Jeremy Lamb

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Top free agent everyone seems to think they can poach, Kemba Walker, focused on Hornets playoff push

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DETROIT – Kemba Walker got up from his seat, headed toward pregame warmups then returned to his locker apparently because he forgot something. Then, he again headed toward the door and again returned before finally exiting the locker room.

Is Walker in or out?

That’ll be the big question for him and the Hornets this summer. Walker is approaching his first free agency. If he makes an All-NBA team this season, he’ll qualify for a super-max contract that projects to be worth $221 million over five years.

In the meantime, Charlotte has won three straight – including yesterday’s big victory over the Pistons – to remain in the playoff race. Walker insists he’s focused on finishing this season strong, not setting up his next contract.

“There’s no way I could play basketball thinking about those kind of things,” Walker said. “You know what I mean? Yeah, I just can’t. I just can’t go on the court thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get 30 because I need to.’ I just can’t think about those kind of things. I mean, I see it, hear about it. But it’s nothing that comes to my attention too much.”

The noise will grow only louder as July nears. Walker feels more attainable than most star free agents.

Kevin Durant could leave the Warriors, but most view him as ticketed for the Knicks. If Kawhi Leonard leaves the Raptors, he’s widely expected to join the Clippers. Kyrie Irving is most commonly linked to the Celtics and Knicks – not a wide-open field. Klay Thompson can say only so many times how badly he wants to stay with the Warriors.

But rumors are already swirling about Walker leaving Charlotte. No clear destinations have emerged, though the Mavericks are reportedly interested. That opens the door for many fan bases to view landing Walker as realistic.

Don’t rule out the Hornets, either.

“This is the team that believed in me from day one,” Walker said. “So, of course. They’re always going to be on top of the list.”

If there’s any bitterness Charlotte must overcome, a $221 million super-max contract could go a long way. Sans super-max, Walker’s max projects to be $190 million over four years if he re-signs or $141 million over four years if he leaves.

But Walker must make an All-NBA team even to be eligible for the designated-veteran-player contract. That’s hardly a given.

James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving seem highly likely to take four of the six All-NBA guard spots. That leaves two spots up for grabs with Walker, Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson and Jrue Holiday the main candidates.

Walker has fallen off after a hot start to the season, but he remains highly effective on a team built around him.

Walker has been Charlotte’s lone star for years. The Hornets are usually solid when plays and awful when he sits. Walker – not owner Michael Jordan – was the face of the franchise as Charlotte hosted All-Star Weekend.

“As he go, we go,” Jeremy Lamb said.

Yet, the Hornets haven’t gotten far with Walker. They’ve made the playoffs only twice and have never won a series with Walker. If he re-signs, Charlotte – which has never paid the luxury tax – will face major payroll concerns. Especially if Walker gets the super-max.

It’s far from a given the Hornets would or should pay Walker that much, even if he qualifies. He’ll turn 29 next month, and short guards can decline quickly.

On the other hand, Charlotte also projects to be taxed out even if Walker leaves. If the Hornets are stuck in a dismal situation regardless, maybe they’d be better off with the franchise icon who can at least keep them competitive.

Walker has certainly done that this season. Whatever speculation occurs about his future, he set a tone of steadiness.

“I think the biggest thing that Kemba tries to establish, obviously as the leader of our team, is that this is the team that he’s on,” Marvin Williams said. “This is the only thing that he’s focusing on. And as a teammate, it does give you a good feeling knowing that he is all-in, he’s not thinking about this summer.”

Walker appears to be enjoying the playoff race, especially considering the Hornets were three games and two teams out of playoff position with five games remaining. Now, they’re only one game back with two games left.

“It’s crazy that we’re in this situation,” Walker said. It’s been such an up-and-down year. For us to be in this situation, it’s fun, man. I’m really enjoying it. I’m happy to still be playing for something.”

This summer, other teams will offer Walker a clearer opportunity to play for something. They’ll try to convince Walker he deserves his meaningful games to come in May and June, not April. They’ll sell deeper playoff runs and stronger supporting casts.

And maybe Walker will choose one of those situations. But he also said just over a year ago he’d be “devastated” if Charlotte traded him. He has laid roots there and grown accustomed to playing for the Hornets.

Asked about Detroit keying on him yesterday, Walker shrugged.

“That’s every night for me,” Walker. “I know I’m the guy that every team is trying to stop.”

Soon, he’ll be the guy many teams are trying to get.

NBA playoff picture after Friday: Boston takes control of four seed in East

Associated Press
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Every night between now and the end of the 2018-19 NBA regular season, we will take an updated look at the NBA Playoff picture — what the standings look like, the potential matchups, who clinched, who moved up and down, all to set the stage for the NBA’s second season.

