The Extra Pass: King of the Hill and Monday’s recaps

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Everyone has their spot. A guy like Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson, for example, has gone to his spot with such frequency over the years that he’s  been deemed the “mayor of the left block.” No matter the opponent or teammates, you know where to find him on a nightly basis.

LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t all that dissimilar. While it’s admittedly strange to see the Portland Trail Blazers atop the Northwest Division standings, ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder no less, Aldridge grounds everything by being so wonderfully predictable.

The consistency is alarming. Every time down, there’s LaMarcus Aldridge, on the left side of the floor about 15-feet out, ready to unleash one of his three moves that all counter each other and all seem to lead to the same result.

If Jefferson is the mayor of the left block, Aldridge is the emperor of mid-range.

During the 2012-13 season, Aldridge put up a whopping 753 mid-range field goal attempts. For the sake of context, the third most prolific mid-range shooter, Carmelo Anthony, put up 179 less attempts than Aldridge did from that range (10-23 feet).

After attempting 10.1 shots per game from the mid-range area last year, Aldridge has ramped that number up to 12.8 attempts per game this season. He’s not bashful.

This might be a huge problem if Aldridge was just prolific and not proficient, but that isn’t the case. Aldirdge  has made 65 of his attempts (46.1 percent) this year, which is twice as many as any other player in the league not named Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Smith, or Evan Turner.

It hasn’t been all Aldridge though, of course. Portland’s player movement and ball movement so far this season have been spectacular to watch, and second-year coach Terry Stotts deserves a ton of credit for turning this offense into a fine-tuned machine.

The early returns still feel a bit unusual, though. A big part of Portland’s production comes from places on the floor that don’t typically yield great results, which can certainly put opposing defenders into a bit of quandary. Forcing a player into shooting the most inefficient shot in basketball is a great thing against every other team, but what do you do when a guy like Aldridge is actively seeking out and knocking down that shot?

It’s not just Aldridge’s shot selection, either. Above the break threes are much more difficult to make than shorter corner threes, as the league shoots a higher percentage on those attempts from the corner. With that in mind, Damian Lillard is tied for first in makes above the break with Stephen Curry, while Wes Matthews is shooting a blistering 51.4 percent on his attempts from that same zone. Basically, the Blazers are excelling in the areas most teams try to avoid.

It’s working, though. Portland ranks third in offensive efficiency so far this season, even if they are just 22nd in made field goals in the restricted area and second in mid-range attempts. That’s typically a combination that leads to disaster offensively, and the Blazers are keeping company in those categories with some of the dregs of the league.

But it’s hard to argue with results, isn’t it? The Blazers are killing it offensively, even if it’s being done in a way that few others are travelling. It’s certainly unconventional, but perhaps that will make the Blazers a little tougher to knock off their spots than we might think.

D.J. Foster

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Trail Blazers 108, Nets 98: It was a tale of two halves for Brooklyn (well really one quarter and then a half). The first quarter of this game was ridiculous — the Blazers shot 72.2 percent and trailed by 9, 40-31. Kevin Garnett and 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting, just scoring with easy over Aldridge, and as a team the Nets shot 73.7 percent. The Trail Blazers hung close thanks to the three ball. Then in the second half the Nets reverted to the stagnant isolation basketball they have played of late and they got in trouble for it — they scored 35 points on 22 percent shooting in the second half. Meanwhile the Blazers kept making plays and getting buckets, staring the third on a 21-8 run and never looking back. This game was a microcosm of two teams going in the opposite direction.

Bulls 86, Bobcats 81: The Bulls’ offense still has not found its groove — they shot 36 percent as a team in this one and Derrick Rose was 4-of-13 — but what the Bulls do maybe better than anyone is grind out wins when their offense is off. They held the Bobcats to 36.3 percent shooting, but say this for the Bobcats they are scrappy. Gerald Henderson had 10 of his 16 in the fourth including some key buckets to cut the Bulls lead to one. But with it all on the line Rose hit a driving lineup then Luol Deng hit a key three (he finished with a team-high 21). Not pretty, but Chicago will take the win.

