Baseline to Baseline, your game recaps

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d harris.jpgOur game recaps from Tuesday, or what you missed while getting addicted to snowboard-cross from Vancouver.

Oklahoma City 99, Dallas 86 It’s going to take a while to integrate all the new players in Mavericks’ uniforms with each other. A tough way to start that process is against a very hot Oklahoma City squad.

For one quarter, the Mavericks’ play on the court looked fantastic, then the whole thing fell apart. Blame Dallas on not adjusting to their new roles, or credit the Thunder defense  — I’m not sure it was either, just ice cold shooting — but after that fast start Dallas could not find the basket. Caron Butler was 4 of 16 in his debut. Jason Terry was 4 of 15 off the bench. Dirk Nowitzki was 9 of 22. Jason Kidd 4 of 15. After an 11-point third quarter by Dallas, this one was over.

There was excitement at the end of the game, and thankfully it wasn’t about pizzas or tacos — Durant’s shot at the rim with 20 seconds left gave him 25 points for the 26th straight game. That guy is special.

New Jersey 103, Charlotte 94 Once again it was another Nets fast start, as they put up 31 points in the first quarter against one of the best defensive teams in the league. Courtney Lee led the way with 10 that first stanza. But we all know the drill, that’s not going to last, right?

Not this time. Lee stayed hot, and Brook Lopez and Devin Harris joined him. Josh Boone even made good contributions off the bench. The Nets shot 51.9 percent from the field, while Charlotte started to feel a little desperate on offense in the fourth quarter and at one point jacked up three pointers on five straight trips down the court. Charlotte was not nearly so hot from the floor as for that to be a good strategy.

The Nets are now 2-1 against the Bobcats this season.

Boston 95 Sacramento 92 The Kings are an athletic team, and that gave the Celtics trouble. For example, with 30 seconds to go Kevin Garnett was going for a game sealing dunk, when Jason Thompson raced over and blocked the shot. Then Thompson ran the floor and got the ball on the block and made his move to tie the game, but was fouled in the act, two shots.

The Kings are an inexperienced team, and that is why the Celtics won this game. Thompson missed both his free throws — Sacramento was 2-10 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter. Next trip down the Kings had to foul and Rasheed Wallace (he of a team-high 17 points), an experienced veteran who hit both his free throws. Next rookie Tyreke Evans missed a layup then Ray Allen hit both of his key late free throws. See the pattern. It won’t be like that for these teams in a year or two, but for now Boston gets these games, even when they are not pretty.

Miami 105 Philadelphia 78 The Sixers use a lot of isolation offense — you can try to blame that on the return of Allen Iverson if you want, but it is a team wide epidemic– and that can be very inconsistent. Tonight was one of the off nights, as they started 11 of 35 from the floor and were down from the start. All night the Sixers settled for jumpers and did not attack the rim with any consistent ferocity. Only one Sixer starter scored double digits (Andre Iguodala with 11).

Credit the Heat for taking advantage of this off Philadelphia team, Miami has won three straight and have looked good (Dwyane Wade dropped 24 in the win).

Chicago 118, New York 85 Basketball is a game about shooting. The Bulls shot 60.5 percent, the Knicks shot 34.6 percent. Maybe the Bulls play with trade rumors hanging over their head better than the Knicks. (Jordan Hill did not make any other GMs covet him with his 0-4 performance). Chris Duhon was back as the starter, and he was back to being his old self, with an unimpressive showing. But really, this game was all about the shooting.

Phoenix 108 Memphis 95 This was a fast-paced game — 99 possessions each. It made for an entertaining game, but one that was played on the Suns terms. They made a big run in the second quarter and essentially that was the ballgame. Amare Stoudemire tempted his suitors with possibilities, finishing with 21 and 10. Robin Lopez finished with 18 and 10 but tempted no one.

Utah 104, Houston 95 This is not that insightful, but I think it true: Utah has more talented players. Both teams play well as units, and when both play at about the same level as team units, the squad with the better players wins.

Portland 109, Los Angeles Clippers 87 When interim coach Kim Hughes loosened the reins on the Clipper offense, I’m sure he did not mean “play only isolation and stop all the ball movement.” But Tuesday night that was pretty much the effect. Even without Brandon Roy for a half — the Trail Blazers must have done something horrible to offend the basketball gods this year — they are a much better team than the collection of Clipper individuals.

Los Angeles Lakers 104, Golden State 94 This one was tied at 89 with 4:30 left in the contest, but the Lakers got serious about their defense and went on a 15-5 run to close the game out. The first 43 minutes of this game were just sloppy, by both teams. Actually, we shouldn’t blame all the Lakers — Andrew Bynum did what he needed to do punishing Golden State inside. Then there was Shannon Brown, who started in place of Kobe and once he stepped inside the arc (1 of 6 from three) was 10 of 13 for a career high 27 points. No Kobe for the Lakers, and their bench returned to its poor play for a night, but Golden State is not good enough to really take advantage of these things/

Detroit 105, Minnesota 85. I care about recapping this game about as much as the Timberwolves cared about defending. Which is to say not at all.

