Baseline to Baseline recaps: Suns stay alive, Rockets don’t in playoff chase

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What you missed while cracking up at the Californian’s skit from Saturday Night Live (seriously, we all talk about traffic like that)….

Heat 83, Bulls 72: It was a physical, low scoring playoff-style game — and the fact the Heat won should give them some confidence.

Suns 93, Clippers 90: Phoenix played desperate at the end — lose and they were likely toast in the playoff race, but with the win they tie the Jazz for the eighth spot in the West. Big win for them. On the other bench, this loss was a gut shot to the Clippers chances of winning the Pacific division — they are just one game back of the Lakers with three games to play, but the Lakers own the tiebreaker.

For a stretch near the end this was the Chris Paul and Steve Nash show, and the Suns closed the game out on a 10-4 run because Nash got better support. Nash was doing what he does, drawing defenders and finding the open guy and when forced to shoot he was hitting ridiculous high banks off the glass. Credit the Suns for some defense, too — Blake Griffin got 14 points in the first quarter but just two the rest of the way as Channing Frye and friends fronted the post and worked to keep the ball out of his hands. It wasn’t a smooth win for the Suns, but it was one they needed.

Hornets 105, Rockets 99 (OT): You can stick a fork in the Rockets — they are officially out of the playoff race, a game back of both the Jazz and Suns (and without either tiebreaker). In some ways this game felt like a synopsis of the season — the Rockets had nice double digit lead at points in the second then the Hornets doubled up Rockets 26 to 13 in the third. In the fourth the Rockets attacked and it was tight. Courtney Lee almost saved the Rockets playoff chances when he made a great steal and drew a foul, but when Lee only hit one of two free throws he tied the game and did not get the Rockets the lead, the result was overtime. In OT the Hornets went on a 12-1 run and it was over. Credit Carl Landry with a big night inside, 20 points and 10 boards.

Pacers 118, Bucks 109: This win cements the Pacers as the three seed in the East, and it leaves the Bucks on the outside looking in at the playoffs. This game was chippy and felt like two teams fighting for playoff spots, although Larry Sanders just lost it at one point and got tossed. David West was the best player on the floor — 21 points (on 14 shots), 13 rebounds and seven assists.

Timberwolves 91, Pistons 80: Detroit has a good young center in Greg Monroe but he was no match for Nikola Pekovic, who had 23 points and 9 boards on the night. Detroit tried in the last quarter — Will Bynum has been buried on the Pistons bench most of the season (they tried to move him at the deadline), and he didn’t play the first three quarters of this game then dropped 17 in the fourth. But with a double-double from Anthony Randolph (15 and 10) the Timberwolves cruised.

Gregg Popovich says he was ‘guilty of over-coaching’ LaMarcus Aldridge

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LaMarcus Aldridge has been much better for the San Antonio Spurs this season. This comes after a tumultuous offseason in which it became clear that Aldridge was unhappy with his time in Texas.

That information came to light over the summer, and indeed both Aldridge and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat down to have a discussion to work out their differences in preparation for the upcoming season.

The results have been stupendous, with Aldridge playing better than ever in San Antonio despite the team lacking star Kawhi Leonard. Aldridge is averaging career highs in points per-100 possessions, which makes sense given his career-high 119 offensive rating.

Apparently part of Popovich’s change in dealing with Aldridge was how he coached him. Popovich told NBA.com recently that he made the mistake of over coaching Aldridge, saying that the veteran didn’t need as much guidance as young star players did when they came to him in the past.

Via NBA.com:

“We broke bread a few times, talked about it, laughed about it, discussed what we thought needed to happen, and frankly 95 percent of it fell on me because I made an error in trying to change him too much. That might sound odd, but he’d been in the league nine years and there’s one way he plays on the offensive end and feels comfortable with. I tried to turn him into Jack Sikma, told him I was going to teach you how to play on the elbow, go on the wing, face up. It was confusing for him. It really didn’t fit his style of play. I was guilty of over coaching in a sense.

