Kawhi Leonard becoming the LeBron stopper the Spurs knew they’d need

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In 2011, a 22-year-old Derrick Rose became the youngest Most Valuable Player in NBA history. Dwight Howard, then just 25, finished second in the voting. Dirk Nowitzki led the Mavericks to the championship.

The NBA can be a reactionary league, and some teams set out that offseason searching for the next Rose, Howard or Nowitzki or a player who could stop one of those three. A point guard, center and power forward.

The Spurs didn’t become the NBA’s top team in the last 15 years by being reactionary, though, and they eyed a different type of player, one who could help them in 2012, 2013 and beyond – not 2011, a season that had already ended. That meant they needed someone to guard LeBron James and Kevin Durant, small forwards.

So, the Spurs shopped George Hill, a player they had developed into a borderline starter/Sixth Man of the Year candidate. To a degree, San Antonio got lucky Kawhi Leonard – ranked No. 6 on ESPN’s big board – fell all the way to the No. 15 pick in the 2011 draft, where the Pacers picked and were willing to trade for Hill.

The Spurs’ calculation was dead on. LeBron and Durant finished 1-2 in MVP voting and led their team to a combined three Finals in the two years since San Antonio drafted Leonard. Meanwhile, Leonard has developed into one of the NBA’s best defenders of those two.

That ability was on full display during the Spurs’ 113-77 Game 3 win over the Heat last night. In addition to posting 14 points and 12 rebounds, Leonard became the youngest player since at least 1985 to get four steals in a Finals game and helped hold LeBron to 7-of-21 shooting and, for the first time since 2009, no free throws .

LeBron has never averaged fewer points per game in a series than the 16.7 he’s scoring in these Finals, and his series field-goal percentage (38.9) is his lowest in the last five years. Of course, Leonard doesn’t deserve all the credit, but he’s the primary piece of San Antonio’s defense of LeBron.

Leonard showed this type of defensive potential against Durant in the Western Conference Finals last year, but ultimately, Leonard was still a rookie and wasn’t ready for the matchup. That was a key reason the Thunder beat the Spurs to reach the Finals.

But Leonard, even though he’s four years younger than any other starter in this series, sure looks ready now. Especially impressively, Leonard has grabbed two, eight and three offensive rebounds in the Finals. He’s not just guarding LeBron, he has enough energy to make all the hustle plays on offense, too.

Leonard is at the perfect crossroads, young enough to play hard for major minutes and savvy enough to play well on the biggest stage – just as the Spurs envisioned two years ago.

Three things to Know: Towns hits game-winning free throws in night of stars returning

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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) Karl-Anthony Towns returns and hits game-winning free throws

Karl-Anthony Towns could not have been happier.

“This is what movies is made of,” Towns said postgame (via Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic). “You come back, 51 games missing, sellout crowd, Target Center and you get the ball with seven seconds left, no timeouts. You’ve got to make it. I mean, it doesn’t get better than that. It doesn’t get better than that.”

Towns did make it, well the free throws, anyway. The Hawks’ John Collins fouled Towns on his final shot — something upheld by a review — then KAT sank both free throws to give Minnesota the 125-124 win.

Towns finished with 22 points and showed a little rust shooting 8-of-18 (but hitting 2-of-3 from beyond the arc), which is to be expected after being out since Nov. 28 with a calf strain. The Timberwolves got a needed win in the tight West playoff chase, and did it without Anthony Edwards (still out with a sprained ankle).

The Hawks got hosed on what would have been their chance on game-winning free throws.

There were 3.6 seconds left on the clock after Towns’ free throws and the Hawks called time out to set up an inbounds play. That ended up being a Collins 3-pointer that did not hit the rim, but Atlanta’s Saddiq Bey was in position for the offensive board and appeared to be fouled by Taurean Prince. After the game, referee crew chief Ben Taylor told a pool reporter his crew missed the call.

“On postgame review we see it. It appears that Prince moves back into Bey’s space, and we should have assessed a foul on the play.”

Trey Young finished with 29 points and eight assists to lead Atlanta. The Hawks remain the No.8 seed in the East, one game up on Raptors (they are now three back in the loss column from the No.7 seed Heat, who will be next to impossible to catch).

