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Three Things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP, 76ers look like playoff threat

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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) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP, 76ers get the win and look like playoff force. Here’s the one big takeaway from Philadelphia going into Milwaukee and getting a 130-125 victory:

Good lord the East playoffs are going to be fun.

Sunday, against a long and athletic defensive team that put Joel Embiid on him for much of the game, Giannis Antetokounmpo looked like an MVP (especially late). He was too overpowering and too athletic to stop on his way to 52 points and shooting 12-of-18 in the paint (and 3-of-8 from three). The Greek Freak looked every bit the MVP (but after the game did praise Embiid’s defense).

That wasn’t enough to get the win. In part because Bucks who don’t have 13 letters in their last name didn’t step up in the ways needed and shot just 31 percent from three (how much the Bucks will miss Malcolm Brogdon was evident in this game). In part because the Sixers powerful starting five could hang with the Antetokounmpo-led Bucks starters despite the 52 because they moved the ball, sacrificed, and played a team game.

Also in part because Joel Embiid impressed with 40 points and 15 boards himself.

But mostly it was how Brett Brown found rotations where a couple starters with some bench players could work. The fivesome of Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Mike Scott, T.J. McConnell, and Boban Marjanovic were +12 in just under 11 minutes. Finding bench lineups and rotations that work will be critical for Philly over the remaining dozen games, but if it comes together like it did Sunday the Sixers could be making a deep playoff run. Like into June.

2) We live in a universe where Mario Hezonja blocks a LeBron James game-winning attempt. It was set up to be another moment where a non-Knicks superstar steps up in the clutch and puts on a show in Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks were up by one with 22.3 seconds left, the Lakers inbounded the ball to LeBron James, who already had 33 points on the night. The King isolated on Mario Hezonja, drove the lane and… denied.

Hezonja’s defense for the win. (There’s a sentence I never expected to type.)

The Knicks — the worst team in the NBA this season (by record) — finished the game on a 13-1 run to beat the Lakers. What does that say about Los Angeles at this point of the season?

3) Lou Williams just gets buckets, hits game-winner for Clippers over Nets. In the battle of two League Pass favorites, two of the league’s most scrappy teams in the Nets and Clippers, Lou Williams stepped up and made the “this is why I’m Sixth Man of the Year” play.

Tied 116-116 with 5.3 seconds left, Doc Rivers kept it simple: inbound to Danilo Gallinari, have him pass then set a screen for Williams. It didn’t create much space, but it created enough.

The Clippers and Nets most likely will not make it out of the first round of the playoffs in their respective conferences, but whoever gets these teams is going to have a first-round battle on their hands. These teams will make it tough.

BONUS THING TO KNOW:C.J. McCollum out with strained muscle but it could have been much worse. If the Trail Blazers do not have C.J. McCollum for the playoffs their stay in the postseason is guaranteed to be short.

After what looked to be a scary injury, McCollum just has a strained the popliteus, a muscle in the back of his left knee. “Just” may be the wrong word as back in 2009 Kevin Garnett missed 13 games and basically the playoffs because of this injury — Portland has 13 games left in the season.

McCollum will miss most if not all of the remaining regular season games and Portland could slide down the standings in the tight West because of it. But he may be back for the playoffs, and with him Portland will have a chance. His recovery will be something to watch.

