OK, Now What: The Orlando Magic have done the improbable. After amassing 14 wins in 51 tries, in the span of the weekend the Magic have taken down the top two teams in the NBA, overcoming 17-point deficits against both the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday and the Indiana Pacers last night.
After the game last night in Orlando, one media member leaned into a Magic player and asked jokingly “Isn’t this a rebuilding team? This isn’t the plan.” The player looked up from his locker and smiled coyly.
Two games does not a season make, but what these two wins have done is prove to the players inside the Magic locker room that they can win when they apply themselves defensively, and they can play with anyone in the NBA, even the top two teams in the game.
After both games, the opposing teams gave credit to the Magic’s second unit – a defensive dynamo that’s been holding team’s best players to single digits in the fourth quarter, in this case the high scoring Kevin Durant and the super potent Paul George.
Shockingly the Magic are only seven games behind the eighth seeded Charlotte Bobcats, which was a running joke in the Magic locker room after the game. Magic forward Kyle O’Quinn pleaded mockingly with his teammate Glen “Big Baby” Davis to “take me to the playoffs, baby… please. I wanna taste the playoffs too.”
While clearly all in jest, the Magic have not lost sight of who they really are after a handful of wins on their home court. What has surfaced is a confidence in each other and trust among the younger guys that continues to grow with each new conquest.
»In Related: The Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects in 2014.
The Magic have been taking about the “steps in the process” and that as much as individuals may want to short-cut that process, it is a learning curve that each player and the roster as a unit must endure to get to the point where they can compete. As much as some players in the locker room would love to see the winning continue, they understand how much home court has helped them and how badly they have played on the road.
Confidence for a young team is huge, and there is no doubt that there is a little swagger and positive energy around the Magic after two highly improbable wins, but there is a reality that two wins isn’t going to change the overall course of the season. The plan in place is to let the young guys learn and grow and given the talent level of those young guys, wins are going to come from that as they learn to trust each other. Equally, because of their inexperience losses are going to come with that too.
It’s been a fun weekend for the Magic players. You can see it in their eyes, you can see it in the bounce they have after games. There is a reality that this isn’t how the season is going to play out, but it is OK for young players to dream a little even if making the playoffs is not part of the plan.
IN RELATED: With the NBA trade deadline just 10 days away things around the Magic are heating up on the trade front. Not necessarily because the Magic are making a ton of outgoing calls, but because there are several would-be suitors for Magic guard Arron Afflalo. The problem for the Magic, or the teams trying to extract Afflalo from the team, is that Orlando really does not seem overly interested in trading Afflalo. Several teams that have made passes at Orlando classify them as listening to offers, engaging in the normal due diligence that teams engage in to understand what’s possible and available at the deadline, but that serious offers are not being considered and that real trade scenarios are not taking place. This could be a case of the Magic playing a little poker in the days leading up to the deadline or it genuinely could be that the Magic are not going to make a trade involving their best player. A lot of conversations will take place over the next ten days, so things can and often do take a different tone after the All-Star break, but if the Magic’s stance today is any indicator do not be surprised if the Magic hold the line and finish the season with what they have on the roster and explore trades and real moves in the off-season.
Taking It Slow With Bynum: An informal survey of the players in the Indiana Pacers locker room yielded pretty much the same response with regards to new Pacer big man Andrew Bynum. Shoulder shrugs.
The Pacers inked Bynum to a one-year deal last week worth a reported $1 million for the balance of the season. As one Pacer insider put it, “its low risk, high reward”.
Bynum has spent one day with the Pacers and has been allowed to deal with some personal issues that sources close to the situation say involve an ailing family member. The Pacers are taking a very slow and deliberate approach with Bynum, looking to work with him on physical therapy and strength and conditioning with one goal in mind – have him ready for the postseason.
»In Related: The Indiana Pacers Team Salary Page.
The Pacers are not expecting much from Bynum and it’s clear that the players in the locker room want to see him put in the work before they buy into him being anything to the team.
The one thing that was clear in talking to Pacer players is that there hasn’t been much of a need to police behavior inside the locker room. Each guy on the team understands what’s at stake and what needs to be done. Pacers big man David West said that there hasn’t been anything notable all year and that everyone has sold out to the cause and bought into the program.
