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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.”

Report: NBA planning to start next season on Christmas

NBA Christmas
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The current NBA season – interrupted by coronavirus – could extend as late as Oct. 12. That means the league must delay next season. How long past the normal mid-October start? December was the popular notion, but that’s still a wide timeframe.

Now, we can pinpoint it.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

If the N.B.A. can successfully complete the 2019-20 season under this structure, it is expected that the 2020 N.B.A. draft would be moved to October, with free agency to follow shortly thereafter and a tentative plan to establish Dec. 25 as opening day for the 2020-21 season.

Coronavirus can ruin the best-laid plans. Though NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said play would continue around a positive test, it’s unclear whether that would delay this season’s schedule – then the offseason then next season. It’s also unknown how the country will be handling coronavirus in December. The cold weather, pushing people indoors, could increase cases.

But it’s still interesting to know the plan, even if it’s tentative.

People fondly recall the NBA season starting on Christmas in 2011. Many have pointed to Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin’s idea of permanently opening in December to avoid overlap with the NFL, though he suggested mid-December – not Christmas.

That’s quite late.

This year, coronavirus has forced radical changes. A Christmas start might be totally reasonable for the 2020-21 season.

What about beyond?

If the NBA wants to begin each season on Christmas, this is the simplest time to shift. A different start date for future seasons would require altering the calendar to get on track.

There are plenty of issues with opening on Christmas in normal times, though:

  • Historically, TV viewership is down during the summer. That might be changing, but people might find other activities while it’s warm rather than attending or watching an indoor NBA game.
  • Would people really watch more NBA games just because fewer of them would compete with the highly popular NFL? The NBA regular season might just be too long to capture attention, no matter when it’s held.
  • By starting on Christmas, the NBA would reduce two marquee regular-season dates – opening day and Christmas – to one.
  • Many regional TV networks that carry NBA games also carry MLB games. Many of those networks already carry NHL games. But with baseball teams playing more games, there would be more conflicts.
  • With schools out, the American system is built on summer being more of a vacation time. People within the league – including players, especially those with children – might object to working during that time.

Projecting schedules for all 22 returning NBA teams

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The NBA will recall 22 teams to each play eight games.

How will the schedule work?

The new structure will reportedly be based on teams’ existing schedules, teams playing their next eight originally scheduled games against the continuing 22 teams. Of course, that doesn’t work cleanly. Some teams would reach eight games more quickly than other teams. So, whenever a team arrived at an opponent that already reached eight games, I just continued to that team’s next game.

With that assumption, here are the remaining opponents for each team:

  • Boston Celtics: Bucks, Wizards, Raptors, Nets, Wizards, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Heat
  • Brooklyn Nets: Clippers, Kings, Wizards, Celtics, Magic, Clippers, Magic, Trail Blazers
  • Dallas Mavericks: Suns, Clippers, Kings, Trail Blazers, Suns, Rockets, Jazz, Bucks
  • Denver Nuggets: Spurs, Lakers, Clippers, Thunder, Raptors, Heat, Spurs, Thunder
  • Houston Rockets: Lakers, Trail Blazers, Kings, Bucks, Mavericks, Pacers, 76ers, Raptors
  • Indiana Pacers: 76ers, Heat, Suns, Magic, Rockets, Kings, Clippers, Lakers
  • L.A. Clippers: Nets, Pelicans, Mavericks, Nuggets, Suns, Nets, Pacers, Thunder
  • Los Angeles Lakers: Rockets, Nuggets, Jazz, Jazz, Raptors, Pacers, Trail Blazers,* Heat or Magic*
  • Memphis Grizzlies: Trail Blazers, Jazz, Spurs, Thunder, Bucks, Pelicans, Pelicans, Celtics
  • Miami Heat: Bucks, Pacers, Thunder, Nuggets, Suns, Celtics, Raptors, Lakers or Trail Blazers*
  • Milwaukee Bucks: Celtics, Heat, Grizzlies, Wizards, Rockets, Wizards, Mavericks, Raptors
  • New Orleans Pelicans: Kings, Jazz, Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Kings, Grizzlies, Magic
  • Oklahoma City Thunder: Jazz, Wizards, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Heat, Nuggets, Suns, Clippers
  • Orlando Magic: Pacers, Kings, Nets, Nets, Pelicans, 76ers, Raptors, Lakers or Trail Blazers*
  • Philadelphia 76ers: Pacers, Wizards, Raptors, Trail Blazers, Suns, Rockets, Magic, Spurs
  • Phoenix Suns: Mavericks, Pacers, Clippers, Mavericks, 76ers, Wizards, Heat, Thunder
  • Portland Trail Blazers: Grizzlies, Rockets, Mavericks, 76ers, Celtics, Nets, Lakers,* Heat or Magic*
  • Sacramento Kings: Pelicans, Nets, Mavericks, Rockets, Magic, Pelicans, Pacers, Spurs
  • San Antonio Spurs: Nuggets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Jazz, Jazz, Nuggets, Kings, 76ers
  • Toronto Raptors: 76ers, Celtics, Nuggets, Lakers, Bucks, Rockets, Heat, Magic
  • Utah Jazz: Thunder, Pelicans, Grizzlies, Lakers, Lakers, Spurs, Spurs, Mavericks
  • Washington Wizards: Celtics, Thunder, 76ers, Nets, Bucks, Celtics, Suns, Bucks

