Wizards keep playoff goal intact by trading injured Okafor for a healthy Gortat

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WASHINGTON — Sometimes trades instinctively bring out the head scratcher in all of us. The Wizards acquiring center Marcin Gortat isn’t one of those times.

Washington hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2008. Unlike teams that bailed on the upcoming season to ensure a lottery finish, the Wizards have shaped their John Wall-led roster with the goal of a postseason return.

Emeka Okafor’s herniated disk in his neck threatened to derail those plans.

Fearing the defensive presence might return later than sooner, the playoff-pushing organization addressed the matter sooner than later.

Following Saturday’s practice, management, coaches and players discussed the necessary move, which included not just a swap of expiring contracts, but the Wizards shipping a protected 2014 first round pick.

Wizards team President Ernie Grunfeld: “Obviously if Emeka didn’t have the [injury], probably wouldn’t have been as imperative for us to get another big man in there. We don’t know what his status will be. Obviously, Emeka was very frustrated by his situation and there is really no timeframe for him.”

Wall: “It’s tough to see a guy like Mek go that was a great professional for us and what he did for our team, especially helping me in learning things, but it was kind of tough not knowing if he would play this year.”

Head coach Randy Wittman: “We’re not just trading a player for a player, with Mek not being on the floor yet this year. That’s the beauty about the situation. We had no idea when, or if, Emek, was going to be back. So, this gives us a free body that we didn’t have.”

Not just a free body, but a big body, a 6-foot-11, 240-pounder efficient in the pick-and-roll and better offensively than the man he replaces. Nor Okafor’s equal on defense, but Gortat is a big body willing to bang and defend those in the middle so power forward Nene and his perennial aching body doesn’t have to.

“Now we have a true center. Look at my face,” said the grinning Brazilian big man, who has not been shy about stating his positional preference. “[Gortat] is going to help us a lot. He’s a veteran … high IQ big man. He knows how to play. We feel sad for Emeka, he was a great teammate, but we need the position. [The organization] did an amazing job. They surprised me.”

Considering the team’s playoffs-or-bust mentality, considering the young frontcourt options — namely Kevin Seraphin and Jan Vesely — provided no assurance they could step up into larger roles, nobody should be surprised. Considering the trade laid out on a Venn diagram would show a tiny not-so-sweet spot, nobody should be scratching their head.

The first round pick is protected through the 12th selection. If the Wizards make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, the pick heads to Phoenix without complaint. If the Wizards miss the playoffs, they keep the pick as long as they don’t end up with the 13th or 14th selection. Barring bad luck with ping-pong balls, that’s a safe bet considering there are more strong teams than available postseason berths out West.

The Wizards will enter next offseason with a hole at center — and potentially around $16 million in cap space now that they have reportedly declined options on Vesely and Chris Singleton. Make the playoffs and the Wizards become more attractive to high-end free agents as a rising franchise headlined by the electric backcourt combo of Wall and Bradley Beal. Miss the playoffs and the Wizards have both a first round selection and cap space to address needs.

“That could become available to us if that’s a direction we want to go,” Grunfeld said of potentially adding a max contract free agent. “But we’ll worry about that next summer.”

They could also re-sign Gortat, who averaged 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks last season for Phoenix in what some considered a down effort. If the “Polish Machine” helps makes the Wizards a better team — he should offensively — and the money works out, why not.

As for guards Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee, Grunfeld will only worry about the other ex-Suns acquired in the deal for another day or so. Washington must trim three players by Monday to reach the league-maximum of 15. Grunfeld said he hasn’t made a final decision, but nobody is expecting that trio to stay with the Wizards.

The idea of making the playoffs this season, that notion has staying power. Without making the trade, maybe not.

“It hasn’t changed any,” Wittman said of the team’s postseason goals. “We talked about that. This wouldn’t make it change any. We still expect to fight for a spot in May. That’s our objective here.”

Paul Pierce after final NBA game: “I gave every ounce I could, each and every day” (VIDEO)

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That’s it for Paul Pierce.

The Los Angeles Clippers lost in Game 7 of their first round series against the Utah Jazz, and in doing so ended an illustrious 19-year NBA career for The Truth.

Pierce, 39, saw his team go down by a score of 104-91. The former Boston Celtics star also saw time with the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets before making his final stop in LA.

After the game, Pierce thanked his fans in every NBA city.

Via Twitter:

Current and former NBA players got in on congratulating Pierce on an incredible career on social media:

Shout out to Paul Pierce for an incredible career.

