Are Jazz ready to make Bucks-style leap to a ring? The pressure is on.


The Milwaukee Bucks finished with the best record in the East for two consecutive seasons, only to run into defensive walls in the playoffs. Their non-switching, drop-back defense that proved dominant in the regular season let them down at points against the best teams in the playoffs. More importantly, their half-court offense was stagnant. So, last season, the Bucks adapted. They upgraded the roster with Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker (which kind of helped with the half-court offense but was no cure-all). They also spent part of the season working on switching defenses and offensive versatility, so they were comfortable with the concepts come the playoffs. It cost them a few wins; the Bucks finished third in the East.

However, the end result was Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks hoisting the team’s first championship trophy in 50 years.

Last season, the Utah Jazz entered the second year of their own personnel upgrade with Mike Conley at the point. The All-Star point guard was paired with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert — young All-Stars (and in Gobert’s case, an All-NBA player) leading a rising team. As a result, Utah finished with the best record in the West and the best net rating of any team in the league by nearly three points last season.

However, come the playoffs, injuries and a lack of scheme versatility caught up with them. The Clippers eliminated the Jazz in the second round of the playoffs, taking four straight games — without Kawhi Leonard playing. Like the Bucks years before, the Jazz looked like a regular season juggernaut who struggles to adjust to playoff basketball.

There is real pressure on the Jazz this season to show that is not who they are. With a driven and committed new ownership in place, results matter.

“We’re almost at the point where it’s like, ‘Let’s just get going and start to figure it out on the court,'” Joe Ingles said at media day Monday. “Because we can do [Media Day] and take beautiful photos out there, but we have to win basketball games at the end of the day.”

Utah is essentially bringing back the same roster from last season — which is a good thing. It’s one of the best and deepest units in the league. Gobert is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and anchor on that end who is underrated on offense (14.3 points a game on 67.5% shooting). Mitchell is an elite shot creator and scorer, something he proved last season, averaging 32.2 points per game essentially on one leg in the playoffs. Conley is an All-Star point guard who impacts both ends of the court. Jordan Clarkson comes off the bench and was the Sixth Man of the Year. Joe Ingles might be the player most likely to take the Sixth Man crown from Clarkson. Beyond them, the Jazz roll out Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neal, and they just added Rudy Gay.

It’s an elite roster, and with its continuity likely will have the best regular season record in the West again.

That’s not how their season will be judged.

What has to happen for the Jazz to take a step forward?

They have to stay healthy first. Some Jazz fans will argue that if Conley’s hamstring hadn’t flared up and Mitchell didn’t have to carry the offensive load while playing through a sprained ankle, it would have been Utah and not Phoenix in the NBA Finals. Maybe, maybe not. That’s not what happened in this corner of the multiverse. However, part of the point is valid: If Utah is going to make a Finals run, it has to start with all their players being healthy. An injury to a role player hits the Jazz harder than a team like the Lakers. Utah has All-Stars in Gobert and Mitchell, but not top-seven talents that can carry a team to a title like LeBron James (or Antetokounmpo). The Jazz remain a very talented ensemble where the whole is more than the sum of the parts, but they need all the parts to be in place to compete with the LeBrons of the world.

Health alone is not enough for Utah to reach the level it wants.

The Clippers small ball exposed the Jazz because their defense is all predicated on Gobert’s elite ability as a rim protector — he cleans up a lot of messes for a pretty pedestrian (or worse) perimeter defense. Last postseason, Mitchell, Bogdanovic, Ingles, Clarkson, and the rest were getting blown by on the perimeter without much resistance. Because the Clippers were five-out spacing the floor, it forced Gobert to be out in the corner or elsewhere in space guarding a shooter. When Mitchell/Ingles/whoever was blown by, Gobert had to choose to protect the rim or stay with his shooter. He defended the rim, and the result was Terrance Mann getting open look after open look on passes from the initial shot creator.

Utah has to become a better perimeter defensive team, something that should start with Mitchell.

On the other end of the court, Utah scores a lot of system points in the regular season, but get into the playoffs (especially past the first round), and those points dry up against a prepared defense. Utah needs offensive diversity in those games beyond what Mitchell can wow us with. More of the Conley/Gobert pick-and-role. More Bogdanovic getting past his man. More Ingles pick-and-roll (he’s crafty with it). Clarkson will keep doing his thing, but that role may shrink some in the postseason.

And we need to see more of all this in the regular season, so it doesn’t look and feel new come the playoffs.

Any team making a deep playoff run has to adapt — the best opposing teams and defenses take away Plan A. Teams have to be comfortable with Plan B. And C. And D. The Clippers showed that last season, dropping the first two games of the series against the Jazz as they looked for a lineup and style that worked, but when they found something, suddenly it was the Jazz who could not adapt.

Learning to adapt and adjust is what the Bucks did a season ago.

