Darius Garland

John Beilein and Tristan Thompson
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Do you believe John Beilein’s ‘slugs’ explanation? Tristan Thompson sidesteps question

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DETROIT – Six Cavaliers players addressed John Beilein’s thugs-slugs jumble yesterday. Five offered clear support of their coach for this volatile situation.

The exception: Tristan Thompson.

“At the end of the day, he’s our head coach,” Thompson said after Cleveland’s win over the Pistons last night. “We’re the players, and have to go out there and play and do our job at the end of the day. So, that’s all that matters.”

Beilein apologized to the Cavs both individually and collectively after the film session on Wednesday, when he called players “thugs” but later said he misspoke and meant to use the word “slugs.” Did Beilein’s explanation help motivate and focus the team for Detroit? Thompson: “Coach’s job is to give us the scout and the game plan. But we don’t need no coaches at all to motivate us. Us as players, we motivate each other.”

The Cavaliers will keep Beilein as coach. Can Thompson still play for him? Thompson: “Man, I’ll play anywhere. I’ll play all over the world.”

Beilein has reportedly struggled to connect with the Cavs. Does Thompson need anything different from his coach? Thompson: “As long as I’ve got my dogs with me every night in that huddle – what do we got, 13, 14 guys? Brought back Zo. As long I’ve got my dogs with me ready to go to war, that’s all that matters to me.”

Eventually, I flatly asked Thompson whether he believes Beilein’s explanation that he inadvertently said “thugs” while intending to say “slugs.”

“I’m not trying to take away from tonight,” Thompson said. “So, I want to keep it based on how great the guys were tonight. I think Brandon Knight was great. A guy that doesn’t get to play a lot. When his number was called – especially when we have KP down – he stepped up and was great tonight. So, I don’t want to take away from my team’s tremendous win tonight in overtime. So, that’s where my focus is at.”

Missing from that answer? Some variation of “yes.”

This was a strange interview from Thompson, who was recently Beilein’s most vocal supporter.

Maybe we’re supposed to read between the lines and see the lack of stated support for a lack of support. “Thug” is a racially charged word, and I can see how a black player would resent his white coach calling him one.

It’s also quite possible Thompson truly thought sidestepping the issue was the best way to make it go away. If so, he was wrong. A quick declaration of support – like Larry Nance Jr., Kevin Love, Darius Garland, Collin Sexton and Brandon Knight gave – would have been far more effective. Instead, Thompson opened the door wide open for speculation into how he truly feels.

The timing doesn’t help discern his meaning. Thompson didn’t speak at shootaround or pregame yesterday. After the emotional victory, it’s easy to see why he’d prefer attention land on the game. Thompson had a career night. He’s also a supportive teammate who wants to shout out Alfonzo McKinnie‘s defensive stops and Knight’s play with Kevin Porter Jr. injured. Thompson could have seen an opportunity to move on and leave the thugs-slugs issue behind.

To be fair, Thompson is not a public-relations expert. He’s a basketball player. Not understanding how to diffuse this controversy would hardly be some major offense. With prior scandal, Thompson served himself well by not talking about it. That kept the noise at bay.

But sports media was already widely discussing Beilein. Like it or not, this issue was in the forefront.

Which raises another question: How did it get there? Most Cleveland players who spoke publicly yesterday said Beilein’s use of the word “thugs” didn’t jar them in the moment. Only Sexton said otherwise, and he added he wasn’t alone.

“Everybody was shocked,” Sexton said.

Yet, Sexton also provided a defense of Beilein against the (absurd) argument that it’s inconceivable he’d use the word “slugs.”

“He says it all the time, so it’s all good,” Sexton said. “…He calls us slugs, because we move slow. But it’s good. We knew what he meant.”

Do all the Cavaliers know what Beilein meant, though? That remains an open question.

Three Things to Know: Jimmy Butler blowing kisses, lobbing verbal bombs at T.J. Warren

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Jimmy Butler was stirring the pot by blowing kisses, lobbing verbal bombs at Pacers’ T.J. Warren. Jimmy Butler is not just an All-Star but also an All-NBA level…

Pot stirrer.

And player. Butler likely starts in the All-Star Game in Chicago next month, and if not he’s certainly in the game. As things stand now, Butler is highly likely to make an All-NBA team at the end of the season. He’s earned all of that, averaging 20.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 6.6 assists a game to lead Miami and make them the surprise No. 2 seed in the East.

