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NBA Daily: Defense Key To Wolves Making Up Ground

Since Minnesota traded for Robert Covington and Dario Saric, the team has a record of 7-2. Taj Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Tom Thibodeau speak on their impact.

Spencer Davies

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When a team digs itself into a hole, it’s not easy to climb out of it.

It’s especially difficult when that team is in the Western Conference, where 14th place and first place in the standings are separated by only five games. There’s a high parity level and competition coming from every way, with little room for error even this early.

The Minnesota Timberwolves started the season in a chaotic fashion. Jimmy Butler wanted out from the onset of training camp and didn’t show up for preseason. When he came back to practice, it caused a distraction that lasted for a month.

It led to a blockbuster trade that brought Robert Covington and Dario Saric into the fold—a deal that has truly refreshed a locker room that needed a fresh beginning. Since Nov. 10—the day the move was made—the Wolves are 7-2 and back to an even record.

“We’ve been coming together as a unit,” Wolves forward Taj Gibson told Basketball Insiders after a win in Cleveland. “We’ve been trying to just make up ground on all the losses that we had early in the season. But we’re slowly gaining ground.”

During that span, Minnesota has the NBA’s lowest defensive rating at 99.6 while holding opponents to a 48.2 percent effective field goal percentage and turning the opposition’s possessions over 16.6 percent of the time—per Cleaning The Glass. The team also recorded its first road wins of the season over the last week.

But can two changes really be that significant? Let’s look at the best two-man defensive lineups (min. 50 minutes) the Wolves have had this season and pick out the common denominator.

According to NBA.com, Covington is in seven of those pairings and Saric is in three. There is only one combined that involves neither, and that is the Gorgui Dieng-Tyus Jones duo, two of the most reliable defenders Tom Thibodeau has off the bench.

Coincidentally, the Wolves’ top five-man unit in defensive rating (80.5) and net rating (35.5) features all four of these players plus Derrick Rose. Thibodeau has seen plenty of results with Covington running with the second unit, which includes Saric.

ESPN 1500’s Danny Cunningham asked Thibodeau why there’s been such a dramatic turnaround with their addition. Minnesota’s head coach points to the toughness and size allowing him to implement more switching. The physicality and versatility that both guys have give other teams a unique look and matchup issues.

Covington’s allowed to be a gambler because he has help behind him. He’s been playing at a high level for a number of years now, but his stealing acumen has always come naturally with quick hands and a knack for causing havoc.

“It’s just a skill,” Gibson said of Covington’s abilities. “We rely on him to get those steals, whatever it takes. We’re being real aggressive with defense. And we kinda get even more aggressive the more that they get comfortable.”

As for what Saric brings to the table, Gibson sees the Croatian forward as a “multiple-task” player who is still young and moldable.

“Dario still hasn’t really got hot the way he normally can,” Gibson said. “It’s only a matter of time before he gets really hot and starts to put it at work.”

The former Philadelphia 76ers have fit in seamlessly, but Gibson thinks there’s still a long way to go.

“The guys haven’t really settled in just yet,” Gibson said. “I feel that they still have a lot more to show…Just gotta keep finding these guys, keep working with them. But I’m ecstatic that they’re here. I’m ecstatic that they’re working hard with us. And they’re team-first kinda guys.”

Perhaps the biggest impact that Covington has made, though, is instilling confidence into All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns. Judging off the interactions that both have had with each other in the same locker room, it is apparent their relationship is developing fast—and it’s shown on the floor.

Though numbers can be skewed by who players are on the floor with, Towns is one of six centers in the league allowing less than 100 points per 100 possessions since the date of the trade. With Covington and the Dominican seven-footer playing together, the Wolves’ DRTG is 96.2, so clearly the former is in the latter’s ear.

“He’s one of the best defenders in the world for a reason,” Towns said of Covington. “There’s a reason why he’s [All-NBA First Team Defense]. He comes in, he brings that energy. But with him doing that, it makes all of us raise our standards on defense and try to match him.

“It’s more about getting yourself going. You gotta energize yourself.”

Gibson is noticing a ramped up physicality in Towns, as well as a better understanding of how to defend certain sets.

