Jason Kidd leads Mavericks late in win over the Suns

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The Suns tried their best to outlast the Mavericks on Sunday, swapping out 40 percent of their starting lineup to try to put the right pieces in place in an effort to begin an improbable run to the postseason. Phoenix played well early, but Dallas made the right adjustments defensively, and got huge fourth quarters from Jason Kidd and Jason Terry to pull away late, 91-83.

Kidd, in particular, sealed this one for Dallas. He was perfect in the final period, going 3 of 3 from the field and 2 of 2 from the free throw line in eight critical minutes, delivering perhaps the knockout blow to a Suns team that has been on the ropes for much of the latter part of the season.

We’ll get to Kidd’s heroics in a moment. But the game was far from a foregone conclusion in Dallas’ favor, and in fact, it was one the Suns controlled for most of the evening.

Phoenix shook up its starting lineup on Sunday, replacing the ineffective Robin Lopez and Vince Carter with super-producers from the bench, Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley. Gortat was playing with his nose heavily taped, after fracturing it during Friday’s loss to the Hornets, but it certainly didn’t affect his play. Gortat finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds and three blocked shots, which effectively cancelled out Tyson Chandler’s 16 points and 18 rebounds for Dallas. Dudley finished with 20 points, five rebounds, five assists, and three steals.

Suns head coach Alvin Gentry clearly pushed the right buttons in making these lineup changes. But the team  couldn’t overcome its worst three-point shooting performance since 2004, going just 1 for 16 from downtown after averaging 12.5 makes from distance over its last four games. (Ironically, the one three-pointer that the Suns did make? It came from Vince Carter.) Dallas, meanwhile, connected on 10 of its 26 attempts from beyond the arc, none bigger than the two that Kidd hit late in the fourth with the game in the balance.

With the game tied at 83 and just over a minute and a half remaining, Kidd personally ended it with an 8-0 scoring run to put this one in the win column for Dallas. He hit a three as the shot clock expired after getting it late in the possession from J.J. Barea, then drained another one on his team’s very next possession with 44 seconds left that effectively sealed it. Both were extremely tough shots.

“That first three he hit beat the clock by a tenth of a second,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said. “His level of concentration to step into that shot and hit all net, it’s phenomenal. And then the other one, Dirk just got in a bad way, he circled around, gave him an outlet, and there’s no tougher shot in basketball than a three-point shot if you’re right-handed and moving to your left, kind of circling around. Those were two phenomenal shots.”

Kidd had a slightly different perspective.

“I had no choice when J.J. gave me the ball with one second left on the shot clock,” Kidd joked. “So that helped, because I didn’t have to think about it.”

Phoenix led by as many as 12 in the early going, as Steve Nash and Gortat repeatedly shredded the Mavericks on the pick and roll. Rodrigue Beaubois started for Dallas, and he looked absolutely lost defensively, as Nash found Gortat again and again wide open at the rim. The first quarter ended with seven assists for Nash, 12 points for Gortat, and a frustrated Dallas squad that managed to shoot just 20 percent from the field in the period.

As the game went on, though, Dallas’ defense adjusted, and locked down to hold the Suns to just 34 second-half points. They sent two guys at Nash consistently to force the ball out of his hands, and the Suns had trouble taking advantage of their mismatches in isolation situations offensively.

Still, things were tight to start the fourth, with the Suns clinging to a two-point lead. That’s when Terry stepped in, and made up for his 2 of 10 shooting in the first three quarters with 10 straight Mavericks points early in the fourth. Terry got it started for Dallas offensively in the period, and Kidd was there to finish it.

While the Suns talked of their playoff hopes being all but lost, the Mavericks were energized by their second road win in as many nights. Both games featured slow starts, however, which is something Kidd spoke to afterward.

“Well, I don’t want to blame it on age,” Kidd said with a smile, and with a few gray hairs noticeably poking through a couple of days worth of stubble on his face. “We sometimes are spoiled in the sense of having a deep team, and we get off to a slow start. But we feel that if we just keep coming, the tide will turn.”

Report: Masai Ujiri’s salary about half what Phil Jackson’s was

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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James Dolan isn’t fixing the Knicks’ biggest problem – James Dolan.

But the owner took a step in the right direction a few years ago by pouring a ton of money into the front office. Of course, Dolan did it in the worst way. Offering a five-year, $60 million contract, he didn’t target general managers with proven track records of success. He hired front-office novice Phil Jackson, whose tenure was a wreck.

With Jackson out, will Dolan get it right this time?

The Knicks are reportedly interested in Raptors president Masai Ujiri, but it will be more complicated now, because Ujiri just signed a contract extension and the Knicks are still paying Jackson.

But can New York lure Ujiri from Toronto?

Michael Grange of Sportsnet:

As a source close to MLSE ownership told me Wednesday morning: “Don’t even waste your time on this.”

But as one NBA source put it: “This is not fake news, the Knicks will be coming hard.”

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Ujiri signed a five-year extension worth $32 million last September

Bruce Arthur of the Star:

All that just makes the Knicks more desperate for a new saviour, and league sources indicate the Knicks are already confident Ujiri is coming to New York.

Despite the contract, sources indicate Ujiri can leave if he wants to leave. It’s really up to him.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

As for reports that the Knicks were interested in Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, sources told ESPN that the Knicks have a deep respect for him, but he’s under contract and thus would require permission to speak to and compensation — likely draft picks — which the Knicks would be very reluctant to consider.

