Baseline to Baseline recaps: Close games and playoff races

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Knicks 111, Bucks 107: In a must-win game for both teams, the Knicks got the stops and gutted out a win that likely sends them to the playoffs.

Clippers 100, Thunder 98: On the ESPN studio show, injured Clippers guard Chauncey Billups said the key to beating the Thunder in Oklahoma City is just to keep it close, hang around and turn it over to the “liitle guy” Chris Paul at the end. The Clippers did that, they got a fantastic all-around game from Blake Griffin (16 points, 12 boards and 7 assits) and some good play off the bench from Kevin Martin. They kept it close, then at the end CP3 did his thing. (Then Durant missed a game-winning three.)

When the Thunder get going and use their defense to create offense, they can beat anyone. But they were not consistent with it this game (there was plenty of lapses) and they hurt themselves with untimely turnovers. They feel vulnerable in ways a contender should not.

Lakers 98, Spurs 84: You can’t read too much into one regular game. So be careful here. But the Spurs got bumped from the playoffs last year because they could not contain the front like of the Grizzlies (and yes, Manu Ginobili was out). Then in the offseason they Spurs did not address the front line issues.

Enter Andrew Bynum and the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday. Bynum grabbed 30 rebounds. Thirty. He had 16 points, Pau Gasol had 21 and Metta World Peace had 26 (which is a bit flukey). The Lakers owned the Spurs inside and won without Kobe Bryant on the floor. It’s one regular season game, but it should be a concern for the Spurs.

Grizzlies 104, Suns 93: An 14-1 Suns run early in the fourth quarter made it look like this was going to be a game to the end, but Memphis took control behind Rudy Gay (Grant Hill was not playing and nobody else could check him) and Dante Cunningham. Gay finished with 32 points. Marcin Gortat had 19 for the Suns.

With the Suns loss and a Jazz win the Suns fall to the 10 seed, two games back of Houston in the eight seed. That is going to be hard to make up.

Jazz 103, Rockets 91: Huge road win for the Jazz who took the lead in the second quarter and withstood every Rockets rally all game long. Gordon Hayward was a machine, with 29 points on 14 shots, plus he chipped in six assists. Paul Millsap is still playing the three and it works, he had 21. Kyle Lowry led a fourth-quarter charge by the Rockets, but it was too little, to late. With the win the Jazz move into the nine seed, just 1.5 games back of the eight seed Rockets.

Celtics 88, Hawks 86 (OT): On the second night of a back-to-back, Boston was able to control the tempo — the Hawks wanted to run the Celtics out of the building but never really got to. Boston (and by that we mean Kevin Garnett) also traditionally is able to hold Josh Smith in check, and while he ended up with 20 points and 11 boards he did not score in the fourth quarter or overtime. Meanwhile, Rondo was dishing with 20 assists on his way to a triple-double (despite a 3-for-16 shooting night). Boston gutted out a tough win a night after beating the Heat, they will take it. Plus, just great to see Mickael Pietrus back on the court.

Sixers 93, Raptors 75: Philly continues to secure their playoff spot thanks to an easy schedule down the stretch (save for a couple games against the Pacers coming up). This game was close until a 17-4 fourth quarter run by the Sixers. Thaddeus Young led the 76ers with 17 points, and six boards.

Pacers 104, Cavaliers 98 (OT): It took a late fourth quarter 11-1 run by the Pacers just to force overtime, a run sparked by George Hill who had 8 in the quarter (and 17 for the game). That run was almost enough to win it, until Lester Hudson continued his amazing play of late with a game-tying floater to force overtime. Danny Granger was the best player in OT with a clutch three, scoring 5 of his 23 points coming in the bonus period.

Nuggets 113, Timberwolves 107: Minnesota had to play the end of his game without Kevin Love, who was taken to the hospital with a concussion. Denver owned the first half of this game and was up 21 at the break, But then a 27-8 Minnesota run made it a game again — a run sparked by Anthony Randolph’s 19 second half points. Martell Webster tied the game at 105-105 with a key three, but then Minnesota fell asleep and allowed Arron Aflalo to score a transition layup off the inbounds and that was the momentum Denver needed to win.

Hornets 105, Kings 93: New Orleans took control with a 17-3 fourth-quarter run and never looked back. All you really need to know is Jason Smith scored 22 and outplayed DeMarcus Cousins.

