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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

Heat, in first playoff series win without LeBron James in a decade, look complete

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) dunks against the Charlotte Hornets in the first half of Game 7 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series, Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
AP Photo/Alan Diaz
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As the national anthem played, a tear streaked down Dwyane Wade‘s cheek.

“I knew tonight would be a great moment for these guys,” Wade said. “I felt that we was going to win this game. I knew that our energy and our crowd was going to be enough, and we was going to be prepared. And I was just thinking about how these guys was going to feel after playing a Game 7.”

Pretty darn great.

The Heat beat the Hornets, 106-73, Sunday in the fifth-most lopsided Game 7 in NBA history. Miami – which will face winner of tonight’s Raptors-Pacers Game 7 – won its first playoff series win without LeBron James since 2006.

Pairing Wade with another superstar (Shaquille O’Neal for the 2006 championship) or two (LeBron and Chris Bosh for the 2012 and 2013 titles) has worked. But that option went out the window this season when blood clots sidelined Bosh at the All-Star break for the second straight year.

With Wade’s waning athleticism forcing him to pick his spots more often, he has needed more help than ever. His teammates have provided it.

Hassan Whiteside (10 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks) and Goran Dragic (25 points, six rebounds and four assists) led the way in Game 6.

Whiteside defended at an elite level. The Hornets shot just 2-for-11 in the restricted area with him on the court. I don’t know what’s more stunning – that they shot so poorly or attempted so few close-range shots in 28 minutes. Whiteside struck fear in the paint.

Dragic’s 25 points were his most in seven weeks and one shy of his playoff high. His aggressiveness fueled so much more. Miami’s offensive rating was 120.1 with him on the court.

“That’s the Goran Dragic we all love,” said Wade, who scored 12 points and had lost his last three playoff games when scoring so little. “Just putting so much pressure on the defense, and it allows other guys to just chill out – especially me.”

Wade can’t always carry the Heat – though sometimes he still can – but he remains the face of the franchise. Whether or not his teammates provide enough support almost reflects more on him than it does them. Fortunately for him, they look up to the task of making him look good.

It’s far too early to look ahead to a juicy Heat-Cavaliers conference finals, but Miami should be favored against either Indiana or Toronto.

Yes, it took seven games to vanquish Charlotte, but the Heat outscored the Hornets by 62 points – the third-largest combined margin ever in a seven-game series. The last team to win a seven-game series or a Game 7 by such decisive margins was the 2008 Celtics, who beat the Hawks by 34 in Game 7 to cap a +84 first-round series. Boston went on to win a title that year.

Will Miami follow that path? Probably not, but there’s something to be said about so thoroughly outplaying a difficult-to-beat opponent.

The Hornets were no pushovers – at least until today, when the Heat dominated on the glass and got most loose balls. In this series, Charlotte earned its first three playoff wins since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. The Hornets’ first best-of-seven series victory remains elusive and a potentially turbulent offseason awaits, but this group came to play.

Miami was just too good on both ends of the floor.

In the second quarter, Whiteside cut off a Kemba Walker drive, forcing the point guard to give up the ball. Whiteside then rotated to cover Al Jefferson (the type of multiple-contest defense many doubted Whiteside could execute) and emphatically blocked Jefferson’s shot.

The ball went to Dragic, who immediately sped up court. Dragic, who entered the game shooting 37% from the field, spun around Courtney Lee before anyone else could catch up to provide help and made a layup.

Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, the team’s energetic rookies who had big moments earlier in the series but provided less today, jumped up and down and spun around on the bench. The rest of the team wasn’t far behind in its cheering.

All the while, Wade barely took a few steps forward, remaining back on defense and watching it all unfold in front of him – a starless group of teammates he knew were capable of delivering.

Even without Stephen Curry, adjusting for playoff rotations still favors Warriors over Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, right, drives the ball against Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green (23) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, April 3, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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When the Warriors put five players expected to be in the playoff rotation on the floor during the regular season, they outscored opponents by 20.9 points per 100 possessions.

No other team even neared that level with five of its own playoff-rotation players.

The second-place Spurs (+13.1 adjusted net rating) were closer to 10th place than first place.

But Golden State’s supremacy obviously took a hit when Stephen Curry got hurt. How do the Warriors rate without him in the rotation?

As I did before the first round, I’ve used nba wowy! to rank Western Conference playoff teams by net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating), counting only lineups that include five players in the team’s postseason rotation. Both the regular season and first round factored.

I wrote more about the Thunder’s and Spurs’ adjusted ratings yesterday. The East will come after its second-round series are set.

