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

Paul George says OKC feels like “Somewhere I can call home for years”

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All we have heard about all summer is that Paul George is definitely going to the Los Angeles Lakers. Heck, we’ve heard about it earlier than that.

That’s what forced the Indiana Pacers to make the trade to send George to the Oklahoma City Thunder where he is now teammate of both Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony.

But NBA Media Day was on Monday, and with it brought not only first interviews of new players but the platitudes that fans want to hear as well.

Speaking to reporters in Oklahoma City, George said that he thought the Thunder had done much that they had needed to do to show him they were a place that he could stay.

Via USA Today:

“Honestly, I’m happy,” he said. “The only thing I wanted out of Indiana was a chance to win my whole career there…That’s really what I want out of this, out of the league. I’m not looking for money. I’m not looking for stats. I want to win, and (to) be able to win at a high level.

“It’s Year One, and (the Thunder have) proven – and I haven’t even gone through a season yet – and they’ve already proven everything on my check list (that) I can check off. That’s what feels good. That’s what makes me feel like, ‘Hey, this can be a landing spot for me, and somewhere I can call home for years.’”

George also told USA Today that winning was above anything else, including joining his hometown team in the Lakers. We’ve heard this from players before, so take it with a grain of salt, but it does appear that the Thunder have a shot of keeping the former Pacers star if George is to be believed.

Of course, Oklahoma City still has some work to do in terms of winning games. There are some serious doubts about the roster they have now with three high usage players that will struggle to find a way to share the ball efficiently.

The Western Conference got a lot tougher this offseason, and both Anthony and George were a part of that. But the other teams have stiffened and appear to have better roster fit at the moment. Thats before we even get to the 2017 NBA Finals champion Golden State Warriors.

LeBron James says that he is going to be finishing his career in Cleveland. George says that the Thunder have a real shot at keeping him. We will have to play out this season to see if either of those things come true.

LeBron James says he still plans on finishing his career with Cleveland

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There has been significant talk around the NBA about the possibility of LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers this summer.

Specifically, there has been in a lot of chatter about James leaving his home state and heading to be in Los Angeles with the Lakers.

But during NBA media day on Monday, LeBron said that he still plans on finishing his career with Cleveland. What wasn’t explicit is whether that means he will take his next contract elsewhere, or if he simply means to return at a later date.

Via Cleveland.com:

“It hasn’t changed,” James said, when asked. He also nodded when asked, directly, if he intended to finish his career in Cleveland.

“And that’s why I sit up here today, still in this uniform, still ready to lead this franchise to a championship, put us in a position where we can be successful.”

“Anytime I’m able to be free agent or my contract ends, I’ll approach that when the summer comes,” he said. “At the end of the day I have a contract and I will fill out that obligation, which I’ve always done.

“And if you guys know me, I don’t know if you know me as much, but I’ve always handled it in the most businesslike way. And I will do that with my team, and we’ll handle that in the summertime, as we always have.”

So you there you have it. He is definitely planning on staying. Although he isn’t going to make that plan until the summer.

Should be an interesting one in Cleveland this year.

LeBron, Gregg Popovich among NBA heavyweights to comment on Trump at Media Day

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Monday was NBA Media Day and it could not get here soon enough. Yes, the offseason has been an incredible one with many players changing places. But the start of football season always means something important for the NBA diehard: basketball is coming.

Media Day comes with new questions for new players, along with hope that franchises will be able to right the wrongs of seasons past. Plus, we get to see new jerseys on stars. Yet as it always seems these days, the story of the afternoon was gathering how players had reacted to Donald Trump’s recent comments.

Specifically, Trump mentioned that he thought that players who knelt for the national anthem in the NFL were “sons of bitches”. Trump also rescinded a potential offer for a visit to the White House for the Golden State Warriors after Stephen Curry said he would vote “no” on going during a team meeting.

NBA reporters could not help but ask about the comments by Trump and the impact it had on the players, coaches, and executives during their first full scale opportunity to see players in a team setting.

Everyone from LeBron James to John Wall and Gregg Popovich had something to say.

We will be entering our first full season of the NBA with Trump and given how the first eight months of his tenure have gone, it will be interesting to see how the most socially conscious league in America responds moving forward.

Cavaliers expect Isaiah Thomas to play in games by January

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) Isaiah Thomas could be running the point for Cleveland by the end of the year.

The All-Star point guard, acquired from Boston this summer in a blockbuster trade, has made progress with his hip injury, and the Cavaliers expect him to be playing games by January.

Thomas has begun running and doing on-court activities as he rehabilitates the injury, which prematurely ended his postseason with the Celtics. Cleveland acquired him in a trade that sent All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving to Boston, its biggest challenger in the East.

Thomas doesn’t need surgery. While the Eastern Conference champions have been encouraged by his recovery, they will not rush him back. While he gets healthy, Derrick Rose, another summer acquisition, will start at point guard.

Thomas averaged 28.9 points last season for the Celtics, who sent him along with forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and a 2018 first-round draft to Cleveland.

The Cavaliers were concerned with Thomas’ injury, so the Celtics added a second-round pick to complete the deal.

When they introduced Thomas at a news conference, the Cavaliers were vague about a timeline for his return, mainly because they hadn’t yet worked with him. It’s now possible Thomas could be back and playing by Christmas, when the Cavs visit Golden State.

Thomas is only under contract for the upcoming season and has said in the past he wants a maximum contract.

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