Nuggets blow out Lakers to force a Game 7

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Denver more than held serve on its home court in Thursday night’s Game 6 against the Lakers; the team made a statement. Facing their second elimination game of the series, the Nuggets made sure this one was never in doubt, opening the game on a 13-0 run and leading by as many as 28 points while cruising to an easy 113-96 win to even the series at three games apiece.

Game 7 is Saturday in Los Angeles.

“There’s no way I thought what happened tonight would happen,” Nuggets head coach George Karl said afterward. But really, the way his team has competed in every game since the first one of the series, the way that Game 6 played out wasn’t all that surprising.

Ty Lawson set the tone for Denver from the very beginning, and finished with 32 points in 30 minutes, shooting 13-of-18 from the field, 5-of-6 from three-point distance, while adding five rebounds and six assists. Andre Miller was once again solid off the bench running the offense, and Corey Brewer was able to provide an offensive spark for Denver in this one, as well.

On the Lakers side, it was once again the story of too much Kobe Bryant and not enough from anyone else. Bryant was physically ill heading into the contest, and missed shootaround altogether due to a stomach virus. He required an IV treatment before the game and another at halftime just so he would have enough fluids in his system to be able to go.

“My room resembled a scene from ‘The Exorcist,'” Bryant said of his day spent with the illness. While he clearly did not appear to be himself, he played well, and finished with 31 points in 37 minutes on 13-of-23 shooting.

But for the second straight game, Pau Gasol was completely non-existent, and it wasn’t just his 1-of-10 shooting that saw him finish with only three points. Gasol was slow in his defensive rotations, and really seems to have either a lack of focus, interest, or both since Andrew Bynum has emerged as the team’s preferred number two option.

In this series, neither Gasol nor Bynum have been a legitimate offensive option at all. Denver’s defense continues to sag on the Lakers’ bigs inside, and L.A.’s perimeter players not named Kobe have failed to consistently respond. Bynum was at least somewhat active, grabbing 16 boards and blocking four shots to aid the Lakers’ effort. But his team needed more than the 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting he was able to muster.

After the Lakers’ horrific overall effort in Game 5, and with the absence of energy to start the game once again in Game 6, there’s no guarantee that they will be able to flip a magical switch when they’re faced with their own elimination game in Los Angeles on Saturday. One bright spot for L.A. will be the return of Metta World Peace to the starting lineup, after serving his seven-game suspension for the elbow he landed to the head of Oklahoma City’s James Harden a couple of weeks back.

But the Lakers problems go deeper than the defensive intensity and occasional three-point shooting that he might be able to bring. Gasol has to find a way to impact the game if the Lakers are to compete in Game 7 and beyond, and can no longer fail to contribute on either end of the court if his team is to have a chance.

Role players like Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, and Ramon Sessions are going to have to consistently knock down open shots to give their big men some room to operate in the paint, and L.A. is going to have to find a way to slow down Lawson, tighten up the rotations defensively, and bring the intensity from the start if the Lakers want to make it out of the first round.

None of this has happened consistently in this series, of course, and it hasn’t happened at all in the past two games. The talent is there for the Lakers to beat this Nuggets team one more time at home on Saturday, but it will take maximum effort from everyone on the roster to make it happen, along with some adjustments from Mike Brown in the way L.A. uses its weapons offensively.

Given all of that, despite having to go on the road for a Game 7, you have to believe that this Denver team likes its chances.

Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan staying in 2017 NBA draft

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Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan declared for the 2016 NBA draft, struggled at the combine, withdrew, got into great shape, had an All-American sophomore season, declared for the 2017 draft.

This time, he’s not turning back.

Swanigan:

Swanigan is a borderline first-round pick. He has a couple NBA-ready skills the good teams that typically pick late in the first round might covet, but thanks to trades, teams that didn’t win a playoff game this year hold most late first-round picks. They might pick someone with more upside than Swanigan.

Swanigan is a tenacious rebounder, particularly defensively. He has excellent fundamentals, size (6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan) and ability to read the ball, and he crashes through contact to hunt boards.

