Young Timberwolves going through inevitable growing pains

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Minnesota Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell had to catch himself on more than one occasion during games this season with a youthful team.

When the game was getting tight, one of his young players would make a mistake. Zach LaVine might rush a pump fake on his way to the basket and get called for traveling. Andrew Wiggins might force a shot in traffic. Shabazz Muhammad might lose track of his man on the weak side and get beat for a layup.

Sometimes the hard-nosed interim coach will lose it, letting them have it in frustrated postgame addresses. More often, he tries to take a deep breath and remind himself about the youthful inexperience of his team. The lumps they’re taking now are part of a painful but necessary process.

“I have to rein myself in sometimes,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes I get a little overzealous or excited when we beat Atlanta, beat Chicago, beat some of these teams. I have to remind myself that Andrew Wiggins is 20. Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, guys we’re leaning on are 20 years old. But I’m pleased that we’re getting better. I think everyone can see that.”

The Timberwolves were one of the surprise teams of the league early in the season after getting off to an 8-8 start that included impressive road wins at Atlanta, Chicago and Miami. The flurry had their long-suffering fans – who haven’t watched their team play in a playoff game since 2004 – hopeful that the longest-running postseason drought in the league was coming to an end.

They have lost eight of 10 games since then, dropping down to 10-16 and 12th place in the muddled Western Conference with home losses to Denver, Portland and Orlando in that stretch. The swoon was expected internally, but has been met with frustration from fans who just want some wins.

“We’re talented enough to get up 15, 18 points on veteran teams that are playoffs teams,” GM Milt Newton said. “So I can understand their frustration, but at the same time I would hope they understand that the group of players on the floor, especially in crunch time, haven’t been there and haven’t done that. They’re learning. They’ll continue to learn. But it will change.”

The Timberwolves, and many executives and coaches around the league, believe the end of those struggles is near. Wiggins and Towns – the last two No. 1 overall picks – look like future stars. LaVine has made huge strides as a combo guard. Add in Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Ricky Rubio and the Wolves have one of the most promising young cores in the league.

Their top three scorers – Wiggins (21.3 points per game), Towns (15.4) and LaVine (14.8) – have a chance to become the first trio of teammates in league history to average 15 points in a season they started as 19 or 20-year-olds.

Oklahoma City in 2008-09 with Kevin Durant (25.3) and Russell Westbrook (15.3) and the 1996-97 Timberwolves with Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury are the only teams with two players hitting that mark. The Thunder went 23-59 that season and 50-32 the following year.

Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller are helping the younger players work through the adversity.

“Our veterans tell them there are no shortcuts,” Newton said. “You’ve got to take your lumps. Being assured that there is a light at the end of the tunnel by guys that have gone through it and that are champions, you can always hold on to that if you continue to work on your craft and practice hard, compete, there’s going to come a time when you get over that hump.”

There have been concerns to address. They have given up two 17-point leads to Portland at home and an 18-point lead to the Nuggets on the road. Rockets forward Trevor Ariza has attempted more corner 3-pointers – the efficient shot that has overtaken the game in the modern era – than the entire Wolves roster. The defense had gotten so bad recently that Mitchell was forced to return the veteran Prince to the starting lineup for stability.

“At some point they’re going to get it, but they’re not going to get it overnight,” Mitchell said. “If they did, we’d be the first team in history with a bunch of 20-year-olds that would have gotten it before anybody else. I’d like to think I can coach, but I realize I’m not that good. Some things are going to take time.”

And as hard as it is for fans to remain patient, it’s even more difficult for the players.

“We’re fed up with it,” LaVine said. “It’s not like we like losing. We won 16 games last year. It’s really annoying. We’re going out there to win. We just need to learn how to put it together.”

This story has been corrected to show that the 1996-97 Timberwolves also had two players aged 20 or younger to average 15 points.

Boban? Crowder? Holmgren? Exploring player votes for All-Star starters

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Four NBA players — not one as a joke, but four… as a joke — voted for injured Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren to start the NBA All-Star Game.

The NBA All-Star Game starters were announced Thursday, chosen from a weighted vote of fans (50%), media (25%) and current players (25%).

While most NBA players may take their All-Star Game starter votes seriously, some do not — they vote for friends, college teammates, guys with the same agent, or just whoever they feel like.

