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Three questions the Orlando Magic must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 29-53, missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season

I know what you did last summer: Orlando fired general manager Rob Hennigan, hired Jeff Weltman and… did little else. The Magic are still jammed with Hennigan’s mistakes. At least they drafted Jonathan Isaac No. 5 and signed Jonathon Simmons, Shelvin Mack, Marreese Speights and Arron Afflalo.

THREE QUESTIONS THE MAGIC MUST ANSWER:

1) Are Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac complementary long-term pieces? Gordon and Isaac are Orlando’s most valuable player. But they also might overlap too much on the court.

Gordon is best at power forward, as last year’s experiment at small forward painfully showed. His ball skills are an asset at power forward, a liability at small forward. He also had a surprisingly tough time defensively at small forward, where he looked uncomfortable chasing smaller players around the perimeter. Get him closer to the paint more often, and Gordon should excel.

Isaac is more of a combo forward, mostly because we haven’t seen him in the NBA yet. He’ll likely play small forward for now, not just because of Gordon, but because Isaac isn’t yet strong enough to handle the physicality of NBA bigs. But long-term, his lack of an advanced handle could push him to power forward.

Maybe Gordon and/or Isaac develop enough perimeter skills to complement each other. Or perhaps Orlando finds guards who can handle the ball enough to relieve the forwards.

Obviously, positional designations can be draconian. But, in broad strokes, the differences between small forward and power forward in the modern NBA speak to a potentially incohesive pairing between Gordon and Isaac.

Though Isaac is just a rookie, Gordon is extension-eligible or headed toward restricted free agency. It’d be nice if the Magic knew whether their two most valuable players can optimize their value together.

2) Is Elfrid Payton worth keeping as starting point guard? Payton is also already extension-eligible, which could delay Weltman from ever putting his imprint on this team. On the other hand, Weltman doesn’t want to lose a good point guard before he breaks out.

A lightning rod for the previous regime, Payton played well enough late last season to instill confidence he might be a long-term starter. He must extend that all-around play over a larger sample to prove it.

If he does, the Magic will have a big decision about how much to pay him (unless they’ve already extended him). If he doesn’t, they’ll have to find a new starting point guard, maybe drafting someone and starting this process over (unless they’ve already extended Payton, which would be a major problem).

3) Will Frank Vogel oversee a top-end defense? The Magic are too far along a win-now plan to punt the season before it even begins. Their path to the playoffs starts with tapping a defensive potential not realized last season.

Vogel’s Pacers defenses ranked ninth, first, first, seventh and third in his five full seasons in Indiana. Despite Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo and Gordon being expected to comprise an elite defensive front line, Orlando’s defense ranked just 22nd last season.

Ibaka is gone, and this team shouldn’t have as many problems with being oversized. The athletic Simmons is built to defend the wing. Starting center Nikola Vucevic has improved defensively under Vogel. The 6-foot-4 Elfrid Payton is big enough to disrupt opposing point guards. The lengthy Isaac should terrorize passing lanes in due time.

It all looks solid on paper, but the same was said at this time last year. The burden ultimately falls on Vogel, who was touted as a defensive mastermind when hired – and, not for nothing, is working for an executive who didn’t hire him.

Knicks shut out Carmelo Anthony in 2nd half, beat Thunder 111-96

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NEW YORK (AP) — Carmelo Anthony‘s return to Madison Square Garden was much like the 6 1/2 years he spent playing for the Knicks.

A video played on the overhead scoreboard as part of a huge welcome from the fans and franchise, followed by a fast start that gave Anthony hope he could have everything he wanted.

Then things fell flat until the finish.

The Knicks shut out their former All-Star in the second half and beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-96 on Saturday night for their fourth straight victory.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling for me, coming back here knowing the goal that I had and what I wanted to accomplish here and falling short in that category,” Anthony said.

Michael Beasley tied his season high with 30 points in place of injured Kristaps Porzingis, and Doug McDermott, acquired with Enes Kanter for Anthony, added 11 of his 13 after halftime to help the Knicks break open the game.

“This game was kind (of) about him and I thought we did a really good job of not letting that distract us and just focus on winning the game,” McDermott said. “And it felt great, especially being a part of the trade (with) Enes.

Anthony scored 12 points in the first half but was 0 for 5 after, perhaps low on energy after the Thunder’s three-overtime victory at Philadelphia a night earlier.

He made a 3-pointer for the Thunder’s first basket of the game after refocusing following a video tribute that caught him off guard, but finished 5 of 18 from the field as the Knicks played with passion and precision they lacked in Anthony’s final years in New York.

“You got to beat the best to be the best,” Beasley said. “He’s one of the best of our era.”

Russell Westbrook had 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for the Thunder, who were trying to sweep a three-game trip that began with Paul George‘s winning return to Indiana on Wednesday.

But they couldn’t deliver a victory for Anthony back at Madison Square Garden, even with the Knicks playing without leading scorer Porzingis because of a knee injury.

