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Pelicans look to pull off sweep of Trail Blazers

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Before the 2017-18 regular season began, any conversation regarding the New Orleans Pelicans and brooms had something to do with the possibility the team would clean house.

That would have meant parting ways with coach Alvin Gentry and general manager Dell Demps if the Pelicans missed the playoffs for a third consecutive year despite having one of the NBA’s best players in Anthony Davis.

But now, the broom means something very different.

Energized on both ends of the court, the Pelicans have the broom ready Saturday at the Smoothie King Center to sweep the faltering Portland Trail Blazers out of the Western Conference playoffs with a fourth consecutive victory in the first-round series.

With a win Saturday, the Pelicans would become the first playoff team seeded sixth or lower to sweep a first-round playoff series since the 2001 Charlotte Hornets swept the Miami Heat 3-0 in a best-of-five series.

“Closeout games are the hardest,” said New Orleans guard Rajon Rondo, a 32-year-old veteran who is the Pelicans’ second-oldest player, someone who has served as an on-court coach to his younger teammates. “That’s what I’m going to try to explain to these guys. The first three might have been tough, but this last one is going to be very tough.”

In routing the Blazers 119-102 on Thursday to take a 3-0 series lead, the Pelicans fed off a raucous sellout crowd and led by as many as 33 points in the second half, allowing Gentry to rest his starters. Davis finished with 28 points and 11 rebounds while nursing a sore left thumb, and forward Nikola Mirotic, acquired after center DeMarcus Cousins went down in late January with a season-ending Achilles injury, scored a career-playoff-high 30 points, with 14 in the first quarter.

Even though Portland’s normally potent guard tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum had their best game of the series — combining for 42 of the Blazers’ 102 points — Lillard had trouble shaking free of the Pelicans’ trapping defense, which forced the ball out of his hands. Lillard made just 5 of 14 shots, including 3 of 9 from 3-point range.

“They whooped our butt,” said McCollum. “They beat us in every facet of the game: loose balls, rebounds, free-throw line, energy plays, 3-pointers in transition. … You name it, and they did it.”

The Pelicans have made a conscious decision to swarm Lillard and McCollum at every opportunity, daring other Blazers to beat them. Portland hasn’t adjusted properly to the strategy. Lillard has shot 32.7 percent in the three losses.

“I don’t think (defensive assistant coach) Darren Erman has gotten the credit that he deserves,” Gentry said. “He put together a great defensive game plan. It was him that brought the game plan to me and said, ‘This is what I want to do against them.'”

“You have to continue to mix it up and give them different looks,” Gentry added. “Even doing that, those guys got some shots off and made some real difficult shots. We’ve just got to make sure that we stay locked in and not let them get into one of those zones when it starts to go in and it doesn’t matter what kind of shot they’re shooting that it’s going to go in.”

Making matters worse for the Blazers is their injury status. Both Moe Harkless (left knee) and Evan Turner (right toe) are questionable for Game 4.

Portland coach Terry Stotts said the Pelicans have been tough to handle because a different player each night has shredded the Blazers’ defense.

“Going into the series, those four guys (Davis, Jrue Holiday, Mirotic and Rondo) have played extremely well,” Stotts said. “(Mirotic) is the third different guy who’s had a 30-point night. He’s very efficient, and he made a lot of smart basketball plays as well.”

Lakers’ James to make home debut against Rockets tonight

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — LeBron James will make his regular-season home debut as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers when they host the Houston Rockets on Saturday night.

James, a four-time NBA most valuable player, signed with the Lakers in July after leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to four straight NBA Final appearances, including their first championship in 2016.

He has played in every NBA Finals since 2010, also winning titles in 2012 and 2013 with the Miami Heat.

James had 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in his Los Angeles debut against the Trail Blazers in Portland on Thursday night, but the Lakers lost 128-119.

The Lakers will likely need a better start with their long-range shooting against the Rockets. Los Angeles missed its first 15 tries from 3-point range before finishing 7 for 30 (23.3 percent) against Portland.

James said he and his new teammates are still going through a feeling-out period.

“It takes a while to get to where you can close your eyes and know exactly where your guys are,” he told reporters after his Lakers debut. “It’s going to take patience from our team, from all of us, to just figure out one another, figure out what we are good at, figure out what we are not so good at, how we can be better at it.”

The Rockets returned their core players from last season’s team that lost to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, and they added 10-time NBA All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony to the mix. They seemed to run low on energy in their season opener against the visiting New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night, however.

After getting outscored by 17 points in the first half, the Rockets were unable to generate a push against the Pelicans and lost 131-112. New Orleans shot 53.1 percent from the floor.

“I thought they were tired,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, who coached the Lakers for two seasons (2012-13 and 2013-14).

James Harden, who averaged an NBA-leading 30.4 points last season en route to winning NBA MVP honors, was held to 18 points on 6-for-15 shooting.

Anthony, who played the last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, scored nine points off the bench on 3-for-10 shooting.

Harden, a Los Angeles-area native, is averaging 30.3 points in 32 career games against the Lakers.

One of the bright spots for the Lakers in their season opener was the play of reserve shooting guard Josh Hart. The second-year player scored 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting, including 3 for 5 from 3-point range.

