De'Aaron Fox

Down three in final seconds, Kings leave Buddy Hield on bench (video)

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Kings guard Buddy Hield has barely veiled his frustration this year.

Last night became another glaring, though overblown, symbol of Hield’s reduced stature in Sacramento.

The Kings – trying to hang in the playoff race – trailed the Raptors by three points with 13.7 seconds left. Sacramento’s lineup:

Bjelica forced a difficult 3-point attempt and air-balled. Toronto went on to win, 118-113.

As Sacramento was intentionally fouling, a fan was clearly heard on the NBA Sports California telecast criticizing Kings coach Luke Walton.

Afterward, Walton defend his personnel choice:

Walton, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“We were scoring, we really were scoring on every play, we scored 39 points in the [fourth] quarter,” Walton said Sunday. “You score 39 in a close game, and you’re doing enough to win offensively. Buddy, I thought was playing a good game and we were going to get him back in there, and then Bogi (Bogdan Bogdanovic), he started really turning it on and then that group that was out there was really in a good rhythm. So, we stuck with them.”

“Multiple guys made good plays,” Walton added. “Fox stepped up, hit free throws, hit threes. Bogi hit some. Bjeli’s (Nemanja Bjelica) hit game winners for us before. So, we have faith in all our guys and I’ve said before that when a group is rolling, we’re going to stay with them. And you score 39 points in a quarter, then we’re most likely going to stay with that group.”

Walton is right: Sacramento’s offense was clicking without Hield. Bjelica has hit a game-winner before.

But this situation didn’t call for generally efficient offense. The Kings needed a 3-pointer, and Hield is their best 3-point shooter. That he won the 3-point contest at All-Star Weekend only drew more attention to his unused long-range ability.

Fox and Holmes were curious lineup inclusions over Hield. Fox struggles beyond the arc, though his passing could make something happen for a teammate. Holmes flat out doesn’t shoot 3-pointers, though his screening could free a teammate. Still, including two minus shooters over Hield made Sacramento far easier to defend.

That said, teams down three points late in the fourth quarter usually lose. It’s extremely hard to make a 3-pointer when the defense knows what’s coming. The Kings probably would have lost even if they played Hield.

Still, in part due a loud fan, this also turned into a memorable moment representative of larger concerns about the Sacramento-Hield dynamic.

NBA Power Rankings: Can anyone threaten the Bucks, Lakers in top spots?

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The Bucks and Lakers are running away with their conferences, and with that hold on to the top spots in this week’s power rankings. The question is can anyone knock them off come the playoffs?

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (50-8, Last Week No. 1). The calendar hasn’t even flipped over to March yet and the Bucks have 50 wins and have officially secured a playoff spot already. They have been that dominant in the East, and they looked every bit the inevitable favorite to come out of that conference in crushing the Sixers on Saturday, then beating Toronto on the road Tuesday, on the second night of a back-to-back. The Bucks are now 6-2 this season against teams winning at least 65% of their games (stat via Tom Ziller).

 
Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (44-12, LW No. 3). Picking up Markieff Morris on the buyout market not only gives the Lakers another solid rotation player, it gives them a floor-spacing four to play in lineups with Anthony Davis at center (which remain their best lineups, the Lakers were +14 against Boston with AD at the five). With a 5-game cushion in the West, Los Angeles should find a way to reduce LeBron’s minutes and get him some rest in the next month, before the grind of the playoffs start.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (42-16, LW 2). Toronto has lost just twice in their last 19 games. The first came to Brooklyn in the game before the All-Star break, which they treated like the last day of school before vacation. That happens. However, the loss to the Bucks at home on Tuesday was more disturbing. It came on a night Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry struggled, exposing issues with this team. If Lowry and Pascal Siakam are not hot this team struggles to create good looks — and hit them — against a quality defense. Also, Kyle Lowry, this simply isn’t ever going to work.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (37-20, LW 9). Small ball is working. Since the Rockets added Robert Covington they are 5-1 with a +12.9 net rating when he is on the court. The best news for Rockets fans dreaming of a deep playoff run is that the team’s defense has been solid in those six games, 13th in the league over that stretch. With James Harden and this version of Russell Westbrook (playing to his strengths, not jacking up threes) the Rockets will score plenty, but if they get stops this team becomes dangerous.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (39-17, LW 4). Kemba Walker is out and this team barely misses a beat because Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are playing so well. Tatum continued the leap forward this season that made him an All-Star when playing the Lakers last Sunday, scoring 41 and forcing Los Angeles to throw doubles at him and get the ball out of his hands. Combine that with an aggressive, switchable defense and maybe Boston is the one team in the East with any shot at Milwaukee.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (36-22, LW 11). Oklahoma City has some of the best lineups in the league. Their three-guard lineup — Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — has a net rating of +29.7 and dominates on both ends when out there together. Round that group out with Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams and the Thunder have a +30.5 net rating. That’s a long list of guys with some playoff experience, too — the Thunder are going to be a tough out for whichever team lands them in the first round.

