Marcus Morris

Leon Rose Kevin Knox
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Leon Rose reportedly ‘not sold’ on Knicks’ Kevin Knox

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In his sophomore season, Kevin Knox moved to the bench after the front office signed a plethora of other forwards, he played 10 fewer minutes a game than he did as a rookie, his true shooting percentage remained basically flat at a dreadful 47%. Across the board, the advanced stats do not love his game.

Knox also is still just 20 years old. Is he part of the Knicks’ future?

New team president Leon Rose isn’t sure, reports Marc Berman at the New York Post.

Rookie president Leon Rose, who has not spoken to the media since his hiring, is not sold on Knox and desperately wanted to see him in the now-scrapped final 16 games, sources told The Post…

Former Knicks coach David Fizdale failed to reach Knox in the season’s first two months. [Interim coach Mike] Miller did no better. Maybe defensive genius Tom Thibodeau or player-development ace Kenny Atkinson can. After the Marcus Morris trade at the Feb. 6 trade deadline, Miller opted to keep Knox coming off the bench because his defense still wasn’t up to winning standards.

We’ve heard this rumor before, and the 16 games the Knicks didn’t play meant Rose did not get a chance to evaluate Knox up close.

It is far too early to write Knox off as a future contributor. Knox’s physical gifts are unquestioned, but he needs to be more aggressive attacking the rim and find the ability to finish there, he needs to be able to knock down a three, and his defense needs to improve. Confidence is a big part of that, Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne told Berman of the Post.

Rose has a decision to make this coming offseason, whether to pick up the 2021-22 option for Knox worth $5.8 million. Either way, Knox is playing for his future paychecks next season, he’s got to prove some real value.

Mock NBA expansion draft: Warriors, Clippers, Lakers, Suns, Kings

Mock NBA expansion draft
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The NBA season is on hiatus. NBC Sports is not – even if we have to venture into fantasy.

We’re holding a mock NBA expansion draft. Keith Smith is setting protected lists for existing teams. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman will run two new teams as this project culminates in an expansion draft.

Current teams can protect up to eight players. Each team must make at least one player available. If selected, restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents. Pending options can be decided before or after the expansion draft at the discretion of the option-holder. Anyone selected in the expansion draft can’t return to his prior team for one year. Players entering unrestricted free agency and players on two-way contracts are essentially ignored.

We’re unveiling protected/unprotected lists by division (here is the Atlantic Division and the Central Division). Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Pacific:

Golden State Warriors

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 0

Analysis: The Warriors have their core together with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins. Ky Bowman, Marquese Chriss, Damion Lee and Eric Paschall provide value on minimum contracts. That’s all the Warriors need to protect.

Golden State wouldn’t mind seeing Kevon Looney or Jordan Poole selected to get the salaries off the cap sheet. The rest of the players are ones the Warriors won’t lose any sleep over if they’re drafted.

L.A. Clippers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: L.A. has its main guys with four starters under contract. They aren’t being exposed here. The other three players are key bench contributors on good contracts. And Kabengele and Mann were just drafted. Easy decisions across the board for the Clippers.

L.A. could lose Green as a free agent. The Clippers also bet he does undrafted and could return. Rodney McGruder makes too much money for his role.

Los Angeles Lakers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 5

Analysis: The Lakers and Anthony Davis will work out that he’ll opt out before the expansion draft, which makes him ineligible. The rest of the players are role players that Los Angeles would rather keep around LeBron James than risk losing.

Los Angeles won’t be upset to see Quinn Cook or Rajon Rondo selected. They’re both replacement-level players for the Lakers at this point.

Phoenix Suns

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 1

Analysis: Phoenix keeps it simple and protects all the guys who are part of its core. The Suns could have left Dario Saric unprotected, but by protecting Saric, they keep the flexibility to re-sign him as a restricted free agent. The rest are all easy decisions.

Of the unprotected players, none of have established themselves as NBA rotation players. If any are selected, Phoenix won’t lose any sleep over it.

