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.

Report: Hawks’ Paul Millsap to opt out, explore free agency

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Before the season, Paul Millsap said he was undecided on opting out.

We’re one step closer to completely dismissing that shaky pretense.

Adam Schefter of ESPN:

There’s no question Millsap can earn more than his $21,472,407 option-year salary. He might even earn the max, which projects to be north of $36 million. The 32-year-old will also have a chance to lock into a long-term contract.

Opting out is an easy call.

The only question is whether anyone will offer a max starting salary and max years.

That’s a risky proposition for a player his age, but for a team ready to win now, the short-term gains might outweigh the long-term risk. (And it’s not really a “risk.” Millsap is extremely likely to be overpaid by the end of a full max deal.) Millsap is an elite defender with an efficient offensive game.

How much would the Hawks pay? They called re-signing Millsap their priority, but they’ve also sent mixed messages about their desire to win now (signing Dwight Howard, keeping Millsap past the trade deadline) vs. rebuilding (trading Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver).

And it’s not unilaterally up to Atlanta. Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent, and if he plans to explore the market, you never know what he’ll find.

Russell Westbrook posts 35th triple-double; Thunder roll past 76ers

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Add another first for Russell Westbrook – a triple-double without missing a shot.

Westbrook recorded his 35th triple-double of the season with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder cruised to a 122-97 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night.

He did so while making all six of his field-goal attempts and all six of his free throws. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no NBA player previously has had a triple-double without missing a shot attempt or free throw.

“It’s amazing, especially for a point guard, because he’s shooting threes, twos, inside, outside,” said Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter of his teammate’s perfect shooting. “For a point guard, he’s doing an unbelievable job, playing his game, having fun.”

Westbrook’s perfect shooting night could partially be attributed to a conscious decision to not shoot a 3-pointer in a game for the first time since March 14, 2016. He said he wasn’t aware during the game that he hadn’t missed a shot.

“I was just trying to play, trying to take my time,” Westbrook said. “I’ve been watching some film, trying to pick my spots better. I found ways to continue to get my teammates involved throughout the game and it just happened that way.

The Thunder have won 16 straight games against Philadelphia, a run that stretches to the 2008-09 season, the franchise’s first in Oklahoma City. That dominance was perhaps most evident in the final rebounding numbers on Wednesday: Oklahoma City 54, Philadelphia 25.

“It’s a fantastic example for our young guys on the physicality of playoff-type teams,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “That side of it to me stood out more than it has in a long time. … You look at the discrepancy on the boards, the rebounding differential, and it felt that.

“It’s a reminder. If you want to play late in April, if you want to play in May, maybe June one day, that’s the physicality that the playoffs bring.”

Nik Stauskas led the 76ers with 20 points, reaching the 20-point mark in consecutive games for the first time in his career.

After 11 lead changes in the opening minutes, the Thunder seized control with a 14-3 run near the end of the first quarter that put them ahead 29-22. Oklahoma City pushed its lead to 14 at one point before settling for a 63-50 halftime lead.

Philadelphia scored to start the third quarter, then the Thunder scored the next 15 points to build a 26-point lead and the triple-double watch intensified. Westbrook’s 10th assist came when Taj Gibson rattled in a 15-foot jumper at the 9:10 mark and the 10th rebound came with 7:08 left in the quarter.

It was the 13th time this season, and the 27th time in his career, Westbrook clinched a triple-double in the third quarter. He left the game with 2:39 left in the quarter and didn’t return.

Westbrook has recorded five triple-doubles against Philadelphia, his highest total against any NBA team. He needs six triple-doubles in Oklahoma City’s final 11 games to tie Oscar Robertson’s single-season record, set during the 1961-62 season.

Kanter posted his 17th double-double of the season for the Thunder with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Victor Oladipo (18 points) and Doug McDermott (13 points) also reached double figures for the Thunder.

TIP-INS:

76ers: Jahlil Okafor, who missed Monday’s game at Orlando with right knee soreness, started against the Thunder and played 17 minutes, scoring six points. … Dario Saric scored 12 points, extending his double-figure scoring streak to 21 games, the longest by a rookie this season. … Stauskas matched his season high with five 3-pointers, going 5-of-5 from behind the arc in the first half.

Thunder: With its 41st win of the season, Oklahoma City is assured of a .500 or better record for the eighth straight season. Only two other teams, the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, have as long a streak. … Westbrook has 72 triple-doubles and needs six more to tie Wilt Chamberlain for fourth on the NBA all-time list.

SURGERY FOR EMBIID

The 76ers said before the game that rookie center Joel Embiid will undergo surgery on a torn meniscus in his left knee. Team spokesman Mike Preston said the 7-footer, who has been plagued with injuries during his professional career, will have the surgery “in the coming days.”

Brown said “there has been tremendous due diligence … and research” about the decision concerning surgery and that Embiid “took an active role” in making the decision. Brown wouldn’t say if he thought Embiid would return by the start of next season: “That’s stuff we will talk more about and learn more about.”

