Baseline-to-Baseline recaps: Clippers dust off what’s left of the Knicks

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Welcome to PBT’s roundup of yesterday’s NBA games. Or, what you missed while making the case for the 68th team, the one left out of the NCAA Tournament, because they really had a shot to win it all….

Heat 108, Raptors 91: The Heat tied the second longest winning streak in NBA history with this win over Toronto. (Interesting test against Boston on the second night of a back-to-back Monday.) LeBron James (22 points) and Dwyane Wade (24 points) led a business-like win for Miami. Rudy Gay stepped up his game with 27, but it was never really in doubt. Brett Pollakoff broke the game down in more detail.

Clippers 93, Knicks 80: No Carmelo Anthony (knee). No Tyson Chandler (knee). No Amare Stoudemire (knee). No real chance for the Knicks to score enough to keep up with the Clippers on Sunday so long as Chris Paul was focused and aggressive. Which really didn’t happen until the third quarter when the Clippers went on a 16-3 run to pull away. J.R. Smith tried to create some magic for the Knicks but shot 4-of-20 on the night.

It was a win the Clippers needed to keep pace with Memphis and Denver, and they got it, but it wasn’t really dominating or impressive.

Lakers 113, Kings 102: Since Pau Gasol was traded to the Los Angeles in 2008, the Lakers had yet to win a game where both he and Kobe Bryant sat out. That changed Sunday. In part because Steve Nash had 19 points (on 12 shots) plus 12 assists. And it was in part because Dwight Howard had 12 points (on six shots) and 17 rebounds. But for once the Lakers got balance. They got 27 points out of Antawn Jamison off the bench. They got 16 points from Steve Blake including a key play down the stretch when the Kings made a run and made it a two-point game. It was a good team win for the Lakers. Who need wins as they try to hold on to a playoff spot in the West. Isaiah Thomas had 26 for the Kings and Patrick Patterson had 22 on 12 shots.

Warriors 108, Rockets 78: The Rockets had a chance to move into the six seed in the West — you’d like to avoid the Thunder or Spurs in the first round — but their offense took a night off. The Rockets fell behind when they missed 12 consecutive shots in the first quarter (they shot 3-for-23 in the first 12 minutes) and that was pretty much it. Give the Warriors some credit — they played some better defense with Andrew Bogut blocking three shots and grabbing 12 boards. But the Rockets just had one of those nights. Stephen Curry had 29 points and 11 assists; Klay Thompson added 26 points on 10-for-18 shooting. James Harden put up a good line with 21 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

Thunder 107, Mavericks 101: Kevin Durant had 19 points in the fourth quarter, while Dirk Nowitzki didn’t have a shot attempt in the fourth. In a back-and-forth final stanza that was enough, the Thunder got big games from their stars For three quarters it was really Russell Westbrook (35 points) and Dirk Nowitzki (23 points) leading their teams. But in the fourth Nowitzki got just four free throws while Durant took charge (although Westbrook had a key late bucket, a pull up jumper with the game tied 101-101; then later Thabo Sefolosha hit a bit shot). Bottom line is teams can take Nowitzki out of the Mavs game plan and Dallas doesn’t have anyone who can step up now.

Hawks 105, Nets 93: In what could be a first round preview, the Nets were close for three quarters, but in the fourth the Hawks shot 14-for-18 as a team and pulled away for the victory. The win puts the Hawks one game back of the Nets for the four seed (but 2.5 games separate the 3 and 7 seeds in the East, we could see a lot of shifting late. The Nets had no answer for the Hawks versatile front line — Al Horford had 22 points and 11 rebounds, Josh Smith had 21 points (eight in the fourth quarter), plus seven rebounds and five assists.

Bucks 115, Magic 109: The Bucks trailed in this one by a dozen with just over six minutes left in the game, but Monta Ellis was on fire with 25 fourth-quarter points and he got the Bucks the win. He was 5-of-5 from three in the quarter. But let’s throw a little credit to Brandon Jennings, who had eight of his 14 assists in the fourth quarter. It was a good comeback win for the Bucks, but the fact they needed one against the Magic speaks to the larger issue.

Timberwolves 97, Hornets 95: Minnesota got Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko back from injury on Sunday and it helped a lot in the final minutes of a close game — Pekovic had a key offensive rebound and knocked down a couple free throws while Kirilenko blocked Eric Gordon’s shot to win it for Minnesota. Derrick Williams had 28 to lead Minny. Greivis Vasquez led the Hornets with 25 points, but when you need 25 shots to get there it’s not a good night.