Before Bynum gets a seat at their table, he is going to have to prove that he’ll do the work to be part of the unit.
One Pacer insider said that there would be a low tolerance for Bynum, that if he does not come in and work hard that he could just as easily be gone as he was brought in and that nothing was promised to Bynum other than the chance to come in and work and earn a chance to be part of team trying to win something.
The first step for Bynum is strength training and rehab. There is a belief that that’s going to happen soon, from there is will be about how hard he works to get into condition and from there the coaching staff will decide if he gets minutes and when.
The Pacers plan from the beginning is to have him ready for the postseason. They are not overly interested in trying to fast track or accelerate that. The view Bynum as an all-upside project, but it will be on him to earn the trust of a team that’s been together for a while and to get his body and mind behind what Indiana is trying to do.
The Pacers’ players were extremely complimentary of him, but cautioned he’d spent one day around the team, so they want to see what he does to prepare before they create a seat at the table for him.
The Tough Road For Cleveland: Making the playoffs matters. As much as fans may love the idea of landing top tier draft picks or may understand all too well that being the eighth seed usually means an early exit, but there are real non-basketball benefits to making the postseason that even marginal teams covet.
Season ticket sales go up when a team makes the playoffs. TV and radio rights deals go up when a team makes the playoffs. Advertising and corporate sales go up when teams make the playoffs and most importantly it is a lot easier to get an existing roster to buy into the plan when the playoffs are the result. The same is true of free agency. Free agents tend to look at playoff bound teams a little more attractively than lottery bound teams.
»In Related: Should The Cavs Trade Kyrie Irving?
‘A rising tide will lift all boats’, is an expression about mutual benefits and the playoffs for almost every team in sports is exactly that. Everything gets better when you make the postseason.
So as the Cleveland Cavaliers parted ways with general manager Chris Grant last week and appointed former assistant GM David Griffin to the post of interim GM, there is a singular goal at play: Make the playoffs.
As Griffin addressed the media about his mindset it was clear that Cleveland is not throwing in the towel and that fire sale in Cleveland is not coming, unless the outgoing players return better talent.
“I don’t see how you get better and win more games selling,” Griffin said to reporters. “We’re going to buy to the extent that it makes us better for the long haul. I don’t think we’re going to do anything that’s an act of desperation. I think we’re going to be willing to buy the right asset at the right price. We are dedicated 100 percent from top to bottom to getting better and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Griffin said he still believed in the roster he helped assemble as the assistant general manager, but acknowledged that some things needed to change.
“We lost our mojo somewhere,” Griffin said. “We lost our way somehow. We have compelling talent.
“I want to see us smile more. I want to see us enjoy this. I want to see us remember this is a game. I want to see us remember that there’s passion involved in this. We’re not robots. Nobody is flawless. We’ve all made mistakes.”
Griffin is expected to finish out the season as the general manager and will get a chance to keep the job long-term as the team embarks on a search for a new permanent leader this summer.
“I want to do that which puts us in the best position to be successful,” Griffin said. “We’ll analyze every opportunity and we’ll look for every opportunity that does that for us.
“I’m here right now. Dan (Gilbert) has shown faith in me. He’s put me in a position to be very successful right now. I have full latitude to do this job.”
There has already been a mountain of speculation about who the Cavs will contact in the offseason, however Cavs sources said that dealing with the immediate problems is what’s most pressing and that while Griffin will lead the way on many fronts a lot of the decisions that will be made, especially regarding trades, will be made in a collective effort that will include Gilbert.
The Cavaliers are 18-33 on the season which puts them three games out of the playoff picture in the East. The Cavs have won two straight, but just three of their last ten games.
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NBA AM: All-Time Biggest Comeback Wins
The Warriors’ big 24-point comeback over the weekend was incredible, but where did it rank all time?
One of the biggest NBA stories of the weekend was the Philadelphia 76ers scoring 47 points against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter Saturday night, only to blow their 24-point lead in fairly embarrassing fashion.
Kevin Durant joked about not being able to lose to Philadelphia for fear for Joel Embiid peacocking on Twitter afterward, while Embiid wrote about taking the loss in stride, adding “blowing a big lead” to their arsenal of experiences to avoid repeating in games to come.
