Dejounte Murray

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Three Things to Know: Trash-talking Rockets get 47 from James Harden, beat Clippers

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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) Trash-talking Rockets get 47 from James Harden, beat Clippers. Dear basketball gods: Can you please arrange a Clippers vs. Rockets playoff series? We’d all appreciate that down here. Thanks.

There are no statement games in November, but after the Rockets 102-93 win against the Clippers Wednesday a lot of statements were being made. An intense, emotional game led to a lot of trash talk on the court that spilled over into the locker rooms afterward. These teams do not like each other — and that makes it fun. The basketball gods need to give us more of this.

Everyone was getting in on the act.

Russell Westbrook trash-talked Patrick Beverley’s defense.

Let’s put aside the irony of Westbrook calling out another players’ defensive effort for a second, he’s just wrong. It’s just not factually accurate. Beverley is a good defender and ESPN’s stats guys have the proof

The best trash-talking of the night came from Austin Rivers.

The younger Rivers should forever be grateful to his Dad for that oversized three-year, $35 million contract, but when Doc Rivers got into it with the officials, the younger Rivers urged quick-trigger Tony Brothers to go over and toss his dad out. And Brothers did. That’s when Austin waved off his dad and made the call-me gesture

(Just for the record, Doc had a point. After a failed attempt to call a challenge — Rivers took longer than 30 seconds to do so — he said two referees told him the Clippers had two timeouts. After he used one, Rivers was told that was his last one. If the officials indeed screwed up his timeouts, he should have been pissed.)

There was basketball, too — and James Harden was better at it than anybody.

Harden’s 47 pushed his per-game average over his last five to 41.6 per game. More importantly, he got his buckets when his teams needed them — he scored 17 points in the final six minutes (and did it against Kawhi Leonard and Beverley). Even with elite defenders to match up the Clippers started throwing double-teams at Harden, it just didn’t matter.

Thanks to Harden, the Rockets executed down the stretch. The Clippers did not. Los Angeles’ first half was sloppy and listless, their worst half of the season. They missed bunnies and open threes all night. Los Angeles climbed back with a good third and led at 83-80, but the Clippers offensive execution and shot selection down the stretch was poor.

Leonard finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists, but P.J. Tucker did an excellent job keeping him in check — Leonard 4-of-10 for 10 points with Tucker as the primary defender, according to the NBA.com matchup data.

If these teams meet in the playoffs next spring, this November meeting will be ancient history. Both teams will have evolved and be different by then (the Clippers will be different on Thursday night in New Orleans when they get Paul George back). However, the tone was set. And we want more of it.

2) Ja Morant does not play like a rookie, hits game-winner against Hornets. Sure, Ja Morant brings some freakish athleticism to the point guard position in Memphis. But what is really impressive is the poise he brings — he does not look like a rookie coming out of a small college.

He looks like a beast who can hit game-winners – which he did against Charlotte.

Morant finished with 23 points and 11 assists.

He did all that in 30 minutes — the Grizzlies wisely continue to manage his workload this season, limiting him to 30 minutes a game (with some nights off). This is absolutely the right thing to do. When we talk about the science of “load management” what we’re talking about is the cumulative impacts of numerous seasons of running up and down a hardwood floor — starting in AAU/High School and running up to the NBA — and how that wears a body down and leads to injury.

Ja Morant is getting plenty of minutes, plenty of chances to learn and make mistakes, and he is closing out games (obviously). But he’s still thin and his body’s still adapting to the grind of the NBA. If you have a franchise cornerstone player — and the Grizzlies believe they have one in Morant — why wouldn’t you take steps early to lengthen his career and effectiveness? Why would you ramp up the miles on his odometer during a 24-win season? The Grizzlies are making the right long-term play (especially after watching their prized rookie from a season ago, Jaren Jackson Jr., have to miss the end of the season with an injury).

3) Is Orlando interested in DeMar DeRozan? Makes sense. Are the Spurs going to trade him is another question. An interesting early-season trade rumor popped up via our friend Kevin O’Conner of The Ringer:

The Orlando Magic have interest in trading for the Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan.

