Three Stars of the Night: The Nuggets are still very odd

4 Comments

If you needed further confirmation that the Denver Nuggets are in fact very strange, tonight’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder provided some material.

Andre Iguodala, the All-Star swingman, the Gold Medalist, the highest paid player on the Nuggets, didn’t play in the fourth quarter and barely played in overtime.

JaVale McGee…did JaVale McGee things. He tried playing point-center on one possession and headed up a fast break that eventually, predictably, ended up in a turnover. A few possessions later, he ducked out of the way of a pass headed right for him.

Andre Miller, who shoots a flinging set shot (and 19 percent from 3), acted as the team’s crunch time shooting guard.

Put it all together, throw in some big buckets by one of our stars, and what do you get? A win over one of the best teams in the league. I don’t understand the Nuggets, and I’m not going to try to. Let’s get to the Three Stars from Sunday’s action:

Third Star: Russell Westbrook – (36 points, 8 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 blocked mascot shots)

Remember all the stories about how Michael Jordan used to look for perceived slights so he could have the motivation to go tear an opponent up? Russell Westbrook is like that, except he doesn’t have to manufacture the criticism. Seeing Westbrook sort of embrace the fact that he’ll never be the “true point guard” fans want has become one of my favorite things about this season. For all intents and purposes, he’s the NBA’s new super villain. He’s demonstrative, he robs fans of free queso, and you can tell he genuinely enjoys getting under everyone’s skin. Westbrook was in full-blown bad guy mode on Sunday against the Nuggets, driving to the rim with reckless abandon and throwing his body in defenders to get to the free throw line a whopping 17 times. Westbrook’s a momentum player, both in the sense that’s he unstoppable when he gets to full speed, and that once he gets a few shots to go down, he usually gets on a roll. The Nuggets survived a comeback spurred by Westbrook that included a huge deep 3-pointer, but if Westbrook is truly the villain he portrays, he won’t forget this game the next time these two teams meet up.

Second Star: Jose Calderon – (22 points and 9 assists in 30 minutes)

Was the Lakers defense deplorable? Of course. But a lot of credit also goes to Calderon, who really saw the floor brilliantly and probed in the pick-and-roll for the Raptors all night. Toronto shot a ridiculous 54 percent from the field against the Lakers, and Calderon’s 22 points magnified the big weaknesses of the Lakers’ defense. The Raptors were great in transition, but even when the game slowed down, Calderon moved the ball to the open man and always made the correct swing pass. If Calderon really is available come trade deadline time, some contender would be very lucky to have his decision making and shooting abilities added to their team.

First Star: Corey Brewer – (26 points, 6 rebounds, 15 points in the 4th quarter)

George Karl went with his gut, and Corey Brewer rewarded him in a serious way. When he wasn’t harassing Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook defensively, Brewer was spotting up in the corner and letting ’em rip from deep. For a team that has both struggled to shoot from the perimeter (29th in 3-point percentage) and put away games in clutch situations, every one of Brewer’s 15 points were like manna from heaven (the non-Darko Milicic variety) for Karl and the Nuggets down the stretch. Although Oklahoma City eventually caught them in regulation, Brewer’s hot shooting and aggressive nature kept Iguodala on the bench in overtime, which was probably a good thing on a night where he clearly didn’t have it. That’s the luxury Karl has with this deep roster, and although questions about their title chances remain, players like Brewer make the Nuggets a very tough out during the regular season.

Just a reminder: Spurs hope to repair relationship with Kawhi Leonard, offer-him $219 million

Associated Press
Leave a comment

It’s everyone’s favorite parlor game around the NBA: Where will Kawhi Leonard play next season? Philadelphia? Los Angeles? Somewhere else? Fans of 29 teams are posting their trade scenarios online, while GMs of 29 teams privately have tried to come up with offers that could tempt San Antonio.

The most likely answer: San Antonio.

While the relationship between Leonard and the Spurs is frayed — and with the people close to Leonard and in his ear seemingly trying to push him out the door — the Spurs would rather keep one of the five best players in the NBA (when healthy) in-house. From Tom Osbourne of the San Antonio Express-News.

Still, the Spurs hope to meet with Leonard and his representatives soon in a bid to mend fences and pave the way for Leonard to come to terms on a five-year $219 million supermax contract that he will be eligible to receive starting July 1. If attempts to patch up the relationship fail, the Spurs will be forced to explore trading a player coach Gregg Popovich once labeled “the future face of the franchise.”

The timing of that meeting has been slowed in part because of the death of Popovich’s wife and everyone involved understandably giving him all the space wants. It will happen.

Can the relationship be salvaged? Maybe, $219 million can mend a lot of fences. There are things the Spurs can and would be willing to do to promote Leonard more (although that all starts with him getting out of his comfort zone and building his brand, starting with speaking more in public). Also, Gregg Popovich was able to sooth LaMarcus Aldridge‘s ego when the big man demanded a trade, and not only did the player stay he had an All-NBA level season. Popovich and Leonard still have a strong relationship.

Is that enough? Time will tell, but people around the league think at best it’s a coin flip. Things are not good right now. However, the Spurs will get the first crack at fixing this before they are forced to consider a trade.

Julius Randle’s camp not convinced he’s a Laker priority

Getty Images
4 Comments

Last November, Julius Randle walked into Staples Center wearing a sweatshirt that said: “pay me.”

