The Extra Pass Weekend Roundup: Seven storylines from Week 1 and Sunday recaps

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One week down, 23 more to go. Let’s look at some of the emerging storylines from the first week of the season.

A Sneaky MVP Candidate Emerges

There’s a real struggle to discern what’s real and what isn’t in the early part of the season, and the standings are almost a totem of sorts. If Philadelphia is on top of the Eastern Conference, we probably shouldn’t put too much stock into anything at all.

That being said, it’s still pretty hard to ignore what Kevin Love is doing right now. Through three games, Love has averaged 29.7 points, 14.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 50 percent shooting and an absurd 13 free throw attempts per game.
Small sample size? Sure. But don’t assume Love can’t keep this up. Back in the 2011-12 season, Love averaged 26 and 13 with a significantly worse supporting cast (Michael Beasley!) that didn’t do him many favors.

Now with a better understanding of the nuances of Adelman’s corner system and the benefits of a refined chemistry with Ricky Rubio, Love is finding more breathing room to operate in what has to be the league’s most aesthetically pleasing offense.

Love is looking like prime Chris Webber with range out to the three-point line right now, basically. Webber never finished above fourth in the MVP voting during his dominant run in Sacramento, but don’t underestimate voter boredom. If he can finally stay healthy for a full season, and if Minnesota is as impressive as predictive systems like Kevin Pelton’s SCHOENE has them pegged to be, Love could end up being in the running for an MVP at the end of the year. He was born to play in this offense.

Do we trust Philadelphia?

No. Nope. No.

That doesn’t mean they still won’t be fun, though. Philadelphia’s young guards have done a phenomenal job racing the ball up the floor and as a result, Philly is playing at the league’s fastest pace so far this season.

It’s working right now, but teams are going to start to figure it out. By forfeiting the offensive glass and getting back on defense, opponents will soon force Philadelphia to execute in the halfcourt. From there, it may get a little ugly.

Still, I appreciate the freedom rookie coach Brett Brown has given his players offensively, and the plan from down on high of Sam Presti to boost his players’ individual stats as much as humanly possible to make them more attractive trade piece. It’s working for now, but this offense will stall and sputter sooner rather than later.

Lance Stephenson: Everywhere At Once

Lance Stephenson is quietly one of the most enjoyable players in the league.

It’s fun to imitate Friday Night Lights coaching legend Eric Taylor and say “Lance” with a southern drawl whenever he gets the ball, it’s fun to watch him fly in for crazy offensive rebounds, and it’s super mega extra fun to watch Stephenson streak up the court in what he thinks are “transition opportunities”, which is actually just anytime he gets the ball.

The fun may be over soon, though, as the Pacers are going to have a really hard time keeping Stephenson next year as an unrestricted free agent if they don’t want to dip into the luxury tax (and they don’t). If Eric Bledsoe (who will earn plenty of pub in this space) gets anywhere near a max offer, what kind of deal is Stephenson going to command next year? Small market problems lie ahead, but let’s just enjoy the ride for now.

Anthony Bennett’s Lackluster Start

Can you remember a less anticipated debut for a first pick than Anthony Bennett’s? It was barely on the radar at all, and Bennett did very little to dissuade viewers from tuning out with his performance.

Three games into his rookie campaign, and Bennett still hasn’t made a field goal. In 40 minutes, Bennett has gone 0-for-12 from the field and has a PER of -2.9.

Whether it’s due to his asthma issues or injuries during the offseason, Bennett still looks woefully out of shape, and in some corners of the internet he’s starting to be referred to as a “stretch-marks 4” which is, ya know, a little mean and worrisome all at the same time.

It’s still extremely early, but Bennett could end up being Cavs GM Chris Grant’s waterloo. It was a shaky pick at the time, and
it’s not looking any better right now.

The new Chris Paul

Speaking of small stubborn generals, Chris Paul looks like a completely different player under Doc Rivers in the early going.
Paul typically likes to play extremely slow and really grind out possessions, as evidenced by the pace of those old New Orleans teams and the Clippers’ starters the last few years.

