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DeMarcus Cousins thrown into NBA Finals fire with minimal playoff experience

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TORONTO – DeMarcus Cousins spent six-and-a-half seasons trying to lead the Kings into the playoffs, a challenge said was eating him alive. He got traded to the Pelicans and helped them reach last year’s playoffs, but he’d already suffered a season-ending injury by then. He finally appeared in the postseason this year with the Warriors, but he got hurt in just his second playoff game.

Now, he’s playing in the NBA Finals.

“It’s kind of like some kid who grew up in the suburbs going to private school, and then one day you just got dropped in the hood and was told to survive,” Draymond Green said. “You got to figure that out.”

Since the NBA adopted a 16-team postseason in 1984, Cousins’ two prior career playoff games are the fifth-fewest before his NBA Finals debut. Here are the players with the fewest:

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Most of that list – Jordan McRae, Fennis Dembo, Nando De Colo, Terrel Harris, Micheal Williams, Milt Wagner – is comprised of rookies playing in garbage time. Jason Kapono was a third-year player who played in garbage time. Shannon Brown was rookie who came in late to foul.

Only David Rivers – a rookie point guard pressed into duty with injuries to Magic Johnson and Byron Scott – and Cousins held significant roles.

Cousins played eight minutes off the bench in Game 1. He missed both his shots, drew a couple fouls, made a couple nice passes, was a step slow defensively, but still disrupted the Raptors’ offense when in position.

As long as Kevin Durant remains out, there’s probably a role in this series for Cousins. Golden State needs Cousins’ shot creation.

His Finals inexperience might even help the Warriors, who’ve won two straight titles and three in four years. That makes it more difficult for returning players to summon the hunger necessary to compete with Toronto. But Cousins, who just quickly rehabbed through a quad injury Steve Kerr thought would be season-ending, provides a motivating spark.

“It’s a special moment for him, a special moment for us seeing him out there,” Green said. “It will be even more special if we can win this series, and he can get a ring, and we all get a ring.”

Nuggets must overcome extreme playoff-experience deficit against Spurs

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In Game 1 of their first-round series, the Nuggets outscored the Spurs by six points in seven minutes while both teams’ starters were on the floor. The game got away from Denver the other 41 minutes, when San Antonio gained an 11-point advantage.

“They’re coming off the bench with Patty Mills, Belinelli and Rudy Gay,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We’re coming off the bench with guys that were in the G League last year.

“We understand who we are, where we’re at.”

I don’t take Malone’s remark as a slam of his own team. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of how far and how quickly Denver has risen. Monte Morris did climb from the minor league to a key NBA role. The Nuggets did end a five-year playoff drought. They are playing the Spurs, who’ve made the postseason 22 straight years.

It’s not criticism to acknowledge the disparity of experience in this matchup.

Everyone who played for San Antonio in Game 1 had prior playoff experience. Only 35% of Denver’s minutes went to players with prior playoff experience.

Paul Millsap, Will Barton and Mason Plumlee are the only rotation Nuggets to appear in a previous postseason. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig never have.

In these 2019 playoffs, Denver has – by far – given the small share of minutes to players with prior playoff experience:

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The last team with such little playoff experience by this measure: 2016 Pistons, who had what we’ll call a Playoff-Experience Level (PEL) of just 30%. That Detroit got swept by the eventual-champion Cavaliers in the first round. Cleveland exclusively used playoff-experienced players that postseason, save four minutes for rookie Jordan McRae.

The 70-point PEL gap between those teams is also one of the highest in recent years, higher even than the 65-point PEL gap between the Nuggets and Spurs.

But the Cavs were the No. 1 seed, the Pistons the No. 8 seed. That’s usually how it goes, the more-experienced team the higher seed.

That’s not true with the second-seeded Nuggets and seventh-seeded Spurs, though. Denver outperformed San Antonio throughout the season.

Does the Spurs’ experience give them an edge now?

Here are the series with PEL gaps above 60% (using full postseason minutes) since the NBA-ABA merger. When the higher seed has a higher PEL, that series is in white. When the lower seed has a higher PEL, that series is in silver. Denver-Antonio is in gold. All teams are listed with their seed first.

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Of the few times the team with the big PEL advantage was the lower seed, the experienced team pulled the upset. That doesn’t bode well for Denver.

