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Three Things We Learned Monday: Spurs, Warriors now tied for NBA’s best record

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Monday night saw some key games in the standings as teams try to shuffle for playoff positioning. If you were trying to re-watch the last season of Game of Thrones before the new season starts, here’s what you missed.

1) Kawhi Leonard returns, Spurs move into a tie with Warriors after comeback win over Hawks. We should have had a pretty good idea how this game was going to turn out — it has been 20 years since the Hawks beat the Spurs in San Antonio. Seriously. It was Feb. 15, 1997. The same week that the Spice Girls “Wannabe” became the No. 1 song on the Billboard charts. It’s been that long.

The Spurs were in control starting in the first half and drained 16 threes on their way to the win (which got competitive in the fourth). Kawhi Leonard was back on the court for the Spurs after missing Saturday’s game against the Warriors with a concussion, and he picked up right where he left off — 31 points, five rebounds, and four assists, plus playing strong defense and looking like an MVP candidate.

It’s not the game itself that was the news, but rather that the win moved the Spurs into a tie with the Warriors for the best record in the NBA (technically the Spurs are on top as they have the tiebreaker in that series, having won both meetings). The Spurs need to keep finding wins however because the Warriors now head home with an easier schedule the rest of the way — the Warriors have one more home game and two fewer games against teams over. 500 through the rest of the season. The key game, of course, is a rematch in San Antonio on March 29 (and again the Spurs catch the Warriors on the second night of a back-to-back in that game).

By the way, the loss by the Hawks hurt their goal of moving up to the four seed, getting home court against the Raptors in the first round. Toronto beat Dallas Monday night, so with the Atlanta loss the Raptors now have a two-game cushion.

2) Jazz rain threes on Clippers to get the win, solidify hold on four seed in Western Conference. Nothing is set in stone, but the Clippers and Jazz appear destined for a first-round playoff matchup as the four/five seeds in the West. That made Monday night’s matchup a playoff preview, technically, but what it really meant was a chance for the Clippers to move into a tie with the Jazz with a win. Whichever team gets the four seed gets home court in the first round.

Score one for the Jazz. Which defied history — the Clippers had won 17 of the last 19 games between these teams, including nine straight in Utah.

The Jazz changed history with a barrage of threes, In the first half, the Jazz were just 3-of-9 from deep (by design or poor execution, the Jazz got a lot of good looks that half against a sagging defense but did not knock them down). That changed in the second half when the Jazz hit their first nine attempts from three — Gordon Hayward in particular got looks, coming off screens or creating his own looks near the top of the key, and hitting 4-of-5 from deep in the second half. Hayward finished with 27 points.

This was also a great battle of point guards. Chris Paul carved up the Jazz defense in the first half, scoring 18 and looking like the point god he is. In the second half, Utah’s George Hill was working secondary actions on his way to 14 points half and 19 for the game.

The win gives Utah a two-game cushion for the four seed in the West. That’s not insurmountable by any means, but you’d rather have the cushion than not. The two teams play one more time before the season ends, in Los Angeles.

3) Ricky Rubio drops 19 dimes, sets Timberwolves record in victory. There are a surprisingly large number of Ricky Rubio haters on Twitter… although should we be surprised at the number of people who hate anything or anyone once they get the anonymity of social media? Rubio is far from a consistent shooter, but the guy is one of the games great passers, one of the better defensive point guards in the league now, and a fairly consistent game manager. He’s a quality NBA point guard.

Monday night he bested Scott Skiles Minnesota record with 19 assists in a game — 10 in the first quarter. That led the Timberwolves to the win over a hot Wizards team.

Report: Spurs re-signing Pau Gasol to three-year contract

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Even after Pau Gasol opted out, there it nearly certain he’d stay with the Spurs.

Now, a deal is done.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m a little surprised San Antonio guaranteed Gasol’s salary next season. By rule, it must be within 5% of what he’ll earn this year.

The Spurs could have major flexibility to chase free agents next summer, making keeping the books clean a priority. Their only constraints with Gasol this year are paying him up to 120% of his prior salary (which comes out to $18.6 million), the hard cap ($125,266,000) and whatever expense ownership would endure. So, if Gasol were willing to play ball, San Antonio could have paid him a sizable salary this year and far less – the room exception or even the minimum – next year.

Instead, Gasol’s compensation will be more balanced between the seasons. We’ll see how much he’ll earn.

Gasol remains an effective scorer, in part because he increased his range beyond the 3-point arc. He rebounds well in his area, and his length and basketball intelligence make him a passable defender given his other skills. His immobility can be a major defensive liability in certain matchups, though.

He’s also 37, an age where players can drop off quickly – another reason a one-year deal would’ve been preferable. At least the partial guarantee in the third year will help San Antonio.

Report: Kyrie Irving asked Cavaliers to trade him, blindsiding LeBron James

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Kyrie Irving said the Cavaliers were in a “peculiar place.”

We didn’t realize quite how peculiar.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Kyrie Irving is ready to end his run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, as league sources told ESPN that the guard has asked the team to trade him.

