NBA Playoffs: It took five games, but Bulls play like contenders

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This looked like what we all expected this entire series to look like.

The Chicago Bulls dominated Game 5 Tuesday game from the start, were up 11 at the end of one quarter, pulled away in the third quarter and cruised to a 116-89 win. Now they sit around until next Monday (when the NBA says that series will start) and let Stan Van Gundy and Larry Drew fight to get off the hot seat.

The Pacers had kept the games in this series close by playing good defense, trapping Derrick Rose and using Paul George to limit him, and daring any other Bull to step up and beat them.

Finally the Bulls broke through Tuesday. Rose had 25 on 8-of-17 shooting and got a lot of those points against George — ankle problem? what ankle problem? — while Luol Deng had 24 points on 14 shots. The Bulls as a team shot 48.2 percent. More importantly, they shot 45.2 percent from three and hitting a franchise record 14 three pointers. In the end the Bulls averaged 123.4 points per 100 possessions, 19 points better than their season average.

Meanwhile, the Bulls kept on playing the defense that made them the No. 1 overall seed, with the Pacers shooting just 39.2 percent on the night.

You know things are going well for Chicago when Kyle Korver dunks.

The Bulls stretched out to a 10-point lead early on and the lead pretty much it hung around that number through the second quarter. Then in the third quarter the Bulls pulled away again, getting up by about 20, and from there we pretty much all knew it was about to end.

Maybe it got a little bit interesting was right at the start of the fourth quarter when Rose picked up his fifth foul. Of course, the Bulls were up 19, so there wasn’t that big a concern. The Pacers were looking for offense and went with a smaller lineup. Didn’t help.

The Pacers exposed some questions about the Bulls and their ability to score consistently in the playoffs that are going to have to be answered in the next couple rounds. Against better defenses.

For Indiana, there are a lot of big questions. They start with is Larry Bird coming back as president. Then, do you bring back interim head coach Frank Vogel, who certainly had the team playing better in his stint at the end of the season and into the playoffs. The offense opened up and there was a lot more defensive energy. But that is different than saying he’s a head coach.

The bigger question for the Pacers is how to step forward — this is a team stuck in the NBA’s quicksand of a middle ground. They are good enough to make the playoffs some years but never challenge. But they are not bad enough to fall down deep in the standings and try to find salvation in the lottery. A Los Angeles and New York can draw big free agents to get them out of that quicksand, Indiana cannot (not easily anyway).

So how do they move forward? They have some nice role players, but how do they get the stars to go with Danny Granger and make it a winner?

Another report Tyronn Lue in position to be next Lakers’ coach

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The Lakers are trying to play out the string and ignore the ramped up talk around the league about how Luke Walton is a dead coach walking and the franchise is already thinking about who is next.

But that talk is deafening.

Earlier in the day, our own Dan Feldman passed along a report from Stephen A. Smith of ESPN that former Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue would get “strong consideration.”

Now add to that this note from Marc Stein of the New York Times in his weekly newsletter.

Who, then, will the Lakers hire? The name most frequently cited in league coaching circles is the very available Tyronn Lue.

Lue, of course, is a former Laker who is better known for having coached LeBron James for 2 1/2 seasons in Cleveland. The presumed acceptance he would have from James, who is about to begin his first postseason as a spectator since 2005, would appear to give Lue with a significant advantage over the rest of the field.

Other big names have been mentioned, but they are not going to pan out. Doc Rivers has an extension lined up (an agreed to deal) to stay with the Clippers. Stein mentions Dallas’ Rick Carlisle as a target, but at the start of this season he too had his contract extended to stay in Dallas. Jason Kidd’s name came up, but that may be more about an agent looking for leverage in negotiations with the University of California than it is something the Lakers are serious about.

While there will be a lot of eye rolling from fans if the Lakers hire Lue, it’s not a bad move — by the end of his tenure in Cleveland he was running some pretty creative stuff on offense (the Lakers would be wise to make Lue hire a “defensive coordinator” assistant). The man has coached in the Finals and has a ring. Yes, LeBron was a big part of that, but not all of it.

Most of all, Lue would have buy-in from LeBron James. That matters.

The Lakers are trying to play out the string and ignore the ramped up talk around the league about how Luke Walton is a dead coach walking and the franchise is already thinking about who is next.

But that talk is deafening.

Earlier in the day, our own Dan Feldman passed along a report from Stephen A. Smith of ESPN that former Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue would get “strong consideration.”

Now add to that this note from Marc Stein of the New York Times in his weekly newsletter.

Who, then, will the Lakers hire? The name most frequently cited in league coaching circles is the very available Tyronn Lue.

Lue, of course, is a former Laker who is better known for having coached LeBron James for 2 1/2 seasons in Cleveland. The presumed acceptance he would have from James, who is about to begin his first postseason as a spectator since 2005, would appear to give Lue with a significant advantage over the rest of the field.

Other big names have been mentioned, but they are not going to pan out. Doc Rivers has an extension lined up (an agreed to deal) to stay with the Clippers. Stein mentions Dallas’ Rick Carlisle as a target, but at the start of this season he too had his contract extended to stay in Dallas. Jason Kidd’s name came up, but that may be more about an agent looking for leverage in negotiations with the University of California than it is something the Lakers are serious about.

While there will be a lot of eye rolling from fans if the Lakers hire Lue, it’s not a bad move — by the end of his tenure in Cleveland he was running some pretty creative stuff on offense (the Lakers would be wise to make Lue hire a “defensive coordinator” assistant). The man has coached in the Finals and has a ring. Yes, LeBron was a big part of that, but not all of it.

Most of all, Lue would have buy-in from LeBron James. That matters.

