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Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver is ‘addicted to the game’

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Last month, when Texas Tech’s star guard Jarrett Culver announced his intentions to enter the NBA Draft, his coach, Chris Beard, was compelled to thank Culver for making good on all the promises he made when Beard signed him. This was an unusual statement to make, as Beard, one of the rising stars in college coaching, points out.

“The recruiting story is usually about the coach, and what he said he would do, and if he kept the promises he made to the player,” says Beard, who took a depleted roster from a 2018 NCAA tournament Elite Eight team and, with Culver as its fulcrum and a couple of key graduate transfers thrown in, nearly won the 2019 national championship. “But equally important is the other side of the relationship.

“A lot of times, a player will tell you he’s going to do something, and that doesn’t happen. In the recruiting process, everything Jarrett told us he would do in his part of the bargain, he did it 100 percent.”

The story has been well told by now, but Beard didn’t have to look far for Culver, who grew up in Lubbock, Texas — home of Texas Tech. Beard, a Texan through and through, had served 10 years on the staff of Texas Tech, seven under the legend Bobby Knight and three more under Knight’s son, Pat, before embarking on a coaching odyssey that included four head-coaching jobs at four different levels of the game before taking over at Tech in 2016.

While Beard was away, he always kept his eye on West Texas, realizing the occasional special player pops up in that football-mad part of the country.

When Beard first became aware of Culver, the player was in eighth or ninth grade. The more Beard learned about him, the more he liked. Culver’s parents — has father is a Baptist minister — were of high moral fiber and committed to their children. His two older brothers were successful athletes. Best of all, as a youngster, Culver had already worked his way through every sport until he realized basketball was the one that he loved the most, and had the potential to take him the farthest. Little did he know.

Beard took nothing for granted when he began recruiting Culver.

“I wasn’t a big Tech fan, even though I lived in Lubbock,” Culver says. “I kind of grew up a Texas fan. But once I started getting recruited by coach Beard, I didn’t think about any of that. I just wanted to go where somebody really wanted me. Coach Beard recruited me hard. He always told me if I was in New York or anywhere else, he would have recruited me the same way. I liked that, and I saw myself making an impact.”

Beard thought the same thing, that Culver could make an impact. Little did he know.

Once Culver, at about 6-foot-6 and 170 pounds, showed up on campus, Beard realized exactly what he had. The word Beard and his coaching staff use to explain devotion to the game is “addicted.” Culver was hooked, and he would do anything within reason to get better.

“When talent intersects love of the game, special things happen,” Beard says. “And when you also have that intersection in the neighborhood of character and discipline … Jarrett worked on his craft. He came in here as a guy who could score. Two years later, he leaves as one of the best defensive players in college basketball. A guy who could beat you with the pass. He’s a great pick-and-roll player, can score in the post with his back to the basket. He’s improved as a 3-point shooter, a free-throw shooter. He’s worked at his craft.”

Culver’s hard work was on display this season. As a freshman, he apprenticed under Tech’s leading scorer Keenan Evans and played on near equal footing with Zhaire Smith, another special talent who left after his only season and became a first-round NBA Draft pick. This season, without Evans and Smith, Culver — playing at a more robust 200 pounds thanks to hours in the weight room — was the man. Beard and his assistants plugged some holes with two astute graduate transfer acquisitions — shot blocking forward Tariq Owens and guard Matt Mooney — but if Tech, picked to finish seventh in the Big 12, was to surpass those modest preseason expectations, Culver had to deliver.

He was more than ready. In leading the Red Raiders to the Big 12 regular-season championship — breaking Kansas’s 14-year stranglehold on the title — he delivered team highs in points (701) and rebounds (243) and became the first player in school history to rack up 1,000 or more points (1,119) in his first two seasons.

And then came one of the more impressive NCAA tournament runs in history. After getting booted from the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals by West Virginia, the Red Raiders regrouped in the NCAA tournament and plowed through Northern Kentucky, Buffalo, Michigan, Gonzaga and Michigan State en route to a title-game matchup with Virginia.

Culver, his well-rounded game on full display, left numerous admirers in his wake. One of them was Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

I’ve been really impressed with him,” Izzo said during the tournament. “I love guys … I had a kid named Gary Harris a couple of years ago who I thought was one of the best two-way players I’ve ever had. He could do it on the offensive end. He could do it on the defensive end. He could impact the game in both. I think Culver does that. I think he’s got versatility, and he’s a scorer that plays defense. Sometimes those are harder to come by, and I think that’s what makes him so special.

Tech fell just short of the national championship, losing 85-77 to a Virginia team that seemed destined for redemption after, the season before, having been the first No. 1-seeded team in history to lose to a No. 16 seed. But the loss didn’t diminish the Red Raiders’ accomplishment.