Hart played 27 minutes, the same as starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. who was limited to five points on 1-for-3 shooting from the floor.

Hart didn’t want to talk about his offense afterward, but rather how he could improve on his defense after Portland reserve shooting guard Nik Stauskas scored 24 points and shot 5 of 8 on 3-pointers.

“Just got to make sure we get the adjustments down and get better on defense,” he told Spectrum SportsNet.

Raptors’ pregame video on Canadian broadcast is group therapy session for Toronto

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Raptors fans are pumped — and they should be, their team knocked off the Celtics Friday night with Kawhi Leonard dropping 31 points (and still showing some rust on the offensive end, he is going to get better). Toronto is positioned to be the one team in the East that is a genuine threat to the Celtics (sorry Philly, not just yet).

Yet Raptors fans as a whole expect the worst, they come with a grey cloud following them and an inferiority complex, Leonard is a free agent next summer, and there is a history of players leaving Toronto…

Which is why the Sportsnet Canada broadcast pregame video is remarkable — it’s a group therapy session for Toronto and all of Canada. To be clear, this was not shown in the arena before the game, it was on the national broadcast, but still, check it out.

Letting go of the past, not worrying about the future, and living in the moment is always good advice.

Leonard said the key to keeping him in Toronto is winning, and Friday night was a good first step down that road. Of course, there’s more to it than that and other teams are going to be in the mix (keep an eye on the Clippers), but sources around the league I talk to think the Raptors have a chance. Sort of like Paul George in Oklahoma City, if he has a very positive experience, it’s possible he opens his mind to staying. Plus, he can get five years, $190 million from the Raptors and four-years, $139 million from anyone else, for a guy coming off basically missing a season due to injury that security and guaranteed money may matter.

Nobody knows what will happen next summer — Leonard and his family/advisors have been unpredictable. Leonard likely doesn’t even know yet.

Which is why Raptors’ fans should let go of the past, live in the moment and savor this season — it could be the greatest one in Raptors’ history.

 

Watch highlights of Pelican’s franchise-record 149 point blowout of Kings

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We’re just two games into the season, but the New Orleans Pelicans have the best offense in the NBA, averaging 127.9 points per 100 possessions. In what has felt like a high scoring start to the season in general (it’s too early to draw conclusions), nobody has been blowing up like Anthony Davis (28.5 points per game) and the Pelicans.

Friday night they dropped a franchise record 149 points on the Sacramento Kings.

Nikola Mirotic had 36 leading eight Pelicans in double figures. Check out the highlights above. And light a candle for the Clippers and Nets, the next two teams up to try to stop the Pelicans freight train.

Report: Negotiations to drop one-and-done at standstill over pre-draft issues

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Eventually, the NBA will again open the door for high school players to jump directly to the league — this time around teams are far better prepared to deal with and develop young players than when this was thrust upon them in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Everyone is awaiting the change, because one-and-done has not been good for anyone.

However, talks between the NBA and the players’ union to open that door again in 2022 have hit gridlock and reached a standstill over pre-draft issues. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news.

The NBA and National Basketball Players Association are struggling to reach an agreement on lowering the age limit to 18, differing on the league’s desire to attach two conditions to ending the one-and-done NBA draft era, league sources told ESPN.

Commissioner Adam Silver is pressing NBPA executive director Michele Roberts to require that player agents furnish all teams with medical information on prospective draft prospects, league sources said. The league also wants to mandate players attendance and some level of participation in the pre-draft combine, sources said…

“We’re investing millions of dollars into players who we’ll now have even less information about coming out of high school, and we should have the right to have all the information available on who we are selecting,” one general manager told ESPN.

From a team’s perspective, it’s easy to see why they want these conditions. As the anonymous GM above notes for teams this is an investment and if a player has a medical issue — such as the heart issues that have led to surgeries for Jeff Green, Ronny Turiaf, and others now including UCLA’s Shareef O’Neal (Shaq’s son) — teams believe they have a right to know in advance.

However, medical information is not freely shared now — agents often withhold it from (and keep their player from working out for) teams they do not want to draft their player all the time. This doesn’t always work, teams draft guys without workouts and medicals every year, but it’s a bit of leverage agents have now to try and get their player to what they see as a better fit (that can be about opportunity or market size).

According to Wojnarowski, 11 of the 65 players invited to the NBA Draft Combine last year did not take part in the medical exam portion (every team has access to that report). That’s about some agents trying to gain a little leverage in the process, for teams the risk is higher if they don’t have that information.

As for the combine, while more and more players are skipping the drills and games part of the event, going through the measurements and interview processes are basically universal.

The NBA drafting straight out of high school is going to happen again — and it should. If a young player is good enough, or on track to be good enough, and he’s a legal adult teams should have the right to bring him in. The NCAA should adapt to a system that keeps the players that do enter college there a little longer — at least two years — allowing for more consistency and a better product for them. (Of course, the NCAA is the protector of a feudal system of “amateurism” that needs to go, so lord knows what they will ultimately do, but bet on it being whatever they must to protect all that money flowing into their pockets.)

The earliest the draft of 18-year-olds would happen is 2022, both giving teams more time to scout what is the current high school freshman class that would graduate that year, and giving teams knowledge of what was coming down the line when trading draft picks.