2) Ja Morant comes off bench in return from suspension, scores 17

Ja Morant was welcomed back with a standing ovation and a roar from the Grizzlies faithful Wednesday night.

“Obviously, I’m thankful and grateful for everybody who has been supporting me during this time,” Morant said, via the Associated Press. “It definitely helped me a lot. Definitely made me feel a little better. Eased everything that’s been going on. Felt good to be back. Super excited and glad we were able to get the win.”

Morant had missed nine games (eight due to a league suspension) following an incident where he flashed a gun in a club and broadcast it on social media. Morant took time away and got counseling in Florida on how to better manage the stress in his life.

He didn’t play hoop or workout much during that time, so he came off the bench and had a minutes limit in his return while he plays himself back into shape. Time away or not, the explosive hops are still there.

Morant finished with 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting in a 130-125 Grizzlies win over the Rockets. Jaren Jackson Jr. continued his hot play with 37 to lead Memphis.

The win put the Grizzlies two full games up on the Kings for the No.2 seed in the West.

3) Luka Dončić scores 30 in return, it’s not enough to beat Warriors

Luka Dončić returned after missing five games with a left thigh strain and it didn’t look like he missed a day — 30 points,17 rebounds, and a couple of ridiculously good assists.

It just wasn’t enough, not with Kyrie Irving out (foot soreness).

In a defense-free game — the losing Mavericks had a 127.6 offensive rating— Stephen Curry and the Warriors had a couple more buckets and picked up the 127-125 win. Curry finished with 20 points, while Jonathan Kuminga led the Warriors with 22.

That’s not what anyone is talking about out of this game. Instead, it’s the bizarre inbounds play that gave the Warriors two easy points.

Toward the end of the third quarter, Golden State’s Anthony Lamb missed a straight-on 3-pointer and the rebound caromed out of bounds. The baseline referee points it would remain the Warriors’ ball, but then instantly transitions into pointing the other direction to call a Mavericks timeout. That confused the Mavericks, who thought he signaled their ball. After the timeout came the inbounds play.

The Mavericks thought it was their ball (although why nobody came down to take the ball out is confusing), and after the game owner Mark Cuban sent out this angry Tweet and said he would file a protest over the game.

Referee crew chief Sean Wright explained the call postgame.

Initially on the floor the original signal was in fact Golden State ball as this can be seen on video. There is a second signal but that signal is for a mandatory timeout that was due to the Mavs.

The Mavericks’ loss drops them a game below .500 and tied with the Lakers for the 9/10 seeds in the West play-in. The Warriors remain the No.6 seed.

Mavericks to protest loss to Warriors after bizarre inbounds play

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It was the easiest — and strangest — bucket of Kevon Looney‘s career.

It started late in the third quarter when the Warriors’ Anthony Lamb missed a straight-on 3-pointer and in a scramble for the rebound the ball fumbled out of bounds. The baseline official points that it went off the Mavericks and would remain the Warriors’ ball, but then instantly transitions into pointing the other direction to call a Mavericks timeout. Looney goes over to complain that it should be Warriors ball, then walks away satisfied that it is.

Then came the inbounds play.

The Mavericks were confused, they thought it was their ball, and after the game owner Mark Cuban sent out this angry Tweet and later said he would file a protest over the game — an eventual Warriors two-point win (127-125):

After the game, referee crew chief Sean Wright explained the situation this way to a pool reporter.

Initially on the floor the original signal was in fact Golden State ball as this can be seen on video. There is a second signal but that signal is for a mandatory timeout that was due to the Mavs.

Two thoughts here. First, the video of the incident backs up the referee’s account. Still, clearly, there was a communication breakdown about what was happening (especially if it was announced in the arena as Mavericks’ ball, as Cuban said).

Second, why were all the Mavericks at the other end of the court — if it was their ball they still had to inbound it on the baseline. (The ball can only be advanced to midcourt after a timeout in the final two minutes of the game and overtime.) It’s difficult to understand what they were doing.

