Baseline-to-Baseline recaps: Pacers look good, Clippers…. meh

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Welcome to PBT’s roundup of yesterday’s NBA games. Or, what you missed while wondering why UFO reports are down….

Pacers 109, Clippers 106:After the Clippers loss over the weekend coach Vinny Del Negro ripped the team for hits energy. He could have said the same thing after this one. Roy Hibbert showed up ready to play, with 15 first quarter points (he finished with 26). The Pacers got the lead all the way up to 24, then the Clippers came storming back in the fourth thanks to their bench (12 points by Jamal Crawford in the fourth led the way, he had 25 on the night). But in the end the comeback fell short because the Pacers went 8-of-8 from the free throw line. Paul George finished with 23 points and 10 assists.

For the Pacers, this is what they hope to see in the playoffs — plenty of points and an active Roy Hibbert (although that wasn’t their usually stout defense). For the Clippers it was another game of what they fear in the playoffs — bad defense and a non-existent DeAndre Jordan. The good news for the Clippers is they are still a win away from clinching the Pacific and the four seed, and they have 19 days before the playoffs start to figure the rest of it out.

Grizzlies 92, Spurs 90: Mike Conley scored the final five points: a 3-pointer with 30 seconds left and a layup with 0.6 seconds left. Before those baskets, part of Conley’s 11 fourth-quarter points, Memphis hadn’t led since 18-16 as the Spurs used 25 points from Tony Parker to temporarily take control.

The Grizzlies have matched a franchise record with 50 wins, and they’ll need even more to fend off the Nuggets and/or Clippers for homecourt advantage in the first round.
—Dan Feldman

Timberwolves 110, Celtics 100: Without Kevin Garnett in the lineup we know the Celtics will struggle on defense, but for this one they also were without Paul Pierce (personal reasons). And of course Rajon Rondo. But no KG was still the big issue because without him Nikola Pekovic had 15 points in the first quarter on his way to 29 as he owned the paint in this one. Andrei Kirilenko added 17 points and nine rebounds. Boston has lost seven of nine and is limping toward the playoffs.

Jazz 112, Trail Blazers 102: Utah opened the game and led the entire way behind 24 points from Al Jefferson, who traditionally seems to play well against Portland and had it easier with LaMarcus Aldridge out. Credit Portland for knocking down threes to make runs and keep it close, but Mo Williams had six threes of his own and answered a lot of those runs. Portland shot 58 percent for the game but the Jazz were getting the higher percentage looks in the lane all night.

The Jazz keep on winning and that puts a lot of pressure on the Lakers and Mavericks (who face off Tuesday).

Bucks 131, Bobcats 102: As the Celtics continue to stumble the Bucks can still have dreams of the seven seed (and avoiding Miami in the first round of the playoffs). They are now just 1.5 games back of Boston after this win (and the Celtics loss). The game was close until a 15-5 run late in the second quarter gave the Bucks some separation. Then they blew it open in the third then ran away and hit in the fourth. The Bucks got 24 points from Larry Sanders, 19 from Monta Ellis and did what they wanted on offense and that was enough. The Bucks defense wasn’t good, however, as the lowly Bobcats shot 50.7 percent on the night.

Rockets 111, Magic 103: James Harden missed another game with a sore foot, Chandler Parsons missed a game because food poisioning is an ugly thing. But Omer Asik had 22 points on 13 rebounds, plus 18 rebounds to spark the win, Jeremy Lin added 19 points and 11 assists. Houston led this one from start to finish, opening with a 17-4 run and leading by as many as 25. PBT favorite Tobias Harris helped lead a fourth quarter run to make it close for a while (Harris finished with 18 points), but this was the Rockets game.

Pistons 108, Raptors 98: In his return to Toronto, Jose Calderon (19 points, nine assists, one turnover) played the usual masterful game that endeared him Raptors fans. He received two standing ovations and even tried to show his appreciation by re-joining the Raptors at halftime. Calderon helped offset a strangely satisfying night from Rudy Gay. Gay scored 34 points, but he took fewer shots (18) and had more assists (5) than he did in any of his previous games with so many points.
—Dan Feldman

Hawks 102, Cavaliers 94: Devin Harris scored a season-high 25 points to go with seven assists and three steals and Josh Smith had 18 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists for Atlanta, which led since early in the first quarter and by as many as 15. Both teams can be satisfied with the result. The Hawks are now within a game of the No. 4 seed Nets for homecourt advantage in the first round, and the Cavaliers have lost nine straight in their bid for a better draft pick.
—Dan Feldman

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

Raptors coach Nick Nurse
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri

Dwight Howard is talking a lot of trash

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The Lakers put Dwight Howard on final warning BEFORE even signing him.

