Baseline to Baseline recaps: Close games and playoff races

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What you missed while hiring a nude maid service….

Knicks 111, Bucks 107: In a must-win game for both teams, the Knicks got the stops and gutted out a win that likely sends them to the playoffs.

Clippers 100, Thunder 98: On the ESPN studio show, injured Clippers guard Chauncey Billups said the key to beating the Thunder in Oklahoma City is just to keep it close, hang around and turn it over to the “liitle guy” Chris Paul at the end. The Clippers did that, they got a fantastic all-around game from Blake Griffin (16 points, 12 boards and 7 assits) and some good play off the bench from Kevin Martin. They kept it close, then at the end CP3 did his thing. (Then Durant missed a game-winning three.)

When the Thunder get going and use their defense to create offense, they can beat anyone. But they were not consistent with it this game (there was plenty of lapses) and they hurt themselves with untimely turnovers. They feel vulnerable in ways a contender should not.

Lakers 98, Spurs 84: You can’t read too much into one regular game. So be careful here. But the Spurs got bumped from the playoffs last year because they could not contain the front like of the Grizzlies (and yes, Manu Ginobili was out). Then in the offseason they Spurs did not address the front line issues.

Enter Andrew Bynum and the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday. Bynum grabbed 30 rebounds. Thirty. He had 16 points, Pau Gasol had 21 and Metta World Peace had 26 (which is a bit flukey). The Lakers owned the Spurs inside and won without Kobe Bryant on the floor. It’s one regular season game, but it should be a concern for the Spurs.

Grizzlies 104, Suns 93: An 14-1 Suns run early in the fourth quarter made it look like this was going to be a game to the end, but Memphis took control behind Rudy Gay (Grant Hill was not playing and nobody else could check him) and Dante Cunningham. Gay finished with 32 points. Marcin Gortat had 19 for the Suns.

With the Suns loss and a Jazz win the Suns fall to the 10 seed, two games back of Houston in the eight seed. That is going to be hard to make up.

Jazz 103, Rockets 91: Huge road win for the Jazz who took the lead in the second quarter and withstood every Rockets rally all game long. Gordon Hayward was a machine, with 29 points on 14 shots, plus he chipped in six assists. Paul Millsap is still playing the three and it works, he had 21. Kyle Lowry led a fourth-quarter charge by the Rockets, but it was too little, to late. With the win the Jazz move into the nine seed, just 1.5 games back of the eight seed Rockets.

Celtics 88, Hawks 86 (OT): On the second night of a back-to-back, Boston was able to control the tempo — the Hawks wanted to run the Celtics out of the building but never really got to. Boston (and by that we mean Kevin Garnett) also traditionally is able to hold Josh Smith in check, and while he ended up with 20 points and 11 boards he did not score in the fourth quarter or overtime. Meanwhile, Rondo was dishing with 20 assists on his way to a triple-double (despite a 3-for-16 shooting night). Boston gutted out a tough win a night after beating the Heat, they will take it. Plus, just great to see Mickael Pietrus back on the court.

Sixers 93, Raptors 75: Philly continues to secure their playoff spot thanks to an easy schedule down the stretch (save for a couple games against the Pacers coming up). This game was close until a 17-4 fourth quarter run by the Sixers. Thaddeus Young led the 76ers with 17 points, and six boards.

Pacers 104, Cavaliers 98 (OT): It took a late fourth quarter 11-1 run by the Pacers just to force overtime, a run sparked by George Hill who had 8 in the quarter (and 17 for the game). That run was almost enough to win it, until Lester Hudson continued his amazing play of late with a game-tying floater to force overtime. Danny Granger was the best player in OT with a clutch three, scoring 5 of his 23 points coming in the bonus period.

Nuggets 113, Timberwolves 107: Minnesota had to play the end of his game without Kevin Love, who was taken to the hospital with a concussion. Denver owned the first half of this game and was up 21 at the break, But then a 27-8 Minnesota run made it a game again — a run sparked by Anthony Randolph’s 19 second half points. Martell Webster tied the game at 105-105 with a key three, but then Minnesota fell asleep and allowed Arron Aflalo to score a transition layup off the inbounds and that was the momentum Denver needed to win.

Hornets 105, Kings 93: New Orleans took control with a 17-3 fourth-quarter run and never looked back. All you really need to know is Jason Smith scored 22 and outplayed DeMarcus Cousins.

Trail Blazers 118, Warriors 110: A 10-0 Warriors run to open the fourth made this a game, but Portland closed the game on their own 7-0 run to secure the win. Jamal Crawford had 34 and looked like his old self for the Blazers.

