Three Stars of the Night: Heat Checked

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Three games were on the menu Thursday night, and each brought their own unique flavor.

If you love defense (or hate scoring), Pacers-Knicks was the game for you. With Carmelo Anthony serving his one-game suspension, the Knicks really struggled to generate offense and relied almost solely on J.R. Smith heroics most of the night. That didn’t exactly work against the league’s best defense, however, and the Pacers grinded out another win at home.

Speaking of suspensions, guess who got ejected (twice!) in Sacramento? DeMarcus Cousins played a magnificent game offensively, but he took a whack at Vince Carter’s face that earned him his 6th foul, which was ultimately deemed a flagrant-two. As for the game itself? Hilariously awful. Isaiah Thomas hit a buzzer-beating banked 3-pointer to push it to overtime, but both teams traded awful passes, missed free throws, and terrible decisions until the Mavericks finally decided they wanted to lose less than the Kings. I refuse to believe one of these teams won.

As for Portland-Miami? A few members of the red hot Blazers earned their place in the stars below. To the Three Stars of the Night!

 

Third Star: Wesley Matthews – (18 points, game-tying and game-winning threes)

It takes some serious, serious intestinal fortitude to do what Wes Mathews did against the Miami Heat. After watching his team come back from a 13-point halftime deficit largely without his help, Matthews managed to stay confident despite his ugly 5-for-16 night. When the ball came to him down three points with under a minute left, Matthews nailed an open corner 3 to tie the game. Then, down two after a Miami bucket, Matthews went one-on-one against Ray Allen and stepped back to nail the incredibly difficult go-ahead 3. And finally, as if he hadn’t done enough already, Matthews played brilliant defense on LeBron James on the game’s final possession, as helped to force the ball out of LeBron’s hands. Although Mario Chalmers ended up with a wide-open look, it was Matthews who ended up being the unquestioned and unlikely crunch time hero.

 

Second Star: Paul George – (24 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 steals)

Yesterday, we talked about how the Pacers are staying alive this year, and how Paul George is a huge part of that. With J.R. Smith representing the only threat to create his own offense off the dribble, George locked in defensively and used his incredible length to bother Smith into a 10-for-29 shooting night while also recording a career-high six steals. George’s defense and forced turnovers really set the table for a Pacers offense that desperately needed some easy buckets. Watching George grow more and more comfortable as a wing-scorer is exciting, but it’s his development defensively that should have Eastern Conference foes worried. George can legitimately guard every position on the floor, and he’s a nightmare to score against in an isolation. If you could head play basketball Frankenstien and create the ideal wing defender to guard LeBron James, it would look an awful lot like Paul George.

 

First Star: Nicolas Batum – (28 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists)

Batum just keeps adding layers to his game, slowly but surely. He’s always been a good spot-up shooter and a good defender, but Batum has spent more time with the ball in his hands than ever before, and he’s shown the chops of a really solid playmaker early on this season. Batum’s assists have jumped from 1.4 a game last season to 4.5 this year, and although it was Matthews who knocked in the game-tying 3-pointer, it was Batum who found him open in the corner. That was just one of the many great plays Batum made in the second half to help the Blazers climb back into it. He may never be a pure isolation scorer, but Batum plays smart team ball and could absolutely develop into an acceptable accompanying star on a contending team if he keeps steadily improving.

Rumor: Raptors trying to trade up in draft for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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The Raptors have major problems in the playoffs annually.

Is a coaching change enough to fix them?

Toronto already fired Dwane Casey and promoted assistant Nick Nurse after a highly successful regular season. Perhaps, major roster turnover could follow.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander projects to be a late lottery pick. The Raptors have no selections in this draft. So, acquiring one high enough to pick the Kentucky point guard would take plenty.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are stars. Toronto’s bench is stocked with solid young players. O.G. Anunoby is very promising.

So, the Raptors have pieces to move. The only question how much they’d package for a draft pick.

