1. Is Spurs-Lakers Rivalry Ready To Return?
LOS ANGELES -- Now that the Los Angeles Lakers have a new coach in place -- well, not actually in place, but at least hired -- there comes the "moving on" part. The practical part. The "actually beating some good competition" part.
That last one is something the Lakers have yet to cross off their checklist. They came within two points of the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night, but they're still awaiting their first victory against a team that currently holds a winning record. Their record stands at 3-5, with the "3" coming against the Detroit Pistons, the Golden State Warriors and the Sacramento Kings, none of which are on track to make the playoffs.
The Spurs will be in the postseason, as usual. They're off to a 7-1 start, they've got a good mix of veteran experience and young energy and they've still got Gregg Popovich, who retains the unofficial title as best coach in the game as long as Phil Jackson is out of the business.
Before the game, Popovich allowed that he felt a little nostalgic when he saw the reports of Jackson's return, in the way an old general might miss the Cold War. Jackson was a more-than-worthy adversary when he and Popovich squared off in four consecutive playoffs, from 2001-2004.
But the consolation prize amid the fallout from the Lakers' hasty pivot away from Jackson and toward Mike D'Antoni is the Spurs can re-enact two rivalries at once. Not only can Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili face Kobe Bryant, they also get to replay their battles with D'Antoni and Steve Nash that made for such great series in 2005, 2007 and 2008.
The Spurs got the better of all of those series. And D'Antoni and Nash, who did beat San Antonio with coach Alvin Gentry in 2010, are still waiting for a crack at them in the purple and gold colors. Nash will miss at least the rest of the week while recovering from a broken fibula, and D'Antoni is dealing with leg issues himself. He'll attend his first practice with the Lakers on Thursday, and there has yet to be a declaration of whether he'll coach them against the Suns on Friday or against the Houston Rockets on Sunday.
You can't exactly claim the Lakers fans are eagerly awaiting his arrival. They haven't gotten over the tease-and-desist that came from the team's flirtation with Jackson over the weekend. In the first game since they had their hopes for Jackson's return dashed, they were even flatter than normal to start the game. You can't overstate the letdown they're feeling, and it was palpable among this gathering of 18,997 at Staples Center.
"There wasn't a lot of energy in the building tonight," Duncan said. "It was kind of dead. I think Pop was trying to push up the energy, but I don't think it was on us. We were playing hard, it was just the building was dead."
A highly competitive game brought it back to life. By the end, with the Spurs leading by two points with 9.3 seconds remaining, every fan stood on his or her feet. Then they saw the shortcomings of this current Lakers team: an uninspired play run by an injury-decimated lineup. With neither Nash nor Steve Blake available because of injuries, interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff had improvised a backcourt of Kobe and Metta World Peace.
It worked for a while, but at this critical juncture World Peace couldn't get the ball to Bryant and settled for passing to Gasol in the corner. Bryant cut to the hoop, but couldn't shake Kawhi Leonard, and Gasol wound up shooting a 3-pointer that missed.
It felt like the old rivalry was back, even if the 84-82 score was more Spurs-Lakers than Spurs-Suns. That should change with the arrivals of D'Antoni and Nash.
"It'll be a lot of fun," Popovich said. "I think it will usually be more scoring both ways than it I was tonight. Tonight was kind of strange.
"The big deal is, it's all about players. We're trying to get Manu his rhythm back. The Lakers want Steve back. And when he's there, they're a better team. It's all about having your players healthy and getting a rhythm with your group."
It's also about quality of opponent, as the Lakers have shown in these three games since Mike Brown was fired. They have gotten by with improvisation against the Warriors and Kings, but they'll need better execution against teams like the Spurs, plus a cohesive belief in a core philosophy.
Bickerstaff borrowed from Shakespeare, coming close enough to the actual quote from Julius Caesar, closing with, "The problem lies not within the stars, it lies within ourselves."
Does the solution lie within D'Antoni? A cynical, skeptical fan base wonders, and waits.
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
Most valuable player: Jose Calderon. He recorded his first career triple-double with 13 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Calderon also carried the team on his back in the first quarter while everyone else found their legs, turning a 9-2 deficit into a 29-21 advantage.
Least valuable player: Andrea Bargnani. He shot 3-for-13 and had eight fewer rebounds than Calderon. He is now at 36 percent shooting for the season and has just 130 points on 126 field goal attempts with just 37 rebounds.
That was ugly: The Raptors hit one field goal and scored five points in the fourth quarter -- a franchise-record low -- but still hung on to win.
Recap | Box score
MVP: J.R. Smith. In a game in which the crisp ball movement and stout defense that typified the Knicks' 4-0 start was largely absent, J.R. carried the offense in the third quarter, going 5-for-5 and finishing with an efficient 21 points on 14 shots.
