With Mardi Gras right around the corner, the Smoothie King Center probably welcomed more than a few tourists in to see the New Orleans Pelicans get nipped by the Los Angeles Lakers, 99-96, Thursday night. But none would've piqued the interest of the NBA teams on the floor—the Lakers, in particular—more than Ben Simmons.
Simmons, a star freshman forward at LSU and the presumed No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, made the 80-mile trip from Baton Rouge to the Crescent City to cheer on Lakers rookie D'Angelo Russell. The pair won back-to-back national high school titles as teammates at Montverde Academy in Florida.
In watching his friend help the Purple and Gold to their 11th win of the 2015-16 season, Simmons might've also seen his chances of reuniting with Russell in the pros slip beyond his (and the Lakers') reach.
Not that a proud organization like the Lakers would ever reject a victory, especially one in which Kobe Bryant starred. After scoring 23 points against the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday and piling up 38 points in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday, Bryant posted team highs in points (27) and rebounds (12) to extend a roll the like of which the Lakers and their fans haven't seen in more than a year.
As he did against the Wolves in L.A., Bryant came up big when it mattered most in New Orleans. He scored 12 of the Lakers' final 14 points, including a clutch three to all but seal the deal with less than a minute left.
It was a fitting farewell from Bryant to the scene of the shoulder injury that ended his 2014-15 campaign last January. He, for one, savored the moment.
So, too, did his promising young teammates, even if their performances weren't entirely up to par.
Julius Randle (11 points, eight rebounds, three assists) fell two boards shy of his fourth straight double-double while All-Star Anthony Davis (39 points, 11 rebounds) took him to school.
Jordan Clarkson (18 points) went 1-of-7 after a 7-of-7 first half and racked up twice as many turnovers (four) as assists (two). Russell (13 points, three assists) once again got yanked by head coach Byron Scott in the last three minutes but wowed the crowd, Simmons included, with some nifty passes.
In a season marked by misery, the Lakers got some immediate relief along with a glimmer of hope for the future. They led by double digits for much of the game, bolstered by a 14-2 run in the second quarter that saw Russell shining alongside Clarkson and Randle.
Come fall of this year, those three could be joined in L.A.'s starting five by a high-profile free agent (or two) soaking up what's currently Bryant's league-high salary and another gifted youngster—perhaps Simmons, perhaps Duke's Brandon Ingram, perhaps Croatian sensation Dragan Bender.
A win like the ones the Lakers have notched in each of their last two outings may serve them on the open market in July, but they could come back to haunt them at the draft lottery in May and beyond.
If L.A.'s 2016 pick doesn't land within the top three of the upcoming draft, it will belong to the Philadelphia 76ers. At present, the Lakers still own the league's second-worst record (11-41), but the team can feel the Brooklyn Nets (12-38), Phoenix Suns (14-37) and Wolves (15-36) breathing down their necks.
There is some danger, then, in Bryant's turning back the clock and the Lakers' kids pushing their timetable forward. With each win, with each step in the right direction, comes the danger of L.A. running off a cliff like Wile E. Coyote in eternally futile pursuit of the Road Runner. A little bit of gain now could be the source of plenty more pain later for the NBA's marquee franchise.
In truth, L.A.'s pick will be in jeopardy regardless of how the team's final 30 games turn out. Even if the Lakers hold on to second-to-last behind the Sixers, their odds of landing in the top three will be no better than 55.8 percent.
All peril being equal, the Lakers might as well let the Mamba treat their forlorn legions to some old-school fun and hope their new-school trio keeps improving, both individually and collectively, and learning how to win at this level.
There's only so much L.A. can do to control its own draft destiny, though as the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus pointed out, the scheduling gods might have this team's back.
What the Lakers can do is continue to play for today and tomorrow, to show prospective free agents that the kids are more than all right.
