No Kobe Bryant. No Steve Blake. Almost assuredly no Jodie Meeks. And most likely no Steve Nash.
No matter. Howard says he still believes.
“We have total confidence that we can come back and win this series, and we believe in each other,” Howard said following Friday’s workout when the Los Angeles Lakers learned of their worsening injury woes. “We worked too hard to get in the playoffs. We had to fight to get in and we’re not going to give up just because we’re down and have a lot of guys that are injured.”
The Lakers’ rickety season is once again on the brink Friday night as their first-round playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs moves to the Staples Center. With the Spurs up 2-0, it’s do-or-die for a limping Lakers team that could be forced to start a backcourt of two third-team, 2011 second-round draft picks in Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock.
While Nash told reporters Thursday that his fingers are crossed that two epidural shots to his back will work in time to allow him to play in Game 3 (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), Howard was working overtime with assistant coach Chuck Person with a helping hand from general manager Mitch Kupchak, a pretty good post player in his day with the Showtime Lakers.
It’ll be curtains for these slow-time Lakers unless the 6-foot-11, 265-pound Howard, once upon a time referred to as Superman, and his 7-foot frontcourt mate Pau Gasol, can assert their will on the Spurs and lift their less well-known teammates back into the series.
“Again, it is what it is,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said of the bleak injury situation. ”It’s not what anybody wishes for, but at the same time we need to dominate inside and that’s Pau and Dwight. So it’s a big load for Pau and Dwight. At the same time, that’s how we’re going to have to do it.”
Howard, praised for his dominant play in the final two games of the regular season after Kobe went down to get the Lakers in the playoffs, has taken critical shots for not getting it done in the opening two games in San Antonio. He’s averaged 18.0 ppg, 12.0 rpg and five fouls per game.
Everybody wants to see Howard rise to the occasion, to be a force that takes games away from the opponent. He took criticism for not being that dominant force in Game 2, scoring 16 points — same as Blake as well as the Spurs’ Kahwi Leonard and Tim Duncan — with nine rebounds, four blocks and five fouls when the Lakers had chances to keep the game close.
For Gasol, just 5-for-14 from the floor in Game 2, these could be his final games as a Laker. Well into the luxury tax next season, the organization will have to decide what to do with the player who is due $19.3 million next season and was all but traded to New Orleans last offseason before the blockbuster deal for Chris Paul was vetoed by commissioner David Stern.
Of course, Howard’s future is just as unsettled, although his future is at least in his own hands. The Lakers are desperate to sign him to a max deal this summer and make him the cornerstone of the franchise upon Bryant’s eventual retirement.
For now, it’s all about Game 3 and if Howard, reduced to 14th in this season’s voting for Defensive Player of the Year, and Gasol can play like the superstars their salaries say they are, and get L.A. a win.
“We just got to play,” Howard said. “We can’t control anybody’s injuries. We can’t control nothing but how hard we go out there and play. Me and Pau are going to do the best we can for this team.”
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – With the number of walking wounded around here it was half surprising that the Lakers’ training facility hadn’t been painted green with a giant red cross on the entry doors.
Or that Corporal Klinger wasn’t running Thursday’s light practice for the few Lakers left standing.
Of course Klinger, the old M*A*S*H* character, might still have more name recognition in this town than the two players that very well could make up L.A.’s starting backcourt Friday night in virtual must-win Game 3 against the San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center.
Get ready for Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock.
“Well, yeah,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said, accompanied by a hearty chuckle, when asked if those two 2011 second-round picks will likely be thrust into heavy minutes. “And [Chris] Duhon. Go look at the rest we’ve got there.”
It ain’t much. The Lakers received more depressing news on Thursday that will make the task of clawing out of a 2-0 hole excruciatingly difficult. Guard Steve Blake, who has played so well since Kobe Bryant went down with an Achilles tear two games before the end of the regular season, got the results of his ultrasound back and he’s out indefinitely with a moderate strain of his right hamstring.
Point guard Steve Nash had two epidural injections in his back Thursday and his chances of playing Friday night have come to this: “I have fingers crossed.”
And not to be forgotten is shooting guard Jodie Meeks. The Lakers’ best long-distance scoring threat is likely out, too, with a sprained ankle. D’Antoni, in fact, considers Meeks to be more doubtful than Nash, who said Thursday that he’s still in quite a bit of discomfort from both tweaking his hip-hamstring injury in the final seconds of the first half of Game 2 as well as “from getting a bunch of darts stuck in me” on Thursday.
He characterized his state of concern for not being ready to play Friday as “very concerned.”