And for most of the season, Howard kept a low profile.

But he has been breaking out of his shell in the bubble. Related to basketball, too.

Howard has played excellent defense on Nuggets star Nikola Jokic in the Western Conference finals. The day after Game 1, Howard told Jamal Murray about it.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

The Nuggets were wrapping up their practice, which took place not far from the Lakers’, with Murray about to begin his media session in the convention center hallway. Howard, as it so happened, walked by right then and the banter restarted.

“Don’t do that, fam,” Murray said to Howard, with both men smiling.

“What?” Howard said.

“Don’t do that, fam,” Murray said again.

“Where’s Joker at?” Howard replied. “Where’s his room?”

As was the case in the series opener, there was no answer.

Then, Howard (and JaVale McGee) pointed out Jokic’s defensive deficiencies against Anthony Davis in Game 2.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Once the Lakers’ bench saw it was Jokic tasked with guarding Davis, it brought the noise with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard screaming, “Thanksgiving, steak dinner, appetizers, filet mignon and potatoes, a glass of champagne!”

Davis, who faced up Jokic and maneuvered his way around the big man for a bucket in the paint. McGee shouted, “Told you it was a feast out there!”

Howard didn’t let up after Davis’ game-winner.

Amick:

As the Lakers mobbed Davis on the court after his shot, big man Dwight Howard broke off from the group and decided to taunt the Nuggets as they exited the basketball stage. If you somehow haven’t noticed, Howard is leaning hard into this tough-guy approach.

“Go home!” he yelled over and over while laughing, jumping, pumping his fist and getting closer to the Nuggets’ side of the floor with every second. “Go home!”

A small group of Nuggets staffers, including one of Jokic’s biggest supporters in assistant strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger, did not take kindly to the mocking that had taken place all game long and returned to the court to shout back. The two sides exchanged words, and eventually retreated to their corners that came with conflicting emotions.

This works because Howard is playing well – in his role.

Howard was slow to recognize he’s no longer a superstar. Yet, he still has the energy for being the center of attention. That used to mean doing things like posting up too much,

Now, Howard is focused on defending, screening and sometimes finishing at the rim while playing all-out in limited minutes. It’s what the Lakers need and what Howard can provide at age 34.

If he wants to talk trash along the way, more power to him. It’s a lot of fun.

But there’s also a fine line between the endearing villain and loathed jerk. Outside Denver, Howard appears to be the former. For now.

Report: Pacers interview former Thunder coach Billy Donovan

Billy Donovan coaches Thunder vs. Pacers
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
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The Pacers were reportedly expected to hire Mike D’Antoni as coach.

But if set on the former Rockets coach, Indiana isn’t acting like it.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Former Thunder coach Billy Donovan interviewed for the Pacers last week, sources said. The Pacers are expected to interview a pool of around 12 candidates, trim the candidates approximately in half, and conduct in-person interviews.

Donovan joins a list of known candidates that’s already way longer than 12:

  • Former Thunder coach Billy Donovan
  • Former Kings and Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger
  • Former Pistons and Nuggets star Chauncey Billups
  • Warriors assistant and former Cavaliers and Lakers coach Mike Brown
  • Nets assistant and former Magic coach Jacque Vaughn
  • Spurs assistant Becky Hammon
  • Spurs assistant Will Hardy
  • Heat assistant Dan Craig
  • Heat assistant Chris Quinn
  • Mavericks assistant Jamahl Mosley
  • Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas
  • Bucks assistant Darvin Ham
  • Bucks assistant Charles Lee
  • Magic assistant Pat Delany
  • Timberwolves assistant David Vanterpool
  • 76ers assistant Ime Udoka
  • Trail Blazers assistant Nate Tibbetts

Leaving the potentially rebuilding Thunder, Donovan clearly expected to land on his feet. The Pacers are equipped to win now, but maybe only moderately.

Donovan has shown impressive adaptability to his roster. That’d come in handy if Indiana is set on continuing the talented but challenging Domantas SabonisMyles Turner pairing.