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (40-18, LW 5). Denver is finally healthy and with that, when you look at their roster led by a motivated (and thinner) Nikola Jokic, you see this team has the potential to be a threat to the Lakers and Clippers. A lot needs to go right for that to happen. They need Gary Harris to play better. They need to prove they can defend and execute on the biggest of stages. They need to keep the second seed. All that said, the potential is there. Denver picked up a couple of soft wins once healthy (Timberwolves and Pistons), but there’s a good test coming against a (probably) full-healthy Clippers squad on Friday night (then Toronto next).

 
Clippers small icon 8. Clippers (38-19, LW 6). Monday night was the first game the Clippers had their fully healthy new roster in place, with Marcus Morris starting and all the core guys there — and they crushed the Grizzlies. It was a reminder of how good this team can be: They are 15-5 this season in games Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley all play. Injuries have forced Doc Rivers to use a league-high 28 different starting lineups this season, but if this core can stay healthy for a month, get time on the court together and build chemistry, nothing stands in their way.

 
Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (36-22, LW 10). Ben Simmons is out for at least two weeks — and likely longer, maybe much longer — with a pinched nerve in his lower back. It’s concerning because we don’t know what is causing the issue in the first place, and these kinds of injuries can linger. Losing the All-Star is a huge blow down the stretch for a Philadelphia team trying to catch Miami and get home court in the first round of the playoffs. Joel Embiid is back to being a beast, playing like the best center in the game, but the Sixers still need some outside to go with that inside.

 
Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (35-23, LW 12). Luka Doncic is back from his sprained ankle (his second this season), and Dallas has comfortably won all three games he played in that stretch (the one loss, to Atlanta, was when he and Kristaps Prozingis sat on a back-to-back). The chemistry between Doncic and Porzingis is picking up, they combined for 60 points in a win against Sacramento and 57 against the Magic. Also, Mark Cuban will soon get a healthy fine for his Twitter rant against the referees after the Atlanta loss, adding to the $1.6 million he has paid in fines since becoming the owner of the team (the money goes to NBA charities, for the record).

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (36-21, LW 8). Losers of three in a row (with Boston coming up next), Utah is 4-7 in its last 11 games — with the fifth worst defense in the NBA in that stretch. Utah is not putting together 48 good minutes, letting rough offensive stretches impact their defense (or, sometimes, bad defense impacts the offense). Utah has slid down to the fifth seed and out of having home court in the first round of the playoffs in the West. They have the talent to turn this thing around, but time is running out.

 
Heat small icon 12. Heat (36-21, LW 7). Miami has gone 2-4 since the trade that brought them Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder, with the struggles coming on both ends of the court. Overall the Heat are 2-6 in their last eight games, with five of those losses coming on the road. They are in danger of falling out of having home court in the first round of the playoffs (Miami seems headed to face Philadelphia in that first round, and only one game separates them in the loss column). The Heat have five games in a row and 8-of-10 at home, this is their chance to turn things around.