“I think the guys just, they were ready for tonight’s game,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said. “And we caught them after a triple-overtime game so that probably helped us too, but our guys played hard all night which probably wore them down.”

Anthony received a pair of loud cheers during pregame introductions, before and at the end of a video tribute showing his highlights on the court and his charitable efforts off it that was played after the first four Thunder starters were announced. But the boos became more noticeable once play got underway, and soon they were coming every time he touched the ball.

“That was expected,” Anthony said. “They can’t cheer for me, I’m on another team.”

Later, the cheers were all for the Knicks, who after trading their leading scorer on the eve of training camp are a surprising 16-13 – better than Anthony’s new team (14-15). Anthony was booed one last time as he was removed with 1.4 seconds remaining.

Beasley had a hand in 12 of the Knicks’ final 15 points of the third quarter, scoring nine himself and assisting on Ron Baker‘s 3-pointer. That turned a two-point lead into an 80-73 advantage over the final 3 1/2 minutes of the period.

The Knicks pushed it into double digits in the fourth behind five straight points from McDermott – originally it was six by a 3-pointer was changed to a 2 after review – and he later made it 100-87 with a 3-pointer with 6:02 remaining.

The Thunder played without starting center Steven Adams because of a concussion.

 

Manu Ginobili game-winner caps 13-0 closing run to rally Spurs past Mavericks

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — At 40 years old, Manu Ginobili‘s refusal to slow down in his 16th season with the Spurs has been a source of inspiration to the team’s young core.

The man and the mantra helped propel San Antonio to an improbable victory over Dallas on Saturday night.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 22 points and 14 rebounds and the Spurs scored the final 13 points of the game, rallying for a 98-96 victory over the Mavericks.

Aldridge’s fall-away, 11-foot jumper tied the game at 96 with 23.4 seconds remaining and Ginobili’s driving layup with 3.1 seconds was the game-winning shot.

“He’s our grandpa,” 21-year-old Dejounte Murray said, chuckling afterwards. “He’s a beast, man. You’ve all seen what he’s done for this organization and he’s still around giving his wisdom to all the new guys. To see him coming in every day, I mean there’s not one day I’ve seen Manu not show up at the facility. Being a young guy, I’ve got to be there every day.”

Ginobili’s layup off the left side of the glass gave the Spurs their first lead of the game after trailing by as many as 16 points.

“We did a lot of good things, but the ending is unforgiveable,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said.

Maxi Kleber had 21 points and Dirk Nowitzki added 19 for Dallas in the final regular season matchup between the Southwest Division rivals.

Kleber’s 3-pointer gave Dallas a 96-85 lead with 4:11 remaining, but the Spurs held them scoreless the remainder of the game.

The Mavericks drought included a turnover when Wes Matthews was unable to inbound the ball with 23.4 seconds remaining. Mathews threw the ball at Ginobili’s legs to avoid a 5-second violation, but the Spurs gained possession when the ball ricocheted off Matthews just as he stepped inbounds.

“We did everything right to lose,” Nowitzki said. “We missed shots offensively, bad turnover, gave them some offensive rebounds. Letting Ginobili go left down the stretch to lay it in. We literally had to do everything perfect to lose this one and we did.”

Aldridge had his 12th double-double of the season to help offset the absences of starters Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Danny Green.

Coming off a 15-point blowout in Houston on Friday night, San Antonio was able to avoid its third straight loss.

“We played with everybody in Houston and hoped to play a good game in which we could grow and learn from our mistakes while playing against the best team in the NBA right now and I don’t think we got anything out of it,” Ginobili said. “So, if after that poor effort we came here and played badly again and lost, it would’ve been a tough one. We are proud of this win.”

The Spurs missed their first five shots, all short jumpers from Aldridge and Pau Gasol, on their way to shooting 30 percent in the opening quarter. The Mavericks took advantage, charging to a 31-18 lead after the first quarter.

San Antonio’s reserves reversed the team’s fortunes in the third quarter.

Davis Bertans finished with 13 points and Ginobili added 12 off the bench.

 

LeBron James finishes left-handed alley-oop with head behind backboard

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We have reached the point with LeBron James and his legendary career that the incredible almost seems ordinary — he has made our jaws drop so many times it’s hard for him to clear the bar of amazing anymore.

He did Saturday night against Utah.

In transition, LeBron gave up the ball to Jeff Green, who returned the favor with an alley-oop pass. Just not a particularly good one, it was behind James.

So he reaches back with his left hand and throws it down as he ducks his head under the backboard. Then LeBron stops and stares at his left hand, like he can’t believe what he just did.

We can’t either.

Carmelo Anthony standing ovation in return to Madison Square Garden

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Knicks fans may have had their frustrations with Carmelo Anthony, but they know how much he has meant to the franchise over the years. He pushed to be a Knick and chose to stay, he carried the franchise for years.

Saturday night he returned to Madison Square Garden in an Oklahoma City Thunder uniform after a trade this summer, and he was welcomed with a retrospective video followed by a standing ovation from the crowd (you can see all of it above).

Well done Knicks fans. Well done.