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No wall for these five NBA rookies as league restart tips-off

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Forget hitting a rookie wall or stumbling into the playoffs exhausted and banged-up.

The NBA’s break because of the coronavirus pandemic gave rookies an offseason within a season. They’ve had the chance to heal up, study film and gain some much-needed pounds to better handle the grueling season in a league filled with savvy veterans.

Some rookies will resume play a bit smarter and stronger, giving them a chance to finish off their debut seasons in style.

“I took the time off really to … focus on my body, do the right things to continue to get better,” said Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, the likely NBA rookie of the year. “Studied a lot of film. Kind of like I had an offseason but still preparing to come back and play.”

Improving during a pandemic had its challenges.

Some rookies filled garages with weights. Those living in apartments or condos had to be very creative to even find a basket to get up shots.

“It was challenging for everyone. No one has ever been through this,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, whose club has three first-round picks in the rotation this season, led by first overall draft choice Zion Williamson.

“The younger players, I think the thing with them is that they tried to stay in shape and tried to keep themselves in a conditioning situation that they felt like, when they came back, they wouldn’t be behind. … We’ll have to see how it works out, but I think those guys did put in work during the hiatus.”

Perfecting 3-point shots were also was a major focus.

Heat guard Tyler Herro spent a day putting together a portable hoop sent to him by teammate Jimmy Butler.

“I definitely put it to use outside getting some shots up,” Herro said. “I’m happy we can finally get back into a gym. Working in the driveway wasn’t necessarily the best time.”

Not all rookies will be playing as the NBA wraps up the season. Coby White and his Chicago Bulls missed the cut to keep playing in Florida. So too did RJ Barrett and the Knicks, and Golden State’s Eric Paschall.

Rookies to watch when the NBA’s resumes its season:

JA MORANT

Morant worked with trainers at his Memphis home and put on 12 pounds of mostly muscle. That’s what the Grizzlies have wanted since the moment they drafted him at No. 2 overall last June behind top pick Zion Williamson.

The point guard also watched a lot of film, looking to improve after averaging 17.6 points a game and 6.9 assists a game.

“He’s a great student of the game,” Grizzlies first-year coach Taylor Jenkins said. “So I think he put a lot of time over the break doing those things, and I think we’re already seeing that right now.”

ZION WILLIAMSON

Williamson’s weight was an issue when he arrived at training camp back in September. Less so now. His extended rehab from knee surgery involved a focus on losing weight and flexibility, and it was apparent he stuck to his new workout regimen during the past few months.

Williamson is listed at 6-foot-6, 285 pounds. The team has declined to specify how much weight he has lost, but teammates noted how much leaner he looked when the Pelicans got back together a few weeks ago.

“He looks amazing. He looks fully healthy. He looks even stronger than he was before, if that’s even possible,” Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball said. “I was happy to see him, happy to see that he’s in shape.”

Williamson’s status when the Pelicans resume play Thursday is unclear because he left the club July 16 to attend to a family medical matter and did not return to the Orlando area until Friday, when he was required to begin a four-day quarantine. The team says he’s tested daily while away should be able to practice by Tuesday night if all goes well during his quarantine.

“I think there are going to be parts of my game that y’all didn’t see before that you all are going to see in the future when we start playing,” Williamson said.

RIU HACHIMURA

The first Japanese-born player drafted in the first round, Hachimura also spent the break getting bigger. The 6-8 Hachimura added about 10 pounds, up from 230. He worked on his 3-point shot and ball handling and now is trying to improve his defensive skills.

The Wizards will need Hachimura more too with Davis Bertans and Bradley Beal opting out of the NBA’s restart. That leaves Hachimura as the Wizards’ leading returning scorer with 13.4 points a game. He also ranked second with six rebounds despite playing only 41 games before the break.

Brandon Clarke

It would be easy to overlook the 6-8 power forward on a Grizzlies’ roster led by Morant and second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr. But the 21st pick overall last June has played a key role for Memphis and is averaging 12 points and 5.8 points a game.

For Clarke, working on his 3-pointer has been a big key. Jenkins said he and some of his assistants also talked with Clarke a few times each week breaking down on film to help the rookie hone his game.