“It was an unbelievable run,” Culver says. “All of us — the players coming back, the freshmen, the grad transfers — bought into what coach was telling us. Everyone believed in coach because of what we did last year. We bought into his culture. And he led us all the way to the championship game because everybody did what they were supposed to do.”

After that run, Culver had nothing left to prove in college. He knew it, his family knew it, Beard knew it. As sorry as he is to see Culver go, Beard is equally thrilled for him. Culver did what he was supposed to do, and more important to Beard, what he said he would do. Now it’s on to the next level, where he’s a certain high lottery pick.

“I have no doubt he’s going to be an NBA star,” Beard said. “Again, it’s a case of where talent intersects the love of the game. Nobody’s going to outwork him. I say that with all due respect to all NBA players. I understand how hard guys work. But no one will outwork Jarrett Culver.

“Like we say around here, you’ve got to be addicted. A lot of people are addicted to game night, when the band plays and the cheerleaders are rocking. TV cameras and all that. There are only a select few that are just addicted to it, who are in the gym when nobody else is looking. Jarrett’s at the top of the list. He’s addicted to winning. He’s addicted to working. He’s just addicted to the game.

* * *

Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. You can email him here, follow him on Twitter and listen to the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Hour.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.



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With Kawhi less than 100 percent, Raptors’ bench shines in Game 4

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TORONTO — It’s not clear what the injury is, and there has been no word from the Toronto Raptors. But Kawhi Leonard is most certainly dealing with some sort of leg ailment in these Eastern Conference finals. The most clear indication of that was a pronounced limp after he dunked on Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Raptors’ second possession of the third quarter Tuesday night.

Given how much the Raptors have depended on their star in this postseason, a hobbled Leonard, coming off a career-high 52 minutes in Game 3, would seemingly be a harbinger of doom. But the Raptors of Game 4 were not the Raptors of the conference semifinals, when contributions from the Toronto supporting cast were few and far between.

Those Raptors, in the second half of a desperate Game 4 win in Philadelphia, basically went six deep. Those Raptors had just seven guys see the floor in all of Game 7, with Norman Powell getting DNP’d with the season on the line.

The Raptors that won this Game 4 by a score of 120-102 were carried by their bench. With Leonard limited and the team desperate to avoid a 3-1 hole in the series, Powell (18), Fred VanVleet (13) and Serge Ibaka (17) combined for 48 points and we’re heading back to Milwaukee for a pivotal Game 5 on Thursday.

At this time of year, you take the wins any way you can get them. But a comfortable victory that comes with good execution and effort on both ends of the floor is nice, no? And it’s obviously a lot more reassuring to know that you have eight guys, instead of five or six, that you can count on to make plays and shoot with confidence when the call comes their way.

 

Full highlights: Kyle Lowry led the way with 25 points as Toronto handed Milwaukee its second straight loss.

“It’s just a different series,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of the fluctuation play of his bench. “And it’s been really interesting for me to see how things change so much from series to series.”

From game to game, really. VanVleet gave the Raptors important minutes when Kyle Lowry fouled out of Game 3, and he did hit a big shot late in the fourth quarter of that overtime victor. But he still entered Game 4 having shot a brutal 6-for-42 (including 3-for-24 from 3-point range) over the last nine games.

On Tuesday, VanVleet drained a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer just eight seconds after checking in for the first time. He would go on to shoot 5-for-6, connecting on all three of his shots from beyond the arc, including a bank shot from the right wing when everything seemed to be going right for the Raptors early in the fourth quarter. He added six assists on a night that the Raptors had 32 assists on their 41 buckets, their second highest rate of the postseason.

Early in that Philadelphia series, Toronto was better offensively when they didn’t move the ball, because Leonard was so efficient shooting off the dribble and his teammates weren’t shooting with any confidence. But the way the offense looked on Tuesday, with everybody getting touches, is likely more sustainable, even against the league’s No. 1 defense. And despite the injury (and fatigue), Leonard was still able to get into the paint. He had a team-high 14 drives in Game 4, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

“The great thing about having him on your team is he still gets all the attention,” Lowry said of Leonard. “We fed off of that — drive, kick, swing. He gets in the lane, kick out. That’s the benefit of having a superstar like him on the team.”

But while the Raptors were still feeding off Leonard, they knew they needed to support him more than they had been. In fact, they didn’t run a single action for Leonard until their 12th possession of the game. And while the other starters did their part — Lowry finished with a team-high 25 points and Marc Gasol drained three 3-pointers (making him 7-for-14 from beyond the arc over the last two games) — it was the bench that really turned things up.

Powell, the guy who played just four total minutes in Games 4 and 7 against Philadelphia, has emerged as a difference maker in this series. He has totaled 51 points over the last three games, shooting 5-for-10 on corner threes and providing some much-needed juice off the dribble.

