LOS ANGELES — The Lakers thought they would be gathering as a team Friday to catch a flight to Phoenix for Game 7 of their first-round series against the Suns. Instead, they met for exit interviews to rehash a season that went awry.
“I think when you fall short of the goal that you set, it has to drive you,” said Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, speaking to reporters on a video conference call. “It has to be the fuel that drives your passion, and I think us falling short as a team, that in some sense is going to be part of our motivation and putting in the work to getting back at it, and start training camp next year with a strong roster.”
In the coming months, Pelinka will oversee a score of decisions surrounding the eight players on his team set to hit free agency, with a ninth, Montrezl Harrell, holding a $9.7 million player option he could choose not to exercise to test the market as well.
Despite finishing with the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference and getting bounced from the first round, Pelinka echoed a belief shared by Lakers coach Frank Vogel and superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis after L.A.’s 113-100 Game 6 loss on Thursday that had their team been injury-free this season, their back-to-back championship bid could have been reached.
“I’m convinced that, again, without some of the unforeseen circumstances this year, the challenges that we had to face, that we’d be a championship-caliber team,” he said. “So the goal is to try to keep that core group together.”
With more than $100 million already committed to four players next season — James, Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma — Pelinka was asked if he has ownership approval to dip deep into the luxury tax to retain some of the key pieces set to hit free agency.
“Jeanie [Buss] and the ownership group has empowered the front office to do one thing and that’s to smartly build a roster to win championships,” he said. “I think next year, of course, hopefully, with all of our fans being able to come back and be a part of the building, we owe them the work to start the process of retooling and have a championship-caliber team that can do special things next year. That’s the driving passion and there’s alignment there between Jeanie, the front office, the coaches. That will always be the goal.”
A goal that he laid out in no uncertain terms: “We have an insatiable desire and passion to bring banner No. 18 here. And we’re excited about the work we’re going to commence tomorrow to get that done for our fans and for the organization.”
Pelinka, Vogel and every player on the Lakers’ roster other than James, Caldwell-Pope and Kostas Antetokounmpo spoke to the media in an exit interview capacity since the conclusion of the Suns series.
Point guard Dennis Schroder, one of the group of free agents to be, said he did not turn down an $84-million contract extension during the regular season, as reported by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, as a retaliatory measure for being included in trade talks for the Toronto Raptors‘ Kyle Lowry.
“Let me make that clear first. I didn’t decline the extension because I was in trade talks,” Schroder said. “I own a [basketball] team in Germany as well. I try to run my organization in Germany as fair as possible, but end of the day, it’s still business. … That’s what Rob did as well. He told me the story. He listened to it. It wasn’t even right by the trade deadline, but he talked to them to see. … I would listen to offers as well. … You don’t know what you can get, and you see what your options are.”
Schroder said his relationship with Pelinka is very strong, having an open-door policy with the exec whenever he needs something, and Pelinka gushed about what Schroder brings to the team.
“I think all of us can look at Dennis’ body of work, and he is an extreme competitor, and that’s on both sides of the ball,” Pelinka said. “He’s hounding guys, picking up players full court, diving for loose balls, bringing that energy on the defensive end, and of course he has that ability to score at the point guard position. We value those qualities in him. August is August and free agency is a couple months away. There’s a lot of different things we’ll have to evaluate there, but Dennis is an attractive player to us just because of what he brings to the table.”
Andre Drummond started 27 games for the Lakers after joining the team off the buyout market before receiving a DNP in Game 6 against the Suns.
“I think I’ve learned so much just being around the coaching staff, our teammates,” Drummond said. “Just an incredible group of guys that we have here. We’re looking forward to building more with them.”
Despite Drummond’s sometimes awkward fit, and the team going away from him with the season on the line, Pelinka said the decision to sign Drummond — who was a former client of his during his agent days — was a no-brainer.
“His ability to rebound the ball and protect the rim and give us athleticism and size in the paint was an essential ingredient to add to the team and something that we would do again and again,” he said.
Harrell and Gasol also spoke about their roles moving forward.
“I came in every day and did my job,” Harrell said. “I did what they asked me to do. And I played my role, simple as that. As far as my future, I don’t know what that holds right now. We just finished playing last night. I can’t give you that answer right now, brother.”