HEAT’S ROOKIE DUO

Technically a rookie, Kendrick Nunn went from unknown to starting point guard for the Heat, and he could be ready for the seeding games even after missing the first couple weeks of practices at Disney. Only Williamson and Morant score more than Nunn among rookies.

Herro has shown an ability to rise to moments: his pull-up, go-ahead, transition 3-pointer in the final seconds of a win against Philadelphia earlier this season is among Miami’s top highlights of the year. He’s recovered from an ankle injury that cost him 15 games.

He watched video of shooters like Klay Thompson and Ray Allen, focusing on how they catch the ball and shoot during the break.

“I’m excited to get back out there,” Herro said.

Report: Tyronn Lue expected to be a leading candidate for several NBA coaching jobs

Clippers assistant coach Tyronn Lue
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Tyronn Lue won 61% of his regular-season games, 67% of his playoff games and an NBA championship while coaching the Cavaliers. And as a Clippers assistant, he’s also available for head-coaching openings.

That resumé will get him to the front of many lines.

Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

Lue is expected to be a leading candidate for what could be several NBA coaching openings, multiple league executives told Sports Illustrated.

Mannix listed several teams:

Lue has already been tied to Brooklyn and New Orleans. It’s unclear whether Mannix is speaking generally or has specific information about Houston and Philadelphia. “Expected to be a leading candidate” is a vague term.

But Lue should draw plenty of consideration around the league.

His coaching ability isn’t as simple as his sterling record. He had LeBron James in Cleveland, and the Cavs fired Lue before he lost too much with an inept roster. Yet, Lue connects well with players – including stars – and has shown proficiency as an offensive strategist. He’s accustomed to guiding a team through long playoff runs.

Lue is reportedly especially interested in the Nets, who have championship aspirations with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (whom Lue coached in Cleveland). That might be a good fit.

But expect Lue to have options. He’s the hot name on the market.

Teams better come correct on contract terms.

Suns surprise starters with family doing intros (video)

Suns players Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges
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The Suns are 7-0 in the bubble.

This this is even better.

Before playing the 76ers yesterday, Phoenix surprised its starters (Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker) and coach (Monty Williams) with video intros done by family back home.

ESPN:

Players and coaches in the bubble have been away from their families more than a month. The way they’re playing, the Suns might stay at Disney World longer than the seeding games. This is the difficult downside of the NBA’s resumption.

But what a great boost to morale.

The joy shown by everyone involved is just so awesome.

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto return trip to Finals? It could happen.

NBA Power Rankings
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This is the penultimate NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings (we’ll have one next week before the playoffs start) and we have a new No. 1 in Toronto. Once again this ranking only covers the 22 teams invited to the NBA restart in Orlando.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (51-19, 5-1 in the bubble, Last Week No. 2). Toronto has locked up the two seed in the East and it has done that with its defense — the Raptors are the best defense at the restart, allowing less than a point per possession. The offense has been good enough but not championship level (second worst in the bubble, ahead of only the Lakers) and Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and company must lift that up if the Raptors are serious about a repeat.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (56-16, 3-4, LW 3). Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost certainly be sitting out the Bucks final seeding game after headbutting Moe Wagner (the suspension is coming). It doesn’t really matter, the Bucks have the No. 1 seed locked up. The Bucks played it slow with the ramp up through the restart, but now they are healthy (Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton are with the team) and we will see if the strategy worked.

 
Lakers small icon 3. Lakers (52-18, 3-4, Last week No. 1). The Laker offense has woken up in flashes — a 137.8 offensive rating against the Nuggets (complete with a Kyle Kuzma game-winner), or watching Anthony Davis drop 42 on the Jazz. But the offense has stumbled through other games and LeBron James admitted he is still adapting to playing without fans in the building. It’s all a small sample size and doesn’t matter because the Lakers are the No. 1 seed, but if they face the Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard in the first round, they need to be better.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (48-23, 5-2, LW 8). Winners of four in a row, and that includes a 22-point thumping of the Raptors that should be a confidence booster heading into the playoffs. Versatile teams make deep playoff runs, and a guard/wing rotation with Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward — with Marcus Smart off the bench — is exactly that. Boston looks like a real threat in the East.

