Baseline to Baseline recaps: The Martin Luther King Day games

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What you missed while listening to the “I have a Dream” speech…

The Lakers defeating the Thunder in a contest that looked a lot like last-year’s playoffs was our game of the night.

Celtics 109, Magic 106: Kevin Garnett is back. Is he ever.

It was a full slate of 13 NBA games Monday and this was the best one. It felt like the playoffs. The Magic and Celtics stood toe-to-toe, trading Jameer Nelson penetrations for Ray Allen jumpers. It was chippy. The crowd was roaring. Damn, it was just fun. There were a lot of keys — like the aforementioned Allen, who seems to get ignored by the defense at key moments as if he were Jeff Teague. Everyone talks about not letting Allen get open late, but he always does.

The real difference was Kevin Garnett, and not just the dramatic game-sealing steal. The Celtics just play with a different, more intense energy when he suits up. He’s back and the Celtics get the win. Not a coincidence.

Suns 129, Knicks 121: Amar’e Stoudemire again reminded Phoenix fans what got away, putting up 41 and looking all the world like an MVP candidate. But this was won at the point guard — Steve Nash played a controlled game (15 points, 11 assists) while Raymond Felton was 3 of 13 shooting (but with 13 assists). Nash gave his team what they needed. Really impressive all-around game from Vince Carter — hitting the outside shot, driving, tipping in rebounds. Carter also passed the 20,000-point level for his career.

Wizards 108, Jazz 101: There are games where Andray Blatche comes to play and when it happens the Wizards are a much more dangerous team. This was one of those games. Blatche had 21, JaVale McGee had 11 rebounds and we could swear we saw him pass the ball, and John Wall looked as good as he has this season with 19 points (7-of-12 shooting) and 15 assists.

Bulls 96, Grizzlies 84: Memphis shot terribly against that tough Bulls defense, hitting 37.7 percent overall and 1-of-7 from three. The Bulls did a great job of jumping on the Grizzlies early, Derrick Rose had his first-ever triple-double (22 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds), Luol Deng dropped 28 on 11-of-17 shooting and Kyle Korver was raining threes.

Pistons 103, Mavericks 89: In his second game back, Dirk Nowitzki really looked like he had his legs back with 32 points on 10-of-17 shooting. The problem with Dallas remains on defense — the Pistons shot 57.5 percent (60.3 eFG%, once you count in the made threes). Once they start defending again the Mavs will break out of this slump. For the Pistons, Greg Monroe continues to grow and look like a guy starting to figure it out.

Sixers 96, Bobcats 92 (OT): This one went to overtime because the Sixers got some big shots out of Lou Williams and some smart play from Andre Iguodala down the stretch. They won it in overtime because the Sixers just executed better.

Down two with less than 20 seconds remaining in overtime, the Bobcats ran a pick-and-roll, and just as you would expect in a late game situation the Sixers switched. That left Jrue Holiday on Boris Diaw, who already had a triple double (25 points, 11 boards and 11 assists). D.J. Augustin got Diaw the ball, he backed Holiday down, made a move into the middle then seemed surprised when the help came — so he dumped it to Kwame Brown. That means the Bobcats need Kwame to make a quick, smart decision. You can see the problem there. He throws it away and from there it’s all Sixers and free throws. Which the Sixers executed.

Rockets 93, Bucks 84: The Bucks were, for a change, the better shooting team in this one — 44 percent to 36.8 percent. But the Rockets did everything else needed to win — they got to the free throw line more, got more offensive rebounds and just generally out worked the Bucks.

Hornets 85, Raptors 81: Chris Paul had six points on eight shots. He had 11 assists but he did not look right. Emeka Okafor had 12 offensive rebounds,  setting the Hornets’ franchise record for offensive rebounds in a game, and finished with 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting.

Clippers 114, Pacers 107: Damn the Clippers and their 1-13 start to the season. I want to see this team in the playoffs, but they dug such a deep hole in a still pretty deep West that it’s going to be hard to climb out of it (they are six games out of the eight seed with four teams ahead of them). Blake Griffin is a stud.

Warriors 109, Nets 100: We have a David Lee sighting, 24 points and 10 boards. The Nets, they really could have used someone like Carmelo Anthony in this game.

Hawks 100, Kings 98: The Kings almost got a quality win, they led from the opening tip all the way until midway through the fourth quarter. With the game tied 98-98 and time running out the Hawks went to their standard end-of-game Joe Johnson isolation play (which isn’t bad when he is hot, and he had 36 in this one). With Tyreke Evans on him Johnson drove right got to a spot, pulled up and Evans caught him on the arm with the foul. Two free throws with 0.6 left and that was he ballgame.

Blazers 113, Timberwolves 102: Minnesota had Michael Beasley back from a sprained ankle, and he had 12 on 4-of-8 shooting. Portland pulled away from Minnesota in the second half because nobody on the Wolves could stop LaMarcus Aldridge, who had 37 points and 12 boards.

LeBron James on Lance Stephenson-drawn technical foul: ‘I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on’

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LeBron James and Lance Stephenson have met in 23 playoff games.

