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In a watered down East, Celtics-Cavs is the best thing going

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — As star after star migrated from the Eastern Conference to the West this summer, the lesser of the NBA’s divisions got so watered down that some spice was badly needed.

Kyrie Irving delivered.

The mercurial guard stunned the rest of the league by requesting a trade away from LeBron James and the Cavaliers and the annual trip to the NBA Finals that comes with James. In subsequent interviews since he was traded to the Celtics, Irving has done little to smooth things over with the game’s best player or the franchise that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2011.

“It’s just really between two men,” Irving said last month when asked if he planned to reach out to James to clear the air. “If it happens or not, I’m pretty sure you guys won’t know about it.”

James didn’t hide his disappointment in Irving’s decision after teaming with him to go to the last three finals and win a championship two years ago.

“I tried to give him everything and give him as much of the DNA as I could,” he said. “At some point, when he was ready to take over the keys, I was ready to give them to him. So, the only thing I’m upset about is he took a lot of the DNA and a lot of the blueprint to Boston.”

James wasn’t the only one upset by the deal.

Isaiah Thomas was deeply wounded by Boston’s decision to trade him after an emotional and dominant season, setting the stage for a tense fight for conference supremacy.

“It definitely caught me off guard, but it also woke me up,” Thomas said. “It made me realize that this is a business and anybody other than probably LeBron James or Kevin Durant or those type of guys can be traded.”

This level of drama and intrigue is needed in a conference that lost Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague over the summer.

A look at the East, in predicted order of finish:

PLAYOFF BOUND

1. Cleveland – Death, taxes and LeBron in the finals.

2. Boston – The biggest question may be how will they account for the loss of Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder on defense.

3. Washington – John Wall and Bradley Beal are ready for prime time. Now they have to get the rest of the team to follow them.

4. Toronto – Perpetually overlooked around this time of year, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan refuse to give in. Adding C.J. Miles was an underrated score. If they can breathe a little more movement into their offense, they’ll be in the mix again.

5. Miami – Here’s betting the second half of last season (30-11) was a lot closer to what the Heat actually are than the first half (11-30) was. A team that plays as hard as they do could climb even higher in the wide-open East.

6. Milwaukee – Giannis Antetokounmpo – aka the Greek Freak – seems destined for MVP consideration in the very near future. Jabari Parker‘s recovery may keep him out until February, which could hinder the Bucks’ climb up the ladder this season.

7. Charlotte – Here is where it starts to get really tricky. This is a vote of confidence in coach Steve Clifford’s ability to get more out of Dwight Howard than anyone since Stan Van Gundy.

8. Philadelphia – If Joel Embiid is somehow able to stay healthy for 60 games or more, veterans like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson should be able to usher these kids into the postseason.

IN THE MIX

1. Detroit – Getting Bradley from the Celtics is a nice fit for Van Gundy. The bigger issue will be getting a team that at times seemed fractured and miserable last season on to the same page. That starts with Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond.

2. Orlando – Someone has to be 10th. Adding Jonathan Isaac‘s defensive instincts to the roster is a plus, but it remains an imbalanced team light on shooters and long on big men in a league that is getting smaller by the day.

FACING LONG ODDS

1. New York – New GM Scott Perry is boldly trying to go where few Knicks executives have gone – to Rebuilding Road. Now that Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson are gone, it’s Kristaps Porzingis and a bunch of unknowns trying to turn the corner.

2. Brooklyn – A year after posting the worst record in the NBA, the Nets should be … a little bit better. Coach Kenny Atkinson has more to work with in DeMarre Carroll, DeAngelo Russell and Allen Crabbe.

3. Indiana – Everyone knew Paul George was on his way out. That made deal-making difficult for GM Kevin Pritchard, and it showed in the return he got for one of the best players in the league. Now Myles Turner will have to step into the void, which is a big one.

4. Atlanta – That 60-win season seems longer than two years ago. New GM Travis Schlenk arrives from the Warriors, and it is going to take him some time to tear things down and build them back up.

5. Chicago – Likely opening night starting five: Jerian Grant, Justin Holiday, Paul Zipser, Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez. Enough said.

WHAT TO KNOW

LEBRON’S FUTURE: There are more than just whispers that James will leave the Cavaliers after this season, with the Lakers and Clippers as two potential suitors. James has said he intends to finish his career in Cleveland, but that doesn’t figure to quiet the questions until he signs a new contract next summer.

SIMMONS DEBUTS: 76ers G/F Ben Simmons, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, missed the entire season with a foot injury. He is ready to go this year, giving the Sixers even more hope that all the pain of the last few years is finally behind them.

HAYWARD’S IMPACT: Gordon Hayward was one of the few stars to leave the Western Conference for the East this summer. How quickly he assimilates with Irving and Al Horford will directly impact Boston’s ability to unseat the Cavs.

