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Nuggets narrowly miss playoffs, but find cornerstone in Nikola Jokic

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DENVER (AP) Nikola Jokic had absolutely no clue about his final stats until an assistant coach informed him a day after the season ended. No idea whatsoever. Not his points (16.7). Not his rebounds (9.8). Not his assists (4.9).

The Denver Nuggets big man preferred not knowing, so he didn’t get hung up on numbers.

That sort of focus might’ve worked wonders for the youthful Nuggets down the stretch as they narrowly lost out to Portland for the final playoff spot in the West.

“The playoff (chase) was too much pressure for us,” Jokic said Thursday after the team missed the postseason for a fourth straight season. “Every game, it’s like, `Oh, the playoffs – if we lose this, we’re not going to make the playoffs.’… Just play the game as normal.”

Still, the Nuggets (40-42) improved by seven games over a season ago. This despite using 32 different lineups and finishing 3-12 in games where they were behind by one or tied in the final minute, according to research on NBA.com.

“For us to make the run we did, with all the injuries we had, all the young players we were playing, was remarkable,” said coach Michael Malone , whose team was eliminated from playoff contention Sunday on Russell Westbrook‘s long 3-pointer at the buzzer in Oklahoma City’s win.

Even more, the Nuggets found the centerpiece to build around in Jokic , who recorded six triple-doubles. General manager Tim Connelly said the 6-foot-10 Serbian is on the brink of becoming a transcendent player.

First, though, some rest.

Jokic’s exhausted after a long season on the heels of helping his country earn a silver medal at the Rio Olympics last summer.

“I’m going to take this break,” said Jokic, a second-round pick in 2014 whose standout play made it possible to trade bruiser Jusuf Nurkic to the Blazers for Mason Plumlee in February. “It’s going to be nice for me.”

Danilo Gallinari certainly likes the direction the team is headed, especially given the emergence of Jokic, sharp-shooting rookie Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.

“One of the positive things, for example, is the talent and the number of young guys that we have,” Gallinari said. “They are very good players and it’s something the franchise can build on.”

Whether Gallinari sticks around in Denver for next season is a different story. He could opt out of his deal and explore free agency.

“It’s not time right now to make the decision,” said Gallinari, who was acquired in the blockbuster deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks in 2011. “Right now, it’s time to digest the fact we were not able to accomplish the goal (of the playoffs) that I had, that we had, at the beginning of the season.

“After that, it’s time to go on vacation for a little bit, rest the body.”

Here are some takeaways from Denver’s season:

DESERVING HONOR: Murray believes he belongs on the all-rookie team after being one of Denver’s top outside threats. “I feel like I’m one of the better rookies in the class,” said Murray, the seventh overall pick out of Kentucky. “Got a chance to prove it.”

MILE HIGH LOVE: While the lure of testing free agency is attractive to Gallinari, so is returning to a city he loves. “I have a house here. After my career, Denver is going to be my city. It’s very tough for me to leave. We’ll see,” Gallinari said.

LEARNING LESSON: After missing time with lower back pain, point guard Emmanuel Mudiay found it difficult to get minutes. The seventh overall pick in 2015 turned in several strong games down the stretch after being demoted. “I became a better player,” Mudiay said. “Not saying I want to miss games, but when I did miss games, sit back and watch and look … see what you can do better.”

UP AND DOWN: Harris developed into a pivotal player after being bothered by a strained groin early, and then a foot injury. He averaged 14.9 points. “Gary’s ascension has kind of been understated,” Connelly said. “He really turned into a special player at the two-guard.”

ABILITY TO CHANGE: The Nuggets were all about going with a big lineup at the start of the season. After the emergence of Jokic, they switched gears and ran things through him. “He’s got a lot of unique tools,” Connelly said. “Offensively, he almost plays a near-perfect brand of basketball.”

More AP NBA: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Rumor: Tension between Chris Paul and Rockets over contract

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Chris Paul sacrificed $10,083,055 last season by opting in to facilitate a trade to the Rockets rather than opting out and signing somewhere for a max salary.

He expects to be made whole. And by most accounts, Houston understands the arrangement.

But here’s a rumor otherwise.

Undisputed:

Chris Broussard:

From what I’m told, there is tension now between Houston and Chris Paul. Because there was definitely some type of handshake, wink wink, “we’re going to max you out” last summer. But here’s the thing: Now, they’re not so sure. Houston, with good reason, doesn’t want to do that. But they’ve got an out, because they have new ownership. So, Daryl Morey can go to Chris Paul and be like, “I want to do it, but we’ve got the new owner doesn’t want to give you five years, four years.”

Former Rockets owner Leslie Alexander committed to big expenditures. New owner Tillman Ferttita has talked about his spending limits – for good reason. He sunk so much of his personal wealth into buying the team. He might not be able to afford outrageous luxury-tax bills.

Starters Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza will also become free agents this summer. Houston definitely wants to keep Capela. A large contract for Paul would be prohibitive.

Paul’s max projects to be about $205 million over five years. Already 33, he almost certainly won’t produce enough on the court to justify that amount. Players that age just decline and face greater injury risk.

