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Nikola Vucevic, amid trade and demotion rumors, off to hot start for Magic

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The Magic traded for Serge Ibaka – then called Nikola Vucevic.

The Magic signed Jeff Green – then called Vucevic.

The Magic signed Bismack Biyombo – then called Vucevic.

After each move to add to a big-man rotation that already included Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, someone from Orlando – usually general manager Rob Hennigan – explained the rationale to Vucevic. The Magic wanted to add depth, get better defensively, become more energetic and positive and find a veteran leader. And Vucevic says he endorsed all that.

“I never felt like my position was in danger,” Vucevic said.

So many others thought it was.

Numerous analysts pegged Vucevic as the odd man out, likely to be demoted from the starting lineup if not traded. Then, a funny thing happened: Vucevic has held his job as starting center and been the Magic’s best player so far this season.

He leads Orlando’s frontcourt players in points (14.8), rebounds (12.8) and assists (3.0) per game. The Magic are way better with him on the court than off – scoring 7.4 more and allowing 19.5 fewer points per 100 possessions.

The sentiment behind expecting a Vucevic trade is understandable. After all, his four years in Orlando produced four losing seasons. If he had played better, the Magic wouldn’t need such a drastic overhaul. Vucevic, a skilled offensive player with defensive deficiencies, didn’t seem to fit the new vision.

Orlando added three players with higher salaries than Vucevic who will affect his playing time. Vucevic and Biyombo are centers. Ibaka is a power forward-center. Gordon and Green are power forward-small forwards. With the exception of Green, they all defend better than Vucevic – which would seem to hold particular sway under new coach Frank Vogel.

Yet, not only is Vucevic excelling, his frontcourt teammates aren’t. Ibaka has looked lethargic on defense more often than not. Biyombo still hasn’t settled in after being suspended for the season opener. Green has been (predictably) shaky. The promising Gordon looks displaced at small forward.

As a result, early returns on the Magic’s plan are negative. They’re 1-3 and seem likely to continue their streak of aiming for the playoffs and falling short. On one hand, dealing Vucevic for a perimeter player could stabilize the rotation. But how can you trade the only big man who looks comfortable?

Vucevic said he didn’t need the offseason phone calls, but he appreciated the reassurances. That has translated to a confident player – one who publicly stated that he should start over Biyombo and has backed it up on the court.

“I knew what my value is. I knew what I can bring to this team,” Vucevic said. “And so, I wasn’t afraid that my role or something was going to get hurt by that.”

Before this offseason, Orlando had given Vucevic every reason to believe his place is secure.

The Magic have had five players eligible for a rookie-scale contract extension under Hennigan. They traded one (Maurice Harkless), let another become an unrestricted free agent and leave (Andrew Nicholson) and made two restricted free agents and re-signed them (Evan Fournier and Tobias Harris). Vucevic is the only one to receive an extension.

That four-year, $53 million pact looked lofty at the time, but the new national TV deals have made it a bargain – part of the reason Vucevic appears to tradable. He’s making just $11.75 million this season and $25 million over the next two.

The market for centers has cooled, but at that price, many teams would love to have a big man who possesses crafty moves in the paint and a steady mid-range jumper, skillfully drops dimes and gobbles up rebounds.

Vucevic steals some rebounds from teammates, but Orlando rebounds much better with him on the floor. His on-off numbers are boosted by playing with other starters, though there’s a reason he’s untrusted with those minutes. He’s due for some regression to the mean, especially defensively, but he has already pleasantly surprised his new coach on that end.

“His natural talents are on the offensive end. There’s no doubt about that,” Vogel said. “But all you can ask of all your players is to give maximum effort, and he’s doing that right now.”

Said Vucevic: “I’m not an explosive, high-jumping guy that’s just going to go and get the ball on top of the backboard. It’s more about just being in the right position at the right time.”

The trade speculation probably won’t go away. If the Magic remain dismal, they could seek a shakeup. If they improve, they could lean more on the sparkling new additions and younger players and deal Vucevic.

But in a way few expected before the season, Vucevic might actually just be in the right position at the right time.

Now, Vucevic must keep it up, and the rest of the Magic must catch up if this isn’t going to be another lost season in Orlando.

Watch Jamal Murray hit insane hand-switching layup around LeBron

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Are. You. Kidding. Me.

You are not going to see a better layup these playoffs than this one by Denver’s Jamal Murray, going around LeBron James near the end of the first half of Game 4.

