Shaq retires and will be missed

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I’m going to miss having Shaquille O’Neal around the NBA.

It’s the end of an era — Kyrie Irving, the top pick in this coming draft, was born the year Shaq entered the league. But it feels like more than that.

I’ll miss him in part because he was a reminder that this is a game and we should all be having fun with it — players, fans and media alike.

In a league where often players treat basketball like a desk job, where the players practice speaking in clichés like out of Bull Durham, where the media can take itself too seriously, where there is a wall between players and fans (and media), Shaq broke all that down. This is hoops, it isn’t Navy Seals storming an armed compound in the Middle East. This should be fun. Shaq’s persona was the counterbalance to Michael Jordan in the 1990s.

You played practical jokes on teammates, and laughed with them. You tweet with fans (social media was made for Shaq and is part of his legacy). You just show up and pretend to be a statue  and let fans come out and hang out with you. Or you conduct the Boston POPS! Or you ride the subway dressed like a woman.

He was a big kid who got to play a game for a living, and why shouldn’t he love that? Why shouldn’t practice have some jokes, why shouldn’t the locker room have laughter? And we were all along for the ride. This was supposed to be fun.

I remember Shaq and Gregg Popovich joking around during the first game of the season and thinking they really got it.

He was a big kid, and maybe that carried over to a lack of responsibility about conditioning at times. Some may remember that and the injury-plagued end of his career. Or the feud with Kobe. But not me. I choose to remember him as dominant force he was a decade ago as a player. There have been few centers better. Ever.

He brought plenty of strength and thunder to the court, but there was lightning there too. Guys who were 7’1”, 325 should not be able to drop lighting quick spin moves to get around their defender, or run the floor with the break. Shaq could do all that in his prime and more. He was a very good passer out of the post. He was a good all around player (save free throws).

He also will forever be at the heart of one of my greatest sports memories.

I lucked into tickets for Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. Someone I worked with at the time was a Lakers season ticket holder and had playoff tickets, but he had to fly back to England for his sister’s wedding and so he had to sell his Game 7 seats (well before anyone knew there would be a Game 7).

As a Lakers fan, with obnoxious Blazers fans right behind me, there was nothing like that game. The lows of missed shots. The highs of the comeback (which was fueled by so many Blazer misses of shots they had not missed for six and three quarters games).

Then the ally-oop.

And the explosion of noise in Staples Center. A building where now everyone was hugging and high-fiving everyone, whether you knew them or not. You were now there with your 19,000 best friends. Los Angeles is not like that, you don’t talk to your neighbors, or the guy in the next seat. But on this day we all knew we were witnessing one of the best sports moments of our lives. Los Angeles felt like a family.

Shaq did that. I’m going to miss him for all of it.

Report: Suns’ Kelly Oubre out for rest of season

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Kelly Oubre has a lot of tantalizing raw talent. He’s young, energetic and feisty.

But just as it appeared as his game was rounding into form, Oubre – who averaged 20 points and two steals in 12 games since moving into the starting lineup – will get shut down.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Phoenix Suns forward Kelly Oubre Jr. will undergo a minor procedure on his left thumb and miss the rest of the season, league sources told ESPN.

Oubre is expected to make a full recovery in four to six weeks, sources said.

This could be a blessing in disguise for Oubre, who’ll be a restricted free agent this summer. He ends his season on a high note on the court. There’s no opportunity for regression to the mean. This also isn’t an injury that will last long into the offseason.

The 23-year-old Oubre is a versatile defender. When his 3-pointer is falling, he looks really good. In a league that can’t get enough productive wings, he should draw a solid contract.

Nick Collison: Thunder should retire Kevin Durant’s number

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Kevin Durant made himself public enemy No. 1 in Oklahoma City by leaving the Thunder for the Warriors three years ago.

Nick Collison, on the other hand, remains beloved in Oklahoma City. Like Durant, he moved with the franchise from Seattle. But Collison stayed until retiring last year.

With the Thunder retiring his number yesterday, Collison vouched for his former teammate.

