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Five big takeaways from first weekend of NBA playoffs

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To be honest, we learned a lot more than just five things through the first eight games of the NBA playoffs. We learned that the Bucks are a spectacular combination of talented and flawed. We learned the Raptors can win the first game of a playoff series. We didn’t so much learn as were reminded that Anthony Davis is otherworldly and Jrue Holiday knows how to defend. Yet none of those made this list.

Here are my five biggest takeaways from the first weekend.

• Of course James Harden was brilliant, but the Timberwolves blew their chance to steal Game 1. This was Minnesota’s first playoff game since Kill Bill Vol.2 was in theaters, and it was a rough one. Not because they got blown out — they didn’t — or because James Harden looked every bit the MVP (he did).

Rather, this is a tough one because the Timberwolves blew a chance to take Game 1.

We need to start with the obvious — James Harden is incredibly good at basketball. He had 12 straight points in the fourth and finished the game with 44 points on 26 shots, plus had eight assists. He made up for the fact Chris Paul played like he was still in a Clippers’ uniform, and he made up for the fact the rest of the Rockets shot 3-of-25 from three. Great players can cover up a lot of flaws, and in their opener the Rockets looked flawed outside Harden.

It took all that from Harden to get Houston a 104-101 win. If you’re Houston, it wasn’t pretty but you never question a playoff win. Just take it and move on.

If you’re Minnesota, you blew it. When you’re a massive underdog to an elite team, you can’t throw away an off night from the favorite and not get a win. Yet Minnesota did it, and with the same-old issues — starting with Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t get enough shots. The Rockets switched on KAT — Houston switched everything all season, Minnesota had to know that was coming — then doubled the big man quickly, throwing different looks at him. It threw Towns off his game. Towns shot just 3-of-9 for the night. Thibodeau said he needs Towns to be more aggressive going forward, and he’s right about that, but this felt like a variation of the Minnesota problem of not getting one of the game’s best offensive players enough shots all season long. This is a recurring theme.

Add in the fact Jimmy Butler was just 4-of-11 shooting (same with Jamal Crawford) and there’s just not enough offense from Minnesota’s stars when they needed it, both all game and late in crunch time. Houston is a top-10 defensive team, but Minnesota’s stars have to be better than this — especially in the fourth quarter when Towns had one shot and Butler was 0-of-4. That’s not good enough. (It’s also part of a trend, Butler missed every shot he took this season with the game tied or his team down three or less in the final 10 seconds of games, and as a team Minny struggled in those spots.)

Here’s why Minnesota blew their chance: Houston’s shot chart from three is not going to be red like this again next game, and likely not all series.

• It’s too early to panic about the Cavaliers, but you might want to know where that button is located. If one thing is going to sink Cleveland in the playoffs we expect it to be their dreadful defense, which was 29th in the NBA for the regular season. It wasn’t impressive in Game 1 — Victor Oladipo had 32 points and just kept getting switches off a pick, backing out to isolate, starting from out by the center court logo then blowing past anyone the Cavaliers had on him. The help was rarely there in time. Oladipo had 32 points and was the driving force on both ends for the Pacers. Want to re-think that comment Dan Gilbert?

However, in Game 1 it wasn’t the Cavaliers defense that was dreadful, it was their offense. Cleveland generated far less than a point per possession — an awful 84 points per 100 possessions — and outside of an okay night from LeBron James and a hot J.R. Smith late, they were terrible on that end. Cavaliers not named LeBron or Smith shot 34 percent for the game. Jeff Green was a disaster.

LeBron didn’t do enough either, especially early in establishing a tone. Indiana started Bojan Bogdanovic on him, and LeBron didn’t take advantage of it, going 0-of-3 in the first quarter and working to set up teammates (which didn’t work out).

It’s just one game, and this is a LeBron James team. We should expect them to pick themselves up and perform much better in Game 2. However, we went into this postseason, looking at this reformed roster around LeBron, and were wondering who he could trust to step up when it mattered. Game 1 did not fill him or anyone with confidence. Larry Nance Jr. had moments, Kevin Love will be better, but that’s not enough. It wasn’t against the Pacers Sunday and it will not be in the postseason. Cleveland did not impress anyone for most of the season, and they did not flip a switch when the playoffs started.

• Yes, Ben Simmons is that good. As a rookie. Ben Simmons is not the Sixers best player right now — and that should scare the rest of the NBA. Because he’s insanely good — not just for a rookie, but period. In his playoff debut he was attacking on offense and setting up teammates (J.J. Redick had 23 second-half points for Philly when the pulled away from Miami), plus scoring himself when needed. and making defensive plays, too.