In all likelihood, Simmons won't be palling around L.A. with Russell for the foreseeable future unless the Lakers land the No. 1 pick. That's a possibility, however slim, no matter if the Lakers turn the rest of their schedule into a tire fire.
The time will come for this organization to come to grips with its pipe dreams. Until then, any flashes of Russell, Randle and Clarkson playing like bona fide pros and Bryant brilliantly bidding another city adieu should get the Lakers faithful as excited as these ones got the league's incoming Australian phenom.
Knicks' 2nd-Half Onslaught Falls Short in Detroit
The Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks gave fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills an unexpectedly thrilling show in what turned out to be a 111-105 win for the home team.
The Pistons raced out to what seemed like an insurmountable 50-23 start. All-Star and Slam Dunk Contest participant Andre Drummond (17 points, 13 rebounds) was bullying Robin Lopez (26 points, 16 rebounds) inside.
Rookie wing Stanley Johnson, starting in place of the injured Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, paired with Reggie Jackson (21 points, five assists) to pummel the Knicks' comparatively puny backcourt of Jose Calderon (no points in 13 minutes) and Arron Afflalo (24 points, 19 in the second half).
In the second half, though, New York kicked back. With superior energy, plenty of spread pick-and-roll and a sprinkling of foul trouble for Drummond, the Knicks outscored the Pistons 35-18 in the third. They pulled even at 95-all with less than three minutes left in the game on a three from Langston Galloway (17 points)—just over a minute after the second-year guard spun his way into a long two.
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Shortly thereafter, the Knicks took their first (and only) lead at 97-95 on a Carmelo Anthony-assisted finish by Lopez.
But three long-range makes by the Pistons—and two clanks by the Knicks—left New York in a late hole from which it couldn't escape.
"Tonight was a tale of two halves," Anthony (19 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists) said, per the New York Times' Scott Cacciola.
Despite the defeat for New York, at least one of those halves could prove instructive as the 23-29 Knicks look to leapfrog their way into the playoffs.
Rockets Survive Scare in Valley of the Sun
The Houston Rockets' seesaw of a season nearly hit another snag in Arizona on Thursday.
The reigning Western Conference finalists fell behind the sinking Phoenix Suns by 15 points in the first quarter, fought their way back to even before halftime and found themselves down again in the fourth before closing with a 19-10 spurt to win, 111-105.
James Harden (17 points on 4-of-19 shooting, nine rebounds, six assists, four turnovers) and Dwight Howard (five points, 16 rebounds) both struggled to shoulder their usual load against a Suns squad that's proved to be surprisingly plucky under interim coach Earl Watson.
Fortunately for the Rockets, Harden and Howard weren't the only ones wearing red. Trevor Ariza (22 points) and Corey Brewer (24 points) picked up four steals apiece. Patrick Beverley (six points, six assists) helped to keep the ball moving in Houston's stagnant offense. Clint Capela (10 points on 5-of-5 shooting) and Ty Lawson (12 points, four assists) offered ample support off the bench.
That sort of support is what the Rockets will need from here on out to not only avoid slipping out of the Western Conference playoff picture but also climb their way anywhere near their lofty preseason expectations.
Raptors Win Battle of Backcourts
Before Thursday's game at the Moda Center, the head coaches of the Portland Trail Blazers and Toronto Raptors joked that their gifted backcourts should simply go toe-to-toe to determine the winner.
"Let's play two-on-two," Blazers coach Terry Stotts proposed, per the Associated Press.
"I'll go with that," replied Raptors head man Dwane Casey.
Had the former Dallas Mavericks assistants gotten their wish, the outcome wouldn't have been much different than the 110-103 win the Raptors scored in Rip City.
Toronto's All-Star tandem of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined for 59 points and 12 assists while Portland's potent pairing of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum accounted for 48 and 13.
Neither duo can quite hold a candle to the one that's been raining fire from Oakland all season long, but the Raptors can at least claim ownership of the NBA's second-best set of guards.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.