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Three Things to Know: Orlando, Brooklyn reach milestones by making playoffs

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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) Orlando, Brooklyn reach milestones in turnarounds by making playoffs. The last time the Brooklyn Nets made the playoffs, Kevin Garnett was on the roster.

The last time the Orlando Magic made the playoffs, Dwight Howard was their leading scorer.

On Sunday, the Nets and Magic punched their tickets to the playoffs again with wins. Those wins deserve some celebration because both franchises had long roads back from decimated positions to get here.

In Orlando, after Dwight Howard forced his way out of town in the summer of 2012 (going on to become a Lakers “legend” then entering a journeyman phase), the Magic franchise was lost in the wilderness with blown draft picks and missed opportunities. A couple of years ago, new management led by Jeff Weltman changed the direction and put Orlando on a playoff path (although we’ll have to see how that Mo Bamba pick works out). Weltman’s best move may have been hiring Steve Clifford, who improved the Orlando defense to top 10 and leaned heavily on Nikola Vucevic — that has proven a winning formula.

Vucevic, remember, came to the Magic in the four-team Dwight Howard trade. Things have come full circle.

Next season, the Magic will add Markelle Fultz to their mix, and if he can bounce back things start to really look up in Orlando. (Vucevic is a free agent this summer, which is the other storyline to watch.)

In Brooklyn, GM Sean Marks inherited a team devastated by the ownership push to win fast when the team moved out of New Jersey, which led then GM Billy King to make some lopsided trades. Marks walked in the door and had not only a decimated roster but also not many draft picks going forward to rebuild with.

Marks searched for undervalued players who could be part of something and found guys such as Spencer Dinwiddie. He traded for young players such as Caris LeVert.

However, two big Marks decisions set this team on a playoff path. The first was hiring coach Kenny Atkinson to establish the culture and develop players — the Nets play hard, move the ball, are unselfish, and it’s all a reflection of Atkinson. The second move was taking on the bad Lakers’ contract of Timofey Mozgov to get D’Angelo Russell. That move was no sure thing, Russell had shown flashes of talent but also a real lack of maturity in Los Angeles, and his inconsistent play continued into his early time in Brooklyn.

However, this year Russell blossomed into an All-Star and leader (just in time for his contract season), and the Nets are going to have to play him because Russell is now a cornerstone of what is being built in Brooklyn.

There’s still work to do in Orlando and Brooklyn to get to the top half of the East and the places both franchises want to go. However, making the playoffs is an important milestone along the way. It should be celebrated.

2) Houston breaks own record, hits 27 threes against Suns to set a new single-game mark. The Rockets are not coasting into the playoffs. Winners of six straight, they still have a shot at the two seed, they are just half a game back of the Nuggets for that spot.

That means the Rockets are still launching threes — and hitting them. Houston broke its own record on Sunday hitting 27 threes in a game.

The Rockets were 27-of-57 (47.4 percent) from beyond the arc. Houston got the win 149-113, with one more win they secure the three seed in the West. They can still get the two seed, but the Rockets will need a little help from the Nuggets to get there.

3) Warriors play last regular-season game in Oracle Arena in Oakland. No doubt the new Chase Center in San Francisco, which the Warriors will call home starting next season, will be a beautiful, gleaming new building with all the bells and whistles of a modern arena.

But it won’t be “Roar-acle.”

Sunday, the Warriors bid farewell to one of the loudest, most raucous arenas in the NBA, Oracle Arena. They did it with class, wearing the throwback jerseys of the 2007 “We Beleive” Warriors, and raising a banner celebrating the 47 years in Oakland that will hang in the Chase Center.

The Warriors also got the win and locked up the No. 1 seed in the West on Sunday.

Which means there are more memories to be made in Oracle, the Warriors should be making another deep playoff run, all the way to the Finals. The journey of that building is not yet done. But take a look back at the memories.

Three Things to Know: Westbrook dedicates historic 20-20-20 night to Nipsey Hussle

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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) Russell Westbrook dedicates historic 20-20-20 night to Nipsey Hussle. Russell Westbrook so often puts up ridiculous stat lines we’ve almost become numb to it. There was a time when Oscar Robertson’s averaging of a triple-double for a season seemed like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak — an untouchable record in the modern era — but Westbrook did it. Then did it again. And is about to do it one more time.

Yet what Westbrook did Tuesday night was mind-boggling by even his standards.

