Andrea Bargnani returns, scores season high 36 points to lead Raptors past Suns

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The Toronto Raptors came into Tuesday’s game against the Suns having lost eight straight, the last six of which came with their best player, Andrea Bargnani, sidelined due to injury. The Suns were playing in Phoenix after a five-game, eight-day East coast road trip that concluded just the night before with a loss in Dallas.

Bargnani’s return to the Toronto lineup proved much more effective than the Suns’ return home.

The Raptors erased a 14-point first-half deficit, behind a season high 36 points from Bargnani, to get in the win column or the first time since Jan. 9 by a final of 99-96.

“We needed a W,” Raptors head coach Dwayne Casey said afterward. “To keep our confidence, to keep our ship going in the right direction. We needed a W just to reinforce what we’re talking about.”

On this night, everyone was talking about Bargnani. He logged over 42 minutes of playing time, and scored 27 of his 36 in the second half to take the game over and ensure victory for the Raptors. His third quarter was particularly impressive.

Bargnani dropped 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the period, including knocking down four of his five attempts from beyond the three-point arc. He was equally stellar defensively, sending back a shot of Marcin Gortat’s down low, while executing his coach’s halftime instructions on defending the pick and roll to perfection.

As good as Bargnani was, his team wouldn’t have been close enough for his surge to matter without the second quarter play of Leandro Barbosa. The former Phoenix Suns’ Sixth Man of the Year came off the bench for an 11-point second quarter  that kept his team in the game, and helped reduce a double digit lead to just four by halftime.

Barbosa said afterward that he felt the win was a result of the collective will of he and his teammates.

“I think everybody made a commitment that this is the day we’ve got to win,” Barbosa said. “It was a good opportunity. They played last night, it was a back-to-back for them so it was a good advantage for us running up and down so they get tired and we get the victory, and we did it.”

Ironic, isn’t it, that Barbosa would say that running is the way to actually beat his former Suns team? But this is what things have come to in Phoenix.

As Toronto opened up a double-digit lead of its own that reached as many as 12 in the fourth quarter, the Suns did manage to mount an exciting rally that cut the lead to two with under 23 seconds remaining. That effort will go a longer way than it should for a 6-11 team that started the season with hopes of making the playoffs, and one that got stellar performances from Steve Nash (17 points, 14 assists) and Marcin Gortat (21 points, 12 rebounds — his ninth consecutive double-double, the longest active streak in the league).

Interestingly enough, both teams are struggling with their rotations, trying to find out what the best combination of players may be for both the starting and the second units. Toronto inserted Aaron Gray into the starting lineup for the first time this season, and Casey was pleased with his physical presence.

On the Suns side, Alvin Gentry continued his tweaks, getting Hakim Warrick into the game to try to gain the offensive production that Channing Frye has yet to provide this season on any type of a consistent basis. Warrick played 26 minutes and finished with 17 points and four assists — this, after receiving DNP-CDs in the Suns’ previous two games.

Ultimately, each team will have its own perspective on this one. The Suns will likely look at the fact that they were able to rally late on dead legs and almost come all the way back from 12 down in the fourth to get a win. The Raptors, meanwhile, will be thrilled with Bargnani’s return and the team’s ability to overcome its own double-digit deficit on the road to secure a win.

Trouble lies ahead for both clubs, and it’s not going to be an easy season for either of them. But the expectations are lower in Toronto, with a new coach in his first year with a squad no one expected to compete. In Phoenix, the playoffs were the realistic goal that was laid out to start the season. And as Jared Dudley said afterward on Twitter, what’s happening right now isn’t going to get them there.

“Can’t be a playoff team and lose to last couple teams we have played at home,” Dudley wrote. “Gotta figure this out. I believe in this team.”

Notes

– Robin Lopez was ejected in the second quarter for bumping an official while protesting a call. As an aside, the Suns were particularly interested in discussing the officiating on this night, with Gentry leading the way, and Gortat and Nash following right along for most of the night.

– James Johnson tied a career high in rebounds with 10, and Linus Kleiza tied a season high in rebounds with 10 for the Raptors.

– Toronto has now won just three times in its last 13 games, and all three wins have required 30 or more points from Bargnani.

