Baseline to Baseline recaps: Miami malaise means another loss

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What you missed while being freaked out by 9-pound Gambian rats….

Knicks 89, Bucks 80: It wasn’t pretty. Actually, it was put-a-bag-over-it ugly. But with this win the Knicks are far more likely to make the playoffs, and it was our game of the night.

Pacers 105, Heat 90: I don’t want to go all Jimmy Carter on you guys, but there is a malaise in Miami.

First off, let’s not take anything away from the Pacers here. Miami came in coasting, the Pacers showed up with their lunch pails. Indiana wanted this more. The game was close through the first half but Paul George hit a three at the halftime buzzer to give the Pacers the lead. Then in the third quarter the Pacers outscored the Heat 29-19 and that is where they earned a win. Danny Granger had 25 points, Darren Collison 20 and the Pacers just outworked the Heat play after play.

Miami is 4-4 in its last 8 and that is certainly not talent. Their offense has been off (just 95.7 points per 100 possessions against the Pacers) as they have slowed it down and gotten away from the “pace and space” system used earlier in the season. They are not executing. Every team suffers lulls, but it is magnified with the Heat. It’s still a month until the playoffs, but the Heat have things they need to figure out.

Pistons 79, Wizards 77: The Wizards seemed to have this one, but they shot 31.5 percent in the final quarter, meanwhile the Pistons made huge runs — 12-1 at one point, 10-4 at another. Rodney Stuckey had 12 of his game-high 24 in the fourth quarter, including the game winner. The Wizards should kick themselves for the missed opportunities.

Celtics 102, Bobcats 95: This was closer than one would expect — credit the Bobcats or blame Celtics depending on your viewpoint. The Bobcats put up 35 on whatever it was the Celtics tried to pass off for defense in the second quarter, and it was a two-point game at the half (favoring Boston). From there on the Boston held on to get the win but never pulled away for the blowout everyone expected. Paul Pierce had 36 points, 10 boards to lead Boston.

Still, a win is a win — this victory tied the Celtics with the 76ers for the lead in the Atlantic Division. With a division crown the Celtics run with the Big Three lasts a little longer.

Jazz 105, Nets 84: Utah played four overtimes the night before, got on a plane, flew to New Jersey and played with far more energy than New Jersey. Paul Millsap had 24 and Al Jefferson 19 as the Jazz pounded the Nets inside and cruised to an easy win.

Nuggets 108, Bulls 91: Chicago pushed out to a first quarter lead but Denver hung around because they hit 5-of-7 threes early on. It stayed close, then the Nuggets went on a 12-0 run to start the second half and they never looked back.

Of late Denver has looked like a team that could fall out of the playoffs in the West, but this was a gutty performance. They did a great job of pressuring the ball on the Bulls pick-and-roll and keeping them out of the paint — they forced the Bulls to be a perimeter team. It is where the Bulls really missed Derrick Rose. C.J. Watson had 17 for the Bulls, Ty Lawson had a great game for the Nuggets and finished with 27.

Magic 117, Raptors 101: Orlando raced out to an early 16 point lead, then Toronto closed the first quarter on an 18-4 run to make you think there might be a game here. Then a second quarter run by the Magic — sparked by Ryan Anderson, who and 9 of his 28 in the quarter — gave the Magic a healthy lead they never relinquished. Toronto is an inconsistent defensive team and the Magic are good enough to exploit it, which is what happened here.

Rockets 113, Kings 106 (OT): The Kings raced out to a 26-10 lead behind a monster night from DeMarcus Cousins (38 points, 14 rebounds), but slow and steady won the race in Houston. The Rockets chipped away at the lead all game, with Patrick Patterson having a big night (24 points off the bench and being a +18 for the game). Just signed Earl Boykins had 10 for the Rockets including four in overtime.

Clippers 97, Hornets 85: Consider this a little payback for last week. The Hornets were without the two players that sparked their upset win last week — Chris Kaman and Jason Smith — and the Clippers pulled away in the second quarter and never looked back. Denver made it close with a 13-0 fourth quarter run, but the game was never in doubt. Chris Paul had 25 points, Blake Griffin 20 for the Clippers.

Griffin’s midrange game is spotty still, so he has gone to getting all his buckets at the rim, where he is a beast. Smart move, he’s very difficult to stop down there. (Yes, eventually he does need to develop a midrange game to fully round out his talents, but when you are as had to stop around the rim as he is then you should get to the rim. He is. That’s smart basketball.)

Report: Rival executives still expect Paul George to leave Thunder for Lakers

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Paul George has been pretty open about his plans.

He told plenty of people – including the Pacers – he planned to leave for the Lakers in the summer of 2018. Even after the Thunder traded for him, George spoke of the lure of playing for his hometown team.

Of course, George also left the door open to re-signing with Oklahoma City. He proclaimed he’d be dumb to leave if the Thunder reached the conference finals or upset the Warriors.