Dolan has the fortune to offer Ujiri a significant raise and buy him out of his Raptors contract. Money goes a long way in these negotiations, though it’s unclear how much Dolan would spend on a less-flashy name – and whether the Raptors want more than just cash.

Sending Toronto first-round picks as compensation would hurt the Knicks, but not as much as hiring another incompetent front-office head.

Will Ujiri land in New York? There are so many mixed signals, but it appears the Knicks at least have a chance.

Report: James Harden recruited Chris Paul to Rockets throughout season

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Chris Paul to the Rockets seemed to come out of nowhere.

It didn’t.

Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

According to one NBA executive, James Harden, the Rockets’ all-star guard, had been recruiting Paul throughout the season. An executive from another team said Harden had already told a fellow NBA player that Paul’s going to Houston was a done deal.

This is how the league works now. James Harden continues to be a enthusiastic recruiter, and that’s a huge asset to the Rockets. It goes toward explaining why Houston general manager Daryl Morey has bestowed so much faith in Harden.

The NBA has simply decided nothing players do constitutes tampering. So, Harden was free to convey Houston’s message to Paul – and this went beyond the typical bonding of two stars. The Rockets had to orchestrate a complex series of transactions, including getting Paul to waive most of his trade bonus, to make the deal work. Harden was part lead recruiter, part middleman communicating with the front office.

Getting Paul was truly the Harden-Morey partnership at its finest.

Report: Thunder have planned Blake Griffin pursuit for months

russell westbrook blake griffin
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The Clippers sound confident about re-signing Blake Griffin in the wake Chris Paul going to the Rockets.

But L.A. will have competition for the star forward – from the Nuggets, Celtics (depending how their primary plan goes), Heat and Griffin’s home-state Thunder.

Royce Young of ESPN:

It’s a shame for the Thunder they backed off their plan to sign Griffin last summer, signing Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo to contract extensions, only to resume it a few months later.

Letting Adams and Oladipo hit unrestricted free agency would have given Oklahoma City an additional $22,514,699 in cap flexibility while maintaining Adams’ and Oladipo’s Bird Rights. That alone wouldn’t have been enough to offer Griffin a max salary, but dumping Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler and either Doug McDermott or Domantas Sabonis would’ve projected to get the Thunder there. In that scenario, Oklahoma City could have also exceeded the cap to re-sign Adams and Oladipo after inking Griffin.

Alas, the Thunder are now limited to dumping contributors that make the team appealing to someone like Griffin in the first place or executing a sign-and-trade. But a sign-and-trade gets complicated. Adams’ salary alone isn’t enough to return Griffin on a max, and it’s not even clear the Clippers – with DeAndre Jordan – would want Adams (though losing Griffin could initiate an even greater rebuild that includes trading Jordan). And again, the Clippers reportedly want to keep Griffin rather than go this route.

This was all foreseeable, though some surprising factors worsened the consequences of the extensions for Oklahoma City.

Griffin seemed more certain last summer to stay in L.A. The 2017-18 salary cap appeared on track to be higher. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement won’t raise cap holds for first-round picks until next year. So, Adams’ deal projects to save the Thunder just $6,425,000 over the next four years relative to a max offer sheet – a paltry sum in the face of the potential cap flexibility lost this year by extending him instead of waiting to re-sign him.

The Thunder making moves earlier than necessary and salary-cap developments turning those plans especially imprudent – where have I heard this one before?

Report: Gordon Hayward will meet first with Heat in free agency, then Jazz, then Celtics

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Gordon Hayward is arguably the biggest available prize in free agency, and his dance card for the first couple of days in July is filling up.

Miami and Pat Riley will bat lead off in a series of meetings, reports ESPN.

Gordon Hayward will take his first free-agent meeting with the Miami Heat on Saturday, a source told ESPN’s Jorge Sedano. Hayward will then be traveling Sunday to meet Utah on Monday, with Boston coming after that…

Sources previously told ESPN the Jazz regard the Heat as no less a threat to lure Hayward away than the Celtics, whose interest in the former Butler star has been anticipated for some time, largely thanks to the presence of Hayward’s college coach, Brad Stevens, on Boston’s bench.

For the record, there are rumors it’s Miami Saturday, Boston Sunday, Utah Monday, then he will take some time to make a decision. I’m not sure the order matters that much.

Hayward is an All-Star level player at a position of need for a lot of teams out on the wing. He averaged 21.9 points per game last season, shot 39.8 percent from three, can put the ball on the floor and be a playmaker for himself and others, plus can defend everything from stretch fours to point guards (he’s not a lock-down defender, but he is good). Hayward is the kind of versatile player teams need to compete in a modern NBA. He’s an elite wing player who is about to get paid like one.

The question is by whom? Around the league teams are convinced it will be one of those three, but which one depends on who you talk to. The Jazz seem confident they can retain him, where others seem confident he’s got one foot out the door. Only Hayward truly knows, and he’s wise to not speak on it and take the meetings. (If he takes his time deciding that could impact the chase for Blake Griffin, Miami and Boston reportedly have interest if they don’t land Gordon, but that can’t be Gordon’s concern. He has to do what’s right for him in his own time.)