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Minnesota has Karl-Anthony Towns locked up. Can it finally build a team around him?

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

If there was one truism of the modern NBA drilled home in 2019 it was this:

If your team has a superstar player, the clock is always ticking.

Minnesota has its superstar, Karl-Anthony Towns. Already one of the game’s top centers at age 23, he averaged 22.4 points a night on 51.8 percent shooting last season, hit 40 percent from three (taking 4.6 shots a night), plus pulled down 12.4 rebounds a contest. He’s an All-Star and All-NBA level center who has another gear or two he can reach, and when he does good luck slowing him down.

Minnesota has Towns locked up — his five-year, $190 million max contract extension kicks in this season. Towns says he’s happy in Minnesota and plans to stick around, and he has a strong relationship with coach Ryan Saunders. This is not a disgruntled superstar trying to push his way out the door.

But the clock is always ticking.

Minnesota won 36 games last season — despite the fact Jimmy Butler torpedoed the team and Tom Thibodeau’s job during trading camp — and is projected to be in that same ballpark this season (the Westgate line in Las Vegas is under/over 35.5 wins).

If Minnesota beats the Vegas projection — and on the high end flirts with a playoff spot in the deep and brutal West — it will be because Towns took steps forward. Again. Saunders plans to get Towns more touches by using him in more of a Nikola Jokic role as an offensive facilitator at the elbow, something Towns has craved. Minnesota had an 112.2 offensive rating when Towns was on the court last season (that would have been sixth in the league) and that number could go up. If Towns also becomes more of a consistent force on the defensive end — he has done it for stretches but not night in and night out — that’s another way Minnesota improves. Robert Covington in Towns’ ear every night helps on that front.

However, Minnesota’s improvement would not come from the roster around Towns — and that’s what keeps the clock ticking. Minnesota has yet to put a strong roster where the pieces fit well together around its young star.

New head of basketball operations Gersson Rosas knows it, and knows he has a couple of years to build something around Towns that keeps his superstar happy. To his credit, Rosas tried this summer and was in the running to land D’Angelo Russell (a good friend of Towns) before the Warriors swooped in. Minnesota needs more of that kind of aggressive thinking.

Rosas needs to figure out who will be the No. 2 star next to Towns? Thibodeau thought it would be Butler, but that blew up spectacularly. Right now there is no answer.

Right now, this is a roster that needs work. A lot of work.

Robert Covington is Minnesota’s second-best player heading into the season — a guy who shot 37.8 percent from three last season and, if healthy, could get into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation — and he’s locked up for two more seasons after this one. Covington brings much-needed shooting and a defensive mindset. But he’s not a No. 2 option on an elite team, he’s just the best Minnesota has.

After that… things get a little slim.

Andrew Wiggins is being paid to be that No. 2 guy but instead is the anchor weighing down rebuilding this roster. He has four years left on a max contract and while he puts up empty calorie points (18.1 per game last season) his shooting percentage drops every season (here are his percentages the past four years: 45.9, 45.2, 43.8, 41.2). His lack of efficiency, the fact he doesn’t really get rebounds or assists, his casualness towards defense, it all just drags the team down. The Timberwolves would love to trade Wiggins — expect to hear rumors about it — but the four-years, $122.3 million he is still owed makes him one of the hardest players to trade in the league (maybe only John Wall would be harder to move at this point). Minnesota likely has to throw in a sweetener, but Wiggins gets easier to trade next summer and beyond as the years left decrease.

Josh Okogie enters his second season with a lot of promise but what exactly is his ceiling? The Timberwolves drafted Jarrett Culver at No. 6 and are betting he can be part of the future in Minnesota. Both youngsters have potential, but a lot to prove still.

Jeff Teague is a solid point guard but is in the last year of his contract and is not the future at that spot. Gorgui Dieng is a good enough backup big but will make $33.5 million over the next two seasons in that role. They got Jordan Bell on a steal of a deal to soak up some frontcourt minutes off the bench and bring energy. Jake Layman is a nice pickup as a rotation guy. Shabazz Napier is a fine backup point guard.

Is that a playoff roster? Probably not this season, not in this tsunami of a Western Conference. Even with Towns taking a step forward.

Which is why the clock is ticking.

It’s still in the distance, there’s time to build a quality playoff roster around Towns, but Rosas hears it. He knows if things don’t change in the next couple of years it’s only going to get louder and louder.

Watch Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic dunk all over Bol Bol

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Bol Bol had some impressive blocked shots during exhibition games at the NBA’s restart, but he hadn’t gotten one in his 16 limited minutes since the seeding games started. He wanted one.

So Bol tried to get in front of Jusuf Nurkic of Denver on Thursday and… that did not go well.

Bol did later get a blocked shot on Hassan Whiteside.