We meet again: Cavaliers, Raptors back together in postseason

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CLEVELAND (AP) We The North vs. We Are The Champions.

One round earlier than a year ago, Toronto and Cleveland are meeting again in the NBA playoffs.

On the way to winning their first title last season, LeBron James and the Cavs took care of the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals, a series that was tied 2-2 before Cleveland won the final two games. The teams finished this season with identical 51-31 records and their history makes for an intriguing May matchup.

“They know us,” James said, “and we know them.”

After sweeping Indiana in the opening round, the Cavs will have waited a full week before Monday’s Game 1 tips off at Quicken Loans Arena, where Cleveland is 15-1 against conference opponents over the past three postseasons.

The down time gave James and his teammates a chance to recharge, heal some nagging bumps and bruises and prepare for a Toronto team that not only added Serge Ibaka (acquired from Orlando in February) and P.J. Tucker (acquired from Phoenix at the trade deadline) this season, but is looking for revenge after having its season ended by Cleveland in 2016.

These Raptors don’t want that to happen again.

“We’ve got some fighters and scrappers,” coach Dwane Casey said after Toronto eliminated Milwaukee in six games. “The guys are going to compete. We make it hard on ourselves sometime, but at the end of the day we’re going to go down swinging.”

They submitted last year in Game 6 at home, when James scored 33 points with 11 rebounds, six assists and three blocks in Cleveland’s 113-87 win.

“He canceled Christmas,” Casey said earlier this season. “One of these days … one of these days.”

For the Raptors to knock off the Cavs, whose shaky defense still showed some significant holes against the Pacers, Toronto stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will have to be at their best.

“The two-headed monster,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said.

DeRozan averaged 23.5 points per game in the opening round against the Bucks, and may need to bump that into the 30s for the Raptors to have a chance.

Toronto lost three of four against Cleveland this season with the only win coming in the season finale, when Lue rested James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

Here are some other things to keep in mind as James takes another step toward a possible seventh straight trip to the Finals:

ROAD WARRIOR: James loves the road, where he has won at least one game in a record 27 consecutive playoff series.

The three-time champion revels in the discomfort of being booed and hated.

“Home cooking is great; love the home fans for 14 years,” he said. “But I love playing out on the road more than I love playing at home. It’s just a weird thing. I love the adversity. … It’s the bunker mentality of knowing it’s 15 guys plus the coaching staff and whoever there that’s traveled with us against the whole state and the whole city.”

Or in this case, all of Canada.

KYLE IS KEY: Lowry is back to full speed after missing 21 games following surgery on his right wrist. He averaged 14.3 points and 5.2 rebounds against the Bucks, but the Raptors will need more from him to dethrone the Cavs.

Lowry might be able to exploit Cleveland’s suspect perimeter defense and lack of a true rim protector by driving to the basket.

FREE-THROW WOES: After making a career-low 67 percent of his free throws in the regular season, James went only 22 of 38 (58 percent) from the line in the opening round.

None of his misses was too costly, but the pressure only intensifies from here with every make and every miss meaning more.

DEMAR THE STAR: DeRozan can get his shot off any place, any time. Like they did with Paul George in the first round, the Cavs are expected to focus their attention Toronto’s best player, harassing him with double teams to make him give up the ball.

“He’s one of the best one-on-one players in our league right now, and he does a good job of getting to the free-throw line,” Lue said. “His mid-range jumper is automatic and he can also get to the basket where he’s very athletic. He’s a tough cover and we just want to make him make field goals and not free throws and make it hard on him.”

ON THE MOVE: James has been climbing various lists all season and he’s still rising. He enters the series 60 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5.682) for the second place on the career postseason scoring list. Once he passes Mr. Sky Hook, next on the list is His Airness, Michael Jordan (5,987).

More AP NBA: apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Wizards’ Markieff Morris rolled his ankle so hard he “thought it was broke” (VIDEO)

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The Washington Wizards dropped Game 1 of their semi final round against the Boston Celtics on Sunday. A big part of that loss was the absence of Markieff Morris, who turned his ankle with just a few minutes to go in the first quarter.

Morris was shooting a jumper from the left elbow extended with Boston’s Al Horford contesting. Horford didn’t give Morris enough of a chance to land, and a foul was called.

The video of Morris’ ankle turning is pretty gross, especially if you’re a basketball player, so just be forewarned.

Via Twitter:

After the game Wizards coach Scott Brooks said he did not have an update on Morris’ status but that they would see how he was feeling on Monday.