Trail Blazers 118, Warriors 110: A 10-0 Warriors run to open the fourth made this a game, but Portland closed the game on their own 7-0 run to secure the win. Jamal Crawford had 34 and looked like his old self for the Blazers.

Three questions the Boston Celtics must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season:
53-29, lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

I know what you did last summer: Sent Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons, a move they could potentially regret after dealing Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. The Celtics also signed big time free agent Gordon Hayward away from the Utah Jazz. Finally, Boston took Jayson Tatum in the 2017 NBA Draft.

THREE QUESTIONS THE CELTICS MUST ANSWER:

1) Can Irving lead without diminishing the role of other starters? I think it’s a complete misnomer to think that Irving is solely a one-on-one, isolation type player. However, fans do like to get in a very black-and-white mode when analyzing players, and bias can show strongly here.

Irving has said that he wants to be more of a team player when it comes to the Celtics, which is good news for Brad Stevens and company. Irving is an excellent offensive player, and his talents should not be wasted, but there is some concern that he might dominate too much of the ball and won’t give a guy like Hayward and enough room to operate. That might’ve worked okay last season when Thomas was the engine that made the Celtics go, but Boston arguably has a better starting five this season than last.

I think there is real issues here when it comes to fit moving forward, and it is going to center around whether Irving can play team defense and handle the leeway he will be given on offense. Remember, the other thing here that hasn’t been talked about much is the extra operating space that Irving will be granted now that he is out of LeBron James‘s shadow. It might be very tantalizing to take advantage of that situation, but for Boston’s success he will need to find a happy place in between.

2) What kind of bench depth can the young players produce? Boston didn’t want to trade Avery Bradley away, but they also didn’t want to pay him. That issue becomes doubly as important now that they used Jae Crowder, the successor that wing spot, to deal for Irving.

The Celtics are a top-heavy team this season even if they did get better. They will rely more and more on guys like Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and the rookie Tatum.

Marcus Morris will be a huge part of their rotation as will Aron Banes with Kelly Olynyk in Miami. Danny Ainge is playing the long term look here, so it won’t necessarily matter if the team isn’t on par next season to him. However, a championship style run for this season will depend on immediate production from the three young wing players.

3) Are they good enough to get past the Cavaliers this time around? This is the big question that everyone in Boston wants to answer. The Cavaliers are their longtime rivals in the Eastern Conference, and now that they have swapped roster pieces it will be more than just basketball on the floor. It will be a social curiosity.

Whether or not the Celtics will be good enough to get past LeBron James will really depend on the answers to questions one and two above. The only way that Boston can replicate their production from last season will be to jell together quickly. That means getting a real rhythm on offense between Hayward, Horford, and Irving.

It also means finding a way to play defense with Irving at the point guard position. It’s all well and good to say that both Thomas and Irving have been liabilities on defense, but now teams have game tape on what Stevens did with his squad on that end of the floor come playoff time. This team will need to stiffen and do some things to mix it up to make sure they aren’t beat by their own game film next spring.

Bill Russell takes a knee while wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom

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When we talk of Bill Russell, it’s often the on-the-court accomplishments — an 11-time NBA champion and five-time MVP who anchored the Boston Celtics through the greatest dynasty in NBA history, one of the best defensive players ever to set foot on the court. He’s more than simply a Hall of Famer, he is one of the game’s all-time greatest players.

With that, we often overlook Russell the activist, who took part in the Civil Rights movement. A man who faced plenty of racism as a player — being jeered by white students in college while he played, not being allowed to stay in the same hotel as white players in North Carolina during an All-Star tour in 1958, and much more — he was public in his refusal to tolerate any of it. It was his efforts on that front as much as basketball that led then President Barack Obama to award Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Russell tweeted out this photo of himself wearing that medal and supporting the NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem.

Russell is not going to be silenced. Not now, not ever. He remains a strong voice that the NBA should heed.

Following in the footsteps of Colin Kaepernick’s protests against violence and social injustice last season by taking a knee during the national anthem, more players were doing so this season. When President Donald Trump called on NFL owners to “fire” the players taking a knee during the anthem, it led to a backlash among players and a much more widespread adopting of players taking a knee this past weekend. Even backers of the president — Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, both of whom donated to Trump last election — called Trump out for his comments.

