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

LeBron James on Lance Stephenson-drawn technical foul: ‘I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on’

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LeBron James and Lance Stephenson have met in 23 playoff games.

Stephenson has tried to agitate LeBron throughout all of them.

From the choke sign back when Stephenson was still a benchwarmer to the infamous ear blow to the tapping of LeBron’s face the next game, Stephenson has been relentless. And LeBron has mostly kept his cool.

But not last night.

Midway through the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers’ Game 4 win over the Pacers, Stephenson stuck close to LeBron as LeBron went to the Cleveland bench. LeBron pushed Stephenson away and received a technical foul.

LeBron:

I mean, I should never have gotten a tech in the first place. There’s a timeout called, and this guy’s following me to my bench. I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on. But I should know better. I should know better. I’ve been dealing with this since elementary. It’s like I tell you a joke – I tell you a joke and then you laugh, and you get caught. That’s what happened. Lance told me a joke. I laughed. Teacher caught me. Now, I’ve got to go see the principal. That’s what happened.

Stephenson earned that technical foul. He did just enough to bait LeBron, but too much where Stephenson would get a tech. Then, Stephenson exaggerated the contract.

LeBron got got, and he knows it.

He’s also probably savvy enough to remain on greater alert to Stephenson’s antics the rest of the series and avoid responding again.

Where the Blazers, Neil Olshey, and Terry Stotts go from here

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The Portland Trail Blazers were a frustrating team to watch to start the season. They floundered early as players like Moe Harkless and Evan Turner failed to take the next step forward to help the team. The emergence of Zach Collins playing in tandem with a healthy Ed Davis was a good story, but not enough to overcome Portland’s fatal flaws. Most of the talk surrounding the Blazers remained about roster construction — as it has since GM Neil Olshey signed Turner to his massive 4-year, $70 million contract back in 2016.

Then things flipped.

Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 14, Portland rattled off 13 straight. Harkless was no longer moody, Damian Lillard was playing like a Top 5 MVP candidate, and CJ McCollum hummed right along with him. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting well, Shabazz Napier was an important rotational piece, and even Turner’s midrange turnarounds felt like a simple change of pace rather than a glaring misfit. Roster talk died down because Portland looked unstoppable, and with a new defensive effort the team felt like a lock to beat whichever squad they faced in the first round.

But the Blazers found themselves outgunned, overmatched, and demoralized as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans after the conclusion of the regular season. Portland got swept, 4-0, in perhaps the most embarrassing playoff sweep in franchise history since their series with the San Antonio Spurs at the turn of the last century.

So here we are, with both the Blazers and fans in Portland back to wondering the same thing: just what can be done to fix this roster and maximize Lillard’s prime?

We have to start with the basic fact that Portland is not going to trade McCollum.

Part of the internal friction for the Blazers is that McCollum is the guy Olshey seems most emotionally attached to. Olshey was fully at the helm of the organization when McCollum was drafted in 2013, and thus McCollum is wholly an Olshey guy. Portland had scouted Lillard long before Olshey arrived 24 days prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. Not that Olshey values one over the other, but there’s an odd, unspoken understanding that Olshey wants to make McCollum work along with Lillard partly as a matter of pride.

So if we move away from the possibility of changing the overall theory of a roster built around those two guards, where does that leave the Blazers? The answer comes with a boggling number of variables.

The key that unlocked Portland’s potential to dismantle most of their opponents after Valentine’s Day was a happy Harkless, one who was dropping 3-pointers from the corners and dishing out assists rather than moping on the deepest part of the bench. That was the big variable that made the switch for the Blazers. But in the playoffs, Portland got a Harkless that was just coming off knee surgery, and he wasn’t as effective.

Harkless said in exit interviews on Sunday that team brass reiterated to him how important he’s going to be to them next season, and they aren’t blowing smoke. Harkless is young, cheap, and versatile. He’s a better passer and dribbler than Aminu, whose contract expires after next season, and he’s a better pure shooter from deep. The problem is relying on Harkless, who admits to being moody and letting that emotional variance affect him on the court.

This puts us back to the question of Turner. For as much as Olshey likes to talk as though he slow plays the league, it was an extreme reach not only to pay Turner his contract but to sell the public the logic behind it. After McCollum and Lillard were trapped to death in the playoffs a few years ago, Olshey grabbed Turner as a third ball handler, one who could let Lillard and McCollum run around screens off-ball to reduce turnovers. At least, that was the story.

It didn’t really work all that well given the symbiotic nature of the game of basketball. Last season, Aminu’s shooting dipped and opposing defenses simply helped off of him and onto Portland’s main dribblers. That made Harkless and Allen Crabbe invaluable as shooters, not only as scorers but as sources of gravity to open up passing lanes.

There was as similar issue this season as Aminu’s shooting percentages rose while Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or Crabbe to anchor the 3-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of Lillard and McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving Turner as the open shooter on the 3-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from 8th in 3-point percentage to 16th in a year.

Turner adapted his game over the course of this season the best he could to compliment Portland’s system and needs. He’s just not useful enough at top clip. This explains the position the Blazers have been in the entirety of Turner’s contract — it’s going to be impossible to move him without attaching significant assets and in the process, delaying the progress of the team. No trade involving Turner will return the wing Portland needs. That’s just not how it works when you’ve got an albatross contract in 2018.

