Baseline to Baseline recaps: The Lakers defense sucks, too

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Our nightly recap of every gamegaround the NBA. It’s what you missed while buying dive bar T-shirts….

Trail Blazers 116, Lakers 106: In the season opener, Dallas scored at a 108.7 points per 100 possessions pace on the Lakers (for comparison, only five teams in the NBA averaged giving up more points per 100 last season). Then Wednesday night the Lakers defense was worse — Portland shot 50 percent overall, 44 percent from three and threw up 116 points on Los Angeles.

For all the moaning about the Lakers Princeton offense — and there are things to moan about if you want —  it is their defense that has cost them two nights in a row. They can’t get stops. Their pick-and-roll defense is inconsistent and seems disinterested. And that end of the floor is supposed to be Mike Brown’s calling card. If he can’t get them to start defending his seat is going to get very, very hot.

The Blazers had a good night. Rookie Damian Lillard took advantage of what passes for Lakers defense and racked up 25 points and 11 assists in his first game — the only two other players ever to do 20 and 10 in their debut are Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas. How’s that for good company? Every Portland starter had at least 13 points. We could go on and on. This was a quality win for them.

The Lakers, they have a lot of talent but they have a lot of work to do. A lot.

Also, Steve Nash left the floor with a bruised leg, only to return but not look quite right. He says he wants to play Friday night against the Clippers, we shall see.

Sixers 84, Nuggets 75: Andre Iguodala’s homecoming game really turned out to be all about Spencer Hawes. And his mullet. And the Philly defense. We break it all down right here.

Rockets 105, Pistons 96: There was more to this game than just James Harden going off like an alpha dog for 37 points and 12 assists (although that was fun to watch). The Pistons were up by 11early in the fourth quarter and when the Rockets cranked up the pressure and outscored Detroit 33-13 down the stretch. That late run started when Jeremy Lin came on the court and all night the Rockets just looked better when he was playing. Quality win for them. Good start to the Harden area in Houston, tough loss for Detroit. Not the kind of loss playoff teams have.

Clippers 101, Grizzlies 92: If you’re going to play the Clippers, you better have packed your transition defense and brought it to the arena. Memphis left theirs back at the hotel, and it showed. See the video below. But that was just part of the problem. Chris Paul owned Mike Conley. Another issue was just depth, illustrated by the fact Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol shot 56 percent (scoring 45 combined) for Memphis, the rest of the team shot 27 percent. Meanwhile new Clipper Jamal Crawford dropped 29. Rudy Gay had 25 and while he left the floor with an injury he returned and is expected to play in the future.

Pacers 90, Raptors 88: Toronto seemed to have the upset win in the bag, up 10 in the fourth quarter after having led most of the second half. But David West had 14 of his 25 in the fourth quarter, sparking a comeback against a Raptors then George Hill dropped the sweet game-winning dagger. It was the kind of win the Pacers need without Danny Granger in the lineup, one where they found some offense without him. The Raptors got some good stretches from Jonas Valanciunas (12 points and 10 rebounds) and Kyle Lowry added 21, but the Raptors as a team shot just 36.3 percent, and that won’t get it done.

Spurs 99, Hornets 95: A lot of people compare Anthony Davis and Tim Duncan, but the old dog had a few tricks in scoring 24 points including 9 in the fourth quarter to make sure the Spurs won their opener. Davis and the Hornets looked good in the first half against a lazy Spurs defense and led by 7 at the break, but you knew that someone would spark the Spurs. That guy turned out to be Kawhi Leonard, who had 11 of his 19 in the third quarter to spark an 18-3 run that put the Spurs in the game, and you knew they would close it out. Davis led the Hornets with 21.

Warriors 87, Suns 85: (From our own Brett Pollakoff) The Warriors showed a grit not present in previous years during their win over the Suns. They blew all of a 17-point first-half lead, thanks largely to dismal shooting performances from David Lee (2-of16) and Stephen Curry (2-of-14). They were down by eight with under nine minutes to play in the game. But they dug in, and began to get stops. And they got the bench to pick them up when it mattered most.

