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NBA Daily: Eastern Conference Second Round X-Factors

In the crushingly competitive Eastern Conference, there are four potential x-factors that could ultimately swing the series.

Ben Nadeau

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By the end of the night, the NBA’s postseason second round will be officially set — first from 30 teams to 16 and soon just nine shall remain. Throughout the regular season — and for much of the last two years, actually — the biggest, most important question has been repeatedly asked ad nauseam: Can the Golden State Warriors be beaten? Thanks to Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and two other likely Hall of Famers, the Warriors have become basketball’s behemoth, with each playoff opponent desperately trying to hang on for one more game.

Well, most of the time.

The Houston Rockets found themselves a win away from dethroning the Warriors in last year’s Western Conference Finals and could’ve done so if not for Chris Paul’s pesky hamstring. Entering the second round, the Rockets will get their long-awaited chance at revenge — but for the entire Eastern Conference bracket, they’re just looking to get one step closer. In Milwaukee, Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia, this postseason offers the ability for a deep run without the constant threat of LeBron James lurking around every corner.

But in order to reach new heights, they’ll need an x-factor to tip the scales in their favor — both new and old — in the ever-closer conference battles.

Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
Postseason: 12 PPG, 5.3 REB, 3.5 BLK, 1.5 3PG

When Lopez signed with Milwaukee on a one-year prove-it deal last offseason, it struck many as an absolute steal for the potential-laden Bucks. Lead by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and a cast of superb supporting characters, Lopez was brought on to provide a steady veteran presence at a position the franchise had struggled to fill over the years. Instead, it turns out, Lopez was just what this team needed.

The 7-footer had dabbled from behind the arc in recent seasons, but his coming out party in Milwaukee has been borderline remarkable. With the Bucks, Lopez averaged 2.3 three-pointers per game at a 36.3 percent clip, all while seamlessly unclogging the paint for the transcendental Antetokounmpo.

By the season’s midway point, Lopez was nonchalantly dribbling into three-pointers and making it look easy too — but with the stakes higher than ever, can he make Boston suffer? The Raptors boast a scary defensive unit, one that held Indiana to just 33.6 percent from deep over their four-game series. Eric Bledsoe and the aforementioned Middleton will have their hands full defending Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum, so Lopez must be able to stretch the floor and drag the perennially-underrated Al Horford away from the rim.

Additionally, Horford will do the same exact thing to Lopez on the opposite end, making for the Eastern Conference’s most intriguing chess match headed into the second round. During the regular season, Horford tore Milwaukee up — 19.5 points, 11 rebounds and 6.5 assists over the two games — so the pressure is on Lopez to consistently defend well where he’s least comfortable

Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Postseason: 22.6 PPG, 8.4 REB, 1.6 3PG

Long story short: The likely frontrunner for Most Improved Player of the Year is a multi-faceted Swiss Army knife that will have his breakout campaign tested against the drive-dependant 76ers. But for as incredible as Siakam’s regular season was — 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game — the 25-year-old quickly hit another gear against Orlando. Whether he’s showing off some calculated post moves or bombing away from deep, Siakam was simply unguardable in round one.

Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons provide an intriguing defensive hurdle for Siakam and Kawhi Leonard, a switch-laden challenge that’ll constantly test the budding superstar in a long, grueling series. On the flip side, however, the 76ers don’t have a clear answer to Siakam on the offensive side either — so he must keep his hot-streak going at all costs.

Should the Raptors do away with their Atlantic Division rivals, they’ll need some inspired efforts on both sides of the ball. Versatile as they come, the 76ers will throw a bunch of schemes at Siakam and how he adapts may be this series’ ultimate turning point.

Bonus: Although these teams haven’t played since the trade deadline — hello, Tobias Harris and Marc Gasol — Toronto went 3-1 against Philadelphia this season, a sterling record that includes a 26-point beauty from Siakam back in December.