Sacramento Kings

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: The Kings will protect their five starters and three key reserves. Cory Joseph is a decision-point, but considering De’Aaron Fox’s injury issues, Joseph is too valuable to let walk away.

Sacramento won’t mind if Jabari Parker is selected, but they aren’t going to pay anyone to do it. Justin James has been an interesting prospect, but the Kings won’t stress if he gets selected.

NBA Power Rankings: Lakers, Clippers move up into top two spots

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We have a new No. 1, with their dominant weekend the Lakers move into the top spot, with the Clippers still right on their heels. Houston took a tumble after a rough patch of losses.

 
Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (49-14, Last Week No. 2). In a dominant weekend with two wins over the next two teams in these rankings, the Lakers played to the strengths that will make them tough to beat come the postseason. One is LeBron James’ IQ — his ability to read the game, hunt the mismatches, and dictate play to his liking is unparalleled. The other is the size of the Lakers’ stars — the 6’9” LeBron and the 6’10” Anthony Davis are hard to match up with because they are so big and skilled. A trap game loss to Brooklyn followed those big weekend wins.

 
Clippers small icon 2. Clippers (44-20, LW 4). Marcus Morris continues to struggle adapting to his new role and situation in Los Angeles, shooting just 38.6% on 9.5 shots a game, and 28.3% from three. He struggled against the Lakers on Sunday and the Clippers need him to be a scoring option when it gets to the second round of the playoffs and beyond. Doc Rivers also has to find a solution to the Lou Williams/Montrezl Harrell defensive issues at the end of games, the Lakers weren’t the first team to target Lou-Will in close games.

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (53-12, LW 1). Fortunately it doesn’t appear the Giannis Antetokounmpo’s knee injury is anything serious, he’s missed two games and likely will miss a few more as Milwaukee will wisely error on the side of caution. The Bucks are running away with the East and what matters is getting the Greek Freak, Eric Bledsoe (who has to be better in the playoffs than he was against the Lakers), Brook Lopez and everyone else healthy before the postseason starts.

 
Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (46-18, LW 6). Norman Powell came back from injury and was on fire. In his last five games he has averaged 23.6 points per game on 54.7 percent shooting, while hitting 39.4 percent from three, helping carry the Raptors to a string of wins (four in a row). Then, as his season has gone, he sprained his ankle 1:35 into Monday’s game against Utah. Toronto just cannot get and stay healthy this season.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (43-21, LW 5). Reality hit Boston in the past week as they had Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward all missing time with injuries, plus Jayson Tatum’s shooting returned to human levels — they dropped 4-of-5 before a win Tuesday. Boston needs to get everyone, particularly Walker, right before the playoffs start, even if that means sacrificing some games. Boston’s win in Indiana Tuesday started a string of 7-of-9 on the road.

 
Heat small icon 6. Heat (41-23, LW 9). Winners of 5-of-6 with a soft schedule ahead this week, Miami seems on target to hold on to the four seed and be home for the first round of the playoffs (likely against Philly or Indy). To win either of those matchups they will need playoff Jimmy Butler, and he sat out the second half against Charlotte with a toe issue. Expect him to get a little time off down the stretch to make sure he is right when the playoffs tip-off.

 
Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (40-24, LW 10). Winners of 8-of-10, and the only two losses in that stretch are to the Bucks and Clippers. Oklahoma City is trying to track down Utah for the four seed and to have home court in the first round, and with two games against the Jazz on the schedule — including one Wednesday night — that looks like a doable goal for Chris Paul and company. It helps that they will get Shai Gilgeous-Alexander back healthy for that game.

 
Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (43-21, LW 7). A couple of wins (against Charlotte and what was left of Milwaukee) do not cover up the fact Denver’s defense is 5.7 points per 100 possessions worse since the All-Star break. It forced coach Mike Malone to keep Michael Porter Jr. on the bench against Charlotte (he’s not yet much of a defender). The Nuggets need to find that defense fast with 7-of-8 on the road starting tonight in Dallas (and the one home game in that stretch is the Clippers).

