Posts Tagged ‘Steve Blake’

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 28


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 27

NEWS OF THE MORNING

CP3’s return date still unknown | Nash suffers ‘tweaked’ back in practice | Report: No extension talks for Casey | La La Anthony thinks ‘Melo will stay in N.Y.

No. 1: CP3 works out, but return still unknown — The Los Angeles Clippers have done an admirable job of keeping things together since star point guard Chris Paul injured his shoulder on Jan. 3. L.A. has gone 10-3 during that span to remain in thick of the chase for the Pacific Division title. Paul continues to rehab and workout, but his return date remains largely an unknown, writes Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

Chris Paul got in a good, strong workout before the Clippers played the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night.

Paul got in a good sweat shooting jumpers and runners. He got in a good sweat running up and down the court after he shot.

But Paul still is a ways away from playing because of a separated right shoulder.

The original timetable had Paul out up to six weeks, meaning he would be out another three weeks, returning sometime in mid-February.

“No one said there were any changes or a deadline or anything,” Coach Doc Rivers said. “But he feels great. I still think it’s All-Star break, in that area. I don’t think that changed.

“But he feels good. I know he’s shooting a little bit now. The fact that he can run and do the conditioning is great. But other than that, it still has to heal.”

Rivers said the final decision on when Paul will return will be up to the Clippers’ team doctors and head athletic trainer Jasen Powell.

And, Rivers said, Paul won’t be able to say he’s ready until he’s fully healed.

“On this one, this is one of those injuries where no matter how he feels, you still have to let it heal,” Rivers said.


VIDEO: Coach Doc Rivers talks about Chris Paul’s rehab work and more

***

No. 2: Nash ‘tweaks’ back, can’t practice yet — The good news for Los Angeles Lakers fans? Steve Nash‘s workouts in Vancouver with a trainer went well and he is healing up nicely from the nerve root irritation that has bothered him since Nov. 12. The bad news — if you want to take it as such — is that Nash tweaked his back in an unrelated injury and still isn’t able to practice. Trevor Wong of Lakers.com has more on the Lakers’ injury situation concerning Nash and others:

According to team spokesman, John Black, everything “went well” for Steve Nash in Vancouver while working with his trainer/physical therapist during the team’s 12-day road trip. Nash was expected to go through practice on Monday, but unrelatedly “tweaked his back,” and thus, did not participate.

“The plan for him is to have a practice on Thursday and he’s basically day-to-day,” Black said. “We’ll update you on whether he’ll play Friday based on how Thursday’s practice goes.”

Nash has been sidelined since Nov. 12 with nerve root irritation. Coach Mike D’Antoni remains hopeful the two-time MVP can return to the court again this season.

“I hope so,” D’Antoni said. “I hope for him. If anybody can do it, he can.”

Both Steve Blake (elbow) and Jordan Farmar (hamstring) have not been cleared for full practices yet, but are able to participate in basketball-related activities, as the two went through today.

“They’ll continue to ramp up through the week as they progress,” Black said. “Neither will play Tuesday or Friday, but the plan on them is to ramp up practices this week and we’ll update both of them at the end of this week.”

Blake was diagnosed with a torn collateral ligament in his right elbow and has been out since Dec. 13. Farmar, meanwhile, has been out since Jan. 3 after suffering a tear in his left hamstring.

“It was great,” he said. “I’ve been bored. That’s been the hardest thing. With this injury, you don’t feel too injured. It’s not painful; you don’t feel hurt. Just having to sit down, be patient and wait your turn, especially seeing them struggle, I just want to be out there and contribute.”

Xavier Henry (knee strain) went through some on-court work in Miami and was expected to be out another 10-14 days, but visited with a doctor today. There is no new update regarding his injury.


VIDEO: Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni talks about the team’s various injured players

***

No. 3: Report: Raptors not discussing Casey extension yet — When Dwane Casey took over as coach of the Toronto Raptors before the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, he was dealing with a team in the midst of a rebuild following Chris Bosh’s departure to the Miami Heat a season earlier. As such, the on-court product often struggled to show progress throughout his first two seasons on the job. But the Raptors appear to have turned the corner under Casey as they are 16-9 in their last 25 games and lead the Atlantic Division. Casey, despite winning his first Coach of the Month honors in December, is in the last year of his contract and is in position for an extension, but those talks haven’t happened yet with Toronto’s brass, writes Sean Deveney of The Sporting News:

With a 16-9 record in his last 25 games, a Coach of the Month award for December on his mantle and a legitimate opportunity to get the Raptors to the playoffs for the first time in seven years, Dwane Casey could hardly be blamed for pestering the Toronto front office for a contract extension.

But, as a source told Sporting News, that hasn’t been the case—there have been, “no really significant discussions,” on extending Casey’s contract, which runs up at the end of this season.

Instead, it appears that Casey and the Raptors will finish out what has been a decidedly strange year in Toronto, and re-evaluate. That’s perfectly fine with Casey, who would have no problem returning to his home in Seattle and focusing on lures and casts rather than Xs and Os.

“I never worried about having a job,” Casey said. “I say that with all sincerity. I never worried about losing a job, getting a job. Because I learned a long time ago how to fish.”

Casey says concern over his next contract has no bearing on how he is handling his team now. When the Raptors hired a new general manager, Masai Ujiri, in the offseason, there was speculation that Ujiri would immediately make a coaching change. But after meeting with Casey—the two have known each other for years—Ujiri decided to stick with the coach, for at least one more year.

“I tell players every day, whatever happens, happens,” Casey said. “I am going to get up and approach my job the same way every day, 6:30 till whenever, midnight or whatever it is, every day, regardless of how things are going, whether we are winning or not. My job is to get the ship ashore. That’s the best way for me to approach it.”

Ujiri said Casey would not be sized up by wins and losses, but by development. Oddly enough, though, development has coincided with a revival in the standings, with the Raptors playing much better on both ends of the floor, getting themselves above .500 and into first place in the Atlantic Division.

The Raptors are still developing. The winning is just an unforeseen side effect.

“It’s difficult,” Casey said. “The question has come up quite a bit. It’s the most difficult thing in sports, is have two second-year guys as our starters and trying to win and win the division at the same time. So we talk about the process, getting better every time we play or practice, moreso than wins or losses. The development of our young guys is just as important, believe it or not, for the organization as winning is.”

***

No. 4: ‘Melo’s wife expects him to stay in New YorkKnicks All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony has said he plans to opt out of his deal to test the free-agent waters this summer. He’s also said in previous interviews that he both wants to try out the free-agent wooing process and that he wants to retire in New York. So which one is true? His wife, La La Anthony, says she thinks her husband will ultimately choose to stay with New York. The Associated Press has more on the story, as does ESPNNewYork.com:

The wife of All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony says she thinks he will be back with the New York Knicks next season.Anthony has said he intends to become a free agent this summer. The Knicks can give him an extra year and some $30 million more than any other team, but their 17-27 record has created speculation he would consider leaving the team.