For Orlando, this makes a lot of sense. The Magic’s offense has been dreadful this season, scoring less than a point per possession so far. They need a guy who can get buckets, and DeRozan can do that. From the midrange, sure, but the guy scores efficiently and raises the floor of your team —get DeRozan the rock and your team will have a respectable offense. Orlando needs that.

The question becomes, what do the Spurs want to do? Good luck with that one. DeRozan can opt out of the $27.7 million he is owed next season and become a free agent next July, and the Spurs talks with DeRozan about an extension went nowhere. Conventional wisdom in that kind of situation is to trade the player and at least get something for him before he walks. The Spurs, however, do not follow conventional wisdom. The Spurs are going to be a fringe playoff team in the West and may want to keep the band together and make a push for the postseason. Maybe they want to start rebuilding around a young backcourt of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Derrick White, but would they really trade DeRozan to jump start that? Maybe. Maybe not.

Just consider this the start of what will be a lot of trade rumors this season — with a very down free agent class next summer, teams will be turning to trades to upgrade their rosters.

Rumor: Orlando Magic interested in trade for DeMar DeRozan

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Nobody around the league is quite sure what direction the San Antonio Spurs are going to head next.

Most teams, when they are hanging around the fringes of the playoffs with a couple of older stars playing an old-school style — LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan — would look to retool. San Antonio has young talent such as Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Derrick White, they could take a step back and start to rebuild around them.

But the Spurs are the Spurs. Maybe they keep the band together and scramble up the board to the seven or eight seed, keeping their historic playoff streak alive.

Or, maybe, after failed attempts to reach a contract extension with DeRozan, they trade him at the deadline and look to the future. If they do that, the Orlando Magic are interested, reports Kevin O’Conner of The Ringer.

DeRozan can become a free agent in 2020 by declining his $27.7 million player option… The Spurs could always deal him sooner rather than let him walk for nothing. Multiple league sources say the Magic are scouring the trade market for scoring help and have already expressed interest in trading for DeRozan.

It would surprise none of the front-office executives I’ve spoken with if the Spurs did move DeRozan.

That’s a lot of speculation from executives outside the Spurs organization, thinking about what they would do in the Spurs shoes. Popovich and R.C. Buford rarely follow that kind of conventional wisdom. Predicting what they will do is next is like predicting the weather in Denver. Good luck with that.

It’s easy to see why Orlando — a team that thought it would be back in the playoffs but has started 3-7 — would have interest in DeRozan. The Magic’s troubles are on offense, where they are scoring less than a point per possession this season, and DeRozan is a “just add water and instant offense” kind of player. He’d fit in perfectly, even if it was just a rental for the rest of this season.

Keep an eye on this going forward, but right now the Spur are more likely evaluating what they are going to do next — trade DeRozan or make a playoff push with him — rather than moving on to the next step.

Three Things to Know: Lakers have a steal in Dwight Howard

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LOS ANGELES — 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) The Lakers may have a steal in… Dwight Howard? Yes, Dwight Howard. For the past handful of years, as Dwight Howard bounced from franchise to franchise — Houston to Atlanta to Charlotte to Washington, with fans cheering his exit in each city — the sentiment from front office types around the league has been the same:

If he would just accept a role he could still be an important part of a winning team.

If he could just accept that the offense is going to flow through others — stop demanding post-up touches — and focus on defense and rebounding, if he could stop being a distraction off the court, there is a role for him in the league. Howard, however, was not ready to accept that reality.

Until he got a second chance in Los Angeles.

Howard has thrived early in the season for the Lakers because he finally is doing what everyone has long asked of him. Sunday night in San Antonio he worked hard on defense and let the offense come to him — and it did in the fourth when he was 5-of-5 for 10 points, plus two blocks. For the game, Howard had 14 points on 7-of-7 shooting, with13 rebounds, helping spark a 103-96 Laker win in San Antonio.

What changed for Howard?

