The Extra Pass Wednesday Roundup: Talking tanking (or not) in Phoenix

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PHOENIX — After the Suns traded their projected starting center in Marcin Gortat to the Wizards in exchange for an injured player who might not play this season and a future first round draft pick, and did so less than a week before the start of the regular season, it doesn’t exactly send the message that Phoenix is all that interested in competing this season.

The leadership of the organization, from the president of basketball operations to the GM to the team’s head coach all had to talk to the players that remained the day following the trade to ensure that the message was clear: Develop, compete, and try to win as much as possible.

“I talked with them the next morning,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said about the trade before his team opened the season on Wednesday. “[Ryan McDonough] came down and talked to ‘em, [owner Robert Sarver] came and talked to ‘em. The main part was, you’re going to read a lot of stuff out there and hear a lot of stuff that we’re tanking, or this or that. Not once has anyone ever said, ‘Go out there and lose games.’ They want us to win every game we can, so we wanted to re-emphasize that with the players.”

Tanking, of course, happens at the organizational level, and happens by making trades like the one the Suns made involving Gortat. But no matter the circumstances, it never trickles down to the players or coaches, and Hornacek made it clear that things were no different in Phoenix.

“Is it a rebuilding process? Probably,” he said. “Does it benefit teams to have high draft picks? Yes, but we’re not just going out there throwing games to get that. I think that’s bad karma anyway to do that, so we’re going to go out and play as hard as we can, and try to win as many games as we can.”

After a fairly painless 104-91 opening night win over the Blazers, there’s no question that the team Phoenix is fielding is giving its all, at least in the early stages of the season.

The backcourt tandem of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe carved up Portland to the tune of 48 combined points, 13 rebounds, and 15 assists. The Blazers had their reigning Rookie of the Year point guard in Damian Lillard pour in a game-high 32 points by himself, but besides a 28-point effort from LaMarcus Aldridge, no other Portland player finished in double figures.

The Suns got a monster game from Miles Plumlee, who came over from the Pacers in the trade for Luis Scola. He finished with 18 points, 15 rebounds, and three blocked shots, while playing close to 40 minutes as the team’s starting center.

Plumlee had a few post-up plays called for him once he got rolling — a product, Hornacek said, of his increased ability from a footwork standpoint after working with assistant coaches Mark West and Kenny Gattison. And although he wasn’t expecting that, he appreciated the confidence his coach and his teammates showed in him after his strong start.

“With this team, I feel like I’m going to find easy things with Goran and Eric, so I didn’t focus on that,” Plumlee said. “But once I started getting a couple buckets and saw I had a little bit of an advantage with my speed, it was nice to see the ball come to my hands a couple of times.”

Bledsoe had a huge game offensively, even if he tended to over-dribble at times and didn’t exactly show the best court vision. He viewed his situation last season as being very similar to Plumlee’s.

“Me and Miles, we were a little bit kind of in the same situation,” Bledsoe said. “He was in Indiana playing behind some great players; Roy Hibbert, Ian Mahinmi. Finally for Miles to get a chance to play man, he was just unbelievable.”

And as for the combination that Bledsoe and Dragic bring: “It keeps the defense on their toes,” Bledsoe said. “You saw it tonight.”

The Blazers saw it, and between the guard play, Plumlee’s breakout performance and P.J. Tucker’s contributions on both ends of the floor, the Suns looked like anything but a tanking team on opening night.

“We had a tough year here last year,” Hornacek said. “We’re trying to get back to where the Phoenix Suns belong, and that’s at the top of the NBA. It’s a good start for us, and I’m happy for our guys.”

—Brett Pollakoff

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Highlights of the first quarter of the Sixers win over the Heat, when Philly raced off to a 19-0 lead.

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Metta World Peace took the subway (the F train) into Madison Square Garden for the Knicks opener and tweeted out his Instagram of the experience. We thought a picture is worth a thousand tweets so we bring you the Instagram instead.

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Sixers 114, Heat 110: Take the defending champs playing on the second night of a back-to-back without Dwyane Wade who was held out to rest as a precautionary measure, put them up against the team projected by everyone to be the league’s worst on the road, add in a huge helping of disrespect, and this is the outcome you get. The crazy thing about this game was the fact that after the heat fell behind by 22 points in the first quarter, they actually led by eight with under five minutes remaining. But the Sixers closed on a 15-3 run to end it and come away with the improbable victory.