For now, here’s each Western Conference team’s rating, from the regular season adjusted to only lineups that include five players projected to be in the second-round rotation:

Western Conference

2. San Antonio Spurs

  • Offensive rating: 110.5 to 110.0
  • Defensive rating: 99.4 to 96.1
  • Net rating: +11.1 to +13.9

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Offensive rating: 113.6 to 117.3
  • Defensive rating: 106.0 to 104.6
  • Net rating: +7.6 to +12.7

1. Golden State Warriors

  • Offensive rating: 114.9 to 119.7 to 109.1
  • Defensive rating: 104.1 to 98.8 to 103.8
  • Net rating: +10.8 to +20.9 to +5.3

5. Portland Trail Blazers

  • Offensive rating: 108.9 to 111.0 to 110.3
  • Defensive rating: 108.2 to 107.9 to 107.5
  • Net rating: +0.7 to +3.1 to +2.8

Observations:

  • By this metric, there’s a clear main event and undercard here – at least if the Spurs and Thunder don’t keep playing like they did last night.
  • Golden State obviously takes a big tumble without Curry, but this measure shows the limit of saying the Warriors got outscored by 3.7 points per 100 possessions without Curry during the regular season. Golden State’s other top players – Draymond Green (88%), Klay Thompson (85%), Andrew Bogut (85%), Harrison Barnes (66%) and Andre Iguodala (60%) – played a majority of their minutes with Curry. Put them on the court more in these Curry-less games, and it’ll help.
  • With Curry in the rotation (and Ian Clark and Brandon Rush out), the Warriors’ adjusted offensive/defensing/net ratings shoot right back up into the stratosphere: 119.8/98.7/+21.1. Golden State must just holds its ground until Curry returns. This measure suggests the Warriors can against Portland, especially with home-court advantage also in their favor.

Playoff Preview: Four things to watch in Portland vs. Golden State series

at ORACLE Arena on April 3, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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.
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Portland has wildly exceeded expectations this season, making the playoffs as the five seed and getting past a banged-up Clippers team to the second round. But the NBA does not do Cinderellas well, this will be the end of the road. Here are the four questions we’re asking heading into this series.

1) When will Stephen Curry return? If Portland has a chance in this series, they need to do a lot of damage before the past-and-future MVP returns from his sprained knee. The question is when will that be? Curry is out for Game 1 and has yet to do any on court work, but Steve Kerr would not rule him out for Game 2 on Tuesday, although that may be gamesmanship as much as anything. But after Game 2 the teams are off for four days until the Saturday, May 7, and that may be enough time for him to return. Whenever he does come back, the dynamics change and the Warriors become a much more dangerous, much better team — one Portland can’t handle. The Blazers need to get all the wins early in this series they can.

Which isn’t very easy, Curry or no.

2) How will the Warriors defend Damian Lillard? When Lillard has gone up against his hometown team — he’s from Oakland — he averaged 36.5 points per game this season. Expect Klay Thompson to draw the assignment to cover him at the start of games, but also expect the Warriors to steal a page from the Clippers’ strategy and trap Lillard and C.J. McCollum each time they come off a pick. The idea is to force the ball out of the hands of the two best playmakers and make Al-Farouq Aminu or Maurice Harkless or anyone else beat you. Aminu and Harkless will find the Warriors defense works on a string better than the Clippers and their shots will get contested.

However, most of the time, the Warriors will switch the pick-and-roll, which they usually do (especially when they go small) and Lillard will find Draymond Green in his face. Blazers coach Terry Stotts has to find ways to get Lillard playing downhill off those picks to have a chance.

3) Can the Trail Blazers hit their threes? In Portland’s win over Golden State in the regular season (just after the All-Star break), they put up 137 points and made it rain threes — the Trail Blazers need to do that again. However, the Warriors were one of the better teams in the league at defending the arc this season, holding opponents to 33.2 percent from deep (second best in the league) and allowing the second fewest corner threes (although they are more willing to allow threes above the arc). Portland does not have a good enough defense to stop Golden State consistently even without Curry, they will just have to outscore the Warriors, and to do that it has to rain threes again.

4) How will Portland defend Klay Thompson and Draymond Green? Both of these key Warriors cogs had strong regular seasons against Portland — Green averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 8.8 assists, while Thompson averaged 29.3 points shooting 59.4 percent from three. Obviously, that was with Curry on the floor drawing defenders, but Portland is not exactly known for their lock-down defense. Without Curry, expect Aminu to get a lot of time on Thompson, but that alone is not going to slow him. Also, expect the Warriors to post up Thompson, Shaun Livingston, or anyone else that Lillard and McCollum guard — the hardest part about defending Golden State is there is no place to hide weak defenders. The Warriors will expose the Portland defense.

Prediction: Warriors in 6. And that assumes Curry is out until Game 5, if he is back earlier than that the series likely ends in 5.

Report: Heat complained to ‘highest levels of the league office’ about favorable calls for Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker

Charlotte Hornets' Kemba Walker (15) is congratulated by Jeremy Lin (7) after making a basket against the Sacramento Kings in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. The Hornets won 127-122 in overtime. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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The Heat and Hornets are clearly tiring of each other, six games of testiness culminating with Game 7 today.

One particular battle line being drawn is over Jeremy Lin (6.3) and Kemba Walker (5.5), who lead players in this series in free-throw attempts per game.

Marc Stein:

ESPN sources say that one of the factors that ramped up the tension between the teams stems from Miami complaints to the highest levels of the league office after Game 4 about what the Heat deemed to be favorable officiating for Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker.

Lin and Walker relentlessly driven to the basket. That’s why they’ve attempted so many free throws. If Miami wants to keep them off the line, trap them harder on the perimeter.

That said, this is part of playoff gamesmanship. If the Heat plant a seed with referees – through the league office or otherwise – that Lin and Walker are drawing too many fouls, maybe that affects a call today. With the margins so narrow, every little bit helps.