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (47-23, 3-3, LW 4). Montrezl Harrell is back in the bubble and going through quarantine, which means Doc Rivers may have a full roster of players for the Clippers final seeding game (Friday, against Oklahoma City, a game that could have seeding implications on the West) and into the playoffs. The Clippers shooters need to find their legs and there are chemistry questions because this team hasn’t played together, but they are still a title contender.

 
Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (44-26, 4-2, LW 5). Houston has the fourth best defense in the bubble. Let that sink in. If a team with James Harden and other bombers from three (plus Russell Westbrook) is also defending at a high level, then you are looking at a title contender. Whether they can defend like that against a taller team for seven games remains to be seen, but Houston’s defense has looked legitimate in the bubble.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (44-27, 3-3, LW 7). Jimmy Butler got in T.J. Warren’s face, shut down the leading scorer in the bubble, and the Heat got a statement win against the Pacers, their likely first-round opponent. Butler has been a perfect fit into the Heat culture and his ability to rise to the occasion in the playoffs could see Miami challenging the presumptive power in the East in the second round of the playoffs.

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (43-28, 4-2 LW 9). T.J. Warren is a lock for the All-restart team, his scoring leap has been one of the wonders of the bubble. But, Jimmy Butler holding Warren to a 5-of-14 shooting night this week is concerning, mostly because come the playoffs the good teams can always take away (or at least slow down) offensive option Plan A, and it’s a working Plan B (and C and D) that gets teams deep into the postseason. Do the Pacers have that with Victor Oladipo right now?

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (43-27, 3-3, LW 6). Their seeding may come down to the final day of “seeding games” on Friday when Chris Paul takes on his former team, the Clippers. It’s a potential playoff matchup with another former CP3 team, the Rockets, that has NBA fans (and television network executives) buzzing. That would be fun to watch, and the series could turn on how many minutes (and how well) the recently returned Andre Roberson could cover James Harden a game.

 
Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (34-39, 5-2, LW 11). Damian Lillard is on a tear — 112 points last two games on 55% shooting — that has put the Trail Blazers in the drivers’ seat for a return to the playoffs. Win on Thursday and Portland is the eighth seed, meaning they only need to win one-of-two play-in games and they will be back in the postseason (against the Lakers in the first round). Gary Trent Jr. has been a breakout star for the Blazers in the bubble.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (46-25, 3-3, LW 10). Jamal Murray was back on the court over the weekend and instantly was hitting big shots and showing how important he is for the offense. Combined with the emergence of Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets offense has looked good (top 10 in the bubble). However, Denver has the worst defense in the NBA restart and that makes it very vulnerable to a first-round upset (regardless of who the Nuggets face, and that is still up in the air).

 
Suns small icon 12. Suns (33-39, 7-0, LW 17). BREAK UP THE SUNS! Phoenix was an afterthought in the West heading into restart but a 7-0 record has it on the brink of getting into the West play-in tournament. The Suns need to beat the Mavericks and get some help (a Memphis or Portland loss), but even being in this position is impressive. Devin Booker has made his case for bubble MVP.

 
Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (43-31, 3-4, LW 13). Luka Doncic has been magical in the bubble, but the Dallas defense has been terrible (third worst in the bubble) and because of that the Mavericks don’t scare anyone heading into the playoffs. It’s not written in ink yet, but a first-round matchup with the Clippers seems destined (and that bad wing defense by Dallas makes that a brutal matchup for them).

 
Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (32-38, 5-2, LW 15). The playoff streak of 22 years is going to need a lot of help to stay alive. The Spurs need to beat the Jazz on Thursday (and Utah is playing for seeding) then get losses from two of the Grizzlies, Blazers, and Suns. Even if the streak dies, the bubble has been another testament to the brilliance of Gregg Popovich. He overhauled the LaMarcus Aldridge/DeMar DeRozan system they played all season to go with a fast-paced four-guard/wing lineup that has been fun to watch and won games. Derrick White has been one of the breakout stars of the bubble.

 
Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (42-29, 3-3, LW 12). No Ben Simmons. Joel Embiid is expected to be back for the playoffs (and maybe the final seeding game)but will be coming off a tweaked ankle. The 76ers will almost certainly face the Celtics in the first round. Al Horford has played well in the restart, and if Matisse Thybulle, Alec Burks, Josh Richardson and others can find chemistry together this is still a good defensive team. But they don’t scare Boston right now.