Stephenson has tried to agitate LeBron throughout all of them.

From the choke sign back when Stephenson was still a benchwarmer to the infamous ear blow to the tapping of LeBron’s face the next game, Stephenson has been relentless. And LeBron has mostly kept his cool.

But not last night.

Midway through the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers’ Game 4 win over the Pacers, Stephenson stuck close to LeBron as LeBron went to the Cleveland bench. LeBron pushed Stephenson away and received a technical foul.

LeBron:

I mean, I should never have gotten a tech in the first place. There’s a timeout called, and this guy’s following me to my bench. I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on. But I should know better. I should know better. I’ve been dealing with this since elementary. It’s like I tell you a joke – I tell you a joke and then you laugh, and you get caught. That’s what happened. Lance told me a joke. I laughed. Teacher caught me. Now, I’ve got to go see the principal. That’s what happened.

Stephenson earned that technical foul. He did just enough to bait LeBron, but too much where Stephenson would get a tech. Then, Stephenson exaggerated the contract.

LeBron got got, and he knows it.

He’s also probably savvy enough to remain on greater alert to Stephenson’s antics the rest of the series and avoid responding again.

Where the Blazers, Neil Olshey, and Terry Stotts go from here

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The Portland Trail Blazers were a frustrating team to watch to start the season. They floundered early as players like Moe Harkless and Evan Turner failed to take the next step forward to help the team. The emergence of Zach Collins playing in tandem with a healthy Ed Davis was a good story, but not enough to overcome Portland’s fatal flaws. Most of the talk surrounding the Blazers remained about roster construction — as it has since GM Neil Olshey signed Turner to his massive 4-year, $70 million contract back in 2016.

Then things flipped.

Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 14, Portland rattled off 13 straight. Harkless was no longer moody, Damian Lillard was playing like a Top 5 MVP candidate, and CJ McCollum hummed right along with him. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting well, Shabazz Napier was an important rotational piece, and even Turner’s midrange turnarounds felt like a simple change of pace rather than a glaring misfit. Roster talk died down because Portland looked unstoppable, and with a new defensive effort the team felt like a lock to beat whichever squad they faced in the first round.

But the Blazers found themselves outgunned, overmatched, and demoralized as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans after the conclusion of the regular season. Portland got swept, 4-0, in perhaps the most embarrassing playoff sweep in franchise history since their series with the San Antonio Spurs at the turn of the last century.

So here we are, with both the Blazers and fans in Portland back to wondering the same thing: just what can be done to fix this roster and maximize Lillard’s prime?

We have to start with the basic fact that Portland is not going to trade McCollum.

Part of the internal friction for the Blazers is that McCollum is the guy Olshey seems most emotionally attached to. Olshey was fully at the helm of the organization when McCollum was drafted in 2013, and thus McCollum is wholly an Olshey guy. Portland had scouted Lillard long before Olshey arrived 24 days prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. Not that Olshey values one over the other, but there’s an odd, unspoken understanding that Olshey wants to make McCollum work along with Lillard partly as a matter of pride.

So if we move away from the possibility of changing the overall theory of a roster built around those two guards, where does that leave the Blazers? The answer comes with a boggling number of variables.

The key that unlocked Portland’s potential to dismantle most of their opponents after Valentine’s Day was a happy Harkless, one who was dropping 3-pointers from the corners and dishing out assists rather than moping on the deepest part of the bench. That was the big variable that made the switch for the Blazers. But in the playoffs, Portland got a Harkless that was just coming off knee surgery, and he wasn’t as effective.

Harkless said in exit interviews on Sunday that team brass reiterated to him how important he’s going to be to them next season, and they aren’t blowing smoke. Harkless is young, cheap, and versatile. He’s a better passer and dribbler than Aminu, whose contract expires after next season, and he’s a better pure shooter from deep. The problem is relying on Harkless, who admits to being moody and letting that emotional variance affect him on the court.

This puts us back to the question of Turner. For as much as Olshey likes to talk as though he slow plays the league, it was an extreme reach not only to pay Turner his contract but to sell the public the logic behind it. After McCollum and Lillard were trapped to death in the playoffs a few years ago, Olshey grabbed Turner as a third ball handler, one who could let Lillard and McCollum run around screens off-ball to reduce turnovers. At least, that was the story.

It didn’t really work all that well given the symbiotic nature of the game of basketball. Last season, Aminu’s shooting dipped and opposing defenses simply helped off of him and onto Portland’s main dribblers. That made Harkless and Allen Crabbe invaluable as shooters, not only as scorers but as sources of gravity to open up passing lanes.

There was as similar issue this season as Aminu’s shooting percentages rose while Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or Crabbe to anchor the 3-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of Lillard and McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving Turner as the open shooter on the 3-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from 8th in 3-point percentage to 16th in a year.

Turner adapted his game over the course of this season the best he could to compliment Portland’s system and needs. He’s just not useful enough at top clip. This explains the position the Blazers have been in the entirety of Turner’s contract — it’s going to be impossible to move him without attaching significant assets and in the process, delaying the progress of the team. No trade involving Turner will return the wing Portland needs. That’s just not how it works when you’ve got an albatross contract in 2018.