*To reach eight games for each team, I had to create three games not on the schedule:

  • Lakers vs. Trail Blazers
  • Lakers vs. Heat or Magic
  • Trail Blazers vs. Heat or Magic

Los Angeles would face whichever of Miami and Orlando that Portland doesn’t face (and vice versa).

The Lakers could also play the Trail Blazers twice, and the Heat could just play the Magic. But that’d mean five Lakers-Trail Blazers games and five Heat-Magic games this season. Generally, teams play each other four or fewer times.

I wouldn’t get too caught up in the order of the games. That almost certainly must be adjusted. Otherwise, teams would finish at significantly different times. For example, the Bucks’ eighth game in this format is against the Raptors. But that’s just Toronto’s fifth game.

The NBA might also use a different method altogether. Again, the reported plan can’t work exactly as reported.

But want the best guess at each team’s remaining games? This is it.

*Thanks to Kevin Pelton of ESPN for providing a handy spreadsheet of originally scheduled games.

LeBron James to Drew Brees: You still don’t understand why Colin Kaepernick kneeled

Colin Kaepernick and New Orleans Saints Drew Brees
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Colin Kaepernick’s protest worked.

Just by kneeling during the national anthem, Kaepernick shined a light on racism – specifically through police brutality – plaguing the United States. Whether or not you agreed with his methods, Kaepernick made it difficult to avoid discussion of the very important issue. Kaepernick’s simple demonstration made society far more sensitive to police misconduct, particularly toward black people. That set the stage for these incredible nationwide protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

Of course, work remains. Kaepernick suffered far too great of personal cost to deliver his message. Racism and police brutality continue.

So, expect some people – including NFL players – to keep kneeling during the national anthem.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees explained why he objected to that. Lakers star LeBron James then objected to Brees’ explanation.

LeBron:

I do think not standing for the Star Spangled Banner disrespects the United States. The societal norms are clear: Standing is the way to show respect during the national anthem.

But know what else disrespects the United States? Police brutality, which disproportionately harms black people.

At some point, you have to decide which disrespect bothers you more – racism that damages and ends lives or symbolic protest of a song and piece of cloth.

Brees also brought up the military, on which I share LeBron’s disagreement. The Star Spangled Banner represents our entire country, not just our military. It’s weak to use the military as a shield while criticizing Kaepernick. In fact, Kaepernick specifically altered his protest – from sitting to kneeling – to honor the military.

Brees can ignore Kaepernick’s message on that.

But Kaepernick’s larger message rings loudly.

Report: NBA restart schedule to follow existing schedule, with tweaks

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It’s been one of the big questions for the NBA’s 22-team restart at the Walt Disney World complex in Orlando:

How would the schedule be put together for those eight regular-season games?

It turns out, the answer is modifying the old schedule, reports Vincent Goodwill at Yahoo Sports. The idea is just to use the old schedule, taking out the teams not in Orlando.

This provides a starting point for the league’s schedulers.  For example, the Pelicans schedule would be: Kings, Jazz, Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Kings, Grizzlies, Magic. The Pelicans would play the Grizzlies twice in this format, giving them a real chance to make up ground toward the eighth seed. Portland also is well positioned to make a playoff push.

The challenge with following the old schedule becomes this: the Thunder’s eighth game in this scenario is the Clippers, except L.A. already played eight. Next for the Thunder then is the Lakers, except they will have played eight. Then the Nets, but again they have played eight. Multiple teams face this scenario, so the league will need to schedule some “made up” games just to balance things out.

While there would be tweaks to be made, using the existing schedule as a base makes sense.

The teams most interested will be the teams battling for the nine seed, particularly in the West. New Orleans had a particularly soft remaining schedule and the Grizzlies had the hardest one in the league, which is why fivethirtyeight.com gave the Pelicans a 60% chance of making the playoffs. With the eight worst teams in the league out of the picture, how does that change and how much do the schedules flatten out?

Considering everything that has gone on with the league this year and the great lengths needed to start up games again, don’t expect teams to complain about the schedule. They’re just happy to be playing.