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NBA combine: Ejim stars with shooters to spare

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CHICAGO — With every release, Melvin Ijim’s confidence grew. Catch, release, splash.

The Iowa State power forward is viewed by most teams as a wing player at 6 feet 6, but he made good on his determined intent to show at the 2014 NBA Draft Combine that he could shoot with the best of them.

“I think I bring a lot of those intangibles, a lot of versatility. Those are valuable pieces to teams. Vocal guys that help you win,” said Ejim, comparing his NBA-like traits with Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler and Miami Heat forward Shane Battier.

“I think I bring a lot to the table and a team that chooses to invest in me is going to have nothing to worry about and someone that is going to work hard every day, push guys on the team, want to be coached, want to get better.”

Ejim was also second in the three-quarter court sprint 3.14 seconds. He said he expected doubters this week, but left no question about his ability to shoot after playing many minutes in the paint for the Cyclones.

Ejim made 18 of 25 from NBA 3-point range on Thursday and kept pouring on the positives in Friday’s workout to leave the two-day event as one of the most buzzworthy in a draft overcrowded with shooters.

In part, Ejim was able to separate himself based on who did not participate. Michigan sharpshooter Nik Stauskas said even a great shooting week “really wasn’t going to do much for me.”

Like Ejim, Stauskas could have some position versatility. He measured 6-6 1/2 and 206.9 pounds, and despite a wiry frame, some see him as a combo guard with the handle to slide to point guard.

He is working out daily with Creighton’s Doug McDermott, who said Stauskas opened his eyes with his ability to shoot off the dribble.

McDermott shot 45 percent from 3-point range last season and led the NCAA in scoring the past two years. He is the kind of “space creating shooter” that could be deadly on a team with an established big man.

“We dream of playing in the Spurs’ system,” McDermott said of his ideal NBA fit.

Duke guard Rod Hood was a popular interview for NBA teams this week, too, and said he is largely viewed as a score-first guard. He watched Manu Ginobili of the Spurs, James Harden of the Thunder — both left-handers scorers, like Hood — and would like to pattern his NBA game after Pacers All-Star Paul George.

“I’m a scorer, they’re wing players that can score,” he said.

Australian Dante Exum was listed by NBA scouting as a shooting guard. At 6-6, he is more of a ballhandler and said his range is a work in progress. Exum did not shoot or work in on-court drills, and told teams in interviews that he was a point guard.

“I said straight up that I’m a 1, that’s the one position that got me here and that’s what I’m going to keep going forward with,” Exum said.

POTENTIAL PAC

Two players who generated a ton of buzz at the combine were Pac-12 standouts Aaron Gordon of Arizona and UCLA’s Zach LaVine.

Both freshmen are extremely athletic, but raw and underdeveloped physically. Gordon could be a lottery pick, and it would not be a surprise to see LaVine drafted in the teens.

“I see myself as a forward, I see myself as a basketball player,” Gordon said. “Obviously, you have to play a position in the NBA, but I’m going to be out there, I’ll be able to do a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Post-ups, knock down jumpers, hit 3s, get by people. I feel very confident in myself that I can put 4 and 3 and whichever somebody wants to play me at is fine.”

Gordon skipped shooting and other basketball drills here. But he impressed nonetheless. Only Indiana 7-footer Noah Vonleh (11 3/4 inches) had bigger hands than Gordon (10 1/2), who had a 7-foot wingspan and 5 percent body fat percentage on his 220-pound frame. His max vertical was 39 inches, and he cleared the entire measurement rack on his first attempt. Gordon said he was disappointed and his all-time best is 42 inches.

Gordon (2.76 seconds) and LaVine (2.80 seconds) were 1-2 in the shuttle drill, measuring stop-and-start agility and explosiveness.

LaVine was the fastest player measured in lane-agility drill, a combination of lateral defensive slide and sprint. He also was third at the event with a 41 1/2-inch vertical, which showed on the court when he elevated to release the ball smoothly over defenders.

LaVine moved into the point guard group on Thursday after initially being scheduled to participate with shooting guards.

“I’m always going to be in the gym … whatever it takes to win,” LaVine said. “I really feel like I can benefit whatever position they put me in. I’m going to go out and work my hardest and do whatever the team needs me to do.”

CRAFT TALKS

Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft might be viewed as a long shot. He is only 6 feet tall and an unorthodox setup and release could lead to having his shots easily blocked in the NBA. That was an issue in two-on-two drills Friday.

