Kurt Helin

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Nikola Vucevic on Scott Skiles leaving Magic: “I was surprised, like everyone else”

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You could tell at his press conference, Magic GM Rob Hennigan was caught off guard by coach Scott Skiles resignation, deciding to walk away from Orlando after just one season of a four-year contract. We know that Skiles and Hennigan didn’t see eye-to-eye on some team building issues — what to make of point guard Elfrid Payton is at the top of that list — but Hennigan thought things had been smoothed over after some meetings. Clearly not.

The resignation surprised the entire organization. Check out what big man Nikola Vucevic told Josh Robbins at the Orlando Sentinel.

“I was surprised, like everyone else,” Vucevic told the Orlando Sentinel during a phone interview.

“I don’t think anybody expected it to happen, but it was his decision. You just have to accept it and move on. It’s tough because I thought Coach was really doing something good for us. We were heading in the right direction. We finished up the season the right way. We had some good wins at the end. We were playing much better. He established a good foundation for the future. So it would’ve been good for us to kind of keep going with him, because he’s a good coach and also it’s important to have a certain continuity.”

Not everyone in the Magic organization was sad to see Skiles go, but they all were surprised. Here is what Victor Oladipo said online:

Im as surprised as anyone else, but I just wanna thank coach skiles for helping us but especially me improve on both ends of the floor this year in my 3rd season. What I learned from him I will keep with me for the rest of my career. I wish him all the best in anything he does.

It will be interesting to see if the Magic bring in a defense-first coach, such as Frank Vogel, to build off what Skiles had the team doing. Whoever they hire needs to be on the same page as Hennigan, much to the annoyance of some Magic fans the organization has sided with the GM over the coach now has to get those two positions pulling the rope in the same direction.

Wary of rust, Cavaliers sweat in gym while awaiting next round

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Even coach Tyronn Lue came off the floor sweating on Saturday.

Don’t think for a second the unbeaten Cavaliers have been lounging around the past week as they’ve waited for their next opponent.

“Guys have been really busting their butt in the gym,” forward Channing Frye said as beads of perspiration streaked the sides of his face.

Unblemished and seemingly unstoppable through the first two rounds of the playoffs, LeBron James & Co. finally know they’ll host Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Tuesday night. All that’s left to be determined is whether they’ll play Miami or Toronto. The Heat and Raptors will play Game 7, with the winner earning a shot at the 8-0 Cavs.

Cleveland hasn’t played since May 8, when it completed its second consecutive postseason sweep, ousting an Atlanta Hawks team that was grounded by the Cavs’ battalion of 3-point marksmen. The Cavs dropped 77 3-pointers in four games, and they’re hoping the long break between series won’t cool off their shooting touch.

To combat any rust, Lue has made sure his team worked on its conditioning. They’ve been running and lifting and lifting and running.

On Wednesday, the Cavs endured a grueling workout supervised by strength and conditioning coach Derek Millender. The brutal, 40-minute session included time on a punishing piece of cardiovascular exercise equipment that left many of the players too tired to run.

“That was pretty tough,” forward Tristan Thompson said. “But I thought it was great for us because the team could push each other. It was fun. I thought it brought us even closer together as a team.”

The nine-day break could most help the 31-year-old James, who had to carry the Cavs a year ago. He’s averaging a career-low 23.5 points so far as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have stepped up.

“LeBron is letting the game come to him,” Lue said. “When he wants to be aggressive and he sees fit to be aggressive when the teams have a good run or whatever they may have, then he just takes over the game. And with Kyrie and Kevin playing at a high level, he can take a lot of mileage off of his body and just kind of seeing and figuring out the flow of the game.

“I don’t think he’s been in this position before and it’s been great for him.”

After they quickly dispatched Detroit in the first round, the Cavs didn’t play for a week before their matchup against the Hawks. And although they won Game 1, it wasn’t easy. Cleveland blew an 18-point lead before making plays in the closing minutes and holding on.

With little margin for error, Lue doesn’t want any drop-off this time.

“We got tired,” he said of the 104-93 win on May 2. “In that second half we got tired in that third quarter. I went back and watched that game two nights ago. We got tired, a little fatigued. And I thought in the first half, as far as rust, we didn’t have a lot of rust offensively. We took care of the basketball. We executed the way we wanted to execute, I just thought that third quarter we got a little tired.”

The Cavs spent part of Saturday’s workout preparing for the Heat and Raptors. Both teams run similar offensive sets, so Lue and his assistant coaches gave the players a sneak peek at what they’ll be facing. It’s part of keeping them mentally sharp before returning to the floor.

Lue said he’s been watching the Miami-Toronto series, but not every second. He’s more interested in reviewing film of Cleveland’s games against both teams to see if he can spot any tendencies or weaknesses.

The Cavs won’t practice until Sunday evening after the Heat and Raptors conclude Game 7, that way they’ll be able to prepare for a specific opponent – not two.

Frye, whose role has grown throughout these playoffs, said the extended layoff has allowed the Cavs to heal some “nicks and knacks” and they should return to the floor renewed.

“We have a lot of guys doing above and beyond, staying focus, watching the games,” he said. “If you’re not focused now, hey, I don’t know if this is the right sport for you.”

