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Hassan Whiteside feasting as Heat’s new franchise player

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. –  Before declaring for the NBA draft, before falling to the second round as a projected lottery pick, before flaming out with the Kings, before spending years in Lebanon, China and the D-League… Hassan Whiteside was a freshman at Marshall who planned to study nutrition.

That went on the backburner as he went on a basketball odyssey that saw him sink below basketball hell. He was so focused on getting back to the NBA, he couldn’t afford to spend much time on the big picture – literally. The last few years, Whiteside’s salary ranged from modest for an NBA player to modest for an American.

The Heat finally rewarded him with a four-year, $98 million max contract last summer, making Whiteside the first player to go from a minimum salary one year to a max salary the next.

“It changed my life,” Whiteside said.

One of the most immediate improvements: Whiteside hired a full-time chef. His previous chef cooked for him just a couple times a week. Any more would have been an indulgence when his compensation hadn’t yet set himself up for retirement. Now, Whiteside is eating better.

“He ain’t made a bad dish yet,” Whiteside said. “He’s pretty amazing.”

It’s all so amazing.

Three years ago, the Heat’s best players were LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Whiteside was out of the league.

Now, Whiteside has become Miami’s cornerstone.

Whiteside knew his contract – which will make him the Heat’s highest-paid player once they waive Bosh –  would mean Miami’s record would reflect more directly on him than ever. The Heat are 5-12, a stark drop from 48-34 and a playoff-series win last season.

The departures of Wade, Luol Deng and Joe Johnson obviously factor. So does a weak supporting cast left in the wake. But franchise players rarely get the benefit of the doubt.

The mission for Whiteside now shouldn’t be leading Miami to the playoffs, a mostly unrealistic goal. The focus should be on establishing himself as a reliable co-star for free agents next summer, when the Heat could have substantial cap room sans Bosh.

Whiteside is producing an All-Star-caliber season, averaging 17.3 points and an NBA-best 15.1 rebounds per game – marks only Kevin Love has hit over a full season in the last 25 years. Most of the players to do it prior are in the Hall of Fame.

After striving so hard just to return to the NBA, how his Whiteside handling this boost in prominence?

“I always had that belief in myself,” Whiteside said. “I looked at the guys on TV. I feel like I can compete with anybody or play better than anyone. It’s not really arrogance or anything. It’s just having that confidence in yourself, because that’s kind of what you needed when you get cut as many times as I did.”

Those days of fighting for roster spots are gone. Now, it’s about growing as a player, exchanging eye-catching stats for meaningful production when there’s a difference.

Last season, Whiteside blocked 3.7 shots per game and allowed opponents to shoot 46.5% at the rim while he was defending it. This season, he’s averaging 2.5 blocks per game and allowing opponents to shoot 41.5% at the rim while he’s defending it.

“I love that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Whiteside’s physical profile – 7-foot with a 7-foot-7 wingspan and elite hops – always gave him potential to be an elite shot-blocker and rebounder. Refining his skills was the next step, one Spoelstra harped on.

On the other hand, it was never clear Whiteside could lead an NBA team in scoring – but that’s what he’s doing right now.

“Quite frankly, we need it,” Spoelstra said.

Whiteside’s shooting efficiency has predictably dropped as he has taken a larger load. Previously, he shot only when he had an excellent chance of scoring. Now, he’s taking all those shots plus ones with lower odds.

Still, those additional looks are still frequently more efficient than other shots Miami can produce. Feeding Whiteside is often the best answer, especially considering his assist rate has improved (though from a comically low point).

After so much handwringing about Whiteside’s maturity, every aspect of his game has improved since signing long-term. He has invested in himself – from a chef to thinking the game better – and it’s paying off.

“He seems to be growing every week, and I can’t wait to see his growth as this season goes on,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t know where he’ll be in the spring the way he’s improving right now.”

