Top 10 most interesting NBA free agents to watch

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Lockout? You mean those months last year we didn’t have basketball as owners fought to put constraints on themselves because when it comes time to bid for free agents they don’t trust themselves to be rational?

What lockout? Less than 48 hours into the 2012 summer free agent frenzy owner rationality has gone the way of the Dodo. They are once again throwing money around like they are buying hotels to put on Broadway and Park Place. Unless you thought Omer Asik is totally worth $25 million.

Here are the top 10 most interesting free agents to watch this summer. These are not just the 10 best players on the market, but rather the guys who will make owners forget everything they said during the lockout. The guys it will be fun to watch. There is no Tim Duncan on here — he’s a free agent but he will re-sign with the Spurs. Smart, but not interesting. Below are the guys who make free agency fun.

1) Deron Williams. Part of the fun of following free agents is the “anything can happen” factor. Not here. It’s Brooklyn or Dallas. But he is on top of the list because he is the best player available this year — there are maybe 10 true franchise players in the NBA and he is one. You can build a contender around him. He will radically alter the situation of the team that gets him and the team that doesn’t.

2) Eric Gordon. He is a restricted free agent — the Hornets can, and if they are smart will, match any offer for him. But he is meeting with everyone — Pacers, Rockets, Suns, Blazers — trying to get someone to offer him a max deal (four years, $84 million). We’ll see. He’s the best young two guard in the league and if a team is looking to steal Gordon a max offer is what it may take.

3) Steve Nash. Yes he is 36 years old and has had long-term back issues. But he remains one of the best pure point guards in the game, a master of the pick-and-roll. On the right team he can take them from good to great. A guy who sells tickets, who brings in sponsors. The bar has been set — Toronto offered $12 million a year for three years. The Knicks and other teams are trying to find sign-and-trade deals that will get near that number and lure Nash to a better team.

4) O.J. Mayo. He’s interesting to watch because he’s a two guard who can score but is a guy who wants a bigger role than the one he had in Memphis as option number three, or four, at times five. While a lot of guys on this list want to go to contenders, if Mayo does that he will be in the same spot. The Celtics are interested, as are the Nets and Suns. Wherever he lands the new start should do him good.

5) Roy Hibbert. How valuable is an All-Star center? The Trail Blazers have reportedly already offered the young All-Star center a max deal. True quality centers are hard to come by and come at a price. The only question is will the Pacers match it? My question is how do they not? They are average without him.

6) Ray Allen. He will turn 37 next month, but one of the best pure shooters the game has ever seen can still do what he does best — he shot 45 percent from three last year. Boston has reportedly offered him $6 million a year to come back. The Miami Heat have made him a priority but can offer only half that — but they are much closer to a ring than the Celtics. Especially if they have Allen (you saw in Game 5 of the finals what the Heat look like when guys knock down threes around LeBron and Wade). So, what matters most to Ray Allen?

7) Jason Terry. The veteran two guard can light it up as a starter or coming off the bench. Pretty much every team that needs a shooting guard has come calling — the Clippers, the Celtics (although they have one in Avery Bradley), Grizzlies and Suns that we know of. Terry’s people reportedly told the Mavericks they would be given the option to match any offer and keep him, but how much does a retooling Mavericks team want to spend on him? Look for him to get about $5 million a year for three years (he is 34).

8) Jamal Crawford. If Jamal Crawford can find his stroke from a couple years ago when he was Sixth Man of the Year he brings another very valuable two guard to the market. The 76ers, Suns, Clippers, Celtics and Pacers have all reached out in the opening day of free agency. Crawford opted out of a $5 million deal for next season with the Blazers, he’s going to want more than that and more years.

9) Jameer Nelson. Orlando is focused on trading their best player away and trying to jump-start the rebuilding process there. But they are also about to lose their second best player to free agency in Nelson, a quality point guard. Nelson walked away from $8 million next season to hit the market, he likely will not make that much per year but can get a multi-year deal and some security. The Lakers have expressed interest, but they can’t offer much ($3 million a year for three years). Nelson is the guy a lot of teams will turn to second or third, after they lose out on guys like Nash and Williams. If Nelson is patient, the market will come to him.

