5 Up, 5 Down: CJ McCollum and Kevin Durant are more similar than they think


5 Up, 5 Down is a column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

It’s another week, and here we are in the rough slog of the summer months in the NBA. LeBron James is seemingly everywhere, doing good deeds and being a good parent. Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard is likely traveling to Toronto for the first time to see how beautiful Ontario is in the summer. Maybe not.

Still, things are slowing down a little bit so it’s time to reflect on some of the moments of the past few weeks.

There are quite a few big names that have changed teams, or will change teams, but the end of July is perhaps the best time to stop and think about what we can actually predict for the coming season. Yes, the Golden State Warriors are still the favorites out of the Western Conference, but we really don’t know what will happen with James as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Plus, the Boston Celtics are getting back two former All-Stars. Next year is going to be fun, at least we can count on that.

The point is, predicting what will happen next spring is sort of futile in the summer. At the moment, all we can do is bask in the UV rays and make “reckless speculation” our mantra.

Say it with me:

Reckless speculation.
Reckless speculation.
Reckless speculation.
Reckless speculation.
Reckless speculation.

I’m just going to keep doing this until training camp starts.

Without further ado.

5 Up

Kawhi isn’t a Spur

We had to talk about this story the entire year last season, and every step of the way it was nearly a complete mystery. We still aren’t that much closer to the end of this saga thanks to Leonard’s contract, but we at least know that he won’t be playing in San Antonio this upcoming season.

Thank goodness for that, although there is and still should be some trepidation on behalf of Toronto Raptors fans. Reports are that initial meetings have gone well between Leonard and the team, but as we have seen over the course of basically every NBA season in history, things can change between players and teams.

Will Leonard be a Raptor after this year? Will he be a Laker? Honestly at this point, I don’t care. It’s July of 2018 and this story is no longer interesting. Call me when he makes a decision or if he gets traded before the deadline next year.

Carmelo is going to the Rockets

Carmelo Anthony heading to the analytics heavy Houston Rockets has always been a bit of a question mark when we have heard it floated over the years. But there are two explicit beneficial outcomes in Anthony becoming a Rocket sometime this summer, and both of them are good.

The least likely scenario is that Anthony gets to Houston, plays his role, and hits well from 3-point range as a productive member of the Rockets offense. Houston makes it to the Western Conference Finals, and this time they beat the Golden State Warriors, removing the aura around that team’s crown.

More likely is that Anthony plays more to how we have seen him in recent years, and has just enough statistical production to fool less-savvy fans. Anthony, who is playing on a minimum salary deal, acts as though he is the top dog on the team and helps to torpedo the Rockets’ locker room. Houston doesn’t make it past the second round, and we don’t have to see James Harden or Chris Paul try to draw ticky tack fouls on Draymond Green for seven games in the Western Conference Finals.

It’s a win-win

LeBron James opening a public school

People like to brag on athletes for not doing enough in their community. Usually this happens in the comments section or on Twitter, where the aforementioned trolls have failed to even Google what kind of contributions those players have actually made.

Well, this time around that’s just about impossible.

James donated a school in conjunction with Akron Public Schools in Ohio. It will help serve underprivileged youth in the area, and will have grades one through eight by 2022. That’s a significant undertaking and not your average charitable contribution.

The amount of wealth that players amass is incredible. Many of them burn through it before they turn 60, but those who manage it smartly are in a position to be able to do something like this. Good on LeBron for making a significant impact on the lives of children.

Think about it this way — these kids could live to be 100 years old and many of their life accomplishments could be eventually tracked back via a butterfly effect to this school. That’s wild.

CJ McCollum and Kevin Durant being corny at each other

Kevin Durant and CJ McCollum have more in common than the two major stars think. Each takes light criticism a bit harsher than should be expected from someone in their position, and from time to time you can see it bubble up through the surface and out into the media.

Durant likes to take his frustration out on social media, lurking in Instagram comment sections and using Twitter burner accounts. McCollum, who gets undue praise for simply finishing J school at Lehigh, can often be seen snapping at reporters despite his purported media chops when he is in a nippy mood or when things aren’t going his way.

That’s why having Durant and McCollum going at each other on a podcast was particularly hilarious.

Durant and McCollum are stars on their respective teams, but they aren’t the core of their team nor are they the most popular player on them. And they never will be, and perhaps that unites them even more.

