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. 

David Griffin on possibility of keeping Anthony Davis: ‘We can be Oklahoma City with Paul George’

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New Pelicans lead executive David Griffin wants to sell Anthony Davis on staying in new Orleans.

Even with the Pelicans landing the No. 1 pick and ability to draft Zion Williamson, Davis reportedly still wants to be traded.

But New Orleans doesn’t have to acquiesce. No matter what Davis wants, he’s still under contract next season. The Pelicans can keep him and spend the season trying to convince him to re-sign in the summer of 2020.

Griffin, via Zach Lowe of ESPN:

“We can be Oklahoma City with Paul George,” he said. “We can hold onto [Davis] and let him see what we really are. [Winning the lottery] changes how quickly he can buy into it. It gets us closer. Every day, maybe he believes a little more. As much as elite talent likes to play with elite talent, I can’t imagine any elite player in his prime looking at our situation and saying to himself, ‘There’s a better grouping to play for’ than ours.”

George had his eyes on the Lakers when the Thunder traded for him in 2017. But he enjoyed his time in Oklahoma City and re-signed.

The big difference between George and Davis: Davis requested a trade from the team trying to keep him. George didn’t.

In fact, George didn’t even request a trade at all. George merely told the Pacers he wouldn’t re-sign the following year. Obviously, he knew that made them more likely to deal him. But he was content playing out the the final year of his contract in Indiana or anywhere else.

Davis told New Orleans he wanted out. He’s not coming to a new team, let alone with an open mind.

Still, the Pelicans have changed significantly since Davis’ trade request. Griffin and Williamson significantly improve the the franchise’s outlook. Depending what offers he receives for Davis, Griffin keeping the superstar and attempting to change his mind throughout the season could make sense. New Orleans can always deal Davis before the trade deadline if it’s not working, though trading him later likely lowers the return.

Of course, Griffin could have no intention of keeping an unhappy Davis. Saying he might only increases Griffin’s leverage in trade negotiations.

But if they truly want to keep Davis and pitch him throughout the season, the Pelicans are facing a much steeper hill than the Thunder had with George.

Report: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers expected to sign super-max extension

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Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers entered this postseason with an opportunity to prove themselves to each other. Portland had gotten swept in the first round the last two years, including a devastating sweep as the No. 3 seed last season. Lillard would be eligible this offseason for a super-max extension that projects to be worth $193 million over four years.

Everyone feels good now.

Lillard hit one of the biggest shots ever, and the Trail Blazers advanced to their first conference finals in 19 years. Both sides want to continue their partnership.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers are expected to come to terms over the summer on a four-year, $191 million supermax contract extension, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Lillard is under contract two more seasons. So, his extension would take effect in 2021, when it’s exact value would be determined. I project it at $193 million over four years.

As an All-NBA lock this year, Lillard will be eligible to sign a super-max extension this offseason or next. If he waits until 2020, he could sign a five-year extension. That deal would carry the same terms as the four-year extension for the first four years but would add a fifth year worth a projected $57 million – bringing the total projected value to $250 million. But there’s no guarantee Portland will offer the megadeal next year.

Already, this is a real risk for the Trail Blazers.

It’s probably one they must take. Lillard is an excellent player who does so much to set the team’s culture.

But paying someone projected salaries of $43 million, $46 million, $50 million and $53 million from ages 31-34? Nearly no player can assure he’ll warrant that. Build a winner around a single player earning so much is quite difficult. Portland’s ownership situation after the death of Paul Allen, who frequently paid the luxury tax, only adds to the uncertainty.

This could be a litmus test for the designated-veteran-player-extension rule altogether. If it doesn’t work with Damian Lillard – who exudes so many traits you want in a superstar – who will it work with?

Meyers Leonard delivers all-time out-of-nowhere playoff performance

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In 1967, Richie Guerin retired. The former Knicks star had been the St. Louis Hawks’ player-coach a few years, and he shifted fully into coaching. He even won Coach of the Year that season. As the Hawks moved to Atlanta the next year, he occasionally returned to the lineup, but played sparingly while focused on coaching. He played even less the following season, scoring just seven points in eight games.

But when the Hawks were facing injuries, inexperience and a 3-0 deficit to the Lakers 1970 Western Division finals, a 37-year-old Guerin stepped up on the court. He scored 31 points in Game 4, though Los Angeles completed the sweep.

Afterward, Hawks publicity director Tom McCollister called in the game’s stats to the league office:

”Guerin played 35 minutes,” reported McCollister, quietly, ”made 12 of 17 field goal attempts, 7 for 7 free throws, had 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 personal fouls. Thirty-one points.” Pause. ”They are burying him tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock.”

That was a rare time someone with a lower scoring average than Meyers Leonard scored 30 points in a playoff game.

Leonard – who averaged 5.9 points per game in the regular season – scored 30 points in the Trail Blazers’ Game 4 loss to the Warriors last night. He scored 25 in the first half!

This was the same Leonard who was in and out of the rotation all season, who had a DNP-CD in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, who had a previous career high of 24 points. That came in 2015, preceding a much-maligned four-year, $41 million contract.

But when Portland needed a more-mobile defender at center, Leonard started. He played well in Game 3, scoring 16 points and dishing four assists. That wad already an unexpectedly good night for him.

Yet, Leonard upped the ante yesterday. For a while, he was going shot-for-shot with Stephen Curry. Though he couldn’t keep up with Curry (37 points), Leonard went 12-of-16, including 5-of-8 on 3-pointers.

Here are the players to score 30 points in a playoff game with the lowest regular-season scoring averages:

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The only other player besides Guerin to drop 30 in a playoff game after scoring so little in the regular season was Daniel Gibson. Boobie averaged 4.6 points per game his rookie year then scored 31 points on 5-of-5 3-point shooting in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Pistons, helping send the Cavs to their first NBA Finals.

“If I’m dreaming, please don’t wake me up,” Gibson said. “This was perfect, to win it for Cleveland.”

The most recent player to crack the leaderboard was CJ McCollum, who averaged 6.8 points per game in 2014-15 then scored 33 in a season-ending Game 5 loss to the Grizzlies in the first round. McCollum won Most Improved Player the next year and has remained a near-star ever since.

Could Leonard make a similar jump for the Trail Blazers? Don’t count on it. McCollum was in only his second season. Leonard, who just finished his seventh season, has been in the league even longer than McCollum now.

But appreciate Leonard’s scoring binge for what it was – one heck of an outlier.

Giannis Antetokounmpo pays for basketball court in fire-ravaged Greece

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo has agreed to fund the construction of an indoor basketball court in a fire-ravaged area outside Athens where at least 100 people were killed last year.

The mayor of the Rafina area where the fire occurred last July said on Monday the local authority accepted the offer from the Milwaukee Bucks player to build the court at a new recycling park that is being planned. The mayor, Vangelis Bournous, gave no details of the construction cost but said the venue would ready at the end of this summer.

The blaze gutted the seaside resort of Mati, east of Athens, and other coastal areas, destroying more than a thousand homes.

Antetokounmpo’s Bucks are leading in the NBA Eastern Conference finals 2-1 over the Toronto Raptors.