The Extra Pass: Nets believe they’re headed in the right direction, and Wednesday’s recaps

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NEW YORK — The Nets fell to 4-11 on the season after an early blowout ended up becoming a heartbreaker before the final buzzer sounded. But the vibe around the team is good despite the rough start, because some of the key players believe that the recent effort shown has the beginnings of trending things in a positive direction.

Brooklyn’s 99-94 loss at the hands of the Lakers on Wednesday was a prime example.

L.A. raced out to a 27-point lead early in the second quarter, thanks to some red-hot three-point shooting and some buckets in transition that looked as easy as you’d expect considering they were being scored against the Nets’ league-worst defense. But by the game’s end, the Nets had battled back to within striking distance on their final offensive possession.

Plenty has gone wrong in Brooklyn in a season where injuries have derailed things before they’ve had a chance to get started, much like the situation these Lakers found themselves dealing with a season ago when they similarly stacked their roster with high-profile free agents in hopes of assembling a championship contender on the fly.

After wallowing in their despair for long enough, the players that remained simply decided that giving maximum effort for 48 minutes would have to be the place to start. And while there are no moral victories and injuries will not be used as an excuse (even though it would be a legitimate one at the moment), the Nets believe that what they’re seeing will pay dividends in the future if the team stays committed to achieving its long-term goals.

“I think we’re trying to turn the corner,” Joe Johnson said afterward. “As long as we give ourselves an opportunity, that’s what matters. Tonight we were able to fight back from a deep deficit, and were able to gain control of the game to where we had a chance to win. That’s all we ask for.”

Nets head coach Jason Kidd, he of the crafty drink spilling incident that gave his team a break in the action late when they were out of timeouts, was similarly pleased with what he saw out of his club in this one.

“It’s simple — they’re competing,” Kidd said. “We’re not going to be perfect. The Lakers came out and they hit us right off the bat, but we kept fighting. You can see that in the last couple games, that we’ve gotten down and been able to come back, and we’ve stayed together. This is just another example of that.”

“We’re executing down the stretch,” he said. “We’re getting wide open looks. It’s just a matter of them going in. And they will, and that’s what we believe in as a coaching staff and as players. If they keep presenting themselves, we’ll be fine.”

Once a team is able to come back from an overwhelming deficit like the Nets were facing, they usually find a way to finish. “Usually when you turn it off a little bit, it’s hard to turn back on,” Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni said. That wasn’t the case, however. When Paul Pierce’s wide open three from the top of the arc rimmed out with two seconds left — a shot that would have tied the game and set up a likely overtime session — Brooklyn’s comeback officially fell short. But there was an expectation to win within the team’s players, which is an important step in the building process.

“It’s a tough loss at that point because we come in here knowing that if we don’t give up that many points in the first quarter, we’ve got a really good chance to win the game,” Johnson said. “So that’s probably the most discouraging thing about it.”

It’s a process. And though it’s taken longer than expected, the Nets feel that they’re beginning to see some dividends, even if they’re not translating into wins just yet.

“I’ve been on teams where we’ve struggled a little bit, but worked our way through it,” Kevin Garnett said. “Obviously we’ve been a team on paper that’s been assembled to be successful, and we have the personnel to be just that. … We’re working through things.”

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Lakers 99, Nets 94: The Lakers got out to a 27-point lead in the second quarter, blasting the Nets with hot three-point shooting that everyone knew wouldn’t last. What we didn’t know was that Brooklyn would dig deep enough on the second night of a back-to-back to battle all the way back to actually have a chance to send the game to overtime in the closing moments. Mirza Teletovic provided an energetic spark off the bench, scoring 17 points on just eight shots while grabbing five rebounds in just under 21 minutes of action. Paul Pierce got a great look at a three from the top of the arc that would have tied it with two seconds left, but it came off the iron and the Lakers improved to 8-8 on the season. The vibe around the Nets, though, is that the the team is on the right track and beginning to figure some things out. — BP

Pacers 99, Bobcats 74: Indiana has the league’s best defense, and wasted no time in showcasing it in Charlotte. The Pacers opened the game by holding their opponent to just 11 first quarter points, and the starters put forth a similar effort in the third by allowing just 17. The game didn’t get completely out of hand until the fourth, however, when the Pacers scored 39 points behind a three-point shooting barrage from C.J. Watson, who put in 15 points off the bench in the final period to help Indiana pull away and improve to a league-best 14-1 on the season. — BP

Magic 105, Sixers 94: Spencer Hawes missed this one with soreness in his left knee, and Nikola Vucevic feasted in his absence. Vucevic put in a dominating performance with 21 points on 10-of-13 shooting, to go along with 16 rebounds, five assists, and three blocked shots. Just about all of the damage was done in the first three periods, however, and it took an 11-point fourth quarter from Arron Afflalo to help the Magic pull away for the win. — BP

Grizzlies 100, Celtics 93: This one was over in the first quarter, after the Grizzlies put together a strong effort on both ends of the floor to finish the period with a 27-13 advantage. Memphis got a good defensive game from Kosta Koufos, who filled in for the injured Marc Gasol in the starting lineup with 13 rebounds and three blocked shots. Boston got more than 50 percent of its offense from two players with Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger combining for 49 points, but there’s not much help beyond that from a talent perspective on the team’s roster. — BP

