The Extra Pass: Our awards at the quarter pole, plus Monday recaps

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Believe it or not, we’re nearly at the quarter mark of the NBA season already. That means it’s time to start believing a little more in what we’ve seen so far, and maybe even time to dish out a few awards.

Remember, these aren’t predictions for what will happen at the end of the season. These awards are based solely on performances thus far.

MVP of the Quarter: LeBron James, F, Miami Heat

I almost went with Chris Paul or Paul George here, but it all felt a little too Karl Malone for my taste. Maybe we’re just a little bored by LeBron’s dominance at this point, but once again he’s been the best player in the league.

James is shooting nearly 60 percent from the field, he has a true shooting percentage of nearly 70 percent (which only two players in NBA history have ever achieved over a full season), he’s first in the league in PER and the Heat are 14-3. There are trendier choices out there, but this is LeBron’s award.

Coach of the Quarter: Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers

This one is a no-brainer. The Portland Trail Blazers have been the surprise of the league thus far, as most pundits didn’t even have them pegged to break .500 or make the playoffs. Stotts has built one of the best offenses in the league, and the incorporation of multiple new players off the bench has been seamless. Frank Vogel and Gregg Popovich deserve praise at every turn, but Stotts trumps everyone right now.

Rookie of the Quarter: Michael Carter-Williams, G, Philadelphia 76ers

This hasn’t been much of a race. Victor Oladipo is the only competition at this point for Carter-Williams, but he’s averaging more turnovers per game than assists.

Carter-Williams has been the better distributor and has the higher PER on the year, and it’s also pretty impressive that he currently leads the league in steals per game. He’s been a great fit in Philadelphia’s uptempo offensive system, and believe it or not, the 76ers are only one game back of a playoff spot.

Sixth man of the Quarter: Isaiah Thomas, G, Sacramento Kings

DeJuan Blair has done a fantastic job off the bench in Dallas, but there’s a reason this is an award traditionally reserved for scoring guards. Thomas has legitimately been Sacramento’s best player next to DeMarcus Cousins, as he’s putting up 17 points a game and a gaudy PER of 21.2.

Thomas’ PER and 5.9 assists per 36 minutes is higher than J.R. Smith, James Harden, Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry in their Sixth Man of the Year winning seasons. Thomas may not have the benefit of playing for a winning team, but so far he’s been one of the best bench players we’ve seen in years.

Defensive Player of the Quarter: Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana Pacers

Blocks are generally a bit overrated as a stat, but it’s hard to overstate just how good of a rim protector Hibbert has been. Hibbert’s ability to remain vertical and stay out of foul trouble has made Indiana even stingier defensively than last season, which is no easy feat.

It’s hard not to reward the anchor of the league’s most dominant defense here, particularly because Hibbert’s ability to man the paint allows everyone else on the floor to stay home and defend one-on-one. He’s been a complete game-changer.

Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Arron Afflalo, G, Orlando Magic

There’s a tendency to hand the Most Improved Player award to a young player who has received a spike in minutes or opportunity, but I find that to be a little silly. This should be an award that recognizes a player who improved their game and didn’t just benefit from outside factors, more exposure or a natural maturation process.

Afflalo fits my criteria as a 7th year player who is posting career highs in PER (20.7), points (21.4), rebounds (4.4), assists (4.4) and three-point percentage (48.1%) even though he’s playing close to the same amount of minutes as he did last year. Afflalo has turned himself into a post-oriented guard who is also a dead-eye spot-up shooter from behind the arc, and that’s proven to be a deadly combination.

—D.J. Foster

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Wizards 98, Magic 80: With the win the Washington Wizards are 9-9 — they are at .500 for first time since Nov. 3, 2009. The reason they won this game is the reason after a slow start to the season they are even now — coach Randy Wittman is just leaning on his starters. There isn’t much depth for the Wizards’ starting five Monday played 20 minutes and they were +18. Trevor Ariza was red hot for Washington with 24, Arron Afflalo had 21 for the Magic.

Pelicans 131, Bulls 128 (3OT): No Derrick Rose. No Anthony Davis. This game was supposed to be a disappointment and it turned into one of the more epic clashes of the season. Despite the stars being out both teams got plenty of offense on the night (Chicago had 109.4 points per 100 possessions, the Pelicans 115, via NBA.com). Luol Deng had 37 points and Taj Gibson 36 for Chicago. For the Pelicans Ryan Anderson had another big game with Davis out and had 36 points, Eric Gordon had 23. But the Bulls had a big defensive breakdown on the final play of the game, a clever design from Monty Williams that had Jrue Holiday getting to the rim for an and-1. Quality road win for New Orleans.