“It’s really frustrating, very, very frustrating, especially because I was at the point where I was actually excited with the way I felt to start the last two games,” Nash said. “Even though I couldn’t sprint completely and I wasn’t moving as well as I’d like, I could still be effective and find a way to help the team and impact the game. And obviously, to tweak it before the half and for it to deteriorate set me back. So it’s another set of highs and lows.”
Metta World Peace, having coming back from knee surgery in record time, amazingly, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol – no strangers to pain this season — are the healthiest key cogs that the Lakers have got.
D’Antoni said his big men will have to get the job done in the post, but that means that Goudelock, named the D-League’s MVP on Thursday, and Morris, who at least started 17 games filling in for the two injured Steves early in the season, will have to get them ball.
Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs’ sensational guards that are just now feeling healthy themselves, and the rest of the Spurs will try to make sure they can’t and put a stranglehold on the series.
After Game 2, D’Antoni sought refuge in that old NBA playoff adage that a series doesn’t really begin until the road team wins. Well, if the Spurs win Game 3, it will all but end this series.
Nash, ever the optimist and always equipped with an encouraging word, had such a message for Goudelock and Morris, who’d be wise to listen to the limping two-time MVP as they approach the toughest spot of their young careers.
“I don’t think those guys should approach it as a tough spot,” Nash said. “I think they should approach it like they’ve got nothing to lose and they should go out there and let it rip. If they have a tough night, what would you expect in their first NBA start out of nowhere? So they should play free and loose and use their youth and energy and the skills that they possess to go out and have fun with it and take a free cut.”
That effort turned younger brother Marc Gasol of the Grizzles into the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year.
“It’s a great award to receive, great recognition, great accomplishment for him and I’m just very proud of what he’s been able to do and what he’s become as a player and a person,” Pau said. “I’m a proud big brother.
“He gets it done on both ends of the floor. He’s a great anchor for their team. On the defensive end, he gets a lot of deflections, a lot of steals, gets blocks. He makes critical defensive plays and helps them be the defensive team that they are.”
ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said recently that whoever taught the Gasol players the game should be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“You’ve got to give the credit to a lot of people,” Pau said. “We had a lot of coaches growing up. We paid attention to the fundamentals of the game, ballhandling, passing, court awarenesss, team ball. That’s what we’ve been taught since we were little and have been able to absorb it really well and put it to practice. Also the values that our parents taught us were also crucial as far as being humble and hard workers and respectful.”
Naturally, the question was posed of which of them is a better defender.
“Apparently Marc,” Pau said chuckling. “He has always been more of a hard-nosed player, does more of the dirty work. He has a bigger body and can be a little more physical and more effective with it.
“I’m not discontent with my ability to defend…When we had our championships I had to defend and I usually defended the best post-up player and was very successful and got some All-Defensive team votes a couple of years.
“But I’m not gonna take any credit for (the award). Marc has just grown into a magnificent player all around. Defense, offense and quietly, under the radar and I’m glad he’s getting the recognition he deserves.”
With the Lakers and Grizzlies in the same half of the Western Conference bracket, the brothers could meet in the next round of the playoffs if they advance.
“It would be a pretty amazing feeling,” Pau said. “I wish that would happen. We’re both in a disadvantaged position at this point this year. They’re down 2-0 against a team playing well and they took a really tough hit in Game 2, losing that way. And we’re playing against San Antonio. It is what it is. It’s a nice thought that we’ll continue to pursue.”
SAN ANTONIO – It’s a brave new world, where all of us are connected.
Well, almost all of us.
There were those nine troglodytes in Lakers uniforms who ran cluelessly up and down the court at the AT&T Center as if they didn’t know fire had been discovered or the wheel invented.
While the rest of the planet was entertained, motivated and fully informed by Kobe Bryant at the center of the Twitterverse on how to slow down and shut off the Spurs, his teammates were like those old Japanese soldiers who finally wandered out of the mountains not realizing that World War II had ended.
Poor Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace.
– “What I would say if I was there right now? Pau get (your) ass on the block and don’t move (until you) get it,” Bryant tweeted.
– “Post. Post. Post.”
– “Gotta milk Pau in the post right now and D12. Will get good looks from it.”
– “Gotta get to the block. See (what) Spurs (are) gonna do with Pau and D12.”
Poor Mike D’Antoni. Perhaps by Wednesday, he can modernize to use carrier pigeons instead of cave paintings during timeouts to get his messages across. Maybe the Lakers’ equipment manager can find a way to duct tape an iPhone somewhere onto the body of each member of the team, so they can get constant updates and suggestions from “Coach Vino,” which is what Bryant called himself on Friday. After all, this is the 21st century .Why should the minor detail of torn Achilles tendon stop Bryant from finding a way to get into the series?
