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Detroit Pistons still struggling to find a groove

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) In their final game before an unusual four-day break in their schedule, all the Detroit Pistons needed to do was win at home against a struggling Sacramento team.

A victory would have given the Pistons their first four-game winning streak of the season and sent them into the layoff on a positive note. Instead, Detroit blew an early 11-point lead and lost 109-104 on Monday night.

“They just seemed like they wanted it more,” forward Marcus Morris said.

The Pistons are having a hard time finding a groove in 2016-17. The loss dropped Detroit to 21-25, and the Pistons remain caught up in a logjam of mediocrity in the middle of the Eastern Conference. Heading into Tuesday night, there were six teams in the East between 23-22 and 20-26, all scrambling for the last few playoff spots. Detroit was 1 + games behind the No. 8 slot it occupied last season, when the Pistons made the postseason for the first time since 2009.

There’s still plenty of time for the Pistons to climb in the standings, but for a franchise that’s trying to build excitement in advance of its move from Auburn Hills to downtown Detroit next season, missing the playoffs would obviously be a step back.

“We play 82 games. They’re all crucial,” coach Stan Van Gundy said recently. “You’ve got to get wins – and enough of them, or as many of them as you can. I don’t think one stretch stands out from another stretch.”

Van Gundy was making the claim that at this point in the season, no one game or set of games is necessarily more important than any other. As if to prove his point, the Pistons beat conference rival Washington at the buzzer on Saturday night for their third straight win, then squandered a good chance when they lost to Sacramento .

Detroit has been building around center Andre Drummond and point guard Reggie Jackson. The Pistons were without Jackson for the first 21 games of the season because of his knee problems, but they actually went 11-10 without him. About a week after his return, Detroit went into a tailspin, dropping eight of their final 10 games in December.

Jackson and Drummond are both scoring less this season. Jackson’s average has dipped from 18.8 points a game to 16.9, and Drummond’s has fallen from 16.2 to 14.2. The Pistons are averaging only 9.9 offensive rebounds, down from 12.5 a season ago. The drop in second-chance points has been similar, from 14.9 a game (second-most in the league last season) to 12.7.

Detroit’s schedule has been grueling at times. The Pistons have played 24 road games – nobody in the East has had more. Their four-day layoff this week should offer a chance to rest and refocus, but it’s an odd break.

“I don’t know why our schedule’s the way it is, but it’s sort of messed up,” Van Gundy said.

The Pistons have looked better in January. They salvaged a 2-3 record on a tough road trip out west, and their first game back home last week was a 118-95 rout of Atlanta in which Detroit outscored the Hawks 42-18 in the first quarter. The Pistons followed that up by beating the Wizards 113-112 on a buzzer-beating tip-in by Morris. It was an emotional victory over a Washington team that has been playing well.

Then, an eminently winnable game against Sacramento slipped away. The Kings have won only two of their last 10 games, and both were against the Pistons.

“We’ve got to come out and we’ve got to approach every game the same way,” Morris said. “For some reason, against Sacramento, I don’t know what it is, our toughness is not there. … We just beat a couple good teams that are on good runs, so we’re capable. The good teams in the league, they take care of business.”

Twins Marcus, Markieff Morris each fined by league for separate instances

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Twins Marcus and Markieff Morris have a special bond, one that includes doing so much together on the basketball court — playing at the same high school, the same AAU team, then going to college together at Kansas, and even playing together in the NBA for a while together with the Suns (they are now on separate teams).

That includes them both getting fined Saturday by the NBA for recent actions during the playoffs.

Washington’s Markieff Morris picked up a $25,000 fine for “attempting to escalate an altercation and pushing a game official,” the league announced. Here is the play in question, just minutes into Game 3.

Toronto’s OG Anunoby draws a foul knocking Morris to the ground, but Morris starts the incident with an elbow to Anunoby’s back, and he does push referee Kenny Mauer. Considering all that, a $25,000 fine is not that severe.

His twin Marcus Morris picked up a $15,000 for “public criticism of the officiating,” which he certainly did following the Celtics’ Game 3 loss to the Bucks. Here are his comments, and they are NSFW.

That $15,000 fine is pretty much the going rate for ripping the referees after the game.

Markieff outdid his brother on this one… if you consider getting the larger fine the “win.”

As expected, likely top-three pick Luka Doncic files to enter NBA draft

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Luka Doncic — the 6’8″ point forward who is putting up impressive numbers against men at the highest levels of European basketball — is bringing is game to the NBA. As expected.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports said the expected is now official.

Doncic, 19, submitted draft paperwork this week to formally enter his name, league sources said. Doncic is arguably the most decorated European player to make a jump to the NBA, a wunderkind who’s been playing in the EuroLeague since 2015. He is currently leading Real Madrid in the EuroLeague playoffs, averaging 14.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists this season.

