Marcus Morris jumping at chance with Rockets

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Marcus Morris jumping at chance with Rockets

Its all starting to come together for Marcus Morris.

The Houston Rockets forward and Philadelphia native is finally getting his opportunity to display his skills on the professional level on a consistent basis.

Morris, who the Rockets selected in the first round of the 2011 NBA draft, hardly played last season, appearing in only 17 games, and having to deal with the lockout that killed his offseason, preseason and regular season.

He said the lockout didnt hurt his development, but the Rockets did elect to send him to the NBA Developmental League for 11 games last season.

Its just something that Houston does with their rookies, Morris said Saturday of his NBADL stint. Lockout or no lockout, I would have been there regardless.

But that was then. Those growing pains are over.

This season, his minutes are up (22:41 per game). His scoring is up (9.0 points per game). His rebounds are up, too (4.1). The Kansas product even found himself in the starting lineup as well, as Morris has started 17 games this season, including the Rockets' 107-100 loss to the 76ers on Saturday night (see game story). Morris, who played 20:54 minutes, finished with four points and two rebounds on 2-of-6 shooting.

Just getting used to playing, Morris said when asked what had been the biggest transition in his sophomore year.

And hes taking advantage of the playing time. Ever since Morris has been inserted in the starting lineup back in December, the Rockets are 10-6; he is averaging 10.9 points, and 3.9 rebounds during that span.

Morris understands the Rockets, who are second in the NBA in scoring averaging 105.6 points per game, are in no need dire need of an additional scorer, but if the opportunity to score is available, hell take it.

Rockets assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff works with Morris daily. He noticed the progress Morris is making and also notices how the second year forwards role is increasing in the Houston offense.

When he came into our starting lineup, he helped our spacing on the floor, Bickerstaff said. Him being on the floor, our scoring went up because it opens up room for Jeremy Lin. It opens up room for James Harden because people have to respect his ability to shoot the basketball.

When the subject of defense popped up, Morris smiled. He knows he needs to better develop, especially for a team that ranks 29th in the league in points allowed at 103.2 points per game.

Morris didnt make excuses but admitted that playing the power forward position is more difficult than he thought.

I am playing against big guys, he said. As far as height (hes listed at 6-foot-9), Im an average power forward height, but weight it's tough. Next year, I may have to put on some weight.

Nowadays the Rockets are a team that is centered around Harden, who clearly is the leader. Morris confides in Harden from time to time, as Harden can relate to some of the hardships Morris will or already has been going through.

Harden said the most important things he tells Morris is to be consistent and learn from his mistakes.

This league is about how hard you work and the consistent work you put in, Harden, who scored a team-high 29 points in the loss to the 76ers on Saturday, said. If you dont really put in any work, youre not going to get anything out of it. So many talent guys in this league, he has to be consistent everyday.

When speaking of his teammatementor, Morris was most impressed with Hardens ability to score. Hes a tough player. He makes scoring look real easy at times. Hes young, too, so he has a long, long NBA career.

Though he wanted to leave the Wells Fargo Center with a victory in front of family and friends, Morris knows its long road ahead a road that hes just beginning to travel.

The second year is always the tough year, Morris said. But thats what the league is for; for you to learn and get better. I think every year Ill get better, as my role becomes bigger and bigger. Well see.

McHale showing Jrue some love
Before Saturdays game, Rockets head coach Kevin McHale was asked about 76ers point guard Jrue Holiday and didnt hold his tongue when describing the UCLA product.

McHale, who called Holiday the heart and soul of the 76ers, admired Holidays ability to score and get his teammates involved.

Hes such a young guy, McHale said, but hes really coming into his own. I think people are wondering if hes a point guard, is he not a point guard, hes just a really good instrument.

Asked if Holiday, who scored a game-high 30 points in Saturdays win, was playing like an All-Star, McHale laughed before responding, I only vote on Western Conference guys.

But would McHale vote for Holiday if he was on the Western Conference?

The Hall of Famer smiled again, and said, Hes not.

NBA All-Star balloting will conclude on Monday and starters will be announced on Thursday, Jan. 17.

E-mail Jabari Young at jyoung@comcastsportsnet.com

NBA Playoffs: Cavs blow out Raptors for second straight Finals appearance

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NBA Playoffs: Cavs blow out Raptors for second straight Finals appearance

BOX SCORE

TORONTO -- LeBron James scored 33 points, Kevin Love had 20 points and 12 rebounds, and the Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to their second straight NBA Finals by beating the Toronto Raptors 113-87 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday night.

It's the third finals appearance in team history for the Cavaliers. Cleveland lost to Golden State in six games last year and got swept by San Antonio in 2007.

For James, it's his sixth straight trip to the finals, including four with Miami. He broke the 30-point barrier for the first time this postseason and finished with 11 rebounds and six assists.