In any event, that 24-point comeback was one of the most impressive comebacks in NBA history, though the good news for the Sixers is that there have been bigger blown leads than their own. Some of them much, much bigger. Heck, the Miami HEAT blew a 25-point lead just two weeks ago, so crazier things have happened.
The following are those crazier things. These are the biggest blown leads in NBA history:
#5 Boston Celtics vs. L.A. Lakers (2008) – By the time Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals had started, the Celtics had taken a 2-1 lead in the series, and the pivotal Game 4 was going to go down in Los Angeles. From the get-go, the Lakers looked like they were going to tie the series with little problem, jumping out to a quick 26-7 lead and finishing the first quarter up by 21 points. The lead got as large as 24 at one point, with L.A. still holding a 20-point lead with six minutes left in the third quarter.
But Boston ripped off a 21-3 run to finish the third quarter, cutting the lead to two and making it a much more exciting game than the first two-and-a-half quarters suggested. Their spirits broken, L.A. lost the game and, eventually, the series.
#4 Utah Jazz vs. Portland Trail Blazers (2010) – The Jazz came into Portland for this February game back in 2010 without starting center Mehmet Okur, whose absence was felt immensely as the Jazz fell into a 25-point deficit, trailing by 23 halfway through the third quarter. After chipping away at that lead throughout the fourth quarter, Utah still faced a four-point hole with just 30 seconds to go in the game, but Deron Williams made a couple of free throws, the Jazz got a stop on the defensive end, and Carlos Boozer put-back a last-second miss to send the game into overtime, where the Jazz put the finishing touches on the remarkable comeback win.
#3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Dallas Mavericks (2008) – The Minnesota Timberwolves in 2008 were not good. Still rebuilding post-Garnett, they had no business jumping out to a massive lead over the much more talented Dallas Mavericks, but that’s exactly what happened. The mediocre Wolves built a seemingly insurmountable 29-point lead, but as it happens, the lead was in fact quite mountable, as the Mavericks ripped into that lead thanks in large part to 24 second-half points by Jason Terry. With a seven-point victory, the Mavericks pulled off an impressive 36-point turnaround, albeit against one of the league’s worst teams.
#2 Sacramento Kings vs. Chicago Bulls (2009) – In one of the most stunning comebacks in league history, the Sacramento Kings rallied from being down 79-44 with 8:50 remaining in the third quarter to demoralize a Bulls team that flat-out didn’t see it coming. Sacramento finished the quarter on a 19-5 run to cut the lead to 19, then got it down to 95-91 with 2:28 left in the game. Rookie Tyreke Evans outscored the entire Bulls’ team 9-3 the rest of the way, and the comeback was complete. All of this was in Chicago, and the city’s fans literally booed the Bulls off the court. Needless to say, that was Vinny Del Negro’s last season as head coach in Chicago.
#1 Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz (1998) – In the midst of a seven-game winning streak, a Jazz team featuring Karl Malone and John Stockton did not enter this contest against Denver in 1998 expecting to fall into a 36-point deficit. The score was 70-36 at halftime with the lead expanding further in the third quarter, but that’s when Utah started to grind their way into the lead behind big nights from Malone (31 points) and Jeff Hornacek (29 points). Despite it being a record-breaking comeback, there was no one big remarkable moment. Rather, the Jazz just dismantled the Nuggets through attrition over the course the second half en route to a truly impressive come-from-way-behind victory.
The fact that teams have come back from deficits this huge is exactly why current NBA teams talk about never taking the foot off the gas. Almost no lead is safe, and that’s the beautiful thing about basketball. Sometimes the momentum shifts, and all that planned Twitter bragging goes right down the tubes. At least in Philadelphia’s case the team on the other end of the comeback was the defending champs.
And as this list proves, it could always be worse.
NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet
The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.
The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.
With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.
We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.
And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.
All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.
What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.
So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?
It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.
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Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.
In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.
The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.
The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.
Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.
Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.
Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.
It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.
The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.
In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.
You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.
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There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.
And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.
If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.
Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.
NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles
Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.
Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.
That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.
Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.
All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.
Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.
The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.
“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”
The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.
Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.
Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.
Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.
After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.
By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.
Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.
“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”
Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.
For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.
While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.
“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”
Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.
From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.
With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.