Mostly, I just like the idea that the two of them got into it enough where gangs got referenced. That’s insane. Remember, NBA players aren’t as tough as they like to put out there. Even Kevin Garnett, king of the TOUGH VET reputation, basically ran away from Antonio McDyess in 2007. The fact that Durant and McCollum even verbally traded jabs is kind of impressive. I hope this gets a lot of the coverage when the Blazers and Warriors play this year. No doubt it will.

This photo of John Wall

I mean, just look at it.

5 Down

Nick Young hates the idea of Yeezy basketball shoes

Well, Young didn’t specifically say this. What he did say is that he felt like players were getting too weird with what they were wearing on the court and to work out.

This was hilarious because Young is the king of wearing insane shoes while hooping. Specifically, Young is known for wearing shoes that aren’t made to play professional basketball in. He’s worn everything from Jordan lifestyle kicks to Kanye West’s joints.

Rumor is that Kanye is going to create a basketball shoe for his lineup with Adidas next year. We will have to see if Young jumps on that bandwagon and reverses course.

Any talk of Kawhi staying in Toronto

There was a rumor last week that said that it was a real possibility that Leonard could grow to love Toronto, and that eventually he might re-sign with the Raptors. Not only is this rumor likely someone carrying water for Leonard’s camp, it’s also completely irrelevant.

Even if Toronto grows on Leonard (which it should) as we have seen with the Paul George saga with the Los Angeles Lakers, there is no guarantee that a player will end up pretty much anywhere when speculating this far out. It’s useless.

I don’t want to have to write stories like this all season long, especially after the weird journey we took with Leonard in San Antonio. Just let the guy play and we will see where we stand at the winter break.

The Raptors openly hedging against a rebuild

This has been sort of an under-reported item, at least in national media in the U.S. Essentially, Toronto appears to be hedging against both the rest of the Eastern Conference with LeBron James in Los Angeles, and a potential tear down.

General manager Masai Ujiri decided that DeMar DeRozan wasn’t going to help the Raptors get over the hump in the East, specifically the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. So, the swap for Leonard was made with the idea that if he decides to leave next summer in free agency that Toronto could then enter a rebuild.

Even if that rebuild is a mid-level teardown, that probably means that Kyle Lowry ends up somewhere else as well. Doing so would completely take away the character of that Raptors organization.

The weirdest thing is that Toronto is doing this out in the open. There is no possible way to consider their moves in any other light, and that’s strange given that if Toronto struggles this season, players like Lowry could get asked about a potential rebuild before the year is even over.

Several players on Twitter mentioned that they thought Toronto had done DeRozan wrong. Burning those kinds of bridges, and eliminating trust in your organization is a bad luck when you are headed into a rebuild.

If that’s the move, of course.

The Blazers letting their trade exception expire

We talked a while back about why Portland decided to let Ed Davis walk to the Brooklyn Nets for a measly $4 million. There was some serious luxury tax considerations for the Blazers involved in that decision, and likely some betting by general manager Neil Olshey that second year player Zach Collins would be able to fill that role adequately.

However, Portland still has a team that is in need of another piece, and a star in Damian Lillard who has been active about asking to be involved in each team’s direction. It’s not as though time is running out for the relationship between Lillard and the team, but they do need to make a move here soon that isn’t just about the income statement.

Portland had a $13 million trade exception from the Allen Crabbe trade, which they failed to use by July 25th. Letting the trade exception expire means that this Blazers roster is likely set for the upcoming year, which is hard to understand given that the rest of the West will be better in 2018-19.

It’s an odd move by Olshey, whose motives are unknown at this time. However, wearing thin on Lillard’s patience could be a colossally stupid move. Olshey has spent himself into a hole thanks to the Evan Turner contract, and to a lesser extent the contracts of Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard.

Perhaps ducking a massive luxury tax bill was the directive from owner Paul Allen? At this point we don’t know, but if that means straining the relationship with Lillard there are some serious questions about the leadership atop the Portland Trail Blazers.

The anti-modern San Antonio Spurs

DeMar DeRozan. LaMarcus Aldridge. Rudy Gay. Pau Gasol

You know what? Nevermind. This is actually a positive. I can’t wait to watch the Spurs next year.

Do you have a question about the NBA you need answered? Our PBT Mailbag publishes on Wednesdays, so send your question to have it answered by our team of NBA experts. E-mail us at: pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

Bucks’ Middleton reportedly has knee scoped, should be ready for camp

2023 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Miami Heat
Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

The Bucks said an MRI of Khris Middleton‘s knee just before the start of the playoffs was clean even if his play made observers question that news.

