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Three things we learned on Thursday: Boston improving, not at Cleveland’s level yet

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It’s the last “three things we learned” of 2016, we tried to make it a good one.

1) Boston is improving, finding its groove, but there is still a gap to Cleveland. Boston players may have tried to deny this was a measuring stick game in the run up to it, but this was a measuring stick game. After stumbling to start the season, the Celtics had won six of seven and looked more like the team we expected before the season — one on par with Toronto in the East’s second tier.

It didn’t look like that early on Thursday night. For three quarters, this was a blowout, with the Cavaliers offense carving up what has been lately a solid Celtics defense. Kyrie Irving was the head of the snake and finished with 32.

Cleveland was up 15 early in the fourth and seemed to be cruising in for the win before Boston started a comeback that eventually cut the lead all the way to one. Boston’s fourth quarter run was sparked by Marcus Smart/Tyler Zeller pick-and-rolls, which the Cleveland bench — specifically Channing Frye — struggled to stop when he had to switch. This was also an efficient night from Isaiah Thomas, who finished with 31 points on 8-of-13 shooting (he got to the free throw line 13 times).

Boston is showing signs of life, but they are not at Toronto’s level yet — and they are certainly not at Cleveland’s. Maybe the Celtics can get to a spot where they are a threat to the Raptors in the second round of the playoffs, the fourth quarter comeback shows that kind of spark, but the first three quarters reminds us of the real pecking order in the East.

2) Russell Westbrook gets ejected, and with it dreams of a Thunder comeback died. Oklahoma City Thunder was already down by 16 points to Memphis when Russell Westbrook lost it midway through the third quarter and got sent to the showers early. Meaning OKC was well on its way to racking up a loss. The ejection just killed the idea of a comeback, and the Thunder ended up getting beat by 34, 114-80.

The Oklahoma City Thunder star was ejected with 6:41 remaining in the third quarter after complaining during a trip to the free-throw line for the Memphis Grizzlies.

The first technical came after Andre Roberson fouled Memphis’ JaMychal Green — officials said after the game Westbrook was arguing about whether the ball had touched the rim before the foul, and he was hit with his first technical by Brian Forte for not relenting when the official said the discussion was over. That continued through the ensuing free throws, and finally, the officials had enough and gave Westbrook a second.

You can be sure a fine is coming for Westbrook, not for the ejection but his postgame comments.

As noted above, that was the end of any comeback, the Thunder have no offense to speak of without Westbrook on the court. He finished with 21 points, 5 rebounds, and no assists, but he is still averaging a triple double.

3) Another ugly second half shows how teams have adjusted to Lakers, and they have not progressed. That fast 10-10 start for the Lakers seems so very long ago. They have gone 2-14 since, a slide that began with some injuries but has morphed into much more than that — and there is a lot of frustration in the locker room. The Lakers have played slightly better of late as they have gotten healthy, but it’s hard to see a path to a lot of victories — they don’t have the defense, and they don’t have easy answers to how the league has adapted to them.

The latest evidence of that was Dallas — with no Dirk Nowitzki all game and no Andrew Bogut most of the second half — blowing out the Lakers after the break and winning 101-89 in Los Angeles.

On defense, the Lakers just do not have answers for teams that can attack with a good pick-and-roll and have athletes who can space the floor. Coach Luke Walton was frustrated with his team’s focus and effort after the game, and it’s hard to argue with him.

That said, the Lakers problems on defense or more than effort and focus — I’m not sure they have enough plus defenders out there to make a difference consistently anyway. They certainly could be better with more effort, but do they have the players to get the job done?

On offense, you don’t see the ball movement — or movement off the ball — needed to handle the pressure and ball denial tactics they are seeing. Try to pressure a good offense like defenses now pressure the Lakers and that offense responds with strong weak-side action, counters that open things up, and the ball moves to get good shots away from the pressure. The Lakers aren’t doing that, and they are not a team loaded with guys whose instinct is to pass like that anyway.