One can picture the restless Black Mamba squirming all over the sofa in his Orange County mansion, with his bad leg propped up on a pillow and his thumbs flying across the keyboard.
– “Matador defense on Parker.”
– “This game has a ‘steal one’ written all over it for us.”
Of course, it would have helped if the Lakers had been able to connect on more than 3-for-15 behind the 3-point line or knock down any of the other many open shots at the basket they had. And it might have been a “stealable” game if the Lakers hadn’t turned the ball over 18 times.
“I was happy with the looks we got,” D’Antoni said. “I wasn’t happy with the turnovers we had.”
For all the postgame talk in the Spurs’ locker room of finding their missing defensive intensity and execution, the outcome was as much about all of the things the Lakers simply could not get done. Nash was the one who received a pregame epidural to treat the pain from his lingering hip injury, but Gasol was too often the one that struggled as if trying to give birth to any kind of offensive rhythm.
This was a game that the Spurs won handily despite no one among Tim Duncan (6-for-15), Tony Parker (8-for-21) and Manu Ginobili (6-for-13) being able to make half their shots. Even when the crowd tried to summon up a “Beat L.A.!” chant in the third quarter, it was listless. Without Kobe, playing the Lakers is like a trip to Oz without running into the Wicked Witch of the West.
The truth is the Lakers were in arm’s length to grab the kind of early win that can turn a series on its head until Ginobili went up like a bottle-rocket to close out the third quarter. With his newest teammate Tracy McGrady watching in street clothes from the bench, Ginobili did a “mini-TMac,” zipping in eight points in 85 seconds.
“I knew it was my time, usually,” said Ginobili, who had missed nine of the last 10 regular season games with a strained right hamstring.
The second of Ginobili’s treys was a walk-up heat check with 2.4 seconds left that probably had coach Gregg Popovich close to swallowing his tongue.
“If I would have missed it, probably he would have said something,” Ginobili shrugged.
If Manu had been a Laker and missed it, there’s no telling what kind of fireballing, nasty tweet Kobe might have sent his way.
When D’Antoni was asked later if he approved of Bryant’s running commentary and criticism, he smiled and rolled his eyes.
“It’s great to have that commentary,” D’Antoni said. “He’s a fan. He’s a fan right now.”
Just a fan the way King Kong was just a monkey.
Bryant replied almost immediately.
– “A fan?? lol.”
– “Nervous response. I’m sure he didn’t meant it that way. No big deal.”
The Lakers did pound the ball into the post throughout the day. They did use their size to body up and turn it into the kind of brute strength, ugly affair that is their path to an upset in the series. After looking uncomfortable early, Howard did get 20 points and 15 rebounds.
“We can’t get discouraged because we lost the first game,” Howard.
Dwight had better wait until hears from his BFF on Twitter.
Kobe still has thumbs that work.
– “On to game 2. I will be watching from the crib again in a Pau jersey and Laker face paint ha!” (Joking) aside, we will be fine on (Wednesday).”
But eventually, even the Mambatweeter thought better of his input.
– “I see my tweeting during the game is being talked about as much as the game itself. Not my intention , just bored as I guess.” #notagain
It’s a brave new world, where the Lakers who actually played found out you’re not paranoid if Big Brotherreally is looking over your shoulder.
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Let the singing of the praises begin. The Los Angeles Lakers are in the playoffs and in this strange season, that’s no small feat.
May it start with Dwight Howard. He was demanded to be dominant without Kobe Bryant by analysts such as Magic Johnson and more, and for those two must-have games he delivered: 42 points, 35 rebounds and seven blocks while playing 82 of 96 minutes.
“Everybody counted us out, but one thing that I told the guys tonight was that we’ve been through so much as a team this year, from the injuries to the rumors and everything that has happened,” Howard said after the Lakers rallied to defeat Houston 99-95 in overtime and pass the Rockets for the seventh seed. “It could have made us separate from each other, but we stayed strong, stayed together and we won for each other tonight. So we’re happy that we’re in the playoffs, but we’re not done yet.”
Next up for a golf clap is coach Mike D’Antoni. He’s absorbed tidal waves of criticism since taking over — including from right here — as the fans’ distant second choice to jilted Phil Jackson. Sure, Kobe’s season-ending Achilles injury might have finally forced D’Antoni to bend and feed his two bigs, Dwight and Pau Gasol, as so many have screamed for months, but he did.
