Getty Images

Heat camp arrives, and Goran Dragic says he’s more than ready

Leave a comment

MIAMI (AP) — This time last year, Miami’s Goran Dragic was already tired and the season was just getting started.

It’s very different now.

When the Heat hold their first practice of the season Tuesday, Dragic expects to be as rested and ready as he’s been for any training camp in years. The point guard who went to his first All-Star Game last season wore down as the year went along, in part because of the grind he put himself through last summer while leading his native Slovenia to the European championship.

This summer, he played less – and is hoping that pays off this season.

“I feel amazing. I feel great,” Dragic said. “I think one of the smartest moves I made was retiring from the national team, because I feel energized and pumped for this season. I always kind of hit a wall toward the end of a season, but I feel like this season is going to be a totally different story.”

At 32, Dragic is Miami’s third-oldest player – among those in the Heat locker room, only Udonis Haslem (38) and the entering-his-final-season Dwyane Wade (36) have seen more birthdays. But Dragic is still a starter, still a very intregal part of everything Miami envisions for this season, and is coming off a year where he averaged 17.3 points.

“The band is still together,” Dragic said. “I’m very happy that I’ll be part of this last dance with Dwyane.”

The biggest malady Dragic was dealing with at the end of last season was tendinitis in his right knee, something that bothered him for several weeks. He still led Miami in scoring during its five-game playoff appearance against Philadelphia, averaging 18.6 points.

He wasn’t the only Heat starter ailing when last season ended. Josh Richardson was playing through a bad shoulder, Hassan Whiteside had knee problems, James Johnson had a sports hernia and Tyler Johnson‘s thumb needed surgery. The Heat – who are one of the many teams that have been talking to Minnesota about a trade for Jimmy Butler – are hoping some health luck comes their way this season.

“I think we’re going to be good,” Dragic said.

If nothing else, he’s not coming into this season as harried as he was last fall. Dragic has been back in Miami for about a month, after spending most of his offseason in Slovenia. A year ago, the European championships meant Dragic was still playing right up until the start of Heat camp.

It wasn’t a popular decision in Slovenia for Dragic to stop playing for the national team, which didn’t qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup of Basketball in China and now faces an uphill climb if it’s going to reach the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“But it was the right decision for me,” Dragic said.

The Heat sat out this past June’s NBA Draft in part because of the deal they made in 2015 to bring Dragic to Miami. The package sent to Phoenix included two first-round selections, the first of which was used this year at the No. 16 overall spot. The other will be used in 2021.

The price was steep, and the Heat aren’t complaining.

“I’d much rather have Goran Dragic than those two picks,” Heat President Pat Riley said.

Dragic is hoping to give Riley even more bang for his buck this season.

The All-Star nod – even though it came as an injury replacement – was particularly meaningful for Dragic, and he felt that last season was one of his better seasons anyway.

His goal for this season is simple: Be even better.

“I want to be at a high level for as long as possible,” Dragic said. “If you come into a season without goals, you’re just going through practice and it doesn’t mean anything to you. But if you set goals, you’re pushing yourself. And for me personally, my goal is to have a better season than I did last year. I don’t want to drop a little bit at the end this season. I want to be energized, fresher, more consistent the whole way this time.”

Tim Connelly eager to finish what he started with Nuggets

AP
Leave a comment

DENVER (AP) The prospects of a return home to Washington were undeniably appealing to Tim Connelly.

Not nearly as alluring as this: Finishing what he’s started.

The Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations elected to stay in town even with the Wizards calling. Things are booming these days with a Nuggets team that boasts a young nucleus led by big man Nikola Jokic and that won 54 games in the regular season. They were the No. 2 seed in the West before losing to Portland in Game 7 at home during the second round of the playoffs.

There was just too much work left to be done in Denver to consider taking Washington’s front office job even if it would’ve been with the organization where Connelly got his start and in the area where he and his wife are from.