Marcus Morris, Boston Celtics
Postseason: 12.3 PPG, 6.5 REB, 1.8 3PG

It’s no secret that the Celtics have existed as a complete enigma at times this season — a few days on, a few days off. Between Kyrie Irving’s effortless ability to control a game or Gordon Hayward’s potential to impact the series off the bench, Morris might seem like an odd selection for x-factor consideration. Hell, even Marcus Smart — currently recovering from a partial tear to his left oblique — and an unexpected boost might make sense here too. In any case, there’s something about an on-fire Morris that just makes Boston unmistakenly electric.

In Game 1 against Indiana, Morris’ 20-point scorcher single-handedly willed the Celtics through an anxious opener. A week later, Morris went plus-18 — a team- and game-high — during Boston’s series-ender, notching 18 points and eight rebounds over 30 minutes. When Morris gets going, so do the Celtics. Once even hailed as a LeBron-stopped, Morris always provides well-timed veteran savviness for the Celtics, a toughness and palpable energy that his teammates even seem to thrive off of. Additionally, Morris will be part of the team tasked with slowing down Antetokounmpo — a nearly-impossible feat. But if Morris can make life just slightly more irritating for the MVP-worthy candidate, the Celtics will like their chances to push this heavyweight series to the brink.

Furthermore, when Morris scored 19 points or more during the regular season, the Celtics recorded an outstanding 12-3 record. Unsurprisingly, Boston went just 6-9 in contests in which he was held to eight points or less. So, even on a team stacked to the gills with superstar-worthy talent, Morris looks like a potential x-factor worth paying attention to.

J.J. Redick, Philadelphia 76ers
Postseason: 13.6 PPG, 2.8 3PG, 42.4 3P%

This one is pretty simple: The 76ers need J.J. Redick to be elite again.

Philadelphia got away with a couple of poor shooting nights from Redick against the Nets simply because Embiid was too much for Jarrett Allen and company to handle — and yet, even tougher competition awaits. Still, much like Morris, this team relies on Redick to knock down the open shots with consistency — when he does, they’re difficult to beat.

As a stunning subplot in Brooklyn’s Game 1 victory, Redick shot just 2-for-7 in defeat. Games 2 and 3 saw Redick go 7-for-12 and 7-for-17, respectively, and the 76ers won those contests by 22 and 16 points apiece. Later on, during Game 4, Redick managed just 27.3 percent from the floor and Philadelphia barely hung on thanks to a go-ahead bucket from Mike Scott with 20 seconds left. Even during the regular season, the 76ers were 9-4 when Redick hit five or more three-pointers — so rocket science, this is not.

The 76ers may be elite perimeter defenders but their glaring weak spot certainly remains the three-point line on offense. Through the opening round, Philadelphia made just nine three-pointers per game — or, conversely, the 15th-worst mark this postseason. Just below them ranks San Antonio and above them, consecutively, are the seven already-eliminated franchises plus Denver.

It’s an Achilles heel that will absolutely catch up to the 76ers before long, if not by a Toronto team that made the fifth-most three-pointers per game in the regular season. So if Philadelphia wants to be considered a truly elite conference threat, they need to hit more three-pointers, a focus that starts and ends with Redick filling it up on a consistent basis.

Since the trade deadline brought in some serious reinforcements, this potential second round has always seemed like the most likely destination. Without elite defenses and superstar performances abound, all four teams have a strong case to make the Eastern Conference Finals. In a battle of heady wills and adapt head coaching, these two matchups could hinge on an unexpected x-factor making a crucial difference.

Whether that’s from behind the arc on the block, Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia all need their supporting casts to step up and turn the tide — but who will do it?

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Veterans Influencing Spurs Youngsters

Having NBA veterans that can ease young players into the league can be very helpful, which is why Thomas Robinson and Darius Morris have been nice additions to the Spurs’ summer league roster.

Matt John

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The Summer League is a time for many things.

It’s a time for young players to get a taste of what professional basketball is like. It’s a time for teams to evaluate what young talent they have their roster. Most importantly of all, it’s a time for growth.

The Summer League, whether it be in Salt Lake, Sacramento or Las Vegas, serves as a transition for the new blood. Most are either fresh out of college or just arrived into the country, who are also either just beginning or have recently begun their NBA career. Making that transition isn’t always seamless. As talented as some of these kids are, they are prone to make mistakes. That’s where having a veteran who has been around the block can help.