Donovan Mitchell goes off for 19 in fourth quarter, Jazz hold off elimination with win

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This game just felt different — the Utah Jazz were playing with a passionate desperation we had not seen from them all series. Down 3-0 to Houston, Utah did not want to be swept out of the playoffs on their home court. The Jazz defended better, got a big night from Jae Crowder (14 points in the first quarter alone), and were knocking down shots.

But Utah could not pull away. Houston was always within striking distance.

Until the fourth quarter.

That’s when Utah went on a 12-1 run early, sparked by Donovan Mitchell who had 19 in the fourth, and the Jazz created some separation and held on for the 107-91 win.

Mitchell finished with 31 on the night.

Mitchell had some help. Crowder finished with 23 points, while Ricky Rubio added 18 points and 11 assists.

“We were okay until the last quarter… again, they had more of a desperation than we had,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said.

James Harden got his, 30 points on 19 shots, in part because he went 6-of-12 from three. Chris Paul had 23 as well. All the other Rockets combined to shoot 29.3 percent on the night. In the fourth, the Rockets were 0-of-13 from three.

For the Rockets this is a blown chance to get more rest. The Warriors play Wednesday night in Game 5 of their series, if the Rockets had closed the series out they could have had a little more rest. Instead, they also now have a Game 5 Wednesday.

For the Jazz, this was a matter of pride, they finally found what it would take for them to beat the Rockets. It was their most energized defensive performance of the series, and the shots were falling. The series is not in doubt — no team has ever come back from a 0-3 deficit to win a series — but the Jazz showed the fight and resilience we have come to expect from a Quin Snyder coached team.

Will that be enough Wednesday night is another question.

Phoenix Suns fire coach Igor Kokoskov

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Following a 19-63 season where the man who hired him — GM Ryan McDonough — was already shown the door, there was a lot of speculation that coach Igor Kokoskov was next on the chopping block.

That happened Monday night, the Suns decided to move on from Kokoskov.

“After extensive evaluation, I determined it is best to move in a different direction with our head coaching position,” said Suns general manager James Jones in a statement. “I want to thank Igor for his work this past season and wish him the best with his future endeavors.”

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN added some detail.

The Suns recently hired Jeff Bower as their senior vice president of basketball operations. Bower gave Monty Williams his first head coaching job, hiring him to coach the Hornets back when Bower was the GM there.

Williams will have his second interview with the Lakers next week. Williams is rumored in some quarters to be the frontrunner for the Los Angeles job (he and Tyronn Lue will have second interviews coming), the Suns are starting this race from behind but do have a relationship there.

Kokoskov was the first European born person to be a head coach in the NBA. He was Luka Doncic‘s national team coach, but the Suns took Deandre Ayton No. 1 (reportedly at the urging of owner Robert Saver).

Kokoskov was handed a young roster that lacked a point guard or solid veteran leader, so it’s no surprise the Suns and Kokoskov got off to a slow start, going 4-18 and looking a mess. However, the team improved, Kelly Oubre Jr. was added, and the Suns went an improved 8-15 after the All-Star break, including wins against the Bucks and Warriors. Devin Booker improved, Deandre Ayton was growing, and the team showed improvement. That said, there were questions about Kokoskov’s rotations and communication with players.

Phoenix, with meddling owner Robert Sarver at the helm, is known for turnover and instability — whoever is hired next will be the team’s seventh head coach in eight years. This move just fits right in with the perception.

 

Bucks win first playoff series in 18 years, give Pistons longest playoff-game losing streak in NBA history

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DETROIT – Between on-court postgame interviews, Giannis Antetokounmpo took a pit stop at the Bucks’ bench for a drink. He appeared to need a few moments to catch his breath, so Fox Sports Wisconsin reporter Katie George asked whether he was ready.

Antetokounmpo nodded as if he didn’t give it a second thought.

Of course he was ready.

Antetokounmpo was ready for everything tonight.

He scored 41 points – the most so far by anyone this postseason – and blocked four shots to lead the Bucks to a 127-104 Game 4 win over the Pistons. By sweeping Detroit, Milwaukee got its first playoff-series victory in 18 years.

“Where we were and where we are right now,” Antetokounmpo said, “it’s been an unbelievable journey.”

