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NBA Saturday: Randle Leading Kentucky, Helping Stock

Julius Randle has led the Kentucky Wildcats to the Elite Eight and helped his draft stock in the process. … Frustrated Indiana Pacers can’t end slump

Alex Kennedy

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Randle Leading Kentucky, Helping Stock

The Kentucky Wildcats are in the Elite Eight after defeating the defending champion Louisville Cardinals, 74-69, on Friday night. By advancing this far, Kentucky has turned around a roller-coaster season that, up until the tournament, was extremely disappointing.

Entering the season, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the nation and there was some debate over whether the team could go undefeated. However, the Wildcats ended up losing 10 games (including several losses to unranked teams) and ultimately fell out of the top 25 poll in mid-March. Kentucky’s young roster struggled throughout the campaign after initially being described as the greatest recruiting class of all-time, and earned an eight-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

However, none of that matters now, as the Wildcats are three wins away from a national championship. The adversity that Kentucky faced earlier in the season helped them become the battle-tested team they are today, and their freshmen have matured and improved significantly since the start of the year.

Julius Randle, the freshman forward who has been the team’s catalyst throughout the tournament, is thrilled that the squad is finally living up to the lofty expectations set for this team.

“In a way, I think we have [rewritten the history of this team],” Randle said. “We just kind of had to put the past behind us and leave it where it was. It’s a new season, the postseason. That’s really all we can worry about, survive and advance, and we’ve got to take one game at a time. We carried momentum from the SEC Tournament to the NCAA Tournament, and we’re just taking it a game at a time.

“We just have committed to each other on both ends of the floor. Our chemistry is a lot better, and we’ve listened to Coach. He’s made our roles really simple and we’ve just listened to him and it’s kind of working out for us.”

Randle has been tremendous during the tournament, averaging 15.6 points and 12.3 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field. His 23 double-doubles this season leads all Division I players, and he’s just the second freshman in NCAA history to have that many double-doubles in a season (the other being Michael Beasley, who had 28 in 2008). In addition to scoring and rebounding, Randle has also done a good job creating for his teammates, as evidenced by his six assists in Kentucky’s upset win over Wichita State. Rather than taking on double teams and putting up bad shots, Randle is taking what the defense gives him and making the right play more often than not.

This was the case in the final minute of Kentucky’s game against Louisville, when Randle spun into a double team and delivered a perfect pass to Aaron Harrison, who hit a three-point shot for the go-ahead score. Moments later, Randle hit two clutch free throws to seal the win for the Wildcats. After the game, Kentucky head coach John Calipari praised Randle’s decision making and pointed out that the clutch assist was an example of just how much his star player had grown in recent weeks.

“I look at Julius where they’re running at him, the biggest play that Julius made is the pass for three instead of shooting it,” Calipari said. “Now three weeks ago, he would have shot a hook to try to get that at the basket.  Now, he’s just playing the game as it comes. … They’re maturing right before our eyes. They’ve surrendered to the team. It’s all about helping your teammate get better and winning games.”

“Coach has done a good job of defining my role,” Randle said. “When the lane [is] open, sometimes that’s what you got to do, just do your best to get to the basket. But at the same time, I love to create for other people.”

Randle had 15 points and 12 rebounds against Louisville and after the game, Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino said that the freshman power forward was the main reason Kentucky came away with the victory.

“The major factor,” Pitino said, “was the way Randle played on the backboard.”

With Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart and Doug McDermott among others sitting at home, Randle is the top NBA prospect remaining in the tournament. Throughout the season, Randle has been in the shadow of Wiggins, Parker and Embiid, usually being mentioned as a potential top-five pick in the 2014 NBA Draft but rarely being included in the debate over who will go first overall. The same thing happened during high school recruiting, when Wiggins and Parker were heralded as the next big things while Randle was ranked as the third best player in the class and treated as if he were a notch below the top two.

Like Wiggins and Parker, Randle is 19 years old and has a ridiculous amount of potential. Unlike Wiggins and Parker, Randle stepped up in the tournament and had some of his best games of the season while playing on college basketball’s biggest stage. When asked how he has been able to ignore the pressure and deliver these clutch performances, Randle downplayed his heroics.

“I don’t really look at it as pressure,” Randle said. “I know that I have great teammates and they have my back out there, so I’m really not even worried about it. Like Coach always says, ‘Don’t worry about winning or losing, just go out there and play.’ Just seeing us getting better each game is encouraging in itself. I know that I have teammates who, when a challenge presents itself, will rise to the challenge. … I didn’t really feel any pressure. I really wasn’t worried about where this game could take us, I was just focused on the game and the game plan that Coach had for us. That was really all my focus; I wasn’t really worried about winning or losing.