HOT SEAT: In a volatile industry, the NBA went an entire season without a coaching change for the first time since 1963-64. The odds of that remarkable stretch of stability holding until the start of next season are remarkably small. Van Gundy, Clifford, New York’s Jeff Hornacek and Indiana’s Nate McMillan enter the season under scrutiny.

 

Lowry scores 24 points as Raptors beat Spurs 86-83

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TORONTO (AP) — Kyle Lowry scored nine of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, DeMar DeRozan added 21 and the Toronto Raptors beat San Antonio 86-83 on Friday night to snap a four-game losing streak against the Spurs.

Jonas Valanciunas had 15 points and 11 rebounds as the Raptors improved to 17-3 at home, the second-best home record in the NBA behind San Antonio’s mark of 19-2.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 17 points and 14 rebounds, Pau Gasol scored 15 points and Patty Mills had 13 as San Antonio lost for the fourth time in six road games. The Spurs are 11-15 away from home.

It had been more than two years since Toronto last beat San Antonio. The Raptors won 97-94 at home on Dec. 9, 2015.

San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili missed his second straight game because of a sore right thigh. Ginobili returned to Texas after the Spurs won at Brooklyn on Wednesday.

The Spurs trailed 70-69 after a 3-pointer by Bryn Forbes at 6:52 of the fourth, but DeRozan and Lowry connected on back-to-back possessions, giving Toronto a 74-69 lead with 5:11 remaining.

After a jump shot by Mills, Toronto reeled off a 6-0 run including baskets by Lowry, Valanciunas and DeRozan to lead 80-71 with 2:40 left.

Another 3-pointer by Forbes made it 86-83 with six seconds left. DeRozan was fouled but missed both free throws, giving San Antonio a chance to tie, but the Spurs couldn’t get a shot off in time.

After making seven of 23 shots in the first quarter, the Raptors hit 11 of 20 attempts in the second, including a buzzer-beating jumper from DeRozan that gave Toronto a 44-37 lead at halftime.

Toronto led 55-41 on DeRozan’s three-point play at 7:33 of the third but Aldridge did all the scoring in an 8-0 Spurs run that cut the gap to 63-60 heading to the fourth.

 

Memphis pays tribute to Zach Randolph as he returns to FedEx Forum

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Zach Randolph found his career around in Memphis.

He had fantastic on-the-court years in Portland, then bounced to New York and Los Angeles, but it was in Memphis that he became a beloved figure in the community who embraced it, plus on the court played a big role in the best years in the Grizzlies franchise.

He took the bigger check in Sacramento last summer, and when he returned to FedEx Forum in a Kings uniform Friday he was greeted with nothing but love.

🙌🏽 The @memgrizz pay tribute to @macbo50! #ThisIsWhyWePlay

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Randolph has earned this. Hope he savored it.

 

 

Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins: All-Star nods bode well for Pelicans pairing

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins figure they’ve proved they can co-exist to spectacular and prolific effect.

Both big men have been named All-Star starters, giving them hope they’ll be paired together beyond this season, which is Cousins’ last under contract.

“First time I’ve ever been in an All-Star game with a teammate,” the 6-foot-11 Cousins noted after practice on Friday, one day after All-Star starters were announced. “This is big for the entire city, the organization and just our team moving forward. It kind of shows what this combo has the potential to have.”

The 6-10 Davis, who was the Pelicans’ lone All-Star last season, sounded equally pleased by the results a decision by New Orleans to counter the trend of guard-heavy “small ball” by pairing dynamic big men who can dominate inside, handle the ball and shoot with range.

“The biggest question was, was it going to work? I think we just proved that it is and it can work,” Davis said. “We feel like we complement each other.”

The 24-year old Davis is averaging 26.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. Cousins, 27, has averaged 25.3 points, 12.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.6 blocks. Their exploits have filled highlight reels, sometimes on plays involving one setting up the other – above the rim or otherwise.

“I’m mostly happy for DeMarcus,” Davis said. “To be a starter, that’s huge – huge for him. He’s having a hell of a season. It’s well deserved.”

The comparable production from both Davis and Cousins shows that “both of those guys are willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “Both of those guys are willing to leave a little bit of their game off the floor so the other guy can be good.”

There’s just one problem.

New Orleans hasn’t won enough to be firmly on a path toward postseason play.

At 23-21, the Pelicans entered Friday night’s action tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for seventh in the eight-team Western Conference playoff picture.

The Pelicans’ past two results were a microcosm of their season. On Tuesday night, New Orleans beat Eastern Conference-leading Boston. The following night, they lost at Atlanta, which entered the game with the worst record in the NBA.

“We’ve had flashes throughout the year,” Cousins said. “We’re still trying to find that consistency. There’s still a lot of things we need to work.”

