Associated Press

Jimmy Butler returns, Timberwolves pick up crucial win vs. Lakers 113-96

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jimmy Butler scored 18 points in his return from right knee surgery, Jeff Teague had 25 points and eight assists, and the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Los Angeles Lakers 113-96 on Friday night.

Butler played 22 1/2 minutes and was 7 for 10 from the field in his first game since getting hurt against Houston on Feb. 23. He had surgery two days later for a cartilage injury and missed 17 games.

Minnesota moved into sole possession of eighth place in the Western Conference with the win (half a game ahead of Denver, but the teams are tied in the loss column).

Taj Gibson also scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Karl-Anthony Towns had 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who were on the second night of a back-to-back. They lost to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday.

Julius Randle scored 20 points and added 10 rebounds for the Lakers, who have lost nine of their last 13. Brook Lopez had 18 points and six rebounds, while Josh Hart tallied 20 points and 11 rebounds off the bench.

The Timberwolves took a 96-76 lead on a jump shot by Jamal Crawford. Los Angeles cut its deficit to 13 with 4:42 remaining in the game, but Minnesota scored six straight points, then opened up a 21-point lead with 2:06 left.

Minnesota started the third quarter with a 16-6 run and took a 67-64 lead on a basket Butler. Teague, Andrew Wiggins and Towns all made 3-pointers to give the Timberwolves an eight-point lead with 3:25 remaining in the period.

Towns capped an 11-2 run with a put-back layup to give Minnesota a 78-68 advantage with 2:12 remaining in the third. Josh Hart made a 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer and the Lakers trailed 80-73.

Los Angeles went on a 9-0 run after trailing 36-32 in the second quarter. An 11-0 run four minutes later gave the Lakers a 52-40 lead with 3:08 remaining in the first half.

Gibson’s basket cut Minnesota’s deficit to 56-50. The Timberwolves trailed 58-51 at halftime. Despite shooting only 29 percent from the field, the Lakers outscored the Timberwolves 32-21 in the second quarter.

Lopez scored the first 15 points for the Lakers, outscoring Minnesota by himself over the first six minutes of the game. The rest of the team, however, scored only 11 points the rest of the quarter.

 

Raptors’ reserves rolling, and they don’t plan to let playoffs stop them

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
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DETROIT – Fred VanVleet remembers sitting on the end of the Raptors bench with teammates like Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam last season. None held a permanent rotation spot, and they discussed what they would do better if they got an opportunity.

“If you’re made of anything, nobody likes sitting on the bench,” VanVleet said. “So, we’re all kind of pissed off.”

They’ve gotten a chance to channel that frustration into production, and they’ve sure capitalized. Those four and C.J. Miles, who signed with Toronto last summer, lead the NBA’s best bench and comprise one of the league’s top lineups.

“The question has been whether we’re going to keep them in, that group, during the playoffs,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said without even being asked about the postseason, a time most teams shrink their rotation. “And why not? Until they prove us wrong and prove that they can’t perform in the playoffs, that’s our plan.”

Toronto is outscoring opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions with mostly reserves in, one of the best marks in the last couple decades. Here are the top benches by net rating since 1997, as far back as NBA.com data goes (with offensive rating/defensive rating/net rating):

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Many productive benches ground overwhelmed opponents into submission with tough defense. The Raptors’ reserves excel offensively and defensively. Their 110.8 points per 100 possessions ranks third among benches since 1997 (behind only the 2012 Spurs and 2018 Rockets).

Other benches are propped up by staggered stars who carry backups. Not in Toronto. The all-reserve lineup of Wright, VanVleet, Miles, Siakam and Poeltl is outscoring opponents by 22.2 points per 100 possessions. Of 43 five-man units to play 200 minutes this season, only the Timberwolves’ Tyus Jones/Jimmy Butler/Andrew Wiggins/Taj Gibson/Karl-Anthony Towns lineup has fared better (+23.4).

Here are the top lineups with at least 200 minutes (with offensive rating/defensive rating/net rating):

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Casey said he has seen opponents juggle their rotations to play more starters against his bench. Yet, the reserves have held up. That’s a big reason he has so much faith in the group for the playoffs.

But Casey didn’t have much choice to entrust these recently deep reserves with bigger roles initially.

The Raptors lost DeMarre Carroll (traded to Nets), P.J. Tucker (signed with Rockets), Patrick Patterson (signed with Thunder) and Cory Joseph (traded to Pacers) last offseason. Shedding that depth was necessary to re-sign Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka and remain under the luxury-tax line.

Of course, Toronto knew it had developing players who might have been ready for larger roles. But the way everything has come together has been incredible.

These players mesh so well. They space the floor and pass willingly. Wright, Miles, Siakam and Poeltl all have the length and mobility to swarm defensively, allowing the pesky, but undersized, VanVleet to aggressively pressure the ball.

