Nick Nurse explains Raptors resting Kyle Lowry for key game vs. Wizards

Kyle Lowry before Raptors-Wizards
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The NBA’s new play-in tournaments have reduced tanking.

But they haven’t eliminated it.

The Raptors played the Wizards in a crucial game last night. With a win, Toronto would’ve moved within two games of Washington for postseason position with five games remaining while holding the tiebreaker. The Raptors also could’ve gained ground on the floundering ninth-place Pacers. Though a victory still would have left them fighting the odds to make the playoffs, the Raptors would have had a significantly better chance with a win.

Toronto rested Kyle Lowry for the game – and lost by two in overtime.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse:

How it’s determined is we – being myself and Bobby and Masai and such – talk about who we want to play and who we want to see and who we’re going to evaluate.

Obviously, he’s a player that’s earned the right to play high-stakes games.

We’ve had a hell of a lot of success and a heck of a lot of meaningful games. And he’s been right at the epicenter of all that, been our heartbeat for all that. And there’s just been or six too many brick walls put up in front of us this year.

I think we’ve had a lot of important games that all go into the final record, and we’ve had a lot of guys out for a lot of the season, if not all of it.

I guess that I can sit here and say as many times as I want to, all I really care about is that we’re playing hard and playing the right way and all that stuff. And I’m pretty pleased with how that’s been, and the standings kind of take care of themselves. I’ve never really talked about, “Man, we need to get one, two, three. We’re fighting for seeding.” I think we were always just trying to do our best with an eye on being ready at the right time of the year. I know I’m probably a little – what’s it called? – rose-colored glasses. I tend to think if we do get 10th, then there’s not going to be a whole lot of teams that want to see us.

My definition of tanking: Anything a team does driven, at least in part, to improve draft position through losing.

The Raptors sure appear to be tanking.

The players are still giving good effort. Sans Lowry, they put up a strong fight last night.

But the organization has looked extremely cautious with injuries. Sitting Lowry for rest in such a pivotal game really stripped the pretense. Toronto just doesn’t care much about making the play-in tournament.

At a certain point, that organizational direction can disillusion players and sabotage motivation – especially while stuck playing in Tampa. Raptors president Masai Ujiri or general manager Bobby Webster should address the situation rather leaving it to Nurse. These decisions are made above the coach’s head.

In the aftermath of their 2019 title, the Raptors have the political capital to choose whatever direction they want.

Especially after keeping Lowry past the trade deadline, that could have meant competing to advance as far as possible – even if it meant an early postseason exit. Simply making the playoffs and putting up a fight could have been rewarding in possibly Lowry’s last season with the team he has meant so much to. Nurse was right: Toronto could have been dangerous as a No. 10 seed. There is just little interest in getting to the play-in.

Tanking is a viable alternative. The Raptors currently have the NBA’s seventh-worst record, which is near their ceiling for lottery position. That’d come with a 32% chance of drawing a top-four pick in the lottery. But if Toronto wins more down the stretch, those odds drop sharply. The No. 8 (26%), No. 9 (20%) and No. 10 (14%) seeds in the lottery have much lower chances of picking top four.

If the Raptors move up in this draft that looks strong at the top, all would be forgiven. Toronto could add a top young prospect to a core of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby.

But if the Raptors land a pedestrian player with a mid/late-lottery pick, it will have been disappointing to waste this opportunity to compete with Lowry. As tantalizing as it can be to plan for the future, sometimes it’s worth just enjoying the present.

Watch Harden run onto court from bench mid-play to defend

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It takes a second to notice, but the 76ers had just four players on the court trying to defend the Nuggets on a late third-quarter possession.

But when James Harden — sitting on the bench — notices it, he stands up and runs into play, drawing a technical.

The technical foul was for having four men on the court, not on Harden specifically.

While that may have been a rare instance of Harden rushing to play defense, the 76ers as a team cranked up their defense in the second half against the Nuggets and went on to get the home win behind 47 points from Joel Embiid.

LeBron livid over no foul call at end of regulation, Lakers fall to Celtics in OT

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“The best player on earth can’t get a call. It’s amazing.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham made that comment out of frustration after another game where the Lakers felt robbed at the end. He wasn’t the only Laker.

LeBron James was once again brilliant — 41 points, nine rebounds and eight assists — but with the game tied against the Celtics and 4.1 seconds on the clock, he drove the lane and didn’t get the foul call when it clearly looked like Jayson Tatum hit him on the arm as he shot.

After the game, referee crew chief Eric Lewis admitted the officials missed the call:

There was contact. At the time, during the game, we did not see a foul. The crew missed the play.”

Patrick Beverley picked up a technical foul for bringing a photographer’s camera over to the referee to show evidence of the foul.

These losses are a punch to the gut for a Laker team with little margin for error and trying to make up ground in the West (at 23-27 they sit 13th in the conference). But LeBron sees a pattern — he is scoring 30.2 points per game (sixth in the league) but is getting to the line just 4.9 times per game, fewer than anyone else in the top nine in the league in scoring.

