Cavaliers down another big man as Varejao’s knee swells up

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Anderson Varejao has been fantastic this young season for Cleveland — 14 points a game on 65.8 percent shooting, plus 15 rebounds a game. He has grabbed 25 percent of the available rebounds when he has been on the floor the first four games (that is Dennis Rodman like). He has been playing like an All-Star.

So Cleveland is really going to miss him Wednesday night, and maybe longer.

Varejao banged knees in the Cavs Monday night win over the Clippers, and while his knee hurt he played through it. Then after the game it swelled up and come the Cavs game Wednesday against the Warriors, he could not go.

Neither could rookie Tyler Zeller, who is going to be out for a while after getting a broken cheekbone and a concussion in the same game.

That’s two rotation big men on a Cavs team that isn’t exactly deep. Coach Byron Scott is not thrilled.

“Tyler was playing great. We know how Andy was playing, unbelievable. You lose not only two of your best players, you lose your size as well,” Scott said before his team faced the Warriors. “Again, we just got other guys who are going to come in and try to pick up the slack for what both those guys brought to the table.”

The guys asked to step up were Samardo Samuels at forward and Tristan Thompson, both of whom started. They will get a lot more run until Varejao and Zeller are back.

Rudy Gobert latest to rip referees, claims conspiracy against Wolves ‘It’s just so obvious’

Minnesota Timberwolves v Golden State Warriors
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
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Devin Booker‘s 15 free throw attempts in the Suns’ win Wednesday was more than the 12 the entire Timberwolves team took.

That set Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert off on a tinfoil hat conspiracy theory that the referees wanted to help the Suns win. Or the Kings the game before that. Or the Warriors the game before that. Here’s the full quote (via Chris Hine) that will earn Gobert a healthy fine from the league:

“It’s bulls***. Bulls***. It’s really not fair. Every night. I’ve been in this league for 10 years and I try to always give the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard for me to think [the referees] are not trying to help [Phoenix] win tonight. It’s hard for me to think they didn’t try to help the Warriors win the other night, or the Sacramento Kings the other night.

“It’s just so obvious. As a basketball player that’s been in this league for so long, it’s disrespectful, and it sucks, to be honest. We work so hard to be in a position to compete with the best, and we just get manipulated into those situations where it just impacts the game for the other team too much. They know how to do it. They do it a lot of different ways. Tonight was another way of doing it.

“But it’s all good. We understand that it’s also a business. Unfortunately. It’s sad, but it’s good also. It’s really good. But it’s true. We understand that we’re not the biggest of the markets, and we’re a team that … I think you want to see [Kevin Durant] in the playoffs, Steph [Curry] in the playoffs, you want to see LeBron [James] in the playoffs. The Timberwolves are not there yet. We got to keep putting our head down, keep playing through that, and it’s frustrating for sure, especially for me.”

For the record, the Timberwolves and Kings were very close in free throws attempted — 34 to 32 — in that Minnesota win. The Timberwolves had 25 free throws to the Warriors’ 17 in that Golden State win. Also, Sacramento fans will have a good laugh at the idea that they are lumped in with the big market, star-driven franchises that allegedly get all the breaks from the league.

It’s also amusing that Gobert is complaining about all the calls the Suns got when Phoenix coach Monty Williams was fined $20,000 after going off last week on how the referees are conspiring against the Suns. Maybe this is just Gobert taking a page out of Williams’ book?

Two other quick thoughts. Suggesting that the number of free throws teams take in a game should be roughly even is flawed logic — aggressive teams attacking the rim get the calls. That is not always going to get even. Giannis Antetokounmpo gets calls because he is relentless in driving the lane, and nobody has another answer to stop him, and that is true of Joel Embiid, Luka Dončić, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the other guys who get to the line a lot.

Is the NBA a star-driven league? Duh. It has been since David Stern started selling Magic vs. Bird instead of the Lakers vs. Celtics. Do the game’s biggest stars get special treatment from the referees? It does feel like it, but those are also the players with the ball in their hands the most, attacking and creating shots for themselves and others, so they were naturally going to draw more fouls anyway.

Gobert is frustrated and I get that. But the Timberwolves have been one of the best teams in the NBA over the few weeks, and that driving their chance to make the top six and avoid the play-in should be the focus. This Minnesota team is finding its stride, and the referees will not take that away. Unless the Wolves let them.

Three things to Know: ‘Light the Beam’ — Kings secure first playoff berth since 2006

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Light the Beam: Kings secure first playoff berth since 2006

“Light the beam! Light the beam!”

