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Kawhi Leonard is returning to his vintage form, which means ignoring all the talk around him

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LOS ANGELES — There is a lot of noise around Kawhi Leonard, and it’s not just Kyle Lowry playing music and rapping along in the locker room pregame while his teammates try to ignore him. Although there’s that, too.

It’s noise from outside the locker room, speculation and constant chatter about Leonard and his plans as a free agent next summer: Is Leonard still leaning toward coming to Los Angeles? Lakers or Clippers? Or New York? Or somewhere else? Is he happy in Toronto and thinking of staying? Can he handle the weather in Toronto? Is he fully healthy?

This chatter fills sports talk radio shows, Twitter debates, message boards, broadcast airwaves, and more.

The noise also ramps up when Leonard goes to places he has been linked, such as Los Angeles.

“I focus on what we’re doing,” Leonard said of his reaction to all the speculation prior to his Raptors knocking off the Clippers Tuesday night (without him due to a sore hip). “I don’t buy into reading media, don’t have no social media, so just focus on what’s in front of me. At that time it’s either my family or playing basketball.”

Does what is being said bother him?

“Not at all. I don’t watch TV too much,” Leonard said, adding he uses apps to watch movies and TV shows.

What Leonard is not doing is consuming NBA media.

However, the NBA world has obsessed over him in the past year.

Leonard forced his way out of San Antonio last offseason after the proper course of treatment for quadriceps tendinopathy (which sidelined Leonard all but nine games last season) became a wedge between him and the franchise. How much the people around and advisors to Leonard helped drive in that wedge to grow the gap — to get Leonard out of San Antonio and to a larger market where he could be more of a star — is one of those topics of gossip and speculation. The Spurs are known as one of the most player-friendly organizations in the league.

Leonard got his wish, was traded to Toronto, and has looked like a top-five NBA player again this season, especially of late. He has shaken off the rust to average 26.1 points per game, shooting 38 percent from three, taking charge of the offense for stretches and locking down players on defense. If people forgot how good Leonard was last season, he’s reminding them — and helping lift the Raptors to a 22-7 record and the top spot in the East.

Yet everyone still has questions, and Leonard is not about to fill in the gaps in that knowledge, either.

For example, what does he think of the Raptors organization?

“It’s been good so far,” Leonard said of the fit in Toronto. “Like I said, we’ve been winning, everyone’s playing well. Can’t complain.”

Are the Raptors different than the Spurs as an organization?

“It’s still two goals and a basketball, just different teammates,” Leonard said.

What about Toronto as a city?

“It’s pretty hard to enjoy the city when you’re playing every other day,” Leonard said. “You usually take those off days to take some treatment and get your body ready for the next day. Just rest so you have the energy.”

Is the cold bothering the Southern California kid? That one he did answer.

“Just wear a jacket,” Leonard said. “We’re in a building. We’re not outside playing in the snow. And it’s good scenery.”

Leonard also confirmed that he’s not feeling the effects of that quadriceps injury last season and it isn’t slowing him down (the hip injury that had him out Tuesday in Los Angeles was separate, just the kind of bumps every player deals with over the course of a season).

“I was able to take my time and get the right treatment to make me feel comfortable, taking the right steps through training camp and throughout the season to have trust in myself,” Leonard said.

Will he be playing in back-to-backs soon?

“I’ve been playing a lot of minutes, we’ll just see as it goes on,” Leonard said. “It’s not that big a deal to play into a back-to-back.”

That’s all we get. No hints of his mindset or what he is planning for next summer. No deep thoughts on the organization or situation. He’s playing up the image that Gregg Popovich and the Spurs loved — a guy obsessed with the game who considers everything else a distraction.

That image isn’t completely accurate, either. Leonard is focused on his family as well. He has other interests. And you can be certain he has thoughts about what he does and does not want to do next July as a free agent.

He’s just not letting any of us in on it. Which is vintage Leonard.

The time Kendall Gill stayed out all night then led Hornets to early-afternoon win (video)

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In the great history of NBA party-then-play stories, 15-year-pro Kendall Gill has a new tale from his rookie year with the Hornets in 1991.

Gill on Off The Dribble:

We pulled into D.C. My cousin took me out. I was out until 6 in the morning. He brings me back to the hotel. My coach, Gene Littles, is sitting in the lobby. And as I walked in the door, he’s like, “What the hell are you doing out here, rook? Don’t you know we’ve got a game at 12 o’clock in the afternoon?” Well, turns out, I go and I score 28 points that day, the high for my rookie season. I scored 28 points. He comes to me after the game and says, “You can go out and hang out any time you want to until 6 in the morning – if you play like that.”

A couple details are off. Gill scored 24 points to lead Charlotte over the Washington Bullets on March 31, 1991. But that wasn’t his season high. He scored 28 a few days earlier in Phoenix. The Washington game also had a listed start of 1 p.m., not noon.

Still, this comes close enough on the verifiable facts. Besides, I want the fun parts of this story to be true, so I’ll choose to believe them, anyway.

Birthday boy Karl-Anthony Towns giving Timberwolves even more reason to celebrate

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Tom Thibodeau is gone. Jimmy Butler is gone. Karl-Anthony Towns has taken greater ownership with the Timberwolves.

Towns organizes team-building activities like Topgolf and a halloween party. Towns gives the pump-up speech before each game. Towns communicates more on the floor.

