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Timberwolves owner says playoffs priority this year

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Timberwolves enter the All-Star break in 13th place in the muddled Western Conference, seemingly faced with two options.

They can try to chase down the eighth seed and make the playoffs, with the Denver Nuggets just 3 1/2 games ahead of them. Or they could turn their eyes toward the lottery, either using a higher draft pick to add another talented young player or as an asset to move this summer in a quest for an accomplished veteran to complement a promising trio of young stars.

For Wolves owner Glen Taylor, president and coach Tom Thibodeau and GM Scott Layden, there is no debate.

“We’re all of the same mind, to get in, get the experience,” Taylor told The Associated Press. “Just the winning of games to try to get there is worth it. Our guys can’t see anything positive about losing games. They must win games, and then if we can win enough to get into the playoffs, that in and of itself would be a major step for our young players.”

The Timberwolves (22-35) have shrugged off a lousy start to show signs of improvement over the last 30 games, but there is an awful lot of work to do. Five teams are ahead of them in the race for a likely first-round date with the Golden State Warriors, and the young Wolves are still trying to get a firm grasp on Thibodeau’s defensive system.

Making it more daunting, Zach LaVine had surgery on a torn ACL on Tuesday and will miss the next nine months. That leaves 21-year-old Karl-Anthony Towns and 22-year-old Andrew Wiggins to carry the load, barring a trade before the Feb. 23 deadline.

In the last two games before the break – a loss to Cleveland and a win at Denver – Wiggins became the second player in franchise history to score at least 40 points in back-to-back games. Towns has solidified himself as one of the best young big men in the game, averaging 28.4 points and 11.4 rebounds in the seven games since LaVine was injured.

“We’re on the right path,” Wiggins said after the loss to the Cavs. “We’ve done a lot of good things. There’s still some stuff everyone needs to work on, but we’ve done some good things.”

The Timberwolves are 11th in the league in offensive rating, but 23rd in defensive rating, a point of consternation for Thibodeau, who is known as one of the best defensive tacticians in the league. And a 6-18 start to the season put them in a deep hole. The Wolves are 11-9 in their last 20 games, but still on pace for about 31 wins, which would be just a two-win increase over last year’s team coached by Sam Mitchell.

“I thought with (Thibodeau’s) experience and his mentoring, it would push it along a little faster,” Taylor said. “And it hasn’t gone as fast as we hoped. But I appreciate that he’s looking at the long run. He came here to be the coach for the long run. We hired him for the long run. And we’ve got players that we anticipate will be here for a long time.”

While disappointed in the win total, Taylor said he was bullish on the direction of the franchise.

“I’m happy with my coach. I’m happy with the general manager. They’re being very patient working through this,” Taylor said. “On the other side, I was hopeful that we would have more wins.”

The one thing that appears to be missing is a strong, veteran, defensive-minded presence to hold things together when the young guys either get too excited or lose focus.

“I know the guys will look at other alternatives, but I also know them well enough that they aren’t going to do something foolish,” Taylor said of the looming trade deadline. “They aren’t going to do something that would hurt the team in the long run just to make us look good in the short run. This is a long-run game for all of us.”

Taylor has thrown millions into a new practice facility that opened two years ago and a renovation to Target Center that began before the season started. He has also added two minority owners to strengthen his financial position, hired a new CEO in Ethan Casson and has been pleased with the developments on the business side of his operations.

“They can see I’m committed for the long run and we’re making investments back into the team and building for the long run,” Taylor said. “I think we’ve done all of those things. The only thing that hasn’t lived up to our expectations is the number of wins I would’ve hoped we’d have to this point.”

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.

Playoff losses wearing on LeBron James: ‘I lose sleep’

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost one game before reaching the NBA Finals. The season before that, two. The season before that also two. In Miami before that, the last couple of years they went to the Finals the Heat lost three and four games before reaching the Finals.

This year, the Cavaliers have lost five games already and find themselves down 0-2 to the Boston Celtics heading into Game 3 Saturday night in Cleveland.

The losses do weigh on LeBron, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I mean, I lose sleep,” James said after shootaround Saturday morning. “I mean, at the end of the day, when you lose any game in the postseason, [you lose sleep], so it’s never comfort. Playoffs is never comfort. There’s nothing about the playoffs that’s comfortable until you either win it all or you lose and go into the summer.

“So, for me, it’s always [a] day-to-day grind to figure out ways that you can be better.”

Cleveland has a lot to figure out to win the next two games because if they don’t and go down 3-1 in this series, it’s hard to envision how LeBron can drag this roster back to the Finals (what would be his eighth straight trip).

Offensively Cleveland has to get consistent play from guys other than LeBron (and to a lesser extent, Kevin Love) — J.R. Smith has been awful and needs to find a rhythm at home, George Hill needs to make some plays, Kyle Korver needs to get open and knock down some looks, and some help from the bench is needed.

But that’s not even the end of the floor that is the Cavs real problem. Defensively the Cavaliers recognition and communication has been dreadful, and the passing and player movement of the Celtics has carved them up. Cleveland has outscored teams and not defended all that well for a long time now — that’s how they made the Finals a season ago — but it’s not enough now. The offense and LeBron can’t carry them all the way.

We’ll see after Game 3 if LeBron is going to be able to get any sleep Saturday night.