With Davis and LeBron attacking, the rest of the Lakers were moving into open spaces and the Laker offense had a lot of movement and flow.

Until the third quarter. At that point the Lakers got stagnant, it made them easier to defend, and suddenly it was Houston getting the ball up the court quickly and exploiting mismatches. The Rockets put up a 41 spot in the third and entered the fourth with a two-point lead.

Starting midway through the fourth, the Lakers started defending well enough to get stops (more on that in a second) which allowed them to get out and run. At the end of the fourth the Lakers needed to get a few buckets from the halfcourt, but that’s why it’s good to have LeBron James on your team. He stuck the dagger in Houston late.

“We’re at our best when he’s in attack mode,” Laker coach Frank Vogel said postgame.

It also helped the Lakers got the full playoff Rajon Rondo game. He played well on both ends (even if he was 1-of-5 from three and shouldn’t take those). Rondo was +28 for the night to lead all players.

The Lakers need to carry that running over to Game 3, but transition starts on the defensive end and getting stops. This leads us to….

2) The Lakers defended well. For about half the game.

If the Lakers are going to beat the Rockets and advance, it will be with their defense — L.A. need stops and turnovers to allow it to get out and run. The Lakers need those easy, high-efficiency transition buckets because Houston is a pretty good halfcourt defensive team (in the bubble, anyway), and if the Lakers slow the game down and try to pound it inside for two-point baskets they will lose the math game as the Rockets hit threes.

The Lakers got that defense… for about half the game on Sunday. They did in the first and fourth quarters. The second and third were a bit rough.

When they were on, the Lakers were sharp with their rotations and closeouts, but they were smart about all of it. They weren’t closing out on Russell Westbrook. When the Lakers doubled James Harden they anticipated the release valve pass and were in the way.

When the Lakers got in trouble is when they didn’t rotate quickly and they left shooters open (even LeBron did that a couple of times), or when they were passive with the doubles on Harden. The Beard eats soft double-teams for lunch and had 27 points on 12 shots in Game 2.

The Lakers did a respectable job on Harden; he’s still going to get his. Houston has another star to worry about.

3) The Rockets may have a Russell Westbrook problem

When the Rockets offense was clicking and they were making runs, Houston had the ball in Harden’s hands and put four shooters around him: Eric Gordon was 6-of-12 from three, P.J. Tucker 4-of-7, Robert Covington 4-of-8.

Russell Westbrook was 4-of-15 overall and 1-of-7 from three. The Rockets have him out there as a shooter at the arc, and the Lakers were treating him like Houston treated Lou Dort last round, daring him to shoot. It was a good strategy. Westbrook described himself postgame as “running around” and owned his mistakes, but they may not be ones he can easily correct.

Westbrook has to sit in critical moments because he kills their spacing. He also needs to play like a pure energy big man — drive hard for layups on offense and rebound like a beast on the other. Be a Montrezl Harrell/Dennis Rodman kind of player, just smaller. If Houston continues to deploy him as a shooter it’s a win for the Lakers.

Houston is not going to leave Game 2 thinking they are in trouble, but there is no margin for error against Los Angeles. Houston can’t have multiple cold-shooting stretches — 2-of-13 from three in the fourth, for example — against the Lakers and win. It’s a make-or-miss league and the Rockets can’t miss like that, they need to make contested threes against a long Lakers’ defense.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
63

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,325

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks
Feb. 11 at Warriors
Feb. 13 at Trail Blazers

When is LeBron projected to break the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 9 at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, although a hot game on Feb. 7 against the Thunder could make that game a possibility.

How long has Kareem held the scoring record?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the all-time scoring record — to far less fanfare than is happening with LeBron — on April 5, 1984, when he scored his 31,420th point, breaking the record which had been held by Wilt Chamberlain. This was the height of the Showtime Lakers era and the team made the Finals that season but lost in seven games to Larry Bird and the Celtics. The Lakers would win the NBA title three of the next four years and Kareem would keep adding to that point total and his legacy until he retired after the 1989 season.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron scored 26 points and added seven rebounds and seven assists on Thursday night. He also gave the Lakers their first lead of the game on a 3-pointer with 2:35 left, and the Lakers held on to beat the Pacers 112-111. LeBron shot 11-of-19 from the floor and 2-of-5 from 3 for the game.

• LeBron had his first triple-double of the season — and became the first player ever with one in his 20th season — scoring 28 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists — to help lead the Lakers past the Knicks in overtime on Tuesday night. With those 11 assits LeBron moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to be fourth on the NBA’s all-time assists list.

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”

Watch altercation that leads to Donovan Mitchell, Dillon Brooks ejections

Memphis Grizzlies v Cleveland Cavaliers
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images
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Donovan Mitchell was already having a rough night — six points on 2-of-11 shooting — but at the end of the third quarter it got worse.

With a little less than six minutes left in the third quarter, the Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks drove the lane and went right into the body of Michell, knocking him back. Brooks went up to shoot, but the Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley slid in for the block and knocked Brooks to the ground. The ball bounced to Mitchell, who started to go the other way when Brooks swung his arm and — it looked like intentionally — hit Mitchel in the, um, family jewels. Mitchell fell to the ground, threw the ball at Brooks, and then the two had to be separated.