Dwight’s 30 shot attempts over the last two games are his highest two-game total since March 6-8. At the other end, he reminded us why he was the three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Orlando before the back injury last season derailed a shot at four in a row. His two defensive gems against a driving James Harden late in the game were marvelous.
Gasol, dogged by injuries and an intellectual basketball divide with D’Antoni, came through in the last two games with 24 points, 36 rebounds and 13 assists, with a number of nifty passes going to Dwight.
The bottom line is the Lakers were written off and easily ridiculed. On Jan. 2 they were 15-16 and in 11th place. On Jan. 24 the Lakers hit rock-bottom, in 12th place at 17-25. Since then, through the death of beloved owner Jerry Buss and injuries to Gasol and Nash and Metta World Peace and now Kobe, they finished 28-12.
With the season on the line every single day in April, the Lakers won eight of nine.
“Obviously I’m really proud the way for just a month they had to just play in elimination-like games every night, and I think Steve Nash said it best, or Dwight, I forget which one said it, but after they [Houston's Chandler Parsons] threw in the 3 to tie the game and it went into overtime, he said, ‘It’s been hard all year, this stuff’s happened all year, so why was this any different, and it’s not going to be easy and let’s go out and win it,’ and they did.
“The great thing about it was everybody contributed, somebody did something that we got the win, because you can’t shoot 36 percent and make it easy, it’s going to be tough. So we didn’t shoot the ball well, but other than that I thought we had good shots and I thought the guys obviously played hard and we played well defensively again.”
It has been a team thing. Steve Blake has been off the charts with back-to-back 20-plus-point games. Antawn Jamison had 31 points and 10 rebounds, and shot 5-for-10 from beyond the arc.
While Utah’s loss at Memphis just before the Lakers tipped off against the Rockets got them in the playoffs, the gutsy win made sure they’d snag the unforeseen seventh seed and avoid Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Blake said. “I’m just proud to be a Laker.”
Now these Lakers will take their cuts, with the pressure eased and nothing to lose with Kobe on crutches, against a disciplined and proficient San Antonio Spurs team. However, it is a Spurs team that limps into the postseason and isn’t immune to an early postseason upset.
In this strange season, anything, it seems, is possible.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – It all comes down to this, the final night of the NBA regular season.
We’re not used to the one-and-done stuff around here, not when champions are crowned in a best-of-seven environment. It’s rare that we get to see teams dealing with a 48-minute cauldron that decides their fate (there are still tons of moving parts, as we detailed earlier in our complex playoff scenarios update). For some that means determining whether or nor they make the playoffs at all. For others it’s the difference between a desired (or dreaded) seed in the playoffs. And for some, that means whether or not you host a first-round series or start on the road.
Either way, it all comes down to this one night. The clock is winding down on the regular season for everyone. All 30 teams are on the schedule tonight, but the finale means a little more for the teams involved in these matchups:
ATLANTA HAWKS at NEW YORK KNICKS (8 p.m. ET, League Pass): The Hawks were supposed to be fighting for the fifth seed Tuesday night against Toronto, but they didn’t look like they had a whole lot of fight in them during that TNT broadcast. The Hawks went through the motions during their home finale (without Al Horford) and got pounded by the Raptors. The Knicks will rest Carmelo Anthony and others heading into this weekend’s playoff opener, so the Hawks should have an edge. They have to finish with a better record than the Bulls to get the fifth seed, because the Bulls own the tie-breaker. An interesting side note: Anthony has already locked up his first scoring title without even suiting up since Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durantsaid on Instagram he won’t play tonight in Milwaukee.
WASHINGTON WIZARDS at CHICAGO BULLS (8 p.m. ET, League Pass): The beautiful thing about the Bulls under coach Tom Thibodeau is that they’ll never be accused of not pushing it to the max every night of the season. This should be no different. Thibs will make sure his team shows up with the same nasty disposition for this game that they did for the 81 games that came before it. The Bulls want that No. 5 seed because Thibs won’t allow them to backslide into anything. And this notion that the Hawks and Bulls would rather avoid the No. 5 seed, and the potential second-round matchup against the Heat that comes with it, is laughable. You have to get past the Brooklyn Nets before you get to worry about the Heat.
UTAH JAZZ at MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (8 p.m. ET, ESPN): This is truly a win-or-go-home game for the Jazz. They have to win this game to keep their season alive and then they have to start their rain dance in the locker room and root for the Houston Rockets to upend the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center (10:30 ET, ESPN). The only problem for the Jazz? The Grizzlies need this game just as bad. Their seed is set, they’re going into the Western Conference playoffs at No. 5. But they can still host their first-round series by virtue of having a better record than the Los Angeles Clippers, provided the Clippers wind up at No. 4 (more on this below). This one will have all of the intensity of a playoff elimination game. It’s must-see TV!