Cuban can protest, but he’s going to lose this one. And this loss stings, it drops the Mavericks (playing without Kyrie Irving due to foot soreness) one game below .500 and tied with the Lakers for the final two play-in spots in the West, 1.5 games back of the Warriors who remain the No. 6 seed. The game was Luka Doncic’s return to the court after missing five games and he finished with 30 points and 17 assists.

Zion cleared for on-court work, hamstring re-evaluated in two weeks

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The New Orleans Pelicans expected Zion Williamson to return from his strained hamstring before the season ends. 

The latest news out of the Big Easy doesn’t make that sound likely. While he has been cleared for some on-court activity, Zion will be re-evaluated in two weeks, the team announced.

A two-week timeline has him re-evaluated on April 5. The last day of the NBA regular season is April 9.

If the goal is to have him back for the playoffs, the Pelicans need to make it first — at 35-37 they sat 12th in the West heading into Wednesday night’s action, but that was just half a game out of the play-in and 1.5 games out of tying Golden State for the No. 6 seed (although leapfrogging all those teams to get to the top six is highly improbable). Zion returning would make the Pelicans a lower-seed team to fear in the playoffs, they outscore opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court this season.

The problem is he has only been on the court for 29 games. We don’t know when we will see him again.

NBA Power Rankings: Bucks hold on to top spot but 76ers, Celtics close

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Not much movement at the top of the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings this week as teams racked up wins as they jockeyed for playoff seeding. A few teams, such as Miami, are climbing.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (51-20, Last week No. 1). If you believe the MVP should be the best player from the best team, then Giannis Antetokounmpo is your guy — and he has been gaining support in recent weeks (helped in part by the Nuggets’ slide). Antetokounmpo himself is less focused on that award and more on securing the No.1 seed in the East and its easier path through the playoffs. The Bucks have a cushion (three games in the loss column over the 76ers and Celtics) and just have to hold on to it through the four-game road trip that starts Friday in Utah. The most interesting game of that trip is Saturday in Denver, a battle of No.1 seeds.

 
Sixers small icon 2. 76ers (48-23, LW 2). Tyrese Maxey has found his groove of late, averaging 22.1 points and 3.4 assists a game in March — his attacking offense has been a critical part of the 76ers’ hot streak (eight straight wins until a loss to the Bulls on Monday). Joel Embiid‘s play — and with its resurgent MVP case — has also been at the heart of that run, but can he keep it going during a four-game road trip. The game everyone has circled on their calendar is Monday when the 76ers travel to Denver and Joel Embiid squares off against Nikola Jokić in a game that will take on outsized importance.

 
Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (50-23, LW 3). Robert Williams III returned to the court Tuesday night in an impressive win over the Kings. This matters — Williams will be key for this Celtics team to match up with Milwaukee and Philadelphia, and maybe even in the first round if they face Miami. They simply are not the same defensively or on the glass if he is not right. The other thing the Celtics need to be changed? Jayson Tatum is hitting just 29.2% of his 3-pointers since the All-Star break. Winnable games this week against the Pacers, Spurs, and Wizards.

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (46-28, LW 4). Cleveland has won 7-of-9, but the two losses (one to the Heat in Miami, the other to Philadelphia) raise some questions about what kind of playoff threat the Cavaliers really are. The loss to the 76ers was the second night of a back-to-back, and Jarrett Allen was out, but it was still troubling. The Cavaliers appear headed for a 4/5 first-round playoff showdown with a scrappy Knicks team, but Cleveland will have the best player on the court in that series in Donovan Mitchell (the one they let get away in New York), and he can do things like this.

 
Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (48-24, LW 5). Denver won 2-of-3 on the road this week, at least stemming the recent slide (although it will take more than just a couple of wins to give a jolt to the narrative around Nikola Jokic’s MVP candidacy). The real tests are awaiting when they arrive home: Milwaukee on Saturday and Joel Embiid and the 76ers on Monday. Those games are measuring sticks for the Nuggets as they prepare for the postseason, but they also will take on outsized importance in the narrative about the MVP (fair or not).