They’ve formed an identity without commonality, the outliers adapting to the group.

They like to talk about how they’re young players trying to prove themselves. Wright is 25, Siakam 24, VanVleet 24, Poeltl 22. But Miles is 30 years old and in his 13th season

“The exuberance they have and the way they play the game, it keeps me in it,” Miles said.

They bring how they’ve all been overlooked. Wright and Siakam were drafted in the 20s. Miles was a second-rounder. VanVleet went undrafted. But Poeltl was a top-10 pick.

“I feed a lot off my teammates’ energy, also,” Poeltl said. “I’m the type of guy that, if we all get fired up, I get dragged along with that. And then, at that point, I also bring a lot of energy to the table. That drags my teammates with me.”

Another trait contagious among the group: unselfishness.

Some emanates from Wright and VanVleet. Both essentially point guards, they were competing for a spot on the depth chart a year ago. Now, VanVleet is in a contract year, and Wright will be eligible for a contract extension this offseason. Both admitted some trepidation about playing together.

“It would be easy for me to be selfish going into my contract year,” VanVleet said. “It would be easy for Delon to try to make his mark going forward.”

Yet, they make it work. When VanVleet initiates the offense, Wright cuts. When Wright initiates the offense, VanVleet spots up.

“It was really our first stint of having a role on a team,” Wright said. “So, I don’t think there’s no time to be selfish when you’re just getting your opportunity.”

Of course, that attitude can’t last forever. The Raptors’ reserves are tasting success and hungering for more.

“People are asking why we’re so good. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” VanVleet said. “We’ve got good players.

“We know most of us, if not all of us, can start on other teams. And that’s something that we hold to our heart.”

VanVleet probably won’t overtake Lowry or DeMar DeRozan to start in Toronto’s backcourt. But as a restricted free agent this summer, he’ll have the first opportunity to seek a starting job elsewhere. Toronto faces a potential luxury-tax bill next season and might decide not pay VanVleet, especially with Wright there.

For now, the Raptor reserves are just gearing up for the playoffs and enjoying each other’s company.

“The camaraderie we have as a unit is unbelievable,” Miles said. “It’s non-stop laughter, not-stop joking.”

The newcomer, Miles saw that brewing when he arrived over the summer. He recognized a group of young players who bonded over their lack of playing time and thought back to his first few seasons, when he was in the same boat. He told his emerging younger bench-mates he wanted to be part of what they were doing, not an outsider.

Now, they’re dominating.

“It’s really special when you think about it,” Miles said.

Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler lead Timberwolves rally past Lakers, 119-111

Associated Press
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Timberwolves were flat, facing a double-digit deficit for long stretches of the game.

This is why they traded for Jimmy Butler and signed Taj Gibson, for fourth-quarter lifts like these.

Gibson scored a season-high 28 points and Butler added 24, providing the Timberwolves with the production and energy for a 119-111 comeback victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night.

Butler and Gibson, the former Chicago teammates, muscled their way to the basket with a fierce determination down the stretch. Butler drove along the baseline and flicked a short pass to Gibson in the lane, where he dropped in a layup and converted a three-point play for a 110-104 lead with 3:59 left.

“What he and Jimmy have brought to the team has really changed things for us,” said Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau, who had them both with the Bulls. “Those guys, they weren’t going to let us lose.”

Jeff Teague pitched in 20 points and Jamal Crawford added 15 for the Timberwolves, who rallied from a deficit as large as 15 points in the second quarter and 12 points late in the third to raise their home record to 24-7 on an emotional evening that started with a tribute to former coach and executive Flip Saunders.

Except the Lakers had the mojo for much of the first three quarters. Julius Randle had 23 points and nine rebounds, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brandon Ingram each scored 17 points.

“I know how good we can be when we decide to play hard,” Butler said. “But we think that we’re so good on paper that we can just go through the motions.”

Ivica Zubac, who went 8 for 8 from the floor for a season-high 19 points, threw down a dunk for a 99-98 lead for the Lakers, but that was essentially their last momentum-creating play of the game.

“They’ve got some big-time closers on that team, starting with Jimmy Butler,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “He kind of set the tone in the fourth with the way he played.”

Butler blocked shots by Randle and Isaiah Thomas on consecutive possessions in the closing minutes, putting his stamp on yet another winning performance.

“I think that’s what separates him as a superstar,” Crawford said. “Most guys, they do it on one end, but those types of plays, they’re immeasurable.”

This was a win the Wolves badly needed before the All-Star break, after their 13-game home winning streak ended in humbling fashion on Tuesday against Houston. They moved within percentage points of San Antonio for third place in the Western Conference at 36-25. The Spurs are 35-24.