The request came last week and was made to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. Irving has expressed that he wants to go play in a situation where he can be a more focal point and no longer wants to play alongside LeBron James, sources said.

James was informed of Irving’s request and was blindsided and disappointed, sources said.

Irving has admitted playing with LeBron has sometimes been rocky. It paid off with a championship in 2016, and I’m sure Irving found the tradeoff worthwhile then.

But the Warriors are so dominant with Kevin Durant. Even a team with LeBron, Irving and Kevin Love is a major underdog. If Irving would prefer to lead a team, it’s much easier to reject a supporting role when it’s so unlikely to culminate in a championship. (It’s also easier with a title already under his belt.)

This shouldn’t quiet the alarms of LeBron leaving next summer. Just because Irving doesn’t want to play with him doesn’t mean LeBron wants to play without Irving. This could push LeBron further out the door.

I also wouldn’t read too much into this signaling LeBron’s intent to stay in Cleveland. Though it’s possible Irving has a read on LeBron’s plan, a trade is the only sure-fire way to escape LeBron – and do it without playing another year with him.

I wouldn’t  tell Irving what would make him happiest. Cleveland is not a premier market, and playing in LeBron’s shadow isn’t always ideal for another star.

But I’m leery of Irving’s ability to lead a successful team. The Cavs stunk before LeBron returned and have stunk when he sits and Irving plays. Irving’s shortcomings – defense, distributing – become more pronounced as his team’s best player.

Maybe Irving is up for the challenge. He clearly wants it.

Then again, Cleveland doesn’t have to grant him the ability to try. He’s locked up for two more years. He can request, but not force, a trade.

This is a difficult time for the Cavaliers, who need visionary leadership. Their general manager has his hands full.

Oh, right.

NBA: Cleveland won’t get 2020 or 2021 All-Star game unless arena renovation begins by Sept. 15

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Cavaliers CEO Len Komoroski said Cleveland had been promised an NBA All-Star game if it upgraded its basketball arena.

The city committed taxpayer money to arena upgrades.

So, the Cavaliers are hosting an All-Star game?

Not so fast.

A group has opposed the city spending taxpayer money on arena so the billionaire who profits off the arena doesn’t have to pay for upgrades himself. That money could better serve a wider section of Clevelanders, and the group has tied up the plan in court.

Now, NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum wrote in a letter that Cleveland might not get an All-Star game.

Kevin Cleps of Crain’s Cleveland Business:

The letter was included in a 276-page summary that was filed with the Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday, July 20.

In the letter to Gilbert, Tatum confirms that the NBA has received the sports commission’s bid packet to host the All-Star Game in Cleveland, and says the league will be awarding the 2020 and ’21 events in the near future.

But, he adds, the league “will not be able to consider Cleveland as the host city for NBA All-Star 2020 or 2021 unless construction of The Q’s ‘Transformation’ project begins on or before September 15, 2017.”

Tatum says that the NBA has “already delayed the awarding” of those showcase events to “accommodate Cleveland, and unfortunately we cannot ask the other NBA cities that have held these dates open to wait any longer.”

The NBA is dangling a carrot in front of Cleveland, urging the local government to spend taxpayer money on the billion-dollar business’ arena. It might work. It often does. But Cleveland will be fine without an All-Star game, the economic effects of which are often exaggerated.

As Sept. 15 nears, it appears increasingly likely other cities will get the next couple All-Star games to be assigned. Still, there’s a chance the Cavaliers prevail in court in time.

J.J. Redick: Clippers lost joy

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J.J. Redick and the Clippers seemed done with each other before free agency even began.

Redick – who signed a one-year, $23 million contract with the 76ers – gave Uninterrupted a behind-the-scenes look into his free agency. In the above video, he revealed plenty about his situation in L.A.:

It’s s—y to say this, but I think I’ve had a loss of joy. I look at our team and how we play, and it’s just there’s no joy in it. That bothers me.

On June 29th at about 10 p.m., I got a call from Lawrence Frank from the Clippers. I jokingly call it my breakup call. He just told me they weren’t going to offer me a contract. I wasn’t going to be back.

There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Blame Chris Paul for not relenting enough in his grating perfectionism and being petty. Blame Blake Griffin for being aloof about weight of his actions. Blame Paul and Griffin for waiting too long to get serious about bonding. Blame Doc Rivers for bringing in Austin Rivers and inviting accusations of nepotism. Blame Doc Rivers for too long setting a tone of whining.

Blame a tough Western Conference and injury for keeping a team with championship aspirations from never advancing past the second round. Blame familiarity, which bred contempt over several years with the same core.

Whomever or whatever you blame, the outcome seems tough to dispute: The Clippers looked joyless by the end of their run. Redick saying it only confirms the perception.

I’m curious whether he’ll find more joy in Philadelphia. A new situation will be refreshing, and the 76ers – young and talented – are hungry. Expectations are low after years of tanking, so even modest gains will be celebrated. But they’re also worse than the Clippers were, and losing more often will be an adjustment.

To get a better idea where Redick is coming from as he begins in Philadelphia, I recommend watching the video in full. It’s quite illuminating.