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.

Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis lead way, Bulls blow out Kyrie-less Celtics 108-85

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CHICAGO (AP) — Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis are starting to draw attention for their play together instead of their fight with each other.

Mirotic scored 24 points, Portis added a career-high 23 and the Chicago Bulls blew out Boston 108-85 on Monday night with Celtics star Kyrie Irving sidelined because of a bruised left quadriceps.

Owners of the NBA’s worst record, the Bulls (6-20) built an 18-point lead in the second quarter against the Eastern Conference leaders. And when Boston cut it to 12 in the fourth, the Bulls simply pulled away for their third straight win.

Leading the way were two players who made headlines for all the wrong reasons before the season started.

Their fight at practice left Mirotic with facial fractures, causing him to miss the first 23 games. Portis served an eight-game suspension.

But the two have played well together the past two games.

“We need to give the credit to (coach Fred Hoiberg),” Mirotic said. “Fred is the one who is making us play. He’s the guy who is calling the plays for us and putting us in the right spots to play.”

As for the fight?

“Man, that situation’s over,” Portis said. “Everybody’s talking about that. But that doesn’t matter anymore. We’re just trying to win games.”

Mirotic made his first start of the season with leading scorer Lauri Markkanen sidelined because of back spasms and shot 9 of 14 with eight rebounds. Through three games, the 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 16.3 points.

Portis shot 10 of 15 and nailed all three 3-pointers.

Al Horford scored 15 for Boston (23-6). Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier added 13 points apiece in the Celtics’ most lopsided loss of the season.

“Sometimes you get your butt kicked. It was simple as that,” coach Brad Stevens said. “Chicago dictated the whole game. They played harder than we did. They played with more presence than we did. They played more competitive than we did. They played with more authority than we did. You’re not going to win many games when you play like that.”

 

Russell Westbrook threw it down all over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

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A rough night for the Thunder will not stop the Russell Westbrook highlights.

The Thunder had another poor game and fell to a Hornets. Westbrook tried to push the team back, but the Thunder defense that has kept them in games all season was not good enough against Charlotte, and the OKC offense was once again up and down.

Westbrook had 30 points on 22 shots on the night, and none of them were as impressive as this transition throwdown on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Jahlil Okafor excited about fresh start with Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jahlil Okafor finally got the fresh start he wanted.

Okafor was the consensus No. 1 high school player in his class, won a national championship at Duke, and averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds in his rookie campaign for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Then things changed drastically.

Okafor struggled with injuries and a logjam at his position in his second season.

“When I first got drafted there, we already had Nerlens (Noel) there, Joel (Embiid) was there, so we’re trying to have three starting centers on the same team,” Okafor said Monday at his introductory news conference with his new team, the Brooklyn Nets.

“It just never really was the right fit.”

The 76ers traded Okafor along with seldom-used guard Nik Stauskas and two draft picks to the Nets on Thursday. Philadelphia got forward Trevor Booker from Brooklyn.

Okafor also had off-court problems during his time in Philadelphia. He got a speeding ticket for driving 108 miles per hour and was suspended by the 76ers for two games after in an altercation outside of a Boston nightclub with a heckler.

“Speeding obviously is illegal,” Okafor said. “I know that’s not what you’re supposed to do. I guess you just learn how the page can turn on you and how everything can flip. I can’t really say I learned anything, because you know going in that’s not right. You just learn from your mistakes, but (it was) a tough thing that I went through, I got past, and I’m looking to better times now.”

Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, joins D'Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the same draft class, on the Nets.

“We’re just very excited to get on the court together,” Okafor said. “You never would’ve thought the number two and number three picks would be playing on the same team a few years after, but like I said, everything happens for a reason and I’m really excited.”

Russell also had problems on and off the court with the team that drafted him. He was criticized for recording a video of former Lakers teammate Nick Young that aired sordid details about Young’s private life. The Lakers gave up on Russell and drafted Lonzo Ball as his replacement.

“I feel like we’re similar in that we have a lot to prove,” Okafor said. “I know he’s working his (butt) off as well. Right now he’s rehabbing, trying to get back on the court. I think we both have a chip on our shoulder and we have a lot to prove. We’re definitely similar in that regard.”

Okafor understands he has areas to improve, mainly defense and rebounding.

“I’m not a perfect player,” Okafor said. “I’m 21. There are things that I need to work on, that I have worked on and that I’ll continue to work on.”

He’s excited about fulfilling his potential with a new team.

“I feel really motivated right now, but I’ve always been motivated,” Okafor said. “This is the first time where people are against me in a sense because I’ve always been the hyped-up guy. It’s something new for me to experience, so I’m glad that I am experiencing it.”

 

Report: Celtics’ Marcus Morris to miss “extended time” to let knee heal

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Marcus Morris missed the Celtics’ first eight games of the season in an effort to get healthy. Upon his return he’s been solid, first as a starter, then coming off the bench, but his left knee continued to be an issue.

Morris was out Sunday when the Celtics beat the Pistons, and he’s going to miss more time trying to get a troublesome left knee right, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

How much time is “extended time?” Probably at least a couple of weeks.

Morris has averaged 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game this season, with a true shooting percentage of 52.5, which is right around the league average.

This could mean more run for rookie forwards Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis, both of whom have played well in limited minutes.