Report: Kyrie Irving has ‘ghosted’ Celtics as free agency approaches

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The emerging expectation: Kyrie Irving will sign with the Nets in free agency.

Many thought the Celtics had a chance of changing his mind by trading for Anthony Davis. But Boston didn’t deal for the star center.

There’s little reason to believe Irving will re-sign with the Celtics now.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

The strangest part of the Irving situation right now is that it appears he has essentially ghosted on the Celtics. The people within the organization I have spoken with have made it clear that they have had little, if any, communication with Irving in recent weeks.

Irving is the prize. He’s not interviewing for jobs. Employers are chasing him. By becoming one of the best basketball players in the world, Irving has earned the power to act however he wants in this situation.

The season is over. If Irving wants space, he’s entitled to it.

Maybe it’s because he’s being a jerk. Maybe it’s because telling Boston he wants to leave isn’t an easy message to deliver.

Either way, Irving can proceed as he sees fit. The Celtics will still offer him a max contract if he wants to stay.

This is the same tact he reportedly took on his way out of Cleveland. So, it’s believable he’s behaving this way again.

But we’ve also repeatedly seen players smeared on their way out the door. Whether or not it’s accurate, this report will reflect poorly on Irving in many circles. So, in light of recent history, have at least a little skepticism for this depiction of Irving.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Ja Morant is the future of the point guard position

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Ja Morant.

Previous draft profiles:

The trajectory that Zion Williamson and Ja Morant have taken to get to the point where they are projected to be the top two picks in the NBA draft could not be more different.

Four years ago, they were playing on the same, small AAU team out of South Carolina. From there, Zion blew up, becoming a viral sensation thanks to his athletic exploits, having his jersey get worn by Drake when he was still a high school junior and spending the majority of his time in the high school ranks as a top-five talent in his recruiting class.

Morant, on the other hand, was more or less a no-name prospect into the summer before his senior year. He eventually became a popular mid-major target, and he even received a scholarship offer from in-state South Carolina. He was hardly unknown, but he was miles away from being someone considered to be a potential franchise-changing talent at the NBA level.

As it stands today, the thing that both Zion and Ja have in common — besides the two most recognizable first names — is an otherworldly level of explosiveness that has both ratcheted up their hype and buried the lede. The reason Williamson is the most exciting prospect to come out of the college ranks since Anthony Davis is because of his ability to play the point and the five, all at the same time. He’s Draymond Green, only if he was injected with NOS from Dominic Toretto.

Morant’s athleticism rivals Williamson’s. Blessed with a 44 inch vertical, Morant’s motto this season was “jump with me if you want to go viral,” and that couldn’t have been more accurate. He spent more time on SportsCenter this season than every Ohio Valley Conference player before him combined, something that was highlighted by this dunk:

And that explosiveness matters, I would never try to say otherwise. Dunking over weakside defenders in the NBA is going to be more difficult than when playing at UT Martin, but being able to elevate the way Morant elevates will help him transition to the next level. His quick-twitch athleticism also manifests in his ability to make plays in the halfcourt, where his ability to change speeds — and to go from a standstill to top speed — is what allows scouts to be able to project Morant as a player that can create offense against set NBA defenses. For a player who did so much of his damage at the college level in transition, that’s a big deal.

Morant’s physical tools makes it very easy to see him as another De'Aaron Fox. They’re both about 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, and Fox just wrapped up his second season in the NBA with averages of 17.3 points, 7.3 assists and 3.8 boards.

But simply focusing on Morant’s athletic ability is to ignore what he does best: Pass.

Because while Morant did average 24.5 points and 5.7 boards while shooting 36 percent from three, perhaps what is most impressive about his sophomore season with the Racers is that he led all of college basketball in assists at 10.0 per game, just like Lonzo Ball led the nation in assists in 2017 and Trae Young did in 2018.

I mention both of those guys for a reason. Morant does not have the same hit-ahead ability in transition that Ball does, but Morant’s vision in the open floor and ability to make long, accurate passes in the open floor is one of the things that he does best. He also thrives in early-offense, where his And-1 Mixtape handle allows him to keep his dribble alive and probe opposing defenses. Because he is such a threat as a scorer, defenses would then collapse, which is when Morant’s ability as a dump-off passer and a lob-thrower comes into effect.

And that’s not even what he does best as a passer, because where he really shines is in the halfcourt and working off of ball-screens. Morant’s basketball IQ is the most underrated part of his game. He knows how defenses are going to defend him. He knows how to use his eyes to move weakside defenders. He knows where the tag is coming from, and whether the shooter in the far side corner or the roll-man will be open. This is where that Trae Young comparison comes into play, because reading defenses is where Young thrived while at Oklahoma.