PHOENIX SUNS at DENVER NUGGETS (8 p.m. ET, League Pass): The Nuggets have home court locked up, but their seed hangs in the balance tonight. George Karl‘s crew can clinch the No. 3 spot with a win over the Suns or if the Los Angeles Clippers fall in Sacramento. The Nuggets need to handle their business first and foremost, though, because if they end up with the same record as the Clippers, they lose out on the tie-breaker even after winning the season series with the Pacific Division champs. The No. 3 seed also keeps the Nuggets from having to face the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round.
HOUSTON ROCKETS at LOS ANGELES LAKERS (10:30 p.m., ESPN):Kobe Bryant will be watching (from his home in Orange County as he’s been ordered to stay off of his surgically repaired torn Achilles) and willing his Lakers to a much-needed victory and into the playoffs in his absence. His playoff guarantee is on the line. But at least the Lakers, winners of four straight, control their own destiny. All they have to do is win. The Rockets, on the other hand, could land anywhere from No. 6 to No. 8 (it’s complicated). But this is all about the Lakers and Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, and whether or not these two big men can drive the Lakers into the playoffs and into a space where they can make the noise Bryant promised they would in the first round.
L.A. CLIPPERS at SACRAMENTO KINGS (10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): The Clippers’ march to the Pacific crown guarantees them of a top-four seed in the Western Conference. But being No. 4 does not guarantee them home-court advantage (as explained above) if they get locked into a 4-5 matchup with a Grizzlies team that could finish the season with a better record. I’m sure the Clippers love Beale Street and dinners at the Rendezvous like we all do, but it would be a shame if they have to celebrate the first division title in franchise history by going on the road to start the playoffs.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS at PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): All the Warriors have to do is win to lock down the No. 6 seed. Lose, however, and things get a bit sticky. They’ve worked too hard this season to allow the Houston Rockets to decide their playoff picture. (Houston can finish as high as No. 6 and as low as No. 8, depending on how things shake out tonight around the Western Conference.) But they might not have a choice since the Rockets and Lakers will be finished playing before they get done in Portland tonight.
Bottom line, the playoffs start tonight for every team on this list!
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The shocking events of this afternoon in Boston touched off passionate reactions from folks all over the country and all around the globe, and NBA players were not immune.
With the details on exactly what happened and why at the finish line of Monday’s Boston Marathon still being investigated, the response of players on Twitter was swift and simple. And it echoed the sentiment of a nation.
Everyone is concerned for the citizens of Boston and beyond that have been impacted by this tragedy:
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS –Kevin Durant has all but handed Carmelo Anthony the scoring title this season to chase a bigger, more team-oriented goal.
Durant wants that No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoff chase and he wants the road to The Finals to run directly through Oklahoma City this year. He could have those goals wrapped up this evening if the Thunder can handle the Sacramento Kings (8 ET, League Pass).
I understand the need for a team, particularly one led by young superstars, to achieve certain things. That top overall seed is a status symbol, an indicator that the Thunder organization is interested in being dominant in every facet of their operation.
But that top spot also comes with a few thorns this season, namely a potential first-round date with the one team that could prove to be the biggest wildcard in the playoff field.
Should L.A. hang on to their ever-so-slim lead on Utah for the No. 8 spot, they’ll get a date with OKC (provided the Thunder can topple the Kings and Bucks) in the opening round. The Thunder have no reason to fear the Los Angeles Lakers or the Utah Jazz … none at all.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have to be wary of what an unpredictable Lakers team without Kobe Bryant looks like in a playoff setting. There are things the Lakers do without Bryant (move the ball more freely, work deeper into the shot clock and play through Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol inside and then out) that no one in the league has had much time to prepare for.
A dangerous Lakers team battled a hobbled San Antonio Spurs team, the same Spurs we’ll see this weekend, and won an emotionally charged game to move one step closer to locking up that No. 8 seed.
If the Lakers can keep up the same sort of intensity for another week and a half, that first-round matchup in the playoffs will be considerably more difficult than it might have with Bryant in the mix and the rest of his teammates taking their usual backseat.
The Thunder have every reason to be confident, if they do indeed match up with the Lakers in this weekend. They still have decided advantage on the perimeter with Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the charge. And Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are more than capable of dealing with Howard and Gasol inside.
Every step of the process that any team is supposed to take to become a championship team the Thunder have gone through it, one painstaking step at a time. Remember, it was a Bryant and Gasol-led Lakers crew that dispatched a youthful OKC crew in the 2010 playoffs that was the postseason debut of Durant, Westbrook and Co.