It’s what the Jazz have to do if they want to get past the Lakers, Suns, and the rest of a deep and talented West and get their shot at Brooklyn (or whoever) in the Finals.

Watch Julius Randle score 57, Knicks still fall to Timberwolves


NEW YORK (AP) — Julius Randle scored 57 points in one of the greatest nights in Knicks history. The Minnesota Timberwolves had the most sizzling start in the NBA this season.

Even in an era where the scoreboard totals seem to balloon higher all the time, this spectacular display of shooting and scoring felt different.

“It was a movie,” Minnesota’s Taurean Prince said.

The Timberwolves overcame Randle’s performance by riding a sizzling start and a steady finish to beat New York 140-134 on Monday night.

Prince scored a season-high 35 points and went 8 for 8 from 3-point range for the Timberwolves, while Mike Conley added 24 points and 11 assists. His three free throws gave Minnesota the lead for good with 2:17 remaining.

Randle’s final basket, a three-point play with 42 seconds remaining, cut it to 137-134, but he was beaten to a rebound by Kyle Anderson on Minnesota’s next possession, and a cutting Prince scored inside with 10.1 seconds left before Conley made a free throw after Randle was called for a technical foul.

That left Randle kicking himself for not making the defensive play on the night the offenses ruled.

“Jalen (Brunson) got a defensive stop, we’re down three, it’s my job to come up with that rebound, 14 seconds left,” Randle said. “If we do that, we have a chance to win the game – or not win the game, but at least tie the game. So I didn’t get the job done.”

The Timberwolves made more than 70% of their shots in the first half and led by 17, before Randle carried the Knicks back with a franchise-record 26 points in the third quarter.

He finished tied with Richie Guerin behind the only two 60-point games in Knicks history, Carmelo Anthony’s 62 on Jan. 24, 2014, and Bernard King’s 60 on Christmas Day in 1984. But the Knicks had their three-game winning streak snapped.

The All-Star forward threw down a powerful driving dunk in the first quarter but did most of his damage from much farther away. Randle made eight 3-pointers in surpassing his previous career high of 46 points.

The Wolves made their first 10 shots and didn’t cool off much the rest of the game, finishing at 61.4% and snapping a three-game skid despite playing without Anthony Edwards for a second straight game because of a sprained right ankle.

“We’ve got shooters, baby,” center Rudy Gobert said.

Gobert’s basket made the Wolves the first team this season to make its first 10 shots, and Knicks fans loudly cheered when Jaden McDaniels missed Minnesota’s next attempt, nearly seven minutes into the game. The Wolves led 42-32 after one, shooting 16 for 22 (72.7%).

Prince’s 3-pointer made it 70-53 with 4:35 left in the first half, but the Knicks finally put together some stops to cut it to 79-70 at the break.

Then Randle came back and went 9 for 10 in the third, hitting 5 for 6 beyond the arc. He raised his hand to fault himself after the one miss, an ill-advised attempt that missed the rim by a couple feet. But he could hardly be blamed for trying the way almost everything else he threw up was going in.

Finch said Edwards hadn’t done anything besides get treatment thus far, but the Wolves didn’t rule him out until Monday, indicating his injury isn’t as bad as originally feared.

“For sure there’s some relief,” Finch said. “But you know Ant, like Ant always wants to play. He never thinks he’s hurt, so hopefully it is feeling better, which he says it is. But in terms of pain tolerance, range of movement, stability, all those things, I think we’re trying to figure out where that really is with him.”

Report: Lakers, Austin Reaves have mutual interest in new contract


Austin Reaves is the latest in the impressive Lakers finds of role players. Undrafted out of Oklahoma, Reaves got a two-way contract from the Lakers, which was eventually turned into a regular minimum deal — he is making $1.6 million this season.

He had far outplayed that deal, averaging 12 points a game, becoming a key part of the Lakers’ rotation, and he dropped a career-high 35 on Sunday night. Reaves is up for a massive pay raise this summer, the Lakers want to give it to him and there is mutual interest, reports Jovan Buha at The Athletic.

He will be a restricted free agent this summer, and will undoubtedly have multiple suitors looking to pry him from the Lakers — especially after stat lines like Sunday’s. Both the Lakers and Reaves’ camp have interest in Reaves re-signing in Los Angeles, according to multiple league sources who were granted anonymity so that they coud speak freely. The max the Lakers can offer Reaves is a four-year, $50.8 million contract if they chose to use his Early Bird Rights, but they also have the power to match any contract he signs with another team.

While the Lakers can match any offer, it’s a little more complex than that because Reaves is an Arenas Rule free agent (named after The Hibachi himself). I’ll let our friend Keith Smith of Sportrac explain it.

