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Three Things We Learned Tuesday: Utah crushes San Antonio? Is it the end of the world?

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It’s still very early in the NBA season — we’re still watching small sample size theater — but we are starting to learn some things. Here is what we learned on Sunday while thinking that a Game 7 of the World Series is going to be fun (and all those 3-1 blown lead jokes Cleveland fans made after the NBA Finals don’t seem as funny to them now)… 

1) Break up the Jazz — Utah beats San Antonio easily. In San Antonio. The outcome seemed preordained. We were in double-digits of consecutive Utah losses in San Antonio. Gordon Hayward was out. Boris Diaw sat for rest. Derrick Favors only played the first half. This game lined up to be a blowout. And it was.

Utah blew out San Antonio. The Jazz pulled away in the fourth for a 106-91 win.

George Hill is the only guy on the Jazz creating shots right now, and he did that to the tune of eight straight points in the fourth when the game was decided — he was phenomenal. Has been all season, carrying a heavy load. He was a force off the pick-and-roll with 22 points on 13 shots in this one, and he was attacking the rim or shooting threes, not settling in the midrange. You can see that in his shot cart — three midrange shots compared to 10 threes or shots at the rim.

Hill shotcart

Pacers fans had to watch this, having seen the way Jeff Teague has stumbled out of the gate this season, and think “what the hell?” Frank Vogel rarely gave Hill the chance to play this way,  but Hill has skills and brings it on both ends.

Utah is going to be a playoff team if they don’t dig too big a hole before they get healthy (and that could mean no Alec Burks for a couple of months). This win bringing them to 2-2 on the season is huge in that chase.

2) Sixers trade Jerami Grant to Thunder for Ersan Ilyasova and a pick — and it’s pretty even. We have our first trade of the season, and while I don’t love it for Philadelphia, the fact they got this pick makes this a wash for me in the long term. Short term, I don’t love it for Philly. I get it, the Sixers need shooting, and Ilyasova does that far, far better than Grant right now. It gives Philly a healthy body up front. Plus Ilyasova is on an expiring contract.

But if it was just the player swap I wouldn’t have liked the deal for Philly. Grant is just 22, incredibly athletic, on a very affordable contract and could develop into something. The Thunder are good at development, and OKC is looking for long guys who can play the three and four (they lost one of those this summer if you hadn’t heard). I like the move for the Thunder, Ilyasova was not part of their future, Grant may not be but they have a chance to find out. The pick is what saves it for the Sixers — a first-round pick top 20 protected in 2020 or 2021, and if the Sixers don’t get the pick those years it becomes two second round picks (2022 and 2023). That’s a long-time off, but if they don’t see Grant as part of the future it’s a decent return for a guy they got in the second round.

3) DeMarcus Cousins had 13 points but picked up all six fouls in the fourth quarter. You read that right, DeMarcus Cousins had zero fouls through three quarters of the Kings game in Miami, then picked up all six and fouled out in the fourth quarter — thereby missing overtime in the eventual OT loss to the Heat. Cousins was livid — and he had a right to be. It’s tempting to blame Cousins’ demeanor, but he handled it fairly well. Some of those calls should have been no-calls, some others were borderline calls that could go either way and went against Cousins. Coach Dave Joerger said after the game he had watched the fouls and said they were “unbelievable” and said “I don’t know…” then trailed off trying to avoid getting a fine. He then added that with physical players like Cousins, they are difficult to officiate.

Here is the one where Cousins fouls out:

The Miami broadcasters like the call, but of course they do they are wearing Heat goggles. This could have gone either way, but it’s not a bad call, Cousins does get his left arm on the inside of Whiteside and hooks him, but he doesn’t extend and push. The thing is, Cousins never gets that call from the refs. Several of the rest were much worse calls, this one was legit. Cousins has the rep with refs and does not get the benefit of the doubt, and it cost him here. (Although the Kings could still have won if Rudy Gay didn’t airball a potential game winner.)

But Cousins did have a brilliant block of Whiteside earlier in the game.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he learned from Kawhi Leonard: “He was calm”

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Milwaukee was up 2-0 in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals on Toronto, having won those games by an average of 15 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo had scored 54 points, pulled down 31 rebounds, dished out 11 assists, and was looking every bit the MVP.

Then the games shifted to Toronto, Kawhi Leonard took over — including guarding Antetokounmpo more — and the Raptors rattled off four straight wins to take the series on their way to the NBA title. The Greek Freak still averaged 20.4 points a night in those final four games, but the buckets were much harder to come by.

Milwaukee returns this season as the Eastern Conference favorites and legit title contenders, in part because of what they learned from that loss. Antetokounmpo told Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports he learned a lot directly from Leonard in that series.

“I learned a lot from him,” Antetokounmpo said. “He knocked down free throws. He was calm. When double-teams came, he was swinging the ball but getting it right back. He was aggressive. He was calm but he was on a mission.”

Leonard is the living embodiment of the old John Wooden axiom “be quick, don’t hurry.” He’s not rushed, he’s rarely forced into shots he doesn’t want to take or plays he doesn’t want to make.  That’s true of all champions on some level. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan all bring an inner calm.

If Antetokounmpo brings that to his game, the Bucks are one big step closer to a title.