The chant was ringing across the beam-less Moda Center in Portland Wednesday night from a healthy-sized group of Kings fans who drove (or flew) up from Sacramento to watch the Kings secure their first playoff berth since 2006. They got their wish, watching a 120-80 thrashing of the Blazers — and they made themselves heard.

Back in Sacramento, the fans gravitated to the Golden 1 Center downtown to see the beam get lit, chanting and waving flags the whole way.

The Kings have been the best story in the NBA this season, and the most entertaining team to watch with an up-tempo, high-efficiency offense (and a defense that had them winning fun-to-watch shootouts). They took a risk trading away a fan favorite in Tyrese Haliburton (who has lived up to the hype with an All-NBA-level season in Indiana), but that got them Domantas Sabonis, who became a lynchpin at the center (and very possibly an All-NBA player himself this season). Moving Haliburton also unleashed De'Aaron Fox at the point, he has been brilliant and is the frontrunner to win the NBA’s first Clutch Player of the Year award.

Then there’s Keegan Murray, who stood out at Summer League as the most NBA-ready player in this class, and he has responded by making more 3-pointers than any other rookie in NBA history.

Veteran coach Mike Brown brought it all together — a defense-first coach overseeing one of the best offenses the game has ever seen — and he likely will be rewarded with the Coach of the Year award.

This is why sport. A fan base that has suffered through an ownership group that tried to sell the team and move them out of town, that has suffered through losing season after losing season, fans that have not bought tickets to a playoff game since there was a Bush in the White House have been rewarded. The Kings are in — and not just squeaking into the postseason, they are the Pacific Division champions and the No.3 seed in the West.

This is something a story and a franchise worth celebrating. Savor this moment Kings fans, you deserve it.

2) Jalen Williams tip-in helps Thunder stay in the postseason at bottom of West

A lot of action impacting the crowded bottom of the West playoff chase. Here’s a quick breakdown.

• Jalen Williams’ putback game-winner saved the Thunder on a night they almost dropped one to the Pistons.

• The Thunder’s win combined with the Mavericks’ loss to the 76ers has Oklahoma City a full game up on Dallas for the final play-in spot, but that is really two games because OKC also owns the tiebreaker. (Dallas is also two games back in the loss column from No. 9 seed New Orleans.) Nothing is set, but the Thunder control their own destiny in making the postseason, and Luka Dončić and the Mavericks could be on the outside looking in.

Anthony Davis went off for the Lakers and they beat the Bulls in Chicago.

• The Lakers were helped out Wednesday by the return of Kevin Durant to the Suns, who helped them beat the Timberwolves 107-100. The Lakers are the No.8 seed in the West, tied with the Pelicans for No.9 but also just half a game back of the Timberwolves at No.7 (the Lakers. Timberwolves and Pelicans are all tied in the loss column at 38).

• The Clippers had the most improbable win of the night: No Kawhi Leonard, no Paul George, going up against a Memphis team that had won seven in a row. But the Clippers got a vintage Russell Westbrook performance and that was enough. They continue to sit as the No.5 seed in the West, and they could see Durant and the Suns in what would be a very interesting first-round series.

3) Knicks get win, but lost Julius Randle to sprained ankle

The Knicks picked up a win at home against the Heat, a quality win that has New York even more locked in as the No.5 seed in the East (and may have destined Miami for No.7), but that’s not what anyone is talking about.

Julius Randle sprained his ankle leaping for a rebound and landing on Bam Adebayo‘s foot in the second quarter, and he left the game not to return. As is often the case with ankle sprains, it will be later today — once the swelling has gone down and maybe an MRI is done — that they will have a true picture of the severity and how long Randle could be out.

Randle has not missed a game yet this season, but that will change. Randle is averaging 25.1 points and 10 rebounds a game, playing at an All-NBA level again this season in New York. The Knicks will not be the same team without him.

The Knicks have five games remaining in the season and are almost locked in as the No.5 seed. The season ends April 9 but the Knicks would not start the playoffs (likely in Cleveland) until April 15 or 16. That’s more than two weeks to get Randle right.

Silver hopeful new CBA agreed to by Friday at midnight deadline

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The sides have pushed the deadline back twice, but no more: Friday night at midnight the NBA (on behalf of the owners) and the league’s players’ union will have agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), or either side can opt-out and trigger the first steps toward a summer lockout.

“I certainly can foresee [a CBA] getting done and I hope we do get one done,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Wednesday at a press conference following a Board of Governor’s meeting.

