The Extra Pass: Three new faces and Wednesday’s recaps

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One of the best parts about the start of any season is the chance to get familiar with the new faces in the league.

Guys like Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo will get plenty of publicity, so let’s dig a little deeper and look at a few other players that are impressing in their first substantial minutes in the league.

Nate Wolters, PG, Milwaukee Bucks

This should have been a disaster. The Bucks were already short on playmakers and ballhandlers with Luke Ridnour and Carlos Delfino sidelined to start the year…and then Brandon Knight went down in the first two minutes of the season.

Second-round draft pick Nate Wolters was the last man standing. This should have been ugly, but somehow, Wolters has been able to keep a pretty lackluster Bucks offense afloat thus far. Through four games, Wolters has only turned the ball over just four times while racking up 26 assists.

That’s a crazy assist/turnover ratio for any point guard, let alone a rookie making the leap from South Dakota State to the NBA. Wolters will go through an adjustment period as a scorer, but his solid size (6-foot-5) should help him once he gets in the guts of a defense. If nothing else, Wolters has already shown a much better grasp for distributing than Brandon Knight ever has, so here’s hoping he still gets heavy play once the Bucks’ backcourt gets healthy.

Dennis Schroder, PG, Atlanta Hawks

The young point guard from Germany has also impressed with his distributing, often threading the needle on backdoor cuts or keeping his dribble alive to create openings from nothing.

Schroder’s biggest impact, however, has been on the defensive end. A lot of players will give token ball pressure, but Schroder is a guy who really makes opposing point guards work their way up the floor. He’s that perfect combination of annoying and clever, and his insanely quick lateral movement and long wingspan makes him nightmare to get around in pick-and-roll situations.

Schroder has so much value defensively, even as a rookie, that Mike Budenholzer has played him next to Jeff Teague quite a bit despite a shaky shooting stroke.

Schroder is already a defensive weapon, and there are a lot of natural instincts to like offensively. Keep an eye on him.

Miles Plumlee, C, Phoenix Suns

Did anyone have a better offseason than the Phoenix Suns? Miles Plumlee was supposed to be nothing more than a salary match in the Luis Scola trade with the Indiana Pacers, but he’s probably been the biggest surprise of the season so far.

Plumlee has shown a nice chemistry with Eric Bledsoe in the screen game, timing his rolls correctly while displaying some pretty fluid mobility and a high coordination level. Plumlee was miscast by some coming out of college as a stiff, but he can get up and down the floor and finish pretty well around the rim.

Plumlee ideally would have a little more help on the glass from his frontcourt partner, but he’s shown some good weakside help instincts defensively. Suns GM Ryan McDonough may have pulled off another steal here.

—D.J. Foster

 

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It’s good to have Russell Westbrook back in the game.

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If you’re wondering what this is based on, read up on Caron Butler’s fine.

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Pacers 97, Bulls 80: This was actually a tight game throughout, with Indiana leading by just one heading into the final period. But the Pacers’ defense held the Bulls to just 18 points in the fourth, and under 20 points for three of the game’s four quarters. Roy Hibbert and David West made things miserable for Chicago’s front line, and 12 fourth quarter points from Lance Stephenson along with eight in the period from Luis Scola helped Indiana pull away to improve to a perfect 5-0 on the season. Derrick Rose continued his offensive struggles, finishing with 17 points in 27 minutes on 6-of-15 shooting. — Brett Pollakoff

Magic 98, Clippers 90: This was the Bizaro Clippers — this was the complete and total opposite of the team that destroyed the Rockets Monday night. The Clippers started the game 2-of-10 shooting with three missed dunk attempts. The other thing is the energetic DeAndre Jordan who was yelling out commands like KG on defense in the preseason has gone quiet, and with that the Clippers defense is not good. Nikola Vucevic owned Jordan and owned the Clippers with 30 points and 21 rebounds — he was the best player on the court and looked like the guy you want leading your team in the paint. —Kurt Helin

Thunder 107, Mavericks 93: Oklahoma City looked like the team the rest of the league knows and fears — they forced 21 Mavericks turnovers and converted a number of those into easy points the other way. Dallas couldn’t get its scorers to be efficient — Monta Ellis was 8-of-17, Dirk Nowitzki 5-of-12. The result was the Thunder just kind of slowly taking control of the game. Kevin Durant had 23 points, Russell Westbrook 22, and when the Thunder play like this they are just hard to beat. —KH