 
Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (40-24, LW 3). Houston’s small-ball caught teams off guard at first, and the Rockets won 10-of-12 when they first committed to it. However, the tide turned and they lost four in a row before beating the struggling Timberwolves Tuesday night? It’s not been one simple problem, the Rockets have been bottom seven in the league on offense — James Harden can’t buy a three and Russell Westbrook isn’t finishing the same way — and defense in the last five games. Now they are at the Lakers and Trail Blazers before the schedule softens up into next week.

 
Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (39-27, LW 8). Dallas will make the playoffs, but it has a real motivation to string together some wins — they currently sit as the seven seed and that means the Clippers in the first round. If the Mavericks can make up two games and pass either the Rockets or Thunder then Dallas likely gets Denver in the first round, a much better matchup for them.

 
Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (39-26, LW 11). Indiana went 4-1 on a recent string of road games, but keeping both Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo healthy at the same time has proven a challenge. The pair has played just 10 games together this season and now Brogdon is week-to-week with a torn left rectus femoris (which connects the hip and quadricep). Indy needs to keep finding wins, injured or not, if they are going to hold off the 76ers for the five seed in the East.

 
Sixers small icon 12. 76ers (38-26, LW 12). With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons out, the 76ers defense has fallen apart, worst in the NBA over the last five games. That was expected, what wasn’t expected was Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson stepping up and getting Philly to play its best offense of the season over those same five games. Embiid should return in the next week to stabilize the 76ers defense, but the team is just hoping Simmons can return from the pinched nerve in his lower back before the playoffs.

 
Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (41-23, LW 13). Utah beat up on the East (at least until it ran into Toronto) and a five-game win streak moved them back up to the four seed in the West, but now the real tests come (starting with surging Oklahoma City Wednesday). Joe Ingles struggled at first when returned to the bench, but he has found a groove of late with Jordan Clarkson and the two of them have made Utah’s bench formidable again, which could help keep them in the top four and at home for the first round of the playoffs.

 
Magic small icon 14. Magic (30-35, LW 16). The Magic have won three in a row, right after losing three in a row. That inconsistency comes because the defense — that was the best thing about the Magic earlier in the season — is 25th in the league since the All-Star break. Orlando is just trying to outscore teams (they have the best offense in the league since the All-Star Game), and that always leads to inconsistent results. Orlando needs to string together some wins and get in front of Brooklyn to avoid the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

 
Grizzlies small icon 15. Grizzlies (32-33, LW 14). For Memphis, the playoffs have started — every game the rest of the way has meaning, especially Thursday night’s showdown with Portland (and the looming home-and-home with New Orleans in a week). The good news for Memphis is they may be more healthy for some of these games, they are expected to get Jaren Jackson Jr. (left knee soreness) and Justise Winslow (back soreness) back on the court. It’s going to be a little longer for Brandon Clarke, but he should return this season.

 
Nets small icon 16. Nets (30-34, LW 17). While there are tabloids full of speculation about Brooklyn off the court, they have rattled off three straight wins on it, including an upset of the Lakers on Tuesday. The Nets and Magic are in a “we don’t want to face the Bucks in the first round” race for the seven seed (not that Toronto or Boston would be a picnic). With Jacque Vaughn as coach, DeAndre Jordan (the good friend of Durant/Irving) is back in the starting lineup and Jarrett Allen is coming off the bench (in case you had any questions about who has the power on this team).

Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (28-36, LW 15). The Pelicans have been one of the unluckiest teams in the NBA this season, they have the point differential of .500 team — they should be 32-32 — according to Cleaning the Glass’ calculations. Basketball reference suggests more like 30-34. Even with the worse of those records the Pelicans would be just 1.5 games out of the playoffs and look like more of a lock with their soft schedule the last month of the season, as it is fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 60% chance to catch and pass the Grizzlies for the eighth seed. To get to that soft part of the schedule, the Pelicans have to play a rough week of the hot Kings (another team in the playoff hunt), at the Jazz, then at the Clippers.

