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Warriors, Nuggets battle for first in West

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Playing in big games has become the norm for the Golden State Warriors.

Not so much for the Denver Nuggets.

Tuesday’s matchup between the top two teams in the Western Conference is new territory for Denver. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Nuggets have been rebuilding and retooling, not competing for titles, but they have arrived this year and are challenging to be the best team in the Western Conference.

The winner of Tuesday’s game in Denver will sit atop the conference standings. Denver (29-13) has been up there for a while now, but the Warriors (29-14) might yet find another gear in the second half of the season as they pursue a third consecutive NBA championship.

They are about to get a new, big piece when DeMarcus Cousins returns this week.

The center, who signed a one-year deal in the summer, tore his Achilles almost a year ago. His season debut is projected to come on Friday at the Los Angeles Clippers. Golden State is expecting it will take time for Cousins to get fully immersed and integrated into the offense.

“We’re excited, but it’s a little daunting, too,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s not going to be simple just to plug him in. There’s going to be an adjustment period. He knows that, but it’s a fun challenge.”

The Nuggets have a big enough task stopping Golden State’s other stars. Guard Steph Curry, a two-time league MVP, hit 11 3-pointers in a 48-point effort to beat Dallas on Sunday, and then there’s Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to worry about.

And the Warriors have a revenge factor to use. The Nuggets beat them 100-98 in Denver on Oct. 21 when Juancho Hernangomez blocked Damian Jones‘ layup at the buzzer.

The Nuggets have been playing at a high level lately, especially at home, where they are 18-3 and have won their last 12. The latest was a grind-it-out 116-113 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, which might have been a perfect tune-up for the Warriors.

Denver has its own star power in center Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray. Jokic, averaging team-highs with 19.7 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, had consecutive triple-doubles last week and then clocked in with 40 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists against Portland.

With or without Cousins, Golden State will have a tough time handling the Serbian. But the Warriors are best when they force teams to adjust to them, and they come at teams from different angles. One night it could be Curry, the next Durant. When tuned in, Golden State is hard to beat.

The Nuggets are ready for the challenge after getting everyone’s best this season.

“As teams give us their best shot because we’re No. 1 in the West right now, everybody gives the Warriors their best shot,” said Murray, who is averaging 18.5 points. “We just know we have the home court, and we beat them last time here.”

Thunder coach Billy Donovan: Andre Roberson ‘not anywhere near playing’

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When Andre Roberson – who ruptured his patellar tendon last January then suffered a setback in October – suffered another setback in November, the Thunder said he’d miss at least six weeks.

That was more than six weeks ago.

Maddie Lee of The Oklahoman:

What a disappointing year for Roberson. He just can’t get healthy.

Even already possessing the NBA’s best defense, Roberson would help the Thunder. He’s a lockdown perimeter defender. Paul George has stepped up defensively, but a George-Roberson wing pairing would scare the daylights out of opposing offenses.

That said, Roberson is a tricky fit due to his dismal shooting. He’d disrupt Oklahoma City’s offensive spacing. The Thunder would need time to adjust, and if Roberson isn’t close to returning, there might not be time to establish chemistry before the playoffs.

George, Terrance Ferguson, Alex Abrines and Hamidou Diallo have been fine on the wing in Roberson’s absence. Continuing to rely on that group sans Roberson doesn’t maximize Oklahoma City’s production, but at least it’s a simple and workable solution.

Rumor: Grizzlies could trade Marc Gasol before he opts out and leaves next summer

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The Grizzlies have been unwavering in their desire to keep Marc Gasol. Likewise, Gasol has consistently pledged loyalty to Memphis.

But with the Grizzlies (19-24) slipping to 14th in the West and Gasol holding a $25,595,700 player option for next season, maybe both sides are approaching a breaking point.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

I doubt Gasol, who’ll turn 34 this month, would draw a higher salary in free agency than his $25,595,700 player option. But maybe he could get a multi-year deal that provides more overall compensation than he’d get opting in then testing free agency at age 35.

He also might value getting to a better team.

Gasol has sometimes sounded impatient with Memphis getting younger. He was clearly proud of the team’s veteran core.

The Grizzlies appeared intent on winning as much as possible with Gasol and Mike Conley rather than rebuilding. So, there seemed to be enough overlap in vision between the organization and Gasol.

But Memphis also just hit on its 2018 lottery pick, drafting Jaren Jackson Jr. No. 4. Jackson could be the Grizzlies’ next franchise player and convince them to shift gears. A core led by Jackson and whatever assets are acquired for Gasol could have a nice future. Ditto if Memphis also trades Conley, who’d make less sense on the team sans Gasol.

