Lakers latest loss is microcosm of season, makes even play-in long shot

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LOS ANGELES — It was just one game out of 82, but it felt like a microcosm of the Lakers’ season.

It started with plenty of buzz — this time around the return of Anthony Davis, who had been out since the All-Star break with a foot injury — and Los Angeles fed off that, hitting 10-of-13 shots to open the game. But five turnovers in that stretch and some iffy defense meant the Lakers didn’t take advantage of the hot start, the Pelicans just hung around and even led at points.

LeBron looked like an MVP for stretches, playing through a sore ankle and still doing the things that made him unstoppable at his peak — hitting stepback 3-pointers and being a freight train in transition aggressively going to the rim. LeBron was even diving over Stranger Things stars to try and save balls going out of bounds.

LeBron played the entire third quarter, scored 21 and dominated play.

The Lakers won the third by just one point despite LeBron’s effort. The other Lakers were not playing up to his standards.

Then taking a lead into the game’s final minutes, the Lakers watched the Pelicans execute better, defend better, and Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum hit tough shots while LeBron and Davis were 0-of-5 in the final five minutes. The Pelicans were clutch, the Lakers were not. Again.

The result was a 114-111 Pelicans win that all but ended the Lakers’ hopes of even making the play-in.

“The big picture was that it was pretty much a must-win for us and we didn’t get the job done,” LeBron said. “We had good opportunities on the night, but we didn’t make plays down the stretch and they did.”

The Pelicans earned the victory, and with it they are all but locked into the No. 9 seed in the West. New Orleans is three games ahead of Los Angeles and has the tie break with five to play. Despite all the turmoil and missing players in New Orleans this year, that team found a way to make the postseason.

The Lakers’ situation is now much more dire. Los Angeles sits as the No. 11 seed, one game back of the Spurs and the final play-in spot in the West, but the Spurs have the tiebreaker, so it is in practice a two-game lead. Meaning if the Spurs go just 1-4 the rest of the way (they do face the Trail Blazers one more time), the Lakers need to go 3-2 against a schedule that includes playing the Nuggets twice plus the Suns. That math is already daunting, and if the Spurs do better than winning one more game the rest of the way, things get much harder.

After the game, the Lakers said all the right things about taking it one game at a time, continuing to play hard and controlling what they can control, but the frustration of this game and this season was evident in their voices.

Asked after the game about the sprained ankle that caused him to miss a week and made him a game-time decision Friday, LeBron said it was sore but he would be in treatment for the next 36 hours so he could try to play Sunday afternoon against Denver. Davis also said he was fatigued and sore at the end, but that couldn’t be an excuse.

In a game that had so much pressure, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said he went with a playoff-game rotation, and he leaned into his veterans. Avery Bradley and DJ Augustin got serious run, while Austin Reaves and Talen Horton-Tucker never got their name called. Going against Jonas Valanciunas, the Lakers also started big with Dwight Howard playing.

There were good moments for the Lakers. The Davis at center lineup with LeBron, Malik Monk, D.J. Augustin, and Avery Bradley went on a mini-run in the first half because the Lakers have always looked better with shooting around LeBron and AD.

Russell Westbrook started the night 1-of-7 and sat with four fouls, and after an airball early in the fourth a Pelican player trash-talked him about it. Westbrook jawed back — and then drained two 3-pointers (with a Malik Monk 3 on the possession in between). He took over and gave the Lakers a six-point lead.

But as it has been all season, the Lakers couldn’t sustain that momentum because of their weak defense. CJ McCollum had 32, Brandon Ingram 29, and those two killed it with mid-range shots. Late in the game, with the Lakers down one and needing to foul, they were slow to foul Valanciunas or Trey Murphy, and it took Westbrook fouling McCollum — one of the Pelicans’ best shooters and not the guy they wanted to foul. He hit both foul shots.

LeBron led the Lakers with 38 points on 13-of-23 shooting, but as it has been all season, the Lakers couldn’t win even when he played brilliantly. Davis had 23 points and 12 rebounds in his return to the court.

Vogel, Davis and the rest of the Lakers said all the right things about believing in themselves, not giving up on the season, and taking it one game at a time. Exactly the things they should say.

But the Pelicans beat them and took their lunch money — if the Lakers’ first-round NBA Draft pick is 10 or earlier (right now it would be the No. 8 pick) it goes to the Pelicans. The same Pelicans that were the better team on Friday night.

The Pelicans can look at wins like this, how this team came together in the clutch, and envision it with Zion and another top-10 pick. This team seems poised to make a leap in the coming years.

The Lakers need to play out this string. Then this summer, expect GM Rob Pelinka to take a sledgehammer to what he built, because as Friday night showed, it’s not very good.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.