Cousins acknowledged the Pelicans have yet to master “being the team we want to be at all times … no matter if we’re playing Golden State or the Atlanta Hawks.”

The Pelicans have yet to string more than three consecutive victories together this season and had developed a habit of losing to teams with losing records well before their Atlanta collapse. New Orleans has dropped home dates with Orlando, Sacramento, Dallas and New York. They’ve lost twice at Memphis.

If that trend continues, it could sour Cousins on the prospect of re-signing with New Orleans.

“I wasn’t really concerned about accolades. I’ve gotten accolades. I’ve done everything except win,” said Cousins, who spent his first seven seasons in Sacramento before his trade to the Pelicans following the 2017 All-Star game in New Orleans. “With the whole (trade) going down, what I thought I had a chance to do was win, and that’s why I was OK with it.”

Still, Cousins sounded confident he won’t be dealt to another club when asked if he liked the league’s decision to move up the trade deadline to Feb. 8 this season, before the All-Star break.

“I don’t really care because I don’t think I’m getting traded,” Cousins said. “Hopefully I’ve never got to deal with it again.”

If the Pelicans aren’t able to make a major addition with a trade, they could get a boost from the expected return of small forward Solomon Hill from an offseason hamstring tear. Valued by the club for his defense, Hill, a former starter, is scheduled to return for the final month or so off the regular season.

In any event, the Pelicans have 38 games to make their push, starting at home Saturday night against Memphis.

 

Thunder’s Paul George finding his role, doing a little bit of everything for new team

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Thunder coach Billy Donovan can’t pinpoint the best thing about Paul George.

Oklahoma City’s versatile forward averages just over 20 points per game, leads the league in steals and is third in 3-point goals while shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc.

“I think that’s what makes him the player he is,” Donovan said. “There’s a lot of players in the league that are great offensive players, but they’re not great defensive players. I think arguably, it would be hard to make a case either way of what end of the floor he’s better on, offense or defense, because he’s that special.”

George believes he’s having an All-Star season in first year with Oklahoma City after being traded from the Indiana Pacers. There have been challenges as he has tried to fit in with superstars Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony and it’s still unclear where he will play next season because of his upcoming free agency.

Still, he has remained focused enough to be a top-notch performer. As he has found his way, the Thunder have rallied from an 8-12 start and have gone 17-8 since heading into Saturday’s game at Cleveland.

“He can score it, attack the rim and he defends,” Lakers rookie guard Kyle Kuzma said. “Anytime you do that, you’re going to be a pretty damn good player.”

George was first team All-Defense in 2014 and second-team in 2013 and 2016, and he was a defensive stopper for Team USA when it won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He says without hesitation that he wants to be Defensive Player of the Year this season and feels he should have won the award in the past.

“I think I have the makeup, I think I have the intangibles,” George told The Associated Press. “I’m physically capable of doing the things necessary. I thought 2013-14 I thought I was hands down the best perimeter defender on the league and I thought I was overlooked.”

George is averaging a career-best 2.2 steals per game. Having another top-notch perimeter defender in Andre Roberson to share some of the responsibility allows him to gamble more than in the past. He also credits carrying less of the offensive load.

“It gives me more energy, not having to create or generate offense every possession,” George said. “I can conserve energy that way. It allows me to really ramp up the defense on the other end, which is another reason why I’ve been able to accumulate so many steals. I have the energy, the endurance to keep flying around and keep being productive.”

An example of his all-around play this season was a five-steal performance against the Sacramento Kings. He made just 7 of 17 shots but was a critical factor in Oklahoma City’s win.

He hasn’t always emphasized defense, but he was forced to as a rookie for the Pacers during the 2010-11 season. Frank Vogel took over as coach at midseason and saw enough grit and improvement on that end to insert him into the starting lineup in March. He came of age during the playoff series that season against the Chicago Bulls when he faced league MVP Derrick Rose. George gave up some points, but he battled and helped the Pacers hold Rose to 37 percent shooting in the series.

“My mindset was I knew I was outmatched from a standpoint of staying in front of him,” George said. “That’s what really got me going in trying to think things through, trying to see what I can do that can disrupt the MVP. I tried to use my length. I tried to make it as hard as possible. I knew he was going to get his 20s, get his 30s, but how can I make it as hard as possible, and how can I wear this guy down? You’re not going to be able to shut down a guy like that at that stage.”

From that point, George embraced the role of defensive stopper while evolving into an all-around offensive player. He was the league’s Most Improved Player in 2013 and made the first of his four All-Star appearances. Last season, he averaged a career-best 23.7 points for the Pacers. Now, he can still create when needed and he has learned to be more of a catch-and-shoot scorer.

“He’s a beast out there,” Kings guard Buddy Hield said. “He’s great. He can score the ball from three, the mid-range and the post. He’s tough to guard so you have to pick your poison with him, and it’s hard to do.”