A good way to spend Saturday evening: Damian Lillard’s top 10 plays of season

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Damian Lillard gets overlooked too much as one of the top point guards in the NBA. Maybe it’s because he’s in Portland, which doesn’t land a lot of nationally televised games (when the powers that be want to show a West Coast time zone game, there’re a few bigger name options). Maybe it’s because of the glut of great point guards in the league right now. Maybe it’s because his team lost four starters going into this season and they were written off — then spent the season proving everybody wrong.

Whatever the reasons, it’s not right. There is no more entertaining player to watch in the league than Lillard. No, not even that guy is the Bay Area, in pure entertainment value as a fan Lillard can hang with anyone.

So enjoy his best plays of the past season. It’s the best we can do on an NBA off day.

Heat’s rookie Justise Winslow ready for another go at center in Game 7

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A 6’7″ center is usually a sign you’re watching Big West basketball.

Or, the Miami Heat/Toronto Raptors series.

Since Hassan Whiteside sprained his right MCL, Miami has had their best success this series with a small ball lineup where rookie Justise Winslow plays center. All 6’7″ of him. Miami can get away with it because Toronto’s seven-footer Bismack Biyombo isn’t an offensive threat. In Friday’s Game 6 win Winslow was the center on key lineups that were +7 in 21 minutes. And they did a surprisingly good job of protecting the rim.

So Sunday for Game 7, expect a lot more Winslow at the five. He is ready for it, he told the Sun Sentinel.

He conceded that playing inside left him a little bit more sore than he typically is after games, but deadpanned, “That’s what ice is for” when asked late Friday about how he felt physically.

“I pretty much approach every game the same way, but just knowing that I’m going to be at a different position doing different things, [you] just have to really lock in and focus on what the team needed me to do,” Winslow said. “It was Game 6, backs to the wall and I didn’t want to go down not swinging. That was pretty much my mentality and I’ll approach Game 7 the same way.”

The key to Game 7 may be how Toronto guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan can attack that small ball lineup by getting inside, and if they get any help from the role players around them. Miami knows what it wants to do; Erik Spoelstra has a rotation he likes (or can live with), and he has veteran players who know how to close out series. The pressure is on Toronto to prove they are ready for the next step.

What’s next for San Antonio? More depth, more youth, more athleticism

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San Antonio won 67 games this season, had the best defense in the Association, and was the third or fourth best team in the NBA (depending on where you want to rank Cleveland). They had an MVP candidate in Kawhi Leonard, integrated a new star in LaMarcus Aldridge, and were a legit title contender entering the playoffs.

But one with some flaws, something Oklahoma City was poised to expose.

As always, the Spurs will continue to evolve. With most franchises we’d talk about decline, but I and others have written off the Spurs before only to be proved wrong. Plus, with Aldridge and Leonard, there is not going to be some great drop-off.

More accurately, this is a team on the cusp of transitioning eras. Whether or not the core comes back for one more run at it, that transition has already started to take place and will continue. The only question is the pace of change.

Obviously, the first steps will be the decisions from Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan on whether or not they will retire. Speculate on what the inscrutable Duncan is thinking in the comments if you want; I’ll just wait for the one-line press release from the Spurs saying Duncan is back or retiring. You know that’s how it’s going down, or at least how Duncan wants it to go down.

After that, the Spurs roster next season has Aldridge, Leonard, Tony Parker, Danny Green, Patty Mills, and Kyle Anderson locked in, and while the team could buy out Boris Diaw he will be back as well. The Spurs also have an option on Jonathan Simmons they will pick up. Then there are the three player options: Duncan, Ginobili, and David West.

Whatever happens with those, the Spurs will have less than max salary money available.

One of the more interesting decisions this summer for the Spurs will be on Boban Marjanovic, the 7’3” center and NBA cult hero. He is a restricted free agent, he is going to get a healthy raise from the $1.2 million he made this season, but how much will teams pay for a quality big whose role may not fit smoothly in a small-ball league (he can play in some rotations but not all). The Spurs would like to keep him, but if another team comes in over the top they may fold that hand.

Expect the Spurs to go big game hunting again, as they did last season with Aldridge. We’ve heard of their interest in Kevin Durant, although it’s hard to picture that one now. Mike Conley has come up and would be a considerable upgrade over the declining Tony Parker, but to ink him would require clearing out some salary cap space, and then convincing Conley to leave Memphis (not that easy, he likes it there). Expect Al Horford and every major free agent not named Dwight Howard to be linked to the Spurs. Nicolas Batum would be a great fit, but the buzz is he likely stays put in Charlotte.

However, as much or more of what the Spurs need to do is add quality depth, and in that get younger and more athletic. The difference in the Oklahoma City series was the Thunder’s bench and the versatility it provided Billy Donovan (who handled it very well). A few free agent names that might be interesting on the Spurs are Kent Bazemore, Allen Crabbe, Courtney Lee, although veterans in the right role — a Luol Deng or Jared Dudley — could be a boost as well for a season or two. Of course, it will come down to cost.

The Spurs are not a perfect organization, but they have evolved so many times over the past 15 years that we are just conditioned to expect it now — and they have already laid the foundation for that next phase. Maybe now is when they take a step back, you go ahead and bet on that if you want. I’ve seen this too many times to think they will not be back and be a force next season.