Westbrook had 20 points, 20 rebounds, and 21 assists — the NBA’s second-ever 20-20-20 game. Wilt Chamberlain was the other one.

After the game, Westbrook dedicated the game to slain rapper Nipsey Hustle, who was shot outside his Los Angeles’ clothing store days ago. Westbrook is a Los Angeles guy, and the players from the city know how Hustle gave back and was committed to his neighborhood, trying to lift people up, in a way few celebrities are. He meant a lot to people and the city.

We could nitpick the accomplishment — Westbrook shot just 8-of-23, and he was hunting those rebounds in the final minute — but we shouldn’t try to diminish this singular accomplishment. It is a mind-boggling effort.

Westbrook did this and lifted his team up when the Thunder needed the win, the Thunder beat the Lakers handily. This victory keeps the Thunder tied with the Spurs (who beat the Hawks) for the 7/8 seed in the West. OKC wants to avoid that eight seed and getting the Warriors in the first round because…

2) Golden State flips the switch, dominates Denver, all but secures top seed in West. In this week’s PBT Podcast, Mark Medina — Warriors writer for the San Jose Mercury News and Bay Area News Group — had a great line about the Warriors’ up-and-down effort this regular season:

They care and play hard when it’s convenient for them.

Tuesday night it was convenient.

The Warriors needed a win over Denver to lock up home court throughout the West playoffs, and so they came out and flipped the switch, dominated the game leading by 30 in the fourth (the Nuggets are just a poor matchup with the Warriors), and reminded everyone that the Warriors have gears nobody else in the NBA can hit.

And now they have DeMarcus Cousins at center now — he overwhelmed Nikola Jokic and every other Nugget defender in the paint on his way to 28 points and 13 rebounds. In recent games Cousins has seemed to find a comfort level playing with the Warriors, and that should scare teams heading into the postseason.

Kevin Durant pitched in 21 points in less than three quarters before he got ejected.

(Durant and Draymond Green each have 15 technical fouls this season, if either picks up one more before the end of the regular season they will be suspended for a game.)

Stephen Curry pitched in 18 points. The Warriors are the best team in the NBA when they want to be — when it’s convenient for them. During the playoffs, they will flip the switch most nights, and when they do no team in the West is a genuine threat to them. And the Warriors know it.

3) Wizards finally fire Ernie Grunfeld as team president/GM. Next step is big one for Wizards. One could make a very good case that Ernie Grunfeld should have been fired back in the day when he put together a roster with Gilbert Arenas, Andray Blatche, and Nick Young on it. The team where a gun was pulled in the locker room. Of course, one could make the case Grunfeld should have been fired a lot of times, like when he cleared the books and planned around Kevin Durant coming home in 2016 when that was never a realistic option. There was no “Plan B” after Durant went West, not East.

However, it took 16 years and a season where owner Ted Leonsis thought this was a 50-win, conference finals roster — the Wizards never came close to that dream and are going to finish well out of the playoffs — for him to see the light and let go of Grunfeld. That happened on Tuesday.

What’s next is hard.

Whoever is next in the GM chair inherits a mess of a roster. John Wall’s $171 million supermax extension kicks in next season — a season he will miss much of with a torn Achilles — and runs four years. It is the most untradable contract in the NBA right now. Beyond that there’s Ian Mahinmi‘s $15.5 million, Dwight Howard‘s likely will be on the roster (at $5,6 million), and the talented Otto Porter is gone because Leonsis doesn’t want to pay the luxury tax. Oh, and Bradley Beal may well make an All-NBA team and be eligible for a $199 million four-year extension on top of the two years on his current contract — and the Warriors need to lock him up. He’s their best player (whether Wall returns to form or not).

It’s unclear who comes in. Denver’s Tim Connelly is reportedly a target, but would Washington settle for Nuggets GM Arturas Karnisovas? There are the guys next in line such as Gersson Rosas of the Rockets, Troy Weaver of the Thunder, and Mike Zarren of the Celtics (Zarren is a much longer shot, he will be hard to pull out of Boston). David Griffin’s name will come up. Wizards interim GM Tommy Sheppard deserves a look. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What the Wizards need is a creative mind, because it’s going to take one to build anything competitive around Wall’s contract (even when Wall returns he may well not be the same player). Just as importantly, they need a GM who can manage Leonsis, get him to buy in on what could be some painful next steps. In Washington, that may be the hardest part of the job.

Wizards fire president Ernie Grunfeld

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Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said his goal for this season was winning 50 games and making the conference finals.

