What the Nuggets should do when the lockout ends…

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This is the next installment of PBT’s series of “What your team should do when the lockout ends.” Today it’s the Denver Nuggets. You can also read up on the LakersTimberwolves and Mavericks as we start to work our way through all 30 NBA teams.

 

Last Season: Well that was no fun, then it was kind of fun, then it was not fun, again. The Nuggets finished 50-32 which is close to a freaking miracle considering everything they went through. The first half of the season was hijacked by the Melo trade drama, and the second half was spent trying to figure out an abundance of talent without a superstar. It finished with a disappointing loss to the Thunder in which Oklahoma City ran out to a big series lead and never really looked back. It was supposed to be a huge matchup, and instead it felt empty. But the Nuggets should be proud of what they accomplished, and how they stuck together despite all the distractions, and having to figure out what was essentially a whole new team after the trade.

Changes since we last saw the Nuggets: Well, half of them are in China now. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, and Wilson Chandler all seem set to head to China without an NBA-out clause. All three are free agents, and their return to Denver was questionable-to-doubtful to begin with. But without them, there are some interesting shifts if they stay in China. Smith’s spot is actually the most expendable. Danilo Gallinari can play shooting guard for certain rotations, and Denver is almost certain to re-sign Aaron Afflalo, one of the most efficient shooters in the league, from restricted free agency. Chandler’s minutes will be soaked up by Galinari and Al Harrington if the Nuggets go big, and Harrington likewise would take the minutes of Kenyon Martin. Harrington was God-awful-to-hey-pretty-good last season (there was a lot of variation within the Nuggets season if you can’t tell). The Nuggets also tinkered a bit at the draft, trading Raymond Felton for Andre Miller and a pick which became Jordan Hamilton to go along with Kenneth Faried. The big question will be Nene who will be an unrestricted free agent. Will he return to Denver or go chase a ring? Will the Nuggets have enough room under the new cap? Will we continue to ask annoying theoretical rhetoricals?

When the lockout ends, the Nuggets need to: Spend a year evaluating. If they re-sign Nene, their window is decidedly smaller, and they need to shift accordingly. But next year’s team will be driven to discover if Ty Lawson is ready to become a star in this league, if Danilo Gallinari is ready for another step forward, if George Karl can pull a young team together and make it greater than the sum of its parts without a true superstar, and what Masai Ujiri will do with the flexibility and assets afforded him. They’re not a young team all over, they’re not a veteran team all over, but they are an exceedingly talented team all over. The future’s bright for the Nuggets, but they have to hit the ground running.

They’ve got depth, with Andre Miller backing up Lawson, Gallinari’s versatility at positions, Al Harrington as a bench scorer, rookies who can contribute immediately, and capable defenders like Chris Anderson (or at least guys that can foul). But if Nene doesn’t re-sign, everything changes. They will have a gaping hole at center they’ll have to address, and the drop-off will be significant. How they’ll hande that will determine whether next season is a rebuilding year for Denver or a continuation of trying to make lightning in a bottle come together for an unlikely championship run.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.