Nuggets, motivated by Bynum’s words, avoid elimination with Game 5 win over Lakers

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The Nuggets were facing elimination heading into Tuesday’s Game 5 at Staples Center, and as if seeing their season come to an end wasn’t motivation enough, Lakers center Andrew Bynum provided them with a little something extra, courtesy of comments he made at one of the team’s practice sessions before this one.

“Closeout games are actually kind of easy,” Bynum said. “Teams tend to fold if you come out and play hard in the beginning.”

Nothing was easy for the Lakers, and we’ll never know what might have been had L.A. actually played hard from the start. They did not, and now the series will head back to Denver for a Game 6 after the Nuggets played with a sustained fire and energy for 48 minutes that earned them a 102-99 victory.

Andre Miller was masterful with the way he ran Denver’s offense, finishing with 24 points and eight assists in 28 minutes off the bench. JaVale McGee was an absolute monster, getting loose around the rim seemingly at will while finishing with 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting, to go along with 14 rebounds and a couple of blocked shots.

Denver held the lead for most of the night, and ran it up to 15 points — its largest of the game — with six-and-a-half minutes left. L.A. made a furious rally at that point behind four largely ridiculous three-pointers from Kobe Bryant, but ultimately couldn’t make it all the way back.

Bryant finished with 43 points, Bynum had a quiet 16 points and 11 rebounds, and no other Laker was able to impact this game on either end of the floor.

The Lakers, to a man, didn’t have an explanation for not coming out with enough energy and focus to match that of their opponent and close this series out. The Nuggets, however, were unified in detailing their motivation. And they agreed that Bynum’s comments provided just that.

“His feeling on closeouts is a little different than my history of being in them,” George Karl said afterward. “So I told my players that. ”

Mike Brown admitted what his All-Star center said could be construed as “bulletin-board material,” but didn’t necessarily have a problem with Bynum’s comments.

“It is bulletin board material,” he said. “If a guy wants to say that, in my opinion, he’s got to back it up. But we all have to get his back and try to help him back it up. We did not as a team.”

McGee admitted Bynum’s comments were motivational, but being in the playoffs for the first time in his career was likely a bigger reason for the way he came out and dominated in a potential elimination game.

“Usually I’m nowhere near the playoffs,” he said, referencing the fact that he played the past three and a half seasons for the dismal Washington Wizards, before the mid-season trade that brought him to Denver in March.

“My last game is usually, if it’s a regular season, in April,” he added. “I definitely didn’t want tonight to be my last game.”

He played like it. And so did his teammates, especially defensively. Denver stuck to its principles, sending hard double teams at Bynum all night long, doing the same against Pau Gasol, and daring the Lakers to be efficient with their ball movement before knocking down mid-range or three-point shots.

Until Bryant’s barrage late in the fourth, L.A. couldn’t hit anything from outside, so Denver was able to continue to pack the paint, making life miserable offensively for the Lakers’ bigs.

Kobe, as you might imagine, didn’t have a problem with Bynum’s comments that wound up being that last thing the Nuggets saw in their pregame film session. But ultimately, he knows that his team can’t pull a no-show in the playoffs, no matter where the other team’s motivation is coming from.

“That’s true, closeout games can be easy sometimes,” Bryant said, in temporary defense of his teammate. “But tonight wasn’t one of those nights.”

“I don’t think it makes a difference,” Bryant said. “Did it pump them up? Probably. Were they going to come out and play with that kind of energy anyway? Probably. We didn’t execute and they obviously played harder than we did, so it’s a lesson to learn. You never want to give anybody bulletin material to begin with, but if you’re going to be a champion, you’ve got to play through that type of stuff.”

Bryant also didn’t believe that as a team, their energy magically appeared at some point late in the fourth quarter. He’s had performances like that too many times, and he’s been the one who’s had to personally drag his team back from the dead many more times than that.

“I wouldn’t say our energy kicked in in the fourth quarter,” he said. “I almost bailed us out. That’s what happened. It wasn’t an energy switch, I started making shots left and right and got us back in the ballgame. That’s not something that we can use to rely on to get us to a championship. It can’t be that. We all have to step up and we all have to contribute and we all have to play with that kind of energy and a sense of urgency.”

It’s better for the Lakers to get a grip on this now, in the first round, while they still hold a 3-2 lead in the series with two more chances to close out the Nuggets if absolutely necessary. Bryant pointed to the inexperience on his team as a possible reason for Tuesday’s poor showing, while mentioning the opportunity to gain that experience on the road in Game 6 in the very next breath.

“I’ve been in this position before, but a lot of guys on the team haven’t been in that position before,” he said. “It’s important to remind them that yeah, this sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. You’ve got to go up there in a tough environment, gain some experience, and earn your stripes.”

The Nuggets know they’ve competed in all but one of the first five games of this series, and coming off a huge road win to save themselves from elimination — while having the opportunity in front of them to force a Game 7, where anything can happen — will likely be more than enough to get them going for Thursday’s Game 6 back in Denver.

Andrew Bynum and the rest of the Lakers would be wise not to give the Nuggets any additional motivation.

Only two of 38 rookies surveyed say No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz will have class’s best career

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The 76ers drafted Ben Simmons No. 1 last year, believing he’d have the best career of anyone in his draft class. This year, Philadelphia traded up to draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 for the same reason.

Their fellow rookies – Simmons missed all of last season due to injury – aren’t nearly as enthused.

John Schuhmann of NBA.com conducted his annual rookie survey, polling 39 players who weren’t allowed to vote for themselves or college or NBA teammates. Thirty-eight responded to the best-career question:

Which rookie will have the best career?