NBA Power Rankings: Houston rockets up to second spot with nine-game win streak

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Houston has Rocketed up to No. 2 in the rankings (see what I did there?) and right now look like the biggest threat to Golden State. They haven’t knocked the Bucks out of the top spot, at least not yet.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (51-17, last week No. 1). The defense has slipped since the All-Star break — 110.1 net rating, 16th in the league — but the Bucks are still 8-3 in that stretch because their offense has gotten even better. Everyone in Milwaukee is looking ahead, the Bucks in the Giannis Antetokounmpo era have never won a playoff series, that will change in the first round this year. But the second round… on paper this team is a contender but will Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe perform on the biggest stages. Good benchmark Sunday vs. Philly.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (42-25, LW 6). Winners of nine in a row, the Rockets look like the second-best team in the NBA again. A team that may be a threat to the Warriors (as much as anyone). Not just because Chris Paul is playing well (although he is playing closer to last year’s version), or because Clint Capela is healthy and running the floor hard again, but because they are defending well for the first time this season. Since the All-Star break, Houston has a defensive net rating of 106.4, seventh best in the NBA (better than Utah in that stretch). Can they sustain it? If so, the Warriors will be looking over their shoulders.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (48-20, LW 2). Toronto didn’t pick up Marc Gasol expecting an eventual Serge Ibaka suspension, but it helps with Ibaka missing three games after throwing hands with Marquese Chriss. This is not a team making a strong playoff push (5-4 since the All-Star break) but it’s hard to read them because Kawhi Leonard has gotten a lot of rest and because their playoff position has been essentially set (the No. 2 seed) removing urgency in games. One thing to bet on, Pascal Siakam is going to win Most Improved Player.

Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (45-21, LW 3). For one game, against Denver on the night the Nuggets could have tied the Warriors with a win, we saw what the fully-functional Death Star can do. It was awe inspiring. Then the Warriors turned around and lost to the Suns. Expect to see Kevin Durant (ankle) and other key players rest down the stretch, and expect more erratic performances, but does anyone doubt they can play like the Death Star team four times in any seven game series?

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (44-22, LW 4). Isaiah Thomas has struggled to fit in off the bench so far, which is why coach Mike Malone is shrinking his role and minutes (IT got a DNP-CD on Tuesday). Through nine games he’s averaging 8.6 points a night but is shooting 27.3% from three (where he takes 44% of his shot attempts), and even when he gets to the rim he’s only finishing 50% of his attempts. Monte Morris bounced back with a good game against the Warriors and coach Mike Malone will need to lean on him and not IT when the playoffs start.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (43-25, LW 5). Joel Embiid’s return Sunday had Philadelphia looking like a team that could come out of the East again — he had 33 and 12 in a key win over the Pacers, he anchored their defense and bullied the Pacers in the paint on offense. The Sixers need that Embiid to be a real threat. Big test Sunday at Milwaukee, a chance for both teams to make a statement they are contenders for the East crown.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (41-27, LW 11). They went a strong 3-1 on a West Coast road trip and looked like the team we expected coming into the season (don’t read into the loss to the Clippers, last games of a trip get mailed in sometimes). Much like it has been recently in the regular season, Boston’s chances in the playoffs will swing with how Gordon Hayward plays — when he scores in double digits off the bench, the Celtics become a much more dangerous team.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (41-26, LW 8). Russell Westbrook’s interaction with a fan in Utah got the NBA community finally talking about an issue that needed to be in the spotlight — there are too many fans crossing the line of what is said to players, and there is little the players can do about it. Westbrook got fined for it, but my guess is he’s good with that if it sparked a real discussion (which it did). The Thunder went 2-2 on their recent road trip and things do not get easier now, they have their next six games against playoff teams.

Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (41-26, LW 7). Coach Terry Stotts shot down a question about the playoffs, saying he is not thinking about matchups or seeding yet, but Portland wants to climb up to the four seed and have home court in the first round (they are tied with Oklahoma City for that spot as of this writing). Portland is 25-9 at home this season and 16-17 on the road — if they are going to advance pat the first round playing at home would be a big boost.

Clippers small icon 10. Clippers (39-30, LW 12). Wins over Boston and Oklahoma City recently show why this Clipper team is going to be a tough out in the playoffs. Spend time around the Clippers and you sense a confidence amongst this team despite all the roster changes this season — they like each other, they joke around in the locker room, and on the floor they know who they are and they play hard. Lou Williams is making a push for Sixth Man of the Year with his play of late, but the loss to Portland shows just how much Danilo Gallinari’s shooting and ability to create looks matters to this team (he rested that game).

Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (39-29, LW 13). Winners of six in a row (they needed that after a brutal rodeo road trip) and the streak has solidified their playoff position. The Spurs have done it with good defense — 105.1 net rating in this stretch, sixth best in the NBA — and enough offense from DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge to make it all work (they combined for 61 Tuesday night to beat the Mavs).

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (43-25, LW 9). The Pacers need to play better (they have lost 6-of-9) if they are going to hold on to home court in the first round. The Pacers are tied with Philly for the 3/4 seed with Boston just two games back, but Indy has a brutal schedule coming up — Oklahoma City at home Thursday then 6-of-7 on the road including the Nuggets, Clippers, Warriors, Thunder again, then Celtics. It’s going to be tough to find wins in there.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (37-29, LW 10). With the softest remaining schedule in the NBA, it should have been time for Utah to make its push up the Western standings and maybe even get home court in the first round. Instead, they have lost 3-of-4 (including to Memphis and New Orleans). More concerning, Julius Randle and Jonas Valanciunas have punished the Jazz in the paint. Utah is still in the playoffs as the eight seed, but their lack of focus against teams they should beat is going to have them starting the playoffs on the road.

Nets small icon 14. Nets (36-33, LW 15). Winners of four in a row, the last one against Detroit to keep them ahead of the Pistons and in the six seed. Spencer Dinwiddie had 19 against Detroit, continuing his run of good play — he is going to get some Sixth Man of the Year votes. But now the Pacers have seven in a row on the road and every one of their remaining games this season except one (Lakers) is against a team over .500.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (34-32, LW 14). Detroit has leaned a little too much on fourth-quarter comebacks lately, but they had won 8-of-9 before the loss to the Nets Monday. Still, because of the Nets’ schedule, expect the Pistons to finish the season as the six seed in the East. Give coach Dwane Casey credit for pulling this team together in his first season in Detroit, finding an offense that works, and getting this team into the postseason.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (33-33, LW 16). The Kings have had the most surprising season in the NBA, and that will mean Coach of the Year votes for Dave Joerger and Most Improved Player votes for De’Aaron Fox. Both well deserved (although neither are likely to win the award). However, the surprising season is not going to end with a playoff berth, the Kings are four out with 16 games to play. The key this offseason is to stick with the building plan and not to become impatient and make win-now moves.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (31-35, LW 21). Miami’s new starting lineup — Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo, Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, and Kelly Olynyk — has led the team to win 4-of-5 and hang on to the final playoff slot in the East. In the seven games they have started (91 total minutes) that lineup is +7.1 per 100 possessions, with a high powered offense leading the way. Miami has a tougher schedule than Orlando (one game back) and Charlotte (1.5 back) the rest of the way and will need more out of that lineup if the Heat are going to get an invite to the postseason dance.

18. Timberwolves (32-36, LW 20). Karl-Anthony Towns continues to be on a tear — in his last 10 games he’s averaging 32.9 points per game on 59.6 percent shooting overall, 48.3 percent from three (on 5.8 attempts a game), plus grabbing 12.8 boards a night. Is that going to be enough to get him an All-NBA center spot in a crowded field (Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis) — if he does it’s worth a cool $32 million on his rookie contract extension that kicks in next season (thanks to the Rose rule).

Magic small icon 19. Magic (31-37, LW 17). Playoff teams take care of business against lesser opponents, which is why the Magic are in danger of missing the postseason after their big push to get back in it. Orlando has lost 3-of-4 including the the Cavaliers and Grizzlies. The Magic struggle in tight games, which is part of the problem. I’d say they have a soft section of the schedule ahead, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Orlando. They just need wins.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (30-40, LW 18). Jrue Holiday being out is a big blow, he has been playing at a near All-NBA level and off the court has become more of the face of the franchise (after the Anthony Davis situation). Rookie guard Frank Jackson has stepped up with some strong games in Holiday’s absence, which is about all there is to root for if you’re a Pelicans fan.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (30-37, LW 19). The vultures are circling. Needing to make a playoff push the Hornets have instead lost 7-of-9, and now the rumors about Kemba Walker being unhappy and wanting out are growing louder (I had heard from sources right after the trade deadline he was frustrated the team didn’t make a move. Charlotte plays Miami in Sunday, one of the teams they are battling with for the last playoff slot in the East, they need that win.

Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (28-40, LW 24). Memphis’ first-round pick this year is top 8 protected, and considering it’s a softer draft (and the Grizzlies are just starting their rebuild) they wouldn’t mind letting Boston have it this year (and keeping it in the future). That means winning more now, and the Grizzlies have done just that, with victories in 5-of-7 (thanks to the best defense in the league in that stretch, a 100.3 net rating). Currently, they have the seventh-worst record in the league (85.8% chance they keep the pick) but keep winning and the odds Boston gets it climb fast.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (28-39, LW 23). Washington’s playoff chances are not dead — it is 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot (Miami) but they have a 10% chance of making up that ground and getting in, according to fivethirtyeight.com. That makes Wednesday’s game against Orlando and Friday against Charlotte critical — all three of those teams are in the same playoff chase, a couple of wins there and the Wizards chances get much more realistic. Lose both and they can book the hotel in Cabo for mid-April.

Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (31-36, LW 22). Luke Walton is going to take the fall for this Lakers’ season, which is not completely fair because the roster he was given to work with by management was flawed and needed perfect health and some breaks to make the playoffs. That didn’t happen (Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are shut down for the season now). The question becomes, where do the Lakers get their next coach? Who can they get that LeBron James will respect and buy into? There is not an obvious upgrade just sitting on the open market, but this will be the first big test for management in a summer it has to nail.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (23-45, LW 25). Here’s what should have Atlanta fans pumped about the future: In their last 10 games, the Hawks are +5.9 points per 100 when Trae Young and John Collins are on the court together. That pair is the cornerstone of the future for the Hawks, and it’s looking promising. In the loss to the Nets last weekend, Young had his first triple-double and Collins added 33 points and 20 rebounds in the game. The Hawks are going to take a step forward next season, just watch.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-40, LW 26). The long season seems to be catching up with Luka Doncic. In his last five games he’s still averaging 20.4 points per game, but he’s shooting just 27.8% from three and 37.5% overall. Against San Antonio Tuesday he had his worst game of the season, 5-of-18 shooting, 1-of-7 from three, and even 1-of-9 from the free throw line. What you had to like is the frustrated Doncic went in and worked on his game immediately after that showing, vowing it would not happen again.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (16-52, LW 29). The Suns are not taking for Zion — they have won 5-of-7 and that includes beating the Warriors and the Bucks. The biggest key is that Kelly Oubre has been a fit, and averaged 18.9 points a game since put in the starting lineup, providing another shot creation and scoring option for Phoenix.

Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (19-50, LW 27). What has Zach LaVine done to step up his game this season? Get to the rim. Before his injury (his three seasons in Minnesota) LaVine took 33% to 35% of his shots at the rim, but this season that is up to 49% (stats via Cleaning the Glass). He can get to the rim whenever he wants and is finishing a solid 61% of those shots. He’s taking fewer midrangers also and has found a steady stroke from three (although he should get and take more corner threes, he’s deadly there).

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (17-51, LW 28). Collin Sexton was not the instant star some of the other guys in the last draft have been, but he has steadily improved throughout the season. Last week he broke Kyrie Irving’s franchise record for triple-doubles as a rookie. He’s got work to do, particularly on the defensive end, but he’s taking steps in the right direction.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-55, LW 30). Zion Williamson will return from injury to play in the ACC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament for Duke. While have been fans and pundits calling for him to shut it down, it speaks to his makeup and desire that he wants to play and wants to win with his teammates, not just sit back and wait until he gets paid. With him, and particularly how Zion improves their defense, the Blue Devils have a real shot to win it all. What… you want to talk about the Knicks? Come on.

