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    Lakers’ Opener Shows Its Stars Are Not Yet Aligned

    A team that remade its roster around big names finds that getting them all on the same page is still a work in progress.LOS ANGELES — Anthony Davis still remembers the narrative that trailed him to Los Angeles: “Can he do it under the bright lights?”Davis had been a stat-stuffing star with the New Orleans Pelicans before forcing his way out, landing with the Lakers in a trade before the start of the 2019-20 season. His first game was against the Clippers, who limited him to a subpar effort in a Lakers loss. Afterward, Davis was beating himself up at his locker. LeBron James, who was sitting next to him, advised him to calm down.“You’re fine,” James told him. “This is Game 1.”And then James promptly went back to laughing at whatever he was looking at on his phone.It was an exchange that stuck with Davis, who wound up playing well enough that season to help deliver the Lakers’ first championship in 10 years. And it was one that Davis fondly remembered on Tuesday night after the Lakers’ season-opening loss to the Golden State Warriors. Something about it felt familiar to him.A new teammate, Russell Westbrook, had assembled a forgettable performance in his debut for the Lakers — 8 points in 35 frustrating minutes — that prompted James, with Davis’s help this time, to offer another post-Game 1 pep talk.“We’re with him,” Davis said of Westbrook. “It’s his job to continue to be himself, and we’re going to help him through all the little avenues and these challenges along the way.”James said he told Westbrook to go home and watch a comedy.“Do something that can put a smile on his face,” James said. “He’s so hard on himself.”The Lakers have emphasized star power over youth as they have rebuilt their roster.Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated PressOne game does not mean a whole lot when there are 81 left to play. For the Lakers, their grand experiment — so many aging stars, only one basketball — will resume on Friday against the Phoenix Suns, who eliminated the Lakers from the playoffs last season. In the wake of that first-round exit, the Lakers used the summer to surround James and Davis with a fascinating cast of characters, including Westbrook, the winner of the 2017 Most Valuable Player Award and a triple-double factory in his heyday.Now 32, Westbrook is as polarizing as ever. Can he produce without having the ball in his hands most of the time? Can he find his jump shot? Will he help the Lakers, or ultimately hurt them?Again, the Lakers’ 121-114 loss to the Warriors was merely the first game of many. But it was a clunker for Westbrook, who finished with 8 points, five rebounds and four assists while shooting 4 of 13 from the field. In the 35 minutes he was on the court, the Lakers were outscored by 23 points. He also had four turnovers and a technical foul.His news conference was brief and fairly monosyllabic.What did it mean to him that James and Davis had given him some encouragement in the locker room? “We talked,” Westbrook said.What did he make of the ambience at Staples Center? “I would say I wasn’t paying much mind to be honest,” he said.OK, how about it being his first game for the Lakers, his hometown team? “Nothing different than a normal game day,” he said.You get the idea. The spotlight will only burn brighter from here — on the Lakers, on Westbrook, and on their decision to trade for him this summer instead of working out a deal with the Sacramento Kings for Buddy Hield, a shooting guard who would seem a better fit to play off the ball with the likes of James and Davis.“Him more than anybody, it’s going to be an adjustment period,” Coach Frank Vogel said of Westbrook. “He’s coming into our culture, our system. He’s the new guy, and he’s got to find his way.”Vogel cited the team’s patchwork preseason in explaining away some of Westbrook’s hiccups. Nobody played that many minutes together. Westbrook’s numbers in four games — 35 percent shooting, a team-high 23 turnovers — would have been more alarming if the preseason actually meant anything.For his part, James said he suspected that Westbrook had succumbed to “first-game jitters” as a player who had watched the Lakers growing up.“And now you’re putting on a Laker uniform and you’re stepping into Staples Center,” James said. “I can only imagine how many friends and family have contacted him over the last 48 hours.”The real referendum on Westbrook’s viability will play out over the coming weeks, though there are larger questions about how this Lakers team was assembled. In recent seasons, they have essentially gutted their roster of the young players they had drafted and were working to develop — everyone from Brandon Ingram to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — in favor of acquiring older, splashier players.Jordan Poole had 20 points for the Warriors.Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated PressGolden State provided a useful counterpoint to the Lakers’ approach on Tuesday by showcasing Jordan Poole, a third-year guard who scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half and helped make up for Stephen Curry’s poor shooting night. Klay Thompson, who is expected to return to the Warriors’ lineup in a couple of months after missing the past two seasons with injuries, watched from the bench.Worth noting: All three of those players are Golden State draft picks. The Warriors continue to build from within while the Lakers go shopping every summer.It was not all bad news for the Lakers. James and Davis were as dynamic as ever, combining for 67 points. But they could have used some help.“I’ve got to figure it out,” Westbrook said. More

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    LeBron James and Stephen Curry Test Different Paths Back to N.B.A. Peak