Speaking on “Watch What Happens Live” on Bravo on Sunday night, La La Anthony said she “definitely” thinks Anthony will stay in New York. She said he wants to stay and she supports him “where ever he wants to go.”

Anthony is averaging a team-high 27.2 points for New York, which acquired the Brooklyn native from Denver in a three-team trade in February 2011.

And here’s ESPNNewYork.com’s take on the story:

“I definitely think he will stay,” La La Anthony said in an interview with Bravo TV’s “Watch What Happens Live.” “I know that he wants to stay, and I support him wherever he wants to go.

“Listen, I used to live in Denver with him. If I can live in Denver, I can live anywhere. I just want him to be happy.”

La La Anthony playfully mocked those who speculate that she will have a heavy influence on her husband’s decision.

“I get blamed for everything. No matter what happens, it’s my fault,” she said. “[There are] all these talks if he’s staying in New York or not, [and] I’m somehow the mastermind behind if he stays or not.”

One potential destination is Los Angeles. The Lakers are among several teams, including the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks, that may have the requisite salary-cap space this summer to sign Anthony.

Kobe Bryant, a friend of Anthony’s, said Sunday that he will not be actively recruiting the Knicks forward to join the Lakers.

“Well, everybody wants to play in Los Angeles,” Bryant said when asked about Anthony’s potential interest in joining the Lakers. “I mean, New York is a beautiful place, don’t get me wrong, but it is colder than s— out here. You know, palm trees and beaches obviously are a little more appealing.

“All jokes aside, I think that players, when that time comes, will have to make the best decision for them and their families. I try not to think about it too much. If he wants to call me for advice later as a friend, I will be more than happy to give it to him.”

Anthony, who is in his 11th season, said Monday that his sole motivation is to win an NBA title.

“That’s the only thing I care about. Anything else is irrelevant to me when it comes to basketball,” he said. “Championship is the only thing that’s on my mind, is the only thing I want to accomplish, I want to achieve, and I’m going to do what I got to do to get that. That’s my motivating factor. Nothing else even motivates me anymore, just that.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: This was a bit of an early-afternoon publish on NBA.com, but our own David Aldridge delivers a solid oral history of Commissioner David Stern’s life and times in the NBA … A group of scientists are trying to determine if “team chemistry” is quantifiable … Bucks GM John Hammond gives his view on the state of the worst team in the NBA … Raptors swingman Terrence Ross gave the ball from his 51-point game to his mom … Sixers rookie Lorenzo Brown took part in an odd day-night double header — NBA D-League game during the day, and an NBA game at night

ICYMI of The Night: The Brooklyn Nets were more or less one inbounds pass away from closing the gap in the standings on the Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors. Then the Raptors’ Patrick Patterson stepped in the passing lane and put that notion to rest …:


VIDEO: Patrick Patterson caps off a must-see finish in Brooklyn

Lakers Give Marshall A Second Chance

Milwaukee Bucks v Los Angeles Lakers

Kendall Marshall is making the most of his time at the helm for L.A. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

DALLAS – All week in Reno, Nev., the D-League Showcase has provided some 200 basketball players — some former NBA first-rounders, some with legitimate NBA service time and many more who fell through the cracks — a stage to perform in front of a horde of NBA team decision-makers.

Kendall Marshall is not among them. He almost assuredly would have been as a member of the Delaware 87ers if not for an unbelievable string of injuries to all three of the Los Angeles Lakers’ point guards. On Dec. 21, the Phoenix Suns’ No. 13 pick in 2012, who was traded to Washington on Oct. 25 and waived that day, became the Lakers’ emergency plan.

“Honestly,” Marshall told NBA.com Tuesday night, “I’m just thankful for the situation I’m in. I’m trying to make the most of it, trying to get better and find a way to help this team.”

Instead of playing his heart out during this five-day stretch in northwest Nevada on a shoestring D-League salary of about $25,000, Marshall is auditioning nightly — strange to say of a lottery pick one year removed, but altogether true — in front of league executives on the biggest stage. And as of Tuesday he’s doing so on a fully guaranteed contract for the remainder of the season at about a half-million dollars.

Still, it guarantees nothing beyond a few more weeks, perhaps more, of genuine playing time for the former North Carolina Tar Heel, a heady although not overly athletic, smooth-passing point guard aptly nicknamed “Butter.” Soon Steve Blake will return from an elbow injury. Jordan Farmar will come back from a hamstring injury. Steve Nash is targeting a February return.

For Marshall, the time is now. In his first two starts, the 6-foot-4 southpaw unleashed flashbacks to Linsanity with a combined 32 assists and 29 points. In eight games, including starting the last four after point-guard fill-in Xavier Henry went down with his own knee injury, Marshall has 56 dimes. A quick study in coach Mike D’Antoni‘s point-guard friendly offense, Marshall is averaging 9.1 ppg, 7.0 apg and 3.0 turnovers. Before a brutal 2-for-13 (1-for-6 on 3-pointers) shooting night in Wednesday’s loss at Houston, L.A.’s ninth in 10 games, he had shot better than 56 percent overall and made half of his 22 3-point attempts.

Considering he jumped head-first into a bare-bones Lakers lineup, Marshall’s performances have ranged from impressive to steady, and have, at the least, provided the Lakers’ offense with structure and some rhythm. He had managed to keep his turnovers down until the last two games with six in each, but some of that falls on teammates unable or unprepared to handle his thread-the-needle passes through traffic.

His best game remains his first as a starter on Jan. 3 when he outplayed rookie and No. 9 pick Trey Burke, scoring 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting, with 15 assists and six rebounds to beat Utah and snap the Lakers’ six-game skid.

And think about this: Marshall has gone from averaging 14.6 mpg in just 48 games as a rookie last season with Phoenix to playing 37.6 mpg in seven games with Delaware to now having logged more than 38 minutes in three of his four starts with the Lakers.

“He’s passing the ball, he’s finding a lot of seams,” said Henry, who grew up playing against Marshall in AAU tournaments from the time they were 9 years old through high school. “As our only true point guard right now he’s moving the ball pretty well and getting us into stuff fast. That’s good for us because we have a lot of guys that can score and play the game, but we don’t have that true point guard right now because everybody’s injured.”

The Suns envisioned Marshall, ironically, to be Nash’s replacement and as something of a Nash starter kit — crafty, smart, good floor vision, excellent facilitator. Marshall doesn’t possess tremendous speed or athleticism and when new management took over in Phoenix last offseason they weren’t enamored with him. They already had Goran Dragic, then drafted super-athletic Kentucky guard Archie Goodwin and traded for Eric Bledsoe to run new coach Jeff Hornacek‘s up-tempo attack.

At the Las Vegas Summer League in July, Goodwin outplayed Marshall and the writing was on the wall.

