Kurt Helin

Injury-ravaged Utah Jazz plan to stay the course

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Injuries have ravaged a Utah Jazz roster that was expected to take a significant step forward in 2015-16.

They had the sixth-best win percentage (65.5) in the NBA after the All-Star break last season and there was optimism to see how a young corps would grow together.

Those injuries have gummed up that development.

The Jazz lost starting point guard Dante Exum to a torn ACL in the summer. Starting center Rudy Gobert remains out with a sprained MCL. Third-leading scorer Alec Burks had surgery Tuesday on broken left fibula and is out for the foreseeable future.

The Jazz are currently 13-16 and in the No. 8 spot for the playoffs.

“The important thing is for us not to lose sight of the fact that our record doesn’t necessarily reflect what we’re doing and what we’re building,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “The expectations, probably now, are actually more in line with what they should have been at the beginning of the year.

“The opportunity for us, right now, is to get better with the guys we have and reintegrate Rudy, in particular, and hopefully get Alec back and hopefully be a better team in March than we are right now.”

There is no panic in the front office, though the string of injuries is frustrating. Snyder and general manager Dennis Lindsey have often talked about the process of constructing this team. There’s a commitment to a slow rebuild and developing the second youngest roster in the league. They want the core of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Gobert, Exum, Burks, Rodney Hood and Trey Burke to blossom together, but three of the seven have been out and Favors has missed time with nagging injuries.

The process has been slowed.

“Naturally, it affects it just because you’re not out there playing together,” Hayward said. “So, it’s a natural affect. You’re still around each other. We’re still watching film. There’s still things you can do. You can learn from the sidelines, for sure.

“It’s how it works. Every year, something’s going to happen.”

There are no immediate plans to adjust the process. The Jazz will do due diligence and evaluate trade scenarios and other roster options, but the plan is to stay patient. The organization wants to take the long view and not chase short-term goals if it’s a detriment to building a title contending roster.

The hope is the injuries will allow growth from other players and help the depth in the future. Burke is having the best all-around year of his career. Rookie Raul Neto is starting instead of getting the leftover minutes of a No. 3 point guard. Rookie Trey Lyles is getting spot starts and more minutes than he wouldn’t have otherwise. The same is happening for third-year center Jeff Withey.

The thought is to err in favor of the long view instead of the now.

But the now is ongoing.

The Eastern Conference has been the deeper of the two conferences this year. The Grizzlies, Rockets, Pelicans and Trail Blazers have all taken a step back and the Jazz remain in playoff contention despite the record.

There are nightly decisions Snyder has to make despite being short-handed. A three-wing lineup had been heavily used, especially late in games, with Hayward, Hood and Burks on the floor without a point guard. That has to change.

Snyder said they won’t overhaul the defensive system, but it’s certainly different without the length of a 6-foot-6 point guard (Exum), a mobile 7-1 center (Gobert) and the athletic Burks. Favors has played more center this year and been more careful with the way he defends the rim.

Burke and Neto played together on the floor Monday for the first time this season – a pair of 6-1 point guards.

“There’s a ripple effect,” Snyder said. “More than anything guys just have to step up and collectively fill those voids. I don’t think adjusting the starting lineup or signing someone from the D-League or any of those things, it could help, but there’s no singular move that all of a sudden says never mind Alec and Dante and Rudy. We’ve got to figure it out now.

“It’s different obviously without Alec. … There’s a lot of uncertainty.”

As much as Lindsey and Snyder are responsible for building a future contender, there are 53 games remaining on the schedule and the available players aren’t waving the white flag on the season.

“You can definitely be down for sure, but you can’t have that mindset,” Hayward said. “That’s how you start losing 5 out of 7 games, you feel sorry for yourself. We’re professionals. It has to be a next man up mentality.”

Hood added, “Nobody feels sorry for us.”

Westbrook and Durant lead Thunder over Bucks 131-123

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook scored 27 points and Kevin Durant added 26 to lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 131-123 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night.