The largest PEL gap overcome by a higher seed since the merger? It was 59.6% by the third-seeded Celtics, who beat the sixth-seeded 76ers in the 2002 first round.

So, if the Nuggets win as a higher seed despite a 65% PEL deficit, they’ll make history.

And maybe they will.

Denver is already heading up faster than its experience level would suggest.

Three Things to Know: Trae Young both lucky, good with latest game winner

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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) Trae Young is both lucky and good with game-winner against Milwaukee. Maybe it is better to be lucky than good, but in an ideal world you’d want to be both.

That’s what Atlanta’s Trae Young was on Sunday.

Young was not having a great night — 4-of-18 shooting for 10 points — but he and the Hawks had pushed a Bucks team resting everyone (Greek Freak, Middleton, Bledsoe all out) to overtime. In the extra period, the Hawks were down one, 135-134, with 1.1 seconds remaining, but Atlanta had the ball and time for one last inbounds play to get the win. Coach Lloyd Pierce ran a down screen to try to free Young moving toward the ball, but just as Young comes free inbounder, Kevin Huerter, decided he could lob the ball to John Collins at the rim for a dunk. However, Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez read it perfectly, deflected the lob, and… there’s Mr. Lucky, Young.

Give Young credit — the body control it takes to grab that in the air and get it back up on the rim is impressive. It is one of the best game-winners of the season.

It took a little bit of luck.

2) Night of ejections: DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Jokic, Gregg Popovich all get tossed from their games. What was in the Gatorade in NBA arenas Sunday? There seemed to be ejections everywhere.

Let’s start with Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets. There was some history in this game between Jokic and Bobby Portis, they had been going back and forth all night, including Jokic getting a bloody nose on this play.

Through it all, Jokic felt he wasn’t getting the calls. Then in the fourth Jokic wanted a foul call on his putback bucket, didn’t get it and snapped.

That wasn’t the end of it, Jokic’s brother got into it with Bobby Portis and Jordan McRae after the game.

None of this is good, but let’s focus on Jokic’s ejection. He has lost his cool a couple times recently — remember the ejection vs. Indiana — where he lost his composure and in the process cost his team. Jokic cannot do that.

I get he was frustrated, but he is the best player on the Nuggets and the fulcrum of their offense, and in this case there was 3:47 left in a game where his team was down two. In a close game, the Nuggets need him on the court. He simply has to have more control than he has shown. Watch the video and you can see the referee gives him a quick tech, but then gives Jokic a chance to back off and move on to the next play. Jokic kept coming hard. He got tossed, and the Nuggets lost. Denver coach Mike Malone needs to sit Jokic down and get on him about his composure on the court. It matters.

Let’s move on.

DeMarcus Cousins also got ejected, although his was for a Flagrant 2 foul, an elbow to the head of Willy Hernangomez.

The NBA is quick with flagrant fouls for blows to the head, intentional or not. Was this worthy of a Flagrant 2 and an ejection? I don’t think so, I’d say Flagrant 1 and move on. But this is DeMarcus Cousins and he does not get the benefit of the doubt with officials.

Finally, watch Gregg Popovich lose his… um, cool (this is a family-friendly website) and get ejected. You don’t see this every day.

3) Duke is done, Zion Williamson is on to the NBA, and by the way, R.J. Barrett is not falling down draft boards. The next time you see Zion Williamson play, it will probably be in Las Vegas at the NBA Summer League.

(Or maybe the Utah or Sacramento pre-Vegas Summer Leagues, depending upon who drafts him.)

The NBA was buzzing about the same thing fans everywhere were on Sunday, that Duke got into one too many close games and screwed up your bracket (although those of us who picked Virginia to win it all feel pretty good today). This is a stacked Duke team with the presumptive No. 1 pick in Williamson and two other players — R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish —  who are expected to go in the top five or six. Michigan State earned the win. Duke had been living on the edge for a couple of games in a row, this time someone else stepped up with the big play and made the shot.

Zion Williamson will be the No. 1 pick and teams across the league are setting up altars and offering rum to Jobu in order to please the gods and land that pick — Williamson looks a franchise cornerstone player. The best prospect in the eyes of many scouts since Anthony Davis. Williamson is an insane athlete, already has an NBA body, can leap out of the building, shows a point guard’s feel for the game and can defend at the rim. But what some scouts like best is how hard he works and plays. He doesn’t just coast on all that natural talent.

