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‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

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When the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, he named his rookie goals: “Get to the playoffs, go for the championship.” But the NBA humbled the young player, as Sacramento went just 24-58 and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year. Cousins emerged for his second season resolute on a more-modest goal: “Playoffs. We’ve got to make the playoffs this year. It’s not even a goal. It’s basically in our contract, I believe. So, we’ve got to make the playoffs this year.”

Five seasons later, Cousins is still chasing that elusive postseason trip.

“It’s eating me alive,” Cousins said. “Every loss or every time another team wins in battling for the eighth spot, it’s eating me alive. Our only goal is to be in the playoffs this season.”

A depressing chase for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, where every team in the race is at least seven games under .500, has opened the door for the 17-27 Kings. They’re 1.5 games and three teams out of playoff position – a more daunting challenge than often realized. Not only must they play better, they must hope a couple teams ahead of them don’t also heat up. 538 gives Sacramento just a 5% chance of reaching the postseason, and ESPN is even more pessimistic at 3.8%.

Beginning his career with seven straight lottery trips would be another crushing blow to Cousins, who has built a credible case as the NBA’s best center. Greg Monroe is the only current player with more win shares who hasn’t reached the playoffs:

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Nobody nears Cousins besides Monroe, and the next-closest player, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, likely makes the playoffs this year. Monroe leads in win shares, because he entered the league more polished than Cousins and built a head start (and because this stat probably inflates’ Monroe’s contributions relative to Cousins’.) Monroe has never neared Cousins’ peak, and Monroe is now a backup for the Bucks. The only thing second-team about Cousins is his two All-NBA appearances.

Kevin Love is the only other player since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA teams before his first playoff season. He, of course, left the Timberwolves for the Cavaliers to escape lists like these.

On the other hand, there have been indications from both sides Cousins will soon sign a veteran-designated-player contract extension projected to be worth more than $219 million over five years. Staying in Sacramento and playing for owner Vivek Ranadive seems like the surest bet to keep Cousins’ postseason drought active.

Cousins already ranks in the top 25 all-time in win shares before a player’s first playoff season (which doesn’t count this season, because playoff teams aren’t yet determined):

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Cousins has 5.2 win shares this season and counting. Missing the playoffs again would launch him into the top 10 of this dubious list – and he could keep climbing.

Not only do the Kings face daunting odds to reach the postseason this year, it’s difficult to project them into the playoffs for the foreseeable future. Years of roster mismanagement have taken a toll.

Since drafting Cousins, Sacramento has held top-10 picks every year. Those have netted on draft night: Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic – who’ve combined for a measly 2.2 win shares this season. And most of those win shares come from Stauskas and Robinson, who no longer play for the Kings.

In fact, Stauskas was sent out in a disastrous trade that gives the 76ers swap rights on Sacramento’s 2017 first-rounder* and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder.

*The Kings’ first-round pick must fall in the top 10 to be swap-eligible. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulls, the result of another botched trade.

Sacramento has also recently struck out on major free agents and then settled for Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson. That adds up to one mediocre supporting cast.

Meanwhile, Cousins is better than ever. He has taken a larger offensive burden, including as a distributor and suddenly dangerous 3-point shooter, while cutting down his turnover rate. Defenders are often overmatched, and they foul him more than anyone in the league. And while Cousins’ defense comes and goes, it can be quite impressive while he’s locked in.

The result is a team that plays at a 41-win pace with Cousins on the floor and a 17-win pace when he sits, continuing a disparity seen over the last few years. Hera are the Kings win paces over 82 games with Cousins on (purple) and off (black):

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Obviously, teams generally play better with their stars and starters on the court, and Cousins is a star who usually shares the court with other starters. But this gap is particularly egregious, and Cousins’ fellow starters have underwhelmed.

So, more and more falls on Cousins’ shoulders.

Playing for his sixth head coach and third general manager in seven seasons, Cousins sets the tone for the Kings, for better or worse. He plays with a unique rage, sneering resentfully at anyone who gets in his way on the court – like players trying to defend him or referees, gasp, calling a foul on him. He leads the league with 12 technical fouls and is on pace to get (at least) 16 and an automatic suspension, which he also triggered last year.

His highs are incredibly high and his lows are unnecessarily low.

That moodiness has frustrated coaches and teammates, but it also sometimes works himself and his teammates into a productive frenzy. Sacramento usually plays passionately, which is both to its credit and a sign of a talent scarcity considering the team still loses so frequently.

“I’m still confident,” Cousins said, “and I still believe we’re going to make that push for the playoffs.”

