ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Philadelphia 76ers

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Last season: The Sixers were in year one of an admitted full-fledged rebuild, which involved not even trying to win basketball games. The plan was to bottom out, and work on acquiring and developing young talent that has superstar potential to lead the team back to respectability, and restoring it to the status of contender for years to come. Michael Carter-Williams winning Rookie of the Year was a nice start in that regard, but even a 26-game losing streak didn’t help the team finish with the league’s worst record; the Milwaukee Bucks were somehow worse.

Signature highlight from last season: Ending that 26-game losing streak against the Pistons helped Philadelphia avoid history, and showed that sometimes, a youthful group of talented players can come together to produce something special.

Key offseason moves: The Sixers continued their plan of drafting what they feel are the best players available, even if they won’t be ready to contribute in the upcoming season. Joel Embiid (injury) and Dario Saric (Europe) were nice additions, though neither is expected to play this year. The team’s last solid veteran player in Thaddeus Young was traded as part of the Kevin Love deal, with Alexey Shved and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute coming back in return — and both expected to be a part of the rotation.

Keys to the Sixers season:

Embrace the tank: Philadelphia won’t be good, but that’s by design. The decision has been made to have solely young and developing players on the roster — both as a plan for long-term improvement, as well as a way to take advantage of the draft lottery system that’s currently in place by losing enough games to get a chance at landing one of the top picks in next summer’s draft.

Nerlens Noel: The Sixers prize of the 2013 draft sat out all of last season, even though from a health standpoint he was ready to go, and could have played in games that counted in the latter part of the season. Head coach Brett Brown could often be seen on the main court working out Noel personally on game nights, which is rare for head coaches at the NBA level. But it shows just how much player development is in the forefront in this current incarnation of the Sixers, and now we’ll see whether or not the entire season of rehabilitation and teaching has paid off, along with finding out just how good Noel’s prospects are of being one of the franchise’s long sought after cornerstones.

Michael Carter-Williams: As the rebuilding plan begins its second year, Carter-Williams will be the canary in the coal mine that tells you whether or not it’s off to a positive start. The point guard’s averages of 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game were indeed impressive, but it’s worth wondering if the strength of those numbers was dependent on the team being so dismal. Carter-Williams will be worth watching closely to see if the development is taking place as scheduled, because with Noel in place, those assist numbers have a chance to jump significantly. But whether they do or they don’t, his shooting percentages — both from beyond the three-point arc (26.4 percent) and overall (40.5 percent) must begin to show marked improvement in order for him to begin to realize the potential he’s already shown.

Why you should watch: Carter-Williams and Noel should be all kinds of fun, and if Embiid gets on the court at some point later in the year (unlikely), that’s a lot of young talent with star potential that you can begin to follow in its extremely early stages.

Prediction: Pain. But only in the short-term, and only because that’s the mandate from the front office.

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.