So far, Oklahoma City (12-14) doesn’t even look like a playoff lock, let alone a team capable of knocking off Golden State or reaching the conference finals. So, cue the inevitable speculation.

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Rival execs still expect Paul to head for the Lakers in free agency

Do these executives have inside information into George’s thinking, or are they just speculating based on already-available information? Some executives are incentivized to drum up the Lakers threat, because they want to trade for George themselves now. If these executives insist George will leave for Los Angeles regardless, they might pry him from Oklahoma City for less.

There’s also a theory George is hyping his desire to sign with the Lakers so a team would have to trade less for him. That got him to the Thunder for what looked like a meager return (but hasn’t been). It might get him to a more favorable situation before the trade deadline without hampering his next team long-term. Of course, this theory isn’t mutually exclusive with George actually signing in Los Angeles. It could just get him better options to choose from this summer.

Surely, the Thunder are trying to parse all this noise. If their season doesn’t turn around, they should explore flipping George rather than risk losing him for nothing next summer. But they should also be wary that he’ll bolt for Los Angeles at first opportunity just because rival executives predict it.

LeBron James feels for Lonzo Ball: “The kid hasn’t said anything”

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Lonzo Ball is actually quiet and clearly isn’t comfortable talking about himself. That may not be the perception because of the swirling vortex of Kardashianesq publicity around him — drummed up by his father, whose Big Baller Brand is making money with pop-up shops and a reality series on Facebook, if not preparing his boys for a life in basketball — but Lonzo seems able to tune that out and focus on the game.

LeBron James likes that about the rookie.

Ball has called LeBron the best player in the game and the guy he looks up to, and the day before the Lakers and Cavaliers meet LeBron told Dave McMenamin of ESPN he sees some parallels between himself and Ball in terms of being drafted as a franchise savior.

“The kid hasn’t said anything,” James told ESPN when asked about the hype surrounding Ball. “It’s been everybody else. So, I love his humility. He goes out, every time someone asks him a question, he says, ‘This is not about me, man. I just want to win. I don’t care about what I did.’ I seen he had a triple-double one game and they lost. He was like, ‘I don’t care. We lost.’

“So, can I draw any parallel to my experience? I mean, of course. I guess when you’re drafted to a franchise, they want you to kind of be the savior. And it takes a while. I mean, listen, man, this guy is 20-something games into his pro career. S— doesn’t happen [that fast]. Here it goes again, it goes back to my instant oatmeal [quote]: Everybody wants it right away. Can he play ball? Absolutely. The kid can play ball. Do guys want to play with him? Absolutely, because it’s a guy who is not about him. It’s about the success of the team. And he gives the ball up, and he passes the ball, and there’s energy behind the ball.”

Ball is keeping his head down and working on his game as much as circumstances allow. He’s developing good chemistry with the potential core of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and others. However, obviously, the basketball side is still a work in progress. Ball has shown flashes this season (as he did against the Knicks), his energy and pushing of the pace have been good for the team, but Ball still struggles with his shot, his decision making is inconsistent, and his defense needs work (but is better than predicted).  He’s improving, but it’s a process.

Basically, Ball is a rookie.

And like all rookies, how much work he puts in and how he develops, if he can get the out of his talent, will determine the course of his career. Not his dad, not the hype, not the shoes, it comes down to his game — and that remains a work in progress. Right now I’m not sure he makes the NBA All-Rookie team at the end of the season, but that doesn’t mean much because it’s about where he is in three years. Is he a future All-Star? Maybe. Is he going to be a good, not great, NBA point guard? Maybe. Could he be playing in Europe (with his brothers?) in five years? It doesn’t seem likely but it’s not off the table. There’s a lot of potential in his game, and it’s up to Luke Walton and the Lakers to bring it out.

But you have to like the way Lonzo has handled himself. LeBron recognizes that.

LaVar Ball is just lucky that the level-headed and focused Lonzo was his oldest child.

 

Thunder’s Paul George expects boos in return to Indiana tonight

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Paul George knows the crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse well enough to expect a rude reception when he returns for the first time.

George spent seven seasons with the Indiana Pacers, and the four-time All-Star helped them reach the Eastern Conference Finals twice. After last season, George’s camp made it clear Indiana didn’t figure into his long-term plans, so the disappointed Pacers traded him to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis rather than risk getting nothing in return for him.

Indiana fans value loyalty – the player they hold in the highest regard, Reggie Miller, stayed with the Pacers for 18 years. They had their hearts broken back in 2005-06 when Ron Artest demanded a trade, the first step in the dismantling of a nucleus the Pacers expected to compete for NBA titles for years to come.

George, also a one-time centerpiece to Indiana’s title hopes, is gone, too. He figures boos will rain down as a result.

“I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way,” he said. “The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans, so that’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m going to embrace that. I’m going to thrive on that. It’s going to give me the energy to play better.”

Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony will be in a similar situation when the Thunder visit the New York Knicks on Saturday. Anthony was sent to Oklahoma City in the offseason after he waived a no-trade clause.

