Associated Press

Players, coaches frustrated, trying to adapt to new clutching, grabbing calls from refs

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Stephen Curry raced from the post up to the arc to set a backscreen on Phoenix’s Trevor Ariza, freeing up Kevin Durant’s cut to the rim, where KD was wide open for the pass and dunk …

And then the whistle blew. Curry had held Ariza just a little on the pick to slow him — something common the past couple of seasons, but the kind of clutching and grabbing referees have been told to focus on and call tight this season. Curry got called for the foul, his third offensive foul of the game.

Curry was frustrated, but not as frustrated as coach Steve Kerr, who stormed out onto the court and got ejected from a preseason game for complaining about the call.

Welcome to this NBA preseason, where games have been especially choppy with the seemingly constant sound of whistles as officials crack down on “freedom of movement” for offensive players. It’s a point of education (what used to be called more accurately a point of emphasis) from the league. In the past couple of years, when a player set a pick he could hook the defender just a little to slow him, or, more commonly, the defender being screened or switching would do something — bumping him, grabbing his jersey, hooking an arm around him, sticking out a leg — to slow that offensive player down half a step. Do that now and the whistle blows.

Players and coaches are trying to adjust — and adjust their tactics.

“I think for the officials, they’ve been trying to set a standard, ‘hey, this is how we’re going to call games, this is what you’re going to get away with,’” Kevin Love told NBC Sports. “I think in the preseason they want to set the tone early and be transparent about what they are going to call out there on the floor…

“In our first preseason game it was pretty tight, at least in the first half, but as time went on they kind of let us play on but they had teaching points for us. Guys were asking on the free throw line what they did.”

The league had an idea on how to sell these new, tighter calls to players in a way they would appreciate.

“When we had our officials meeting, we heard how (the calls) were going to, for lack of a better term, help your scoring, it was going to be very conducive to scoring the basketball,” Love said.

Coaches know that the NBA has become about scoring — that is the show, it’s what drives ratings and ticket sales — and with that, the league will take steps to help the offense before the defense. That doesn’t mean coaches are enthralled with it, but they are telling players to adjust — show their hands while setting screens or defending them.

“Defensively, our guys have got to be smarter. One thing that we got caught up with in the first couple games is the contact,” Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey told NBC’s Dan Feldman. “We want our guys to be physical and into offensive players, but again, you can’t have two hands on him. The old instincts come back, and that’s what the league wants, that freedom of movement. But we’ve got to be smarter, especially early in the season when they’re really emphasizing it…

“Guys are going to have to have quicker feet. You’ve got to move your feet quickly, anticipate where guys going are or you’re going to get blown by, because a lot of guys use that so-called tactile touch to make sure they have balance and kind of slow the guy down. But now it’s about feet and anticipation as much as anything else. So, you’ve got to be on your Ps and Qs defensively more so than ever.”

At this point, for the coaches, it’s about adjustments, both mental and in tactics on the court.

“I think that’s what a good coach does. I think he understands the rules and adapts, like I said, on both sides of the ball,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said.

“We’ve already made those adjustments,” Erik Spoelstra said this preseason. “We’ve had to… Some of the things we have to adjust the way we used to defend it. We don’t bump people through the lane. And pick-and-rolls, we’re not hitting people. We’re just getting to our spots and being disruptive.”

One thing every coach and the veteran players talked about was how this emphasis on calls will fade as the season goes along. Every year the league comes out with its new focus for referees, and in the preseason they whistle everything. When the season starts, that slows, and by the middle of the season things have found their level — players are doing it less, but official allow a little more leeway.

“It’s a point of emphasis by the officials, 18 years in the league there is always a point of emphasis. In the preseason they really harp on that, they call it. A lot of times it kind of goes away once the regular season comes,” said Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone. “Players can complain all they want but part of being a smart, disciplined basketball player is adjusting to the rules and adjusting to the whistle. They’re calling the grab, they’re calling the jersey pull and you have to recognize that, show your hands, and defend without fouling. So they are trying to clean it up, the league is all about scoring, they want to make sure that the offensive player is allowed to move on the court and every year it just makes it a little bit harder and harder to guard individually and collectively as a team because of the rules.”

NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman contributed to this story. 

Former Lakers forward Michael Beasley signing in China

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Before the season, Michael Beasley said the Lakers “can be exactly where we want to be at the end of the year.”

I doubt he envisioned himself being in China.

But that’s where he’s headed after getting traded to and waived by the Clippers.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Beasley has played in China twice before and dominated. High-volume scorers like him translate well.

At 30, Beasley might be nearing the end of his NBA chances. He can still contribute a little, but the bar is higher for someone who brings headaches and silliness.

If he again plays well in China, he’ll probably get another chance with an NBA team next season. But that’s certainly not a lock.

Blake Griffin enjoying resurgence a year after trade to Pistons

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DETROIT (AP) — Blake Griffin doesn’t need to jump over any cars to be a hit in the Motor City.

A year after arriving in Detroit with his career at a crossroads, a more earthbound Griffin is doing all he can to shake the Pistons out of their decade-long malaise.

“He does a little bit of everything for us. Probably one of our better pick-and-roll players, passers, scorers, leader by example, just so many things,” Detroit coach Dwane Casey said. “His basketball intellect, for me, is one that’s been the most impressive of our players. I didn’t know that about Blake, because when you think about him, you think about the high-flying dunker and the muscular guy in the post, but there’s a lot more to that than just his dunking and athleticism.”

