Sunday NBA grades: Phoenix Suns refuse to set, fade into night

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Our quick look around the NBA, or what you missed while figuring out why your iPhone battery keeps dying

source:  Phoenix Suns. This team just refuses to go away — looking like their season could be dead they have beaten the Trail Blazers and Thunder, the latter of those on Sunday and it put them in the eight seed one game up on nine-seed Memphis. Phoenix now controls its own destiny — win out and they make the playoffs. The Suns did it taking advantage of some lax defense from the Thunder — the Suns shot 58.4 percent (true shooting percentage of 67.3) and had an offensive rating of 124.9. Goran Dragic had 26 points, Gerald Green 24 and P.J. Tucker finished with 22. It doesn’t get easier for the Suns, they have four of five on the road, but if you watched this team beat the Thunder you can’t doubt them.

source:   LeBron James, Miami Heat. After a sloppy early morning start LeBron’s coffee kicked in and he was a force — 38 points on 22 shots, plus 6 assists and 5 rebounds. He had 12 of those points in the fourth quarter when he went NBA 2K14, hitting ridiculous shots and doing what he wanted no matter how the Knicks defended him. LeBron scored 30+ points in all four games against the Knicks this season, the last guy to do it was some dude named Jordan. LeBron has looked a little tired in some recent games and the idea he would play every game the rest of the way made people double-take (and he should still get a game or two off), but he didn’t look like he needed any rest Sunday.

source:   Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. It was in a losing effort, but Kevin Durant did all he could to get the Suns a win — 38 points, extending his +25 streak to 41 games. That passes Jordan (Oscar Robertson did 46, he’s next on the list). Durant dropped 13 of his points in the fourth quarter as he led a team trying to pick up a hard-fought road win. It wasn’t enough. Durant’s flaws was the 4-of-15 shooting from three — he was getting good looks, and he can shoot the three, but this became too many.

source:   Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs. San Antonio needs Leonard to play like this in the postseason — 26 points (tying his career high) on a very efficient 12-of-13 shooting. He also played the most minutes of any Spur (as he will in the playoffs), 29:45. No Spur broke 30 minutes. Part of that is Popovich, part of that is the Spurs have the Grizzlies’ number (it’s a bad playoff matchup this time for Memphis). By the way, Manu Ginobili also had 26 points as his Sixth Man of the Year campaign continues.

source:   J.R. Smith, New York Knicks. He tried. The Knicks desperately needed a win to keep their playoff dreams alive and Carmelo Anthony was playing with a bad right shoulder, so Smith did what he could — 10-of-22 from three. That’s an NBA record for three point attempts by a player in a game, and a Knicks record for makes. Smith has 24 made threes combined in his last three games, also an NBA record. It wasn’t enough against the Heat and it looks like the Knicks will be home for the playoffs, but you can’t blame J.R. Smith for this loss.

Spurs GM still optimistic relationship with Kawhi Leonard can be salvaged

Associated Press
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — General manager R.C. Buford acknowledges star forward Kawhi Leonard is unhappy with the Spurs.

He remains optimistic the relationship can be salvaged.

Leonard has requested a trade from San Antonio because he is unhappy after missing most of last season with a right quadriceps injury. Buford would not comment on “speculation” of a trade demand, but agreed there is a fractured relationship between Leonard and the only franchise he has played for.

“Kawhi and his family mean a lot to the organization and to the community and while none of wish we are where we are, we’re going to do what we can to build the best relationship we can with him,” Buford said Thursday night as the Spurs made two late picks in the NBA Draft. “We’ll explore all of our options, but the first one would be to do what we can to keep Kawhi as part of our group.”

Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season but returned to play in nine games. He complained of discomfort and pain in the leg in his final game. Leonard sought an outside opinion after the Spurs cleared him to play, working with his own medical team in New York in an attempt to return to the court. The 6-foot-7 forward reportedly grew upset that the Spurs had questioned his rehabilitation process.

The Spurs listed him as out on their injury reports for much of the year citing “injury management.” While San Antonio was in the playoffs, losing in the first round to eventual repeat champion Golden State, Leonard was rehabbing in New York – which meant that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, when asked for the situation, deferred all comment to “Kawhi and his group.”

