LeBron James to teams that may target him on defense: “Come on with it”

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The Lakers’ defense — which bounced between respectable and good the first half of the season — has come apart of late, and it’s the main reason it’s easy to see the Lakers missing the playoffs. They are bottom 10 in the league defensively over their last 10 games. There are multiple reasons and multiple people to blame for this. The roster was not built with players who would provide consistent rim protection (JaVale McGee does it for stretches but can be exposed, and Tyson Chandler is running on fumes). There is not a great defensive identity from coach Luke Walton that the team has bought into. The Lakers miss Lonzo Ball, who is out with a bone bruise in his ankle (Rajon Rondo gets torched at the point of attack a lot). The list goes on.

LeBron James has been part of the problem as well — he has been slow to get back in transition, he has not rotated out to shooters, and at points he seems to stand around off the ball. He is capable, for a stretch, of dialing up great defense, but it’s not something he does for the entire game. Which is exactly what was happening in Cleveland, but it got overlooked because the rest of that roster, in the East, was still good enough to be a threat to make the Finals (which they did). In the West, these Lakers are not even a playoff team.

Which has led to a lot of criticism from fans, media and others about LeBron’s defense. He pushed back on that speaking to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports — LeBron said go ahead and target him.

“I mean, every team has the right if they want to single me out defensively. Come on with it,” James told Yahoo Sports. “Hey, listen, come on with it. Every team has the right to be like, ‘Oh, ’Bron’s over there.’ Hey, just come on with it. … We’ll see what happens.”

As for the noise around the Lakers and the level of criticism he has faced this season.

“I really don’t care. Criticism doesn’t bother me…”

“So if [teams are] switching out on me with a guard and me having to try to get a stop, I mean, guys, they’re going to score. These are NBA players. I just try to make it tough on them. I tried to make it tough on Julius [Randle] all night, and obviously he was a monster [with a game-high 35 points], but I tried to make it tough on Jrue as well. To be able to get that stop for our team and then be able to make that shot for our team, that’s motivating for me. That’s all that matters to me.”

The Lakers problems — which are not solved with a win at home against a stumbling Pelicans team sitting Anthony Davis in the fourth — are multiple.

However, they all go back to roster construction. The Lakers were not going to give out multiple-year contracts to preserve cap space for this summer, so they got veterans willing to settle for one-year deals. Guys without better options. Sure, some players want to suit up with LeBron in Los Angeles, but not more than they want to get paid. Not on a Laker team that clearly was not ready to contend yet. The Lakers got what they paid for.

We all expected LeBron to still be able to lift this team into the playoffs.

Maybe if he’d stayed healthy all 82 games he could have, but he missed time with a groin injury and this roster simply isn’t good enough to lift him up, too. Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and the young guys are doing their part, but the “preserve the cap space” veterans just aren’t that good.

Which means if the Lakers don’t do something impressive with that cap space next summer the real drama will start.

Three Things to Know: Activated? Laker bench veterans are disaster in ugly loss to Grizzlies

Associated Press
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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) Activated? Disconnect more like it. Laker bench veterans disaster in an ugly loss to Grizzlies. How much trouble are the Lakers playoff hopes in? Fivethirtyeight.com projects the Clippers and Spurs to finish with 44 wins and get the final two playoff seeds in the West. For the Lakers to get to 45 wins and be in they need to go 16-6 the rest of the way.

LeBron James said he activated playoff mode early — and Monday night he had a triple-double of 24 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists (which moved him into fifth, past Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time triple-double list) — but the Laker bench was a disaster in a 110-105 loss to a Memphis team that traded away Marc Gasol, is without Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson due to injury, and is trying to lose games so they keep their pick in the draft. Yet those Grizzlies played with more poise, cohesion, and passion.

LeBron keeps blaming guys not focused on the game — is basketball the most important thing in your life? After this loss it was, “If you’re still allowing distractions to affect the way you play, this is the wrong franchise to be a part of.”

It feels like that is a shot at the young Lakers.

It shouldn’t be. It’s the veterans — the guys Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka signed last summer who have been the problem. It was that way Monday night — the Laker bench of Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tyson Chandler, Lance Stephenson, the traded for Mike Muscala, and Josh Hart went 3-of-14 shooting for 7 total points in 70 minutes of game action. It’s not just this one game, either.