Morris, meanwhile, said he initially thought he had broken his ankle.

Speaking to MassLive.com, Morris said as much:

“This was my worst one,” Morris said. “I kind of twist my ankles like this, that’s my injury, an ankle twist. But this was by far the worst one. I honestly thought it was broke. They got the swelling to go down a whole lot, but it almost was like the size of a softball.”

Game 2 of the series is in Boston on Tuesday.

Utah’s depth, 26 from Gordon Hayward lift Jazz to Game 7 win 104-91, eliminates Clippers

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This ended up being a series — and a Game 7 — about depth.

Without Blake Griffin, the Clippers depth was tested and faltered, particularly on the offensive end. The Clippers scored just 15 points in the third quarter of Game 7 as the Jazz took a comfortable lead. Los Angeles shot 6-of-25 (24 percent) from three in Game 7. J.J. Redick was a non-factor. A Los Angeles offense that averaged 110.3 points per 100 possessions during the season was at 94.7 in Game 7 and 107.7 for the entire postseason

Utah, on the other hand, had their star center Rudy Gobert in foul trouble all game — he played 5 minutes in the first half, 13:26 for the game, and finished with just one point. Gordon Hayward, Utah’s leading scorer on the season, started the game 4-of-14 through three quarters (but played a strong fourth and finished with 26 points).

The difference was Utah got a huge Game 7 from Derrick Favors, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds, that made up for what the Jazz lost with Gobert. George Hill added 17 points at the point for Utah, which had seven players in double figures. They found ways to get offense from sources other than their brightest stars.

Combine that depth with the fantastic defense the Jazz played all season and the result was an impressive 104-91 win in Game 7 on the road. Utah beat the Clippers three out of four games in Staples Center this series (and Los Angeles picked up one in Utah).

The win advances the Jazz to take on the Warriors starting Tuesday night in Oakland.

The game was also the final one in an amazing 19-year career for Paul Pierce. The Clipper forward said he would retire at the end of the season, and he is bound for the Hall of Fame.

However, this series was more about depth and how the teams handled adversity due to it.

Utah struggled with injuries all season — their preferred starting five played in just 13 games together in the regular season due to injuries. That led to guys learning new roles, learning how to adapt, and play in different combinations — all things that mattered against the Clippers and in Game 7.

“It was a battle, the whole series was a battle,” Gordon Hayward said after Game 7. “Tonight was no different. It was fun out there, though. Especially competing with my teammates, with what we’ve been through this year with injuries and everything, it’s just a great win for us.”

The Clippers lost one of their big three when Blake Griffin went down with a foot injury that required surgery. Los Angeles has a top-heavy (and expensive) roster that lacked the depth to make up for it or adjust to Griffin being out.

“Not having Blake is a major wound. Obviously, you take your best scorer, your second best rebounder, your second best passer off a team,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said postgame. “But give Utah credit, they won this series.”

For the Clippers, the entire series became about Chris Paul needing to do everything — and he almost did. The Jazz were aggressive defensively trying to take the ball out of CP3’s hands Sunday, and he still had 13 points and 9 assists in Game 7, he pushed his team as far as he could, but he was 1-of-7 from three and the other Clippers shooters did not step up.

“They trapped him a lot, the same thing they did last game, to be honest,” Rivers said. “We just didn’t move the ball great as a whole group. I thought CP was great overall, he got a little tired, I thought a couple guys did… we just had such a short rotation it was very difficult. But I thought they did a great job trapping and I didn’t think we did a very good job of, after CP got rid of the ball, attacking back. I thought we lost our trust a little bit, we’d catch it and throw it back to CP instead of attacking.”

Paul was blunter in his assessment of himself.

“I’ve got to be better, especially in a Game 7 like this,” Paul said.

To be fair, Paul tweaked his ankle in the third quarter, and while he played through it he was never quite the same after.

This loss leads to an interesting offseason for the Clippers where Griffin and Paul are expected to opt out of their contracts and become free agents, joining J.J. Redick, Marreese Speights, and Luc Mbah a Moute. The Clippers are expected to bring back Paul on a five-year max contract, but this loss could be the one that has management thinking it’s time for something new — does Clipper owner Steve Ballmer want to foot the luxury tax bill that would come with one of the highest payrolls in the league to run this back?

“We’ve been reading our obituary for three months,” Rivers said.

For the Jazz, it’s just another step up the ladder for an improving young team. Now they get to test themselves against the best in the league, starting Tuesday night at Oracle.