A month shy of his 30th birthday, there are fewer above-the-rim highlights but Griffin’s first full season with Detroit has been one of his best. He’s averaging a career-high 26.3 points per game while making strides as a perimeter shooter, and he earned his first All-Star selection since 2015.

Most importantly, he’s been able to stay healthy, and although the Pistons still have a losing record, they’re in the playoff race, largely because of Griffin.

“As a player, you always believe in yourself,” Griffin said. “I knew I had another level to go to, and being healthy was part of that. … But the beginning of the year, my goal isn’t to only make the All-Star team. It’s much more than that.”

In July 2017, Griffin agreed to a $171 million, five-year deal with the Clippers, the team that drafted him with the first overall pick in 2009. Less than a year later, he was abruptly traded – from glitzy Los Angeles to a Detroit franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008. It was a risky move for the Pistons, given Griffin’s high salary and the fact that he has only three seasons with more than 67 games played. They gave up a first-round draft pick in the trade, and when they missed the playoffs anyway, that was the end of Stan Van Gundy’s tenure as coach and president of basketball operations.

For Griffin, it was an inauspicious start to the Detroit portion of his career, and there’s been frustration this season as well. The Pistons are 26-30, tied for the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference. Even if they do make the playoffs, they don’t look like a team ready to make a run.

But for Griffin individually, the season has been a significant step forward. The man who once pulled off a two-handed dunk while jumping over the front of a car is a bit less of an athletic sensation in Detroit, but the blue-collar elements of his game are still plenty effective. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound Griffin can muscle his way to the basket and draw fouls, and he gives the Pistons another tough rebounder alongside Andre Drummond. Griffin is also leading the team in assists.

“I think for me, my job is to make his game as easy as possible on the offensive end. When I get him open, he usually makes the right plays,” Drummond said. “It’s a nightmare for teams. You’ve got to really pick your poison, who you really want to get going, and it’s scary when we both get it going.”

Griffin has expanded his offensive repertoire to include the 3-point shot in recent years. He has already made a career-high 134 3s this season, shooting a credible 37 percent from long distance.

“It helps a lot, especially in today’s NBA, with everybody spacing the floor a little bit more, and playing with a guy like Dre, who’s so effective inside,” Griffin said. “To be able to give him a little bit more space is a good thing. I always see guys working to expand their range, and when you do, you see them add years to their career.”

When Griffin joined the Clippers, he added some legitimacy and excitement to what had been one of the league’s most downtrodden franchises. Now the Pistons are a team that could use some buzz. The results recently have been mixed: Griffin has been terrific, but the team as a whole has remained mediocre.

But Detroit won four of five heading into the All-Star break, and if the Pistons do make the playoffs, they’ll have Griffin to thank.

“He’s thinking the game. He’s a couple steps ahead,” Casey said. “I’ve had a lot of great forwards, power forwards, and he’s right up there with the best, whether it’s Dirk (Nowitzki), (Kevin) Garnett, Detlef Schrempf – just a lot of great players that I’ve been around. He’s right in that category.”

 

Hawks GM: “If we stayed at 3, we would have taken Luka (Doncic)”

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It was the Draft day trade that shook the NBA last June.

In a deal made agreed to before the picks were made, the Atlanta Hawks traded Luka Doncic, taken No. 3, to Dallas for Trae Young (taken fifth), and the Hawks got the Mavericks 2019 first-round pick (top five protected). It forever linked Doncic and Young in the minds of fans (fair or not).

Doncic has gone on to become a historically good rookie — averaging 20.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, he is the Mavs best player, is the runaway Rookie of the Year, and is already a star (who fans almost voted into the All-Star Game) — which has led to a lot of criticism for Atlanta in some quarters for not keeping the pick and Doncic. That despite the fact Young has played well after a slow start (20 points per game with 35.9 percent shooting from three in his last 20 games) and the Hawks got another pick in the deal.

On the Woj Pod with Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Hawks GM Travis Schlenk said that the team would have drafted Doncic if they kept the pick (hat tip Real GM).

“Not a lot of people know this…if we stayed at 3, we would have taken Luka. We had worked with his agent, he did a physical with us that morning in New York…but then Dallas came in an hour or so before the draft. I told them all along that it would take another lottery pick for us to slide back, and that’s when the conversations got started.”

Interestingly, Schlenk added that the team’s analytics department, projecting into next season, played a big role in the deal getting done.

“Our analytics staff was predicting Dallas to finish 8th this year,” added Schlenk.

As of right now (and before the lottery shakes things up), the Mavericks are projected to pick ninth. If that remains, Dallas has a 20.2 percent chance to jump into the top four with the new lottery odds. Otherwise, the pick will go to Atlanta.

Despite Doncic’s play, it’s too early to fully judge the trade. How good will Young become? How high is Doncic’s ceiling? What happens with the future first-round pick, and who will the Hawks get with it?

For a rebuilding team like the Hawks, a second lottery pick to move back a couple of spots can make sense — so long as the guy your trading doesn’t become a superstar. Doncic may become that. Atlanta was higher on Young than many teams, and he has rewarded that faith of late, but how good will he ultimately be? It’s not quite a Sam Bowie pick, but some fans may ultimately see it that way if Doncic’s star continues to rise. However, as Schlenk explained, there were logical reasons to make the trade.

One last look back: Best dunks of All-Star Weekend (VIDEO)

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Defense? That’s one thing that rarely makes an appearance All-Star weekend.

Combine that with the game’s best athletes and what you get are three days of insane dunks.

The NBA put this together, the best dunks of All-Star weekend in Charlotte. Enjoy.