Rather than put shooters around LeBron, Magic said the Lakers wanted to go their own way, bring in the veteran playmakers, but only the ones they could get on one-year deals. This is the result. The Lakers get pushed around inside, they lack a game-managing point guard (Rondo isn’t that guy anymore, and it is not Lonzo Ball’s strength, plus Ball is out with a bone bruise in his ankle anyway) and they have stopped caring on defense. And if LeBron wants to complain about defensive effort, well…

Brandon Ingram had 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting against Memphis and was aggressive again — he had another strong game. Although, Avery Bradley broke Ingram’s ankles at one point.

Kyle Kuzma had 22 points in his one. He continues to play consistently well.

Which is to say the guys at the heart of all those Anthony Davis trade talks were just fine, maybe the trade talks did not destroy the psyche of this team. It’s the veterans that are the issue.

Going 16-6 seems like a longshot at best after this loss. The way the Lakers are defending right now, they might as well start ending their team huddles with “1-2-3 Cancun.”

2) James Harden’s 30+ points per game streak comes to an end in Rockets win over Hawks. It had to end eventually. And when James Harden’s streak of 30+ point games did end it was not going to be because some team just locked him down, it was going to be a game where he didn’t need to take over to get the win.

That’s what happened in Atlanta.

Harden wasn’t sharp — 7-of-21 shooting to get to 28 points — but this was a night he could be off and the Rockets still got the 119-111 victory.

Harden had 28 as time ran down, but rather than go for 30 he dribbled it out — while the Hawks threw a quadruple-team at him just in case.

Harden’s streak reached 32 games, second longest 30+ points streak ever behind Wilt Chamberlain’s ridiculous 65 games. Harden admitted he didn’t expect to reach that number. So he settles for the second-longest streak ever, and in doing so got his team back in the playoff picture and himself back in the MVP race.

For the Hawks, Trae Young knocked down eight three-pointers and scored 36 on the night.

3) Classy move by Doc Rivers in tribute to Dirk Nowitzki. And by the way, the Clippers look like a playoff team. With 9.4 seconds remaining in a decided game (the Clippers won 121-112), Doc Rivers called a timeout. He then walked over to the scorer’s table, picked up a microphone, and got the crowd at Staples Center to give Dirk Nowitzki one last standing ovation.

Classy move by Rivers.

This was a big win for Los Angeles, which is now in sole possession of seventh place in the West. On a night where the Lakers/Kings/Spurs all lost the idea of the Clippers in the postseason seems more secure, much to the delight of owner Steve Ballmer. Fivethirtyeight.com has the Clippers with a 75 percent chance of making the postseason.

Which is incredible for a team that two trade deadlines in a row has sent away its best player (Blake Griffin last year, Tobias Harris this year). The Clippers were shrewd with those moves, staying competitive while setting themselves up to be bigtime players in free agency.

This season the Clippers have leaned on Lou Williams to score, watched Montrezl Harrell develop into a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in his own right, and had solid seasons from veterans such as Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari (who has stayed healthy this year), plus the move of trading up in the draft to get Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems. The Clippers rebuilt on the fly — all while freeing up cap space to chase two max free agents next summer.

The Clippers have been a model “how to rebuild on the fly” example, and this summer may land Kawhi Leonard or another free agent, they are in the mix for the big names. Do that, and this will be one of the great rebuilds of all time in the league.

Mike Conley returns to All-Star Weekend 11 years later, but still not as All-Star

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CHARLOTTE – Mike Conley arrived about 15 minutes late to his press conference this morning. He said arena personnel initially didn’t allow him in, forcing him to go around until someone let him through.

It’s the story of his career and getting to All-Star.

“Just going to make me go around in circles until one day letting me in, right?” Conley said.

The Grizzlies point guard is widely recognized as the best active player never to be an All-Star. But Conley – who will compete in the Skills Challenge tonight – is back at All-Star Weekend for the first time since his rookie year, when he played in the 2008 Rookie Challenge.

Back then, Conley was still hyped as the No. 4 pick in the 2007 draft. He figured the Rookie Challenge would be just the start of many trips to All-Star Weekend. But he didn’t progress in his second season enough to get picked for even the sophomore team in the Rookie Challenge.

“It was tough,” Conley said. “The first year you get invited, you feel like you’re doing good things. The second year, you don’t get invited, and it’s frustrating.”

