Associated Press

GM Dell Demps: Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton additions make Pelicans better

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Whether the Pelicans are better off with Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton than they were with DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo remains to be seen.

All general manager Dell Demps could do on Friday, as he sat between his two new players, was offer assurances that New Orleans All-Star Anthony Davis was an ardent advocate for signing Randle and suggest that the “two-way” abilities of Payton and Randle give the Pelicans a promising opportunity to build on a formula that served them well late last season.

“When we finished the season last year, we felt like found a rhythm, found an identity,” Demps said, alluding to the playoff push and first-round sweep of Portland that the Pelicans pulled off without Cousins, who was rehabilitating his torn left Achilles tendon.

“We feel like the team’s improved,” Demps said. “On paper, everything looks really good. But, obviously, we have to do it on the court.”

Before Cousins spurned New Orleans in favor of a one-year, reported $5.3 million deal to join defending champion Golden State this month, the Pelicans’ party line had been that they wanted Cousins back.

But with Cousins still recovering from a serious injury, the Pelicans would not offer the maximum allowable contract for NBA free agents who are eight-year veterans: Five years and around $177 million. They tried to negotiate a shorter deal instead, to no avail.

Cousins, who turns 28 next month, was named a 2018 All-Star before his injury in late January. He averaged 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds in 48 games last season. But Cousins also averaged five turnovers and regularly could be seen lingering near the basket after missed shots, expressing dissatisfaction with officiating while opponents raced five-on-four the other way.

After Cousins’ injury, the Pelicans improved defensively, played with a faster pace and went 21-13 to finish the regular season sixth in the Western Conference.

“Obviously we want to build off the success we had last year,” Demps said, emphasizing that Randle and Payton “are two-way players” who can “push the ball in transition.” In addition to talking up Randle’s and Payton’s defensive play, Demps highlighted their relative youth and repeatedly referred to them as “unselfish.”

The 6-foot-9 Randle, who turns 24 in November, averaged 16.1 points and eight rebounds in just 27 minutes per game with the Los Angeles Lakers last season. He also led Los Angeles in assists seven times.

Demps said he heard from Davis the moment word spread that the Lakers had decided to let Randle go after agreeing to terms with LeBron James.

“I was like, `Yeah, we’re on it,”‘ a grinning Demps recalled.

Randle said Davis also called him “like three times in a row to pretty much get the job done.”

Randle called Davis’ outreach a “very important” factor in his decision.

“It’s their star player,” Randle said of Davis, whom he also knew because they both played in college at Kentucky. “So for him to see me fit in well to that plan A and a part of their future means a lot.”

Randle also said he expects his game to improve alongside a dynamic front-court player like Davis, who Randle said will be “the best player in his prime that I’ve played with.”

Randle also played one full season with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles in 2015-16, but that was the last of Bryant’s 20 seasons.

Like Randle, the 23-year-old Payton is entering his fifth NBA season, having averaged 12.7 points and 6.2 assists last season Orlando and Phoenix.

Rondo, who will turn 33 next season, averaged 8.3 points and 8.2 rebounds last season. But his production spiked in the playoffs, when he averaged 10.3 points and 12.2 rebounds – and displayed a knack for finding Davis with lobs at the rim.

While the 6-4 Payton is a New Orleans native who played in college at Louisiana-Lafayette, he downplayed how much his Louisiana ties influenced his decision to sign with the Pelicans.

“It didn’t matter if this team was in – wherever,” Payton said. “I just felt like this was the best fit.

“I’m best in transition, when we’re pushing the ball,” Payton added. “It definitely fits my strengths.”

Demps said he had studied Payton since before the guard turned pro and “always felt like he was a great fit for our group, especially the way we want to play.”

Heat says they need faster start in Game 4 against Celtics

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The formula that the Miami Heat had backed themselves into using throughout this postseason wasn’t exactly ideal.

They were losing almost every first quarter, and winning almost every game anyway.

