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Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James, Anthony Davis ‘still have trouble’ with Kobe Bryant’s death

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Three-hundred and sixty-three days following Kobe Bryant’s death and 104 days after winning an NBA championship in his honor, the Los Angeles Lakers‘ co-captains, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, reflected on the time that has passed since the world lost Bryant.

“Man, it’s a saying that time heals all,” James said after a win over the Chicago Bulls on Saturday at the United Center, where Bryant’s idol, Michael Jordan, used to play. “And as devastating and as tragic as it was and still is to all of us involved with it, only time. And it takes time. Everyone has their own grieving process.”

Many among the Lakers and in Bryant’s family and close circle of friends are still in mourning, nearly a year after a helicopter crash killed 41-year-old Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

“As we approach his one-year anniversary, it saddens our hearts to actually come to the realization that he’s gone,” Davis said. “I know I still have trouble with it, you still just can’t believe it.”

With emotions still raw, the Lakers organization has no plans to make this Tuesday, Jan. 26, any more difficult than it already will be by placing any further emphasis on the anniversary, sources told ESPN. There will be no Black Mamba uniforms worn on Monday in Cleveland, the day before the anniversary, or Wednesday in Philadelphia, the day after. There will be no formal tribute rolled out, which could potentially draw more attention to the harrowing details of the accident and cause more trauma than healing.

The Lakers’ team will continue to pay homage to Bryant in the subtle ways many of its players have since last season: with pairs of Bryant’s signature sneakers on their feet, with a No. 24 finger sleeve on James’ hand, with Bryant’s nickname unifying the group in every huddle.

“To this day, it’s, ‘Mamba on three!’ anytime we bring it in because we still want to recognize that he’s a part of our organization,” Davis said. “And ever since the tragedy happened, we had a mindset that this is bigger than, you know, ourselves.”

James was asked about Bryant during several postgame news conferences this week and invited conversation about the Laker luminary’s life, but he was reticent to dwell on the circumstances surrounding Bryant’s death.

“I try not to put myself back in that headspace, because it’s just too dark,” James said, “for not only myself but for our organization and for everyone that’s involved in it.”

Lakers center Marc Gasol, whose older brother, Pau, teamed with Bryant to win two championships, was also not ready to share his thoughts publicly.

“I’m not comfortable talking about it,” Gasol said. “I’m sorry. Still to this day, I have never really talked about it.”

But bring up how Bryant’s game mirrored Jordan’s? That was something James readily weighed in on, if only for the sake of Bryant’s basketball legacy.

“I only looked at Kobe for him,” James said. “And obviously you’ve seen a lot of the similarities between him and Mike, but I appreciated Kobe’s game for Kobe’s game. The way he played the game, the finesse that he played with, the ball-handling capabilities, the shooting, everything that he possessed on the floor — I respected him for who he was as a player and what he was able to bring onto the floor.

“The fact that he was able to take some things from MJ and look at some of MJ’s DNA and actually be able to do it — a lot of people try to do that, a lot of people wish they could take things from some of the greats, implement them into their game and then be successful, they just can’t. They don’t have the ability to do it. They don’t have the drive to do it, the mindset to do it. But he actually did it and did it at a high level for a long, long, long time. And you can respect that.”

And Davis marveled at the magnitude of Bryant’s lasting impact, an influence so omnipresent that the Lakers star big man never fully comprehended it while Bryant was still alive.

“I didn’t know, and I know he was very, very known and popular, but I didn’t know he impacted so many people’s lives outside of basketball,” Davis said. “From soccer, to football, to players overseas, to people who don’t even play sports, they’re always talking about the ‘Mamba Mentality.’ I didn’t know how impactful he was worldwide. … I just didn’t realize how many people he impacted worldwide that’s outside the basketball community.”

This season’s Lakers team is in pursuit of a repeat title to pair with the one it dedicated to Bryant’s memory.

“When the tragedy happened, it was more so, you know, ‘Let’s do it for him,'” Davis said. “And that’s what we ended up doing all last year. … We know we fought to the end for a purpose and it wasn’t just for ourselves. It was for the Bryant family. And we were able to get that accomplished.”

While Bryant remains on the Lakers minds and in their hearts, James said that Bryant will be remembered because he’s not just being carried by his former franchise, but by the people all over the planet he once thrived in.

“There’s a lot of things that die in this world, but legends never die, and he’s exactly that,” James said. “So it’s all about representing that.”

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Minnesota Timberwolves fire coach Ryan Saunders

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The Minnesota Timberwolves have fired coach Ryan Saunders, the team announced Sunday night.

The Timberwolves have asked the Toronto Raptors permission to speak with assistant coach Chris Finch and are proceeding on hiring him to replace Saunders as head coach, sources told ESPN.