“But stuff like that helped drive you a little bit, helped give you that motivation to put yourself out there again and hopefully one day you’ll be coming back as an All-Star.”

Time is running out.

Conley will be in his 13th season next year. Nobody has ever made their first All-Star game that late in their career. Kyle Korver (2015 Hawks), Tyson Chandler (2013 Knicks) and Vlade Divac (2001 Kings) first became All-Stars in their 12th seasons.

So, Conley made his way to Charlotte for the Skills Challenge this year. He fondly recalls his dad – Mike Conley Sr., an Olympic gold-medal triple jumper – taking him to events as a kid and getting pictures with him and famous people. Conley said he has already gotten pictures this weekend of his children with Fabolous, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.

The vacation also timed up well for Conley, who was subject of numerous rumors before last week’s trade deadline. Memphis traded Marc Gasol to the Raptors but kept Conley.

“I just needed a break from all the hoopla and trade rumors and trade talks, and just get away, get my family out here, try to have fun with these guys and experience something other than reading Twitter and Instagram about where I’m going to be at next, “Conley said.

Conley called All-Star Weekend “a big party” and said he particularly appreciated the camaraderie with fellow players. Even in a crowd of stars, Conley stands out.

“The players really respect me and every one of them, like, ‘Man, I can’t believe you haven’t been an All-Star. You should be one. You should have been one this year,'” Conley said. “It’s the same thing over and over. But it’s cool to know they at least recognize it.”

Is there something special about being known as the best player in the game who hasn’t been an All-Star?

“I’d rather have just been an All-Star,” Conley said.

Three Things to Know: Warriors try to flip the switch, Damian Lillard turns it back off

Associated Press
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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) Warriors try to flip the switch, Damian Lillard turns it back off. Coming off an embarrassing Christmas Day loss on their home court, the Golden State Warriors rolled out Thursday night at Oracle Arena and… played worse. Somehow. Even sloppier. Even more disinterested. It showed in how the Warriors shot 29.5 percent from three all night, but it was most evident in their 6-of-15 from the free throw line (40 percent).

But the Warriors tried to flip the switch like they have done so often the last couple of regular seasons.

Down 10 late the fourth quarter, the Warriors went on a 16-6 run fueled by Kevin Durant, who capped it off with a three to force overtime.

This is what the Warriors have done for a couple of seasons now — lose interest through much of the regular season, then play well enough for a half, a quarter, or just one run to get the win. They have enough talent to coast to a 23-12 record heading into Thursday night, despite all the time Stephen Curry and Draymond Green missed, despite the Durant/Green dust-up, despite the Klay Thompson shooting slump, despite everything.

Damian Lillard, however, is clutch and handed the Warriors their 13th loss. Despite going 2-of-7 from three on the night and almost fumbling away his last chance, Lillard got off a three over Curry in OT that proved to be a game winner.

There’s no big picture takeaway from this sloppy mid-season game. If you’re a Golden State fan looking for positives — “I love the way we competed in the second half,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said afterward — you are really reaching. There was not much to like in this one. If you’re Portland, sitting in the middle of a crowded Western Conference (2.5 games out of first place but just 1.5 from falling out of the playoffs entirely) just take the win, don’t ask questions and move along.

2) Bogdan Bogdanovic hits game-winning three in a punch to the gut of LeBron-less Lakers. If the Lakers were going to face a good team without LeBron James, Sacramento was the best choice (and yes, right now the 19-16, in-the-playoff-hunt Kings are a good team, surprising as that is). Why? The Kings have found their identity in pace and play fast, and with LeBron out up-tempo was how the Lakers were going to thrive.

And they did, with Kyle Kuzma scoring 33 points and Lonzo Ball adding 20 points and 12 assists (outdueling rival De’Aaron Fox for a night). The Lakers led almost the entire second half, but a late push back from the Kings had it close late. After Brandon Ingram (22 points on 19 shots, too much isolation where he was not effective) missed a free throw, Sacramento got the rebound, called timeout, and coach Dave Joerger drew up this for Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Joerger was smart on this play in a couple of ways. First, Buddy Hield is the Kings best shooter, but he was cold Thursday night (2-of-8, 0-of-2 from three) so the coach turned to the hot hand in Bogdanovic, who already had nine fourth quarter points (not ever coach goes away from his star in this spot). Second, he had Bogdanovic come off a Willie Cauley-Stein screen that forced a switch, putting Tyson Chandler on Bogdanovic — Chandler is a 7-footer and an active defender, but he doesn’t like to be in the rarefied air beyond the arc. That got Bogdanovic enough room for the shot.