Report: Dennis Smith Jr., Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo and Larry Nance Jr. to compete in dunk contest

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. already looked like he was competing in the dunk contest.

Apparently, he’ll put those skills to use in the real thing.

And so will Aaron Gordon (Magic), Victor Oladipo (Pacers) and Larry Nance Jr. (Lakers).

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Oliver Maroney of Uproxx:

The number of contestants in the dunk contest has varied, but it’s been four the last few years. So, this might be the entire field – and it’d be a strong one.

Gordon narrowly lost to Zach LaVine in an epic dunk contest a couple years ago. Oladipo brings star power, as he’ll probably play in the actual All-Star game. Nance has the pedigree, and I bet he involves his dad – who won the NBA’s first dunk contest in 1984 – in a dunk. Smith is the young up-and-comer with the first platform to prove himself nationally.

I can’t wait.

Nuggets struck gold by drafting Nikola Jokic in second round. Now what?

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DETROIT – Asked whether he’s becoming a leader on the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic shook his head then turned to Gary Harris in the adjoining locker.

“Do you think I’m a leader?” Jokic asked.

“Who?” Harris responded.

“Me,” Jokic said.

“No,” Harris said.

“See,” Jokic said, turning back to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

It’s not entirely clear whether Jokic is serious or showing the self-deprecating humor of someone nicknamed The Joker.

Denver is trying to be patient with Jokic – a 22-year-old former second-round pick – but his production and contract status demand his ascent be expedited.

Jokic has arguably been the Nuggets’ best player every season of his three-year career. He definitely is now.

And that has caused Denver to adjust its plan on the fly – all for a player drafted No. 41 in 2014 and who entered the NBA in 2015.

Jusuf Nurkic was coming off a promising All-Rookie second-team season when the Nuggets signed Jokic. It was quickly clear there’d be complications with the two centers coexisting, but Nurkic’s injuries and second-year slump delayed adjudication. Finally, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Trail Blazers. Once Jokic became a starter in mid-December, Denver led the NBA in points per possession the rest of last season.

“His rapid development last year kind of changed how we view our organizational development,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said. “His unique skill set is something we think we can build around.”

Jokic is a generationally good passer for a center, and he works in so many offensive sets. He posts up, screens on pick-and-rolls, spots up and cuts. He finishes well at the rim, and his range extends through the mid-range to beyond the arc, though he’s not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter. He’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor.

But he’s not much a rim protector. His slow foot speed, especially laterally, hampers him in space defensively.

Power forwards who complement Jokic on both sides of the court are rare, but Denver found one in Paul Millsap, who can space the floor and cut strongly offensively and safeguard the interior and switch on the perimeter defensively. The Nuggets signed the 32-year-old to a contract worth $61 million over the first two years and with a $30.5 million team option for the third season – a clear win-now response to Jokic’s readiness to win.

On the other hand, Jokic’s youth presents a long window for success. Before the season, Denver also waived Jameer Nelson, a veteran point guard whom Nuggets coach Michael Malone often leaned on as a crutch when younger options were undependable. That forced Denver to rely on 20-year-old Jamal Murray and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Murray has grown in his starting role and looks like a foundational piece with Jokic. Mudiay couldn’t hack it in the rotation and was replaced by Will Barton, who also plays wing. After all, the Nuggets (24-23, eighth in the Western Conference) are trying to win this season.

It’s a tough balancing act, and the next big question comes with Jokic’s team option next summer.

Jokic is due the minimum salary ($1,600,520) in 2018-19, and that’s obviously a huge bargain. But if Denver exercises the option, he’d become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. By declining Jokic’s option, the Nuggets could make him a restricted free agent this year.

As a restricted free agent, Jokic could probably draw a max offer sheet – which projects to be worth about $109 million over four years (about $27 million annually) – that Denver would surely match. In a direct offer, the Nuggets’ max projects to be about $146 million over five years (about $29 million annually).

Jokic is worth the investment at either price. There’s value in securing him for an extra season during his prime.

But the Nuggets hold leverage. They could condition declining his option on him pledging to accept a sub-max, but still large, contract. After all, that’d still be his quickest ticket to a life-altering payday. That route would require trust, but – Carlos Boozer and the Cavaliers potentially excepted – everyone usually follows through on those informal agreements.