 
Pacers small icon 13. Pacers (34-24, LW 13). Victor Oladipo sat out the past two games after tweaking his back, it doesn’t sound like he will be out long but it’s something to watch. Indiana is 3-7 since his return and in that time the defense has been solid but the offense has been bottom five in the league. Things are about to get tougher, on Saturday the Pacers start a run of 6-of-7 on the road (with the one home game being the Celtics).

Pelicans small icon 14. Pelicans (25-33, LW 17). Zion Williamson remains must-watch — he has scored at least 25 points in five straight games, and has broken the 20-point barrier in nine straight. That has led to a lot of “Can he catch Ja Morant for Rookie of the Year?” talk. Pelicans fans, do not get your hopes up — availability is the best ability and Morant has missed just five games, plus he is putting up very impressive numbers in his own right as the primary shot creator on a team (currently) in the playoffs. The only hope Zion has is for the Pelicans to bump the Grizzlies out of the playoffs, and even that may not be enough.

 
Nets small icon 15. Nets (26-30, LW 16). Kyrie Irving is out for the season thanks to shoulder surgery, but the Nets are a .500 team (18-18) without him this season. With the Nets comfortably locked into a playoff slot (six games up on ninth seed Washington) Brooklyn can get back to the Spencer Dinwiddie-led balanced attack that makes the Nets a tough team to beat nightly. Their next four games are on the road.

 
Magic small icon 16. Magic (25-32, LW 18). If Orlando is going to climb out of the eight seed and avoid Milwaukee in the first round of the playoffs, now is the time — they enter a soft patch of the schedule the next few weeks and can string together some wins. That has already started. Orlando has turned around its recent rough patch winning three of four, and the trio of Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, and Nikola Vucevic should keep the Magic comfortably in the playoffs.

 
Grizzlies small icon 17. Grizzlies (28-29, LW 14). No coach does the “we just want to get better every day” coach speak than the Grizzlies Taylor Jenkins. However, it seems to be working. Back in November, Memphis had a defensive rating of 113.8, fifth-worst in the NBA. In February, that is down to a 106.4 net rating, fourth-best in the NBA. That has not led to wins because the offense has been bottom five in the league the past five games. Memphis needs some wins to hold off Portland and New Orleans for the final playoff spot in the West.

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (23-33, LW 19). It’s too little too late to end the league’s longest playoff drought, but Sacramento has won 6-of-8, and are doing it without bigs Marvin Bagley III and Richaun Holmes (injures). De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Heild (the latter coming off the bench) are carrying the offense, both averaging more than 20 points a game during the streak. Suddenly the Kings look like the exciting, athletic, attacking team we’d hoped to see all season long.

 
Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (26-32, LW 15). Damian Lillard remains out with a groin strain suffered the night before the All-Star break, and with that Portland’s chances to climb back into the West playoffs remain on hold. The Blazers have one of the softest remaining schedules in the league, but they have lost 4-of-5 and without Lillard they are not the same threat. Portland has 4-of-5 coming up on the road.

 
Suns small icon 20. Suns (24-34, LW 21). Much of the talk around Deandre Ayton and the Suns is the numbers the young center puts up, but quietly Phoenix has become a good defensive team with him around. The Suns have a defensive rating of 107.1 when he is on the court, which would be top 10 in the league. When Ayton and Booker share the court, the Suns are +6.1 per 100 possessions. The Suns have won 3-of-4, and they now have six in a row coming up at home.

 
Spurs small icon 21. Spurs (24-32, LW 20). Don’t leave San Antonio out of your “they could get the eighth seed in the West” discussions, they are only 3.5 games back of struggling Memphis. The Spurs have a heavy home schedule and some softer teams coming up, if San Antonio is going to make a run to extend their playoff streak to 23 years now is when it happens. San Antonio is going to need consistency out of Dejounte Murray to make that run.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (20-36, LW 23). Bradley Beal is going off — two straight 50+ point games — and yet both of those games ended up in the loss column for Washington. That stings. The Wizards are just 3.5 games back of the Magic (four in the loss column) for the final playoff spot in the East, but to get there Washington needs to take advantage of their best player making a push for the All-NBA team.

