Three Stars of the Night: Guys that their teams need in the playoffs edition

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Every team entering the playoffs needs their star to step up, but these three guys have a little extra weight on their shoulders. Without big performances these guys’ teams sink fast in the postseason (or in Kobe’s case, don’t even make the playoffs).

Honorable mention tonight to Thaddeus Young who put up 24 points and 15 rebounds in a losing effort.

Third Star: Kobe Bryant (31 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists)

The Lakers recent run of wins came because Dwight Howard started playing better defense, because the Lakers started to find an identity, and mostly because Kobe was running the offense, scoring and setting guys up. If they are going to make the playoffs, let alone do any damage, they are going to need him back and moving well after his severe ankle sprain. They are also going to need a more efficient Kobe than the one Wednesday who needed 33 shots to get his 31 points — those kind of numbers get the Lakers golfing early. Especially against the top of the West.

Second Star: Stephen Curry (31 points, 8 assists)

It’s not just Curry with the Warriors, it’s really him and David Lee in concert. The Warriors don’t play enough defense as a team to have that win them playoff games (and that likely is their undoing), but they can win games when Curry and Lee put up big games. And Curry did that against the Pistons on Wednesday. Curry got his 31 points on 14 shots and was 5-of-7 from three. Golden State is going to need a lot more of that to get out of first round, and other teams will put up more resistance than the slumping Pistons.

First Star: Roy Hibbert (27 points, 12 rebounds, 4 blocks)

Count me in the camp that says if one team has a shot at the Heat in the East, it’s the Pacers. Actually, after the last 20 games I don’t think any team in the East has a real chance, but the Pacers have the best of the insane long shots. But for that to happen (or even to reach the conference finals) they need Hibbert to play the best basketball of his career. Against an undermanned Timberwolves team Wednesday Hibbert was that guy — he absolutely dominated the paint and got his team the win. It’s another thing to do that against a playoff team, but after how poorly Hibbert started the season it’s good to see him rounding into form when it matters most.

Rudy Gay finally feels 100 percent after torn Achilles: ‘I feel athletic again’

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Rudy Gay, coming off a torn Achilles in 2017, was not quite his vintage self last season for the Spurs. In the 57 games he played he looked like a solid third option — 11.5 points per game, a surprisingly good defensive rating — but he played fewer minutes than ever before in his career, and he shot just 31.4 percent from three. In the playoffs he showed his importance — the Spurs were 9 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court — but he was never going to make up for what they lacked with Kawhi Leonard out.

Gay is preparing for his next season in San Antonio and told Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News that he is finally healthy.

Everything is clicking,” he said. “I feel athletic again.”

“I’ve been working hard, man,” Gay said at his boys’ high school basketball showcase for East Coast teams he hosts annually. “I lost about five pounds. Last year was a little bit of a struggle for me, so I tried to alleviate that by taking the weight off my feet by losing a couple of pounds through working out and eating better. It’s now or never right now for me.”

Gay is also close to new Spur DeMar DeRozan, and he sees potential there.

“That’s the thing about this whole team – everybody has a chip on his shoulder,” Gay said. “His is just more publicized. But, look, I’m healthy (and have something to prove), LaMarcus (Aldridge) always finds someway to have a chip on his shoulder. Jakob wants to prove he can be a great player. DJ (Dejounte Murray) has a chip on his shoulder because he wants to be known as one of the best at his position.”

The Spurs won 47 games last season essentially without Leonard, and now they sub an All-NBA player in DeRozan into the mix. If Gay is healthy and can be that third option, if the defense stays tight, if Gregg Popovich can work his magic, this is a dangerous playoff team. Not a contender, but are you going to bet against the Spurs making the playoffs?

Jordan Clarkson urges NBA to allow players to compete in more global events

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The NBA is trying to walk a fine line. On the one hand, the league and its owners want to globalize the NBA — it is the best, most watched basketball league on the globe and they want people in Europe and Asia to follow the NBA the way American soccer fans follow the Barclays’ Premiere League. That will make the owners more money, and never forget this is a business first, second, and third. With that, the owners allow players to compete for their native countries in major events, such as the FIBA World Cup or Olympics.