There is real frustration in Los Angeles with this team’s progress — from the players, the coaching staff, and the fans. But welcome to rebuilding — it’s a frustrating process. One that is long, has setbacks, and is just difficult all around. It takes time and patience. I think Charles Barkley may be right that despite all that talent the Lakers do not have a Top 10 player on that roster, something they will eventually need to get to contend for another banner. However, this core of potentially good to very good players — D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram in particular — have a ways to go before that kind of elite free agent thinks “I want to play with them.”

Bonus thing we learned Thursday: Dan D’Antoni gets it. Dan D’Antoni is the brother of Mike, a former NBA assistant coach who now coaches college ball at Marshall. But he gets it. And he shot down an old-school, pound-it-inside reporter beautifully.

Report: Suns inform Josh Jackson he will not be part of any Kyrie Irving trade

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The Cleveland Cavaliers want an elite young player back in any trade of Kyrie Irving.

The Phoenix Suns have come up as a trade partner, because of Eric Bledsoe‘s salary, fit with Cleveland if Irving is gone, and the fact he and LeBron James share an agent.

And those suns have an elite young player — Josh Jackson. Taken fourth in the last draft, Jackson showed fantastic athleticism at Summer League, disruptive defense, the ability to make plays around the rim, and while his jumper needs some work there is genuine promise.

Which is why the Suns are not going to include Jackson in any Irving trade.

If the Suns are involved in an Irving trade, it’s likely as part of a three-team deal. Bledsoe would still go out, and Phoenix might be willing to throw in young players such as Marquese Chriss or Dragan Bender, depending on what they got back.

That is the key — the return. Phoenix is rebuilding, Bledsoe is their best trade chip, and if he is going out the door, they are going to want real quality back in return. They are not in this to be a salary dump location, the Suns are going to want young players who can make a difference and picks. Most of the trade scenarios floating around in public forums use Phoenix as the dumping ground in the three- or four-team deals, just know that is not going to happen. The Suns want value for their best trade asset.

Rumor: Are these the new Cleveland Cavaliers Nike uniforms? (PHOTOS)

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Nike will be taking over the NBA uniforms for the 2017-18 season, and now it looks like we have some leaked photos of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ new look.

A photo posted to Twitter on Tuesday showed a mannequin dressed in what appears to be Cleveland’s new wine-colored uniforms.

Nike released some information about their new uniforms recently, including the naming conventions which will be associated with certain editions of team uniforms. Those editions are called The Association, The Icon, The Athlete’s Mindset, and The Community.

The wine edition of the Cleveland uniform would fall under the category of the Icon.

Via Twitter:

Those certainly seem to go along with some of the uniforms that were released during Nikes original release. It’s also hard understand why someone would have a full dress mock up on a mannequin with the Nike logo on it, especially as it is so close to what we have seen from Nike.

Conrad over at Sports Logos has been kind enough to mock up what the Cavaliers uniforms should look like for both the icon and association additions.

Via Sports Logos:

What do you think? I am liking them so far.

Mike Muscala signs 2-year, $10 million deal to remain with Hawks

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ATLANTA (AP) The Atlanta Hawks have re-signed power forward Mike Muscala to a two-year, $10 million deal.

The 6-foot-11 Muscala, who was an unrestricted free agent, could play a bigger role as he returns for his fifth season following the departures of Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard.

Muscala set career highs by averaging 6.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 70 games, including three starts, last season. He scored in double figures in 20 games and ranked second on the team by making 50.4 percent of his shots from the field.

The team announced the signing Tuesday.

More AP NBA: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

With Allen Crabbe in Brooklyn, what do the Blazers do now?

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Allen Crabbe is now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, this time for good.

The Portland Trail Blazers a traded Crabbe to the team that signed him to a massive four-year, $75 million restricted free agent deal in the summer of 2016. In exchange for Crabbe’s services, the Trail Blazers received Andrew Nicholson, a struggling young big man who the Blazers will reportedly waive using the stretch provision.

The move gets Portland closer to the tax line, shaving off and estimated $43 million off of their luxury tax bill. That’s the primary motivation for this trade of a young, talented 3-point shooter and it sort of begs the question: Just what are the Blazers doing?

To understand the Crabbe trade in context, you have to go back to last summer. Portland was in the hunt for several big name players, including Pau Gasol, Hassan Whiteside, and Chandler Parsons.