“There’s some speed we need there with Norman,” Nurse said. “There’s some athleticism we need there with Serge. And there’s some ball handling and running the club with Fred that we need.

“It’s really them playing up to their capabilities.”

Ibaka grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds in just 24 minutes, and also hit what was probably the biggest shot of the night. With about three minutes left to go in the second quarter, the Raptors had gone through five straight scoreless possessions and the Bucks had cut what was a 10-point deficit down to four. Ibaka set a ball screen screen for Kyle Lowry and then popped out for a 20-foot jumper from the right side of the key. He drained it and Milwaukee never got that close again.

The points from the bench were nice, but just as important was getting stops on the other end of the floor.

“First of all,” Nurse said, “I want them to come in and hold their own defensively and execute the defensive schemes, and I didn’t see many problems there. They were able to guard a bunch of different people.”

Playing well on both ends of the floor, the reserves pushed the game in the right direction. Powell was a plus-29 in 32 minutes, VanVleet a plus-25 in 25, and Ibaka a plus-24 in 24. Those are the three best single-game plus-minus marks in this round of the playoffs.

The trio was playing so well that, with his team up 13, Nurse dared to begin the fourth quarter with Leonard, Lowry and Pascal Siakam all on the bench. And instead of the lead shrinking, it grew to 20 points before a pair of Khris Middleton buckets forced Nurse to call timeout with 7:23 to go.

After playing 52 minutes in Game 3, Leonard played 34 on Tuesday. Siakam went from 51 minutes in Game 3 to just 23 in Game 4. And the pair combined for just 26 of the Raptors’ 120 points.

The Bucks are betting that the Raptors can’t pull off another performance like this.

“We want the other guys to take shots,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve got to keep being aggressive defensively on Kawhi, try to limit his shots. But at the end of the day, if guys come off the bench they knock down shots, we’ve got to live with it. We’re doing our job.”

The Raptors, meanwhile, hope this is just the beginning.

“The biggest part is for our team to see how much success we can have when we play that way,” VanVleet said. “It’s not about me as an individual. Those same shots, if they go in, great, if they don’t, we gotta keep taking them. I think that just trying to build on what we did as a team offensively, is the biggest part. Individually, that stuff comes and goes.”

It’s now a three-game series to see who’s going to The Finals. The Bucks have two of the remaining three games at home, but the Raptors have led for 61 percent of the minutes over the first four. And they now have some life off of what looked like a very shallow bench just 10 days ago. In addition to more firepower, a deeper bench creates more versatility.

“One minute you say, oh, man, our big lineup is the answer,” Nurse said. “Then maybe a couple, seven days later, it’s not. It’s the smaller lineup or some faster guys out there that’s the answer. That’s been interesting to see.

“But each game is its own entity … Let’s see if those guys can bring that same pop and focus, determination on the road.”

* * *

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
 



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Raptors take advantage of Bucks’ defensive lapses in Game 4

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TORONTO — Mike Budenholzer wasted no time in identifying the Milwaukee Bucks’ fatal flaw Tuesday night in their Game 4 loss to Toronto, a defeat that essentially cut the Eastern Conference finals now to a best-of-three mini-series. 

“I think this is probably the first night defensively where I don’t feel like we were close to where you need to be to give ourselves a chance,” Budenholzer said. 

He didn’t specify whether he meant against this particular opponent, so far in the 2019 postseason or across the expanse of the 95 games the Bucks have played since late October. 

So let’s just say they were shoddy and haphazard enough in falling 120-102 at Scotiabank Arena to have undermined all three. 

Limiting this to the playoffs, the Bucks’ work defensively ranked as their low point in 13 games against Toronto, Boston or Detroit. Their 125.0 defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was their worst by a wide margin; it was 110.9 when they lost to the Celtics in Game 1 of the conference semifinals. 

Their three previous efforts against Toronto in this series were 101.0 in Game 2, 98.3 in Game 3 and 98.0 in the opener.

 

Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell and Fred Van Vleet stepped up as the Raptors finished with a 48-23 advantage in bench scoring.

Not to go decimal-point crazy here, but Milwaukee’s defensive rebounding percentage (68.8 percent) also was their playoff worst. They’d been far more conscientious on the boards in Games 1 (78.3), 2 (83.0) and 3 (78.5). 

Meanwhile, the Raptors looked awfully prosperous at the Bucks’ expense. It was Toronto’s second-best night of the postseason in offensive rating, in offensive rebound percentage and in assist percentage (78.0). 

None of the above is supposed to happen against the NBA’s top-ranked defense overall in 2018-19. 

