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School’s Out for All-Star Break

Kyle Korver shows his value, the Raptors get help from a surprise contributor, and Pope Pius XIII addresses Laker Nation

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Welcome to the NBA Shootaround, the Ringer staff’s weekly run through the league, told in riffs and GIFs.

Peace Is Kyle Korver’s Profession

Michael Baumann: Across the state from Quicken Loans Arena, near Dayton, lies the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, home to a tremendous collection of aircraft: the sole surviving XB-70, an experimental Mach 3 bomber from the 1960s; Bockscar, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki; and a B-52, among hundreds of others.

But Ohio’s greatest long-range bomber is Kyle Korver.

It’s not like Kyle Korver’s performance against Indiana came as a terrible shock — there’s a reason you trade a future first-round pick for a lead-footed 35-year-old shooting guard, and that reason is the kind of performance Korver delivered against the Pacers: 8-for-12 from the field and 6-for-8 on 3-pointers for 22 points in 24 minutes.

The reason Kevin Love’s knee injury is so troubling to Cleveland is not because he allows the Cavs to do things Peak LeBron couldn’t do on his own, but because Peak LeBron can’t show up for 82 games then four rounds of the playoffs. He’s superhuman, but not that superhuman. That’s how the Pacers managed to claw back from an early deficit to tie the game at 83 with 11:35 to play. Here’s what happened on Cleveland’s next five offensive possessions, covering a span of a little less than two minutes:

Korver made 3-pointer
Korver missed 3-pointer, offensive rebound, Kyrie Irving made 3-pointer
Tristan Thompson dunk
Korver made 3-pointer
Irving made 3-pointer

Just like that, the Cavs were up 10, and they stayed there for the final nine minutes, which included Korver (who scored 13 points in the fourth quarter) dropping in a moon shot of a 3-ball from offscreen, 31 feet from the hoop. That was the one extra punch, the one extra attack late in a cycling race, that finally rocked Indiana onto its heels. The Cavs won, 113–104.

That’s why you invest in a shooter like Korver — the flurry of points at a watershed moment, the ability to hit your opponent quickly, from long range, and with devastating effect. Like a bomber does.

Oh, and He Can Dunk

Westbrook Puts Melo on Ice

Katie Baker: In a game that Marc Berman really wanted you to believe might have been Carmelo Anthony’s last one as a Knick, the embattled forward finished with 30 points and drained six of seven 3-point attempts, each one greeted with total silence from the Oklahoma City crowd. Like a baby discovering the use of his hands for the first time, Melo happily celebrated these baskets by poking himself in the side of the head — inspiring the ESPN “Crossover” announcing team (Jeff Van Gundy paired with Ryan Ruocco and college hoops dude Dan Dakich) to spend several minutes discussing the sweat-flying ramifications of this maneuver. The words “splash zone” and “Shamu” were invoked.

By the end of the night, though, it was Russell Westbrook who best channeled the bygone glories of Sea World, putting on a high-flying show that included a truly memorable dunk. He finished the game, a 116–105 win, with 38 points, 14 rebounds, and 12 assists — his 27th triple-double of the season — as well as three steals and one co-opted celebration.

With just over five minutes to play in the fourth quarter and the Thunder up eight (at one point in the first half, they’d trailed by 17), Westbrook missed a free throw, grabbed his own rebound, Harlem Globetrottered through the paint, passed the ball, got it back, faked Melo all the way to Cleveland, hit a 3-pointer, and then mimicked that stop-hitting-yourself head-poke. Twitter reacted accordingly.

Westbrook followed that up with another 3 and he followed that up a few minutes later by stealing a pass from Kristaps Porzingis intended for Melo and running the length of the floor for a dunk.

After the game, NFL reporter Adam Schefter, working the NBA game as part of the “Crossover” gimmick, asked Westbrook about those charged fingers-to-the-dome. “That’s just my new thing,” grinned the NBA’s almighty troll. “I haven’t figured out what it means yet, but I like it.”

