Lakers roll into conference finals

Three of the four spots in the conference finals have now been filled, with the Lakers rolling past the Rockets to complete the gentleman’s sweep Saturday night. LeBron James set the tone for Los Angeles, which also received noteworthy contributions from Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma. Next up will be either the Clippers or the Nuggets, with the former being one win away from advancing. Below is a look at the Lakers’ win and some important questions for the Rockets to answer, followed by thoughts on a reported meeting between the reigning MVP and one of his team’s co-owners. 

Lakers 119, Rockets 96 (Los Angeles wins, 4-1) 

Similar to Game 4 the Lakers jumped out to a big lead. But unlike that game L.A. didn’t take its foot off the game, which meant that there was little drama in this one beyond the fourth quarter verbal altercation between Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo’s uncle. As Westbrook and Rondo were exchanging words the latter’s brother chimed in from the family section, and for that he was eventually asked to leave the gym. Westbrook had a thoroughly frustrating night, as he accounted for just ten points, four rebounds, six assists and two steals in 36 minutes. Following the game he said that he never truly got back to full strength.

There was the quad injury that sidelined Westbrook for more than two weeks, but it’s also worth noting that he was sidelined for 21 days after coming down with COVID-19. He’ll obviously have plenty of time to recover now that Houston’s season is over, but what kind of fantasy impact will Westbrook have next season? For the regular season he ranked just outside of the top-50 in nine-category formats and just outside of the top-25 in eight-cat, so it isn’t as if Westbrook wasn’t productive fantasy-wise in his first season with the Rockets. 

But whether or not he can continue to produce at that level will depend upon whether or not he can make any progress as a perimeter shooter. If Westbrook can improve in that area he can provide similar value. But if what we saw in the postseason is a harbinger of what’s to come, that’s not good. And with he and James Harden (30 points, six rebounds, five assists, one steal, one block and two 3-pointers in 42 minutes) guaranteed more than $265 million combined over the next three seasons, there may not be much that Houston’s front office can do when it comes to freeing up money to improve the roster in other areas. 

Harden said during his postgame media availability that he believes the Rockets are one piece away, but during this series Houston appeared to be farther away from the Lakers than that. Ben McLemore and Jeff Green are the free agents of note heading into the offseason, and Austin Rivers can join that list should be decline to pick up his player option. Green, who made less than $440,000 this season, has fantasy value if he returns especially if Houston sticks with this smaller rotation.

Bruno Caboclo, Thabo Sefolosha, DeMarre Carroll, Tyson Chandler and Luc Mbah a Moute will also be unrestricted free agents, but Houston doesn’t have a lot of money to improve the roster via free agency. Oh, they’re also without a draft pick with the first-rounder having been sent to Oklahoma City in the Westbrook/Chris Paul trade. 

But who will be making the decisions? Mike D’Antoni is now out of contract, and after the game Harden expressed his desire to see the head coach return. For his part D’Antoni said that he would like to return, but if not he hopes to coach somewhere in the NBA next season. His name was mentioned in connection with the Pacers job after Nate McMillan was fired last month. There are also questions about the future of GM Daryl Morey, and until those issues are addressed we won’t truly know how the Rockets will approach next season. 

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Moving over the Los Angeles, the winners jumped out to a 13-2 lead and didn’t look back. The aforementioned James finished with 29 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, two steals, one block and three 3-pointers in 31 minutes, and in total six Lakers scored in double figures. Two of those players were forwards Morris and Kuzma, who scored 16 and 17 points, respectively. The former made his second consecutive start, replacing JaVale McGee, but those roles will likely be reversed in the next round due to the matchups. 

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Either Ivica Zubac (Clippers) or Nikola Jokic (Nuggets) will be the starter in the middle for the Lakers’ opponent in the conference finals, which should push McGee back into the rotation. It’s unlikely to be enough to make him a fantasy factor, however. Morris can still have value as a reserve, but in that scenario it would be better to go with the more proven bench scorer within the Lakers rotation (Kuzma) when assessing the team’s forwards.

Anthony Davis was relatively quiet in this one, finishing with 13 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and one blocked shot while also turning the ball over six times, but it really didn’t matter. Look for more production from him in the next round. 

L.A. set a franchise playoff record with 19 made 3-pointers, with Morris and Danny Green (14/4/1) leading the way with four apiece. James and Kuzma each made three 3-pointers on the night, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (10/1/1/1) made two. L.A. went eight deep, with Kuzma, Rondo and Alex Caruso playing the majority of the bench minutes. Talen Horton-Tucker played ten minutes, scoring nine points and grabbing three rebounds, and the rookie played well in the final two games of this series. I wouldn’t say that Horton-Tucker is a draftable player for next season, even in deeper leagues, but the coaching staff being willing to give him postseason minutes is a good sign with regard to his future. 

Giannis meets privately with Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry

Giannis Antetokounmpo was unable to play in Milwaukee’s final game fo the season, a Game 5 loss to the Heat, due to an ankle injury that he re-aggravated in Game 4. While he praised the organization for its decision to look out for his long-term health, sentiment may not guide Antetokounmpo as he decides what path to take moving forward. He has one season remaining on his contract, and the Bucks can offer him a super-max contract worth nearly $254 million over five years this offseason. But would taking that offer immediately be the best decision for Antetokounmpo? That’s something that he’ll need to figure out, and he may have begun that process on Saturday. 

Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes reported that Antetokounmpo and Lasry met privately Saturday, with the two discussing both the MVP’s future in Milwaukee and the future of the team as a whole. What complicates things when it comes to possible roster improvements is the fact that Milwaukee doesn’t have much in the way of cap room. Pat Connaughton and Kyle Korver will both be unrestricted free agents and Sterling Brown will be a restricted free agent, but their salaries this season did not even combine to hit $6 million. Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez have player options for next season, so there’s the potential for Milwaukee to free up a little more money. But will that be enough to bolster a roster that failed to meet its pre-stoppage standard in the bubble? 

It was also reported that Antetokounmpo unfollowed his teammates and Bucks-related accounts on Instagram, but I’m not one to put too much stock into that move because it isn’t as if he has no other way to reach them if needed. Also he did say in the immediate aftermath of Milwaukee’s loss that he had no plans of asking for a trade. Does that mean he’s “all-in” for the long haul? Maybe, maybe not; only time will tell.

Even with the postseason nearing its climax, the Antetokounmpo story will hover in the background. Because ultimately his decision will have a major impact on the balance of power in the East, and the league as whole depending upon the destination should he leave. 

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