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The Extra Pass: Three takeaways and Wednesday’s recaps

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Three takeaways from a busy Wednesday night around the league:

It was Paul George, in the Garden, with the dagger

It’s a crazy thing to watch an entire arena lose all hope, all at once. The Knicks were well on their way to a statement win over the Indiana Pacers. Maybe it could have been a rallying point for the rest of the season, a moment to build up some confidence without Tyson Chandler, however irrational that may have been.

But that didn’t happen. Even before Paul George calmly sank three straight free throws to tie the game in regulation, and even before Carmelo Anthony missed his chance to win the game at the buzzer, you just knew. You knew when that whistle blew, and so did the crowd at Madison Square Garden.

Each jumper George stuck in overtime felt like a punishment for believing anything else to be true. In another world, a close loss to one of the best teams in the league after a questionable whistle could be construed as a moral victory, but in New York? It’s just more proof that the sky is indeed falling.

When the gavel swings too quickly

Monta Ellis has always been a target for criticism, whether it be because of mopeds, “having it all” or just his general lack of self-awareness.

Over the years, Ellis has become a popular pinata for both the stats crowd (look at his efficiency, not his raw totals!) and the people who watched him gamble defensively and take ill-advised shots again and again. There was no better way to make any hardcore NBA fan roll his eyes than to say, “I think Monta Ellis is a good player.”

So let me say it now: I think Monta Ellis is a good player. Is he a complete player? Far from it. But anyone feeling like Ellis has turned a new leaf and been a total revelation for the Dallas Mavericks probably never gave Ellis a fair chance in the first place. Yes, he’s scoring more efficiently this year, but Ellis has always been a pretty good passer and playmaker in the pick-and-roll, which are skills a lot of folks think Ellis never had or neglected to use.

It doesn’t match the narrative, but Ellis’ usage rate is up and his assist rate is down this year compared to last year. But with better players around him, a real point guard, a real coach and a scoring threat in Dirk Nowitzki in the pick-and-pop, Ellis looks drastically improved, even though he hasn’t changed much of what he does at all.

Does Ellis have weaknesses in his game? Absolutely, but one of the nicest things about his role in Dallas is that it’s becoming okay to talk and appreciate him for his strengths (shot creation, transition play, penetration) once again. People generally love imperfect things, so long as they aren’t being taken too seriously. I enjoy Ellis like I enjoy pro wrestling, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. Okay, I’m a little ashamed. Let’s just move on.

Oh no, Oladipo?

Eight turnovers is a lot of turnovers, even against a swarming defense like Miami’s. The fact that Oladipo is averaging four turnovers a games this year might make a lot of folks uneasy, but here’s why that isn’t the worst thing.

Check out this list. Here are the names players in their first, second or third years in the league who averaged more than 20 minutes and four turnovers per game with a usage percentage over 25%:

Dwyane Wade, Isiah Thomas, Ron Harper, Allen Iverson, Gilbert Arenas, Jim Jackson, Victor Oladipo.

Young players willing to take risks at an early stage are usually more likely to become potent scorers and playmakers down the line. Oladipo’s aggression bodes well for his future, even if his stat lines instinctively make you scrunch your face up like you just accidentally ate something with peas. Thanks for nothing, peas.

It’s Oldaipo’s ballhandling that needs improvement more than anything else, and his decision-making shouldn’t be obsessed over. He’s getting to spots on the floor where good things usually happen, even though they aren’t right now. It will come in due time.

– D.J. Foster

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Mavs coach Rick Carlisle channels his inner Gregg Popovich:

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Bobcats 95, Nets 91: Brooklyn came out with Deron Williams back in the first half and their offense was a little improved — but their defense still wasn’t. This was a close game through the first half but the Bobcats went on a 13-0 run early in the third quarter behind Kemba Walker (13 points in the third and 31 on the night) and that proved the separation the Nets could not make up. Nice night for Andray Blatche — 25 points on 11-of-14 shooting. Also, Deron Williams tweaked his ankle in the second quarter and did not return, which is not good for a 3-8 team. The Bobcats actually got off to a faster start last season (6-6 this season, 7-5 last season) but this start feels more sustainable, in part because of their defense)

Wizards 98, Cavaliers 91: The Wizards went on a 25-8 first quarter run, in part thanks to Bradley Beal scoring 9 points in the first — which was how many points all the Cavaliers starters had in the first half. The Wizards looked like they would run away with this and led comfortably into the fourth. Then Kyrie Irving happened — he had 18 points in the fourth quarter and made it a game. It just wasn’t enough. Beal finished with 26 but played some sloppy ball down the stretch; Nene added 20 for the Wizards.

