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Three Things to Know: James Dolan’s Knicks still don’t know how to pick their battles

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday during the NBA regular season we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) James Dolan’s Knicks still don’t know how to pick their battles. Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” is technically a military book, but in reality it is a 2,000-year-old treatise on how to win at conflict. Within its pages is a lot of wisdom on how to get the upper hand in conflicts by outsmarting an opponent, about how to win the war on the home front and not just on a battlefield. Ideally, it’s better to win without a costly battle rather than charging headlong into a fight. One of the book’s biggest lessons is simple:

Choose your battles wisely.

James Dolan and the Knicks never seem to do that. The Knicks owner and his organization charge headlong into the next unwise fight, time and time again.

The latest is the kerfuffle with Knicks superfan Spike Lee, who says he is done with the team for this season (not that he is missing much). We could get into the details of the back-and-forth between the sides from Tuesday, the potentially staged photograph and all the rest, but that misses the larger point.

Dolan, an unpopular owner, and his organization picked a fight with the public face of Knicks’ fandom — a battle Dolan and the Knicks cannot win on the PR front. Lee does not shy away from confrontation or publicity, did the Knicks even consider this as they put out a press release that they likely though ended the conversation but really just escalated it?

Dolan lost this battle before it started.

And over what? Which entrance to the arena Lee uses? That’s the hill the Knicks want to die on? Celebrity customers bend the rules in every walk of life (fair or not), and the reaction of business owners is usually “the customer is always right.” If a behavior needs to be addressed, it’s done out of the spotlight – and kept out of the spotlight, no matter what — to help everyone save face. It’s basic business. It’s putting the customer first.

Not at Madison Square Garden. On a night the Knicks got their best win of the season — knocking off the red-hot Rockets, with RJ Barrett putting up 27 points — nobody is talking about that because Dolan’s ego and the Knicks PR “machine” got involved. Dolan and the Knicks didn’t pick their battles. Again.

Hope you’re enjoying your first week on the job, Leon Rose.

2) Caris LeVert drops 51, leads Nets from 17 down in the fourth quarter to knock off Celtics in overtime. There are plenty of excuses lined up if Boston wants them: Jayson Tatum was out, Kemba Walker was on a minutes limit, then Gordon Hayward’s knee bruise and Jaylen Brown’s hamstring had them missing key minutes down the stretch.

It doesn’t matter. If Boston is really the second-best team in the East, it has to find a way to win a game against a banged-up sub-.500 team the Celtics led by 17 to start the fourth quarter.

Enter Caris LeVert. Brooklyn’s athletic wing scored 26 points in the fourth quarter, all 11 of his team’s points in overtime, and sparked the Nets comeback from 21 down in the second half to beat the Celtics 129-120 in overtime.

It’s one of the best wins of the season for the Nets, who will make the playoffs as the seven or eight seed in the East. Brooklyn put up a franchise-record 51 points in the fourth to complete the comeback.

It was the worst loss of the season for the Celtics. Marcus Smart wanted to blame the officials — his foul on LeVert with 0.2 in regulation allowed overtime to happen — and had to be held back and taken off the court after the game so he didn’t go after them.

Smart can be pissed at the officiating, but this loss is on the guys in the Boston locker room, not the refs. The Celtics surrendered a 51-point quarter, Brad Stevens didn’t make many adjustments as the walls crumbled, and a team that has been “next man up” all season long wasn’t in this game, the bench struggled.

The priority for Boston has to be getting Hayward, Tatum (illness) and everyone healthy — the Celtics don’t want these things to linger through the final six weeks of the season. That said, the Celtics are currently the three seed in the East and are now one game back in the loss column from the Raptors for the two seed. Boston has lost two in a row and heads to Cleveland, where the Celtics need to right the ship.

3) Anthony Davis scores 37, the Lakers keep on winning and the 76ers keep on stumbling. The Lakers were not caught looking ahead. They have big tests coming up — the Bucks on Friday night, the Clippers on Sunday — but first Anthony Davis and LeBron James made sure they took care of business against Philly.

Davis led the way with 37 points (he had a red-hot second quarter), while LeBron had 22 points, 14 assists and seven rebounds during a 120-107 win against a 76ers team still without Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons due to injury (plus Josh Richardson missed the game due to a concussion).