Washington is 32-46 and eliminated from the playoff race.

So, it’s time for consequences.

Wizards release:

Chairman and CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment Ted Leonsis announced today that Ernie Grunfeld has been relieved of his duties as president of the Washington Wizards.

“We did not meet our stated goals of qualifying for the playoffs this season and, despite playing with injuries to several key players, we have a culture of accountability and a responsibility of managing to positive outcomes,” said Leonsis. “I wish to thank Ernie for his service to the Washington Wizards. He and his family have been great leaders in our community and have worked tirelessly to make us a top NBA franchise.”

Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations Tommy Sheppard will report to Leonsis on all basketball matters beginning immediately. The team will begin a search for a new head of basketball operations (which will include Sheppard as a candidate) upon conclusion of the season.

Grunfeld had unusual job security given his pedestrian record. He ran the Wizards 16 seasons in which they went 568-724, made the playoffs only half the time and never advanced past the second round. Yet, Leonsis kept giving him secret contract extensions. Leonsis even gave Grunfeld an A grade for last offseason.

But the owner finally had enough.

Fans in Washington certainly had long ago.

Now, whoever succeeds Grunfeld must dig the Wizards out of their hole. John Wall, who’s guaranteed a projected $171 million over the next four years and seriously injured, has arguably the NBA’s worst contract. Ian Mahinmi‘s $15,450,051 salary next season is a burden. Even Dwight Howard‘s $5,603,850 player option looks like a liability. Washington has only one young player – Troy Brown Jr. – under contract beyond this season.

The bright spot: Bradley Beal, who’s locked up two more years. He’s incredibly valuable. Washington could build around him or trade him to get a head start on rebuilding.

But if he makes an All-NBA team this season, he’ll be eligible for a super-max contract extension this offseason that projects to be worth $199 million over four years. As Wall shows, those large deals carry major downside risk for teams, even when the player looks pretty good.

The next front-office leader must also navigate ahead with an owner who claimed he’d never tank. Maybe that’s just something Leonsis said. But it also might be a real mandate.

Leonsis has also shown reluctance to pay the luxury tax (which is why talented Otto Porter is gone). Another constraint.

Of course, Leonsis also just kept Ernie Grunfeld 16 years. The lure of that job security should draw candidates.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert sets single-season record for most dunks at 270

Associated Press
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Mention Rudy Gobert and the first thing that comes to mind is his defense. The Jazz center is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and may well win the award again this season, Utah has a defensive net rating of just 92.2 when Gobert is on the court after the All-Star break, 14.5 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits.

However, Gobert can provide offense, too — he rolls to the rim, has soft hands, and knows how to finish at the rim.

Meaning he dunks. A lot.

In the second quarter of Utah’s win against Phoenix on Monday, Gobert finished off an alley-oop from Donovan Mitchell and it was Gobert’s 270th dunk of the season, setting an NBA single-season record (Dwight Howard held the record t 269 from his 2007-08 season; this stat has only been tracked since the 1997-98 season). Gobert averaged 3.7 dunks per game, just finishing plays around the rim as defenses focus on Mitchell, Joe Ingles, or can’t anticipate the passing of Ricky Rubio.

Gobert finished with five more dunks in the game as the Jazz almost had their own private dunk contest against the Suns’ interior defense. Gobert finished with 27 points and got the Gatorade shower for it.

Gobert isn’t going to be the only person passing Howard’s old record this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo has 262 dunks on the season. The race for most dunks this season is not over.

We just know it’s going at a record pace.

Optimism with the Wizards? Thomas Bryant supplies it

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DETROIT – Thomas Bryant is usually cheery.

“I don’t like being upset, sad, mad about anything,” Bryant said. “I always want to be happy. I always want people around me to be happy.”

So much so, it could seem the attitude comes naturally to him.

“Hell no,” Bryant said. “It ain’t easy at all.”

It didn’t come easy when Bryant slipped to the second round of the NBA draft in 2017, a year after he returned to Indiana for his sophomore season despite looking like a probable 2016 first-round pick. He went No. 42 to the Lakers.

It didn’t come easy when the Lakers assigned him to their minor-league affiliate much of his rookie season. “You start getting overseas people following you on Instagram and DMing you,” Bryant said. “Like, ‘Hell nah.'”

It didn’t come easy when he barely played while with the Lakers. When got on the court, he usually struggled.