Oh, and rookie Michael Carter-Williams? He went nuts, finishing with 22 points, seven rebounds, 12 assists, and nine steals.

Suns 104, Blazers 91: We said plenty about this game up top, but here are a few additional notes that weren’t emphasized. P.J. Tucker was big as a hustle player, of course, but ended up with 18 points offensively, which included knocking down a couple of corner threes. The Suns’ defense wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but their guards caused havoc in the passing lanes and the bigs swarmed the post to make things difficult inside.

As for the Blazers, they’re going to have a tough go of it this season if Nicolas Batum doesn’t bring it consistently to match the effort of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge to give them that third offensive threat. There’s also zero bench on this team — Mo Williams finished 1-of-9 from the field, but no other reserve played more than 12 minutes or contributed much at all. Anyone predicting playoffs out of this team is wearing Rose (Garden) colored glasses.

(I know it’s the Moda Center now, and to that I say: Yeah, but still.)

Thunder 101, Jazz 98: This feels like how a lot of Thunder games are going to go until Russell Westbrook makes it back. Kevin Durant poured in 42 points, but was horribly inefficient in doing so shooting 9-of-24 from the field. He made 22-of-24 free throws which certainly helped, but the defense was locked in on him all night and it will be that way until he gets some help.

Odd night for Gordon Hayward, considering he’s looking for a monster contract extension before the end of the week. Just 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting in only 28 minutes of action.

Rockets 96, Bobcats 83: Say “it’s just the Bobcats” all you want, but Dwight Howard looked dominant, and all the way back from any health concerns that may have limited in him in the first part of last season. He finished with 26 rebounds (!) to go along with 17 points, and Omer Asik had 14 boards of his own alongside Howard in the starting lineup. The only thing that kept this game close was Houston’s 18 turnovers to just seven for Charlotte.

Kings 90, Nuggets 88: Denver almost spoiled the party in Sacramento, which featured a raucous crowd celebrating the fact that their historically terrible team wasn’t sold and relocated to Seattle. Ty Lawson’s missed layup with a second remaining prevented overtime, and the Kings came away with the opening night victory.

DeMarcus Cousins impressed with a 30-point, 14-rebound performance that was a game-best in both categories.

Warriors 125, Lakers 94: With this Lakers roster you are going to get up and down performances — Tuesday night was up, Wednesday was way down. Then they ran into the buzz saw of Klay Thompson, who had 27 points in the first half on his way to 38 points on 15-of-19 shooting. The Warriors exposed the Lakers defense to the tune of 120.1 points per 100 possessions. Or we can note they were 15-of-27 from three. It was a clinic.

Cavaliers 98, Nets 94: Andrew Bynum was back and although he was 1-of-5 from the floor his size had an impact in the 7:43 he was on the court — he was a +8, the second best on the Cavaliers. Cleveland had balance with six players in double figures. However, the key was defense for the Cavs, holding the Nets to 40.2 percent overall (the Nets helped that with poor ball movement and a lot of overdribbling). After the game Kevin Garnett reminded everyone what they have a ways to go and this will be a process in Brooklyn. With that payroll, an expensive process.

Raptors 93, Celtics 87: It’s not like anybody in Boston noticed the Celtics lost, they were a little busy celebrating something else. Boston was careless with the ball and it cost them — 22 turnovers. The Raptors were in control of this up 16 in the third quarter, but Jeff Green helped inspire a comeback (he had 25 points) but it wasn’t enough. Rudy Gay had 19 for Toronto and was the man in the fourth quarter to hold off the Celtics rally.

Pistons 113, Wizards 102: Detroit’s front line lived up to the billing on Wednesday — Greg Monroe had 24 points and 16 rebounds, Josh Smith had 19 points and was very active at both ends. Andre Drummond was 6-of-7 for 12 points plus 8 boards. The Wizards had no answer up front (Marcin Gortat played 16 minutes off the bench). Trevor Ariza was the only reason it was that close, he had 28 points. John Wall was 8-of-21 shooting overall and 3-of-13 outside 8 feet, that’s not going to get it done.

