Amir Johnson Raptors

The Extra Pass: Raptors’ salary dump trade could mean a few more wins, too; plus Sunday recaps

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LOS ANGELES — Make no mistake, this was first and foremost about money. And future flexibility.

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri made a smart trade sending Rudy Gay out of town in a deal that sets his team up for the future by removing up to $12.4 million from the books next season. This summer  Andrea Bargnani’s anchor contract and now Rudy Gay’s oversized one are off the Toronto books. This Gay trade was all about the financial savings.

But it could mean a few more wins in there here and now, too.

Without the duplication of Gay and DeMar DeRozan’s talents the Raptors offense on Sunday night against the Lakers played faster and had better spacing then it has in some time. There was less isolation and more pick-and-roll. The Raptors got 28 percent of their shot opportunities from either the ball handler or roll man in the pick-and-roll against the Lakers (up from 22 percent on the season) while the Raptors got just 7 percent of their shots from isolation plays (down from a 12 percent average on the season).

The result was a 106-94 win spoiling Kobe Bryant’s return.

Part of the good play can be attributed to the Raptors pulling together when shorthanded — something we see all the time in sports for short runs.

“I don’t think anyone was prepared for it happen today,” Kyle Lowry said after he scored 23 Sunday night. “I didn’t. You don’t expect it to happen this fast or this soon. You say you feel something coming but you can’t say anything until it happens and now that it happens you say ‘we knew it.’”

However, the improvement in the Raptors offense — ranked 17th in the NBA in points per possession — may well be more than just a one-night boost.

Without Gay getting his team-high 18.6 shots a game — with one-in-four coming from an isolation play — the Raptors offense looked improved.

“The floor was spaced a lot,” Amir Johnson said after he dropped 32 on the Lakers. “They pay attention to DeMar a lot, especially coming off those curls. So when you have that big (defending Johnson) help, he was able to get that dunk pass and I was able to get those layups. It was working for us tonight.”

Lowry was happy, too.

“I’m really happy how we played, the ball moved out there, swinging, everyone chipped in it was a great effort from everyone.”

Nobody in the Raptors locker room had a negative word to say about Gay — just the opposite, most players seemed upset to have lost a teammate they genuinely liked.

“Rudy is a prince of a guy,” coach Dwane Casey said. “He’s a dynamic, athletic wing player, he gets to the basket at will. He can shoot the ball, handle the ball, we were using him more in drag situations, pick-and-roll situations and he was growing into that role, doing a better job getting a feel for the defense. And that was a different role for him to do that but he was growing into it, getting better with it.”

Still, the offense looked better.

Now on top of that thanks to the trade Toronto adds a playmaking guard in Greivis Vasquez, a solid vet in Chuck Hayes, and a guy who can provide some wing depth in John Salmons. We’ll see how it all fits together — and who gets moved again before the deadline, this is a roster in flux — but all the pieces could fit together a little better than it has up to this point.

Toronto did not make this trade trying to win the sad Atlantic division — for the Raptors this is about saving money and roster flexibility. Gay is not the kind of guy Masai Ujiri wants to build around, especially not if he picks up his $19.3 million option for next season. This trade was about financial flexibility.

But with the Raptors starting five being +19 against the Lakers (who were out of sync with the Kobe’s return) you have to wonder if this might mean a few more wins this season, too.

—Kurt Helin

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Celtics 114, Knicks 73: New York didn’t bother to show up for this one, as the early noon tip-off time at home once again proved to be too much for the Knicks to deal with. The team fell behind by 25 points in the first quarter, didn’t hit a field goal for the game’s first six-plus minutes, and essentially erased any good feelings they created by coming out of their nine-game losing streak with consecutive wins by a margin of more than 30 points each.

Heat 110, Pistons 95: Detroit handed Miami one of its five losses on the season less than a week ago, so you can bet that the Pistons got the Heat’s full attention in the rematch. That meant a near triple-double performance out of LeBron James, who finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and nine assists, and a blistering 32-17 third quarter where the Heat put this one away for good and turned the final 12 minutes into nothing more than extended garbage time.