– Toronto had lost 14 straight to Phoenix before Tuesday’s win. The Raptors last beat the Suns in February of 2004.

– Leandro Barbosa said there was no advantage to playing his former Suns team, that whatever knowledge he had of their old system is no longer there.

“I think that’s gone,” Barbosa said. “Last year was tough for me just to come and see my friends. It was tough. But that’s gone. I miss them and everything, but this is my team now. I came to play and win.”

Markelle Fultz says last season was about injury, he’s back now with confidence

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Philadelphia went big game hunting in free agency and came up empty. If they are going to seriously challenge Boston this season for the top of the East, it’s going to be because of internal improvement — Joel Embiid needs to get better, Ben Simmons needs to get better…

And Markelle Fultz needs to be on the court and look like a No. 1 pick.

We’ve seen glimpses that his shot looks better after spending the summer with the shot guru Drew Hanlen, and at Sixers media day he sounded confident. Courtesy Matt Haughton at NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“I think it was a mis-term in words, but me and Drew have talked (after Hanlen said Fults had the yips),” he said. “What happened last year was an injury. Let me get that straight. It was an injury that happened that didn’t allow me to go through the certain paths that I needed to, to shoot the ball.

“Just like any normal person, when you’re used to doing something the same way each and every day and something happens, of course, you’re going to start thinking about it. It’s just normal….

“Everybody knows what happened last year, so this summer was really just me working to get my mechanics back, my confidence back, my swagger back. It was a very productive summer,” Fultz said. “I’m happy with the work I put in with Drew (Hanlen). We put up a lot of shots, a lot of hours in the gym. I’m happy with where I’m at right now going into training camp.”

Fultz is saying all the right things. That and $4 will get you a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks (although why you’d want it is beyond me).

 

The proof starts Saturday in training camp and runs through the season. It’s about results now. Expectations for Fultz are high, but welcome to the life of a No. 1 pick. His bolstered swagger will be tested, we’ll see how he handles it.

Joel Embiid on DeAndre Ayton: ‘He’s about to get his ass kicked this year’

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At some point in the future — maybe not as far in the future as he thinks — a lot of NBA fans are going to turn on Joel Embiid and his unfiltered trash talk and social media presence. (Which, oddly, is very different from how teammates describe him, this seems to be more of a public persona.) It’s the nature of fame, we love the rogues and rebels until we don’t.

For now, Embiid is a lot of fun.

He went on the set of ESPN’s “The Jump” with Rachel Nichols on Friday (at Sixers media day) and when the picture of Deandre Ayton came up, well…

“He’s about to get his ass kicked this year.”

Embiid isn’t wrong.

Ayton is going to have a good rookie year, maybe very good (although the lack of a quality point guard to feed him the rock in spots he can do damage will hurt him), and at Summer League Ayton was a bit of a man-child against other rookies and young players. However, he showed flaws — his hands, for one, need to get better — and nightly in the NBA teams will roll out men who can match him and push back on him. It’s going to be harder than he realizes, and not just with Embiid or Rudy Gobert or DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond or Marcin Gortat and the other guys who can match up physically with him, but with the skill guys as well. Ayton isn’t going to push around Draymond Green easily. Al Horford is going to school him with skills.

Ayton is going to be on a learning curve this season, a steep one at times. All rookies get that. What matters is how he responds and how he develops. Expectations are rightfully high, but he’s got some learning to do.

Report: Jimmy Butler may not report to camp; Minnesota owner handling trade talks

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Hot mess doesn’t do the Minnesota Timberwolves situation justice. Trainwreck? Epic fail? Cluster%*#$?

Personally, I am going to go with:

Call it what you want, within the span of a week the Timberwolves have devolved into a situation where the team’s best player is demanding a trade and now, reportedly, may just skip training camp if he’s not moved. Meanwhile, the GM is adamant in saying he will not trade said player — one Jimmy Butler — so the owner is reportedly taking this over directly and telling teams to contact him.

Here is where things stand heading into Friday night.

