The Extra Pass: Five observations from the East and Monday’s recaps

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After a busy Monday night in the NBA, let’s swing around the Eastern Conference for a few observations.

Indiana: If Roy Hibbert keeps getting that “verticality” respect from officials, it’s goodnight, Irene time for all of the other the Defensive Player of the Year candidates. Look at these numbers:

Per 36 minutes on his career: 2.6 blocks, 4.6 fouls.

Per 36 minutes this season: 5.3 blocks, 2.8 fouls.

Should we just go ahead and mail Hibbert the award now?

Orlando: It’s not very often you see a guard breakout in his 7th year, but all of the sudden Arron Afflalo is scoring like a legitimate first option. How? Location, location, location. Give Jacque Vaughn and the Magic coaching staff credit for posting up Afflalo at the elbow relentlessly, a spot where he’s a handful for defenders because of his size and strength.

Afflalo’s early returns of 19.5 points a game and 4.7 assists are career highs by a long margin, and it’s very clear he looks more comfortable with his back to the basket as opposed to having create off the dribble from 25-feet away. This was a nice adjustment for Afflalo, and it’s a good sign for Orlando’s future that they have a coach in place who is capable of maximizing talent through on-court adjustments.

Atlanta: Al Horford developed great chemistry with Josh Smith in their years together in Atlanta, but Paul Millsap’s presence has allowed Horford to operate out of the high post more than ever, and it’s working beautifully so far.

With Millsap chewing up space in the paint and diving hard to the rim, Horford has had plenty space to unfurl that knockdown 15-footer of his time and time again.

Atlanta’s HORNS set with Jeff Teague at the point, Kyle Korver spacing the floor and Millsap and Horford at each elbow is death for defenses, and it’s a big reason why the Hawks have a top-5 offense to start the season.

Toronto: Someone put a stop to the Rudy Gay/DeMar DeRozan madness. Two ball-stoppers who both like to post-up shouldn’t start on the wing together, particularly when your future franchise building block (Jonas Valanciunas) also happens to be a post player.

I get that it was double-overtime and those situations tend to welcome a lot of hero ball, but my goodness, DeRozan and Gay were a combined 17-for-62 from the field. 17-for-62! How long before poor Valanciunas gets sick of sealing off his man deep in the paint, only for Gay to completely ignore him and clank a long contested two instead? A lesser man would have cracked already.

Detroit: Sound the alarms: Josh Smith has shot 35 3-pointers through five games. That puts him on pace to shoot 574 3-pointers this season. That would be the 16th most 3-pointers attempted in NBA history. Smith, mind you, is a 28.4 percent career 3-point shooter.

I like the concept of zigging while the rest of the league is zagging and loading up on size, but using Smith as a floor-spacing small forward doesn’t end well for you, Detroit.

-D.J. Foster

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Spurs 109, Sixers 85: The Spurs crushed an opponent for the second time in as many days, although this time they did it without Tim Duncan, who got the night off simply to rest. Much like the game against the Knicks on Sunday, San Antonio didn’t leave anything to chance, pouncing on their opponent early and leading by 18 points at the end of the first quarter, which sucked the life out of the inexperienced team they faced which looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights. The only thing of interest was Gregg Popovich facing his former longtime assistant coach Brett Brown, who is in his first season in Philadelphia. “If you win, you sort of feel bad,” Popovich said. “If you lose, you’re sort of happy for the other guy. Which is also a weird feeling.”

Pacers 95, Grizzlies 79: Indiana improved to a perfect 8-0 on the season after this one, as the starting unit of the Grizzlies simply had no answer offensively for the defense of the Pacers. Memphis managed just 16 points in both the first and third quarters, and along with 23 points and seven rebounds from Paul George and a triple-double effort from Lance Stephenson, the Grizzlies fell to just 3-4 on the season. Roy Hibbert didn’t do much offensively, but was dominant inside on the defensive end in ways that don’t show up in the box score. On the Memphis side, it’s worth wondering if maybe Lionel Hollins wasn’t so easily replaced.

Hawks 103, Bobcats 94: Al Jefferson and head coach Steve Clifford both returned for the Bobcats on monday, but getting outscored 34-18 in the third quarter erased their first half lead and ultimately doomed their chances. Al Horford scored 13 of his 24 points on the night in that fateful period, and Carter Martin finished with 16 points on seven shots in 20 minutes off the bench for the Hawks.

