Jazz will focus on adding offensive punch in offseason

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Few teams could match the Utah Jazz in their ability to dominate on defense this season. An inability to generate consistent offense, however, ultimately doomed Utah in the postseason.

After getting knocked out of the first-round of the postseason by the Houston Rockets, change is in the air for the Jazz as the team heads into the offseason. Utah plans to target shooters and playmakers in free agency who can take some of the defensive focus away from leading scorer Donovan Mitchell.

“We want to move the group forward,” Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey said at the team’s practice facility Thursday. “While we have a very good team, the results told us that we don’t have a great team.”

Utah does have a solid foundation in place thanks to continued progress from Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert. The duo helped lead the Jazz to a 50-win season and a third straight playoff berth.

Mitchell overcame a sluggish start to his sophomore season and showed his stellar rookie campaign was no fluke. After January 1st, Mitchell averaged 26.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists to lead the Jazz. His season average of 23.8 points led all second-year NBA players. He is the first second-year NBA guard to average more than 23 points since Dwyane Wade in 2004-05.

Mitchell impressed teammates with his relentless work ethic throughout the season. He showed up at the team’s practice facility at all hours, trying to work on every possible facet of his game. Even after all he’s accomplished, Mitchell is driven to prove he belongs

“I wasn’t expected to be here and I really don’t want to lose this,” Mitchell said. “As a kid, my favorite subject was recess. Why? Because I could go play basketball. As a 22-year old kid now, to have that all come full circle, it’s a blessing.”

Gobert is driven to push himself, too. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year showed a stronger offensive dimension in his game this season. Gobert led the league in field goal percentage (.669), dunks (306), and screen assists per game (5.9). He posted per game career highs in points (15.9), rebounds (12.9), and assists (2.0) in 2018-19.

Along the way, Gobert became only the second NBA player to total more than 1,200 points and 1,000 rebounds while shooting over 65 percent from the field in a single season, joining Wilt Chamberlain, who did it in 1966-67.

Like Mitchell, Gobert is hungry to prove he can do more.

“I haven’t scratched the surface of what I can become offensively,” Gobert said. “I want to take it to the next level. I’ve been putting too much limits on myself and what I can do for this team. Now, I have a little bit more time to work and come back as a better player.”

Here’s a few other things to watch with the Jazz in the offseason:

POINT GUARD CHANGES?

Finding a new starting point guard may top the summer agenda for the Jazz.

Ricky Rubio is an unrestricted free agent after spending the last two seasons in Utah. Rubio has been an effective scorer at times during his stint with the Jazz. Over the past two years, he had 26 20-point games – five more than his previous six seasons in Minnesota combined. On the other hand, Rubio also struggled with inconsistent shooting.

Lindsey said he can envision multiple scenarios that include a return to Utah for Rubio. The veteran guard wants to take his time and see which coach and team will offer the best fit for him.

“I want to be happy,” Rubio said. “So I’m going to try to find the best situation for me to perform and to be happy.”

FAVORS RISING

Derrick Favors has one more year remaining on a two-year deal he signed last summer to remain in Utah. The second year is a team option that needs to be picked up by July 6th to become fully guaranteed for 2019-20. Odds are good Favors will return for his ninth full season with the Jazz.

He adjusted to a new role, splitting time as the starting power forward and backup center to Gobert. Favors flourished as the season progressed. 12 of his 15 double-doubles came after January 1st and Favors finished the season with a career-best effective field goal percentage (60.0).

His play received a boost after he slimmed down from 274 pounds to 248 pounds before the season.

“It’s something I’ll be focusing on again in the offseason,” Favors said. “I’ll be slimming down even more. Getting quicker so I’ll be able to guard on the perimeter and be able to guard in the pick and roll.”

KORVER RETIREMENT?

