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Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor expecting big jump next season

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota Timberwolves coach and president Tom Thibodeau is meeting with his staff to put together an aggressive game plan for the summer in hopes of adding some defensive tenacity to a young team that never quite got it on that end of the floor in his first season on the job.

Owner Glen Taylor hopes the stability of having the same coach for two straight seasons for the first time since 2013 will help the team move past yet another disappointing season.

Thibodeau is the Wolves’ fourth coach in the last four seasons. Flip Saunders died of lymphoma in October 2015, and the team decided to move on from interim coach Sam Mitchell last April after he went 29-53 in his one season. Thibodeau was given a five-year deal last summer to take over and instill his attention to detail and defensive focus to an impressionable young team, but they won just two more games this season than last with little discernible improvement on defense.

“I’m of a belief that if they say that’s one of the factors, of course I’m going to say that my expectations are pretty high for next year because we have the same coach and he’s coming back,” Taylor told The Associated Press on Friday. “If you really believe that’s (the problem), then we’ve solved our problem. I don’t know if it’s going to be that easy. I wish it was that easy.”

Thibodeau held his season-ending press conference Friday, two days after they finished the year with a sixth straight loss. The Wolves went 3-13 in their final 16 games and finished the year ranked 26th in the league in defensive efficiency. He said they will head into this summer prioritizing adding shot-blocking, wing defense and shooting after the team finished last in 3-pointers made and attempted.

“I think every person in our organization has to ask what can we do different to change what has happened here over the last 13 years?” Thibodeau said. “That’s from top to bottom, there has to be a determination and a will to change it.”

That’s exactly what Taylor wants to hear. He hired the hard-driving Thibodeau and GM Scott Layden with an aim to expedite the learning process for a team with young stars Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. While all three young players and point guard Ricky Rubio exhibited significant improvement on offense under Thibodeau, the poor finish to the season and lack of improvement on defense concerned an owner that sits courtside nearly every night.

After starting the season 6-18, the Wolves seemed to find themselves around the All-Star break. They won six times in eight games, beating Denver, Dallas, Golden State, Utah and the Clippers to creep back into playoff contention. Then the defense took a nose dive and the Wolves faded.

“I’m a little bit concerned because it’s not logical to me what happened, that we just went along and we were playing good and we fell back into maybe old habits or old style of play,” Taylor said. “I have no explanation for that. I think it’s my job to make sure that I sit down with the coaches, Scott, everybody and ask them what do they think went wrong there.”

Thibodeau attributed the struggles to the team’s youth, injuries to LaVine and Nemanja Bjelica and his focus on immersing Towns and Wiggins in his system to prioritize laying the foundation for long-term success over winning games in the short term.

“It has to start with Karl and Wigg in that they have to make the commitment,” Thibodeau said. “In order to get all the things that they want to achieve, it has to start with them.”

Now if the Wolves are going to end a 13-year playoff drought that is the longest active skid in the NBA, they are likely going to have to make at least a 10-victory jump to do it, and probably more.

“It’s not like I’m upset and not like I’m mad,” he said. “I’m concerned because I know our task is going to be a little bit more difficult next year.”

Taylor and Thibodeau were both encouraged by Towns blossoming into an unstoppable offensive force and Rubio’s career year from a shooting standpoint that gave the pass-first point guard another dimension. Now the Wolves need to add some veteran help and it’s always been difficult to lure free agents to cold and snowy Minnesota, especially when the Wolves have not made the playoffs since 2004.

“I think guys will come here because they want to play with these guys that can win,” Taylor said. “But I sure wish we would’ve done better because we could’ve said `see we are on the right track.”‘

Gregg Popovich: “Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now”

Associated Press
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The Spurs are on to the second round of the playoffs, and the reason is Kawhi Leonard. Through six games he averaged 31.2 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting overall and 48.3 percent from three. Plus he was taking on Mike Conley — the toughest Grizzly to defend — for stretches of the game. Leonard has a PER of 36.4 through the first round of the playoffs, which is flat-out ridiculous.

That comes on the heels of a season where Leonard was a legitimate MVP candidate who will draw a lot of votes.

“We have a knack for hanging in ’cause things happen, and obviously Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said in his postgame press conference. “He’s the best two-way player, and does it all with such class, it’s impressive.”

“His conditioning is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale added about Leonard. “I mean, the guy, he just keeps coming and keeps coming and keeps coming and he finds a way to make a play, a winning play, whether it’s a steal, a block, a rebound, a drive, pass. He made plays tonight off the dribble.”

If Leonard isn’t the best player in the game — LeBron James can stake a claim, among others — he’s damn close. He’s a Swiss Army knife who can do whatever a team needs to win — get buckets driving the lane, hit threes, grab a board, or lock down an opponent on a key play. That kind of versatility is rare.

It just feels like an MVP trophy and some more rings are in Leonard’s future, although probably not this season. On either count.

Spurs advance: San Antonio beats Grizzlies 103-96 in Game 6

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The San Antonio Spurs wanted no part of playing a seventh game against the Grizzlies, not with the Houston Rockets looming in the next round.

Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points, and the Spurs advanced to the Western Conference semifinals by beating Memphis 103-96 on Thursday night to take the series 4-2.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich congratulated Memphis on a great year, especially rookie coach David Fizdale.

“I’m seriously thrilled that we were able to get through that first round,” Popovich said. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that now we have to go play Houston.”

