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Three Things We Learned Thursday: Warriors still figuring out no Durant life, good teams like Celtics expose that

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It was a busy night around the NBA with 11 games, but if you were binging Luke Cage we understand, here are the big takeaways from Tuesday around the league. 

1) Golden State still has not figured out life without Kevin Durant, and good teams like Boston will make them pay.
The Celtics came into Oracle Arena and did what they do in the fourth quarter: Play disciplined defense, count on role players such as Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk to step up, and lean on Isaiah Thomas. It’s a model that works.

Golden State still hasn’t figured out what works with Kevin Durant sidelined. KD — who said he “got a boo-boo playing basketball” — watched the game from the locker room at Oracle and had to be itching to get back out there seeing the mess that unfolded.

The Warriors were up a bucket heading into the fourth quarter, then in the next 12 minutes they scored 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting with eight turnovers. Boston thoroughly outplayed Golden State in the fourth, went on a 15-0 run midway through the quarter, and pulled away for a 99-86 win. While there was still more than four minutes left, this Thomas three felt like the moment the Celtics closed the door on the game.

We need to give Boston credit here. They prioritized defending the arc and the Warriors shot 6-of-30 from deep. Thomas led the way with 25, but Olynyk’s 17 off the bench were huge (he was +29 on the night). They executed with the game on the line, as they have all season.

But the Warriors are just not right.

When Durant went down, I said that for the Warriors to hold on to the No. 1 seed they needed Stephen Curry to return to his MVP form of previous seasons. He has not been anywhere close to that. There were fourth-quarter “M-V-P” chants in Oracle Tuesday night, but they were for Boston’s Thomas. Maybe we can blame a harsh and packed stretch of the schedule for Curry’s 2-of-9 three-point shooting against Boston, or the fact Curry is shooting 29.5 percent from three in his last five games, but the Warriors can’t afford that now (although coach Steve Kerr postgame talked about resting key players coming up). With no Durant there is no safety net, no rotations where Curry can just coast and be fine, or where Warriors role players don’t have to step up.

It’s not just Curry struggling, and not just Klay Thompson either (2-of-8 from three Tuesday), you can throw coach Steve Kerr in the mix. He has not found rotations that work, particularly in the fourth. Kerr’s regular rotation this season was to rest Durant and Curry both to start the fourth, then bring them back midway through and at that time give a brief rest to Thompson and Draymond Green, then have them re-enter for the final three or four minutes as needed. Kerr hasn’t really varied from that, but most of the Celtics game-deciding 15-0 run had come before Curry got back on the court, and when he did he couldn’t begin to reverse it by himself. Having two of the Warriors three best players on the bench for three minutes in the second half of the fourth quarter is going to get them beat by good teams, such as Boston. Kerr can’t lean on James Michael McAdoo and Patrick McCaw in these moments without KD on the court.

When Durant first went down, I thought the idea of San Antonio catching the Warriors for the No. 1 seed was a crazy longshot (I didn’t think the Warriors would lose that many games). No more. As the Warriors stumble to reshape their identity, the Spurs are just 1.5 games back and poised for the run to the top.

2) Utah went into Houston and — thanks to Rudy Gobert and his hair — beat the Rockets. Utah is going to have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and if they play then against the Clippers (most likely the opponent) like they did against Houston on Tuesday, the Jazz could be in the second round. Do not sleep on this team.

Houston got 23 points each from Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert (the latter of whom has some interesting hair going on), they made James Harden work for his buckets (he was 0-of-8 from three), and the result was a 115-108 Jazz win. Also, of course, the Jazz were playing good defense and getting blocked shots — from Hayward.

With this win (and a Clipper loss to the Timberwolves) the Jazz are 2.5 games ahead of the Clippers for the four seed. That means Utah is going to be the four seed and have home-court in the first round, and that is going to be an interesting series (Gobert vs. DeAndre Jordan, how do the Jazz defend Chris Paul?). The Jazz could well win that series, which would be a massive boost to their efforts to retain Gordon Hayward this summer (and would lead to some real soul searching for the Clippers).

3) It’s just fun to watch Giannis Antetokounmpo play the game. Here he drops 32 on the Knicks. The Greek Freek’s line for the night — 32 points on 21 shots, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals, and 2 blocks — is far from out of the ordinary for him. Of course, he led the Bucks to a win over the Knicks, keeping their playoff dreams alive (both the Bucks and Heat are just half a game back of Detroit for the final playoff slot in the East).

However, we’re running these highlights just because it’s a joy to watch him play if you love the game of basketball.

As expected, Denver’s Wilson Chandler to opt into $12.8 million next season

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Wilson Chandler played a workmanlike role for the Nuggets last season — more than 30 minutes a game (in 74 games), 10 points a night, shot 35.8 percent from three. His efficiency and value slipped from previous seasons but he still played a role for the team.