“I thought there was a chance I might be traded,” Marshall said. “I didn’t know they would wait until right before the season started. Obviously, the timing was unfortunate. The whole situation was unfortunate.”

Phoenix packaged Marshall with center Marcin Gortat in a trade with Washington just days before the season opened. Marshall’s agent called him 45 minutes after he found out he had been traded to tell him the Wizards would waive him.

Marshall, 22, was out of the league. With rosters set and no offers forthcoming, he signed with Delaware, the Philadelphia 76ers affiliate in the D-League, after Thanksgiving. The weeks in between went by brutally slow as he simultaneously concentrated on picking up his career while trying not to become negatively consumed by his circumstance.

“You want an honest answer?” Marshall said when asked who or what he leaned on during that time. “Vine, the social media site. I met a lot of friends on there that half of them didn’t even know I played basketball. So it was cool to interact with people that I wasn’t constantly hearing about what I was going through. So honestly that’s what kept me positive throughout that couple of weeks of not being in the league.”

Now comes the question of whether he can stick in a league predicated on athleticism and at a position dominated by speed.

“I joke with him all the time about how he can’t jump and stuff like that,” Henry said. “He’s not the fastest guy, but he just plays it smart, he knows what he has to do to complete his task. He’s smart with the game of how to make things happen. That’s what he does.”

Added Marshall: “Fifty percent of this league doesn’t get by on their athleticism. A couple of guys we played against [Tuesday at Dallas]; Dirk [Nowitzki] never relied on athleticism, Jose Calderon has never relied on his athleticism and they found a way to be successful. It can be done. But it’s just a matter of going out there and doing it and finding ways to do it.”

That’s the opportunity Marshall has in front of him, not in Reno for Delaware, but on the NBA stage for the Los Angeles Lakers. His audition will continue until likely the Lakers’ regulars return and reclaim their spots.

“My only objective right now is to help this team,” Marshall said. “That’s all I’m worried about is finding ways to win games and continue to get better.”

Gasol Calmly Waited As Rumors Swirled


VIDEO: Lakers fall to Mavericks on Tuesday night

DALLAS – Enjoying a production of The Lion King at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood with his parents and younger brother, Marc, on Saturday night, Pau Gasol used intermission to stretch his legs and check Twitter on his phone.

He wasn’t expecting any news affecting him, not yet, not with still a few days before the deadline for the Cleveland Cavaliers to trade Andrew Bynum in time to avoid having to pay him the second half of his contract. Yet there it was on his timeline, his long-elusive finality with the Lakers staring back at him.

“It was done,” Gasol said of seeing what proved to be an erroneous tweet from a Los Angeles radio station account that read the Lakers had completed a deal to send Gasol to the Cavaliers for his former teammate. “I see it’s almost official, [Monday] it’s going to be official, but it’s done. I was seeing all these messages of farewell Pau, thanks for all your services and all that stuff. I was like, ‘All right,’ well I guess it’s good to get a heads-up the day before. Most guys don’t get that.”

He hadn’t. The Lakers quickly and vehemently denied the report and so Gasol, again, reset his mind, one that is now practically trained to expect to be traded at a moment’s notice. On Sunday night he played spectacularly, posting 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists even as the Lakers were blown out at home by the Denver Nuggets.

Monday for Gasol was D-day. The deadline for Cleveland to trade Bynum was ticking down with one false alarm already doused. For the Lakers, Monday meant a practice at the team’s training facility in El Segundo followed by a flight to Dallas where they would play the Mavericks on Tuesday night.

Tick. Tock.

Gasol tried to make it feel like any other day, but it was impossible to totally shake the odd feeling of not knowing if he would join his teammates on the flight to Dallas, or make arrangements to catch one to Cleveland.

“I packed my bags like I was going on the plane and doing my job, doing what I’m supposed to do,” Gasol said. “But you know, the thought crossed my mind, obviously. I came into practice like any other day. If something would have happened, somebody would have come to me or called me and told me, ‘Look it’s done.’ “

Nothing.

The Lakers’ charter departed LAX at 2 p.m. Pacific Time and arrived at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport around 7 p.m. local time. The team then bused to the hotel. Still nothing.

“Pretty quiet, pretty calm,” Gasol said, describing how the day was unfolding.

Tick. Tock.

Then, about 15 minutes before midnight Central Time, Twitter erupted with news of a major trade. An All-Star forward was headed to Cleveland in exchange for Bynum and Draft picks. Only it was the Chicago Bull’s Luol Deng, a regular in the rumor mill, but a something of a stunner to be the one going to the Cavaliers at the midnight hour.

“I was up,” Gasol said. “I guess that was kind of the confirmation that it didn’t involve me. At that point I thought that nothing was going to happen either way for anyone, but I guess it did, and now obviously, I’m glad I continue to be a Laker.

“It felt like it was pretty much done at times and that’s the way the media put it out or leaked it,” Gasol said. “It feels good to survive, I guess, and live to fight another day. That’s what they say, right? I’d like to continue to be here, but that’s not up to me.”

Still a Laker on Tuesday night, Gasol put on his purple No. 16 jersey and went to work against Dallas. He scored 15 points with 13 rebounds and five assists, but it wasn’t enough. The struggling, injury-depleted Lakers kept it close into the fourth quarter, but lost 110-97, falling to 14-21.

They head to Houston for a game Wednesday night and embark on a daunting road trip next week. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, both traveling with the team, are a ways away from returning. Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar remain out as well.

Gasol is in. For now.

“I don’t really know how it really played out. I don’t know what was the reason that it didn’t happen, I don’t know that,” Gasol said. “So I know there are probably going to be other rumors and potential trades coming up, but I can’t really worry about it. I just need to continue what I’ve been doing, which is come in, be ready to play and focus on what I need to do as a player for myself and my teammates.”

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 21


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Granger returns | Kobe-less Lakers beat Wolves | Deng off trade block? | Oden still a ways away? | Hotel New York

No. 1: Pacers crowd welcomes back GrangerDanny Granger played just five games last season due to a knee injury and a calf strain has kept him out all of this season — until Friday night. The small forward made a triumphant return in front of a home crowd that serenaded him with chants of “Danny! Danny!” as he headed to the scorer’s table to check in with about 4 1/2 minutes left in the first quarter. Granger played 22 minutes, scoring five points on a rusty 1-for-7 shooting with two assists and five turnovers. But for an already loaded Pacers team, the return of Granger provides just one more weapon.

From Michael Pointer of the Indianapolis Star:

He got a standing ovation when he officially checked in with 4:05 remaining. He made his presence felt on the defensive end, coming from the weak side to block a shot by Houston’s Dwight Howard.

“It felt good,” said Granger, who played in just five games last season because of a knee injury. “When you haven’t played in a long time, you want to do something defensively to get into the flow of the game. The crowd went crazy. It was exciting. And we got the win by 33 points (Granger’s uniform number). Kind of ironic.”