OKC has yet to enter the playoffs with the pressure that comes along with that No. 1 seed. In order to achieve their ultimate goal, they’d have to carry that extra weight from wire to wire in the postseason.
That hasn’t been done by a team in either conference since the Boston Celtics did it five years ago. That Celtics team, with the way it was put together, was hardened by a season-long grind that carried them through both the regular season and playoffs.
There were veterans like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and of course, coach Doc Rivers, around to help guide youngsters like Rajon Rondo and Perkins through that journey. Those Celtics faced their own wild card in the first round of the 2008 playoffs in the Atlanta Hawks. And they needed seven games and everything that home court advantage brings to get through that series, the first of two seven-game series (and the only ones of that postseason, mind you) that Boston had to endure.
On paper, the Celtics had nothing to worry about with the Hawks. They were the superior team in every way. The Hawks backed into the playoffs that year with a sub-.500 record, something the Lakers won’t have to do this season. Boston got past a solid LeBron James-led Cavs team in the East semifinals in the next round, too, with the help of home court. But it was another opponent waiting to test the mettle of the conference’s No. 1 seed.
And that’s why the Thunder need to study the recent history of No. 1 seeds and be mindful of the responsibility that comes along with No. 1.
Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.
The one recap to watch: Dirk Nowitzki finally shaved off that mangy, disgusting beard last night on the heels of the Mavs reaching the .500 mark 80 games into the season. Cute, but not exactly game-of-the-night material there. The Lakers-Spurs game was a pretty amazing showcase of heart and drive by the crew from L.A. in its first game following Kobe Bryant‘s season-ending injury as the Lakers took care of their old rivals. But we’re going with the Pacers-Knicks gamefrom Madison Square Garden yesterday simply because it showed just how much being in rhythm as the season winds down can be key. When New York’s shooters went into a swoon and the Pacers got hot in February, it looked like Indiana would easily hang on to the No. 2 spot in the East and provide the stiffest challenge for the defending-champion Heat. Instead, the Knicks have found their rhythm late in the season and this game yesterday assured N.Y. of the No. 2 spot and keeps them rolling as the playoffs draw near.
Knicks can’t wait to face Celtics in playoffs — Locking up the No. 2 seed in the East, as we mention above, was nothing to sneeze at in New York. Especially when you consider the last time the Knicks had the No. 2 seed, it was the 1993-94 season … when New York lost to Houston in the NBA Finals. Still, as nice as it was to throttle the Pacers to accomplish that feat, Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the Knicks are more looking forward to exacting some revenge on the team that ousted them from the playoffs last season: the Boston Celtics. Howard Beck of The New York Times has more on the Knicks’ goals:
The Knicks got everything they wanted, and with a minimum of pain.
With a suspense-free 90-80 victory, they clinched the second seed in the Eastern Conference and secured home-court advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs, including a potential second-round meeting with the Pacers. The Knicks will open the playoffs Saturday against the seventh-seeded Boston Celtics — the team that swept them two springs ago, in Carmelo Anthony’s first postseason in New York.
“That’s in the back of our minds,” said Anthony, who scored 25 points. “We want to beat Boston — I mean, let’s be quite frank. This would be a great series for us.”
Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, who is injured, are the only Knicks left from that 2011 series. Yet the memory remains fresh, and for Anthony, painful.
A sweep was hardly the way he wanted to begin his career on Broadway. The Celtics have stood in the Knicks’ way ever since he arrived.
Two years later, the Knicks are deeper, wiser, more seasoned and better built for the challenge, with a veteran cast surrounding Anthony.
“We’re different as a team,” Anthony said. “As an organization, we’re a lot different than we were a year and a half, two years ago. The mind-set is a lot different. My mind-set right now is a lot different.”
Most important, the Knicks (53-27) emerged without a serious injury, although Anthony did bruise his left shoulder in the third quarter. He sat out the final period, but only because the Knicks did not need him.
Coach Mike Woodson twice called Anthony over when the Pacers started to rally down the stretch.
Each time, the Knicks beat back the spurt, and Anthony returned, smiling, to his seat.
“I was just playing with him, messing with him,” Woodson said. “No, his shoulder’s fine. And I was going to put him back. But I decided to pull him and ride the guys that kept the lead for us.”
With the Knicks clinching the No. 2 seed — their highest since finishing second in 1994 — Woodson will now rest his key players for the final two games. Anthony said he would sit out Monday night’s game at Charlotte. Raymond Felton also said he planned to take a rest over the final two games.
