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?

Magic’s Aaron Afflalo suspended two games for swing at Nemanja Bjelica

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This wasn’t two guys yelling into a locker room after a game, this was an actual fight. With an actual haymaker punch being thrown — and missing.

Aaron Afflalo and Nemanja Bjelica had been going back-and-forth all game Tuesday night, then it bubbled over when Jamal Crawford missed a jumper, Bjelica charged right at Afflalo while going for an offensive board, Afflalo blocked him like an offensive lineman, and then it got out of control.

The league announced Thursday that Afflalo has been suspended two games for throwing a haymaker. Both men were ejected from that game, but there is no further punishment for Bjelica (which is fair, Afflalo was the instigator here, Bjelica ended it with a headlock).

Glad to see this suspension was more than one game — if Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green get two games for an incident where there wasn’t a punch thrown, this had to be at least equal to that.

LeBron James says this season has been “most challenging” one

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Kyrie Irving is gone. His replacement, Isaiah Thomas, missed the first couple months of the season and is still trying to get into game shape and find his groove on the court with a new team. Other players have missed games, Kevin Love has moved to center, and the Cavaliers have looked older and slower — particularly on defense — and with that the cloud of LeBron James potentially leaving the team this summer gets darker and darker.

Throw in that LeBron — in his 15th NBA season — is eighth in the entire league in total minutes played, and his usage rate is 10th in the league when he is on the floor, and you can feel the burden on him.

LeBron has responded with an MVP-level season, but as the Cavaliers have struggled going 2-8 in their last 10 games, he admitted to Dave McMenamin of ESPN that this season has been very hard.

“It’s been very challenging,” James said after practice Wednesday. “Just from the simple fact of how many guys have been in and out. This is a difficult year for our team. Seems like I say that every year, but this one has been even more challenging.

“With everybody who has been out and coming back in, and the rotations, and things of that nature, it’s been very challenging on our team. But we have to figure it out. At the end of the day, we have a game every other day or every two days just like everybody else in the NBA. We have to go out and play.”

The roster shakeup of losing Irving — and with Thomas still trying to find his spots with this team after missing so much time — along with the other injuries is hard to underestimate. This goes beyond the usual mid-season Cavaliers malaise, with this roster they don’t have the offense to cover up the glaring defensive issues that have plagued them since last season (they were 29th in the NBA in defense after the All-Star break last season).

Also, LeBron’s comment seems to be part of the Cavaliers coming to the realization that they are not good enough to win a title with this team as constructed. In past years they believed if they got it together they could compete with anyone, after Monday’s loss to the Warriors they seem to realize that is not the case. Maybe that attitude changes come the playoffs — get out of the East, which they still have to be favorites to do, and they get a shot — but reality seems to have hit this roster.

Kings will shut down veterans for some games, rookie Harry Giles for rest of season

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The Kings foolishly strayed from rebuilding last summer by signing George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter to relatively expensive contracts. Those additions came despite Sacramento already having veterans Garrett Temple and Kosta Koufos.

The plan has predictably failed. The Kings have the NBA’s worst offense and worst defense and are 13-31.

That’s bad, but not quite bad enough. Not in the last year Sacramento has its own first-round pick before conveying its selection as a result of a ridiculous salary dump a few years ago.

So, in a transparent bid to break a tie with the Hawks and Magic for the NBA’s worst record and tank to the top seed in the lottery/develop young players already on the roster, the Kings are sitting those veterans on a rotating basis.

Sacramento is also shutting down No. 20 pick Harry Giles, who hasn’t played this season.

James Ham of NBC Sports California:

Both management and the coaching staff is on the same page with the decision, NBC Sports California has confirmed. Two or three players will sit each night as they team explores what they have in youngsters.

“Going forward, what I’m going to do is, we’re going to play a rotation where two of our five veterans are going to be out every night. It might be some times there’ll be three. It’s an opportunity for some other guys to get some minutes as we go throughout the course of the season. I’ve got it laid out…I’ve got about five or six games laid out, and every week I’ll go out again because you want to communicate with those guys when they’re not going to play. Other guys, they’ve got to be ready. If you’re in the first three years of your contract, you can expect to play a little, or a lot, or none, but you should be ready to play,” Joerger told the media after the Kings’ loss to the Thunder on Monday night.

This is smart, though it’s also an opportunity it would have been smarter not to sign Hill, Randolph and Carter in the first place. Though those veterans might not be thrilled with the direction of the franchise, at least they’re getting paid. And they should know their rest days far enough in advance to enjoy the reduced workloads.

Younger Kings – including De'Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Willie Cauley-Stein, Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere – should have a chance to spread their wings and grow. That could help down the road, when Sacramento has a chance to win meaningfully. This year, the difference between the fully operational Kings and tanking Kings is minimal on the court, but could make a huge difference in draft position.

As for Harry Giles, it’s strange how the Kings are touting him as fully healthy while shutting him down for the rest of the season. The best way to keep him his healthy is never play him. At some point, they must test him on the court. Perhaps, giving him even more time to strengthen his knee is the right approach. But if he needs this long, can really accurately be described as entirely healthy?

Report: LeBron James wins overall All-Star fan vote

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For the first time in a dozen years, a player has won the All-Star fan vote for consecutive years.

LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett have all taken turns as leader since Yao Ming claimed the vote lead in 2005 and 2006. Apparently, LeBron will retain the top spot he held last year.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

The fan vote means less than ever, with media and players also playing a role in who starts the All-Star game and a draft assigning players to teams. But the leading fan-vote-getter in each conference still matters, as those will be the captains for the draft.

LeBron will be one. Warriors Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry were neck-and-neck for the other captaincy.

Last I heard, the NBA was leaning toward giving the top overall fan-vote-getter the first pick in the All-Star draft, but that hadn’t been formally decided. So, it’ll probably be on LeBron to select his top choice among the other eight starters, who will be announced tonight. (All starters must be drafted first, so each team still has five starters.)

One more time: Let LeBron make that pick on television. He doesn’t mind.