Amir Johnson on South Beach: 2006 Pistons ‘let the streets beat us’

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Amir Johnson is a savvy veteran on the young 76ers.

On the 2006 Pistons, he was a scarcely used rookie straight out of high school.

But he was learning lessons he’d apply to his current role.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

Philadelphia heeded Johnson’s advice. The 76ers won Games 3 and 4 in Miami to take a 3-1 series lead.

The Pistons went 0-3 in Miami during the six-game 2006 Eastern Conference finals. There was little shame in losing to those Heat. They pushed Detroit to seven games in the 2005 conference finals and were – with Dwyane Wade transcendent while Shaquille O’Neal remained in his prime – even better the following year.

But too much partying is a major charge and a somewhat surprising one. The Pistons were led by the same veteran core – Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace – that made the previous two NBA Finals and won the 2004 title. They’d been around long enough to know better.

Gregg Popovich to miss Spurs-Warriors Game 5

AP Photo/Eric Gay
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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has missed Games 3 and 4 of his team’s first-round series against the Warriors following the death of his wife, Erin.

Unsurprisingly, he won’t coach the Spurs as they leave San Antonio for Game 5 tomorrow at Golden State.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Popovich should take all the time he needs. Ettore Messina is capable as acting coach, and Popovich being with his family now is more important anyway.

This will probably be the final game of the series. Up 3-1, the Warriors are the better team and at home.

LeBron James on Lance Stephenson-drawn technical foul: ‘I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on’

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LeBron James and Lance Stephenson have met in 23 playoff games.

Stephenson has tried to agitate LeBron throughout all of them.

From the choke sign back when Stephenson was still a benchwarmer to the infamous ear blow to the tapping of LeBron’s face the next game, Stephenson has been relentless. And LeBron has mostly kept his cool.

But not last night.

Midway through the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers’ Game 4 win over the Pacers, Stephenson stuck close to LeBron as LeBron went to the Cleveland bench. LeBron pushed Stephenson away and received a technical foul.

LeBron:

I mean, I should never have gotten a tech in the first place. There’s a timeout called, and this guy’s following me to my bench. I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on. But I should know better. I should know better. I’ve been dealing with this since elementary. It’s like I tell you a joke – I tell you a joke and then you laugh, and you get caught. That’s what happened. Lance told me a joke. I laughed. Teacher caught me. Now, I’ve got to go see the principal. That’s what happened.

Stephenson earned that technical foul. He did just enough to bait LeBron, but too much where Stephenson would get a tech. Then, Stephenson exaggerated the contract.

LeBron got got, and he knows it.

He’s also probably savvy enough to remain on greater alert to Stephenson’s antics the rest of the series and avoid responding again.

Where the Blazers, Neil Olshey, and Terry Stotts go from here

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The Portland Trail Blazers were a frustrating team to watch to start the season. They floundered early as players like Moe Harkless and Evan Turner failed to take the next step forward to help the team. The emergence of Zach Collins playing in tandem with a healthy Ed Davis was a good story, but not enough to overcome Portland’s fatal flaws. Most of the talk surrounding the Blazers remained about roster construction — as it has since GM Neil Olshey signed Turner to his massive 4-year, $70 million contract back in 2016.

Then things flipped.

Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 14, Portland rattled off 13 straight. Harkless was no longer moody, Damian Lillard was playing like a Top 5 MVP candidate, and CJ McCollum hummed right along with him. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting well, Shabazz Napier was an important rotational piece, and even Turner’s midrange turnarounds felt like a simple change of pace rather than a glaring misfit. Roster talk died down because Portland looked unstoppable, and with a new defensive effort the team felt like a lock to beat whichever squad they faced in the first round.

But the Blazers found themselves outgunned, overmatched, and demoralized as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans after the conclusion of the regular season. Portland got swept, 4-0, in perhaps the most embarrassing playoff sweep in franchise history since their series with the San Antonio Spurs at the turn of the last century.

So here we are, with both the Blazers and fans in Portland back to wondering the same thing: just what can be done to fix this roster and maximize Lillard’s prime?

We have to start with the basic fact that Portland is not going to trade McCollum.

Part of the internal friction for the Blazers is that McCollum is the guy Olshey seems most emotionally attached to. Olshey was fully at the helm of the organization when McCollum was drafted in 2013, and thus McCollum is wholly an Olshey guy. Portland had scouted Lillard long before Olshey arrived 24 days prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. Not that Olshey values one over the other, but there’s an odd, unspoken understanding that Olshey wants to make McCollum work along with Lillard partly as a matter of pride.

So if we move away from the possibility of changing the overall theory of a roster built around those two guards, where does that leave the Blazers? The answer comes with a boggling number of variables.

