Timberwolves’ offense rolls without Rubio in high-scoring victory over Suns

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The Timberwolves needed this. After losing Ricky Rubio to a season-ending injury just a few days ago, and after not being able to muster the energy to take care of business at home against the horrible Hornets the day the news was confirmed, Minnesota began a tough seven-game road trip on Monday with an offensive explosion in a 127-124 victory over the Suns.

“It’s really huge,” said T’Wolves head coach Rick Adelman. “Especially after losing two at home the way we did and losing Ricky, to come out and get this win, it’s a huge confidence boost.”

The game was a shootout between two teams not exactly known for offense this season, with both ranking in the middle of the pack from an efficiency standpoint. Kevin Love led all scorers, but did most of his damage in the second half where he scored 23 of his 30 points and knocked down five of eight from three-point distance.

While Love struggled early thanks to Phoenix throwing a hard double team at him whenever he touched the ball, Minnesota was brilliant in making the extra pass to find the open man. The one who benefited most was Nikola Pekovic, who finished with 24 points but got 15 of those in the first quarter while the Suns scrambled to recover defensively.

“We had 15 assists in the first half,” Adelman pointed out. “They came out to double team Kevin trying to change things up, but our guys moved the ball. If they play together and make the right play, we’ll be okay.”

Minnesota finished the night with 30 assists, a season high. The 127 points were also a season high, and it was unusual to see against a Suns team that has held its opponents to an average of 89.2 points per game over its last five at home. Jared Dudley, who led Phoenix in scoring with 28, tried to explain.

“I wouldn’t say it was a defensive battle out there today,” Dudley said. “Everyone played well: Pekovic was dominating the boards, Love was inside out, [Michael Beasley] got hot in the first half, and [Derrick Williams] in the second. We did a bad job of rebounding; in the pick and roll coverage, we weren’t crisp at all. And because of that, they made us pay. And even with that, the crazy thing about how poorly we played defensively, we played one of our best offensive games this year, and had chances.”

The game featured eight ties and 15 lead changes, and late in the fourth quarter, neither team seemed to be able to miss. Love had 13 in the final period (including three from three-point range), and Sebastian Telfair had 10 points in under eight minutes, six of which came in a five-second span where he converted a four-point play, then stole the ensuing inbounds pass and went in for a layup.

The Suns’ chances were the kind they’d take most nights. Trailing by one with under two minutes to play, Steve Nash — who finished with 25 points and 10 assists, and had made 10-of-14 from the field to that point — missed a 16-foot runner, and then an 18-foot jumper, both of which were open looks and shots he usually can get to go down.

After Love made two free throws, the Suns ran a play to get Dudley an open look from three that was on target, but that just didn’t fall.

“Probably the best look I had all night,” Dudley said of that late three. “Grant Hill set a perfect screen that made my guy fall on the ground, and when I shot it I thought the ball was good, and it went halfway in.”

Marcin Gortat, who was taken out of the game for most of the night due to foul trouble trying to bang down low with Pekovic, ended up at the free throw line after a loose ball foul with a chance to cut the lead to one with 12.2 seconds left … but he missed both attempts.

“Ridiculous,” Gortat said of his missed free throws. “It was not even funny, it was just … bad.”

The opportunities were there for Phoenix, but on this night, they couldn’t keep up with a high-energy and hot-shooting Timberwolves team that, given the circumstances, may just have needed this one a little bit more for their collective psyche. Love may have summed it up best.

“Obviously losing Ricky was a big detriment to the team, it was tough for us — psychologically, mentally, emotionally,” he said. “Tonight we were able to, I wouldn’t say put that behind us; we’re always going to miss him because there’s a lot of times out there where the ball stops moving … But tonight was a big difference as far as energy level and how we felt.”

Report: Dennis Smith Jr. planned to have J. Cole dunk in dunk-contest routine

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. seemed pretty steamed about getting eliminated in the first round of the dunk contest:

The dunk-contest scoring system – five judges ranking dunks on a scale of 6-10 – is plenty flawed. There should have been a larger difference between the Smith and Victor Oladipo dunks the Dallas point guard mentioned. But Oladipo didn’t advance, either. Personally, I thought the right two players – eventual-winner Donovan Mitchell and runner-up Larry Nance Jr. – advanced.

Maybe Smith was more upset about the missed opportunity – dunks (plural!) involving rapper J. Cole.