“I think all of us would wish that things would have gone differently,” Buford said.

The Spurs held a team meeting late in the season where veterans, led by Tony Parker, implored Leonard to return. Leonard said he was unable to due to the injury.

In the 2016-17 season, Leonard averaged a career-best 25.5 points and was third in the MVP voting. The 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time NBA defensive player of the year is due just over $20 million next season, and can become a free agent in the summer of 2019. He is eligible to sign a $220 million extension with San Antonio.

He is reportedly willing to walk away from that to play elsewhere, possibly in Los Angeles.

“I don’t know that timing is a factor in this from today … he’s under contract for another year, our goal is to keep him as part of our program for a long time,” Buford said.

 

NBA Draft Winners, Losers: Big nights for Phoenix, Dallas

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Let’s start with the obvious — this whole story is a fool’s errand. It really takes about three years to accurately assess who are the winners and losers in the NBA draft. Guys we thought were locks will turn out to be pretty pedestrian, guys we wrote off as projects down the board will impress. In three years, we’ll have a real sense of which teams read this draft well and nailed it.

But we don’t live in that world.

So here are my projections on the real winners and losers Thursday night in Brooklyn, starting with the guys who didn’t screw up the No. 1 pick.

 

Suns small icon Winner: Phoenix Suns.

It isn’t just that they didn’t screw up the top pick and landed in DeAndre Ayton, the guy most likely to be a franchise cornerstone star in this class. Although they did that. It was their move later to trade their pick at No. 16 (Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith) for Mikal Bridges — most likely the best “3&D” prospect in this draft. After this they have a starting lineup of Devin Booker, Bridges, Josh Jackson, and Ayton (plus a point guard). That’s a group worth watching — and they hired Igor Kokoskov as their new coach this summer because he’s strong on player development. It’s the start of something.

Phoenix also drafted French point guard Elie Okobo at 31 in the second round when a lot of teams thought of him as a first-round talent. Another smart move.

Loser: Michael Porter Jr.

A couple weeks ago, Porter was mentioned as a potential No. 2 selection to the Kings. But after teams got a look at his medical reports — he missed all but three games at Missouri following back surgery — they backed off. Rumors about his attitude didn’t help. Porter slid all the way down to Denver at 14. What that means to him: The No. 2 pick is slotted for a $7.3 million salary next season, the No. 14 makes less than $3 million. We’ll see if Porter can use this as motivation — and stay healthy.

One winner in this: The Denver Nuggets for grabbing him at 14. That is a good team with strong players where Porter can be brought along without unreasonable expectations.

Mavericks small icon Winner: Dallas Mavericks.

Mark Cuban and company traded up from No. 5 to No. 3 and landed Luka Doncic — they player they had highest rated on the board. This is a win for Doncic because he lands with a brilliant Xs and Os coach in Rick Carlisle who will put him in positions to succeed, plus Doncic gets mentored by Dirk Nowitzki. This pick also is a strong move because he should pair well with young point guard Dennis Smith Jr. — Doncic can run the pick-and-roll at times with Smith cutting and moving off the ball, and in the reverse Doncic has a good catch-and-shoot game. Dallas has options for playmaking now.

Also, nice second-round pickup of Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson. That’s a high IQ player who can step in as a reserve and help immediately.

Loser: Robert Williams.

The Texas A&M big man has the talent of a late lottery pick — the Clippers met with him a couple of times — but concerns about his attitude and work ethic saw him plummet all the way down the board to 27. Will he use this as motivation to play with a high motor all the time, or will he continue to coast? This brings us to…

Celtics small iconWinner: Boston Celtics (because they got Robert Williams).

This was a steal for Danny Ainge this late in the first round. At No. 27 you’re usually just hoping to get a guy who can develop into a role player in a few years. Williams is much more than that, he has the tools to be an elite NBA defender, and in college he was a defensive and rebounding force. In the NBA he’s going to be a rim running big, ala DeAndre Jordan — except Jordan fulfilled his potential. It’s up to Boston to get that out of Williams (and it’s up to Williams himself to work), but if they do this was another brilliant Ainge pick.