This year, however, the Clippers are flying up and down the court and getting shots early in the clock, which may have a lot to do with Clippers assistant Alvin Gentry as well.

Whoever or whatever the reason is, it’s working brilliantly so far. The Clippers are scoring 115.2 points per 100 possessions, and Paul’s usage rate is up to 27.9 percent compared to his career percentage of 23.8. Many coaches have pined for Paul to be more aggressive looking for his own shot, but Rivers and Gentry may have finally reached him. He’s in fourth quarter mode for all four quarters right now, and that’s a scary proposition for opposing teams.

Paul will need to preserve his energy and turn this thing into a marathon instead of a sprint, but keep an eye on the Clippers’ pace this season. It seems like this is a style of play they’re embracing.

You’re On Notice: Larry Drew

I can’t imagine Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond is all that pleased with head coach Larry Drew right now.

After the Bucks locked up Larry Sanders as a franchise building block, Drew has played Sanders only 17 minutes a night through Milwaukee’s first three games. Zaza Pachulia, a familiar face from Drew’s time in Atlanta, has played 26 minutes a night.

That’s not all. Gary Neal is also playing more minutes (27) than Ersan Ilyasova (22), and Krhis Middleton is playing nearly as much as John Henson. There’s riding the hot hand, and then there’s sitting all your best young players and potential trade assets. If this keeps up, there’s going to be some fireworks in Milwaukee real soon.

Fantasy Pickup of the Week: Francisco Garcia

I’m incredibly bullish on Garcia, who has always been a good 3 and D guy stuck on teams who couldn’t utilize it properly.

After shooting 13-for-23 in preseason from the behind arc, Garcia has gone 10-for-20 from deep in Houston’s first three games. Three-point shooting is his defined role, so if you need threes with a few blocks and steals smattered in, he’s your man.

Houston is also on a four-game week, and three of those games should be shootouts (Clippers twice, Lakers once). Garcia is available in 98.2 percent of ESPN.com leagues right now. Go get him.

For more fantasy advice and news, make sure you check out Rotoworld.com.
—D.J. Foster

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Pistons 87, Celtics 77: Brandon Jennings made his season debut for the Pistons, and contributed 14 points, four assists, and four steals in 31 minutes off the bench. But it was Detroit’s front line that did the damage, with Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond combining for 45 points (on 50 percent shooting), 39 rebounds and five blocked shots. Boston threatened late and was within two points with under two minutes remaining, but a critical turnover by Avery Bradley with about a minute and a half left ended their chances. Rookie Kelly Olynyk was a bright spot for Boston, and finished with a team-high 15 points and eight rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench.

Heat 103, Wizards 93: LeBron James wasn’t about to let Miami fall to 1-3 on the season, especially playing at home against the lowly Wizards. James got things started with 14 first quarter points (which included knocking down three from three-point distance), and the Heat lead reached as many as 23 points before the game was finished. John Wall returned to action after being he;d out of practice over the weekend due to back spasms, but finished just 4-12 from the field for 11 points and nine assists, to go along with five turnovers. Nene remained sidelined with a calf issue, and is scheduled for an MRI on Monday to see what the extent of the issue is.

Magic 107, Nets 86: Orlando spoiled Jason Kidd’s head coaching debut, thanks to a balanced all-around effort that saw six players finish in double figures scoring. Brooklyn, meanwhile, got subpar performances from Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Kevin Garnett, and didn’t get much help from its bench. The Nets need Williams to play like the All-Star he’s capable of being to both score and get others involved, and when he struggles, the Nets will too. Victor Oladipo was big for the Magic, and had a couple of dazzling highlights on the way to 19 points, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals in just 21 minutes off the bench.