That’s why, Towns said, he didn’t even realize his birthday was approaching until his parents recently reminded him.

“I get caught up in work,” Towns said.

Whether or not Towns actually needed the reminder, let alone for such a flattering reason, his birthday – which is today – got him reflecting. He felt old.

So, Towns mentioned to Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders that his birthday was around the corner. Saunders had the opposite realization: Towns is turning 24 today. Just 24!

“He’s still young,” Saunders said. “As a coach, that gets me excited.”

Towns is one of the NBA’s special talents – a proven star with room to improve. Picking up the momentum he built last season, Towns appears to be really coming into his own this year.

The center is posting his usual impressive numbers (25.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), but his new attitude has stolen the show. He fought Joel Embiid and went face-to-face with Rudy Gay.

Don’t let the antics completely overshadow an impressive basketball story, though. Towns has led Minnesota to a surprising 7-4 start by revamping his game. Most of his shots are coming from beyond the arc, and his 4.2 assists per game are a career high.

By creating spacing and keeping the ball moving, Towns is contributing to a style that lifts all the Timberwolves. Perhaps, nobody has benefited more than Andrew Wiggins, who’s fitting right into this modern look.

The transformation is only the latest chapter for Towns, whose reputation has fluctuated significantly throughout his five-year career. This might explain why he already feels so old:

Minnesota drafted Towns No. 1 in 2015, and he won Rookie of the Year. In the 2016 and 2017 NBA general-manager survey, a plurality of voting executives picked Towns as the player they’d most like to start a team with. In the 2017 survey, Towns also received the most votes for league’s best center (even while getting a couple votes as league’s best power forward).

On paper, Towns delivered. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams the following season. He also reached the playoffs for the first time.

But Thibodeau and Butler butted heads with Towns, who never showed the hard edge those former Bulls tried to coax from him. After trading Butler, Minnesota went right back to losing.

In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, no general manager picked Towns to start a team with. Only a few picked him as best center.

Now, the landscape has shifted again. Anthony Davis spends a lot of time at power forward. Joel Embiid doesn’t stay as healthy. Nikola Jokic has fallen way off.

Towns is the early frontrunner for All-NBA first-team center.

“Everybody takes big steps in their growth at different times,” Saunders said, “and I think we’re seeing that from Karl.”

Towns can’t take anything for granted, and neither can the Timberwolves. But he at least has a good chance for vindication after his preseason playoff talk.

The way Towns has implemented more 3-point shooting into his game is particularly impressive. His 9.0 attempts per game lead NBA bigs, and he’s converting more than 40%. But floating on the perimeter was once a sign Towns was being too passive. Now, Towns is finding the right balance between spotting up beyond the arc and playing aggressively.

That’s in part his own mentality changing, in part his teammates’ mentality changing. Gone are the days when Towns could be an afterthought outside the paint.

“The ball is always going to find KAT,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “He’s the center of our offense.”

Towns’ defensive intensity still comes and goes. He still must prove himself in the playoffs, and that usually requires trials and tribulations he hasn’t yet experienced.

But at age 24, Towns is finally/already showing something special.

DeAndre’ Bembry gets ejected for taunting Ricky Rubio, continued talking (video)

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The Hawks are rapidly changing. General manager Travis Schlenk took over just two years ago and has already turned over nearly the entire roster. Only DeAndre’ Bembry remains as an inherited player.

It’s not an easy situation for Bembry, who’s headed toward free agency next summer. He’s playing for a team with a lead executive who never chose him. Bembry can’t count on any team investing in him.

That’s the context in which Bembry got ejected from Atlanta’s loss to the Suns last night. He blocked Ricky Rubio‘s shot, taunted the Phoenix guard, got a technical foul, kept talking and got another technical foul.

The ejection seems pretty weak, but Bembry left himself vulnerable to the techs.

Hawks rookie Cameron Reddish also got ejected for multiple flagrant fouls.

Eric Bledsoe apparently bothered Bulls with post-buzzer dunk (video)

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Eric Bledsoe doesn’t care about the rules – written or unwritten.

As the buzzer sounded in the Bucks’ 124-115 win over the Bulls yesterday, Bledsoe dunked then hung on the rim. The basket came after time expired and didn’t count.

Bulls forward Thaddeus Young and coach Jim Boylen confronted Bledsoe on the court:

Young, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“We all know what it is,” Young said. “They had the game won. There are some things you just don’t do at the end of games just out of common courtesy. We’ll move on. It is what it is. It happened. We just have to be ready when we play them in four or five days. We gotta be ready to get a win.”

“That’s with any team that cares about the morals and principles of the game,” Young said. “If we did that and the score was the opposite, they’d say the same thing. It is what it is. We just gotta be ready in four or five days. We gotta get a win. That’s the only way we can follow it back up now.”

Usually, I’d say: If you don’t like it, stop it. But that doesn’t really apply for a post-game dunk. There’s no defense after the buzzer.

Still, I’m not outraged by Bledsoe’s dunk. I bet, aside from Bulls partisans, most people aren’t (though plenty could work themselves into a tizzy if they desire). Some of Chicago’s bitterness probably stemmed from losing and allowing Bledsoe to score 31 points on 12-of-12 shooting inside the arc.

If the Bulls want to use this as motivation, more power to them. They should. Young, whose professionalism appears exemplary, is an ideal messenger.

But Boylen, who wouldn’t comment on this to the media, can’t claim the moral high ground.