The Extra Pass: 10 teams, 10 observations, plus Tuesday recaps

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Let’s zip around the league with ten observations for ten teams:

Atlanta: I’m digging the former Jazz men. Paul Millsap is already getting along famously with Al Horford, but the smart movement off the ball by flex-bred wingmen Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll is keeping defenses off guard. This is a really unselfish offense already, and somewhere, Jerry Sloan is smiling. Or he’s on a tractor. He’s probably on a tractor.

Boston: The Avery Bradley point guard experience is enough to make your eyes bleed. Through four games, Bradley has more turnovers (15) than assists (12) and he looks completely lost trying to initiate offense while Jeff Green stands there with his hands out asking for the ball. No one’s stock has dropped more than Bradley’s has in the last year.

New York: Speaking of that, I am selling or donating or burning all of my stock in the Knicks if Tyson Chandler is hurt for an extended period of time. I can’t underestimate how bad defensively the Knicks will be with Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire being counted on to do actual big person things like “rebound” or “defend” or “don’t just stand there”.

Orlando: Jacque Vaughn is playing the likes of Solomon Jones and Jason Maxiell over him for some reason, but Andrew Nicholson’s old man post game is a real treat. Nicholson moves like he can’t touch his toes, but his jump-shooting ability (four three-pointers already this season!) combined with a deceptive, hilariously slow pump fake is just killing defenders right now. If Andre Miller were 6-foot-10, he’d be Andrew Nicholson.

Memphis: More post game love. Quick double teams or lots of bodies in the paint can thwart even the best post player, so what do the Grizzlies do to eliminate that for Zach Randolph? Make Marc Gasol the entry passer. Randolph gets the ball delivered right where he wants it every time because of Gasol’s height, and the double down off Gasol is often a center who is either too slow or too out of position to make a difference. It doesn’t work if Gasol can’t stroke a 15-footer, but as you’ve probably seen, he most certainly can.

Phoenix: I wasn’t sure a coaching performance could get retroactively worse, but watching Eric Bledsoe go supernova for the Suns is making me think otherwise. Remember, this is the guy Vinny Del Negro played 16 minutes a night last year in the playoffs. 16 minutes! 16! Willie Green started games over him! I’m angry all over again.

Sacramento: DeMarcus Cousins slipped into the moody, brooding version of Cousins we all know so well for the first time this season against the Hawks last night. So what did rookie head coach Mike Malone do? He sat him down for the final six minutes of the game. Maybe it was because Cousins had five fouls, or maybe it’s because the Kings made a run as soon as he left the game. Still, part of me likes to think this was Malone holding Cousins accountable and earning the respect of the rest of the roster. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but keep an eye on it if (or when) Cousins gets frustrated and lets it impact his play again.

LA Lakers: Remember that time when everyone thought Ramon Sessions was going to be the next great Lakers guard? Oh hey, Xavier Henry. Didn’t see you there.

Houston: Omri Casspi is being revived as a small-ball power forward, because of course he is. He’s currently the first man off the bench for a title-contending team, which is a little crazy since he looked very much like a guy who was going to be out of the league during the last few years. I would have never pegged him to beat out Terrence jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Greg Smith for minutes, but here we are.

San Antonio: Maybe it’s because a lot of the faces are the same, but I still have this tendency to view the Spurs like they’re the 2007 team that just grinds it out in the halfcourt and slowly bludgeons you to death with jab steps and bank shots. It’s kind of jarring to see Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard flying up the court and beating a team like the Denver Nuggets at their own game on their own floor, but this isn’t your slightly younger self’s Spurs team, is it? Gregg Popovich doesn’t get enough credit for the drastic stylistic changes he made to this offense.

D.J. Foster

 

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Heat 104, Raptors 95: Chris Bosh sits this one out (for good reason) and Shane Battier starts, so Toronto opened the game doing the smart thing — pounding the ball inside to Jonas Valanciunas, who had 10 of Raptors’ first 15 (but only 8 the rest of the way). Toronto was able to maintain a lead of around 8-10 much of the first half but the Heat closed the half on 18-5 run. Miami pulled away with 12-0 run at the start of the fourth thanks to fantastic ball movement and a lot of LeBron James (35 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists).

Nets 104, Jazz 88: The Nets were desperate for a win to get to .500 and they opened the game on a 12-2 run and never gave up the lead. Brooklyn moved the ball well on offense, while on the other side they forced 20 turnovers and turned a lot of those easy buckets in transition on the other end. Brook Lopez had 27 points as the Nets starters just outplayed he Jazz starters all night.

Pacers 99, Pistons 92: In a battle of the big front lines the win went to Indy’s Roy Hibbert, who had seven blocked shots and owned his end of the paint. Indiana’s defense turned the Pistons into jump shooters and Detroit just doesn’t do that well — Detroit shot 25 percent outside the paint. Indiana went on a 23-6 run midway through first quarter and led most of the game behind 31 from Paul George, but the Pistons kept making runs to keep it interesting. Detroit just couldn’t string together enough consistent offense against the Pacers D.