And so, after their sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, the conversation in Portland swiftly moved to speculation that coach Terry Stotts could be on the hot seat. The reality of Portland firing Stotts, if they are considering it, is of a major setback.

Stotts is beloved by his players, most of all Lillard, the franchise cornerstone. Stotts was a genuine Coach of the Year candidate this season for his role in developing guys like Napier and Pat Connaughton, who were useful at different parts of the season. Stotts pushed Nurkic to be more aggressive, a major factor in their late-season success. He rehabilitated Harkless. Reaching back even further, Stotts masterminded an offense that turned Mason Plumlee into the third creator on offense for Portland before the Nurkic trade last year. He’s been excellent, and firing him would be a colossal mistake.

I’ll put it this way: when Lillard had his “where is this going” conversation about the Blazers with owner Paul Allen, that talk wasn’t about Stotts. It was about Olshey’s roster construction.

The conversation about Stotts is a bit ridiculous, although it’s understandable given Olshey is both above him organizationally and a bit more financially annoying to fire after a recently-signed extension. But unlike Stotts, Olshey has not exceeded expectations in his position. Despite some clever draft day trades and the rumored rejection of a max contract bid offered by Chandler Parsons‘ camp two summers ago, the fact is Olshey is the one who has hampered the team, while Stotts has done the best with what he’s been given.

And so here we are, with the same questions about the Blazers roster nearly two years down the line and with an embarrassing playoff sweep in their possession. McCollum and Lillard are firmly cemented, perhaps more so thanks to their defensive improvement and the team’s win total. The Blazers can’t move their pieces thanks to poor fiscal management, and they’re in danger of losing valuable contributors like Davis, Napier, and eventually Aminu because of it.

It appears Portland’s only way forward is to do what they’ve always done, although it won’t be by their own volition, much as Olshey would like to spin it that way. Olshey, who said as much during exit interviews, will look for value in the draft and build a team that functions as a unit. I would assume that he’ll also need to ask owner Allen to tempt the repeater tax as he tries to re-sign Davis this year and Aminu the next. Olshey will need to hope Harkless is more consistent, and that he can find yet another shooter in the draft or via an exception signing or trade. All of these things are pretty big ifs, particularly in the light of Lillard’s public urgency and the results of Olshey’s bigger misfires.

The end to the season in Portland was disappointing, because of their sweep but also because they didn’t do enough to change our minds about their flaws and roster issues. That burden lies squarely with Olshey. Portland’s GM says he wants to stay measured in his approach, but moves like signing Turner, trading Crabbe for an exception, and swapping Plumlee for Nurkic were anything but. Those are big swings with mixed results.

Portland’s roster isn’t good enough to sustain large dips, and its plodding, “calculated” approach to roster management has put the Trail Blazers in a place similar to what you’d expect from a front office with a more flamboyant, laissez-faire style. Big contracts, an overpaid supporting cast, and an inconsistent bench rolled into a cap hit scraping $121 million.

The roster theory is understandable, but the execution in Portland is lacking. Eventually, the Blazers — and Olshey — are going to have to stop being measured and simply measure up.

Jared Dudley: Giannis Antetokounmpo practiced mean mugging in locker room

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Game 3 dunk over Aron Baynes was great.

Antetokounmpo’s Game 4 dunk over Al Horford (seen above) is even better, because of the fantastic mean mug that followed.

The rise of Antetokounmpo is no accident. He worked hard to develop his on-court skills. And that includes all aspects.

Suns forward Jared Dudley, who played with Antetokounmpo on the 2014-15 Bucks:

This is the inside info we need.

Report: Knicks are Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s top choice for job

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Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer withdrew from the Suns coaching search, but that he was even involved with another opening while under contract with Atlanta is telling. It probably wasn’t about the Phoenix job being special. He’s also talking with the Knicks – and maybe that goes somewhere.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

Mike Budenholzer is genuinely interested in the Knicks’ job, according to an NBA source who has spoken to the Hawks coach.

“New York’s his top choice,’’ the NBA source said. “If they offered him the job, he’d say yes. He wants to live in New York.’’

“Phoenix and the Knicks are trying to win every game,’’ said the NBA source who has spoken to Budenholzer recently. “There’s a good chance Atlanta is not looking to win games the next two years. This wasn’t Mike’s decision. He didn’t expect it. He doesn’t want to lose games.’’

Going to the Knicks to win? What a time to be alive.

But the Hawks are only one year into what appears to be a multi-year rebuild. Relative to that, New York is ahead.

When Kristaps Porzingis returns is the biggest variable. But Enes Kanter, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke are all in their primes. Atlanta is much thinner.

The Knicks would probably also offer Budenholzer a raise and the Hawks compensation. Though dealing with James Dolan carries downside, this could be a financial boon to everyone else involved. It’s no wonder Budenholzer and the Hawks are both into this.

The big question is whether New York, which is casting a wide net, tabs Budenholzer. He doesn’t have a clear connection to Knicks president Steve Mills or general manager Scott Perry. But Budenholzer is a demonstrably good coach, and that ought to matter plenty.