Toronto already has Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright at point guard. But Lowry is 32, and VanVleet will be a restricted free agent this summer. If they really believe in Gilgeous-Alexander, the Raptors should try to get him.

All that said, this is the time of year rumors – both credible and not – fly. So, it’s worth remaining skeptical while still considering the validity of what reputable reporters like Stein convey.

Luka Doncic, Donte DiVincenzo, Jerome Robinson among NBA draft invitees

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Of course DeAndre Ayton will attend Thursday’s NBA draft. The Suns will likely draft him No. 1 overall.

But what about more marginal first-round prospects?

The NBA’s draft invite list is an important tool in judging their stock. The league wants to avoid players sitting in agony until their names are called. So, the NBA works to invite only the prospects most likely to get picked high in the draft.

The full list of invited players (which the league notes is subject to change):

Luka Doncic will go high in the draft, and though how high is still uncertain, his inclusion on this list says nothing about his stock. It just speaks to whether we’ll see him Thursday night. His attendance will depend at least on when Real Madrid’s season ends, though the NBA is apparently confident enough to list him.

Jerome Robinson has climbed draft boards since the season ended. He must be impressing in workouts and interviews.

Donte DiVincenzo is a bit of a surprise selection, as he’s not widely viewed as a first-round lock. Perhaps, the league is looking to capitalize on his popularity stemming from a breakout NCAA tournament championship game.

This will only reinforce the idea Chandler Hutchinson received a promise. Otherwise, he’s a surprise invitee.

Among the top players not attending: Kevin Huerter (Maryland), Jacob Evans (Cincinnati), Troy Brown (Oregon) and Josh Okogie (Georgia Tech). Though they could go higher than players listed here, that says something about Huerter’s Evans’, Browns’ and Okogie’s stock, too.

Report: Rudy Gay opting out of Spurs contract

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly wants to leave the Spurs, but he’s at their whims.

This doesn’t mean Rudy Gay will depart San Antonio, but he’s taking control of his future.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

Gay’s option-year salary was $8,826,300.

I doubt Gay, who turns 32 this summer, will draw such a high starting salary on his next contract – though I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. He could likely get a multi-year deal with a higher total value.

Or he could chase a ring elsewhere.

Remember, Gay gave up money to leave the Kings last summer. No matter how much the Leonard situation should make us rethink the Spurs’ culture, San Antonio probably isn’t “basketball hell.” Still, the Spurs clearly don’t look as appealing as they once did, and Gay has shown how much he values team quality.

Gay is coming off a nice season, and San Antonio might try to re-sign him. Danny Green has a $10 million player option for next season, which will swing whether the Spurs have the flexibility for a bigger move this summer.

Report: LeBron James’ camp likes Collin Sexton

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In 2014, LeBron James tweeted his fondness for Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier. The Heat traded up to get Napier in the draft, but LeBron left for the Cavaliers that summer, anyway.

Could history repeat itself, this time in Cleveland?

LeBron has already talked up Oklahoma point guard Trae Young, but maybe LeBron and his camp want the Cavs to take a different point guard – Alabama’s Collin Sexton – with the No. 8 pick.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com, via Jordan Zirm of ESPN Cleveland:

The Cavaliers should take the best prospect available. Worrying about what LeBron might want makes a mistake only more likely.

LeBron might stay in Cleveland, but as 2014 showed, it won’t be because of a draft pick. If he stays, it very well could be by opting into the final year of his contract. His player-option salary ($35,607,968) is slightly higher than his projected max salary as a free agent (about $35.35 million). If LeBron opts in, the best chance of keeping him long-term is building a better team around him.

That means taking the best prospect at No. 8 or trading the pick for someone who can help LeBron win now. If the top prospect is Sexton, that’s fine. But the Cavs are fare more likely to appease LeBron by getting the pick right in the long run rather than choosing the prospect he wants now.