Bobcats 102, Knicks 97: Not only did the Knicks lose their third in a row, not only did they trail almost the entire game at home to lowly Charlotte, they also lost Tyson Chandler to a knee injury and he while we don’t have details (he will be examined again Wednesday) it looks like he could miss at least a few games. Without Chandler on the court the Bobcats grabbed the offensive rebound on 42.1 percent of their missed shots and just seemed to control the paint. Kemba Walker had 25 points. The Knicks offense was stagnant and isolation heavy, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did a good job defending Carmelo Anthony late (‘Melo had 32 points but on 10-of-28 shooting).

Suns 104, Pelicans 98: Phoenix is off to a 3-1 start to the season after overcoming a slow start and coming back from a 14-point first quarter deficit to get a nice road victory. Goran Dragic missed this one with a sprained ankle, which just meant more time for Eric Bledsoe to continue to do his thing. On this night, that meant 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting, to go along with four rebounds, five assists, and three steals in 32 minutes of action. Gerald Green started in the place of Dragic, and hit four of his six threes on the night during a key third quarter stretch. On the Pelicans side, they just have too many guards. Brian Roberts was strong where Tyreke Evans was weak; Eric Gordon was solid while Jrue Holiday was brutal. And then there’s Austin Rivers, who received his third DNP-CD of the season.

Mavericks 123, Lakers 104: This was a game that was not as close as the score would indicate. The Lakers have plenty of role players but few stars capable of stepping up and providing real on-court leadership, especially on the road. The result was falling behind by as many as 30 points for the second time in this very young season to a Mavericks team that is at least anchored by enough skilled veterans to get the job done. Dallas got whatever they wanted most of the night offensively, and shot better than 52 percent from the field as a team. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni may have decided that the Shawne Williams experiment has run its course, as Jordan Hill replaced him in the starting lineup to begin the second half.

Spurs 102, Nuggets 94: Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw continued his early season lineup tinkering, but there was no difference in the final result. Jordan Hamilton and Kenneth Faried were newly-minted starters against the Spurs, and both produced just fine in their new roles. But too many combinations of players and not enough consistency has Denver struggling to find a rhythm and a cohesiveness, and especially against a tenured Spurs team that is far more measured with its veteran players, the outcome was far from a surprise. Shaw is eager and clearly unafraid to mix and match his players, but he’d be better served settling on a more steady lineup and rotation for a period of time to try and develop some chemistry.

Rockets 116, Blazers 101: This was a great example of just how good the Rockets can be when playing against a team that’s offensively challenged. Houston committed 20 turnovers and shot a dismal 6-of-22 as a team from three-point distance, but Dwight Howard finished with 29 points on 10-of-12 shooting, and even hit nine of his 12 free throw attempts, while James Harden added 33 points and seven boards to the winning cause. Portland only has four players capable of putting up decent numbers offensively, and all of them were inefficient on a night where Houston’s stars were unable to be stopped.

Hawks 105, Kings 100: Atlanta led this game by 19 points late in the third quarter, before Sacramento rallied to have a legitimate chance to win it in the fourth. Isaiah Thomas was a blast with 18 fourth quarter points, but ultimately it was too little too late. Atlanta’s front line of Al Horford and Paul Millsap destroyed the Kings for a combined 52 points and 21 rebounds on 20-of-34 shooting, while DeMarcus Cousins was limited to just 11 points and six rebounds in 29 minutes of action.

Shaq attacks verse in new TV series "Poetry in America"

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Shaquille O’Neal called himself “The Big Baryshnikov” and “The Big Socrates” in his days in the NBA. Now he can add “The Big Shakespeare.”

The basketball Hall-of-Famer, TNT TV analyst, commercial pitchman and onetime rapper is putting poetry on his lengthy resume as part of a new public television series.

He brings his best bard to a dramatic reading of a poem in his episode of the 12-part “Poetry in America ,” then discusses it with Elisa New, a Harvard English professor who hosts the show.

“I’ve always been into poetry,” O’Neal said in an interview with The Associated Press in a sunlit conference room overlooking the Los Angeles skyline. “I’ve been writing rhymes all my life.”

“Poetry in America,” distributed by American Public Television and presented by WGBH in Boston, is airing at various times on local public TV stations. Some episodes, including Shaq’s, are already available to stream.

On the show the 46-year-old former All-Star from the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat recites “Fast Break,” a poem by Edward Hirsch from his 1986 book “Wild Gratitude.” It describes some very imperfect players who manage to put together a perfect basketball play.

“A hook shot kisses the rim and hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop,” the poem begins, “and for once our gangly starting center boxes out his man.”

