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Kobe and Lakers no longer unbeatable

When the season started, the notion was the Lakers, Celtics, Magic and Heat and just maybe the Mavs were the only teams who could win the title. Now, with a tweak here and there—or not—you have to add the Spurs. If they were to make one more addition, the Bulls, and maybe even the Nuggets, if they hang onto Carmelo Anthony, the Hawks with a move, the Thunder, and maybe even the Hornets. It’s going to be an intriguing spring in the NBA.
Everyone in the media yelled at Kobe after taking so many shots on Sunday versus the Celtics, but Phil Jackson said it and we’d see it at times with the pre-title Bulls: Guys didn’t want the ball. So Jordan got 50 to try to bail them out. If Kobe passed, the Lakers would have lost by 50. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

In deference to the NFL, as all of the U.S. is, the NBA and its ABC TV partner finally began national weekend broadcasts Sunday with what is called the Sunday Showcase and what we were told was three of the four best teams in the NBA, the Lakers, Celtics and Heat.

Call me unimpressed. So if that’s all you’ve got…

Miami looked more like a team playing in weekend game at the Venice Beach basketball courts, with lots of one-on-one play and the big guys who should be rebounding dribbling around the perimeter and launching shots instead.

The Lakers looked positively satisfied, all but Kobe Bryant, that they never could be called losers again given those two championships. And it’s hard to see Pau Gasol, Ron Artest and Lamar Odom caring that much more than they did Sunday, which was not much at all.

And, yes, the Celtics were deftly efficient, though that much celebrated size was reduced to Glen “Big Baby” Davis as their “big man” down the stretch with the other bigs watching or hurt. Kevin Garnett, classy as usual, cheap shot and undercut his way around and, according to Yahoo!, told a ball boy seeking an autograph afterward he has as much chance of that as catching Bin Laden. Are you sure he really didn’t wish cancer on Charlie Villanueva? Don’t people feel dirty rooting for him?

Meanwhile, did Kevin Love just make the All-Star team Sunday? That’s my hunch after Gasol pretty much backed down against the Celtics in a bad Lakers loss. There was much ado last week when Jerry West was quoted saying the Lakers’ run is coming to an end and their defense is poor. Hey, there’s a reason they made him the NBA logo. The Lakers may be coming to an end, and they cannot defend. The reason is their big guys, Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Odom—those worn tires as West would put it—seemingly no longer are the impenetrable threat they were believed to be. I never make judgments on one game. But we’ve seen this much of the season with numerous losses to sub-.500 teams and a fast start masked by a soft schedule. They are 1-3 against the top three in the East, splitting with the Bulls, and 0-2 against the top teams in the West, the Spurs and Mavs.

It was revealing to see the Celtics basically playing down the stretch with Davis instead of Shaq or Kendrick Perkins. The rap on Gasol always had been to be physical against him, and Davis was. Gasol backed off, the culmination of it a pathetic fallaway jumper in the last minutes as he seemed to run from the contact. After last season’s title, Gasol had come to be regarded as the game’s best big man over Dwight “Anyone know where the party is?” Howard.

But Gasol seems satisfied with the championship and has spent a lot of the season talking about fatigue. Ten games in? Gasol’s scored 13 or fewer in four of the last 10, and there was a six point game earlier this month. He’s had a total of 13 free throws the last five games. And they are throwing it to him this time. Sunday, Kobe finally got tired of it and went back to chucking. And if not for that the Lakers would not have had any chance. Everyone in the media yelled at Kobe afterward, but Phil Jackson said it and we’d see it at times with the pre-title Bulls: Guys didn’t want the ball. So Jordan got 50 to try to bail them out. If Kobe passed, the Lakers would have lost by 50. Ron Artest, predictably, is involved in other pursuits and is mad Phil Jackson makes fun of him and is pouting.

This is not to say the Lakers aren’t very good. But they no longer are unbeatable, a leveling of the playing field that includes the East as Miami, even with Sunday’s nice win in Oklahoma City, shows major flaws and Boston with Kevin Garnett hurt showed serious vulnerability recently.

When the season started, the notion was the Lakers, Celtics, Magic and Heat and just maybe the Mavs were the only teams who could win the title. Now, with a tweak here and there—or not—you have to add the Spurs. If they were to make one more addition, the Bulls, and maybe even the Nuggets, if they hang onto Carmelo Anthony, the Hawks with a move, the Thunder, and maybe even the Hornets. It’s going to be an intriguing spring in the NBA.

