ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Minnesota Timberwolves

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Last season: Once again, the Timberwolves went into the season appearing to have the talent to make a playoff run, and once again they fell short, finishing 40-42. They couldn’t catch a break in close games, going 6-13 in games decided by four points or less (including an 0-11 start in close games). Some of that was bad luck, but ultimately, offseason signings Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer weren’t a strong enough supporting cast for Kevin Love. It’s hard to blame him for wanting out.

Signature highlight from last season: Let the record show that “The Corey Brewer 51-Point Game” was a thing that happened.

Key player changes: Nothing major. Just the biggest game-changer of a summer blockbuster trade since Dwight Howard was traded to the Lakers in 2012. Flip Saunders sent Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers in return for the No. 1 picks in the last two drafts, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. As part of the same deal, the Wolves turned Alexey Shved and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute into veteran Sixers forward Thaddeus Young. With their own lottery pick, Minnesota took high-flying UCLA guard Zach LaVine. They also signed veteran point guard Mo Williams for some scoring help off the bench. Head coach Rick Adelman retired; after flirting with Memphis’ Dave Joerger, Saunders replaced Adelman with…himself.

Keys to the Timberwolves’ season:

Can Anthony Bennett contribute? Wiggins was the headliner of the Wolves’ return in the Love trade, but Bennett is still a total mystery. In Cleveland, he had the worst rookie season for a No. 1 pick since Kwame Brown, but he was recovering from a shoulder injury suffered at the end of his college career that kept him from working out last summer, which contributed to his poor conditioning. He looked considerably better in July playing with the Cavs’ Summer League squad, and the Wolves have every reason to believe last season’s struggles were more a product of circumstance than of a lack of talent. Still, Bennett is very raw and what he’ll show this season remains to be seen.

What is Ricky Rubio’s ceiling, and can he reach it? This is a pivotal season for Rubio. If the Spanish point guard isn’t signed to an extension by Halloween, he’s set to hit restricted free agency next summer. Even after three years in the NBA, it’s tough to get a handle on what exactly Rubio is as a player — his torn ACL midway through his rookie season wiped out much of his effectiveness the following year. Last season, he proved himself to still be a gifted passer and above-average defender, but he shot an abysmal 38.1% from the field on 8.2 attempts per game. This season will make or break Rubio’s future with the Timberwolves — if he can’t turn his scoring woes around, the team may decide to go in another direction when it’s time to re-sign him.

Does Saunders have the patience to see this rebuild through? Months before trading Love for Wiggins and Bennett, Saunders used his authority as team president to appoint himself head coach. This arrangement may work out, but things can get complicated when the guy building the roster and the guy coaching it are the same person. As a GM, Saunders did a terrific job of leveraging Love into high-level prospects. But as a coach, he will have to understand that Wiggins, Bennett, LaVine and promising 2013 first-round pick Gorgui Dieng aren’t going to learn the NBA game overnight. It’s not worth rushing that process to chase a shadow of a chance at a playoff berth that wouldn’t amount to anything. If Saunders the coach is willing to play the long game with the development of the young talent Saunders the GM brought in, the franchise is in good hands.

Why you should watch the Timberwolves: They won’t be good, but they’ll be the most fun bad team in the league. Wiggins, LaVine and Brewer turned loose in transition with Rubio throwing them lobs? Yes please.

Prediction: 25-57. As soon as the Timberwolves traded Love, they pretty much tossed any playoff aspirations out the window. This is a developmental year, and it’s not exactly going out on a limb to say that Minnesota will be at or near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. The rewards won’t come for a few years at least.

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.