But the downside of not paying him that much could be losing him. Even playing hardball could offend him given the circumstances that brought him to Houston. The Rockets are contending. A bad contract a few years down the road would be worth it if they win a title, and Paul is instrumental to that push.

This could be a delicate situation, and Morey can probe at least a little if he chooses. Would Paul be understanding of the ownership change? What options will Paul have better than a large, but sub-max, contract from the Rockets? Would Paul take a discount if Houston got his friend LeBron James?

But push too hard, and would Paul bolt to play with LeBron on the Lakers?

There has been too much insistence that Paul re-signing with the Rockets was assured to completely trust Broussard’s report. But it’d also be a mistake to completely ignore the possibility talks have broken down.

Hawks GM: We might have traded up with Bucks if their draft pick didn’t leak first

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Let’s pick up with the No. 16 pick in last night’s NBA draft.

The Suns were on the clock and planning to pick Donte DiVincenzo. John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7:

But then 76ers called Phoenix about trading No. 10 pick Mikel Bridges for the No. 16 pick and a future first-rounder. The teams agreed to the deal (causing this heartbreaking moment), and the Suns picked Zhaire Smith for Philadelphia.

The next three picks:

17. Donte DiVincenzo, Bucks

18. Lonnie Walker, Spurs

19. Kevin Huerter, Hawks

Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk on 95.7 The Game, via ESPN:

“Last night, for instance, we had the 19th pick, and we’re coming down and we’re actually talking to Milwaukee on the 17th pick, talking about trading up to get a guy we like,” Schlenk said. “There’s were a couple of guys we felt really good about on the 19th pick, obviously Kevin [Huerter] was one of them, and it leaked who Milwaukee was going to take.

“So, all of a sudden, we were able to pull back out of that deal and keep the draft pick instead of packaging picks to move up because we knew that, two guys on the board we felt really good about and only one team in between us, so that was beneficial to us last night.”

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports and Jeff Goodman of ESPN reported the Bucks picking DiVincenzo at 9:18 p.m.:

The pick became official at 9:22 p.m.:

Clearly, Atlanta wanted Huerter or “Mystery Player Not Named Donte DiVincenzo.”* Once they learned Milwaukee would take DiVincenzo at No. 17, the Hawks knew at least one of Huerter or “Mystery Player Not Named Donte DiVincenzo” would be available at No. 19.

*I think there’s a good chance it was Walker, whom San Antonio picked No. 18.

That saved the Hawks an asset(s) and cost the Bucks an asset(s), though perhaps Milwaukee couldn’t have gotten DiVincenzo at No. 19. Maybe the Spurs would’ve selected him at No. 18.

Still, the Bucks didn’t protect their internal plans well enough. Maybe that’s an organizational flaw. But this also could have been a fluky sequence of events. Perhaps, after hearing Phoenix would take DiVincenzo, someone in Milwaukee felt comfortable sharing that the Bucks wanted him. Then, when he surprisingly fell, it was too late. The information was already out there – allowing Atlanta to stand pat.

Danny Ainge unwittingly leaks Celtics’ draft pick on call with Terry Rozier during live show (video)

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Terry Rozier takes solace in how much Danny Ainge believes in him.

But I didn’t appreciate how deep their bond went.

Appearing on Bleacher Report’s live draft show, Rozier was asked to predict the Celtics’ No. 27 pick. So, Rozier called Ainge to ask. Shockingly, Ainge answered – with Boston on the clock. Almost certainly not knowing the call was public and live, Ainge revealed the likely selection:

Good thing the Celtics stuck with Robert Williams. That would have been extremely awkward otherwise.

As is, it was only a little awkward. Williams said today he doesn’t like to be called Bob.

Report: Rival teams expect Paul George to consider 1+1 contract with Thunder

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Paul George has openly stated the appeal of playing for his hometown Lakers. He has also openly stated the appeal of staying with the Thunder.

That has created significant confusion about his upcoming free agency.

Could George find a compromise outcome?

Marc Stein of The New York Times in his newsletter:

More than one rival team has suggested to me that they expect George to strongly consider a two-year deal with the Thunder at $30.3 million next season and $32.7 million in 2019-20 that includes a player option to return to free agency next summer.

This makes sense on paper.

A 1+1 contract would give George more time to determine whether he and Russell Westbrook can win together in Oklahoma City without getting stuck there long-term if they can’t. The Thunder were starting to put it together when Andre Roberson got hurt. Perhaps, Roberson getting healthy would swing Oklahoma City’s fortunes.

George would also be eligible for a higher max salary in two years – 35% of the salary cap, up from 30% if he signs now. So, a short-term contract would allow him to maximize his potential earnings.

But George said he wanted to sign somewhere long-term this summer. He also suffered an extremely gruesome leg injury just a few years ago. He might not want to bypass guaranteed money to gamble for a little more later.

Are these rival teams just looking at the general outlook for a player in George’s position without considering his specific circumstances? Or do they know something? George could have informed teams he might become available in 2019 or 2020 so they should prepare.

I’m skeptical this is more than speculation by opposing teams. But the possibility that they’re basing their expectations on inside information makes this worth monitoring.