However, there is a “club vs. country” tug of war in the NBA. Players want to represent their countries — and sometimes are pressured to do so — while NBA teams see injury risk. They look at the story of Dante Exum blowing out his ACL playing for Australia as a cautionary tale.

So when the Cavaliers’ Jordan Clarkson wanted to play for the Philippines in the Asian Games (his mother is a native of that country, so he is allowed), the NBA shot it down at first saying this tournament was not part of the agreement between FIBA and the NBA that allows the league’s players to take part in major international events (the Olympics, the basketball World Cup, etc.). However, the league eventually flipped and allowed a “one-time exception” for Clarkson (plus Houston’s Zhou Qi and Dallas’ Ding Yanhuyang).

Now Clarkson says he wants the NBA to allow players to compete in more global events, he told Agence France-Presse at the Asian Games.

“After being told no so many times, I refused to give up. I kept fighting,” he said. “I’m here now, ready to compete.”

“I think they get the point — in Asia kids are picking up a basketball. I feel like the NBA is allowing us to do our thing.”

Basketball is a growing sport in Asia — it’s huge in the Philippines already, and it’s growing fast there and in countries such as China. The NBA wants its foot in the door there. It wants to be part of that market — the NBA plays exhibition games in China every year for a reason.

The Asian Games — the second largest multi-national sporting event in the world behind the Olympics — is a good exception to make. Clarkson and other NBA stars playing there — including in the future — is good for the NBA.

However, the league is going to face a challenge trying to find that line in future years between promoting the game and the NBA internationally and protecting its investments in its players.

Watch the top 60 blocked shots of last NBA season

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We love blocked shots. One player is attacking the rim, another gets in his way and rejects that shot. Frankly, we overestimate their importance on defense at points (because it’s a quantifiable stat in a world where defense is hard to quantify), but they matter.

And they are fun.

Check out the top 60 blocks from last season, as put together by NBA.com. It all starts with a chase down block by Kevin Durant (who has improved his rim protection in recent years) and ends with Anthony Davis showing why he is a beast.

It’s Sunday, and what else are you going to do? Watch preseason football?

Grizzlies expected to bring rookie Jaren Jackson along slowly

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Jaren Jackson was one of the standout rookies of Summer League. It started in Salt Lake City at the Jazz Summer League, where he looked like the future of the NBA five — knocking down threes, being athletic enough to run the court on the break, blocking shots, and being physical inside. In Utah, he averaged 15.7 points per game and five boards a night.

Expect the Grizzlies to bring Jackson along slowly, however, once the regular season starts. Jackson likely will come off the bench behind the starting frontline of Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green. That will not be popular with the fan base, but the Grizzlies want to trust their veterans and make a playoff push.

Look at what Grizzlies executive John Hollinger told the Peter Edmiston of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

I think whatever happens, we want it to happen organically, and not get ahead of ourselves, and make sure we’re taking all the right steps on him, and not getting too excited and skipping ahead….

“We don’t want to put him into overtly physical matchups yet because he’s 18 and his body is still filling out,” he said.

Strength is almost always the biggest challenge facing young big men in the NBA (and Jackson is still 18, he will turn 19 during training camp). These are grown men they are going against nightly, and while Jackson had plenty of strength to hang with the Summer League crowd, things are very different when the big boys come to play. Even in an NBA moving away from old-school power ball, it still matters.

While the Grizzlies will work to not rush Jackson, that plan is somewhat dependent on players with a history of injury issues staying healthy. Jackson is not going to get 30 minutes a night, he’s not going to get the touches that fellow rookies such as Trae Young and Luka Doncic will receive, and he may not be in the mix for Rookie of the Year. We’ll see how things shake out, but on a Grizzlies team looking to put itself in the playoff conversation, the coach likely will lean on veterans he trusts.

Where Jackson will rank in this draft class three years from now could be very different. He has the potential to be the star of this class (or at least one of a few breakouts, this is an interesting group).