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (28-36, LW 18). Quietly the hottest team in the chase for the eight seed, they have won 7-of-10 and that includes a big weekend win against Portland. Sacramento is digging itself out of a hole from its 12-22 start to the season, which makes one wonder if the combination of a new coach, a trip for a preseason game in India, and some new faces took an especially hard toll on them (it may not be, the Pacers did the same trip and started 22-12).

 
Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (29-37, LW 19). Jusuf Nurkic is expected to make his return to the court Sunday against Houston — and they need him back for their playoff push. It’s less about the offense, although he provides some interior scoring, it’s on defense where he can protect the rim and be a big body inside that keeps teams from getting to the rim. Before that, Portland faces Memphis on Thursday night in what feels like a must-win game for the Blazers down the stretch.

 
Spurs small icon 20. Spurs (27-36, LW 20). Can the return of LaMarcus Aldridge to the rotation turn around the Spurs’ playoff push (he helped them get a win in his debut). San Antonio quietly keep hanging around the playoff chase in the West, it are just four games back of Memphis, but making up that ground when the Spurs play such poor defense is the reason fivethirtyeight.com gives them just a two percent chance of keeping their playoff streak alive.

 
Suns small icon 21. Suns (26-39, LW 22). Phoenix may be out of the playoff picture but it is not going quietly into that good night — Ricky Rubio racked up a triple-double in a win against the (shorthanded) Bucks, and Devon Booker is getting heavy minutes from coach Monty Williams. Phoenix has played fairly well on the road this season (13-17), which is good because eight of their next 10 games are away from home.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-40, LW 21). Bradley Beal is lighting up the league and making a serious All-NBA push (no matter how bad the team around him is). In his last 10 games, Beal has averaged 37.5 points per night and is hitting 48.1% of his threes on nearly 11 attempts a game. Beal may have to keep putting up numbers in losses because the Wizards have the toughest remaining schedule in the East.

 
Hornets small icon 23. Hornets (22-42, LW 26). Charlotte has dropped four—of-five, but in a league without moral victories, these look a lot like moral victories. They pushed the Bucks, lost by one to the Spurs and two to the Nuggets, beat the Rockets, then went double OT with Atlanta. PJ Washington is a find and is going to be a key part of whatever is ultimately put together through this rebuild process in Charlotte.

 
Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (22-43, LW 24). The Bulls have started to get healthy with Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen all back, but take Zach LaVine out of the offense and it falls apart for the Bulls. At least now Coby White is finally starting, in the 10 games since the All-Star break he is averaging 24.7 points a game and shooting 40.7 percent from three.

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (20-45, LW 25). Who will be the Knicks next head coach? Does Leon Rose want a player development and culture guy? Because if so that team just over the bridge let Kenny Atkinson go. Or, as expected, are the Knicks going to look hard at veteran guys like Mark Jackson or Tyronn Lue. The name I keep hearing from sources is Tom Thibodeau, although part of that is just people connecting the dots because Thibs and Rose are friends.

Pistons small icon 26. Pistons (20-45, LW 23). Detroit has dropped four in a row and 11-of-12, with the worst offense in the NBA during that stretch (on the sort of bright side, the defense is just outside the bottom 10). Still, this team has some players to watch down the stretch in Christian Wood and Sekou Doumbouya (Wood is playing for his next contract right now, and that’s always good motivation.

 
Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (19-46, LW 29). There will be no coaching search, Cleveland locked up J.B. Bickerstaff as their man with a multi-year contract. The Cavaliers are a respectable 5-6 since he took over mid-season, and more importantly Bickerstaff has a good relationship with both the young players on the team and the front office. This is a good hire for their long-term rebuilding plan (which is what they should be focused on).