Yet he and the Lakers could not come to terms on a rookie contract extension — the Lakers could have had him starting at $12.4 million a year, but wanted to keep their cap space and options open. Now, it’s going to cost a lot more to keep the restricted free agent who averaged 16.1 points per game on 55.8 percent shooting with eight rebounds a game. There are rumors that the previous contract negotiations left a bad taste in Randle’s mouth and he wants out.

Lakers’ fans want Randle back. The Lakers still have rights to match any offer and the front office has said Randle is a priority. Randle’s camp is not so sure about that last part, they haven’t seen the evidence, reports Tania Ganguli at The Los Angeles Times.

Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka told The Times on Friday that the Lakers’ front office is constantly in touch with Julius Randle’s representatives, and there has been “a mutual exchange of interest and hoping that we can work something out for both sides.”

Randle’s camp is unsure of how mutual the interest has been.

“We still have no indication of where Julius stands among the Lakers’ priorities, or if he is a priority at all,” Randle’s agent Aaron Mintz said Saturday in response to Pelinka’s comments. “We are looking forward to the marketplace in July, when we will get a clear picture of Julius’ future.”

That is negotiation posturing by Mintz, no doubt. He might as well have said, “show me the money.”

Don’t expect other teams to wait around on Randle offers while the Lakers figure out their free agent possibilities — Paul George, LeBron James (probably not him) — come July 1. Other teams are interested (Dallas among them) and are going to try to move quickly to force the Lakers’ hand.

Once those other offers are on the table, we’ll see where the Lakers’ priorities really are.

Rumor: Dallas to target big men — Cousins, Jordan, Randle — in free agency

Getty Images
3 Comments

The Dallas Mavericks have been hunting for a center ever since they thought they had DeAndre Jordan, right before the Clippers locked him in a house and forced him to change his mind (that’s not really how it went down, but it makes a better story than the truth). It’s why Dallas has been linked to Mohamed Bamba in the draft — a big, defensive-minded, rim runner who could develop into a great pick-and-roll partner with Dennis Smith Jr.

However, the Mavericks may not want to wait for Bamba — or any other young big — to develop.

Expect the Mavericks to go after one of the name big men on the market in free agency this summer, reports Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer from the NBA Combine in Chicago.

Ever since word spread in league circles in March that Dirk Nowitzki would return to the Mavericks for his 21st season, there have also been rumblings that the Dallas front office will look to make additions this summer that can put the team back on a winning track. The Mavericks can create space to sign a max free agent, and multiple league sources expect them to pursue a trio of big men: DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins, and restricted free agent Julius Randle.

Jordan has not yet officially opted out of the $24.1 million he is owed next season by the Los Angeles Clippers (although most observers expect him to). It is possible Dallas and other teams are not going to offer that much per season for Jordan, but if he can get three years starting at closer to $20 million per that’s a lot more guaranteed money. Also, does he want out of Los Angeles now that Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are gone and will he take a little less per year to get to a new team?

We know Dallas likes him and Jordan has a relationship with Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle from the last go around.

How much money and how many years would Dallas be willing to risk on Cousins coming off a torn Achilles? More than the Pelicans (who don’t have the money to replace Cousins with anywhere near that level player if he bolts)?

Randle showed a lot of promise as a bully inside who can run some pick-and-roll with Smith, but do the Mavericks want to try to outbid the Lakers (which leads to the question of what other free agents Los Angeles might get and how much they are willing to pay to keep Randle)?

We know this, Mark Cuban does not sit quietly on the sidelines of free agency. Expect the Mavericks to be aggressive players this summer.

NBA playoffs mired in worst pre-Finals competitive-game drought ever

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
5 Comments

Exciting games. Clutch plays. Close finishes.

Remember those?

The NBA playoffs have hit a lull. It has been 11 days since the last game decided by fewer than 10 points.

Longer competitive-game droughts have occurred – though not many, and never before the NBA Finals. The most common route for going so long without a competitive game is decisive victories to end the conference finals, a lengthy break before the Finals then decisive victories to start the Finals.

But we’re not to the Finals yet.

In this case, every second-round series ended in five or fewer games – culminating with the Celtics’ 114-112 win over the 76ers on May 9, the last single-digit game. Three league-wide off days followed. The Celtics routed the Cavaliers twice in Boston, and the Warriors and Rockets traded lopsided wins in Houston. Two more league-wide off days, Cleveland winning by 30 Saturday, Golden State winning by 41 last night, and we’re at 11 straight days without a competitive game.

Here are the longest-ever streaks of days between single-digit playoff games before the conference finals ended:

image

Both conference finals are as close as possible, 2-1 (favoring the Warriors and Celtics). But the individual games just haven’t matched the tightness.

Why is this happening?

The peculiar overlapping three off days for each conference finals certainly factored.

Maybe the Warriors and Cavaliers – who’ve met in the last three NBA Finals – are that much better than the rest of their conferences when locked in. Maybe the Warriors and Cavaliers know that, leaving them prone to bad losses the teams know they can rally from. Maybe the Celtics are just that good at home and that bad on the road. Maybe it’s just a random occurrence.

No matter the reason, the result is certain: We’ve gone a long time without seeing a competitive game.

Hopefully, Cleveland and Boston change that tonight.