Bogdanovic has proven to be the best thing the Kings got in that draft night trade with Phoenix that sent Marquese Chriss to the Suns. Actually, he’s just flat-out the best player in the deal. Not something anyone saw coming.

For the Lakers, Bogdanovic’s shot was a punch to the gut.

Los Angeles is going to have to go a couple of weeks (give or take) without LeBron and they need to find a few wins. Not easy to do in a West where there are no gimmies, L.A.’s next three are the Clippers (Friday night on a back-to-back), these Kings again Sunday, then the Thunder.

3) James Harden drops eighth-straight 30-point game and Boston can do nothing to stop him. Two teams that expected to be in title contention this season, but then got off to ugly starts only to apparently right the ships recently, got together Thursday night when Houston hosted Boston.

The big takeaway? James Harden was the best player on the court and Boston had no answers for him. The Beard had 45 points on 26 shot attempts and got to the line 17 times in Houston’s 127-113 win.

Harden has averaged 40.5 points in the past eight games, and that has helped carry the Rockets back into the playoffs. But it’s more than just Harden taking over, the Rockets have hit threes around him (not so much Thursday, 9-of-27 from the supporting players), and with the shots falling you see hustle on defense and guys going after loose balls in ways they did not earlier in the season. More importantly, when the other team makes a run — and Boston made runs — you don’t see the shoulders drop, the body language sag, and a sense of resignation from the Rockets. Now, they are a team that fights back.

That fight shows Houston’s turnaround is legit.

Boston took another tough loss in this one. Not stopping Harden is one thing — there are 28 other teams trying to figure out how to do that and failing — but the Celtics were outworked on the glass and generally out-muscled all game long. Houston was the more physical team and that was the big difference.

On their “how real is the turnaround” stretch of games, the Celtics are 2-2 — losses to the Bucks and Rockets, wins over the Sixers and Hornets. Road games against Memphis (another physical team) and San Antonio await. It’s not panic button time in Boston by any means, but this is not the team Celtics fans thought they were going to be watching this season. Not even close. And there is no one, simple answer to turning it around.

Suns executive James Jones: Focus has shifted to NBA players, not draft

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The Suns are 7-24.

At least they’ll get a prime draft pick to add young talent to grow with Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. That’s Phoenix best path toward meaningful success.

Or…

Suns front-office chief James Jones, via Arizona Sports 98.7:

“Yeah, we have to worry about what happens in the draft but our primary focus is on this team currently and what we can do,” he told 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Burns & Gambo on Wednesday. “We have a bunch of young players in this draft. We’ve been deep in the draft, we’ve drafted a lot of players over the years and our focus has shifted more to development of these players and looking at NBA players that we possibly can add to this team.”

“We shifted focus,” Jones said. “I think in the past our primary focus — a great amount of our time was spent turning over every stone as it relates to players and college players, but college players don’t win NBA games. NBA players do, so that’s where our focus is now.”

I get why the Suns want to be done with the draft. This will be Phoenix’s ninth straight season outside the playoffs. That should have provided enough lottery picks to stock the roster.

But since 2011, the Suns have gotten Markieff Morris, Kendall Marshall, Alex Len, T.J. Warren, Devin Booker, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges from the lottery. That’s not good enough.

Phoenix is still multiple steps from winning. Trying to shortcut the process will only push the goal further away. That type of thinking is what led to misguided signings like Trevor Ariza, Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley. The Suns should be realistic about where they are in team-building.

And maybe they are. Perhaps, Jones is just saying what he thinks should be said. The Suns are trying to sell tickets and secure taxpayer funding for arena upgrades, after all.

But this also might be Phoenix’s actual approach. Suns owner Robert Sarver is notoriously impatient. After Jones’ comments, the Suns traded Ariza to the Wizards without getting a draft pick (netting only Kelly Oubre).

The best thing the Suns can do is nail their upcoming high first-round pick. That should be their primary focus.

Jones saying otherwise ought to terrify Phoenix fans.