 
Grizzlies small icon 6. Grizzlies (44-27, LW 7). Ja Morant is set to return to the court Wednesday, but Dillon Brooks will be out that night due to a suspension, and that gets at the heart of the bigger issue with the Grizzlies — they have to be disciplined if they want to make a deep playoff run. NBC Sports basketball analyst Corey Robinson talks about the Grizzlies’ “punk rock attitude” which has both been part of what fuels them and part of what trips them up. In a West open for the taking, the Grizzlies have the talent, but they must be disciplined. They also have to get Steven Adams back, they miss him badly on the court and it appears he might be back for the playoffs, but nothing is for sure.

 
Kings small icon 7. Kings (43-29, LW 6). The Kings will make the playoffs as a No.2 or 3 seed, but the ugly loss to the Celtics at home only fuels the questions about how deep a run this team can make in the playoffs with its 24th-ranked defense. (It should be noted that the Celtics game was the second night of a back-to-back for the Kings and their fifth game in seven days.) The Kings have a run in them with their versatile, impossible-to-stop offense, but it will depend on matchups — there are some dangerous teams in the bottom half of the West bracket. Who will the Kings’ face, how healthy will they be and matchups will be deciding factors. The Kings are good enough to make the conference finals, but there will be no easy paths in the West this year.

 
Knicks small icon 8. Knicks (42-31, LW 8). Josh Hart wants to stay in New York and the feeling is mutual among Knicks faithful, but the question, as always is money. The Knicks can offer four years, $51 million, but if another team comes in over the top at the restricted free agent (likely with a poison-pill Arenas rule offer) New York’s front office will have a decision to make. The Knicks appear headed for the No. 5 seed, but two of their next four games are against the Heat, New York needs a split there and not to go on a little losing streak to hold on to that spot.

 
Suns small icon 9. Suns (38-33, LW 10). Phoenix has dropped 4-of-5, and them holding on to the No. 4 seed no longer feels like a sure thing, the Clippers are just one game back and the Warriors two games. The problem over those five games has been the Suns’ offense, which is 26th in the league for those games — that’s something Kevin Durant would fix just walking in the door. Durant (left ankle sprain) will be re-evaluated next week and back for at least a handful of the Suns’ remaining games. That means the Suns need wins and they have a tough week ahead with the Lakers, Kings and 76ers on the schedule.

 
Clippers small icon10. Clippers (38-35, LW 12). The Clippers have won 5-of-7, with one of those losses coming in the game Kawhi Leonard sat out. That is not a coincidence, as Law Murray of The Athletic noted, the Clippers have lost seven in a row when Leonard sits and are 3-14 in their last 17 without him. Now the Clippers will need to win the next couple of weeks without Paul George, who will be re-evaluated from a knee sprain in 2-3 weeks. The Clippers are just one game out of four seed with some winnable games this week against OKC, the Pelicans and Bulls.

 
Heat small icon 11. Heat (39-34, LW 11). Miami is making a push to catch the stripped-down Nets for the No.6 seed and avoiding the play-in — they are only half a game back, but Brooklyn has the tiebreaker so it is more like 1.5 games. That makes the Saturday night showdown against the Nets must win. Beyond that one game, the on-again/off-again Heat — beat the Grizzles and Cavaliers, lose to the Bulls — need consistency. And they need Max Strus and some other role players to start hitting their 3-pointers.

 
Warriors small icon 12. Warriors (37-36, LW 9). The Warriors snapped their 11-game road losing streak against lowly Houston, but that “winning streak” will get put to the test Wednesday night against Dallas — most importantly, can the Warriors start getting stops on the road? Their defense is 28th in the league on the road, but third-best (and more than 11 points per 100 possessions better) at home. After Wednesday the Warriors have 5-of-6 at home and they need to take advantage of that stretch and lock in their place in the top six in the West. Really good test at home Friday against the 76ers and MVP-candidate Joel Embiid.

 
Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (36-36, LW 14). Dallas went 2-3 in games Luka Dončić missed with a left thigh strain, but the good news is he will be back Wednesday night in a critical showdown against the Warriors, two teams battling for the No.6 seed in the West (Golden State currently hold the spot, but the teams are tied in the loss column). The bad news for Dallas is Kyrie Irving will be out with right foot soreness after Dillon Brooks stepped on his foot in the Memphis game. The Mavericks could use a big night (or few games, if Irving is out) from Jaden Harvey, who will see a minutes bump. After the Warriors the Mavs have winnable games this week against the Hornets (twice) and the Pacers).

