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Rudy Gobert scores night’s first points, game-winning free-throws to lift Jazz over Pelicans

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Rudy Gobert sank two free throws with 6.9 seconds left to cap a 14-point, 12-rebound and three-block performance, giving the Utah Jazz a 106-104 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans in the first game of the NBA’s restart on Thursday night.

New Orleans, which led for most of the game and by as many as 16 points, nearly pulled out the victory as time expired when Brandon Ingram‘s 3-point attempt rimmed out in a bitter end to his 23-point night.

“He’s made a ton of big shots for us this year, but the bottom line is I don’t think it should have come down to that,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “We let a golden opportunity slip away.”

Zion Williamson, who missed nearly two weeks of practice after leaving the team for a family medical matter on July 16, was deemed fit to start, although his playing time was limited.

He scored 13 points in just more than 15 minutes, highlighted by a couple of alley-oop dunks, one on a nearly half-court lob from Lonzo Ball.

But Williamson checked out for good with 7:19 left in the fourth quarter and watched the tense finish from the sideline.

“Of course we wish we could have played him down the stretch, but he’d used the minutes that was given to us, so that’s the way it is,” Gentry said. “We weren’t going to stick him back out there.”

Williamson said he “did want to be out there, but we’re just working my way back into my flow. That’s all it is.”

Jordan Clarkson scored 23 points for Utah and helped lead a second-half comeback, while Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley each added 20.

“When Jordan has space on the floor to work, he’s really difficult to guard,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “That’s what you saw in the second half.”

JJ Redick scored 21, including a clutch 3 to tie it at 102, while Jrue Holiday added 20 points for New Orleans.

The game was tied at 104 after Ingram’s free throws with 32 seconds left and Conley missed inside with just less than 20 seconds to go, but got his own rebound. The Jazz moved the ball to Mitchell, whose drive forced New Orleans to collapse on him before he fed Gobert for a dunk attempt that Derrick Favors could only stop with forceful foul.

“For Donovan to find Rudy at the end of the game there is a heck of a play, and then Rudy goes and makes the two free throws,” Snyder said. “Those guys have done that hundreds and hundreds of times.”

Gobert, who’d featured prominently on defense with clean rejections of Williamson and Favors, calmly made the deciding foul shots.

“He impacts the game so many ways,” Snyder said. “But often times, it’s not with his scoring.”

With Williamson on the bench, New Orleans closed the first quarter with an 18-4 run, highlighted by Ingram’s dunk, finger roll and 3, to take a lead it would hold until late in the fourth quarter.

New Orleans had its biggest lead when Holiday’s fadeaway made it 60-44 late in the second quarter.

After Utah methodically pulled within one possession in the middle of the fourth quarter, New Orleans threatened to pull away again when Ingram hit a pull-up and E'Twaun Moore hit a 3 made possible by Jaxson Hayes‘ offensive rebound.

But the Jazz weren’t finished, going on an 11-1 run, marked by Mitchell’s driving floater off the glass, to take a late three-point lead inside the final four minutes.

Report: NBA raises insurance payout to $2.5 million for career-ending injuries

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For players quickly trying to ramp up their games for the NBA restart in Orlando — which starts tonight (Thursday) — injuries were a significant concern. Going quickly from 0 to 100, or from being quarantined in their home to NBA games, just increased the risks of injuries. Potentially serious ones.

The NBA and NBPA have answered that with an increased insurance payment — 2.5 million for a career-ending injury, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

While $2.5 million is a lot of money, for some young players it will not seem like enough. Jayson Tatum is a lock to get a max contract extension from the Celtics, as is Donovan Mitchell with the Jazz, and likely Brandon Ingram from the Pelicans (who also may extend Lonzo Ball). That’s not even getting into Bam Adebayo with Miami or De'Aaron Fox with Sacramento. For all of them, a major injury heading into a contract year would be devastating.

The league and players’ union also agreed to keep taking 25% of players’ paychecks to be put in an escrow fund to balance out the books at the end of this season and into the next one. It makes sense, the players and NBA split “basketball-related income,” and the NBA is taking a financial bath without fans watching games in arenas.