Portland, never a big free agent destination, missed out on all three, instead having to panic at the last second. The Nets extended a huge offer sheet to Crabbe on July 7, the same day that Portland agreed to a similarly huge contract with Evan Turner.

With their free agent targets gone, Portland had to do the next best thing: retain talent.

After signing Turner, the Blazers matched Crabbe a few days later. They also signed contracts with Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless, and extended C.J. McCollum. Between Turner, Leonard, Harkless, and McCollum the Blazers have committed $62 million to just four players in 2017-18. That’s after wiping Crabbe’s $19 million off the books.

There’s little doubt President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey has been trying to find trade suitors for Crabbe once he got past the RFA trade moratorium. Likewise, the team seems to have soured on Leonard, coming off of a shoulder injury and who told NBC Sports last season that he didn’t feel fully healthy until the end of winter.

The team was massively disappointing compared to their magical run in 2015-16. Still, there hasn’t been reason to panic in Oregon given that Olshey’s plan with this team since last summer was to swap their assets for a powerful starting lineup.

That plan began to flounder when Crabbe didn’t play up to expectations and when Leonard and Harkless didn’t show continued growth on expectations from seasons past.

Crabbe is an excellent 3-point shooter, but he is also thought of as a potentially great defender. In 2016-17 he looked lost at times on defense, especially when it came to defending top-level players or when he was in weak side situations off the ball. His value plateaued.

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That’s to state nothing of the rest of the team’s performance, specifically by Al-Farouq Aminu. Aminu was vastly important to Portland’s bottom-feeding defense, but he became a liability as a 3-point shooter, allowing teams to help off of the pick-and-roll involving Lillard and McCollum. Turner, never a good fit on paper, didn’t really figure out how to play with the team until he returned from injury later in the season. Rumors around Portland have been that Turner has been favored over Crabbe to remain with the team because of the ball-handling relief he could bring to Lillard and McCollum. Jusuf Nurkic came at the deadline, and was a savior for the team until he fractured his leg late in the year.

Portland’s first cause for concern came during June’s draft. Olshey, flush with three first round draft picks, a burgeoning guard in Crabbe, and several players with deflated trade value, could not find a suitable deal. Olshey had to settle, trading two of his first round picks to move up and take Gonzaga’s Zach Collins as Leonard’s replacement.

That move signaled that Portland’s assets weren’t as valuable as Olshey was hoping they would be. Part of that is due to the performance of the players involved, and part was due to the lower standing of Portland’s draft picks. There’s also something to be said about the NBA’s cap not expanding to the level teams projected, making the salaries of Turner, Crabbe, Leonard, and Harkless less palatable.

This is how we end up with a talented but flawed young player like Crabbe getting moved for a salary dump.

No doubt Olshey’s expectation when he matched — which was the right thing to do, by the way — was to use him and his picks in a future deal to return a third or fourth piece to the starting lineup for Portland. But the tone has swung, and now many are suggesting it was commendable that Olshey did not have to include a first round pick in order to offload Crabbe. That is really a head-scratching way to look at things, and a huge swing in expected value.

Portland is in a tough position given that none of their recommended moves from last year seem to have gone their way. Still, Olshey has been a good GM for the Blazers. He spun wheat into gold by trading for Robin Lopez, and grabbed Nurkic, a potential franchise building block center when he’s healthy for a non-championship caliber big man in Mason Plumlee. He locked down Aminu on a descending salary deal. He has done quite a bit.

Portland still has the ability to be a trade partner in deals including Carmelo Anthony, which could net them usable players or potential future assets. But what is getting harder to understand is how Portland is going to get any better outside of the roster they have now given salary considerations, team fit, and ceiling.

Drastic internal development or relenting on either Turner or the Lillard-McCollum backcourt pairing are likely the only two realistic ways the Blazers will be able to make a dent next year. Or perhaps fans in Portland can hope that Olshey will be able to work his magic yet again and turn one of their role players into a playoff spot.

The 2017-18 season has been weird enough as it is. Portland can head south of their competition or finagle their way to the postseason. At this point, neither would surprise me.