PRO BASKETBALL TALKPBT Select Team

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.

Phil Jackson’s reaction to Kristaps Porzingis getting turned upside down feels about right

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New York Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis is the future of the franchise, so any time he’s upended and nearly lands on his noggin it’s a cause for concern. To say the least.

That’s what happened on Monday night, as Porzingis got turned upside down during a play near the basket during a game against the Detroit Pistons.

Porzingis was OK on the play, and Detroit big man Andre Drummond did his best to help catch him so nothing too scary happened.

Still, Knicks president Phil Jackson had a pretty hilarious reaction to the whole thing. I guess that’s what happens when you watch your basketball life flash before your eyes.

Porzingis was unhurt and played a full 37 minutes. New York beat Detroit, 109-95.

Jimmy Butler won’t pick LeBron over Durant as toughest matchup in NBA, and for good reason

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler is a smart dude. He’s spent years of offseason work turning himself into a max-level player, and that shows he knows not only how to work but how to attack the game of basketball.

He’s also smart enough to know he shouldn’t go poking the bear when it comes to two future Hall of Fame players in LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

When asked whether the Cleveland Cavaliers star or the Golden State Warriors scorer was the toughest matchup in the NBA, Butler made sure he wasn’t adding any kind of blackboard material to rile up either player.

Via Twitter:

The best way to defend LeBron or Durant: don’t make them angry.

Smart move, Jimmy.

Likely top-10 pick Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State declares for draft

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This had long been expected, but now it is official.

North Carolina State freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has declared for the NBA Draft. He made the announcement on ESPN saying playing in the NBA is his dream, reports the News & Observer.

“It was definitely an obtainable dream for me,” said in an interview on SportsCenter. “I knew I would chase it with all of my might.”

Smith is considered a top-10 pick (DraftExpress.com has him going seventh currently).

Smith had missed his senior year of high school ball with an ACL injury, but was named ACC Freshman of the Year after averaging 18.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He had two triple-doubles as a freshman. He was also inconsistent. Smith had brilliant games and ones where he looked disinterested.

Smith is unquestionably explosive and athletic, and that makes him a threat both in the open court and getting to the rim off a pick-and-roll. He’s got good handles, he knows how to draw fouls, and you can see his potential to get buckets at the next level. His jump shot needs to be far more consistent to thrive at the next level, however. The questions about Smith are more about his ability to make good decisions and be a floor general. He knows how to survey the floor and create for himself, but can he figure out when to pass to set up teammates? Can he defend consistently? He needs smooth out the rough edges of his game, but the potential to be very good is there.

James Harden says playing in every game should matter in MVP voting

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James Harden has played in every Houston Rocket game this season so far. Russell Westbrook has done the same thing for Oklahoma City.

When voters sit down in a few weeks to choose the league’s Most Valuable Player — in one of the most wide-open races in memory, with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James making legitimate cases as well — Harden says they should take playing every game into account. It’s the latest part of the rest discussion going on around the league. Here’s what Harden told Calvin Watkins of ESPN.

“Yeah, because you’re not leaving your teammates out there to dry, ” Harden said Tuesday morning, before the Rockets’ game against the Warriors. “For me, I worry about always having my teammates’ back and always being out there….

“I’m going to have [my teammates’] back and they know that they have mine as well,” said Harden, who is second in the league in points and first in assists. “For the coaching staff and the fans, especially here in Houston, the front office, I’m here to play.”

Both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have had rest nights.

This injects Harden into the rest debate, where recently Harden’s teammate Patrick Beverley came out and said players are “disrespecting the game” when they rest. Gregg Popovich sees more nuance in the debate and certainly backs resting players. On the latest PBT Podcast, former Bull B.J. Armstrong told me that they didn’t have rest days back in his day, but players were kept out of games for things they could play through to get right for the playoffs, it was just listed differently. He added that the rest situation might have been different back in the day if the data about the increased chance of player injuries on the second night of a back-to-back (and it goes up from there with four games in five nights) had been available.

In this case, Harden lobbying for his case in the MVP voting. The thing is, his numbers make the case for him: Harden is averaging 29.4 points per game, leading the league with 11.3 assists a night, and he’s creating the most points per game 27.5 (buckets and direct assists. He has taken on the point guard duties in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and has taken on the largest load on offense he has in his career — and he has continued to do it efficiently.

However, one can make a strong statistical case for Westbrook (who carries a larger load for an OKC team that has less talent around its star than Houston), Leonard (best defender of the group), and LeBron (the Cavs recent struggles may doom his chances).

Little details are going to divide this group, and Harden is trying to get his point out there.

That said, the Rockets are almost certainly locked into the three seed in the West, and once it’s clear they are in that slot team management should discuss giving Harden a night off before the playoffs, to let his body rest. Whether he wants to or not.

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