Butler, however, does not shy away from mixing it up. He likes a little tension around him, and he’s comfortable when other people are uncomfortable. Just ask Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

Or, the Pacers’ T.J. Warren. Butler and Warren were barking at each other for much of the game Wednesday night, and it was building up to something. This is the play where everything really got started and the referees jumped in the mix.

The play was reviewed and the referees left as a common foul. Which was the right call, but did not ease the tensions. Soon after, the duo was matched up again, and Warren drew the offensive foul on Butler — then walked behind him, clapping his hands and taunting him. That got Warren a technical and an ejection.

Butler’s reaction? He blew Warren kisses.

Butler was not done. After the game, Butler ripped Warren, dropping an F-bomb as an adjective to emphasize his point.

Then Butler took the fight to social media.

Suddenly that March game looks like must-see TV. Because Butler likes to stir the pot.

2) Cleveland coach John Beilein called his players “thugs” — he says on accident, he meant to say “slugs.” When speaking to a room of mostly African-American young men, the term “thug” is a loaded one. It’s full of implications (the kind David Stern tried to sweep under the rug with a dress code).

Cleveland coach John Beilein called his players “thugs” during a film session on Wednesday. In showing the players clips of their defense, he tried to pay his team a compliment by saying they were no longer playing like “thugs.”

That silenced the room and was leading to some growing frustration among players — and the Cavaliers have had their fill of frustration lately. Made aware of what he said, Beilein contacted his players to apologize and say he meant to say “slugs.” This is the money quote of what Beilein told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I meant to say slugs, as in slow moving. We weren’t playing hard before, and now we were playing harder. I meant it as a compliment.”

Do you believe him? While that will become a sports talk radio topic all day, it doesn’t really matter.

Do his players believe him? That will decide Beilein’s fate. Was this a one-time, fluke thing, and the players know their coach well enough to take him at his word? Or, is there a little more to this, and will other stories leak out in the coming days?

I don’t know the answer. What I do know is Beilein left the University of Michigan at age 66 to take over the Cavaliers job this season, signing a five-year contract, and he hasn’t impressed. The Cavaliers are 10-27, there is no team identity, nor have we seen the young Cavs players — such as Collin Sexton and Darius Garland — developing under his guidance. Players are acting out and don’t seem on the same page with the coach.

The coaching questions are not enough to get Beilein fired in the first year of a five-year contract. However, if he loses the players over this “thug” comment then the dynamics are very different. This story is not over by a long shot.

3) James Harden, Trae Young make history as first opposing players in NBA history to record 40-point triple-doubles in one game. James Harden and Trae Young were putting on a show.

Harden scored 41 points with 10 assists and 10 rebounds (although he wasn’t efficient shooting 9-of-34 on the night, including 4-of-20 from three). Young had 42 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

It’s an interesting bit of history and a fun show for everyone watching. By the way, the Rockets got the win, in case anyone still cares about the outcome of games.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Kemba Walker was ejected from an NBA game for the first time in his career. KYP — know your personnel. NBA coaches say it to players all the time. It means to know that Giannis Antetokounmpo will go to the spin move in the paint on a drive, be prepared for it (and good luck). Don’t bite on DeMar DeRozan’s pump fake. Certain players only want to go left. The list could go on, but the idea is clear — know the players and their tendencies.

Referees need to do the same thing. For example, Kemba Walker is not a hothead, which is why he’s never been thrown out of an NBA game.

Until Wednesday. Midway through the third quarter of a Celtics loss to the Spurs, Walker got pancaked by LaMarcus Aldridge. Just flattened. Walker thought it was a foul and popped up angry walked over to rookie referee Evan Scott to protest the call — and got a quick ejection.

Here is the official explanation from the referees.

That was a bad call and the league should rescind the second technical. The first one, with Walker cussing at the referee, that’s an earned technical. The second one, without trying to have a conversation with Walker, was an overreaction. There needs to be more dialogue between referees and coaches, and some understanding of the situation. Basketball is an emotional game, Walker just got flattened, the officials have to give the player some space to vent (this is a two-way street, the players need not to fire up the crowd — Walker didn’t — and give the referees some respect, too). This felt like when refs put up the “stop sign” hand before the player has even gotten to them to say something — that’s not the way to deal with players or coaches. Have a conversation.