“We’re pushing our big man to be more aggressive with the pick-and-roll, to come out more instead of just sitting back and letting our guards go through all the ups and downs,” Gibson said.

“But I felt in the last couple games, I think Karl’s been doing a good job of just attacking the one-on-one matchup as far as with the pick-and-roll, the guards.”

And on the other side of the ball, the Wolves are actively looking to feed him the ball when it counts late in games. Towns creates mismatches often and the team recognizes that, so the goal is to make sure he gets the chance to take advantage.

While KAT’s production is certainly worth talking about, Minnesota’s collective effort is truly stealing the show. The environment is healthy and the players are enjoying themselves.

And if it sustains, the rest of the NBA should be on high alert.

“We still got a lot of the stuff to improve and a lot of things that we can do better – but the defense is one thing that I see us pushing forward,” Gibson said. “We’re trying to be a top 10 defense and if you do that, you’ve got a chance to win each and every night.

“We’re just trying to play as a unit. You never know whose night’s gonna come. But right now, one game at a time. We’re just slowly making up ground, trying to get above .500 in a talented West. But one game at a time.”

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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Underdog Teams With a Shot at the Second Round

Underdogs rarely pull-off upsets in the NBA Playoffs. Yet four underdogs stole a game on their respective opponent’s home floor. Which, if any, can succeed in advancing beyond the first round?

Drew Maresca

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The first round of the NBA Playoffs provides infrequent upsets – especially since 2003 when the first round was extended to a best-of-seven series (from a best-of-five).

Per the usual, this year has its share of favorites in the driver’s seat. For example, it’s a fair assumption that the Celtics, Rockets, Trailblazers and Bucks will advance after winning their first two home games.

All of the aforementioned teams were the higher seed in their respective series and – with the exception of the Trail Blazers vs. Thunder – none were seriously expected to end in upset. And while being down 2-0 isn’t a kiss of death, it is difficult winning four out of five with two of the remaining games on an opponent’s floor; in the 282 seven-game playoff series throughout NBA history, only 20 teams have come back to win from a 2-0 hole, which examines all rounds of the playoffs.

So then let’s focus instead on the underdogs of the 2019 NBA Playoffs who stole a game on their opponent’s floor: the Magic, Clippers, Spurs and Nets, all of whom are tied in their respective series at a game a piece.

For context, according to Westgate Las Vegas Superbook via an article written by Kaelen Jones for Sports Illustrated, the Warriors were -50,000 against the Clippers entering the series;  the Raptors were -1,400 against the Magic; the 76ers were -800 against the Nets and the Nuggets were -200 against the Spurs.

Put plainly, Vegas had no faith in the Clippers and Magic advancing. It felt strongly about the 76ers’ chances to advance past the Nets. And it was marginally confident that the Nuggets would eliminate the Spurs.

And while none of the aforementioned odds conclusively indicate that a team will advance, it speaks to the outlook of experts as of the start of the playoffs.

But experts can be wrong. And while we know all four series should still not be viewed evenly, stealing one of the first two games is the first step to upsetting a favorite.  So which of the four underdogs who stole one of the first two playoff games are most likely to advance (if any)?

From an analytics standpoint, the Spurs have played their first-round opponent the best of the four teams we’re examining. In the aggregate, the Spurs are -4 against their first-round opponent through two games, whereas the Nets and Clippers are both -13 and the Magic are -26.

After splitting the first two games, the Spurs are given a 36.6% chance to advance to the second round of the playoffs by Basketball-Reference.com, which is not the best odds of the four teams. The best odds go the Nets, who are given a 39.1% chance of success. Next up is the Clippers, who are receive a 23.1% chance of advancing. And finally, the Magic have only a 21.1% chance of advancing. Those odds are determined by 1,000 simulations of the remainder of the playoffs after two games.

But we all know that analytics and simulations aren’t 100% accurate – after all, the Warriors’ odds for success on Monday was as high as 99.9% when up 31 points against the Clippers. Players and teams get hot at unexpected times and coaching and strategy plays a bigger factor in the playoffs more than it does in the regular season.