For the last few years, Cousins has looked unstoppable while the Kings have been quite easily stoppable. He’s trying to drag the franchise up with him, but optimism and desire might not be enough. At a certain point we must ask: What more can Cousins do?

Frustrated Gregg Popovich calls all three referees “f****** blind”

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The Spurs completed an amazing comeback win against the Thunder Friday night, coming from 23 down to knock off the Thunder when Carmelo Anthony‘s game-tying three was just a two because his toe was on the line.

Gregg Popovich was into this one.

So much so that when he didn’t like an out-of-bounds call he made sure all three officials knew exactly how blind he thought they were.

The best part of this is Popovich covering his eyes, just to really emphasize his point.

We’re really going to miss Pop when he steps away to live at a winery full time.

Lakers/Suns have minor skirmish, Lonzo Ball just walks away

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If you’re on the court when your team gets in an NBA “fight” — what the rest of us would call a shoving match where nobody really wants to throw a punch — should you run into the fray and help your teammates?

Friday night, with just more than three minutes to go in Phoenix’s eventual win, the Suns called a timeout, and Tyler Ulis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got in one of those silly shoving matches. Players from both teams raced into the fray to protect their teammate/break it up.

The Suns’ rookie Josh Jackson picked up a technical for his role racing in and escalating the matter.

Watch the video again, and you’ll see Lakers’ rookie Lonzo Ball just walk away from it all and head to the bench.

That has led to criticism of the rookie from some Lakers’ fans, who see a guy who didn’t rush in to protect his teammates — that’s seen as part of the sports locker room culture. A “band of brothers” or “us against the world” mentality. Ball, frankly, gave a more mature answer than that.

Ball is right, nothing was going to come of this. It was meaningless posturing. Walking away was the mature move.

However, the question is how is this perceived in the Lakers’ locker room? Do the players care that Ball shrugged and walked away? Do they think he needed to race in and try to look tough like everyone else? That can impact his standing on the team — as a guy Magic Johnson brought in to be a leader — more than anything.

Also, with all his shooting woes, is this the first sign of some Lakers fans starting to turn on Lonzo? It’s a little early for that.

Harrison Barnes offers advice for Dennis Smith Jr., Julius Randle

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For a guy in just his sixth NBA season, Harrison Barnes has seen a lot.

He has seen the mountaintop, having won a ring as a role player for the Golden State Warriors. He’s also has felt the devastation of being on a team that historically blew a 3-1 NBA Finals lead. He’s been a high school phenom — unfairly compared to Kobe Bryant — and a high draft pick (No. 7), he understands the pressures that come with all that. He’s played (and plays) with superstar future Hall of Famers. And he’s been the guy pushed aside by a team, despite playing well, to make room for one of those superstar players — the harsh business reality of the NBA.

Barnes is learning something new this season in Dallas — how to deal with losing. He never dealt with it before — not high school, AAU, college at North Carolina — but the Dallas Mavericks are 2-14, and while they struggled last year it was nothing like this.

“It’s been difficult,” Barnes told NBC Sports about the start of the season, “but I’ve definitely seen a lot of highs, seen a lot of lows, I’m just trying to get better and lead my team to some wins.”

With all that experience, Barnes was brought in to be a leader in Dallas, and he’s worked to do that on and off the court. Off the court, he has met with local high school players and donated gear he wears — Shock Doctor basketball mouthguards and McDavid HEX protective arm and leg sleeves — to those programs. 

On the court this year, he’s tried to blend his game with rookie Dennis Smith Jr., who the Mavs see as the future at the point guard spot.

“Playing with Dennis has been great,” Barnes said. “He’s got a lot of tools that will help him be a great guy in the league for a long time. So the transition, in terms of playing together and developing chemistry, hasn’t been hard at all. I think he’s very mature beyond his years, and that makes it easy.”

As a leader, his advice to Smith Jr. has just been to not hold back, trust his instincts.

“My advice is to always be aggressive in your decision making,” Barnes said. “Whether it’s ‘should I pass?’ or ‘should I shoot?’ should I do this or should I do that, whatever it is, be aggressive. Because right now as a team, we’re in a little bit of a rut, we just need energy. Whatever it may be, even if you’re making the wrong play or the wrong decision, do it with conviction so there’s some inertia and the rest of us can feed off it.”

With the young high school players around Dallas his advice is similar — go for what you want on and off the court, give it your all — but he adds with them they need to protect their bodies in an increasingly physical game.