Thunder 115, Nuggets 113: Ty Lawson was dishing and scoring (he finished with 29 points) and Denver was finally clicking, up on the Thunder by 9 entering the fourth quarter… then Oklahoma City started its run. Russell Westbrook had 11 of his 30 in the fourth quarter and Kevin Durant had 13 of his 38 in the final frame as they led OKC back to take the lead then they held on for the win. And I mean hung on, Denver had a chance with 2.7 seconds left but ran an odd lob play for Timofey Mozgov. Brian Shaw is still learning, too.

Mavericks 97, Sixers 94: From their 8-0 run to open the game Philadelphia led most of the first three quarters. Evan Turner led the way with 26 points on the night and Tony Wroten had 19 (Michael Carter-Williams is still out injured). The Sixers was scrapping, they shot just 38.4 percent but they got the offensive rebound on 29.5 percent of their misses. Still, a 14-4 run late in the third gave Dallas the lead and they held on the rest of the way. Monta Ellis had 24; Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion had 20 a piece.

Warriors 98, Jazz 87: It was a night when the shots were not falling for Golden State, especially in the second half (they shot 31.4 percent), and they were vulnerable… but they were playing the Jazz who were shooting no better (39.5 percent for the game). Golden State put up 37 in the second quarter and was up 23 at the half. It was only close at the end of the game because the end of the Warriors’ bench gave up the lead and Mark Jackson had to put his starters back in. Except for Stephen Curry, who had a Jazz player fall on his head and could have a concussion when Marvin Williams fell on his head.

Grizzlies 106, Clippers 102: Memphis is getting back to their style — call it “grit and grind” or whatever you wish — but it is physical and other teams find it hard to play against. The Clippers did — Memphis imposed their style and will on this game and the Clippers could not win that way. Even if Tony Allen did get ejected for kicking Chris Paul in the face. Memphis led most of the way and every time the Clippers threatened the Grizzlies would make a little run (one 8-0 and another 9-2 both in the fourth quarter). Zach Randolph was a beast with 26 points and 15. Marc Gasol is just a joy to watch play because everything he does is smart and he almost had a triple-double with 23 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists. Chris Paul had 18 points and 11 rebounds.

Mark Cuban: Trump has “got to be able to take the blowback” from comments

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President Donald Trump used the bully pulpit of his office to, well, bully — he fired shots at the NFL over its concussion protocols and players kneeling during the national anthem. Then he rescinded his invite to the White House to the Warriors after Stephen Curry said he would vote not to go.

Sports stars fired back. LeBron James called Trump a bum, Chris Paul asked if he didn’t have better things to worry about, and the Warriors said as a team they would use their time in Washington this season to “celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion — the values that we embrace as an organization.” Even supporters of the President, such as Patriots owner Robert Craft, rebuked the president for his comments.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told NBC News in an exclusive interview for Meet the Press Trump has to be a big enough man to handle people standing up to him.

“If the president’s going to say something condemning a person, an industry, a sport, then he’s got to be able to take the blowback that’s going to come back,” Cuban told NBC News in an exclusive interview for “Meet the Press.”

“So LeBron [James] and Steph and any athlete, any owner, it’s an open door now, and so they have every right for the same reasons to be able to say whatever’s on their mind,” he said. “Now we’ll be able to see if he can take it.”

Unlike previous presidents of both parties, Trump is not good at letting criticism of him and his administration roll off his back to stay focused on his agenda. It’s more personal with him, and that is something Warriors coach Steve Kerr said is a problem for him, and the nation.

Bottom line, NBA players are not going to back off — their base isn’t going to push back against them for their comments. Most are going to nod their heads in agreement. The NBA fan demographic is not the NFL’s. This storyline is far from over.

Three questions the Indiana Pacers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 42-40, swept in the first round

I know what you did last summer: Larry Bird resigned then the Pacers traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, a horrible deal that got the summer off on the wrong track. Indiana also swapped Jeff Teague, C.J. Miles and Monta Ellis for Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph in order to prevent bottoming out. The Pacers picked T.J. Leaf (No. 18), Ike Anigbogu (No. 47) and Edmond Sumner (No. 52) in the draft.

