Ricky Rubio impresses in first game back with Timberwolves, an overtime win over Dallas

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Ricky Rubio returned to the Minnesota Timberwolves lineup on Saturday, his first game action since tearing two knee ligaments last March.

In his first stint back, it was as though he never left.

Rubio was dazzling in his relatively brief appearance, and his mere presence brought an energy to the game that the Mavericks, over the course of the evening, were largely unable to match. After trailing by as many as 13 early, Minnesota got the overtime victory 114-106, to improve to 12-9 on the season.

Rubio was on a minutes limit, and was targeting playing 16-18 minutes in his return. T’Wolves head coach Rick Adelman spaced out Rubio’s minutes to perfection, choosing to bring him off the bench both late in the first quarter, and then again at the 4:37 mark of the third.

He even saved a couple of minutes just in case they were needed, which they were down the stretch as Dallas made a furious comeback to send the game into overtime, an extra session that Rubio was forced to watch from the bench.

Rubio’s final statistical line on the night wasn’t all that impressive — eight points, nine assists, three steals, and two turnovers in 18 minutes of action. Believe it or not, the assist numbers could have been much higher. Rubio had several passes that were right on target to open teammates who ended up with spectacular looks, but simply couldn’t finish.

The impact Rubio had on this game, however, went far beyond the box score.

When he checked in late in the first quarter to a wild ovation from the crowd, his team hadn’t yet found any flow, and was trailing by 10. The array of lobs, behind-the-back passes, and even one through a defender’s legs energized the building, and by the time he checked out at the 6:16 mark of the second, the Mavericks lead was down to two, and was erased entirely by a three-pointer from Alexey Shved on the very next possession.

The court vision that Rubio possesses is a rare gift, and one that’s on display from the moment he steps on the floor, no matter how long it’s been since he’s done so. The passes are almost always delivered with laser-accuracy, right on time, and to teammates that have to either be fouled or botch the play entirely for the ball not to end up going through the basket.

It wasn’t all perfect for Rubio on this night; he fouled Derek Fisher a couple of times down the stretch that gave Dallas unguarded points from the free throw line needlessly, and missed an open look from three-point distance with three seconds left that would have been the game-winner.

But that would have been too perfect an ending.

It was more than enough that he was finally back at all, and was able to showcase the energy, vision and flair that we saw from him a season ago in his very first game back.

Called out by LeBron James, reporter Kenny Roda defends himself

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LeBron James reacted to the Cavaliers’ Game 3 loss to the Celtics by jawing with a fan and saying he was glad Cleveland lost.

The peculiarities didn’t end there.

LeBron called out Kenny Roda of WHBC for asking a question.

For full context, the earlier times LeBron addressed his individual performance and both of Roda’s questions are included in the above video. So is the funny look LeBron shot someone (Roda?) after the press conference. Here’s the noteworthy exchange:

  • Roda: “For you, you said it was just your game. Couldn’t get into a rhythm tonight, is that what it was? Based on their defense or just not feeling it or or what?”
  • LeBron: “Nah, I was just pretty poor. I mean, what do you want me to say? It sees like you only ask questions when we lose. It’s a weird thing with you, Kenny. You always come around when we lose, I swear. Yeah, OK.”

Roda:

“You cover us only when we lose” is a too-common complaint in high school sports. It’s odd to see LeBron employ it, though saying Roda asks questions only when the Cavs lose is a wrinkle that adds plausibility to LeBron’s claim. Still, it’s tough to believe.

Even if LeBron is right that Roda asks questions only when Cleveland loses, so what? Asking a question isn’t a sign Roda is happy the team lost or is trying to rub it in. Players tend to be testier after losses (case in point), and asking question then can be more difficult. If Roda puts himself out there after only losses, kudos to him.

LeBron’s struggles were the dominant storyline in Game 3. Getting him to expand on what went wrong was a worthy goal. Roda’s question probably wasn’t distinctive enough to get more out of LeBron after his first two responses about his performance, but the inquiry was on the right path. Asking a vague question on a topic already covered vaguely is only a minor offense.

LeBron understands the media better than most. This was a weird time to pick a public battle, which makes me think this was more frustration than ploy.

Stephen Curry: Dewayne Dedmon’s screen was ‘dirty play’ (video)

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Late in the Warriors’ Game 3 win over the Spurs on Saturday, San Antonio center Dewayne Dedmon appeared to initiate knee-to-knee contact on a screen of Stephen Curry.

Curry, via Chris Haynes of ESPN:

“I know he’s not a dirty player. I’m not going to try to mess up his reputation, but I feel like that was a dirty play,” Curry responded to ESPN. “Luckily no one was hurt.”