“Today I was able to go to Lincoln High School, meet with the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams, and I was able to donate some Shock Doctor basketball mouthguards and McDavid HEX protective arm and leg sleeves to the young kid, and talk to them about protecting your body when you’re out there,” Barnes said. “The game is becoming more physical and more competitive at a younger age, and the best ability is availability.”

If there’s one guy in the NBA who can relate to Barnes’ path, it might be the Lakers’ Julius Randle.

The fourth-year big has been up and down but has gotten better every season and shown promise with the Lakers, putting up 11.4 points per game on 54.3 percent shooting this season (both career highs, although his jumper still needs work), plus grabbing 6.7 rebounds, but mostly he brings energy and physical, strong defense  in just 20 minutes a game off the bench. He has transformed his body, gotten leaner but stronger, and has done a good job filling a role for Los Angeles as a physical, defensive player in a league going small and getting skinnier

Randle is coming up on the end of his rookie contract next summer and is due a payday, he thought he was part of the franchise’s future, yet he is likely the odd man out in Los Angeles as the Lakers chase big name free agents. Randle’s name is a staple of trade talks (about moving Luol Deng and his contract).

Harrison Barnes can relate. He was swept out of Golden State to make room for that team’s successful run at Kevin Durant.

What would Barnes tell Randle?

“My advice is to focus on what is going to be the best for you,” Barnes said. “Focus on where you can grow as a player, get better, where you would thrive in. Whether or not he ends up in the same place or a different place, just make sure you’re in a situation where you can grow. That’s the most important thing because a lot of things are going to be out of his control, who decides to go where and that type of stuff, but as long as he focuses on getting better with his craft that’s the one thing he can control.”

That’s what Barnes did a couple seasons ago, and he ended up in Dallas with a big contract, a big opportunity, and a chance to be a leader. He’s trying to do that on a team transitioning out of the Dirk Nowitzki era, but it hasn’t been easy.

And it’s come with some harsh new lessons. Like dealing with losing. One Barnes and the Mavericks want to move past as quickly as they can.

Watch LeBron James score 39 to lead comeback win over Clippers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James knows about the narrative bouncing around the NBA that Cleveland can be dethroned in the East.

He’s ignoring it, and slowly changing it.

“You know I could care less what people say,” James said. “I’m so far beyond that. I don’t care what people say.”

Just to make sure everyone understood him, James asked his two sons waiting for him in Cleveland’s locker room to chime in on whether he was concerned about outside voices.

The boys had dad’s back.

James had another of those games that he only seems capable of, scoring 39 points with 14 rebounds in 46 minutes as the Cavaliers continued to improve from a shaky start with their fourth straight win, 118-113 in overtime on Friday night over the skidding Los Angeles Clippers, who dropped their seventh in a row.

Kevin Love scored 25 and drained a pair of 3-pointers in OT, when the Cavs, who didn’t take the lead until the first minute of the extra session, outscored the Clippers 13-8.

Dwyane Wade gave Cleveland a huge spark, scoring 23 points with 11 rebounds in 37 minutes. The Cavs’ win wasn’t eye-pleasing, but it was another step in the right direction for the three-time defending conference champions, who went 3-1 on a just-completed road trip.

On Thursday night, James said he watched Boston beat Golden State to improve to 14-2, a stunning start that has prompted discussion about Cleveland’s vulnerability.

James dismissed any concern about the Celtics’ early burst.

“I’ve got too much to worry about around here right now trying to get our ship going in the right direction,” he said.

The Clippers’ ship is taking on water fast. Los Angeles has lost nine of 10 since a 4-0 start.

Blake Griffin scored 23 and DeAndre Jordan had 20 points and 22 rebounds for Los Angeles, which didn’t give up the lead until the first minute of overtime. The Clippers had chances to put the Cavs away in regulation, but they didn’t execute down the stretch and then had defensive breakdowns in overtime.

“They made some big 3s,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “You have to give them credit. That’s why they’ve been in a lot of Finals.”

The Cavs spent all night chasing the Clippers and caught them at 105-all when Love grabbed an offensive rebound and fed James, who dropped an uncontested 3-pointer with 47 seconds left.

Griffin missed tough shots on consecutive possessions, giving Cleveland one last chance in regulation but James missed an off-balance left-hander just before the horn.

James made a free throw to open OT – he went 1 of 5 at the line – and give Cleveland its first lead. Then, after Love made his two 3s, James sealed the Cavs’ fifth win in six games with a jumper.

“Well defended,” Rivers said. “It’s LeBron James.”