The 6-foot-7 Doncic has the ability to play multiple positions, from being a primary ball-handler to shooting and playmaking off the ball. His season in Europe could continue into late May or June. NBA executives have long been intrigued by Doncic’s potential stardom, and several are continuing to make scouting trips for him.

Doncic is expected to go in the top three (likely the top two) come this June’s draft.

If you’re about to bring up Darko Milicic or some other European bust, just stop. This Slovenian has proven he can play — in 54 games this season between Liga ACB (Spain’s league, second best in the NBA) and the Euroleague, Doncic is averaging 14.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists a game. He has shown a gift for passing that should blossom in the more open play of the NBA, plus he just knows how to run a team and make plays. He can score when called upon and has three-point range, can shoot off the bounce, and if you switch a smaller guy onto him, Doncic can just post him up.

He’s not going to be a bust.

However, what his ceiling is remains the debate. He’s not an elite athlete by NBA standards who has struggled at points for Real Madrid when guarded by borderline-NBA level Americans in Europe. Can he defend at the NBA level? Can he be consistent with his jumper? He may be elite, but it’s no given.

He’s going to be good, and his floor is higher than a lot of the other top prospects in this draft class. However, if a GM thinks that Marvin Bagley III or Mohamed Bamba both have a higher ceiling and can reach it, they may go with the Americans. Doncic is going to put some GMs in an interesting position.

Ben Simmons earns triple-double, Sixers own fourth to win Game 4 vs. Heat, take 3-1 lead

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Joel Embiid’s biggest battle in Game 4 was with his mask — he hates that thing. A couple of times Saturday he tried to sneak into the game with it off, only to force Brett Brown to be the parent and threaten to bench him if he didn’t put it on immediately (winning Game 4 is not worth risking permanent eye/vision damage). Embiid was also battling his offensive game at times, still looking a little rusty.

More importantly, Embiid was also battling the Heat in the paint — when he was in the game Miami struggled to get good looks inside, allowing Sixers defenders to more aggressively challenge shooters on the wings.

That — and Ben Simmons’ triple-double — sparked a comeback from 12 late in the third as the Sixers held on to take Game 4 106-102, and that gives Philly a commanding 3-1 series lead heading back to the City of Brotherly Love for Game 5.

Simmons is the first rookie since Magic Johnson in 1980 to post a triple-double in the playoffs, with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

This was the nail in the coffin of the Heat’s season — if the Sixers turn the ball over 26 times, shoot 7-of-31 from three and still win on the road, the Heat are overmatched.

For much of the game, Miami did not look overmatched in the least and this looked like a game they could win.

Miami brought the defense in this game, and they did it by getting physical and using their length to force turnovers — through three quarters the Sixers had turned the ball over on 28.2 percent of their possessions, more than one in four trips down the court. Miami also did a better job contesting threes in this game, and the Sixers struggled from there all game (22.6 percent from deep).

The physicality led to a chippy game.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

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Miami led by a dozen late in the third, but Philadelphia closed the third on a run and carried over to the fourth, a 14-0 run that put the Heat in front as they found their defense. Ersan Ilyasova was key in that stretch with a driving and-one and the next time down the court a three, two plays that changed the momentum of the game.

All series long, the Sixers have been the better team down the stretch — which is unexpected for a young team taking on a more veteran squad. Now that we’re four games in, this is a thing.

In Game 4, the Sixers kept running “horns” sets and the Heat seemed to have no answers. Then late with the game on the line Miami had a couple of terrible defensive breakdowns, one allowing Simmons a clear path to the basket without help rotations that led to a dunk, and the other was Hassan Whiteside not going out to challenge J.J. Redick in the corner and letting him have a clean look (Redick’s foot was on the line so the expected three was a two, but still).

Meanwhile, Joel Embiid owned the paint on defense. When he sat for a little fourth quarter rest, Brett Brown went to the “Ben Simmons and shooters” lineup that was so effective through the final eight games of the season for them when Embiid was out, and that worked. The Sixers kept executing and getting the shots they wanted, the Heat kept hoping Dwyane Wade would bail them out again. He couldn’t, despite a strong 25 point game. Miami also shot itself in the foot going 13-of-25 from the free throw line for the game.

Redick had 24 for the Sixers, while Embiid had 14 points and 12 rebounds. Goran Dragic had 20 points for Miami, and James Johnson added 15.

Tempers flare in chippy Game 4 between Heat, Sixers

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Miami is a physical defensive team, and in Game 4 at home Saturday they cranked that up. The Heat also are a handsy team they clutch, grab, hold, and get away with what they can (that isn’t new to this playoff series).

The Sixers are getting weary of it, and in a game with plenty of double technicals thanks to the referees trying to keep control. The game bubbled over a little midway through the second quarter when Robert Covington made sure Goran Dragic didn’t get off a shot after a foul.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

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Ben Simmons also leaned into Wade on a screen and pancaked him. But drew a foul.

😅

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Miami had the lead after three, but the Sixers have owned the games late this series. It’s going to go down to the wire.