Golden State is clearly trying to gain equal footing in the dirty debate after Zaza Pachulia injured Kawhi Leonard – and gain the moral high ground by not calling a player dirty and bringing the consequences that invites.

But this isn’t the same as Pachulia’s double-slide closeout under a fading shooter.

It’s much easier to assign intent when watching in slow motion. Innocuous actions tend to look deliberate when viewed at partial speed, because we subconsciously believe players process their movements at the same rate we process their movements – but slow motion gives us an advantage.

Dedmon’s screen was probably illegal, but dirty? I’m not sure. I don’t know his intent, but executing that move intending to injure Curry would require incredible precision. Maybe Dedmon tries that often, usually misses and just happened to strike here. But I don’t see enough to assume this was a dirty play

LeBron James on Cavaliers’ Game 3 loss to Celtics: ‘I’m glad it kind of happened the way it did’

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After two dominant wins in Boston, the Cavaliers appeared on track to cruise into the NBA Finals.

Cleveland responded by getting upset by the Celtics at home in historic fashion.

LeBron James struggled in Game 3, and he even verbally sparred with a fan after the game. But he didn’t sound completely dismayed by the situation.

LeBron:

We’ve got to be a lot better. It’s the postseason. You win some, and you lose a couple maybe. But you want to – how can you be better from game to game? Like I said, they was better today than we were, and we have to figure out a way to be better than them in Game 4.

But we look forward to the challenge. I think it’s great. What happened, I mean, it hurts. It’s a loss in the postseason. But I’m glad it kind of happened the way it did. Let our foot off the gas a little, didn’t keep the pressure on them like we’ve been accustomed to.

But we have to play a lot better. We have to play a lot better in Game 4.

It’s odd to hear a player say he’s glad to lose, especially in the playoffs. But LeBron has a history of strange comments following postseason losses. This wasn’t a season-ender, but but he was so out of sorts last night.

He’s also probably right. It’s better for the Cavaliers, now 9-1 in the playoffs, to experience overcoming a postseason loss now rather than in the NBA Finals. Still up 2-1 on Boston and the better team, the Cavs have the luxury of learning lessons without significant fear they’ll lose the series.

2017 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Is Markelle Fultz really worth the No. 1 pick?

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
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Markelle Fultz is the best prospect in the 2017 NBA Draft, which is not exactly something that you would’ve seen coming had you known him as a sophomore in high school.

That was the year that Fultz failed to make the varsity team at DeMatha (Md.), one of the nation’s best high school basketball programs. From there, he developed not only into a point guard, but into one of the nation’s best high school players, eventually landing in the postseason all-star games and on the Team USA U-18 roster that competed in the FIBA Americas event.

Fultz committed to Lorenzo Romar early in the process and maintained that commitment, even as he watched a Washington team that failed to make the NCAA tournament lose Andrew Andrews to graduation and Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray to the NBA Draft. As a result, and in spite of the fact that Fultz was putting up insane numbers, the Huskies couldn’t even crack 10 wins with Fultz at the helm, and it eventually cost Lorenzo Romar his job despite the fact that the favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Michael Porter Jr., had already signed to play for him.

How will NBA teams weigh that?

Fultz put up ridiculous numbers, but he did it on a team that was the laughing stock of the Pac-12 come February. Is that guy worth the pick?

Height: 6′4″
Weight: 185
Wingspan: 6′10″
2016-17 Stats: 23.2 points, 5.7 boards, 5.9 assists, 41.3% 3PT

STRENGTHS: Fultz is an unbelievably well-rounded offensive player. I’m not sure what there is that he can’t do on that end of the floor. He shot 41.3 percent from beyond the arc last year and better than 50 percent inside the arc. At 6-foot-4, he’s big enough — and physical enough — to take smaller defenders into the post and score in the paint or simply shoot over the top of them off the dribble, and he does so effectively. His 6-foot-10 wingspan, huge hands and explosion on the move means that he can finish in traffic, whether it be with a dunk over a defender — his extension in the lane is reminiscent of Kawhi Leonard — or a finish around the shot-blocker; Fultz has terrific body control, and when combined with his length, allows him to finish contested layups at weird angles.

He’s more than just a scorer, however, as he averaged 5.9 assists last season with a higher assist rate (35.4 vs. 31.4) and lower turnover rate (15.4 vs. 18.9) than Lonzo Ball. That’s startling efficiency considering that he played such a major role on a team with so few options around him. Since 2012, only six guards have bettered his usage rate and offensive rating: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Nate Wolters, Erick Green, Kay Felder and Jawun Evans.

