Now what, New York Knicks?

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If you asked any Knicks fan before the season if they would take a trip to the playoffs and a trade that brings them Carmelo Anthony this season, they would have taken it.

But it’s premature to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner.

The Knicks accomplished goals and a good season. You can say they are back. But the Celtics sweep showed just how far the Knicks as currently constructed are from contenders. Only the first part of the job is done, there is hard work left before a real banner can be hung.

It appears that the Knicks are going to bring Donnie Walsh back, not just for next season but for two more years. As it should be. The man cut the payroll in half while getting Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony in house (Anthony at a steep price, thanks to the Knicks owner). He found Landry Fields and got solid role players in place. He did the hard work of laying a foundation for a title team, he should be allowed to finish the job.

If Walsh is safe, it’s likely Mike D’Antoni is safe too. That is going to anger some Knicks fans who will say his teams don’t play defense. I would say you can’t say his teams don’t play defense until you give him some players willing to play defense.

Then we get to the on the court issues. There are two key areas to deal with this offseason — and no, the answers are not Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Well, those would be good answers, but I prefer to live in reality not in a magical chocolate factory with golden tickets needed for entry (even if Knicks ticket prices make it seem like the tickets should be printed on gold). Those two may be the long-term dreams, but you are not getting them before next season (whenever that starts). And maybe not ever. So, back to our questions.

Do the Knicks bring back Chauncey Billups?

He’s an aging point guard who is due $14.2 million next season, and the Knicks have five days now to pick up his extension for next season or let him walk as a free agent.

Billups at the point changed the Knicks from what Raymond Felton had done. Less pick and roll, for one. But he also brought better scoring — 17.5 points per game — and an ability to get to the line. He hit some big shots and he seemed to be figuring out. He can rack up more assists, he’s a smart player who can adjust and fit his game with D’Antoni’s up-tempo system. But he also will turn 35 next month. He broke down during the playoffs this season, a sin that seems unforgivable to some Knicks fans.

Keeping him pushes the Knicks up to $58 million in payroll. It also gives them a big expiring contract to trade, which may be the best option.

The other real question — who can you get that’s better? Paul is much more likely to come as a free agent in 2012 if he comes at all (and if they have the cap room under whatever the new CBA system is) than in a trade. Billups is still better than much of what is out there. Better than Toney Douglas (unless you hate assists and like your guards to be gunners). There may not be a better choice for one more season.

The more pressing need is to find defense in the form of a shot blocking, rebounding, big presence in the middle center. That is the Knicks biggest need. Which puts them in the same boat as about 20 other teams. There just are not a lot of those guys out there, and the ones that are out there are coveted. And expensive.

Marc Gasol becomes a restricted free agent this summer, but the Grizzlies likely would match anything the Knicks offer. And again, we don’t know what the financial system will be, so the Knick may or may not be able to make a serious offer for him, but you can bet the Grizzlies will have the upper hand. (Smart money says there will still be strong incentives for teams to be able to keep players, and Memphis very much wants to keep him.)

Still, by trade or free agency, the Knicks need a real big man who can own the paint on defense.

After that, it’s about finding role players that fit the system. Landry Fields has a spot. Ronny Turiaf is nice as an energy big man off the bench, Douglas as some scoring punch from the guard spot. But guys that fit the system and can play with Stoudemire and Anthony can be found.

The Knicks have their foundation, but the Celtics showed what a fully built house looks like. What a contender looks like. And the Knicks still have a ways to go to get there.

But at least it looks like Walsh will be doing the building. Which is a good start.

Report: Lakers have no plans to replace Magic Johnson, who’ll still help team recruit FAs

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Magic Johnson’s stunning resignation as Lakers president caused a commotion.

It didn’t create a power vacuum.

Rob Pelinka is clearly in charge. He’s the highest-ranking member of the front office. His title – general manager – is the one many teams give to the leader of their basketball operations. He’s running the Lakers’ coaching search.

Though they’ve been linked to big-name candidates for president, the Lakers could easily keep the status quo with Pelinka running the show. And it sounds as if that’s what Lakers owner Jeanie Buss will do.

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

Buss has no plans to hire someone to replace Johnson, who is still expected to be part of the Lakers’ free-agent recruiting this summer.

Allowing Pelinka to hire a head coach – which, again, he’s in the process of doing – then supplanting him would be absurd. At least it seems the Lakers aren’t doing that.

But Pelinka was part of the organization while it made a comedy of errors. The former agent also had front-office experience until getting hired with Johnson a couple years ago. It’s hard to believe he’s the right choice to lead the team as it enters this critical stage.

LeBron James is 34. The Lakers will have max cap space this summer. Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart are progressing toward establishing clearer value – one way or the other.

To entrust Pelinka in this situation, Buss ought to have a clear explanation for why Pelinka doesn’t deserve a fair share of blame for all the mistakes that occurred the last couple years. There are plenty of people, inside and outside the Lakers, who question him.

The wildest part about this report: Johnson still helping the Lakers recruit this summer. He’s an all-time great player and charismatic. But he also just said while resigning:

What I didn’t like is the backstabbing, the whispering. I don’t like that. I don’t like a lot of things that went on that didn’t have to go on.