Bulls 99, Pistons 79: The hangover following the loss of Derrick Rose for the season was ended in blowout fashion, thanks to big offensive games from Luol Deng and Taj Gibson, and some stifling defense in the second half. The Pistons managed to score just 26 points over the final two periods, making just 10 shots total over that span while shooting a dismal 27.8 percent. — BP

Heat 95, Cavaliers 84: You’d like to think LeBron James’ returns to Cleveland wouldn’t raise an eyebrow anymore, but he still gets booed in the arena while other Cavs fans want the prodigal son to return. Anyway, Cleveland played well early attacking the paint, getting the ball inside and they shot 55 percent in the quarter. Then the Heat bench put on a 12-0 run in the second as the bench cranked up the defense and the Cavs shot 3-of-18 in the second quarter and 28.6 percent the rest of the game after the first quarter. LeBron coasted to 25 points, Michael Beasley played well and had 15. —Kurt Helin

Rockets 113, Hawks 84: James Harden was out, Jeremy Lin played just four minutes, but the Rockets bench came through — Francisco Garcia and Aaron Brooks each had 21. The Rockets got off to an 11 point first quarter lead and never lost it because they shot 55 percent on the night. That’s three straight losses for the Hawks. —KH

Wizards 100, Bucks 92 (OT): In spite of how these teams played in the fourth quarter — both teams shot 35 percent in the final frame — NBA rules dictate one team has to win. Marcin Gortat had 6 of his 25 points in the overtime and led Washington to the win. Martell Webster added 18 and a key late three for Washington. O.J. Mayo had 21 to lead the Bucks.—KH

Nuggets 117, Timberwolves 110: We need to give credit to Denver for playing well — Ty Lawson had 23 points including the dagger drive late in the game, but you barely notice anymore because he does it nightly. But what has happened to Minnesota, which has lost 5-of-6 and is now below .500. Minnesota’s defense was a mess as with the game on the line Denver just got to the rim any time it wanted. That’s an issue.—KH

Thunder 94, Spurs 88: San Antonio did what it wanted — it held both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in check (Westbrook was 2-of-16 from the floor). But Reggie Jackson (23) and Jeremy Lamb (12) provided a spark off the bench while Serge Ibaka held down the paint (five blocks and a lot of changed shots). The Spurs new big three of Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker combined to shoot 17-of-48 (35.4 percent).—KH

Mavericks 103, Warriors 99: Golden State point guard Stephen Curry had as many turnovers as the entire Mavericks team (6), and that pretty much sums up the night. On the second night of a back-to-back the Warriors were sloppy and the Mavericks made them pay. Dirk Nowitzki had 22 points to lead six Mavs in double figures.—KH

Suns 120, Trail Blazers 106: Portland was up by 11 in the first quarter and it looked like they might cruise to another win. But the Suns started playing faster and the Trail Blazers did not adjust. The head of the snake for Phoenix was Goran Dragic who finished with 31 points and 11 assists. Channing Frye had his best game of the season, 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting, as the plodding bigs of the Blazers could not keep up. Yes, we’re looking at you Miles Plumlee.—KH

Clippers 93, Knicks 80: Here’s what really matters to the Clippers — the hamstring strain that Chris Paul left the game with was not serious and he could be ready to go Friday night. The Clippers took control of this game in the second half and got 15 points and 13 rebounds out of Blake Griffin. Carmelo Anthony had 29 points on 9-of-23 shooting.—KH

Jeff Hornacek on Joakim Noah: “We’ve moved on. He’s ready to move on”

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Not that anyone actually thought Joakim Noah would be back with the Knicks this season — not after Noah and coach Jeff Hornacek got into an argument that ended with Noah shoving his coach.

But if anyone thought with Kristaps Porzingis out for the season with a torn ACL the Knicks might turn to Porzingis for a little boost, think again. Via Al Iannazzone at Newsday as the Knicks got back to post All-Star practice.

“There’s really nothing more to say about it, update it. We’ve moved on. He’s ready to move on and maybe have an opportunity somewhere else. That’s really our focus to go play Orlando. We have 23 games left. We’re trying to get our young guys to step it up. That’s kind of old story and all done with as far as I’m concerned.”

The Knicks would love to trade Noah, but he has the most untradable contract in the NBA — two years, $37.8 million left after this season. It would take the Knicks attaching a couple of first-round picks and taking back some dead salary to make it happen. The Knicks may eventually buy him out, but the more likely option is they keep him through the summer (in case he is needed as salary in a trade), and possibly into next season (depending upon how big a discount he would give the team to be bought out and move on).

Trail Blazers hope for another post-All-Star break revival

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Trail Blazers have enjoyed post-All-Star break revivals the past two seasons.

Those late-season rallies will no doubt be an ongoing theme in the congested Western Conference playoff race once Portland resumes play on Friday in Utah.