Craft said he did not interview with any NBA teams this week, which could be an indication of his current draft stock.

Craft is open to being viewed as a deep rotational player whose expertise is defense. He was fourth in the lane agility drill (10.78 seconds).

“We all wish we could shoot like Steph Curry,” he said.

“My calling card has been defense since I’ve been playing basketball. That’s what I’m going to continue to lean on. That’s what I do. The people I’ve gotten to play against has helped show that I can guard the most athletic if I need to.”

SMART’S GUY

Likely lottery pick Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State was overshadowed Thursday and Friday by former Cowboys teammate Markel Brown.

Brown was a combine all-star, finishing in the top three of most strength and agility drills. He blazed a 3.18-second three-quarter court sprint (fifth), tied for first with a 36 1/2-inch standing vertical and tied for first with Arizona State’s Jahii Carson with a 43 1/2-inch max vertical. The event record is 46 inches set by Memphis’ D.J. Stevens in 2013.

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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Rockets spoil Griffin’s return in testy affair

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If James Harden needed any extra motivation against the Los Angeles Clippers, he found it in the first half.

Harden scored 34 points, and the Rockets held on for a 100-98 victory over the Clippers in a sometimes testy affair on Sunday at Staples Center.

Point guard Chris Paul, who finished with 23 points, missed a contested shot at the buzzer that would have forced overtime.

“It was very important for us just to go out there and play well,” said Harden, who hit seven of 16 shots from the floor, three of five from 3-point range and 17 of 18 free throws. “The last two games we kind of struggled a little bit, but we got our pop back a little bit today, and it was a good win for us.”

Harden provided much of that pop, particularly in the second quarter after Clippers forward Matt Barnes was whistled for a flagrant-1 foul after pushing Harden to the court at 6:02. Harden scored 15 of his 18 points in the period after that, leading the Rockets to a 58-50 halftime lead.

Did the flagrant foul add more fuel for the Rockets’ All-Star guard and MVP candidate?

“Yeah. Things like that are fun,” said Harden, who had 24 points in the first half. “We have fun, we got boosted off of that.”

The win ended a two-game skid for the Rockets (44-22). Houston forward Trevor Ariza scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while forward Terrence Jones added 16 points and 12 boards.

“This was a win that we needed, especially on the road,” Ariza said. “Going into the home stretch, these are the types of games we have to win.”

Los Angeles forward Blake Griffin returned after missing 15 games due to surgery on his right elbow. Griffin had 11 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, but committed five turnovers in 41 minutes.

“I didn’t think I played well,” said Griffin, who managed 4-of-10 shooting. “I was out of rhythm. Way too many turnovers, obviously.”

Barnes scored 19 points and guard J.J. Redick had 15 for the Clippers (42-24), who fell into a tie for the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference standings with the Dallas Mavericks.

Paul lamented a host of turnovers in the defeat, including a critical one involving center DeAndre Jordan.

“I had some bad turnovers,” said Paul, who committed three of the Clippers’ 20 miscues compared to 13 for the Rockets. “On one, I drove it off DeAndre’s foot, the other one I lost towards the end of the half. We have to take better care of the ball. We still had an opportunity to win, but we just didn’t do it.”

The Clippers came back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. Paul scored seven straight points, capping it with a 3-point basket to tie the score at 96 with 3:05 left in the game. Houston got a 3-pointer by Jones, but Barnes countered with a basket to keep Los Angeles within 99-98 with 1:35 left. Los Angeles, though, never scored again.

Griffin got a steal as Ariza attempted a pass to Harden, but Ariza drew a charging foul as Griffin bolted to the bucket with 12 seconds remaining. Griffin remained unhappy about the call after the game.

“If I speak on that, I’ll get fined,” Griffin said.

Harden hit one of two foul shots with 8.9 seconds left, capping the scoring before Paul failed to connect on a jumper in the lane with Ariza defending.

The Rockets outscored Los Angeles 36-20 in the second quarter despite making just 38.5 percent of their shots compared to 44.4 percent for the Clippers. Overall, the Clippers hit 43.9 percent to 37.2 percent for the Rockets. They also held an edge in 3-point shooting, converting 12 of 26 attempts to seven of 30 for Houston. The Rockets, though were 29 of 36 from the foul line to 14 of 24 for Los Angeles.

Jordan finished with 20 rebounds and four blocks.

