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Five Takeaways from NBA Thursday: Trade deadline version (plus Clippers beat Spurs)

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NBA basketball was back on Thursday night with three games. But that’s not what anybody is talking about, not on trade deadline Thursday. So here are five takeaways from Thursday, mostly talking trades. Because we love trades.

1) Trade deadline comes and goes, but the balance of power at the top of NBA doesn’t change. Nothing happened Thursday to make the Golden State Warriors turn their heads. Or even the San Antonio Spurs. There were trades Thursday involving two of the four contenders for an NBA title this season — plus the Clippers making a move to try to get into that category — but at the end of the day, the balance of power had not shifted. Nothing changed. The Cavaliers added a little depth to their front line, a shooter in Channing Frye that gives coach Tyronn Lue some bench matchup options, but that’s it. Oklahoma City added Randy Foye to their “we can do this by committee” system at the two guard spot. The Clippers upgraded at the three spot with the erratic Jeff Green (plus there is some addition by subtraction with Lance Stephenson gone to what is now an interesting Memphis locker room).

All of those are moves on the periphery, at best they make those teams marginally better. Golden State is the defending champion and playing better than they did a season ago and nobody made a move that in any way challenged them as the team to beat. The Spurs didn’t make a move either, and I still see them as the clear second-best team in the league. The Cavaliers will get their shot at one of them in the Finals, but they still seem a step back. It was a fun day of trades, but at the top nothing changed.

2) No big name moved at the trade deadline, but wait for this summer. Dwight Howard didn’t change teams because nobody would offer the Houston Rockets much for him. Same with New Orleans trying to trade Ryan Anderson. The Clippers gauged the trade market for Blake Griffin, the Cavaliers did the same with Kevin Love, and while neither team had serious plans to move those two stars in February there was a method to the madness.

This summer is when the big names will be on the move. While everyone will be talking about whether Kevin Durant will bolt Oklahoma City, other moves are coming. With the rising salary cap (thanks to the flood of money from the new NBA television deal) every team is going to have some cap space and a majority will have enough for a max contract. That means teams will have big money to throw at free agents, and can make trades without matching salaries. So free agents  — Al Horford, DeMar DeRozan, Dwyane Wade, Nicolas Batum — will have options (even if they don’t want to leave their current teams). And GMs who may want to trade name players — potentially Brook Lopez from Brooklyn (now that they finally have a GM), Love, Griffin, others — will have options. What this trade deadline did was set up a summer where we will see some significant moves.

3) By the way, there was an NBA game and the Clippers kept winning (and DeAndre Jordan kept dunking). There was actual basketball in the NBA on Thursday night. The marquee game of the night was the Clippers hosting the Spurs — and Los Angeles didn’t miss a step from where they left off on a run before the All-Star break. That starts with Chris Paul shredding defenses — including on Thursday the NBA’s best one to the tune of 28 points and 12 assists. While the Clipper offense is making plays, quietly they have had the best defensive numbers in the NBA through their last 10 games (allowing 96.5 points per 100 possessions), and if they defend like that they become much more dangerous in the playoffs. Not that anyone should read anything about the playoffs out of this game (no Kawhi Leonard for the Spurs, for one thing), but the Clippers are playing well. And still throwing lobs to DeAndre Jordan for monster slams.

4) Biggest trade deadline winner was Detroit. Who made out best at the trade deadline? Stan Van Gundy and the Detroit Pistons. This may not vault them into the playoffs this season (although they are just half a game back of faltering Chicago for the eight seed) but it’s what they did to set themselves up for the future. The Pistons traded for Tobias Harris on Tuesday, and then on Thursday added Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton. Motiejunas is a bit of a gamble because of his health, but he’d be a great fit.

Think about the Pistons lineup. Andre Drummond is an All-Star at the center spot, and he has good pick-and-roll chemistry with Reggie Jackson at the point. Now around them on the wings are Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, Marcus Morris and Marcus Thornton — that’s a lot of long, athletic guys who can shoot the ball, run the floor, and switch everything on defense. And they are all 26 or younger (the average age is 23). This is a team that is going to develop and could be very good in a couple of years.

5) The playoff push at the bottom of East is now most interesting race in NBA. There are just 3.5 games separating the four seed Atlanta Hawks from the current the nine-seed (and out of the playoffs) Detroit Pistons. Then there are the Washington Wizards just two games back of the Pistons. It’s a tight race for the playoffs already, but what makes it even more interesting is to see who made trade deadline deals in the East — the nine seed Pistons were big winners, the seven seed Hornets added Courtney Lee (to replace the injured Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and those 10-seed Wizards upgraded with Markieff Morris (who can be a great fit for them if he chooses to play hard and not be a disruptive force). Meanwhile, Chicago (eighth seed), Miami (fifth), and Indiana (sixth) all stood pat at the deadline. Now the teams that made moves have a burst of energy and are going to make a run at pushing the teams above them out of the playoff picture. What teams make the playoffs in the East — and what the seedings will be in the middle of the pack — will be the best race in the NBA down the stretch.