For this year’s summer league. San Antonio brought in two who fit the profile: Thomas Robinson and Darius Morris.

Morris has bounced around between the NBA and the G League since being drafted 41st overall by the Lakers back in 2011. He’s been around the league long enough that playing in the Summer League wasn’t originally in the plans. That all changed when the Spurs called him.

“They actually reached out to me and told me they were interested,” Morris said. “When an organization like the Spurs calls you, you can come in and show that you can blend in and the high character is going to follow you the rest of the way.”

Robinson has also been a journeyman since being selected sixth overall by the Kings back in 2012. Now that he has found himself on the Spurs, he praised the organization for its player development.

“To even get any type of time under anybody on this staff is helpful for any player,” Robinson said. “Whether it’s summer league, mini-camp, or the real roster, it’s always helpful to learn from these guys. They’re like the Mecca of NBA basketball.”

Not many can say that they are the veteran of a summer league team, but Morris not only has that role but also appears to have embraced it since coming on for the Spurs. So much so that even though he takes that responsibility seriously, he and his teammates can have a laugh about it.

“I joke with the guys that I’m transitioning to that vet stage like a little baby vet,” Morris said. “To be able to extend whatever knowledge to the young guys, and kind of getting me in that mode as opposed to being that guy that was drafted, just transitioning to being a mentor and just helping where I can.”

There are various ways in which those are designated as mentors decide to use their role. Some give very little advice while others give nothing but advice. For Morris, he has implemented a “trial by fire” strategy for his younger teammates.

“First, you want them to go out there and play freely,” Morris said. “You don’t want to give them too much advice at first. You just kind of sit back and just watch… You don’t want to put too many things in their ear. Everything is already going 100 miles per hour for you out there and as they go along, just give my advice as we go along.”

As the other veteran/mentor on the squad, Robinson’s approach is simple on the court – just being himself for the Spurs.

“I’m not trying to show that I can do anything different,” Robinson said. “I just want to show that I’m doing everything that they ask me to do the first time.”

Since coming to San Antonio, Robinson has gotten to know some of the Spurs’ young talent. He even took the time to praise some of the Spurs’ young talent – in particular, one of the Spurs’ most recent first-rounders, Keldon Johnson.

“‘Baby Russ’. That’s what I called him” Robinson said. “He doesn’t get tired. He’s super aggressive… He’s big, athletic. I definitely see the makings of a superstar.”

Both Morris and Robinson are leaving impressions with the younger players on their squad. The Spurs other first-rounder this season, Luka Samanic, spoke highly of what they’ve been able to do for him primarily with how he handles his mistakes.

“If I do one quick mistake in the beginning, then it affects my game later,” Samanic said. “So they’re all about ‘Don’t worry about mistakes. You’ll miss shots. It’s all normal here.’ So they helped me a lot with that.”

Blake Ahearn, who coached the Spurs at the Utah Summer League, praised both Robinson and Morris for the calming influence they have on the team.

“It’s huge,” Ahearn said. “Having some of those calming-presence guys on the floor helps those younger guys… That’s a good luxury for coaches to have.”

Spurs assistant Becky Hammon also heaped praise for the two veterans primarily for what they have been able to do for the Spurs’ young players off the court while also reiterating the value guys like that have on these teams.

“They’ve been talking to them in their ear the whole time about what it takes to be a professional and get opportunities,” Hammon said. “Their leadership on the court, off the court has been very helpful. Obviously, having guys like that in a situation like that is very helpful and invaluable.”

Now, undoubtedly, the goal for Robinson and Morris is to be in the NBA again. They’ve been there before and their willingness to play in the summer league shows that they’re not giving up on their dreams.

Regardless of whether they make it, they can take comfort that, in the end, they positively impacted the Spurs of tomorrow.

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NBA Daily: Carsen Edwards Sending Good Vibrations in Las Vegas

Celtics rookie Carsen Edwards took Las Vegas by storm not only earning a multi-year contract but likely a significant role in Boston this coming season.

Shane Rhodes

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Las Vegas can be a scary place; just ask Carsen Edwards.

