Pelicans’ preferred pace presents dilemma vs. Warriors

Associated Press
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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Pelicans’ penchant for pushing the pace looks more and more like a quixotic mission to out-Warrior the Warriors.

That’s been the dilemma for Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry as New Orleans has slid into a 3-1 hole in its Western Conference semifinal playoff series against defending champion Golden State.

Although there’d be logic to slowing the game down to limit shooting opportunities for Golden State’s prolific perimeter players, Gentry never saw that option as practical enough to pull off in the playoffs.

“We’re going to play at a fast pace,” Gentry says. “I know some would say, `You’re kind of playing into Golden State’s hands. But this is the way we’ve played the whole season, so we’re not going to all of a sudden try to adjust and do something completely different, because the success we’ve had has been based on playing at a fast pace and being a team that has played the fastest pace in the league.

“We don’t have the ability to all of a sudden change that and become a walk-it-up-the-court team,” Gentry continued. “We’re just going to continue to attack.”

The Pelicans found a measure of vindication in Game 3, when the Warriors had an off night shooting and New Orleans won by 19 points. But in Game 4 on Sunday, the Warriors ramped up their defensive intensity, shot better and beat New Orleans by 20-plus points for the second time in the series. Now Golden State can close out the series at home in Game 5 on Tuesday night.

Even when the Pelicans’ had DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins playing alongside fellow All-Star big man Anthony Davis in a lineup that revolved around that imposing front-court tandem, New Orleans played relatively fast. They averaged 101.5 possessions per 48 minutes, which ranked sixth in the NBA.

After Cousins went out for the season with a left Achilles tear in late January, the Pelicans picked up the pace even more. During their final 34 games, they averaged 104.5 possessions per 48 minutes – a faster pace of play than any other team during that span.

If Cousins remained healthy, slowing the pace somewhat, and punishing the smaller lineups the Warriors use to greatest effect, would be a more realistic option for New Orleans. But Cousins is not expected back on the court until after next season begins. And whether he’s still with the Pelicans remains to be seen; New Orleans wants him back, but he’ll be a free agent this summer.

The Pelicans’ current lineup features relatively young, versatile players who move well and can score from various spots on the floor, such as Davis, guard Jrue Holiday and forward Nikola Mirotic. They also have a point guard in Rajon Rondo who thrives when pushing the pace and quickly identifying favorable matchups in transition, or early in possessions.

“After we lost Boogie, we became the No. 1 team in pace and we’re going to continue to be that same team,” Pelicans veteran small forward Solomon Hill said. “For us to change with all the chips on the table would basically be defeating the purpose. If we’re good at something, we’re going to stay with it and if anything, we’re going to try to perfect it.

“If we had Boogie out there, it would be different. We’d slow it down and execute some stuff,” Hill added. “But we’re not going to change for anybody. The way we feel like we can compete at the highest level is to continue to be who we are.”

Gentry has always known what he’s up against in this round of the playoffs. He was a lead assistant coach for Golden State’s 2015 championship team before taking the top job in New Orleans.

During the 2017-18 regular season, the Warriors ranked fifth in pace, averaging 101.9 possessions per 48 minutes, so an up-tempo game was going to take the defending champs out of their comfort zone.

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who was Gentry’s boss back in 2015, doesn’t see the Pelicans’ refusal to slow the pace as stubborn. Kerr sees Gentry doing the best he can with the personnel he has.

“You’ve got to do what’s best for your team. You can’t go against your team’s character and change strategy in the playoffs,” Kerr said. “You’ve got to be who you are.”

 

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.