Those technical fouls did not cost the Celtics the game, but they did help change momentum. The Celtics were on a 20-7 run and had cut the Spurs lead to seven. This call led to five three throws for San Antonio — two for Walker’s two technicals, one for a Brad Stevens technical, and two for the shooting foul called on the play — and when the Spurs hit four of them it stretched the lead back up to double digits.

Cavaliers coach John Beilein reportedly called team ‘thugs,’ but says he meant ‘slugs’

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This is ugly.

And it could get uglier.

In a film session Wednesday, first-year Cavaliers coach John Beilein tried to pay his team a compliment by saying they were no longer playing like “thugs.” Later that night, he contacted players saying he meant to say “slugs.” Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story.

Beilein had been wrapping up what had been an off-day film session in Detroit and a hush fell over the room when his players and staff heard the words come out of his mouth, sources said.

The Cavaliers players left the room initially stunned and were increasingly disturbed as they dispersed out of the meeting, league sources said.

“I didn’t realize that I had said the word “thugs,” but my staff told me later I did and so I must have said it,” Beilein told ESPN on Wednesday night. “I meant to say slugs, as in slow moving. We weren’t playing hard before, and now we were playing harder. I meant it as a compliment. That’s what I was trying to say. I’ve already talked to eight of my players tonight, and they are telling me that they understand.”

Here are some thoughts on this:

• There is an obvious, massive difference between “thugs” and “slugs.”

• The word “thug” carries a lot of heft and ugly racial connotations when said to a room of mostly young African-American men. Because of that, it’s tougher to brush this off as a simple slip of the tongue.

• Was this a one-time, fluke thing? Or, is there a little more to this, and will other stories leak out in the coming days?

• The Cavaliers have been playing defense like slugs in recent weeks.

• Beilein left the University of Michigan at age 66 to take over the Cavaliers job this season, signing a five-year contract. The Cavaliers are a team in flux — veterans who could be traded, such as Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, plus young players in need of development such as Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. It’s not an easy team to coach, but the roster has not responded to Beilein, and he has not connected with his players. What we end up with is things like Love acting out.

• Will this threaten Beilein’s job? Maybe. Things certainly are at a crossroads midway through his first season.

If this proves to be a pattern, then yes, he’s gone. If the players don’t buy Beilein’s “slug” reasoning and he loses the locker room (or loses it more, if that’s possible), then yes. If this spirals into something uglier, then yes. But predicting how this will play out in Cleveland is difficult thanks to an unpredictable organization.

Expect a lot more on this in the coming days.

Three Things to Know: Denver’s offense is back sparking seven-game win streak

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Denver’s offense is back sparking seven-game win streak. In November, Denver’s offense looked lost. Blame injuries, a changing rotation, Nikola Jokic’s conditioning, or Mercury being retrograde, what mattered is a top-10 offense from last season was bottom 10 for the month. Denver only kept winning because its defense gave up less than a point per possession.

The past seven games, Denver’s offense is back — third-best in the NBA over that stretch, using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers (which filters out garbage time). Jokic is making highlight passes, guys are moving off the ball, and every shot seems to fall. The Nuggets have won their last seven, including Monday night in Phoenix, thanks to a Jamal Murray jumper with 3.2 seconds left.

Murray finished the night with 28 points on 12-of-19 shooting. Jokic had his seventh triple-double of the season with 22 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Denver’s win streak started with five straight games at home against teams they should beat, although there were some solid teams in there such as Portland and Oklahoma City. Then they went on the road and won a back-to-back against the LeBron-less Lakers and now Phoenix.

Maybe there is no signature win in that streak, but it has jumped Denver up to the two seed in the West, which is closer to where we thought this team would be before the season tipped-off. They have the roster and staying power to stay up in the top four through the regular season. Whether they have the talent and team to win a second-round playoff matchup will be the ultimate test, but that’s five months away.

For now, Denver has found it’s groove again and returned to being one of the most entertaining teams in the league to watch.

2) Looking for scoring off the bench, Utah trades for Jordan Clarkson. The Utah Jazz have been good this season — 18-12 after a loss in Miami Monday night — but nothing like the darkhorse threat to the Lakers and Clippers some pundits (*raises hand*) predicted before the season. Utah doesn’t scare anyone in the West right now.