    James’s Los Angeles Lakers revamped their roster in a bid for another championship. For Golden State and Curry, familiar faces were just fine.LOS ANGELES — On the cusp of his 19th N.B.A. season, Carmelo Anthony belongs to a new team but harbors the same ambitions: winning his first championship. In that regard, he is not alone on the Los Angeles Lakers, a collection of veterans who will form one of the league’s most curious experiments.“We have too much experience on this team to think anything other than we’ll figure it out,” Anthony said. “But it all takes time.”After a winless preseason, the Lakers will get going in an official capacity on Tuesday night, when they play their season opener against the Golden State Warriors, a franchise that has recently gone about its business in a decidedly different way.While the Lakers have been a tear-down project — LeBron James, who signed with the team in 2018, is the longest-tenured player on the roster — Golden State has been busy remodeling while keeping intact the essential core from its not-so-distant championship era, all in the hope of staging a resurrection with the help of some new pieces.Two teams. Two approaches. And an early-season, but much-anticipated, litmus test at Staples Center on the viability of each.“I think we’ll be ready,” Anthony said. “You can feel it.”Russell Westbrook, at 32, adds a scoring punch to a team with several old-for-the-N.B.A. veterans.Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated PressThe Warriors — remember them? — are running it back with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and, eventually, Klay Thompson, whom the team expects to return by late December or early January after he missed the past two seasons with injuries. Thompson tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the 2019 finals, then ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon last November.“It doesn’t work without Klay,” Curry said in an interview last week. “So there’s definitely anticipation. And we feel like we’ll have three seasons in one this year: this first chapter until he gets back, reintegrating him into the fold, and then the playoff chase down the stretch. So there’s a lot to look forward to.”Without Thompson — and largely without Curry, who broke his hand and missed all but five games — Golden State hibernated through the 2019-20 season, finishing with the worst record in the league. Last season, as the team continued to groom prospects like Jordan Poole, a first-round draft pick in 2019, and Juan Toscano-Anderson, who came out of the G League, the Warriors went 39-33.Now Golden State is nearly whole. And the team has welcomed the reappearance of a familiar figure: Andre Iguodala, a key cog in the team’s five straight trips to the finals, from 2015 to 2019, which produced three championships.“We built something special here,” said Iguodala, who has rejoined Golden State after spending most of the past two seasons with the Miami Heat.While Iguodala was gone, Golden State experienced its share of turbulence. But the franchise maintained a sense of stability. Curry and Green were still around. Thompson would be back at some point. And Steve Kerr, now entering his eighth season as the team’s coach, was at the helm. The pieces were there. It would just take some time for them all to coalesce again.“Our expectations are definitely higher this year than they have been the last couple of years,” said Kerr, whose team went 5-0 in the preseason. “It’s a really fun group to coach.”The Lakers will be playing under an even brighter spotlight after overhauling their roster (again) this summer. They signed Anthony, traded for Russell Westbrook and acquired veterans like Kent Bazemore, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo while jettisoning the bulk of their personnel from last season. Gone are many of the role players from their championship run in 2020: Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.The Lakers are not big on continuity, demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice draft picks and young players for name-brand stars of a certain vintage. If there is urgency, it stems in large part from the fact that James is 36 and has struggled with injuries in recent years. No athlete can operate at the height of his powers forever, not even James. And so the Lakers have gone about mortgaging their future in pursuit of another championship now — if they can create chemistry in short order while avoiding more health problems.“I think our basketball I.Q., our talent and our skill will, for the most part, get us there,” Anthony said, “and then, the cohesiveness of being together and playing together will take us over the top. We understand where we want to be and where we’re going to be, but we’re not there yet.”Draymond Green, right, provided a critical defensive complement to the offense of Stephen Curry, left, during Golden State’s championship runs.John Hefti/Associated PressThe team has acknowledged that it will be a work in progress. As James put it before the start of training camp, “I don’t think it’s going to be like peanut butter and jelly to start the season.”Any mention of preseason basketball ought to come with the disclaimer that the games are fairly meaningless. But the Lakers did go 0-6, which was enough to raise some important questions: Is this a hodgepodge roster? Can a team this old withstand the rigors of an 82-game regular season? And, perhaps most important, can Westbrook and James, two ball-dominant players, coexist in a productive way?Frank Vogel, the team’s coach, said he had no such concerns.“There’s definitely a willingness for those guys to share and sacrifice,” he said, adding, “It’s tough to get 15-plus-year vets to be completely serious about the preseason.”For his part, James said Monday that he had fully recovered from the ankle injury that slowed him toward the end of last season — “I didn’t do much basketball for the first two months of the summer,” he said — and that he was ready for a fresh start, one that will come against an opponent that, unlike the Lakers, hopes to reach into its past. More

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    LeBron James Laughs at Your ‘Old’ Lakers Memes. After His Nap.

