Matthew Dellavedova

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Kemba Walker, Myles Turner lead Team USA over Australia in World Cup tune-up

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MELBOURNE, Australia — With his team playing on a raised basketball court in a stadium normally used for soccer and cricket, U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said he felt like he was on a movie set.

“I kept looking behind me because I knew I was going to fall off the stage,” he said.

But once the game started, Popovich thought it all seemed normal. And if it had been a movie, Popovich surely would have liked the ending.

Kemba Walker scored 23 points, Myles Turner added 15 points and 14 rebounds, and the U.S. topped Australia 102-86 on Thursday before a crowd of 51,218 – billed as the largest crowd ever to watch a basketball game in Australia.

“We have guys that are just starting to play with each other,” said U.S. guard Donovan Mitchell, who had 13 points. “We got off to a little bit of a rough start in the first half, but the third quarter, we really picked it up defensively.”

Patty Mills and Chris Goulding scored 19 points each for Australia, which stayed with the Americans for about 2+ quarters before seeing chances slip away at Marvel Stadium – transformed into a make-shift basketball arena for two games against the Americans, tune-ups for both sides before the World Cup starts next week in China.

“It was an awesome opportunity,” Mills said. “I think basketball in this country has been waiting for something like this.”

After Australia briefly took the lead at 45-44 early in the second half, the Americans scored 13 unanswered points, including three straight 3-pointers by Turner, Harrison Barnes and Mitchell, to go up 57-45.

Walker was one the keys for the second-half resurgence for the Americans, scoring 21 of his 23 points after halftime.

“I’m one of the leaders of this team, so it’s important for me to set that tone,” the Celtics guard said.

The roof of Marvel Stadium was closed and the court was placed in the middle of the field surrounded by hundreds of white chairs, more than 20 rows deep, for fans who paid for floor seating.

Despite the huge crowd, Australian media reported that some fans were issued refunds because they bought tickets based on promotional materials depicting Stephen Curry and LeBron James – who were part of the U.S. player pool when the deal was struck last year to play these games. Neither Curry nor James is on the U.S. roster for the World Cup.

Australia was also without its biggest star, Ben Simmons, who has opted not to play in the World Cup. Still, the Boomers starting lineup included four NBA players: Mills, Aron Baynes, Joe Ingles and Matthew Dellavedova.

And the Aussies gave their crowd some thrills – like a run just before halftime that cut the U.S. lead to 44-43 after back-to-back 3-pointers by Goulding and six straight points by Mills.

The win was the 78th in a row in major international exhibitions and competition for the U.S. national team, a streak that started with the bronze medal game of the 2006 world championships. It encompasses gold-medal runs at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, the Olympics in 2008, 2012 and 2016, and the FIBA Americas tournament in 2007.

TIP-INS

USA: Mitchell wrote “End Gun Violence” on his shoes before the game to remember the victims of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings … Boston’s Marcus Smart, who is still working his way back from a calf injury that popped up about two weeks ago during training camp in Las Vegas, did not play. … It was the first meeting between the national teams since the Americans won 98-88 at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics on their way to a gold medal.

Australia: Actor Russell Crowe, who spends most of his time living in Australia, was part of the massive crowd. … In a sight that NBA fans are used to, Dellavedova dived on the floor for loose balls three times in the game’s first three minutes – including on the opening tap. … Mills gave Popovich, his longtime coach in San Antonio, a massive hug courtside just before the game started.

INJURY SCARE

Jayson Tatum got knocked over by a defender in the third quarter and tumbled backward somewhat awkwardly – the back of his head falling into Walker’s knee. Tatum was shaken up briefly but remained in the game.

UP NEXT

The teams meet again in Melbourne on Saturday.

Ten best players not taken in 2019 NBA Draft

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Fred VanVleet hounded Stephen Curry in the NBA Finals, hit big shots, and played an important role in the Toronto Raptors winning their first ever NBA title.

VanVleet was undrafted.

So was his teammate Jeremy Lin. And the Warriors’ Quinn Cook. Then there’s Seth Curry, Robert Covington, Kent Bazemore, Joe Ingles, Yogi Ferrell, Allonzo Trier, Jonathon Simmons, Langston Galloway, Matthew Dellavedova, Royce O'Neale, Maxi Kleber… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of undrafted players making an impact in the NBA.