Thunder 118, Pacers 94: It’s easy to dismiss this loss for the Pacers, considering how dominant they’ve been to start the season along with the fact that a Spurs-Thunder road back-to-back isn’t exactly the fairest of schedules to deal with. But Kevin Durant turned in an above-average performance regardless of what his opponent’s circumstances were, and finished with 36 points and 10 rebounds to lead his team to the win — perhaps because he was tired of hearing about Paul George and his breakout season thus far. George had 32 points and five rebounds of his own in the losing effort.

Rockets 98, Magic 88: This one wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate, mainly because the Rockets held a lead of 22 points in the third quarter and lost focus in the final period by shooting a dismal 5-of-22 from the field over the game’s final 12 minutes. James Harden finished with 27 points and 10 assists, and Dwight Howard added 20 points, 22 rebounds and three blocked shots.

Raptors 106, Lakers 94: Kobe Bryant was back on the court, but as had to be expected he was rusty and his teammates were not used to playing with him. Kobe had 9 points on 2-of-9 shooting, with eight rebounds and eight turnovers. The Lakers five starters combined to shoot 25 percent and none scored in double digits — they were that out of sync. Meanwhile Amir Johnson was back home in Los Angeles and dropped 32 in front of his friends, while DeMar DeRozan (26 points) and Kyle Lowry (23) slashed their way into the lane. The Raptors scored 60 points in the paint on the night. Rudy Gay who?

Warriors’ defense too good, Klay Thompson too hot for Blazers in easy Game 1 win

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Even without Stephen Curry — who thinks he can be back for Game 3 next Saturday — the Golden State Warriors execute like champions.

They have an elite defense. Just as Damian Lillard, who shot 3-of-17 and had 12 points through the first three quarters (he went 5-of-8 in the fourth and scored 18 points, but the game was over by then). Or ask C.J, McCollum, who shot 5-of-17 for 12 points on the night.

The Warriors have more than one elite shooter and playmaker. Klay Thompson had 37 points and was 7-of-14 from three. Draymond Green added a triple-double of 23 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists.

It all overwhelmed a Portland team that had played against the Clippers Friday night and still looked a little sluggish. The Warriors opened the game on an 18-4 run and led by 20 after 12 minutes, Thompson had 18 of his points in the first quarter, and by that point the Warriors put it in cruise control and were never seriously threatened on their way to a 118-106 win.

Golden State leads the series 1-0, with Game 2 at Oracle Arena Tuesday night.

Portland has a lot of work to do before then, starting with altering their defensive strategies — they need to have their bigs show out more and be physical when they can with Thompson. Oh, and put Maurice Harkless on Thompson, not McCollum. They need to take away Klay’s space, if Portland gives him the room to operate he had for three quarters Sunday again and he will beat them again.

Another part of the Warriors’ fast start was a clever move by Steve Kerr, asking center Andrew Bogut to guard wing Maurice Harkless. Portland’s game plan (almost every game) is to try and drag the opposing center into defending the pick-and-roll, but now Harkless had to be involved rather than Mason Plumlee. Harkless isn’t half the playmaker or threat in that role Plumlee is. It helped slow the Blazers pick-and-roll, and they went on to score just 17 first quarter points.

All game long the Warriors were able to attack the rim and Portland just does not have the paint protectors that will slow them down. Shaun Livingston had 12 for Golden State getting the start in Curry’s place and Golden State did a good job of posting up the smaller Trail Blazers guards. Portland got 15 each from Al-Farouq Aminu and Allen Crabbe (who had a good game), but Bogut was a force in the paint and his rim protection was an issue for the Blazers.

Portland also lost Gerald Henderson to an ejection, one that seemed like a quick trigger to me. Toward the end of the third quarter, Anderson Varejao fell and as he did kicked Henderson knocking the Blazer to the ground. Henderson thought it was intentional and got up and got in Varejao’s face. The referees looked at the tape and went with the double technical.  But neither man let the incident go and with 15 seconds left in the third Henderson was trash talking with Varejao, who at that point was on the Warriors’ bench. The referee hit him with a second technical.

But that’s the least of Portland’s problems right now.

They have not been a strong defensive team all season, however they need to be a better one by Tuesday. If the Blazers go down 0-2, and Curry is back for Game 3, Golden State could get even more time to rest before the next round because this series will not last long. Lillard and company need to bring it on Tuesday night.

Walton has unfinished work with Warriors before Lakers job

Golden State Warriors interim head coach Luke Walton argues a call against the Charlotte Hornets during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. Golden State won 111-101. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Luke Walton was in no rush to leave his job as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors.

