Associated Press

‘New captain’ Ryan Saunders has Minnesota players’ trust in interim role

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MINNEAPOLIS — Ryan Saunders has always had basketball in his blood, the consummate coach’s son who as a kid would sometimes doze off on the couch after joining dad for a late-night review of game film.

Roughly three years after the death of his father, Flip Saunders, the 32-year-old Ryan Saunders has assumed the job in Minnesota he’s been aiming for all along, albeit earlier and more abruptly than ever expected.

“He is very capable of doing this job. We all have a lot of confidence in him,” Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “We’re ready to follow him. He’s our new captain.”

Appointed interim coach of Minnesota on Sunday after Tom Thibodeau was fired halfway through his third season, Saunders ran practice for the first time on Monday before the team took off for a game at Oklahoma City on Tuesday.

“You never know if you’re ready until you’re in the situation,” Saunders said, “but I have great support.”

His dad, by far the winningest coach in Timberwolves history, would of course be proud. His mom stopped by his house for a congratulatory hug after the change was made.

Team owner Glen Taylor has long been an admirer of the Saunders family. Several Timberwolves players attended the coach’s wedding. Simply put: There’s hardly a member of the Timberwolves organization who carries more respect than Ryan Saunders.

“He’s the only coach that’s been here since my rookie year,” said shooting guard Andrew Wiggins, who was acquired by Flip Saunders in his role as executive of the roster in a trade before the 2014-15 season. “There’s been a lot of changes, but I trust him. I have a good relationship with him. I think he’s going to do a great job, especially because you can talk to him. He’s not too much older than me, so I think we’re going to go in the right direction.”

Thibodeau was picked for his experience with winning teams and his acumen as a defensive whiz, hired to use his demanding, detailed style to bring out the best in franchise cornerstones Wiggins and Towns. Though the Timberwolves ended their 13-year absence from the playoffs last spring, they’ve by and large underachieved since Thibodeau, who is 60, took over.

Saunders is younger than three of his players, and he appeared a bit nervous but handled his first news conference smoothly while surrounded by a horde of reporters and cameras on the team’s practice court. He was quick to compliment Thibodeau and careful not to make any proclamations about how the team might look different under his guidance.

“I’ve got a lot of ideas, but you’ve got to see what’s best for the team,” Saunders said.

He’s got a 42-game audition before the organization must decide who the next coach will be. Former Timberwolves player and assistant general manager Fred Hoiberg, who replaced Thibodeau in Chicago, will be available, having been fired last month. Every candidate for the job, certainly, will offer more experience than Saunders, who spent five seasons as an assistant coach with Washington before coming to Minnesota.

“If you look at something as a trial, I think that’s when you start putting pressure on yourself or other people that just isn’t there,” Saunders said.

Thibodeau, who was one game short of the exact midpoint of his five-year contract that’s worth about $40 million, was frequently booed during introductions at Target Center, where the Wolves are next-to-last in the league with an average of 14,765 tickets distributed per game. When the team returns home to play Dallas on Friday, the public address announcement of Saunders is sure to receive a rousing cheer.

“I’m excited to see what he’ll do, because he’s a very enthusiastic coach and he’s a very good communicator,” said general manager Scott Layden, who was hired by Thibodeau, also the president of basketball operations, and faces an uncertain future with the club.

The same can be said for Derrick Rose, who flourished in Chicago under Thibodeau and had his career waylaid by a bad knee until his former coach forged a reunion last year in Minnesota. Though he will miss his sixth straight game with an ankle injury on Tuesday, Rose has hit the 25-point mark eight times to reach his highest scoring average (18.9 points per game) since the 2011-12 season, the year after he won the NBA MVP award.

Rose said he was shocked and hurt by the dismissal, but also insisted the change wouldn’t hinder his resurgence.

“He jump-started my career again and for that, I’ll always be thankful. But everybody that thinks that it’s going to stop, kill yourself. It’s just not,” Rose said. He later apologized on Twitter for the insensitivity of his remark.

The pace of the offense in practice Monday was faster, Rose said, hinting at one potential difference that could be on display. Towns, while crediting Thibodeau for pushing him to grow “into a better man,” spoke optimistically of having more of a voice in the on-court strategy and playing more of a “new-school NBA” style under Saunders.

“Thibs has been in the game for a long time. His style was his style. We know what it was. We are going to have a little more change to our game,” Towns said.

 

LeBron James drops 31, leads Lakers comeback to beat Rockets

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HOUSTON (AP) — LeBron James had 31 points and 12 assists and the Los Angeles Lakers rode a big third quarter to a a 124-115 win over the Houston Rockets on Saturday night.

The Lakers bounced back after a loss to Orlando on Wednesday night that snapped their nine-game winning streak. The loss was the third straight for the Rockets, which ties a season high, and they have dropped four of five.

Kyle Kuzma scored 23 points, and Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each had 20 for the Lakers.

Russell Westbrook scored 35 points for his fourth straight 30-point game and James Harden had 34 for the Rockets, who also lost three in a row in late November.

Los Angeles didn’t lead in the first half but used a 32-point third quarter to take a nine-point lead into the fourth.

Houston used a 6-0 run to cut the lead to 10 with about seven minutes left, but the Lakers scored the next six points to extend it to 110-94 midway through the quarter. That sent many Rockets fans streaming for the exits and caused a large contingent of Lakers fans to start chanting, “Let’s go Lakers.”

The Rockets did not get closer than seven points the rest of the way.

The Lakers opened the second half with a 10-3 run to take their first lead of the game, 69-68, with about eight minutes left in the third quarter. James capped that run by making a basket and then added another one seconds later after JaVale McGee blocked a dunk attempt by Clint Capela. McGee beat his chest and screamed after in Capela’s direction after the play and received a technical foul for taunting.