And it especially didn’t come easy when the Lakers waived him last summer.

“That one really got to me,” Bryant said. “I felt like I did everything right. I felt like I gave it my all, and then I went down like that.”

Bryant didn’t know what it meant for his future. He spoke to his agent, trying to get answers. But in those trying moments, he really likes to get away from basketball and watch cartoons like “Family Guy,” “Rick and Morty,” and “Tom and Jerry.”

He also gave himself a pep talk.

“C’mon, you gotta keep swinging, man,” Bryant said he told himself. “There’s a lot more left in the tank for you. You’re young. So, you’ve got to keep trying to get through it.”

The Wizards claimed Bryant off waivers, and he has brought his positivity – and far more production than expected – to Washington. Bryant has been one of the biggest bright spots in the Wizards’ dismal season.

Washington entered the year shooting for 50 wins and the conference finals. Instead, the Wizards (25-36) are barely hanging in the sad Eastern Conference playoff race.

Among the many reasons Washington has disappointed: Starting center Dwight Howard has missed nearly the entire season due to injury. But that opened the door for Bryant.

Bryant has been a revelation. He’s an aggressive rim-runner who converts the numerous close opportunities he creates. His 81% shooting at the rim leads the NBA (minimum: 100 attempts). He has also shown range, making 21-of-55 3-pointers (38%).

In 43 starts, Bryant was averaging 10.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in 21.0 minutes per game. He recently got pulled from the starting lineup because, as Wizards coach Scott Brooks said, “We have to see what we have” in Bobby Portis, who was acquired for Otto Porter shortly before the trade deadline. But in the two games since, Bryant’s minutes (25.3), points (20.5) and rebounds (8.5) per game are up. This doesn’t seem like a big demotion.

Which should keep Bryant in strong consideration for Most Improved Player ballots.

In arguing De'Aaron Fox should be running away with the award, I cited his increase in box plus-minus from -4.4 to +0.8 – a jump of 5.2. Bryant’s box-plus minus increase has been even larger – from -4.2 to +1.8, a jump of 6.0.

But Bryant played just 72 NBA minutes last season. That’s not a reliable sample. Fox fully demonstrated how bad he was last year.

Still, limited playing time usually indicates inadequacy. Bryant seizing a larger role shows just how much he has improved.

Bryant’s increase in win shares of 3.8 (0.1 to 3.9) is the fourth largest in the NBA this season, behind only Monte Morris (another Most Improved Player-ballot candidate), Fox and Malik Beasley.

Here are the biggest increases in win shares (middle) from a prior career high (left) to the current season (right):

image

Bryant’s contributions are especially surprising, because the Wizards might have had an ulterior motive to claim him off waivers. Sure, the 21-year-old Bryant had basketball potential. But because he signed his current contract as a draft pick, he also counts less toward the luxury tax than a minimum-salary free agent would have. Washington has shown its tax leeriness by keeping roster spots vacant throughout the season then making trades to dodge the tax entirely.

Bryant will become a restricted free agent this summer. Though he has shown great progress, there are still major questions about him long-term – particularly defensively.

The Wizards are one of the NBA’s worst rebounding teams. It’s a whole-roster problem, but they aren’t much better with Bryant on the court. A solid individual rebounder, he isn’t diligent about boxing out.

With Bryant on the floor, Washington allows opponents to get 38% of their shots at the rim and shoot 67% on them. Essentially, Wizards’ opponents turn into the Bucks, the league’s best team near the basket. It’s hard to build a sound defense when the center provides such little rim protection.

Still, Bryant’s flaws rarely stem from laziness. He’s kinetic on defense, just often flying to the wrong spot.

Bryant is nothing if not energetic.

In describing why it’s important for him to set a tone for his team, Bryant winds up going through the entire roster. He wants to lift the veterans because they can get fatigued by a long season. He wants to lift the benchwarmers because he has been there before. Most of all, he wants to lift Bradley Beal because the star has carried the largest load.

“It’s great,” Beal said. “I tell him every game I need it.”

Beal especially appreciates Bryant’s pre-game routine in the locker room.

“He has his headphones on, and he’s jumping up around, dancing back and forth through the locker room,” Beal said. “So, imagine a 6-10 dude doing all the latest dances. So, it’s pretty fun and funny to watch, but it gets everybody going.”

Bryant knows he’s making his mark.

“They start dancing sometimes, too, and smiling,” Bryant said. “So, it’s all positive.”