Pacers 103, Knicks 96 (OT): New York opened the game on a 13-0 run and held Indiana to 25 percent shooting in the first quarter. But as the game moved on the Pacers defense wore the Knicks down (New York shot 40.9 percent in the paint, thanks to Roy Hibbert) and Paul George pushed back — he finished with 35 points on 26 shots and he took over at the end, going 7-of-11 in the fourth quarter and overtime. The game went to overtime because with New York up three and 5.2 seconds left Iman Shumpert fouled George on a three point attempt — a borderline call, but he touched his elbow — and George sank the free throws. Carmelo Anthony had 30 points on 28 shots and worked his way to 18 rebounds (9 offensive). But while George was hot late Anthony was 3-of-14 in the second half and overtime.

Heat 120, Magic 92: Miami opened the game on 16-0 run — Miami started out shooting 6-of-6 which included a couple of threes and a LeBron James spinning layup, while Magic went 0-of-6. This game was never close. LeBron had 21 points on 11 shots, Chris Bosh was a +27, James Jomes had 17 points on 8 shots. Orlando go a great game from Arron Afflalo, who had 30 points as Miami kept inexplicably leaving him open so he hit 7-of-9 from three.

Raptors 108, Sixers 98: Toronto had 24 assists on 36 made baskets — for them that is a minor miracle. Toronto can just be a team of guys trying to beat you in isolation but they shared the ball on Wednesday and they looked much better for it, winning comfortably. DeMar DeRozan had 33 points on 19 shots. Michael Carter-Williams was back for Philly but looked rusty (2-of-10 shooting) while Spencer Hawes continues to look good (28 points).

Hawks 93, Pistons 85: Everything that has been wrong with Detroit this season seemed to be on display in this one: Josh Smith tried to do too much in his return to Atlanta and was 5-of-15 shooting, the Hawks shot 70 percent in the restricted area (despite the Pistons’ big front line) and better than 50 percent overall, and Paul Millsap had 19 points despite having the bigger Greg Monroe on him most of the night. Brandon Jennings had 21 points but needed 21 points to get there for Detroit.

Trail Blazers 91, Bucks 82: This one makes eight wins in a row for the Blazers. It wasn’t pretty — the winning team shot 40.7 percent from the field — but Portland will take it on the road. Let’s sum this game up this way: LaMarcus Aldridge led the Trail Blazers with 21 points but needed 22 shots to do that; Luke Ridnour led the Bucks with 13 points but needed 14 shots to do that.

Clippers 102, Timberwolves 98: Chris Paul got Los Angeles this win — he had 4 points in the first 42 minutes, then took over the last half of the fourth quarter scoring 16 points in six minutes, holding off a late run from Minnesota. CP3 finished with 20 points and 11 assists, making it 12 point-assist double-doubles to start the season, breaking Magic Johnson’s record of 11. The other key to this game was it was not Kevin Love’s night — he shot 2-of-14 and while he had a double-double of his own (10 points, 12 boards) he didn’t dominate.

Pelicans 105, Jazz 98: This was a pretty tight game most of the way until a 14-2 New Orleans run in the fourth quarter gave them some breathing room. Anthony Davis had another impressive line — 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting, 9 rebounds and 8 blocks. Ryan Anderson had 11 of his 19 in the fourth quarter (tell me again why they are gong to trade him?). Enes Kanter had 19 points on 13 shots, while Gordon Hayward had a VERY rough night shooting 1-of-17.

Spurs 104, Celtics 93: How did you expect this one to turn out? Exactly, pretty much like this. Six Spurs in double figures, none with gaudy numbers (Tony Parker led the way with 19). Just another Spurs win. Nothing to see here, move along.

Kings 113, Suns 106: Sacramento swept a home-and-home with Phoenix, and they did it with just a better all-around effort on the second night of the back-to-back. Isaiah Thomas was in his usual attack mode and led the way with 23 points and 4 assists. It was a fairly close first half (tied after one quarter, 5 point Kings lead at half) but Sacramento started to pull away in the third with an 11-0 run, fueled in part by an efficient night from forwards Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Jason Thompson, who combined had 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting. But in the fourth Goran Dragic (18 points in the quarter, 31 for the game) and P.J. Tucker (12 in the quarter) made it entertaining — the Suns put up 44 in the final frame. But the Kings put up 39 behind 11 from Thomas and held on for the win.