Loser: Golden State Warriors. They tried to buy into the second round as they did a year ago and pick up someone who fits their style — and this year they had $5.1 million to do it (more than the $3.5 million a year ago). However, other GMs remember how much heat the Bulls front office took for selling their pick to Golden State last year and them drafting Jordan Bell — Mr. “cash considerations” was playing a role in the NBA Finals — and nobody wanted to be in that position again. No second pick for the Warriors this year.

However, their first-round pick of Jacob Evans was a good one, he’s the kind of versatile player who fits into their rotation.

Winner: Puma.

The German soccer shoemaker shoe and apparel company wanted to get back into the basketball game, and the did it with a splash — their guys Ayton and Bagley went No. 1 and 2. That’s going to be a lot of free publicity and a lot of eyes on their players starting in Summer League and beyond. The company also landed guys with real potential in Michael Porter Jr. and Zhaire Smith.

Oh, and they hired Jay-Z as well. That’s a good week whatever else happens.

Winner: NBA Twitter

There were not going to be Woj bombs this year — ESPN was trying to clamp down on their news breakers Tweeting out the picks before they happened (as had been the case for a few years, with Twitter often two or three picks ahead of Adam Silver and the broadcast. Other major news breakers (such as Yahoo’s Shams Charania) were going to play along.

But if there is one thing NBA Twitter has taught us it’s that it will not be contained. It breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously.

Before long Twitter was a pick ahead of the broadcast again, and Adrian Wojnarowski was doing it in style, not saying who the pick was but….

NBA Twitter is the best.

Lonnie Walker’s Spurs hat appears as if it’s floating above his head (photo)

AP Photo/Kevin Hagen
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Basketball players don’t wear hats.

White Men Can't Jump (1992)

OK, scratch that. NBA players don’t wear hats.

But it has become tradition for draft picks to don a cap of the team that selected him.

So, even though Lonnie Walker‘s hair looks like this (via AP):

Pittsburgh Miami Basketball

…he put on a Spurs hat when they selected him No. 18:

NBA Draft Basketball

Even Elfrid Payton did a much better job cramming his do into his hat on draft night:

Walker, an athletic shooting guard who underperformed at Miami, was a surprising choice by San Antonio. The Spurs generally prioritize basketball intelligence over athleticism (though, to be fair, that’s hardly an absolute).

But no matter how Walker fits in San Antonio goes, it probably won’t be more awkward than this.

Report: 76ers trade Mikal Bridges to Suns for Zhaire Smith, future first-rounder

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Update: Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated:

Again, that is a ton to give up to move up six spots.

 

The 76ers drafting Mikal Bridges No. 10 was a dream come true. He was born in Philadelphia and grew up rooting for the 76ers. He stayed home for college, playing at Villanova. His mom even worked for the 76ers, and she was PUMPED when Adam Silver announced the selection tonight.

But the NBA is cruel.

Philadelphia has already traded Bridges – to the Suns for No. 16 pick Zhaire Smith and a future first-rounder.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

That 2021 Heat pick was unprotected for the Suns and potentially quite valuable. It’s always difficult to forecast that far into the future, but Miami – with an expensive and not-young roster – could drop considerably by then.

Did Phoenix add protections to the selection before flipping it? If not, that is a huge price to move up six spots, and I say that as someone who likes Bridges a lot. DeAndre Ayton and Bridges comprise a heck of a haul for the Suns, who are adding talent around Devin Booker.

But there are complications. Josh Jackson isn’t good enough to stress over, but he and Bridges could be a strange fit. Can either natural small forward play up or down a position?

And that Heat pick looms large. It’s reminiscent of Phoenix trading a future Lakers pick – which, incidentally, became Bridges – for Brandon Knight. That backfired. Perhaps, this works better.

Smith is a solid prospect, but maybe a strange fit in Philadelphia. He has big-man skills in a guard’s body. There’s nothing wrong with betting on the hard worker and athletic marvel developing, but he must to fit with Ben Simmons. Otherwise, the 76ers won’t have enough shooting.

Bridges was an easier fit, but apparently Philadelphia preferred Smith and the extra asset.