So what else might affect the outcomes? Let’s examine three factors that could swing the results in favor of the underdogs.

Brooklyn Nets: Jared Dudley

His initial allure to the Nets was his veteran leadership. And that was valuable enough to justify his spot on the roster.

But his impact on Game 1 was profound. However, he was sorely missed in Game 2 as he was recovering from a tight right calf.

In Game 1, Dudley guarded Ben Simmons on 22 possessions, Joel Embiid on three possession, Boban Marjanovic on seven possessions and Mike Scott on 11, in which time they scored a combined two points (Simmons). Drilling down to the All-Stars (Simmons and Embiid), that’s two points on 25 possessions. Not bad for a veteran leader.

And after examining game film from the first game, his value is even more clear. His defensive instincts are incredibly sound. Dudley makes the right choices far more often than not, as evidenced by his discipline in transition when picking up Simmons. He regularly correctly sagged off of Simmons, resisted the urge to bite on fakes and forced Simmons to take less-than-ideal shots or pass the ball.

And Dudley is a willing passer and screener, too, rarely shooting the ball unless open. He provides the Nets with energy, focus and wisdom. If the Nets are to advance, they will need everything they can get from Dudley, who is listed as probable for Thursday night’s game in Brooklyn.

Orland Magic: Point guard play and three-point shooting

The Magic have a few kinks to iron out that could sway their fortunes.

The first of the two comes from D.J. Augustin. They’ll need Augustin to play like the capable floor general he proved he can be in Game 1 when he dropped 25 points and six assists on the Raptors and shot 80% from three-point range, including a game-winning shot with 3.5 seconds remaining.

On the contrary, when he plays like he did in Game 2 – 9 points, 0 assists and 0-1 from three-point range – the Magic will struggle.

Augustin has the ability to be his team’s best three-point shooter and most capable playmaker with the ball in his hands. He must summon his best play if they are to stand a chance against the Raptors.

But Augustin’s strong play and improved shooting won’t do it alone. The Magic must must shoot better as a team, notably on three-point field goals. In Game 1, the Magic seized that opportunity, shooting a scorching 48% from deep on 29 attempts – that adds up to 42 points on three-pointers. Compare that to Game 2, in which they shot only 26.5% from three-point territory, which resulted in only 27 points.

Hitting the three-ball has residual benefits that are arguably as important as the points. It opens up driving lanes and forces the defense to either close-out aggressively on shooters or deny them the basketball – either way, the result is a better-spaced floor. While it will be a dog fight for the Magic, they’ll have a shot if they can shoot the three at an above average clip and get elite level play from their point guard and floor general.

San Antonio: Home court advantage

San Antonio isn’t typically mentioned among the elite home crowds by the mainstream media. We hear about Denver and Golden State regularly, and rightfully so. Madison Square Garden gets props despite not playing host to a competitive team in some years. Philly has a reputation for being aggressive, too. But the Spurs home record hints that its home court should get more props than it does.

The Spurs were tied for the third-best home record during the regular season (32-9). Add in the fact that the Nuggets had a sub-.500 winning percentage on the road in 2018-19 and we have a recipe for an upset. Interestingly, the inverse is also true – the Spurs were a sub-par road team and the Nuggets a superb home team – so it’s far from guaranteed that the Spurs win the next two. But if they can, the Spurs will go back to Denver up 3-1 with three opportunities to close out the series.

The NBA Playoffs is less about early-round upsets than it is about seeing giants go head-to-head in the conference semifinals and beyond. The first round and its victors is mostly an afterthought. But maybe not this year. There is potential for more than one underdog to advance, which would shake-up the playoff landscape moving forward. The next step in that journey begins tonight, as the Nets, Spurs and Clippers all look to defend their respective home courts.

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NBA Daily: Who Is Headed To The Lakers Next?

With the recent departure of both Magic Johnson and Luke Walton, Jordan Hicks takes a look at where the Lakers stand and who they may end up hiring.

Jordan Hicks

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It is hard to pinpoint exactly how the Los Angeles Lakers organization is feeling at the moment. They’ve now missed the playoffs six seasons in a row, their sole star player – although playing really well – is aging and their young core of high-draft picks still hasn’t found any form of consistency – not to mention a fair share of injury problems.