Being healthy (so far) is certainly part of it. Also, maybe he realizes that this really was the last stop in the NBA if he didn’t come around, no other team was going to take a chance on him. Maybe it’s because he has a non-guaranteed contract and can be cut any day the Lakers think he’s slacking off and not taking the craft seriously. Maybe it’s playing on a LeBron James team. On the court, LeBron’s gravity creates opportunities for bigs who roll to the basket; and off the court, LeBron and Anthony Davis are not going to put up with Howard’s antics (which goes back to the non-guaranteed contract).

Whatever the reason or reasons, it’s working. Howard was at the heart of the Lakers dominating the paint scoring 50 points there against the Spurs. Howard and company took advantage of the fact that LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles do not form an intimidating front line.

Howard has started to become a Lakers’ fan favorite, which may be the biggest surprise of the young season.

Another surprise: Los Angeles also has been one of the best defensive teams in the NBA to start the season. It’s a sign that their 5-1 start is sustainable.

The Lakers win Sunday shouldn’t completely overshadow the strong fourth quarter Dejounte Murray had — 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting, getting to the rim and knocking down a three. Murray kept the Spurs in it, but it was just not enough.

2) Don’t call Houston’s defense this season a sieve — that’s an insult to sieves. As you read this, the Houston Rockets have the second-worst defense in the NBA, allowing 116.2 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, that’s basically the level the 19-win Cavaliers defense was at last season.

Sunday was a new low for that Houston defense. Miami scored 46 first-quarter points on Houston, which had a 117.3 defensive rating for the night.

This loss to Miami was particularly ugly all the way around. Houston came out flat — the South Beach nightlife remains undefeated — and if the Rockets’ offense isn’t covering up the defensive flaws the Rockets quickly end up in trouble.

Trouble like falling behind 59-23 to Miami in the first half. The offense woke up and the gap narrowed some, but the Rockets could not get enough stops to change the course of the game.

On offense, Houston got 29 points on 14 shots from James Harden, but Russell Westbrook shot 3-of-11, Eric Gordon 2-of-10, and when those guys are cold it’s going to be a long night in Houston.

The Rockets have had impressive stretches of basketball this young season, but it hasn’t lasted. It’s why the Rockets are 3-3 to start the season, and why if the defense doesn’t turn around — and they can’t just bring Jeff Bzdelik back this season (he’s in New Orleans) — they are never going to get far above .500.

3) Kawhi Leonard outduels Donovan Mitchell down the stretch and the Clippers knock off the Jazz. Here are some bullet point notes made while at an entertaining game Sunday in Los Angeles, one that ultimately ended in a 105-94 Clippers win.

• Utah held Kawhi Leonard in relative check for the better part of three quarters, but in the fourth Leonard had 18 points on 11 shots, getting to his spots and making plays. He finished the night with 30.

• What won the Clippers the game, however, wasn’t Leonard, it was offensive rebounds. The Clippers got the offensive rebound on 42.1 percent of their missed shots on the night, including six offensive boards on 12 missed shots in the fourth quarter. Montrezl Harrell had six offensive boards by himself in the game, including four in the fourth.

“[The loss happened because of] second-chance points and some fouls,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “We had breakdowns of communication that resulted in fouls, but the biggest thing was just the defensive glass.”

Rudy Gobert agreed, saying after the game his team needs to communicate better on the defensive glass, especially when he has to step out to defend a player driving the lane (which happened a lot in the fourth quarter).
• Donovan Mitchell will be an All-Star this season. He finished with 36 points against the Clippers, at points making plays that had the Clipper crowd buzzing.

• With Mike Conley still struggling with his shot — 2-of-10 on the night — the Utah offense late in the game became the Donovan Mitchell show, with him coming off picks and having to do everything. That was supposed to be different this season with the additions of Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, but so far the offense as a whole remains clunky and it needs Mitchell to take over to have a chance.

• Looking way down the road to a potential Utah playoff matchup with the Clippers (or Lakers), the concern that they don’t have a wing defender who can slow players such as Kawhi Leonard or LeBron is a legitimate one.

