Deron Williams returns, chooses to come off the bench in Nets’ blowout win over Knicks

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NEW YORK — The last time the Nets faced the Knicks, they were without Deron Williams and Paul Pierce due to injury, and a fully healthy New York squad thumped Brooklyn back on Dec. 5 at Barclays by a 30-point margin.

A little more than a month later, things have completely changed for both sides.

The Nets have been on a roll since the calendar turned to 2014, and they got Williams back in time to blowout the Knicks 103-80 in a Monday matinee at Madison Square Garden to improve to 7-1 in the new year.

Not that they needed him.

Brooklyn has been using excellent ball movement and riding Joe Johnson during this recent stretch, whose big early scoring performances have gotten the Nets out to some very fast starts. And the team has been stronger defensively with Shaun Livingston and Alan Anderson at the guard spots, so Williams kept continuity, and made the easy decision to come off the bench.

“It was my idea,” he said afterward. “Just because we had been playing so well with that lineup, why shake things up? It doesn’t matter if I come off the bench, start, whatever. The way [Joe Johnson] has been playing in first quarters, first halves, I don’t want to disrupt that.”

Johnson had 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the game’s first 12 minutes, and the Nets had opened up an 11-point lead by the time the first quarter was finished.

Paul Pierce knows a thing or two about going from a starting to a reserve role, having had to deal with that for the first time in his career with the Nets earlier this season. It was tough on Pierce at the time, but he believes that while it will be an adjustment for Williams if it continues, he’s more than capable of figuring it out.

“I haven’t come off the bench my whole career until recently, but I think it’s a mental adjustment,” Pierce said. “It’s just something you’ve got to figure out, and it’s totally different when you’ve been playing your whole life in the starting lineup. You have to have a different mental approach, you have to be ready as soon as you come in — it’s just a different type of preparation, I think. He’s a smart player, he understands the game, and he can figure it out, whether he continues to come off the bench or until he returns to the starting lineup.”

While the Nets have gotten healthy (minus Brook Lopez, of course, who is expected to be out the rest of the season with a foot fracture), they’ve also begun to come together as a team. Andray Blatche, who played well when the game was out of hand for the second straight contest and finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds, says the defense is what’s made the difference.

“It’s our effort on defense and we’re trusting one another on defense,” Blatche said. “We’re talking, and things are working out for us. We’re hanging our hat on defense first.”

Kevin Garnett echoed those remarks, and credited Jason Kidd for getting his message to the team across in terms of what the expectations are in defensive situations.

“We’re not guessing anymore,” Garnett said.

On the Knicks side, they’re missing two key rotation big men in Kenyon Martin and Amar’e Stoudemire, but the problems seem to run deeper than simply available personnel. The defense is a joke at times, and Carmelo Anthony rarely gets any consistent help offensively beyond high-volume, low-percentage shooting from his teammates.

The Knicks and the Nets traded plenty of jabs through the media following the offseason acquisitions of Pierce and Garnett, but Brooklyn wouldn’t place any special emphasis on this victory afterward. Pierce was among those exchanging the playful remarks, but at this point he’s focused on how Williams’ return can help impact this team as it tries to live up to those lofty preseason expectations.

“We need Deron,” he said. “No matter how we’ve been playing, at the end of the day if we’re going to make some noise here in the East, we need what he’s able to do.”

“I know there was a lot of talk in the preseason about the rivalry, you know, the inner-city battle,” Pierce said. “But us as a team, at this point we’re looking at the big picture. We’re looking at how we’re going to develop, how we’re going to get better and how we’re going to continue to move up in the East.”

Report: Spurs ‘shut the door’ on Lakers’ Kawhi Leonard trade inquiry

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After shooting down trade inquiries before the trade deadline and brushing off proposals earlier this offseason, the Spurs are reportedly hearing out offers for Kawhi Leonard.

Except from the Lakers.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

The Lakers are reportedly Leonard’s preferred destination. Of course, San Antonio isn’t obligated to send him there. But he can influence the process by stating a plan to sign with only certain team(s) in 2019 unrestricted free agency.

The Celtics and 76ers might have better assets to send the Spurs. But if only the Lakers have a commitment from Leonard to re-sign, they might offer a greater share of their assets than Boston or Philadelphia would (especially if Los Angeles believes acquiring Leonard would be the first domino in also landing LeBron James and Paul George).