Spoelstra seems to be abandoned by Heat

-- If Miami doesn’t win that championship, Erik Spoelstra won’t make it back. No, LeBron’s posse hasn’t leaked any damaging stories because Spoelstra is yelling at LeBron again. It’s just obvious LeBron has decided not to pay any attention to him. The Heat’s talent is hardly to be ignored as they overcame the Thunder Sunday. It was instructive to watch their end sequence with first Chris Bosh isolating (which they basically do all the time with almost no basic offense) and missing, and then Dwyane Wade in a fun back and forth game. So then Mike Miller saves the game with an offensive rebound and LeBron’s wide open on the wing for a three trailing by a point. Two options for the star: Take the three unguarded or with basically a wide open alley drive and at worst be fouled. So James passes to Eddie House in the right corner. House made the three to effectively clinch the game, and the notion is it’s the right play to pass to the open shooter. But, c’mon, do you want your best player passing both options to throw to Eddie House? And, no, it wasn’t the right play. House had played 10 minutes up to that point and was zero for one shooting. You don’t pass up an open three and lane to pass to that guy! But that’s why he’s not Kobe.

It’s always been said James avoids situations to shoot late free throws. He was seven for 11 on free throws at that juncture, and with his ego, you know he didn’t want to have to explain a miss under pressure. It is supposed to be his shot. Wade tried and even Bosh. LeBron passed. We know who he is. And in that animal house, House after he made the shot ran back pantomiming having a large groin area to show what a competitor he is. Of course, that was the same day the NBA fined Josh Smith, another genius, for a similar obscene gesture. It does appear a team without discipline and doing what it pleases, which only further suggests without a title, we’ll see Doc Rivers in South Florida next season. And someone would do well hiring Spoelstra. He’s just being abandoned by this group.

An aside I will add about Smith, whom I watched the other night in a tight game against the Bucks with the Hawks having a pair of game winning or tying possessions down the stretch and Smith shooting ridiculous long jump shots, threes, while Joe Johnson and Al Horford shot him these killer looks. When it’s the second coach and it continues, you know it’s the player and he’s not treatable. Though the Hawks should do well this summer playing on the AAU circuit.

O’Brien’s career may have ended in Chicago

-- This should be a trivia question. Someone call Elias. Has an NBA coach ever ended his career being ejected in his final game? Remember the name Jim O’Brien. O’Brien was thrown out with 3:23 left in Saturday’s Bulls win over the Pacers. The last straw, though likely not to break a camel’s back, was O’Brien for most of the fourth quarter sitting Josh McRoberts, who had a career high through three quarters and had been digesting Carlos Boozer. This even after Taj Gibson went out with a sprained ankle. Pacers’ management had feuded with O’Brien this season about O’Brien not using youngsters like Paul George and Tyler Hansbrough. O’Brien, in the final year of his contract, kept using veterans, like Jeff Foster Saturday because he said after the game McRoberts couldn’t defend Boozer or Luol Deng. Watching O’Brien and the team melt down, the Bulls pull away and guys with no future with the team playing was likely enough for Pacers’ management. O’Brien, though, was in the old coach’s dilemma of believing he had to win games to hold onto his job, similar to Vinny Del Negro’s situation with the Bulls when he kept playing Joakim Noah last season. The general view around the Pacers is with the team having the league’s lowest payroll after this season, Larry Bird will stick around through free agency to see what the team can do after spending three years breaking it down. As for the next coach, internally popular former Pacers’ assistants Sam Mitchell and Mike Brown are possibilities along with Bird’s old teammate, Kevin McHale, who wants to get back into coaching. TV broadcaster Mark Jackson had a good run with the Pacers and also is trying to get into coaching. I’m told Ron Artest is not a candidate even though he says he regrets destroying the franchise.

Carmelo heads to New Jersey… as a Nugget

-- So how do you think the Nets feel about Carmelo Anthony, who to the surprise of many is playing in New Jersey Monday, though in a Nuggets jersey. The Nets last week during games made this announcement about Monday’s game: Come see Kenyon Martin and the Denver Nuggets. (By the way, how about Brook Lopez with 28 points and one rebound in a loss to Indiana last week, his second one rebound game of the month. Avery Johnson is hit on the head by as many rebounds while sitting on the bench). Anyway, ‘Melo. He’s the latest to get the we-can’t-stand-you-for-playing-out-this-drama all season to keep the attention on himself. The way the West is going, the Nuggets should keep him and might even make a serious run. You’d think they might feel some obligation to their fans. But GMs say the Nuggets continue to solicit offers and would even take a rental team for Anthony to get something. The Nets supposedly could come back into the picture, so goes the speculation. One intriguing name the Nuggets have had interest in, in part because he does have a contract and they can keep him, is Andre Iguodala. Iguodala has played well lately, though the feeling among many in Philadelphia is Evan Turner should replace him. So why not take a shot at Anthony at least for the regular season? The worst you lose is Iguodala and his big contract and maybe end up with a big trade exception if he leaves and the old sign and trade rules still exist. Hey, it’s just an hour train ride to New York. And having grown up in Brooklyn, I know it’s about the same to Manhattan from Brooklyn. Meanwhile, the Knicks over the weekend added Mark Warkentein as a consultant. He was general manager in Denver and fired after this season when the momentum to dump Anthony began. Anthony was said to be upset by the firing, and suddenly Warkentein shows up in New York with Donnie Walsh coming to the end of his contract with perhaps only an option year left. Hmmmm.