Turns out, maybe it wasn’t totally clean.

Middleton had his knee scoped after the playoffs, but he will return to his offseason training in July, reports Shams Charania and Eric Nehm of The Athletic.

The report said the surgery was to clean up “an issue that plagued him this past season,” and it was scheduled before the Bucks’ playoff run began. So, they knew, as did most anyone who watched Middleton and didn’t see the same burst as he had in the past, especially on the defensive end. He looked a step slow.

This minor surgery shouldn’t change Middleton’s or the Bucks’ off-season plans. Whatever those may be. Middleton has a $40.4 million player option, something he reportedly is considering opting out of to re-sign a longer deal with Milwaukee — or elsewhere — likely at a lower per-season salary but with more total dollars (the team may also reach an extension with him). At age 31, Middleton may want the security of years.

Milwaukee needs Middleton and his shot creation, plus his two-way play, if they are going to compete at the highest levels. However, they need the healthy Middleton who was an All-Star and All-NBA player, not the one that only played in 33 games last season due to wrist surgery and knee issues.

It will be an interesting offseason in Milwaukee with 35-year-old Brook Lopez a free agent and Jrue Holiday becoming extension eligible in the fall. The Bucks had the best record in the NBA last season, but the roster is getting old and expensive fast, and a pivot is coming. At some point. But maybe not this summer.

Nuggets’ Christian Braun on verge of history, NCAA and NBA titles in consecutive years


MIAMI — Only four players have ever done it: Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Henry Bibby and Billy Thompson.

Christian Braun could become the fifth player to win an NCAA title and an NBA championship in back-to-back seasons.

Last season he was the second-leading scorer on the Kansas Jayhawk team that won the NCAA tournament, with Braun scoring 12 points and grabbing 12 boards in the title game against North Carolina.

Braun isn’t just riding the Denver bench to his piece of history, he scored a critical 15 points in Game 3 to spark the Nuggets win. Braun scored 11 points in a stretch at the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth when Denver pushed its lead to 21, then held off the early fourth quarter charge from Miami that had defined the Finals for two games.

Braun’s cuts to the rim — not to mention his steal and dunk — were things of beauty.

“I told him, you won us the game…” Nikola Jokić said of Braun (which was generous considering Jokic’s 32-21-10 triple-double). “He won us the game, and he was really good tonight.”

“Tonight, man, I could just feel the confidence kind of oozing out of him,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “The physical, aggressive drives, making plays for guys against their zone. It was really fun to watch a young man step up like the way Christian did tonight.”

Denver drafted Braun with the No. 21 pick and it was a perfect fit for the Kansas native (who led his high school team, Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, to three state titles). Braun was drafted onto a contending team and was given a clearly defined role by Malone. Braun took that and earned his minutes with hustle and defense all season long, and sometimes the points come with that.

“Those guys make it really easy,” Braun said of playing with Jokić and Jamal Murray. “Playing with those guys, they make the right play every time. My job is just to be ready when my name is called…

“Like I said, my job is not very hard; I’ve just got to come in, play with energy, and they find me in the right spots on offense and the defense just give effort. So those guys have trusted me all year and put me in the right spots and my job is to deliver.”

Braun was ready to deliver and it showed.

If he and the Nuggets can deliver a couple more wins, he will be part of a select group in history.

Three things to know from Denver dominating both ends, taking 2-1 series lead


MIAMI — That looked like the Denver team that rolled through the West. The one that — on paper — Miami would have trouble matching up with.

The Nuggets’ best game of the Finals and maybe their best of the playoffs, was led by Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray becoming the first teammates in any game to have 30+ triple-doubles.

“By far their greatest performance as a duo in their seven years together,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

In our takeaways, we will focus on things other than Jokić and Murray’s greatness to start, but make no mistake, their dominance was the foundation on which this Nuggets win was built. Their play sparked Denver to a 109-94 win on the road to take a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals. Game 4 is Friday night in Miami.

Here are three takeaways from the Nuggets’ Game 3 win.

1) Denver’s size advantage was too much

The Heat knew it was coming and couldn’t do anything about it.

“I think that was their objective, to get in the paint, get inside and use their size and physicality,” Kyle Lowry said. “And, yeah, that’s what they did tonight.”