Report: Spurs signing Dejounte Murray to four-year, $64M extension

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In 2018, a 21-year-old Dejounte Murray became the youngest player ever to make an All-Defensive team. The following fall, he showed progress on his outside shooting and distributing. Everything was coming together for the young Spurs point guard.

Then, disaster struck.

Just before last season, Murray tore his ACL. He missed the entire year.

Yet, he’ll still get a contract extension in San Antonio.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Given his injury, it’d be difficult for Murray to reject this deal. It’s life-changing money. What if he lost significant athleticism or fails to hit his stride next season? That’d be a grim way to enter restricted free agency next summer.

But what if Murray picks up where he left off? This could be a major steal for the Spurs.

Given the wide range of potential outcomes, this extension seems fair. However, there’s also a reasonable chance Murray significantly underperforms or overperforms this deal. (That’s why it’s fair.)

Murray is a stout defender and elite rebounder for a guard. He can push the pace and slash to the rim. But it’s tough for lead guards who don’t shoot well from the perimeter. Murray’s playmaking for others must also improve, especially if San Antonio eventually transitions from an isolation-heavy offense around DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Murray is just 23. It’s OK he’s not a finished product. The Spurs should know better than anyone how to feel about his progress since the injury. They probably deserve benefit of the doubt in evaluating his value.

Still, long-term fit questions linger with Derrick White. White stepped up in Murray’s absence last season, especially in the playoffs. But White is another subpar 3-point-shooting guard. Can they play together? White will be eligible for his own rookie-scale extension next offseason.

San Antonio is mainly focused on the present, and Murray and White will factor prominently this season. They’re still just supporting players for now, though.

Long term, Murray’s extension is a key step toward whatever comes next for the Spurs.

Spurs treading water

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Gregg Popovich is arguably the best coach in NBA history. Get him a few capable veterans, and he has guided to the Spurs to the playoffs. Every darn year.

He’s also 70 years old, which limits the value of a rebuild. Why waste seasons Popovich could prop up just to get young players he probably won’t stick around to coach? Might as well continue to enjoy the present.

So, the Spurs agreed to a contract extension with Popovich then commenced on a boring offseason – though one that included more action than desired.

The big prize was supposed to be Marcus Morris, a good forward who would’ve strengthened San Antonio’s rotation. But he reneged on his deal and signed with the Knicks. The Spurs are reportedly – and should be – pissed.

San Antonio traded Davis Bertans, a solid stretch four, to the Wizards to open money for Morris. That trade was already complete by the time Morris pulled out. Many top free agents were off the board.

The Spurs settled for Trey Lyles ($5.5 million next season, $1 million of $5.5 million guaranteed in 2020-21). He impressed a couple years ago, but he significantly regressed last season. There are reasons he was the fallback option.

At least San Antonio got a couple of more-ready forwards by re-signing Rudy Gay (two years, $29 million) and signing DeMarre Carroll (two years, $13.65 million followed by $1.35 million of $7 million guaranteed in 2021-22). Still, the plan was to get Gay, Carroll and Morris.

Mostly, the Spurs remain on the same course. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are still the headliners. All eight players who played in each of San Antonio’s playoff games return.

Still, there’s a tinge of a youth movement beneath the surface.

Dejounte Murray missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Derrick White emerged in Murray’s absence. Those rising point guards will be back next season, and it’s possible to envision a next era led by one – or if Popovich is creative enough – both.

For just the second time in the last three decades,* San Antonio picked twice in the first round. Unfortunately for the Spurs, they got those selections in a weak-looking draft. No. 19 pick Luka Samanic and No. 29 pick Keldon Johnson are fine, unspectacular prospects.

*In 2011, San Antonio traded for No. 15 pick Kawhi Leonard and drafted Cory Joseph No. 29.

The Spurs’ goal is clearly a record-breaking 23rd straight postseason appearance. That’ll be tough in a loaded Western Conference. But they’re content to try.

Offseason grade: C