Thibs avoids ejection, Rivers not so lucky

-- You may have missed the move last week of Toronto picking up center Alexis Ajinca from the Mavs. It was mentioned that Ajinca was a seven footer who likes to shoot and doesn’t rebound, which seems a duplication since that seems Bargnani’s job. … So how does a coach get an ejection and how does a coach avoid one? It was on display last week when Doc Rivers after protesting loudly was thrown out by referee Steve Javie after Rivers reportedly had said he’d do a better job. Gone! So Friday against Orlando, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was in the ear of referee Bob Delaney, who said if Thibodeau knew so much he should referee. So Thibodeau says then the game really would be a mess. Both laugh and Thibs gets to finish.

NBA news and notes

-- In the slapstick that has become the NBA dunk contest, the dunkers all have been assigned dunk coaches. Lovetron’s Darryl Dawkins will coach Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and told the Toronto Star, “It’s Darryl Dawkins to DeMar DeRozan, Double-D to Double-D, breaker-breaker one-nine. Roger that, Double-D. Ready for takeoff, Double-D. We have lift-off. Now we’re going to see if we can get a function at the junction, and get the rim rocking and get the door knocking.” Great. … Taj Gibson is hoping for an invitation to the All-Star rookie/sophomore game, and should get one with a suffering sophomore class. From last year’s rookie game in which Gibson played, Jonas Jerebko is out for the season, Brandon Jennings has missed much of the season along with Jonny Flynn, Omri Casspi has struggled along with Tyreke Evans. And Stephen Curry has battled ankle problems. Probably the rookie from that game having the best sophomore season is DeJuan Blair. … There’s no other way to put it: The Pistons have been outscored by four times as many points with Richard Hamilton playing than when he doesn’t. So why shouldn’t he be benched? Chauncey Billups said Hamilton is Pistons “royalty” and deserves better treatment. Not having any of his checks bounce on a $12.5 million annual salary seems very loyal. Detroit media continue to report Hamilton out “battling” the flu. The moody Hamilton can be a problem guy as well, and with another year after this there’s no way he’ll get a buyout. But Tayshaun Prince could, and he’d be a good fit for the Bulls. … Coach of the year is tough. Assistant of the year may be Charles Oakley, who has Kwame Brown playing like never before, averaging 9.2 points and 8.9 rebounds in January with 18 and 16-rebound games. Said Bobcats coach Paul Silas: "I'll tell you who's having a great effect on Kwame is Charles Oakley. It's his project. All the big guys are. And before games he's guarding those guys and they post him up, he knocks the hell out of them. So they've got to come with it."

-- I probably could make this a regular feature. But the Kevin Garnett punk move of the week was stepping under the Suns’ Channing Frye on a jumper to try to get Frye to turn his ankle, an old trick attributed by fellow Celtic Ray Allen to Bruce Bowen. Garnett then hit Frye in the groin. Classy. … There’s way too much over-coaching. And although it didn’t mean the final outcome as the Raptors got bailed out on a bad call, the classic was Toronto’s Jay Triano last week against the Bucks. Trailing by two with 26 seconds left, the Raptors rebounded a Carlos Delfino miss and broke out five on three. But Triano already had called a timeout, negating the easy fast break. That also lets the defense set, though Toronto at home got a foul against Amir Johnson on what appeared a charge. But then the Bucks won in overtime. Let ‘em play! … As for those Raptors, I know they’ve had some injuries, which Triano brings up all the time, but they’re still playing two high lottery picks in Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozen, a big free agent signing in Amir Johnson—though he might have been the worst signing of the summer—and a solid point guard in Jose Calderon. They shouldn’t be Cleveland bad, which they are. To paraphrase Kramer, “Look away, they’re hideous.”