There are no reported plans to tear up and redo the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement — the players certainly would not want to do that in this economic climate. Some owners… that may be a different story. Right now, Adam Silver has been able to keep everyone playing nice, but if the economic situation worsens considerably for the league, that may be hard to do.

No wall for these five NBA rookies as league restart tips-off

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Forget hitting a rookie wall or stumbling into the playoffs exhausted and banged-up.

The NBA’s break because of the coronavirus pandemic gave rookies an offseason within a season. They’ve had the chance to heal up, study film and gain some much-needed pounds to better handle the grueling season in a league filled with savvy veterans.

Some rookies will resume play a bit smarter and stronger, giving them a chance to finish off their debut seasons in style.

“I took the time off really to … focus on my body, do the right things to continue to get better,” said Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, the likely NBA rookie of the year. “Studied a lot of film. Kind of like I had an offseason but still preparing to come back and play.”

Improving during a pandemic had its challenges.

Some rookies filled garages with weights. Those living in apartments or condos had to be very creative to even find a basket to get up shots.

“It was challenging for everyone. No one has ever been through this,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, whose club has three first-round picks in the rotation this season, led by first overall draft choice Zion Williamson.

“The younger players, I think the thing with them is that they tried to stay in shape and tried to keep themselves in a conditioning situation that they felt like, when they came back, they wouldn’t be behind. … We’ll have to see how it works out, but I think those guys did put in work during the hiatus.”

Perfecting 3-point shots were also was a major focus.

Heat guard Tyler Herro spent a day putting together a portable hoop sent to him by teammate Jimmy Butler.

“I definitely put it to use outside getting some shots up,” Herro said. “I’m happy we can finally get back into a gym. Working in the driveway wasn’t necessarily the best time.”

Not all rookies will be playing as the NBA wraps up the season. Coby White and his Chicago Bulls missed the cut to keep playing in Florida. So too did RJ Barrett and the Knicks, and Golden State’s Eric Paschall.

Rookies to watch when the NBA’s resumes its season:

JA MORANT

Morant worked with trainers at his Memphis home and put on 12 pounds of mostly muscle. That’s what the Grizzlies have wanted since the moment they drafted him at No. 2 overall last June behind top pick Zion Williamson.

The point guard also watched a lot of film, looking to improve after averaging 17.6 points a game and 6.9 assists a game.

“He’s a great student of the game,” Grizzlies first-year coach Taylor Jenkins said. “So I think he put a lot of time over the break doing those things, and I think we’re already seeing that right now.”

ZION WILLIAMSON

Williamson’s weight was an issue when he arrived at training camp back in September. Less so now. His extended rehab from knee surgery involved a focus on losing weight and flexibility, and it was apparent he stuck to his new workout regimen during the past few months.

Williamson is listed at 6-foot-6, 285 pounds. The team has declined to specify how much weight he has lost, but teammates noted how much leaner he looked when the Pelicans got back together a few weeks ago.

“He looks amazing. He looks fully healthy. He looks even stronger than he was before, if that’s even possible,” Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball said. “I was happy to see him, happy to see that he’s in shape.”

Williamson’s status when the Pelicans resume play Thursday is unclear because he left the club July 16 to attend to a family medical matter and did not return to the Orlando area until Friday, when he was required to begin a four-day quarantine. The team says he’s tested daily while away should be able to practice by Tuesday night if all goes well during his quarantine.

“I think there are going to be parts of my game that y’all didn’t see before that you all are going to see in the future when we start playing,” Williamson said.

RIU HACHIMURA

The first Japanese-born player drafted in the first round, Hachimura also spent the break getting bigger. The 6-8 Hachimura added about 10 pounds, up from 230. He worked on his 3-point shot and ball handling and now is trying to improve his defensive skills.

The Wizards will need Hachimura more too with Davis Bertans and Bradley Beal opting out of the NBA’s restart. That leaves Hachimura as the Wizards’ leading returning scorer with 13.4 points a game. He also ranked second with six rebounds despite playing only 41 games before the break.