 
28. Timberwolves (19-45, LW 28). Malik Beasley has been tearing it up for the Timberwolves. He was acquired as part of that massive four-team trade where Minnesota’s primary target was D’Angelo Russell, but Beasley is averaging 20.7 points per game and is shooting 42.6 percent from three. This has been the best stretch of basketball in his career, and it’s well timed right before he hits free agency this summer.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (20-46, LW 27). Cam Reddish has started to find his groove of late, in his last five games he has averaged 18.6 points per game and shot 56.7 percent from three. He scored 28 points against Washington’s “defense” last Friday night. There are flashes of bright spots around this team but everything good seems undone by their defense, that end of the floor has to be the focus this summer and heading into next season in Atlanta if they have playoff dreams.

 
Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (15-50 LW 30). The Warriors found another player who may be able to play a role for them next year in Mychal Mulder. A good shooter at the G-League level, he came to the Warriors on a 10-day contract and averaged 11 points a game, showing a little promise as a shooter and starting to find more of a comfort level as he is around longer. The Warriors signed him on a good multi-year contract and he could be a nice role player for them off the bench next season.

LeBron James reminds everyone road to Larry O’Brien Trophy still goes through him

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LOS ANGELES — For nearly a decade, any team that wanted to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy had to go through LeBron James. Whether he was in Cleveland or Miami or back in Cleveland, he was the best player in the league on the best team in the East. Want a ring? Then beat LeBron. Teams like the Spurs and Warriors did, but it was never easy.

Last season, LeBron and the Lakers were not in the title picture. Blame LeBron’s groin injury or him moving to the West or the team built around him, but for the first time in a long time, the road to the Finals did not go through LeBron.

It does again.

LeBron proved that this weekend. With wins over the Bucks on Friday night and Clippers on Sunday, LeBron’s Lakers established themselves as title favorites. Once again, any team with title aspirations is going to have to go through LeBron.

“It’s a really good weekend for us, playing against two of the best teams, the top two (other) teams in the league record-wise,” LeBron said.

After being at both games this weekend at Staples Center, I am more convinced that the ultimate champion this season will be one of these three teams — the Lakers, Clippers, or Bucks.

Let’s break down what we learned about the title chances of each this weekend.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

This weekend was a boost for the Lakers’ confidence.

The players and coaching staff have said all the right things about already believing in themselves, about the process of getting better, about there not being statement games in March — but the fact remains they were 0-3 vs. the Bucks and Clippers this season. If that had become 0-5 this weekend, the vibe around this team would have been very different.

Now they’ve beaten the league’s other two elite teams in consecutive games. The Lakers established themselves as championship favorites.

However, for LeBron to add to his legacy by bringing another title to the Lakers, it means replicating everything that went right this weekend for full series at the end of May and into June. What LeBron gave his team this weekend was a roadmap to a ring, but following that map will be anything but easy.

What does Los Angeles have to do?

It starts with LeBron James playing as well as anyone on the planet — MVP-level LeBron has to show up every night for the Lakers to have a chance. This feels like the one thing the Lakers can most count on.

Next, Anthony Davis has to show up every night — he had 30 points in each game this weekend, plus played fantastic defense. Again, this feels like something the Lakers can bank on happening, but unlike with LeBron we haven’t seen Davis do it because he’s never been as deep as he’s about to go in the playoffs. He has to prove himself on the game’s biggest stages, and while everyone expects he will the question still hangs in the air.

The Lakers also have to keep defending like they did this weekend — which is going to mean a lot of energy expended by LeBron and Davis because they are the Lakers’ best players on that end as well. That said, the Lakers have the third-best defense in the NBA this season, there is no reason to think that will not continue into the playoffs.

Finally, someone else has to step up on offense every game. The Lakers got an impressive 24 points and key three-point shooting from Avery Bradley against the Clippers.

“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.”

It doesn’t have to be Bradley every night, it could be Kyle Kuzma or Danny Green or whomever, but Davis and LeBron are going to need help every night.

Do all that, and the Lakers will have another championship banner.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

The Clippers should walk away from Sunday’s loss with some lessons learned and thinking, “we can beat these guys.”