    The Los Angeles Lakers have five players who are at least 35 years old, including the 36-year-old James. Older, wiser, championship?LeBron James has seen the memes and read the punch lines.“The narrative about our age,” he said, “I kind of laugh at it. I actually do really laugh. I’m not just saying that.”The Los Angeles Lakers are old. They are the N.B.A.’s Traveling Wilburys, an aging rock star collective hoping to produce one more chart-topping album. Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan have more mileage between them than a 2003 Honda Civic. Carmelo Anthony, 37, recalled first getting to know James, 36, when they were high school standouts — way back in the previous millennium. At 32, Russell Westbrook is comparatively spry.It all could make for an all-encompassing disaster. Or it could be an extraordinary success. But the Lakers will not be boring.“I don’t think it’s going to be like peanut butter and jelly to start the season,” James told reporters on Tuesday ahead of training camp. “But that’s all part of the process.”As change swirls around him, James remains the franchise’s central force. On the cusp of his 19th N.B.A. season and his fourth with the Lakers, he has had an eventful tenure in Los Angeles. Year 1: an injury-marred season for James that the Lakers punctuated with a losing record. Year 2: the death of Kobe Bryant, followed by a championship run in the league’s pandemic-era bubble. Year 3: more injuries and a first-round playoff exit.Ahead of Year 4, James donned a hard hat as the Lakers underwent a hefty renovation. Only James, Anthony Davis and Talen Horton-Tucker remain from last season, though a couple of familiar faces — Howard and Rajon Rondo, both 35 — are back after helping the Lakers win a title two seasons ago.“It was exciting helping put this team together this summer,” said James, who might as well have a front office role.In his own small way, James reinvented himself, too, by slightly slimming down at this august stage of his career.“He’s made the decision to come back a little bit leaner,” Rob Pelinka, the team’s general manager, said last week. “And I think that’s going to translate in his explosiveness and his quickness.”Pelinka said he had outlined three objectives ahead of the draft and free agency: Add playmakers, find more shooting and, finally, shift back to employing two defensive-minded centers to both augment Davis’s presence in the post and remove some of the physical demands on him. Pelinka wound up raiding a warehouse of vintage All-Stars.“A lot of times when you put a group of players together — a group of talent like we have — it doesn’t work out,” said Anthony, who spent last season with the Portland Trail Blazers. “But I think where we’re at in our careers and understanding what we have to do, understanding the sacrifices that we all have to make in order for us to work, that’s the beauty of the actual journey that we’re about to go on.”Russell Westbrook, who is from the Los Angeles area and played at U.C.L.A., was traded to the Lakers from the Wizards in August.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated PressCarmelo Anthony spent the past two seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers before joining the Lakers this summer.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated PressWestbrook, a former winner of the N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player Award, spent last season with the Washington Wizards before he was traded to the Lakers in August. Westbrook called it a “blessing” to be playing in Los Angeles, where he grew up. James said he and Westbrook had been “tied at the hip” since the summer.“I think it’s because we both understand and know what it takes in order to win, and obviously LeBron knows what it takes to get to that next level,” Westbrook said.To that end, the Lakers have already managed to avoid a potential distraction dogging several other teams, including the Nets and the Golden State Warriors: Pelinka said the Lakers would be fully vaccinated by the time they open their season against Golden State on Oct. 19.“I know that I was very skeptical about it all,” James said. “But after doing my research and things of that nature, I felt like it was best suited for not only me but for my family and my friends, and that’s why I decided to do it.”At the same time, James said he would not his use his public platform to urge others to be vaccinated.“I don’t feel like for me personally that I should get involved in what other people should do for their bodies,” he said.It was not a topic that James seemed to relish, though the spotlight will presumably settle on the Lakers’ wild on-court chemistry experiment soon enough. And there will be a feeling of urgency for everyone involved.There is not much of a clear future for the Lakers, at least not in the painstaking let’s-make-sure-we-plan-beyond-this-season sense. In acquiring the likes of Davis in 2019 and Westbrook this year, the Lakers have traded away several promising players and an armada of first-round draft picks. The idea has been to win now, no matter the cost.But the aging process is undefeated, and there are obvious concerns about the Lakers’ durability. James, so indestructible for much of his career, has been hampered by injuries in recent years, and Davis limped through the team’s abridged playoff appearance last season. For his part, Pelinka sought to downplay the suggestion that the Lakers were brittle by citing the example of Tom Brady, who, at 44, is still quarterbacking football teams to Super Bowls.Amid the doubts and the questions about the Lakers, Anthony can make out a path that leads to a championship ring, which would be his first. There were moments in his career, he said, when he considered the possibility of teaming up with James, one of his closest friends. The opportunity never materialized. Perhaps neither player was ready for that to happen, Anthony said.“But here we are now,” he said. “Timing is everything.” More

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    Westbrook Always Plays With Stars. But Will They Align on the Lakers?

