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LaMarcus Aldridge: I keep telling Damian Lillard I’ll return to Trail Blazers

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When LaMarcus Aldridge requested a trade from the Spurs in 2017, he reportedly tried to return to the Trail Blazers. He patched things up with San Antonio, but apparently his desire to join Portland hasn’t dissipated.

Aldridge on Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, Jason Quick of The Athletic:

I keep telling him I’m going to come back and finish there. That’s something him and I have talked about — playing together again.

It’s great Aldridge and Lillard have found a deeper connection. Aldridge left Portland on bad terms. Quick’s story has many great details about Aldridge’s and Lillard’s relationship now.

But this is the type of thing players talk about far more frequently than actually comes to fruition. Will Aldridge actually sign with the Trail Blazers later in his career? Will they actually want him back? There’s a long way between this wistful thinking and a deal.

Aldridge’s contract doesn’t expire until 2021. He’ll turn 35 that summer. So much will change by then.

Still, it’s interesting to know how Aldridge is thinking now.

Three Things to Know: Warriors cranking up defense as playoffs near

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) Warriors cranking up their defense as playoffs near, just ask the Pacers. Golden State’s defense this season has been like the team in general: There some nights and not others. Inconsistent. Blame injuries or lack of depth or just boredom, but on the season the Warriors have been a middle of the pack defensive team.

No longer. Starting to focus on good habits before the playoffs, the Warriors have cranked up the defense of late, with a defensive net rating of 100.7 in their last five games (just over a point per possession), and they are smothering teams. Such as the Pacers. A scrappy Indiana team scored less than 20 points in two quarters and the Warriors cruised to a 112-89 win Thursday night. The Warriors held the Pacers to 24 percent shooting in the first quarter, 32.7 percent in the first half.

Draymond Green remains the guy who makes the defense work, and DeMarcus Cousins now provides a big body in the paint to deter shots, but the Warriors defense really works best when players such as Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are engaged. Of late, they have been.

Offensively against the Pacers, DeMarcus Cousins led the way with 19 points and 11 boards.

One of the best moments of the night was the warm welcome Andrew Bogut got in his return to Golden State.

Thursday’s win keeps the Warriors half a game ahead of the Nuggets (who also won Wednesday) for the top seed in the West.

2) The bottom half of the West is a seeding battle royal — Jazz, Thunder, Clippers, Spurs all tied in seeds 5-8. Utah had a chance to create a little space in the standings Thursday night, but their legs just got stuck in the mud in Atlanta. After a stellar third quarter, the Jazz looked like a team on the second night of a back-to-back playing their third game in four nights in the fourth, and the Hawks pulled away behind Trae Young (who did more damage with his 11 assists than his shot on the night) to get the win.

With this loss, there is now a four-way tie in seeds 5-8 in the West — Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Utah, and the L.A. Clippers are all 42-30.

This is going to make the final 10 games fun to watch.

Seeding matters. Nobody wants to be the eight seed and get Golden State in the first round (this assumes the Warriors don’t get bored and let Denver get the top seed, but the Nuggets have a much tougher schedule the rest of the way). When I asked Portland coach Terry Stotts about trying to think about playoff matchups in the first round of the West, he said there would be no easy ones in the deep conference so sharp play and momentum are what mattered, and he spoke for pretty much every coach on that front.

How is this going to shake out? The Thunder have by far the toughest schedule, one of the most difficult in the league the rest of the way. The Jazz have the easiest schedule of any team in the West in their remaining games, the Spurs have the second easiest. But nothing about this season has been predictable, this will not be either.

3) Did Ja Morant play his way into being the No. 2 pick in the draft? The NBA world, like the sports world in general, was talking about the triple-double by Murray State’s Ja Morant in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He was impressive.

Did Morant play his way into being the No. 2 pick? (Zion Williamson is a lock at No. 1.) Actually, Morant may have done that before Thursday — he had a strong regular season — and Thursday was more of a reinforcement.

Whether Morant or R.J. Barrett or some surprise player goes second in the draft will come down to the draft lottery and who gets that No. 2 pick. Is it Phoenix or New York, teams in desperate need of a point guard? If the Hawks or Cavaliers land the No. 2 pick, are they looking more at Barrett? It’s too early to say, and it depends on those teams’ internal draft boards and how they rate players.

But Morant is in the mix, and may now be the frontrunner.

Hawks stop Jazz win streak at five thanks to Trae Young

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ATLANTA (AP) Trae Young scored 23 points, including a go-ahead three-point play, and the Hawks beat Utah 117-114 on Thursday night to end the Jazz’s five-game winning streak.

Donovan Mitchell led the Jazz with 34 points.

It was a costly loss. The Jazz entered the game fifth in the Western Conference but only a half-game ahead of a pack of three teams tied for sixth.

Utah led 110-109 before Young’s basket and free throw with 1:47 gave the Hawks the lead.

The Hawks stretched the lead to four points when an officials’ review confirmed a goaltending call against Rudy Gobert on Dewayne Dedmon‘s shot.