In the Duke loss, Barrett was 7-of-17 with six assists but seven turnovers. Not a good outing on a huge stage. That, of course, led to overreaction from some on Twitter, people who have watched three of his games now saying “his draft stock is falling.”

No, it isn’t. Barrett likely goes No. 2 or 3 (depending on who gets the pick).

Scouts from interested team watched every game he played (most multiple times) and that team’s GM has now and/or will have seen many games also, on tape and in person — they have a much better and broader picture of the player. Teams with good scouting departments do not get swayed much by the NCAA Tournament or one game. They already know who the player is. That is certainly the case with Barrett, who has been seen as a top pick in this class for years.

Teams that like Barrett’s playmaking (which should look better in the NBA when there is more shooting around him). His decision making has improved over the course of the season, to the point that on this loaded roster Barrett became the guy Coach K trusted to run the offense through. He was incredibly efficient this season: He averaged better than 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists in a game. Whether he can make an All-Star level in the NBA is up for debate, but after Williamson there may not be a player of that level in this draft.

Barrett will be just fine. And get drafted very high, one off night or not.

Report: Mo Williams not welcome at Cavaliers’ arena, including for ring ceremony

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One by one, returning Cavaliers collected their championship rings on opening night: Jordan McRae,Channing Frye,Iman Shumpert,Tristan Thompson,Richard Jefferson,James Jones,J.R. Smith,Kevin Love,Kyrie Irving then LeBron James. The Cavs even welcomed back Dahntay Jones, whom they cut before the season.

But one player on both the 2016 playoff roster and the 2016-17 regular-season roster was notably absent: Mo Williams, who has forced Cleveland into a difficult situation by opting into the final year of his contract, not retiring and then undergoing surgery.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Bringing Williams to The Q never crossed the Cavs’ mind. He’s not welcome

Williams has a startling amount of leverage here. His salary is guaranteed, and if the Cavs waive him, the full amount would count toward the luxury tax. Because he just underwent surgery, it’s difficult to fine or suspend him for not reporting. The Cavaliers might just have to waive him, but first they’ll try to trade him and have someone else pay him (without as stiff luxury-tax penalties). All the while, Williams keeps drawing paychecks.

Keeping Williams from the banner/ring ceremony might be petty, but what other option did the Cavs have? What else can Cleveland offer that would convince Williams to forgo money besides a chance to participate in that ceremony? It was their best leverage of convincing him to reduce his salary in a buyout. (Predictably, it failed.)

I do wonder whether Williams got a ring, even if it wasn’t publicly presented. Approximately 1,000 workers got one. David Blatt got one!

Williams helped Cleveland win its championship. Even if it’s understandable why the Cavaliers don’t want him around the facility, even on a special occasion, it’s another level to deny him a ring entirely.

Report: Cavaliers not “actively” shopping Iman Shumpert. Just listening.

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Three days into the NBA season seems early to be discussing the semantics of NBA trade talk, but here we are.

There have been rumors that the Minnesota Timberwolves called the Cleveland Cavaliers, interested in talking Iman Shumpert trades, possibly involving Ricky Rubio (who at some point will lose his starting job to rookie Kris Dunn). And that the Cavaliers were at least open to the idea. But nothing came of it.

How serious is Cleveland on the Shumpert front? Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer addressed that in a Q&A with fans.

A few teams such as the Minnesota Timberwolves have inquired about Iman Shumpert, who has three years and $30 million left on his contract at age 26. The Cavs are answering the phone… But they are not actively looking to deal him, a team source told cleveland.com….

Keep in mind, Cleveland also has a trade exception worth about $11 million, the expiring contract of Mo Williams ($2.2 million) and Jordan McRae to deal. So if it is Rubio they want, they don’t have to trade Shumpert to get him.

What Varden is saying is Cavaliers GM David Griffin is not picking up the phone and seeing what he can get for Shumpert. But if teams call him…

Right now, the Cavaliers will need to be blown away to make a deal. Shumpert is backing up J.R. Smith and got more than 22 minutes of court time in the opener — he has a role on this team. Plus Shumpert is on an affordable contract. The Cavs are only going to make a move they believe makes them better right now — they want another ring. Maybe that offer comes, but the Cavs can be patient, and they have options.