Mavericks 123, Rockets 120: Houston seemed in control — up 18 midway through the third quarter, 14 at the start of the fourth, with Dwight Howard having his best game as a Rocket (he started 11-of-11 from the field and already had first 27 of his eventual 33 points). Then the fourth quarter happened. Dallas shot 73.7 percent in the fourth, with Dirk Nowitzki putting up 14 points in the frame, Monta Ellis 8 and Jose Calderon 7. Meanwhile the Rockets shot just 26 percent. James Harden and Howard were a combined 2-of-10 in the frame. Dallas did everything right, seemed to hit every shot, won the quarter 36-19 and the game. That’s a comeback Dallas can build a little momentum on.

Grizzlies 88, Warriors 81 (OT): Memphis won this with their defense. They held a Golden State team that on the season shoots 44.9 percent from three to 27.8 percent, a team that averages 19.7 free throw attempts a game to 8, a team that averages 104.3 points per 100 possessions to 86.6. The Warriors had 37 points in the second half and overtime. And this was in Golden State. The Warriors were in control of the first half but Memphis had a 17-2 run early in the third to make it a game but could not pull away. Then they got five big points from Mike Conley in OT (he had 19 on the night) and pulled away. Zach Randolph had 21 points, Marc Gasol 21 points and 12 boards. Klay Thompson had 21 points but Golden State missed Stephen Curry’s shooting and shot creation in this one.

PBT’s NBA 2016 Draft Pospect Preview: Skal Labissiere

DES MOINES, IA - MARCH 17:  Skal Labissiere #1 of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts after making a basket against the Stony Brook Seawolves in the first half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 17, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Skal Labissiere had one of the weirdest freshman seasons that I can remember seeing since I’ve been doing this job. He entered the year as arguably the best prospect in college basketball, a projected top two pick and the guy expected to anchor the front line for a national title contender in Kentucky. He played well for about a month … and then totally went in the tank. John Calipari lost confidence in him. He lost confidence in himself. His minutes evaporated.

By the middle of SEC play, he was a total non-factor for the Wildcats.

But then Labissiere started to put the pieces together. There was an 11-point, 8-rebound performance at Florida that seemed to wake him up. He followed that up with 18 points, nine boards and six blocks in a dominating win over LSU and Ben Simmons, the other guy that thought to be the No. 1 recruit in his class. His numbers down the stretch weren’t all that impressive, but anyone watching him play could see the difference.

And that’s where things get interesting for Skal. Because he had a season that would make you believe he had no chance of ever playing in the NBA. Yet there’s a good chance that he’ll end up getting picked in the lottery. How is that possible?

Height: 6′ 11.75″
Weight: 216
Wingspan: 7′ 2.5″
2015-16 Stats: 6.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 15.8 mpg

STRENGTHS: Have you seen his shooting stroke?

Seriously, have you? Look at this:

This dude measured in a quarter-inch short of seven-feet, and he’s out here shooting like that. I’m not really concerned about what his shooting numbers were this season  — he shot 41.5 percent on jumpers, which isn’t good considering he shot just one three — because I think what happened to Skal at Kentucky had a whole lot more to do with confidence than ability — we’ll get to all that — but anyone with even a minor sense of basketball intellect can watch him shoot and see a guy that can make NBA threes at a very good clip.

Now think about where the NBA is heading these days. They call it small-ball, right? But it’s less about “small-ball” than it is about spacing the floor with shooters, and it just so happens that most of the guys that can shoot are small. Put another way, big dudes that can shoot have real value. Channing Frye has a four-year, $32-million contract with Cleveland right now. Marreese Speights might win his second straight NBA title with the Warriors. What do those guys have in common? They’re big and they can shoot.

And not only that, but Skal is fluid and agile, meaning he doesn’t just project as a pick-and-pop threat. He’s got a post game. He’s got a face-up game. He could, one day, be a really, really good offensive weapon. He’s also a much better shot-blocker than he gets credit for, averaging over four blocks per-40 minutes as a freshman. He’s got issues defensively — again, we’ll get to that — but they don’t include length, athleticism and a sense of timing as a shot-blocker.