Mark Jackson couldn’t have been happier with the end result, and pointed out the little things guys did afterward to stay in it and secure the win.

Andrew Bogut was in the starting lineup, and looked sharp in limited action. Jackson played him under 19 minutes, but Bogut performed with eight points and six rebounds on 4-of-6 shooting. Bogut said he felt great afterward, and would be lobbying trainers to get his minutes limit increased.

The Suns showed some grit of their own, coming back from that big early deficit where the bench unit couldn’t find any rhythm offensively. The defense really picked up in the second half, when Phoenix recorded eight of its 12 blocked shots. Michael Beasley wasn’t effective (just 2-of-9 shooting for 8 points), so P.J. Tucker finished the game with the rest of the starters thanks to the energy he brought to the lineup off the bench.

Jared Dudley had a wide open look at a three from the top of the arc that would have tied it with 34 seconds left, but he couldn’t get it to fall, and the Warriors get a nice road win to kick off the season.

Bulls 93, Kings 87: Joakim Noah — 23 points and 10 rebounds — outplayed DeMarcus Cousins and that keyed the Bulls win because it’s about getting points from somewhere for Chicago. The Bulls defense is still the Bulls defense and the Kings shot just 40.5 percent and added 19 turnovers (9 in the first quarter). That defense is going to win them a lot of hard fought, ugly games like this. On the bright side Kings fans, Tyreke Evans had 21 points and looked strong.

Jazz 113, Mavericks 94: Dallas played hard on the back-to-back but the Williams — Mo and Marvin — proved to be too much. Each Williams had 21 points and a 18-3 run in the third those two sparked won Utah the game. The Jazz owned the boards and combined that with 20 Dallas turnovers and the game didn’t feel in doubt.

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.

Jared Dudley: Giannis Antetokounmpo practiced mean mugging in locker room

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Game 3 dunk over Aron Baynes was great.

Antetokounmpo’s Game 4 dunk over Al Horford (seen above) is even better, because of the fantastic mean mug that followed.

The rise of Antetokounmpo is no accident. He worked hard to develop his on-court skills. And that includes all aspects.

Suns forward Jared Dudley, who played with Antetokounmpo on the 2014-15 Bucks:

This is the inside info we need.

Report: Knicks are Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s top choice for job

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Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer withdrew from the Suns coaching search, but that he was even involved with another opening while under contract with Atlanta is telling. It probably wasn’t about the Phoenix job being special. He’s also talking with the Knicks – and maybe that goes somewhere.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

Mike Budenholzer is genuinely interested in the Knicks’ job, according to an NBA source who has spoken to the Hawks coach.

“New York’s his top choice,’’ the NBA source said. “If they offered him the job, he’d say yes. He wants to live in New York.’’

“Phoenix and the Knicks are trying to win every game,’’ said the NBA source who has spoken to Budenholzer recently. “There’s a good chance Atlanta is not looking to win games the next two years. This wasn’t Mike’s decision. He didn’t expect it. He doesn’t want to lose games.’’

Going to the Knicks to win? What a time to be alive.

But the Hawks are only one year into what appears to be a multi-year rebuild. Relative to that, New York is ahead.

When Kristaps Porzingis returns is the biggest variable. But Enes Kanter, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke are all in their primes. Atlanta is much thinner.

The Knicks would probably also offer Budenholzer a raise and the Hawks compensation. Though dealing with James Dolan carries downside, this could be a financial boon to everyone else involved. It’s no wonder Budenholzer and the Hawks are both into this.

The big question is whether New York, which is casting a wide net, tabs Budenholzer. He doesn’t have a clear connection to Knicks president Steve Mills or general manager Scott Perry. But Budenholzer is a demonstrably good coach, and that ought to matter plenty.