Ryan Saunders reportedly likely to stay on as Minnesota head coach

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When Glen Taylor, the owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, said this a few weeks back, it was pretty clear interim coach Ryan Saunders was probably staying on after the season and getting the job full time.

“I think he has a good chance [to get the job]. It’s like everything, we’re going to wait until we play out these last 20-some games and I think we’ll know and he’ll know at that time if it works out. But he is off to a good start. I would just say I really like him as a person. I have known him since he was a young man, and I am really pleased with how he is starting out coaching this team.”<

Saunders was thrust into the big chair after Jimmy Butler sabotaged the team’s season early on in a push to get out of town, a move that came with a high price coach/GM Tom Thibodeau. Remember Thibodeau wanted to speed up the winning and to get Butler traded Zach LaVine and just drafted Lauri Markkanen, but when Butler didn’t work out in Minny Thibs was doomed.

If you want more evidence that Saunders is staying on, there is this reporting from the well-connected Marc Stein of The New York Times in his weekly newsletter.

Saunders, who turns 33 in April, is known to have a strong relationship with the All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns, who has played some of the best basketball of his career since the departures of Butler and Thibodeau.

The growing expectation around the league is that the credit Saunders will get for his impact on and the buy-in from Towns will more than offset ownership’s disappointment about returning to the draft lottery.

Towns is the franchise cornerstone, one of the top centers and top 10-12 players in the league, if Saunders can get the most out of him — and so far he has — then that is a good reason to keep him around.

When Sauders got the coaching job, Scott Layden took over as GM. His job is not as secure. There have been rumors about Taylor wanting to go big game hunting — specifically Chauncey Billups — but it seems the Timberwolves are likely to go another direction.

Calvin Booth, a Denver executive who the Nuggets hired away from the Timberwolves before the 2017-18 season, is increasingly mentioned as a strong candidate to replace Layden if Taylor does make a change.

Whoever gets the GM job, retooling the Timberwolves roster around Towns will now be difficult — Thibodeau showed no patience and now they are paying the price. Towns’ well-deserved max extension kicks in next season and that gives Minnesota two of max deals for young players — Andrew Wiggins is maxed out as well and an anchor on any rebuild (he has four years at the max after this season, good luck trading that). Don’t forget Gorgui Dieng will make $16.2 million next season. If Jeff Teague opts into his $19 million for next season, the Timberwolves will have very little room to maneuver and shore up the roster.

All of that will make Saunder’s job a real challenge.

Report: Knicks talked Kristaps Porzingis for De’Aaron Fox trade with Kings last draft

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The Knicks had made their minds up and were considering moving on from Kristaps Porzingis long before this trade deadline (when he was sent to Dallas), they were testing the waters all the way back to last June and the draft.

Last draft, the Sacramento Kings had a decision to make, too: How much did they believe in De'Aaron Fox? As a rookie, Fox had shown flashes and promise, but at No. 2 the Kings could pick Luka Doncic (or even Trae Young) and have gone in another direction.

That led to an interesting story from last June’s draft: The Knicks reached out to the Kings about a possible Porzingis for Fox swap, reports Zach Lowe of ESPN (in a fascinating piece on how this season changed things in Sacramento).

Sacramento moved up in the lottery again — to No. 2 — and faced a pivotal moment: the chance to reorient their team around Luka Doncic. Rivals sensed the dilemma and made offers for Fox — including a template from the New York Knicks centered around Kristaps Porzingis that would have required Sacramento to either send something beyond Fox or take unwanted Knicks salary (or both), sources say.

The Kings might have been able to leverage Doncic fever by trading down, but they wanted a guaranteed chance at Marvin Bagley III. The pick doubled as a vote of confidence in Fox. They didn’t need another ball handler. They wanted a springy big who could run with perhaps the league’s fastest player.

The Kings bet big on Fox. In the short term, that has worked out incredibly well for them, Fox made the kind of leap this season that will earn him a lot of Most Improved Player votes. He found his identity in pace and dragged the Kings with him to maybe the most surprising season of any team (and they were everyone’s league pass favorites). Bagley started to come on the second half of the season as he figured out how to fit his game in the NBA. How it works out long term for both teams remains to be seen, but the Kings have to feel good about how things look now.

Talks like this happen more than fans think — a lot of things are explored, very become trades. Kings fans should be glad this one didn’t.

 

Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic undergoes surgery to repair leg, full recovery expected. Eventually.

Associated Press
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As expected, Jusuf Nurkic underwent surgery on Tuesday repair the frightening leg injury he suffered on Monday night, a fractured left tibia and fibula that left his leg bending in a way that no leg should ever bend.

The good news is the surgery went as well as could be hoped, according to the team and Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Even with a successful surgery, this is going to take a long time to come back from.

As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes noted, the only comparable injury like this in the NBA was Paul George‘s frightening leg injury with Team USA. George made a full recovery, but it was eight months before he got back on the court and much longer until he was comfortable enough to be the MVP candidate he is this season.

Nurkic had made a leap this season, averaging a career-high 15.4 points per game this season on 50.7 percent shooting. The advanced stats loved him — his PER of 23.1, true shooting percentage of 57, value over replacement player of 3.5, and other advanced stats are all career bests. He was the anchor in the middle of the Portland defense, using his big body to cut off drives on pick-and-rolls. He was serving as a playmaker on offense: When he’d set a high pick for Damian Lillard, teams would trap the guard, Lillard would pass to Nurkic, and the Bosnian had become a good passer or he just take it in and scores himself

All of that came after Nurkic signed a four-year, $48 million contract extension last summer.

His injury also devastates the Blazers heading into the postseason, where they could have been a tough matchup but have now lost a key piece of their puzzle.