How will he sell that to free agents – especially if Pelinka, suspected to be whom Johnson is referring to, remains in charge?

Russell Westbrook goes from ‘Next question’ to ‘That’s a good question. Not sure’ (video)

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Russell Westbrook can be a pain.

Pain to his opponents. Pain to his teammates. Pain to the media.

Sometimes, it seems Westbrook even takes pride in being a jerk. Which is fine. His cutthroat attitude is part of who he is, and it has gotten him a long way.

Lately, Westbrook has clashed with Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman. For months, Westbrook has answered all Tramel’s questions with, “Next question.” Yet, Tramel keeps asking them – as he should. Westbrook has earned control over a lot of things. Tramel shouldn’t cede control of his job to Westbrook.

The back-and-forth has gotten increased prominence during the playoffs, when postgame press conferences are nationally televised. Both sides have found plenty of support. Westbrook’s fans love that his intensity never relents. Many also respect Tramel’s professionalism.

Four years ago, Westbrook infamously told Tramel, “I just don’t like you.” Westbrook got into it with Tramel again two years ago. But Tramel continues to cover the Thunder the best he can.

Likewise, Westbrook is trying to lead Oklahoma City the best he can. That means picking battles, even small ones like this, and pushing himself to win them all.

But after the Thunder’s Game 4 loss to the Trail Blazers last night, Westbrook finally gave an inch. But just an inch.

Tramel asked how the Thunder’s defense of Damian Lillard changed from the first half to the second half.

“That’s a good question,” Westbrook said. “Not sure.”

Tramel asked about the lessons learned about overcoming a 3-1 deficit to the Grizzlies in the 2014 playoffs. (Oklahoma City trailed 2-1 and 3-2 in that series, but never 3-1).

“Really don’t know,” Westbrook said.

For Westbrook, those answers were a huge breakthrough. They surprised everyone, even Tramel. Just a few days ago, the columnist predicted Westbrook wouldn’t change his two-word answers anytime soon: “He’s not going to give in this playoff series.”

Maybe this means the series is over.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse leaves mouth agape a loooong time after odd call (video)

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The Raptors got called for an extremely quick three-second violation during their Game 4 win over the Magic yesterday.

Toronto coach Nick Nurse couldn’t believe it.

Really couldn’t believe it.

Just couldn’t believe it one bit.

Bucks on brink of first playoff series win in 18 years

Associated Press
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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The Milwaukee Bucks can wipe away 18 years of frustration on Monday night.

They haven’t won a playoff series since the 2000-01 season, when they reached the Eastern Conference finals. That drought can end in Detroit if they complete a sweep of the Pistons.

The top-seeded Milwaukee cruised through the first three games, winning by an average of 24 points. If they lose in Game 4, the Bucks would have three more chances in the best-of-seven series to end their streak of eight straight first-round exits. The earlier the Bucks eliminate eighth-seeded Detroit, the more time they’ll have to prepare for the conference semifinals.

“It’s going to be nice if we can finish it here and get six days of rest,” superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said.

In Game 3 on Saturday, Antetokounmpo had a quiet night and the Bucks still led by double digits most of the way. Antetokounmpo finished with 14 points, three assists and four turnovers and only played 27 minutes due to foul trouble. The Pistons couldn’t take advantage of his off night, though, as Milwaukee had six other players in double figures in its 119-103 victory.

“It’s good to see my team doing really well out there without me,” he said. “It means a lot to me. There’s going to be nights like this. My teammates did a great job of picking me up.”

The Bucks were up 13 points when Antetokounmpo sat early in the third quarter after getting whistled for his fourth foul. When he re-entered late in the quarter, they were leading by 22 points.

“It’s something we’ve been trying to build all year,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We’re a team that plays together, tries to take what the defense gives us. Guys have a lot of confidence to make plays. It’s not just all about Giannis, as amazing and great as he is. If and when we need more from other people, it’s a credit to Giannis to let his teammates carry him some nights, carry him some stretches.”

The Bucks will try match their regular-season feat against the Pistons. Their four-game sweep was the first by either team in the all-time series. They have met in the postseason four other times, with Detroit winning each time.

“We might be the number one seed and best team in the NBA (record-wise) but at the end of the day, we haven’t won a playoff series in a while,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’re hungry, everybody’s hungry.”

The Pistons’ best player, power forward Blake Griffin, made his debut in the series after sitting out the first two games with a sore left knee. Griffin toughed it out for 31 minutes and posted 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists. His teammates let him down, as Detroit shot below 40 percent for the third straight game.

“That young man is giving us everything he has,” coach Dwane Casey said. “He said he was feeling good. I was concerned about his conditioning with as much time as he’s missed. You can’t really simulate 5-on-5 basketball when you’re rehabbing. But he came in and gave us what he could. He just has a presence that we can’t replicate.”

The Pistons haven’t shown enough of a defensive presence against a team that averaged a league-high 118.1 points.

“We had some situations where we make a mistake or miss a shot, now we go down to the defensive end and don’t carry out our assignments,” Casey said. “That’s part of growth. That’s a team that makes you pay for mistakes that you make.”