Spurs 102, Hawks 100: Mike Budenholzer has seen Tim Duncan rip the hearts out of teams for years as a Spurs assistant, I don’t think he liked it as much from the other bench. The Spurs were a bit sloppy in this one and the Hawks almost made them pay with a balanced attack — Jeff Teague led the way with 19 including an amazing pull-up three to tie the game at 100-100. But Duncan was too much and rescued the Spurs, finishing with 23 points, 21 rebounds and one dramatic game winner.

Jazz 109, Rockets 103: Gordon Hayward had 17 first quarter points, Trey Burke added 10 and it was everything that has been wrong with Houston’s perimeter defense this season in one shining quarter. And it cost them, Utah was up 36-23 after 12 minutes. The Rockets battled back, even took the lead for a stretch, but they had given the Jazz confidence by that point. Houston couldn’t get stops. James Harden did finish with 37 points and 8 assists. Hayward had 29 on the night, Burke is finding his groove and had 21, as did Alec Burks. Quality win for the 3-15 Jazz. Houston should feel sick.

Trail Blazers 106, Pacers 102: Great win for the Trail Blazers, who were able to come from behind on Indiana (who was on the second night of a rough back-to-back after facing the Clippers). LaMarcus Aldridge played like an All-Star despite Roy Hibbert being in his path all night, scoring 17 of his 28 points in the second half. Damian Lillard had 14 of his 26 in the fourth quarter and hit a lot of big shots. Paul George almost turned the fortune of this game himself, scoring 43 points on 30 shots and looking like an MVP candidate.

Portland did it again with offense, scoring at a 107.6 points per possession pace on the best defense in the league.

Tyronn Lue says he has secret plan to fix Cavaliers’ defense for playoffs

AP Photo/Phil Long
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Only one team that ranked outside the top 12 in points allowed per possession during the regular season won an NBA title. The 2000-01 Lakers, who were 21st in defensive rating, are the lone outlier.

The Cavaliers rank 22nd in defensive rating this season and have been even worse lately.

But Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue says he has a plan. He just won’t reveal it yet.

Lue, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“We’ve got to hold back. We can’t show our hand early because … these are some good teams and we don’t want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do. We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there and then we will see what happens.”

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“I think the rebounding hurt us. Rebounding. But it will be different once some other things happen. … Their two-guards, their threes, they still crashed the boards. But we have something to fix that. Just not right now.”

What precisely those plans are, Lue wouldn’t tell us. And here’s the other part — he’s not exactly sure they’ll work.

“I’m not confident, but we’ve got to” get the defense fixed, Lue said. “We have to.”

The Cavs ranked just 10th in defensive rating last season, among the worst marks for an eventual champion. But they cranked up their defense in the playoffs, especially late. Cleveland held the Raptors 4.8 points per 100 possessions below their regular-season scoring rate and the Warriors 7.8 below theirs.

Lue also unleashed a 3-point-heavy attack in the playoffs last year after sitting on the strategy through the regular season.

So, I have some faith Lue will implement a better defensive gameplan when it counts. It also helps to have LeBron James, who can still play elite defense when not in the slog of a long regular season.

But the Cavaliers’ defensive deficiencies right now are glaring. This roster appears to lack defensive potential, and their many miscues keep them well below whatever that potential is.

The challenge in elevating this defense to championship-caliber will be immense, maybe even unprecedented.

Mavericks’ Salah Mejri dunks while getting shoved in the gut (video)

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The Mavericks built a 13-point lead over the Thunder with 3:30left thanks to plays like this Salah Mejri dunk on Nick Collison.

Unfortunately for Dallas, Russell Westbrook happened.

Willy Hernangomez dunks on Andre Drummond, Pistons’ playoff chances (video)

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Andre Drummond and the Pistons couldn’t slow down anything.

Not Willy Hernangomez. Not the Knicks. Not Detroit’s plummeting playoff hopes.

After a 109-95 loss to the Knicks last night, the Pistons — who’ve lost four straight and seven of eight — are 1.5 games and two teams out of playoff position.

Terrence Ross 360 dunks his way back into Raptors fans’ hearts (video)

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In his first appearance in Toronto since the Raptors traded him to the Magic, Terrence Ross did what he has done best throughout his career: Delight Toronto fans with a dunk.

And of course the fans appreciated it, because their Raptors cruised to a 131-112 win.