“Not to be dramatic, but I really thought I was about to die.”

Edwards, among a number of other players and NBA-related persons, found himself in the midst of two earthquakes – magnitude 6.7 and 7.1 – that rocked southern Nevada and California last week. “I was in my room by myself,” Edwards said, “and I’m on the 16th floor so, right then I’m thinking – and I know this sounds deep – how am I going to survive?”

Fortunately, for Edwards, his days reading about covering online betting odds in the Silver State may be numbered.

While the earthquakes may have shaken Las Vegas, the Purdue University product has sent the Boston Celtics his own good vibrations. Edwards has impressed mightily during his stint with the Summer League Celtics, so much so that, while fellow second-round pick Tremont Waters recently agreed to a two-way deal with Boston, the Celtics have reportedly are negotiating a full-time deal with the Edwards. And, while he has remained humble when questioned about his high-quality play, it’s hard to imagine that Edwards will see much more time in Las Vegas beyond the coming Summer League Tournament.

“My first experience was a blessing, man” Edwards told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so happy to be here, just to have this opportunity and put on that jersey and be out there.”

Edwards, a standout Boilermaker, has been a certified bucket-getter in his short Summer League tenure. Through four games (and two starts), the diminutive combo-guard has averaged 18 points to go along with 2.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and a steal in just 23 minutes per contest. Edwards has gotten to his spots on the floor with ease – when it hasn’t been easy, he’s simply put his head down and bullied his way there – and he certainly hasn’t been afraid to pull up from deep.

Edwards has also come along as a shooter since his last showing in the NCAA tournament. In three seasons with Purdue, Edwards posted field goal and three-point percentages of 41.2% and 36.8%, respectively. Since Edwards has proven himself one of the Summer League’s best and most consistent shooters; he has shot 52% from the floor and 48.4% from three-point range.

“I just try to make the right decisions,” Edwards said. “I just try to get into my space, places where I’m comfortable.”

Despite his relative inexperience against NBA-level competition, a continued ascent for Edwards – and an end to his Summer League career after just his rookie appearance – shouldn’t be put out of the question as players and teams head into next season and beyond.

And, while he may not have wanted to slip into the second round of June’s 2019 NBA Draft, Edwards may have hit the jackpot in landing with Boston.

While Head Coach Brad Stevens has struggled with certain aspects of coaching, he has never had a problem with maximizing the production of his guards. 2011’s Mr. Irrelevant, Isaiah Thomas, was a Most Valuable Player candidate in 2017, while Kyrie Irving, despite the reported unrest, posted arguably the two best statistical seasons of his career with the Celtics. Others, including Avery Bradley, Evan Turner and Jordan Crawford have flourished under his watch, and Edwards may be the next player to benefit from Stevens’ system.

Still, Edwards’ work is far from over, and he knows it. “It’s not the same [as in college],” he said as he pointed out that he still needed to focus on his defense, decisions making and consistency. “I’m still learning so much.”

“I know [the Boston Celtics] just want me to improve. Help the team win, but continue to try and improve and be consistent every game.”

Edwards isn’t the perfect prospect or one without his deficiencies by any means. They have yet to do so in the Summer League, and his strong, stocky build should help counteract this to a degree, but NBA competition will take advantage of Edwards’ 6-foot-flat height. And, if it wasn’t already obvious, Edwards is a score-first, pass later type of guard; while that necessarily isn’t a bad thing, given the role he should serve with the Celtics, Edwards’ passing ability must improve as he transitions to the NBA game.

“[NBA players] are more athletic, they have more length,” Edwards said. “Playing against those guys, it’s tough.”

As Edwards pointed out, it will, in fact, be tough for him. But, between the roster and coaching fit and his own talent, it’s as if everything has started to come together for the talented guard and it is there for the taking.

After his debut, Edwards noted his primary Summer League goal was to win. “I just want to make an impact on the team and just help us win,” Edwards said.

Should he take advantage of what’s in front of him, Edwards has the chance to be something special in the NBA, and he could help the Celtics do just that for a long time.