Philly fell to 9-23 on the road and they sit as the six seed in the East currently. Tobias Harris was aggressive early, and finished with 18 points in the game, but foul trouble limited him. Al Horford looked a step slow next to Anthony Davis (or, really, anyone). Glen Robinson III did have 25 to lead the Sixers.

This was another quality win for the Lakers, the kind they have consistently gotten all season to stay on top of the West. They look every bit the title contenders, but the real tests on that front come this weekend.

Timberwolves head into offseason in need of healing, with big decisions looming

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Another season of setback and tumult has mercifully ended for the Minnesota Timberwolves, this time in the strangest of ways after the NBA’s decision to resume virus-halted play with 22 teams.

The revelation of the makeshift plan immediately put the Timberwolves, who finished 19-45 for the third-worst record in the league, in offseason mode after nearly three months in limbo while the world wrestled with the COVID-19 pandemic and all NBA arenas went dark.

There was no arguing from Minnesota, where the 18 games remaining on the original schedule before the shutdown would have had little benefit as long as star center Karl-Anthony Towns was sidelined with a wrist injury.

“While we are disappointed for our team and our fans that our season is coming to an end, we understand and accept the league’s plan to move forward with 22 teams. It is important that we be a good teammate not only to the NBA, but to the other 29 teams to support the efforts to complete this season and prepare for next season in a healthy and safe manner,” president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said on Thursday after the league’s announcement.

Whether due to injuries or trades, the repeated disruptions during the season made the assessment of 34-year-old head coach Ryan Saunders difficult. First-timers aren’t typically hired without at least some commitment from the franchise to patience, but the Wolves are 36-70 under Saunders since he replaced the fired Tom Thibodeau halfway through the 2018-19 season. No NBA jobs are ever guaranteed.

Rosas, in his season-ending statement distributed by the team, appeared to apply some pressure on what will be for the Timberwolves a critical summer – and fall, since the draft has been pushed back to Oct. 15. Rosas promised an “intensive and thorough” program to help make up for the time lost to the shutdown. He also said Saunders and the rest of the staff would be “creative, aggressive and proactive” in approaching team building and player development in the meantime.

Here are some other key angles to follow as the offseason unfolds:

HEALING FIRST: Before the Timberwolves embark on the free agency and trading period, and enter the draft with two first-round selections, they could use some time simply for healing.

The city of Minneapolis became the epicenter for a nationwide wave of protest, anger and destruction after the death on May 25 of George Floyd, the black man who was handcuffed and pinned to the street by a white police officer who pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck until and after he stopped breathing. Since then, Saunders and guard Josh Okogie have been particularly outspoken on the issue of racial justice, and they joined on Friday a group spearheaded by Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph to distribute essential goods to community members in need in front of a grocery store that was vandalized, looted and burned last week during the worst of the violence.

All this came after the organization was mourning the loss Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, the mother of Towns who died of complications from COVID-19 on April 13.

WHEELING AND DEALING: Rosas proved in his first year on the job that he could swiftly and thoroughly change the roster, making four trades in the span of less than a month that fetched nine new players and dealt nine others elsewhere, not to mention the draft picks that swapped hands. That was more than half of the roster. The linchpin of the early February activity was D'Angelo Russell, who was acquired in a deal with Golden State that sent former cornerstone Andrew Wiggins packing.

BETTER WITH BEASLEY?: The pairing of Towns and Russell gave Rosas the potential star duo he sought. Shooting guard Malik Beasley was another key acquisition during the flurry of activity, should the Timberwolves decide to keep him. The 23-year-old averaged 20.7 points in 14 games.

“We’re big fans of Malik. We tried hard. We paid a very, very strong premium to get him here in Minnesota, but we’re excited,” Rosas said.

WHAT’S NEXT: There are six players on the roster whose contracts are set to expire, with Beasley, power forward Juancho Hernangomez and power forward James Johnson the most notable.

Johnson, who at 33 is the oldest on the team, had a productive 14-game stretch after arriving from Miami during the trading spree. He has a player option he can exercise for about $16 million next season. Hernangomez, who is only 24, will be an unrestricted free agent. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound native of Spain averaged 12.9 points in 14 games with the Wolves, after coming with Beasley in the deal with Denver.

Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu not expected to be back for Magic when games restart

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Jonathan Isaac was having a breakout season for Orlando. He had become a go-to defensive stopper for the Magic, a long, athletic, switchable defender averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals a game. He was going to get All-Defensive team votes this season and looked like a future Defensive Player of the Year candidate. (On offense he’s averaged 12 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, both career bests, but he is still a project.)

He hyperextended his knee and suffered a bone bruise in January, but it looks like neither he nor veteran Al-Farouq Aminu (torn meniscus) will be on the court for the Magic when games restart in July, reports Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel.

Injured forwards Jonathan Isaac (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (knee) most likely will not be healthy enough to return…

“Not a whole lot of news there,” [Magic president of basketball operations Jeff] Weltman said when asked about the possibility of Isaac or Aminu returning. “As always, we’re going to wait and see how they respond to rehab. They’re both working very hard.

“There’s a difference of being healthy and then being safely healthy. It will have been a long, long time since those guys played and you know organizationally that we’re never going to put our guys in a position where they’re exposed to any sort of risk of injury. So that being said, we’ll just continue to see how they progress.”

Put plainly, the risk is not worth the reward. Isaac is a key part of what the Magic want to build in the future and they do not want to push him too hard to return for this handful of games.

Come July, the Magic will head down the street to the Walt Disney World resort complex in Orlando as the eighth seed in the East with a 5.5 game lead over the ninth-seeded Wizards (who will not have John Wall back). If Washington can close that gap to four games or fewer during the eight “seeding games,” then there will be a two-game play-in series between the teams, with the Magic just needing to win one of the two to advance (assuming they are still the eight seed).

After that, it’s on to the first round of the playoffs and the Milwaukee Bucks.

Isaac’s defense would be helpful against Bradley Beal and/or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Magic are thinking bigger picture.

Winning percentage will determine final seedings in NBA restart; regular tiebreakers used

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Heading into the NBA’s restart in Orlando, the Trail Blazers are the nine seed in the West, followed by the Pelicans and Kings. All three of those teams are 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed, however, Portland gets the nine seed because it played two more games than either New Orleans and Sacramento, went 1-1 in those two games, and that gives Portland a slightly better winning percentage (.439 to .438).

That winning percentage matters because it’s how the league will determine seeding in a situation where teams have played a different number of games, reports Tim Bontemps of ESPN.

In practical terms, this may not matter much.

In the West, if Portland and New Orleans both went 8-0 in the seeding games then winning percentage would play a role with the Blazers getting the higher seed. However, that scenario is highly unlikely. More likely is wins and losses in Orlando will decide this and other tiebreakers (New Orleans beat Sacramento in their one head-to-head meeting, but our projected schedule for those teams has them playing twice, so the head-to-head tiebreaker is still up in the air). Because of how the records shake out, tiebreakers are irrelevant to Portland — it will not tie any teams, winning percentage will decide their seed.

In the East, winning percentage is irrelevant for the playoff chase — either Washington gets within four games of Orlando hand forces play-in games for the final playoff spot, or it doesn’t and Orlando is in.

Eight teams not headed to Orlando considering mini-camps, summer games to help players

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Nine months is a long time to go without playing a basketball game.

That’s what the eight teams not going to the NBA season restart in Orlando — Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Golden State, Minnesota, and New York — face. And for all of those teams except the Warriors, developing young players to be the future core of the franchise is their goal, and no games from March to December will set that effort back.

Which is why the teams are talking about “mini-camps” — think college spring football — with two teams at least playing each other during those camps, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Among the front-office ideas presented to the NBA, sources said:

• A combination of voluntary and mandatory workouts for two weeks in July.
• Regional minicamps in August that include joint practices for a period of days and approximately three televised games.

Those teams also want other “voluntary” team workouts and to start their training camps for next season earlier than the teams headed to Orlando.

The NBA isn’t going to grant teams everything on their wish list, but there should be some allowance for organized mini-camps and scrimmages/exhibitions. This would be particularly important to New York (and maybe Chicago), where a new coach will be installing a new system and trying to start a new culture.

Those eight teams missed out on 17 or so “meaningless” games with their season put on hold, games that would have meant something in terms of developing young players and giving guys key minutes. The league should — and almost certainly will — take steps to allow those off-season camps and scrimmages, helping teams get their player development programs back on track.