Not the kind of role that’s going to earn him a big payday as a free agent, so he will opt into the $12.8 million for next season, a story broken by Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler will exercise his player option for the 2018-19 season, league sources tell ESPN.

Chandler, 31, is opting into a $12.8 million salary instead of entering free agency this summer. Denver was notified of his decision on Friday.

Chandler’s name has come up in trade discussions in recent years, and no doubt the Nuggets would be happy to move his salary now, too. However, in a tight financial market it’s unlikely that’s happening without Denver throwing in a sweetener, and that’s not likely either. So it will be another season of Chandler in Denver.

Deandre Ayton arrives as symbol that Suns are on the rise

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PHOENIX (AP) — Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.

Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.

“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.

Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.

“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about McKell.”

All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday – Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).

The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.

“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.

Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team which he did so.

McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”

Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center plays is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.

“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”

Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.

“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.

Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.

The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.

“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young lets. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”

And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.

“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas) I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”

Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”

Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”

Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.

“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”

Hornets GM Kupchak: Kemba Walker focal point of franchise going forward

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — General manager Mitch Kupchak wants point guard Kemba Walker to end his NBA career right where it started — with the Charlotte Hornets.

Kupchak said Friday that Walker is “revered” in the Charlotte community, and that he and owner Michael Jordan look at the two-time All-Star as “the focal point of this franchise going forward.”

The 28-year-old Walker has been the subject of possible NBA trade talks as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract with the Hornets. That speculation has amped up recently because it is a practical impossibility for Charlotte to sign Walker to an extension before he becomes a free agent in July of 2019 since the Hornets are so tight under the salary cap.

“I think everybody is aware of the situation, if you follow basketball a little bit, it is unique that he is on an extension that may make it a challenge going forward to figure out before he becomes a free agent,” Kupchak said.

At $12 million per year, Walker well underpaid when compared to the other top point guards in the league.

But that doesn’t mean Kupchak is giving up hope the team can keep Walker in Charlotte.

“I don’t think it is anybody’s goal to lose him in free agency,” Kupchak said. “But going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us – not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here.”

The Hornets don’t have much experience behind Walker at point guard.

They have last year’s first-round draft pick Malik Monk and drafted Devonte Graham from Kansas in the second round on Thursday night.

Graham said he is excited to pick Walker’s brain when it comes to basketball.

“I have never met him, but I remember watching him play when he was at UConn though,” Graham said. “I’m just excited man to learn from someone like that and just be around someone like that who is winner, and knows how to win and compete. I am looking forward to being able to learn from him.”

 

Another report Spurs will not trade Kawhi Leonard within West

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The people around Kawhi Leonard made it clear (through leaks to the media, not by talking to the Spurs at first): Leonard wants out of San Antonio, and he wants to go to Los Angeles. Specifically, the Lakers.

Almost as quickly, the Spurs leaked that they were not going to trade Leonard to the Lakers or any team in the West.

Sam Amick of the USA Today echoed that sentiment in his discussion of LeBron James‘ offseason options on Saturday.

But in the days that followed, the Spurs wasted no time in sending this message all around the NBA: The only Western Conference team he might be playing for is theirs.

Fellow West teams have been told, in essence, to get lost – none moreso than the Lakers, according to ESPN. As it stands, the Spurs are determined to either fix the situation or trade Leonard to an Eastern Conference team.

Leonard has leverage here: He can tell teams he will not re-sign with them and will leave as a free agent. That will scare off most teams who don’t want to put in

Would it scare off Boston or Philadelphia? The rumor is no. Those teams have real interest in Leonard, and both have the assets to get a deal done and make the bet that a year in their cultures, with their coaches and top players, a year contending, and with their fans and city would win Leonard over. Just like Oklahoma City made that bet with Paul George. Also, whoever trades for Leonard will be able to offer a five-year, $188 million contract, while as a free agent the max will be four years, $137 million. For a guy who just missed almost an entire season with an injury, that guarantee can matter.

Boston could go all in on an offer — Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, the Kings first-round pick next season (top one protected) and the Clippers first round pick next year (lottery protected). Philadelphia could put together an offer of Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and Miami’s unprotected 2021 pick (the first year high schoolers likely re-enter the NBA draft, making it a deep one).

The question is would those team put in all those assets on a bet they would win Leonard over?

The other big looming question, when the offers start to come in will a rational Spurs front office reconsider and look at a trade from the Lakes of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, a future first, and the contract of Luol Deng to balance out the numbers. Would they consider it superior because they like Ingram? (That trade may require a third team to take on Deng’s contract, and the Lakers might need to throw in Lonzo Ball or some other sweetener to get a team to take on Deng’s $36 million remaining.)

Expect the Spurs to take their time with this, try to win Leonard back over, then consider all their options. They are in no rush, in fact, they’d love to create a bidding war for Leonard. Any offer from Boston and Philadelphia on the table in July will be on the table in September when training camps open. The Lakers, however, may be in a very different space.

It’s going to be a very interesting next few weeks.