Butler and coach/GM Tom Thibodeau met Tuesday in Los Angeles (a meeting that was initially in Minneapolis but that got moved in Los Angeles and pushed back a day), where Thibodeau laid out his plans for the season, but before he left Butler asked for a tradespecifically to the Clippers/Nets/Knicks. This set off all sorts of social media drama with Andrew Wiggins and rumors about Towns’ girlfriend that we’re not going to dive into now, but is giving the Timberwolves organization headaches. Towns has a $158 million contract extension sitting on the table, but told management he can’t coexist with Butler and reportedly will not sign the new deal until the Butler situation is resolved.

Thibodeau has adamantly rejected teams that have called and even tried to start a trade discussion, and would rather quit than move him for a rebuilding package of picks. The offers for a Butler trade and possible rental, even from teams that could re-sign him as a free agent next summer, are not going to be that good.

Since Thibodeau wants no part of trading Butler, owner Glen Taylor — who has a rocky relationship with Thibodeau — is telling the other owners he will make the trade and to reach out to him, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

As the Minnesota Timberwolves front office tells inquiring rivals that the franchise has no plans to trade All-Star forward Jimmy Butler, owner Glen Taylor had a different message for owners and executives at the NBA’s Board of Governors meetings: Butler is available, and prospective suitors should contact Taylor himself should they struggle to make progress with GM Scott Layden, sources told ESPN….

“The owner’s trading him,” one Board of Governors attendee told ESPN on Friday. “That was made clear. It’s just a matter of when.”

“He basically said, ‘If you don’t get anywhere with [Layden], and you’ve got something good, bring it to me,” another high-ranking league official told ESPN.

This points to a showdown between Thibodeau and Taylor potentially looming. Want to guess who wins showdowns between owners and GMs? Every time?

Meanwhile, a frustrated Butler — who left the Timberwolves in a terrible spot with the timing of his request a week before training camp, rather than earlier in the summer — could decide to sit out training camp, reports Jon Krawczynski in a must-read breakdown of how everything went wrong over at The Athletic.

This is Jimmy Butler. Thibs’ hand-picked pride and joy. The one who pledged to have his back through thick and thin and drag this woebegone franchise out of the dank cellar and into the spotlight.

Now he wants out. And there remains a real possibility that he will not report to training camp next week if a trade has not been consummated, sources said.

There is a whole lot to sort out here. If Taylor makes a trade, is he thinking more win-now guys, or younger players more on the Towns/Wiggins timeline? Will Thibodeau still be the coach/GM come opening night? How will Minnesota fans react to the inevitable step back that would come with a Butler trade (they are not getting equal value, and he was key to their playoff push last season)? And all of that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Dumpster fire seems just about right.

In wake of Mavericks’ scandal, Adam Silver warns other teams to eliminate harassment

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The sexual harassment and workplace environment scandal that engulfed the Dallas Mavericks shook other NBA teams and forced some internal reassessment long before the league and an independent investigator released their report on Dallas this week. As part of the deal, Mark Cuban is donating $10 million to “organizations that are committed to supporting the leadership and development of women in the sports industry and combating domestic violence,” and the team must subscribe to a number of new reporting procedures.

Just to hammer the importance of the issue home, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver sent a memo to all 30 teams saying they need to think about diversity in management and have a focus on preventing workplace harassment.

While the money from the $10 million goes to good causes and is four times what the NBA could have fined Cuban itself under the current league bylaws, it is not going to hurt a man worth an estimated $3.9 billion. Cuban appeared both repentant and bothered by what was happening under his roof, but the punishment handed down came off as light, even though Cuban did quickly make changes within the organization — long before the report came out, starting at the top with the hiring of Cynthia Marshall as CEO — and was not personally involved nor did he have knowledge of the situation, according to the investigation. There is no right answer here. What would have really sent a message to teams was taking away draft picks, however, Dallas’ basketball side of the operations — players, coaches, etc. — were not implicated in the investigation, and it was instead the opposite, the basketball side was seen as a safe haven. Taking away draft picks felt like punishing the wrong people for the crimes, sort of like the NCAA. There were other options, but all seemed flawed.

Having it happen once can be spun as an outlier by the league, a one-off situation. If it happens again, the conversation changes. Silver does not want that to happen, hence the memo and reminder.