“They just pummeled us in the paint,” Erik Spoelstra added. “They didn’t really have to shoot threes. They had, whatever, 60 [points] in the paint. They probably shot over 65% in the paint at the rim there [69% in the restricted area]. Wasn’t a need to space the floor. We didn’t offer much resistance.”

There’s an old basketball saying that tall and good beats small and good. That was in evidence on both ends of the floor on Wednesday night in Miami.

On offense, the Nuggets’ big adjustment was they changed the screening angles for Murray and that — combined with a determination on his part to get downhill at the rim — changed the game. Behind Murray the Nuggets scored 20 of its first 24 points in the paint. As noted above, the Nuggets went on to get 60 points in the paint.

Size showed on the Nuggets defense in the Heat shooting 38.2% within eight feet of the basket. While some of that had to do with better low-man help rotations from the Nuggets, their size with the guys making those rotations flummoxed the Heat.

“Yes, you do have to credit their size and everything like that, but we have proven that we can finish in the paint when we’re at our best,” Spoelstra said. They didn’t in Game 3 and had better find a way to do it in Game 4.

2) Nuggets’ defense was dialed in

This was The Nuggets’ best defensive game of the series. But don’t take my word for it, just ask their coach, Michael Malone.

“I thought our defense was fantastic tonight,” he said. “You hold that team to 94 points, 37 [percent] from the field, only 11 threes, that really helped us out tonight. The defending and rebounding at a high level.”

As Malone noted, the Nuggets held Denver to 37% shooting, or look at it this way, they held the Heat to a 102.2 offensive rating (12.8 below their playoff average).

Or, check out this stat from The Athletic’s Law Murray: The Heat were 17-of-46 (37%) on shots outside the paint, but they were also 17-of-46 on shots in the paint.

After Malone called out the Nuggets — publicly and privately — for their mental lapses on defense in Game 2, his team came out much sharper in Game 3. That showed in a couple of places, but first and foremost with effort and activity level — Denver was much more aggressive. They were taking swipes at the ball when Miami players would catch it, never letting them get comfortable.

The other area the Nuggets cleaned up was on low-man help rotations when Jokić had to show out on a pick. The Heat have thrived on little pocket passes to Bam Adebayo in this series, but the rotations from the Nuggets took the easy buckets away on those as players got in front of him. The confidence in his back line allowed Jokić to play out a little higher at points.

It’s on Spoelstra to come up with some counters, although what Miami needs to do in Game 4 doesn’t start with the coaching staff.

3) Butler, Adebayo need to be able to hang with Jokić, Murray

Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo have to be better. It’s that simple.

They don’t have to put up matching 30-point triple-doubles, but they can’t shoot a combined 18-of-45 (40%) with seven assists. They can’t combine to shoot 10-of-30 in the paint. They have to be more efficient and come close to matching Jokić and Murray on the night to have a chance.

“We didn’t play our best tonight,” Butler said of the Heat, sitting next to Adebayo in the press conference. “I feel like we just got to come out with more energy and effort, and that’s correctible. That’s on us as a group. No X’s and O’s can fix that.”

The Heat stars got outplayed on both ends. While their shooting woes are mentioned above, they were also the primary defenders on the Murray/Jokick pick-and-roll and they didn’t stop that either. Even in the second half when the Heat started blitzing the ball handler and consistently bringing a third defender early into the action, it didn’t matter, the Nuggets made the read and the play.

I don’t know. We’re going to get back to the film and figure it out, because we do have to be better guarding both of those guys,” Butler said. “One is the ball-hander and one is the guy that is setting the screen and popping and rolling. It’s not an easy task to do, but if we want to win, we are going to have to figure it out.”

Spoelstra thinks maybe the missed shots on the offensive end got in his team’s heads and impacted Miami’s defense.

“It felt like at times, some of those missed shots at the rim or in the paint, the makeable shots that we’ve made the last several months or weeks, that affected a little bit of our, whatever, going down the other end,” Spoelstra said. “And that hasn’t happened a lot.”

In addition to those two, the Heat roll players have to hit their 3-pointers, something they did in Game 2 and did not in Game 3. Max Strus was 1-of-4 from beyond the arc, Gabe Vincent 1-of-6, and as a team Miami was 11-of-35 (31.4%). The Heat’s 3-point shooting has been their bellwether all playoffs, and if they are going to hang with this Nuggets offense they have to knock those down at a better than 40% rate.