The key thing about that win and Simmons in Game 1 — it keeps the pressure off the Sixers to race Joel Embiid back. Embiid has cleared the league’s concussion protocol and can play in a mask, but he will sit out Game 2. Which is good. Remember Embiid played 63 games this season after playing 31 the season before and zero the two seasons before that. It’s a lot. Embiid feels ready and wants to get out there, but if I’m the Sixers I’m happy to rest him one more game, just to be abundantly cautious.

Simmons lets the Sixers do that.

Kawhi Leonard speculation is running wild… probably for no good reason. There’s nothing to talk about with the Golden State/San Antonio series, the Spurs have no answers for Kevin Durant and the Warriors athleticism, all of which will make this a short series.

Instead, the focus has turned to why Kawhi Leonard was not on the bench supporting his teammates in Game 1 — as Stephen Curry was doing on the Warriors’ bench — and instead was working out in New York and talking to his doctors. Leonard is going to miss the entire postseason. Which has fueled speculation the Spurs and Leonard have grown distant, that he wants out and they will oblige, and other teams are trying to put together trade packages.

Put the brakes on all that.

Are other teams going to call San Antonio up and ask if he’s available? Of course. They should. Also, teams are going to talk to the Sixers this summer and try to see if Simmons and Embiid are available — this is what GMs do. They probe and test the market. It doesn’t mean a guy is going to get moved, or that a team is even considering it.

Remember what one exec told Sam Amick of the USA Today about the possibility of the Spurs trading Leonard: “It would be a mistake.” When have you known the Spurs to make that kind of mistake?

Here’s what to watch for: On July 1 (or soon after) do the Spurs offer Leonard the $219 million designated veteran max extension he is eligible for? (The deal Russell Westbrook and James Harden got.) The answer will probably be yes, Leonard will sign it, and next September when the Spurs come to camp Leonard and Gregg Popovich will lock arms and sing Kumbaya.

If the Spurs don’t make that offer, then things get interesting. Why didn’t they, what do they know? And will they listen to those trade calls? However, we’re a long way from that.

• Utah’s defense was best in the league, but it was Oklahoma City’s defense that won Game 1. What we all wanted to see in Game 1 of Oklahoma City vs. Utah was the showdown between Russell Westbrook’s attacking game and Rudy Gobert‘s defense in the paint. Gobert had an impact — in the regular season Westbrook got to the rim for 39.5 percent of his shots and took 31.4 percent of his shots from the midrange, but in Game 1 he was at the rim just eight times (32 percent of his shots, and hit only hit half of them) but took 40 percent of his shots in the midrange. Thing is Westbrook hit those shots (6-of-12). If his midrangers fall — and if the Jazz don’t find a better answer for Paul George — the Thunder offense will be fine.

However, that’s not the side of the ball that made it look like OKC could make this series a little easier than we thought.

In the regular season, the Thunder had a top-10 defense and it was on display Sunday — the Jazz had trouble getting penetration into the paint to break down OKC’s defense. Donovan Mitchell had a good game of 27 points on 22 shots, and he got into the paint some, but the Thunder made him really work for those buckets — with defenders other than PG13 on him. George shut down Joe Ingles. Meanwhile, the Thunder helped off Ricky Rubio all game long and dared him to shoot, giving the Spaniard all the space he could want, and he shot just 5-of-18.

How will Utah adjust in Game 2? I’d like to see them go at Carmelo Anthony more. Give Alec Burks more of a role, he was strong in Game 1. The Jazz are not a dominant offensive team, and their defense needs to tighten up (and eventually Westbrook will miss some from the midrange), but Utah has to find a way to get more buckets to have a real shot in this series.

Celtics’ Smart ‘ecstatic’ to have summer in limbo over

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BOSTON (AP) — There was a moment during the past month in which Marcus Smart wasn’t sure where he’d be playing basketball this upcoming season.

A day after signing a four-year deal to remain in the only NBA jersey he’s ever played in, Smart said he’s focused on doing what he can to help the Celtics win their 18th championship.

“I’m ecstatic. This is a blessing,” Smart said Friday.

After being in limbo since the start of free agency, Smart cemented his pact with the Celtics on Thursday. A person with knowledge of the agreement told The Associated Press that Smart will be paid $52 million over the next four years. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the team did not disclose the terms of the contract.

Boston brings back a 6-foot-4 defensive cornerstone who has developed a reputation for toughness and doing the little things that help the Celtics win. Smart is also the longest-tenured player on the roster.