Who are the guys overlooked in the 2019 NBA Draft that teams may regret not snapping up? Here are our top 10:

Luguentz Dort, 6’4” shooting guard, Arizona State. He was the Pac 12 Freshman of the Year and his value at the next level is as a defender, he was tenacious as an on-ball guy (although not every scout is so sure about that). Some people thought he was a late first-round pick. What scared teams off? He’s a shooting guard who shot 30.7 percent from three last year. That has to improve (and reportedly has in workouts). OKC quickly locked him up after the draft.

He also has to become a better finisher at the rim, he was inconsistent there. But with his potential, it’s a surprise to see him go undrafted.

Naz Reid, 6’10” center, LSU. He has a world of potential, and while he’s a project big man, there were a lot of project bigs taken in this draft. Minnesota locked him up after the draft.

Reid can put the ball on the floor, shot better than 35 percent from three, has a good touch, and is the kind of big who could grab the board and bring the ball up himself. However, he seemed disinterested in defense (and occasionally offense) this season. Does he love basketball? That may have been the biggest reason he fell, but he has a chance to prove guys wrong.

Brian Bowen, 6’7″ wing, Sydney Kings. It didn’t take long after the draft for the Indiana Pacers to lock Bowen up.

Rather than play in college, Bowen went to Australia and played against men (and alongside Andrew Bogut). He’s got an NBA shooting touch, more confidence now, and knows how to play a physical game. It’s a surprise a team didn’t give him a shot before the Pacers.

Shamorie Ponds, 6’1” point guard, St. Johns. He’s got a lot of playground in his game, both for good and bad. He’s got impressive handles and uses that and some hesitation moves to get space and get to the rim or pull up for a jumper. After that, he’s got work to do. He has to get stronger, he has to be better at setting up teammates, his shot needs to be more consistent, and his defense needs to improve. A project, but if he puts in the work he could be a rotation guard in a few years.

DaQuan Jeffries, 6’5” wing, Tulsa. He has the raw tools to be a 3&D role player in the NBA — he’s very athletic, shooting range, he has a 7-foot wingspan — but it’s going to take a lot of development to get him there. Orlando is going to give him that chance.

Jeffries’ ball handling has to improve, and he has to be far more consistent. He had a good showing at the Portsmouth Invitational, which helped boost his draft stock, but just not enough.

Jontay Porter, 6’11” center, Missouri. The concern here is obvious — he has two ACL tears. He wasn’t the most athletic prospect to begin with, but the medical reports are the reason he fell out of the draft. Porter has skills as a shooter out to the arc and he plays a high IQ game, plus he fights hard for rebounds and tries on defense. Some team should bring him in this summer and give him a chance.

Terence Davis, 6’5” shooting guard, Mississippi. A guy who has moved up draft boards as the day got closer, but apparently not enough. He a good athlete he has been a decent shooter, if a bit streaky, but if he can become a more consistent shooter and add a little playmaking to his game, Davis can be a role player in the NBA. He’s got to improve his defense and accept a role, but if he can do that he can develop into a scorer off the bench in the league.

Louis King, 6’8” forward, Oregon. Teams see the potential for a stretch four in him, he shot 38.6% from three last season, but he’s just got to get stronger. He’s not quick enough to be a very switchable defender. That said, he can become a role player if he puts in the work — and that’s the big question. Reports have teams concerned about his work ethic and love of the game, and that likely doomed his chances. He has to repair that this summer.

Jalen Lecque, 6’4” guard, Brewster Academy. This is all about the potential. Lecque played last season at a prep school, not in college, he’s a top-shelf athlete with NBA wingspan (6’8.5”) who could be an impressive NBA defender. That’s why the Suns gave him a non-guaranteed contract.

Lecque is very, very raw, his shot isn’t there yet, the game seemed to move too fast for him at the Draft Combine, and there is a lot of development to do here. Still, gambling on a guy with athletic upside is a smart play.

Zach Norvell Jr., 6’5″ shooting guard, Gonzaga. In a league that needs shooting, Norvell can get red-hot and has ridiculous range. Yes, there were questions about his athleticism, and with that who he could defend, but considering who was taken it’s surprising to see a good shooter left on the sidelines.