Celtics 97, Jazz 87: Brad Stevens beats Gordon Hayward and wins the “Battle of Butler.” Haywood had 10 points in the first quarter (he finished with 28) and helped spark a 14-0 run that had Utah out front early, but Boston owned the second quarter with a 25-6 run to pull away and never really look back (well, the fourth quarter did get interesting). Stevens move of starting Jordan Crawford and bringing Gerald Wallace as a spark plug off the bench (9 points, 9 rebounds) seemed to work. Brandon Bass had 20 for the Celtics. —KH

Pelicans 99, Grizzlies 84: New Orleans went on a 14-2 run in the first quarter, led by as many as 19 in that first frame, and never really looked back as they cruised to a win. Zach Randolph left early to be there for the birth of his son (congratulations!) but that was not the Grizzlies problem. Again for Memphis it was the defense not being the same; they gave up 112.2 points per 100 possessions. And the turnover problem remains for Memphis — they had 18 turnovers, which was 20 percent of their possessions, a number of those being live ball turnovers the Pelicans turned into fast points. Same old problems for Memphis. The new one — Anthony Davis put up 18 points and 9 boards and outplayed Marc Gasol all night. Davis looks really good. —KH

Warriors 106, Timberwolves 93: Stephen Curry went out in the third quarter (he is officially day-to-day with an ankle injury but is expected to play Friday against the Spurs) so Klay Thompson went off for 19 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter to help secure the win. Andre Iguodala stepped into the point role with Curry out and help organize the offense, plus had 20 points on the night. David Lee had 20 points and 15 boards. Kevin Love continues to put up numbers — 25 points and 16 boards — but he shot just 40 percent and as a team the Timberwolves shot just 37.8 percent. Not good enough against the Warriors offense (which shot 50 percent). —KH

Bobcats 92, Raptors 90: Enjoy this fact — Charlotte is tied with Miami for the first place in the Southwest (Orlando in there, too). The Bobcats shot 75 percent in the first quarter and led by 14 after one, but the Raptors second unit had a 21-7 run to tie it at the half. That was pretty much it for the good Raptors offense, they shot just 35.1 percent in the second half and that didn’t get it done. Rudy Gay finished with a team high 20 points but needed 21 shots to get those points. Gerald Henderson had 23 to lead the Bobcats.

There are just so many questions for Toronto — and most of them are aimed at coach Dwane Casey. Like why Jonas Valanciunas, who had 12 points and 10 boards and was a catalyst when he played, sat the entire fourth quarter? Or why when the Raptors were down 2 and the Bobcats got the ball back off a DeMar DeRozan miss with 26 seconds left, Casey let Charlotte run the clock all the way down without fouling? Charlotte got off a shot just before the 24-second clock expired but then the game ended before the Raptors had the rebound. —KH

Wizards 116, Sixers 102: The Wizards set the tone in this one by scoring 39 first quarter points, and never looked back the rest of the way. Washington led by as many as 17 points, and shredded the Sixers’ defense for better than 54 percent shooting from three-point distance, while seeing seven players finish in double figures. This was the Sixers team we expected to see at the start of the season, giving up easy baskets and open looks while having very few weapons to counter their opponents’ activity. Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes continued their above-average and consistent level of play, while rookie Michael Carter-Williams put up stat sheet-stuffing numbers once again, albeit somewhat inefficiently. — BP

Bucks 109, Cavaliers 104: This was a battle of the guards, and Milwaukee’s were simply more effective on this night. O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal combined for 51 points on 50 percent shooting, and killed it from beyond the arc by combining to shoot 10-of-12 from three-point distance. Number one overall draft pick Anthony Bennett finally hit a shot for the cavaliers, and Andrew Bynum logged over 14 minutes, but was ineffective as he continues to work his way back into game shape. — BP

Spurs 99, Suns 96: Phoenix continues to play with effort and energy beyond that of its competitors, but sometimes, as was the case in San Antonio on Wednesday, talent ultimately wins out. Tony Parker turned in a dominant fourth quarter performance, pouring in 15 points in the period on a perfect 7-of-7 shooting to ensure his team would come away with the victory. The Suns got a big night from Markieff Morris, who seems to be improving now that he’s choosing his offensive looks a bit more carefully. He finished with game-highs of 23 points and 12 rebounds, on 11-of-13 shooting in 30 minutes off the bench. Coaches will tell you that it doesn’t matter who starts the game and that it’s all about who finishes it, but production would dictate that Morris should supplant Channing Frye in the starting lineup in the very near future. — BP

Report: LeBron James wins overall All-Star fan vote

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For the first time in a dozen years, a player has won the All-Star fan vote for consecutive years.

LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett have all taken turns as leader since Yao Ming claimed the vote lead in 2005 and 2006. Apparently, LeBron will retain the top spot he held last year.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

The fan vote means less than ever, with media and players also playing a role in who starts the All-Star game and a draft assigning players to teams. But the leading fan-vote-getter in each conference still matters, as those will be the captains for the draft.

LeBron will be one. Warriors Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry were neck-and-neck for the other captaincy.

Last I heard, the NBA was leaning toward giving the top overall fan-vote-getter the first pick in the All-Star draft, but that hadn’t been formally decided. So, it’ll probably be on LeBron to select his top choice among the other eight starters, who will be announced tonight. (All starters must be drafted first, so each team still has five starters.)

One more time: Let LeBron make that pick on television. He doesn’t mind.

Austin Rivers: Maybe I got a chance because Doc is my dad, but I know my swagger keeps me from succumbing to negativity

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Austin Rivers was the No. 10 pick out of Duke in 2012, and he struggled mightily his first few years in the NBA. His gaffes are so jolting, his teammates mock them. Yet, Rivers still carries himself as if he’s a star.

Chris Paul reportedly despised Doc Rivers over the Clippers coach’s favoritism toward his son. Former Clipper Glen Davis said Austin got paid because of his dad. Jamal Crawford reportedly chafed at the Clippers’ initial offer to him a couple years ago because it was lower than Austin’s.

These are issues Austin has been hearing about and handling for years.

Monday’s Clippers-Rockets game – Paul’s return to L.A. – was a breaking point, though.

An injured Austin stood on the sidelines talking trashing during the game, sparking a confrontation that got Trevor Ariza and Blake Griffin ejected. After the game, Austin reportedly continued jawing with Ariza as the Houston forward charged toward the Clippers’ locker room (drawing a two-game suspension).

Again in the crosshairs, Austin is opening up.

Rivers, via Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

“People can say whatever they want about me and my father [LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers],” the guard told ESPN during a lengthy interview Wednesday night. “I get it. I can even put my ego aside and understand why people don’t like the situation. When I was growing up and I’d see the coach’s son, you’d be like, ‘He sucks. He’s only on the team because of his dad.’ So I get it.”

“People are like, ‘Well, his dad gave him his chance.’ Is that true or not? I don’t know. It might be,” Rivers said. “[But] could it be that my pops knew how good I could be because he’s my pops?

“I know what the narrative is on me,” Rivers said. “It’s because I come from money and I have a swagger and confidence about me.

“[But] if I didn’t have this confidence or swagger in myself, I wouldn’t be built to handle the negativity that I’ve gotten. I would’ve already broken down years ago because I’ve gotten this since high school. I’ve turned it into a fuel and it’s helped me. I go into each away arena and it’s rough, because of the s— I hear. This chip on my shoulder, this swagger and confidence, it helps me. If I didn’t have it, I would not be in the NBA.”

“I’m not saying poor me. There’s people that have real problems,” Rivers said. “So don’t feel bad for me. I don’t need anybody’s sympathy. I’m having my best year yet. I’m trying to get back and healthy so I can help our team.

This is more relatable than Austin has ever sounded, and I applaud him for sharing a more authentic point of view rather than maintaining the facade of an aloof superstar. He deserves better treatment from the public than he has gotten, though he’s responsible for the much-maligned persona he has displayed.

Austin hasn’t received nearly enough credit for how much he has improved. Part of that is due to just how bad he was when he entered the NBA, but he has gotten steadily better. That shows how hard he works.

Some of the criticism of Austin and Doc is fair. Some is not. They probably should have better-anticipated what Doc trading for then re-signing Austin would be perceived, inside and outside the Clippers. But it’s too late to undo those deals, so they’re trying to manage the situation the best they can.

Austin’s interview here is a good step.

Reunited with Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza embracing role as Rockets’ glue guy

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Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza went out for dinner together Dec. 8, 2011. They were back in Paul’s condo when the star point guard was thrown headfirst into one of the NBA’s biggest controversies.

New Orleans agreed to trade Paul to the Lakers, but the league – which was operating the New Orleans franchise while it was for sale – vetoed the deal.

“It was crazy,” Paul said.

Paul and Ariza, then New Orleans teammates, have reunited with the Rockets. This time, Ariza might have more than a front-row seat to Paul’s saga. Ariza could be a central character in the story.

Of course, Paul came to Houston to escape the Clippers, team up with James Harden and try to win a championship. But Paul also said his friendship with Ariza “had a whole lot to do with it.”

Three Rockets starters – Paul, Ariza and Clint Capela – will be free agents next summer. Paul is the obvious priority, and general manager Daryl Morey said Clint Capela, who will be restricted, “couldn’t price himself out” of Houston.