“I mean, I think that’s in the back of our minds. We know that we’re usually a better team in the second half of the season,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said. “We can’t just go into it saying, `All right, we’re always good at this part of the season.’ I think mentally we have to understand how close of a race it is and that we’ve got to be sharp all the way through.”

Portland is 32-26 at the break, tied for sixth in the West, which is better off than it was last season at the same point.

But the Blazers are one of five teams in the West with 26 losses. The Warriors and Houston Rockets sit comfortably atop the standings with the next eight teams jostling for position.

The Blazers headed into the All-Star Game with a 123-117 victory over Golden State, snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Warriors. Lillard had 44 points, his third straight game with 39 or more and the best scoring stretch of his career. His 133 points over the last three games is the best such run in franchise history.

Afterward, Lillard sounded like he was taking it upon himself to improve the Blazers’ playoff position.

“Each season, it’s always a few teams that fall by the wayside and we’ve just got to make sure we’re not one of them,” he said. “As a leader, I’ve got to be the guy to lead that charge.”

In 2015-16, Portland was 27-27 at the All-Star break after winning eight of nine games going into it. The Blazers finished the regular season 44-38 and in fifth place in the West. They got past the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Warriors in the conference semifinals.

Last season, Portland lost three straight games to go into the break at 23-33. Shortly thereafter, an overtime loss at Detroit put them 11 games under .500.

But in March, Portland caught fire and went 13-3, best in the NBA. Lillard was named the conference’s Player of the Month, averaging 29.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.4 steals in 16 games. Terry Stotts was named Coach of the Month.

Center Jusuf Nurkic, who came to Portland in a trade a handful of days before the All-Star break, went on to average 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 20 games with the Blazers. Portland was 14-5 with the 7-footer in the starting lineup.

Portland made the playoffs for the fourth straight season, but fell in the opening round to the Warriors.

This season, Portland is in the thick of the race. Lillard leads the team with 26.1 points per game, sixth in the league, while also averaging 6.6 assists. Backcourt teammate CJ McCollum is averaging 21.7 points, and Nurkic is at 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds.

Stotts was asked just before the break whether he was happy with the team’s position.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of teams out there fighting for playoff spots,” the coach said. “It’s not about where we are. It’s about where we’re headed.”

 

Karl Malone pranks Anthony Davis in new Redbull video

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Karl Malone still has a few moves left.

Not so much on the court, but the Hall of Famer and one of the greatest power forwards ever was disguised as “Sam the Maintenance Man” where he would disrupt a video shoot by New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis (who thought he was making a basketball video for redbull.com). Malone was decked out in a traditional janitor onesie, a wig of dreadlocks, glasses and extra padding around his gut, and he had fun in his role.

At the end of the clip, you see Malone asking the cameras to cut so he could talk shop with AD on the left block, where Malone was near unstoppable. Check it out.

 

Statement defending self by former Mavs employee makes things sound worse

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In the argument that owner Mark Cuban must have known about the “Animal House” style sexual predatory environment on the business side of the Dallas Mavericks, a statement from a former Mavericks’ employee defending himself is now the best evidence. And it’s pretty damning.

One of the people mentioned directly in the bombshell Sports Illustrated story is former Mavs.com writer Earl K. Sneed. He was involved in a domestic dispute where he beat his then-girlfriend his first season with the Mavericks, then a few months later was arrested — at the Mavericks facility — for assault. He pled guilty to that and went through court-mandated anger management classes. He reportedly had another dispute in 2014 hitting a female co-worker which led to more counseling (this ordered by the team), and as a result of the court issues, he legally was not able to follow the team when it went into Canada to play the Raptors.

Sneed issued this statement to the Dallas Morning News defending himself.

“While both instances described in the report are damning and language used is not accurate, the two relationships described in the report are not something I am proud to have been a part of. I underwent much counseling after both situations, under the direction of [Mavs vice president of human resources] Buddy Pittman, and I feel like I grew from that counseling. I also signed a contract stating that I would not have one-on-one contact or fraternize with female employees after the inaccurately described incident with my female co-worker, who was a live-in girlfriend. I abided by the details of that contract for four years, and received counseling during that period to avoid future instances. I thank Buddy Pittman for helping me to grow during that time, and I thank Mark Cuban for his willingness to help facilitate that growth.”

So let me get this right: Sneed was hauled out of the Mavericks facility in handcuffs, then signed a new contract to stay on employed by the team (for four more years) where he could not do his job if the team went to Canada, and could not “have one-on-one contact or fraternize with female employees” — and Cuban didn’t know about any of this? That strains belief. Sneed’s statement sparked outrage on social media, as it should.

That Sneed stayed employed by the team speaks to the issues in the Mavericks human resources department and the team culture. Both Sneed and the head of HR have been fired in the wake of these stories.

The report says there are no incidents with Cuban, nor any members of the Mavericks basketball team, behaving inappropriately toward women.

Dallas and Cuban have hired an independent investigator to look into the claims and the workplace environment with the Mavericks. When that is done, expect NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to come down hard on the franchise, both to send a message to other franchises (there are rumors the Mavs are not the only one facing issues) and because this all is a big blow to the image of a league that paints itself as progressive.