The best way to describe Morant’s ability as a passer is that he not only knows when and where his teammates are going to come open, but he has the ability to find a way to make the pass that will get them an open shot. Morant is right-handed, but he will, at times, look like a left-handed player because of how often he makes bullet, live-dribble passes with just his left. He makes reads, and passes, that few point guards in the NBA today can make.

That passing is what makes all the difference, and as much as his athleticism or ability as a scorer, it’s the reason why he can be viewed as a player with the potential to be a franchise-changing point guard in the same stratosphere as the likes of Russell Westbrook and John Wall.

Now, Morant does have some flaws, and they are quite notable and relevant.

For starters, he is of a slight build, which is less than ideal. He is not going to be able to bounce off of contact in the NBA the same way he did in the OVC, and in a league where switchability is a priority at the highest-level, he is going to be targeted. Opposing coaches are going to target him by trying to force switches the same way that Nick Nurse did with Steph Curry in the finals. That is going to be an issue if he can’t add some weight and strength, particularly because he has not been a consistently great defender to date. Some of that can be attributed to the load that he was asked to carry offensively, and there is reason to believe that Morant’s athleticism, anticipation and quick hands will translate to being an above-average defender in the NBA.

Morant can also be a bit sloppy. He averaged more than five turnovers per game, and while some of that is strictly a result of workload and defensive attention, he also had a habit of trying to force passes that weren’t there.

But the biggest question mark, and what is going to determine his ceiling more than just about anything else, will be how well his jumper comes along. Morant shot 36.3 percent from three this past season, but that number drops to just 33.6 percent if his 7-for-8 shooting from three in the NCAA tournament is factored out.

Put another way, as good as Morant was this past season, there is still plenty of room for him to grow moving forward.

And in a league where ball-dominant lead guards that thrive in ball-screens is the norm, Morant is a player with quite a bit of value in the long-term.

Damon Jones says Lakers are in play for Kawhi Leonard

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I had heard from multiple sources going back to Summer League last year that the Lakers were not an option for Kawhi Leonard. He’s a guy who does not like a lot of drama and chaos around him, he just wants to play basketball, and being with LeBron James on the Lakers is to live in the spotlight with drama your constant companion.

Did the Anthony Davis trade change his thinking? Damon Jones, the former NBA player and assistant coach, said yes it did on ESPN’s Get Up show. He said a source that would know told him the Lakers are now in play.

Two thoughts here:

First, nobody knows what Kawhi Leonard is thinking. We can all play the “read the tea leafs” game — at the Raptors’ championship parade some fans started a “one more year” chant and Leonard’s close advisor Uncle Dennis (as he is commonly known) had one finger up and was chanting along, read what you want into that — but none of us really know which way Leonard leans. The “people close to Leonard” have sent mixed signals from the start, some have different agendas, and they are not Leonard. Stay in Toronto, come to the Clippers or Lakers? We don’t know.

Second, getting Leonard to the Lakers requires a semi-complicated salary cap move. After the Davis trade the Lakers have between $23 million and $27 million in salary cap space (depending on how much of Davis’ trade kicker he is going to take, if any) but that is not enough to sign Leonard to a max contract. And he’s not taking a discount. Los Angeles could create the room by delaying the Davis trade for a month. Follow along: Currently, the Davis trade can’t be executed until July 6. However, if the Lakers draft whoever the Pelicans want with the No. 4 pick, sign him, then wait a month and include that player and his salary in the trade (the CBA says a draft pick cannot be traded for 30 days after he signs his contract) then the Lakers could have $32.5 million in cap space, enough to sign Leonard (or Kemba Walker, or Jimmy Butler, or Kyrie Irving, or any free agent with 7-9 years of service and earning a max deal).

Except, the Pelicans want to get the trade done and, I was told, don’t have to agree to this delay. Would the Lakers have to throw in another second round pick or something to make this work? Maybe.

That all assumes Leonard wants to come to the Lakers. And nobody really knows that for sure.

Whatever happens, the board man gonna get paid.

 

 

Rumor: Patrick Beverley may meet with five teams before Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers want to bring Patrick Beverley back next season, his spark was at the heart of why this team made the playoffs and impressed with their potential.

First, however, the Clippers are going big game hunting for the likes of Kawhi Leonard and/or Kevin Durant (even with the Achilles injury). Beverley isn’t just going to sit around and wait for them, reports longtime NBA reporter Sean Deveney Tweeted.

The Bulls need a point guard and Beverley — a Chicago native — has said he is interested.

The Lakers also are reportedly big game hunting, but Beverley is the kind of guard they could use around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Phoenix and other teams have been mentioned.

Beverley is going to have options, but he loved his time with the Clippers last season, and that means something.