Thunder 103, Suns 96: Russell Westbrook returned to action for the first time since suffering a knee injury that ended his season in last year’s playoffs. He looked as speedy and explosive as ever, if a bit rusty in terms of his in-game decisions. He finished with 21 points on 5-16 shooting, to go along with four rebounds and seven assists in 33 minutes of action. On the Suns side, Goran Dragic was limited to just 20 minutes due to aggravating a sprained ankle he had suffered previously. But Eric Bledsoe continued his strong start to the season and finished with 26 points and 14 assists (along with eight turnovers) which kept Phoenix in it until the game’s final minutes.

Timberwolves 109, Knicks 100: A 40-19 first quarter lead taken by Minnesota put the Knicks into a hole they were never able to crawl out of, and the Timberwolves moved to 3-0 on the young season. Kevin Love continued his early season dominance for the Timberwolves with 34 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, and Kevin Martin added 30 points of his own on just 12 shots.

Lakers 105, Hawks 103: This was a game where the Lakers had a favorable matchup against a team that would allow them to play fast and loose offensively, so L.A. got the desired result. It didn’t come easy, however, as the Lakers gave back all of a first-half 21-point lead before hanging on late (thanks to a couple of free throws from Pau Gasol) for the victory. Xavier Henry got the start in place of Nick Young, and the move seemed to benefit both players. Henry finished with 18 points in 26 minutes, and Young had his best game as a Laker, contributing 13 points on 5-9 shooting, to go along with four rebounds and four assists in 21 minutes off the bench. Young is now apparently gunning for the Sixth Man of the Year award, which obviously is awesome.

Gregg Popovich will not coach Game 4 following death of his wife, Erin

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will not be on the sidelines again for Game 4 Sunday following the death of his wife, Erin, to a lengthy illness.

Ettore Messina will again coach the Spurs.

Popovich also missed Game 3. His San Antonio Spurs are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the first-round matchup. None of that matters compared to the loss of a woman he loved and was married to for four decades.

Erin Popovich’s passing has cast a pall over the series, especially with Warriors coach Steve Kerr being very close to the Popovichs dating back to his playing days with the Spurs.

The reaction and sadness about Erin’s passing has reached well beyond this series.

Our thoughts are with the Popovich family in this difficult time.

Anthony Davis’ 47 points, Pelicans sweep Trail Blazers out of playoffs

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis scored 33 of his franchise playoff-record 47 points in the second half, and the New Orleans Pelicans completed a first-round playoff sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers with a 131-123 victory on Saturday.

Jrue Holiday capped his 41-point performance with an 18-foot pull-up jumper that gave the Pelicans a six-point lead with 40 seconds left.

Rajon Rondo added 16 assists, and Davis also had 11 rebounds and three blocks for New Orleans, which is moving on to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time since the NBA returned to the city 16 seasons ago.

C.J. McCollum scored 38 for the Trail Blazers, who responded to a blowout loss in Game 3 by keeping Game 4 close until the final minute. Al-Farouq Aminu scored 27, Damian Lillard added 18 points and Jusuf Nurkic had 18 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

Lillard’s difficult driving layup had just tied the game at 60 when the Pelicans briefly pulled away, going on an 11-2 run capped by Davis’ 3.

Soon after, Nikola Mirotic added step-back 3. Davis, who scored 19 in the third quarter, then added a layup while falling down after a hard foul by Aminu, after which Davis flexed both biceps while still sitting on the court.

Holiday’s transition 3 made it 87-72, prompting Portland to call timeout while Holiday walked slowly toward mid-court, nodding and smiling wide as he soaked in the crowd’s adulation.

New Orleans led by 13 to start the fourth quarter, but Portland refused to wilt, opening the period on a 15-4 run that included Nurkic’s hook shot, 20-foot jumper and dunk. McCollum’s transition layup made it 104-102 with nearly nine minutes to play.

Portland got as close as a single point on Aminu’s layup with 5:08 to go, but Davis responded with 12 points over the final 4:56, starting with a layup as he was fouled and a 3-pointer. Holiday scored six points during the final 2:52, starting with his 3-pointer. The pair combined for all but one of New Orleans’ points during that pivotal stretch.