And so, after their sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, the conversation in Portland swiftly moved to speculation that coach Terry Stotts could be on the hot seat. The reality of Portland firing Stotts, if they are considering it, is of a major setback.

Stotts is beloved by his players, most of all Lillard, the franchise cornerstone. Stotts was a genuine Coach of the Year candidate this season for his role in developing guys like Napier and Pat Connaughton, who were useful at different parts of the season. Stotts pushed Nurkic to be more aggressive, a major factor in their late-season success. He rehabilitated Harkless. Reaching back even further, Stotts masterminded an offense that turned Mason Plumlee into the third creator on offense for Portland before the Nurkic trade last year. He’s been excellent, and firing him would be a colossal mistake.

I’ll put it this way: when Lillard had his “where is this going” conversation about the Blazers with owner Paul Allen, that talk wasn’t about Stotts. It was about Olshey’s roster construction.

The conversation about Stotts is a bit ridiculous, although it’s understandable given Olshey is both above him organizationally and a bit more financially annoying to fire after a recently-signed extension. But unlike Stotts, Olshey has not exceeded expectations in his position. Despite some clever draft day trades and the rumored rejection of a max contract bid offered by Chandler Parsons‘ camp two summers ago, the fact is Olshey is the one who has hampered the team, while Stotts has done the best with what he’s been given.

And so here we are, with the same questions about the Blazers roster nearly two years down the line and with an embarrassing playoff sweep in their possession. McCollum and Lillard are firmly cemented, perhaps more so thanks to their defensive improvement and the team’s win total. The Blazers can’t move their pieces thanks to poor fiscal management, and they’re in danger of losing valuable contributors like Davis, Napier, and eventually Aminu because of it.

It appears Portland’s only way forward is to do what they’ve always done, although it won’t be by their own volition, much as Olshey would like to spin it that way. Olshey, who said as much during exit interviews, will look for value in the draft and build a team that functions as a unit. I would assume that he’ll also need to ask owner Allen to tempt the repeater tax as he tries to re-sign Davis this year and Aminu the next. Olshey will need to hope Harkless is more consistent, and that he can find yet another shooter in the draft or via an exception signing or trade. All of these things are pretty big ifs, particularly in the light of Lillard’s public urgency and the results of Olshey’s bigger misfires.

The end to the season in Portland was disappointing, because of their sweep but also because they didn’t do enough to change our minds about their flaws and roster issues. That burden lies squarely with Olshey. Portland’s GM says he wants to stay measured in his approach, but moves like signing Turner, trading Crabbe for an exception, and swapping Plumlee for Nurkic were anything but. Those are big swings with mixed results.

Portland’s roster isn’t good enough to sustain large dips, and its plodding, “calculated” approach to roster management has put the Trail Blazers in a place similar to what you’d expect from a front office with a more flamboyant, laissez-faire style. Big contracts, an overpaid supporting cast, and an inconsistent bench rolled into a cap hit scraping $121 million.

The roster theory is understandable, but the execution in Portland is lacking. Eventually, the Blazers — and Olshey — are going to have to stop being measured and simply measure up.

Jared Dudley: Giannis Antetokounmpo practiced mean mugging in locker room

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Game 3 dunk over Aron Baynes was great.

Antetokounmpo’s Game 4 dunk over Al Horford (seen above) is even better, because of the fantastic mean mug that followed.

The rise of Antetokounmpo is no accident. He worked hard to develop his on-court skills. And that includes all aspects.

Suns forward Jared Dudley, who played with Antetokounmpo on the 2014-15 Bucks:

This is the inside info we need.

Report: Knicks are Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s top choice for job

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Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer withdrew from the Suns coaching search, but that he was even involved with another opening while under contract with Atlanta is telling. It probably wasn’t about the Phoenix job being special. He’s also talking with the Knicks – and maybe that goes somewhere.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

Mike Budenholzer is genuinely interested in the Knicks’ job, according to an NBA source who has spoken to the Hawks coach.

“New York’s his top choice,’’ the NBA source said. “If they offered him the job, he’d say yes. He wants to live in New York.’’

“Phoenix and the Knicks are trying to win every game,’’ said the NBA source who has spoken to Budenholzer recently. “There’s a good chance Atlanta is not looking to win games the next two years. This wasn’t Mike’s decision. He didn’t expect it. He doesn’t want to lose games.’’

Going to the Knicks to win? What a time to be alive.

But the Hawks are only one year into what appears to be a multi-year rebuild. Relative to that, New York is ahead.

When Kristaps Porzingis returns is the biggest variable. But Enes Kanter, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke are all in their primes. Atlanta is much thinner.

The Knicks would probably also offer Budenholzer a raise and the Hawks compensation. Though dealing with James Dolan carries downside, this could be a financial boon to everyone else involved. It’s no wonder Budenholzer and the Hawks are both into this.

The big question is whether New York, which is casting a wide net, tabs Budenholzer. He doesn’t have a clear connection to Knicks president Steve Mills or general manager Scott Perry. But Budenholzer is a demonstrably good coach, and that ought to matter plenty.