LVP: Aaron Afflalo. Defensively, Afflalo was repeatedly bullied in the low block by Carmelo Anthony and his 4-for-14 brick-fest with seven turnovers proved to be one of the lone malfunctioning cogs in an otherwise well-oiled Orlando machine.
That was Sheed: Rasheed Wallace. He has missed his final 13 3-point attempts (0-for-5 Tuesday) and was compelled to bellow, "Yeah, AFLAC!" after a missed free throw by Aaron Afflalo. Does that make sense? No, but it's OK. That's Rasheed Wallace.
Recap | Box score
MVP: The Cavs cut the Nets' 22-point lead to 10 entering the fourth quarter, but Joe Johnson didn't let his team surrender their advantage. He had 17 points in the final period and finished the game with 25 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds.
LVP: The Cavaliers' bench mustered just six points despite combining for 61 minutes of floor time. Brooklyn opened up a lead early in the second quarter after Cleveland's starters took a rest, and the Nets never looked back.
That was valiant: Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving deserve a little shine despite their team's getting shellacked. Varejao paired a career-high 35 points with 18 rebounds. Irving also notched a career high with 34 points and was a perfect 14-for-14 from the charity stripe.
Recap | Box score
MVP: The Bobcats didn't pull to .500 on the season because of 17 points from Kemba Walker and 21 from Ramon Sessions (off the bench). No, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist made Charlotte tick. Why? Because he was pretty much everywhere, all the time. His final tally of 15 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists doesn't do his presence justice.
LVP: Wizards' shot selection. League-wide, Washington attempts the fewest amount of field goals per game from within 8 feet. So no wonder Charlotte outscored them 46-24 in the paint. Washington attempting 31 3-pointers -- making just five -- probably helped that cause.
Defining moment: The Wizards actually jumped out to a 7-0 lead and the game was tied at 31-31 midway through the second quarter. But then MKG went on a personal 6-2 run. The Cats finished the half up 13 points and ultimately won by 16 when the Wizards couldn't buy a bucket, at one point missing 14 straight 3-pointers.
Recap | Box score
MVP: MVP: Kobe Bryant, despite the loss. Kobe was an efficient 12-of-19 from the floor for 28 points and he added 8 assists and 4 rebounds with only 2 turnovers. He looked like the Kobe Bryant who has given the Spurs (and the NBA) fits over the years.
X factor: In his first start of the season, Tiago Splitter came through with 9 points, 9 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 block against the Lakers. Gregg Popovich will need Splitter in games in which the Spurs face big frontlines; this game should go miles to prove he can handle that responsibility.
That was a decent start: This was an ugly game that had a decent ending, but future Spurs-Lakers games this season should be much more fun to watch. With the Spurs' great offense getting back in gear and Mike D'Antoni joining the Lakers, the next matchup between these two teams should be a top-notch affair.
3. Tuesday's Best
Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers: Cleveland's big man recorded a career-high 35 points to go along with 18 rebounds against the Nets. Not to be outdone, his teammate Kyrie Irving dropped 34 points and 8 assists. All those huge numbers usually make for a W, but the Cavs couldn't contain the trio of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez.
4. Tuesday's Worst
The Pacers' offense: Indiana held Toronto to 74 points, 36 percent shooting and a measly five points in the fourth quarter. And lost. Needless to say, it was not a great showing at home against a team entering the night with just one win.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"It was crazy. We were hitting people, but the ball always went back to the white team and I was like, 'This cannot be possible.'"
-- Raptors PG Jose Calderon, on Toronto's win Tuesday night despite scoring only five fourth-quarter points.
8. Playing Keep-Away
9. Stat Check
The Nets cruised to a 114-101 win over the Cavaliers despite allowing 34 points to Kyrie Irving and 35 points to Anderson Varejao.
Only once before in team history have the Nets won a game in which they allowed two opposing players to score 34 or more points. On Feb. 11, 1986, New Jersey beat Detroit 130-122, while Isiah Thomas had 39 points and Kelly Tripucka scored 37.
And only once before had Cleveland lost a game in that fashion: on Jan. 12, 1991, a 128-120 loss to Denver, when Larry Nance had 34 and Brad Daugherty had 38.
10. Dunk Of The Night
Rookie Lillard Powers Blazers
MVP: Damian Lillard. After a poor performance against the Hawks, Lillard had a much-needed bounce-back game. He looked much more like the guy who's been getting early Rookie of the Year buzz, scoring 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting and dishing out nine assists.
X factor: 3-point shooting. Portland shot 14-for-27 from beyond the arc while holding Sacramento to 1-for-11 from long range. Lillard hit 5 of 6 3s, and Wesley Matthews hit 2 of 3.
Defining moment: A 28-4 Blazers run in the third quarter blew the game open and the Kings were never able to regain their footing offensively.