“It’s safe to assume, and maybe it’s me being overly optimistic, that we’re going to see a better version of us next year,” Connelly said Tuesday. “I don’t know if that means more wins. I don’t know if we’re going to win a playoff series and advance, but I don’t think there’s any reason to think there will be any regression next season.”

A Baltimore native, Connelly appreciated the audience with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis. He said he was flattered by their recent “exchange of ideas” as the Wizards look to fill the role of team president after Ernie Grunfeld was fired in April.

“The relationships that have been built up here and the hard times we’ve been through – it was very hard to envision leaving something that has been so hard and so long coming in its build,” said Connelly, who broke into the NBA with the Wizards as an intern in the basketball operations department, then as an assistant video coordinator and as a scout.

Connelly was hired as Denver’s general manager in July 2013 and it took a while for the team to take off. Team President Josh Kroenke stayed patient with him. Connelly brought in coach Michael Malone before the 2015-16 season and they’ve steadily progressed since – from 33 wins in Malone’s first year to 40 wins in ’16-17 to 46 in ’17-18 and finally to 54 this season, including a league-leading 34-7 home mark.

“We did not get off to a good start by any stretch, and (Kroenke) doubled down on what easily could have been perceived as an initial mistake because he liked the processes and liked how we attacked our job day to day,” said Connelly, who was promoted to president of basketball operations in 2017. “Loyalty and patience is such a rarity in professional sports and that’s here in spades. So those things matter to me.”

Connelly and his staff have struck it rich in the draft, taking Jokic with the 41st pick of the second round in 2014. They’ve also selected Jamal Murray, along with up-and-comers Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Michael Porter Jr., who sat out this season as he recovered from back surgery.

The biggest offseason decision remains this: What to do with veteran leader Paul Millsap. The team holds a $30 million option, which could be restructured.

“I fully expect Paul to be back in a Nuggets uniform,” Connelly said.

On the free agency front, Denver hasn’t exactly been an attractive landing spot in recent summers. But Connelly sees that starting to change and believes the unselfish play of Jokic could be an enticing selling point. Denver could be in the market for another shooter and a power forward in order to take the next step.

“It will be fascinating to make those calls” in free agency, Connelly said. “If they say it’s about winning and the answer is about winning and they don’t talk to us, then I think it’s a disingenuous answer.”

The Nuggets definitely turned some heads throughout the regular season as they challenged Golden State down to the wire for the best mark in the West. They beat San Antonio in seven games in the first round before falling to the Trail Blazers.

“We sent a pretty loud message,” Malone said. “I think there were questions about our team all year long, for whatever reason: How legitimate are they? Are they really a No. 2 seed? Can they take their game into the playoffs with so many young guys that’ve never been there before?

“We answered so many questions about our team in the best way possible.”

NOTES: Malone said Jokic’s race horse, Dream Catcher, recently won a race in Serbia. “He made sure I knew about it, because the last race he won I was at,” Malone said. “I thought I was a good-luck charm but obviously I’m not.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo

AP
Leave a comment

Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors took Game 4 against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday, 120-102.

Things started off okay for Milwaukee but started to peter off as the hometown Toronto crowd got behind their Raptors. The bench continued to show up for Leonard’s squad, and it was Kyle Lowry dueling it out with Antetokounmpo in the first quarter.

Leonard scored 19 points to go with seven rebounds and four steals, and perhaps his most impressive play of the night came early in the third quarter. Running a little two-man game with Marc Gasol, Leonard cut to the basket and wound up dunking all over the Milwaukee star.

Via Twitter:

Leonard appeared to hobble a little bit after his dunk, but he should be ready to go for Game 5 on a Thursday night. Meanwhile, the series heads back to Wisconsin all tied up at 2-2.

The victor of this series will get to take on the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals.