“When he gets booed, we get booed,” Anthony said. “We’re in this together. We understand the situation. I’m pretty sure he’s going to embrace that situation, and we’re going to help him embrace that situation, and as a team, we’re going to help him embrace that situation.”

George’s transition has been a bit bumpy. He is playing outstanding defense, yet still getting comfortable on offense alongside Anthony and Russell Westbrook. He’s averaging 20.6 points on 42 percent shooting overall and 41 percent shooting from 3-point range and leads the league with 2.4 steals per game. The team has struggled to a 12-14 record.

“We’re not enjoying these losses but we’re enjoying the grind,” George said. “We’re enjoying the battles, we’re enjoying the targets on our backs. We’re enjoying everything that brought this team together.”

The trade seems to be just what Oladipo needed. After Monday’s games, he ranked 10th in the league with 24.5 points per game, and the Pacers were No. 5 in the Eastern Conference with a 16-11 record.

“I think he’s just in attack mode,” George said. “He’s aggressive. He’s confident. You can tell he’s worked extremely hard over this past summer, and Indy has given him the keys. You’ve got a young team around, a fresh locker room. It’s a lot of positive energy over there. They are playing well. They are playing good basketball.”

Oladipo downplayed Wednesday’s game in his typical low-key manner. He said he still is friends with his former Thunder teammates and the game simply is about handling business.

“I look forward to every game, every game I play,” he said. “This is just another game, just another game that we’ve got to win. Obviously, you guys and the fans want to blow it up, which is fine. But we have to go out and play Pacers basketball.”

Anthony preferred to stir the pot. He believes the expected hostile environment in Indianapolis will provide an opportunity to build team unity.

“We’ve got to be ready for that because it’s us against the whole (state of) Indiana,” Anthony said. “Not just the Pacers, but the whole Indiana. I think Paul is ready for it. As a professional, as a competitor, it’s kind of bittersweet because you spent so much time and you want a different reaction from the people you put a lot of work in for, you fought for and you competed for. But then again, you want to go in there and have a good game. You want to win.”

 

Marc Gasol said he would accept trade, but are Grizzlies ready to do that?

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“We have no intention to trade Marc. We never seriously considered that at all. We never placed any calls to any teams in that regard. So that’s not happening. It’s not just Marc that this whole equation is about. It’s also Mike Conley, when he comes back. We’ve got two guys among the elite in the league at their respective positions that are still very much in their window with an awful lot of tread left on their tires.”

That was Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace, just after he fired coach David Fizdale is what the GM called an attempt to save the season. Since then the Grizzlies are 1-7, they are second to last in the Western Conference and five games out of the final playoff slot in the West, ground they are not going to make up.

The “grit ‘n grind” era is over in Memphis, and this is now a team searching for an identity and wins. They have banked heavily on an older core of guys with injury histories (Gasol, Conley, Chandler Parsons), and hoped a few younger players — JaMychal Green, Dillon Brooks, James Ennis — could pick them up. It hasn’t panned out.

Is it time to revisit the idea of a Gasol trade? Gasol himself told Zach Lowe of ESPN he’d be open to it if it was what was best for the franchise. However, he grew up in Memphis (while his older brother Pau Gasol played there) and is very loyal to the city and organization. Gasol is not asking to be traded.

“I have a responsibility to this city,” Gasol says. “I’m not gonna quit, no matter what.” What if Memphis fell 30 games under .500? Gasol shakes his head. “I would want to see how we got there — what the process is,” Gasol says. “But as long as [owner] Robert [Pera] wants me here, my teammates want me here, they think I’m part of the solution — and not part of the problem — that’s all I need.” (Gasol still denies he asked for Fizdale to be fired, though the tension between them was real, sources say.)

If the team came to him with a trade, Gasol would accept it. “If they think it is best, I would do anything for this franchise,” Gasol says.

You have to admire that loyalty, in a business where neither players nor organizations often show it (fans do, which is why they feel burned by the likes of Paul George or Kevin Durant).

That said, from the outside, it looks like the Grizzlies have reached a point where it would be better for both parties to move on.

There is one other complicating factor in here: The Grizzlies ownership situation. To make a complicated business transaction simple, two of Memphis’ minority owners — Steve Kaplan and Daniel Straus — have exercised their option to make an offer for primary owner Robert Pera’s 30 percent and controlling interest of the team. Either Pera buys out the other two, or he gets bought out, and whichever side stays runs the team.

This matters because trading Gasol and starting a rebuild is an ownership decision, not simply a call made by the GM. This is going to impact the team and revenue in a way that the owner will have the final say (the owner of a team technically has the final say on everything, how involved those owners are varies team to team, but even a more absentee owner such as Pera would have to okay starting a rebuild like this).

We’ll see, but my guess is Memphis makes its moves over the summer. This season they are going to say all the right things about winning, and probably can string together enough wins to hurt their draft position without making the playoffs.