Which is comedy gold once we comb through the public vote (Note: names are not attached to who cast a vote, but we do see who got votes). This season, that list of players getting at least one vote to be an All-Star starter include:

Bol Bol (Orlando Magic, he got six votes)
Willy Hernangomez (New Orleans Pelicans, he got five votes)
Juancho Hernangomez (Toronto Raptors, he got three votes)
Omer Yurtseven (Miami Heat, he got three votes)
Georges Niang (Philadelphia 76ers, he got five votes)
Ochai Agbaji (Utah Jazz, he got four votes)
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (Oklahoma City Thunder, he got three votes)
Bismack Biyombo (Phoenix Suns, he got three votes)
Jae Crowder (Phoenix Suns, he got two votes)
Udonis Haslem (Miami Heat, he got two votes)
Blake Griffin (Boston Celtics)
Boban Marjanovic (Houston Rockets)
Kemba Walker (Dallas Mavericks)
Kendrick Nunn (Los Angeles Lakers)
Ish Smith (Denver Nuggets)
Torrey Craig (Phoenix Suns)
Luka Garza (Minnesota Timberwolves)
Chimezie Metu (Sacramento Kings)
Furkan Korkmaz (Philadelphia 76ers)
R.J. Hampton (Orlando Magic)
Johnny Davis (Washington Wizards)
Cedi Osman (Cleveland Cavaliers)
MarJon Beauchamp (Milwaukee Bucks)
Paul Reed (Philadelphia 76ers)

That is just a fraction of the entire list.

Three things to Know: Knicks win another in clutch, beat Celtics in OT

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Knicks win another in clutch, beat Celtics in OT behind 37 from Randle

It will surprise Knicks fans, but New York has been a good clutch team in the tightest of games this season: In games within three points in the final three minutes, they are 11-9 with a +7.8 net rating.

The Knicks didn’t look like a clutch team — but did what Knicks fans expected — when they blew a 13-point lead by scoring just four points over the final 5:20 of the fourth quarter. Combine that with Jayson Tatum scoring 11 in the frame, and the Celtics came back to tie the game and force OT.

However, in the OT, the Knicks had RJ Barrett knocking down big shots.

And, with the game on the line, they had Jalen Brunson with the block.

With that, the Knicks went into Boston and pulled out the 120-117 OT win over the East-leading Celtics. Julius Randle had 27 points and nine rebounds (and hit the free throws that put the Knicks up for good in OT), Brunson scored 29, and Barrett added 19.

There are promising signs for Knicks fans:

Brunson and Randle just out-dueled Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The Knicks have now racked up back-to-back wins against the Cavaliers and Celtics.

New York will need more wins like this because they will be battling the Heat, and maybe the Pacers, for that No. 6 seed and avoiding the play-in the rest of the season. But don’t sleep on a couple of quality wins.

2) Luka Doncic leaves game with ankle sprain; Mavericks win anyway

Name the team that could least afford to lose its superstar.

The Mavericks — with their heliocentric offense built around Luka Doncic — have to be at the top of the list.

Dallas could be without Doncic for a few games after he sprained his ankle just minutes into Thursday night’s contest against the Suns. Doncic drove on Cameron Johnson but when he couldn’t get to the rim he stopped, spun, tried to step back, stepped on the foot of Mikal Bridges and rolled his left ankle.

Doncic left the game and he did not return. Dallas can’t afford to be without Doncic for long, it gets outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions this season when he sits. He is an All-Star starter and in the MVP mix. He averages 33.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game.

Just to prove that last paragraph wrong, the Jazz went out and beat the Suns 99-95 without Doncic behind a season-high 36 points from Spencer Dinwiddie, plus Dorian Finney-Smith chipped in 18 points and 12 rebounds.

3) LeBron, Antetokounmpo captains as All-Star starters named

Last season, Team LeBron won the All-Star Game partly because LeBron James had Giannis Antetokounmpo on his team.

Not this year. It will be Team LeBron vs. Team Giannis, they received the most fan votes in their conferences and will be the captains for the Feb. 19 All-Star Game in Salt Lake City. This is the sixth time LeBron is a captain, and his teams are 5-0.

In a new twist, James and Antetokounmpo will choose their teams right on the court before the game — true playground style. The captains will draft from a pool of starters announced Thursday — selected by a vote of fans, media, and current players — and then the backups from a list of reserves selected by the coaches (which will be announced next week).

Here are this year’s starters (two backcourt, three frontcourt players from each conference):

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry
Luka Doncic
LeBron James
Nikola Jokic
Zion Williamson

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving
Donovan Mitchell
Kevin Durant
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Jayson Tatum

Joel Embiid was the odd man out of a tight race for the final frontcourt spot in the East (because the fans voted him fourth, the media and players each had him third, but the fans count for 50% of the weighted vote). This will be the first start for Williamson (if he’s healthy enough to play) and Mitchell.

Luka Doncic leaves game with sprained ankle, X-rays negative

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Mavericks fans everywhere were holding their breath.

Just more than three minutes into a showdown with the Suns Thursday, Luka Doncic drove on Cameron Johnson but didn’t get around him, so Doncic stopped, spun, tried to step back, and stepped on the foot of Mikal Bridges‘ and rolled his left ankle.

