ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Brooklyn Nets

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Last season: The Nets started slowly in Jason Kidd’s first year as head coach, and then things got worse when Brook Lopez was lost to a foot fracture in late December. The team turned things around after the first of the year, however, and finished with a 44-38 record. Brooklyn beat Toronto in the first round of the playoffs on the road in a Game 7, before losing to the Heat in the second round in five games.

Signature highlight from last season: There were plenty of buzzer-beating heroics from Joe Johnson over the course of the season, but no play was more important to Brooklyn than Paul Pierce rejecting Kyle Lowry at the Game 7 buzzer to seal victory in the playoff series.

Key player changes: There have been more subtractions than additions in the offseason. Paul Pierce is gone, after signing with the Wizards in free agency. Shaun Livingston, a key rotation player last season, similarly left to sign with the Warriors. Kevin Garnett is expected back, but hasn’t confirmed that he’ll return just yet. Brook Lopez being completely healthy is likely to be the team’s strongest positive personnel addition, though Jarrett Jack (who was acquired in trade this summer with the Cavaliers) will be important as the backup to Deron Williams.

Keys to the Nets season:

The return of Brook Lopez: Lopez was playing at an All-Star level for the Nets before he went down with the season-ending injury, averaging 20.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots in 31.4 minutes per contest. But with him as the team’s primary scoring option, there wasn’t much winning going on — the Nets had a record of just 9-17 at the time. Things changed when the offense shifted to Joe Johnson handling the heavy lifting most nights, but with Pierce gone, the team will need to use Lopez as much as possible as either a primary or secondary scoring option, which could be matchup-dependent most nights.

The direction under new head coach Lionel Hollins: Jason Kidd had his flaws in his first season as head coach, but after a rough start, he got control of the locker room and had his players buying in. Hollins is a different voice, an experienced leader who should be able to command respect more immediately while coming in with a plan and a vision of how things need to get done. That should expedite the transition, but the new coaching staff along with the loss of some key talent may make for a bit of a bumpy start.

It all starts with defense: Brooklyn turned it on in the second half of the season and had a memorable first round playoff series win, but the team was far from special. Statistically, the Nets were middle of the pack in terms of both offensive and defensive efficiency, and played at one of the slowest paces in the league. Hollins was in charge of the Grizzlies when the “Grit and Grind” identity was established, and Memphis was a tough opponent for teams consistently. He’ll demand intensity on the defensive end of the floor where Kidd perhaps did not put as much emphasis, and whether or not that message gets through and how the Nets perform there throughout the season will largely determine their fate.

Why you should watch: If Brook Lopez and Deron Williams are indeed fully healthy, then those two along with Joe Johnson form an All-Star “Big Three” that should entertain on a nightly basis.

Prediction: The Nets don’t appear to have enough firepower on the roster to hang with the most elite teams in the Eastern Conference, but they could find themselves on that second tier if it all comes together. A finish as high as fourth and as low as seventh or eighth in the East seems reasonable.

Watch Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic dunk all over Bol Bol

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Bol Bol had some impressive blocked shots during exhibition games at the NBA’s restart, but he hadn’t gotten one in his 16 limited minutes since the seeding games started. He wanted one.

So Bol tried to get in front of Jusuf Nurkic of Denver on Thursday and… that did not go well.

Bol did later get a blocked shot on Hassan Whiteside.

Nurkic, however, ended the night with 22 points, seven rebounds, and the Trail Blazers got a 125-115 win that has Portland comfortably as the ninth seed, just half-a-game back of eight-seed Memphis. Portland is setting itself up with a better-than-average chance make the playoffs

Kawhi Leonard’s 29 leads Clippers past Mavericks in potential first-round preview

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points to help the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 126-111 on Thursday night in a possible playoff preview.

Paul George scored 24 points and Ivica Zubac added 21 points on 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds for the Clippers, who strengthened their hold on the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference standings.

The Clippers entered the night a just half game ahead of Denver, but they shot 54% against the Mavericks to improve to 2-2 in the restart.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 30 points and Luka Doncic added 29 for Dallas, which fell to 1-3 in the restart.