Fultz is excellent leading the break in transition but may be even better operating in ball-screen actions — according to Synergy, more than 30 percent of his possessions came in the pick and roll last season, and he averaged 1.011 points-per-possession, which was in the 93rd percentile nationally. He is patient, he’s ruthless if you switch a bigger defender onto him and he has terrific vision, whether it’s driving and drawing a help defender, finding the screener rolling to the rim or popping for a jumper or spotting an open shooter on the weak side of the floor.

Ideally, that’s the role that Fultz would play in the NBA, as a ball-dominant lead guard in the mold of a James Harden or Russell Westbrook or John Wall.

But Fultz is also big enough and long enough to share a back court with a smaller guard — Isaiah Thomas? — because he will be able to defend shooting guards. He’s also a good enough shooter that he would be able to play off the ball offensively in that same scenario, meaning that he not only has the ceiling to be a new-age franchise lead guard in the NBA, he has the potential to be a multi-positional defender.

In theory, he’s everything NBA teams are looking for.

WEAKNESSES: The biggest concern with Fultz is on the defensive end of the floor. While he has the tools to be a plus-defender and has shown the ability to be a playmaker on that end — he averaged 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks, many of which were of the chasedown variety — but it was his half court defense that was a concern.

In a word, he was far too lackadaisical on that end of the floor. Whether it was being late on a rotation, getting beat on a close out because his feet were wrong, getting hung up on a screen, switching when he shouldn’t because he didn’t want to chase a player around a screen, failing to sit down in a defensive stance, etc., it’s not difficult to watch tape and find examples of the mistakes that Fultz made. How much of that was playing on a bad team for a coach that didn’t hold him accountable defensively, and how much of that is who Fultz is as a player?

To be frank, my gut says it was more of the former than the latter, but there also is a concern that Fultz’ approach to the game is too casual. He’s the kind of player that needs to grow into a game as opposed to being a guy that takes games over from the jump, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a guy who projects as a lead guard and a distributor.

The bigger issue with Fultz is that he lacks initial burst off the dribble and there are questions about whether or not he can turn the corner against NBA defenders. His game is awkward when you watch him, but that’s because he has this uncanny ability to get defenders off balance. Hesitation moves, hang-dribble pull-ups, splitting the pick-and-roll, euro-steps in traffic. Some might call it crafty or slippery, but the bottom-line is this: Fultz is able to get by defenders because he has them leaning the wrong direction, and once he gets a step on you, his length — both his strides and his extension — make it impossible to catch up.

But he’s not a Russell Westbrook or a John Wall in the sense that he’ll be able to get by any defender simply due to his explosiveness, and that is where the questions about his jumper come into play. If Fultz is going to consistently be able to get to the rim, that jumper is going to have to be a threat, because Fultz’s arsenal won’t be as effective if defenders can play off of him.

On the season, his shooting numbers were impressive, but those percentages took a dip against better competition and on possessions where he was guarded (1.020 PPP, 57th percentile) vs. unguarded (1.636 PPP, 94th percentile), although that may be a result of being on a team that had no other option for offense.

Put another way, Fultz is a tough-shot maker, and there is reason to wonder if he’ll be able to make those tough shots against NBA defenders.

Markelle Fultz is defended by Lonzo Ball (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

NBA COMPARISON: There really isn’t a perfect comparison for what Fultz could end up being as an NBA player. James Harden is probably the most apt considering that they are roughly the same size with the same physical dimensions, they both are ball-dominant scorers that can see the floor, they both likely needed a smaller guard in the back court with them because, despite their physical tools, they both lack that mean streak defensively.

But comparing any rookie to a guy that could end up being the NBA MVP after a season where he averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 boards is probably unfair. Perhaps D'Angelo Russell is more fitting, at least in the sense that it limits some of the expectations.

Whatever the case may be, if Fultz reaches his ceiling, he’ll be a franchise lead guard that has an entire offensive built around him. If he decides that he wants to play on the defensive end of the floor as well, he could one day be a top five player in the league.

OUTLOOK: Fultz has the potential to be the face of a franchise at the lead guard spot. His skill-set — the scoring, the ability to operate in pick-and-rolls, the efficiency — and ability makes it easy to picture him one day ending up playing a role similar to that of Harden or Westbrook or Wall. At the same time, I find it hard to envision a world where Fultz doesn’t one day end up averaging 20 points and six assists. It’s hard not to love a prospect where their floor is a bigger, more athletic D’angelo Russell.

When a player has the least risk and the highest ceiling of anyone in a draft class, it’s no wonder they end up being the consensus pick to go No. 1.