THREE QUESTIONS THE PACERS MUST ANSWER:

1) Will Indiana escape its unsatisfying track? The Pacers are headed toward winning 30-something games, missing the playoffs and picking in the bottom of the lottery. It’s a miserable place to be.

Be just a little better, and they could make the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Be just a little worse, and they could land a premier draft pick.

Either direction is preferable to the apparent status quo.

The Pacers clearly don’t want to tank. Hence, their offseason strategy. But if the season goes south quickly, they could embrace losing by trading veterans and/or giving more minutes to young players.

Competing for the playoffs is a little trickier, but Indiana has enough veterans where that could take care of itself. The odds are against it, but this team is capable of sneaking in with the right breaks.

2) Can Victor Oladipo handle the expectations thrust upon him? Oladipo didn’t choose to return to the basketball-crazed state where he starred in college. He didn’t ask to be the Pacers’ main return for Paul George.

But here he is.

Oladipo is a solid player, and at 25, he might still be improving. He’ll have to in order to justify the George trade (and maybe even his four-year, $84 million contract extension that kicks in this season).

No longer playing with Russell Westbrook should help. Oladipo regressed while trying to play a spot-up role next to the Oklahoma City superstar last season. Indiana needs Oladipo to be more aggressive with the ball, a role that better suits him. Whether he’s good enough to handle those responsibilities on a good team is another question entirely, though.

3) Will Myles Turner break out? With George gone, Turner is now the Pacers’ franchise player (ignoring how the team might market Oladipo, who returns after starring with the Hoosiers).

Turner has all the potential to be a modern rim-protecting, 3-point-shooting center. He can get more comfortable beyond the arc. He must fine-tune his defense. But all the future looks bright for the 21-year-old.

He was intriguing as a rookie then even better last year. How steeply Turner continues to ascend will play a major role in whether Indiana exceeds expectations this season – and how its rebuild looks beyond.

Goran Dragic back with Heat after summer title for Slovenia

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MIAMI (AP) — A quick summary of the last few weeks in the life of Miami guard Goran Dragic:

He led Slovenia, his mother’s homeland and the place he calls home, to an improbable gold medal at the European Championships. The title game came against Serbia, his father’s homeland and a place where he still has relatives.

He was the tournament’s MVP. He received one of Slovenia’s highest civilian honors. He was brought to tears by a gift of a jersey from the mother of his idol, the late star Drazen Petrovic.

And through it all, the words of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra echoed in his head – winning a championship is usually more demanding mentally than physically.

“Now I fully understand what he means,” Dragic said.

It’s a lesson Dragic hopes to put to more use starting next week, when he returns to the U.S. and the Heat begin training camp. The only true point guard on Miami’s roster, Dragic is going to be a major key if the Heat are to return to the playoffs and contend in the Eastern Conference. And coming off his MVP showing at EuroBasket, the Heat hope his game keeps elevating.

“He looked sensational,” Spoelstra said of his point guard’s play at EuroBasket. “I’m so happy for him, so proud of that accomplishment, this most unlikely championship. Slovenia is a country of only 2 million. It’s smaller than the city of Miami. And to beat the powerhouses over there, but also to see how passionate Goran was about trying to lead this team to the title.”

Dragic averaged 22.6 points and 5.1 assists in the nine games. His 35 points in the title game was the high for the tournament.

He told Spoelstra in June he was all-in on trying to deliver Slovenia its first gold medal.

“He trained extremely diligently for this,” Spoelstra said. “And he competed and led at such a high level. You could just see the emotions pouring out of him. I talked to him on the phone after they won and he said, `This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”‘

The task that awaits in Miami won’t be easy.

The Heat had a strange season a year ago – starting 11-30, finishing 30-11 and missing the playoffs in a tiebreaker. Dragic averaged a career-best 20.3 points, and emerged as a locker-room leader as the year went along. He also did what he could to persuade Heat free agents like Dion Waiters and James Johnson to stay.

