Pacers' Hibbert looks down court during Game 6 of their NBA Eastern Conference Final basketball playoff series against the Heat in Indianapolis

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

‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, right, drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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When the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, he named his rookie goals: “Get to the playoffs, go for the championship.” But the NBA humbled the young player, as Sacramento went just 24-58 and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year. Cousins emerged for his second season resolute on a more-modest goal: “Playoffs. We’ve got to make the playoffs this year. It’s not even a goal. It’s basically in our contract, I believe. So, we’ve got to make the playoffs this year.”

Five seasons later, Cousins is still chasing that elusive postseason trip.

“It’s eating me alive,” Cousins said. “Every loss or every time another team wins in battling for the eighth spot, it’s eating me alive. Our only goal is to be in the playoffs this season.”

A depressing chase for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, where every team in the race is at least seven games under .500, has opened the door for the 17-27 Kings. They’re 1.5 games and three teams out of playoff position – a more daunting challenge than often realized. Not only must they play better, they must hope a couple teams ahead of them don’t also heat up. 538 gives Sacramento just a 5% chance of reaching the postseason, and ESPN is even more pessimistic at 3.8%.

Beginning his career with seven straight lottery trips would be another crushing blow to Cousins, who has built a credible case as the NBA’s best center. Greg Monroe is the only current player with more win shares who hasn’t reached the playoffs:

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Nobody nears Cousins besides Monroe, and the next-closest player, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, likely makes the playoffs this year. Monroe leads in win shares, because he entered the league more polished than Cousins and built a head start (and because this stat probably inflates’ Monroe’s contributions relative to Cousins’.) Monroe has never neared Cousins’ peak, and Monroe is now a backup for the Bucks. The only thing second-team about Cousins is his two All-NBA appearances.

Kevin Love is the only other player since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA teams before his first playoff season. He, of course, left the Timberwolves for the Cavaliers to escape lists like these.

On the other hand, there have been indications from both sides Cousins will soon sign a veteran-designated-player contract extension projected to be worth more than $219 million over five years. Staying in Sacramento and playing for owner Vivek Ranadive seems like the surest bet to keep Cousins’ postseason drought active.

Cousins already ranks in the top 25 all-time in win shares before a player’s first playoff season (which doesn’t count this season, because playoff teams aren’t yet determined):

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Cousins has 5.2 win shares this season and counting. Missing the playoffs again would launch him into the top 10 of this dubious list – and he could keep climbing.

Not only do the Kings face daunting odds to reach the postseason this year, it’s difficult to project them into the playoffs for the foreseeable future. Years of roster mismanagement have taken a toll.

Since drafting Cousins, Sacramento has held top-10 picks every year. Those have netted on draft night: Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic – who’ve combined for a measly 2.2 win shares this season. And most of those win shares come from Stauskas and Robinson, who no longer play for the Kings.

In fact, Stauskas was sent out in a disastrous trade that gives the 76ers swap rights on Sacramento’s 2017 first-rounder* and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder.

*The Kings’ first-round pick must fall in the top to be swap-eligible. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulls, the result of another botched trade.

Sacramento has also recently struck out on major free agents and then settled for Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson. That adds up to one mediocre supporting cast.

Meanwhile, Cousins is better than ever. He has taken a larger offensive burden, including as a distributor and suddenly dangerous 3-point shooter, while cutting down his turnover rate. Defenders are often overmatched, and they foul him more than anyone in the league. And while Cousins’ defense comes and goes, it can be quite impressive while he’s locked in.

The result is a team that plays at a 41-win pace with Cousins on the floor and a 17-win pace when he sits, continuing a disparity seen over the last few years. Hera are the Kings win paces over 82 games with Cousins on (purple) and off (black):

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Obviously, teams generally play better with their stars and starters on the court, and Cousins is a star who usually shares the court with other starters. But this gap is particularly egregious, and Cousins’ fellow starters have underwhelmed.

So, more and more falls on Cousins’ shoulders.

Playing for his sixth head coach and third general manager in seven seasons, Cousins sets the tone for the Kings, for better or worse. He plays with a unique rage, sneering resentfully at anyone who gets in his way on the court – like players trying to defend him or referees, gasp, calling a foul on him. He leads the league with 12 technical fouls and is on pace to get (at least) 16 and an automatic suspension, which he also triggered last year.

His highs are incredibly high and his lows are unnecessarily low.

That moodiness has frustrated coaches and teammates, but it also sometimes works himself and his teammates into a productive frenzy. Sacramento usually plays passionately, which is both to its credit and a sign of a talent scarcity considering the team still loses so frequently.

“I’m still confident,” Cousins said, “and I still believe we’re going to make that push for the playoffs.”

For the last few years, Cousins has looked unstoppable while the Kings have been quite easily stoppable. He’s trying to drag the franchise up with him, but optimism and desire might not be enough. At a certain point we must ask: What more can Cousins do?

Russell Westbrook keeps trying to show up Rudy Gobert

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) goes to the basket as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends in the second quarter during a NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Jazz center Rudy Gobert is having an awesome season, credibly putting himself in the mix with Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol as the NBA’s best big men.

But that doesn’t mean Russell Westbrook respects him.

Before the Thunder’s win over Utah yesterday, Westbrook was asked how Oklahoma City would contain Gobert. Westbrook just laughed and walked off.

Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript:

Then, in the game, Westbrook tried to jump right over the 7-foot-1 Gobert and dunk on him:

I would say Gobert proved his ability by successfully protecting the paint, but I’m just too astounded by Westbrook’s leap.

Zaza Pachulia, running up court, turns back to smack Luke Babbitt in face (video)

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Is Zaza Pachulia a dirty player?

That debate can be rekindled after the Warriors center earned this flagrant foul for smacking Heat forward Luke Babbitt.

Just don’t forget: Pachulia is more than an unskilled enforcer. He brings plenty to the table as Golden State’s fifth starter, and his ability was on display earlier in the game:

Three Hawks lose uncontested rebound out of bounds (video)

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How did Mike Scott, Mike Dunleavy and Malcolm Delaney fail to secure this rebound?

No wonder the Hawks lost to a Clippers team playing without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.