The love continued throughout the night for Granger, who played 22 minutes — two more than coach Frank Vogel estimated he would — and scored five points on just 1-for-7 shooting. The numbers weren’t great. He had two assists while committing five turnovers.

But with his teammates playing so well around him, that hardly mattered. It was a rousing success.

“It’s exactly what I thought we would see,” Vogel said. “I think he’s going to have an adjustment period, and it’s going to be a process with his shot-making and his ability to finish plays.

“But what I liked about it is the way he impacted the game on the defensive end. For all the questions about if he was going to fit in, he shared the basketball every time he had an opportunity to. He shot the open shots in the rhythm of the offense, which we asked him to do. And he went out and he guarded. He played a strong defensive game.”

Granger led the Pacers in scoring for five consecutive years before the knee injury virtually wiped out his entire 2012-13 campaign. Hibbert and Paul George have emerged as team leaders in his absence. He was heartened by the response he got from the crowd, which also chanted “Danny, Danny” when Vogel removed him from the game for the final time with 2:28 left in regulation.

“It was awesome,” he said. “Couple of standing ovations when I was out there. Just to play in front of the home crowd again was kind of a breath of fresh air. … Just got to keep building up my legs and my wind.”

***

No. 2: Lakers can smile againXavier Henry, Nick Young and Pau Gasol didn’t let the bummer news of Kobe Bryant‘s fractured knee get in the way of the team stringing together consecutive wins for just the third time this season. Back at home after a 2-2 road trip, L.A. tripped up the disappointing Minnesota Timberwolves, 104-91. With Bryant out for six weeks and the point guard crew of Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar all still out with injury, Henry, a shooting guard, assumed those duties and merely poured in 21 points with four assists. Gasol continued his resurgence with a near triple-double: 21 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists. Young jumped off the bench for 25 points, including a long 3-pointer with 1:59 to go that put the Lakers up by nine. The Lakers were 10-9 without Kobe as he recovered from the Achilles injury, went 2-4 with him back and now will look for their first three-game win streak of the season Saturday night at struggling Golden State.

From Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

Something funny happened on the way to the memorial service for the Lakers’ 2013-14 season.

They won a game.

The Lakers, finished for the season? Not yet.

“We’re not done,” Gasol said. “This team is ready to continue to compete and continue to have fun and is not going to fold just because we’re facing some injuries and adversity.”

This being the Western Conference, where 10 teams are .500 or better — exactly seven more than the East — it will be very difficult for the Lakers (13-13) to make the playoffs.

If the Lakers wanted any inspiration, they knew they went 10-9 without Bryant until his return from a torn Achilles’ tendon. It’s not quite rallying-cry material, but they again face a long chunk of time without him because of his fractured knee.

“I think they’re excited about disproving people like they did the first time and we’ll do it again,” Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni said earlier Friday.

***

No. 3: Bulls pull Deng off market? — The Chicago Bulls, despite their season falling apart since Derrick Rose suffered a second knee injury, want to hold on to small forward Luol Deng, who is averaging 19.6 ppg and 7.0 rpg. That’s what sources have told ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst. Deng will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. The two-time All-Star is currently out until at least next week nursing an Achilles injury:

Teams are inquiring about Deng’s status with the Bulls, who continue to sink in the standings in the wake of the knee injury that wrecked another season for Derrick Rose.

Deng told the Chicago Sun-Times this week that he’s been preparing for the possibility of being traded, but sources said that’s not in the team’s plans.

Despite failing to come to terms on a contract extension before the season, the Bulls remain optimistic they will re-sign Deng next summer.

Having spent his entire 10-year career with Chicago, Deng has consistently said he wants to stay with the Bulls, though the sides were far apart on contract talks before they were tabled.

Deng is in the final year of a contact that will pay him $14 million this season, and the Bulls are facing a luxury-tax bill that could exceed $13 million. Some league executives believe that the Bulls, who’d never incurred a luxury tax until last year, may have an interest in offloading payroll ahead of the trade deadline. For now, though, that will not include Deng.

The Bulls (9-16) lost their fourth consecutive game Thursday night and have dropped eight of their last 10 in falling to 10th place in the Eastern Conference.

***

No. 4: Oden getting antsy to play? — Miami center Greg Oden hasn’t played an NBA game in more than four years and the big man from Ohio State who continues to work himself back from multiple knee injuries appears to have the playing itch. He was inactive for the 26th consecutive game during the Heat’s breezy home victory over the Sacramento Kings Friday night. Miami Herald beat reporter Joseph Goodman reports that Oden could be getting frustrated with all of the pine time:

Dwyane Wade said before the Heat’s game against the Kings that Greg Oden has “gotten down” and “a little frustrated” while waiting to join the team on the court. Oden was in his business attire and inactive for the 26th consecutive game this season Friday.

At the same time, Wade said Oden “has been great” and the Heat’s co-captain said he was proud of Oden’s patience. The Heat’s reserve center, who hasn’t played in a regular-season game in more than four years, went through his normal pregame routine Friday. He worked out on the court before shedding his knee brace and practice attire for a sport coat and a spot on the bench.

Still, Wade’s tone seemed to acknowledge the widely held belief that Oden is still a long way from being cleared to play.

“His attitude has been great,” Wade said. “I’m sure at times he has gotten down and got a little frustrated, but he’s giving himself a chance. He is listening to the guys who know the bodies very well — way more than us athletes.

“He is doing everything they ask him to do, so it’s giving him an opportunity to get back on the court whenever that time comes. He’s not rushing it, so as someone who has been through injuries before, I’m proud of him being patient, and I know he’s frustrated because he wants to get out there and play with us. I know if he keeps doing what he’s doing, his time will come.”

***

No. 5: Knicks’ hometown hotel — The New York Knicks play their third home noon game Saturday against Memphis, and after the first two ended as the team’s most lopsided defeats of the season, coach Mike Woodson decided he wasn’t taking any chances with his team not being prepared yet again for the early tip. So the coach decided to put the team up in a hotel Friday night. Here’s the story from Peter Botte of the New York Daily News:

“Yeah, we’ve had those troubles and you know, we’re going to all get together tonight and huddle together,” Woodson said after practice Friday in Greenburgh. “I’m not going to let them hang out.

“We’re going to all get together, ourselves, as a team.”

Asked if he felt the need to “baby-sit” his players — after the Knicks were blown out on their home floor by 31 points by San Antonio on Nov. 10 and by 41 by Boston on Dec. 8 — Woodson replied, “Well, we’re going to be together. Put it that way.”

Carmelo Anthony said he was “hearing” that curfew would be 10 p.m. The All-Star forward indicated the Knicks (8-17) also stayed together at a hotel before the Celtics debacle earlier this month, but it certainly appears they will be more closely monitored before facing the Grizzlies.