    Russell Westbrook has played with the N.B.A.’s best, with limited success. Here’s what that says about him, and what it could mean in Los Angeles.Russell Westbrook is coming off one of his best seasons, having posted a career high in rebounds and another in assists that was enough to lead the N.B.A. And for the fourth time in five seasons, he averaged the vaunted triple-double, typically defined as reaching double-digit numbers in points, rebounds and assists. Before Westbrook, it seemed almost impossible to average a triple-double once, much less multiple times.But those numbers weren’t good enough to land him on the All-Star team last season, the first time the 32-year-old hadn’t been selected since 2014. It was in part because his Washington Wizards were not very good. But the Wizards’ barely making the playoffs was a perfect microcosm of the general debate about Westbrook’s legacy: It’s not a sure thing that Westbrook’s style of play is conducive to winning basketball, even with his gaudy numbers.And now Westbrook is with the Los Angeles Lakers, traded for the third time in three years. Former Most Valuable Player Award winners like Westbrook typically do not play for four different teams in successive seasons while still putting up numbers comparable to when they won the honor.Westbrook will again have superstar teammates, this time LeBron James and Anthony Davis on an unequivocally so-called superteam. On paper, this new iteration of stars assembled to chase a championship should easily compete with teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, the reigning champions, and the Nets, both of whom have star trios of their own.Westbrook is a less efficient shooter than Kyle Kuzma, right, one of the players he was traded for.Mark J. Terrill/Associated PressThis will most likely be the best chance Westbrook has had to win a championship.These Lakers are better than the Oklahoma City Thunder team Westbrook helped take to the finals in 2012 alongside a young Kevin Durant and James Harden, where the three M.V.P.s-to-be were outmatched against the James-led Miami Heat superteam. These Lakers are more talented than the 2017-18 Thunder team with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, which bowed out in the first round of the playoffs. When Westbrook reunited with Harden — now a bona fide star — in Houston in 2019-20, James’s Lakers easily dispatched them in the postseason’s second round. And it goes without saying that the current Lakers team is better than last season’s Wizards, even though Westbrook was playing with Bradley Beal, one of the league’s best scorers.Westbrook has not lacked for star teammates, but he has lacked the success that is expected to come with having them, and that may be an indictment of his style of play: high-volume scoring, weak shooting and elite rebounding that is devalued in favor of shooting. Some of this is also an indictment of the rosters Westbrook has played with. The 2017-18 Thunder team had an ill-fitting Anthony, who had difficulty adjusting to a lesser role. In Houston, the Rockets traded away center Clint Capela and opted to play small ball, which had limited effectiveness. In Washington, the Wizards dealt with injuries to key players, like Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant, and were hampered by a coronavirus outbreak.But if Westbrook can’t figure out how to win next to James and Davis, who won a championship with some of the players the Lakers traded for Westbrook, it will be a blow to Westbrook’s legacy.The Wizards lost in the first round of the playoffs last season.Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports, via ReutersAfter Durant left the Thunder in 2016, Westbrook became the focal point, and the Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for three straight years.A large part of the issue with Westbrook is that he has been an inefficient scorer for much of his career. His career true shooting percentage — which accounts for free throws and 3-pointers — is 52.8 percent, whereas the league average is around 55 percent. And he takes up a lot of possessions to score his points as a result.His defense has also been suspect.This is where his joining James and Davis makes for a fascinating, and potentially treacherous, situation. Two of the players the Lakers traded for Westbrook — Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — were helpful defensively and with floor spacing. That meant they didn’t need the ball in their hands to make their presence felt on the floor. Kuzma shot 36.1 percent from 3 last season, while Caldwell-Pope was at 41 percent. Westbrook’s career average from 3 is 30.5 percent. A data point helpful to Westbrook: Kuzma shot only 31.6 percent from 3 in the Lakers’ championship year.The fit with Westbrook, James and Davis will be a mad experiment. Westbrook needs the ball in his hands to be effective, while James usually runs his team’s offense. James’s best teams have been loaded with shooters to toss the ball to when he drives into the paint. Davis is one of the most offensively skilled big men but, like Westbrook, inconsistent from 3, at 31.2 percent for his career. Even James is a career 34.5 percent shooter from deep — around average.This means the Lakers will presumably start three players who aren’t the most reliable shooters in today’s N.B.A., which is so dependent on efficient offense generated by spacing. The Lakers have some counters with their other additions: Kent Bazemore, Anthony and Wayne Ellington — all of whom shot better than 40 percent from 3 last season.Westbrook’s addition to the Lakers makes this one of the most intriguing roster constructions in the last decade.Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports, via ReutersWestbrook’s career usage rate — how often he uses possessions — is 32.51 percent, second to only Michael Jordan in N.B.A. history. James is fifth at 31.55 percent. If Westbrook is using more possessions than James next season, something has gone terribly wrong. For the Lakers to be at their best, Westbrook is going to have to take a back seat, and some players — think Allen Iverson — don’t adjust well to that, because their skills and ego don’t allow them to.Players have steadily complimented Westbrook as a teammate. But does he know that he will have to watch the ball a lot more than he’s used to? With the Wizards last season, according to the league’s tracking numbers, Westbrook’s usage percentage with Beal on the floor was about 26 percent, compared with 33.9 percent when Beal was off. For Beal, his rate was at about 29.8 percent with Westbrook on, and 38.2 with him off. But the Wizards didn’t have a third player of Davis’s caliber.Westbrook will be helpful if he plays to his strengths. He is a relentless slasher and because of his ball-handling and penetration, he will create easier shots for James and Davis. He also pushes the fast break. The Lakers were 21st in pace last season, making them one of the slowest teams, while Westbrook’s Wizards were the fastest. Westbrook plays every possession as if he is trying to outrun a vengeful lightning bolt, and that’s if he’s not the lightning bolt himself. That will help the Lakers add a new dimension to their offense: Westbrook and James are among the best fast-break players the league has seen.Westbrook’s days of averaging a triple-double are most likely behind him. Davis and James are exceptional rebounders and playmakers, leaving less for Westbrook to put on his plate, at least statistically. But Westbrook’s addition to the Lakers, as well as that of Dwight Howard and Anthony, makes this one of the most intriguing roster constructions in the last decade.But if Westbrook is unable to jell with his latest batch of star teammates, the Lakers may end up being an ill-fitting, must-watch mess. More

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    Lakers’ Russell Westbrook Deal Shifts Power Back to Los Angeles

    Westbrook, 32, averaged a triple-double last season and should help the Lakers rebound from their first-round exit from the playoffs.As the N.B.A. braces for the start of free agency negotiations on Monday, a pending blockbuster trade that would send Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers is already in the running to be this summer’s most impactful transaction. More

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    Ugly N.B.A. Fan Behavior Is Back With Popcorn Toss and Spitting Incident

