NBA Finals, Lakers Celtics: KG returns to form in Celtics loss

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Before game one of the NBA Finals, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said that the matchup between power forwards Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett would be the key to the series. With all due respect to one of the greatest coaches of all time, games two and three of the finals have not been kind to Jackson’s thesis. 
In game two, Gasol completely dominated Garnett, scoring 26 points on only 10 field goal attempts and holding Garnett to a measly six points and four rebounds. Gasol looked both powerful and fluid, while Garnett looked like a shell of the man who was named the defensive player of the year after the 2007-08 season. Despite Gasol outclassing Garnett on both ends of the floor, Boston ended up beating the Lakers by a final tally of 103-84. 
In game three, it was Garnett who got the better of Gasol throughout the contest. Garnett started the game off with a beautiful up-and-under move and two subsequent easy baskets in transition, and those were the beginning of Garnett’s best game of the series: 25 points and three assists on 11-16 shooting from the field. 
It was one of those rare nights where Garnett had all of his moves working. He went to that little face-up rocker step from the midpost that he’s mastered. He hit a few turnarounds from the left block, including a nearly impossible righty baseline hook in the fourth to keep the Celtics in the game. He stepped out and hit a deep two. Garnett has re-invented himself as a defense/intangibles-first guy with Boston, but it wasn’t that long ago that KG won an MVP award by being nothing less than the most complete offensive big man in basketball. (I will say that rebounding remains a concern for Garnett in this series; KG only snagged six rebounds in game two, and let a few key caroms slip out of his grasp because of his tendency to try and snare rebounds with one hand. Jeff Van Gundy has been eager to point out when Garnett does this to viewers, and he’s been correct in doing so.)
Meanwhile, Pau Gasol, who currently holds the unofficial title of the most complete offensive big man in basketball, struggled to get comfortable all game long. Gasol got roughed up in the post a few times early, didn’t get the whistles, and struggled to get deep position.
As is often the case when Gasol struggles early, the Lakers became reluctant to give him post touches, and the Laker offense often devolved into four guys watching Kobe Bryant trying to make crazy shots. Kobe was forced to take tons of shots that not even he can make consistently, and finished the game 5-22 on shots taken from outside of 10 feet. It was exactly what Tom Thibodeau and the rest of the Celtics defense wanted to see the Lakers doing offensively.
Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and NBA head coaches go oft awry, especially when one of the best shooters of all time goes 0-13 from the floor and a slow, 35-year old point guard scores 11 points in the fourth quarter of an NBA Finals game. That will make just about any game plan a moot point, and it’s why the Celtics find themselves trailing 2-1 in this series.
I’d love to say that game three was a moral victory for the Celtics because it was the type of game they wanted to play, but I can’t shake the feeling that this game was more of an exception for Garnett and Gasol than a return to form for either one. More importantly, there are no moral victories when your team is two games away from elimination. 

Report: Kyle Lowry dodging calls and texts from Raptors president Masai Ujiri and coach Nick Nurse

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DeMar DeRozan hasn’t hidden his disdain for Raptors president Masai Ujiri trading him.

How does Kyle Lowry, a close friend of DeRozan still left in Toronto, feel?

Lowry dodged DeRozan questions while at USA Basketball’s minicamp in July. At media day yesterday, Lowry repeatedly gave an iteration of the same answer about his relationship with the Raptors: He’s there to do his job and try to win, just as always.

Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

per league sources, Lowry had also been dodging calls and texts from team officials, including president Masai Ujiri and new head coach Nick Nurse, who Lowry said he only spoke with briefly right after Nurse was promoted in June.

This obviously isn’t the healthiest arrangement. Teams function best with open communication.

But the team president and point guard needn’t talk regularly, especially now. Lowry is locked up for two more seasons. The status quo is fairly locked in for the season.

Lowry and Nurse not speaking would be a pressing issue, but training camp just opened. It’s too soon to assess how Lowry will respond to Nurse.

Ultimately, what Kawhi Leonard said about how the Raptors can appeal to him also applies to Lowry – win. If Toronto wins this season, Lowry will likely get over his issues with the DeRozan trade.

A half-dozen players with especially intriguing contract-year seasons ahead

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After increasing 7%, 11%, 34% and 5% the previous four years, the NBA’s salary cap increased just 3% this year. Plus, teams were already overstocked with highly paid players signed during the 2016 – and, to an extent, 2015 – cap booms.

That meant many players signed one-year deals this offseason, allowing them to hit the market again next summer, when the cap is projected to rise 7% and many players signed in 2015 and 2016 come off the books.

The result is a deep 2019 free-agent class.

Some potential 2019 free agents, like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, are assured max-contract offers. Even Kawhi Leonard, who missed nearly all of last season due to injury, is practically guaranteed of max offers.