“We’ve done that plenty of times where we stayed at a hotel together, the night before a game. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it works. We’ll see about that tomorrow,” Anthony said. “We didn’t do it the San Antonio game. Sometimes it works — early games. Sometimes it don’t.

“It’s just a matter of us coming out the gate and establish that early. I don’t think it has anything to do with us staying in a hotel or not. That’s what Coach wants to do and we’re going to do it.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Duke star and potential top three Draft pick Jabari Parker likes comparisons to Knicks star Carmelo Anthony … Injured Trail Blazers rookie C.J. McCollum has been cleared to practice, but his career debut could still be a ways away … LeBron James says the Heat’s shooters are concerned about how the Christmas Day sleeved jerseys will affect their stroke.

ICYMI Of The Night: The Sixers’ surprising early season success is a thing of the past, but guard Evan Turner helped bring some joy to the City of Brotherly Love with a last-second overtime basket to cap a wild 121-120 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.


VIDEO: Turner saves the day for Philly

Goal For Celtics, Lakers Should Be Same

The Lakers have gone 2-4 since Kobe Bryant's return. ( Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Lakers have gone 2-4 since Kobe Bryant’s return. ( Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Lakers and Celtics own one of the most glorious rivalries in all of sports. Through the decades they’ve battled one another with teams as different as their respective coastlines.

Yet this version of the Lakers just might be better off accepting the Danny Ainge philosophy: “Making the playoffs is not a goal.”

The Celtics’ president of basketball operations said he needed to explain that a little bit, so I will, too.

Yes, the franchises’ strategies seem completely at odds. Ainge made the tough call to finally bust it up and trade Kevin Garnett and Boston’s beloved Paul Pierce and start from scratch, even with a new rookie coach. Ainge’s commitment to recovering All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo is even in question. The Lakers meanwhile locked up their living legend, Kobe Bryant, for another two years and $48.5 million.

But just as Ainge is looking forward, it’s Kobe’s next two years I’m looking at, not this one. It’s during this time that I implore Kobe to not go nuts trying to sneak into the postseason as he did a season ago. But, as was predictable, that will be difficult.

After the Lakers pulled out an 88-85 win at Charlotte on Saturday night, their first W following three consecutive Ls with Kobe back from his awful April Achilles injury, No. 24 went all anti-Ainge, tenfold.

“I want to win a championship,” he told reporters. “I want to be playing in June.”

The inconvenient truth — and it’s really no secret to most — is that these Lakers are no closer to contending for a championship than Brad Stevens‘ plucky squad. They don’t defend or rebound well and they’re not exactly an offensive juggernaut either (ranking 20th in offensive efficiency). Tuesday night’s narrow win at Memphis, a struggling team playing without Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, made the Lakers 2-4 with Kobe and 12-13 overall. Essentially the same record as the 12-14 Celtics.

Ainge views the Celtics’ applaudable start (and his comments came when they were 10-14, still a better mark than most expected) as a byproduct of a laughable Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division, which they somehow lead and therefore occupy the No. 4 seed. Boston is 9-7 against the East and Ainge cringes thinking about making the playoffs with a losing record in this anomaly of a season and losing out on Draft position, in this coveted Draft.

The Lakers, predicted by most to miss the playoffs with or without Kobe, should view their 12-13 mark as a byproduct of a rugged West. L.A. is 5-3 against the East and 7-10 in its own conference after nipping the depleted Grizzlies.

It can even be argued that when Rondo, Boston’s last remaining player from its recent glory years, returns from his ACL injury that he will join a more talented collection of teammates than the ragtag bunch Kobe inherited. That’s bad news if you’re in the West.

Think about Kobe’s crew: Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, Jordan Hill and conflicted pal Pau Gasol, the only other remaining member of the 2010 title team. Jordan Farmar (a role player on the ’10 team left before re-signing this season) could return from injury soon and Steve Blake will be back in a month or so. No one can be sure about Steve Nash. To think this crew can leap into the West playoff fray with any hope of advancing would seem reckless California dreaming.

Rondo, if he’s not already traded, will join Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Vitor Faverani and Kelly Olynyk. Depending how Ainge proceeds with the roster, Brooklyn would seem the only hope from keeping his team built for the lottery from maddeningly backing into the division title.

Ainge knows, and Kobe should, too, that the 2008 and 2010 Finals aren’t walking through that door.

But Kobe doesn’t do lowered expectations, not when he’s got five rings and hungry for a sixth. But for this one season, making the playoffs at all costs can’t be the goal.

“We will get better,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after the 122-97 loss at OKC, Kobe’s third game back. “Just check in on us in a couple weeks and see where we are.”

It’s hard to see these Lakers in the top eight, whether in a couple weeks or a couple months. The roster presents little opportunity to make a blockbuster, game-changing-type trade. If L.A. did sneak into an eighth or seventh seed like last season, it would only serve as first-round fodder for the Thunder or Spurs, while valuable ground would be lost in the race that matters more — Draft slotting.

L.A. has already accomplished its two prime goals for this season: Kobe is back, and his autograph is fresh on a new contract. Now general manager Mitch Kupchak and D’Antoni must make sure that his raging competitive drive doesn’t take him off the cliff of physical limitation. They must evaluate their young talent and determine who can help most over a two-year championship push.

Then, with a stroke of Laker luck, nab a difference-maker in the Draft and follow with smart free-agent acquisitions to form a solid nucleus for Kobe’s sunset drive.

These are the goals. Making the playoffs is not.

Kobe, Lakers Still Need Plenty Of Work




VIDEO: The Lakers cannot find the mark and get worked by the Hawks

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — You don’t need a CSI kit to figure out that these aren’t the Los Angeles Lakers of old. They look more like the old beat up Lakers right now, a team totally incapable of mustering enough healthy bodies, energy or effort to fight off an elite team, let alone a decent team like the Atlanta Hawks.

The mirage that has been the Lakers’ season thus far, with and without Kobe Bryant, is coming into focus now and it’s not nearly as inspiring as it might have seemed as recently as three weeks ago, when Mike D’Antoni was pushing buttons on a feisty crew of underdogs, yes underdogs, as they awaited Kobe’s return from Achilles surgery and the months of rehab that followed.

These Lakers aren’t big enough, strong enough and don’t have enough of the star power they are used to (at least not healthy) to even utter the words “championship contender” right now. And it was all on display Monday night at Philips Arena, when the Hawks pawed at a listless and defenseless Lakers team early and then slapped them around after halftime before finishing with a season-high 114 points in the win.

They need work, and plenty of it, before anyone starts talking about them being anything but what they are at this moment, and that’s a flawed crew on the far side of the playoff bubble in the rugged Western Conference.

“That’s you guys talking about June,” D’Antoni said. “Right now we’re just trying to win a game.”