“I’ll be fine,” Anthony said. “And I’ll be ready come playoffs.”
Kobe-less Lakers step up against Spurs– Heading into Sunday’s game against the Spurs, the Lakers had plenty of reasons to feel down on themselves — the foremost of which being the season-ending torn Achilles Kobe Bryant suffered on Friday night against Golden State. But in a rare display of heart and teamwork, the Lakers bound together, got a strong performance from their “other” superstar (Dwight Howard), overcame a rough night by another big name (Pau Gasol) and got contributions from surprising places (such as Steve Blake) to edge ever closer to a playoff berth. Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News has more on the Lakers’ big win:
Life without Kobe Bryant, Day 1, was nothing if not unpredictable.
And in a crazy, wonderful, astonishing way, actually quite beautiful.
On a night when Pau Gasol was the 7-foot invisible Spaniard, Steve Blake told him, “I’ve got your back.”
Blake went on to have the performance of his career while standing on one of the biggest stages of his life.
In a game in which the Lakers hovered around 35 percent shooting all night and Gasol clanked 14 of 17 shots, they shook off their notoriously soft-defending ways to harass the San Antonio Spurs into 36.5 percent shooting.
“We can’t look at anybody else for help,” said Howard, who looked more comfortable in his Lakers skin than he has all year, leading the way with 26 points and punishing the Spurs with 17 rebounds and three blocked shots.
And with his team needing him to hit two crucial free throws late in the game, he sank both of them.
“Now we have to go out there and get this next game,” Howard said.
Two days ago no one would have believed they could, not with Bryant withering around in pain after tearing his left Achilles tendon and the big, bad Spurs coming to town to put the Lakers out of their misery.
Now, who knows?
After watching Blake score 23 points and Antawn Jamison come off the bench to score 15 – including two huge 3-pointers – and Gasol shake off one of the worst shooting nights of his career to grab 16 rebounds and block three shots and the Lakers dig in defensively in a way we haven’t seen all year, a trip the playoffs now seems likely.
No one is foolish enough to think the Lakers can mount some miraculous playoff run. That pipe dream is over, falling apart the moment Bryant went crumbling to the floor Friday with a season-ending injury.
Even if the Lakers do sneak through the small playoff crevice available to them, they’ll be a quick one-and-done against either the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio in the opening round.
To think anything else is crazy talk.
“I still believe we can win,” Howard said, sternly. “No doubt in my mind.”
McHale, Rockets embrace underdog role — Hardly any seeds in the Western Conference are secure, which is just fine for coach Kevin McHale and the Rockets. Houston is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09 and has its most wins since that season, too. Although it will likely come down to the season’s final night before Houston knows who it will play in the first round, McHale and his crew are ready to play the up-tempo style that led them to the postseason, regardless of whichever foe they face. David Barron of the Houston Chronicle has more:
With their 121-100 win over the Sacramento Kings, the Rockets improved to 45-35 and tied Golden State for the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They hold the tiebreaker over the Warriors and can clinch the sixth spot with wins Monday night at Phoenix and on Wednesday in Los Angeles over the Lakers.
There are scenarios aplenty for playoff series against any of the five teams in front of them — too many for coach Kevin McHale to focus on. Besides, McHale said, he knows how the form chart will read under any circumstances.
“Whoever we play, we will not be favored,” he said. “We’ll be underdogs to whoever we play. That’s fine with us. We want to get in there and get the guys playing well.
“I like our chances against anybody. If we can get defensive stops and get out and run and put pressure on the rim and knock down some shots, we’ll give anybody we play a good go.”
“This year is a year when we’re building a lot of stuff,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff to be proud of. I think James (Harden) has had a tremendous year. Jeremy Lin coming in has played very, very well. Omer Asik for the first time starting.
“It’s been a year. Greg Smith has really come on. Terrence Jones is coming on. Finding Patrick Beverley and bringing him over here … like I said, we’re just building and building. We’ve got two more regular-season games, and then we have the playoffs. I’m looking forward to it.”
Erving sounds off on Bynum — The Sixers’ season has been an unmitigated disaster, thanks most in part to the various injuries and rehab work that have kept Andrew Bynum from playing a single game in a Philly uniform. As reports are spreading that coach Doug Collins will resign soon and the team’s future looks ever-more hazy, a night of good memories might have been just what Philadelphia needed. Before last night’s eventual 91-77 win over the Cavs, the Sixers honored Julius Erving, Moses Malone and the rest of their 1983 championship team before the game. Erving, who serves in a front-office role with the team, sounded off on Bynum’s lack of play and more, writes Tom Moore of Phillyburbs.com:
The 76ers haven’t publicly criticized Andrew Bynum during a season in which he was paid $16.5 million and played no games due to knee injuries.