It will be interesting to see how NBA teams handle anthem protests this season. Last season teams linked arms in a show of solidarity (the NBA has a rule that players must stand during the anthem) but you can be sure the league and players union are already discussing this. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was among the multitude of voices calling out Trump for what he said, let along high-ranking union members such as Chris Paul and LeBron Jamesthe latter of whom called the president a “bum.” Those slams of the president continued on media day Monday.

Report: T.J. Warren agrees to $50 million extension to stay in Phoenix

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T.J. Warren has potential — he’s an athletic wing who averaged 14.4 points per game last season, who loves to play in transition and can finish when he gets to the rim, plus he can defend multiple positions. Part of the motivation for the Suns in trading P.J. Tucker was to open up more time for Warren. However, injuries have held that potential back, he played in just 66 games last season and that is the most in his young career (he suffered a broken foot that required surgery the season before and it delayed his entry into last season).

The Suns bet on that potential Monday, agreeing to a four-year, $50 million rookie contract extension, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Phoenix Suns forward TJ Warren has agreed to a four-year, $50 million contract extension, league sources told ESPN…

Warren has shown tremendous potential as a versatile wing with significant scoring potential. He had his best — and healthiest — pro season in 2016-17, averaging 14.4 points and 5.1 rebounds while starting 59 of his 66 games played.

That $12.5 million average salary — basically fourth/fifth starter money — is higher than the market for Warren likely would have been, to put it kindly. That the Suns were willing to pay it speaks to how high they see his potential. If he can develop a more dangerous jumper he becomes is worth that money, but he has yet to show real shooting range. A lot of people saw the drafting of Josh Jackson last summer by Phoenix as a sign they were not sold on Warren, but GM Ryan McDonough clearly isn’t one of those people

The Suns have an athletic young core on the wings that they like with Warren, Jackson, and second-year players Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. This is a team with a couple of veterans such as Jared Dudley and Eric Bledsoe (the latter of whom is available via trade) to help guide that young core. The Suns were less sure about how big man Alex Len fits into that mix, and he just signed a $4.2 million qualifying offer and will be a free agent next season.

The Suns were less sure about how big man Alex Len fits into that mix, and he just signed a $4.2 million qualifying offer and will be a free agent next season.

Lakers are happy with the hype surrounding rookie Lonzo Ball

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) He has a Facebook reality show and a family shoe brand. His dad talks big on ESPN. He was the No. 2 overall draft pick and expects to transform one of the NBA’s glamor franchises.

Other than that, Lonzo Ball is an ordinary teenager.

The 19-year-old guard comes with otherworldly expectations, with the Los Angeles Lakers having fallen on hard times. They hope the local product can help them rejoin the NBA’s elite.

Ball’s journey officially begins Tuesday when the Lakers open training camp, but he appears to have already won over his new teammates during summer workouts.

“When you play with a pure point guard like that, it just makes it easier for everyone,” center Brook Lopez said. “He elevates players to a whole other level.

“I know it’s going to be great for me, just being on the receiving end of his passes. He’s going to gift-wrap baskets for me. He’s so good at turning other players into impact, amazing players. He’s going to be a transcendent talent.”

That has been the plan all along, particularly from his outspoken father LaVar Ball, who almost seemed to will his son’s journey from Chino Hills High School to UCLA to the Lakers.

If Lonzo Ball seems to arrive with the trappings of circus, he appears the calm in the center of the storm.

“Honestly, Zo is relaxed,” forward Julius Randle said. “Zo is chill. He’s one of the guys. For as much as he has going around him, you would never know.”

Ball doesn’t say a lot himself, and what he does say comes out in rapid-fire fashion. Reporters circled around some eight deep Monday at the team’s media day, but Ball appeared to take it in stride.

“I’ve been kinda like this my whole life, so I really don’t feel anything to be honest,” he said. “It’s just playing a game, the game I love.”

That approach has hardly gone unnoticed by legendary point guard Magic Johnson, now the Lakers’ president of basketball operations.

“I told him, he’s just like me,” Johnson said. “When I came here there were a lot of expectations put on my shoulders and the Lakers as an organization. Now I’m his boss, but I’m also his big brother.”

When those comments were relayed to Ball, the rookie responded: “More like an uncle. He looks older than my brother.”

It was a rare glimpse of the sense of humor that teammates say is not uncommon when the cameras are off.

As for those lofty expectations? Like most everything else, Ball just shrugs and flashes a hint of his confidence.

“I think I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ve been playing basketball my whole life and I’m pretty good at it.”

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