NOTES: F Blake Griffin’s return benefits PG Chris Paul as much as any Clipper. “Teams have been able to trap (Paul) far more than they can when Blake is on the floor because of (Griffin’s) ability to pass,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I’m sure CP is the happiest of all to have him back.” … Rivers isn’t sure if injured G Jamal Crawford would return before the playoffs. Crawford has missed six games with a right calf contusion. … Rockets C Dwight Howard sat out his 18th game with a right knee edema. “He’s doing everything he can, he’s trying to get better, but until you’re on the floor, it’s impossible to say,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said regarding Howard’s return. … Both clubs resume play Tuesday. Houston hosts the Orlando Magic, while Los Angeles plays the Charlotte Hornets at Staples Center.

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Ginobili sprains ankle as Spurs rout Timberwolves

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SAN ANTONIO — The fourth and final meeting of the season between the San Antonio Spurs and the Minnesota Timberwolves looked a lot like the first three.

Forward Kawhi Leonard scored a team-high 15 points as San Antonio defeated Minnesota 123-97 Sunday night at the AT&T Center. The only downside for the Spurs was losing guard Manu Ginobili due to a sprained right ankle.

Leonard was one of seven San Antonio players to score in double figures as the Spurs (41-24) completed a season sweep of Minnesota (14-51). The average margin of victory in the games as 23.

The Spurs earned their seventh win in eight games.

Guard Kevin Martin scored 19 points and guard Zach LaVine added 18 for the Timberwolves, who were missing many players on the final game of a four-game road trip. Minnesota lost its fourth game in a row.

“We moved (the ball) well, but it wasn’t a fair fight,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “Their guys are devastated by their injuries, so I thought we had good focus under the circumstances. They still played the right way, so that was the best part of the game.”

The Spurs pulled away in the third quarter behind a 13-0 run. The Wolves only shot 27.3 percent in the third, and the Spurs made 63.6 of their field goals while outscoring Minnesota 33-13 in the period.

“That’s what great teams do,” Martin said. “We knew they were going to do that. Kawhi Leonard had a first half that he probably didn’t want to have, and I’m sure Pop let him know about it. He came out in the second half and changed the whole game.”

Ginobili had to be helped off the court late in the third quarter, and he did not return. He was hurt with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs up by 30 points.

Ginobili was taken immediately to the locker room and did not put any weight on his right leg, and he will be out for a to 10 days, Popovich said. Ginobili finished the game with 11 points in 19 minutes.

San Antonio forward Jeff Ayres sustained a rib contusion in the second half and also sat out the rest of the contest.

Sunday night marked the first time San Antonio stepped back on the court since a 128-125 overtime loss to the Cavaliers on Thursday that included a 57-point performance by Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving. The loss snapped the Spurs’ six game winning streak.

Minnesota dressed only eight players. Forward Kevin Garnett (knee), guard Ricky Rubio (ankle) and center Nikola Pekovic (ankle) were all ruled out by coach Flip Saunders before the game.

“It wasn’t a fair fight,” Saunders said. “We just weren’t alert mentally, as far as trying to play. They just mauled us basically.”

The Spurs took advantage of Minnesota’s depleted lineup and jumped out to a quick 8-2 lead behind guard Tony Parker, who made his first four shots of the game and finished the night with 11 points and eight assists. Minnesota trailed 60-50 at halftime.

The Spurs led by as many as 39 points in the fourth quarter.

Even though San Antonio was facing a team without a full complement of players, forward Tim Duncan said the final game of a 5-1 homestand was a sign of good things to come.

“We’re turning that corner,” said Duncan, who finished with 10 points, six rebounds and six assists. “I think we’re heading the right direction. The huge loss last game, I felt like we gave that one away. But other than that, we’re on the right track.”

San Antonio will hit the road for back-to-back games in New York on Tuesday and in Milwaukee on Wednesday. The Timberwolves head home to face the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night.

NOTES: San Antonio moved percentage points ahead of the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers for fifth place in the Western Conference standings. The Clippers lost Sunday, while the Mavericks were idle. … Minnesota F Kevin Garnett (knee) missed his fourth game in a row. … Spurs G Manu Ginobili was back in action against Minnesota after battling a stomach illness that caused him to miss the team’s game against Toronto on Tuesday and play less than 10 minutes against Cleveland on Thursday.

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Irving leads Cavaliers to rout of Magic

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ORLANDO — Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving is in the midst of an incredible shooting zone. And he’s loving every minute of it. Irving followed his NBA-best, 57-point scoring burst on Thursday with a more-efficient, 33-point effort Sunday, leading the Cavaliers to a 123-108 victory over the outmatched Orlando Magic.