The Lakers shot so sharply to start the game, going 17 for 27 from the floor in the first quarter, that the Wolves produced separate spurts of 23-8 and 21-6 in the first half yet still trailed 65-62 at halftime.

Randle had 10 points in the third quarter as the Lakers again pushed ahead. He drove and scored on Karl-Anthony Towns for an 86-76 lead, and a frustrated Towns was called for an offensive foul on Brook Lopez to erase a spin-move layup on the next possession.

But Crawford got the Wolves and the crowd going early in the fourth quarter, sandwiching a 31-foot swish by Tyus Jones with a pair of 3-pointers of his own. The second one came off a slick crossover dribble that deked Corey Brewer at the top of the key and brought the Wolves within 95-94.

 

 

DeAndre Jordan at center of multiple battles

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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DETROIT – DeAndre Jordan says he didn’t stress Thursday’s trade deadline, which passed with him – despite frequent rumors and maybe a close call with the Cavaliers – remaining on the Clippers.

“They were talking about trading me for three years, so I don’t really care about it anymore,” Jordan said. “If it happens, it happens.

“I just want to be somewhere I’m wanted. If it’s here, it’s here. If it’s not, then, hey, it’s a business.”

Do you feel wanted by the Clippers?

Jordan looked around for nine seconds before answering.

“What do you think?” he said.

I contemplated for a moment then answered honestly: “I don’t know.”

“Me neither,” Jordan replied immediately.

Jordan is caught in a series of clashes, the results of which will determine how he spends the rest of his prime. One is a genuine mystery. In a couple others, he’s fighting an uphill battle. The combination creates for immense uncertainty.

Clippers winning now vs. Clippers rebuilding

When the Clippers traded Blake Griffin, they said they wanted to keep winning, add young talent and increase flexibility. Cool. So does every team.

More often, teams face forks in the road where they must decide to prioritize one goal over another. That’ll almost certainly be the case with Jordan this offseason.

He holds a $24,119,025 player option. If he exercise it, all the trade considerations reemerge. If he declines it, the Clippers must determine how much to invest in someone who turns 30 this summer.

The Clippers just extended the contract of Lou Williams, who’s a couple years older than Jordan. That could indicate their thinking with Jordan.

Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic, who’ve started every game they’ve played for the Clippers, are also older than Jordan. Another starter, Danilo Gallinari, is just a couple weeks younger.

It wouldn’t be simple to pivot into a new direction without Jordan.

That’s even more true after signing Williams. Even if the Clippers let Jordan walk in free agency, they’d project to have about the mid-level exception to sign a replacement. With a re-signed Jordan, they’d have… the mid-level exception to spend on free agents. They have so much money committed to next season already, losing Jordan wouldn’t make much difference without other moves.

But commit to Jordan long-term, and his salary would be an impediment in 2019, when Tobias Harris‘, Austin Rivers‘, Boban Marjanovic‘s, Teodosic’s, Wesley Johnson‘s and Beverley’s contracts expire. (Rivers, Teodosic and Johnson have player options for next season that only complicate planning, but the bet here is all three opt in.)

This team probably tops out as a low playoff seed with Jordan. Without him, the lottery looks more probable – not an ideal outcome for a team already locked into so many veterans.

That’s why Williams’ extension appears telling. That seems to be the Clippers accepting a short-term plan, prioritizing a window that matches Jordan’s.

Then again, Williams extension could just be a value play. He’ll earn $8 million each of the next two years and has just $1.5 million of $8  million guaranteed the third year. Clippers executive Jerry West predicted Williams would have earned $11 million on the open market.

“Yeah, it’s the truth,” Williams said.

Williams said he signed for the security and comfort with his teammates. But this is the same franchise that just fawned over Griffin then traded him. The Clippers could eventually deal Williams – or significantly change the roster he wanted to stay with.

Williams said he didn’t think about the possibility of getting Griffinned, nor did he get any assurances of the team keeping Jordan. West said the Clippers also offered Jordan a contract extension, but the center denied that.

“I can’t wait around,” Williams said. “Sometimes you’ve got to make decisions for yourself, do what’s best for your family, and hopefully everything else falls into place.”

Jordan could still sign a contract extension until he opts out, but that seems like a remote possibility. He and the Clippers can’t even agree on whether an extension was offered. They’re going to agree to specific terms?

From the outside, it’s also difficult to tell who’s running the Clippers. Lawrence Frank holds the highest front-office title, but West is influential. And then there’s Doc Rivers, who remains coach after getting stripped of his presidency last summer.

Jordan’s value probably plummeted as soon as that happened.

“D.J. means a lot to me,” Rivers said.

The Clippers now look like most organizations, where there’s an implicit tug-of-war between the coach trying to win now and the front office looking toward the future. Rivers’ years of team-building and exit from the Celtics show his aversion to rebuilding. That’s why Rivers was pleased Jordan stayed with L.A. past the trade deadline.