When Elton Brand swats three shots, before halftime mind you, as the Hawks’ frontcourt crew of Al Horford (19 points, 11 rebounds, five assists), Paul Millsap (18, nine and four steals) and Brand (eight points and seven rebounds to go along with his blocks) stalemate your frontcourt of Pau Gasol, Robert Sacre and Jordan Hill the way they did, it makes Kobe’s and hence the Lakers’ struggles understandable.

Sure, Bryant shot just 4-for-14 from the floor, turned the ball over way too much (five) and didn’t make up for it with another double-digit assist night, not with the Hawks’ energetic DeMarre Carroll doing his best Raja Bell impersonation for much of the night. But it’s also clear that he doesn’t have the sort of help that will allow him to work his way through these tough nights as he gets his body back into the type of shape he’s used to. He’s playing out of position at point guard, while Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar all nurse injuries.

The Hawks didn’t have to say it but it was obvious, with Kobe as their point guard the Lakers are much easier to figure out than when he’s in his normal role at shooting guard. Kobe cannot take advantage of defenders in the post and work them around screens when he’s running the show, when he’s responsible for making sure Gasol, Hill, Jodie Meeks and others get into the flow of games.

“They were picking Kobe up full court and making him work,” D’Antoni said, “so we didn’t create any motion or movement or energy for ourselves. we have to make sure we continue to get motion.”

Bryant will be back at the controls Tuesday night in Memphis. He’ll have to drag his tired body back out on the floor on just a few hours’ rest and then chase Mike Conley around as best he can.

“The back-to-backs are always tough,” Bryant said. “I just have to get ready, I have to do whatever is necessary to get ready for the next night and get right back out there.”

That’s much easier said than done when your body betrays your natural instincts and the things you have conditioned it to do the past two decades. As Bryant admitted, this is a new process for him, trying to find his way back to normal from his injury. It’s not like anything he has dealt with before.

“Every night is like a different puzzle,” Bryant said. “So every night you have to try and problem solve.”

He also has to take mental notes of his own, as he’s learning what does and does not work for him on this journey back to the Kobe Bean Bryant everyone is used to seeing.

“It’s tough to say,” he said, “because there are certain things I feel like I can do and there are other things I can’t do, but I feel like they are coming. You have to be patient and keep your eye on the big picture and continue to work and get stronger.”

Kobe’s foot and ankle were immobile for so long that there is still some physical discomfort that he’ll have to endure until those issues dissipate.

“The next level of progression is playing these games when you sit back out, get back in, is keeping it loose,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time. You increase the activity, the ankle gets used to it a little more.

“I’ve just got to keep my eye on the big picture and focus on getting better.”

That’s also why he’s not ready to panic about the Lakers’ 11-13 record nine days before Christmas. This is not the same train ride the Lakers were on last year, when D’Antoni, Gasol, Dwight Howard, Nash and Bryant couldn’t steer clear of the mess as they careened on and off the tracks nearly all season long.

Any rumblings about the Lakers’ front office pressing the reset button and making a trade to shake things up are things Kobe does not plan on worrying  about right now.

“That call is completely up to them (the front office),” he said of making a call on any potential moves that could be made. “As a player, you rely on experience and the years that we’ve had slow starts. I just try to stay focused on that. Last year, it was really, really dire straits. And this doesn’t feel like this is that type of situation. You know, I don’t really sweat it too much. There are certain things we can correct and fix and a lot of it starts with me and getting healthy. And I’ll get there. And I’ll be able to control things a lot more. But I don’t really trip over it much. As players we’ve got to stay focused on what we do, and management obviously has to do the same thing on their end.”

In the meantime, the Lakers would be wise to keep their heads down, keep working and pray for some good fortune on the health front. Who knows what else the next few weeks might bring?

Curry Makes Biggest Impact Offensively


VIDEO: Stephen Curry lights up the Mavs and hits the game-winner

The List

Biggest on-off-court differential, OffRtg

On floor Off floor
Player Team MIN OffRtg MIN OffRtg Diff.
Stephen Curry GSW 744 112.0 370 86.5 25.5
Kevin Love MIN 748 109.5 313 86.0 23.5
John Wall WAS 755 104.6 230 83.9 20.6
Paul George IND 809 106.2 252 89.1 17.0
Klay Thompson GSW 872 107.1 242 91.8 15.3
Marcin Gortat WAS 691 104.3 294 89.4 14.9
Luol Deng CHI 656 101.3 324 86.6 14.7
Corey Brewer MIN 748 107.0 313 92.5 14.6
David Lee GSW 774 108.1 340 94.0 14.2
Ricky Rubio MIN 716 107.3 345 93.3 14.0

Minimum 300 minutes on the floor
OffRtg = Team points scored per 100 possessions

The Context

Last season, the leader in this category was Damian Lillard. The 2012-13 Blazers scored 11.5 more points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the floor than they did with him on the bench. Right now, Curry’s differential is more than twice that.

With Curry on the floor, the Warriors have scored 2.5 more points per 100 possessions than the best offense in the league (Portland). With Curry on the bench, they’ve scored 7.2 fewer than the worst offense in the league (Milwaukee).

Curry is one of the most dangerous weapons in the league and a unique challenge to defend, because he’s one of the league’s two or three best shooters, but also has the ball in his hands to start most possessions. He leads the league with 15.8 pull-up jumpers per game, including 5.1 from 3-point range.

Curry not only gets buckets himself, but the threat of him pulling up clearly creates openings for his fellow perimeter players. Klay Thompson has shot 7.4 percent better from the field and 9.9 percent better from 3-point range with Curry on the floor, while Andre Iguodala has shot 31.1 percent better from the field and 43.7 percent better from beyond the arc.

The Warriors have not only shot better with Curry on the floor, but they’ve turned the ball over 6.1 fewer times per 100 possessions. Both Nemanja Nedovic and Kent Bazemore have turned the ball over on more than 20 percent of their possessions.

Iguodala’s absence is certainly a factor in the offensive drop-off when Curry steps off the floor. Iguodala, who is the team’s back-up point guard in addition to being the starting small forward, and who also has a tolerable turnover rate, has missed the last 10 games with a hamstring injury.

But before Iguodala’s injury, the Warriors were still pretty bad offensively with Curry off the floor and Iguodala on, scoring only 93.7 points per 100 possessions over 195 minutes. They were strong defensively, however, and that’s where Iguodala’s absence has been felt most. Golden State has allowed 104.1 points per 100 possessions over the last 10 games after allowing just 96.5 over their first 13.

Even when Iguodala returns, backcourt depth will be an issue. Mark Jackson hasn’t been able to trust Nedovic and Bazemore, who have played a total of 114 minutes over the 10 games that Iguodala has missed. Curry, meanwhile, has played 40-plus in eight of the 10. Both Curry (11th) and Thompson (seventh) now rank in the top 11 in minutes per game. They’re young, but that’s a heavy burden to shoulder.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Golden State has been included among the teams interested in trading for Kyle Lowry. What they’d have to offer the Raptors is the issue. They don’t have much of value beyond their top six players.

The Warriors have played a tough schedule, with 14 of their 23 games on the road and 19 of the against the Western Conference. But their lack of depth has become a real concern. Nobody can come close to replicating what Curry gives them when he’s on the floor, but they need somebody who can at least keep their offense from falling completely off the map.

The Video

Here are Curry’s nine 3-pointers against the Clippers on Oct. 31, here are his 15 assists in Memphis from Saturday, and here’s his game-winner against the Mavs on Wednesday.

The bottom of the list

The Pacers have scored 14.7 more points per 100 possessions with Ian Mahinmi on the bench (106.5) than they have with him on the floor (91.8). Yeah, there’s still a big drop-off when Frank Vogel goes to his bench, but the reserves do their jobs defensively, Luis Scola has given them more offense than Tyler Hansbrough did, and Roy Hibbert‘s minutes are up from 28.7 per game last season to 30.7 this season.

Just ahead of Mahinmi is the Lakers’ Steve Blake at -14.6, and I wrote last week how L.A.’s bench has been so much better than their starters. Ahead of Blake are the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard (-13.8), Vitor Faverani (-13.4) and the Pacers’ Orlando Johnson (-12.7).

Trivia question

What player has scored the most points without a single one coming from outside the paint? Hint: He’s a Western Conference big man who was once a top 10 draft pick by an Eastern Conference team.

More on-off-court notes

  • The presence of three Warriors in the top 10 further illustrates their lack of depth. Also in the top 10 are two Wizards, and when you take defense into account, John Wall has the largest on-off-court NetRtg differential. Washington has outscored its opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions with Wall on the floor and has been outscored by 24.1 with him on the bench. That Eric Maynor addition hasn’t worked out too well.
  • It’s also interesting to see Luol Deng on the list. We understand how important Deng is to the Bulls’ defense, but it’s now clear that, without Derrick Rose, they desperately need Deng offensively. With him out over the last three games, Chicago has scored a brutal 79.8 points per 100 possessions against three bottom 10 defensive teams (Detroit, Milwaukee and New York). And no, D.J. Augustin isn’t going to help much.
  • At the top of the list defensively? Nate Robinson. The Nuggets have allowed 15.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with Robinson on the floor than they have with him on the bench. Seems crazy, but the Nuggets have been just awful defensively in the first six minutes of games, allowing 121.2 per 100 possessions, more than 20 over the league average of 100.9 during that time. That has forced them to play catch-up when their reserves enter. Nate for DPOY!

Trivia answer

Andrew Bogut, who has 164 points, all from the paint (150) or from the free throw line (14).

Lakers’ Point Guard Troubles Continue


VIDEO: Mike D’Antoni discusses how the Lakers will press on without Steve Blake

HANG TIME WEST – The Lakers’ move toward improved health, with Kobe Bryant back and Steve Nash expressing optimism about his recovery, suffered another setback Thursday with the news that Steve Blake is expected to miss at least six weeks with a torn ligament in his right elbow.

The Lakers have quickly gone from starting the season feeling good about their depth at point guard to not having a single true point guard on the roster, with projected starter Nash sidelined by nerve damage in his back, Jordan Farmar out with a torn left hamstring and now Blake pushed to the sideline.

The immediate response, coach Mike D’Antoni indicated after practice in El Segundo, Calif., will be Bryant at the point and Jodie Meeks at shooting guard when a four-game trip begins Friday in Oklahoma City. One of the worst places possible, in other words, with Russell Westbrook waiting, before the Lakers continue to Charlotte (with Kemba Walker as the leading scorer, though a volume shooter), Atlanta (Jeff Teague) and Memphis (Mike Conley). And when that swing ends, the next three opponents are Minnesota (Ricky Rubio), Golden State (Stephen Curry) and Phoenix (Eric Bledsoe/Goran Dragic).

The bigger picture is that outside reinforcements capable of making an impact are unlikely. While it is easy to suggest making a trade, and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry has become the name de jour in trade rumors, the Lakers won’t give up much for relief help if indications are that at least two of the three veterans at the position are working toward returning soon. In a related development, the Lakers don’t have much to give up.

Adding a free agent at the position, for practice and limited game duty, seems a more-reasonable expectation. Mike Trudell, the beat writer for Lakers.com and sideline reporter on TV and radio, quoted general manager Mitch Kupchak that finding someone who can play ahead of Bryant, Meeks and Xavier Henry is “unlikely.” Leandro Barbosa and a pair former Lakers, Darius Morris and Chris Duhon are “on the list” of candidates, Dave McMenamin of ESPNLA.com quoted Kupchak as saying.

Otherwise, it’s a waiting game on the point guards already in house. Nash said last week he has been encouraged by his body’s response to increased workouts, but no timetable has been set for a return and he is not expected to accompany the Lakers on the four-game trip. Farmar has also given positive reports on his recovery, but likewise is staying away from a target date for playing again.

Blake is averaging 9.8 points, 7.7 assists and 31.8 minutes while shooting 39.8 percent in starting all 21 games. He was hurt in the second half Nov. 26 at Washington, but continued to play with the injury to his shooting arm.

Suspense Runs High As Kobe Returns


VIDEO: Rick Fox analyzes the impact of Kobe’s return

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – As the great Kobe Bryant rescues his flapping No. 24 jersey from all manner of inclement weather with tonight’s triumphant return, are his surprisingly buoyant Los Angeles Lakers really in need of a rescue mission? Or more a celebrated captain to take the wheel?

Staples Center will go goo-goo tonight as Bryant officially begins his 18th season against the wrong-place, wrong-time Toronto Raptors (pregame, 9 E.T., NBA TV). Kobe will be announced to the sell-out crowd and the roof will blow like Mt. Vesuvius. He’ll take his spot around the jump circle and it’ll be so electric in there it’ll feel like the Lakers are back in the NBA Finals, where so many predicted they would be last season before that star-studded roster quickly became as unhinged as characters in a Quentin Tarantino film.

Once the ball is in the air, once the juices start coursing through Kobe’s veins, what happens tonight and over the next 62 games that follow will be as riveting to watch as a Stephen King novel is to read. After all, the king of suspense joined Twitter (@StephenKing) the same day as the Lakers’ dramatic flapping-jersey video revealed Kobe’s return. Nothing in Hollywood is by coincidence, right?

Here’s the thing with Kobe’s return essentially one quarter into the season: For the first time in his career he starts a season a month late, on a team with multiple unfamiliar parts and, most notably, has established something of an identity and definitely a working chemistry without him.

Don’t get that confused with suggesting this team doesn’t need Kobe. That’s preposterous. Kobe’s capabilities coming off a torn Achilles tendon last April, and his adaptation to the team’s style of play, will dictate the level at which this otherwise off-rack roster can truly compete. Without him, as intriguing as they’ve been, the playoffs are as unlikely as Jack Nicholson gifting tonight’s courtside seat to Justin Bieber.