Leading up to Game 4, Lillard spoke of the need for the Blazers to ramp up their intensity and physicality. From the tip, it looked as though they’d done so.

In stark contrast to Game 3, when New Orleans led by 18 in the first quarter, this game was tight and testy.

Anthony and Ed Davis received double technical fouls after bumping one another following one of Anthony Davis’ dunks – and that was just the beginning.

McCollum was called for a flagrant foul when he stormed into the lane behind E'Twaun Moore and grabbed the Pelicans guard by the shoulders to thwart a driving layup attempt. Moore then shoved McCollum and was assessed a technical foul.

And in the final seconds of the half, double technicals were assessed to Rondo and Portland center Zach Collins after Rondo lowered his forehead into Collins’ chest and Collins shoved back.

When halftime arrived, New Orleans led 58-56.

 

 

Twins Marcus, Markieff Morris each fined by league for separate instances

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Twins Marcus and Markieff Morris have a special bond, one that includes doing so much together on the basketball court — playing at the same high school, the same AAU team, then going to college together at Kansas, and even playing together in the NBA for a while together with the Suns (they are now on separate teams).

That includes them both getting fined Saturday by the NBA for recent actions during the playoffs.

Washington’s Markieff Morris picked up a $25,000 fine for “attempting to escalate an altercation and pushing a game official,” the league announced. Here is the play in question, just minutes into Game 3.

Toronto’s OG Anunoby draws a foul knocking Morris to the ground, but Morris starts the incident with an elbow to Anunoby’s back, and he does push referee Kenny Mauer. Considering all that, a $25,000 fine is not that severe.

His twin Marcus Morris picked up a $15,000 for “public criticism of the officiating,” which he certainly did following the Celtics’ Game 3 loss to the Bucks. Here are his comments, and they are NSFW.

That $15,000 fine is pretty much the going rate for ripping the referees after the game.

Markieff outdid his brother on this one… if you consider getting the larger fine the “win.”

As expected, likely top-three pick Luka Doncic files to enter NBA draft

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Luka Doncic — the 6’8″ point forward who is putting up impressive numbers against men at the highest levels of European basketball — is bringing is game to the NBA. As expected.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports said the expected is now official.

Doncic, 19, submitted draft paperwork this week to formally enter his name, league sources said. Doncic is arguably the most decorated European player to make a jump to the NBA, a wunderkind who’s been playing in the EuroLeague since 2015. He is currently leading Real Madrid in the EuroLeague playoffs, averaging 14.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists this season.

The 6-foot-7 Doncic has the ability to play multiple positions, from being a primary ball-handler to shooting and playmaking off the ball. His season in Europe could continue into late May or June. NBA executives have long been intrigued by Doncic’s potential stardom, and several are continuing to make scouting trips for him.

Doncic is expected to go in the top three (likely the top two) come this June’s draft.

If you’re about to bring up Darko Milicic or some other European bust, just stop. This Slovenian has proven he can play — in 54 games this season between Liga ACB (Spain’s league, second best in the NBA) and the Euroleague, Doncic is averaging 14.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists a game. He has shown a gift for passing that should blossom in the more open play of the NBA, plus he just knows how to run a team and make plays. He can score when called upon and has three-point range, can shoot off the bounce, and if you switch a smaller guy onto him, Doncic can just post him up.

He’s not going to be a bust.

However, what his ceiling is remains the debate. He’s not an elite athlete by NBA standards who has struggled at points for Real Madrid when guarded by borderline-NBA level Americans in Europe. Can he defend at the NBA level? Can he be consistent with his jumper? He may be elite, but it’s no given.

He’s going to be good, and his floor is higher than a lot of the other top prospects in this draft class. However, if a GM thinks that Marvin Bagley III or Mohamed Bamba both have a higher ceiling and can reach it, they may go with the Americans. Doncic is going to put some GMs in an interesting position.