NBA executives have been impressed with Randle’s recent production, and his draft stock has increased with Kentucky’s postseason run. Randle has drawn comparisons to Zach Randolph and Paul Millsap, and he has confirmed that he could be a franchise-changing player at the next level. One NBA scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity, recently praised Randle’s game to Basketball Insiders.

He’s a man, and he won’t get pushed around by other players,” said the Eastern Conference scout. “He has the ability to face up and take guys off of the dribble. Right now, he’s left-hand dominant, so he must work on his right hand and keep improving his jumper if he wants to take the next step and really wreak havoc. He should be able to play in the league for a really long time, but the question is how good will he be? People around the league are really interested to see how he measures out – how tall and how long he is. When I look at Randle, I see some Jamal Mashburn and some Paul Millsap.”

Randle will try to continue Kentucky’s incredible run on Sunday, when the Wildcats take on the two-seeded Michigan Wolverines.

“All of the adversity we have been through all season, just to see us coming together as a team and getting better each game and finally get big wins, we just enjoyed it,” Randle said. “Everybody’s happy and we just have to keep building on it.”

The Wildcats had some growing pains throughout the season, but that’s to be expected with such an inexperienced group. Only three players on Kentucky’s roster have been in the tournament before, seldom-used guards Jon Hood, Brian Long and Jarrod Polson.

“Every team I’ve ever coached, I am hard on,” Calipari said. “I push them. I drive them. This team I was hard probably longer than other teams, but from body language to habits to other things, you couldn’t cheer them on those things. They were not acceptable. Now, you’re seeing a team that’s playing more together, that shows less emotion.  And people always say I coach young teams – I’ve never coached five freshmen, so it’s taken longer. But it doesn’t matter that it took longer, it’s just that they’re starting to get it. … I am proud of them.  I am enjoying coaching this team.  I am able to do less now.  I’ve been able to be more of a cheerleader. They are playing their best basketball.

“If this was a 25‑game season… thank goodness it was a 30‑game season, so we had five more games to get this thing right and get the plane down before the runway ran out and we were in grass.”

The important thing is that Kentucky has figured things out and started clicking at the perfect time. Randle has been a big reason for that, and the talented forward is finally getting the recognition that he deserves.

Frustrated Pacers Can’t End Slump

The Indiana Pacers are tired of losing. On top of that, they’re tired of talking about losing. The team has dropped four of their last six games, and they are 8-8 in March.

The Pacers thought they had snapped out of their recent slump when they defeated the Miami HEAT on Wednesday night, but then they followed up that victory with a disappointing 91-78 loss to the Washington Wizards last night. After the game, Indiana’s players were clearly frustrated.

“I don’t know,” Roy Hibbert said when asked about the Pacers’ struggles. “We’re tired of talking about it and we’ve been in this rut for a month. I don’t know. You take one step forward and three steps back. One win, then we play like this. I don’t have a sound bite for you.”

“It is frustrating, because we know what to do,” Paul George said. “We know who we are, we know how much we put in to get to where we are at. We are just not taking care of the opportunity. We showed spurts that we can be that team. We just have to maintain the consistency with it.”

“At this moment, we look vulnerable,” David West said. “We look like teams can just come at us. Again, it’s because we don’t play a good brand of basketball. .. We’re verbalizing it, we talked about it somewhat after the game. We got to get it. We feel like we got enough pieces. We’ve got to get it. We get up for the Miami [HEAT], get up for the Chicago Bulls, and then come out and lay donuts against the Wizards and these other teams. We’ve got to get it.”

Indiana’s problems are mainly on the offensive end of the floor. In their last three losses, they’ve scored 78 points against Washington, 77 points against Chicago and 71 points against Memphis. The Pacers are an elite defensive squad, but that kind of offense isn’t going to lead to wins and the team understands that.

“We have to keep improving our offensive execution, create open shots, and then we have to make shots,” Frank Vogel said. “We are creating shots on poor shooting nights, so we have to make shots. I thought we came out with great energy, we were ready to play, and the lack of shot-making took our spirits a little bit.”

“We’re just not moving the ball and getting everybody involved,” Hibbert said, after taking just eight shots. “I mean, you could rehearse stuff for the past month and it’ll tell you what our problems are.”

The Pacers have nine games remaining on their schedule, with contests against elite teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Miami HEAT and Oklahoma City Thunder and contests against non-playoff teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons.

Time is running out for Indiana to end this slump in the regular season, and they certainly don’t want to be playing like this in the postseason. This is a team with championship aspirations and a legitimate shot at hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. But you’d never know it from watching the Pacers in recent weeks, and that’s very concerning for Indiana.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode

With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.

Dennis Chambers

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After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.

Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.

First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.

Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.

In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having  Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.

Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?

Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.

The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.

Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.

“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”

That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.

Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.

After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.

At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.