• One Bonus note: Teams were not nearly as high on Tacko Falls as fans. Maybe he proves everybody wrong and pans out, but he has no range to his game. He’s an old-school style center in a league getting away from those kinds of players, and teams were concerned he cannot keep up with the pace of the NBA. This isn’t college where he can just be planted near the rim, plus he needs to get a lot stronger to compete inside in the NBA. He’ll get a Summer League invite, no doubt, but he has a lot of work to do to get where he wants to be.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is next

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DETROIT – Giannis Antetokounmpo said the Bucks presented him with two choices for his rookie-scale contract extension in 2016:

  • A four-year, $100 million extension
  • A five-year extension that, by rule, would provide a max starting salary with max raises

Antetokounmpo took the shorter deal.

“I was 21 years old,” Antetokounmpo said. “My agent told me that was the best deal we could get and eventually you’re going to make more on the back end, but right now, that’s the best choice for you. And I trusted him.”

With that decision, Antetokounmpo set the timer.

In the likely event he makes an All-NBA team this season or next, Antetokounmpo will be eligible for a super-max extension during the 2020 offseason. If he doesn’t sign an extension, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent in 2021.

As superstars approach their first unrestricted free agency, those inflections points test their commitment to their current team. And everyone knows it. Other teams position themselves to poach the player. Reporters dig up details about the player’s and teams’ plans. Fans and media speculate. Every development feeds the every-expanding news cycle.

Anthony Davis is in the midst of it right now. Before him, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard had their turns.

Antetokounmpo is next in line.

Right now, his existence in Milwaukee appears happy. The Bucks’ record (38-13) and net rating (+9.6) lead the league. Antetokounmpo is an MVP candidate.

But how will he feel in a year or two?

In 2015, Antetokounmpo wrote, “Right now I feel like I want to play for the Milwaukee Bucks forever.” That quote has drawn plenty of attention since. Often forgotten is the perspective Antetokounmpo showed in that same 2015 blog post: “You never know how life turns out. … I don’t know how I’ll be feeling and thinking in 2, 3 or more years.”

So, a few years later, how does Antetokounmpo feel about playing for the Bucks forever?

“I still feel the same,” Antetokounmpo said. “As long as me and the Bucks are on the same page and we build an organization that’s all about winning and nothing more than that, I want to be here.”

Milwaukee obviously wants him there, too. Which warrants revisiting his 2016 contract extension.

At the time, it seemed the Bucks did well to secure Antetokounmpo for less than the max. C.J. McCollum had just signed a four-year, $106,633,450 extension with the Trail Blazers. Getting Antetokounmpo for only $100 million looked like a coup.

There was some consideration Milwaukee should’ve pushed him onto a five-year extension. Though such extensions required a max starting salary with max raises, locking up Antetokounmpo for an extra year held value, too. But he hadn’t even made an All-Star team at that point. The consensus was the savings during the four-year extension made it the right call for the Bucks.

In hindsight, it was a mistake. A five-year extension would have meant paying Antetokounmpo about an extra $4 million total* over the first four years in exchange for paying him about $30 million in the fifth year (2021-22). Now, Antetokounmpo projects to have a max salary of about $44 million in 2021-22.**

*That’s based on the max raises (7.5%) and max-salary calculation required by the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement, which was in effect when Antetokounmpo signed the extension. Had he signed a five-year extension, it’s possible the owners and players would have negotiated special rules for Antetokounmpo’s extension, which went into effect under the current CBA. The current CBA mandates a higher raise (8%) and uses a different max-salary calculation (resulting in a higher amount) for such extensions. Russell Westbrook and James Harden had special rules written for them due to the CBA change. When the previous CBA took effect between him signing an extension and it taking effect, Kevin Durant had his contract terms altered to reflect new CBA terms. Without special dispensation, Antetokounmpo could have wound up earning less during the first four years of his “max” extension than McCollum did on his extension.

If every ruling had gone in his favor, Antetokounmpo would have earned an extra $10,984,160 during the first for seasons of a five-year extension and had a $32,700,690 salary in the fifth year. It still would have behooved Milwaukee to have him on that contract.

**Based on the salary cap rising the same amount in 2021-22 as projected between 2019-20 and 2020-21 and if he makes an All-NBA team this season or next. Without either honor, his projected max in 2021-22 drops to $38 million – still far more than what his final-year salary would have been in a five-year extension.

Escaping that rabbit hole and returning to reality, Antetokounmpo is on the four-year extension. That is Milwaukee’s timeline to please him.