1. Lonzo Ball, L.A. Lakers — 18.4%
Jayson Tatum, Boston — 18.4%

3. Josh Jackson, Phoenix — 10.5%
Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas — 10.5%

5. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento — 7.9%

6. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia — 5.3%
Harry Giles, Sacramento — 5.3%
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia — 5.3%

Others receiving votes: Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn; John Collins, Atlanta; Jonathan Isaac, Orlando; Luke Kennard, Detroit; Kyle Kuzma, L.A. Lakers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah; Malik Monk, Charlotte

Simmons might not have come to mind to players at the rookie photo shoot, which was for the most recent draft class. And rookies have tended to pick someone other than the No. 1 pick for this question. Anthony Davis in 2012 was the last No. 1 pick to lead voting. Simmons tied for fourth at 6.7% last year – behind Brandon Ingram, Kris Dunn and Buddy Hield. Even Karl-Anthony Towns landed behind Jahlil Okafor in 2015.

But so few votes for Fultz – the consensus top prospect in the draft – is fairly stunning.

Dennis Smith Jr. received the most votes for Rookie of the Year, but at just 25.7%. A large majority of rookies picked someone other than the Mavericks point guard.

Lonzo Ball (71.8% for best playmaker) was the only player to receive a majority of votes in a category. Luke Kennard (48.6% for best shooter) and Smith (43.6% for most athletic), who each tripled second place, came close.

LeBron James reemerged as rookies’ favorite player after a three-year run by Kevin Durant. Maybe that Warriors backlash if finally catching up to Durant?

Kendall Marshall, Marshall Plumlee headline Team USA’s AmeriCup roster

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AmeriCup, previously called the FIBA Americas Championship, lost its luster when FIBA decided the continental tournament wouldn’t double as World Cup qualifying.

But the U.S. is still sending a team, coached by Jeff Van Gundy. The roster (team last season):

  • Billy Baron (UCAM Murcia, Spain)
  • Alec Brown (Windy City Bulls)
  • Larry Drew II (Sioux Falls Skyforce)
  • Reggie Hearn (Reno Bighorns)
  • Darrun Hilliard (Detroit Pistons)
  • Jonathan Holmes (Canton Charge);
  • Kendall Marshall (Reno Bighorns)
  • Xavier Munford (Greensboro Swarm)
  • Marshall Plumlee (New York Knicks)
  • Jameel Warney (Texas Legends)
  • C.J. Williams (Texas Legends)
  • Reggie Williams (Oklahoma City Blue)

The Americans should still be favored, though obviously not as overwhelming as they’d be with NBA players, in a field also comprised of Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Uruguay, Panama and U.S. Virgin Islands.

This will be a good benchmark, as the U.S. might take a similar roster into World Cup qualifying.

Report: Tampering investigation stems from Magic Johnson’s TV interview

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In April, new Lakers president Magic Johnson went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and discussed then-Pacers forward Paul George:

We’re going to say hi, because we know each other. You just can’t say, “Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,” even though I’m going to be wink-winking like [blinks repeatedly]. You know what that means, right?

Now, the Lakers – at Indiana’s request – are being investigated for tampering.

Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

The investigation, which has been going on since May, stemmed from comments Magic Johnson made on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” that angered Pacers owner Herb Simon, according to several NBA officials who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

This doesn’t mean the Pacers believe Johnson tampered with his televised comments. It seems as if that was the last straw following numerous rumors about George going to Los Angeles.

However, there’s a case Johnson’s televised remarks alone would constitute tampering. The Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibits “assurances of intent, or understandings of any kind (whether disclosed or undisclosed to the NBA), between a player (or any person or entity controlled by, related to, or acting with authority on behalf of, such player) and any Team (or Team Affiliate)” – and even attempts to solicit assurance of intent or understanding – when the player is still under contract with another team. Johnson sure appeared to do that.

But it’d be shocking if Johnson or the Lakers were punished for the interview alone. Indiana probably needs more evidence.

Then again, the arbitrary way the NBA enforces tampering, who knows?

Report: Nerlens Noel hires Rich Paul as agent, looking for big deal from Mavericks

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It’s been a rough year for restricted free agents (and plenty of unrestricted ones). After NBA teams spent like drunken sailors on shore leave last summer, this time around — with the cap not rising as much as had been expected — the market got tight quickly, and few questionable contracts were handed out. A year ago the Brooklyn Nets were making the Miami Heat pay big to retain Tyler Johnson and the Trail Blazers pay big to keep Allen Crabbe. This year teams were not biting the same way on restricted free agents.

Which left guys like Nerlens Noel, who expected to be maxed out by the Mavericks (or someone), still looking for a deal. Noel was frustrated enough to switch agents, picking up Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, according to Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders.

Paul is LeBron James‘ agent, and in recent years has done well getting Tristan Thompson and Eric Bledsoe good contracts as extensions to their rookie deals. In both cases, he showed a fearlessness in holding out longer and being willing to push the envelope. That had to appeal to Noel.

But it doesn’t change the underlying dynamics at play — and not just with Noel. Paul also represents restricted free agents this summer Shabazz Muhammad — who has yet to sign a deal — and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had to take a one-year deal with the Lakers for $18 million (well below his max). Throw in Noel’s injury history, and teams were not eager to jump in with a big offer for the athletic big man.

At this point, no team has the money to offer Noel a max contract right now — the Bulls have the most available money at $17.3 million, the Sixers and Suns have about $15 million and $14 million. Noel’s max is $24.7 million a year. Dallas is playing hardball because they can — without another offer on the table, Noel’s only real threat is to sign the qualifying offer (about $6 million) and play the season for that, then become an unrestricted free agent next summer. That’s possible, but a guy with Noe’s history of injuries may want to be careful betting on himself like that.

With Paul in the negotiations, expect them to drag out. That’s about the only sure thing.