 
Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (20-39, LW 26). Coby White is on fire, scoring 30+ points in three straight games — the last Bull to do that was some guy named Michael Jordan. That, however, has not moved White into the starting lineup (despite Kris Dunn being out for the season injured), which has become the latest knock on coach Jim Boylen. It’s right up there with his bad timeouts at the end of decided games. Will the new front office person hired by the Bulls this summer have the authority to remove the coach? We know John Paxson doesn’t want to.

Pistons small icon 24. Pistons (19-41, LW 22). Andre Drummond? Gone. Reggie Jackson? Gone. Markieff Morris? Gone. The rebuild is on in Detroit, but for the rest of this season it will be Derrick Rose against the world. The Pistons have lost seven in a row and things are not going to get better in the short term.

 
Hornets small icon 25. Hornets (19-38, LW 28). After he shot 1-of-17 in the first two games out of the All-Star break, coach James Borego decided to give Devonte’ Graham some rest on Tuesday night. Graham has come back to earth after his hot start to the season, although he still looks like a rotation player who can be part of Memphis’ future. So does P.J. Washington. After that… Mitch Kupchak has a lot of roster building to do this summer.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (17-42, LW 27). It’s tough to say this team can build for the future as it plays out the string this season because it is doing so without Clint Caplela, the big man they traded for at the deadline who remains out injured. John Collins is playing like a guy who got his job threatened at the deadline, averaging 25 points a game on 63.3 shooting, plus 10.5 rebounds a night in his last 10 games.

 
Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (16-41, LW 30). Cleveland has the most heavily used five-man lineup in the NBA this season: Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Cedi Osman, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson. That group also has a -9.6 net rating. The Cavaliers have won 3-of-4 and are home for 6-of-7, but the teams coming in are all over .500 playoff teams.

 
Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (17-40, LW 24). The Leon Rose era in New York officially begins on Sunday, and he takes over a team with a couple nice young players — RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson — plus seven first-round picks in the next four years. The pieces are there, but can Rose put together an organization that drafts well and develops players, building a foundation to attract elite free agents? Will James Dolan give him the autonomy and time to do it.

 
29. Timberwolves (16-40, LW 25). Losers of five in a row and 18-of-19, and Karl-Anthony Towns is out weeks with a fractured wrist. There have been flashes from D'Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, but this team is a defensive disaster, which makes it difficult to win any games. Especially without Towns to put up points and cover the mistakes.

 
Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (12-45 LW 29). Stephen Curry will make his return to the lineup on Sunday after missing four months with a fractured hand. Expect it to take a few games for him to get his legs back under him, but the Warriors should be better — and a vastly more interesting team to watch — as Curry and Andrew Wiggins start to figure out how to play together.

Kings’ Marvin Bagley III out at least three more weeks with foot sprain

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Marvin Bagley III, the Kings’ No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft, has played just 13 games this season due to injury. That may be all he does this season.

Bagley has aggravated his foot sprain and is going to miss at least another three weeks. That’s another 11 games. Minimum.

James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area has the details.

From the official Kings’ press release:

He recently incorporated stationary shooting and partial-weight bearing conditioning activities into his regimen, in addition to ongoing strength work. 

Stationary shooting drills and working out in a pool does not sound like a guy who will be back in three weeks. Considering the Kings’ place in the standings, it’s fair to question if he will — or should — return to the court this season at all.

Bagley was the player GM Vlade Divac took instead of Luka Doncicsomething that has reportedly ticked off owner Vivek Ranadive. As it should. If, as rumored, the Kings took Bagley because they already had De'Aaron Fox and didn’t want another ball-dominant player, well, it could go down as a “Portland didn’t take Michael Jordan because they had Clyde Drexler” level of draft miss. The Kings’ drafting and player development has been an organizational issue for years, and the team is about to miss the playoffs for the 14th straight season because of it.

Bagley showed promise as a rookie in the Kings’ uptempo system but hasn’t been able to stay healthy and on the court this time around. Hopefully, he can next season.

Pascal Siakam not your typical max player

Pascal Siakam
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DETROIT – Pascal Siakam, wearing a camouflage sweatshirt, jokingly hid behind a Raptors staffer to duck his post-game interview. Siakam said he was promised a respite from the sometimes-tedious responsibility. A reporter replied that the hiatus didn’t apply when Siakam scored 30.

Of course, Siakam soon came out and dutifully answered questions.

He has been front and center as Toronto’s go-to star all season.

The Raptors have faced rarely precedented upheaval for a defending champion. Toronto lost players responsible for nearly a third of its 2019 postseason minutes. That’s high, but not unique, for a title team. The 1969 Celtics, 1998 Bulls, 2003 Spurs and 2011 Mavericks lost more. But the Raptors became the first defending champion to lose an unquestioned star to another team.

In 1998, Chicago knew it was rebuilding after Michael Jordan’s retirement. In 2003, San Antonio still had Tim Duncan. In 2011, Dallas still had Dirk Nowitzki.

Kawhi Leonard signing with the Clippers created an identity crisis in Toronto. The Raptors had come to rely heavily on Leonard, but they still wanted to win this season – just without their best player.

Boston in 1969 provided a depressing example. Bill Russell retired after the Celtics’ championship. Even with John Havlicek, Boston went just 34-48 the next season.

But Siakam knew where Toronto would turn without Leonard: Siakam.

“Being a max player,” Siakam said, “you expect that.”

Siakam, who signed a max contract extension last fall, looks the part.

His blistering start to the season put him in the superstar conversation. He’s the engine behind the Raptors’ 40-14 record. Voted an All-Star starter, Siakam even had captains Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James bantering about who’d get to select him while MVP candidates Luka Doncic and James Harden remained on the board during the All-Star draft.

Except Siakam is far from a typical max player.

His contract status, age, entry to the NBA and incredible rise tell a distinctive story. The next chapters will shape Toronto for years to come.

Contract status

Since the NBA adopted the current format with the 1999 rookie class, 32 players have signed max rookie-scale extensions (defined by starting salary). Just eight of those deals were shorter than the longest-allowable length:

  • LeBron James (Cavaliers in 2006)
  • Dwyane Wade (Heat in 2006)
  • Chris Bosh (Raptors in 2006)
  • Chris Paul (New Orleans in 2008)
  • Deron Williams (Jazz in 2008)
  • Kevin Love with (Timberwolves in 2011)
  • DeMarcus Cousins (Kings in 2013)
  • Pascal Siakam (Raptors in 2019)

In every previous case, the shorter extension signaled underlying turbulence:

  • LeBron, Wade and Bosh wanted to hit unrestricted free agency sooner. Though Wade re-signed in Miami as part of the star team-up, the main priority seemed to be joining forces with LeBron and maybe Bosh. It just happened with the Heat rather than Bulls.
  • Following the lead of his friend LeBron, Chris Paul took a shorter extension. Two years later, Paul pressured New Orleans to trade him. A year after that, the team acquiesced, sending Paul to the Clippers.
  • Deron Williams, widely viewed as Paul’s peer, also took the shorter extension. Fearing the disgruntled star bolting, Utah traded Williams to the Nets.
  • The Timberwolves infamously saved their designated-player extension for Ricky Rubio, upsetting Love. The Minnesota-Love relationship never recovered, and he worked a trade to the Cavaliers a few years later.
  • Sacramento was reportedly troubled by Cousins’ behavior and unwilling to commit a fifth season on his rookie-scale extension. On the verge of giving him another extension years later, the Kings got cold feet and instead traded him to the Pelicans.

On the other hand, Siakam looks stable in Toronto. There are no known concerns about his attitude. In fact, it appears exemplary. There has been no chatter about Siakam looking to leave, either.

Most players who can secure a max-salary extension also seek maximum security, especially on their first big payday. Siakam was no exception. His agents originally asked the Raptors for five years.