Playoffs statement? Boston builds 40-point lead, routs Toronto

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The way the NBA standings look right now, there’s a reasonable chance that the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors could be slotted to see each other in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

And Celtics coach Brad Stevens is already making it clear — if that happens, a blowout win over the Raptors now won’t mean anything then.

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points, Jayson Tatum added 18 and the Celtics never trailed on the way to an emphatic 122-100 win over the Raptors on Friday night. Kemba Walker scored 17 points in 23 minutes for the Celtics, who led by 40 at one point and kept slim hope alive of catching the Raptors for the No. 2 spot in the East race.

“This game will mean nothing if we get that opportunity again,” Stevens said. “They’re a really good team. I thought they missed a lot of open looks and it just wasn’t their night. Our guys played well, but it won’t mean anything in a couple weeks.”

Boston also won the season series against Toronto, taking three of the four meetings. The Celtics also won back-to-back games for the first time in the bubble.

“We’re enjoying each other and building chemistry,” Tatum said.

Fred VanVleet scored 13 for Toronto, which got 11 from Kyle Lowry and 11 more from Pascal Siakam. The Raptors’ starters — VanVleet, Lowry, Siakam, Marc Gasol and OG Anunoby — combined to shoot 16 for 45 (36%) from the field, 3 for 19 (16%) from 3-point range.

“One thing about this team, we always bounce back and we always stick together,” Toronto’s Norman Powell said. “I’m not too worried.”

Toronto’s biggest deficit in its first three games in the bubble was six points against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Raptors trailed Miami by three, then didn’t trail Orlando at any point in their game on Wednesday.

But only five minutes into this one, the Raptors were down eight.

And it would only get worse from there for the reigning champions.

The biggest deficit Toronto had faced this season was a 30-point hole against Dallas on Dec. 22, a game where the Raptors rallied to win. The Celtics didn’t allow anything close to a rally on Friday — after the Raptors closed within 10 early in the third, Boston went on a 36-12 run over the final 9:39 of the quarter.

It was 91-57 entering the fourth, and the Raptors went with subs the rest of the way. Making the night even worse for Toronto: forward Serge Ibaka left early in the fourth after getting hit in the face on a drive by Boston’s Gordon Hayward.

“I hate to say it, but there’s nothing really I learned,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “The only thing I probably did learn is we’ve got to get a couple of our guys playing a little better.”

Nets, Magic lock up playoff spots in East; Grizzlies help own cause in West

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The NBA playoff picture is getting a little clearer, and the Eastern Conference field of qualifiers is now set.

Brooklyn and Orlando clinched the last two remaining East spots Friday, meaning no play-in series — a new wrinkle added to the rules of the NBA’s season restart at Walt Disney World — will be needed on that half of the bracket.

Brooklyn secured its trip by defeating Sacramento 119-106. Orlando’s spot was clinched when Washington lost to New Orleans 118-107 later Friday, eliminating the Wizards from contention.

The Nets and Magic will be No. 7 and No. 8, in some order, in the East playoffs. The No. 8 seed will face the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round of the playoffs, which begin Aug. 17. The No. 7 seed could meet the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who currently hold — but have not secured — the East’s No. 2 spot.

For the Nets, the clinching comes as something to savor in a topsy-turvy season.

Kevin Durant couldn’t play at all because of his recovery from Achilles surgery — yet still got a $1 million contract bonus because Brooklyn made the postseason. Kyrie Irving missed much of the year because of injury, the Nets had several regulars opt out of participating in the restart, changed coaches in March and have used 24 players so far this season.

“It’s great to punch our own ticket into the playoffs,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “I joked with the guys: I like my laundry being done, but nothing like doing your own laundry.”

Orlando could have clinched with a win Friday, but lost to Philadelphia 108-101. The Wizards lost about an hour later, falling to 0-5 in the bubble. Washington was one of nine teams from the East who qualified for the restart, but has since fallen behind Charlotte into 10th place in the conference.

Philadelphia’s win tightened the race for No. 4 in the East. The 76ers (42-27) are tied with Indiana for the fifth-best record in that conference, one game behind fourth-place Miami (43-26).