There were about seven minutes left in the third when Westbrook and Anthony Davis, who missed the game with an injury, both received technical fouls for jawing at each other.

The Lakers led by three later in the third when Kuzma scored the first four points of a 9-2 run that stretched the lead to 85-75.

Houston had a chance to cut the deficit at the end of the third quarter, but Westbrook missed two free throws to leave the Lakers up 91-82 entering the fourth.

 

Watch Kawhi Leonard’s 39 points spark Clippers rally past Pelicans 133-130

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 39 points and the Los Angeles Clippers rallied to beat the New Orleans Pelicans 133-130 on Saturday.

Lou Williams scored 14 of his 32 points during a dominant fourth quarter for Los Angeles, which outscored the Pelicans 31-20 in the final 12 minutes.

Williams’ 3 with 31.6 seconds left, after Patrick Beverley had rebounded Leonard’s miss, gave the Clippers a 133-127 lead and sent numerous fans toward the exits.

But JJ Redick hit a quick 3, and after Leonard ran down the shot clock and missed a 3, New Orleans had 2.4 seconds to attempt a tying 3 that Redick missed off the back rim.

Montrezl Harrell scored 24 points for the Clippers, who trailed by 10 in the final seconds of the third quarter, but turned a steal into two free throws and then opened the fourth with an 8-0 run to tie it at 110.

After shooting 58.5% (38 of 65) in the first three quarters, the Pelicans made just 8 of 21 shots in the fourth as the game slipped away from them.

Lonzo Ball had 18 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for the Pelicans, who were seeking their 11th victory in 15 games despite the recent absence of guard Jrue Holiday, who has missed seven games with an elbow injury.

Derrick Favors had 22 points and 11 rebounds for New Orleans, while Brandon Ingram had 21 points and Redick scored 19.

The teams combined for 152 points in a fast-paced first half, during which New Orleans tied a franchise record with 80 points.

Favors made his first seven shots and had 15 of his points in the opening 24 minutes, when the Pelicans shot 63.6%, including 11-of-21 shooting from 3-point range.

Ball hit three 3s in the first half, his last giving the Pelicans an 80-72 lead that stood at halftime.

Leonard has scored at least 30 points in each of his last five games.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: NBA system wants you to flop, but ‘that’s not who I am’

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
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Giannis Antetokounmpo scores inside unlike anyone since Shaq.

Like with Shaquille O’Neal, Antetokounmpo has sparked a conversation about how much contacts he absorbs.

Antetokounmpo, via Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

“It’s kind of hard because in the NBA, the way it’s built, they want you to flop,” Antetokounmpo said of playing physically. “It wants you to be weak, kind of, because sometimes I think when you’re strong and you’re going through contact, they don’t call the foul. But when you’re flopping and kind of going into the contact and throwing the ball out, they’re just going to call foul, but that’s not who I am, that’s not what I’m gonna do.

“I’m just gonna try to power through contact. It’s going to be … where if a guy grabs me or pushes me, I’ve got to show it more, but I think I’ve done a better job of showing it more so the refs can see that the guys are holding me, pushing me and just being physical.”

James Harden and Antetokounmpo have traded barbs since last year’s MVP vote, which Antetokounmpo won over Harden. Was this another shot across Harden’s bow?

Harden isn’t the only player who flops. But Harden has earned a reputation as the NBA’s foremost flopper.

Antetokounmpo could do a better job of selling contact. But his tenaciousness sets a tone for the Bucks. His teammates see his determination and follow his lead. There’s a real positive effect to Antetokounmpo’s style.

Also, Antetokounmpo already averages 10.4 free throws per game. How many more fouls would he draw by flopping? Officials could be reluctant to give him even more whistles. Though each call should be evaluated independently, there can be a tendency not to call too many fouls.

Report: LeBron James views Jason Kidd as only living peer for basketball intelligence

LeBron James and Jason Kidd
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
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LeBron James is a basketball genius.

That somewhat explains why, since becoming a superstar, he has clashed with all previous his coaches – Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra, David Blatt, Tyronn Lue and Luke Walton. Traditional roles make coaches the brains behind the operation. But what happens when LeBron is the smartest person in the room? At best, it creates complications.

So, of course there were questions about how LeBron would take to new Lakers coach Frank Vogel. Vogel is a coach. That’s enough.

But LeBron also previously spread word of his desire to be coached by a former player. Vogel never played professionally. However, one of his assistants was a Hall of Fame player with previous head-coaching experience – Jason Kidd.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

One of those primary assistants would be Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, whom two sources have independently said James regards as the only person alive who sees the game of basketball with his level of clarity.

This is probably hyperbolic. But Kidd was an incredibly smart player. His court vision, defensive recognition and ability to find ways to contribute all over the floor were elite. I can see why LeBron would enjoy talking basketball with Kidd.

But that alone doesn’t make Kidd a good coach. Playing ability doesn’t always translate to coaching ability. His record with the Bucks and Nets leaves a lot to be desired. Interpersonal issues were glaring. Dated thinking became even more apparent when Mike Budenholzer succeeded Kidd and immediately guided Milwaukee to the next level. Kidd’s record of player development is mixed.

Still, that level of endorsement from LeBron carries major weight.

Kidd has been trying to become an NBA head coach again. He lobbied for the Lakers job while Luke Walton held it and interviewed for it before Vogel got it.

Vogel said he wasn’t worried about Kidd undermining him and acted as if he truly isn’t. The Lakers are 33-8, and Vogel is endearing himself in Los Angeles. To better understand how he’s doing it, I highly recommend reading Arnovitz’s article.