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.

Rumor: 76ers increasingly confident about signing LeBron James

AP Photo/Chris Szagola
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LeBron James-76ers rumors have been mainstream for the better part of the year.

And they’re not going anywhere.

Marc Stein of The New York Times in his newsletter:

I now fully understand why whispers about the Philadelphia 76ers and their growing behind-the-scenes confidence that they can woo LeBron to Philly this summer are getting louder.

Why shouldn’t they be increasingly confident? Led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the 76ers have already won a playoff series. The Cavaliers are mired in a tight first-round series with the Pacers, and LeBron’s supporting cast has mostly stunk.

This has the makings of LeBron’s previous free agencies – when he left barren Cleveland for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Heat in 2010, when he left aging Miami for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love with the Cavaliers in 2014. Whatever motivations and narratives attached to LeBron’s decisions, he has left sinking teams for better-positioned ones.

The 76ers are good enough to fit that. They also have the cap flexibility to acquire him without sacrificing roster strength.

That LeBron has positioned himself as a mentor to Simmons – who shares an agent, Rich Paul, with LeBron – would only make signing with Philadelphia easier. LeBron could sell the narrative of teaching and grooming Simmons. LeBron, who cares about his legacy, must explain why he’s again leaving his hometown team in a way that won’t alienate everyone – not easy considering his homecoming message upon his return. Working first-hand with his protégé would look understandable, maybe even commendable.

All that said, growing confidence could be going from a 1% chance to a 10% chance. That’d be a 10-fold increase while leaving Philadelphia a big underdog.

LeBron’s free agency is still a huge unknown – including, at least in part, to LeBron himself. But I believe he has already started to consider options, even if he hasn’t made up his mind. And when that happens, signs could emerge behind the scenes. Perhaps, the 76ers have a read on those.

Or maybe they’re seeing what we’re all seeing: The 76ers are rising while the Cavs are just trying to keep their heads above water. Which situation would LeBron choose?

Victor Oladipo on his final shot: “It was a goaltend”

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Ultimately, the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report will back up Victor Oladipo — it was a goaltend.

With the score tied 95-95 and just six seconds left in the game Wednesday night, Oladipo attacked LeBron James in isolation, and like so many before him thought he was past LeBron only to have a chase down block from behind end his bid — except video replays shows Oladipo laid the ball off the backboard a fraction of a second before LeBron blocked it. That makes it a goaltend, a defender cannot block a shot that has already touched the backboard. Check out the slow-mo video.

The officials didn’t call it that way on the court, and the play is only eligible for video review if a goaltend is called (to be fair to the officials, that was an incredibly close play that is very difficult to call in real time). From there, LeBron went on to hit the dramatic game-winning three that gave Cleveland the win and a 3-2 series lead.

After the game, Oladipo and his teammates were pissed about the no-call.

“I got a step on him,” Oladipo said via the Associated Press. “I felt like I even got grabbed on the way to the rim, tried to shoot a layup, it hit the backboard, then he blocked it. It was a goaltend. It’s hard to even speak on it. It just sucks, honestly. It really sucks. Even though we fought our way back, we tied the game up, that layup was huge.

“Give him credit where credit is due. The three was big-time. Definitely huge. But who’s to say they even run that play? We don’t know what happens. It’s unfortunate. It really sucks that they missed that.”

LeBron didn’t see it that way.

“Of course I didn’t think it was a goaltend. I try to make plays like that all the time and I mean he made a heck of a move, got me leaning right and he went left and I just tried to use my recovery speed and get back up there and make a play on the ball. And I was able to make a play.”

We’ll see what the Last Two Minute Report says, but to my eyes that was a goaltend, it clearly comes off the backboard.

That call is also not why Indiana lost. If Pacers’ fans want to place blame, Oladipo going 2-of-15 on the night was a bigger issue. Or Darren Collison having an off night and going 1-of-5 from the floor. Or maybe it’s just the fact that LeBron James is the best player in the game and can drop 44 on the Pacers — including the three that may well have made the goaltend moot anyway — and Indiana can’t stop it. One call late does not by itself decide a 48-minute game.

But it was a goaltend.

Giannis Antetokounmpo puts it on himself to be more aggressive in Bucks-Celtics Game 6

AP Photo/Morry Gash
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Giannis Antetokounmpo was criticized after Game 5 of Milwaukee’s Eastern Conference series against Boston for not doing more, particularly on the offensive end.

The harshest critic: Antetokounmpo, himself.

He took only 10 field-goal attempts, his third-lowest total of the entire season. Antetokounmpo still had a brilliant stat line, finishing only one assist shy of a triple-double, but the Bucks lost 92-87 and now go back to Milwaukee trailing the first-round matchup 3-2.

Game 6 of the Celtics-Bucks series is the lone matchup on the Thursday night NBA schedule.

“Game 6, I’ve got to come out and be more aggressive,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s on me. I had open shots, but they weren’t my shots so I didn’t feel comfortable taking them. … I’ve got to be more aggressive, make more plays because definitely, my teammates need me.”

It’s not like he was choosing to not be involved.

The Celtics got Marcus Smart back for Game 5, and Boston is much better defensively when he’s on the floor. Open looks seem to happen far more infrequently when Smart is out there, and the Bucks must solve that riddle or else their season is about to end.

Smart wasn’t the only defensive hero for Boston in Game 5. The Celtics put Semi Ojeleye on Antetokounmpko, and it worked as well as Boston could have hoped.

“Giannis is a heck of a player,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “You’re not going to be perfect against him. You’re not going to hold him down by any means. He makes plays for other people, he’s very unselfish … but we just felt like we needed a little bit more ball pressure overall, and so that was the decision to go smaller.”

If Antetokounmpko doesn’t come up bigger Thursday, it’ll be Boston going to the second round.

Here’s some of what to know going into Game 6:

CELTICS AT BUCKS

Boston leads 3-2. Game 6, 8 p.m. EDT, TNT

NEED TO KNOW: Since 2002, there have been 29 NBA teams with at least one postseason series win to their credit. The lone exception: The Bucks. It’s been 17 years since the Bucks advanced to the second round, and the Celtics are on the cusp of adding another year to Milwaukee’s wait. So far in the series, Milwaukee has outscored Boston 520-519 – which would indicate that it’s been a super-close matchup. That’s not the reality. There have been wild ebbs and flows, with one team leading by 16 points at some point in each of the last four games.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Free throws. Boston is 99 for 130 in the series from the line, while Milwaukee is 68 for 100. The Bucks have been called for 30 more fouls in the series, 124-94 – which works out to six more per game.

PRESSURE IS ON: Clearly, the Bucks. They’re facing elimination, of course, so there’s the pressure. Antetokounmpko was on the Milwaukee team that won two elimination games against Chicago in 2015 (before the Bucks eventually lost that series in six games). And he also remembers the sting of last season, when the Bucks went home for Game 6 trailing Toronto 3-2 and wound up letting a pair of late leads slip in what became a season-ending loss.

INJURY UPDATE: Getting Smart back was a rare bit of good news for Boston in this injury-marred season, one where the Celtics have been without Gordon Hayward since opening night and ultimately lost Kyrie Irving for the playoffs. Smart hadn’t played in about six weeks after tearing a ligament in his right thumb, but was a clear difference-maker for the Celtics in Game 5.

For more AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.