When a player is an Arenas free agent, opposing teams can still offer whatever salary they are able to give, but the incumbent team is given an avenue to match the offer. What happens in these offers is that the first-year salary for an Arenas free agent is limited to either the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception (NTMLE) or what a team can match using their Early Bird exception…. That results in what is often referred to as a “poison pill” structure for a contract.

In the case of Reaves, let’s say a team looking for a well-rounded guard — the Orlando Magic — offer something like four years, $60 million. On the Orlando books, that would look like $15 million a season. However, under the Arenas provision, on the Lakers’ books the first year of that deal can only be for the $11.4 million the Lakers can offer right now, and Reaves would make less than $12 million in the second year (still far more than he makes this season). However, in the final two years of this hypothetical offer Reaves would make $17.9 million and $18.8 million on the Lakers’ books, a considerable jump. (If this were an $80 million offer from the Magic, the first two years would be the same but the last two would hit the Lakers’ books hard for more than $27 million a season, hence the poison pill name.)

The Lakers might well match that offer anyway, they still feel the sting of losing another of their young finds, Alex Caruso, and don’t want to let Reaves leave and then thrive somewhere else. Reaves isn’t looking to leave, he has said he loves Los Angeles and playing for the Lakers. However, this is a business and Reaves is not in a position to leave money on the table.

While everyone’s intentions are good, the Lakers have a lot of free-agent decisions to make this summer: D'Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, Lonnie Walker IV, Dennis Schroder, Troy Brown Jr. and more (plus Jarred Vanderbilt is extension eligible). There are going to be roster changes, and the Lakers can’t spend like the Warriors or Clippers who don’t appear to care about the tax — the Lakers are a family business and there is a budget.

Two things are for sure: It will be a wild offseason in Los Angeles, and Austin Reaves will get paid. By whom is the question.

Lillard sounds like a guy considering shutting it down for season

Boston Celtics v Portland Trail Blazers
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers have lost six in a row, are 31-40 and sit 3.5 games out of the 10 seed and final play-in spot in the West (a few teams sit between them and that goal, too). It’s not impossible, but with just 11 games remaining there’s a reason gives them just a 0.4% chance of making the playoffs. It’s hard to be optimistic.

Even for the perpetually optimistic Damian Lillard.

Check out his quotes postgame, with the first being via Sean Highkin of the Rose Garden Report (Blazers fans should subscribe).

“I think everybody in here is not crazy,” Lillard said… “You look at what other teams are doing, they’re creating separation, and we’re on a losing streak. We’ve pretty much fallen out of the race for the 10th spot unless we win every game, if you really look at it truthfully.”

Lillard has played at an All-NBA level this season, averaging 32.2 points and 7.2 assists a game, shooting 37.3% from 3, an insane-for-a-guard 64.5 true shooting percentage, all while having the fifth highest usage rate in the league. Put simply, he has carried the Blazers.

Maybe it’s getting close to time to take that burden off his shoulders.

If/when Lillard decides to sit out the rest of the season, it will start another round of “should Lillard leave” speculation in the media and around the league (other teams are certainly watching). Just don’t bet on it happening. As Lillard said recently about staying to win in Portland, “I’m also willing to die on that hill.” Lillard has four years, $216.2 million remaining on his contract after this season, the deal he signed just last summer. However, more than the money, Lillard sees himself in the Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas or Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee mold — he wants to stay and win in his city.

Rather than selling, look for the Trail Blazers to try and be buyers around the Draft or into the summer, offering good young players such as Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons, plus plenty of draft picks. Portland wants to win around Lillard and is willing to be aggressive.

But that’s next season, this season has reached the point it may be time to pack it in for Lillard.

Morant reportedly could return to Grizzlies Wednesday vs. Rockets


Despite his eight-game suspension being up, Ja Morant will not be on the court Monday night when the Grizzlies host the Mavericks (Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving are questionable for the Mavericks as of this writing, although Dončić has been hopeful he could play).

In good news for Grizzlies fans, Morant could return as soon as Wednesday against the Rockets, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Rockets and their porous defense are an excellent soft landing spot for Morant to return, put up some numbers, but not have to play heavy minutes. The Grizzlies play the Rockets both Wednesday and Friday and need wins as they are in a fight for the two seed with the red-hot Sacramento Kings.

Morant was suspended for flashing a gun in a club and broadcasting it on social media, something NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called “irresponsible” and “reckless.”The suspension was retroactive, including games he was “away from the team” following the incident. The suspension cost Morant $668,659 in pay, but it hit his bank account harder than that after one of his major sponsors — Powerade — pulled an ad campaign featuring him that would have run heavily during March Madness. Morant is also in the mix for an All-NBA spot — which, via the Rose rule could increase his contract extension that kicks in next season — and this incident and missed games will not help his cause.

Hopefully, Morant got a chance to step back and consider his path forward during the suspension. If the Grizzlies are going to make the postseason run this season — and be a contender for years to come — as they expect, they need peak Morant on the court.