 
Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (43-28, 2-4, LW 14). The Jazz have struggled with critical aspects of what they want to do — defend the paint, hit threes, much more — during the restart, but have shown flashes of it coming together in recent games (Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles have both had strong games). Still, this was a team all about elite defense the past two seasons, but in the bubble their defense has been average and the offense has not been good enough to carry the load. If the defense doesn’t improve (particularly on the perimeter) it doesn’t matter who they play.

 
Nets small icon 17. Nets (35-36, 5-2, LW 20). It was a rag-tag roster thrown together late because of all the players the Nets lost, but Jacque Vaughn coached this team to wins over the Bucks, Kings and Clippers, and the Nets have locked down the seven seed (avoiding the Bucks in the first round… not that Toronto is a pushover). Chris LeVert and Jarrett Allen have shown why they should get minutes next season on a deeper Nets roster. Joe Harris has shown why the Nets need to back up the Brinks truck and re-sign him this summer.

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (32-40, 2-5, LW 16). Orlando struggled in a run of games against some of the better teams in the East, and that has locked them into the eighth seed — meaning they will face the Bucks in the first round without Jonathan Isaac or Aaron Gordon. Good luck with that. If you’re a Magic fan looking for a bright side… Gary Clark has shown some flashes. That’s all we got.

 
Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (33-39, 1-6, LW 19). Ja Morant shot a respectable 34.3% from three for the season, but that has fallen to 25% in the bubble and its one of the things holding the Memphis offense back (no Jaren Jackson Jr. hurts, too). Despite all that, the Grizzlies can advance to the play-in game if they can find a way to knock off the Bucks on Thursday (Milwaukee may be without Giannis Antetokounmpo due to suspension for headbutting Moe Wagner).

 
Kings small icon 20. Kings (30-41, 2-5, LW 21). Sacramento’s playoff drought is now up to 14 seasons, the second longest in NBA history. Whatever is happening on the court, the Kings have been getting it right in the community and that includes their latest effort, “Rally the Vote,” which is working with 19 other professional sports teams to encourage people to register and vote.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (30-41, 2-5, LW 18). The rumors about Alvin Gentry’s job status have been around for a while and picked up a lot of momentum after the Pelicans entered the restart with so much hype, only to have the pieces not quite fit together (and Zion Williamson not be fully available at the start, although that was beyond Gentry’s control). Would a strong Xs and O’s coach help put the talent of the Pelicans in better positions? Would New Orleans ownership okay a coaching change during a pandemic when there is a short offseason and financial losses are piling up? It’s worth watching.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-47, 0-7, LW 22). The Wizards were always a longshot for the playoffs, the hope was to find some young guys who might fit well in a rotation next to John Wall and Bradley Beal next season. Washington found a couple, Troy Brown Jr. and big man Thomas Bryant have played well in the restart. They deserve a longer look next season as the Wizards try to put a playoff-level team on the court and then keep it healthy.

Giannis Antetokounmpo suspended, ramifications on Western Conference playoff race

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Giannis Antetokounmpo headbutted Moritz Wagner.

OF COURSE Antetokounmpo was getting suspended for that.

NBA release:

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has been suspended one game without pay for headbutting Washington Wizards center Moritz Wagner during a stoppage in play, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

Antetokounmpo will serve his suspension Thursday when Milwaukee faces the Memphis Grizzlies

This is a huge game for the Grizzlies. If they win, they’ll make the play-in. Lose, and they’d need both the Suns (to the Mavericks) and Spurs (to the Jazz) to lose in order to advance.

Obviously, Antetokounmpo is a force. But Milwaukee has nice depth and has been quite good without him. On the other hand, Bucks have also already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and might take it easy tomorrow, regardless. On the other other hand, Milwaukee – with a chance to reach the NBA Finals – might be one of the teams trying to get the top-seeded Lakers the toughest-possible first-round matchup in the West.

That’s not Memphis, which has limped to the finish. The Grizzlies are just 1-6 in seeding games. Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow are all injured.

Memphis has a chance against the Bucks tomorrow. Antetokounmpo’s unavailability only increases it. But it’s not as if this suspension suddenly gives the Grizzlies a shoe-in victory.

As has been the case all along, they’ll have to earn their way into the playoffs.