Embiid missed his first two NBA seasons with a foot injury. He played in 31 games this season, averaging 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game but hasn’t played since Jan. 27, when he scored 32 points in a loss to the Houston Rockets.

QUOTABLE:

Philadelphia guard T.J. McConnell on guarding Westbrook: “It’s not a one-person job. It’s an entire team.”

 

Wilson Chandler leads Nuggets past Cavaliers, 126-113

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DENVER (AP) — Wilson Chandler scored 18 points in his return from a four-game absence with a pulled groin and provided stellar defense on LeBron James in the Denver Nuggets’ 126-113 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night.

The Nuggets bounced back from consecutive heartbreaking last-second losses to Houston with a signature win that increased their lead to 1 1/2 games over idle Portland in the race for the final playoff spot in the West.

Will Barton scored 20 points, Kenneth Faried added 17 and Jamal Murray had 15 off the bench for Denver, which also got 21 points from Gary Harris and 16 from Nikola Jokic.

Kyrie Irving led the Cavs with 33 points but James had just 18 and the two stars sat out much of the fourth quarter with Cleveland trailing by double digits.

The Nuggets took a 101-90 lead into the fourth quarter after an entertaining third quarter that included a James-fueled 15-4 run by the Cavs and a 15-3 response by the Nuggets that included nine points from Faried.

But the arena-rocking basket in the Nuggets’ big run came not from Faried but from Jokic, who backed down James during a particularly physical possession. His basket gave Denver a 99-83 lead.

Denver grabbed momentum midway through the second quarter when Murray swished three 3-pointers that gave the Nuggets a 50-40 lead.

The Nuggets doubled that cushion thanks in part to Richard Jefferson‘s face slap of Juancho Hernangomez for a flagrant foul. Hernangomez sank both free throws and then Barton swished a 3-pointer on the inbounds, capping a 7-0 spurt that gave Denver a 61-47 lead. The Nuggets pushed their lead to 69-49.

Chandler showed fresh legs and little rust in his return to action.

“He hasn’t played in 10, 11 days,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said before tip-off. “At least going into the game I feel that we have a body that can match up with LeBron’s physicality. He’s just such a versatile defender for us, so that’s going to be great to have him back.”

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: The Cavs, who fell to 18-17 on the road, had limited the Nuggets to an average of 99 points in their last three trips to the Pepsi Center, all wins. … The teams combined to miss just one free throw in the first half – by James. … Irving, who had 19 points in the first half, topped 20 points for the 19th consecutive game, extending the longest current streak in the NBA.

Nuggets: Danilo Gallinari missed his fourth straight game with a bone bruise on his left knee. … Denver already had 120 points by the time Deron Williams’ three-point play put the Cavs in triple digits at the 3:54 mark of the fourth quarter.

 

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Triangle offense will be in Knicks training camp next fall. Jeff Hornacek not sure core players will be.

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The Knicks are a train wreck this season. A lot of that falls on Phil Jackson and Knicks management: They said they wanted to be a triangle team, then hired a coach in Jeff Hornacek that wanted to coach a more open system, Jackson and company filled the roster with older, stop-gap players — Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah — who don’t really fit what Hornacek wants to do or the triangle, and all season long they bounced between the emphasizing the triangle and emphasizing a more modern offense. It’s hard to see a coherent vision, and that’s at the heart of the reasons the Knicks are going to miss the playoffs again this season. The lack of one cohesive offensive plan hurt the team, coach Jeff Hornacek has said.

Next year’s vision appears to revolve around more triangle offense.

Kristaps Porzingis says he likes the offense, and he’s on his rookie contract, so he certainly will be back. But what about Rose? Carmelo Anthony? Hornacek didn’t sound so sure when asked by Marc Berman at the New York Post.

“There’s a lot of guys who do good things,’’ Hornacek said on whether he knows whom he wants to return. “We got to make sure whoever is on the team next year, we get guys who play as hard as they can every play. The defensive intensity obviously has to be picked up for guys next year. Scoring the basketball – we have the guys who can do that – but do we have the right fit who are running the system?

“If we can think with a fresh start of training camp, going to it right off the bat, if that helps us and Phil and Steve [Mills, the GM] think the same guys on the team can have a different outlook on it, they stay the same. If not, they’ll look at other guys.”

Reports are the Knicks are going to talk to Anthony and his agent after the season about finding a trade to another team that works for everyone (you know, the way Jackson should have handled it at the deadline rather than play mind games). Anthony is no fan of the triangle, a deal likely can be worked out with the Clippers, Cavaliers, or some other spot Anthony likes.

Rose is a free agent, the Knicks can just let him walk, and if they’re running the triangle they should let him. Rose is a pick-and-roll point guard who does not fit the system.

If the Knicks can find the right free agents to come in and run the triangle remains to be seen. Some veteran players may be interested, but plenty are turned off by the offense.