Right now, it looks great. But the future is filled with potential pitfalls.

Four Bucks starters – Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon – can become free agents after the season. Re-signing all four could be difficult, especially if Milwaukee is unwilling to pay the luxury tax. The Bucks have paid the tax only once, the first year it was assessed, 2003.

Even if they re-sign all four, will that be enough? Middleton is 27. Bledsoe is 29. Lopez is 30. How much better will they get?

Milwaukee is also out two future first-round picks. One got sent to the Suns for Bledsoe. The other got traded to the Cavaliers to unload salary and acquire George Hill.

That’s one lingering cost of recent bad signings. The Bucks overpaid John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova then had to surrender that first-rounder to dump them. Larry Sanders’ stretched salary remains on the books through 2022. Milwaukee somehow turned Miles Plumlee‘s toxic contract into smaller pieces, but one of those pieces – Spencer Hawes – still has stretched salary counting through next season. At least the Bucks  dodged a bullet with Greg Monroe taking a three-year max contract in 2015, when he could’ve gotten a four-year max deal that ran through this season.

Still, Milwaukee also squandered the value of the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft, as Jabari Parker provided little on the court then left in free agency. No. 17 pick Rashad Vaughn was a bust the next year. The No. 10 pick the following year, Thon Maker, barely plays and wants to be traded.

But, in the NBA landscape, these are first-world problems. Milwaukee is an elite team trying to take the next step. So many teams struggle to reach this level.

The Bucks already look championship-caliber. They might be unfortunate to exist at the same time as the super-charged Warriors. But if Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins leave Golden State, Milwaukee could have a better title chance next year.

Yet, it’s impossible to overlook how high the stakes are with Antetokounmpo on the roster. All this success is possible only because of him. Any misstep that threatens his commitment to the franchise could undermine the operation.

But the Bucks keep getting everything right. Even a move some thought would sow unease with Antetokounmpo has done the opposite.

When Milwaukee’s mangled process for hiring a general manager in 2017 sparked talk about Antetokounmpo eventually leaving, he tweeted:

It helps that Bucks general manager Jon Horst, a compromise choice among ownership, has performed so well in his new job. Though he was supposed to signal Milwaukee’s discord, he has fostered stability. Horst helped attract Coach of the Year-favorite Mike Budenholzer and signed players, like Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, who fit Budenholzer’s system. The Bucks look especially aligned.

It also helps that Antetokounmpo makes so few waves. He even said he could never see himself playing for Los Angeles – music to everyone’s ears in Milwaukee.

Yet, Antetokounmpo also expressed more-nuanced views on loyalty while explaining Durant’s move from the Thunder to the Warriors. A plugged-in former general manager reportedly said, “There’s no way in hell Giannis is going to stay in Milwaukee. I would bet everything that he leaves the Bucks.”

It’s simply impossible for Antetokounmpo to end speculation about his future. As he elevates into superstardom and heads closer to free agency, chatter will only increase.

“He has been incredibly loyal,” Budenholzer said. “I think that’s something that’s important to him. So, he’s a gift, for sure.”

Of course, Budenholzer isn’t taking anything for granted. He obviously always wants to win, but he knows that’s particularly important for the franchise right now.

“Most teams feel that pressure,” Budenholzer said. “Having Giannis does maybe heighten it, but it’s a great part. It’s great to be in Milwaukee with Giannis.”

More importantly, Antetokounmpo thinks it’s great to be in Milwaukee, too.

“It’s not about small market, big market,” Antetokounmpo said. “I don’t think about that. I don’t think about lifestyle. I just think about organization that has treated me well, my family well. And it’s all about winning.

“If the organization main goal is winning, I don’t care about the rest. I feel like my family is getting used to Milwaukee. I’m used to Milwaukee. So, it’s a great place to be.”

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors surge, Raptors still on top

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The Golden State Warriors reminded everyone Tuesday night what they are capable of, but the top two spots still belong to the top teams in the East. They have been more consistent.

Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (33-12, last week No. 1). Things are coming together for the Raptors. They have won five in a row, the last four of those with Kyle Lowry back in the lineup returned from injury, Kawhi Leonard has moved the ball better in those five wins (26 assists), Pascal Siakam is getting more run at center, and Serge Ibaka has slipped up a few times but is still having a renaissance season playing center. Raptors fans, enjoy the journey, this may well be the best Toronto team ever, try to ignore that cloud over the team about Leonard and July. Teams like this don’t come around often. Savor it.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (31-12, LW 2). They had a statement win against Houston — where Brook Lopez’s defense in the paint was the surprising key (after they overplayed Harden and forced him right and into Lopez) — and while the Bucks then turned around and lost to the Wizards a couple of nights later it was without Giannis Antetokounmpo so we’re not holding that against them. The other interesting thing out of the win over Houston: How well Eric Bledsoe did on James Harden. Yes, Harden had 42 points on 30 shots, but Bledsoe made him work for his buckets and that bodes well for the Bucks heading into the postseason. Milwaukee has 7-of-9 on the road coming up.

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (30-14, LW 5). The reports of the troubles/demise of Golden State have been greatly exaggerated — despite the injuries, lack of depth, infighting and everything else they currently have the best record in the West. They took control of the conference with an emphatic win over Denver, a game that was a reminder of how good they can be. Friday night against the Clippers the DeMarcus Cousins experiment begins and should be one of the more interesting stories of the second half of the season (when you hear rumors of the Warriors’ interest in Robin Lopez on the buyout market, that’s really just Cousins insurance, nobody knows how this is going to go).

Pacers small icon 4. Pacers (29-13, LW 3). Myles Turner returned from injury against Phoenix Tuesday, which was good news because their defense when he was out was not the same — and the Pacers are second in the NBA in defensive rating. It’s a credit to coach Nate McMillan how well he has this team defending, that end of the floor has become their calling card. Indiana went 3-2 on a recent road trip but the losses were to Toronto and Boston, two of the other teams at the top of the East, and that’s a cause for some concern.

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (29-14, LW 7).. Will Barton is back in the lineup — he played in just the first two games of the season before injuring his groin — and that is a big boost for Denver and it’s wing depth and rotation. Just ignore the Warriors game, Golden State does that to teams a couple times a season, except that it was another rough defensive outing. While the Nuggets on the season have a top-10 NBA defense, that has slid to the second worst in the NBA in their last 10 games. The defensive slippage has been covered up because Nikola Jokic can do things like this.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (25-18, LW 4). Clint Capela is out 4-6 weeks with an injured right thumb, and the pressure just mounted even more on James Harden — he responded with 57 points in the first game without Capela, but can he sustain this? The Rockets are 3-3 in their last six with an elite offense covering up for a bottom-10 defense, and that defense is not likely to improve with Capela out. Look for Daryl Morey to try and find some help at the five because the only real center on the roster now is Nene and he can give them maybe 15 minutes a night, tops.

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (26-17, LW 6). The Thunder have the best defense in the NBA on the season, allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions (via NBA.com stats), but in the last five game that has slipped to 119.7 per 100 (28th in the league in that stretch). While teams have bad runs of games over the course of 82, the Thunder are built on defense and they can’t afford for the defensive issues to last much longer, or there will be more ugly losses like Tuesday’s one to Atlanta.

Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (29-16, LW 10). Philadelphia is 20-10 since trading for Jimmy Butler, and the way the Sixers looked and the way the Timberwolves rolled over in that game Butler looked prophetic. That said, all is not just puppy dogs and rainbows with the Sixers — After an Embiid-less loss at home to the lowly Hawks, Ben Simmons called his team out as soft (Atlanta was the more physical team in that game). That Simmons would go there speaks to the struggles still going on trying to get Butler/Embiid/Simmons on the same page.

Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (25-18, LW 9). Terry Rosier said this week this team is “too talented” and that has been a popular theory — too many mouths to feed, too many players who want touches and shots, and it leads to a crowded rotation and guys pushing for larger roles. Is it too much talent or that talent not fitting together? The Celtics can rise up and look like one of the best in the East — they did it in the win over Indiana — but they don’t consistently. Brad Stevens also needs to be thinking about who will be in his 8/9-man playoff rotation, and which current rotation guys (likely Robert Williams, Daniel Theis, and Semi Ojeleye, maybe others) will be relegated to the bench.

Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (26-19, LW 11). The Blazers are 18-7 at home and have a +7.1 net rating, but get on the road and they are 8-12 with a -5.1 net rating. The problems are on both ends of the court, the offense is 5.4 per 100 worse on the road and the defense is 6.8 per 100 worse. We saw it recently in action, the Blazers won four in a row at home then got out of Portland and promptly lost two straight. The Blazers have five more road than home games the rest of the way (but a relatively easy strength of schedule(.

Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (24-21, LW 14). The Jazz look like themselves again winning four in a row, 6-of-7, and they have allowed less than a point per possession in that stretch (best in the NBA). Utah has moved into a tie for the eighth seed in the Wes. Granted, this run has come against a softer part of the schedule (something that ends this week with the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Nuggets), but the Jazz have the second-easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way and the easiest of any team in the West. Utah is starting to look like a playoff team again.

Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (25-20, LW 8). Last Thursday’s dramatic double-overtime win against the Thunder — where LaMarcus Aldridge scored 56 — was a signature win for San Antonio. And, if that’s all you saw of them you’d say they were surging. However, they have dropped 3-of-4, including splitting that home-and-home with OKC. The Spurs’ defense, which has carried the team this season, is bottom 10 in their last 5 games, while the offense has been pedestrian. The Spurs may be coming back to earth a little bit, they need to get their defense right and start winning some road games against the West (3-12 so far).

Kings small icon 13. Kings (23-21, LW 17). Rookie Marvin Bagley III is back in the rotation after missing 11 games and is starting to find his form again. Bagley has played fairly well, averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a night off the bench before he got injured (it’s just in this rookie class those numbers get overshadowed). Coach Dave Joerger needs to get Bagley some run and bring him along, the No. 2 pick is a big part of the Kings’ future. Sacramento has won four in a row at home, but now heads out on the road for their next six.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (24-19, LW 12). The Clippers have regressed to the mean recently, having lost three in a row and 7-of-8. In those last 15 games the Clippers have had a top-10 offense — with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell providing a big spark off the bench — but a bottom 10 defense. The Clippers will be the focus of the NBA universe Friday night because DeMarcus Cousins makes his return against them — we all want to see Boban Marjanović matched up against him. Doc Rivers needs to make that happen.

Lakers small icon 15. Lakers (24-21, LW 13). Los Angeles has gone 4-7 since LeBron James’ groin injury, sliding down to a tie for the final playoff spot in the West, and with some ugly games in there — the loss to Cleveland at home was their worst loss of the season. Two things to be concerned about if you’re a Laker fan: 1) This recent run of games really did not help the “we can trade these guys for Anthony Davis” cause (although Brandon Ingram, when he’s facilitating still shows promise); 2) The Lakers have the second toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way. With LeBron back they should be able to handle it and make the playoffs, but it’s not going to be easy.

Heat small icon 16. Heat (21-21, LW 15). The unlikely backcourt of Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson has started to find some chemistry, they had big games in the wins against the Celtics and Grizzlies recently, and the Heat have won 10-of-15 with them running the show (although it’s a top-10 defense that has really carried the Heat through this stretch). The loss in Milwaukee Tuesday was the first of 6-of-7 on the road as Miami enters a rough patch of the schedule.

Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (21-23, LW 20). New Orleans finally has Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic back in the rotation after extended absences due to injury, they have gone 2-1 in those games and looked much improved. Their return came at the right time, if New Orleans is going to make a playoff push — read: have any shot at all of keeping Anthony Davis — they need to survive a tough January schedule the rest of the way, with 5-of-7 on the road and much of that against West playoff teams. The Pelicans have the fourth toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way.

Nets small icon 18. Nets (22-23, LW 19). Before the season it was expected that Brooklyn would be out of the playoff mix and with some expiring contracts — DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, Ed Davis, Kenneth Faried — and they would be sellers at the trade deadline. But the scrappy Nets, who play hard and take smart shots, have turned their team of journeymen into the seven seed in the West with a real shot at the playoffs. With that, the fire sale is off and Brooklyn is one of the feel-good stories of the season.

19. Timberwolves (21-23, LW 16). Coming out flat against Philadelphia was ugly — they made Jimmy Butler look prophetic about Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins by showing no fire in that game. This team shows flashes — KAT was blocking Anthony Davis at the end of a win over the Pelicans — but they don’t defend or take smart shots with any consistency. Ryan Saunders is 2-2 as a coach and there are people rooting for him to do well enough to keep this job, but he has a lot of work ahead of him to just get more every night out of this roster.

Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (20-23, LW 21). Why are the Mavericks shopping Dennis Smith Jr.? Because, while his shooting has improved this season, he simply has not fit with Luka Doncic (and Doncic is the future). Smith as part of the regular starting five for Dallas scores less than a point per possession, sub rookie Jaylen Brunson in for Smith and that lineup’s offense gets 16 points per 100 possessions better. Smith is incredibly athletic and should have value on the trade market, but with every other team knowing both Dallas and Smith want to part ways, it’s going to be hard to get anywhere near fair value.

Magic small icon 21. Magic (19-24, LW 24).
Another team many around the league expected to be a seller at the deadline, but after back-to-back victories over Boston and Houston, the Magic are just a game out of the playoffs in the East and are more likely to make a push for it rather than tank. The key to making the playoffs will be more of the Aaron Gordon who showed up against Boston and Houston, scoring 28 and 22 points in those games, shooting a combined 51.7 percent, and getting to the free throw line. Orlando needs Gordon to be aggressive and the catalyst for the offense.

Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (20-23, LW 18). Charlotte wants to make the playoffs this season, owner Michael Jordan wants to make the playoffs, and their recent 2-4 road trip did not help that cause (although the Hornets remain a game ahead of Orlando for the eight seed). The bigger problem is they miss Cody Zeller, he has been out seven games (2-5) and in those games the Hornets have the third worst defense in the NBA. They need to get some stops over the next few weeks because Kemba Walker’s heroics alone are not enough to get them into the playoffs.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (18-26, LW 25). They beat the 76ers. They beat the Bucks. They took the Raptors to double overtime. Forget about tanking and selling off players, the Wizards are playing better and, with the third easiest schedule the rest of the way the Wizards are thinking playoffs. The Wizards are 5-4 with a +3.2 net rating since John Wall left the team due to injury, there is more balance on the offense and Bradley Beal is attacking the rim more than we’ve seen in years. Despite their horrid start to the season and injuries, the Wizards are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs and stranger things have happened.

Pistons small icon 24. Pistons (18-24, 22). Blake Griffin’s 44-point performance against the Los Angeles Clippers Saturday night was a classic revenge game — he even blew off Steve Ballmer (maybe) — and a great reminder of how good Griffin can be. It’s also the Pistons’ only win in their last six games, the team continues to struggle offensively (bottom 5 in the league over the last 10 games). The Pistons have 7-of-10 at home and if they are going to make a playoff push it needs to come now.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (14-30, LW 26). The Hawks have quietly gone 8-7 in their last 15 games, with an average NBA offense and a just slightly below average defense in that stretch. That included a 142-126 win over Oklahoma City. Rookie point guard Trae Young has started to show some chemistry with Kevin Huerter,, and the Thunder found out about that the hard way.

Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (19-24, LW 23). Unexpected stat: The Grizzlies lead the NBA in passes per game, averaging 342.1. Unfortunately, that does not correlate directly to winning, the Grizzlies have gone 3-13 in their last 16, have slid out of the playoffs, and their next four games are the Bucks, Celtics, Raptors, and Pelicans. If the losing continues for another week or two, and with Marc Gasol a free agent this summer, will we finally see Memphis talk trade and break up their core? Other teams are watching, but if they didn’t do it this summer would they now?

Suns small icon 27. Suns (11-34, LW 27). Kelly Oubre Jr. is starting to find a comfort level in the Valley of the Sun, averaging 17.6 points per game on 50.8 shooting in his last five games. That said, the offense continues to struggle if Devin Booker is not on the floor, and that lack of consistent offense keeps them from winning games (although they are competitive most nights, they are not just rolling over).

Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (10-33, LW 29). It will be February before we get an update, but if the rumors are true that the Knicks want to hold Kristaps Porzingis out all season — against his wishes — then that is the kind of short-sighted things that leads to broken relationships. (This is providing there is not a good medical reason to keep KP out.) Only one game this week as the NBA decided to promote its game by sending the Knicks and Wizards over to London for a Thursday game (don’t they have enough problems over there with Brexit without us making them watch that excuse for basketball?).

Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (10-34, LW 28). Chicago has lost eight in a row, but Bulls management wants to show it’s committed to the old-school ways of coach Jim Boylen by giving him a raise this season and next (they had lost six in a row when that news leaked). Boylen is now 5-15 as head coach. When you’re losing like that, experimenting with Lauri Markkanen at the three — as Boylen wants to do — is worth trying.