“I don’t get it. I’m attacking the paint, just as much as any of the guys in this league that’s shooting double-digit free throws a night, and I don’t get it. I don’t understand it,” James said postgame in Boston.

The other Lakers were a little more direct.

Boston pulled away in overtime to get the 125-121 win, snapping their own three-game losing streak.

LeBron finished with 41, Anthony Davis 16 (on 6-of-15 shooting off the bench) and Beverley had 15 including a key putback dunk. Jaylen Brown scored 37 for Boston, Tatum 30 and Malcolm Brogdon had 26 off the bench.

There are no moral victories for these Lakers more than halfway into the season, playing the team with the best record in the NBA close and almost winning does not count. Time is running out on LeBron and his team, they need to string together some wins. They felt they should have gotten the chance to win this one.

Watch Embiid score 47, lift 76ers past Jokic, Nuggets 126-119

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid won the battle of MVP candidates with 47 points and 18 rebounds as the Philadelphia 76ers extended their winning streak to seven games with a 126-119 win over Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

Jokic and Embiid have finished first and second in voting for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award over the last two seasons. Both are among the top candidates for MVP as this season hits the halfway mark, although Embiid was not named among the All-Star starters from the Eastern Conference.

“I’m used to it and it’s not the first time,” Embiid said. “I think it’s more of a motivation to go out there and try to win the whole thing. That’s the only way that I’ll get that respect.”

Jokic gave Embiid a nod for his play.

“He’s really talented,” Jokic told the Denver Post of Embiid. “Really shifty.”

James Harden had 17 points and 13 assists, and Tobias Harris scored all 14 of his points in the second half after being shut down by Denver’s defense in the first half.

“We were able to figure some things out and get some stops,” Harris said. “Guys stepping up and making shots was huge for us to cut the deficit in the fourth quarter to try and make something happen.”

Jokic had 24 points, eight rebounds and nine assists for Denver, which has lost three of its last four games. Jamal Murray chipped in 22 points and Michael Porter added 20.

“We turned it over and they just turned up the pressure on us,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “They got to the basket way too easy with their attack mentality. And we just got way too careless with the basketball.”

Embiid has scored 40 or more points nine times this season and 35 times in his career. In addition to the All-Star snub, Embiid was also given a $25,000 fine by the NBA on Friday for an on-court demonstration after-basket celebration during Wednesday night’s win over Brooklyn.

“Let’s keep offending Joel by fining him and not putting him among the All-Star starters,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said sarcastically.

The Nuggets began the day with the second-best team field goal percentage at 50.7% and tops in 3-point percentage at 39.5%. In the first half, they overwhelmed Philadelphia’s perimeter defense, shooting 65.9% (29 for 44) from the floor and 10 of 17 (58.8%) from beyond the 3-point line. The hot shooting helped the Nuggets to a 73-58 lead at halftime.

Embiid started to take over toward the end of the third quarter, putting together a 16-point quarter on 5-of-6 shooting that keyed a 14-0 run that allowed the Sixers to close within 99-98 early in the fourth.

In the final quarter, Philadelphia wore down a Nuggets team playing the final game of a three-game, week-long trip. P.J. Tucker– who had switched defenively to Jokic and slowed him down in the second half- followed a Harden missed 3-pointer with a tip-in with over a minute left to stretch the lead to five. Embiid then hit a 3-pointer to restore an eight-point lead.

“I’ve always like to think I am a closer and I am,” Embiid said. “Taking the last shot or taking a last second shot with the clock ticking is fun for me. I love getting into those types of possession where you have to make the plays. That’s where you find out who is who and who is made up for those kinds of moments.”

Report: Myles Turner agrees to two-year, $60 million extension with Pacers

Indiana Pacers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Take Myles Turner off the trade market.

After months of negotiations, the Pacers and Turner have agreed to a contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This has since been confirmed by other sources.

Turner — back playing his natural center spot this season with Domantas Sabonis in Sacramento — is having the best season of his career, averaging 17.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game. He has been one of the keys to a surprisingly good Pacers team this season.

That $60 million contract extension number can be a little misleading. Turner was already making $18 million this season, but because the Pacers are $24.4 million under the salary cap, they can do a re-negotiation and extension with the big man, giving him a $17.1 million bump right now (to a total of $35.1 million for this season) and extend off of that for two years, the first at $20.2 million and the second at $19.9 million, according to Shams Charania.

Technically Turner can still be traded at the Feb. 9 deadline, but the Pacers have no intention of doing so (as this signing signals). There had been a lot of trade interest in Turner, going back to last summer, most prominently with the Los Angeles Lakers in a swap that would have sent Buddy Hield and Turner to the West Coast for Russell Westbrook and two first-round picks. That draft pick compensation kept the deal from getting done (the Pacers wanted two unprotected first-rounders).