Baseline to Baseline, your game recaps

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What happened Sunday, while drowning your tears in maple syrup…

Lakers 95 Nuggets 89: Maybe one day in May, we’ll get to see these two teams play at full strength for a full 48. As it was, like we told you, it was a tale of two halves. The Nuggets’ first half, and the Lakers second half, save a run in the mid-2nd by Denver. The shots dried up, particularly Kenyon Martin’s.

The Nuggets have relied on Martin’s mid-range J way too much this season. It’s one of those shots that is nice to have, but that you can’t rely on. And when the Nuggets came to rely on it today, with Ron Artest smothering Anthony and no other wing offense being produced, they choked on it.

Pau Gasol had one single decisive power move that sealed the game in the midst of yet another soft-as-yogurt performance. But that one move, and up and under finish and-one, was huge.

Spurs 113 Suns 110: Like I said, the Gods hate the Suns. But lost in this other-worldly stuff were two huge factors.

One, Amar’e Stoudemire looked like it was 2007. He was dominant. The way he and Nash work in the pick and roll is sublime. He attacked the offensive glass as well, and finished with some ridiculous numbers. It’s significant because more and more the Spurs have trouble with scoring bigs. That shouldn’t be a problem in the playoffs, when they will face some combination of Stoudemire, Aldridge, Nene, Nowitzki, and Gasol.

Two, the Richard-Jefferson-off-the-bench thing is gangbusters so far. 20 points on 11 shots, 4 rebounds, 5 assists is a good day’s work. Jefferson coming off the bench makes him seem much more comfortable, and gets an aggressive lineup to start off for the Spurs. If this continues to click, it’s a major development.

Both of those guys were considered major liabilities as the deadline approached. Something to watch.

Wizards 89 Nets 85: If you were wondering where Yi Jianlian’s jock is, it’s gone, burned in the fire Andray Blatche put on the floor and then subsequently wizzed on.

Blatche abused Jianlian. From the mid-range. Off the drive. In the post. There’s been some debate out there about Andray Blatche and his place among the young, second tier power forwards in the game (I’m talking to you two). Score one for Blatche tonight.

I was really excited about a Nets winning streak, weren’t you?

Hawks 106 Bucks 102 (OT): Even with 24 combined points scored in overtime, you have to know this isn’t the defensive effort the Bucks wanted. The pace was where they wanted it, but they gave up 108.2 points per 100 possessions (estimated). That’s just not where the Bucks usually perform.

But a road SEGABABA (SEcond GAme of a BAck to BAck) will do that to you. They hung, John Salmons was brilliant once again (32 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists), the Hawks just have guys who can create all over. Particularly Josh Smith (22 points on 13 shots, 15 rebounds), who was beastly.

The Hawks always push you, no matter if they’re up or down. They just keep testing you, running you, gunning you, and if you don’t have constant vigilance, they’re going to catch you.

Joe Johnson had more shots (26) than points (24), and too often he becomes the entirety of the offense for long stretches, and not very efficiently. It turns into Kobe-time without the Kobe, and I say that as a staunch Joe Johnson supporter (Arkansas represent! Or something).

Thunder 119 Raptors 99: I will not use the terrible “Thunder rolled” pun. I will not use the terrible “Thunder rolled” pun. I will not use the terrible “Thunder rolled” pun. I will not use the terrible “Thunder rolled” pun. I will not use the terrible “Thunder rolled” pun.

Okay, the Thunder got out early and cruised in this one. If you talk about offensive distribution, these two teams are built entirely differently. The Raptors are built for one guy (Bosh) to have a massive games, two to three guys to have big games, and the defense to be opportunistic.

The Thunder are built to have Durantula put in between 20 and 40 every night, but to also create even distribution. And that’s what they got tonight. Six players in double figures. Two players with double-doubles. And their defense? It’s not opportunistic, it’s relentless. It’s Soviet tanks rolling over fences and crushing houses. Holding one of the best offenses in the league to 99 points per 100 estimated possessions? That’s phenomenal.

