Masked men of Los Angeles make for interesting Sunday

Unless you caught the second-game of the day-night doubleheader at the Staples Center, you might not be aware that a second masked man is playing there, a masked man named Chris Paul whose Los Angeles Clippers just dropped into second place in the Pacific Division.

Yes, Paul, Blake Griffin and Lob City are no longer perched atop Tinseltown.

First place in the division is now back in the hands of Kobe Bryant, the guy who called the game-clinching play in the huddle Sunday afternoon and insisted the Lakers go to Andrew Bynum in the low post.

Yes, Mike Brown is technically the coach of the Lakers. But Kobe apparently has the tenure and the authority to overrule Brown in the huddle. That is what he did, and Brown said it was not the first time it has happened. The entry pass to Bynum resulted in a short hook shot over Kevin Garnett that gave the Lakers a 97-94 lead, and that score stood up as the Boston Celtics couldn’t convert two 3-point attempts at the end.

By the end of the night, that play call had helped the Lakers (and their 7-14 road record) move a game up on the Clippers when Paul’s team fell behind by 21 points, rallied to tie it, but were ultimately undone by missing 16 of 35 free throws in a 97-93 loss to the Golden State Warriors.

Opening a six-game homestand following a quality 12-point road victory at San Antonio in which Paul has his nose broken (but still scored 36 points), he wore a clear protective face mask much like the one Bryant wore in the first few games after his nose was broken during the All-Star game.

“It was my first time wearing one,” Paul said. “I found out after the game in San Antonio that I’d probably have to wear one. It’s the first time I’ve ever been hit in my nose, so it’s a first time for everything. It’s different, but it doesn’t inhibit anything.”

It’s the first time in a long time that the Clippers are looking up in the standings at the Lakers, where Jim Buss’ kids are deciding whether to trade Pau Gasol before Thursday’s deadline.

“They are looking for a younger star that can perform for them for more years,” the Spanish news outlet Marca.com quoted Gasol as saying. “This is a business where owners are in charge and if they want to do something, they will. The general manager follows orders. He can voice his opinion, but if the owner wants to do something – I don’t know 100 percent if he wants to in this case – he will. That’s how it is.”

Gasol could end up in any of several places, including Orlando if the Lakers are inclined to swap Bynum and Gasol for Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu, which would be nuts.

But Bynum has been the Lakers’ primary trade chip in pursuing Howard, and he upped his value by being the Chosen One for the final offensive possession on which he scored easily over Garnett with Paul Pierce coming over to double-team.

From Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Times: “That play cemented the Lakers’ 97-94 victory Sunday over the Celtics and sparked all types of story lines. It illustrated Bryant’s sudden willingness to involve his teammates late in the game, after spending most of the season, for better and for worse, taking over at the end of them. It also showcased Bynum’s continued development, where he finished with 20 points on nine-of-16 shooting and 14 rebounds.  Lakers Coach Mike Brown downplayed the revelation, arguing Bryant’s drawn up plays for teammates at other unspecified times. But Bryant and Bynum surely sensed the significance. “I was actually looking forward to the opportunity,” Bynum said. “When they drew it up for me in the huddle, I was thinking I better make it. I did. It feels really good. Hopefully I can get more touches down there.” The moment looked significant for Bynum. After the victory became official, he gave Lakers forward Pau Gasol a bear hug. “We got one,” Bynum exclaimed. Moments later, Bryant hugged Bynum too and lightly pounded his chest. It’s become a feel-good season for Bynum.”

Back over in the Leastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks are setting their sights on the fading New York Knicks, who lost their fifth in a row with Carmelo Anthony sitting out the entire fourth quarter of a 106-94 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Lou Williams played like the biggest talent in the building, making a long jumper to beat the halftime buzzer, then scoring a dozen points in the final 3:28 of the third quarter.

“Fire D’Antoni” chants drifted down from the cheap(er) seats at Madison Square Garden.

From Ian O’Connor of ESPNNewYork.com: “Mike D’Antoni might not make it to Phil Jackson’s yes or no in June. If the New York Knicks keep quitting on their coach and their fans like they did Sunday, then D’Antoni’s aide, Mike Woodson, needs to move down a seat or two in the coming days and see if he can do any better. Of course, it would be hard for Woodson or anyone else to do worse. Even Isiah Thomas or Larry Brown, circa 2006, might’ve inspired better effort and results out of these Knicks than the man who claimed they had championship fiber long before he handed the ball to Jeremy Lin. In the sobering wake of Linsanity, the Knicks are coming across as a barely interested group of high-profile players waiting for management to make a move. During the third quarter Sunday, when you never could’ve convinced a novice observer that D’Antoni had twice the talent on his roster that Doug Collins had on his, the Knicks surrendered 38 points and spotted the Philadelphia 76ers a 21-point lead. So in the dying seconds of Sixers 106, Knicks 94, D’Antoni’s fifth consecutive defeat, the fans in the Garden’s upper bowl responded with a predictable chant for the coach’s head. No, it wasn’t one of those full-throttle Isiah chants, but it didn’t much matter. In the postgame news conference, D’Antoni unwittingly began building a case for his own removal. Questioned about the team’s defensive and offensive struggles, he said, “It’s probably spirit more.” D’Antoni conceded that his team “seemed to wither” in the face of adversity and that it treated a two-point deficit as if  “the world was caving in.”

The Bucks and Cavaliers are both several games under .500 but only one game behind the Knicks.

So it looks like we’ll have at least a three-team race to decide which of them will get trampled by the Bulls or burned by the Heat in the first round.

“I sit and look at it all the time,” Cavaliers coach Byron Scott said after a 118-107 victory over the fading Houston Rockets. “I know the teams in front of us and what they’re doing, I know the team that’s right behind us. So I know we have a golden opportunity.”

Kyrie Irving scored 16 of his 21 points in the final 4:14 of the fourth quarter, Antawn Jamison scored 28 points and the Cavs had six players in double figures in winning their third straight game for the first time this season while reaching a season high in points. Houston has lost six of seven and slipped to eighth place in the congested West.

Elsewhere in the NBA:

  • Dwight Howard scored 30 points and grabbed 13 rebounds the Magic defeated Indiana 107-94. It was the first of two home games Orlando plays this week before the trade deadline. “Thursday, he’ll either be here or he won’t,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said.
  • O.J. Mayo matched his season high with 22 points, including a critical 3-pointer in the closing seconds for the NBA’s 29th best 3-point shooting team as the Grizzlies beat the Nuggets 94-91 on the road.  Memphis has won 10 of its last 12 games.
  • Josh Smith scored 19 of his 28 points in the second half for the Atlanta Hawks in a 106-99 road victory over Sacramento. Smith, who wants to be traded, shot 13-of-23 with six rebounds, three steals, three assists and three blocks in 39 minutes. “I’m here. I have one more year on my contract. We’ll see what happens,” Smith said.
  • Ersan Ilyasova had 31 points and 12 rebounds in a career-high 44 minutes as the Bucks beat Toronto 105-99. “We’re already sort of in playoff hunt mode,” said Mike Dunleavy, who logged 41 minutes and scored 19 points. “We’re starting to watch the standings to know what’s going on.”
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