-- Don’t sleep on the 76ers. With Sunday’s win over the Nuggets, they are 18-13 since a 3-13 start and have not lost more than two straight since. The Denver win was after blowing a 21-point lead and losing to Memphis. After losing by 45 to the Bulls, they lost in the last seconds in Boston the next night, and then beat the Bulls in their next meeting. Their resilience is impressive as they are seventh in the East, and Doug Collins is in the conversation for coach of the year with Tom Thibodeau and Gregg Popovich. … Here’s why it’s so tough to make a deal. There were reports this weekend in a Bay Area newspaper the Warriors would like to strengthen their team by moving Dorell Wright to sixth man and trading for someone like Andre Iguodala, Danny Granger, Josh Smith, Jeff Green or Luol Deng. The report said the Warriors would offer expiring contracts for Deng. … Taj Gibson Sunday tweeted his ankle was much improved and apparently no serious issue. But a bird apparently tried to mate hearing the tweeting sound. … Big surprise Shawne Williams, the league leader in arrests, goaded Atlanta’s Marvin Williams into a fight. Donnie Walsh always has a weak spot for his draft picks, as last season he tried to resurrect Jonathan Bender. This season he brought in miscreant Williams, who assaulted teammate Bill Walker earlier this season. Though Williams may have a career in coaching as no one before seemingly ever could get Williams to show much interest in anything.

-- You had to love Washington’s Nick Young complaining about the Wizards’ offense after a Saturday loss at Memphis. How would Young even know the offense, as every time he gets the ball he shoots right away. Though since that apparently is his view of the offense, maybe he was right to question it. … Though his numbers are good at 15 points and 9.3 rebounds, John Wall’s defense has been shockingly bad, even for a rookie, contributing mightily to the Wizards’ record setting road losing streak. And last week there was a video burning up the internet of Wall giving gang signs after hitting a shot. Though I thought he was calling for the check in another Wizards loss. … Meanwhile, Andray Blatche continues a feud with a local radio sports station, frequently calling into the station and last time saying true fans have an obligation to cheer for him. Blatche explained on the show the team’s problem is players are selfish but no one says anything because they all like one another. Poor Kirk.

-- You wonder how the Magic could lose to the Bulls Friday with their All-Star Dwight Howard so ready for the game. Howard flopped on his stomach and did a dance called the worm (self-explanatory) during the Magic pregame introductions. … Chris Bosh probably has the edge over Carlos Boozer for perhaps that last All-Star forward spot given the Heat get so many TV games and the Bulls only get two of those big Sunday games all season, the first in March. Right, in Miami. But you had to love Kevin Durant commenting on Bosh talking during Sunday’s game: “He's on a good team now so he thinks he can talk a little bit. There are a lot of fake tough guys in this league and he's one of them." Bosh, you’ll recall, complained about being hurt when Omer Asik dove for a ball and fell into him. Bosh wondered why players have to dive like that. … Hard to say whether you’d call it a bust signing or no surprise, but Brad Miller has missed the last dozen games with knee problems after playing 37 minutes in a loss to Utah and is averaging 7.5 points and 3.9 rebounds, the lowest since his rookie season. … There were internet media reports from Germany over the weekend Dirk Nowitzki would return to play in Germany if there is an NBA lockout. And risk losing more than $60 million on his contract playing in unauthorized games. Sure. Don’t expect to see any NBA players anywhere in a lockout, but maybe washing Gilbert Arenas’ cars at $675 a pop. … The staggering Jazz are a mess with coach Jerry Sloan changing starting lineups four times in the last week, though Deron Williams is out now. You know Jerry Sloan had to love Ronnie Price dribbling between his legs late in Sunday’s loss to Golden State, playing one against four with none of his teammates running the court and turning the ball over. And the Jazz is paying luxury tax this season. … It’s always a big change when the Suns travel. Finishing a five game Eastern trip during the East’s storms in January, Suns coach Alvin Gentry told Doug Collins it was 74 degrees in Phoenix that day and it hadn’t been 74 degrees combined in the five cities the Suns were just through. … Freed from backing up Dwight Howard, Marcin Gortat is coming off games of 25 and 11 and 19 and 17 as the Suns beat the Celtics and streaking Hornets. Gortat told the Arizona Republic it was like when he first slept in his new car after getting his NBA contract: “Just like when I bought my BMW and I was actually sleeping for one week in the car in the garage. That's how I felt getting my BMW for the first time. I have the same feeling now, getting out and playing 30 minutes. Next day, you've got to figure out what to do because you're actually tired." I’m told, though, he did go in to shower.

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