Timberwolves’ offense rolls without Rubio in high-scoring victory over Suns

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The Timberwolves needed this. After losing Ricky Rubio to a season-ending injury just a few days ago, and after not being able to muster the energy to take care of business at home against the horrible Hornets the day the news was confirmed, Minnesota began a tough seven-game road trip on Monday with an offensive explosion in a 127-124 victory over the Suns.

“It’s really huge,” said T’Wolves head coach Rick Adelman. “Especially after losing two at home the way we did and losing Ricky, to come out and get this win, it’s a huge confidence boost.”

The game was a shootout between two teams not exactly known for offense this season, with both ranking in the middle of the pack from an efficiency standpoint. Kevin Love led all scorers, but did most of his damage in the second half where he scored 23 of his 30 points and knocked down five of eight from three-point distance.

While Love struggled early thanks to Phoenix throwing a hard double team at him whenever he touched the ball, Minnesota was brilliant in making the extra pass to find the open man. The one who benefited most was Nikola Pekovic, who finished with 24 points but got 15 of those in the first quarter while the Suns scrambled to recover defensively.

“We had 15 assists in the first half,” Adelman pointed out. “They came out to double team Kevin trying to change things up, but our guys moved the ball. If they play together and make the right play, we’ll be okay.”

Minnesota finished the night with 30 assists, a season high. The 127 points were also a season high, and it was unusual to see against a Suns team that has held its opponents to an average of 89.2 points per game over its last five at home. Jared Dudley, who led Phoenix in scoring with 28, tried to explain.

“I wouldn’t say it was a defensive battle out there today,” Dudley said. “Everyone played well: Pekovic was dominating the boards, Love was inside out, [Michael Beasley] got hot in the first half, and [Derrick Williams] in the second. We did a bad job of rebounding; in the pick and roll coverage, we weren’t crisp at all. And because of that, they made us pay. And even with that, the crazy thing about how poorly we played defensively, we played one of our best offensive games this year, and had chances.”

The game featured eight ties and 15 lead changes, and late in the fourth quarter, neither team seemed to be able to miss. Love had 13 in the final period (including three from three-point range), and Sebastian Telfair had 10 points in under eight minutes, six of which came in a five-second span where he converted a four-point play, then stole the ensuing inbounds pass and went in for a layup.

The Suns’ chances were the kind they’d take most nights. Trailing by one with under two minutes to play, Steve Nash — who finished with 25 points and 10 assists, and had made 10-of-14 from the field to that point — missed a 16-foot runner, and then an 18-foot jumper, both of which were open looks and shots he usually can get to go down.

After Love made two free throws, the Suns ran a play to get Dudley an open look from three that was on target, but that just didn’t fall.

“Probably the best look I had all night,” Dudley said of that late three. “Grant Hill set a perfect screen that made my guy fall on the ground, and when I shot it I thought the ball was good, and it went halfway in.”

Marcin Gortat, who was taken out of the game for most of the night due to foul trouble trying to bang down low with Pekovic, ended up at the free throw line after a loose ball foul with a chance to cut the lead to one with 12.2 seconds left … but he missed both attempts.

“Ridiculous,” Gortat said of his missed free throws. “It was not even funny, it was just … bad.”

The opportunities were there for Phoenix, but on this night, they couldn’t keep up with a high-energy and hot-shooting Timberwolves team that, given the circumstances, may just have needed this one a little bit more for their collective psyche. Love may have summed it up best.

“Obviously losing Ricky was a big detriment to the team, it was tough for us — psychologically, mentally, emotionally,” he said. “Tonight we were able to, I wouldn’t say put that behind us; we’re always going to miss him because there’s a lot of times out there where the ball stops moving … But tonight was a big difference as far as energy level and how we felt.”

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.