Gasol, who publicly griped about his role at times, said he found peace in the team’s collective struggle, recognizing he wasn’t the only one on L.A. trying to make things work.
“I’m very thankful for the year that I lived,” said Gasol, who unlike Harrell and Drummond, is under contract with L.A. for next season. “I know obviously it doesn’t end the way we all want it, but you know, it’s been better than it looked from the outside probably, for me personally. I just enjoyed some of the things that happened. Some of the other things I didn’t, but I tried to be positive and like I said I’m thankful for the opportunity I had here.”
Vogel is entering the final year of the three-year contract he signed to coach the Lakers in the summer of 2019. He did not want to discuss if he had begun extension talks with the team.
“I really just prefer those conversations to remain private,” he said. “Obviously, I love it here. I love this organization. And, you know, I hope to be a Laker for life.”
Meanwhile, Pelinka gave him a hearty endorsement. “Frank’s a guy that Kurt [Rambis] and I and the front office really enjoy working with that really does a great job with all our players, and we see him as a strong part of our future for sure,” he said.
While running it back next year with a similar core seemed to be the wish of many involved with the team — including major stakeholders in the decision-making process in James and Pelinka — Lakers forward Markieff Morris hinted there are some bad apples that have to be shaken from the tree.
“The way I feel is we have to have guys in there that are brought in to win,” said Morris, who is also a free agent and said he hopes to return. “Sacrificing whatever it takes to win. Being in the lineup, being out the lineup. Not getting your shot, getting shots. We need guys in here that are battle-tested. We need guys in here that have one goal in mind and that’s to win the championship. When you’re on a team with LeBron and AD, you know you’re coming in here to be role players. Be the best at your role. And that’s what we need. Next year, I think we have to have that camaraderie that we had our championship year to win it — to have a shot at winning it again next year.”
Lakers veteran Jared Dudley, having just completed his 14th season and about to turn 35 next month, said he wants to return to his role as a locker room leader and glue guy next year even though he missed most of this past season with a torn MCL. “One thousand percent,” he said. “Come on, they need me man. They need me like I need them. Come on.”
Five big takeaways from Game 3 of Jazz-Clippers
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George led the way for the Clippers, as both stars eclipsed the 30-point mark in the postseason for the second time in their careers as teammates. LA is now 2-0 in those games. Donovan Mitchell had a team-high 30 points for the Jazz, his 14th career 30-point game in just 30 postseason contests, but exited midway through the fourth quarter after aggravating an ankle injury.
Can the Clippers keep it rolling in Game 4? Will the Jazz have a healthy backcourt to employ on Monday? Here are five things we gleaned from Game 3.
Playoff P showed up on Saturday
Over the past several years, no one has taken more abuse for their playoff failures than Paul George. Time after time, he and his teams have fallen flat in the postseason, and George’s play — and his words — have been dissected to an endless degree.
Saturday night, though, was a reminder of why the Clippers went through the trouble to pair George with Kawhi Leonard two years ago — and why Leonard himself wanted to play alongside him.
George finished Game 3 with 31 points and five assists while going 6-for-10 from 3-point range — the kind of efficient offensive performance the Clippers desperately needed to get themselves back into this Western Conference semifinal, and one George needed to try and change the impression the basketball world has of him.
It’s been forgotten that, during his time with the Indiana Pacers, George had some massive playoff moments. But those have been overshadowed by the failures since then — from the first-round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, when Damian Lillard ended the series with a bomb over him from nearly half court, to last year’s collapse against the Denver Nuggets, when George fired a 3-pointer off the side of the backboard during the Clippers’ Game 7 loss. His “Playoff P” moniker has become the subject of an endless series of jokes as a result.
If he and the Clippers can dig themselves out of this hole, however, it will give George a chance to rewrite the narrative that’s sprung up around him. As my colleague Brian Windhorst is fond of saying, “Winning a championship means never having to say you’re sorry.”
Saturday night’s explosion put he and the Clippers one step closer to doing so. — Tim Bontemps
The Clippers find ways to attack Gobert
As good as Donovan Mitchell was for Utah in the first two games, Rudy Gobert‘s impact at both ends was nearly as important. The Jazz were plus-19 in Gobert’s 69 minutes of action and outscored by 10 in the other 27 minutes in Salt Lake City. That changed Saturday, when Utah was a minus-16 with Gobert on the court — similar to the plus-minus for the team’s other starters.