Brandon Clarke

It would be easy to overlook the 6-8 power forward on a Grizzlies’ roster led by Morant and second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr. But the 21st pick overall last June has played a key role for Memphis and is averaging 12 points and 5.8 points a game.

For Clarke, working on his 3-pointer has been a big key. Jenkins said he and some of his assistants also talked with Clarke a few times each week breaking down on film to help the rookie hone his game.

HEAT’S ROOKIE DUO

Technically a rookie, Kendrick Nunn went from unknown to starting point guard for the Heat, and he could be ready for the seeding games even after missing the first couple weeks of practices at Disney. Only Williamson and Morant score more than Nunn among rookies.

Herro has shown an ability to rise to moments: his pull-up, go-ahead, transition 3-pointer in the final seconds of a win against Philadelphia earlier this season is among Miami’s top highlights of the year. He’s recovered from an ankle injury that cost him 15 games.

He watched video of shooters like Klay Thompson and Ray Allen, focusing on how they catch the ball and shoot during the break.

“I’m excited to get back out there,” Herro said.

New York got its guy in Tom Thibodeau, but is he the right guy?

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As had seemed destined from the start, the New York Knicks landed their guy.

Tom Thibodeau will be the next coach in New York. It’s a big-name hire by a big-name franchise in search of a big-time turnaround — in the past 16 years, New York has made the playoffs just three times and won just one playoff series (and that was seven years ago).

But is Thibodeau the right hire?

Gregg Popovich thinks it is, telling the Associated Press:

“Tommy’s a seasoned veteran who it goes without saying understands what wins and what loses. He knows how to put a program together, create a culture and be demanding — and at the same time, make people accountable.”

Thibodeau is demanding, and he knows how to get wins, but the man has no chill — how hard pushes to get those wins has led to backlash and injuries in previous stops. Where Popovich has understood when to ease up on the throttle to preserve his teams — yet still get playoff wins — Thibodeau has not shown that deft touch.

Thibodeau’s marriage to the Knicks can succeed, but it’s going to take changes from both the Knicks organization and from Thibodeau himself.

EASE OFF THE THROTTLE

Thibodeau’s win-all-the-games coaching mentality has led to short rotations and heavy minutes for his stars. In his last full season in Minnesota, Thibs had both Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in the top 10 in total minutes played, and both played a full 82-games schedule, there were no nights off. There are some around the league who look at the arc of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah‘s careers and wondered if load management would have changed things.

Wearing guys down is going to fly with the Knicks, a team looking to develop young players. Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett should get plenty of minutes — and plenty of rope to make mistakes and learn from them — but New York does not want to wear down its young stars. More than that, the Knicks should have a couple of good locker room veterans on the team as mentors, but Thibodeau can’t lean on those veterans to try and stockpile wins with a tight eight-man rotation.

The Knicks need to find and develop other young players (like the Nets did one borough over, giving Spencer Dinwiddie room to grow) and that comes with patience and using a deep bench.

Thibodeau spent his season away from coaching traveling the league, talking to other coaches and watching them work. He told  ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on The Woj Pod he learned a lot from Doc Rivers — the Clippers’ coach known for having the fewest practices in the league.

“But [Rivers] is the best at managing the day before, in between, they had that day off, but everybody came in. And their young guys really work, and the older guys were getting treatment and recovery. So understanding who your team is and what everyone needs.”

If Thibodeau has really learned that lesson, the Knicks will be in better shape.

KNICKS NEED TO DRAFT, FIND MORE TALENT

Talent wins in the NBA. Yes, coaching matters. Chemistry matters. Guys buying into the system matters. But at the end of the day, talent wins out.

The Knicks don’t have enough of it.