10) Ersan Ilysova. Not a household NBA name but the best stretch four on the market — he shot 45.5 percent from three last season and grabbed 8.8 boards per game. In the right system he has real value. The Bucks may want to keep him if they are smart, but the Spurs, Cavaliers, Raptors and Nets reportedly all have some interest. The Spurs are a very interesting fit for him. But we’ll have to see about the money.

Rockets easily overcome James Harden’s horrid shooting night, win Game 2 over Timberwolves

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James Harden shot 2-for-18 – the worst field-goal percentage (11%) on so many attempts in a playoff game in nearly a decade and the worst ever in a first-round game.

The Rockets still won by 20 because of their stout defense, a strong supporting star in Chris Paul and Harden’s foul-drawing ability.

Houston’s took a 2-0 series lead with a 102-82 win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday. Game 3 will be Saturday in Minnesota, but the top-seeded Rockets have seized firm control.

Every No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seed to take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven first-round series have won it. There’s little reason to believe Houston will become the exception.

The Rockets are no longer as reliant on Harden, the likely MVP who seemed to wear down last postseason.

They buckled down defensively before letting up in a fourth quarter that was entirely garbage time. Houston forced more turnovers (16) than allowed assists (15) and contested shot after shot.

It’s becoming increasingly clear the Timberwolves have no quick solution to the Karl-Anthony Towns problem, and it’s not simply a matter of deciding to feed him more. Yes, he can get favorable post matchups against the Rockets’ switching scheme. But Minnesota lacks quality entry passers. The Timberwolves are also short on shooters and need him to spread the floor – even if that skill is less-helpful after a switch. Towns scored just five points in 24 minutes tonight.

His teammates were barely, if at all, better. The focus has turned to Towns, but this was a far-wider letdown.

On the other hand, Paul (27 points and eight assists) led Houston’s offense. Gerald Green (21 points and 12 rebounds) got hot. Even Harden (7-of-8 on free throws) chipped in thanks to his elite foul-drawing ability.

The Rockets aren’t always the most enjoyable team to watch, and that was the case tonight. Mostly, because they put this game out of reach long before it actually ended.

Donovan Mitchell outplays Thunder Big 3 in fourth, Jazz win to even series

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Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell had 13 points in the fourth quarter.

Oklahoma City’s big three — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony — were 0-of-15 shooting in the fourth.

That, in a nutshell, is how the Jazz bounced back from a 19-0 Thunder run in the third quarter that had OKC in charge of the game. It’s how Utah got the win Game 2 win, 102-95, to even the series as it heads to Salt Lake City.

“There was a time out (after the OKC run) where there was a just a determination, and we felt like we would rely on our defense, and that’s what we did,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “Donovan, obviously, his aggressiveness on the offensive end fueled us there.”

It was what fueled them all night. In Game 2, the Jazz defense was more settled and like itself than the opener, and that forced more isolation ball out of Oklahoma City — they had eight assists and nine turnovers in the first half. The Thunder were still getting buckets because Playoff P and Westbrook are just great scorers, but it wasn’t nearly as efficient as it had been.

For the Thunder, it was often the Russell Westbrook show, and he was scoreless in the second quarter and had just a couple of free throws in the fourth.

All of that made this a game it felt like the Jazz needed to win — there are few chances to steal a game on the road against a good team, and this was one. The game was defensive and played in Utah’s style.

Which is why it was devastating when the Thunder had their 19-0 third quarter run, turning a deficit into a 10-point lead. In that stretch, the Jazz missed shots, took a few bad ones, and turned the ball over in that run. Mitchell even missed an uncontested dunk in there.

When Mitchell struggled, other guys stepped up.

Derrick Favors had a huge game for Utah, finishing with 20 points and 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive. He was particularly impressive in the first half, when Mitchell struggled (with George draped all over him). Utah had nine offensive rebounds in the first half, six of those by Favors. Utah’s dominance on the glass was big for them, Utah got a second chance on 37.5 percent of their missed shots in the first half, which is far too high a percentage. Steven Adams battling foul trouble had a lot to do with that.