Bosh or no Bosh, the Thunder were ready to roll tonight.

Crap.

Mavericks 108, Hornets 100: It was what everyone paid to see — a duel between Dirk Nowitzki and… Darren Collison? Yes, Darren Collison. Get used to it, you want to see him play. Kid can ball and Dallas didn’t have an answer (certainly not Kidd). Dropped 35 on 21 shots. Dirk countered him with 36. Dallas has the better rounded roster, and Brendan Haywood is a key reason because he defends the paint better than anyone they have had in there in a long tone. The Mavericks have now won seven in a row, and they won an ugly one. Credit to the Hornets for not rolling over and keeping this one close, but they do that against Dallas.

Orlando 96, Miami 80: The Heat bigs did what every team says is their goal against Orlando — they took Dwight Howard out of the game. He was Bizzaro — 7 points on 1 of 7 shooting, and as many rebounds as fouls (5). But Miami just isn’t good enough to do anything about it. Wade shot 35% as the Magic focused on him, while his teammates shot just 40% with the extra space. Martin Gortat continued to clog the paint for Orlando — get that crap out of here, D Wade — and was a game-best +23. Sure, +/- can be pretty misleading sometimes, but here it is telling the story.

Kings 97, Clippers 92: The Clippers may want to run  but the Kings have the players who can do that. And did that. Ran all over in the Clippers for the first half, but only had a four point lead to show for it. They stretched that to double digits for a while in the second, but when Tyreke Evans went a little cold at the end it got close. However, when it gets close you can count on the Clippers to be the Clippers. Chris Kaman threw the ball away, led to Evans driving for a layup. Horrific Clippers position ends with a Baron Davis 30 footer, followed by the Kings coming down and Evans driving for a layup. You’ve seen this movie on how the Clippers execute late, no need to continue. This is only the third time this season the Kings have back-to-back wins.

Injury note, Clippers power forward Craig Smith had a pretty bad sprain of the tendon on his left bicep. No work on how lon
g he is out but an MRI Monda
y to figure that out.

Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta calls luxury tax ‘horrible hindrance’

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No matter what Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta said, the luxury tax clearly loomed over Houston’s entire offseason. It’s the biggest reason the Rockets fell back in their pursuit of the Warriors.

So, how does Fertitta explain his view on the luxury tax now?

Kelly Iko of The Athletic:

Fertitta:

It’s a horrible hindrance.

And if any of y’all ever want to really understand it, go do the math on it. I mean, it’s just brutal. You can take 5 million, and all of a sudden you look up, and it costs you 20 million.

And at some point, you have to be smart, and you cannot get into the repeater tax, which happens if you’ve been in the luxury tax three years in a row. And that’s something to really look at. And at some point, you have to do some things so you never go in the repeater tax. You’re just dead in the water, and it can ruin your franchise for years. So, it’s something you have to be cognizant of.

At the same time, a team is built is on superstars. If you have your top four or five players, you can always see other players move in and out.

Because it is a chess game playing with the luxury tax. That’s why there’s only three or teams in it.

This year, to be able to make sure that we hopefully get back to the Western Conference finals, we were going to have to be in it around many millions of dollars. And I am here to win championships, and I’m not going to let 5 or 10 or 15 or 20 million dollars make a difference. Because if you do win the championship, that’s easy money back.

Now, if we’re in the luxury tax every year and we’re barely getting into the playoffs and a first-round game is a struggle, then I’m going to go find me a new general manger.

Let’s be clear: Fertitta will spend a significant amount on the Rockets this season. They’re over the luxury-tax line and will very likely remain there once the tax is assessed on the final day of the regular season. Fertitta greenlit one of the league’s largest payrolls.

But his arguments about the repeater rate are lacking.

Teams pay the repeater rate when paying the tax for at least the fourth time five seasons. It doesn’t matter how far over the tax they were in those prior seasons. So, while Houston – which has a completely clean repeater clock – wants to avoid paying the repeater rate down the road, incremental savings this season won’t matter for that. Unless the Rockets avoid the tax completely, which is highly unlikely, this season will count as a tax-paying season.