“We came to an agreement on what had to happen. Well, on defense, I told him ‘I’m going to get on you like I do everyone else. But on offense, I don’t even want to talk to you. When they double you, kick it. Other than that, you be LaMarcus Aldridge.’ You see the result right now. He’s happy, confident and kicking everybody’s butt.”

Now that everything is sorted for the Spurs, we just have to watch out for them as they gain momentum heading into 2018. Leonard made his debut for the season on Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks, and as a publication time he had nine points in 10 minutes.

God help us if Gregg Popovich has finally found a way to make the mercurial LaMarcus Aldridge happy and pair him with a fully healthy Leonard.

Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas offers advice to Ball brothers on Lithuania

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Lithuania is a hoops-mad country.

The Baltic nation has fewer people in it than the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area, yet it has three players in the NBA right now — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total (such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis). The country has won three bronze medals in the Olympics ( 1992, 1996, and 2000). It’s Lithuanian league also has been the launching pad for Celtics’ Aron Baynes to make the NBA.

Now the Ball brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo are headed there on professional contracts.

One of those players — the Raptors’ Valanciunas, had advice for the Ball brothers, speaking to ESPN.

“They’re getting themselves into a great opportunity. Lithuania is beautiful country… We have great basketball history. We’re such a small country, but we have many, many great players. Our basketball school is good., so they chose a really good school. They just gotta work hard — it’s all about working. You can be as good as you can be by working. Talent is one thing, but work you put in, that’s gonna show up.

“If they have any problems, let me know. I can help them out.”

Good luck finding anyone around the NBA who thinks this ends well, especially those who know the Ball family. They are sending a college freshman and a high school junior to a small city in a former Soviet bloc country with a very different culture, that will be a major adjustment. The coach doesn’t speak English and his former American players have not spoken highly of him. The Lithuanian league itself has men — far more physically developed than the Ball brothers — and is known for a physical style of play. It’s also known as a league where the players have a reasonably high hoops IQ and don’t like undisciplined players.

But if LiAngelo and LaMelo have any problems, they can call Valanciunas.

Paul George on return to Indiana Wednesday: “For whatever reason, I’ll be booed”

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This week is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s “you can’t go home again” week of the schedule. On Saturday night, Carmelo Anthony will return to New York where Knicks fans should welcome him with cheers and open arms — he meant a lot to that franchise in recent years — but may very well not.

First up, however, Paul George returns to Indiana in a Thunder uniform Wednesday night.

There’s little doubt how he will be greeted by Indiana fans, who felt betrayed by a man they stuck by through recovery from a severe injury. George knows what is coming,

Here are the key lines from PG13:

“Boos. I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way. The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans. That’s what I’m looking forward to. For whatever reason, I’ll be booed, but I’m gonna embrace that. I’m gonna thrive on that.”

For whatever reason? You asked to be traded and fans take that personally. There is no loyalty in sports — I have no problem with players asking out because teams show no hesitancy in dumping players they no longer have a use for (and fans are almost always good with that) — but he had to know how this would be taken in Indiana.

What George might want to worry about is stopping the red-hot Victor Oladipo (he averaged 35.7 points per game last week), because he and the Pacers are playing better than the Thunder right now.

Kawhi Leonard returns Tuesday on minutes restriction

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The Spurs have been the Spurs this season, going 19-8 with an elite defense and offense that’s good enough to get them wins, thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge playing at an All-Star level.

Starting Tuesday, they add Kawhi Leonard back to the mix.

He will return to the lineup against Dallas, but will be on a minutes restriction, coach Gregg Popovich said on Tuesday. He would not say how many minutes, although around 20 seems a logical starting spot.

Leonard is one of the five best players in the NBA (and that may be selling him short). He averaged a career-high 25.5 points a game last season, he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and he finished third in the MVP voting last season.

However, there are going to be adjustments. LaMarcus Aldridge has been the focal point of the offense, but he could see fewer touches, particularly in crunch time. Kyle Anderson could see fewer minutes, and Rudy Gay may as well because Popovich liked some small-ball lineups last season with Leonard at the four. A lot of players will see their rotations change.

That said, it’s the Spurs. Do we really expect them to be anything but an incredibly good regular season team? One that is about to get better?