FRIDAY’s SCORES
Charlotte 113, Toronto 111
Orlando 149, Atlanta 113
San Antonio 129, Washington 112
Boston 117, Indiana 97
Rockets 120, Knicks 96
Timberwolves 111, Heat 109
Thunder 123, Pistons 110
Grizzlies 122, Dallas 112
Jazz 119, Kings 98
Suns 133, Pelicans 126
Nuggets 119, Trail Blazers 110
Warriors 120, Cavaliers 114
Lakers 122, Clippers 117

• Boston moves one game up on Indiana for the four seed in the East with the win, plus the Celtics now own the tiebreaker between the teams, meaning the Celtics’ magic number for home court in the first round is just one (Celtics win or Pacer loss). While not officially a lock yet, these teams are almost certain to meet in the first round of the playoffs.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

X – Clinched Playoff Spot, Y – Clinched Division, Z – Clinched Conference

Friday’s playoff movers and clinchers:

• Boston now has full control of the four seed after beating Indiana, the Celtics are one game up on the Pacers in the 4/5 seed race, plus Boston has the tiebreaker (making it a two-game lead in practice, Boston’s magic number for the four seed is one).

• The Celtics are now just 1.5 games back of the 76ers for the three seed (two back in the loss column). Philly would have to go 1-2 in its final three games to open the door for Boston to move up.

• Orlando’s win combined with Detroit’s loss jumps the Magic all the way up to the six seed in the East, half-a-game ahead of the Pistons and Nets. All three of those teams are tied in the loss column.

• Miami’s loss drops them a full game back of the eight seed in the East and makes it a long shot Dwyane Wade will get to extend his last dance into the playoffs. If the Heat win out — against the Raptors, Sixers, and Nets — they will get in, but that’s a tall order.

• Charlotte keeps its slim playoff hopes alive with a Jeremy Lamb game-winner to beat Toronto. The Hornets need help from Brooklyn or Detroit (losing out) to make it, but the dream is not dead.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

X – Clinched Playoff Spot, Y – Clinched Division, Z – Clinched Conference

Friday’s playoff movers and clinchers

• With this win, Nuggets secure home court in the first round (they likely finish the No. 2 or 3 seed, but 4 is mathematically possible). Big step for a team that finished one game out of the playoffs the past two seasons.

• Golden State’s magic number is one (Warriors win or Nuggets loss) to secure home court throughout the Western Conference playoffs.

• Utah is just one game back of Portland in the 4/5 race and having home court in the first round. The Jazz have won seven in a row.

• The Clippers loss and the Thunder’s win leaves Oklahoma City just half a game back of Los Angeles for the six seed (and the teams are tied in the loss column. The Clippers close out the season against the Warriors and Jazz.

• Just one game separates the 6/7/8 seeds.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY:
Detroit at Milwaukee
Brooklyn at Toronto
Orlando at Philadelphia
Indiana at Boston

San Antonio at Golden State
Oklahoma City at Denver
L.A. Clippers at Houston
Utah at Portland

SATURDAY’S BIGGEST GAME:

• Brooklyn at Milwaukee (5 pm ET, NBATV). This is a potential first-round matchup, and if the Nets want to avoid that pairing they could use a win here on the road. The Bucks have locked up the top seed, does Giannis Antetokounmpo play? The other Bucks stars?

Hornets keep slim playoff hopes alive thanks to Jeremy Lamb game winner

Associated Press
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The Charlotte Hornets do not control their own destiny. They need a lot of help to make the playoffs.

And Charlotte needs to win out.

Which is why this Jeremy Lamb game-winner against Toronto is so huge. An exciting end-of-game series started with Kawhi Leonard putting the Raptors up two with 15.5 seconds left.

The Hornets got their chance and Kemba Walker drove the lane, got into the paint and drew the attention of all five Toronto defenders (plus probably a couple on the bench) then kicked it out to Lamb.

Toronto had a chance to tie or win at the buzzer, Kawhi Leonard got the shot and… wedgie? Wedgie.

Charlotte still needs a lot of help to make the playoffs (Detroit or Brooklyn losing out, for example) but they did not beat themselves tonight.

Kemba Walker is Charlotte’s offense; watch him score 47 points vs. Utah

Associated Press
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Kemba Walker is the Charlotte offense.

No team has the drop off after it’s All-Star to its second best player like Charlotte (that player is probably Jeremy Lamb right now, and he comes off the bench), and that puts an insane burden on Walker every night.

Walker tried on Monday night, he put up 47 against the Utah Jazz — the best defense in the NBA since the All-Star break.

It wasn’t enough. The Hornets couldn’t get stops as Donovan Mitchell had 25, Ricky Rubio 20, and Rudy Gobert 18 in a 111-102 Utah win.

Charlotte is three games out of the last playoff spot with five games to play. The Hornets needed that win. Walker tried. Charlotte is all but out of it, fivethirtyeight.com gives it a four percent chance of making the postseason.

