There is basketball outside of South Beach and L.A.: 10 things worth watching

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Yes, the Heat have the three biggest stars we have seen on a team since the 1980s. Yes the Lakers are the two-time defending champs and may have more talent than any team in the league.

We get it. You love them. We’ll talk about them plenty this season.

But there is so much more to this NBA season than the Heat and the Lakers. It’s going to be a fascinating year filled with highlights and experiments, players on the rise and others on the mend. A lot of teams with questions, a lot of answers to discover.

Here are just 10 storylines that have nothing to do with Miami or Los Angeles that you need to watch:

1. John Wall and the new look Washington Wizards. John Wall is as fast with the ball in his hands as anyone in the league right now. As a rookie. He is lightning. He is a game changing point guard surrounded by athletic wings and big men who will run with him. (Plus Gilbert Arenas, who could blend right in with that group or be a show unto himself.) Washington is John Wall’s team now, make no mistake, and while there will be some bad rookie nights, it will be hard to keep up with all the highlights this guy will provide.

2. The Orlando Magic, contenders. The Magic may well be the best team in basketball. Scoff if you want, but they were the best team the second half of last season, and two-rounds into the playoffs you thought they were on pace to return to the finals after sweeping aside the Bobcats and Hawks. Dwight Howard was a beast and Jameer Nelson had found a grove. Don’t let one series against a rejuvenated and hot Boston squad fool you, this team is very good and has a new focus this year. They will be near the top of the East, and they could win it all.

3. Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento. Last year’s rookie of the year teamed with the guy who could win it this year. Evans can slash and run, Cousins is physically imposing, can get his shot off in the post or drain the midrange, and he can board. Cousins never should have fallen to No. 5. There will be rough patches, but watch as Sacramento becomes relevant again, a team on the rise.

4. Portland will remind you they were Oklahoma City before Oklahoma City. Two seasons ago, Portland was the young up-and-coming team that was next in line to become the best in the West after the Lakers. Then last season injuries decimated the team (more than 300 man games lost) yet they still won 50 games. Forget the Greg Oden saga, this team cold bounce back big with or without him. And watch for Nicolas Batum to have a huge year.

5. Josh Childress rises like the Phoenix. Everyone seems to have forgotten how smooth, how good this guy is. He was talked about as a possible sixth man of the year, a guy who could run and knew how to attack the rim. Then he took his talents to Greece for a couple years after lowball offers from the Hawks. Now he brings his game back to play along side Steve Nash, who is going to get him great looks. Childress (especially if he developed a jumper while on his European vacation) will be back to dazzling everyone.

6. Yao Ming is back. Yao Ming was the best center on the planet. (Before you say Dwight Howard was better, go check out the box scores of their head-to-head matchups.) He is 7’6” with a deft touch around the basket and who can step out and drain the midrange. He’s graceful with a high basketball IQ. He’s a good person and huge to the sport globally. With him healthy, the Rockets are threats in the West. Without him, they may miss the playoffs. He is that important, and everyone should have their fingers crossed for him.

7. Roddy Beaubois being the missing piece in Dallas. The Mavericks are good, deep, professional, and have been for years. But Beaubois can be their game changer. Their missing spark. Rick Carlisle sat on him for reasons we don’t understand last playoffs and when the guy finally got loose against San Antonio he almost won them a game single-handedly. He is the quickness, the energy Dallas needs. You’ll have to be patient on this one though, he will miss the first few weeks with a broken foot.

8. Al Jefferson comes to Utah. The people of Utah are convinced that Al Jefferson will be an upgrade over Carlos Boozer. Deron William has told Jefferson he will be an All-Star in Utah. He brings a more post-based game that may balance with Mehmet Okur (once Okur gets healthy) and he will bring some rebounds. He won’t bring much defense, but neither did Boozer. Some think this is an upgrade, we’re not convinced but it will be an interesting experiment. One Kevin Love wholeheartedly approves of, by the way.