Veteran guard Kyle Korver helped energize a sagging Jazz offense in his second stint with the team. Utah went 25-4 in games in which he hit two or more 3-point field goals and posted a 36-18 (.667) record after acquiring Korver in a November trade

The Jazz have a team option to pick up Korver’s contract for the 2019-20 season. It becomes partially guaranteed after July 7. At age 38, Korver is uncertain whether or not he will return for a 17th season. `

“There’s a real cost as you get older,” Korver said. “There’s all of what you need to put into the game, but there’s also a family cost. That’s probably where I’m at, is weighing that cost.”

3-POINT FLURRY

Utah’s inability to make open shots in the postseason put a damper on an otherwise solid effort from the perimeter during the season. The Jazz set a franchise record by making 10-or-more 3-pointers in 65 games this season.

Their bench provided a big push in achieving that mark. Utah’s second unit knocked down 5.7 3s per contest. That was the second most of any NBA team and the highest rate in franchise history.

DOMINANT DEFENSE

For the third straight season, Utah earned a top-five defensive rating among NBA teams. The Jazz finished with a 105.2 defensive rating, which ranked second in the league. After Jan. 1, Utah sported a league-best 105.4 defensive rating. The Jazz also posted a plus 7.7 net rating during that same stretch.

Gobert keyed much of that defensive success with his ability to lock down around the rim. He contested 16.0 shots per game, the second-highest rate among NBA players.

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Bulls extended coach Billy Donovan before season started

Denver Nuggets v Chicago Bulls
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Bulls’ fans are not thrilled with a 9-11 team sitting 11th in the East, outside the play-in.

Bulls’ management is not either, but they aren’t laying the blame at the feet of coach Billy Donovan — in fact, they extended him just before the season began, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic and since confirmed by Bulls’ media relations staff to K.C. Johnson NBC Sports Chicago.

Why the extension? Because Donovan and head of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas have a tight relationship, Johnson writes.

Karnišovas’ continued belief in Donovan centers on Donovan’s leadership and communication skills. The two men talk virtually daily and there’s never any misunderstanding in their shared, direct conversation — even when the subject matter becomes difficult.

And not everything has been or continues to be smooth sailing for the Bulls, who have played without Lonzo Ball since January and are off to a 9-11 start in a season with modest outside expectations.

No details about the length of the extension were made public.

This is a decision about stability. Donovan is a solid coach and the front office trusts him. That’s enough to get some extra years on your deal in Chicago.

The Bulls’ issues are not because of Donovan, it’s more a roster that has a “playoff team but not much more” ceiling — a ceiling that is lower this season due to injuries forcing constantly shifting rotations. The Bulls are especially hamstrung without the defense and transition play of Lonzo Ball (still out after another knee surgery). Chicago has defended well this season without Ball (10th in the league), but the offense is bottom 10 and misses the easy buckets Ball helps get with his passing and transition (plus he can knock down some 3s). Donovan has done a respectable job with the players he has.

That is good enough in Chicago to get a few more years.

Three things to know: Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

Luka Doncic vs. Stephen Curry.

The schedule makers gave us a showdown of early-season MVP candidates but also two guys who have had to carry a massive load this season, waiting for their teams to come together around them. Curry has gotten more of that lately as Klay Thompson has started to find his legs and some rotation shifts have improved play off the bench.

Luka is still on a Brunson-sized island waiting for help. Tuesday night that island got smaller when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of the Warriors’ Jordan Poole.

That just meant more Doncic, and he reminded everyone why nobody wants to play the Mavericks in the playoffs with a 41-point triple-double (12 rebounds, 12 assists).

Doncic was a force of nature, although Curry had his chance in the final 10 seconds but got called for traveling (a call the Warriors disputed).

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas, but this was the Luka Doncic show.

Doncic has been asked to carry a massive load for Dallas this season. He has a usage rate of 38 through the first quarter of the season, a number that would rank in the top-10 all time (right around 1987 Michael Jordan and 2006 Kobe Bryant).