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (9-35, LW 30). the Cavaliers snapped their 12 game losing streak thanks to the LeBron-less Lakers. One bright spot, Matthew Dellavedova has played like a solid pro for the Cavaliers off the bench providing some steady play their bench units can use. Beyond that… here’s a Zion Williamson highlight to dream about.

Three Things to Know: Curry, Durant cover up another sloppy Warriors outing in win over Dallas

Associated Press
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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) Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant cover up another sloppy Warriors game in a win over Dallas. “Who cares? We know how to play good basketball. We end up winning 54 games or 60 games it doesn’t matter. As long as we go into the playoffs in a good rhythm with good habits and healthy it don’t matter.”

That was Durant speaking to ESPN about the regular season, summing up the Warriors attitude overall — and what has concerned Golden State fans this season. The Warriors have the NBA’s top-ranked offense, a middle of the pack defense (16th overall, 12th if you take out garbage time as Cleaning the Glass does) and this is a team on pace to win 55-58 games (depending on what measure you use). That will have them at or very near the top of the West. But that is not enough for some, because this is a team not living up to its own standards, not pushing 70 wins, and it leads to questions.

Sunday’s win against Dallas was a perfect example. The Warriors defense was unimpressive — Dallas had a 120 offensive rating, getting to the line 29 times against a late-rotating and reaching Golden State defense — and they had no answer for Luka Doncic, who had 26 points (there’s a growing club of teams without an answer for him).

But the Warriors won because Stephen Curry had 48 points and 11 made threes — one of those with 44 seconds to go put the Warriors up for good.

Kevin Durant pitched in 28 points. The Warriors as a team shot 42.2 percent from three (despite the return Klay Thompson’s slump, he was 2-of-11 from deep). It overwhelmed the Mavericks and got Golden State another win.

Only in Golden State are their questions about a 55-win team not being worthy. Durant is right, the regular season is long and for contenders is about building “a good rhythm with good habits.” It’s fair to ask, though, are the Warriors doing that on defense?

By the way, Doncic grew his rookie legend with 26 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists.

2) Lakers lose to Cavaliers in a game that’s a reminder both of these teams stink without LeBron James. The Cavaliers came into Los Angeles having lost 12 in a row, with the league’s worse defense (and on pace for the worst defense in NBA history), a bottom 10 offense, and the worst net rating in the land. The Cavaliers are both terrible since LeBron left and in full Zion Williamson mode.

But they beat the LeBron-less Lakers 101-95 Sunday night.

The Lakers are now 3-7 without LeBron (and have fallen into a tie for the eighth seed and final playoff spot in the West with the Jazz, who beat the Lakers on Friday). Their offense in the halfcourt has struggled without the gravity and ability to read the play of LeBron — Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka intentionally created a team of “playmakers” rather than shooters around LeBron, and the result is a team that can’t shoot. Shocking, I know. In the fourth quarter Sunday the Lakers shot 40 percent, were 2-of-9 from three, and were just 8-of-17 from the free throw line. On the night, the Laker offense scored less than a point per possession against the worst defense in the NBA, in part because the Cavaliers were able to slow the game down (the young Lakers are fine in transition but this game had 5 fewer possessions than the Lakers’ season average).

It was a rough night for Lakers fans dreaming of trading key parts of this young core for Anthony Davis. Actually, it’s been a rough couple of weeks for them.

The Lakers will get LeBron back at some point (he will be re-evaluated later this week, he is increasing his basketball activities according to the team) and with him they will be fine and will make the playoffs. But right now this team is exactly what Magic didn’t want: Cleveland 2.0, a team entirely dependent upon LeBron to win. And that’s not about Luke Walton, it’s about the roster he was handed.

As a side note, the return of Matthew Dellavedova has been big for Cleveland. He played less than 17 minutes off the bench in this game, but he’s a solid, smart veteran who knows how to run a team, make the right pass, and that helps their second unit immensely.

3) Nikola Jokic drops 40 points, 10 boards, 8 assists to lead Denver past Portland. Just a reminder that Nikola Jokic is very good at basketball — All-Star good (as a reserve). All-NBA good. He got his big contract extension and has lived up to it, improving this season and stepping up in big games.

Just ask the Trail Blazers. Denver beat them 116-113 Sunday night behind a 40 points, 10 rebound, 8 assist night from Jokic.

Denver may not be the best team in the West, but they are not a fluke either.