Celtics 120, Magic 105: In the battle of two rebuilding teams, the Celtics simply wanted it more … I guess. This Boston team shouldn’t drop 120 points on anyone, but Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford, and Kelly Olynyk led seven Celtics players who finished the night in double figures. Then again, Orlando also had seven players in double figures scoring, but their 18 turnovers and the fact that they allowed Boston to shoot 60 percent from the field for the game meant that they were rewarded with the loss.

Bulls 96, Cavaliers 81: This was billed as the first ever matchup between Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving, but it wasn’t a game that featured either player impacting the final result the way they have proven capable of in the past. Each star point guard finished with 16 points on a low shooting percentage, and the Bulls pulled away late thanks to the positive play of Mike Dunleavy off the bench. Rose sat the last three-plus minutes after appearing to suffer a hamstring injury, but all reports postgame suggested that it was minor and that he should be ready to go for the Bulls’ next game against the Raptors in Toronto on Friday.
Brett Pollakoff

Rockets 110, Raptors 104 (2OT): At the start of this game Dwight Howard was aggressive and got both Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas in quick foul trouble, then took advantage. Howard had 9 points and 6 rebounds in the first quarter and finished with 17 points in the first half. Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan combined to miss 45 shots between them, which is why the Raptors shot 33.3 percent on the night and why the Raptors couldn’t win (Gay did hit the three to send the game). Jeremy Lin, on the other hand, had 31 off the bench for the Rockets on just 17 shots, and nine of those points came in the overtimes when the Rockets needed them most.

Nuggets 100, Jazz 81:  Well, someone had to win. This was a close one through three quarters but in the fourth Andre Miller scored 9 points and was the floor general that picked apart the Jazz defense as Denver went on a 21-5 run and pulled away. Ty Lawson continues to play very well for Denver and had 17. Gordon Hayward had 22 for Utah. Best we not speak of this game again.

Trail Blazers 109, Pistons 103: Not a lot of defense played in this one but that worked out better for Portland, which has a more diverse offense. Damian Lillard had 25 points on 16 shots, while the LaMarcus Aldridge dropped 18 and 12. Robin Lopez even did some work, scoring 17. Detroit got 28 from Brandon Jennings but needed 24 points to get there.

Clippers 109, Timberwolves 107: Not a game for fans of defense, but it was entertaining as both teams tried to push the tempo. The two starts played themselves pretty much to a standstill: Blake Griffin had 25 points, Kevin Love 23 points, although Love had 19 rebounds to Griffin’s 10. Chris Paul had 21 points and 11 assists carving up the Timberwolves, while Nikola Pekovic had 25 points and 10 boards for Minnesota. The Wolves answered every Clipper run until the final play, when down two they had Kevin Martin (30 points) miss, then both Pekovic and Love chances at point blank tip-ins and missed. The Clippers escaped with the win, really.

—Kurt Helin

Russell Westbrook dogs Warriors, Damian Lillard after Paul George misses All-Star roster

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Ah yes, let the mud-slinging begin.

Russell Westbrook is on a team with three huge stars in the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was always going to be difficult for all of them to make the 2018 NBA All-Star team out west.

But that doesn’t matter to Russ.

After Tuesday night’s win over the Brooklyn Nets (where Westbrook hit the game-winning shot, no less) the reigning NBA MVP had some thoughts about teammate Paul George missing out on the All-Star Game, calling it “outrageous”.

Westbrook wasn’t too happy with teams getting “four people” onto the team (a dig at the Golden State Warriors) and that players are, “Talking about getting snubbed until they get in.”

That last part seems to have taken aim at Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, one of the most talked about snubs in recent years who finally got another All-Star bid.

Via Twitter:

Westbrook also said that George was “Top 2 at his position” which really colors the underlying issue at hand: Russ likes PG and wants him to stay in OKC.

Nobody reasonable would say that George is a Top 2 player on the wing. Not while LeBron James and Kevin Durant are alive, at least. And Westbrook’s comments about folks being stars vs. not stars, even if the voting goes one way says a lot.

The Warriors are the best team of all time. A bunch of guys getting on All-Star teams in their heyday makes sense, even if one of those guys is Klay Thompson (sometimes). We all have Warriors fatigue, I guess.

Meanwhile, Lillard is one of adidas’ biggest athletes when it comes to basketball, the face of a franchise, and has put up numbers deserving of making the team in years past. He’s also a big personality and a rapper. Lillard’s name is in lights each and every night. The issue with him sees to be that nobody watches him consistently east of the Cascades.

But all this arguing gives legitimacy to Westbrook’s point, which is mostly personal. George’s numbers have taken a dip in some areas, particularly when it comes to things like VORP, assist percentage, and true shooting. They’ve gone up in others, like 3-point shooting. He’s still a very good player and very valuable to the Thunder.