There have been a few reasons for that. One of them is depth — Utah is second-worst in the league in bench scoring per game (27.1 points per game). That’s been made worse by the hamstring injury to Mike Conley, which has forced Joe Ingles into the starting lineup and robbed the bench of even more depth.

It forced Utah to make a trade, sending Dante Exum and a couple of second-round picks to Cleveland for Jordan Clarkson, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Clarkson will get Utah buckets. In his sixth NBA season, Clarkson averages 14.6 points per game, shooting 37.1 percent from three, and the Cavaliers have been +5.6 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court this season. He’s not going to be a playmaker, he’s not going to defend well, but he can get points. And that’s what the Jazz need.

The Cavaliers can take a flier on Exum, seeing if he can fit in their young-and-not-yet-impressive backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Exum is a good defender who has shown flashes on offense — when he gets rolling downhill — and should get some run with Cleveland. Plus, the Cavaliers get a couple of additional second-round picks for their rebuild. They did well in this trade.

We’ll see if this trade works out for Utah, too.

3) Tacko Fall conducted the Boston Pops. Tacko Fall is many things. Tall. A fan favorite in Boston. A guy who needs high ceilings wherever he goes. One of two NBA players from Senegal (Gorgui Dieng). A project.

Maestro.

He proved that last one on Monday night, when Fall stole the show at the Boston Pops, conducting the orchestra in “Sleigh Ride.” He threw in a twirl for good measure.

Maybe the most impressive feat on that stage was from the tailor who made the custom tux for Fall.

We’d all like some Tacko for Christmas, but on the road against the Raptors it seems a long shot he gets in the game.

Ben Simmons hits another three, scores 34 points to lead 76ers past Cavaliers

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PHILADELPHIA — Ben Simmons hit another 3-pointer, and his coach wants him to keep on firing.

Simmons hit his second career 3 and scored a career-high 34 points, and the Philadelphia 76ers didn’t need Joel Embiid‘s help to rout the Cleveland Cavaliers 141-94 Saturday night.

Simmons made 12 of 14 field goals, including his only 3-point attempt, and hit 9 of 12 free throws in 26 minutes to help Philadelphia improve to 11-0 at home.

“I was locked in,” Simmons said.

Simmons’ jump shot – or lack thereof – has been a hot topic in Philadelphia. He entered the season 0 for 17 from long range.

Coach Brett Brown has repeatedly said shooting is a part of Simmons’ game that will develop with time. After Saturday’s performance, Brown publicly upped the ante and called for more from his All-Star point guard.

“This is what I want,” Brown said. “I want a 3-point shot per game, minimum. … He will be liberated. His world will open up and, in many ways, so will ours.”

Embiid sat out with a left hip contusion.

Darius Garland had 17 points for the Cavaliers, who have lost six in a row and 12 of 13.

“They were going downhill on us all day long,” Cavaliers coach John Beilein said.

Philadelphia has been projected to be an NBA title contender, but the 76ers haven’t been able to consistently field its starting five of Simmons, Embiid, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris and Al Horford. They have only started nine games together due to injuries and Embiid’s two-game suspension for fighting Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns.

The 76ers needed little more than Simmons in a dominant first half that ended with them ahead 77-36.

Simmons attacked the basket often and showed off a rarely seen mid-range game when he drained an 11-foot jumper with 6:04 left in the second quarter. That had 76ers fans cheering, but it was just an appetizer for Simmons.

With 3:41 left in the half, Simmons took a cross-court pass from Trey Burke and knocked down a 3 from the left wing. That send the sold-out crowd into a frenzy, and the roars continued when Simmons finished an alley-oop dunk from Burke on Philadelphia’s ensuing possession.

Simmons received a standing ovation at the next stoppage.

“I’m getting more comfortable learning my spots and just adjusting,” Simmons said. “I’m trying not to force it, trying to play the game I know how to play. Hard work pays off. Stay in the gym and keep working.”

Simmons finished the tremendous four-possession sequence with assists on Philadelphia’s next two trips, first to Horford for a 3-pointer and then to James Ennis III for a jumper.

Finally, Simmons ended the first half scoring with a 9-foot jumper for a 41-point lead entering the break.