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Gordon Hayward’s free agency will be story of Jazz offseason

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) All Gordon Hayward could do was smile as he fielded question after question Tuesday about his expected free agency.

It signaled the beginning of the Jazz offseason, where Hayward’s decision could have the biggest impact on Utah’s future since All-Stars Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams changed teams within an eight-month span in 2010-11.

“These opportunities don’t come around very much,” Hayward said. “That’s why you hire an agent, to deal with this type of stuff. I’m sure he’s going to go through all of the options for me, let me know what can happen. I know there’s a lot of stuff that can definitely go down. So, once I sit down and talk with him, we’ll move forward from there.”

Hayward has a player option for next season on the contract he signed in 2014 but is expected to forgo that and become an unrestricted free agent. He’s likely to receive a maximum contract wherever he signs, and the Celtics are rumored to be in the mix with his college coach Brad Stevens now leading the East’s No. 1 playoff seed.

The first-time All-Star had a career year, averaging 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists and leading the Jazz to the second round of the playoffs. The franchise hadn’t qualified for the postseason since 2012 and hadn’t won a playoff game since 2010.

Winning is a top priority for the seven-year veteran and the Jazz still have a young core highlighted by defensive player of the year candidate Rudy Gobert.

“Coming from that little scrawny, shaggy-haired kid that wasn’t really playing (and grew) into an All-Star,” Jazz forward Joe Ingles said. “I truly believe he really likes it here. He loves the organization and the team. At the end of the day, for him, it’s about winning. … Obviously, the organization is committed to that. The next step is getting that team around him.”

General manager Dennis Lindsey has work to do to continue to build that winner. The Jazz took a huge step when he traded for George Hill and Boris Diaw and signed Joe Johnson last summer.

Hill averaged a career-high 16.9 points and shot 40.3 percent from 3-point range and gave the team the point guard it had been missing. But Hill will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Additionally, Ingles will be a restricted free agent and is expected to be courted after his career-high 44.1 3-point percentage ranked No. 3 in the NBA and after showing versatility in the playoffs.

Hill called Hayward his little brother and said the two will be in constant contact throughout the process because Hayward’s decision will influence his.

“I have a son, so that’s my first responsibility,” Hill said. “Taking care of my son and fianc�e, making sure everything is fine with them. I love to win. I love good teammates and solid locker room guys. All those things will be into play. … Where can I help the most?”

Team President Steve Starks said the Jazz will remain aggressive in improving the team.

“We want to build on the successes of this year,” Starks said. “We’ve put ourselves in position to be aggressive and be attractive for any player that’s a free agent. We’ll be aggressive first retaining our core guys and that starts with Gordon Hayward.”

The Jazz were the No. 1 defensive team during the regular season and upset the Clippers in seven games as the No. 5 seed. They were overwhelmed in Round 2 by the Golden State Warriors, who beat the Jazz on Monday night to complete a four-game sweep.

Utah could use more offense next season, whether that comes from the growth of Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Dante Exum or from new acquisitions. Either way, the Jazz would love to stay healthy after being ravaged by injuries the last two seasons.

Coach Quin Snyder declined to list specific needs, saying those can evolve through development over the summer, self-scouting and depending on what the roster dictates.

“There’s uncertainty,” Snyder said. “It’s almost like those questions will be better answered then.”

Johnson’s already lobbying guys to stay.

“The sky’s the limit for us,” Johnson said. “Just out of one year together, we had a pretty good season. I hope whatever has to happen happens for those guys to come back.”

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.