Bulls finally make long-overdue statement with win over Cavaliers

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CHICAGO—After over a month of searching for it, the Bulls finally have their statement win, and right before the All-Star break. They’ve had more impressive individual games, but given the stakes here—coming off a rough month, with Jimmy Butler out against a Kevin Love-less Cleveland Cavaliers team—Thursday night’s 113-98 victory over the Cavs was their most important win of the season.

Derrick Rose was the headliner, and he was spectacular: 30 points and seven assists with just two turnovers. But it was more than Rose. Tony Snell continued a career week, tying his career high with 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting and playing LeBron James tough defensively. Pau Gasol was excellent again, with 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Joakim Noah is starting to round into shape, looking more like his healthy self.

Going into the All-Star break, the Bulls are 34-20. They’ve won four in a row and after a month that’s seen everything from an extended Mike Dunleavy injury to Tom Thibodeau hot-seat chatter, this stretch has been a welcome change of pace. The Cavs had won 14 of their last 15 games, and the Bulls flat-out outplayed them for 48 minutes.

“We played from behind a lot,” said James. “We gave up a lot of offensive rebounds. We turned the ball over, most of which was my fault. And they played a good game.”

Most encouraging for the Bulls was their defensive effort. The Cavs have the sixth-best offense in the NBA, scoring 107.2 points per 100 possessions, and the Bulls held them to 98, forcing eight turnovers from James and 16 overall from the Cavs.

“We can be really good. Everybody knows that. It just takes everybody being on the same page as far as defense goes.”

The Bulls and the Cavs are both still chasing the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference playoff race. But for the first time on Thursday, it started to feel like a rivalry. The Cavs won their first two meetings convincingly, and after some December and January drama, had generally been playing like a serious contender while the Bulls were still up and down. But Chicago finally got the response they had been looking for, and looked impressive doing it.

Before the season, the Bulls and Cavs were seen as the prohibitive favorites to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, they’re both starting to look the part. Even after the loss, Cavs coach David Blatt is feeling good about where his team is.

“The front office has been great and put together a good group,” Blatt said after the game. “They put together a competitive team and I’m just happy with this group. We will be good with what we have if we can stay healthy. We won 14 of our last 16. We got a really good floor rhythm and approach going. We should feel good going into the break.”

The Bulls have had a never-ending parade of injuries. They finally got Dunleavy back on Tuesday, but were without Butler on Thursday. They’ve only played 16 games with their full starting lineup intact, but they’re 13-3 in those games, and after the All-Star break, Thibodeau hopes that everybody will finally be healthy at the same time.

“We want to keep going, that is the important thing,” said the coach. “Our reality has been guys out all the time. Whoever is in there is getting the job done.”

 

Rumor: Suns prefer drafting Ja Morant over drafting Zion Williamson

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Duke power forward Zion Williamson is overwhelmingly favored to be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Murray State point guard Ja Morant is the leading candidate to be the No. 2 pick.

But what if Phoenix lands the top pick?

Suns general manager James Jones has his own ideas about the draft. The thoroughness of Phoenix’s scouting leaves a lot to be desired. The Suns badly need a point guard.

With all those factors, Phoenix might be the biggest wildcard with the No. 1 pick.

Sam Vecenie of The Athletic:

Sources around the NBA are buzzing that Morant is actually the player the Suns prefer to end up with. Particularly, Jones is thought to be a fan of the dynamic lead guard. It’s not a surprise, given their need at the point guard position. But color me skeptical that the team would actually take him at No. 1.

I see a few possibilities:

  • Phoenix rates Morant ahead of Williamson but would be afraid to pass on Williamson. Not only is Williamson the consensus top pick, he is the biggest star coming out of college basketball in years.
  • The Suns would rather have Morant plus whatever they could get for trading down than Williamson. That might even be reasonable, though we don’t know how potential trade packages would look.
  • People around the league are taking (easy) shots at Phoenix, even if these claims are untrue.

The Suns should draft whichever player they believe will have the brightest future. Period.

Passing on Williamson just because they have Deandre Ayton would be only compounding mistakes. There is not a single player in Phoenix good enough to justify passing on Williamson. Point guards will be available via free agency and trade.