Houston’s key losses – Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute – left for one-year contracts elsewhere. Keeping them would have been expensive this year, but they would have triggered no additional costs later.

Again, re-signing those forwards would have pushed the Rockets’ payroll extremely high. It might be reasonable for Fertitta to place his spending limits where he did. But it should have nothing to do with the repeater tax.

It’s OK if Fertitta doesn’t know the exact ins and outs of the luxury tax. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey does and handles it. But the degree to which Fertitta is willing to pay the tax is so important to Houston’s title chances, it’s worth assessing everything he says about it.

“Horrible hindrance” and “just brutal” speak loudly.

Kawhi Leonard lays out roadmap for Raptors keeping him

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Kawhi Leonard laughed at his own answer to a reporter questioning how Leonard would describe himself to a Toronto market that doesn’t know him. “It’s just more questions you have to ask me in order for me to tell you about myself. I just can’t give you a whole spiel. I don’t even know where you’re sitting at.” Leonard talked about his excitement for getting traded to the Raptors, a “great organization” in a “great city.” He smiled big while posing for pictures.

Most importantly, he described what it’d take for Toronto to re-sign him next summer.

“By winning games,” Leonard said, “this is how you get star-caliber players to want to come here and play.”

The Raptors can do that.

They’ve won at least 48 games the last five years, peaking with 59 wins last season. Leonard, Kyle Lowry and a deep supporting cast should rank near the top of the Eastern Conference again.

But will Toronto win enough – especially in the playoffs, where disappointing results have become the norm – to get Leonard to sign on the dotted line?

For now, Leonard wants to focus on the present, including his current thoughts on Toronto: “I want to play here.” That means not meaningfully reflecting publicly on his time with the Spurs other than to say he has no regrets. It means not addressing Los Angeles rumors.

“If you’re looking in the future, you’re going to trip over the present,” Leonard said.

The present looks bright for the Raptors. Kyle Lowry re-signed last summer. DeMar DeRozan made clear how badly he wanted to stay. Leonard is in Toronto now.

At one point during today’s (delayed) introductory press conference, Raptors president Masai Ujiri interjected without being asked a question.

“Guys, the narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone,” Ujiri said, his voice rising far louder than the low-talking Leonard’s had all morning. “I think that’s old. Believe in this city. Believe in yourselves.”

And, at this point, believe Leonard when he said winning is the key to re-signing him. Maybe he’ll still leave, but winning gives Toronto the best chance to keep him.

“I came here with an open mind,” Leonard said. “I want to do great things.”

Raptors right to swing for fences with Kawhi Leonard

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Raptors are one step closer.

To seriously contending for a championship? To actually rebuilding?

We’ll see.

But Toronto is racing toward a resolution, one way or another.

Last offseason, the Raptors positioned themselves for a breaking point in the summer of 2020. They gave Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka three-year contracts, matching the timeline of Jonas Valanciunas‘ contract ending. The hitch was DeMar DeRozan‘s huge deal, which ran through 2021. If it reached the point Toronto president Masai Ujiri wanted to retool in 2020, perhaps DeRozan wouldn’t be as appealing on the trade market. Keeping DeRozan – central to the Raptors’ identity – could have been even more limiting.

So, Ujiri got ahead of that potential problem by trading DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a top-20-protected first-round pick for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

The move was extremely risky. Leonard missed nearly all of last due to injury. He can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, and he’s reportedly eying Los Angeles.

But Leonard is just 27 and only one season removed from being an MVP candidate. He could lift Toronto to a championship this season. He could re-sign. The upside is so high.

The downside is starting a rebuild that probably would have come anyway.

First, the Raptors will give it their best shot this season.

They re-signed Fred VanVleet – the driving force behind their excellent bench – to a two years, $18 million contract. That likely assures aying the luxury tax for the first time since 2004, though there’s still time to shed salary before the tax is assessed on the final day of the regular season.