“The biggest thing for us, Derrick Favors played his ass off,” Mitchell said after the game. “When we were missing shots he was getting rebounds, I think he had a double-double almost at the half [note: he had 10 points, 8 rebounds at the half]. Without Fav we wouldn’t even be at this point.”

The other key was Ricky Rubio. He was being more judicious about when to shoot and was looking to set up teammates. However, when left open and able to shoot in rhythm, Rubio was hitting, he was 5-of-8 from three on his way to 22 points and nine assists. Rubio struggled with his shot inside the arc (1-of-8) but he hit the big buckets and kept the floor spaced when asked. he had seven fourth-quarter points.

But the fourth belonged to Mitchell, who showed exactly what he meant to this team all season — they are not in the postseason without him. Mitchell finished with 28 points to lead the Jazz.

For the Thunder, the shots that fell in Game 1 did not in Game 2, much as it has been night to night for this team all season. George had 18 points on 21 shots, Anthony had 17 points on 18 shots, and Westbrook had 19 points on 19 shots. Combine that with Adams being in foul trouble most of the night and it was not the Thunder’s game.

Now the onus is on them to steal one in Utah, starting Friday night.

LeBron James starts hot, scores 46 in Cavaliers’ Game 2 win over Pacers

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LeBron James attempted no shots in the first 10 minutes of Game 1.

Less than half that long into Game 2, he scored all of the Cavaliers’ points as they built a 16-1 lead over the Pacers.

LeBron dominated early, and Cleveland held on for a 100-97 Game 2 win Wednesday. The first-round series is now tied 1-1 with Game 3 Friday in Indiana.

LeBron finished with 46 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two steals. It was his highest-scoring playoff game in his second Cavs tenure.

More than any point since he left Cleveland for the Heat, LeBron’s team is built for him to carry it singlehandedly. He was obviously always the leader and best player, but at times, he could let Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving cook. Now, LeBron has no teammates worth deferring to – only teammates who can flourish when LeBron positions them to succeed.

LeBron showed a willingness to accept that challenge tonight in a way he didn’t even in Game 1, when he had a triple-double. That bodes well for the Cavaliers as they undertake what they hope will be a long playoff run – and maybe even as they approach LeBron’s free agency.

But as well as LeBron played tonight, the Pacers battled back. Victor Oladipo missed a game-tying 3-pointer with 27 seconds left after Cleveland blew its coverage and left him open.

“We got lucky,” LeBron said. “We gave up a wide-open 3 to Oladipo, and he missed it. I’d rather be on time and on target than being lucky.”

Cleveland was also fortunate with Pacers coach Nate McMillan’s handling of Victor Oladipo’s early foul trouble.

McMillan sat Oladipo just more than a minute into the game. Oladipo picked up two quick fouls, but both were offensive – more fluky than indicative of a problem. During the regular season, Oladipo committed four fouls (necessary at that point to foul out tonight) every 58 minutes he played. Oladipo returned in the second quarter but got pulled again midway through the period with a third foul, a questionable call as Kevin Love jumped sideways into him on a shot. Oladipo committed three fouls (necessary at that point to foul out) every 44 minutes during the regular season.

Oladipo finished with three fouls. Indiana was +11 points in his 28 minutes and -14 points in the 20 minutes he sat.

That could bode well for the Pacers going forward. Many of the Cavs’ advantages tonight might not continue throughout the series. In particular, Kevin Love left the game late with a thumb injury.

But Cleveland’s biggest advantage remains: LeBron James. He showed tonight just how much that still matters.

Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin, dies

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The Spurs may be in the playoffs, but all of that takes a backseat now for Gregg Popovich.

Spurs:

With deep regret the San Antonio Spurs announce that Erin Popovich, wife of Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich, passed away earlier today. Erin and Gregg were married for four decades and were blessed with two children and two grandchildren.

“We mourn the loss of Erin,” said Spurs General Manager RC Buford. “She was a strong, wonderful, kind, intelligent woman who provided love, support and humor to all of us.”

The organization asks media to respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

What devastating news. Hopefully, Popovich had time to make peace with this eventuality, but that doesn’t make it easy to handle.