Extra Pass: Minnesota Timberwolves and defining clutch

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The Minnesota Timberwolves just can’t win close games.

Trailing the Phoenix Suns by eight points in the fourth quarter Tuesday night, Minnesota exploded for a  24-6 run in a 110-101 win.

Yet, the Timberwolves remain 1-12 in games decided by four or fewer points – by far the worst mark in the NBA. If only they hadn’t played so well down the stretch, they could have improved that record Tuesday.

Instead, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Corey Brewer and Shabazz Muhammad (yes, really) dismantled the Suns so thoroughly, the game – which was separated by a single point as late as 2:19 remaining – no longer qualified as close.

It’s extremely difficult to discern which players are actually clutch, and it’d be easy to point to Minnesota’s 1-12 record in close games and say this group of players isn’t. And maybe they aren’t.

But they sure looked to be Tuesday. Rubio controlled the tempo. Love showed his versatile inside-outside game. Muhammad hit the glass and ran the floor hard. Brewer made strong cuts to put himself in scoring position. They just played really well until Phoenix was extinguished.

Then again, maybe they just ran into a team that’s as un-clutch as they are. The Suns are 4-8 in games decided by four or fewer. (Still, it’s not as if Tuesday’s contest counted.)

If you want to judge Phoenix and Minnesota by their records in such games, though, you also must judge every team that way. Sure, you’ll have no issue ranking the San Antonio Spurs (9-1) the NBA’s most clutch team, but are you really ready to ride with the second-place Philadelphia 76ers (8-2)?

All season, the Timberwolves have excelled in point difference – historically a strong indicator of a team’s true ability – and struggled in the standings. It’s a result of dropping so many close games but winning most of their lopsided contests.

Their latest “non-clutch” win makes their record 28-29 and puts them 5.5 games back from the eight-place Suns. At this point in the season, Minnesota’s playoff hopes are extremely faint. Even if the rest of the season goes as point difference suggest it should – with the Timberwolves playing the seventh-best team in the Western Conference – they’ve likely already dug themselves into too deep a hole.

Announcement: Pro Basketball Talk’s partner FanDuel is hosting a one-day $120,000 Fantasy Basketball league for Wednesday night’s games. It’s $25 to join and first prize is $13,000. Starts at 7pm ET on Wednesday. Here’s the FanDuel link.

Tuesday’s result will delay it by a day, but when Minnesota is eventually eliminated from playoff contention, poor clutch play will surely be blamed. But was that really the case, or did the Timberwolves just randomly fail in a small sample of close games?

Understanding the clutch is extremely difficult, and I don’t think we’re near the point of doing it. If you watched Tuesday’s game, you know the Timberwolves were clutch. But when you examine comprehensive clutch stats for the season, it won’t show up.

Before we declare which teams are and aren’t clutch, we need a better measuring stick.

Sprained ankle has LeBron James questionable for opener vs. Celtics

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James‘ playing status for Tuesday’s season opener against Boston remains unclear.

James has been slowed by a sprained left ankle for more than two weeks and it’s still not known whether he’ll be on the floor when the Cavaliers take on the Celtics and Kyrie Irving, who asked to be traded by Cleveland this summer.

Following Monday’s practice, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said “I really don’t know” when asked if James will play.

James took part in some post-practice shooting drills with teammates. He did not speak with the media as the Cavaliers prepared for their opener, a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference finals.

James has never missed an opener in his NBA career, and teammate J.R. Smith doesn’t expect him to miss this one.

“Oh, he’s going to go,” Smith said. “He’s going to go, trust me that. I don’t care what he’s got to do, he’s going to play.”

 

Report: Richard Jefferson signing with Nuggets

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Update: The Nuggets will waive Jameer Nelson, according to Wojnarowski:

It looks like Denver will ride with the younger Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard — a risky proposition. Nelson stabilized the position in the event Murray or Mudiay weren’t ready for bigger roles. The Nuggets aren’t hedging their bets now, which puts plenty of pressure on Murray and Mudiay.

Murray should be fine eventually. Mudiay’s promise is far less certain. But this is a team trying to reach the playoffs now, and it might have to ride out growing pains from its point guards without Nelson as a safety net.

 

Richard Jefferson became a late entrant into free agency when the Cavaliers traded him and the Hawks waived him.

But the forward is landing on his feet.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Jefferson could help the Nuggets, who look primed to end a four-season playoff drought. They were set to squeeze backup small-forward minutes behind Wilson Chandler out of the undersized Will Barton and oversized Juan Hernangomez. Jefferson is far more comfortable at the position.

He’s 37 and doesn’t offer long-term upside, but he’s a savvy defender and still pretty athletic. He picks his spots well enough offensively to help on that end, too.

But Denver also has a deep roster that already had 15 players on standard contracts. There’s not an obvious cut to make room for Jefferson, though the Nuggets clearly have something planned.

Sixers to keep Joel Embiid’s minutes in teens to start season, he’s not happy

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Joel Embiid wants to get on the court, he wants to unleash himself on the NBA this season. After three seasons of being bottled up — even in the 31 games he has played there was a minutes restriction — Embiid wants to impose his will on the league.

He’s going to have to do that in less than 20 minutes a night, at least to start the season.

Sixers coach Brett Brown says to start the season there will be a tight minutes limit on Embiid, who averaged less than 15 minutes in two preseason games after finally being cleared to play. Embiid does not like that. Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia has the quotes.

“I don’t really know if there’s a solid number,” Brett Brown said Monday after practice. “I can tell if you were to choose a number, it’s somewhere in the teens.”

“I didn’t know about that, but that’s very disappointing,” Embiid said Monday of the minutes restriction. “I feel great and hopefully that changes based on today’s practice and tomorrow’s practice.”

The Sixers being cautious with Embiid is about as surprising as the last Transformers movie sucking.

That said, if any particular game is close going into the fourth quarter don’t be shocked if Embiid breaks his minutes limit — this is a team that wants to start winning, and that means keeping their best players on the court longer. If Saturday night against the Raptors Brett Brown thinks giving Embiid 22-23 minutes helps get them the win, he will. The goal will be to get him up to the high 20s by the end of the season.

The real test for these Sixers will not be how the offense fairs with Embiid sitting — they have guys that can create and knock down shots if needed, such as Ben Simmons or J.J. Redick – instead it’s how well they can defend with him resting.

Report: Spurs signing LaMarcus Aldridge to two-year, $50 million contract extension

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From troubled to extended, LaMarcus Aldridge‘s Spurs tenure has changed directions in a hurry.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Piecing this together, Aldridge is exercising a $22,347,015 player option for 2018-19. That means his extension is worth $50 million over two years will carry him through age 35. All in all, Aldridge is now under contract for four more seasons.

Aldridge is a borderline All-Star, and he raises San Antonio’s floor. His back-to-the-bask mid-range games remains reliable, and he’s a willing defender. Him signing this deal should end pining for greener pastures, but it certainly won’t force him into diligent acceptance of his role forever. Players can become discontent whenever they please.

This extension significantly limits the Spurs flexibility the next two summers and maybe even in 2020, depending on Aldridge’s guarantee in the second year of his extension. They seem fine with that, perhaps believing they already have enough to topple the Warriors if Kawhi Leonard is healthy.

With Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Patty Mills all under contract for the few years around Leonard, San Antonio should remain stably good. But will these deals for aging veterans limit the Spurs’ ceiling? That’s the risk for an organization that has built its identity on championships and already has a young, in-his-prime superstar who has proven capable of being the best player on a title team.