The Rockets Are Just Ready for Vacation

Micah Peters: Hark back to the final exam of that fluffy pass-fail astronomy course you took in college, right before spring break. Your grade was pretty healthy, and you didn’t need the course to graduate, so you skipped most of the questions you didn’t know — including all the essay questions — and just waited for someone else to turn theirs in first so you could get on with your vacation plans. The Wednesday games just before All-Star Weekend have a similar listless glaze over them. This is specifically so for those playing their fifth game in 12 days, like the Houston Rockets, who showed up to a home stand against the Miami Heat late, in the same clothes they’d slept in the night before and with no pen.

Coming off of consecutive losses in which they allowed 117 and 116 points to extremely below .500 Philadelphia and Orlando teams, respectively, the Heat held Houston to 109 points. Miami jumped out to a 34–28 lead in the first frame, and was getting most of what it wanted throughout the half. The Rockets seemed unbothered by, if not amenable to, this: Miami scored 13 second-chance points on 10 offensive boards through the first two quarters, and four of those boards came on the same truly ridiculous play.

Miami never trailed in the 117–109 win. Dion Waiters brushed shoulders with a triple-double (23 points, nine rebounds, seven assists) and Hassan Whiteside recorded his 36th double-double this season (23 and 14). On the other side of things, it felt for a long time that James Harden (38, 12, 12) was the only one trying, until Ryan Anderson remembered that losing sort of sucks, and went full Tim Gutterson in the fourth. Having previously connected on just one from downtown, Anderson went AWF, hitting four for a total of 14 fourth-quarter points. He even got a technical.

But it was too little, too late. At least there’s still vacation. And the third-best record in the league.

Will Terrence Ross Help Aaron Gordon’s Stalled Development?

Haley O’Shaughnessy: In the second quarter of Spurs-Magic, color analyst Jeff Turner and play-by-play guy David Steele announced that the Terrence Ross trade was official. Ross, who could not participate in Wednesday night’s game, was traded to the Magic for a 2017 draft pick, a small slip of paper with the words “help me” scrawled in Frank Vogel’s handwriting, and Serge Ibaka. But it didn’t stop the duo from wondering: If Aaron Gordon went on to win the Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend this Saturday, would he and Ross make this Magic squad the first with two slam winners on the same team?

The answer came later in the third from behind-the-scenes researchers: No. It’s happened thrice — and twice before on the Magic. Remember Dwight Howard, 2008 dunk contest winner, guys? In 2010, he and the Magic were joined with other champions two different times: the first being Vince Carter (2000 contest), and the second, Jason Richardson (2002 AND 2003), after Orlando traded the former for the latter. Who can blame the announcers for forgetting? For the Magic, 2010 was sooooooo long ago!

The trade connects Ross with Gordon in another way, too. It gives the team the chance to play small ball, pushing the third-year player up to his natural position at power forward, where Gordon has spent only 4 percent of his playing time this season. Though Jeff Green started at the 4 against San Antonio, it was something Vogel experimented with on Wednesday, even sans Ross. Gordon’s line for the night was not great: 11 points, six rebounds, two assists, one block, and a minus-21 in the 107–79 thumping, but the combination of San Antonio’s big men (LaMarcus Aldridge finished with 23 points; Dewayne Dedmon had a 10–11 double-double) and Kawhi Leonard’s ungodly (but also godly) defense gives him some allowance before the world disowns him as the power forward we hope he can be.

And if Gordon isn’t, hey, he’ll at least probably be victorious in the dunk contest. Which reminds me, the third team with two winners was the mid-’80s Atlanta Hawks, with Spud Webb and … Dwight Howard. Just kidding, Dominique!

The Kings Were Up at Halftime, and Then …

The Raptors Get Some Unlikely Help

Jonathan Tjarks: It would be easy for fans outside of Toronto to forget Delon Wright existed. Wright, the no. 20 pick in the 2015 draft and the younger brother of longtime NBA swingman Dorell Wright, had played a grand total of 10 minutes this season prior to the Raptors’ 90–85 victory over the Hornets on Wednesday. He had shoulder surgery in the offseason, and by the time he returned in January, he was behind six other guards in the Raptors’ rotation.