Remaining competitive with Gasol and Conley isn’t the worst place to be. The Grizzlies already have a major future building block in Jackson. They can groom him while winning enough to keep fans entertained. But that plan would fall apart if Gasol opts out and leaves.

So, being proactive could make sense.

The first step should be assessing Gasol’s commitment to Memphis. If he already knows he wants to leave next summer, I doubt he’d mind getting traded elsewhere now. An honest conversation about the future could serve everyone well.

Jusuf Nurkic on Iman Shumpert, who tried to confront Trail Blazers center postgame: ‘I’m not worried about a guy who’s going into retirement soon’

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Kings guard Iman Shumpert had plenty to say during Sacramento’s win over the Trail Blazers last night.

He apparently had even more to get off his chest afterward.

Shumpert looked unhappy with Jusuf Nurkic‘s hard screen early in the game:

Then, Shumpert got into it with Portland coach Terry Stotts:

Shumpert even found beef wit the Trail Blazers’ security staff.

Jamie Hudson of NBC Sports Northwest:

Shumpert admitted he fed off of Portland’s team security, which had spoken with the Kings guard as the game became tense.

“He was a little passionate and you become part of the game… I’ll take whatever energy you give me. I was having a tough time shooting the ball and you know, he talked to me enough I made the next three. That’s what we needed at the moment… After that we rolled,” Shumpert said.

After the game, Shumpert went toward – but not into – the Trail Blazers’ locker room.

James Ham of NBC Sports California:

According to Shumpert, he wasn’t looking for a fight, just a discussion with Portland’s center about a few plays that took place during the game.

“Some stuff just needs to be between me and him,” Shumpert said. “A conversation between two men. At the end of the day, this league is a bunch of men. A bunch of great men off the court. Some stuff happened that we needed to have a conversation about.”

Hudson:

Outside of the locker room after the game, the Blazers team security told Shumpert that Nurkic was still showering and he would not be able to come out of the locker room and speak to him at that moment.

Nurkic, via Ham:

“I just said what I said. I’m not worried about him,” Nurkic said of the 28-year-old Shumpert. “I’m not worried about a guy who’s going into retirement soon.”

Shumpert is too young to be hearing about retirement. That is soooo disrespectful by Nurkic.

Though I believe Shumpert was genuinely trying to end the tension (by putting his foot down, of course), Nurkic only escalated it. Good thing they didn’t meet face-to-face after the game.

But they’ll cross paths again. Maybe Shumpert was heated just last night. Like all of us, NBA players go through moods. Or maybe this will be a lasting grudge.

We might next learn more April 10, when the Kings and Trail Blazers meet in their season finales.

Rumor: Knicks won’t play Kristaps Porzingis this season, which is causing discord with him

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In November, Knicks coach David Fizdale said Kristaps Porzingis – recovering from a torn ACL – wasn’t yet sprinting. Right after that, Porzingis posted photos of himself sprinting.

It appeared Porzingis was showing he and the Knicks weren’t on the same page.

More circumstantial evidence to that effect…

Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:

Rumblings I heard at the G League Showcase were they’re not going to let him play. They’re going to hold him out. Throw this in the rumor column, people, not the sources-say column. There are rumblings that they’re not going to allow him to play, even if he’s ready, and this is among the potential sources of tension with Kristaps Porzingis.

Sometimes, a player needs a team to protect him from himself. Porzingis is incredibly competitive, and he surely wants to play. The Knicks might have the better perspective to prioritize his long-term future – which is better for Porzingis anyway.

But if Porzingis becomes ready to play before the season ends, he should play. Even just a few games could give him a head start in acclimating back to NBA pace, a la Paul George in 2015. A rusty Porzingis won’t interfere with New York’s tanking. The Knicks can’t keep him in bubble wrap forever.

That’s only if he’s clearly ready, though. If it’s a gray area, caution is the right approach. There’s no guarantee he’ll be fully recovered, though he’s progressing.

Of course, this might matter most because Porzingis will be a free agent this summer. Holding his restricted rights, the Knicks have a lot of leverage.

But they’ve also tested his patience – with not extending his contract, with Phil Jackson, with Jeff Hornacek. Could this put Porzingis toward a drastic step like signing a shorter offer sheet elsewhere or even accepting the low-paying qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020?

I doubt it. Few players bypass their first major payday.

Still, until Porzingis signs long-term, there continues to be rumblings that not all is well between him and New York.