“He’s the anchor,” Rivers said, “and it’s nice to keep your anchor around.”

But for how long?

Centers vs. small ball

The Clippers trading Griffin was treated as them losing their only star. But Jordan has made three All-NBA teams, including a first team, since Griffin’s last All-Star selection.

The catch: Jordan’s All-NBA accolades came at center, essentially a protected class in All-NBA voting.

The league decreasingly values centers like the 6-foot-11, 265-pound Jordan. Teams are too good at exploiting traditional centers’ flaws – their lack of floor-spacing offensively, their slowness defensively. These bigs generally haven’t figured out how to exert their will in small-ball matchups, especially deep in the playoffs.

Jordan is a dinosaur, on the verge of extinction.

Of players averaging 32 minutes per game, just 8% are attempting fewer than one 3-point attempt per game. That mark has never been lower since the NBA added the 3-point arc:

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Only Jordan, Steven Adams, Andre Drummond, Ben Simmons and Taj Gibson are doing it this season.

This hardly renders Jordan worthless, but he must excel in other areas to compensate for his hindrance on floor-spacing. The resulted are mixed.

Jordan remains an elite rebounder. He has excellent size, strength, hops, coordination and timing.

But many of those same attributes also make Jordan such a strong finisher, and there’s slippage there. He’s shooting just 68% in the restricted area – good, but well down from the 74% and 75% he shot the last two years:

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Maybe that’s just a consequence of no longer playing with Chris Paul, who excelled at setting up Jordan for lobs. Or maybe Jordan has lost explosion due to aging.

Neither potential explanation bodes well for Jordan’s value.

More troublingly, Jordan look doesn’t look nearly as agile defending the perimeter. Jordan was fairly nimble for his size. But even moderate decline there could be disastrous in the modern NBA.

It’s not because Jordan is just hanging low to protect the rim, either. Jordan is also averaging less than one block per game – a disturbing and once-unthinkable stat for him.

Maybe he just need to be reinvigorated. It can be tough going from aiming for a championship to just trying to sneak into the playoffs. Jordan and Austin Rivers are the only players left from the Clippers team that peaked with a seven-game, second-round loss to the Rockets in 2015.

But this also at least resembles age-related decline.

Jordan has plummeted to 22nd among centers in real plus-minus this season – down from third, third, fourth and sixth the previous four years. There’s already a stigma around centers like him. Only the best of that player type thrive anymore.

The pendulum could swing back. Size is still helpful. It’s just that other skills matter more now. Teams always adjust.

Maybe another team believes it could maximize Jordan’s contributions. But can that team afford him?

2018 and 2019 free agents vs. salary-cap reality

Jordan was heavily (and infamously) recruited during 2015 free agency. He has since produced the best seasons of his career.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Jordan expects even stronger courting next summer, especially considering the salary cap skyrocketed in 2016.

But teams are still burdened by long-term contracts signed that year, and the cap is only trickling up now. Free agents face harsh conditions the next two summers. Only a handful of teams project to have max cap space.

That’s especially tough on Jordan, who’d otherwise be in line to sign his last huge contract.

He ought to seriously consider opting in. He might not draw $24,119,025 next season if he opts out, though he might. It takes only team to value him that much. Or maybe he gets enough long-term security to outweigh a salary reduction next season.

His new agent, Jeff Schwartz, will have his work cut out assessing the market. Remember, Jordan must decide his player option before free agency even begins.

Teams can always trade to clear cap space, but will anyone be motivated to do that for Jordan, a traditional center in this league? His best bet to getting paid was ending the season with a team that values his Bird Rights. That way cap space wouldn’t be a concern.

Jordan will end the season with the Clippers. Are they that team?

Back to the original question: I don’t know.

LeBron James hits game-winner on Christian Laettner play (video)

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With the game tied late in overtime, the Timberwolves could have held the ball for the final shot. Instead, Jimmy Butler shot and missed too soon.

Then, J.R. Smith made his own error, dribbling after grabbing the defensive rebound. That prevented the Cavaliers from advancing the ball with a timeout.

But it also set the stage for LeBron James.

Inbounding from the backcourt with one second left, Jeff Green hit LeBron near the free throw line, and LeBron nailed the game-winner.

What a finish by LeBron, who finished with 37 points 15 assists and 10 rebounds and delivered Cleveland a much-needed 140-138 victory. Even against poor Minnesota defense – why were Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson guarding players in the backcourt while Butler single-covered LeBron far closer to the basket? – LeBron had little time to get off a shot. So clutch.

Did that play look familiar? Check out Grant Hill and Christian Laettner connecting for Duke in the 1992 NCAA tournament: