NBA Playoffs: OKC takes Game 2 in Dallas

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Can one play, early in the first quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, change a series? The Oklahoma City Thunder certainly hope so.

After falling behind by double digits early, Kevin Durant seemed to have had enough. With his Thunder looking sluggish and trailing by nine points with just over a minute left in the first quarter, Durant drove into the lane and elevated until he was eye-level with the rim, and threw down an aggressive slam over Brendan Haywood that seemed to awaken his team. From then on, OKC was able to match every move that Dallas made, and eventually was able to pull away for a 106-100 win on Thursday to even the series at a game apiece.

Dirk Nowitzki finished with 29 points, five rebounds, and five assists, but wasn’t anywhere near as dominant as he was during his 48-point performance in Game 1. The Thunder largely fronted Nowitzki defensively, and brought baseline double-team help to force the ball out of his hands.

On the Thunder’s side, Durant was big in total, but James Harden had his highest scoring game of the postseason, pouring in 23 points on just nine shots in over 32 minutes of action. But something that will most certainly be talked about before Game 3 is the fact that starting point guard Russell Westbrook was on the bench as this one came to its conclusion.

“Sticking with Eric (Maynor) over Russell, I thought Eric did a good job,” Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said, in a press conference streamed live on NBA.com. “Russell is an incredible player, he’s our starting point guard, but we weren’t getting a lot of things done. And his time was to come out, and I stayed with Eric.”

Westbrook was more than fine in this one, and finished with 18 points and four assists. But the group with Maynor was playing at a higher and more cohesive level late, so it’s not surprising that Brooks would stick with the bench squad that was getting it done.

Lest you think that Nowitzki simply didn’t have it in this one the way he did in Game 1, think again. He played all 12 minutes of the final quarter, and scored 16 of his team’s 24 points in that frame. But the rest of the team went just 2 of 12 in the fourth, while the Thunder, led by Harden, shot almost 65 percent to close this one out.

The lack of defense from Dallas is nothing new — as dominant as Nowitzki was in Game 1, OKC was within reasonable reach in the final minutes, and let’s not forget, Durant finished that game with 40. If the Mavs are to take command of this series, it will be as a result of their supreme execution on the offensive end of the floor.

With the series tied heading into Game 3, there are a few things to watch. Can Nowitzki once again dominate as he did in Game 1? Can the Thunder figure out the proper lineup to use late, as they did in Game 2? And most importantly, can OKC perform with its All-Star starting point guard possibly questioning his ability?

As they say, this is why we watch.

Report: Raptors motivated to make salary-shedding trade

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Trading for Kawhi Leonard created multiple opportunities for the Raptors. Upgrading from DeMar DeRozan on the wing gives them a better chance of winning a title this season. If that doesn’t work, they’re better positioned to pivot into rebuilding with DeRozan’s contract cleared.

Of course, the deal also carried significant risks and costs. Leonard missed nearly all of last season with injury, and he can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Toronto also had to surrender Jakob Poeltl and a future draft pick.

But the swap of DeRozan and Poeltl for Leonard and Danny Green carried another, underdiscussed, cost: It increased the Raptors’ payroll next season.

As a result of the trade, the Raptors are in line to spend an extra $9,821,660 – $2,426,772 in salary, $7,394,888 in luxury tax.

Ian Begley of ESPN:

The Raptors are on track to pay $34,504,486 in luxury tax. That might seem reasonable for a championship contender, especially on a one-year window, though I’m not the one paying for it. Toronto hasn’t paid the luxury tax since 2004.

How much is ownership willing to spend this season?

The Raptors packaged a first-rounder and a second-rounder to dump DeMarre Carroll and avoid the tax last season. I’d be surprised if the Raptors completely avoid the tax this year, but they have until the final day of the regular season.

Jonas Valanciunas (two years and $34,157,302 remaining) and Norman Powell (four years and $41,965,056 remaining) are the prime candidates to get moved. Both can play, but they might be luxuries Toronto isn’t willing to afford. Valanciunas looks like a Nick Nurse favorite, but the Raptors can play Serge Ibaka at center. Powell is just 25, but Toronto built a strong bench last year with him mostly out of the rotation.

I suspect, if they could just give away Valanciunas or Powell, the Raptors would have already.

The question becomes: How much of a sweetener would Toronto include to unload either player? The question is especially complicated, because both Valanciunas and Powell can help on the court. They’re overpaid, not deadweight.

The Raptors will spend the next season trying to impress Leonard into re-signing. As they handle upcoming costs, they ought to keep sight of that opportunity. Nobody wants to play for a team that won’t spend what it takes to win.

Former Kings selection Georgios Papagiannis leaves NBA historically quickly for lottery pick

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Even if he were talking about hot yoga, then-Kings star DeMarcus Cousins perfectly captured the feeling of Sacramento picking Georgios Papagiannis No. 13 in the 2016 draft: “Lord give me the strength.”

Ranked No. 46 on Chad Ford’s board – which attempted to show league-wide consensus – Papagiannis was an old-school plodding center. He flashed interior skills during his limited playing time with Panathinaikos in Greece, but athleticism was a major concern. He was the type of player teams learned over the previous two decades not to fall for.

While an NBA team picking someone so high should be a positive indicator, it did little for Papagiannis. The Kings’ draft record had been miserable under owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac. They didn’t get the benefit of the doubt (though their draft-night trade with the Suns that landed the No. 13 pick used on Papagiannis turned out well).

Every concern about Papagiannis and Sacramento proved justified.