The one bright spot for the Heat was in garbage time, Udonis Haslem, at age 43, became the oldest player to appear in an NBA Finals game ever. He deserves that. Although you know he’d trade it for a win in a heartbeat.

Historic Jokić, Murray too much, Denver handles Miami in Game 3


MIAMI — Denver can point to a lot of things it did right in Game 3.

This was the Nuggets’ best defensive game of the series, holding the Heat to 37% shooting and a 102.2 offensive rating (12.8 below their playoff average). The Nuggets held their own in the fourth quarter for the first time this series, winning it by one. Then Christian Braun came out of nowhere to have a night with 15 points, and the Nuggets scored 60 points in the paint.

But it all starts with Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray — they became the first teammates ever to have 30-point triple-doubles in the same game. Ever. Let alone in a critical Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

“By far their greatest performance as a duo in their seven years together,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

They led Denver to a comfortable 109-94 win on the road to take a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals. Game 4 is Friday night in Miami, and it’s basically must win for the Heat.

Miami will have to come up with better answers for the Nuggets stars, which is what every team has been saying since the playoffs started.

Jokić finished with 32 points (on 21 shots), 21 rebounds and 10 assists — Jokić had the first 30-20-10 game in NBA Finals history. In fact, there have been five such games in NBA playoff history, and he has three of them.

“I don’t care, it’s just a stat,” Jokić said in maybe the most Jokić statement ever.

“What he does, man, he makes it look so easy,” Murray said of Jokic. “You know, you’ve got 21 boards and everybody talking about how he can’t jump, and he’s out there battling everybody, physically strong. They say he doesn’t want to doesn’t want to score, he gives you 32. And 10 assists. He just makes the game look easy throughout the game, and like I said, his free throws his touch, creativity, the no-look passes, his IQ. I could go down the line, he’s a special player.”

Then there was Murray, who led the Nuggets with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. While he shot 3-of-6 from 3, the big difference was Denver changed their screen angles in this game, it threw the Heat off and Murray got rolling downhill early. He finished with 14 points in the paint plus he got to the line eight times. With Murray attacking and being deadly from the midrange, the Heat were overwhelmed.

“They just pummeled us in the paint,” Erik Spoelstra said. “They didn’t really have to shoot threes. They had, whatever, 60 in the paint. They probably shot over 65% in the paint at the rim there [it was 69% in the restricted area]. Wasn’t a need to space the floor. We didn’t offer much resistance.”

Murray was getting downhill from the opening tip. The result of that and Jokić being Jokić was Denver getting 20 of its 24 points in the paint. The game was tied 24-24 after one quarter despite the Nuggets missing all of its 3-pointers (0-of-5) and Miami shooting 9-of-23. Jimmy Butler was aggressive with 10 in the first quarter (he would finish with 28 points on 11-of-24 shooting).

The second quarter had little flow because of all the whistles — it was a Tony Brothers statement game at points — and the Nuggets’ defense.

Denver was just sharper on defense than they have been all series and that started with their activity level — it was extremely high. They were swiping at the ball, being physical and bothering the Heat. The Nuggets also were much better on their low-man help rotations, getting in front of Bam Adebayo more and taking away some easy buckets.

Miami was not making Denver pay from beyond the arc in this game, as it shot just 11-of-35 (31.4%) from 3 on the night.

The first 24 minutes were played on the Heat’s terms, but that didn’t knock Jamal Murray off his game. Murray shot 8-of-13 in the first half on his way to 20 points, including 3-of-5 from 3. Throw in 14 first-half points from Jokić and the Nuggets took a 53-48 lead into halftime. Jimmy Butler put up stats, 14 points, but on 6-of-16 shooting.

The third quarter was more Butler for the Heat — 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the frame — but he wasn’t getting help. The rest of the Heat in the third shot 3-of-14 and had just eight points. All those misses and a strong rebounding game from Denver had them running and in more of a free flow.

The Nuggets also got a significant contribution from Christian Braun off the bench, who had six points in the third, two on brilliant cuts to the rim and one on a steal and a dunk.

Denver led by as many as 19 and was up 14 entering the fourth… but that is when the Heat have dominated this series.

Not this game. Miami cranked up the defensive pressure and made some plays, but Denver was ready for the zone and the pressure. They were not rushed. They got the ball to Jokić and it settled them.

And with that, the Nuggets settled the game and took the series lead.