It’s not a sustainable plan, and the Boston Celtics finally showed that in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals when they pulled off a wire-to-wire win over Miami, not letting the Heat put together their typical comeback. Game 4 of the East title series — with Miami still leading 2-1 — is Wednesday, and the Heat are insisting that there will be more urgency at the beginning.

“I think we’ve just got to start off better,” Heat forward Jimmy Butler said. “I don’t think we started off anywhere near where we’re capable of. I think we dig ourselves a hole and try to fight back out of it. I think going into this next one, it’s up to the starting five to come out with a great start.”

Before Game 3, Miami was 8-0 in the playoffs when trailing after the first quarter — after going 10-16 when put in that position during the regular season. In the 36 minutes of first-period action against the Celtics, the Heat have led roughly one-sixth of the time.

Butler is 1 for 6 in 29 first-quarter minutes in the series. Duncan Robinson and Goran Dragic are a combined 10 for 19; the rest of the Heat in first quarters against the Celtics are 11 for 46. Boston has won the first quarters by a combined score of 88-68, shooting 54% to Miami’s 32%.

“Certainly, it would help to be able to get off to a good start,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But you have to play good basketball more consistently when you get to this point in the conference finals against a quality opponent.”

Another wild stat is this: Boston has outscored Miami 50-18 from 2-point range in first quarters so far in the series. And yet, somehow, the Celtics still need a win on Wednesday to even up matters — or fall into the dreaded 3-1 series hole.

“Obviously, you know that when a team lost its last one, you’re going to get a great shot,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “But you expect a great shot every time. We’re going to have to play our best game in Game 4, and then after Game 4 is over, we’re going to have to play better than that in Game 5. That’s kind of the way it works.”

The teams have had three full days off since Game 3, a quirk in the schedule to allow the Western Conference finals matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets to catch up; the Lakers and Nuggets were to play the third game in their series Tuesday night.

Not that this one needs explaining, but Miami’s chances go up considerably in this series if the Heat find a way to win Game 4. The Heat are 11-0 in series where they lead 3-1, and 9-9 in series where it’s tied 2-2 after four games. The Celtics haven’t successfully overcome a 3-1 deficit since the 1981 East finals.

LeBron James has “zero comment” on L.A. County Sheriff, speaks on violence

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has been no stranger to outlandish acts and putting himself in headlines since taking office. Most recently, he and his department were sued by Vanessa Bryant over photos from the site of the plane crash that took Kobe’s life.

Last week, the controversial Villanueva decided to drag the most popular athlete in Los Angeles into his headlines, challenging LeBron James to double the reward for the person who shot two Sheriff deputies who were sitting in their car. It was a clear dig at LeBron’s stances against police violence around the nation, and Vanessa Bryant had slammed Villanueva for it on social media.

LeBron, after the Lakers’ loss to Denver Sunday night, refused to play Villanueva’s game, saying he has “zero comment” on the Sherrif. However, LeBron did speak on police violence.

“I’ve never in my 35 years ever condoned violence. Never have,” LeBron said. “But I also know what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong… I’ve seen a lot of counts firsthand of a lot of Black people being racially profiled because of our color. And I’ve seen it throughout my whole life.

“And I’m not saying that all cops are bad because, I actually, throughout high school and things of that nature, and I’m around them all the time, and they’re not all bad. But when you see the videos that’s going on and you can see all over the — not only my hometown but all over America — you continue to see the acts of violence toward my kind, I can’t do nothing but to speak about it and see the common denominator.

“But not one time have I ever said, ‘Let’s act violent toward cops.’ I just said that what’s going on in our community is not OK, and we fear for that, and we fear for our lives. It’s something that we go on every single day as a Black man and a Black woman and a Black kid, a Black girl. We fear. We fear that moment when we’re pulled over…

“But I do not condone violence toward anyone — police, Black people, white people, anyone of color, anyone not of color — because that’s not going to ever make this world or America what we want it to be.”

LeBron’s too smart to be dragged into Villanueva’s game, which is more about the Sherrif trying to distract from issues around himself.

LeBron has put his money where his mouth is on social justice issues, forming an organization to work to register minority voters and work against voter suppression nationwide.