"We needed LeBron to set the tone for us early and I thought he did that," coach Tyronn Lue said.

James will be the eighth player in NBA history to appear in six consecutive finals and the first who didn't play for the Boston Celtics.

"He's just a great player," Lue said. "He's a proven winner. He's always won over the course of his career. To go to six straight finals is unbelievable."

James got there by taking down a Toronto team that set a franchise record with 56 wins and reached the conference finals for the first time in 21 seasons.

After a second-quarter dunk, James shared some verbal barbs with rapper Drake, the Raptors' global ambassador and the man who popularized the nickname `6ix' for Toronto.

Kyrie Irving had 30 points and J.R. Smith added 15 for the Cavaliers, who will face the winner of the Golden State-Oklahoma City series on Thursday.

Cleveland would open at home against the Thunder but would be on the road against the 73-win Warriors, who trail 3-2 against Oklahoma City heading into Saturday's Game 6.

The Cavs will be seeking to end Cleveland's 52-year championship drought, the longest by any city with at least three professional teams. No Cleveland team has won it all since the Browns blanked Baltimore 27-0 to win the NFL championship in 1964.

"This city has been craving a championship," Lue said. "We have the right team and we have the right talent."

Kyle Lowry scored 35 points and DeMar DeRozan had 20 as the deepest playoff run in Raptors team history ended, much to the disappointment of a sellout crowd of 20,605 dressed in red and white T-shirts that formed a maple leaf pattern on either side of the court. Fans stood and cheered "Let's go, Raptors! Let's go, Raptors!" throughout most of the final three minutes.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey said reaching the conference finals was "a tremendous learning experience" for his young team, one that's "a step ahead" in its process of becoming a championship contender.

"We're learning," Casey said. "We're not where (the Cavaliers) are right now. We're going to be."

A dejected Lowry said it was hard to see the positive side of Toronto's best season ever.

"Of course you're going to look back at some point but right now I'm disappointed," he said. "Simple as that, I'm disappointed."

Toronto prolonged the series with back-to-back home wins in Games 3 and 4 but never mounted much of a challenge to the conference champions in Game 6, falling behind by 21 in the third quarter.

The Cavaliers came in 0-4 at Air Canada Centre counting the regular season and playoffs, but looked much more like the team that handed the Raptors a trio of lopsided losses in Cleveland this series.

The Raptors trailed 88-78 on a jumper by DeRozan with 10:23 remaining but James scored six points in a 14-3 run that gave the Cavs a 102-81 lead with about 6 minutes left.

James scored 14 in the first and five of Cleveland's nine field goals were from long range as the Cavaliers led 31-25 after one.

After video review, the officials waved off a basket by Biyombo with 3:18 left in the period and gave him a flagrant foul for knocking down Love.

Tempers flared again early in the second when Richard Jefferson reacted angrily to catching an elbow from Jonas Valanciunas as the two battled for a rebound. Patrick Patterson came over and shoved Jefferson out of the way. Both Patterson and Jefferson were given technical fouls.

Cleveland made five more 3-pointers in the second and outscored Toronto 9-3 over the final 71 seconds to lead 55-41 at halftime. The Cavaliers made 10 of 15 3-point attempts in the first half, while Toronto was 2 of 12.

The Cavs led 78-57 after a 3 by Love at 3:53 of the third but Lowry scored 15 points as Toronto closed the quarter with a 17-8 run, cutting it to 86-74.

Tip-ins
Cavaliers: Shot 17 for 31 from 3-point range. ... Outscored Toronto 17-5 in fast break points.

Raptors: Finished their playoff run by playing every other day from April 29 onward, a 15-game run that started with Game 6 of the first round against Indiana.

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Report: Sixers in California for NBA draft workouts

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Report: Sixers in California for NBA draft workouts

As the Western Conference Finals are taking place in Oakland, the Sixers are looking for new talent of their own in California.

This week, members of the Sixers' front office are attending pre-draft workouts organized through multiple agencies, including BDA Sports Management, CAA Sports, Landmark Sports Agency, Octagon and Wasserman Media Group.

While the Sixers hold the No. 1 pick, these workouts are opportunities for them to evaluate players that could be fits for their 24th and 26th selections.

On Thursday, the list of workout participants included projected first-rounders Deyonta Davis (Michigan State) and Cheik Diallo (Kansas), according to the Philadelphia Inquirer

The scouting process takes NBA teams coast to coast. Earlier this week, the Sixers reportedly attended a private workout with Excel Sports Management in New York City, in which Brandon Ingram and Jamal Murray participated.

The Sixers have held two workouts at their own practice facility, bringing in a total of 12 prospects thus far.

As the draft nears, 57 early-entry candidates withdrew their names from the 2016 draft.