Flashback to the summer of 2018 and things were going great. Magic Johnson – then president of the organization – had just inked the best player in the NBA to a four-year deal. What followed next was certainly interesting.

Instead of pairing LeBron James with a second superstar-caliber player, the Lakers decided to ink the likes of JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley, Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson. A lineup of players so diverse and flashy that most couldn’t help but dub them the Meme Team. The nickname, although silly, was absolutely fitting.

By the end of the season, Rondo and McGee were the only players from that group who were making any sort of an impact. Stephenson found himself injured and Beasley found himself out of the NBA altogether.

To the surprise of no one, those players never really meshed well with the young core of Lonzo Ball, Kyla Kuzma, Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram. Their impact wasn’t much better when sharing the court with James.

By the end of it all, the Lakers found themselves 11 games out of the playoffs. LeBron missed 17 crucial games midseason. The Lakers could have very well gone 11-6 during that stretch, but blaming their omission from the playoffs on James’ slightly-more-than-minor injury just masks the real issues.

Yes, the members of the Meme Team were all on expiring deals, but to think the Lakers left all their problems behind is egregious.

Perhaps the worst thing that happened all season was the myriad of rumors during the trade deadline that involved their entire young core and Anthony Davis. Regardless of what you think, the fact of the matter is that the same agent that represents LeBron also represents Davis. The trade never went down, but there were many solidified rumors that the entire young core of the Lakers was offered for Davis.

This clearly had an impact on the roster, as the Lakers post-All-Star break looked like a completely different team. And LeBron returning to the roster didn’t really make a major impact at all.

The reason for all this build up is to really illustrate the issues both the new president of basketball operations, as well as the new head coach, will come into. Recently, Magic Johnson resigned from his position and a few days later Luke Walton was fired. Reports have also surfaced that current general manager Rob Pelinka is the man that now controls most, if not all, of what goes on within the organization.

On Tuesday morning, Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports reported that Los Angeles already has their replacement for team president. Other reports have suggested that Monty Williams and Tyronn Lue are their two preferred options at Head Coach.

With Lue, you basically have an idea of what you’re going to get. Lue and James found success in Cleveland, making the NBA Finals every year they were together, as well as winning one championship. Shortly after James’ departure, Lue was fired.

This isn’t to say Ty Lue is a bad coach. But what you get with Lue is a very LeBronp-focused team. Lue has no problem taking the backseat – in a sense of the word – to James. They seemed to work really well together, and the Lakers surely would be hoping to regenerate the same sort of success the duo found in Cleveland.

Monty Williams, on the other hand, brings with him a rich history in the league and much more experience than Lue. He has served as a head coach with the New Orleans Pelicans, president of the San Antonio Spurs, an assistant on the U.S. National Team and is currently the assistant to Brett Brown in Philadelphia.

It is hard to say who exactly the Lakers favor, but in the same report highlighted previously, Williams could be offered the head coaching job with the 76ers if they don’t make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. That scenario seems very realistic.

Hiring Lue may be the preferred choice of LeBron James. They have a history, LeBron is comfortable with his coaching style, and his LeBron’s career clock is certainly ticking away. He really doesn’t have a season to waste adapting to the coaching style of someone he isn’t familiar with.

Regardless of who the Lakers hire, even Greg Poppovich himself likely couldn’t take the current roster, as-is, to the NBA Finals. They will certainly need to acquire a second star in free agency or, at worst, a slew of high-level role players.

Whomever they decide to go with at head coach – or whoever chooses to accept the job offer – will have a lot on their plate.

But the one glaring positive in all of this? There isn’t – at least arguably – a franchise in the NBA with a deeper history of success than the Los Angeles Lakers. Regardless of the current state of the franchise, the position alone should be coveted by many potential coaching prospects and candidates around the league.

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NBA Daily: Garrett Temple Fitting In With Clippers

David Yapkowitz sits down with Los Angeles Clippers swingman Garrett Temple to discuss his niche with the team and the culture they’ve established under Doc Rivers.