The Rockets already have nearly $76 million in 2018-19 and more than $85 million in 2019-20 committed to just five players (Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Nene). New owner Tilman Fertitta has expressed limitations on paying the luxury tax.

So, where does that leave Ariza? And perhaps more importantly, how would whether or not Houston re-signs Ariza affect Paul?

“Trev, like I said, is a good friend of mine. We talk about any and everything,” Paul said. “But, when that decision comes, I’m sure we both will make the best decision that’s best for my family and best for his family.”

If the Rockets discard Ariza to to sign another of Paul’s friends, LeBron James, it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Really, worldly veterans like Paul and Ariza would likely understand if Houston lets Ariza walk even without replacing him with LeBron.

But how much risk do the Rockets want to take? Would they chance losing their big acquisition after only one season? Remember, they were reportedly reluctant to deal Ariza in a package for a third star last summer because of his Paul connection.

That bond is already showing this season.

When Paul’s new teammates questioned Ariza after the trade about Paul’s’ personality, Ariza assured them Paul, though extremely competitive, is a “real nice dude.” Houston is outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when Paul and Ariza share the court. And in Paul’s highly charged return to L.A., no Rocket answered the emotion of the night more than Ariza, who got ejected then reportedly led a post-game charge into the Clippers locker room, drawing a two-game suspension.

His point guard might be (re)new(ed), but Ariza still has the same overall job description – steady, unheralded contributor.

“I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time,” Ariza said.

His production is in line with Ryan Anderson’s and Eric Gordon’s. But Anderson’s salary nearly triples Ariza’s, and Gordon – who also earns more money – gets the plaudits of being reigning Sixth Man of the Year because he comes off the bench.

Ariza’s modest windfall: comfort. In his fourth straight year with the Rockets, this stint in Houston has been his longest anywhere.

A second-round pick in 2004, Ariza shuffled between the Knicks, Magic and Lakers. He excelled in the 2009 playoffs, helping the Lakers win the title in a contract year. But the Lakers let him walk to sign Ron Artest (who later changed his name to Metta World Peace) – a particular disappointment for Ariza, who grew up in Los Angeles. So, Ariza agreed to terms with the Rockets for nearly $34 million over five years. But in his only season with an above-average usage, Ariza underwhelmed, and Houston traded him to New Orleans, where he teamed with Paul. In cost-cutting mode after Paul, New Orleans sent Ariza to the Wizards. He parlayed a career year in Washington into a four-year, $32 million contract with the Rockets in 2014.

Along the way, Ariza developed a 3-point shot that wasn’t at all on his résumé his first few seasons. He picked up tricks of the trade defensively. And he displayed professionalism and a strong work ethic.

He isn’t an elite outside shooter, but he shoots well enough to provide clearly efficient scoring and floor-spacing. He isn’t an elite defender, but he can credibly guard all five positions. Important and perhaps the most overlooked aspect of his game, he maintains his two-way effectiveness over long stretches.

Only Ariza, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Jrue Holiday and Ben Simmons rate as above average both offensively and defensively by ESPN’s real plus-minus while playing 35 minutes per game.

The 32-year-old Ariza is easily the oldest of that group. He keeps in excellent shape, playing 36.2 minutes per game, an age-playing time combination matched by only LeBron James, whose workload has been deeply dissected.

While Luc Mbah a Moute was injured and before Houston signed Gerald Green, Ariza played more than 41 minutes in six straight games last month.

“I’m real aware that we’re playing him too many minutes,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But he says, ‘Coach, I’m fine. It doesn’t bother me.’ During the game, he’s never winded.'”

Ariza’s steadiness is historic considering how he entered the league. Since the NBA instituted a two-round draft in 1989, he ranks eighth among second-rounders in career games:

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Ariza says he has always focused competing against the man in front of him, not caring about where he was drafted or contract status.

That approach has taken Ariza a long way in his 14-year career. He has earned a healthy living playing basketball and respect from teammates and coaches – but not job security.

He’s key to the Rockets’ present and future, but with his contract expiring, that can mean a number of outcomes.

“It’s there. You know it’s there,” Ariza said. “But you that’s not what I put all my focus into.

“I’m just going to go out and play my game and do my job, and whatever happens happens.”

Bulls’ Kris Dunn breaks teeth on dunk landing (video)

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Kris Dunn struggled in the first three quarters of the Bulls’ 119-112 loss to the Warriors last night. Then, he and Chicago played better in the fourth quarter.

Yet, that was the worst period for Dunn – because this happened.

Bulls:

Ouch.