9. Derrick Rose and the new look Chicago Bulls. Derrick Rose is dynamic, one of the most entertaining players in the game. You watched the Bulls last season and kept saying, “if they just had a guy who could consistently score inside…” Now it’s “hello Carlos Boozer.” There are a lot of questions, the biggest being can new coach Tim Thibodeau get Boozer and Rose to play good defense. Another is can Rose hit a three (he worked on it all summer but shot just 27.8 percent in preseason) to open up the floor. But this is a team that looks just half a step behind the top three in the East, but it thinks it belongs. And maybe it does.

10. Games decided because of technical fouls. The NBA is cracking down on complaining by players, but in doing so has taken the issue to the other extreme and created a problem where none really existed before. At some point early this season a game is going to be decided by a technical — a foul will be whistled in the last 20 seconds of a close game, an emotional player will have an outburst and some ref with an itchy trigger finger will call the technical and change the game. Or, some star will get tossed for nothing in the second quarter. By January the two sides — players and officials — will find a groove on this, but some games will be changed in the coming weeks.

Trust us. Just watch.

Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic taken off court on stretcher after gruesome leg injury

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This looks bad. Very bad.

Most importantly, it is bad for Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic, who midway through the second overtime with Brooklyn went down with what can only be described as a gruesome injury, one that looks like a shattered tibia but could be more than that and worse.

Nurkic had gone up for an offensive rebound and came down awkwardly, his leg bending in ways that it should not bend. He laid on the floor in pain, was carted off in a stretcher — with the crowd sending positive vibes — and taken directly to the hospital.

Here is a video of the incident, but be warned this is brutal and may be a video you want to avoid if these kinds of injuries make you feel ill. Or, even if they don’t.

Around the league, sympathy poured out for Nurkic.

Nurkic got paid last summer, a four-year, $48 million deal — but unlike others who take their foot off the gas once they get their money, Nurkic came back better and more motivated. He has averaged a career-high 15.4 points per game this season on 50.7 percent shooting, and on the defensive end he moved better and was more of a presence. He has been Portland’s second best player for stretches of the season.

Portland had looked like a more dangerous playoff threat this season and Nurkic was a big reason. Now, that edge is gone.

Magic shut down 76ers in second half, win 119-98, stay close to playoff berth

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A little desperation went a long way for the Orlando Magic.

The Magic shut down the Philadelphia 76ers in the second half of a 119-98 victory on Monday night that moved them within a half-game of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

“They were desperate. They played like it and we did not,” said 76ers coach Brett Brown, whose team was held without a field goal for a second-half stretch of nearly 12 minutes. “Nik Vucevic is a really difficult matchup and (Evan) Fournier really had a fantastic night. Their desperation was evident.”

Vucevic had 28 points and 11 rebounds, and Fournier scored 24 points for the Magic, who outscored the 76ers 30-5 while Philadelphia missed 15 straight shots.

“It’s impressive, especially when you look at all the firepower they have, even without Ben Simmons,” Vucevic said. “We needed this win with a tough road trip coming up, starting tomorrow night in Miami.”

The Magic completed their first 5-0 homestand in franchise history and moved a half-game behind Miami in chasing the final playoff spot in the East. They visit the Heat on Tuesday.

Joel Embiid led the 76ers with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Playing without point guard Simmons, the 76ers led 60-57 after shooting 61.5 percent in the first half. The second half was a different story.

“I thought we went away from what was working to get those field goals (in the first half),” said Tobias Harris, who had 12 of his 15 points in the first half. “But that game wasn’t won or lost on the offensive end for us. That game would have been won on the defensive end. We didn’t do a great job against them.”

Shake Milton‘s jump shot cut the Magic’s lead to 78-77 with 4:32 left in the third quarter, but Philadelphia did not score in the remainder of the period, falling behind by 14 points.

When Zhaire Smith hit a 3-pointer with 4:50 remaining in the game, it ended a stretch of 11 minutes, 42 seconds without a field goal for the 76ers, who then trailed 108-85.

