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

Report: J.B. Bickerstaff agrees to three-year deal to coach Memphis Grizzlies

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We heard rumblings that the Memphis Grizzlies were looking to remove the interim distinction from J.B. Bickerstaff’s title and make him acting head coach. Now, the team has made their move.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Memphis agreed to a three-year deal with Bickerstaff on Thursday, making him the new head coach of the team.

Bickerstaff, 39, was previously the associate head coach of the Grizzlies under David Fizdale. Fizdale was fired in November, and Bickerstaff took over as interim head coach.

This has been a long time coming for Bickerstaff, who was a longtime assistant coach in Charlotte, Minnesota, and Houston. Bickerstaff took over the Rockets job in 2015 when the team fired head coach Kevin McHale.

The task ahead of Bickerstaff will not be easy. Next season he will get Mike Conley back from injury, but the roster is still in the process of being rebuilt and Marc Gasol, 33, seems like constant trade bait. The Western Conference is tough, but finally Bickerstaff gets his shot at the big job on a permanent basis.

Enes Kanter helps pardon Thunder fans who left playoff game early (VIDEO)

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Enes Kanter may be leaning toward opting in to his $18 million player option with the New York Knicks this summer (I would) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have love for fans in Oklahoma City.

In a video posted to social media on Thursday, Oklahoma City mayor David Holt and Kanter appeared together to give pardons to the Thunder fans who left early during the team’s Game 5 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony staved off elimination with their win against Utah, giving the Jazz a 3-2 series lead as they head back to Salt Lake City on Friday night.

Kanter, who played for the Thunder from 2015-2017, says he is still friendly with many of the players on the Oklahoma City roster. Kanter also played for the Jazz for the first three-and-a-half years of his career.

Via Twitter:

I personally don’t understand leaving a game early. Your car is trapped underground or is parked six miles away on some back alley, you’re not leaving any game quickly. The train is going to be jam packed and will sit at the stadium station for like 28 more minutes after you board, no matter when you board.

Don’t leave games early, folks. Try to haggle with the people working the concession stands to give you another soft pretzel for free. Get your money’s worth.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

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