    Inappropriate behavior by fans toward Washington’s Russell Westbrook and Atlanta’s Trae Young has highlighted a pitfall in the return to packed arenas for the playoffs.After months of basketballs echoing in nearly empty venues because of the coronavirus pandemic, Barclays Center is rocking, Madison Square Garden is electric and fans packing into N.B.A. arenas across the country are adding a dimension of excitement to playoff games that was sorely lacking in last postseason’s bubble.But the easing of restrictions, which has allowed fans to return in droves, has brought to the forefront another dimension that the pandemic had covered: the sometimes ugly behavior of unruly fans in proximity to players and players’ families.On Wednesday night alone: A fan in Philadelphia poured popcorn on the head of Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook as he departed the court at Wells Fargo Center with an ankle injury. In New York, a fan spat on Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young at Madison Square Garden. In Utah, three fans were ejected from Vivint Arena. The fans had directed comments at the family of Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, according to a person with knowledge of the details who was not authorized to publicly discuss them.Morant later responded to a tweet about the Jazz ejecting and indefinitely barring the fans, saying, “as they should.” His family, he added, should be able to cheer for him and his team without being verbally abused.“There are certain things that cross the line,” Westbrook told reporters after his game in Philadelphia. “In these arenas, you got to start protecting the players. We’ll see what the N.B.A. does.”The fans from Wednesday’s incidents have all been barred indefinitely from those arenas, and the 76ers announced that the popcorn-throwing fan, who was ejected, would have his season tickets revoked. But the punishments and subsequent apologies from teams will likely do little to alleviate growing concern among the players that fan behavior has grown unseemly, with players having little option but to take the abuse.“We apologize to Trae and the entire Atlanta Hawks organization for this fan’s behavior,” the Knicks said in a statement. “This was completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated in our venue. We have turned the information over to the appropriate authorities.”Young has quickly drawn the scorn of Knicks fans at the Garden during the first two games of their first-round series. Fans raucously cursed at him during Game 1 on Sunday, which the Hawks won largely because of Young. He put a finger over his mouth afterward to signal his silencing of a Garden crowd that had waited since 2013 to see the Knicks play N.B.A. playoff basketball.Throughout Wednesday’s game, fans again serenaded him with an expletive and mocked his hair. Young tweeted a video of the spitting incident on Thursday, asking the rapper 50 Cent, who sat on the sideline between Young and the fan, if he was OK.“We saw video of that, and unfortunately, I think we’re just living in a society where really people just don’t have respect anymore,” Hawks Coach Nate McMillan said. “In no way should that be allowed or should that happen at a sporting event or really any event where you are coming to watch a game and you do something like that.”Russell Westbrook of the Washington Wizards was headed to the locker room after an injury when a fan poured popcorn on him.Matt Slocum/Associated PressPlayers across the league voiced frustration over the incidents. “By the way WE AS THE PLAYERS wanna see who threw that popcorn on Russ while he was leaving the game tonight with a injury!!” Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James tweeted. “There’s cameras all over arenas so there’s no excuse!”The players’ union released a statement on Thursday, putting the first word, “true,” in bold and in italics for emphasis: “True fans of this game honor and respect the dignity of our players. No true fan would seek to harm them or violate their personal space. Those who do have no place in our arenas.”The union added that bad fan behavior would be “appropriately evaluated by law enforcement just as if it occurred on a public street.”In February, security ejected fans from their courtside seats after they argued with James in Atlanta, when the Hawks were one of only nine N.B.A. franchises allowing fans in attendance.“I’m happy fans are back in the building,” James told reporters after the incident. “I missed that interaction. I need that interaction. We as players need that interaction. I don’t feel like it was warranted to be kicked out.”He added, “They could’ve probably kept it going and the game wouldn’t have been about the game anymore, so the referees did what they had to do.”The unruly fan behavior is not limited to the N.B.A. Baseball stadiums have hosted a number of fights between fans since beginning its season this spring.Samuel R. Sommers, an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University and an expert on the psychology of fans, said that sports bring people together in both unifying and combative ways.“Take your pick, whether we’re talking a return to normalcy or whether we’re talking about people getting the pent-up energy out of their system,” Sommers said. “Things like this happen when you get groups of people like this together and when you add the excitement, the adrenaline, the energy of sports.”This week’s episodes resurfaced a trend of troubling fan interactions at N.B.A. arenas that the pandemic had paused. In 2019, the N.B.A. toughened its fan conduct code after lobbying from players amid high-profile incidents, including the Toronto Raptors’ Kyle Lowry being shoved by Mark Stevens, a Golden State Warriors minority owner, during a finals game.Players like Westbrook and Young have largely showed restraint when receiving vitriol from fans.“Obviously I’m doing something right if you hate me that much,” said Young, who cursed back at fans after his playoff debut against the Knicks. “At the end of the day, we’ll get the last laugh if we do that.”Westbrook said that he had learned to look the other way during most cases but that the situation was worsening. Three years ago, the Jazz barred a fan in Utah for, the team said, “excessive and derogatory verbal abuse directed at a player.” Westbrook, who is Black, said that fan, who appeared to be white, made “disrespectful” and “racial” comments.Three fans were ejected in Utah after a “verbal altercation” with the family of Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, center.Alex Goodlett/Getty ImagesThe Jazz on Thursday said they had also indefinitely barred the fans from Wednesday’s incident involving Morant’s family. “The Utah Jazz have zero tolerance for offensive or disruptive behavior,” the team said in a statement, adding, “We apologize to all who were impacted by this unfortunate incident and condemn unacceptable fan behavior.”Morant’s father, Tee, who is Black, told ESPN that one of the fans made a “sexually explicit remark to his wife.” Another, he said, told him, “I’ll put a nickel in your back and watch you dance, boy.”This week, Nets guard Kyrie Irving, in comments to reporters, appeared to be trying to pre-empt any personal or racial attacks before playing against his former team, the Boston Celtics, in Game 3 of their series at TD Garden on Friday.Black athletes from different sports have long described being taunted with racial attacks in Boston. Torii Hunter, a former M.L.B. outfielder, told ESPN that he had a no-trade clause to the Red Sox written into his contract because of the racial slurs he heard when he played in Boston.“I am just looking forward to competing with my teammates,” Irving said, “and hopefully, we can just keep it strictly basketball; there’s no belligerence or racism going on — subtle racism.”On Thursday, Celtics guard Marcus Smart told reporters that he’d heard the types of comments in Boston that Irving was referring to.“I’ve heard a couple of them,” he said. “It’s kind of sad and sickening, because even though it’s an opposing team, we have guys on your home team that you’re saying these racial slurs and you expect us to go out here and play for you. It’s tough.”The N.B.A., in a statement on Thursday, said that its fan code of conduct would be “vigorously enforced.”“The return of more N.B.A. fans to our arenas has brought great excitement and energy to the start of the playoffs, but it is critical that we all show respect for players, officials and our fellow fans,” the N.B.A. said.Marc Stein More