There’s a reason that scouts have loved his potential for a long time.

WEAKNESSES: There are many, which is the reason why people are fairly shocked to see where he stands in mock drafts.

Physically, the biggest weakness for Skal right now is, simply, that he’s too weak. He weighs all of 216 pounds, according to the measurements at the NBA Combine. He needs to add a good 20-30 pounds of muscle if he’s going to have a prayer of holding his own in the post in the NBA. And as he gets stronger physically he’s going to get stronger with the ball. Not only did he get beaten up in the paint last season but he had trouble corralling rebounds and holding onto the ball in traffic.

Toughness was also a problem for him. Some bigs love going bow-for-bow in the post. Some don’t. Skal may be the latter. He’s got no ‘dog’ to him. He’s never going to be Draymond Green or Steven Adams. And while that will likely improve as he gets stronger, he may just be a kid that’s too nice for his own good. Given the role he’s projected to play, that may not end up being too much of a problem if he’s at least strong enough to hold position on the block; his long-term value is as a guy that can guard fives while pulling them away from the rim at the other end of the floor.

His mental toughness, or lack thereof, will be, but I’ll get to that in a second.

For me, the single biggest issue Skal is facing is that he lacks feel and basketball IQ because he just hasn’t played all that much basketball in his life. He didn’t play his junior season in high school because of a stress fracture in his back. His senior season he spent at something called Reach Your Dream Prep, which was a prep school team created out of thin air after his guardian totally mishandled a transfer of high schools. In other words, prior to Kentucky, he had never really been coached before.

And you can see that in the way that he played. I think the best way to describe it is that he was robotic. He didn’t react to plays. He didn’t read what was happening around him. He had to think it through, and as the adage goes, ‘when you think, you stink’. He strikes me as a kid that was spent far too much of his basketball life working through drills and has no idea has to translate what he’s been working on into an actual game.

He was slow to react offensively. He was even slower to react defensively, where his quick feet and knack for shot-blocking helped hide the fact that he was more or less clueless on positional defending for the majority of the season. That’s part of the reason he was seemingly always in foul trouble. Being too weak was a major cause as well, and after every mistake he made he got an earful from head coach John Calipari back on the bench.

And when you put all of that together, what you got was a player whose confidence was totally shattered by the middle of the season.

That’s where the issue of mental toughness comes into play. Coach Cal has a philosophy with these perimeter-oriented bigs: he’s going to play them in the post. It worked for Karl-Anthony Towns. It didn’t work quite as well with Skal, but you could see him start to put the pieces together by the end of the season.

Put another way, Skal’s flaws were exacerbated and magnified because he was broken mentally. He didn’t believe in himself, partly because he wasn’t ready to handle what he had to handle at Kentucky. The question NBA teams have to answer: Will that change once he learns how to play the game?

NBA COMPARISON: Channing Frye.

I really like Skal’s potential, but I’m not sure he quite reaches his ceiling. The role I see him playing in the NBA for the next 10-12 years is as a center that thrives in a pace-and-space offense. That’s Channing Frye. He’s never averaged more than 12.7 points or 6.7 boards in a season, but he’s now been in the league for 11 years and just signed a contract with $32 million over four years because he’s 6-foot-11 and shoots 38.6 percent from three.

And this isn’t a perfect comparison, either, because Frye has never been a shot-blocker. There have only been 14 players in NBA history that have shot better than 35 percent from three (attempting at least one three per game) and averaged 1.5 blocks in a season. Donyell Marshall in 2003-04 is the only player that did so and shot better than 40 percent from three.

OUTLOOK: Skal is something of a lottery ticket. His size, his fluidity and his shooting ability gives him a ceiling close to LaMarcus Aldridge, but it’s inarguable that he has a long, long way to go to get there. The issues surrounding his in-game experience is something that people seem to gloss over when discussing him.

The fact that he’s still quite raw is good and bad. Whatever organization picks him is going to have to come to terms with the fact that he won’t be an impact NBA player for a year or two. But they’re also not going to have to erase any bad habits. He’s more or less a blank canvas that can be molded into whatever that coach wants him to be. He’s also a hard-worker — a jump-shot like that doesn’t just come naturally — and I think that, eventually, he’ll add the strength that will allow him to handle the rigors of playing this level of basketball.