Each year, guys get left off the All-Star team for various reasons. Sometimes it’s just their turn to be on it or be off it. Nice of Westbrook to stop by with some takes.

Here’s hoping for him that George stays in OKC.

Russell Westbrook hits game-winning shot to beat Nets (VIDEO)

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Spencer Dinwiddie hit the game-winning shot for the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night. At least, many thought he did.

But that honor actually went to Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook, who had hit the real game winner with a little more than three seconds to go.

Westbrook’s bucket came on after a sideline inbounds play led to a hard drive to the right side of the bucket for the reigning MVP.

Then, Dinwiddie got the ball and had appeared to make a 3-pointer to win the game for the Nets. However, it clanged off the side of the rim, moving the net in a way that many watching on TV and in the arena thought had gone in.

Via Twitter:

OKC beat Brooklyn, 109-108.

Here’s LeBron James scoring the 30,000th point of his career (VIDEO)

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LeBron James is officially the youngest player to ever reach 30,000 points in an NBA career.

The Cleveland Cavaliers great, who preemptively congratulated himself in a weird Instagram post earlier in the day, got points 30,000 and 30,001 at the age of 33 years and 24 days, edging Kobe Bryant by a year and 80 days.

The play came with just a second to go in the first quarter while the Cavaliers played on the road against the San Antonio Spurs.

Dribbling on the left arc against Danny Green — a formidable defender — LeBron gave a hesitation dribble before stepping just inside the 3-point line for a pull-up jumper.

Via Twitter:

LeBron still has Dirk Nowitzki, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ahead of him on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

Where he ends up might just depend on how long Nowitzki plays.

Top five 2018 All-Star Game snubs

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We fans love to talk about who gets snubbed. There are 68 teams in the NCAA tournament and we argue about who was 69th and deserved to be there.

With the NBA All-Star game, there are always legitimate snubs — and with the Western Conference so ridiculously deep this season good players were going to get left out. Just picking my reserve choices for a podcast felt brutal.

We now know the All-Star Game starters and reserves, so who got snubbed. Here are the top five.

1) Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers. Los Angeles has been devastated by injuries this season (not to mention losing Chris Paul in the off-season) yet they are still in the playoff hunt in the West and the main reason is Lou Williams. The leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate is averaging 23.3 points per game, 5,3 assists a night, and is shooting better than 40 percent from three. He had a red-hot January so far, averaging 29.2 points per game. This may be a case where Damian Lillard got the nod from the coaches for his multi-year body of work (he’s been good a long time), but Williams is having his best season ever and has a great case.

2) Chris Paul, Houston Rockets. He likely didn’t get selected because he has missed 17 games this season — but Stephen Curry missed 15 and is a captain. When CP3 has played he’s been brilliant, averaging 19.1 points and 8.9 assists per game, he’s been crucial to improving the Rockets defense this season, and when he is on the court the Rockets outscore opponents by 10.9 points per 100 possessions. The Rockets are 23-5 when he plays. Houston is the second best team in the NBA, they should have more than one representative tonight.

3) Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons. The coaches went with four guards for the East reserves, and that left just three frontcourt spots and four deserving players. Drummond is the odd-man out. Which sucks — he is averaging 14.3 points per game on 54 percent shooting, and he remains the best rebounder in the game today pulling down 15 a night. He has improved his defensive play as well, but what everyone notices is he hitting his free throws (62.9 percent) and that means Stan Van Gundy can play him at the end of games and not sub him out.

Drummond was more than a little frustrated he didn’t make the cut.

4) Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder. George has played well on both ends this season next to Russell Westbrook. He is averaging 20.8 points per game and shooting 42.9 percent from three on one end of the floor, and defensively he is averaging 4.4 deflections per game and has 93 steals — both tops in the league. George is a four-time All-Star and it feels weird to see him left out, but he came to the ridiculously deep Western Conference and good players were not going to make it. He’s the odd man out in the frontcourt.

5) Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets. Could have got a lot of directions here – Ben Simmons and Goran Dragic can make their cases on appeal — but people have been sleeping on just how well Walker has been playing this season. Walker is averaging an efficient 21.8 points per game, dishing out 5.9 assists per night, and when he is on the court the Hornets outscore teams by 5.1 points per 100 possessions (that’s better than the Celtics or Timberwolves net ratings for the season). The problem is when he sits they fall apart, and Walker pays the price for his team struggling this season. His name has popped up in trade rumors, and he is the best guy available right now (not that he gets moved in a tight market). Walker was an All-Star last season and had a very strong case to be one again.