Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks

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

NBA: Suns got away with offensive foul before key points in win over Spurs

Phoenix Suns Devin Booker acknowledges a foul as San Antonio Spurs Tony Parker lies crumpled on the floor, in the second half of their regular-season NBA basketball game in Mexico City, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
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Devin Booker scored 39 points in the Suns’ 108-105 win over the Spurs on Saturday in Mexico City.

But Booker’s last four – which put Phoenix up for good – came directly after incorrect calls, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report.

First, Booker drew a (legitimate) foul on Pau Gasol with 1:08 left and made both free throws. The problem: One second before that, Suns center Tyson Chandler should have been called for offensively fouling Tony Parker, according to the league:

Chandler (PHX) sets the screen on Parker (SAS) and makes leg to leg contact that affects his ability to defend the play.

That would’ve ended Phoenix’s possession rather than allowing Booker to get to the line.

The other missed call in the two-minute report is trickier, because it directly benefitted the Spurs but indirectly benefitted the Suns.

Manu Ginobili got away with travelling with 59.1 seconds left, according to  the league:

Ginobili (SAS) moves his pivot foot.

But he coughed up the ball moments later anyway, and – thrilled to gain possession with a live-ball turnover rather than a dead-ball turnover – Booker turned the miscue into a fastbreak dunk.

Rather than debate how to evaluate San Antonio getting away with a travel and it ultimately helping Phoenix more, let’s stick to just the uncalled Chandler offensive foul. That netted the Suns two points. Their lead when the Spurs began intentionally fouling? One.

Russell Westbrook puts up 20th triple-double of season, lifts Thunder past Kings (VIDEO)

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Through 41 games — half the season — Russell Westbrook is averaging 30.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.5 assists a game. Those numbers are insane, particularly considering his 42 percent usage rate. He has to put up numbers and do so fairly efficiently or the Thunder stand no chance of winning — and he has the Thunder on pace for 48 wins this season.

The Thunder picked up another of those wins Sunday night knocking off the Sacramento Kings behind Westbrook’s 20th triple-double in 41 games — 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. The video highlights are above.

It’s going to be fun watching him and James Harden go back-and-forth in the MVP race for the next few months.

Three questions to answer: Cavaliers vs. Warriors rematch (plus notes on other MLK Day games)

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It’s the best rivalry going in the NBA — the game that matters most to both teams. Even if they try to deny it. This is a rematch of the last two NBA Finals and a likely preview of the next one, and this January game is a measuring stick. Here are three things to watch for, and after that notes on the other nationally televised games on Martin Luther King Jr. day.

1) Can the Warriors break the Cavaliers’ mental advantage in this series? The Warriors will say the Cavaliers are not in their heads, because that’s not just what competitors say, it’s what they have to believe. However, The Cavaliers have won four straight games against the Warriors dating back to last year’s Finals — Cleveland came from 3-1 down on basketball’s biggest stage to take the title, then came from 14 down to beat the Warriors on Christmas Day. In those games, LeBron James has been nothing short of brilliant and Kyrie Irving has been a late-game killer.

January games don’t decide June series, but the Warriors certainly could use the confidence boost against the Cavs. David West was honest about that speaking to CSNBayArea.com.

“This is a very important game for us,” West said Sunday, “because this is the last time we’re going to be able to measure ourselves against these guys. The only other time we’d get to face them would be in The Finals.”

Two straight Finals meetings means these teams know each other and their sets very well. There are no secrets. That’s an advantage for Cleveland: Golden State runs a lot of deception, fake screens, relatively meaningless actions designed to distract from what they really want to do. But by now the Cavs have seen it all. They aren’t fooled. The Warriors need to beat the Cavs one-on-one occasionally. That is what’s at the core of the Cavaliers game plan — we’re going to force Stephen Curry onto LeBron James or Kyrie Irving (via a switch on a pick), then isolate and bet he can’t stop them. It’s simple but it works, and the Warriors have not had an answer.