He won an NBA championship his first season, went 39-4 as interim coach in place of Steve Kerr to start this season and was part of a team that set the single-season record for wins in the regular season.

But when the Los Angeles Lakers came calling, Walton could not turn down the team he began his career with and which he helped win two NBA titles.

“I was very comfortable with the idea of coming back here and coaching again next year with this team and Steve,” Walton said Saturday. “I was fine with that. But you have to take the opportunities when they come.”

The Lakers announced Friday night that they had agreed to a contract to hire Walton just five days after firing Byron Scott. It all came together very fast as Walton interviewed in Oakland with Lakers owner Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak on Thursday before getting the offer the following day.

Walton said he was nervous to call Kerr to give him the news. He started the call by telling Kerr he had good news – he got the offer to coach the Lakers – and bad news – he was going to take it.

“He’s thrilled for the opportunity and it’s going to be great,” Kerr said. “But it’s bad news for all of us. You can’t replace Luke. He’s one of a kind. They broke the mold after they made Luke. We’re going to miss him desperately.”

Kerr credited Walton for helping to create the culture that allowed Golden State to win 140 games the past two regular seasons, including a record 73 this season. Walton took over when Kerr was sidelined by complications from offseason back surgery to start this season and led Golden State to a record 24 straight wins to open the season.

Walton will remain with the Warriors until their playoff run ends, while using some down time to prepare for his new job.

“My priority is the Warriors, these players and winning a championship right now,” Walton said. “The Lakers know that and they know that’s how it should be. We have a chance to do something very special.”

Walton spent nine seasons as a forward for the Lakers, winning two championship rings as a smart, steady contributor. Three years after his retirement as a player, the 36-year-old Southern California native is back to become the 26th head coach in franchise history.

Walton, a second-round pick out of Arizona in 2003, was a depth forward on the Lakers’ championship teams in 2009 and 2010 before getting traded to Cleveland in March 2012.

After his playing career ended in 2013, he worked briefly for the Lakers’ television network as a broadcaster, and for their D-League team as a player development coach. Walton became an assistant in Golden State last season and earned promotion to the job of Kerr’s lead assistant this season after Alvin Gentry left.

“I’m happy for him but at the same time this will sting a little bit,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “He’s obviously a guy we want around. When we have the type of success we had and he proved what he proved this year he deserves it. That’s a dream job for him.”

Walton has a tough task trying to turn around an organization that has won 16 NBA championships but is coming off the two worst seasons in franchise history as it transitions into a new era after the retirement of Kobe Bryant.

The Lakers are fully rebuilding after the retirement of Bryant, Walton’s longtime teammate. Bryant has backed Walton as a future head coach for years, praising his intelligence and understanding of the game.

The Lakers’ core consists of recent draft picks D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. alongside an unremarkable collection of veterans and young players. They also will add a top-three draft pick if they finish high enough in the lottery next month.

“There’s always challenges with every coaching job you take,” Walton said. “The one here was trying to take a good team that already had established themselves and try to make them great. The team in L.A., we need to go down there and build a foundation.”

Report: Kings to interview Patrick Ewing for coaching job

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11: Assistant coach Patrick Ewing of the Charlotte Hornets looks on in the first half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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The Kings’ coaching search is the definition of wide ranging. So far names that have come up in the search are Mark Jackson, Nate McMillan, Vinny Del Negro, Mike Woodson, Sam Mitchell, and Kevin McHale (although his level of interest is up for debate). Luke Walton and other big names were called but are now off the board.

You can add Patrick Ewing to that list.

The legendary Knicks big man and current Hornets assistant will get a shot, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Sacramento Kings will interview Charlotte Hornets associate head coach Patrick Ewing for their head coaching vacancy this week, league sources told The Vertical….

What makes Ewing an intriguing candidate for Sacramento officials is his potential ability to command the respect of mercurial All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, league sources said. Ewing, a Hall of Fame center, has the unique blend of his own physical and playing stature to go with a strong coaching pedigree as part of staffs with Clifford, Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Van Gundy.

The big man connection is obvious, but the real question for Ewing — or whoever gets the Kings job — is how well they can help change the culture of the locker room. It’s going to take a strong coach and some other locker room leaders to give this team a new start as it moves into a new building.