Knicks 90, Bucks 83: It was a tale of two halves. The Knicks owned the first half, 56-31, with Carmelo Anthony scoring 12 points on just 6 shots, and the Knicks played defense. Then the second half and he Bucks shot 52.4 percent and outscored the Knicks 52-34. The Knicks held on for the win and that’s what matters, but this wasn’t pretty or one they’ll want to remember.

Timberwolves 120, Magic 115 (OT): Kevin Love ladies and gentlemen. He finishes with 31 points — including the three that ties the game and sends it to overtime — plus 17 rebounds. Kevin Martin has 23 for Minnesota and seven players are in double figures scoring. Aaron Afflalo has 28 points for a feisty Orlando team that has some of the same traits as last season’s versions — they fight hard for coach Jacque Vaughn but don’t have the talent to win many games.

Pacers 95, Pelicans 90: You can credit Paul George with getting the Pacers to 2-0 to start the season. New Orleans led most of the game thanks to Eric Gordon (25 points) and Jrue Holiday (24), even though the Pelicans only shot 40 percent as a team on that strong Pacers defense. However it was the Pacers that made plays down the stretch, led by George who had 32 points on 19 shots. This was a one-point game with 31 seconds to go, but it was a George Hill three that was the dagger.

Mavericks 118, Hawks 109: We have an efficient Monta Ellis sighting — 32 points on 11-of-17 shooting. Combine that with Dirk Nowitzki’s 24 points on 14 shots and you have a Dallas team that shot 57.1 percent and scored 117.3 points per 100 possessions. Dallas pretty much was in charge of every aspect of this game. They’ll win a lot of games if we see more of efficient Monta.

Spurs 101, Grizzlies 94: San Antonio took control of this game with a 30-7 second quarter and while the Grizzlies made it close late this was an easier Spurs win than it looked. It was vintage Spurs with a balanced attack — six guys in double figures and the team shot 52.6 percent. Zach Randolph did not help himself earn a big new contract next summer as the Spurs front line dominated him (without Tim Duncan much of the second half). Z-Bo was 1-of-6 shooting for 2 points and Memphis shot 41.9 percent.

Report: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer no longer considering Suns job

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There’s been a lot of talk as the coaching carousel ramps up, long before the NBA season is even over. Now, we know one coach won’t be heading to the Phoenix Suns: Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer was reportedly among one of the candidates for the Suns job, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi the Hawks coach has decided not to pursue the position after being given the opportunity to do so.

The Suns coaching search still includes current interim coach Jay Triano and former Memphis Grizzlies head man David Fizdale.

Via ESPN:

Budenholzer met with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver early this week, but there was never traction on reaching a contract agreement as the week wore on, league sources said.

As the Suns kept interviewing candidates — including David Fizdale and interim coach Jay Triano — Budenholzer informed the Suns on Thursday that he would no longer be a candidate for the job, sources said.

Phoenix fired Earl Watson just three games into the season. Budenholzer had a hefty resume to consider — he won 60 games in Atlanta in 2014-15, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Suns need someone to guide their young star in Devin Booker. Who they choose will influence the direction of their franchise for longer than the next coach may even be around.

Warriors beat Spurs in glum Game 3

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The Spurs were playing with heavy hearts following the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin. Kevin Durant and Shaun Livingston appeared to injure their left ankles on back-to-back plays late.

Everyone seemed ready for the Warriors’ 110-97 Game 3 win Thursday to end well before it did.

Soon enough, the first-round series will. Golden State is up 3-0, and all 127 teams to win the first three games of a best-of-seven series won it – most of them via sweep. Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio.

There’s hope neither Durant’s nor Livingston’s injury is serious. Durant walked off on his own, though gingerly. Livingston shot his free throws before exiting.

Durant (26 points) and Klay Thompson (19 points) have carried the Warriors’ offense with Stephen Curry sidelined by his own injury. If Durant isn’t at full strength for Game 4, Golden State could really struggle to score.

But it still might not matter, as the Spurs are overmatched against the Warriors’ dialed-in defense. Draymond Green (10 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals) led tonight’s effort.

After two losses in Oakland to start the series, returning to San Antonio didn’t do much for the Spurs, who were 33-8 at home and 14-27 on the road this season – the NBA’s largest home-road disparity in a half decade. It’s just had to see San Antonio – whether Popovich returns or Ettore Messina remains acting coach – finding enough sources of offense.

