Tom Thibodeau laments lack of toughness; Wolves try to hang on

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Timberwolves have seven games to go in this strenuous regular season, coming tantalizingly close to the tormented franchise’s first appearance in the playoffs in 14 years.

The trouble is their once-sturdy postseason bid is also teetering on the brink of being painfully denied.

Beginning a supposedly softer stretch of their schedule that has the potential to help propel them to the finish line, the Timberwolves took an egregious loss on Monday to a languishing Memphis team that had lost all 17 road games to date in 2018. The outcome only furthered the doubt among an embittered fan base about whether the Wolves can hang on long enough without All-Star shooting guard Jimmy Butler to finish in the top eight in the Western Conference.

“We have to keep pushing forward. For some guys, this is a new experience. This is about your will,” coach Tom Thibodeau said after the 101-93 loss. “You can’t approach it without knowing what you have to put into it.”

The word Thibodeau kept using in his postgame lament was toughness, the intangible trait that the truly elite teams use to supplement their top-flight talent. That’s what Butler has provided and then some in his first year with the Wolves, his reunion with Thibodeau after the two developed a strong working relationship in Chicago. Power forward Taj Gibson, another reclaimed asset from Thibodeau’s time with the Bulls, has done the same. Point guard Jeff Teague, the other major offseason acquisition, has hit his stride lately and supplied plenty of his own grit.

That’s the experienced portion of the team, along with sixth man Jamal Crawford. Young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, going through the rigors of a playoff race for the first time, haven’t yet built up that resilience. The Grizzlies pushed around the Wolves with a playoff-style physical approach, and the home team didn’t produce enough resistance.

“I like those kinds of games. It was on both ends. Both teams were playing physical, and they were letting us play,” Teague said. “People just haven’t been a part of those kinds of games, so it was an adjustment for some of us.”

Teague didn’t have to name names. Thibodeau didn’t either, when he praised the tenacity by Gibson and Teague and left out the rest of the Butler-less starting lineup. Nemanja Bjelica, who has often taken his game to a higher level during extended action in Butler’s absence, was scoreless with a minus-18 rating in 22 minutes against Memphis. Towns was overshadowed by Grizzlies center Marc Gasol. Wiggins was 7 for 17 from the floor, missing four of five attempts from 3-point range.

“I just think at times we just miss shots,” Gibson said, downplaying the toughness factor. “It was a gritty game. It came down to the wire. We had good looks. It just didn’t go the way we wanted it to. If you’re playing in this league and you’ve got 40-some wins, you’re a tough team. It’s nothing about grit, nothing about physicality. It just comes down to misses and strong rebounds and knowing your coverages.”

The Wolves (42-33) are in eighth place in the conference race, just as close to fourth as they are to ninth. They host Atlanta on Wednesday and play at Dallas on Friday before hosting seventh-place Utah on Sunday. Denver, one of the teams trying to bump Minnesota off, appears twice on the final four games of the schedule.

Perhaps Butler will join them. He did some light jogging and 3-point shooting on the court after practice on Tuesday, but Thibodeau declined to reveal a timetable for his return. Butler has not yet been cleared for contact, so the Wolves can’t simply bank on his return.

“I believe we will get it done,” Thibodeau said, “so I told them that today. We’ve just got to keep fighting.”

 

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

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Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says Stephen Curry is the best player in the world

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of pretty much every “best player in the world” list right now.

Except his own.

For Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world is the one that leads his team to the title, so today, it is Stephen Curry (hat tip to Lance Allen of NBC Milwaukee).

It’s easy to see where Antetokounmpo is coming from, but basketball is a team game. The best player may not be on the best team, despite his skill set, and that team may not win. Curry was spectacular in leading the Warriors to their fourth banner since he arrived, he’s near the top of the best in the world list, but it’s not all about winning.

The takeaway from what Antetokounmpo said is how much he wants to win — he wants a second ring.

The Bucks enter the season as one of the favorites to win that ring, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right for that to happen.

Including Antetokounmpo showing he is the best player in the world.

 

Is Matisse Thybulle ready for a big step forward with 76ers?

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Matisse Thybulle brings a valuable NBA skill to the table — he is an elite perimeter defender. Two-time All-Defensive Team in three years in the league.

But when the 76ers got up against Miami in the playoffs, Thybulle’s role shrank dramatically. While Doc Rivers needed his defense, Thybulle’s lack of an offensive game became a problem — the Heat largely ignored him and helped off him, allowing Miami to muck up the Philly offense (he was limited in the Toronto series because he was not vaccinated and could not play in road games). The 76ers tried to solve that problem this offseason by bringing in DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — solid role-playing defenders who can contribute on offense, too.

Thybulle wants to be part of the solution, too, and told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer he spent the summer focused on his offensive game.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” Thybulle said of his offseason. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve worked. And I had a meeting with [Sixers coach Doc Rivers] early this week and was telling him I feel more bought in than I’ve been before.”

No doubt Thybulle put in the work, we will find out soon if it paid off — and if that will get Thybulle paid.

Thybulle is entering a contract year — the 76ers can extend him up until Oct. 18, after which he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Thybulle said his goal is to remain in Philadelphia (and he’d like an extension).

“At this point, I would always want to stay in Philly,” he said. “And if it’s up to me, that’s always going to be my choice.

“But considering that I’ve realized the reality of how far out of my control it is, if I do get traded or something does end up happening, I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.”

With a win-now Sixers team, Daryl Morey may be in a wait-and-see place with Thybulle, letting the market set his price next offseason. If he signs now, it will likely be on a team-friendly deal (but maybe one that still works for the 25-year-old).

If Thybulle gets on the court this season and shows an improved offensive game, one where he can make teams pay for helping off him, his price goes up and there may be multiple teams bidding for his services next summer. And Doc Rivers would be happy in the short term.

It’s up to Thybulle to prove it now.

 

Markelle Fultz will miss start of training camp, at least, with broken toe

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The basketball gods continue to turn their backs on Markelle Fultz.

A torn ACL had limited him to 26 games over the past two seasons, but he was healthy and ramping up to a larger role this season with a young and interesting Magic team. Then came the news he fractured his left big toe during a training session. As a result, he will be out for at least the start of training camp, the team announced. From the official announcement:

“He has been placed in a walking boot and his return to play will depend on how he responds to rehabilitation and treatment. Fultz suffered the injury during a preseason workout prior to returning to Orlando and imaging confirmed the fracture.

He will not need surgery, according to the team.

Fultz was set to split point guard duties with Cole Anthony, this injury means RJ Hampton could see more run at the point for now. Fultz should be able to return either during the end of the preseason or early in the season.

Fultz was the No.1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft but never found his footing with the 76ers (in part due to injury). However, since getting out of that spotlight and allowed to develop in Orlando he’s been a solid rotation point guard when healthy. Last season in 18 games he averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 assists a game, and while he’s still not an efficient shooter he can run a team.

How Anthony and, eventually, Fultz will work off the ball as rookie Paolo Banchero gets the opportunity to create more offense will be just one of the interesting things to watch with this Magic team this year. We’ll have to wait a little while to see Fultz.