Murray went up thinking dunk, had to change his mind because of LeBron, brought it down, went around him, and spun it in off the glass. Insane. It had some people on Twitter referencing the legendary Michael Jordan hand-switching shot. Not sure I’m willing to compare this Murray shot to a layup that helped launch a dynasty, but it’s close.

Murray had 16 in the first half but the Nuggets trailed at the break 60-55 in a high scoring first half. Anthony Davis had 19 to lead the Lakers.

Former Louisville star Donovan Mitchell “sad, angry, disgusted” with Breonna Taylor decision

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NBA players — like large swaths of the United States — are shaking their heads at the decision not to prosecute the police sho shot Breonna Taylor in her home. That includes LeBron James, who said the walls of Taylor’s neighbors got more justice than she did.

Now former Louisville star Donovan Mitchell has spoken out on the issue.

View this post on Instagram

We’re Sorry Breonna😔🤦🏾‍♂️

A post shared by Donovan Mitchell (@spidadmitchell) on

The hate and racism in too many of the responses to that Instagram post highlight the injustice and additional hurdles Black people in America have to clear every day.

Louisville has faced a night of protests and backlash to the decision by the grand jury, which included the two police officers getting shot (they both survived).

 

Report: Bulls paying Billy Donovan $6 million-plus annual salary

New Bulls coach and former Thunder coach Billy Donovan
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
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Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf just spent the NBA hiatus – at least if you looked beyond “The Last Dance” itself – getting dragged for not spending enough to give Michael Jordan another year of title contention in Chicago.

Paying to hire Billy Donovan is a way for Reinsdorf and the Bulls to repair their reputations.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

I’d be surprised if all four years are fully guaranteed. Coaching contracts of this length usually contain a team option or two.

But that’s still a hefty salary. Especially in these times. Especially considering it was believed the Bulls would keep Jim Boylen for financial reasons.

Donovan left the Thunder despite them offering him a new contract. He likely knew he could get more elsewhere.

Credit Chicago for being the team to spend. The Bulls needed a solid coach after Boylen and Fred Hoiberg.

Donovan won’t solve all Chicago’s problems, but he should help on multiple fronts. This upgrade costs nothing but Reinsdorf’s money, which every Chicago fan is perfectly willing to spend.

NBA playoff schedule 2020: Date, time, matchup for every game

NBA playoff schedule 2020
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And there were four.

The NBA is down to the conference finals — and the bubble has provided us with upsets galore. There are some unexpected teams in the NBA’s Final Four, but of course LeBron James is still there. The Lakers are the heavy favorites at this point.

Here are a few notes on the NBA playoffs schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing to push the pace with games every other day — except in the East, when ESPN wants a break not to clash with the NFL, and to let the West catch up. The fast pace of games will return with the NBA Finals.
Families for the players, and with the final four now the coaches, are in the bubble.
• The NBA has released an NBA Finals schedule to teams and their target is still a Sept. 30 Game 1. If either conference finals goes seven games that date will need to be pushed back.

Here is the NBA playoffs schedule 2020 (all times are Eastern):

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Miami Heat

Game 1: Heat 117, Celtics 114, OT
Game 2: Heat 106, Celtics 101
Game 3: Celtics 117, Heat 106
Game 4: Heat 112, Celtics 109 (Miami leads series 3-1)
Game 5: Sept. 25, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 6: Sept. 27, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)*
Game 7: TBD (ESPN)*
*If necessary

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 3 Denver Nuggets

Game 1: Lakers 126, Nuggets 114
Game 2: Lakers 105, Nuggets 103
Game 3: Nuggets 114, Lakers 106 (Lakers lead series 2-1)
Game 4: Sept. 24, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Sept. 26, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 6: Sept. 28, TBD (TNT)*
Game 7: Sept. 30, TBD (TNT)*
*If necessary

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: Second Round results

Eastern Conference

No. 3 Boston beat No. 2 Toronto 4-3

No. 5 Miami beat No. 1 Milwaukee 4-1

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers beat Houston 4-1

No. 3 Denver beat No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers 4-3

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First Round results

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers beat No. 8 Portland 4-1

No. 2 L.A. Clippers beat No. 7 Dallas 4-2

No. 3 Denver beat No. 6 Utah 4-3

No. 4 Houston beat No. 5 Oklahoma City 4-3

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee beat No. 8 Orlando 4-1

No. 2 Toronto beat No. 7 Brooklyn 4-0

No. 3 Boston beat No. 6 Philadelphia 4-0

No. 5 Miami beat No. 4 Indiana 4-0