Dallas likely will finish as the No. 7 seed, making a first-round matchup with the Clippers a strong possibility.

“That’s obviously going to be a tough matchup,” Porzingis said. “They’re one of the favorites to win it all. They have multiple guys that have been there already. But we’re looking forward to the challenge and getting experience in that.”

Doncic was coming off a monster game — 34 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday. He made 10 of 21 shots against the Clippers, including 6 of 13 3-pointers.

“Luka’s just a handful,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “It takes a whole team to guard him. I thought our guys did a pretty good job overall. We lost him a couple times, which you can never do. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

The Clippers led Dallas by 12 in the third quarter before the Mavericks rallied and tied the game at 101 midway through the fourth. Los Angeles responded with a 9-0 run to regain control. The Clippers shot 62% in the fourth quarter to pull away.

“I just liked how we played overall,” Rivers said. “We played like a team tonight, on both ends.”

Though the Mavericks fell to 1-3 in the restart, Doncic remained confident.

“We’re a great team,” he said. “We’ve always got chances, no matter what. I think some people count us out, but we’re not out. We’ll give our max.”

Devin Booker says after latest Suns’ win ‘Kobe’s with me every day’

Devin Booker Kobe
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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Devin Booker grew up a huge Kobe Bryant fan. When Booker made the league in 2016 he got to play against his idol and threw up 28 points on the night. Kobe was impressed. The two talked after the game and Kobe gave him an autographed pair of shoes with an inspirational message:

“Be Legendary.”

Booker took that to heart. He got the phrase as a tattoo. He’s been writing “Be Legendary” on his Nike’s before every game in the bubble. And after he scored 20 against the Pacers Thursday, helping the Suns remain undefeated for the restart, he said Kobe is still inspiring him every day.

“Kobe’s with me every day. You guys see what I put on my shoes with the ‘Be Legendary.’ It’s a reminder.”

Whatever he’s doing, it is working. Booker hit a Kobe-like turnaround game-winner to beat the Clippers. He’s averaging 28 points and 6.5 assists a game for the restart, and shooting 40% from three. Defenses are keying on him, but with a healthy Deandre Ayton and other players stepping up — Cameron Johnson has been a surprise standout in Orlando — the Suns look sharp and keep on winning.

Kobe would be proud.

Giannis Antetokounmpo drops 33 on Heat, Bucks secure No. 1 seed

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton scored 33 points each, and the Milwaukee Bucks overcame a huge early deficit to get a 130-116 win over the Miami Heat on Thursday to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Heat led by as many as 23 points in a first half where the team piled up 73 points despite playing without Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. Miami cooled off after the break and the Bucks took the lead in the third quarter but were down by 6 to start the fourth.

Antetokounmpo, the favorite to win his second MVP award, sat out about five minutes of the fourth quarter after collecting his fifth foul with 11 minutes to go. Milwaukee trailed by 1 with about five minutes remaining before using a 20-0 run, with three dunks from Antetokounmpo, to make it 130-111 with less than a minute to go and cruise to the victory.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton played 30 and 34 minutes respectively after the stars both sat out the entire second half of their last game on Tuesday.

Duncan Robinson had 21 points for the Heat, who lost to Milwaukee for the first time this season after winning the first two meetings.

The Heat led by 6 with about 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo picked up his fifth foul on a charge and headed to the bench. Andre Iguodala made a 3 for Miami before the Bucks scored the next 13 points, capped by a 3 from Bledsoe, to take a 107-103 lead with about seven minutes remaining.

Robinson made a 3-pointer to end a scoring drought of almost four minutes for Miami with about 6 ½ minutes to go and Antetokounmpo re-entered the game soon after that.

The Heat led by 12 with about 10 minutes left in third quarter before Milwaukee used a 16-3 run to take an 82-81 lead with five minutes left in the quarter. Antetokounmpo and Wesley Matthews each had five points each in that span to help close the gap.

The Bucks cut the lead to 3 with a dunk by Antetokounmpo late in the third. But the Heat wrapped up the quarter with a 5-2 spurt to take a 98-92 lead into the fourth.