David Yapkowitz

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It’s been a season of silencing the doubters for the Los Angeles Clippers. Back in October when the NBA season began, you’d be hard pressed to have found anyone that would’ve given them a chance at making the playoffs.

Flash forward to the present, and they not only have made the postseason, but they’re currently tied 1-1 in the first round with the defending champion Golden State Warriors – and with the next two games on their home-court.

Even as recently as the trade deadline, there were people and pundits who doubted them when they traded away Tobias Harris, who was having an All-Star caliber season. But the new guys who arrived in February have been a huge reason why the Clippers continued to win, especially Garrett Temple.

The nine-year veteran began this season in Memphis after having spent the last two years with the Sacramento Kings. When the Clippers dealt Avery Bradley at the deadline, Temple – along with JaMychal Green – was one of the two pieces the Grizzlies sent back.

Temple had been a bit of journeyman prior to his time with the Kings and the four years before with the Washington Wizards. From his rookie season in 2009-10 to 2012-13, he had stints with the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Milwaukee Bucks and Charlotte Hornets. When he first arrived in LA, he could tell right away the locker room dynamic.

“It’s great, we have a team where everybody knows their roles, everybody wants to win,” Temple told Basketball Insiders. “Winning is most important here, there’s no egos. We have a team like this where guys are coming together to do whatever coach [Doc Rivers] says. When it’s all about winning, good things can happen.”

And good things did happen. Following the trade deadline, the Clippers went 17-7, including win streaks of five and six games, to finish the season. They were two wins short of winning 50 games.

Temple had a big hand in that, sort of taking over the role Bradley played as the defensive-minded guard, who can stretch the floor and knock down the three.

“Coming off the bench, I give them some defensive energy. I give energy on the offensive end too, in transition, pushing the ball, make my open shots when I’m open,” Temple told Basketball Insiders. “When I get the chance, I make sure I push the pace. But just bringing that energy on the defensive side.”

Defense has been Temple’s strong suit since he’s been in the NBA. At 6-foot-6, he’s got the size to defend both guard positions as well as some small forwards. In this playoff series, he’s got the daunting task of being matched up against Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson.

But defense is something he prides himself on. He isn’t going to back down no matter who is standing across from him. Even as the oldest player in the Clippers locker room, he remains one of their best defenders.

“No question, I’ve prided myself on that since I got in the NBA. It’s part of the reason why I’ve been able to stay in the league,” Temple told Basketball Insiders. “A lot of guys in this league come off the bench and try to score. I pride myself on being that guy on the bench unit that can defend any three positions on the court.”

Since coming over to the Clippers, Temple has been averaging 4.7 points in 19.7 minutes per game. Normally a reliable three-point threat, his shooting numbers have dipped a bit. He’s down to 29.6 percent from three.

None of the team played well enough to mention in Game 1. But in the Game 2 thrilling comeback, Temple gave solid contributions of seven points, knocking down both his free throws and knocking down one of his two attempts from three-point range.

“You don’t fix what’s not broken, you continue to do what you do, whatever’s your strength,” Temple told Basketball Insiders. “Obviously there’s different transitions and different lingo, but at the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I find myself getting comfortable with what our coaches like us to do on the defensive end and offensive end, and trying to fit in well.”

It remains to be seen what happens in this series against the Warriors, but one thing is for sure – the Clippers definitely have Golden State’s attention. To this group, though, the fact that they were able to pull off a historic comeback probably isn’t surprising to them. They’ve prided themselves all season on having this tough mentality.

Temple recognized it right away before the playoffs even began. When he was in Memphis, he experienced the ‘Grit and Grind’ culture of hard-nosed basketball that the team had embraced. He noticed a similar time vibe with the Clippers, a vibe he knew would make them scary come playoff time.

“Just the fact that everybody is hungry, everybody understands their role. There’s no question from anybody what they’re supposed to do when they get on the court. It’s tough when you have a team that just got together,” Temple told Basketball Insiders.

“I think the biggest thing is we know what everybody does. We have enough firepower offensively, we have enough defensive pieces, and we have a Hall-of-Fame coach. We have a good recipe to be somebody to be reckoned with.”

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