Amin El-Hassan of ESPN on Black Opinions Matter:

If Dennis had made it to the finals, Cole was going to throw him the alley-oop. But then the plan was, he was going to throw him the oop, Dennis would dunk it, and then Cole would catch the ball, and then he’d dunk it too. That was going to be the ill, craziest dunk-contest use of a prop or a person ever. But we never got to saw it, because they were holding out until the final round. They didn’t want to bring it out in the first round.

This certainly would have been unprecedented and cool. But unless Smith had something amazing planned for the alley-oop, the best element would have been Cole dunking. That would have upstaged Smith, who’s presumably the one being judged.

For what it’s worth, Cole can dunk. We’ve seen it in the celebrity game:

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard returns this season

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When announcing last month Kawhi Leonard was out indefinitely due to a lingering quad injury, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dismissed the idea his star forward would miss the rest of the season:

Apparently, Popovich’s expectation has changed.

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

The Spurs (35-24) are third in the West despite Leonard playing just nine games. Popovich has done a great job (maybe Coach of the Year-worthy). LaMarcus Aldridge is having a bounce-back season in a leading role. Pau Gasol leads a supporting cast of players good in their roles.

But San Antonio’s ceiling is so much lower without Leonard.

He’s an elite defender who shuts down opposing scorers on the perimeter and can comfortably switch inside. He can isolate offensively to score efficiently, and he spaces the floor off the ball with strong 3-point shooting. Those are all skills that translate to the playoffs.

Without him, the Spurs rely too heavily on older, slower defenders. That’s ripe to be exploited in the postseason.

Teams might even jockey to match up with San Antonio – the most vulnerable-appearing Western Conference team in line to get home-court advantage in the first round.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of Leonard returning. Popovich could just be trying to shut down speculation. He clearly doesn’t like discussing this issue.

But the Spurs are the most cautious team on injuries. If Leonard risks further injury, they’ll keep him sidelined.

This injury has already caused tension. This won’t help.

Mark Cuban’s fine third-largest known fine in NBA history

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While explaining how he told his players the team was better off losing this season, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said “I’m probably not supposed to say this” and “Adam would hate hearing that.”

Cuban was right.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver fined Cuban $600,000 for “public statements detrimental to the NBA.” The league doesn’t announce all its fines, but that’s the third-largest known fine in NBA history.

The leaderboard:

1. Timberwolves, $3.5 million in 2000 (signing under-the-table agreement with Joe Smith)

2. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, $2.5 million in 2014 (making racist comments)

3. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, $600,000 in 2018 (saying he told his players the team is better off losing)

4. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, $500,000 in 2002 (criticizing officiating)

4. Knicks, $500,000 in 2006 (fighting Nuggets)

4. Nuggets, $500,000 2006 (fighting Knicks)

4. Vladimir Radmanovic, $500,000 in 2007 (injuring his shoulder while snowboarding)

4. Pistons general manager Joe Dumars, $500,000 in 2010 (leaking confidential league memos)

4. Heat owner Micky Arison, $500,000 in 2011 (tweets during the lockout breaking rank with other owners)

I’d be on Cuban (and/or the Mavericks) getting yet another spot on this list following the investigation of the franchise for a culture tolerant of sexual harassment and domestic abuse. That one will probably be deserved – not just the league trying to preserve the illusion of pure competition amid a system that incentivizes losing.

Mark Cuban fined $600,000 for telling team “losing is our best option”

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Of all the hot water Mark Cuban is in right now with the Mavericks and the NBA league office, this is probably the smallest tub. And the least expensive fine.

Cuban recently went on Julius Erving’s podcast, House Call with Dr. J, and said:

“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night. And here we are, we weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, “Look, losing is our best option.” Adam would hate hearing that, but at least I sat down, and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again.”

You were not supposed to say that — the NBA Wednesday fined Cuban $600,000 for “for public statements detrimental to the NBA.”

Cuban’s not wrong, it’s just a matter of perception. The NBA has worked very hard to lessen the image that teams are tanking for draft position (why do you think there was pressure on the Sixers to replace Sam Hinkie?), they don’t need an owner saying it’s the smart thing to do. Even though it is. Teams tank — it is still the only way for a small or medium market team to get a superstar, get high in the draft and hopefully pick one (it’s not that simple, ask the Magic) — but the league wants at least the facade that all of its teams are competitive. All the way through the end of the season.

As you read this, the bottom eight teams in the NBA are within three games of each other for the worst record — and a higher lottery slot. Does anyone think any of them are not going to roll out young, less-talented rosters in the name of development when the real goal is to lose as many games as they can the rest of the way? Most scouts think there is some real talent at the top of this draft, and teams are going to try to get up there and get it.

Just nobody can talk about it.