Pelicans move one game away from sweep after bashing Blazers in Game 3

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But for a moment, the Portland Trail Blazers felt as though they could turn the series. For half a quarter, the Blazers had hope. Then, Nikola Mirotic dropped a career-high 30 points, Anthony Davis added a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds, and the New Orleans Pelicans moved one game away from completing a sweep of the third seed after a big win on Thursday night, 119-102.

Under the guidance of Mirotic, the Pelicans unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers starting midway through the first quarter. The game was close to being a contest, but Jrue Holiday and Mirotic started to pour it in after being uncorked, with New Orleans taking a 16-point lead going into the second period.

Running up and down the court in a panic, Portland looked nervous in the spotlight. The Blazers racked up 12 turnovers by halftime, all while rattling 3-pointers off the back iron. Portland rushed its offense in the face of unlikely success by the Pelicans, who continued to rain down from deep. New Orleans hit four big shots in the final 1:47 of the half, including three from beyond-the-arc.

Never one to back down, Blazers star Damian Lillard tried to force the issue. He would finish with 20 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but most evidentiary of his night was Lillard lobbing up a wild 28-footer with 24 seconds left in the half as he tried to answer a gutshot 3-pointer from E'Twaun Moore from a moment before. It didn’t work, and the Pelicans took commanding 64-45 lead to start the third quarter.

So went the story of the rest of the game, as Portland couldn’t fully tamp down the New Orleans offensive attack for longer than a few minutes at a time. Even after one 10-0 run for the Blazers in the third, the Pelicans ended it in the most deflating way possible — a wide open dunk for Mirotic on a cut after Portland’s defense fell asleep.

It was an electric atmosphere at Smoothie King, and the sellout crowd that gave us a glimpse of what kind of homecourt advantage the Pelicans could have in the second round. The New Orleans fans were in a back-and-forth with the players, with Smoothie King working to such a fever pitch it felt as though every shot hoisted by the team in red and gold was destined for the nylon.

Demoralized, Portland battled — flailed, really — but the Blazers couldn’t make up any ground as the momentum continued for New Orleans. Finally Blazers coach Terry Stotts relented and waived the white flag for Portland with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter as he subbed in his bench.

Even with a 49-win season under its belt, the questions surrounding the Blazers become more serious. The team that had a 13-game win streak this season now will face rumblings about whether Stotts will remain with the team. An exit for Stotts would be unwise for Portland — he did wonders with a team that didn’t play up to its potential most of the year — but it’s not out of the ordinary for a team looking to break through to look elsewhere, especially after Lillard’s meeting with owner Paul Allen.

Although their work isn’t done yet, New Orleans looks as though it’s a team to be feared in the playoffs. What it needs to do is concentrate on sweeping the Blazers, not only to give themselves confidence heading into the second round but to show their second-round opponent (likely the Warriors) that they aren’t to be taken lightly.

How Porltand can counter in the deciding Game 4 isn’t clear. The Pelicans have looked like the better team for nearly every quarter of the series, and the Blazers clearly don’t have an answer for them on either side of the ball.

Happy New Orleans fans will pack Smoothie King on Saturday for Game 4 at 2:00 PM PST in Louisiana. Davis will look to win his first playoff series, and Portland will try to avoid their most embarrassing sweep since they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference Finals.

Steve Kerr, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili celebrate the life of Erin Popovich (VIDEO)

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The NBA community has been effuse in their thoughts and condolences to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich over the past 24 hours. Erin Popovich, 67, passed away on April 18, leaving behind her husband, Gregg.

Many were taken aback at the news, including players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both of whom were emotional when they first heard the news of Erin’s passing.

Gregg Popovich was not with the team to coach them in their Thursday night matchup against the Golden State Warriors, as Ettore Messina took the reins for Game 3.

Meanwhile, those close to the Popoviches spoke about Erin, her influence on Gregg, and how much both mean to them. Steve Kerr, who played for Popovich in San Antonio for four seasons, told reporters that Erin was, “The sort of balance that Pop needed.”

Current Spurs Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker also voiced their support for the Popovich family.

Via Twitter:

Here’s hoping Popovich finds some solace in the support he’s received over the past day.