A slam by Gobert, who had 12 points and 11 rebounds, cut Atlanta’s lead to 114-112. Dedmon made two free throws. Following a layup by Mitchell, Dedmon made only one of two free throws with 6.2 seconds remaining to give Utah, trailing 117-114, a chance.

Vince Carter fouled Kyle Korver on what was initially ruled a three-shot foul. A review determined Korver would only shoot two free throws. Korver missed both free throws, the second one intentionally, and Mitchell missed a last-second 3-pointer from the corner.

Hawks rookie Kevin Huerter, who had 14 points, sank a 3-pointer to cut Utah’s lead to 99-98 midway through the final period. Ricky Rubio answered with two straight jumpers, including a 3-pointer, and set up a layup by Derrick Favors that pushed the lead to 106-98.

After going 12 of 21 on 3-pointers, Atlanta led 65-54 at halftime.

Mitchell opened the second half with a steal and jam to start a 9-0 run. Gobert had a tip-in and made a free throw in the run. A three-point play by Rubio tied the game at 71-all. Utah took the lead on Royce O'Neale‘s 3-pointer and stretched the lead to 82-73 – capping a 28-8 run to open the half.

TIP-INS

Jazz: Derrick Favors had 15 points and 15 rebounds. Rubio had 17 points and seven assists. … Each of Utah’s five straight wins had been by margins of at least 15 points. … Korver, who played for Atlanta from 2012-17, was honored with a video tribute and received an ovation during a first-period timeout.

Hawks: Kent Bazemore sank three 3-pointers in the final four minutes of the third period to cut Utah’s lead to 91-86 entering the fourth. … Dedmon had 18 points. … Huerter has been overshadowed by fellow rookie Young but also has become a starter with a role in the team’s long-term future. “I think the beauty is he’s a modern day perimeter player,” coach Lloyd Pierce said. Huerter has five games with at least five 3s. Only Young, with six such games, has more among the league’s rookies this season.

UP NEXT

Jazz: Visit Chicago on Saturday night.

Hawks: Host Philadelphia on Saturday night.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Rumor: Kevin McHale, Jim Paxson early candidates for Suns GM job

Associated Press
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Kevin McHale’s terrible reputation as a general manager in Minnesota is overstated, the reality wasn’t as bad. He drafted Kevin Garnett fifth in 1995. He hired Flip Saunders. He drafted O.J. Mayo and traded him for Kevin Love. He drafted Ray Allen…

But then traded Allen for Stephon Marbury. He drafted Brandon Roy and traded him for Randy Foye. There was the secret deal with Joe Smith that forced then-commissioner David Stern to step in and void the contract then fine everyone involved. There was trading Sam Cassell for Marko Jaric. There was firing Flip Saunders.

Okay, so the reputation is not a lot worse than the reality. That may not stop McHale from getting another chance, according to Marc Stein of The New York Times.

Jim Paxson was the GM who drafted LeBron James in Cleveland, although that was a no-brainer. The Cavs went 185-307 during his tenure. After he was let go he was hired to consult with the Bulls, run by his brother John Paxson.

These are only two names, likely there are others are under consideration, but these feel like safe, retread picks. Guys with spotty track records (who both have been out of the game for a few years) but who tell good stories and are the kinds of guys the owner wants to hang around and have dinner with. It shouldn’t be a shock the Suns went this way, they went with the wunderkind in Ryan McDonough last time.

Whoever gets the job, the primary responsibility will be managing Robert Sarver, the owner. Sarver seemed to own up to his meddling ways in a recent conversation with ESPN and implied he would hire the new GM then step back and let the basketball people make basketball decisions. I’m going to call Missouri on this one — show me. I’ll believe it when I see it. If the new GM can keep Sarver at arm’s length and run basketball operations without interference, it would be a huge plus.

Expect this process to drag out until after the season, although with the Suns having a high draft pick they will want someone in place well before that night to set up a strategy. Probably. It’s the Suns so any outcome is possible.

Nick Collison: Thunder should retire Kevin Durant’s number

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Kevin Durant made himself public enemy No. 1 in Oklahoma City by leaving the Thunder for the Warriors three years ago.

Nick Collison, on the other hand, remains beloved in Oklahoma City. Like Durant, he moved with the franchise from Seattle. But Collison stayed until retiring last year.

With the Thunder retiring his number yesterday, Collison vouched for his former teammate.

Collison, in a Q&A with Royce Young of ESPN:

Kevin Durant gave you the nickname “Mr. Thunder.” Do you think the Thunder should eventually retire No. 35?

It’s their decision to make, but I would certainly think so. He’s meant a ton to Thunder basketball and spent a huge majority of his career here. A lot of these honors are just kind of what the team decides to do, and I think players are appreciative of them. I don’t get too worked up about it. I’ll let other people debate that, but to me, he’s a big part of what we did here.

The Thunder will probably retire Durant’s number. Time heals most wounds, likely including this one.

Durant spent eight seasons in Oklahoma City. He won MVP and made five All-NBA first teams and an All-NBA second team there. He helped the Thunder win 10 playoff series.

No matter when each player retires, Oklahoma City will almost certainly retire Russell Westbrook‘s number first. He’s the one who stayed.

But some time after that, I’d bet on Durant getting his number retired.