The Kings waived Papagiannis during his second season – absurdly quick for any first-rounder, let alone a lottery pick. His agent blamed the team. Nobody came out looking good.

Papagiannis signed with the Trail Blazers, though he played only one game for them. Portland waived him earlier this summer.

Now, Papagiannis will return Panathinaikos on a five-year contract, the Greek team announced. Will this conclude the 21-year-old’s NBA career? It seems more likely than not.

If so, it will be one of the shortest ever for a lottery pick.

Papagiannis’ 477 career minutes are the sixth-fewest ever by a lottery pick, excluding 2017 and 2018 picks, who haven’t had time to play more.

Fran Vazquez (No. 11 pick in 2005 by Magic) continued playing overseas and never signed in the NBA. Len Bias (No. 2 pick in 1986 by Celtics) tragically died of a cocaine overdose after the draft.

Among lottery picks who actually made the league, only Aleksandar Radojevic (No. 12 pick 1999 by Raptors), Yaroslav Korolev (No. 12 pick in 2005 by Clippers) and Mouhamed Sene (No. 10 pick in 2006 by SuperSonics) played less than Papagiannis.

Here are the fewest minutes played by lottery picks between 1985, when the NBA instituted the lottery, and 2016:

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Papagiannis could still drop down the list.

After all, Radojevic left the NBA after two seasons, spent three years in Europe then somehow returned stateside to play 12 games for the Jazz. That NBA comeback seemed unlikely as he shuffled between the Raptors, Nuggets and Bucks while playing only three games (all with Toronto).

Nothing precludes Papagiannis from returning to the NBA, even if he must complete his entire Greek contract first.

But just because one unlikely thing happened before, I wouldn’t bet on another happening with Papagiannis.

Isaiah Thomas to Danny Ainge: ‘If the opportunity is there, I would just like to let you know that I’d love to come back’ to Celtics

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Isaiah Thomas had a rough year.

The Celtics traded him to the Cavaliers. He missed most of the season with a hip injury. In between, he played destructively bad for the Cavs and Lakers and got run out of Cleveland, in part, for making waves in the locker room. Free agency was especially cruel, Thomas’ Brinks-truck dreams ending in a minimum salary from the Nuggets – a historically low figure for someone who finished top-five in MVP voting just two seasons prior.

On a bright note: Thomas ended his feud with Celtics president Danny Ainge. In fact, those two spoke during Thomas’ free agency.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Before finalizing the agreement with Denver, Thomas had reached out to Boston GM Danny Ainge. They talked for 15 to 20 minutes, Thomas says, and he told Ainge: “If the opportunity is there, I would just like to let you know that I’d love to come back.”

Ainge says his mind was open to the idea, but the Celtics needed to work through Marcus Smart‘s restricted-free-agency discussions before they could consider making an offer to Thomas. Ainge was willing to continue the conversation, but Thomas accepted the Nuggets’ offer before Boston had reached its new deal with Smart.

“S—, I’d have gone back,” Thomas says. “I don’t hold grudges.”

Thomas played his best basketball in Boston. Brad Stevens empowered Thomas as a go-to offensive player and successfully hid him on defense. I understand the appeal of going back.

But that Thomas could never return to those Celtics. He’s older, and his hip injury might have sapped his athleticism. Boston acquired Kyrie Irving, and Terry Rozier broke out. Marcus Smart remains.

A reunion would have likely ended in disappointment.

Instead, Thomas will try to prove himself in Denver, backing up Jamal Murray. Thomas is aware of his standing, and his interview is both endearing and sympathetic. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and carries a chip on his shoulder – the reason so many of us are drawn to him. And he’s keenly aware that, in a league where so many players are paid based on past performance, he’s judged by a hip injury teams believe will hinder him going forward.

Thomas, as always, seems driven to prove himself. And maybe he will. Returning to a reserve role isn’t glamorous, but there’s an opportunity with the Nuggets.

But I also fear, no matter how well Thomas plays next season, teams will be apprehensive of a 30-year-old 5-foot-9 point guard with a history of hip problems in 2019 free agency. He might be stuck in a no-win situation and just can’t get his big payday.

Especially after this interview, though, I’m excited to watch him try.

Report: Carmelo Anthony to sign minimum contract with Rockets

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Carmelo Anthony signing with the Rockets has been a near-certainty for a while.

The final steps – the Thunder trading him to the Hawks, Atlanta waiving him, Anthony clearing waivers – are close enough that specifics are emerging.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Carmelo Anthony is planning to sign with the Houston Rockets upon clearing waivers in coming days, according to two people with knowledge of his plans.

He is expected to receive a one-year deal from the Rockets at the league’s veteran minimum salary

The Rockets have the $5,337,000 taxpayer mid-level exception available, but clearly wary of an expensive payroll, they’ll get Anthony for much less.

Anthony will count just $1,512,601 toward the cap and luxury tax. He’ll pocket pocket an extra $1,871,635 – in addition to the $27,928,140 paid by the Hawks. Not a bad summer for him, as he’ll get all his money plus a little more and get to join his desire team.

For the Rockets? It’s a classic tale. They let more expensive players – Trevor Ariza ($15 million from Suns) and Luc Mbah a Moute ($4,320,500 from Clippers) – leave and settled for minimum-salary players: James Ennis and Anthony.

Ennis fits well in Houston, but he lacks the talent of the departing players (who also fit well). Anthony brings name recognition, but unless he works to complement James Harden and Chris Paula huge question mark – this won’t go well. That’s why he’s leaving Oklahoma City, and there are many reasons to be skeptical he’ll acquit himself better with the Rockets.

You get what you pay for.