After going big in Game 2 with Ivica Zubac starting at center, the Clippers went back to their small starting lineup without a traditional center. That forced Gobert to defend a shooter on the perimeter, allowing the Clippers to attack without him as close to the basket. And unlike Game 1 — when they also started out-playing smallball — the Clippers avoided getting mashed on the offensive glass by the Jazz, who corralled just 22.5% of available offensive rebounds.
The result was a 44-32 edge in points in the paint for the Clippers, who shot 55% (22-of-40) on those attempts while Utah struggled to finish in the paint, going 16-of-35 (46%). — Kevin Pelton
Kawhi is still the best two-way player in the game
Kawhi Leonard takes matters into his own hands as he makes his way to the basket and skies to vandalize the rim on a powerful throwdown.
Kawhi Leonard takes matters into his own hands as he makes his way to the basket and skies to vandalize the rim on a powerful throwdown.
You knew Kawhi Leonard would be the best player on the court for at least one game this series.
For the Clippers to have any hope of advancing, it had to happen in Game 3. As he repeatedly did with LA in dire situations during the first round, Leonard rose to the occasion.
Credit to Paul George for making Leonard’s status as the biggest star of the Clippers’ win Saturday debatable. George had his best offensive performance of this postseason with 31 points, but Leonard’s extra-large fingerprints were all over the victory.
Leonard dominated with his strength, toughness and athleticism. He scored 34 points on 14-of-24 shooting, with more than half of his buckets coming in the paint. He grabbed 12 rebounds, several of the go-up-and-get-it-in-traffic variety. He was the Clippers’ most impactful defender, guarding Donovan Mitchell during much of the Jazz star’s scoreless first quarter and wreaking havoc as a help defender on many occasions.
You figured a two-time NBA Finals MVP wouldn’t go down without a fight. Leonard landed a haymaker on Saturday night. — Tim MacMahon
The Jazz need Mike Conley Jr.
Donovan Mitchell’s heroics in the first two games served as a great coverup, but the Jazz have been missing Mike Conley Jr. When Spida is off the floor, Conley is often tasked with running the offense and creating good looks for non-Mitchell teammates.
In the first two games of the series, Jazz players not named Mitchell shot just 38% from the field (46-for-121). Conley is the only other starter that can create a good look for himself, and without him, the offense is too one-dimensional. The Clippers were eventually going to adjust to the Jazz’s offensive schemes, and did so in Game 3.
With Mitchell having seemingly tweaked his previously injured ankle multiple times in this series, Conley’s offensive creation is even more vital if Mitchell were to slow in any way. — Andre Snellings
Reggie Jackson, the X-factor
When the Clippers were rounding out the pieces on the roster to complement their two stars, they probably didn’t exactly expect Reggie Jackson to become a deadeye spot-up shooter and critical third scorer.
But as this series progresses, Jackson’s importance is becoming obvious. Not only is he a shot creator and shot maker, he’s the spacer and pressure release that can open avenues for Leonard and George. Jackson’s late shot clock ability to either drive the lane or hit a difficult step-back are the kind of bailouts that playoff wins are often built on.
Against a team like the Jazz, that moves the ball dynamically, balances their scoring and hits barrages of 3s, relying on a two-headed attack wasn’t ever going to be enough. But if Jackson is going to consistently provide the kind of production of a pseudo third start, suddenly the Clippers start looking like the super team they were assumed to be. – Royce Young
Paul George sets tone with bounce-back effort as LA Clippers rout Utah Jazz in needed Game 3 win
After hearing Jazz fans chant “overrated” at him for two games in Utah, an aggressive George had his best game of the playoffs, scoring 20 of his 31 points in the first half to set a much-needed tone for the LA Clippers on Saturday night. Kawhi Leonard then scored 24 of his 34 points in the second half to help the Clippers rout the Utah Jazz, 132-106, and get their first win of this Western Conference semifinal series.
George’s first 30-point game since April 23 came when the Clippers needed it to keep their title hopes alive. The Clippers now can even the series at 2-2 with a win Monday night in Game 4.
George found his rhythm and got hot, burying 6 of 10 3-pointers, four coming in the first half while playing with even more confidence on his home floor. After he hit the step-back 3 over O’Neale, George buried a 32-foot 3 and held his follow-through pose with confidence as the Clippers opened a 57-41 lead with 2:54 remaining in the first half. The Jazz never got any closer than eight in the third quarter.