Toronto offered four, and Siakam accepted. There can be advantages to the shorter deal – namely getting to another, potentially higher-paying, deal sooner.

Where many players would have pushed for the larger guarantee, Siakam was comfortable betting on himself. He and his agents, Jaafar Choufani and Todd Ramasar, just prioritized a max salary rather than the very most years.

“There’s so much that comes with that in terms of respect among your peers, in terms of your placement with the franchise,” Choufani said.

So, why did the Raptors want the shorter extension?

Age

In 2016, the Bucks signed Giannis Antetokounmpo to a four-year extension worth slightly less than the max. A five-year extension would have required paying the full max.

Think Milwaukee would rather have the Most Valuable Player locked up an additional season rather than get the salary savings?

The Raptors could have similar regrets in a few years. Siakam is now headed toward 2024, rather than 2025, unrestricted free agency.

But there’s a key difference between Siakam and Antetokounmpo. In fact, there’s a key difference between Siakam and nearly every other player to sign a max rookie-scale extension.

Siakam is much older.

When his extension kicks in, Siakam will be 26. Only Steve Francis was older to begin a max rookie-scale extension.

By the third season of his extension, Francis looked like a shell of himself. After the fourth season, he agreed to a buyout. He was out of the NBA altogether before the end of what would have been the fifth season of his extension.

Of course, Siakam isn’t Francis. Siakam isn’t like anyone we’ve ever seen.

Entry to NBA and incredible rise

The Raptors drafted Siakam with the No. 27 pick in 2016. Even that low, he was widely viewed as a reach. Siakam looked like just a hustle player, and his age appeared to limit his ceiling.

Only three years later, Siakam became only player selected outside lottery to receive a max rookie-scale extension.

“For those kids out there that want to see how good you can be, go watch him in the summer time,” said former Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who now coaches the Pistons. “Not worried about load management. The kid worked three a times a day, him and Rico Hines out there in L.A.”

Siakam went from barely used to key reserve to Most Improved Player. By the end of Toronto’s title run, he was playing like a star.

Most of Siakam’s all-in-one numbers are down this season. He’s not shooting as efficiently as last season. His defense – still elite when necessary – isn’t quite as imposing.

But Siakam has shouldered a massive offensive burden, which is exactly what the Raptors needed.

“Now, he goes out with the idea that he is the primary guy, right from the jump and not waiting to see how the flow of the game goes or Kawhi has it going or whatever,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “He kind of just takes it right from the opening tip and goes with it.”

Even after winning Most Improved Player, Siakam continues to add facets to his game.

Casey described Siakam’s previous approach as, “Shooting was his last resort.” Now, Siakam – who faces far more attention than ever – says, “I feel like I can always get whatever I want.”

This continued development explains why I wouldn’t have picked Siakam for Most Improved Player last season. De'Aaron Fox grew more in a single year, the timeframe for the annual award.

Siakam’s progress spans multiple years – and is therefore also far larger in summation. That deserves its own recognition.

Just 16 players have set a career high in points per game then increase their scoring average by at least 15 within two seasons. Siakam – who has gone from 7.3 to 16.9 to 23.7 points per game, an increase of 16.4 – is on pace to become the 17th.

Here’s everyone to do it:

Pascal Siakam

Siakam’s journey from Cameroon to New Mexico State to the NBA was already an amazing story. Add this newfound level of stardom, and it’s jaw-dropping.

Just not to Siakam.

“I always understood the level I could get to, and I understand the level I can get to,” Siakam said. “I’m not there yet, and I’m going to continue to work to get there.”

What is that level?

“I think the sky’s the limit,” Siakam said before correcting himself. “There’s no limit at all.”

Watch Bam Adebayo destroy two Kings with dunk

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Bam Adebayo is an All-Star and a force of nature when he attacks the rim.

Don’t take my word for it, ask De'Aaron Fox and Kent Bazemore.

Damn.

Sacramento upset Miami and got the win, 107-95, behind 23 points from Bogdan Bogdanovic.