However, he added if a new CBA is not in place, the owners planned to opt out of the current one, which would then expire June 30 (and that would become the new, hard deadline to get a new deal in place and avoid a lockout).

NBPA Executive Director Tamika Tremaglio said the players do not plan to opt-out.

“The March 31st deadline is an important benchmark, and we are doing everything in our power to reach an agreement with the league,” Tremaglio said in a statement. “If we don’t have a deal and the league decides to opt-out, it will be disappointing considering all the work both sides have put into the negotiations, and the fair nature of our requests. As far as our fans are concerned, it will be business as usual. Games will continue uninterrupted.”

The sides agreed early not to negotiate through the media, which has kept talk about roadblocks and what is on the table relatively quiet. However, the configuration of the luxury tax (with a focus on limiting higher-spending teams), new veteran contract extension language, a games-played minimum to qualify for the league’s end-of-season awards, and allowing high schoolers to jump straight to the NBA are among the topics known to be up for discussion are on the table. The sides have been in talks for more than a year on a new deal, but it is a complex negotiation as the CBA covers literally every aspect of the NBA’s business.

“Still a lot to go in the next few days,” Silver said. “There’s just something about collective bargaining where deadlines are necessary and seemingly sides tend to hold their best positions until the very end. My sense is this will go down to the very end.”

The last CBA was signed in 2017 and has largely served both sides well as league profits — and with that player salaries — grew. That CBA included the early opt-outs this year and the early deadlines, hoping to avoid a potential work stoppage of any kind. Both sides are hoping to avoid that worst-case scenario.

They have until Friday to meet that first deadline.

Durant relatively quiet in return but still scores 16, helps Suns top Timberwolves

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PHOENIX (AP) — Kevin Durant‘s a 13-time All-Star, a two-time NBA champion, a four-time league leader in scoring and has done just about everything else a player can do in the game of basketball.

But even he can get a little nervous on a night like Wednesday.

Devin Booker scored 29 points, Durant had 16 points and eight rebounds in his home debut and the Phoenix Suns won their third straight game, beating the Minnesota Timberwolves 107-100.

After a huge ovation from the sellout crowd – which waited more than a month to see him play a game in Phoenix after his trade from Brooklyn – Durant missed his first six shots and finished 5 of 18 from the field, though he did hit a couple important 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter.

“It was hard for me to get sleep today, it was hard for me to stop thinking about the game,” Durant said. “Sometimes you can want it too bad and you come out, start rushing and being uncharacteristic.”

“I’m glad I’m back, I’m glad I’m playing again and being one of the guys. Just building from here.”

Even with the nerves, the Suns are 4-0 with Durant in the lineup. The Timberwolves had a four-game winning streak snapped.

The Suns and Wolves are in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race, fighting to stay in the top six so they don’t fall to the play-in tournament. Every game is crucial at this point – just three wins separated the Nos. 4-11 spots coming into Wednesday.

The Suns took an 81-74 lead into the fourth quarter and held on in the final minutes.

Durant changed his shoes at halftime, hoping for some better mojo.

“I thought he battled on both ends,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “I think his cardio has got to get back to the level he wants it. Once he gets that, we’ll see the Kevin that we all know.”

Chris Paul added 19 points and six assists for Phoenix.

Anthony Edwards led Minnesota with 31 points. Karl-Anthony Towns added 25.

Durant played for the first time since March 5. He was warming up for his first home game with the Suns three days later when he sprained his left ankle during pregame preparation. The injury cost him 10 games.

The timing of that ankle injury – less than an hour before his expected home debut – felt like a bad omen for the Suns, who added the 34-year-old Durant in a blockbuster trade-deadline deal that sent Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder and draft picks back to the Nets.

But Phoenix managed to tread water in the standings without its newest star. His second attempt at the home debut went much better, even if his shooting touch was off.

The Timberwolves took a 51-48 halftime lead. Towns scored 20 points, hitting four 3-pointers. Booker led the Suns with 12.

The Timberwolves – and particularly center Rudy Gobert – were irritated about a 27-12 advantage in free throw attempts for the Suns.

“It’s really not fair every night,” Gobert said. “I have been in this league for 10 years and I try to always give the benefit of the doubt, but it is hard for me to think that they are not trying to help (the Suns) win tonight.

“It is hard for me to think that they didn’t try to have the Warriors win the other night or the Sacramento Kings the other night. It is just so obvious as a basketball player. I have been in this league for so long and it is disrespectful.”