How Kobe chooses to assert himself will be fascinating to watch. Does he acknowledge this season’s progress and work to get his from within the framework and flow of the system, or does he try to strong-arm it?

The Lakers enter tonight’s game against a team Kobe once dropped 81 points on with a 10-9 record compared to 9-10 a year ago with he and Dwight Howard and the once-twinkling images of 70 wins and a championship already extinguished. Collective optimism has replaced pessimism this season as guys named Meeks and Young and Hill and Henry and Farmar have played hard and embraced camaraderie in a way last season’s Lakers team never could — or would.

What have the Lakers become without Kobe?

Surprisingly, an entertaining team whose performances can fluctuate wildly, and, stunningly, a team that is hard to hate, even for the most ardent Lakers haters. They’re playing in the mold of Mike D’Antoni – himself suddenly elevated from the echoes of “We want Phil” chants to early coach of the year consideration. They’re sharing the ball, quickening the pace, hustling and mostly having fun and enjoying each other. They’ve managed to be OK on the road — 4-5 — and hang in enough games to hold up their end of the bargain of hanging near .500 without Kobe despite scoring fewer points than they allow.

No other team in the league has a negative differential and a winning record.

Here’s two key stats that demonstrate D’Antoni’s system at work: The Lakers rank fourth in assists at 24.1 a game (they were 17th last season at 22.2); and they’re third in 3-point percentage at 40.7 (a significant upturn from last season — 35.5 percent to rank 19th) while putting up 26.3 attempts a game, third-most in the league.

Kobe’s buddy Pau Gasol is averaging 3.1 apg along with team highs of 14.5 ppg and 9.8 rpg. Jodie Meeks is shooting 47.3 percent from beyond the arc and averaging 13.5 ppg. Steve Blake is averaging 7.8 apg with 10.2 ppg. Before his injury, bench spark plug Jordan Farmar was dishing out 4.4 apg in 18.9 mpg. Xavier Henry provided an early season boost. Jordan Hill is bringing down 8.5 rpg in 21.6 mpg, including 3.3 on the offensive glass. Nick Young is as swaggy as ever, launching a high rate of bricks in Friday night’s comeback win at Sacramento until tossing in the dagger — a crunch-time scenario he might not see again with the Black Mamba’s return.

No Laker is averaging more than Blake’s 31.8 mpg and 10 are logging at least 17.3 mpg (excluding Steve Nash, who has played in just six games). Last season, Kobe averaged 38.6 mpg, a red-flag number some blamed for his Achilles blowout in his 78th game of the season, but also a number that Kobe, now 35, insisted on playing as the Lakers fought for a playoff spot.

Basically a lot of players are doing a lot of different things pretty well.

So what does Kobe do to make this team, one many pundits predicted would fail to make the playoffs, better? This is truly new — and fascinating — territory for Mr. Bryant.

Apologies, Mr. King, but the suspense is already killing me.

Kobe Will Help, Farmar Injury Hurts


VIDEO: The GameTime crew discusses the latest on Kobe

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Kobe Bryant is getting closer to his return. Barring a big surprise, it won’t come Friday in Sacramento, but he hasn’t ruled out playing Sunday against Toronto (9:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV). Sunday Lakers games against the Raptors obviously bring back great memories.

Some thought Bryant would return for the start of the season. Some thought he’d be back around Christmas. Few thought the Lakers would win nine games in his absence.

They’ve won nine games with Steve Nash barely contributing and with Pau Gasol shooting a career-low 42 percent. In addition to Gasol, Steve Blake is the only Laker to have started all 18 games and L.A. has been outscored by 116 points (9.7 points per 100 possessions) in Blake’s 559 minutes on the floor.

In 491 minutes with Blake and Gasol on the floor (the most minutes of any L.A. two-man combination), L.A. is a minus-134. And that’s not just because they’ve lost five games by double-digits. They’ve been outscored with the starting pair on the floor together in five of their nine wins.

So how have they won when their starters have been getting blown out  in games?

Bench play.

Jordan Farmar (Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE)

Jordan Farmar
(Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE)

The Lakers lead the league with 47.7 bench points a game. Still, bench points don’t always equate to bench success. The Lakers have been much better defensively, too, with their bench in the game. More important than the scoring is that the Lakers are a plus-76 with Jordan Farmar (who hasn’t started a single game) and Xavier Henry (who has started two) on the floor.

The starters have put them in holes. The reserves have dug out of them.

Offensively, the Lakers have shot better, turned the ball over less, got to the free-throw line more and grabbed more rebounds once the bench is in. Shot selection is a factor. Gasol, who starts, has taken more than twice as many shots from mid-range (116) as he has from the restricted area (56). Nobody on the Lakers gets to the basket very often, but restricted-area shots and 3-point attempts* are both up when the bench is in.

* The Lakers have attempted 64.3 percent of their shots from the restricted area or 3-point range with Farmar and Henry on the floor, but just 53.9 percent with Blake and Gasol on the floor.

Defensively, it’s no surprise that the Lakers haven’t been stopping opponents with Blake, Gasol, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill on the floor. What has been surprising is that they are defending well when they’ve put Farmar, Henry, Nick Young and Shawne Williams out there. Young and Williams aren’t exactly Paul George and Roy Hibbert, but they’ve managed to get stops at a similar rate.

In 90 minutes with those four guys on the floor, L.A. has allowed a paltry 77.3 points per 100 possessions. That includes 12 minutes against the Warriors in which they allowed a top-10 offense to score only 14 points. That number certainly smells a little flukey, but it’s a big reason the Lakers have won nine games.

So where does Bryant fit in? Well, even if he’s not himself offensively and is the liability he was last year defensively, he can’t hurt that starting lineup. The Lakers have been outscored by 8.8 points per 100 possessions in the first six minutes of games, the sixth-worst mark in the league.

Gasol leads the team in field-goal attempts per minute and ranks 188th in effective field-goal percentage among 209 players who have attempted at least 100 shots this season. So if Bryant takes some of those shots away, the Lakers would probably be a better team.

Will he stifle the ball movement? Sure, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With Blake and Gasol on the floor, the Lakers have assisted on 68 percent of their shots and scored only 95.4 points per 100 possessions. With Farmar and Henry on the floor, they’ve assisted on just 56 percent and scored 109.2 points per 100 possessions. A higher assist rate does not necessarily equate to better offense. The Lakers have consistently had lower assist rates and much more efficient offense with Bryant on the floor.

While Bryant’s return will help the starters, Farmar’s absence will hurt the bench. The point guard is out for four weeks with a torn hamstring suffered in Sunday’s loss to the Blazers.

Farmar has been a pleasant surprise. His absence (as well as that of Nash) leaves Blake as the only healthy point guard on the roster.

So now is a good time for Bryant to make his return. But the Lakers won’t be at their best until they have both Kobe and Farmar healthy.