The race for the last unclaimed playoff spot in the Western Conference remains close, with teams vying to grab the No. 8 spot and play the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. If the eighth- and ninth-place teams are within four games of one another when the seeding game schedule ends next week, there will be a two-game series to determine who gets the last playoff spot.

Should that series take place, the ninth-place team would have to go 2-0 in a best-of-two series to advance.

Memphis remained alone in eighth out West, after the Grizzlies snapped a four-game bubble losing streak by beating Oklahoma City on Friday 121-92. The Grizzlies are one game ahead of Portland in the West standings.

“We channeled what we’ve done all season long,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We played Grizzlies basketball. Grizzlies basketball equals Grizzlies wins, more often than not. We hadn’t done that in the first four games.”

San Antonio leaped idle Phoenix into 10th in the West by beating Utah 119-111, with the Spurs improving to 3-2 in the bubble. The Spurs (30-38) are one game behind Portland in the standings.

“At the end of the day, we can’t control what they’re doing,” Spurs center Jakob Poeltl said. “We can only control what we’re doing. We’re going to take every game as it comes. We’re going to try to win every game.”

Phoenix, Sacramento and New Orleans remain in the mix for a West play-in series spot. The Suns, who are 4-0 at Disney, play Miami on Saturday.

Training camps for “delete 8” reportedly might happen inside Orlando bubble

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Whether the eight teams not invited to the NBA restart will have training camps and get together for scrimmages depends on who you ask. There are some teams adamant they will be at a massive disadvantage if their young teams go nine months without playing competitive NBA basketball. The problem is bringing teams together creates coronavirus issues that are not easily eliminated.

Which led to an idea: Why not bring those eight teams into the Orlando bubble on the Walt Disney World Resort campus and let them practice/play there?

It’s being talked about as an option reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

What if those eight teams joined the rest of their colleagues inside the Walt Disney World bubble for training after the eliminated teams departed? Sources say the NBA has been exploring that possibility for quite some time now, and that the idea was raised most recently on the aforementioned governors’ call. And in some ways, it makes perfect sense.

As NBPA executive director Michele Roberts has made clear all along, the union has been skeptical of any basketball setting that doesn’t match the Orlando approach in terms of precautions and protocol. But starting on Aug. 17, when six teams go home and the 16-team playoffs begin, space will be opening up inside this three-hotel, three-court, (seemingly) COVID-free community they have created.

More space will open up in the bubble as more teams are eliminated from the postseason, although some of those rooms were to be used by family of team staff still in the bubble. It’s a delicate balancing act for the league.

The eight teams in question are Golden State, Minnesota, Cleveland, Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Chicago, and Charlotte.

Putting together a second bubble for the “delete eight” was never likely to happen, it’s a logistical nightmare, and it’s expensive (but without the television money payoff of the actual bubble). There is some logic to inviting those eight teams to Orlando.

Whether it happens or not remains to be seen.

Memphis picks up first win since restart, beats Oklahoma City

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Dillon Brooks scored 22 points, and the Memphis Grizzlies claimed their first win since the restart with a 121-92 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

Jonas Valanciunas had 19 points and 11 rebounds and Ja Morant had 19 points and nine assists for the Grizzlies.

Memphis lost its first four restart games and would have fallen into a tie with Portland for eight place in the Western Conference standings with a loss.

“As a whole, we never doubted ourselves, doubted what we can accomplish as a team,” Morant said. “But like, we all was very confident in our team and feel like tonight, we just went out and played freely and we were able to come out with a win.”

Chris Paul scored 17 points and Luguentz Dort added 16 for the Thunder. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City’s leading scorer this season, finished with 10 points on 3 for 13 shooting.

The Thunder looked nothing like the team that rolled past the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. Oklahoma City missed a chance to move into a tie with the Houston Rockets for fourth place in the West.

Oklahoma City led by 18 in the first quarter, but the Grizzlies rallied to take the lead in the second. The Thunder made 7 of 13 3-pointers in the first quarter but 6 of 30 the rest of the way.

“I thought it was a little bit of fool’s gold in the first quarter,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.

Memphis led by nine in the final seconds of the first half. Danilo Gallinari hit a 3 for the Thunder with 4.6 seconds left, then Paul got a steal and hit a corner 3 to cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 63-60 at halftime.

The Grizzlies outscored the Thunder 32-18 in the third quarter to go up 95-78 at the end of the period.

“They started making shots,” Paul said. “We never really made them feel us all game long. They were just so comfortable. They got a little bit of everything. They got floaters, they got the threes, they got to the free-throw line. Our defense was just bad today.”