Andre Iguodala says Stephen Curry is the second-best PG ever

Getty
1 Comment

The Golden State Warriors are moving on to the NBA Finals yet again, thanks in large part to the efforts of Stephen Curry. Golden State’s point guard is now heading to his fifth-straight finals, and without Kevin Durant he was a big reason why the Warriors were able to beat the Portland Trail Blazers in just four games.

Of course there is a real worry that Durant won’t be able to play in the NBA Finals, either partially or fully, thanks to a calf injury. If that’s the case, and the Warriors can take home another championship trophy, it could mean great things for Curry’s legacy.

Curry is currently chasing Magic Johnson as the best point guard ever in the eyes of many folks. What might help solidify Curry’s place in history would be an NBA Finals MVP, which he would likely wind up with if Durant is unable to impact the Finals the way he has.

At least for Andre Iguodala, Curry is already the second best point guard of all-time.

Via The Athletic:

“I think he’s the second best ever,” Iguodala said. “I always thought that about him. I knew but other people didn’t know. So I wasn’t surprised when he took over that series. But I always gave Tony Allen credit. Playing against him made you understand the grind of how hard it is to win. It’s supposed to be hard. You’re supposed to have to find another way. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable. He just embraced that. Just ingrained that into his system and it’s been there ever since.”

The real question is what Curry’s legacy will be after these Finals, particularly if they win without Durant. Some people aren’t keen to compare eras, and might never move off of Johnson for that spot. It seems reasonable to say that Curry is already the best shooter of all-time, but June could elevate him even further.

Raptors’ halfcourt defense, big games from Gasol, Lowry evens series with Bucks

1 Comment

Slow your roll on “these Bucks can challenge Warriors” takes…

They are going to have to get out of the East, first. And that is proving to be more difficult than it looked after two games.

Back home in Toronto, the Raptors slowed the game’s pace down and used an impressive halfcourt defense — the Bucks scored less than a point per possession when transition was taken away — to control this game. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 25 points and 10 rebounds, and Khris Middleton added 30 points, but outside those two the Bucks shot 35.4 percent and had just 13 fast break points. It all kept the Bucks offense relatively in check.

Relatively is good enough when everyone is hitting their shots.

Kawhi Leonard had a quiet 19 points, although he did have the dunk of the playoffs all over Antetokounmpo.

Leonard didn’t have to carry the team because everyone in white seemed to be knocking down their shots. Kyle Lowry had 25 points on 11 shots, Marc Gasol had 17 (and his aggressive offense the last two games has stressed the Bucks defense), Norman Powell had 18, Serge Ibaka 17 points and 13 rebounds, and Fred VanVleet had 13 points on six shots. The Raptors bench scored 48 points. Leonard (or Lowry) would draw attention on drives, but when the ball was kicked out and swung around, the open man didn’t hesitate and rarely missed.

All that led to a 120-102 Raptors win where Toronto was in control most of the way.

The series is now tied 2-2 and heads back to Milwaukee where the best-of-three left starts.

The Raptors continue to defend well in the halfcourt, with the Bucks scoring less than a point per possession (0.93) this game. In three of the four games, the Bucks have scored less than a point per possession in the halfcourt, but that only really matters if they can keep Milwaukee out of transition. The Raptors did that at home in a game with just 96 possessions, the fewest in this series (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

Individually, Milwaukee and Mike Budenholzer have leaned on Nikola Mirotic more in recent games, and the Raptors are now attacking him when they have the ball.

Combine that with an aggressive Gasol — he has started taking the shots from three that he hesitated on in the first two games — and his 3-of-6 from deep has become a big problem for Toronto.

Toronto had this in hand much of the second half, so much so that Drake was helping Nick Nurse relax on the sidelines.

The Bucks will need their other players — Eric Bledsoe, who had 5 points on 7 shots, and Brook Lopez, who had 8 points — to step up in the final games if they are going to advance.

The Raptors have found a formula that works, it’s on the Bucks now to adjust.