Irving was sensational again.

In the last two games, Irving has made 12 of 13 shots from 3-point range. He has made 32 of 47 shots overall. He made the Cavs look unstoppable.

“It’s just a feel, an overall body feel right now,” Irving said. “The basketball feels a little bit better. It’s a fun game right now, and it’s fun to be part of something like this.”

Irving made 12 of his 15 shots Sunday and hit five of six from 3-point range, finding time to add four rebounds and four assists in leading the Cavs (43-25) to their fourth consecutive victory.

“Someone did ask me (before the game), what does he do for an encore (after his 57 point effort),” said Cavs coach David Blatt. “I didn’t have a good answer, But 12 of 15 from the field, in 34 minutes. That’s a pretty good encore. And he played right, which is the most important thing. It’s not the scoring as much as it is him just being engaged, locked in.”

LeBron James happily provided the perfect complement and setup man. He had 21 points, 13 assists, eight rebounds, and three steals, creating opportunities for everyone else. The Cavs buried the Magic by making 18 of 35 3-point shots, most of which were wide open.

Guard J.R. Smith scored 25 points, leading the 3-point onslaught by making six of his 10 from long range.

“I thought LeBron seemed to be seeing everyone in the gym tonight,” Blatt said. “And he threw it to them in the shooting pocket, and it seemed like that made every one. It seemed like he found guys in the eighth row that could make an open shot tonight.”

The Cavs received a brief scare midway in the third period when James went up to contest a shot and landed awkwardly, twisting his right knee. He continued to play and looked fine, but he raised the issue about his availability for Monday’s game in Miami.

“A scary moment for myself obviously,” he said. “I’ll see how I feel tomorrow and go from there. I haven’t had one of those falls in a pretty long time. I was happy to stay in the game.”

The Cavs made 45 of 76 shots (59.2 percent). The Magic (21-47) made 42 of 88 (47.7 percent, but they never seriously challenged in the second half, even though they closed to nine points twice in the fourth quarter.

Magic guard Victor Olidipo had 25 points and seven assists. Center Nikola Vucevic had 22 points and 15 rebounds. Rookie point guard Elfrid Payton had 13 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists. Forward Tobias Harris had 24 points and eight rebounds. Reserve guard Luke Ridnour had a season-high 15 points.

Irving made his first four 3-point attempts, giving him 11 consecutive 3-pointers without a miss, dating back to his 7-for-7 effort Thursday against San Antonio. He finally missed from 3-point range midway in the third period.

The Magic twice fouled Smith while he was shooting beyond the 3-point line, accounting for all five of his free throws.

“That’s a tough team. You have to give them credit,” Harris said. “They have a lot of options out there, and guys who can make tough shots. It’s just overall tough for us against a team like that.”

The Cavaliers led 100-86 going into the fourth quarter. Smith made a trio of 3-pointers in the third period, helping hold off every Magic charge in the period.

Smith hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Cavaliers a 84-68 lead. Irving hit a pair of 3-pointers earlier in the period.

The Cavaliers led 66-55 at intermission, riding a red-hot shooting start and a 40-point second quarter. They made 26 of 42 shots (61.9 percent) and eight of their 16 3-point attempts in the first half.

Irving hit both of his 3-pointers in the first half. The Magic held a 28-16 rebound edge in the first half, but they couldn’t keep pace with the Cavaliers, who exploded in the second period when they made 16 of their 20 shots.

The Magic led the entire first quarter. Forward James Jones gave the Cavaliers their first lead when he opened the second with a 3-pointer.

Vucevic and Harris each had 14 points by halftime. James had 15 points and six assists before intermission. Irving made six of his first seven shots for 14 points.

NOTES: The Cavaliers were without PF Kevin Love (sore back), but they were helped by the return of veteran Shawn Marion, who missed the past three weeks with a strained hip muscle. F Tristan Thompson started in Love’s place. … The Magic were without reserve G Willie Green, who missed his third consecutive game with lower back spasms and F Evan Fournier, who missed his eighth consecutive game with a sore right hip. … A quirk in the schedule gave the Cavs two-plus days in balmy Orlando before the game Sunday. The extra time gave one fan of James the opportunity to invite him Friday to his wedding reception Saturday night at the posh hotel where the Cavs were staying. James politely declined.

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