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Three things we learned on Sunday: D’Angelo Russell is growing up before our eyes

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LOS ANGELES — Here is what you missed in the NBA Sunday while trying to figure out what theater was playing “Hidden Fences”….

1) Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell maturing, evolving into leader Lakers need. Luke Walton sees it. D’Angelo Russell admits it. Anyone watching the second-year point guard play recently can see it — there is a little something different about him the last five games. It’s sort of there in the stats — 20.8 points per game, 39.7 percent shooting from three, 5.2 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1.4 turnovers per game in his last five — but it’s more more than that.

There is a maturity to Russell’s game that is growing, a confidence as the game slows down for him and his ability to be the floor general the Lakers have counted on comes to the fore.

“Just the way he’s been controlling the game and running his position has been really good…” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said Sunday night after Russell had 17 points (on 7-of-10 shooting), 8 rebounds, 7 assists, and three steals leading a Laker win over the Magic.. “D’Angelo’s recommitted himself in the weight room. He’s been in there multiple times a week with his strength coach.”

Russell credits his improved play to his developing a real routine — like he’s seen veterans from Kobe Bryant to Lou Williams have.

“Luke kind of notified it to me, just said I should try (having a steady routine), and I did,” Russell said, adding this started four or five games ago. “I didn’t have a routine, I told you about that. The same routine after practice, after shootaround, just the same routine, the same schedule every day. It’s just been very successful for me, my aggression, just everything is more comfortable….

“I’m maturing,” Russell said. “Trying to make sure I treat the game right, come with that approach every day. It’s a habit, it’s a learning habit that we’re picking up.”

With his routine — and just getting steady run and responsibility this season, rather than being jerked around — you can tell his confidence is growing, and that the game has slowed down for Russell. He is seeing floor and making right play far more often than not. He’s figuring out what he can do well — he’s making clever pocket passes, he’s using his size as a point guard to post up smaller guys.

Make no mistake, Russell still has plenty to learn. He got stripped a couple of times late by D.J. Augustin when he tried to force things. Russell’s drives tend to be pretty straight-line and he needs to develop a larger variety of ways to score inside once he gets into the paint (a floater would help, for example). However, Russell is making strides of late this season — which in some ways is his first season being taught what to do, considering the “I’ll bench you, figure it out for yourself” coaching from Byron Scott last year.

The Lakers have seen rookie Brandon Ingram score a career-best 17 points in consecutive games (including vs. Orlando). Jordan Clarkson excites with his hustle and athleticism. They miss Larry Nance Jr. in the rotation. But if the Lakers are going to make a leap with this young core, it’s going to be led by Russell. He’s showing signs now he can do that.

2) James Harden is making his MVP case: Another triple-double, eighth-straight Rockets win. Russell Westbrook’s case for being MVP is obvious — he’s averaging a triple-double this season, and when he goes to the bench the Thunder offense looks like a D-League team. But James Harden is putting up crazy numbers as well — 28.2 points, 11.8 assists, and 8.2 rebounds a game — and his team is winning more games. That frames the MVP question:

The Rockets are on pace for 63 wins currently, if they win around 60 and Harden keeps up this pace, and the Thunder win fewer than 50 games, does Harden beat out Westbrook for the MVP?

It’s too early to answer that question, but Harden made his case Sunday night against a very good Toronto team. Harden had a triple double — 40 points (on 26 shots), 11 assists, and 10 rebounds. He shot 7-of-9 at the rim, and 4-of-9 from three. He was the best player on the floor and the Rockets look like the kind of team that could make the conference finals (a Spurs/Rockets second round series would be fun).

3) Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s three gives Pistons second-straight one point win. And they’ll take it. Detroit had stumbled, losing eight of 10 and falling out of the playoff picture in the East. Stan Van Gundy was grasping at anything that could spark his team, to turn the season back around.

A couple of one-point wins may have done it. First was the one in Charlotte on Thursday.

Sunday’s came via a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope three.

Detroit had almost won in regulation then in the first overtime in Portland, but C.J. McCollum was hitting shots to extend the game.

In the second OT, there were 11.6 seconds left and the Pistons trailed 124-122. On the inbounds play Caldwell-Pope came off a little screen to go down by the baseline, waited for a second, and while Allen Crabbe ball watched KCP made a sharp cut to the arc, Andre Drummond set enough of a pick to slow Crabbe a little more, and Caldwell-Pope got off a clean three. Ballgame.

Drummond had 26 points and 13 rebounds in the win. With the victory the Pistons are now 1.5 games out of the playoffs in the East. This is the kind of win that can help reignite a struggling team. (Portland remains tied with the Kings for the eight seed in the West, with New Orleans, Denver, and now even the Los Angeles Lakers within two games.) We will see if a couple of dramatic wins can resuscitate the Pistons’ playoff hopes.

BONUS thing we liked Sunday: Chris Paul in full point god mode against Heat. That man is just not fair. There was this move.

And this.

And with that the Clippers have won four in a row.

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.