But there are many more players with their future compensation in flux. Here are six players with a ton on the line next season:

DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins shocked the league by taking the Warriors’ taxpayer mid-level exception. It’s probably a one-year rental. The highest starting salary Golden State can offer him next summer through Non-Bird Rights is $6,404,400. This year will give him a chance to get healthy, show he can contribute positively to winning and expand his versatility. Cousins isn’t the perfect fit with the Warriors, and some teams are still scared off by his attitude. But, if all goes well this season, Cousins won’t be able to claim no offers next summer.

Isaiah Thomas

Thomas learned the hard way Brinks trucks typically carry an amount near his $2,029,463 minimum salary – not the nine-digit max contract he hoped for. That dream has probably passed, but Thomas can still land a lucrative contract next summer if he thrives with the Nuggets this season. First, that means getting healthy, as his hip injury still lingers. Then, the 5-foot-9 point guard must show he can still get separation and lift to get buckets. And it’d help if he meshes better with his teammates and coaches. It’s amazing how big of a hit Thomas’ value has taken in the last year, but he has proven his determination before. Will he do it again?

D'Angelo Russell

Russell entered last season as a potential franchise player for the Nets. Then, he got outplayed by Spencer Dinwiddie. Russell missed 34 games due to injury and stagnated in his growth while on the court. The shine is off the former No. 2 pick. But Russell is still just 22 and talented, and point guards tend to develop later. He could earn a huge payday, though it’ll require a major breakthrough. He and Brooklyn can technically sign an extension by Oct. 15, but that seems unlikely – especially with Dinwiddie, another pending 2019 free agent, also in the mix. Most likely, Russell becomes a restricted free agent next summer.

Tobias Harris

Harris reportedly rejected a four-year, $80 million extension from the Clippers this summer. That’s a lot of money to turn down, but the upside is there. Harris could be the Clippers’ focal point this season, especially in the starting lineup (which probably won’t include Lou Williams). Harris is just 26 and has the all-around skills and work ethic to cash in. The Clippers are aiming higher, so Harris might have to leave L.A. to get paid.

Trey Burke

The No. 9 pick in 2013, Burke gradually fell out of favor with the Jazz. He got a change of scenery with the Wizards and struggled even more in Washington than he had in Utah. Burke seemingly blamed everyone but himself. He fell out of the league until the Knicks called him up in the middle of last season. Burke flourished in New York, showing the offensive command everyone expected when he declared for the draft out of Michigan. Burke must fend off Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay – more recent and higher picks – at point guard, and the Knicks’ reported top target in 2019 free agency is point Kyrie Irving. But if Burke maintains his play with New York over a full season, he’ll have lucrative options somewhere.

Marcus Morris

Morris signed a four-year, $20 million extension with the Suns in 2014, taking a discount to play with his twin brother, Markieff Morris. Then, Phoenix traded Marcus to the Pistons. Marcus vowed never to let personal relationships get in the away of business again. Now with the Celtics, he’ll have his chance to maximize his earnings next summer. Marcus is a hard-nosed and skilled combo forward in a league where his versatility is increasingly valued. He’ll try to prove his worth on a stacked Boston team that has too many strong pieces to allow any individual to fully fly.

Report: Kings trying to get involved in Jimmy Butler trade by taking bad contracts

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The Timberwolves are reportedly seeking, among other things, “salary-cap relief” in a Jimmy Butler trade. But Butler is on a de facto expiring contract, and Minnesota is already below the luxury-tax line this season. There isn’t significant relief to be gained by dealing just him.

So, that likely means unloading Gorgui Dieng, who’s due $48,687,640 over the next three years, including $15,170,787 this season.

That’s a toxic contract that will be difficult to move. Some potential Butler trade partners don’t have viable expiring contracts to trade for Dieng, and some potential Butler trade partners will flat refuse.

Enter the Kings.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In recent days, Sacramento has been aggressive in courting Minnesota and several of Butler’s trade suitors — offering to use its space as a landing spot for bloated contracts.

The Kings have about $11 million in cap space (not counting Jamel Artis‘ unguaranteed deal). They also have a few ill-fitting veterans on expiring contracts that could facilitate a trade: Zach Randolph ($11,692,308), Iman Shumpert ($11,011,234) and Kosta Koufos ($8,739,500).

In return for taking bad contracts, Sacramento will seek draft picks and young players. This is the exact type of trade the rebuilding Kings should make. They just must hope Minnesota’s best offer involves them.

PBT Podcast: How do Victor Oladipo, Pacers take next step forward?

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Last season Victor Oladipo burst on the scene, making the leap from solid rotation player to All-NBA level star who could score and defend — and he dragged the Pacers up to being a solid playoff team with him.

The Pacers were the surprise of the NBA, which leads to the question: Can they do it again? More than that, how can they take a step forward? Kurt Helin of NBC Sports talks with J. Michael of the Indy Star about the Pacers and their key role players — Myles Turner, Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott, Thaddeus Young and more — and what has to happen to move this team into the top three or four of the East.

The pair also discusses the East a little, including whether Toronto is for real, and how big a threat will Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks be.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.