Chuck Hayes, Paul Millsap

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.

LeBron James on surpassing Michael Jordan: “It’s a personal goal”

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 26: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts on September 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Since he was a teenager, LeBron James has been compared to Michael Jordan. That comparison has usually been used as a way to cut him down or explain why he’s not in the same class, but that’s changed since he won his third championship, and first in Cleveland, in June. Now, LeBron has started to be a lot more open about his desire to eventually surpass Jordan. He said so in an interview with the AP’s Tom Withers after practice on Tuesday:

Now that LeBron James has won a championship for the ages, he’s set a loftier goal:

Catching Michael Jordan.

Long flattered to be mentioned in the same company with Jordan and other NBA legends, James has been hesitant to publicly acknowledge that he wants to be remembered as the greatest in league history.

It’s time now.

“It’s a personal goal,” James told The Associated Press on Monday. “I just never brought it up. It’s my own personal goal to be able to be greater than great. I think that should be everybody’s personal goal.”

Now that James has indisputably cemented his legacy as one of the handful of greatest players ever to play the game, he has a lot less to lose by openly talking about these things. Five years ago, he would have gotten killed for bringing it up. Now? It just seems plausible more than anything else.

Kevin Durant says Nike didn’t influence his free-agency decision

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors poses for NBA team photographer Noah Graham during the Golden State Warriors Media Day at the Warriors Practice Facility on September 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Many different factors went into Kevin Durant‘s decision this summer to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors — basketball fit, location, his friendships with Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, and more. But one thing he wants to make sure you know didn’t influence him is Nike. Durant told reporters this week that the shoe company, which he endorses, didn’t steer him one way or another in free agency, and they didn’t even know his plans beforehand.

It’s a little hard to believe that Nike had zero advance knowledge of Durant’s plans — if not a hard answer, at least a strong indication of which way he was leaning. Durant was one of the most popular players in the league in Oklahoma City, so Nike would have been fine either way. But his presence in Golden State, a much bigger market and the dominant story in the NBA this season, will only help them. It doesn’t hurt, either, that they now have one of their biggest athletes in the same market as Stephen Curry, who had been taking advantage of all the attention on the Warriors to raise Under Armour’s profile. Now, Nike can get some of that spotlight back in the Bay Area.

Barnes, Bogut highlight latest round of changes for Mavs

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 08:  Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors reacts in Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on June 8, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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DALLAS (AP) Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut are in, Chandler Parsons and Zaza Pachulia are out and Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has a retooled roster for the sixth consecutive time since winning a championship.

“Well, we love it,” Carlisle said at media day this week as someone chuckled. “What’s more exciting than getting seven new guys? New blood. It’s fresh every year.

“Really, that wasn’t meant to be a joke,” he added. “If you view it as a negative, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be a negative. I don’t look at it that way.”

The Mavericks have made the playoffs all but one season since the constant turnover started after owner Mark Cuban chose salary cap flexibility over keeping a few key players when a new labor agreement was reached six months after his team won the title in 2011.

But Dallas still hasn’t won a postseason series since beating Miami in six games in those NBA Finals.

Repeated efforts to land big names in free agency failed, which this year led to the additions of Barnes and Bogut from 2015 champion Golden State after the Warriors lured Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City and had to unload both starters to make cap room for the four-time NBA scoring champion.

Barnes headlines the group of newcomers because he’ll be a top option on offense after signing a four-year, $94 million max contract. Over his four seasons with the Warriors, he was always a role player behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

“It’s going to be bigger expectations and I’m going to have a larger role on this team,” Barnes said. “I feel like we have a lot of pieces this year, either coming back off injury, guys who are motivated, have a lot to prove. So hopefully we can all come together and do something special.”

There’s actually some stability in the starting five because point guard Deron Williams is back for a second season with his hometown team.

Nowitzki, going into his 19th season at age 38, says Williams was the best player on the team at times last season, and the Mavericks missed him in their five-game loss to Oklahoma City. He was limited by a sports hernia injury that required offseason surgery.

Parsons signed a max deal with Memphis, and Pachulia went to the Warriors after the trade that landed Dallas the 7-footer Bogut, who should be a much stronger shot-blocking presence than his predecessor.

The changes fit the formula of at least two new starters each season going back to the title year.

“There are similarities to other years,” Carlisle said. “The ability to add Bogut and Barnes was huge for us. We caught some good luck on that.”

The other notable newcomer is Curry’s younger brother, Seth Curry, who is on his fifth team in his fourth season but finally had a more prominent role last season in Sacramento. Former Baylor standout Quincy Acy is in Dallas after bouncing around his first four years.

The Mavericks are deep at guard with holders J.J. Barea and Devin Harris behind Williams and Wes Matthews, in his second season as the shooting guard and now more than a year removed from tearing an Achilles tendon his final season in Portland.

Also returning are athletic young forwards Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell along with 7-2 Tunisian center Salah Mejri, a surprising shot-blocking presence last season as a 30-year-old rookie.

“They’re definitely athletes and we should be able to have a great defensive lineup once I’m out,” said Nowitzki, poking fun at his defensive skills. “I think we have a (backup) lineup out there that could be really, really good, and obviously youth and athleticism is a big part.”

Barnes wanted to be a part of it even though the Mavericks appear further from championship contention than other Western Conference teams.

“I think when you look at what this franchise has done year in, year out, stable on their ship,” Barnes said. “And be able to learn from a guy named Dirk who’s done it year in, year out. He’s pretty much built this place through his work ethic.”

And now Nowitzki is getting used to another new collection of teammates.

Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler

Jazz’s Dante Exum says his knee is completely healed from 2015 ACL tear

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 17:  Dante Exum #11 of the Utah Jazz drives to the lane during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on December 17, 2014 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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After a promising rookie season, Dante Exum missed all of 2015-16 rehabbing a torn left ACL he suffered during an exhibition game with the Australian national team in summer 2015. As the Jazz kick off training camp, Exum says he’s fully recovered after his year off and he’s ready to go.

Via Jody Gennessy of the Deseret News:

“I was just excited to get back out there,” Exum said after the first of two practices Tuesday. “I was feeling good. … I was just ready to come out there, talk when I can and run between every drill.”

Both his attitude and his body were at 100 percent as he returned from a yearlong rehab that followed his September 2015 surgery on his left knee that had been injured in a friendly international game with the Australian team.

With the Jazz’s trade for George Hill over the summer, Exum won’t have to be the starting point guard, which will take some pressure off of him to get back to full strength right away. A torn ACL is something that usually takes time to return from, and having guard depth to ease his workload will help with the transition. If the Jazz get good production out of Exum, it will be a bonus for what looks to be one of the most exciting young teams in the Western Conference.