Domantas Sabonis on trade rumors: ‘I know exactly how the Pacers feel about me now’

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The Indiana Pacers have started to explore the trade market for Domantas Sabonis. There are logical reasons for this: Sabonis is good (he was second in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season), yet he and the Pacers are nowhere near agreement on a contract extension, and the Pacers already paid big money for Myles Turner to be their center, how much do they want to pay Sabonis, too?

That’s sound logic if you’re in the Pacers’ front office.

If you’re Sabonis, it can feel like a slap in the face to a guy who put in a lot of sweat and passion for the franchise. That’s what Sabonis sounded like in this quote, via Scott Agnes of The Athletic.

The Pacers are not talking about the report, which started with the well connected and reliable Sam Amick at The Athletic.

Pacers’ brass needs to talk about this with Sabonis (and likely already have, behind closed doors). If the Pacers trade him, it’s likely not until after Dec. 15 at the earliest (when most players signed this summer can be included in a deal) and probably closer to the February trade deadline. That’s a lot of season to play out, and Sabonis remains a vital part of the Indiana rotation.

There is likely to be a lot of interest in Sabonis on the market. However, because he’s a center (a position teams are careful not to overspend on in today’s market) and in the last year of his rookie deal — meaning he becomes a restricted free agent next summer and gets more expensive — teams are not going to overpay for him. Right now the Pacers are asking for too much and interested teams are lowballing their offers. The sides will meet in the middle.

That middle could shift if Sabonis has a rough start to the season. Both sides need him to play well and feel comfortable, whatever is going on with the business side of his contract.

Raptors, Pascal Siakam reportedly agree to four-year, $129.9 million max contract extension

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Pascal Siakam is going to be the face of the Toronto Raptors going forward.

This was expected. Toronto was never going to let its young star slip away; the only questions were when it a contract extension got done and the price.

The answers came Saturday, with the Raptors and Siakam’s agents reaching terms on what will be a four-year, $129.9 million max extension for the reigning Most Improved Player. Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN broke the news.

There are no player or team options, this is a straight four years.

Last season, his third in the league, Siakam made a huge leap. He averaged 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, shot 36.9 percent from three, took on a larger role as a shot creator, played impressive wing defense, and was a key part of the Raptors winning the first title in franchise history. He is at the heart of their future and a guy the Raptors wanted to keep through whatever rebuilding/retooling process comes in the next few years.

The Raptors could have played it out, and let Siakam go to restricted free agency next summer. However, in what will be a down free agent market, some team would have tried to poach the young wing — a real position of need around the league — with a max offer. The Raptors would have matched, but all that drama might have created bad blood. Maybe the Raptors overpaid a little, but they get to keep their guy and have him happy.

Siakam is the third player to get a max extension to their rookie contract this summer. Both Ben Simmons (Philadelphia) and Jamal Murray (Denver) signed five-year, $170 million max extensions. Siakam decided to take one year fewer, but also hits free agency again a little earlier.

Chinese state media says Adam Silver will face retribution for ‘defaming’ China

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Adam Silver has worked to portray the NBA as a progressive league that favored free speech. However, when push came to shove in a conflict with China over a Tweet from Rockets GM Daryl Morey supporting protesters in Hong Kong, Silver’s first statement seemed to protect the status quo and the cash the world’s largest nation generates for the NBA.

That backfired, and Silver came out with a stronger second statement that backed Morey’s right to free speech. Since then, the league has worked to emphasize that position.

In an interview at a TIME Magazine event this week, Silver added to that sentiment saying China asked for Morey to be fired and the league said no. “We made clear that we were being asked to fire him, by the Chinese government, by the parties we dealt with, government and business. We said there’s no chance that’s happening. There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”

The Chinese government denied this, and now Chinese State media is saying there will be retribution for Silver. From the South China Morning Post:

Chinese state media has warned that NBA commissioner Adam Silver will face “retribution” for defaming China in the latest twist to a dispute that began with a basketball team executive tweeting his support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong…

“Silver has spared no effort to portray himself as a fighter for free speech and used freedom of speech as an excuse to cover for Morey, who voiced his support for the violent actors in Hong Kong,” it said. “This has crossed the bottom line of the Chinese people.”

Silver’s handling of the controversy had proved his “double standards”, the broadcaster said, adding that he had “defamed” China on the international stage.

“To please some American politicians, Silver has fabricated lies out of nothing and has sought to paint China as unforgiving,” it said.

Silver didn’t fabricate this. We’re all smart enough to know how this went down: Chinese officials would never outright say “you need to fire Morey” but they could strongly imply it with words and actions. Silver’s phrasing on this — that it was “made clear that we were being asked to fire him” — suggests precisely this scenario. It’s how people with power ask for something unethical or illegal, whether we’re talking mob bosses or politicians, the ask is strongly implied but not direct, allowing denial later.

China wanted its pound of flesh, maybe to fire Morey but at least a public rebuke and fine/suspension. They got none of it. Now they can use Silver’s comment — clearly aimed at the domestic market to bolster the NBA’s image in the US — to cause a little more pain. China has shown it can hit the NBA’s bottom line, it flexed its muscle, but how far does either side really want it to progress?

As we have been saying all along, this issue is not going away anytime soon. It may fade from the spotlight, but the NBA/China relationship is a story that will be a cloud over this entire season.