“I think the urgency has not been with us,” Brown said. “It happens. As I candidly said, we’re trying to hold on to our third-place position, and land the plane and keep people healthy.”

J.J. Redick, who scored 79 points and made 18 of 29 3-pointers in the 76ers’ first three games against Orlando this season, made only 1 of 7 Monday night and finished with eight points.

“He’s not going to miss those very often, but we’ll take it,” said Magic coach Steve Clifford.

 

David Griffin, Danny Ferry reportedly among candidates for Pelicans GM job

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This coming offseason will set the tone in New Orleans for years to come. Maybe the next decade.

The Pelicans are going to trade Anthony Davis, and 25-year-old franchise cornerstone, top 10 NBA players (top 5 when healthy and playing a lot) do not become available often. What direction the Pelicans go with that — young players/picks to jumpstart a rebuild, or veterans to help win more and stay afloat now — is a big question. Another is just who and what they actually get back in the trade.

The new GM in New Orleans is going to set that tone.

Who is that going to be? Fletcher Mackel of NBC affiliate WDSU in New Orleans heard there will be five or six people considered, and he heard four names.

Danny Ferry, the interim GM for New Orleans right now (taking over after Dell Demps was fired), has experience in the big chair. He retooled the Hawks roster into a 60-win team without bottoming out and tanking, although the team could not sustain that level of play. He was fired under less than ideal circumstances (to put it kindly).

David Griffin, the former Suns and Cavaliers GM, is the biggest name on the board. He told NBC Sports a couple of months ago he’s only taking a job that is a good fit.

“As I look at it now, the thing that would attract me to an opportunity is just the opportunity to be in lockstep with ownership,” Griffin said. “To have ownership, the coach, and the front office all on the same page moving forward and sharing a vision…

“You have to raise a family, and if you’re not going to come at it with that approach it’s probably not a situation that would speak to me.”

Would owner Gayle Benson and Micky Loomis — the NFL Saints executive who also oversees the Pelicans — give him that kind of power and freedom? Benson said she wants someone in that position who can run the basketball operations side and have autonomy, but saying that and doing it are different things. Also, Griffin is not going to come cheap, the small market Pelicans would have to pony up to keep him.

Gersson Rosas is the right-hand man of Daryl Morey who was briefly the GM of the Mavericks (there was a misunderstanding there and he returned to Houston) and he has been in the running for the openings with the Pistons, Sixers, and other jobs. He is highly respected around the league.

Langdon is the assistant GM of the Nets, a team that has had a very impressive rebuild.

Whoever gets the GM job, a big part of it will be managing Benson and Loomis. For example, there are reports the Pelicans’ brass refuses to trade Davis to the Lakers (his preferred destination, based on the effort by his agent to get him there at the trade deadline). If the Lakers have the best offer — and it is possible the new GM values players such as Brandon Ingram or Lonzo Ball higher than Demps — then the Pelicans should take it. What matters in New Orleans is the return, not who gets Davis. It’s the GM’s job to help the owner and her advisors to see past any frustrations with the process.

Raptors reportedly sign Jodie Meeks for remainder of season, playoffs

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This is a “break glass in case of emergency” signing, but it never hurts to have another shooter on the bench.

Back in February, journeyman sharpshooter Jodie Meeks signed a 10-day contract with the Raptors. In limited run across two games he looked pretty good, scoring 10 points against Orlando, five against Boston, and shooting 3-of-8 from three. He played like a comfortable veteran, but Toronto didn’t want to sign him for the rest of the season at that time to save on luxury tax.

Now that the season is growing short he will be back in Toronto for the rest of the regular season, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Because he is a free agent he is playoff eligible. If Meeks is getting regular playoff run that’s probably not a good sign for Toronto, but he could help in spots.

The Raptors have one more open roster spot they likely will fill with a veteran before the playoffs start.