In a crowded Pelicans backcourt, Austin Rivers wants to show he belongs

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LAS VEGAS — Austin Rivers’ poor start to last season got a lot of attention — he was genuinely awful. Historically awful. For the season he ended with a PER of 5.9, the kind of number that normally would suggest his next paycheck will come from Europe. It’s the worst PER ever for a rookie who played more than 1,000 minutes.

What wasn’t noticed is that at the end of the season he played better — in his last 20 games he shot 50 percent overall, 40 percent from three. He wasn’t scoring a lot, but you could see improvement.

“Last year was up and down for me, I didn’t have a great year,” Rivers said Thursday after the Pelicans were eliminated from the Summer League tournament. “That was tough, it was the first time in my life where everything wasn’t roses and success. I had to look in the mirror and be like, ‘What am I going to do? Listen I have to play better I got to figure something out.’

“Then bam I figured it out and I’m playing really well, and then I break my hand. I was like, ‘golly, what is going on I finally start playing well and my hand breaks. Then I was like this is a test, I’m going to rehab the heck out of my hand and come back even better.”

He’s looked better in Las Vegas — he averaged 17.3 points a game in the Pelicans first three games to lead the team and shot 46.5 percent. He had 16 points on Thursday, but on 5-of-14 shooting.

Thursday against the Nuggets he was attacking the rim — only 4 of his 14 shots were on the perimeter (1-of-4), half of them were in the restricted area (5-of-7) and he got to the line seven times. Finishing is one of the things he is doing better.

“My strength, I’ve gained seven pounds, guys aren’t able to post me up. I’m able to go to the rack and finish, I’m bumping guys off and able to get to that floater,” Rivers said. “On defense I can use my chest more.”

His decision making with the ball is improved, and his defense is improved (but has a ways to go). Rivers has a ways to go, but he’s taking steps.

All of which is to say, if you’ve written Rivers off you did it too soon. He is looking more like a guy who can play in the league.

The question is will he do that with the Pelicans? New Orleans had one of the most interesting summers out there and loaded up on talent in Rivers’ position.

Rivers is a point guard and the Pelicans got All-Star Jrue Holiday from Philadelphia (in exchange for Nerlens Noel, basically). Eric Gordon is healthy and at the two, but he can handle the ball. So can Tyreke Evans, who might play the three or be the sixth man.

Where does Rivers fit in that rotation? He doesn’t know, but he’s confident he does fit in.

“Jrue Holiday’s an unbelievable player, (Gordon) is an unbelievable player, (Evans) is a great player, but I believe I am too,” Rivers said. “And I’ve got to continue to work and just listen to my coaches and I know if I do that I’ll make time and have an unbelievable year next year.”

He sounds like a coach’s son. But that’s a good thing, the kind of thing that can help a guy get past a slow start to make a quality NBA career.

Three Things to Know: Kawhi Leonard is back, but Spurs have work to do fitting him in

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. We’re coming to you a little later in the morning in than usual due to the breaking news about the 2021 All-Star Game going to Indiana.

1) Kawhi Leonard is back with the Spurs, but loss to Mavericks shows they have work to do fitting him in. There were moments when Kawhi Leonard looked like his fearsome self Tuesday night: Tipping a rebound to himself then knocking down a midrange jumper off it, draining a pull-up three in transition, hitting some runners as he attacked off the pick-and-roll. Leonard was back, a bit rusty as one would expect, but had 13 points in 15 minutes against the Mavericks on Tuesday night.

That was the good news. Leonard also showed a lot of rust, as is too be expected, and he didn’t play after midway through the third quarter after he hit his minutes limit near 15.

There’s going to be an adjustment period on offense. Through the first 27 games of the season, everything flowed through LaMarcus Aldridge while he was out there. Gregg Popovich promised Aldridge over the summer they would use him more and in spots where he was more comfortable, but that was easier to do when he was their best player on the floor. Now Aldridge and Leonard — and the rest of the Spurs — have to figure out a new dance. That will take a little time.