With Terrence Ross gone and Serge Ibaka not yet in Toronto, Wright got an opportunity to play Wednesday, and he ran with it. In 27 minutes off the bench, he had 11 points (on 3-of-5 shooting), two assists, two steals, one rebound, and one block. He even got the chance to help close the game in the fourth quarter as part of a cobbled-together lineup featuring Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, and rookie Jakob Poeltl. Wright forced a crucial steal in the final two minutes, getting a hand in a passing lane and going coast to coast to give the Raptors a five-point cushion.

At 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, Wright is a point guard with the size of a wing, and he has the length and athleticism to defend all three positions on the perimeter. He’s a smart player who can stuff the stat sheet, averaging 14 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals and one block a game in college at Utah. The big question mark about him coming into the league was his jumper, and he has shot 23-for-73 from 3 (31.5 percent) in two seasons with the Raptors and their D-League affiliate.

In other words, this is a guy who could be a quality player in the NBA. He has hardly gotten a chance to play in his two seasons in Toronto, but that might be more a reflection of how deep the team’s roster is than of any lack of talent on his part. It’s too soon to say how the Raptors’ rotation will shake out in the aftermath of the Ibaka trade, but Wright showed enough in his first real bit of playing time this season to earn more opportunities.

Target Practice

Danny Chau: Nights like Wednesday will pop up more frequently for Nikola Jokic as his star continues to rise. The NBA’s biggest revelation of 2017 had one of his worst shooting outings of the season, scoring 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting in the Nuggets’ 112–99 loss to the Timberwolves. Jokic is the league’s most unlikely star — a player whose wondrous skill set might remind the world of Lamar Odom if it weren’t for his 38-year-old–Vlade Divac athleticism. For every elite talent he possesses, there’s something about his body that just seems completely unsuited for professional athletics. A few days from turning only 22, he might just be the best passing big man in the world, but moves up and down the court like a hungover marathon runner; he has uncanny rebounding instincts, but his body is like a rolling pin that still has sheets of dough clinging to it.

That perception is what makes him a target — the idea that he’s too slow, the idea that he can’t be as good as the stat sheet says he is. Andrew Wiggins, who on Wednesday became only the second player in Timberwolves history to post consecutive 40-point games (the first being Kevin Love), and Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the multidimensional centers in Jokic’s peer group, were intent on sending a message.

It was received loud and clear.

Just over a minute later, Towns spiked a Jokic shot attempt to the moon in one of the most obvious (and phenomenal) goaltending violations of the year.

For as mature and creative as Jokic is as an offensive fulcrum, his lack of anything resembling NBA-caliber athleticism will always put him at a disadvantage on defense. And the best way to beat a slow defender is by doing exactly what Wiggins did — completely overwhelm him with physical superiority. Was that part of Tom Thibodeau’s game plan? I’m sure it was. But I get a feeling Wiggins and Towns didn’t need him to bark out those specific commands Wednesday night.

Get (Marcus) Smart

Jason Concepcion: This is the time of year — the All-Star break imminent, the trade deadline looming — when a strange mix of ennui and paranoia can settle over the NBA. Players are apt to dither about in a fog, daydreaming about vacation plans. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, GMs are plotting, scheming. Sniffing out potential deals, dangling assets with a come-hither look. Affecting the bustle and hum of a busy marketplace to drive up demand. Allegedly.

Wednesday night’s matchup between the Shadow Process Sixers and Dark Timeline Celtics embodied the strange time. Jawn limped into the jawn jawn by jawns … whoops. Excuse me. I mean: Philly limped into the game dogged by questions. What’s up with Embiid? When will Ben Simmons play? Where is Bryan Colangelo? No, but really, where is Jahlil Okafor? What’s a four-letter word for an armored war vehicle that starts with t and ends with k? The Celtics, meanwhile, have been steadily grinding on Cleveland’s conference lead while sitting on a treasury of in-theory flippable assets and like 37 point guards. Will Danny Ainge ever stop sending “U UP?” texts to GMs and finally make a deal? Maybe. That would entail parting with something or someone, though. Boston fans hope it isn’t Marcus Smart.

