ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Sacramento Kings

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Last season: After Kings fans and mayor Kevin Johnson banded together to save basketball in Sacramento, new owner Vivek Ranadive brought in a new coach (Mike Malone) and a new GM (Pete D’Alessandro) and signed DeMarcus Cousins to a four-year max extension. The Kings proceeded to have a season that looked a lot like their last several — a lot of losing. A midseason trade for Rudy Gay rejuvenated the veteran forward’s career after a disappointing stint in Toronto, but it didn’t do much for the win column. The Kings finished 28-54.

Signature highlight from last season: In the most disappointing announcement-turned-April Fool’s-joke in NBA history, Cousins did not actually record an R&B album under the name “Boogie Smooth.”

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Key player changes: The Kings took sharpshooter Nik Stauskas with the No. 8 pick in the draft and parted ways with point guard Isaiah Thomas, who went to Phoenix. They replaced Thomas by giving Darren Collison a three-year, $16 million deal, and signed veterans Ramon Sessions and Ryan Hollins on the cheap.

Keys to the Kings’ season:

Which of the young wings will pan out? The Kings have drafted a shooting guard in the top 10 each of the last two years. Ben McLemore was inconsistent in his rookie season and Stauskas, while a great shooter, could take time to develop other aspects of his game. In order for the Kings to progress, at least one of them has to become a dependable starter.

Will Boogie make “the leap”? Cousins played for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup this summer, and there was plenty of talk about his maturation as a leader. Plenty of players take gigantic leaps forward after playing in international competitions. Think Derrick Rose, Kevin Love and Kevin Durant after the 2010 tournament. Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson and Kenneth Faried are expected to do the same this year, and so is Cousins. This Kings team is still rebuilding but it’s easier to do that when you have a superstar to build around.

What, exactly, is the plan here? This team is not untalented. Cousins is an All-Star-caliber player, Gay is a proven scorer, and Collison and Sessions are competent NBA point guards. Derrick Williams may still be salvageable, and second-year point guard Ray McCallum has some upside. What the Kings lack is cohesion, or any sense of what the direction of the franchise is. Obviously, Cousins is the building block, and they’d like to re-sign Gay if he keeps performing like he did after being traded to Sacramento. But other than that, so far it seems like a lot of just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks.

Why you should watch the Kings: There’s a reasonable chance Cousins could go for 30 points and 15 rebounds or get himself ejected (or both!) on any given night.

Prediction: 27-55. The Kings play in a division with at least two and maybe three playoff teams and don’t have a lot of proven talent or a roster coherent enough to make them a playoff threat of any kind. But at least they won’t be as bad as the Lakers.

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
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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.