Hiring a coach off another staff during the season is uncommon, but Toronto won’t stand in the way of Finch’s chance to become a head coach. Finch had success as a G-League head coach, and has interviewed for several head coaching jobs in recent years.

Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas and Finch worked together with the Houston Rockets.

Minnesota has dropped 24 of 31 games to start the season, leaving it with the worst record in the NBA. The Timberwolves have lost eight of their past nine games, including a 103-99 loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday night.

Minnesota was hit hard with injuries and COVID-19 issues this season. Starting guard D’Angelo Russell played 20 games before recently undergoing left knee surgery that’ll sideline him for the next four-to-six weeks. Star Karl-Anthony Towns has only played 11 games this season between a wrist injury and contracting COVID-19.

“We would like to thank Ryan for his time and commitment to the Timberwolves organization and wish him the best in the future,” Rosas said in a statement. “These are difficult decisions to make, however this change is in the best interest of the organization’s short and long-term goals.”

Saunders was 43-95 as coach of the Timberwolves in two-plus seasons.

Minnesota travels to play Milwaukee on Tuesday night.

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Celtics’ historic blown lead a low point in their season

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When he was coaching the New England Patriots, Bill Parcells uttered what has become a famous maxim in sports: “You are what your record says you are.”

After the Boston Celtics, dropped to 15-15 thanks to a horrific collapse in the Big Easy Sunday afternoon, losing 120-115 to the New Orleans Pelicans after leading by as many as 24 points in the second half, it certainly applies to them.

“We’ve got a lot of things to clean up, obviously,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

Sunday’s debacle was a microcosm of Boston’s season as a whole. The Celtics got moments of brilliance from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who even on off days for them overall still combined to score 57 points. Meanwhile, they didn’t get much from everyone else, as the rest of the team only managed 58 points while shooting 4-for-20 from 3-point range.

Eleven of those misses came from Kemba Walker, whose up-and-down (though mostly down) play since debuting in early January after completing a 12-week strengthening program for his troublesome left knee has been as constant as Boston’s continued hovering around .500. After Walker had his best game of the season Friday night in a win over the Atlanta Hawks, scoring 28 points and going 10-for-16 from the field — the fourth time this season Walker hit at least half his shots — Stevens gently chided his point guard’s critics, and Tatum said the All-Star guard’s play is beginning to come around.

Walker followed that up by going 5-for-21 in a season-high 36 minutes Sunday, including a 1-for-12 mark from 3-point range. He’s now shooting 37.1 percent for the season, and the Celtics are being outscored with him on the floor.

Overall, the Celtics look like a team that never replaced Gordon Hayward, who has played at an All-Star level after signing with the Charlotte Hornets in the offseason. Obviously the recent loss of Marcus Smart to a calf strain — an injury that has kept Smart out of the lineup since Jan. 30, and one that ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported before Sunday’s game will keep Smart out until after next month’s All-Star Break — is part of Boston’s troubles. But the Celtics also did nothing to replace Hayward’s production on the wing in the offseason. Instead, they signed another point guard (Jeff Teague) and another center (Tristan Thompson) on a roster heavy on players at both positions.

Teague has been an abject disaster, shooting under 30 percent on 2-point shots this season and deservedly being banished from Stevens’ rotation in favor of rookie Payton Pritchard. Thompson, meanwhile, has slowly worked his way back into form after a hamstring strain cost him all of training camp with his new team. But even his improved play has left Stevens juggling a rotation that he admitted before Sunday’s game is imbalanced thanks to three of Boston’s better players — Thompson, Daniel Theis and Robert Williams — all being centers.

“I’ve said this all year: one of the challenges of our team is that you get past our best perimeter players, and the next probably three best guys as far as production goes so far on our team are, at first blush, fives,” Stevens said.

As Stevens continues to search for wing production, the team’s other rookie, Aaron Nesmith, has been the first player off the bench the past five games. And while he’s been fine, he isn’t anything close to an approximation of what Hayward was for Boston last year — let alone what he’s been for Charlotte this season.

That has left a heavy burden on Tatum and Brown to produce for the Celtics. And in games like Sunday afternoon, when Walker was struggling to hit from the perimeter, that allowed New Orleans to throw everything at the two of them without worrying about anyone else on the court — a formula that allowed the Pelicans to claw their way back from a massive deficit and, eventually, win in overtime.

“Obviously we gave ourselves a chance in overtime,” Tatum said. “But if we want to be a really good team we’ve got to put teams away earlier, especially being up 20-something points.

“But we let them come back.”