How long can Doncic do this without starting to wear down? Without risking injury? Sure those other players like Jordan and Kobe got through the entire season, but they also didn’t make the kind of playoff runs Dallas is hoping for. Coming off EuroBasket, Doncic entered this season in the best shape he has ever been in to tip-off an NBA campaign, but there have already been stretches where he has started to look worn down. Then there are nights like Tuesday when he carries the Mavericks to a win and looks unstoppable.

Doncic is young, but asking him to carry this load also puts a ceiling on how good this team can be. Curry is getting that help. Giannis Antetokounmpo is also putting up historic usage percentage numbers this season, but Khris Middleton will return to the Bucks and take on some of that load. The Mavericks touted Christian Wood as an answer, but he is coming off the bench and his defense does not have him in Jason Kidd’s good graces. It’s a one-man show more than ever in Dallas.

If the Mavs want to win in the postseason, it can’t just be the Luka show. But during the regular season, some nights that is enough. At least until he wears down.

2) Damian Lillard to return Sunday, not soon enough for Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers miss Damian Lillard (calf strain, his second this season) — they are 1-4 in the current five-game stretch without him, playing their worst defense of the season. The latest of those losses — a come-from-ahead loss to a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George — was maybe the team’s worst loss of the season. Anfernee Simons put up 37, the Trail Blazers led by 18 in the second half, and yet they collapsed against a team whose best offensive weapon was Nicholas Batum (32 points).

The good news for the Blazers is Lillard is due back on Sunday, reports Chris Haynes of TNT.

If you didn’t watch the late game on TNT, you missed a battle of two teams trying to keep their heads above water while their star (or stars) sit out injured.

Portland is still 11-10 on the season but has struggled this past week. What was ugly about Tuesday’s loss was the team just let go of the rope. This was a winnable game, but when it got tight they let go.

Powell scored 22 points in the fourth quarter and took over to get the 13-9 Clippers another win.

Los Angeles has done it against a soft schedule, but they keep finding ways to win until their stars return. Nobody is sure how good this team ultimately can be, but Tyronn Lue has got his squad defending and finding ways to win until everyone does get right. It’s an impressive coaching job.

3) Karl-Anthony Towns out weeks with calf strain (likely more than a month)

The MRI is in and Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports Towns likely will miss 4-6 weeks.

Not good, but it looked a lot worse when it happened.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his stats are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

The Timberwolves are not off to the start they thought they would be, and if they don’t figure out a way to win without Towns the next month this season could get sideways on them.

Watch Dinwiddie get ejected for elbow to Poole’s face; Mavericks still win behind Doncic’s 41 points

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Dallas has gotten in trouble this season because of a lack of secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, so when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of Golden State’s Jordan Poole, it seemed like the Mavericks might be in danger of falling to the Warriors.

Doncic had other plans — and a 41-point triple-double.

The ejection happened early in the fourth quarter, when Dinwiddie drove the lane on Poole and, bringing the ball up, elbowed Poole in the face.

That was reviewed by the referees who ruled it a Flagrant 2. The league has cracked down on blows to the face and head — intentional or not — the past couple of seasons.

Dinwiddie being out just meant more Luka — and that was bad news for the Warriors.

Despite Doncic and his triple-double, the Warriors had a couple of chances in the final seconds. First, Stephen Curry got called for a travel.

The Warriors argued that call but got nowhere with the referees. But they got one more chance on a Klay Thompson 3 to tie, but it was just not their night.

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas. Curry led the Warriors with 32.

Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns out 4-6 weeks with calf strain

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards
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It’s not good news, but it looked like it could have been much worse.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced Tuesday following an MRI exam. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports it is likely 4-6 weeks.

The injury occurred midway through the third quarter Monday when Towns started to run back upcourt and went to the ground without contact, grabbing his knee and calf. It looked scary — Achilles scary — and he had to be helped off the court.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).