Smart attacks the court and everything contained therein like a wolverine flushed from its nest. He seems to get a buzz off the salty fumes his opponents emit as he grabs, grapples, and annoys them. Dude had a career-high eight steals in this game, including a physically abusive late-fourth-quarter rip of a helpless and supine Nik Stauskas. Smart’s handsy aggression helped the Celtics build a second-half edge after a sloppy, nip-and-tuck first.

But Smart’s defense is a known quantity. What’s really exciting is this: Now he’s snapping the net. The gravel cherry on top of the concrete sundae he served Philly was the 21 points he kicked in on 7-of-11 from the floor, including 3-of-7 from 3. We should probably refrain from getting starry-eyed here. Smart is a career 36 percent rock hurler. He’s shooting a scratch over 37 percent this season. BUT! He’s shooting a practically virile 44 percent over his past 10 games and 53 percent in his past five. This might be a blip, of course. It might also be Smart, a restricted free agent in 2018, taking a mighty and lucrative leap. Celtics win 116–108.

Apologies to Bradley Beal

Old Man Can Jump

Ben Detrick: If you’re an aging pickup-basketball enthusiast with joints that operate like dungeon doors, watching Dirk Nowitzki remains a vicarious thrill. At this stage of his 19-year career, the Mavericks legend shuffles rigidly up and down the court in a manner befitting a soon-to-be-retired cop obligated to chase a fleet-footed truant. (The Achilles injury that forced him to miss 22 games isn’t helping his mobility, either.) But, man, Dirk can still fill it up.

Wednesday night, in a stirring demonstration that proved the enduring usefulness of old people, Nowitzki notched 24 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, a block, and a steal. While his Mavs lost to the Pistons 98–91, it was a game that evolved from a dreary blowout to borderline exciting by its end.

Detroit was all over Dallas early, and pushed a double-digit first-quarter lead to a 27-point halftime bulge (with 14 coming from Jon “Canal Street Dirk” Leuer). Dallas isn’t the most elderly team in the league, but it’s mastered the art of plugging through dismal stretches with the kind of professionalism that seems indebted to life experiences like paying mortgages and changing diapers. The Mavs resolutely continue doing what they do, whipping the ball around the perimeter and chucking up 3s. Sometimes it works.

The second half featured either Vintage Dirk or the best possible version of Current Dirk. He posted 16 of his points after intermission with perfect German minimalism. When playing center, Nowitzki doesn’t wrestle for position in the post or scramble along the baseline in half-moon crescents. He jogs up the court and spots up. Or jogs up the court and sets a high screen and then spots up. Or jogs up the court, sets a high screen, and then torments defenders with up-fakes and wrong-foot fadeaways from the free throw stripe. It’s stunning how little Nowitzki actually moves.

Wednesday, after torching the Pistons with enough buckets to make a forgettable game interesting, Dirk did one of those celebratory six-shooter gestures. This could be his last rodeo, but the glaucoma-eyed gunslinger can still plink a beer can from 22 feet away.

Lakers GM Pope Pius XIII Delivers His First Official Address to Lakers Nation

(HBO/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Ringer illustration)

Pope Pius XIII (via Jason Gallagher): Ciao, Los Angeles! Ciao, world!

My dear faithful ones, allow me to clarify one thing.

If a franchise has limited itself to a clear path then that franchise has not served its fans well. And this franchise does not forget it. Here we are. The people demand many things from God — but God is random and thus, we, too, will be random. You WILL look at this organization with wonder. The faithful will stay while those that seek plans will be washed away by the sea.

Do you desire us to lose? Is that your “plan?”

God does not concern himself with your plan. And therefore we, the Los Angeles Lakers, will have no plan. Let us be closer to God than we are to draft picks or the playoffs. This is crucial.