Robinson shows real promise. Barrett has potential but the raw counting stats he put up as a rookie hid some ugly basketball. Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina look like fringe rotation players, not key contributors. Julius Randle raises the floor of this team but is not considered part of the long-term plans at Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks need a scouting department and front office that not only makes good calls when in the lottery, but also finds guys at the end of the first round or early in the second who can be developed in a couple of years into contributors. That is always a bit hit and miss, even with the best teams, but the best teams find guys. Right now Toronto is the gold standard of finding and developing players — Pascal Siakam was taken 27th, OG Anunoby was 23rd — and the Knicks need to move closer to that model.

THEN THIBODEAU NEEDS TO DEVELOP THEM

Tom Thibodeau has some development success in his past. Derrick Rose was the youngest MVP in league history under Thibs. He also helped turn Jimmy Butler (a No. 30 pick) into the player he is today. However, for the most part Thibodeau couldn’t be bothered with young players because they could not contribute in the short term to winning.

That has to change. It’s both a matter of mindset and of Thibodeau bringing in development-minded assistant coaches and giving them room to operate (sources around the league have told NBC Sports Thibodeau likes to control everything, designing every practice and game plan, down to the writing on the whiteboard before games and more).

Thibodeau needs to build a culture of player development in New York, something that has not existed there before.

It doesn’t mean the Knicks can’t take a swing at a big trade, something the franchise feels it is poised to do. However, it needs to follow more of the model the Lakers did: Draft and develop young players (Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart), trying to win with them while also building up their trade value, then using those players when the time comes to make a bold move (for the Lakers it was Anthony Davis). Right now, the Knicks future picks have more value than anyone outside maybe Robinson on the roster.

Thibodeau has a reputation as a defensive innovator, but his defenses were unimpressive in Minnesota. Part of that was certainly personnel — Karl-Anthony Towns is not going to be confused for Dikembe Mutombo — but Thibs didn’t lift players up or find a system that fits their skills. In New York, he has to build from the defense out (and has a potentially strong anchor in the paint with Robinson) and make it all work.

The Knicks are not a turnkey situation where Thibodeau is walking into a playoff team. A culture needs to be built (one James Dolan doesn’t meddle with). Talent needs to be added to the roster, then developed. Do all that, build a place that superstars want to come, and the power of playing in New York will give the Knicks an advantage. Right now the big stars are choosing Brooklyn first. It shows how much work needs to be done.

Thibodeau could be the guy to lead New York back to the spotlight. Maybe. He’s going to get the chance.

Report: Young stars of NBA want insurance in case of injury in Orlando

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Jayson Tatum is going to get a max contract extension from the Celtics. Same with Donovan Mitchell from the Jazz. Brandon Ingram will get a max extension or close to it from the Pelicans, who also may extend Lonzo Ball. Bam Adebayo is going to get paid by the Heat. Same with De'Aaron Fox in Sacramento. Kyle Kuzma is up for an extension with the Lakers.

That’s just a partial list of players expected to get hefty extensions to their rookie contracts this coming offseason. It’s the kind of money that will set their families up for generations.

Which is why some of the young stars of the NBA want insurance in case they suffer an injury at the NBA’s restart, reports Adrain Wojnarowski of ESPN.

On the cusp of hundreds of millions of dollars in contract extensions, several of the NBA’s top young stars had a Friday call with Players Association officials about the possibility of league-financed insurance policies to protect against career-threatening injuries in the bubble restart in Orlando, sources tell ESPN…

The increased risk of injury, based on a three month-plus league shutdown and a shortened training camp, has intensified concerns that the players are taking on heightened personal risk with the season’s resumption.

Mitchell reportedly talked about this and his concerns about an injury during the restart on a players-only Zoom call Friday night, led by Kyrie Irving.

The league and players union have talked about insurance or some other form of security for players heading to Orlando who could either suffer from COVID-19 or an injury. Exactly what that would look like is still being figured out (like many things around the restart).

Players take a risk every time they step on the hardwood to play. However, the three months without games followed by a relatively quick ramp-up to playoff intensity has more than just players concerned about injuries, team trainers are as well. Conditioning and getting players in game shape will be the focus of coaching and training staffs from the start of camps.

Providing the young stars of the NBA insurance to protect a future payday seems fair. As always, the devil is in the details, but the league needs to find a way to make this happen.