The key that unlocked Portland’s potential to dismantle most of their opponents after Valentine’s Day was a happy Harkless, one who was dropping 3-pointers from the corners and dishing out assists rather than moping on the deepest part of the bench. That was the big variable that made the switch for the Blazers. But in the playoffs, Portland got a Harkless that was just coming off knee surgery, and he wasn’t as effective.

Harkless said in exit interviews on Sunday that team brass reiterated to him how important he’s going to be to them next season, and they aren’t blowing smoke. Harkless is young, cheap, and versatile. He’s a better passer and dribbler than Aminu, whose contract expires after next season, and he’s a better pure shooter from deep. The problem is relying on Harkless, who admits to being moody and letting that emotional variance affect him on the court.

This puts us back to the question of Turner. For as much as Olshey likes to talk as though he slow plays the league, it was an extreme reach not only to pay Turner his contract but to sell the public the logic behind it. After McCollum and Lillard were trapped to death in the playoffs a few years ago, Olshey grabbed Turner as a third ball handler, one who could let Lillard and McCollum run around screens off-ball to reduce turnovers. At least, that was the story.

It didn’t really work all that well given the symbiotic nature of the game of basketball. Last season, Aminu’s shooting dipped and opposing defenses simply helped off of him and onto Portland’s main dribblers. That made Harkless and Allen Crabbe invaluable as shooters, not only as scorers but as sources of gravity to open up passing lanes.

There was as similar issue this season as Aminu’s shooting percentages rose while Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or Crabbe to anchor the 3-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of Lillard and McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving Turner as the open shooter on the 3-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from 8th in 3-point percentage to 16th in a year.

Turner adapted his game over the course of this season the best he could to compliment Portland’s system and needs. He’s just not useful enough at top clip. This explains the position the Blazers have been in the entirety of Turner’s contract — it’s going to be impossible to move him without attaching significant assets and in the process, delaying the progress of the team. No trade involving Turner will return the wing Portland needs. That’s just not how it works when you’ve got an albatross contract in 2018.

And so, after their sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, the conversation in Portland swiftly moved to speculation that coach Terry Stotts could be on the hot seat. The reality of Portland firing Stotts, if they are considering it, is of a major setback.

Stotts is beloved by his players, most of all Lillard, the franchise cornerstone. Stotts was a genuine Coach of the Year candidate this season for his role in developing guys like Napier and Pat Connaughton, who were useful at different parts of the season. Stotts pushed Nurkic to be more aggressive, a major factor in their late-season success. He rehabilitated Harkless. Reaching back even further, Stotts masterminded an offense that turned Mason Plumlee into the third creator on offense for Portland before the Nurkic trade last year. He’s been excellent, and firing him would be a colossal mistake.

I’ll put it this way: when Lillard had his “where is this going” conversation about the Blazers with owner Paul Allen, that talk wasn’t about Stotts. It was about Olshey’s roster construction.

The conversation about Stotts is a bit ridiculous, although it’s understandable given Olshey is both above him organizationally and a bit more financially annoying to fire after a recently-signed extension. But unlike Stotts, Olshey has not exceeded expectations in his position. Despite some clever draft day trades and the rumored rejection of a max contract bid offered by Chandler Parsons‘ camp two summers ago, the fact is Olshey is the one who has hampered the team, while Stotts has done the best with what he’s been given.

And so here we are, with the same questions about the Blazers roster nearly two years down the line and with an embarrassing playoff sweep in their possession. McCollum and Lillard are firmly cemented, perhaps more so thanks to their defensive improvement and the team’s win total. The Blazers can’t move their pieces thanks to poor fiscal management, and they’re in danger of losing valuable contributors like Davis, Napier, and eventually Aminu because of it.

It appears Portland’s only way forward is to do what they’ve always done, although it won’t be by their own volition, much as Olshey would like to spin it that way. Olshey, who said as much during exit interviews, will look for value in the draft and build a team that functions as a unit. I would assume that he’ll also need to ask owner Allen to tempt the repeater tax as he tries to re-sign Davis this year and Aminu the next. Olshey will need to hope Harkless is more consistent, and that he can find yet another shooter in the draft or via an exception signing or trade. All of these things are pretty big ifs, particularly in the light of Lillard’s public urgency and the results of Olshey’s bigger misfires.

The end to the season in Portland was disappointing, because of their sweep but also because they didn’t do enough to change our minds about their flaws and roster issues. That burden lies squarely with Olshey. Portland’s GM says he wants to stay measured in his approach, but moves like signing Turner, trading Crabbe for an exception, and swapping Plumlee for Nurkic were anything but. Those are big swings with mixed results.

Portland’s roster isn’t good enough to sustain large dips, and its plodding, “calculated” approach to roster management has put the Trail Blazers in a place similar to what you’d expect from a front office with a more flamboyant, laissez-faire style. Big contracts, an overpaid supporting cast, and an inconsistent bench rolled into a cap hit scraping $121 million.

The roster theory is understandable, but the execution in Portland is lacking. Eventually, the Blazers — and Olshey — are going to have to stop being measured and simply measure up.