“Oh, we’re a different team,” Clippers coach Ty Lue said of when George has his offense going early. “We know that. It’s been like that all season long. He’s been great. You know, he had one bad game, whatever, but people going to have bad games.”
George scored 20 points in Game 1 but Utah fans badgered him whenever they could as he shot 4-for-17 in Game 1. In Game 2, George scored 27 points and shot 8-for-18, but Jazz fans love taunting him dating back to when George was with Oklahoma City and the Thunder played Utah in the 2018 playoffs. George also has seen his fair share of Joe Ingles defending him, as the two have had their back-and-forth.
When asked what his relationship is with Ingles, George said, “I don’t care about him. Next question.”
For the Clippers, there is no question how good they can be when George and Leonard shift their games to another level like they did on Saturday. Not only did they combine to make 26 of 48 shots but they also took the challenge of slowing down Donovan Mitchell.
While Mitchell finished with 30 points before tweaking his sore right ankle, he was held scoreless for the first 16 minutes and 26 seconds of the game. After contesting 71% of his field goal attempts in the first two Jazz wins, the Clippers contested all but one of Mitchell’s 24 shots in Game 3, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“We just made an emphasis that he’s not going to beat us tonight,” George said of Mitchell, who played just four minutes and 55 seconds in the fourth quarter to rest his ankle with the game out of hand. “We’re going to force everybody else to play and we’re just not going to let him walk into shots tonight and get the looks that he wanted early tonight.”
Lue challenged his team to defend Mitchell better 1-on-1 but the Clippers also sent some doubles at the Jazz’ scorer, who scored 45 and 37 points in Games 1 and 2.
Mitchell did not score when defended by George on two shots and scored four of his points when guarded by Leonard.
After losing the first two games of first round at Staples Center against Dallas before winning the next two on the road to even the series, the Clippers will try to rebound from their second straight 0-2 deficit at home. No team in NBA playoff history has ever successfully overcome a 2-0 deficit and win multiple times in the same postseason.
They’ll take the momentum of their most decisive win of the playoffs and Leonard and George playing one of their best games together into a critical Game 4. The Clippers improved to 5-0 in the regular season and playoffs when their two All-Stars score 30 points or more each in a game together.
“With our two guys, we know that they are two of the best in the league,” Lue said. “I don’t go to Mastro’s [restaurant] to order the ketchup. I go to order the steak. And tonight, our guys were steak. That’s what we need.”
Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell exits with ankle pain, says he’ll be ready for Game 4
Utah Jazz star guard Donovan Mitchell exited Saturday’s 132-106 Game 3 loss to the LA Clippers because of pain in his right ankle, but the decision for him not to return was due to the lopsided score.
“I feel like I was able to go back, but no need to risk it down 16, 18 at that point,” Mitchell said. “I’ll be fine.”
A right ankle sprain sidelined Mitchell for the final 16 games of the regular season and the Jazz’s playoff opener, when he was angered by the Utah medical staff’s decision to make him a late scratch.
Mitchell has averaged 32.3 points per game during the playoffs, including 30 point on 11-of-24 shooting in Game 3, despite dealing with persistent pain in the ankle.
“It’s when I land,” Mitchell said. “It’s been just trying to manage it. I don’t really know what else to tell you; I don’t want to say too much. It was just the landing, but I’m good. I’ll be ready for Game 4.”
Mitchell limped off the court after a driving layup attempt with 7 minutes, 5 seconds remaining. He briefly went into the tunnel before returning to the Jazz bench.
With the game slipping away from the Jazz, Mitchell had a conversation with coach Quin Snyder. He did not return to the game, although the Utah medical staff had cleared him to return.
“He’s in good shape,” Snyder said. “He could have gone back in the game, but at that point, the lead had stretched. In fact, while we were talking, I think Kawhi hit a 3. That was my decision not to put him back in at that point. The game had gotten away from us at that point, but he’s fine.”
In the final moments of the game, Mitchell sat on the bench with his right shoe off and ice on the ankle.
“Obviously, it’s not going to be 100 percent, but you go out there and you try to compete,” Mitchell said. “Things like this are going to happen. You just got to find ways to manage it and get out there and get ready. It’s not going to be perfect, but it is what it is.”
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