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    Sabrina Ionescu's First Triple-Double Leads Liberty Over Lynx

    The Liberty star’s big night was a rarity in the W.N.B.A., but it was par for the course for her.Sabrina Ionescu was hailed as a savior for the moribund Liberty when New York’s W.N.B.A. team drafted her No. 1 overall last year. And why not? At the time, Ionescu was the college player of the year, the record-setting star of one of the best teams in the country.That made her a strong candidate to resurrect the Liberty, who were coming off two straight losing seasons and still chasing — more than two decades after becoming a founding member of the league — their first W.N.B.A. title.But Ionescu’s transition from college stardom to professional basketball was anything but smooth. Her career at Oregon ended in disappointment when the N.C.A.A. tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and then her rookie year with the Liberty ended in her third game when she injured her ankle.Now she is making up for lost time. In her third game of the new season on Tuesday night, Ionescu put up her first career triple-double: 26 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in a win over the Minnesota Lynx.In the N.B.A., triple-doubles have become increasingly common. There were 142 this season alone, 38 of them by Washington’s Russell Westbrook. But in the W.N.B.A., they remain a rarity. There have only been nine, in fact, in the league’s 25-year history.Ionescu’s was only the second that included 20 points. In 2004, Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks had 29 points in a triple-double that included 15 rebounds and 10 blocks.Ionescu, 23, also became the youngest player and the first Liberty player with a W.N.B.A. triple-double, but the feeling was hardly new. She had 26 triple-doubles in college, an N.C.A.A. record.“Obviously getting a triple-double in a win is important,” she said after Tuesday’s game. “It’s definitely pretty cool.”Should Ionescu do it again — and why wouldn’t she? — she would set the record for regular season W.N.B.A. triple-doubles, with two, although Sheryl Swoopes once had one in the regular season and another in the playoffs in the same year.Ionescu’s season is just three games old, but she is already matching or exceeding the hype that marked the start of her career. Going into Wednesday night’s games, she leads the league in assists, with 9.0 per game, and ranks fifth in scoring at 21 points. As a 5-foot-11 point guard, she even ranks third in defensive rebounds.Outside of the triple-double stats, Ionescu also leads the league with 10 3-pointers, and is making them at a .526 clip. She ranks first in both free throws and attempts, hitting 19 of 21 so far.And one could argue that Tuesday’s game was only her second most memorable night of the season. Last week, she hit a game-winning 3-pointer to beat the Indiana Fever in the Liberty’s season opener.When a team is as bad as the Ionescu-less Liberty was last year — they finished a league-worst 2-20 — improvement is expected. It doesn’t always come so fast. But now the Liberty are off to a 3-0 start for the first time in 14 years, and it is not absurd to see a healthy Ionescu lead the team to the playoffs.She isn’t afraid of the rising expectations.“The expectations I have for myself are always higher than anyone else’s,” she said last fall, “regardless of what level I’m playing at.” More

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    What Rudy Tomjanovich Learned by Coaching the Greats