Of course, if Denver offers too little, Jokic could wait until 2019 free agency. There’s even a case for delaying a new contract even with a max offer this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19, he’d be eligible for a super-max contract the following summer. That projects to be worth about $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – enough to offset a smaller salary, either the team-option amount or qualifying offer, next season.

To make this even more complex, the possibility of a super-max offer in 2019 could lead the Nuggets to exercise Jokic’s option. They could leverage his low salary next season then have potentially an even larger leg up financially over other suitors in 2019.

Keeping Jokic’s salary low next season is particular important, because Denver already has $110,169,322 committed to 12 players (Millsap, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon). Maxing out Jokic could push the Nuggets so far into the luxury tax that trading either Faried or Plumlee alone wouldn’t be enough to avoid paying it. Chandler ($12,800,562) and/or Arthur ($7,464,912) opting out would provide relief, but moving Plumlee (due $12,917,808 and $14,041,096 the next two seasons) and/or Faried (due $13,764,045 next season) won’t be easy.

In simple terms, Denver has two choices:

  • Keep Jokic’s salary absurdly low next season, but risk he walks in 2019 unrestricted free agency
  • Pay Jokic big money beginning next season, but lose flexibility to spend on his supporting cast

Declining Jokic’s option then leveraging restricted free agency to re-sign him long-term is the safest path.

“I can say with complete certainty that Nikola is going to be here for a long, long time,” Connelly said. “We love him. I think he loves us.”

Whenever Jokic gets his massive raise, it’ll be overdue based on his production. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Denver plays like a 55-win team with him on the floor and a 27-win team without him, based on points scored and allowed.

He theoretically could have signed a shorter contract initially, proven himself then hit free agency sooner. But he expected to acclimate slowly from the Adriatic League to the NBA, and he appreciated the long-term security a four-year deal afforded.

There’s less slow-playing now, though.

The Nuggets are throwing more on his plate, and that starts defensively.

“Last year, I don’t think he played much defense at all,” Malone said.

Jokic’s athletic limitations will probably prevent him from ever being an elite defender. But his size and basketball intelligence give him a chance to hold his own as a positional defender – if he puts in the effort. Jokic has dedicated himself more this season, and as a result, Denver’s defense has gone from awful to middling.

The Nuggets also want Jokic to become a more aggressive scorer. He’s such a willing passer, and he’s always looking to make what the right play would be if all players were equal. But they’re not. Denver is 10-4 when Jokic attempts at least 15 shots and 14-19 otherwise.

“He takes greater satisfaction out of making his teammates better than he does scoring himself,” Malone said. “…He needs to be a guy that’s looking to score, regardless if he’s double-teamed or not.”

These are good problems to have. Teammates love the player who’s too unselfish, and so do executives.

“As a person, he embodies everything that we’re trying to be organizationally in terms of work ethic and team-first mentality,” Connelly said.

Those are great traits for a young second-round pick as he develops. But the best player on a team is inevitably turned to for leadership.

So, back to the original question: Is Jokic ready to lead?

“He has some natural leadership ability in terms of, he’s a connector,” Connelly said. “Everyone in the locker room really likes him on and off the court. But we also don’t want to force something prematurely. He’s still a kid.

“We don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders.

“We’re going to let him grow up on his own timeline.”

There’s no blueprint here. If named an All-Star this year, Jokic – who turns 23 the day after the game – would be the youngest-ever All-Star drafted below No. 30. Heck, even if he doesn’t become an All-Star until next year, he’d still be the youngest All-Star picked below No. 30 in what anyone would consider the modern-draft era.

There’s plenty of time to wait for Jokic to come fully into his own.

But it also might already be Jokic’s time already.

Clippers go to third-string coach after Doc Rivers and Mike Woodson ejected (video)

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Remember when Doc Rivers vowed last year to stop getting technical fouls? He actually followed through for the rest of the season.

But the pledge apparently expired with the season.

Rivers got a technical foul and ejection late in the Clippers’ loss to the Timberwolves last night. Lead assistant Mike Woodson followed suit before play even resumed.

That meant assistant coach Sam Cassell – who already got his own technical foul earlier in the game! – took over for the final 7.4 seconds.

Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. throws down 360 dunk against Wizards (video)

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The Wizards are in a rough place.

They’ve lost three of four, including a 23-point setback to the Mavericks last night, and Dennis Smith Jr. is out here practicing for a dunk contest on them.