The good news is the Spurs racked up so many wins to start the season, they have plenty of cushion to lose a few — like to a feisty Dallas team on Tuesday 95-89, in a game where the Spurs offense looked out of synch for long stretches — and be just fine. As always, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are looking at the big picture.

2) Young Knicks, Lakers put on a show in Madison Square Garden. Knicks win in overtime. ESPN trained its cameras on the rising stars of the NBA Tuesday night — and those teams have been the most entertaining ones this season. We know that the Warriors and Cavaliers will be playing late into May (and probably June), but both are picking their spots right now.

The Lakers and Knicks are trying to figure it out and get better every night. There’s an energy around teams like those two (and Philadelphia, who we get to in our third thing) that we don’t see from the big guns right now. These teams are just fun to watch, and they put on a real show in Madison Square Garden Tuesday night, a game that went to overtime before the Knicks pulled out the win. There was Kyle Kuzma‘s three to force OT, Lonzo Ball looking more and more comfortable ( 17 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists), Knicks rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina not looking like a newbie with 13 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds, and finally there was a whole lot of Kristaps Porzingis, who dropped 37 points and had five blocks on the night. The end of the game was just back-and-forth entertainment.

The Lakers aren’t making the playoffs, and the Knicks could but likely will not stick around long if and when they do, but during the regular season teams like these on the rise are the fun ones to watch.

3) Joel Embiid dropped 28 and 12 on the Timberwolves, but Game of Thrones theory is more interesting. I think Joel Embiid is right about Game of Thrones… oh, wait, we should probably talk about basketball first for a bit. Embiid is really good at that, too.

Embiid went head-to-head with Karl-Anthony Towns in a showdown of the best young bigs in the game Tuesday, and Embiid came out on top. Towns finished the night with 19 points (6-of-16 shooting) and 16 boards, but Embiid dropped 28 points (also on 16 shots) and had 12 rebounds and 8 assists. Plus, Embiid led his team to the win (with a little help from J.J. Redick‘s 25).

Now on to the important stuff. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne — a big Game of Thrones fan herself — talked about the HBO cultural phenomenon with Embiid during a car ride interview she did with him.

“I’ve studied the whole show,” he says, and it’s clear to Embiid that Kit Harington’s character, Jon Snow, will not end up on the Iron Throne.

“That’s what everybody thinks is going to happen,” Embiid says. “But the whole show has been that you don’t know what’s going to happen. Jon Snow will not be the king.”

The show seems to be pointing toward some kind of Daenerys Targaryen/Jon Snow power sharing structure when it ends after next season, but Embiid is right in that what the show does is not reward the characters that the audience likes or thinks will do their jobs well. Just ask Ned Stark… well, you could ask him if his head were still attached. There are some serious twists still to come. Personally, I want to see Sansa Stark on the throne with Arya Stark next to her, but that’s not going to happen either. Which is the best part of the show.

Embiid is right — Game of Thrones trolls its fans. And Embiid knows trolling, so I trust he’s right on this.

Report: Indiana to host 2021 NBA All-Star Game

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You knew Indiana was serious about hosting the All-Star Game when it made Larry Bird cram his 6’9″ frame into an Indy Car — built for much smaller men — and drive five blocks down Fifth Avenue in New York to deliver the city’s application directly to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

It worked.

For the first time since 1985, the All-Star Game is headed to Indianapolis, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Adam Silver is in Indiana for a 4 p.m. (local time) press conference where this will be officially announced. It’s done.

Indianapolis can handle this, no problem, it got rave reviews (from media members I spoke to, at least) when hosting the Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four. It also brings the All-Star Game to the coolest NBA building, Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

A number of other cities — Houston, Orlando, and San Francisco among them — had been in the running for the 2021 game.

The 2018 All-Star Game next February will be in Los Angeles. After that, it heads to Charlotte in 2019, then Chicago in 2020. It looks like the game will stay in the Midwest for the following year in 2021.