 
Thunder small icon 14. Thunder (36-36, LW 17). Look who sits at the No.7 seed in the West — the Thunder are not tanking, they are thinking postseason. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is leading that charge and cementing his All-NBA status, scoring 40 points Sunday in a win over the Suns, then dropping 31 on the Clippers on Tuesday. One thing that makes stopping the Thunder difficult is the size of their backcourt — Gilgeous-Alexander is 6’6″ and Josh Giddey is 6’8″. The Thunder started 1-0 on their West Coast road trip (a quick-trigger referee helped with that) and they have the Clippers (again), Lakers and Blazers to round out the trip.

 
Nets small icon 15. Nets (39-33, LW 13). The Nets have dropped four in a row and can feel the Heat… sorry, that joke/line bothered even me. And I wrote it. But with Miami just one game back and eyeing the No. 6 seed and avoiding the play-in, Brooklyn needs wins (and to get some stops, it’s their defense that is letting them down right now). The good news is the Nets have the third easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, but it doesn’t show in the shop term with the Cavaliers up next then a critical game against those Heat.

 
Raptors small icon 16. Raptors (35-37, LW 19). It’s the story of their season — Toronto has a +5.1 net rating over its last six games, but just a 3-3 record. For the season, they have the point differential of a team that is 38-34 (which would only move them up one spot to eighth in the East). The Raptors have a three-game cushion, and they are not falling out of the play-in, but the real target is the Hawks at No. 8 — the Raptors are just one game back of that easier path to the playoffs. They have winnable games this week against the Pacers, Pistons and Wizards, the Raptors just need to keep their focus.

 
Lakers small icon 17. Lakers 35-37, LW 18). Austin Reaves is earning the big payday he has coming this offseason (four years, $50ish million sounds about right), but the Lakers need more than that to get into the playoffs. They need peak Anthony Davis for a full 48 minutes. And they need LeBron James back from his foot tendon issue, he should be coming up for re-evaluation soon and has hinted on social media he is getting closer to a return. The Lakers have three more at home this week (Suns, Thunder, Bulls) before heading out on the road for five.

 
18. Timberwolves (36-37, LW 15). Karl-Anthony Towns is returning Wednesday after missing 51 games with a calf injury, a huge boost to the Timberwolves — but also presents a challenge. It’s hard to integrate any player who deserves a lot of offensive touches back into the rhythm of a team used to playing without him, and the fit the 21 games Towns played to open the season was clunky. It should be easier with a distributor in Mike Conley at the point (as opposed to D'Angelo Russell). Anthony Edwards‘s status is still up in the air as of this writing, but it’s good news that he will not miss much time. The Timberwolves need wins and face the Hawks, Warriors and Kings up this week.

 
Hawks small icon 19. Hawks (36-36, LW 16). Fans in Atlanta who remember the bump the team got when Lloyd Pierce was pushed out and Nate McMillan became the head coach have wondered why there hasn’t been the same thing with Quin Snyder in the door. It’s a very different situation, and Snyder hasn’t had the chance to install his offense (or tweak the roster). Snyder was a long-term hire. In the short term the goal is to hang on to the No.8 seed and hold off the surging Raptors, which means finding wins in games against the Timberwolves, Grizzlies, Pacers and Cavaliers. No easy task.

 
Bulls small icon 20. Bulls (34-37, LW 23). The Chicago Bulls needed a fire lit under them this season — that’s what Patrick Beverley excels at. The Bulls are 8-4 since signing Beverley on the buyout market with the second-best net rating in the league over that stretch (+7.9), and that has moved them up to the No.10 seed and the play in with a 2.5 game cushion to keep it. Beverley is not a quiet guy who just leads by example, his voice made a difference. It also helps  Zach LaVine is averaging 29.9 points a game and shooting 45% from in those dozen games as well.