They know that Bradley won’t shoot that well most nights. They know Marcus Morris — who has struggled with his shot adjusting to his new, smaller role with the Clippers — will shoot better most nights. The Clippers can improve their ball and player movement and be a little less isolation based (although they always are going to be a heavy isolation team).

The Clippers should be thinking, “we beat the Lakers twice this season and can beat them four out of seven.” Because they can.

However, the Clippers have faced end-of-game lineup questions all season, and LeBron and the Lakers’ exploited them on Sunday. That is the question Doc Rivers and company has to answer.

Specifically, the Clippers like to close games with Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris, Montrezl Harrell, and Lou Williams — and the Lakers hunted Williams. Every time down. Williams is a poor on-ball defender, and with Harrell at the five the Clippers do not have a lot of shot blocking behind him. LeBron torched the Clippers and Williams and got into the paint at will in the fourth quarter. That’s a problem.

Rivers has to adjust, but every option has trade-offs. The most likely answer is to sit Williams and replace him with Patrick Beverley, but the Clippers surrender a lot of offensive creation with that. The other option is to keep Williams in but replace Harrell with Ivica Zubac for the rim protection, but that hurts in terms of energy and Zubac has his own defensive issues. After Sunday’s game, Rivers acknowledged he had these other options but chose not to use them.

In the playoffs, Rivers will have to make those trade-offs and he knows it. He’s won a ring before, he gets it. The Clippers can’t allow LeBron — or the best player on another team — to hunt Williams and attack him like that in the clutch.

One other thing, something that should come with more time together on the court for the Clippers’ core, is just better crunch time offensive decision making. There were fourth-quarter possessions with Leonard, George, and Williams on the floor, yet the Clippers offense was Harrell going in isolation to try and exploit Markieff Morris. The Clippers had better options, they need to recognize those and go to them. Relentlessly.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

There was a time when people said, “Michael Jordan can’t win the big one” because his teams couldn’t get past the Bad Boy Pistons. There was a time when critics said LeBron would never lead a team to a ring because he was no Jordan — LeBron kept making the right basketball play and passed rather than shot in clutch spots.

The Bucks now have their “this is just a regular-season team” critics. Some wonder if they can get past Boston in the East.

Put simply: In the eyes of critics the Bucks will never be able to win it all — until they do. That’s the zone Milwaukee lives in right now.

This weekend didn’t change that. The Bucks have been clear and away the best team in the NBA this season, and it’s not close. They have the likely MVP (this weekend didn’t change that, sorry LeBron fans) and the best defense in the league. The Bucks are contenders.

However, it’s fair to question how they will respond in the later rounds of the playoffs when teams have the talent and scheme to make life difficult for Giannis Antetokounmpo — Miami did that last Monday, the Lakers on Friday, both Bucks losses. What is the Bucks’ Plan B?

The Lakers did that with LeBron’s defense on Friday night and key guys did not step up — Eric Bledsoe was 5-of-13 and Kris Middleton 5-of-19. The second best Bucks player was Donte DiVincenzo — which was fun, but not sustainable if the Bucks want to contend.

The knock on Mike Budenholzer in the playoffs has been his teams are not flexible and don’t have that backup plan. He didn’t even play Antetokounmpo that much more last season in the playoffs, fewer than two additional minutes a game. That’s his best weapon — Antetokounmpo is averaging 30.9 minutes a game this season, but come the playoffs that should be 39 minutes a game. Or more. If you have the best player in the game, play him. (First, the Bucks need to get him healthy, let him rest as long as he needs to so that sprained knee heals, then rest him a couple more games just to be sure.)

Then someone else needs to step up nightly. Bledsoe simply has to be good in the playoffs, he cannot disappear. Middleton has generally had strong playoffs, but that has to continue. Other players, even DiVincenzo, have to step up.

At the very least, the Bucks need to reach the NBA Finals this season. Otherwise this will be a tremendous disappointment. And that would lead to even bigger “what will Antetokounmpo do?” questions.

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.