The Bucks advance to face the Celtics in the second round, an awaited rematch of last year’s first-round series. But Milwaukee cared far more about its opening round than most 60-win No. 1 seeds do.

Every NBA MVP besides Kevin Garnett, who didn’t advance until his ninth year, won a playoff series in his first five seasons. Antetokounmpo, who’s favored to win MVP this year, just won his first series in his sixth season.

The wait has been even longer for Milwaukee, which ends the fourth-longest playoff-series-victory drought of all-time at 17 seasons:

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The Bucks left no doubt, beating Detroit by 35, 21, 16 and 23. This is just the second four-game sweep with every game won by at least 15 points in NBA history (Celtics over Rockets in 1980).

The sweep gives the Pistons sole possession of the longest playoff-game losing streak of all-time, 14 games:

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Detroit’s streak includes 2009 and 2016 sweeps by the Cavaliers, meaning the Pistons have now gone 11 straight seasons without winning a playoff game. That’s one of the longest such droughts of all-time (record during drought listed):

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Detroit just had no answer for Antetokounmpo, who drew 16 fouls Monday. The most impressive came as he rose to dunk on Andre Drummond, withstood contact and shifted to make a circus shot:

The play left his teammates in awe.

Eric Bledsoe: “I had to tell him, ‘Bro, you don’t understand how athletic you’ve been all season and finessing at the rim.’ That one, it was just unbelievable. It was unbelievable, man.”

Pat Connaughton: “There are sometimes you’ve just got to shake your head at some of the things that he can do. … I think the nickname ‘Freak’ is for a reason.”

Nikola Mirotic: “It was just amazing watching him tonight”

The Bucks will have a little time to lock back in.

Milwaukee-Boston will be the first series between teams coming off sweeps since Lakers-Suns in the 2010 Western Conference finals. It’ll be the first such second-round series since Pistons-Bulls in 2007.

As Antetokounmpo repeatedly said in the locker room after tonight’s game, “I can’t wait.”

Report: Luke Walton sued for sexual assault

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Luke Walton is being sued by a female reporter claiming sexual assault from a hotel room incident that dates back to before he was hired as the Lakers’ head coach (he was recently let go from that position and is currently the coach of the Sacramento Kings).

Kelli Tennant was writing a book and wanted Walton to write the forward, according to a lawsuit obtained by TMZ. The two had a business relationship and she agreed to meet him in a Santa Monica hotel to discuss him writing the forward to the book, according to the report. We’ll let TMZ take it from there:

In the suit, Tennant says when she arrived at Walton’s hotel, he convinced her to come up to his room so they could discuss the book. She claims when they got up to his room, Walton suddenly pinned her to the bed, placing his hips and legs over her body.

In the docs, Tennant claims Walton then began forcing kisses on her neck, face and chest. She claims she screamed for him to stop and tried to free herself, but he held her down, groped her breasts and groin, and rubbed his erection on her leg.

She says he eventually relented and let her get up from the bed, but as she was walking towards the door to leave he grabbed her from behind and again forced his body up against hers.

The lawsuit goes on to say Walton and her would interact after that, because of her job, and he would give her exaggerated hugs, kisses, and would make lewd comments to her.

Walton took over coaching the Lakers for the 2016-17 season. The alleged assault took place while Walton was still an assistant coach with the Warriors, however, some of the comments/actions that made her uncomfortable came later while Walton was with the Lakers.

Walton’s attorney released a statement to Sam Amick of The Athletic.

The Sacramento Kings have made a statement:

“We are aware of the report and are gathering additional information. We have no further comment at this time.”

The Warriors issued this statement:

“We became aware of the alleged incident and story this evening and are in the process of seeking more information. We’ll have no further comment at this time.”

The Lakers issued this statement:

“This alleged incident took place before Luke Walton was the Head Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. At no time before or during his employment here was this allegation reported to the Lakers. If it had been, we would have immediately commenced an investigation and notified the NBA. Since Luke Walton is now under contract to another team, we will have no further comment.”