While Stevens hasn’t ever quite said it the way Parcells once did, he hasn’t been shy to point out that, as Boston has hovered around .500 for the past few weeks, there’s little reason to believe the team’s current form should allow it to be better than that. Yes, Boston hasn’t had Smart, but virtually every team has dealt with significant absences due to either injury or the NBA’s health and safety protocols regarding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The combination of those ongoing struggles, along with the team’s president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, declaring, “Our roster obviously is not good … there’s no if’s, and’s or but’s about it” in a radio interview this week, will place a bright spotlight on Boston between now and next month’s trade deadline.

From the time Boston wakes up Monday morning, it will be 31 days until the March 25 deadline – a stretch in which the Celtics, armed with all of their first round picks going forward and a massive trade exception from Hayward’s departure during the offseason, will be expected to make a move to supplement their current roster.

If they can, they’ll have an opportunity to make a run in an Eastern Conference that features several potential contenders – Boston included – that all have severe flaws. If they can’t, it’s hard to see how they will.

After all, we’re 30 games into a 72-game season and the Celtics are a .500 team. And, in this case, their record says exactly what they are.

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New Orleans Pelicans’ defense caps largest comeback in franchise history in win over Boston Celtics

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NEW ORLEANS — Coming off the heels of an historic collapse on Friday night, things once again looked like they were trending in the wrong direction for the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday afternoon.

The Pelicans watched as the Boston Celtics stretched their lead out to 24 points midway through the third quarter and it seemed as if the Pelicans were on their way to another disappointing defeat.

But instead of folding and wilting away like they’ve done several times this season, New Orleans responded.

And they did so using something that’s been porous for much of the season — their defense.

From the 6:29 mark of the third quarter through the end of overtime, New Orleans held Boston to just 36 points on 32 percent shooting as the Pelicans stormed back to complete the largest comeback in franchise history in a 120-115 win.

“It was a big win for us. We stayed true to who we were,” Pelicans forward Zion Williamson said. “We rallied back. Everybody, the coaches, the players, the ball boys, everybody was just engaged. We needed all that energy and we pulled through.”

That energy level was — maybe — at a season-low on Friday. The Pelicans carried an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Suns and lost by 18 points. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the largest loss in the shot-clock era for a team that entered the fourth quarter up double digits.

While their defense failed them then, it’s something the Pelicans were able to lean on extensively against Boston, led by guards Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart.

“Me and J-Hart, we’re looked upon to guard the stars of the other team pretty much night in and night out,” Ball said. “We just did our best to slow those guys down the best we could. It’s not just two guys guarding the ball though. We all came together on that side of the ball.”

And while the charge was led by defense, the Pelicans also had to look to their two star players to finish things out on the offensive end. With the Celtics up 106-105 with 10.5 seconds to play, the Pelicans had to draw up a play to take the lead. Two games after Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy opted to let Brandon Ingram get the ball in the final possession in a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, he went to Williamson this time around. Williamson caught the ball off a screen from Ingram and faked a handoff to Ball. He took is straight at Tristan Thompson, drawing the foul as the layup went in.

“That means a lot to me,” Williamson said of getting the ball in that moment. “That’s what every player puts in hard work, to be in those moments. … (Assistant coach Teresa Witherspoon) especially. When she saw I was frustrated in the first half and came to me and gave me a lot of words about confidence. It means a lot. “They are all looking at me in that moment like, ‘We with you. Whatever decision you make, we’re with you.’ To have people behind me like that, it means a lot.”

Williamson said Ingram was the last person who said something to him coming out the huddle prior to the play, but Ingram tried his best to downplay his role.

“I don’t think he needed any extra encouragement,” Ingram said. “He made a basketball play that we believe in and he made the shot.”

Extra encouragement or not, it worked. But the job wasn’t done for New Orleans as Celtics forward Jayson Tatum came down to make a bucket to send the game into overtime.

In the extra frame, this time it was Ingram’s time to shine.

With the game tied at 112 with 50.1 to play, Pelicans forward Nicolo Melli and Celtics center Daniel Theis were called for a double lane violation on an Ingram free-throw attempt. That meant a jump ball at the center circle between Williamson and Celtics forward Robert Williams.

Williamson won the tip and eventually got the ball back at the top of the key. As he drove, the defense collapsed and Williamson kicked the ball out to Ingram who knocked down a 3-pointer with 34.4 seconds left.

“Whenever I’m in the pick-and-roll as the ball handler, I try to make the best read,” Williamson said. “I think in that situation, after me getting to the basket a couple times, I read that they were going to collapse. As soon as they collapsed, Brandon is a knockdown shooter. He was there so I made the pass. As y’all saw, he’s built for those moments.”

The win came at a much-needed time for New Orleans, who had lost five of six games.

Ingram said the comeback itself it was he was most encouraged about. And it feels like something the Pelicans could use to get their season back on track.

“I think we can take away that we’re really, really good when we stay together,” Ingram said. “Guys were talking tonight. Everybody on the bench was talking. Coaches were communicating with the players and we had a good response.”

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