    Tomjanovich led the Houston Rockets to two championships (Hakeem Olajuwon), briefly coached the Lakers (Kobe Bryant) and oversaw an Olympic team (Kevin Garnett).Even as a noted players’ coach, Rudy Tomjanovich had a hunch Kobe Bryant would need some time to embrace their new partnership.After five years and three N.B.A. championships under Phil Jackson, and having thrived in the read-and-react triangle offense Jackson championed, Bryant was suddenly playing for a lifelong Houston Rocket with different sideline sensibilities.“It was an adjustment for him because I was a play caller,” Tomjanovich said.What Tomjanovich shared with Jackson, if not an offensive philosophy, was a gift for reading superstars and ultimately connecting with them. His time with Bryant was short during the 2004-5 season, when Tomjanovich quickly deduced that the stress of coaching had become damaging to his health, but at least one Laker urged him not to walk away.“Kobe tried to talk me out of it,” Tomjanovich said in a telephone interview, reflecting on his resignation, as well as how he meshed with Bryant, after just 43 games.In the buildup to this weekend’s pandemic-delayed inductions for the Basketball Hall of Fame’s class of 2020, Tomjanovich, 72, has been telling old stories often — most of them, naturally, from his 32-year run as a player, scout and coach in Houston. The class is headlined by Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Bryant, who will be presented by Michael Jordan and inducted posthumously. Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020, that grief-stricken fans and peers, all of the honorees included, are still struggling to process.Tomjanovich coached Bryant and the Lakers for 43 games before stepping down for health reasons.Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesTomjanovich, after twice being named a finalist but not in 2019, earned his place among the 2020 inductees for his coaching achievements in Houston — particularly his championship partnership with Hakeem Olajuwon. The Rockets won back-to-back titles in 1993-94 and 1994-95, first with Olajuwon as the lone All-Star, then as a lowly No. 6 seed after a midseason trade reunited Olajuwon with Clyde Drexler, his college teammate from the University of Houston’s men’s basketball teams known as Phi Slama Jama.Those Rockets teams were routinely dismissed as champions of circumstance, branded as beneficiaries of Jordan’s 18-month hiatus from the N.B.A. to try to transform himself into a Chicago White Sox outfielder. We’ve since learned, through “The Last Dance” documentary series, that Jordan’s iconic Chicago Bulls were not a lock to handle Houston without a big man anywhere near Olajuwon’s level.“I heard it from the horse’s mouth — and that’s Michael,” Tomjanovich said.He said that Charles Barkley, in his first season as a Rocket in 1996-97, arranged a dinner at his home in Phoenix for the Rockets’ coaching staff. There were two very special invited guests: Tiger Woods and Jordan.“It was the first time I really got a chance to talk to Michael,” Tomjanovich said. “Nobody can ever know who would have won, but he said they were concerned that they couldn’t stop Hakeem. It was great to hear it from him.”Bladder cancer brought a cruel halt to Tomjanovich’s three decades in Houston after the 2002-3 season. Yet the way he managed an array of big personalities across 12 seasons as the Rockets’ coach helped Tomjanovich emerge as the Lakers’ choice to replace Jackson — after some flirtations with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and an attempt to lure Miami’s Pat Riley back to Hollywood. Tomjanovich, then 56, signed a five-year, $30 million contract to coach the Lakers, who traded Shaquille O’Neal to Riley’s Heat four days later.Hakeem Olajuwon was the cornerstone of Houston’s back-to-back title teams in the 1990s under Tomjanovich.Noren Trotman/NBAE via Getty Images“I probably shouldn’t have done that,” Tomjanovich said. “First of all, I was excited that the cancer was gone. I thought, ‘I can’t pass this thing up,’ but then I just felt like I was hurting myself and I had to let it go. I love to coach good players, and Kobe was great. I thought I could do it, health-wise and body-wise, but I couldn’t. People said it was a lot of money to give up, but what good is money if you’re going to make yourself sick?”It was the rare Tomjanovich comeback story without a happy ending. As a player, he survived a vicious on-court punch from Kermit Washington in December 1977 and recovered to reach his fifth All-Star Game in 1978-79. As a coach, Tomjanovich steered the Rockets to playoff upsets of the teams with the league’s top four records (Utah, Phoenix, San Antonio and Orlando) in the 1995 playoffs to win title No. 2, including a second-round rally against the Suns after Houston fell into a 3-1 series deficit.“That’s how we got one of the greatest quotes ever in basketball,” Robert Horry, one of Tomjanovich’s Houston stalwarts, said on Monday. “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”That defiant rebuttal to Rockets skeptics, from a beaming Tomjanovich after Houston completed a 4-0 N.B.A. finals sweep of O’Neal’s Orlando Magic, became his signature line.He is still working in the league, hired in December by the Minnesota Timberwolves as a front-office consultant. He referred to his induction as “the cherry on top of it all” and said that coaching gave him what he craved most other than championships in his final years as a player.A new identity.“I heard that for a while and it was getting old — ‘Oh, you’re the guy who got punched,’” Tomjanovich said. “It was really good to push that in the background.”Tomjanovich didn’t coach Duncan, but said he would never forget the dread he felt upon seeing him as a rookie in San Antonio, teaming with David Robinson. “The first time they threw him the ball, I watched how he caught it and where he positioned it under his chin and how he looked to the middle,” Tomjanovich said. “I got sick to my stomach.”He did briefly coach Garnett and, not surprisingly, clicked with another star. Tomjanovich coached the United States at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Garnett was one of his loudest leaders. Two scares against Lithuania, including a semifinal that the Americans easily could have lost, will surely stay with members of that team, since U.S.A. Basketball, to that point, had not lost with N.B.A. players.“I’m telling you, that was a big, big boulder that you’re carrying around,” Tomjanovich said. “You don’t want to be the first.”Perhaps he and Garnett will have a chance to share a relieved laugh about it at some point during Saturday’s festivities. Every moment of levity is bound to be relished on what figures to be, at various points, an unavoidably somber evening.From left, Robert Horry, Clyde Drexler and Tomjanovich won a championship with the Houston Rockets in the 1994-95 season as the No. 6 seed.Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesHorry, the role player supreme, has as much reason to watch as anyone. He won two of his seven championships alongside Duncan in San Antonio and regards Tomjanovich as “the best coach to play for.” He also played for Jackson and Gregg Popovich, but rates Tomjanovich at the top “because he had a feel for the players and a feel for the game.”