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Three things we learned Wednesday: MVP level Stephen Curry is back

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The Miami Heat made it nine wins in a row. Kyrie Irving was dropping dimes, with 14 assists (the most ever by a LeBron teammate). The Knicks won (against the Nets, but it still counts). Even Dell Curry was draining threes. It was such a busy night in the NBA that none o that even made our list of takeaways from Wednesday night around the league.

1) MVP-level Stephen Curry is back. Because the Warriors weren’t dangerous enough already. Stephen Curry is not going to win a third straight MVP award this year, it’s either going to be James Harden (I think he’s the frontrunner now by a small margin) or Russell Westbrook.

However, after a rough couple of months to start the season, MVP-level Stephen Curry is back. Just ask the Hornets, who watched him drop 11 threes and 39 points on them Wednesday (a Warriors 126-111 win).

Those 11 threes left Curry one short of the record for most in a game (12, by Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall) but Steve Kerr didn’t play Curry in the fourth to chase the record (Curry played just 30 minutes). That’s not a game the Warriors are playing this season, chasing records.

Things changed for Curry after the Christmas Day loss to the Cavaliers. He knew he needed to be more aggressive (and not defer as much to Kevin Durant), and Steve Kerr knew he needed to put Curry in better situations to take advantage of his skill set. Curry was given a chance to run more pick-and-rolls (as he requested), and now it was Durant setting the pick more often. Curry’s shots went up by three per game, and while not all of those were “good” shots part of what makes Curry tick is taking some shots that nobody else should take — he hits a few, and it gets him going.

As noted by ESPN’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss, with the ball in his hands Curry’s three-point percentage jumped from 39.7 percent before Christmas to 46.2 percent after it. The numbers bear out he’s playing like his MVP self again. His swagger is back. The Warriors are his team again.

Curry looks like the best player in the league again (LeBron James doesn’t dial it up like this for the regular season anymore).

And woe is the rest of the league when Curry plays like this.

2) Or maybe Isaiah Thomas is the best player in the game — he drops 42 on Raptors to get Celtics win. This was a big game: It was for the lead in the Atlantic Division (if anyone actually cares about NBA divisions anymore), more importantly, it was for second place in the Eastern Conference. Guys stepped up for this game — Kyle Lowry was stunningly good on his way to 32 points. It was the Jared Sullinger revenge game, and he had 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting. Those two helped Toronto to an 11-point halftime lead, and the Raptors seemed to control the game.

Then Isaiah Thomas happened.

Maybe the hottest player in the game, he had 19 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter, and he led the Celtics to win the fourth 32-19 and the game 109-104.

Like Curry above, Thomas isn’t going to win the MVP award, but he’s going to get some votes down ballot (third, fourth, fifth) and deservedly so. He has the Celtics offense humming and the Celtics in second place in the East. Toronto fans would like to point out they did not have DeMar DeRozan for this game, and that’s duly noted. But this win matters because second place in the East matters — it means home court in the second round. Also, a hot Wizards team is just one game back of the Raptors now, just two-and-a-half back of the Celtics, the Wiz are in this conversation (at 22-9 they have the best record in the East since Dec. 1). What that really means is teams want to avoid being the four seed — nobody wants Cleveland in the second round. Which is why wins like this one by Boston matter. A lot.

3) Maybe the Bulls thrive in tensions and chaos, they pick up a quality win over Thunder on the road. Rumor still swirls around Chicago like paparazzi around Beyoncé. The team’s young players love Rajon Rondo more than the “leaders” of the squad. The Bulls don’t plan to trade Rondo, apparently, but the team the focus of trade rumors.  Rival executives believe Jimmy Butler will be available again via trade, in part because of tension with the front office dating back to Butler betting on himself and not taking the rookie deal extension management offered (and management threatened to play Tony Snell in front of him at the time, which didn’t go over well with Thibodeau). And all that is since the Butler/Wade bashing of the team’s young players and Rondo coming to their defense.

With all that noise and chaos around them, the Bulls have picked up two quality wins in a row. First, it was a hot Sixers team, then Wednesday the Bulls opened a six-game road trip with a victory over Westbrook and the Thunder. Butler had 28 points on 17 shots, Wade had 18 points and seven assists, and Cristiano Felicio Doug McDermott each had 11 points off the bench. Rondo had another strong game leading the second unit. The Bulls looked comfortable in the win.

The question isn’t “are the Bulls on track or in turmoil?” Rather, it’s “do the Bulls thrive in turmoil?” We’ll find out over the next couple weeks, because the turmoil isn’t going away during this six-game road trip, which is followed immediately by Boston and Toronto at home.

As an aside, the highlight of the Bulls/Thunder game unsurprisingly went to Westbrook, with his rejection of Butler.

Raptors’ pregame video on Canadian broadcast is group therapy session for Toronto

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Raptors fans are pumped — and they should be, their team knocked off the Celtics Friday night with Kawhi Leonard dropping 31 points (and still showing some rust on the offensive end, he is going to get better). Toronto is positioned to be the one team in the East that is a genuine threat to the Celtics (sorry Philly, not just yet).

Yet Raptors fans as a whole expect the worst, they come with a grey cloud following them and an inferiority complex, Leonard is a free agent next summer, and there is a history of players leaving Toronto…

Which is why the Sportsnet Canada broadcast pregame video is remarkable — it’s a group therapy session for Toronto and all of Canada. To be clear, this was not shown in the arena before the game, it was on the national broadcast, but still, check it out.