Three Things to Know: C.J. McCollum singlehandedly outscores Clippers in fourth

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LOS ANGELES — 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. Tonight we come from Staples Center.

1) C.J. McCollum singlehandedly outscores Clippers in fourth, Portland picks up a key road win. C.J. McCollum was all smiles Tuesday night.

For one thing, the Canton, Ohio, native was pumped his Cleveland Browns traded for Odell Beckham Jr. “We’ve waited a long time for this,” McCollum said.

Then there was his 35-point night against the Clippers. That started off slow — he missed his first seven shots and didn’t get his first bucket until there was 2.7 seconds left in the first half — but when it mattered McCollum was the difference. In the fourth quarter he scored 23 points on 8-of-9 shooting to take over the game, singlehandedly outscoring a Clippers team that had 20 points on 8-of-24 shooting.

“What was it like to watch?” the Clippers’ Lou Williams said of McCollum’s fourth. “It’s not a good time.”

“I don’t ever get gun shy,” McCollum said. “I’ve missed a lot of shots in my career, and percentage wise you’re going to miss more than you make, especially from three. You just have to stay confident, stay aggressive, and know who you are.”

Portland turned a one-point lead heading into the fourth quarter into a 125-104 victory, outscoring the Clippers 40-20 in the final frame. In a tight West, games like this against other playoff teams matter. Portland is currently tied for the 4/5 seed with Oklahoma City, and 1.5 behind three-seed Houston. Those teams could land in any order by the time the playoffs start.

The same is true of the 6-7-8 seeds in the West — which includes the Clippers. Los Angeles sits as the six seed right now, but just one game separates them, San Antonio, and Utah for those final three spots. (Sacramento is four games out of the playoffs, they are not making up that ground late in the season.)

Despite the loss, there’s an energy and confidence in the Clippers locker room. They had three games in four nights against strong NBA teams — Boston, Oklahoma City, and now Portland — and they won two of them. But on the second night of a back-to-back, the Clippers’ legs started to get tired and that’s all the space McCollum needed

“You could tell, [Lou] Williams didn’t have the same energy tonight,” Clipper coach Doc Rivers said. “Overall, none of us did. I thought it was a very winnable game until that stretch [in the fourth quarter].”

Both of these teams are going to be tough outs come the West playoffs. Portland has one of the league’s best backcourts with Damian Lillard and McCollum, they have size up front, they can defend, they have a good bench (most nights), and they have experience.

The Clippers have a real energy and physicality. Montrezl Harrell is a beast off the bench, Lou Williams is a scoring machine who attacks and draws fouls, Danilo Gallinari (who was rested Tuesday night) gets them buckets, and those three are surrounded by versatile role players. The Clippers may not win their first-round series, but whoever they face is going to come out beat up on the other side.

2) LeBron put on his own personal dunk contest in Chicago. The Lakers have not been entertaining to watch of late, but LeBron James decided to change that in Chicago Tuesday night. He had 36 points in his limited minutes, and he was putting on a dunking exhibition inside the United Center.

Earlier there was this.

Those two were just part of the highlights. This was the bounciest LeBron has looked since his injury.

3) NBA players, community applaud Jazz banning fan who crossed he line with Russell Westbrook. The NBA was buzzing Tuesday about what had happened Monday night, when Russell Westbrook had gotten into it with a Utah Jazz fan who had crossed the line with his comments.

Tuesday, after an investigation (where witnesses were interviewed and video watched), the Jazz banned the fan from the arena for life. Players around the league applauded the move, saying too often people who cross the clear-line boundary from heckling about the game to off-the-table personal matters don’t face punishment. Jazz forward Thabo Sefolosha backed Westbrook, for one.

Donovan Mitchell backed his team and implored the fans to do better.

LeBron James applauded the Jazz.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers summed it up well.