“I only still talk to one of them,” Horry said, referring to Tomjanovich.Yet Horry added that he was unlikely to tune in, as much as he wanted to celebrate Rudy T’s big moment, and it was clear why. For all we anticipate with this starry class — what sort of speech we get from the spotlight-shy Duncan is one prime example — it’s still so hard to get past the unjust and unfillable hole in the whole occasion without Bryant able to take his rightful turn on the podium.Bryant joined the Lakers at 17, grew up over the course of 20 seasons in Los Angeles on the biggest of N.B.A. stages and, after such a long and prosperous career, had his life cut tragically short. As a regular analyst on Lakers broadcasts, Horry said he feels that sting every time the team’s network runs what it calls “Mamba Moment” highlight tributes to Bryant, his teammate on the Lakers’ three-peat championship teams from 1999-2000 to 2001-2.Horry’s daughter, Ashlyn, had a rare genetic condition and died at 17 in 2011. He said he thinks often about Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s wife, and “having to talk about not just losing a daughter but a husband, too.”“It’s too sad,” Horry said.The plan here is to revel as much as possible in Saturday’s joys, like the overdue recognition for a decorated coach like Tomjanovich, while bracing for the sadness we will all understand.The Scoop @TheSteinLineCorner ThreeThe Miami Heat had a shorter off-season than any other Eastern Conference team after their run to the 2020 finals stretched into October.Steven Senne/Associated PressYou ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.(Questions may be condensed or lightly edited for clarity.)Q: In last week’s newsletter, you wrote that no one foresaw that three of last season’s final four teams would be in danger of landing in the playoff play-in tournament. That is demonstrably untrue. I am no N.B.A. prophet, but I was published in your newsletter before the season started saying that it was tremendously unfair to ask the four best teams from the season before to return to play after as little as 71 days off. I can only assume that many other voices expressed similar concerns. — Avary Mitchell (McKinney, Texas)Stein: I have never disagreed for one second with what you wrote in December. The truncated turnaround from last season to this season was always going to be roughest on the Lakers, Heat, Celtics and Nuggets — and, yes, unfair in a lot of ways.But I don’t remember anyone saying that they expected any of those teams to slip all the way to No. 7 in its conference.I reread your letter, and the same holds for you. There’s a difference between denouncing the disparity in teams’ off-seasons and predicting that the defending champion Lakers would finish seventh in the West.Injuries and Covid-19 disruptions have been a major factor for the Lakers, Heat and Celtics, on top of the unfairness, but all have still managed to slip further in the standings than any of the worst-case-scenario pundits were projecting when the season began.Q: You have been writing a lot about the Nets’ recent signing of the former CSKA Moscow guard Mike James. I want to ask you about the guard from my country who recently joined CSKA: Gabriel Lundberg. He does not have a Luka Doncic pedigree, but he was the driving force behind Denmark’s upset of Lithuania in November. Does he have an N.B.A. future? — Martin Ronnow Lund (Denmark)Stein: Thank you, Martin, for what (I think) will be recorded as our first question from Denmark.I’ve done some checking on Lundberg, since I admittedly don’t have much of a file on him, and it’s fair to say that N.B.A. teams are well aware of him now. At 26, he has made a storybook progression from playing in the Spanish second division as recently as the 2017-18 season to emerging as a force with a European powerhouse like CSKA. The performance (28 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists) you referred to against Lithuania certainly registered in front offices here, even though Lithuania didn’t have access to its N.B.A. players.There will be questions about his size (6-foot-4) as a shooting guard and his one-on-one skills, but I am told he plays with great confidence — to go with his great back story. Perhaps he can be the first Dane to really break through in the N.B.A.; helping a James-less CSKA reach the EuroLeague final four ensures he will be well scouted.Lars Hansen was the first Danish-born player to be drafted and had a brief stint with Seattle in the late 1970s, but he moved to Canada at a young age and represented Canada in the 1976 Olympics. David Andersen, who had a Danish father, had stints with Houston, Toronto and New Orleans in the N.B.A., but he was born in Australia and played internationally as an Australian. The Nets drafted the Copenhagen-born Christian Drejer with the 51st overall pick in 2004, but Drejer never played in the N.B.A.Q: I read your recent newsletter on the play-in games format and, as a fan, I love it. I also love the Knicks. The last several years have been rough, but I want to know: Is Tom Thibodeau going to win the Coach of the Year Award? — (Peter Thurlow, Ridgewood, N.J.)Stein: My official unofficial ballot, which I publish every season just for posterity, will headline next Tuesday’s newsletter. As a reminder: The New York Times does not participate in league award voting in any sport, but I still like going through the exercise of breaking down each race just for discussion purposes.While saving my extended commentary on coach of the year and the other categories until then, I can share that I was indeed leaning toward Thibodeau entering the final week of the regular season because of his unquestioned influence in establishing the Knicks as this season’s foremost overachieving team. To actually win it, though, he’ll have to beat out the league’s only two coaches (Utah’s Quin Snyder and Phoenix’s Monty Williams) likely to wind up in the 50-win club in this 72-game season.Numbers GameCarmelo Anthony keeps climbing the career scoring leaderboard, at a time when many thought he would be out of the league.Steph Chambers/Getty Images5Since Portland’s Carmelo Anthony made his debut in the N.B.A. in 2003-4, five players have moved into the N.B.A.’s top 10 in career scoring: No. 3 LeBron James (35,318), No. 4 Kobe Bryant (33,643), No. 6 Dirk Nowitzki (31,560), No. 8 Shaquille O’Neal (28,596) and No. 10 Anthony (27,337). The five players displaced from the top 10 in that span, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, were John Havlicek, Dominique Wilkins, Oscar Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Elvin Hayes.30Russell Westbrook is the N.B.A.’s new career leader in triple-doubles in the regular season, after surpassing Oscar Robertson’s record 181 on Monday in Atlanta, but he still has some ground to make up to match Magic Johnson’s record of 30 postseason triple-doubles. Westbrook has 10 playoff triple-doubles — two more than Robertson’s eight. LeBron James, with 28, is Johnson’s closest pursuer on the postseason list.2In April 1970, after successfully blocking a trade to Baltimore, Oscar Robertson was dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks from the Cincinnati Royals for the modest return of Flynn Robinson and Charlie Paulk. Robinson and Paulk spent only one season each in Cincinnati, and the Royals, just two seasons after the trade, moved out of Ohio to become the Kings and a team with two home cities: Kansas City, Mo., and Omaha.15Dallas’s Luka Doncic and Philadelphia’s Dwight Howard lead the league with 15 technical fouls each, followed by Russell Westbrook (14). Doncic and Howard each remain one technical away from a one-game suspension, but there would be no carry-over if a 16th tech was accrued in the final game of the regular season. Slates are wiped clean for the playoffs, with seven technicals in the postseason resulting in a one-game suspension.22-9Since Damian Lillard’s debut season in 2012-13, Portland has won 22 of its 31 games against the Los Angeles Lakers, according to Elias. It’s the Lakers’ second-worst record against an opponent in that span, better only than a 7-28 mark against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Trail Blazers’ home win Friday over the Lakers gave them a huge edge in the race to secure the sixth seed in the Western Conference and to avoid the playoff play-in round next week.Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. More