It’s going to be a lot of work, look at what Marco Belinelli said in an interview with Sky Sport Italy, via Sportando.

“There wasn’t a group from the start of the season,” said Belinelli. ‘Karl didn’t want Cousins and Cousins didn’t want Karl as coach. It’s pretty hard to play well in a situation like that. At the beginning it looked like Ranadive was the man calling the shots but then Divac came in, trying to be the peacemaker between Cousins and Karl”.

“I saw some very bad stuff in the locker room,” Belinelli added. ‘Coming from a perfect organization like the Spurs, I was pretty surprised to see stuff like that”.

Heat, in first playoff series win without LeBron James in a decade, look complete, beat Hornets

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) dunks against the Charlotte Hornets in the first half of Game 7 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series, Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
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As the national anthem played, a tear streaked down Dwyane Wade‘s cheek.

“I knew tonight would be a great moment for these guys,” Wade said. “I felt that we was going to win this game. I knew that our energy and our crowd was going to be enough, and we was going to be prepared. And I was just thinking about how these guys was going to feel after playing a Game 7.”

Pretty darn great.

The Heat beat the Hornets, 106-73, Sunday in the fifth-most lopsided Game 7 in NBA history. Miami – which will face winner of tonight’s Raptors-Pacers Game 7 – won its first playoff series win without LeBron James since 2006.

Pairing Wade with another superstar (Shaquille O’Neal for the 2006 championship) or two (LeBron and Chris Bosh for the 2012 and 2013 titles) has worked. But that option went out the window this season when blood clots sidelined Bosh at the All-Star break for the second straight year.

With Wade’s waning athleticism forcing him to pick his spots more often, he has needed more help than ever. His teammates have provided it.

Hassan Whiteside (10 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks) and Goran Dragic (25 points, six rebounds and four assists) led the way in Game 6.

Whiteside defended at an elite level. The Hornets shot just 2-for-11 in the restricted area with him on the court. I don’t know what’s more stunning – that they shot so poorly or attempted so few close-range shots in 28 minutes. Whiteside struck fear in the paint.

Dragic’s 25 points were his most in seven weeks and one shy of his playoff high. His aggressiveness fueled so much more. Miami’s offensive rating was 120.1 with him on the court.

“That’s the Goran Dragic we all love,” said Wade, who scored 12 points and had lost his last three playoff games when scoring so little. “Just putting so much pressure on the defense, and it allows other guys to just chill out – especially me.”

Wade can’t always carry the Heat – though sometimes he still can – but he remains the face of the franchise. Whether or not his teammates provide enough support almost reflects more on him than it does them. Fortunately for him, they look up to the task of making him look good.

It’s far too early to look ahead to a juicy Heat-Cavaliers conference finals, but Miami should be favored against either Indiana or Toronto.

Yes, it took seven games to vanquish Charlotte, but the Heat outscored the Hornets by 62 points – the third-largest combined margin ever in a seven-game series. The last team to win a seven-game series or a Game 7 by such decisive margins was the 2008 Celtics, who beat the Hawks by 34 in Game 7 to cap a +84 first-round series. Boston went on to win a title that year.

Will Miami follow that path? Probably not, but there’s something to be said about so thoroughly outplaying a difficult-to-beat opponent.

The Hornets were no pushovers – at least until today, when the Heat dominated on the glass and got most loose balls. In this series, Charlotte earned its first three playoff wins since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. The Hornets’ first best-of-seven series victory remains elusive and a potentially turbulent offseason awaits, but this group came to play.

Miami was just too good on both ends of the floor.

In the second quarter, Whiteside cut off a Kemba Walker drive, forcing the point guard to give up the ball. Whiteside then rotated to cover Al Jefferson (the type of multiple-contest defense many doubted Whiteside could execute) and emphatically blocked Jefferson’s shot.

The ball went to Dragic, who immediately sped up court. Dragic, who entered the game shooting 37% from the field, spun around Courtney Lee before anyone else could catch up to provide help and made a layup.

Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, the team’s energetic rookies who had big moments earlier in the series but provided less today, jumped up and down and spun around on the bench. The rest of the team wasn’t far behind in its cheering.

All the while, Wade barely took a few steps forward, remaining back on defense and watching it all unfold in front of him – a starless group of teammates he knew were capable of delivering.