The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.

In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.

An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.

It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.

Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.

Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.

Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.

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NBA Daily: Anthony Davis is Shouldering New Orleans’ Playoff Hopes

After losing DeMarcus Cousins to a season-ending injury, Anthony Davis has played MVP-caliber basketball to keep the Pelicans playoff hopes alive.

Dennis Chambers

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Nineteen games have passed since DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon during the New Orleans Pelicans game against the Houston Rockets.

At the time, Cousins was the second leg of an All-Star frontcourt combo with Anthony Davis, playing the best basketball of his career and appeared poised to send the Pelicans to their first playoff appearance in three years.

Immediately following the injury, New Orleans lost five of their next six games. In a crowded Western Conference playoff race, doubt was beginning to set in down in the Big Easy about whether the Pelicans could cope with the loss of Cousins.

Then, fitting in with the always unpredictable and chaotic nature of the NBA, Anthony Davis skyrocketed into other-worldly levels of production, and New Orleans followed suit. Before Friday’s loss to the Washington Wizards, the Pelicans won 10 straight games while Davis averaged 35.6 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, and 2.8 steals per game. Over the course of those 10 contests, Davis topped 40 points three times, and 50 points once.

Every question that was thrown Davis’ way following Cousins’ injury about whether he could shoulder the load of a Pelicans’ playoff run seemed to be answered.

The Western Conference is no joke. Currently, the playoff race is so tight that the 4th-seeded Pelicans are only two and a half games out of ninth place. While Davis has clearly been unstoppable, in order for the Pelicans to maintain their relevance in the playoff picture, he’s going to need some sort of help.

Luckily for him and his team, he’s gotten just that.

During New Orleans’ win streak, Jrue Holiday emerged as the team’s second option, looking more lethal than the Pelicans could’ve ever hoped when they signed him to an extension last summer. Holiday’s averages of 24.9 points, 8.5 assists, and 4.6 rebounds — all while shooting a blistering 43 percent from beyond the arc — positioned the eighth year point guard as Davis’ second fiddle.

This heightened production is the result of head coach Alvin Gentry’s offense finally coming to fruition in its most effective form. Gentry loves to play “pace and space” basketball, and the Pelicans’ No. 11 and No. 9 ranking in pace the last two seasons reflect that. While Cousins is fantastic in his own right, and a cross between the old-school big man and today’s new hybrid big, his insertion in New Orleans’ lineup slowed things down just a bit. Before the injury, the Pelicans were still pushing the fifth fastest pace in the league, but after losing Cousins the team is now pushing the ball faster than any club in the Association. As a result, Davis’ freakish athletic advantages are proving to be overwhelming for opponents.

With 17 games left on the schedule, the Pelicans only have five opponents remaining who are either already in the playoff picture or just outside of it. Matchups against Houston, Boston, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Golden State and Portland (among others) remain. Continuing the excellence Davis and his teammates are producing is the only conceivable way to imagine the Pelicans hosting a playoff series — or even staying in the playoff landscape for that matter.

The enhanced level of play from Davis and Holiday make the Pelicans a threat to compete every night, assuming the production continues as it did over the course of the team’s winning streak. But the injected play of the team’s supporting cast since Cousins went down is not to be overlooked while surveying New Orleans’ recent success.

Since Nikola Mirotic arrived from Chicago he’s added a scoring and rebounding punch outside of Davis that the Pelicans desperately needed. In the wake of Cousins, he’s finding success inside Gentry’s running system that allows him to shoot over seven three-point attempts a game.

All of the running and scoring the Pelicans have become accustomed to over the last month needs to be orchestrated by someone on the court, otherwise, it can turn into a hot mess quickly. By using Rajon Rondo on the court at the same time as Holiday, Rondo becomes responsible for quarterbacking an offense that needs precision accuracy and execution. At the same time, it allows Holiday to move and rotate without the ball, putting him in a more natural situation to score rather than set up an offense.

Is losing an All-Star player ever ideal for a team’s hopes at making the playoffs? Absolutely not. But when Cousins went down for the Pelicans, followed by their first week of basketball without him, the team quickly looked to be on the outside looking in of the playoff race.

Instead, with just about a month left on the regular season schedule, Davis and Co. are playing well above expectations and are in position to host a playoff series for the first time since 2008 when Chris Paul was running around in a teal jersey.

Davis is an MVP candidate, the New Orleans Pelicans are a playoff team, and Cousins in wearing a walking boot on the sidelines. The NBA is a wild ride of unpredictability.

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NBA Daily: A Reinvigorated Bench is Pushing Philadelphia’s Recent Success

Once a major weakness, the Philadelphia 76ers’ bench could provide some much-needed firepower during the postseason.