Nurkic, however, ended the night with 22 points, seven rebounds, and the Trail Blazers got a 125-115 win that has Portland comfortably as the ninth seed, just half-a-game back of eight-seed Memphis. Portland is setting itself up with a better-than-average chance make the playoffs

Kawhi Leonard’s 29 leads Clippers past Mavericks in potential first-round preview

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points to help the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 126-111 on Thursday night in a possible playoff preview.

Paul George scored 24 points and Ivica Zubac added 21 points on 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds for the Clippers, who strengthened their hold on the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference standings.

The Clippers entered the night a just half game ahead of Denver, but they shot 54% against the Mavericks to improve to 2-2 in the restart.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 30 points and Luka Doncic added 29 for Dallas, which fell to 1-3 in the restart.

Dallas likely will finish as the No. 7 seed, making a first-round matchup with the Clippers a strong possibility.

“That’s obviously going to be a tough matchup,” Porzingis said. “They’re one of the favorites to win it all. They have multiple guys that have been there already. But we’re looking forward to the challenge and getting experience in that.”

Doncic was coming off a monster game — 34 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday. He made 10 of 21 shots against the Clippers, including 6 of 13 3-pointers.

“Luka’s just a handful,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “It takes a whole team to guard him. I thought our guys did a pretty good job overall. We lost him a couple times, which you can never do. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

The Clippers led Dallas by 12 in the third quarter before the Mavericks rallied and tied the game at 101 midway through the fourth. Los Angeles responded with a 9-0 run to regain control. The Clippers shot 62% in the fourth quarter to pull away.

“I just liked how we played overall,” Rivers said. “We played like a team tonight, on both ends.”

Though the Mavericks fell to 1-3 in the restart, Doncic remained confident.

“We’re a great team,” he said. “We’ve always got chances, no matter what. I think some people count us out, but we’re not out. We’ll give our max.”

Devin Booker says after latest Suns’ win ‘Kobe’s with me every day’

Devin Booker Kobe
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Devin Booker grew up a huge Kobe Bryant fan. When Booker made the league in 2016 he got to play against his idol and threw up 28 points on the night. Kobe was impressed. The two talked after the game and Kobe gave him an autographed pair of shoes with an inspirational message:

“Be Legendary.”

Booker took that to heart. He got the phrase as a tattoo. He’s been writing “Be Legendary” on his Nike’s before every game in the bubble. And after he scored 20 against the Pacers Thursday, helping the Suns remain undefeated for the restart, he said Kobe is still inspiring him every day.

“Kobe’s with me every day. You guys see what I put on my shoes with the ‘Be Legendary.’ It’s a reminder.”

Whatever he’s doing, it is working. Booker hit a Kobe-like turnaround game-winner to beat the Clippers. He’s averaging 28 points and 6.5 assists a game for the restart, and shooting 40% from three. Defenses are keying on him, but with a healthy Deandre Ayton and other players stepping up — Cameron Johnson has been a surprise standout in Orlando — the Suns look sharp and keep on winning.

Kobe would be proud.

Giannis Antetokounmpo drops 33 on Heat, Bucks secure No. 1 seed

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton scored 33 points each, and the Milwaukee Bucks overcame a huge early deficit to get a 130-116 win over the Miami Heat on Thursday to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Heat led by as many as 23 points in a first half where the team piled up 73 points despite playing without Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. Miami cooled off after the break and the Bucks took the lead in the third quarter but were down by 6 to start the fourth.

Antetokounmpo, the favorite to win his second MVP award, sat out about five minutes of the fourth quarter after collecting his fifth foul with 11 minutes to go. Milwaukee trailed by 1 with about five minutes remaining before using a 20-0 run, with three dunks from Antetokounmpo, to make it 130-111 with less than a minute to go and cruise to the victory.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton played 30 and 34 minutes respectively after the stars both sat out the entire second half of their last game on Tuesday.

Duncan Robinson had 21 points for the Heat, who lost to Milwaukee for the first time this season after winning the first two meetings.

The Heat led by 6 with about 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo picked up his fifth foul on a charge and headed to the bench. Andre Iguodala made a 3 for Miami before the Bucks scored the next 13 points, capped by a 3 from Bledsoe, to take a 107-103 lead with about seven minutes remaining.

Robinson made a 3-pointer to end a scoring drought of almost four minutes for Miami with about 6 ½ minutes to go and Antetokounmpo re-entered the game soon after that.

The Heat led by 12 with about 10 minutes left in third quarter before Milwaukee used a 16-3 run to take an 82-81 lead with five minutes left in the quarter. Antetokounmpo and Wesley Matthews each had five points each in that span to help close the gap.

The Bucks cut the lead to 3 with a dunk by Antetokounmpo late in the third. But the Heat wrapped up the quarter with a 5-2 spurt to take a 98-92 lead into the fourth.