Letting go of the past, not worrying about the future, and living in the moment is always good advice.

Leonard said the key to keeping him in Toronto is winning, and Friday night was a good first step down that road. Of course, there’s more to it than that and other teams are going to be in the mix (keep an eye on the Clippers), but sources around the league I talk to think the Raptors have a chance. Sort of like Paul George in Oklahoma City, if he has a very positive experience, it’s possible he opens his mind to staying. Plus, he can get five years, $190 million from the Raptors and four-years, $139 million from anyone else, for a guy coming off basically missing a season due to injury that security and guaranteed money may matter.

Nobody knows what will happen next summer — Leonard and his family/advisors have been unpredictable. Leonard likely doesn’t even know yet.

Which is why Raptors’ fans should let go of the past, live in the moment and savor this season — it could be the greatest one in Raptors’ history.

 

Watch highlights of Pelican’s franchise-record 149 point blowout of Kings

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We’re just two games into the season, but the New Orleans Pelicans have the best offense in the NBA, averaging 127.9 points per 100 possessions. In what has felt like a high scoring start to the season in general (it’s too early to draw conclusions), nobody has been blowing up like Anthony Davis (28.5 points per game) and the Pelicans.

Friday night they dropped a franchise record 149 points on the Sacramento Kings.

Nikola Mirotic had 36 leading eight Pelicans in double figures. Check out the highlights above. And light a candle for the Clippers and Nets, the next two teams up to try to stop the Pelicans freight train.

Report: Negotiations to drop one-and-done at standstill over pre-draft issues

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Eventually, the NBA will again open the door for high school players to jump directly to the league — this time around teams are far better prepared to deal with and develop young players than when this was thrust upon them in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Everyone is awaiting the change, because one-and-done has not been good for anyone.

However, talks between the NBA and the players’ union to open that door again in 2022 have hit gridlock and reached a standstill over pre-draft issues. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news.

The NBA and National Basketball Players Association are struggling to reach an agreement on lowering the age limit to 18, differing on the league’s desire to attach two conditions to ending the one-and-done NBA draft era, league sources told ESPN.

Commissioner Adam Silver is pressing NBPA executive director Michele Roberts to require that player agents furnish all teams with medical information on prospective draft prospects, league sources said. The league also wants to mandate players attendance and some level of participation in the pre-draft combine, sources said…

“We’re investing millions of dollars into players who we’ll now have even less information about coming out of high school, and we should have the right to have all the information available on who we are selecting,” one general manager told ESPN.

From a team’s perspective, it’s easy to see why they want these conditions. As the anonymous GM above notes for teams this is an investment and if a player has a medical issue — such as the heart issues that have led to surgeries for Jeff Green, Ronny Turiaf, and others now including UCLA’s Shareef O’Neal (Shaq’s son) — teams believe they have a right to know in advance.

However, medical information is not freely shared now — agents often withhold it from (and keep their player from working out for) teams they do not want to draft their player all the time. This doesn’t always work, teams draft guys without workouts and medicals every year, but it’s a bit of leverage agents have now to try and get their player to what they see as a better fit (that can be about opportunity or market size).

According to Wojnarowski, 11 of the 65 players invited to the NBA Draft Combine last year did not take part in the medical exam portion (every team has access to that report). That’s about some agents trying to gain a little leverage in the process, for teams the risk is higher if they don’t have that information.

As for the combine, while more and more players are skipping the drills and games part of the event, going through the measurements and interview processes are basically universal.

The NBA drafting straight out of high school is going to happen again — and it should. If a young player is good enough, or on track to be good enough, and he’s a legal adult teams should have the right to bring him in. The NCAA should adapt to a system that keeps the players that do enter college there a little longer — at least two years — allowing for more consistency and a better product for them. (Of course, the NCAA is the protector of a feudal system of “amateurism” that needs to go, so lord knows what they will ultimately do, but bet on it being whatever they must to protect all that money flowing into their pockets.)

The earliest the draft of 18-year-olds would happen is 2022, both giving teams more time to scout what is the current high school freshman class that would graduate that year, and giving teams knowledge of what was coming down the line when trading draft picks.

Jimmy Butler on boos to M-V-P chants: ‘I love it. I love it.’

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Jimmy Butler knew it was coming. Request a trade out of town and of course the fans are going to boo. Butler also said he thought he could win the Timberwolves faithful over again if he just played hard like always.

That’s how the script played out.

Butler was booed loudly when he was announced — although not as loudly as coach/GM Tom Thibodeau — but by the end of the game they were cheering him and chanting MVP as he dropped 33 points on 12 shots in a Timberwolves win over the Cavaliers, 131-123. After the game, Butler said he was good with the boos.

“I love it. I love it. I think people kind of love to hate me sometimes. Say whatever you want to say, but it really makes me smile, what people think about me. But no matter what, you gotta respect my effort…

“You may not like me, That’s okay. But as long as you know that my mind and my heart are in the right place, that I do everything to win and I would do anything for my guys.”

Butler said he was being made out to be the bad guy in this saga but people don’t know all the facts, then he wouldn’t discuss what it was people didn’t know. Butler also was frustrated with teammates that the Timberwolves had a 21-point lead in the third but it got close again in the fourth (Butler himself was -3 for the game, he was part of that problem). But in the end, as it often does (and as Thibodeau seems to be betting on), winning cures all ills.

Minnesota is now 1-1 on the young season, meanwhile, trade talks surrounding Butler are dormant.