Attacking Jamal Murray sparks Nuggets, who hold off Lakers for Game 3 win

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Down 0-2 to a LeBron James team, the Denver Nuggets’ backs were against the wall.

The Los Angeles Lakers learned — like the Jazz and Clippers before them — that the Nuggets have a couple more gears when their season is threatened.

Jamal Murray attacked from the opening tip, set the tone for Denver, then when the Lakers made it interesting late, stuck the dagger in the Los Angeles.

“I didn’t have any doubt we were going to show up tonight,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said postgame. “The reason I didn’t have any doubt is we won six straight elimination games…

“For some reason, this team loves the bubble.”

Denver pulled away from the Lakers in the second quarter and held on at the end to take a 114-106 win in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.

The Lakers still lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 Thursday night.

Murray was the best player on the floor in Game 3, scoring 28 points, dishing 12 assists, grabbing eight rebounds, and forcing the Lakers’ defense to adjust to him.

“When you look at these three series we’ve played so far, he’s starting to get the respect from the other teams, and they’re game-planning, they’re blitzing him, they’re double-teaming.”

Both Denver and the Lakers came out attacking the paint early: The teams combined for 56 first-quarter points, and they scored 34 of them in the paint (60.7%)

In the second quarter, however, the Lakers started settling for jumpers while the Nuggets kept attacking. Denver went on a 15-2 run to start the quarter — with Nikola Jokic on the bench — and Denver went on to dominate the next two quarters, leading by as many as 20.

The Nuggets got a big night from Jerami Grant, who had career playoff hight 26 points. Jokic added 22 plus 10 rebounds.

Meanwhile, the Lakers could not get jump shots to fall. Los Angeles was 6-of-26 from three (23.1%), and worse, they scored 12 points on 24 spot-up shot attempts (stat via Synergy Sports).

LeBron James did his part — a triple-double of 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists — and Anthony Davis added 27, but the Lakers defensive energy, and with that transition buckets, were not there.

Until the fourth quarter.

The Lakers got much more physical and aggressive defensively, and the Lakers went on a 19-2 run, which included six straight Nuggets turnovers at one point. The Lakers went to a zone defense that flummoxed Denver.

Eventually, Murray and Jokic righted the ship. Denver stretched the lead back out and got the win. After the game, the Lakers to a man said they needed to bring that fourth-quarter energy all game on Thursday.

One thing talked about after the game was Murray’s elbow to LeBron.

“I don’t think it was blatant. I don’t know his mindset, but I don’t think he did it on purpose,” LeBron said postgame.

The other thing talked about postgame — now we have a series.

Zach LaVine reacts to Chicago hiring Billy Donovan: ‘Wow, that’ll be good’

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Zach LaVine learned about the Chicago Bulls hiring Billy Donovan as their head coach while playing Call of Duty.

Which means there is a recording of his real-time reaction to the news.

“Damn, we just got Billy Donovan as our next head coach… wow, that’ll be good.”

LaVine also Tweeted about the hire.

He wasn’t the only Bulls’ player excited about the hire.

Bradley Beal, a former Donovan player at Florida, loved the hire.

Donovan takes over a Chicago team that seems on the cusp of something. How big a something remains up for debate. The roster has young talent: Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter, and the No. 4 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Donovan is an upgrade over Boylen, both in terms of player relations and tactics, making the Bulls better.

Even with Donovan, what is the ceiling for these Bulls? Next season they are not going to be better than the Celtics, Bucks, Heat, or Nets, and likely not the 76ers or Raptors either (unless Toronto tears down the roster). That’s six. And a lot of people would put the Indiana Pacers on a level above the Bulls as well. Bottom line: Even with a coaching upgrade and player improvement, the Bulls are likely scrambling for a bottom playoff spot in the East.

The Bulls are looking beyond next year. Expect Chicago head of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas to spend the next season deciding who fits and who doesn’t, and shake up the roster accordingly. By then the Bulls may be in a better place to be a threat in the East.

Whatever happens, the Bulls got better with this hire, and their biggest star likes it.