Dennis Chambers

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Consistently winning games in the NBA is one of the harder tasks in professional sports. The rigors of an 82-game schedule, playing consecutive nights, or sometimes three games in four days, can really take a toll on players. In order to be successful, the first order of business would be to have superstar caliber players. But what comes next, competing for 48 straight minutes, is arguably just as crucial.

The Philadelphia 76ers have a few star players in hand. Joel Embiid is already amongst the league’s best, and Ben Simmons seems to be climbing the ladder on a daily basis. But those two didn’t stop the Sixers from dropping multiple games earlier this season where they either had the lead or were in a close battle.

A major reason for that: the Sixers’ bench was thin. Razor thin at times, while the team dealt with injuries.

When the trade deadline approached at the beginning of February, and Philadelphia was in the middle of a playoff race, they were viewed as a team that could potentially make a move for a key veteran off the bench to ensure a postseason berth.

The deadline came and went, and president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo stood pat, unwilling to give up any assets for a rental. A frugal move, but not one that would help the Sixers realize their playoff dreams after declaring them as such for the entire season.

There’s another plus about having star players in the NBA, though. Usually, veteran guys gravitate towards them, viewing stars a way to be part of something meaningful. In the case of Philadelphia, they experienced that for the first (and second) time over the last three weeks since beginning their rebuild.

After securing buyouts with the Atlanta Hawks, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova decided to head north to Philadelphia for a playoff push. Ilyasova spent the first half of last season with the Sixers before being traded away, but he returns to a much different situation.

“It’s always great to be back here,” Ilyasova said. “It was a helluva speech Brett Brown made to get me here. We’re playing good basketball. It’s a tremendous job that they did compared to last year and they play as a unit.”

Tremendous growth almost puts what the Sixers are doing lightly. In terms of their starting unit of Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Embiid, they rank near the top of the league with their 18.9 net rating. For comparison’s sake, that’s more effective than Golden State’s starting five.

Ilyasova and Belinelli were brought on board to complement the winning basketball Philadelphia’s starters have already established. On Friday night against the Charlotte Hornets, the team’s newest bench weapon came up in a big way.

In his first game back at the Wells Fargo Center, Ilyasova played a big role in the Sixers’ come from behind win, scoring 18 points while adding four rebounds and three assists. Outside of the team’s starters, he registered the highest plus/minus rating on the team.

“Tonight you were going to see him and Dario a lot with each other,” Brown said of Ilyasova’s performance. “You see him have the ability to make great passes from that pick and roll spot.  I put him and Joel in some pick and rolls and they delivered. You saw him take a massive charge at the end of the game that he got rewarded for.”

Following back-to-back wins over Cleveland and Charlotte, the Sixers find themselves holding onto the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference. On top of that, Philadelphia is just two games behind Cleveland for the 3rd seed with 21 games remaining in the regular season.

Now that the Sixers have players like Ilyasova and Belinelli to add to their regular reserve group, Brown is excited to tinker with the team’s versatility moving forward. Having the benefit of a 6-foot-10 point guard in Simmons leads to constant mismatches on the court, and the Sixers’ head coach doesn’t want to forget that moving forward.

“All over the place,” Brown said. “Whether it’s (Ilyasova) making a three, or him passing to Joel, or him taking a charge. Him coexisting with Dario Saric. I think that flexibility, that versatility, is what excites me the most about him. It’s not like we don’t know each other, we know each other very well. He knows the system quite well. There’s still lots to refamiliarize him with.”

This late in the season, adding Ilyasova deserves just one explanation from Brown.

“He’s a massive pick up at this stage in my eyes,” Brown said.

Along with the recent additions, the Sixers also have a rotating carousel at the backup center position. Whether it’s Richaun Holmes or Amir Johnson that subs out Embiid, the team’s growing fluidity in their rotations have Brown pleased with the results.

“I think that we have something unique,” Brown said. “You know you gotta juggle and figure out with Richaun and Amir. I thought Richaun was a little down tonight, and so Amir sat back-to-back. You have those options available, and that’s a team. That’s what a team is about. If you can get a team to believe in what I just said, then you’ve got it all.”

Brown went on the boast about his team’s “legitimate locker room” saying they’re one of the most cohesive bunches he’s seen during his time in the NBA. Brown added, “I’m lucky to coach it.”

With just over a month remaining in the regular season, a hotly contested playoff race, and plenty of games to play, the Sixers are far from finishing what they started.

But with the upward trajectory of their recent play, coupled with the new bench additions, the team from Philadelphia that just spent years in the NBA’s basement is on the cusp of achieving what they set out to do at the beginning of this season.

“I think it’s a collective, progressive growth born out of rough times early in the season,” Brown said. “And now sort of delivered into March that we’re really close to achieving something in our eyes that’s special and was a declared goal. And that is to play in the playoffs.”

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