“A little bit of everything,” was how forward Nikola Mirotic explained the Game 4 unraveling. “Rotation. Defensive transition as well — we didn’t show the crowd as we usually do. They beat us on the boards tonight.” 

Said backup guard George Hill: “They’re getting a lot of open looks. They’re driving the ball hard. They’re moving the ball very well. We’ve just got to match their energy and match that style of play.” 

There are two sides to these coins, and the Bucks were quick to credit Toronto’s players for the offensive prowess they showed. The Raptors’ three reserves in coach Nick Nurse’s eight-man rotation — Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet– outscored the four bench guys in Budenholzer’s current rotation, 48-19. 

Having more scorers in rhythm stretched Milwaukee’s defense in ways that the Bucks, reduced to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton as a two-headed threat, did not. And missing more than 70 percent of your 3-pointers — the Bucks have bricked 115 of 164 in the series — can fuel the other team’s transition game. 

“I’m not sure a lot of [Toronto’s big shots] were necessarily Kawhi Leonard-centric,” Budenholzer said. 

Said Middleton, who had his finest offensive game of the series with 30 points but was just as culpable as his teammates defensively: “We didn’t really take away one thing from them. For the most part, they got anything they wanted, from the paint to the blocks to the mid-range to the threes.” 

Milwaukee’s defensive formula all season has been to limit the opponents’ success near the rim, challenge them at the arc and limit their trips to the line. Well, the Raptors matched the Bucks in paint scoring with 40 points. They outscored their guests by nine points on 3-pointers, And they shot 27 free throws, making 24. 

All against a defense that had led the NBA in opponents’ field-goal percentage (43.3) and in fewest points allowed on free throws (an average of 15.1 per game). 

It might be natural for foul totals to creep up in the playoffs, when teams get more physical and no one wants to yield easy buckets. It’s understandable, too, that a team playing from behind most of the night can get desperate simply to end the other guys’ possession and get the ball back, which also leads to fouls. 

“There are some that are going to happen, but there also are some fouls we need to be smarter about,” guard Pat Connaughton said. “I mean, try to be better. Get there earlier. We have to be a step quicker. We have to do a few things smarter when it comes to reaching. Just overall be a little bit more mentally tough.” 

Connaughton played fewer than 14 minutes. But he was part of the meltdown too, with the Bucks outscored by 16 in his limited appearance. He and several teammates dismissed the possibility — an ominous one, frankly– that the Raptors have unlocked the Bucks’ defensive code and now can attack them at will. 

But that doesn’t mean there are leaks in need of plugging, pronto. 

“Part of it starts with just making sure we stick to our core values,” Connaughton said. “There were times we had a few breakdowns where they ended up getting layups. We’ve been a great defensive team all year and one of the reasons is because we don’t allow layups. We have each other’s back, we scramble, things of that nature. 

“It seemed like they had a few open layups. They had a few wide-open threes. When we’re at our best, we’re putting pressure on everybody. We’re scrambling. It’s not gonna be perfect [but] our strength is the athleticism and tenacity we play with on the defensive end. Tonight it seemed like they ended up with a few looks that we don’t usually allow.” 

Time and time again, the Raptors stayed patient to keep the ball moving in search of good, better and best shots. The Bucks also got caught chasing the ball, or ganging up two or three defenders on the ball handler until he dropped a little pass to an open mate. 

“And it seemed there were a few times where they found the open guy after we collapsed on defense,” Connaughton said. “When we were able to run him off, they found the next guy. That’s when there wasn’t another [Bucks defender] to go. When we are at our best, we have more communication. We have a better sense of who’s flying at who. We get back in the play.” 

Connaughton spoke as well about Raptors blowing by him and the Bucks’ other on-ball defenders. If it wasn’t Kyle Lowry or VanVleet, it was Leonard slipping away from Middleton to receive a bounce pass for a layup or dunk. 

“We’ve got to do a better job of keeping guys out of the lane so we don’t have to help as much,” Connaughton said. “But when we do have to help, we have to make sure we’re scrambling as well as we have all season. 

“There are plenty of clips throughout the season where we’ve had a guy running someone off the [3-point] line, and then all of a sudden he’s got a contest three passes later when it’s swung on the wing. That’s what we’ve got to get back to.” 

That’s what the Bucks’ season might come down to.

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
 



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Report: Trail Blazers, Terry Stotts agree to contract extension

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Just one day after being eliminated from the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors, the Trail Blazers and coach Terry Stotts have agreed to a multiyear contract extension, according to ESPN sources.

The Portland Trail Blazers and head coach Terry Stotts have agreed to a multiyear contract extension.

The Blazers announced the extension Tuesday but did not disclose terms.

Stotts has led Portland to six straight playoff appearances in his seven seasons at the helm, holding a 325-249 record.

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