Kristaps Porzingis went off against Lakers: 37 points, 5 blocks (VIDEO)

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I’d say the Lakers didn’t have any answers for Kristaps Porzingis Tuesday night, but no team has an answer for Kristaps Porzingis when he is on.

And he was on vs. the Lakers: 37 points, 11 rebounds, and five blocked shots. He also hit five triples (on just eight attempts). Check out the video above.

Despite all that it took overtime against an improving Lakers team to get the win for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers asked LaVar Ball to pull back on criticism of Luke Walton

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There’s so much transparent marketing happening with LaVar Ball that it’s often not worth the server space to type up what he says and post it. The father of Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball is so breathlessly unexciting in his pitch for relevance in comparison to the actual happenings of the NBA, the irony of which is not unnoticed here.

Still, Mr. Ball has infrequently stepped out from his professional Uncle At a Barbeque cosplay to criticize the Lakers and coach Luke Walton. Mr. Ball has made it clear he thinks Lonzo should play more often, and in fourth quarters. That hasn’t been productive for either side, and it appears that the team has asked Mr. Ball to pull back on openly criticizing Walton.

According to a report from ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, the team and Mr. Ball met to discuss their relationship in November.

Via ESPN:

The meeting, which took place within the past few weeks, was called by Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka.

LaVar Ball confirmed the meeting took place, telling ESPN, “It was the best thing, man. Everybody’s going to try to make it an ego thing, like I’m trying to tell them what to do or they’re trying to tell me to tone it down. It’s not about that. It’s about coming together and to get a solution to this problem.

“It may sound crazy to other people, but I really just want the best for Lonzo, and the best for Lonzo is going to be what’s best for the organization. Because if everybody winning, we good.”

“I’m going to say whatever I want to say, however I want to say it,” Ball said. “And they said, ‘LaVar, come and talk to us first.’ So that’s fine too.

“But I am going to say, to plant a seed, ‘Let’s look for this now.’ They may not want to hear that, but it’s going to be successful if you listen to what I’m saying on that fact that I know what it takes for my son to run like this.”

Mr. Ball’s influence on his son is unique, but the team is far more than an avenue for Lonzo to play basketball. Indeed, Lonzo is not even one the best two or three players on the Lakers. The organization needs to function at a professional level and doesn’t need Mr. Ball to achieve that. Sidestepping any Whataboutism in the face of sketchy NBA decisionmaking — Phil Jackson, the Bulls front office, any Billy King trade, Isiah Thomas, etc. — it’s not immediately clear that Mr. Ball agrees.

It’s got to be a hassle for Walton to have to deal with this type of thing. The team started enforcing an existing rule a rule recently that stops members of the media from congregating in the same area where NBA friends and family are after a game, but it’s unlikely that will stop reporters from ambulance-chasing Ball any time soon.

Lonzo has remained in LA, which is exactly what Mr. Ball wanted when his son went to UCLA. The younger Ball has struggled a bit, but he’s part of an energetic young core that’s on the up in a tough conference. Lonzo is even leading the team in assists. But Mr. Ball persists in stepping where he’s unqualified, presumably as a means to continue his guerilla marketing campaign (or perhaps motivated by it). LaVar doesn’t realize his work is done — Lonzo is a Laker — and he should let 16 championship trophies in the No. 2 TV market in the country take it from here.

Instead, Mr. Ball produces the most boring and uninspiring stories week after week. This is the league where major free agents break their legs in the first five minutes of play with their new team, where MVPs sign with the best team of all-time after they’ve already won a championship, and where the best player of all-time gives you a crucial chasedown block in Game 7 of the Finals. Nothing Mr. Ball can do will ever be interesting in the grand scheme of the NBA.

Meanwhile, the Lakers and the New York Knicks actually played a pretty wild OT game on Tuesday. If only that were what we could all concentrate on.