“We forget that this is a human game sometimes, the players have to be human, and the fans have to be human,” Rivers said. “What I always tell our players is that human decency comes into play — be decent to the fans, in a human way, and they need to be that to you. And if they’re not, if [the player] can not react, that’d be great. But sometimes as a human it’s very difficult not to react. But either way you alert people. And I thought that’s what happened. They handled it well.”

Three Things to Know: LeBron James, Lakers will almost certainly miss playoffs

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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) The Lakers lost a big game to the Clippers. With a chance to gain ground on the team they were chasing for the playoffs, the Lakers had all their usual problems – shooting, defense, injury – in a loss to the Clippers last night. Kurt Helin was there and wrote about it.

The fact this was a big game is a tribute to LeBron James.

This loss has the Lakers’ postseason pursuit nearly completely unraveled. But they were barely hanging on by a thread, anyway. They’re now 5.5 games and two teams out of playoff position with 18 games remaining. They’re as close in the standings to the 14th-place Grizzlies as the eight-place Spurs. Most struggling teams get written off even before last night’s loss.

But LeBron demands attention and respect. Look at the Cavaliers team he carried to the NBA Finals last year. It was tough to rule out the possibility he’d drag these Lakers at least to the playoffs. Somehow, someway.

That he almost certainly won’t is a huge blow to the NBA. The league’s premier teams – Lakers and Knicks – are now each going on six straight years without making the playoffs. That leaves a lot of revenue on the table.

It seemed LeBron would be the antidote to Los Angeles’ struggles. That hasn’t happened as quickly as hoped.

Maybe Kevin Durant will straighten out New York next year.

2) The Clippers are good and feeling good. Before the season, Patrick Beverley declared the Clippers the best team in L.A. After last night’s win, he took an earned victory lap.

Ben Golliver of The Washington Post:

Jovan Buha of The Athletic:

The Clippers are in transition. They’ve kept their books clean to chase stars like Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant next summer. They traded their best player, Tobias Harris, shortly before the trade deadline for primarily draft picks. They owe the Celtics a first-round pick if they make the playoffs.

But this starless team has remained competitive. The Clippers feisty and take advantage of their depth by always playing hard.

Credit owner Steve Ballmer, who set the tone for a playoff push amid directional uncertainty. Credit Doc Rivers for getting a team full of players on expiring contracts to pull the same direction. And credit these players – including Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams and Beverley – for being tougher, harder-working and just plain better than so many of their opponents.

3) Dwyane Wade brought a new element to his jersey swaps – surprise. In his final season, Wade has swapped jerseys with an opponent after most games. Usually, these photo-ops seem pre-arranged. Wade has already picked and informed the opposing player before the game.

But after the Heat’s win over the Hawks last night, Wade swapped jerseys with rookie Kevin Huerter, who wears No. 3 because of Wade. Both Wade and Huerter said the Atlanta guard had no idea in advance, and Huerter looked thrilled. It was an especially fun moment:

Kyle Kuzma shoves LeBron James to try to get him in defensive position

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LOS ANGELES — The Lakers’ defense has been dreadful.

In the 13 games since LeBron James returned from his groin injury, the Lakers have the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 116.3 points per 100 possessions. Their effort has been up and down, but they have lacked basic defensive recognition and cohesion.

It got to the point Monday night in a devastating loss to the Clippers that Kyle Kuzma shoved LeBron James to try to get him to close out on Danilo Gallinari, the Clippers best shooter (and leading scorer on the night).

This is on Kuzma, not LeBron. Watch the clip and you see LeBron was guarding Montrezl Harrell, Kuzma is on Gallinari and just falls asleep and lets him get open. Then Kuzma shoves LeBron to get him out there, even though it’s not LeBron’s man.

Kuzma would later leave the game with an ankle injury that, while the X-rays were negative, coach Luke Walton said would probably sideline him for at least a game. Another injury to a banged up Lakers’ team.

The Lakers are 4-9 since LeBron came back from his groin injury, 2-4 since the All-Star break when LeBron “activated” playoff mode. The defense is the reason — and the reason their playoff dreams are all but dead.