Both Brooks and Mitchell were given Flagrant 2 fouls and ejected.

While Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff complained that what Mitchell did was a justified reaction — and it was the reaction most of us would have had — throwing the ball at another player then trying to go at him is an ejection every time. After the game, Mitchell said he would appeal the flagrant and any fine, saying he should be able to defend himself.

Both Mitchell and Brooks can expect to hand over some of their next paychecks to the league.

The incident initially sparked a little run from Ja Morant, but then the Cavaliers picked up their offense and Cleveland pulled away for a 128-113 win behind 32 from Darius Garland.

 

Embiid, Morant, Lillard headline list of All-Star Game reserves

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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Joel Embiid was a lock. Few others were.

The fans made their voice heard and selected the five All-Star game starters from each conference. Embiid was the odd man out in the East frontcourt (there was going to be a snub no matter who was left off), and we can debate if Zion Williamson has played enough games to deserve being named a starter, but there were no egregious choices.

The brutal selections are always the last couple of reserves — there are more deserving players than spots — and that choice falls to the league’s coaches, who vote to pick the seven bench players from each conference (three frontcourt players, two guards, and two wildcards).

Here are the 2023 All-Star Game reserves.

WEST

Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies)
Domantas Sabonis (Sacramento Kings)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Paul George (Los Angeles Clippers)
Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
Lauri Markkanen (Utah Jazz)
Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis Grizzlies)

West Biggest Snubs: Anthony Davis, Devin Booker, De'Aaron Fox, Anthony Edwards

EAST

Joel Embiid (Philadephia 76ers)
DeMar DeRozan (Chicago Bulls)
Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
Jrue Holiday (Milwaukee Bucks)
Julius Randle (New York Knicks)
Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana Pacers)

East Biggest Snubs: Trae Young, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam, Jalen Brunson

Here are some thoughts and notes on the selections:

• This is the first All-Star game for Gilgeous-Alexander, Jackson and Haliburton — and they all deserved it.

• For my money, the biggest snub is Pascal Siakam of the Raptors. While the team has disappointed, Siakam has played not just at an All-Star level but at an All-NBA level averaging 24.9 points, 8 rebounds and 6.2 assists a game, plus solid defense. He is a top 15 player in the league, let alone top 24.

• Davis and Booker not making the roster must be solely a matter of games missed for the coaches, because both are deserving.

• Jaren Jackson Jr. making it may be the biggest surprise — he’s an elite defender and solid offensive player, but he also missed the first 14 games of the season and defense-first players have a hard time getting the nod for a fan exhibition. The coaches voting in Adebayo from the Heat over Butler was thinking along the same lines, the coaches appreciate the defense and well-rounded game of the Miami big man.

• The coaches put one Heat player and one Knick on the team, balancing the scales for two teams who could have made a case for two players.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks) and LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) will be the team captains this season (as voted by the fans), who will select their starters from a pool consisting of Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets), Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics), Donovan Mitchell (Cleveland Cavaliers), Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn Nets), Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans), Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors), and Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks).

• In a change to the format this year, James and Antetokounmpo will pick their teams on the court — playground style — just before the All-Star Game. They will choose from a pool of starters, and then the backups from the group of reserves above.

• The Celtics’ Joe Mazzulla will coach Team Giannis, while the Nuggets’ Michael Malone will coach Team LeBron.

• The All-Star Game will take place Feb. 19 in Salt Lake City. The entire weekend of events will be broadcast on TNT.

• As it has been the past few years, teams will play the first three quarters somewhat traditionally (although the winner of each quarter individually raises money for its team charity). Then the clock will be turned off for the fourth quarter and the first team to reach a target score — 24 points (in honor of Kobe) higher than the total of the team leading after three quarters. Meaning simply, if team Giannis leads 100-99 after three quarters, the first team to get to 124 wins.

Anunoby hottest name at trade deadline… or would be if Raptors decide to trade him

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns
Chris Coduto/Getty Images
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The Knicks are standing at the front of the line, but if the door opens Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans will be among the teams trying to push their way through the door.

O.G. Anunoby trade rumors are maybe the hottest topic around the league in the run-up to the trade deadline, something sources have told NBC Sports but is not breaking news at this point, recent reporting by both Zach Lowe of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have detailed exactly that. Lowe said on his podcast that the “entire league” is interested in the young wing. Teams are calling Massai Ujiri about Anunoby, but the Raptors have yet to tip their hand about whether they will be sellers at the deadline, stand pat, or become buyers.

Anunoby has not publicly or privately asked for a trade, but would “embrace a change of scenery” Haynes said on the podcast (it should be noted there are similar rumblings about a number of dispirited Raptors this season, the losing has worn on them). Haynes added that part of the motivation for the Grizzlies and Pelicans in this case is to keep the other team from landing him.

The Knicks are reportedly offering three first-round picks for Anunoby, and while it’s up for debate which of the seven first-round picks they control are in the mix — and how protected they are — that is now the floor for an offer to interest the Raptors. Lowe said Anunoby could draw a Donovan Mitchellsized trade package.

There are obvious reasons the league is calling, Anunoby is an All-Defensive Team level wing averaging 16.9 points per game, can finish at the rim and hit threes. It doesn’t hurt that he is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million.

Everybody wants to talk about Anunoby, but it’s all moot until Ujiri and the Raptors do.