Collison, in a Q&A with Royce Young of ESPN:

Kevin Durant gave you the nickname “Mr. Thunder.” Do you think the Thunder should eventually retire No. 35?

It’s their decision to make, but I would certainly think so. He’s meant a ton to Thunder basketball and spent a huge majority of his career here. A lot of these honors are just kind of what the team decides to do, and I think players are appreciative of them. I don’t get too worked up about it. I’ll let other people debate that, but to me, he’s a big part of what we did here.

The Thunder will probably retire Durant’s number. Time heals most wounds, likely including this one.

Durant spent eight seasons in Oklahoma City. He won MVP and made five All-NBA first teams and an All-NBA second team there. He helped the Thunder win 10 playoff series.

No matter when each player retires, Oklahoma City will almost certainly retire Russell Westbrook‘s number first. He’s the one who stayed.

But some time after that, I’d bet on Durant getting his number retired.

Kobe Bryant: I wanted to play for Knicks, because of Madison Square Garden

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Kobe Bryant, who spent his entire career with the Lakers, has said he wanted to play for the Wizards and Bulls.

Add the Knicks to the list.

Bryant in a Q&A, via Frank Isola of The Athletic:

What other teams would you have liked to play for besides the Lakers?

There are some teams … I always kind of dreamed about playing in New York and what that would have been like. It’s true. As a fan, the Garden was the historical arena.

So, I always wanted to be a part of that history and play in it. So, New York was a team … it would have been pretty good to play in that city.

For a while, the best thing the Knicks have had going for them is their arena. That gets them only so far.

They need better ownership, better management, better coaching.

Maybe Kevin Durant will help turn the tide. If he chooses New York, it surely won’t be for only Madison Square Garden.

Timberwolves shut down Robert Covington, Derrick Rose, Jeff Teague for rest of season

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The Timberwolves are all but officially eliminated from the playoff race.

But Karl-Anthony Towns is still playing for something – a projected $32 million more over the next five years if he makes an All-NBA team.

He’ll continue that pursuit without teammates Robert Covington, Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague.

Timberwolves release:

Covington has missed the last 34 games while recovering from a right knee bone bruise, originally suffered on December 31 at New Orleans. Covington had made improvements in his recovery and had progressed to on-court activities, in preparation to rejoin the team.  However, he recently suffered a setback which will require further treatment before returning to the court and as a result, is expected to miss the remainder of the season.

Rose has missed the last four games while experiencing soreness and swelling in his right elbow. An MRI taken Tuesday at Mayo Clinic Square revealed a chip fracture and a loose body in his elbow. The team and Rose are currently exploring further treatment options and he is expected to miss the remainder of the season.

Teague has missed the last four games after reaggravating a left foot injury, originally suffered in December. On Tuesday, Teague received an injection designed to treat chronic inflammation. He will wear a boot and is scheduled to be reevaluated in approximately three weeks. He is expected to miss the remainder of the season.

The language – “expected to miss the remainder of the season” – allows the possibility of the players returning. But the Timberwolves wouldn’t set this expectation unless they were pretty certain the players were finished.

Covington deserved All-Star consideration, and maybe Minnesota would still be in the playoff mix if he remained healthy. He was also heading toward an All-Defensive team before getting hurt. I doubt 35 games, even at 34 minutes per game, will be enough to get him selected now. Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Draymond Green clearly belong ahead of him. Covington has an outside chance for that fourth spot, though.

Rose had a bounce-back year after it appeared he could fall out of the NBA entirely. He looks like a solid backup point guard. He’ll draw plenty of interest in free agency this summer.

Teague has a $19 million player option for next season. He already seemed likely to exercise it, and this only increases the odds. The 30-year-old had a relatively down season.

Teague’s and Rose’s absences will leave the ball in Tyus Jones‘ hands at point guard. Jones has looked good in a small role, and this offers him an opportunity to prove himself before restricted free agency this summer.

Importantly for Towns, Minnesota’s depth at point guard allows him to play with someone credible at the position while he attempts to finish the season strong. There’s a lot of room to produce for the Timberwolves now, though Towns will likely face double-teams even more frequently.