The question is whether or not he’ll ever develop that feel or those basketball instincts that he lacks. I don’t have an answer for that, but in a draft that is this week, a guy with his potential in a role that has extreme value in this iteration of the NBA, I think he’s absolutely worth a first round pick, maybe even a late lottery pick. Just hope that he ends up in a good situation.

Tyronn Lue says Cavaliers have “seen what we need to do;” expect more Channing Frye

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 19:  Head coach Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts during the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game two of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 19, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Coming into the Eastern Conference Finals, when Kevin Love and Channing Frye shared the court and the Cavaliers played small it was a devastating lineup for opponents. Other teams struggled to match up with the shooting and spacing.

Against the Raptors, it hasn’t worked that way. Love and Fry have played only 12 minutes together and are +4.8 points per 100 possessions in that very small sample size (below the team average of +6.8 for the series). The last couple games Love has sat the fourth and Frye has played — because Frye is making his shots, which starts to pull Bismack Biyombo out of the post. Tyronn Lue ran plays for Love early on in Game 4, he was aggressive and he got good looks, he just missed them.

After watching the tape from Game 4, Lue said he has a plan — expect more Frye and more small ball from Cleveland. Via Chris Fedor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“We had a great film session today and we’ve seen what we need to do,” Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said. “We’re ready and prepared for it…

They have used a “take what the defense gives” approach, which will continue to be the plan, even after it led to 82 3-pointers in the last two games despite dominating the paint in the first two games.

“I think when you penetrate and they collapse the floor, you’ve got to make the right play, and if the play’s a kick out, the guy’s got an open shot, he has to take it and he has to knock it down,” Lue said. “We’re not really coming down, looking and saying we want to force 3-point shots. That’s not what we’re trying to do. You could see that in the first two games. We just took what the defense gave us and now the defense gives us a three-point shot, so we got to step up and make them….

“I liked it a lot,” Lue said of the (small ball) lineup before admitting it would be used more moving forward.

That’s part of the equation. But as our own Dan Feldman pointed out today, the Cavaliers are generating open looks, they just aren’t knocking them down. The offense works, and going small could create even more opportunities.

However, if you can generate looks, well, it’s still a make or miss league (to use the coaching cliché). Cleveland just needs those looks to fall.

On the other side, will Lowry and Biyombo continue their hot play once they leave Toronto? They have a lot to prove as well, and likely against a Cavs team playing much better ball.

Drake trolls Kyrie Irving on Instagram after Raptors’ latest win

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23:  Rapper Drake reacts as Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers walks by in the fourth quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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After the first Toronto win, Raptors’ “Global Ambassador” (whatever that means) and highest profile fan Drake took to Instagram to troll LeBron James.

Drake flew back to his native Toronto for Game 4 and he got to see his Raptors even the series behind big nights from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. How did he celebrate? Trolling Kyrie Irving on Instagram.

2 gave us 2…we'll take it 😂

A photo posted by champagnepapi (@champagnepapi) on

If the Raptors win a third game this series, will Drake troll Kevin Love? Actually, Love did a pretty good job of trolling himself the last couple games.

Dwane Casey says he hopes Jonas Valanciunas plays, but Channing Frye makes it hard

TORONTO, ON - MAY 01:  Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the Toronto Raptors smiles in the first half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Indiana Pacers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 01, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Jonas Valanciunas was active in Game 4, but he didn’t play.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey, via Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic

“Hopefully we can get him involved,” Casey said. “Again, it depends on the lineup they have on the court. I know he’s our starting centre but it’s tough to put him out there if they’re playing Channing Frye big minutes at the five.”

“The thing about it is with our five-man, it helps us when we have to switch, especially when they’re playing Love at the five or Frye at the five,” Casey said. “It gives us the flexibility to switch Bismack. It’s a luxury that we have that.”

Toronto won, anyway. So, there’s no griping about Valanciunas remaining stuck on the bench last night.

But Valanciunas could still help the Raptors, who were outscored by three in Game 4 when Bismack Biyombo sat.

Valanciunas’ injury will probably still limit his minutes, which is fine. There’s limited opportunity for him to be effective. As Casey said, Kevin Love and Channing Frye – who already help the Cavs get so many open 3-pointers – are tough matchups for Valanciunas.

But Valanciunas can battle Tristan Thompson inside and on the glass without getting put through the ringer on the perimeter. If Casey picks his spots when Thompson plays, Valanciunas should have a role the rest of this series – at least if he’s healthy enough to play near his standards.