I had heard from sources that Walker was frustrated at the trade deadline that no move was made to add talent to the Hornets’ roster (they were in the mix for Marc Gasol but did not land him). If that frustration boils over into this summer when Walker is a free agent, all the money Charlotte can offer him to stay — and as much as he likes the city and living there — may not be enough.

Three Things to Know: Celtics project confidence after fourth straight loss… should they?

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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) Celtics continue to project confidence as defense falls apart weeks before playoffs. The Boston Celtics have eight games left before the playoffs begin — playoffs that almost certainly will start on the road in Indiana. This is when Boston should be building momentum and confidence for a deep playoff run…

The Boston Celtics have lost four games in a row. In that stretch their defense is fourth worst in the NBA, clustered around Memphis and Washington and other teams missing the postseason. In their last 10 games, their defense is bottom 10 in the NBA.

So much for building momentum.

Yet even after LaMarcus Aldridge dropped 48 on them and the Spurs beat the shorthanded Celtics (no Al Horford or Jayson Tatum) on Sunday, Boston was projecting confidence. Marcus Smart, Kyrie Irving, and Brad Stevens all were. (Via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston).

“I know we’ve been here plenty of times before saying the exact same thing — ‘We’re gonna get it, we’re not worried about it’ — but we can’t put extra extra extra stress and more weight on ourselves,” Smart said… “”We got to take a deep breath, breathe, just relax — and then go out there and have fun and play basketball.”

“I never worry about how we’ll respond,” said Irving. “We’ve proven that. We just have to be consistent with that and be committed to it, that’s all. We have a lot of great guys in this locker room and they are committed to winning. We have winners in this locker room as well, so I’m never worried about trying to go back and respond with these guys. They are a resilient group who have proven that for the last year and a half we’ve been together.”

“I don’t think we’ve given any reason to suggest that [Boston can figure it out] right now,” said Stevens “But I think, ultimately, we’ll see how the rest of this story plays itself out.”

It’s better the Celtics are confident than panicking… but if Celtics fans wanted to panic, I wouldn’t blame them.

When Boston made it’s unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season (despite no Irving or Gordon Hayward) it was on the back of an elite defense. Tatum and Terry Rozier got deserved credit for stepping up and taking on the offensive load, but what kept the Celtics going through all of that was a defense that could slow any team down, anchored by Al Horford playing elite ball in the paint. That was the foundation of their success. It should have been again this season.

Now, that Celtics foundation seems built on sand. Boston was up 18 on Charlotte with less than nine minutes to go Saturday then gave up 30 more points the rest of the way and lost. The Celtics’ four straight losses are to three playoff teams and a Hornets team playing with the desperation of a team trying to hang on to its playoff hopes (keep reading down to item No. 2). Give those teams credit —  and give

the Spurs credit for doing what they do and executing the game plan, and for LaMarcus Aldridge for just going off.

I can envision a scenario where Boston, playing a shorthanded Pacers team in the first round, gets pushed six or seven games but starts to find its groove and by the end is playing with the confidence and teamwork we saw last season. Those kinds of leaps can happen in the playoffs. Then the Celtics bring that increased level of play up against a Bucks team without that playoff experience (and maybe without Malcolm Brogdon) and suddenly Boston is dominating like the team we expected preseason. That absolutely could happen.

But watch the Celtics the past week or so and it’s hard to envision that scenario. We’re 74 games into the season and it feels a little late for “We’re gonna get it, we’re not worried about it.”

2) Charlotte will not let its playoff dreams die, even if it takes a Jeremy Lamb prayer to keep them alive. Saturday night the Hornets came from 18 points down to the Celtics to stay within two games of the Miami Heat and the playoffs.

Then on Sunday, Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard looked like the closer the Raptors need him to be. Toronto was down 13 midway through fourth but went on 18-3 run to take lead, with Pascal Siakam (10 points in fourth) making plays Leonard hitting the shots when it mattered, including the apparent game-winner.

Then Jeremy Lamb did this from 48 feet.

Unreal. Siakam even made a good defensive play to tip the ball into the backcourt.

Watch Kemba Walker’s reaction in the last angle of that video — he had popped out from the far side and the hope was likely he would get the ball, but he was well defended. When Lamb took his shot Walker turns his back and throws down his arms in disgust. That was never going to go in… until it did.

Charlotte is still two games back of Brooklyn and Miami, who are tied for the 7/8 seeds in the East, and fivethirtyeight.com gives the Hornets just a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs. It’s still a longshot. But so was Lamb’s shot. Sometimes desperation heaves work out.

3) LeBron James drops triple-double, “I will not cheat the game.” The Lakers are out of the playoffs. There is more interest in who will coach the team next season (and who will be on the roster) than there is in the remaining games. For the sixth straight year, the Lakers are just playing out the string.

That didn’t stop LeBron from dropping a 29-11-11 triple-double on the Suns in a Lakers’ win Sunday night (Kyle Kuzma had 29, too).

LeBron is not going to cheat the game. He would never anger the game gods like that.