Being at home should help the Warriors. The bottom line is they can say the Cavaliers are not in their heads all they want, the Warriors could use a confidence-boosting win to convince themselves of that.

2) Kevin Durant was the best player on the court on Christmas, can Stephen Curry be? There is another way to phrase that question (which ties into the first one): Are the Cavaliers in Curry’s head? He had a rough Finals at points. Curry was a relatively passive 4-of-11 for 15 points on Christmas Day, and immediately after said he needed to be more aggressive.

In the Cavaliers’ four straight wins over the Warriors, Curry has shot  37 percent overall (36 percent from three) and has 15 turnovers to 10 assists. Cavaliers use physical defenders and are aggressive against Curry, they try to trap him and bait him into the flashy, playground-style passes that ignite the Warriors — except the Cavaliers have the defenders to turn those passes into steals and transition buckets. It’s the reason Durant was the best player on the Warriors on Christmas Day (36 points on 26 shots) — the Cavaliers are a very good help/schematic defensive team, but they have guys who can be beaten in isolation. Durant thrives in isolation.

Curry needs not to be baited into bad passes, be aggressive looking for his shot but pick his spots, get to the line a little more, and just knock down some shots.

3) How do the Warriors handle Kyle Korver? This is the one change after the Christmas day matchup. After they finally got a practice under their belts to figure things out, Tyron Lue slid Korver into the “LeBron and the bench” lineup —LeBron James, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, Korver, and Channing Frye. It worked well, as you might expect LeBron surrounded by shooters would work, and Kover had 18 against the Kings. How well this works against the Warriors though could be different — it’s not easy for the Cavs to keep Frye on the court against the Warriors matchups.

That said, the fact defenders can’t leave Korver to help is a boost to the Cavs when they start to run picks to get Curry switched onto Irving or LeBron. Either Korver is going to get some “butt-naked looks” (Tyronn Lue’s words) or he’s going to open it up for teammates. Either way, it will be interesting to see if the Warriors go with Shaun Livingston or someone else off the bench to counter Korver Sunday.

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There are other interesting games on Martin Luther King day, here’s a few things to watch (all times Eastern):

Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks, (1 p.m. NBA TV). The Hawks have won 8-of-9 and are defending incredibly well. The Knicks have won 2-of-12 and have defended very poorly — and that has led to all kinds of speculation and rumors around the team. Another loss would just stoke that fire.

Orlando Magic at Denver Nuggets (5 p.m. NBA TV). The teams have struggled but there are two players worth watching here. Denver’s Nikola Jokic is one of the best sophomores in the league, averaging 13.3 points a game on 58 percent shooting, plus he is a gifted passer. Orlando’s Aaron Gordon is struggling in his adjustment to playing the three, but he’s a good perimeter defender and the games he is aggressive on offense good things happen.

Oklahoma City Thunder at LA Clippers (10:30 p.m. TNT). The Clippers have won six in a row, and Chris Paul has been phenomenal since his return. Russell Westbrook has been phenomenal all season, 18 triple-doubles in 40 games, but the Thunder are on the second night of a back-to-back.

James Harden’s 12th triple-double helps Rockets end 2-game skid

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NEW YORK (AP) James Harden had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in his 12th triple-double of the season and the Houston Rockets easily ended their first losing streak of the season by beating the Brooklyn Nets 137-112 on Sunday night.

Held to 105 points in losses to Minnesota and Memphis, the Rockets bounced back with 104 after three quarters and handed the Nets their 10th straight loss.

Eric Gordon led the Rockets with 24 points and Trevor Ariza added 23. Houston made 21 3-pointers and had five players with at least 16 points.

Houston shot just 40.8 percent during its two losses, well below its 46.8 season average, while being held nearly 10 points below its season scoring average. But the Rockets had no trouble bouncing back against the Nets, who allow an NBA-worst 114.3 per game.