If the Suns truly believe Morant will have a better career than Williamson, they should draft Morant. Making a pick for marketability or fear of backlash is misguided.

Of course, there’s only a 14% chance of Phoenix getting the No. 1 pick and facing this decision. But if it lands that way, it’d cause a ton of intrigue into the selection.

Jared Dudley, Jimmy Butler fined for fight

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When Jared Dudley pushed Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler pushed Dudley right back. After the 76ers’ Game 4 win over the Nets, Butler accompanied his star teammate to the postgame press conference.

“So he don’t do nothing stupid when he’s up here,” Butler said. “We all know he’s a trolling son of a gun. So, I’m just here to protect my big fella.

“If somebody runs up on him, I’m gonna push them again.”

A grateful Embiid said he’d pay Butler’s fine.

Then, later in the press conference, Embiid said: “It feels great to be up 3 to 1. We definitely don’t want to be in a situation like the Warriors.”

Butler got up and left, shouting, “I tried to save you,” on his way out.

Does Embiid’s fine-paying offer still stand? It’s definitely relevant.

NBA release:

Brooklyn Nets forward Jared Dudley and Philadelphia 76ers forward-guard Jimmy Butler have each been fined for their roles in an on-court altercation, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

Dudley has been fined $25,000 for escalating an on-court incident which spilled into the spectator stands by shoving Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. Butler has been fined $15,000 for escalating it further by then shoving Dudley.

The incident, for which Dudley and Butler each received technical fouls and were ejected, occurred with 7:42 remaining in the third quarter of Philadelphia’s 112-108 victory over Brooklyn on Saturday, April 20

Dudley is doing all he can. The best part of the skirmish: Nets coach Kenny Atkinson trying to restrain and calm Dudley while yelling, “We need you.” Brooklyn was +12 with Dudley and -16 without him in Game 4.

But Dudley can do only so much against more-talented Philadelphia.

With Embiid, Butler and a 3-1 lead, the 76ers are clearly having more fun.

Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro remaining in 2019 NBA draft

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington declared for the NBA draft.

A couple other Wildcats are following his lead.

Kentucky releases:

Kentucky men’s basketball freshman guard Keldon Johnson will remain in the 2019 NBA Draft pool and will not return to Kentucky, he announced

Kentucky men’s basketball freshman guard Tyler Herro has decided to remain in the 2019 NBA Draft, ending his career at UK.

Washington, Johnson and Herro all look like probable first-round picks. Washington and/or Johnson could sneak into the lottery, but there’s a good chance all three go later in the opening round.

Johnson is a 6-foot-6 shooting guard with a 6-foot-9 wingspan. He brings impressive effort and physicality. If his 3-pointer continues to fall, he’ll have a future in the league as a nice role player. But he hasn’t yet proven himself as a strong NBA-level spot-up shooter. He’s not there off the dribble, as a shooter or playmaker.

Herro can flat out shoot. He races around screens, finds ways to get open and sinks shots on the move and from odd angles. The 6-foot-5 guard might be a defensive liability, but at least he competes on that end. He’s also limited offensively, but the league needs shooters.

Michael Avenatti charged with stealing money Hassan Whiteside intended to pay ex-girlfriend

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Heat center Hassan Whiteside became the first player in NBA history to go from a minimum salary one season to a max salary the next.

Some of that money allegedly got embezzled by Michael Avenatti.

Avenatti – the infamous lawyer who represented Stormy Daniels, who claimed she was paid to keep quiet about having an affair with Donald Trump – has been charged with attempted extortion of Nike and stealing from other clients. One of those other clients: Whiteside’s former girlfriend, Alexis Gardner.

Michael Finnegan of the Los Angeles Times:

An actress and barista, she’d hired him just a few weeks before to negotiate a settlement of a potential lawsuit against Whiteside. It’s unclear what she would have alleged. Avenatti quickly struck a $3-million deal, and the $2.75 million was Whiteside’s first payment.

Avenatti, prosecutors say, was entitled to take just over $1 million in legal fees, leaving the rest for Gardner.

Instead, they allege, Avenatti hid Whiteside’s payment from her and immediately took $2.5 million to buy a share of a private jet.