 
Jazz small icon 21. Jazz (35-36, LW 21). So much for tanking. We thought the Jazz bought tickets for the Wembanyama sweepstakes last summer, but they started the season 10-4. After trading away a lot of depth and quality at the deadline it was thought the tanking would start in earnest, but after a dip the Jazz are back into the top 10 and looking like a possible play-in team. Walker Kessler is drawing the headlines with his play this season, but guard Ochai Agbaji has stepped up in recent weeks, including 27 points against the Kings. Utah has a couple of keepers on the roster.

 
Pelicans small icon 22. Pelicans (35-37, LW 20). Zion Williamson will be out at least two more weeks (through April 5) while the Pelicans are making their playoff push. Not good news for a team that has fallen to the No.12 seed and needs to string together some wins to make the postseason (things have gotten so bad they have the same record as the Lakers — with whom they have a pick swap this year). The Pelicans head out on the road Saturday for four, facing the Clippers, Blazers, Warriors and Nuggets — a tough challenge for a team needing wins.

 
Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (32-40, LW 22). Washington has gone 3-11 since the All-Star break and fallen 2.5 games out of the final play-in spot in the East. They will need help from teams currently playing well in the Bulls and Raptors to have a shot at making the postseason. That’s troubling for a team that entered the season with top-six aspirations — some hard questions are coming this summer. This week the Nuggets, Spurs and Raptors are on the schedule.

 
Pacers small icon 24. Pacers (32-40, LW 25). There are bright spots on this roster — Tyrese Haliburton, Myles Turner, Bennedict Mathurin — but it has just not come together, particularly on the defensive end. The Raptors are on the road for their next three, and it will be a tough trip: Toronto, Boston and Atlanta.

 
Magic small icon 25. Magic 30-43, LW 26). Orlando is playing the role of spoiler well with some quality on the court in recent wins against Miami, the Clippers and the Wizards. While Paolo Banchero draws the headlines (and will win Rookie of the Year) it’s been the backcourt of a revived Markelle Fultz along with some good nights from Cole Anthony that has these Magic looking like a team that will not go quietly into the offseason.

 
Blazers small icon 26. Trail Blazers (31-40, LW 24). While some media outlets ran with this, don’t take Damian Lillard‘s recent comments as a sign he wants out of Portland. The Blazers aren’t going to trade him unless he asks out and league sources have told NBC Sports nobody expects him to (at least for the next year). He’s just frustrated with the losing and is at least considering shutting it down for the season, which is understandable. Portland has lost six in a row and are four games out of the last play-in spot — their postseason dreams are done. Starting Friday against the Bulls, the Blazers are home for five in a row.

 
Hornets small icon 27. Hornets (23-50, LW 27). Michael Jordan selling his majority shares of the Hornets has generally been seen as a positive for the franchise around the league. This is a team in need of new investments in practice/training facilities and more, and the new owners can step in and make a difference there right away. It’s also good for the league that Jordan will hang on to a minority ownership share of the team, it’s important for the GOAT to remain involved with the league.

 
Rockets small icon 28. Rockets (18-54, LW 28). With a bottom three record (and with it the best possible lottery odds) locked up, coach Stephen Silas has been able to lean into his young core and turn them loose, and they picked up some quality wins against the Celtics, Lakers and Pelicans (New Orleans even that out a couple of nights later). This week Jalen Green and the Rockets head out on the road, starting with two games against Memphis, followed by the Cavaliers.

 
Spurs small icon 29. Spurs (19-53, LW 29). The 24-point comeback win against the Hawks showed some heart from San Antonio, but this has been a rough season. Which was to be expected, but this will be the Spurs’ fourth straight season of missing the playoffs and the turnaround has been slow. Some luck — first with the draft, then with health — could turn things around pretty quickly. Part of the challenge this season was all the time Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson missed due to injuries.

 
Pistons small icon 30. Pistons (16-57, LW 30). No team is poised for a faster bounce back next season — get Cade Cunningham back healthy and put him next to Jaden Ivey, Isaiah Stewart, James Wiseman (who has spread his wings a little in the Motor City), veteran Bojan Bogdanovic, plus whoever they draft, and the Pistons could easily be in the play-in mix. Up on the schedule this week for Detroit are the Raptors and Bucks, to tough asks.