The Spurs now have beaten Memphis four of the five playoff series between these teams, and this was San Antonio’s second straight win over the Grizzlies in the first round. But this was the first time all season that the visiting team won.

“It’s huge for us,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. “Memphis, you have to give them a lot of credit. They played unbelievable. They’re a great team, and they made it hard on us and so we didn’t want to come back for Game 7. We treated this game as if it was Game 7. We wanted those days off before playing Houston because it’s going to be a fast-paced game against them.”

Parker added 27 points on 11-of-14 shooting, while LaMarcus Aldridge had 17 points and 12 rebounds. San Antonio outrebounded Memphis 46-28, with 16 of those offensive boards. That led to 17 second-chance points.

Fizdale said rebounds, points in the paint and who pressured the best impacted each game in the series.

“I kept stressing that to our guys,” Fizdale said. “To their credit, (the Spurs) won it more games than we did. But it definitely wasn’t from a lack of competition on our part. I can sleep at night knowing my guys battled and competed their tails off.”

The Spurs’ semifinal with Houston will start Monday night in San Antonio.

Mike Conley scored 26 points, leading the five Memphis starters in double digits. Marc Gasol added 18.

The Grizzlies fell to 3-10 in elimination games, losing six straight.

This was a taut game with 16 ties and nine lead changes, especially with four ties in the fourth quarter.

The Spurs took control after the Grizzlies went up 88-81 on three free throws from Conley with 6:29 left. Then Leonard scored eight straight for San Antonio, starting a 22-8 run to finish the game.

“The guys were amazing in the fourth quarter,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “Huge plays. Great defense too. So, happy to go back home with a win and win the series.”

Even with Conley and Gasol a combined 2 of 10 in the first quarter, the Grizzlies trailed only 24-22 after Conley knocked down a 3 at the end of the quarter for his first bucket of the game. Conley hit another 3 for the final shot in the second quarter, putting Memphis up 50-45. The team that led at halftime won each of the first five games.

Parker hit his first six shots before finally missing his seventh with 29 seconds left in the first half.

The Grizzlies took their biggest lead at 57-47 on a 3-pointer by James Ennis III. That gave Memphis as many made 3s (9 of 17) as the Spurs had attempted (3 of 9) at that point. Randolph’s layup with 7:19 left matched that 10-point lead at 63-53.

Then the Spurs went on a 13-3 run over a 4-minute span to erase that lead on Aldridge’s three-point play at 67-66. Aldridge finished with nine points in helping the Spurs lead 75-74 at the end of the quarter.

TIP-INS

Spurs: They improved to 36-15 with a chance to clinch a series under Popovich, who took over in the 1996-97 season. … Ginobili converted a four-point play with 1:31 left in the third, putting the Spurs up 73-69. … The Spurs wound up tying the Grizzlies’ reserves with 16 points thanks to Mills.

Grizzlies: The Grizzlies set a franchise record hitting eight 3-pointers in the first half, topping the previous mark of seven in the second half May 1, 2005, against Phoenix. … Conley has 20 or more points in five straight playoff games, the longest such streak in franchise history.

HE SAID IT

Popovich: “I’m thrilled we were able to win because if we played 10 times, we each would probably win five.”

FREE THROW WATCH

Fizdale earned a $30,000 fine from the NBA for his “Take that for data” rant about the free throw discrepancy in Game 2. Well, Leonard was 9 of 10 at the free throw line through three quarters compared to the Grizzlies’ 7 of 8. The Spurs were 18 of 20 through three quarters. The Spurs finished 22 of 25 compared to 20 of 24 for Memphis.

 

Cavaliers celebrate Raptors win over Bucks because they don’t have to practice (VIDEO)

AP
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The Toronto Raptors closed out the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night in Game 6, 92-89. Toronto’s social media team even tried trolling the Bucks about it.

In any case, the Raptors now move on to the second round, despite their best efforts, to face the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers, meanwhile, have been waiting for an opponent after sweeping the Indiana Pacers.

Cavaliers wingman Richard Jefferson — a Snapchat legend, it should be mentioned — took to the social media platform to celebrate playing the Raptors.

Er, or maybe just the fact that the team didn’t have to practice Friday.

Via Twitter:

Cleveland’s biggest test before the Finals might just be the Raptors, and we will get to see them head-to-head in the second round.

Raptors troll Bucks after closing in Game 6 with RapsIn6.com website (VIDEO)

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Despite a disastrous fourth quarter performance, the Toronto Raptors closed the series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night. The Raptors came away from Game 6 with a 92-89 victory and a chance to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round.

Meanwhile, the rivalry between the Raptors and the Bucks appears to be alive and well, as the Raptors pushed a video on social media after the game ended that was pointed toward the Bucks.

In it, the Raptors mascot registers a domain name for the team at RapsIn6.com, then proceeds to sip tea in the style of the famous Kermit meme.

In case you are out of the loop, this is a reference to Brandon Jennings saying Milwaukee would beat the Miami Heat in six games back in 2013.

Meanwhile, game ops at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee played the theme song from the children’s TV show “Barney” during Raptors player introductions.

Nothing really happens if you go to RapsIn6.com. There’s nothing on the website save for the video the Raptors posted to social media, which you can watch above.

Toronto has their core together and presumably will for a little while. The Bucks are a growing young team. I’m cool with them duking it out in the postseason for years to come.