Lionel Hollins points to favorable schedule as the reason for the Grizzlies’ strong start

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PHOENIX — Reality has set in on the Memphis Grizzlies recently. But that doesn’t negate the team’s stronger-than-expected start.

After a loss in Phoenix on Wednesday to a Suns club that had dropped seven straight coming in, Memphis has now posted just two wins against three losses over its last five games. This may be closer to the true Grizzlies team that we will see over the course of the season, but they did open with a blistering record of 13-2, with quality wins over the Heat, Knicks, and Lakers during that stretch.

Before facing the Suns on Wednesday, I asked Hollins what he believed was the reason for his team’s early-season success. He clearly wasn’t overly excited about it, and was fairly logical in concluding that a favorable schedule was as much a reason for piling up those wins as was anything else.

“We won a few games against some really good teams that we didn’t do the year before,” he said. “I think our schedule was similar, except for the number of road games. In the past we’ve had 11 out of 14 on the road, and we played all of those teams on the road. This year we’ve had most of the good teams [at home] — except for the Clippers and Oklahoma City and San Antonio. We beat Miami at home, New York at home, the Lakers at home. It’s always nice to be at home.

“I think that we haven’t played a lot of back-to-backs; we’ve had a couple of back-to-backs, and we haven’t fared well in them so far. The schedule’s been very favorable.”

Memphis has only had three back-to-back sets thus far, and has won only once in that situation, on Nov. 17 at Charlotte.

Hollins is measured in his optimism because he’s well aware that early-season wins don’t translate to playoff success. Too many things can happen over the course of the year — including injuries, as Memphis was forced to deal with last season that affected its chance at a higher seed in the playoffs, and along with it, a lesser first round opponent.

The Grizzlies do have the league’s top-ranked defense right now in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions, and if that remains constant, good things will happen. But Hollins knows there’s plenty of room for improvement, and that there are simply too many factors at play for him to be idealistic about his team’s chances, especially with so much of the season’s games still remaining to be played.

“I don’t think we’ve played great every game by any stretch, but no team does,” he said. “What we want to do is continue to win, and get in a rhythm going toward the playoffs that lends itself to being successful. If we’re not playing well at the end of the year, we’re probably not going to be successful in the playoffs. But if we get to the point where we’re playing well, like we have in the past, things bode well.

“And then, you’ve got to have the right matchup.”

LaVar Ball confronts wrestler at WWE event (video)

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LaVar Ball has brought his Big Baller Brand from the basketball court to the wrestling ring.

The outspoken father of NBA draft No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball showed up with the newly minted Los Angeles Laker and another son, 15-year-old LaMelo, for a live segment on Monday’s “WWE Raw” at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

During the segment, LaMelo Ball twice used the n-word, which was broadcast over the air. WWE says in a statement to the Los Angeles Times that the language “was not scripted nor reflects WWE’s values.”

For LaVar Ball’s appearance, the ring was decorated with mannequins displaying his Big Baller Brand clothing line. He got in a heated confrontation with WWE wrestler The Miz, and took his shirt off to cheers from the crowd.

Bulls, with Michael Carter-Williams, first team to decline extending qualifying offer to Rookie of the Year

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Just four years ago, Michael Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year.

Now, the Bulls don’t even see a $4,187,599 qualifying offer as worth extending.

David Kaplan of CSN Chicago:

Credit Sam Hinkie for trading Carter-Williams (to the Bucks) at just the right moment, netting the 76ers a valuable Lakers first-round pick that Philadelphia used to trade up for Markelle Fultz. Carter-Williams hasn’t nearly lived up to the typical production of a former Rookie of the Year.

The Bulls got Carter-Williams far cheaper from Milwaukee, for Tony Snell (who had a breakout year with the Bucks). But Carter-Williams continued to regress in Chicago. It’s just hard for a point guard with such a shaky outside shot, and Carter-Williams’ injuries haven’t helped.

With a smorgasbord of point guards that now includes Kris Dunn and Cameron Payne, the Bulls can move on.

Carter-Williams can probably latch on as a backup point guard somewhere. As an unrestricted free agent, teams will have greater comfort pursuing him. But this is a blow for someone with such a big accolade on his résumé.

Celtics’ reported plan: Sign Gordon Hayward, trade for Paul George

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The Celtics are trying to sign Gordon Hayward.

They want to trade for Paul George.

It seems those goals are not mutually exclusive.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

The Boston Celtics are pursuing an aggressive summer plan of sequencing the signing of free agent Gordon Hayward and relinquishing the assets needed to complete a trade for Paul George, league sources told The Vertical.

For salary-cap purposes, Boston wants a Hayward commitment before it can finalize a trade for George and secure the most dynamic free-agent coup in franchise history, league sources said.

For Boston, here’s the hitch: While Indiana believes Boston can offer the best possible package, the Pacers may be unwilling to wait until the start of July free agency on Boston’s timetable and could turn toward making a deal elsewhere for George, league sources told The Vertical.

The Celtics can clear cap space to sign Hayward. They have the ammo to trade for George. They could do both.

But, as covered before, there’s probably not a path to signing Hayward and extending George’s contract.

So, how much would Boston surrender for George on an expiring contract? The risk he walks in a year, particularly for the Lakers, should lower the Celtics’ offer.

Still, Boston could trade for the Pacers star and roll the dice on re-signing him. Playing with Hayward – and Isaiah Thomas and whichever other players the Celtics keep in this arrangement – would be pretty appealing.

Rumor: LeBron James would ‘never’ join Clippers

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The Clippers hired Jerry West, in part, to help lure LeBron James.

But even with LeBron-to-Los Angeles (Clippers or Lakers) rumors swirling, that plan might not even get off the ground.

Mike Wise of The Undefeated on Freddie and Fritz:

I’m going to give you something on this show, and this is breaking news. Nobody else is going to have it.

I got from a very good authority – a very good authority – that LeBron James will never be a Clipper. I can’t tell you who, but I’m going to tell you it’s somebody that knows, and LeBron James will never be a Clipper. I don’t know if that’s because he remembers what the Clippers used to be, or he just doesn’t want to put his lot in there, or he thinks Steve Ballmer is just too animated on the sideline.

He’s never going to be a Clipper. I’m just telling people right now, for your edification. I’m breaking this on the Freddie Coleman and Fitz show.

I don’t believe in “never” in situations like this. As Jerry Seinfeld would say, teams are just laundry. The Clippers can change owners, general managers, coaches, players. LeBron would remain absolutely opposed to joining?

Maybe, but I won’t go that far without knowing his reason for resisting the Clippers. A lot can change between now and 2018, when LeBron can opt out.

One of the Clippers’ biggest selling points was always going to be Chris Paul, LeBron’s close friend. Reading the tea leaves, maybe this is a sign Paul will leave this summer – for the Spurs, Rockets or somewhere else.