After a Torey Craig 3-pointer, Doncic left the game and hobbled back to the Mavericks locker room to be checked out. While X-rays were negative Doncic is out for the remainder of the game.

It will be tomorrow before the Mavericks can get a feel for how long Doncic might be out. They can’t afford for him to be out long, Dallas has been outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions this season when Doncic is off the court. He has been playing through ankle soreness for a few weeks but has missed only a couple of games.

Doncic, who was just voted an All-Star starter, is in the MVP mix this season averaging 33.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game. The Mavericks are 8.7 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo captains as All-Star starters named

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LeBron James is just 157 points shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA all-time scoring record, which he should break early next month. But before breaking that iconic record, he tied Abdul-Jabbar for another NBA milestone.

LeBron was the leading fan vote-getter and is an NBA All-Star Game for the 19th time, tying Abdul-Jabbar for the most All-Star appearances in league history.

James and Giannis Antetokounmpo received the most fan votes in their conferences and will be the captains of the teams for the Feb. 19 All-Star Game in Salt Lake City. This is Antetokounmpo’s third time as captain, it is LeBron’s sixth — and his teams are 5-0 in his previous captaincies.

In a new twist, James and Antetokounmpo will pick their teams playground style right on the court before the game. They will choose from a pool of starters announced Thursday — selected by a vote of fans, media, and current players — and then the backups from a list of reserves selected by the coaches (which will be announced next week). Here are this year’s starters (two backcourt, three frontcourt players from each conference):

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry
Luka Doncic
LeBron James
Nikola Jokic
Zion Williamson

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving
Donovan Mitchell
Kevin Durant
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Jayson Tatum

This is the first start for Zion Williamson and Donovan Mitchell.

The vote also squeezed Joel Embiid out of a crowded frontcourt in the East. Here is the voting breakdown, where each player’s score is weighted based on 50 percent for the fan vote, 25 percent for player vote, and 25 percent for the media vote.

Eastern Conference Frontcourt

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *#Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)      1      1      2      1.25
2. *Kevin Durant (Brooklyn)      2      2      4      2.5
3. *Jayson Tatum (Boston)      3      4      1      2.75
4. Joel Embiid (Philadephia)      4      3      3      3.75
5. Jimmy Butler (Miami)      5      7      5      5.5
6. Pascal Siakam (Toronto)      6     6      5      5.75
7. Paolo Banchero (Orlando)      8      8      5      7.25
8. Bam Adebayo (Miami)      11      5      5      8.0
9. Julius Randle (New York)      9      10      5      8.25
10. Kyle Kuzma (Washington)      7      16      5      9.25

 

Eastern Conference Guards

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *Kyrie Irving (Boston)      1      1      4      1.75
2. *Donovan Mitchell (Cleveland)      2      2      1      1.75
3. Jaylen Brown (Boston)      3      3      2      2.75
4. James Harden (Philadelphia)      4     5      5      4.5
5. Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana)      8      6      3      6.25
6. DeMar DeRozan (Chicago)      6      4      10      6.5
7. Trae Young (Atlanta)      12      5      6      7.0
8. LaMelo Ball (Charlotte)      7      9      10     8.25
9. Darius Garland (Cleveland)      10      7      6      8.25
10. Jalen Brunson (Milwaukee)      12      8      9      10.25

 *–Voted to start
#–Team captain

Western Conference Frontcourt

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *# LeBron James (Los Angeles)      1      2      2      1.5
2. *Nikola Jokic (Denver)      2      1     1      1.5
3. *Zion Williamson (New Orleans)      4      3      4      3.75
4. Anthony Davis (Los Angeles)      3      7      6      4.25
5. Lauri Markkanen (Utah)      7      4      5      5.75
6. Domantas Sabonis (Sacramento)      9      5      3      6.5
7. Paul George (L.A. Clippers)      6      6      9      6.75
8. Andrew Wiggins (Golden State)      5      19      9     9.5
9. Draymond Green (Golden State)      14      9      9      9.75
10. Kawhi Leonard (L.A. Clippers)      11      14      7      10.75

Western Conference Guards

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *Stephen Curry (Golden State)      1     2      2      1.5
2. *Luka Doncic (Dallas)      2      1      1      1.5
3. Ja Morant (Memphis)      3      3      3      3
4. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City)      4      4      4      4
5. Damian Lillard (Portland)      7      5      5      6.0
6. De'Aaron Fox (Sacramento)      8      5      5      6.5
7. Devin Booker (Phoenix)      10      7      5      8
8. Russell Westbrook (Los Angeles)      6      18      5      8.75
9. Anthony Edwards (Minnesota)      13      8      5      9.75
10. Klay Thompson (Golden State)      5      25      5      10

 *–Voted to start
#–Team captain