Look up to the sky. If God showers us with draft picks it will not be because we tank. No, but because God himself willed it to be. Our “works” is a myth in the NBA. Look joyfully to your neighbor in Philadelphia. What has his “works” gotten him?

I do not trust a Process. I trust in God. And therefore I trust in volatility. There is no room for anything else. If you so desire draft picks than you too shall perish.

Look at me. I repeat, the faithful pursue no plans. None. This is no longer a compromise.

The Lakers, in turn, will not seek out the playoffs but allow the playoffs to seek us out.

Free yourself from the hope of victory. The next time you look to the conference standings, instead, look to God.

Be content with the Lakers as God has been content with you exclusively. Once more, be fulfilled in this franchise — ex-clus-ive-ly — 24 hours a day. No free agents. No trades. No emancipation. I cannot assure you high draft picks or playoff spots or even God himself. It is up to you to find peace in the existence and nonexistence of those things. Our higher calling is to reject method and to embrace impermanence.

When you have accepted this, you have accepted God.

Giannis Has Taste

A Date to Remember

Chris Almeida: Canadian tennis does not have a storied history, but it has enjoyed its moment over the past few years. In 2014, Genie Bouchard became the first player in her country’s history to reach a Grand Slam final in singles play when she lost at Wimbledon to Petra Kvitova. That year was good to Bouchard, who reached the semifinals of the French and Australian opens and became the world’s fifth-ranked player late in the season. But Bouchard has struggled in the years since, failing to reach the quarterfinals of a major in her last eight attempts, and her ranking has plummeted to 44th. This may not feel so bad for Canadian tennis fans, who have watched Milos Raonic, a finalist at last year’s Wimbledon, carry the flag reliably on the men’s side, but … sorry, where was I going with this?

Ah, yes. Right. Genie Bouchard was at the Barclays Center on Wednesday night on a date with John, a college student in Missouri whom she had met earlier that day. During the Super Bowl, Bouchard announced on Twitter that she “knew Atlanta would win” and that she had “predicted the future.” John, seeing an opportunity, asked Bouchard if they could go on a date if the Patriots ended up winning, and the rest was history.

Bouchard flew John to the game, where the two sat courtside and participated in a T-shirt toss during a break in the first half. In an interview, Bouchard said that she had picked the Nets game because it would be “less awkward than a dinner date” and expressed relief that her date was so “normal.” John played it cool throughout the evening, which is an accomplishment more impressive than anything the Nets have done this season.

There was also a basketball game.

The Bucks never trailed after taking the lead at the 2:31 mark in the first quarter, but Brooklyn fought back valiantly each time Milwaukee looked to be pulling away. After a tough, nine-point outing Monday night, Giannis Antetokounmpo was his singular self again, rolling over Nets defenders and scoring a team-high 33 points. The game-high honors went to Brook Lopez, who scored 36 points and made six of his 10 attempts from 3. In last week’s Shootaround, I wrote about Marc Gasol’s newly acquired love of the deep ball, and whatever bug bit Gasol seems to also have found Lopez, who is shooting 33 percent from behind the arc this season on 252 attempts after shooting 3-for-31 from deep over his first eight seasons.

Michael Beasley, Monday night’s Co–King of the Court, still doesn’t love the deep ball, but he’s succeeding while taking his favorite shots. The forward was 7-for-9 from the field (no 3s) and scored 14 points. Meanwhile, Greg Monroe stepped up again, scoring 25 points, 12 of which came in an imposing first quarter.

Given, a 129–125 win over the worst team in the NBA generally shouldn’t look promising, but in their post-Jabari reality, the Bucks are starting to find their footing. A Detroit win against the Mavericks kept Milwaukee a game out of the projected playoff picture, but if the Bucks can keep finding main-cast contributions from supporting characters, their season might not turn out to be lost, after all.

An earlier version of this piece misstated the team that Terrence Ross was traded to; he was traded to the Magic, not the Raptors.