Enes Kanter added 23 while rookie Cameron Payne had a career-high 16 for the Thunder.

Westbrook and Durant both scored more than 20 points for the 25th time this season as Oklahoma City overcame an early eight-point deficit to win for the 11th time in its last 14 games.

Milwaukee jumped ahead on the outside shooting of Khris Middleton and led by as many as eight in the first quarter before the Thunder went on a 7-0 run to end the period. Payne hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to pull Oklahoma City within 31-30.

Kanter led a run midway through the second period to give the Thunder (22-10) the lead for good, scoring back-to-back baskets to put them up by three and they expanded it to 11 at halftime, 65-54.

Oklahoma City expanded that lead to 77-60 before Middleton brought his team back, scoring 12 of his career high 36 in the period to bring Milwaukee within two. Payne then scored four straight points and assisted on a basket by Kanter to help the Thunder maintain a 92-88 lead going into the fourth quarter.

Anthony Morrow hit consecutive threes in the opening two minutes of the final period to push the lead to 100-91 and Kanter scored 12 fourth quarter points to help preserve the lead.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 27 points for the Bucks, who lost on the road for the second consecutive game.

TIP-INS

Bucks: The Bucks are now 0-4 on Tuesdays. The only day other day of the week they’ve failed to win is Thursday, which is when they will play their next game.

Thunder: Payne was the backup point guard for the second straight game. After picking up two fouls in his first minute, the number one draft pick reached his career high with seven points in just six minutes in the second quarter.

 

Remembering Meadowlark Lemon (VIDEO)

FILE - In this Feb. 18, 1978, file photo, Meadowlark Lemon, of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, offers a pretzel to a referee during a game at New York's Madison Square Garden. Lemon, known as the Globetrotters' "clown prince" of basketball, died Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 83.  (AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis, File)
Associated Press
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If you’re talking about the most popular players of their generation, if you’re talking about people who were prophets spreading the word of basketball before the era of Magic/Bird, then you are talking about Meadowlark Lemon.

The showman who spent decades with the Harlem Globetrotters passed away at the age of 83. This video via the NBA is a tribute to him and his legacy.

RIP Meadowlark.

Brandon Jennings returns to court for Pistons

Brandon Jennings
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Brandon Jennings is back.

The dynamic point guard who blew out his Achilles last season made his return to the court Tuesday night for Detroit in their game against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. The Pistons announced it this way.

Jennings looked a little slowed and rusty, as to be expected, but it was good to see him getting a little run.

Expect his name to come up in trade talks. Before his injury Jennings was playing well, knocking down threes, and had a PER of 19.7. However, this past summer Stan Van Gundy gave Reggie Jackson an $80 million contract because of his chemistry with Andre Drummond, and with Jennings in the last year of his deal the Pistons will consider moving him. As he gets healthier, expect Van Gundy to showcase Jennings at the point more. That said, for a rental coming off a major injury, the Pistons are not going to get much in return for Jennings.

All that is speculation, the bottom line is it’s good to see Jennings on the court again.

Stephen Curry could be rested next two Warriors games

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There were reports that after the Warriors knocked off the Kings Monday that Stephen Curry was limping in the locker room. He didn’t show it on the court dropping a triple-double, but it was noticed after the game.

Which may mean some rest is coming for Curry, according to interim coach Luke Walton. Via Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group.

Officially, Curry as listed as questionable for Wednesday. The Warriors error on the side of caution with players and health, so don’t be shocked if Curry is out against the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday and the Houston Rockets Thursday. I’d be surprised if he’s not rested for at least half of the back-to-back.

This is why the Warriors chasing 72 wins is still very early in the conversation — the Warriors’ 29-1 record puts it on the table, but as the season moves along the Warriors will make the health of their players the highest priority. Curry will get rested, as will Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and the rest of them. The Warriors will not care if that costs them a few wins.

If Curry sits out, expect to see a lot more Shaun Livingston. Leandro Barbosa did not make the trip with the team due to injury.