“It’s a lot of new challenges ahead,” Dragic said. “I’m looking forward to come to Miami and to battle for a title in Miami. Nobody gave us a chance, the Slovenian national team. Nobody is going to give us a chance in Miami. But I always believe. Why not?”

An estimated 20,000 people stood in the pouring rain to greet the Slovenian team when it arrived home. The medal ceremony after the championship game became Slovenia’s most-watched television event in the country, at least since ratings started being kept. Dragic was told 94 percent of the nation was watching.

“I’m just proud of him,” Heat President Pat Riley said. “And I’m proud that we have him.”

Before 1991, both Serbia and Slovenia were part of Yugoslavia. Hence, the family ties for Dragic still exist.

“Playing for my national team for the past 12 years, you’re always waiting to achieve something, and as soon as we won the final all the burden from my shoulders fell down,” he said. “I felt so happy. And, of course, on the other side, I have family in Serbia. But I was born in Slovenia … it was not a question that I was going to do everything to bring them a title.”

Three questions the Utah Jazz must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season:
52-30, lost to the Golden State Warriors in the first round.

I know what you did last summer: Most notably, lost a free agent bid to keep Gordon Hayward. Drafted Tony Bradley and Donovan Mitchell. Signed Jonas Jerebko, Royce O'Neale, Thabo Sefolosha, and Ekpe Udoh. Re-signed Joe Ingles.

THREE QUESTIONS THE JAZZ MUST ANSWER:

1) Can the offense be effective? Last season’s team was based off of the third best defense in the NBA. It’s no secret that the key to success in Utah and indeed the NBA is to have a strong unit on that end of the floor.

But they were also the slowest team in terms of pace last season and were 12th in offensive efficiency. That number is potentially set to dip after Gordon Hayward made his exit to Boston to join the Celtics. A number of young players must step up for this squad, as well as some newcomers.

Ricky Rubio knows how to run an offense and get players to be their best on the offensive side of the floor. He is certainly going to make things exciting, and that is the hope in Utah. We also have a healthy Alec Burks to look forward to (hopefully) and a wide open berth for Rodney Hood. Add in a dash of power from Derrick Favors, and some wing depth from Thabo Sefolosha and there are new roles abound.

This will really be a test for head coach Quin Snyder, who has to work in major new faces like Rubio and will need to see if he can juice things up a little bit next year with less proven players.

2) Can the young guys step into their new roles? I know we have heard this before when it comes to Utah, but this season more than ever will need to be a big one for Burks with Hayward absent. I tend to be more skeptical in any case, and no doubt Utah fans are as well when it comes to the oft-injured guard.

Perhaps more important, it is Hood that will need to be less of a streaky scorer and more of a consistent offensive weapon for the Jazz. The hole left on offense by Hayward for Hood will be considerable, even as he has help from Sefolosha, Rubio, and Dante Exum on the wing.

Exum is an interesting case here as well, as he has been sidelined for a significant portion of the time with this squad due to injury. Exum had a lot of hype coming into his rookie season, and now heading into his fourth he will need to be much better lest he force his team into a tight spot.

3) Is this still a playoff team? This seems broad, but it is perhaps the most interesting question to ask about the Jazz. Yes, they have a perennial DPOY candidate as their highest paid player in Rudy Gobert. They also have a league favorite in Rubio at point guard, a young scorer in Hood, potential in Burks, bench scoring and rebounding in Favors, and a league pass jewel in Ingles.

For as difficult as it will be to replace the production of Hayward from a basketball standpoint, this isn’t a team that has been completely blown apart. They lost their star, which seems more common in today’s NBA. But they didn’t lose the structure around him, and in fact they have been growing their minor league type guys for seasons on end.

They are perhaps one of the only teams in the NBA who are semi-prepared to lose a star like Hayward. But again, this is mostly from a roster perspective. We still have to wonder whether the offense can be efficient and consistent on a nightly basis, and whether the new parts will fit together with the old ones.

I like a lot of the things the Jazz did this summer and it still goes to say they could be a playoff team this season. If anything, at least they should be fun to watch on defense.