He’s also a quality post-up player who can finish with either hand and has the passing ability to make that play work.

But Swanigan is slow. NBA teams have become increasingly adept at running plodders like him off the court by dragging them into pick-and-rolls. Even when on the court, he hasn’t protected the rim at satisfactory levels.

Swanigan has overcome his athletic limitations as a rebounder. He hasn’t done so in other facets of defense.

He’s hardly a dinosaur offensively. He made 45% of his 3-pointers last season, and though I’m not confident that will translate to NBA 3-point range (give the small sample and his form), he should be at least a midrange threat.

Swanigan is also just 20, young for a sophomore. He can improve.

But it’s just hard to look past his defensive limitations.

Hawks hire Travis Schlenk as general manager

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The Hawks picked Warriors assistant general manager Travis Schlenk as their next general manager. All that was left was negotiating terms.

That’s done.

Hawks:

The Atlanta Hawks today announced the hiring of Travis Schlenk as General Manager and Head of Basketball Operations. He will start leading Hawks basketball operations on June 1.

Schlenk worked his way up the latter and helped the Warriors become the envy of every other NBA team. He deserves this opportunity.

But the job won’t be easy.

The Hawks are stuck between two directions. On one side, they have veterans Paul Millsap (a 32-year-old pending unrestricted free agent whom the owner has basically promised a huge contract) and Dwight Howard (who sounds unhappy). On the other side, they have a youth movement featuring Dennis Schroder and Taurean Prince. Tim Hardaway Jr., who bridges the age groups, is about to enter a potentially tricky restricted free agency.

Keeping the core together offers the upside of a playoff-series victory or two annually, modest outcomes for the cost. But a fragile Atlanta fan base might not tolerate a rebuild.

Schlenk works for owner Tony Ressler, and Ressler sounds committed to maintaining the status quo by keeping Millsap. It’s now Schlenk’s job to execute that vision or convince his boss to approve a different direction.

Potential none-and-done first-rounder Hamidou Diallo returning to Kentucky

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The more I’ve looked into the 2017 NBA draft, the less impressed I’ve become. There are a few bright spots in the first round relative to an average draft – No. 2, 5ish-10ish, 17ish-22ish – but I’m not convinced this is the generationally strong draft it has been touted as.

In the absence of prospects who offer secure promise, why not turn to upside? Hamidou Diallo offered plenty and was increasingly viewed as a first-rounder.

Yet, he’ll return to Kentucky for his freshman season.

Diallo:

A highly ranked recruit, Diallo began last school year at a prep school then enrolled at Kentucky for the spring semester. He practiced with the Wildcats, but never played.

Then, he went to the combine and posted excellent measurables: 6-foot-5, 6-foot-11 wingspan, 44.5-inch vertical and strong agility and sprint scores. Just 18, Diallo might have been the second-youngest player drafted this year (behind only Ike Anigbogu).

It wouldn’t have taken long – likely somewhere in the middle of the first round – for a team to bite on all that potential.

Instead, Diallo returns to Kentucky and must now show his ability to actually produce in basketball games. If he does, there’s no limit on how high he goes in the 2018 NBA draft. If he doesn’t, he’ll regret missing the opportunity to get drafted before his game got picked apart.

Report: Bulls expect Dwyane Wade to opt in

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Dwyane Wade said he wants to see the Bulls’ plan for Jimmy Butler and the rest of the roster before deciding on a $23.8 million player option for next season.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

I can tell you is most everyone associated with the Bulls believes Wade will pick up the option and remain in Chicago for a second season. More surprising things have happened in league history, though. So stay tuned.

This could be a tell that Wade will opt in. The Bulls could obviously be positioned to base their prediction on inside information into Wade’s thinking.

This could a tell the Bulls won’t trade Butler. If they know they’ll keep Butler, they can extrapolate what that’d mean for Wade.

Or the Bulls, like so many of us, just assume a 35-year-old Wade won’t turn down so much guaranteed money at this stage of his career.