Hall of Famer Julius Erving, who is the team’s strategic advisor to the Sixers’ ownership group, didn’t hesitate to give his opinion on Bynum.
Prior to the Sixers’ home finale, a 91-77 victory over the Cavaliers on Sunday afternoon, Erving was asked about Bynum, whom the team acquired in a blockbuster Aug. 10 trade.
“I know what the net result is,” said Erving, smiling. “The net result is Robert Parish’s old number — 00. We have not benefited one degree. I guess he has.
“If the Bynum situation is one of total uncertainty for another year, I don’t think the organization should stand for that or the fans should stand for that.”
On the other hand, if the Sixers don’t re-sign Bynum or any of their other impending free agents, they could have about $12 million to spend this summer in free agency.
“I think if he’s not here, you’re going to free up a lot of money,” Erving said. “Washington and Lincoln can’t play the corners for you, but they can get somebody that can play the corners for you. We need somebody to play a corner for us and play the middle for us. It’s going to be costly.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – As much as the rest of this season for the Los Angeles Lakers is about Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace, the responsibility for how the Lakers finish sits squarely on the shoulders of one Mike D’Antoni.
The Lakers’ coach lost the cloak of Kobe Bryant, who is recovering from Saturday surgery to repair his torn Achilles and will be out for at least the next six months. D’Antoni no longer has the option of allowing Bryant to answer for the Lakers basketball sins this season. He can’t ease into the background as Bryant explains away one of the great botched chemistry experiments in pro sports history.
All of that internal security from doubters, both near and far, evaporated with just over three minutes to play Friday night at Staples Center, when Bryant’s season came to an abrupt end.
This season’s defining moment will come without Bryant in uniform, it could come as early as tonight’s showdown with the San Antonio Spurs (9:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV), with D’Antoni clearly at the controls of a team he had no says so in building after taking over for Mike Brown in November.
The style disconnect that has existed all season can no longer be used as an excuse, not with both Howard and Gasol playing their old selves in recent weeks. Nash is a non-factor and has been for much of the season, due to injuries, and World Peace is going to bring the same frenetic energy he always does, regardless of who is and is not in uniform.
D’Atnoni is now the wild card. Can he cajole this team into the playoffs, making good on Bryant’s guarantee, and ensure that they make the noise Bryant swore they would once they got in? D’Antoni’s future with the Lakers depends on it. D’Antoni has a chance to reintroduce himself to this team in ways that he simply could not when Bryant was at the center of all things.
Unlike some, I don’t blame D’Antoni for pushing Bryant too hard, playing him a merciless amount of minutes as the Lakers clawed their way back into playoff contention after the All-Star break. There’s enough of Southland bashing of D’Antoni, Lakers’ owner Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak to fill every minutes of every day until Bryant returns, and you know he’s coming back from this.
Bryant was in the midst of a seven-game stretch where he was averaging 46 physically taxing minutes a night trying to rescue a team that plenty of us feel has been mismanaged since Bernie Bickerstaff‘s brief tenure at the helm, he bridged the gap between Brown and D’Antoni. Even a freak injury like the one Bryant suffered looks a bit curious to those of us who don’t buy into the conspiracy theories.
I blame D’Antoni for dropping the ball and not being able to reign in Bryant’s wicked competitive streak at a time when it was clear the seemingly ageless wonder was laboring. I blame him for being too stubborn to adjust his own philosophy to fit the talent on the roster he inherited. Game after game Bryant was forced to carry the Lakers in ways that were really unnecessary, given the fact that remain the only team in the league with two elite 7-footers at their disposal.
Lucky for D’Antoni, he has a chance to make it all right. If can guide the Lakers past the Spurs tonight, he could set up a weekend date with Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the Spurs. Or maybe it’s Scott Brooks, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
There is room for redemption if D’Antoni can claw his way out of this weekend’s and this season’s mess. But it has to include the Lakers finishing this playoff fight with the Utah Jazz right and following it with a playoff run as spirited as anything Bryant did during his one-man rescue of the Lakers before Friday night.
We can all agree that D’Antoni is an offensive genius and visionary in a league filled with followers. But if he can’t engineer the Lakers’ rise from this latest fall, if he can’t go back to the drawing board and pull out the motivational tactics to inspire this team, then he might very well be devoured by the Lakers’ season on the brink.
But if he wants out of Phil Jackson‘s shadow and wants to write his own chapter in Lakers’ lore, he has to step into the void now and run with it for as long as humanly possible.