Between Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and future first-round picks, the Lakers could offer roughly commensurate value for Leonard. San Antonio might not like those particular players, but a third team could always get involved. Send some combination of Ball, Ingram, Kuzma and Hart to a team that wants them and have that third team convey players more desirable to the Spurs.

But that takes thoughtful negotiating, and San Antonio doesn’t seem interested.

There’s a belief San Antonio won’t trade Leonard to a Western Conference team, especially another historically strong franchise like the Lakers. That sentiment seems foolish to me, but it didn’t emerge out of thin air. There are real people – and real hurt feelings – involved here. Grudges sometimes trump rationality.

Maybe the Spurs will eventually explore whether the Lakers present the best offer. But this is at least circumstantial evidence San Antonio will handle this crisis stubbornly.

League buzz: Kings will take Marvin Bagley III at No. 2, Luka Doncic gone at three

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It’s hard to see through all the smoke and tell if things around the 2018 NBA Draft are solidifying as we get to fewer than three hours before the Phoenix Suns go on the clock.

The Suns are a lock to take DeAndre Ayton at No. 1.

After that, the Kings more and more seem to be leaning toward taking Marvin Bagley III at No. 2, according to multiple reports of those close to the team.

At three things really open up. Atlanta is listening to trade offers but one way or another is likely to pick Luka Doncic. There are rumors that multiple teams — Dallas, Orlando, others — would then trade their pick plus some other asset (young player/future pick) to the Hawks for Doncic. Who the Hawks reportedly really want is Trae Young, but they can move down to get him.

If the Slovenian is off the board, it’s more likely that Memphis trades the No. 4 pick, according to sources. However, there are questions about whether Memphis can get what it thinks is fair value for selling the No. 4. So maybe they just take Jaren Jackson Jr.

How is it going to shake out?

That follows my final mock draft, which was put together Wednesday for the video above. It has:

1. Phoenix: DeAndre Ayton
2. Sacramento: Marvin Bagley
3. Atlanta: Luka Doncic
4. Memphis: Jaren Jackson
5. Dallas: Mo Bamba
6. Orlando: Trae Young
7. Chicago: Michael Porter Jr.
8. Cleveland: Wendell Carter Jr.
9. New York: Kevin Knox
10. Philadelphia: Mikail Bridges
11. Charlotte: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
12. LA Clippers: Robert Williams
13. LA Clippers: Collin Sexton
14. Denver: Miles Bridges

The problem with any mock draft now is accounting for trades, and those are coming.

Report: Spurs hearing out Kawhi Leonard trade offers, including from Lakers

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The Spurs shot down Kawhi Leonard trade offers before the trade deadline. They brushed off Leonard trade offers earlier this offseason.

Then, the already strained situation got even worse.

Leonard put out word he wanted to leave San Antonio, ideally for the Lakers. He met with Gregg Popovich this week in San Diego, reportedly directly telling the president-coach he wants out.

What are the Spurs doing now?

Chris Mannix of Yahoo Sports:

The Lakers are in that mix.

The Spurs can try to mend their relationship with Leonard. They could even use a super-max contract – projected to be worth $219 million over five years – to aid that process. They don’t have to trade him.

But the clock is ticking toward tonight’s draft, teams using their cap space in other ways and Leonard’s 2019 free agency.

San Antonio has no choice but to get more aggressive in handling Leonard’s future. This is a small step in that direction.

Report: Nets to buy out Dwight Howard

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The Magic, Lakers, Rockets, Hawks and Hornets all grew tired of Dwight Howard.

The Nets did it in record time.

After acquiring Howard in a trade from Charlotte yesterday, Brooklyn is moving toward shedding him.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

In the trade, the Nets dumped Timofey Mozgov‘s $16.72 million salary for 2019-20. Now, they could get a reduction on Howard’s $23,819,725 expiring contract. Brooklyn is doing a great job of unloading bad money.

Next year, the Nets will have their own first-round pick for the first time in six years. Though he has declined considerably from his Hall of Fame peak, Howard can still play some. Brooklyn didn’t need him interfering with its tanking and culture.

Instead, the Nets can focus on developing Jarrett Allen and losing enough to secure the best draft position possible.

It’ll be interesting to see how much Howard surrenders and where he goes. Again, he can still play. But the league is moving away from traditional centers, and he’s high maintenance.