Greg Monroe was a very nice addition at the minimum. If all goes well, he might even allow Toronto to dump Valanciunas’ salary.

And don’t forget about Green, who’s a solid contributor on the wing, not just a throw-in with Leonard.

Firing Dwane Casey to hire first-time NBA head coach Nick Nurse was another risk. I wonder whether Ujiri would have done it if he knew he’d acquire Leonard later in the summer.

The Raptors could be excellent this season and beyond. They could be excellent this season then fall off dramatically. They could be far worse this season and stay down a while.

But after years of strong regular seasons and playoff disappointments, it was time to change the status quo.

Fortune favors the bold.

 

 

Offseason grade: A

Heat camp arrives, and Goran Dragic says he’s more than ready

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MIAMI (AP) — This time last year, Miami’s Goran Dragic was already tired and the season was just getting started.

It’s very different now.

When the Heat hold their first practice of the season Tuesday, Dragic expects to be as rested and ready as he’s been for any training camp in years. The point guard who went to his first All-Star Game last season wore down as the year went along, in part because of the grind he put himself through last summer while leading his native Slovenia to the European championship.

This summer, he played less – and is hoping that pays off this season.

“I feel amazing. I feel great,” Dragic said. “I think one of the smartest moves I made was retiring from the national team, because I feel energized and pumped for this season. I always kind of hit a wall toward the end of a season, but I feel like this season is going to be a totally different story.”

At 32, Dragic is Miami’s third-oldest player – among those in the Heat locker room, only Udonis Haslem (38) and the entering-his-final-season Dwyane Wade (36) have seen more birthdays. But Dragic is still a starter, still a very intregal part of everything Miami envisions for this season, and is coming off a year where he averaged 17.3 points.

“The band is still together,” Dragic said. “I’m very happy that I’ll be part of this last dance with Dwyane.”

The biggest malady Dragic was dealing with at the end of last season was tendinitis in his right knee, something that bothered him for several weeks. He still led Miami in scoring during its five-game playoff appearance against Philadelphia, averaging 18.6 points.

He wasn’t the only Heat starter ailing when last season ended. Josh Richardson was playing through a bad shoulder, Hassan Whiteside had knee problems, James Johnson had a sports hernia and Tyler Johnson‘s thumb needed surgery. The Heat – who are one of the many teams that have been talking to Minnesota about a trade for Jimmy Butler – are hoping some health luck comes their way this season.

“I think we’re going to be good,” Dragic said.

If nothing else, he’s not coming into this season as harried as he was last fall. Dragic has been back in Miami for about a month, after spending most of his offseason in Slovenia. A year ago, the European championships meant Dragic was still playing right up until the start of Heat camp.

It wasn’t a popular decision in Slovenia for Dragic to stop playing for the national team, which didn’t qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup of Basketball in China and now faces an uphill climb if it’s going to reach the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“But it was the right decision for me,” Dragic said.

The Heat sat out this past June’s NBA Draft in part because of the deal they made in 2015 to bring Dragic to Miami. The package sent to Phoenix included two first-round selections, the first of which was used this year at the No. 16 overall spot. The other will be used in 2021.

The price was steep, and the Heat aren’t complaining.

“I’d much rather have Goran Dragic than those two picks,” Heat President Pat Riley said.

Dragic is hoping to give Riley even more bang for his buck this season.

The All-Star nod – even though it came as an injury replacement – was particularly meaningful for Dragic, and he felt that last season was one of his better seasons anyway.

His goal for this season is simple: Be even better.

“I want to be at a high level for as long as possible,” Dragic said. “If you come into a season without goals, you’re just going through practice and it doesn’t mean anything to you. But if you set goals, you’re pushing yourself. And for me personally, my goal is to have a better season than I did last year. I don’t want to drop a little bit at the end this season. I want to be energized, fresher, more consistent the whole way this time.”