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NBA Daily: Karl-Anthony Towns Confident About What Lies Ahead

David Yapkowitz sits down with Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star big man Karl-Anthony Towns to discuss the injury-filled finish to last season, the moves the organization made this offseason and what lies ahead.

David Yapkowitz

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After making a huge trade for Jimmy Butler one year ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves had just broken one of the NBA’s longest playoff droughts when they made the postseason.

Fast forward to the present – Butler was traded, Tom Thibodeau got let go and the Wolves failed to reach the postseason with a 36-46 record.

There is room for optimism, however. Minnesota is still led by Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the top rising stars in the league with the prime of his career ahead of him. He’s arguably the best big man in the NBA at the young age of 23 years old.

The Wolves locked Towns up for the foreseeable future after he signed a Supermax contract extension back in September. He believes his game will definitely expand and grow as head coach Ryan Saunders continues to work with him.

“I feel that I’m going to be able to do a little more,” Towns told Basketball Insiders in an exclusive interview. “I got more freedom, I got a head coach that’s going to use my talents a little better. It’s going to be good.”

The major changes to the Wolves organization didn’t stop with the roster or the coaching staff. Thibodeau had a dual role as head coach and president of basketball operations. To replace his front office duties, the team brought in longtime executive Gersson Rosas, who comes from the Houston Rockets with 16 years of executive duty experience.

After taking over head coaching duties back in January, Saunders will now have a full offseason and training camp with the team to implement his style of play. All of this combined is something that Towns believes will be helpful to the team.

“It’s going to be big,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “I think not just only Ryan [Saunders] but having such a different culture, a different team. I think that’s going to be a big change for us. It’s going to be a very beneficial change.”

The Wolves are hoping part of that change is going to be a healthy roster. The team struggled with key injuries, especially late in the season when they were trying to mount a late playoff push. Robert Covington, who had emerged as a great compliment to Towns, missed a big part of the second half of the season. Jeff Teague was also in and out of the lineup all year.

Minnesota was firmly in the playoff picture for most of the season, even when they were hovering near the bottom, but the key injuries really took a toll as the year came winding down.

“We had a lot of change. That constitutes to that and our season. We didn’t make the playoffs because we just ran into the injury bug. Injuries really hit us and took our spark out of us,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “We were in a great spot before the injuries, but it happens. That’s just how the league works. You got to find ways to win, we just came up a little short.”

Luckily, there are some added reinforcements on the way. The Wolves acquired highly touted prospect Jarrett Culver out of Texas Tech in a draft-night trade. Culver has the ability to play multiple positions, especially on the defensive end. Although he is being held out of summer league, there’s no denying his potential.

In the second round, the Wolves drafted Jaylen Nowell, a high-scoring guard who shot 44 percent from three-point range last season at Washington. He’s only 19 years old and has plenty of unlocked potential as well for a second-round player.

“I see him [Culver] bringing a lot of versatility. I see him bringing length, I see him bringing a hungriness to the team, he wants to prove himself. We’re going to have a very, very good rookie on our hands,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “And let’s also not forget Jaylen Nowell. He’s a high IQ player and we’re very fortunate he fell to us.”

The draft isn’t the only area where the Wolves improved their roster. They made a couple of solid free agent moves as well, signing a trio of versatile forwards in Jordan Bell, Jake Layman and Noah Vonleh.

Bell has seen sporadic playing time the past few seasons with the Golden State Warriors, but he’s still young and has already shown an ability to switch defensively from guards to bigs. Layman had a solid year as one of Portland’s key contributors off the bench. Vonleh has bounced around the league a bit, but was one of the lone bright spots for the Knicks last season.

“They’re going to bring a lot of experience from great organizations,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “They bring a lot of playoff experience as well, and they’re also going to bring us a lot of talent. They’re all very versatile and they bring a lot to the table.”

And as the 2019 NBA Summer League is now in full swing with free agency winding down, Towns is happy with the steps the Wolves have taken. He’s confident in this team and what lies ahead.

“We’ve already taken the next step, there is no next step, we’ve already taken the next step,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “We’ve made the changes to our team that we needed to make and we’re ready to go.”

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