The confidence that general manager Danny Ainge is showing in his abilities is not lost on Smart, who acknowledged he knew he was entering a tough free agent market this summer.

“To be honest, I didn’t know where I was gonna end up. I was just enjoying this whole process,” he said. “It is a business, so things aren’t perfect. That’s why it’s called negotiations. You guys come together and you finally agree on something. We both agreed. Boston loves me and I love Boston. Boston wants me here and I want to be here. I am here. So we made it work.”

Barring any late changes, Smart’s return also means Boston will be bringing back the core of the team that won 55 games and reached the Eastern Conference finals while battling numerous injuries and being without both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward the entire postseason.

Smart was a huge part of the run, stepping in to a starter’s role after returning from thumb surgery late in the first round of the playoffs. He averaged 9.8 points, 5.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game as Boston pushed LeBron James‘ Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the conference finals.

Now, James is in the West with the Lakers, and given the emergence of youngsters Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, Smart said he doesn’t see any reason why the Celtics shouldn’t be a favorite to come out of the East.

“We demonstrated the talent and ability we had to do that last year with a few missing pieces. With those missing pieces back in action, I think it really makes it hard for teams,” Smart said. “I think we have a real shot.”

The signing also will allow Smart to shift his attention back to his mother, 63-year-old Camellia Smart, who continues to undergo treatment for the bone marrow cancer she was diagnosed with in April.

“When you kind of go through adversity and something like this hits you and your family, it kind of puts everything in perspective and everything else kind of becomes a blur to you and really not that important,” he said.

He has been with her in Texas since the season ended and said she’s stable and doing well.

“She’s hanging in there,” Smart said. “This is a hard time. But at the same time, it’s an exciting time for my family. So, with the signing, it kind of brings a little joy to a situation and lightens up the situation that was a little darkened for me. … As of right now, she’s doing great.”

As far as basketball is concerned, he’ll continue trying to improve.

“I’m just gonna be working on all aspects of my game. The uniqueness about me is I don’t do one thing perfectly or great. I do a little bit of everything. That’s what makes me so unique. I’m just trying to master a little bit of everything. … If I could just get better a little bit each year, then I did my job.”

 

Raptors president Ujiri apologizes to departed DeRozan

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TORONTO (AP) — Raptors president Masai Ujiri apologized Friday for a “miscommunication” with four-time All-Star and franchise icon DeMar DeRozan, but Toronto’s traded All-Star guard didn’t seem quite ready to make amends.

Speaking for the first time since sending DeRozan to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard, Ujiri began by saying sorry to DeRozan. The career Raptor had expressed anger and frustration in an Instagram post after learning of the deal, indicating he’d been told he would not be traded.

Shortly after Ujiri apologized Friday, DeRozan added a new post to his Instagram feed: a facepalm emoji, a symbol of frustration and exasperation.

Reflecting on a conversation he’d had with DeRozan at Summer League earlier this month, Ujiri said he “should have handled it better” when discussing future plans.

“Maybe my mistake was talking about what we expected going forward from him,” Ujiri said. “I think that’s where the gap was, because in my job I always have to assume that I’m going forward with the team that I have. If there was a miscommunication there, I do apologize to DeMar.”

Still, after three straight disappointing playoff exits, Ujiri felt something needed to change with the Raptors. He acknowledged struggling with the “human side” of the trade, but decided Leonard was too good a prize to pass up.

Now, Ujiri says, the Raptors “are stepping on territory that we never have.”

“I think if we look at ourselves honestly, everybody knows that we had to do something different, even if it wasn’t this,” Ujiri said. “We had to figure out something different. I take responsibility for that.

“We’ve been doing this how many years?” Ujiri said. “You can’t continue doing the same thing over and over again. And when you get a chance to get a top five player, which doesn’t come very often, I think you have to jump on it. We’ve given a chance to this team, we’ve tried to build it as much as we can but, at this point, this opportunity came in front of us and we had to jump on it.”

DeRozan led the Raptors in scoring in each of the last five years, and was key to Toronto winning a franchise-record 59 games and securing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last season.

“There’s no measurement for what DeMar DeRozan has done for this organization,” Ujiri said, pledging that the departed guard will be acknowledged “in the biggest way that we can possibly do it” for his nine seasons with the Raptors.

Even with DeRozan, Toronto lost three straight postseason series against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, including consecutive second-round sweeps. The Raptors have never reached the NBA Finals.

Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, has twice finished in the top three in MVP voting and is a two-time winner of the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Ujiri called his new acquisition “a no-nonsense basketball player that plays on both sides of the floor and produces.”

Still, there are reasons for concern. A seven-year veteran, Leonard missed all but nine games last season because of a leg injury. He can become a free agent next summer, and has stated his desire to play for the Los Angeles Lakers.

As long as Leonard is with the Raptors, however, Ujiri will work to show him what Toronto has to offer.

“I think there’s a lot to sell here,” Ujiri said. “Our team, our culture, our city, our ownership. We have everything here except a championship, in my humble opinion. I don’t think we lack anything in this city.”

Leonard has yet to pass a physical, Ujiri said, adding one is expected to happen “in the next couple of days.”

Ujiri, who returned from a trip to Africa earlier Friday, has not met Leonard in person since the trade, but said they have spoken on the phone. Ujiri disputed rumors that Leonard has no interest in playing north of the border.

“He didn’t express a lack of interest about playing in Canada to me,” Ujiri said.

DeRozan and Leonard are expected to be on the court together next week when USA Basketball convenes a national team training camp in Las Vegas. That team is coached by San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.

Draymond’s pitch to Cousins: “I’m pretty sure me and you are going to fight”

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Good thing Draymond Green found his calling in basketball because if he had to make a living as a salesman he’d be living on Nissin Top Ramen. At best.

Everyone has heard the story already: After not getting any serious offers the first 24 hours of free agency, DeMarcus Cousins took matters into his own hands and called up Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors and pitched his services. The Warriors jumped at the chance and signed Cousins to a one-year, $5.3 million contract. And then the NBA freaked out.

What is new is Cousins telling ESPN’s Chris Haynes about Green’s horrible pitch to get him to come to the bay area.

“Draymond probably had the worst pitch,” he said while chuckling. “He was like, ‘Cous, I’m pretty sure me and you are going to fight.’ I’m like, ‘Draymond, Come on. Whoa. Whoa.’ But Draymond, that’s my guy. I respect him as a player, I respect him as a competitor. He’s one of the top in this business and just his approach to every game, I want that guy on my team every day. So, we talked, we kind of communicated about what we both wanted, which was winning games. He openly said he knows I wouldn’t get as many touches and I don’t give a, I don’t care. And the same thing for me. It’s about winning the games. I think me and Draymond will mesh well.”

Cousins also was amused by the backlash to his signing.

“But, it’s just kind of funny because before the whole thing started, I was just kind of wasted. I was damaged goods, not a winner, just everything negative. And soon as it happens, it’s like, ‘He’s too damn good to [be a Warrior].’ So, it’s just kind of funny how the narrative switches right away when things don’t go the way they expect it to.”

If you want more insight into Cousins’ thinking (and don’t mind some NSFW language) check out this trailer from the upcoming SHOWTIME Sports documentary about Cousins’ decision this summer.

Michael Beasley reportedly joins Lakers on one-year contract

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Because a locker room with Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, and Rajon Rondo — with LaVar Ball circling around it — did not have enough distractions…

Michael Beasley, welcome to the Los Angeles Lakers.

It’s one year for $3.5 million.

Beasley is another eccentric guy for the Lakers’ collection. Remember when he changed teams from Minnesota to Phoenix and rather than move his stuff he just had a big estate sale and sold it all? Beasley by himself isn’t a distraction at this point, but all of those personalities in one locker room and… I do not envy Luke Walton right now.

Beasley had a solid offensive campaign for the Knicks last season, averaging 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists playing more than 22 minutes a night (he also started 30 games for them). He can attack off the dribble and score, gets to the line, and shot 39.5 percent from three — the man has embraced his role as a scorer off the bench and he can get the Lakers some buckets.

He’s also going to give up a lot of buckets because he does not play defense (he did rebound a little better last year, but that’s only when the guy missed despite his lack of D).

How Walton fits all this together remains to be seen. Beasley played 93 percent of his minutes last season at the four, where the Lakers will start Brandon Ingram but also rotate LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma through. Guys are versitle and basketball is evolving to being positionless, but that’s a lot of guys eating up minutes for similar roles.

At the price they are paying, this is a decent signing by the Lakers. Beasley will get them points if he stays healthy (he did play 74 games last season). I’m sure Magic/Pelinka will sell this as “adding another veteran playmaker to our roster,” and they will ignore all the baggage that comes with it. All those guys are on one-year contracts, the Lakers are looking farther down the road at much bigger targets than the new guys in the locker room.

But man, that Laker locker room this season is going to be a piece of work.