O’Neal, whose 350-pound bulk would never be called “gangly,” still related to the center in the verse, but said he initially missed the poem’s point.

“The first mistake I made was thinking it was about basketball,” he said. “I read it real quick I said `fast break, shovel passes, sure, this is what I do.”‘

He said New, who sat next to O’Neal in the interview and like almost everyone is utterly dwarfed by him, gave him whole new insights that led to a fast friendship.

“When she broke it down intelligently for me, I was very astounded and very amazed,”

The poem is written for a close friend and playing partner of Hirsch’s who had just died. That’s easy to miss if you skip past the dedication at the top, as most readers do.

“It’s fun that only later as you’re reading, you look back at that dedication,” New said. “One line can change everything.”

Suddenly it becomes an examination of transcendent moments and human connections.

“It’s about friendship, it’s about caring, it’s about emotions,” O’Neal said. “I had missed that.”

His latest learning experience took O’Neal’s thoughts back to high school, where he had a 69 percent in English after blowing a test during the basketball playoffs, and needed a 70 to stay eligible for sports.

The teacher allowed him a retest, and suggested a tutor.

“This guy, his name was McDougal, he was a geek, he saved my academic life,” O’Neal said. “Everybody bullied him in school, except me.”

O’Neal said he took the work and “broke it down, made it seem so simple.”

“I retook the test, got an 80, and we won the state championship,” O’Neal said.

“Now,” he said, “I always tell kids I’m a geek.”

The professor had another name for him. “He’s a learner!”

O’Neal partly looked the poet during the interview in a polo shirt and jeans, having traded his basketball sneakers for a pair of slip-on Toms shoes, size 22.

When he wanted them, a company executive told him “it wouldn’t be worth it to make them in my size unless I bought 500 of them,” O’Neal said. “I told him to give me 2,000.”

 

Rumor: Grizzlies had to choose between Marc Gasol and David Fizdale

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David Fizdale has been linked to most of the NBA’s head-coaching vacancies.

He developed a legion of backers as lead a Heat assistant, and he did good things guiding the Grizzlies before they unexpectedly fired him. He deserves consideration.

But he also must explain his fractured relationship with Memphis star Marc Gasol. They weren’t speaking for a while.

And maybe the problem was even worse than that.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

According to a source close to Fizdale briefed on the Grizzlies’ decision, it was ownership having to make a choice — trade their All-Star center Marc Gasol, who has fallen in love with its small-market city, or fire the coach. Their relationship had gotten that bad.

If Grizzlies ownership felt it had to choose between Gasol and Fizdale, it’s not clear why.

Fizdale benched Gasol down the stretch during the coach’s last game, and Gasol publicly expressed his frustration.

But Gasol denied issuing a me-or-Fizdale ultimatum. Fizdale said focus on his relationship with Gasol was “overblown,” adding he cared far more about whether he could win with a player than whether they got along personally.

Memphis obviously sided with Gasol – probably too strongly.

LeBron James bought Cavs teammates matching designer suits to wear to game tonight

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I’m still trying to decide if this is cool or a little too Stepford.

The Cavaliers rolled into the Bakers’ Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis tonight wearing matching designer suits, all paid for by LeBron James and custom fitted to each player.

If a college team rolled into a game in four-digit designer suits, the NCAA would have questions. And not about the vests.

The Cavaliers are LeBron’s team, and if he wants to buy his teammates suits and tell them to wear them it’s going to happen. Is it a bonding thing that helps bring them together? Sure. Is it in place to make sure LeBron remembers which ones are his new teammates? Probably not.

Do the suits help on the court? No. And the Cavaliers better bring it in Game 3 because if they go down 2-1 in this series — something that is a realistic possibility — the whispers of doubt are going to get a lot louder.

Report: Knicks to discuss coaching vacancy with Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer

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Mike Budenholzer is restless in Atlanta, seeing a rebuild coming and looking at other jobs (something Hawks management is fine with). He went down the road a ways with the Suns before pulling out of that process, but he’s still looking around.

The Knicks are casting a wide net in their search, talking to virtually everyone looking for coaching jobs.

So, this seemed inevitable, right? Budenholzer and the Knicks are going to talk, according to Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

This will be very preliminary. The Knicks have already had some level of conversation with Mark Jackson, David Fizdale, Jerry Stackhouse, David Blatt, Mike Woodson, and TNT analyst Kenny Smith (Jackson and Fizdale are the rumored early leaders). Budenholzer has established a style and culture in Atlanta, giving the franchise a path forward. New York could certainly use that.

However, the Knicks job comes with real challenges, too. That starts with James Dolan as owner and the erratic, at times paranoid culture he has created there. Also, expectations in New York are always high, but the team will be without Kristaps Porzigis for at least half (maybe all) of the upcoming season as he recovers from an ACL injury, and that puts a ceiling on the team in the short term. Is all that worth leaving Atlanta for?