The Extra Pass: Eric Bledsoe’s path from afterthought to building block; plus Sunday’s recaps

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In Eric Bledsoe’s final game with the Los Angeles Clippers last season, he played nine minutes and 28 seconds.

In that game, the Memphis Grizzlies scored 118 points despite possessing what most would consider a below-average offense.

Mike Conley, a player Bledsoe has routinely shut down throughout his career, went to the free throw line 17 times.

All while Bledsoe sat.

This wasn’t particularly uncommon throughout Bledsoe’s tenure with the Clippers. For whatever reason, the explosive young guard was never seen as a viable partner in the same backcourt as Chris Paul, despite Paul’s supernatural ability to set his teammates up perfectly.

It’s not like the Paul-Bledsoe backcourt was a failed experiment, either. Although they shared the court for just 185 minutes, the Clippers posted an offensive efficiency of 115.9 (which would be the best in the league, by far) and a net efficiency of +11.1 points. Not only did Paul and Bledsoe work well together, but Bledsoe worked better than any other “true shooting guard” did next to Paul.

The inability to think outside of the box made Bledsoe expendable for the Clippers, which in turn made him a bargain for someone else.

That someone was Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough. Somehow, McDonough flipped a player with no athleticism who had reached his ceiling (Jared Dudley) for a player with all the athleticism and no ceiling.

It didn’t matter that the Suns already had a point guard in Goran Dragic, because any fears of fit were largely unsubstantiated in the first place.

So far this year, Dragic and Bledsoe have played 310 minutes together and have a net efficiency rating of +4.7 together.

More importantly, Phoenix’s most commonly used lineup with Bledsoe and Dragic has a net rating of +9.6, which ranks fifth in the entire league for lineups that have played over 150 minutes together.

Bledsoe didn’t have many doubters individually, but this pairing did. Any questions have been largely put to rest, though, as the Suns are the only team in the NBA with a starting backcourt comprised of two players with a PER over 20.

After vanquishing the more highly regarded “Splash Brothers” backcourt of Golden State on Sunday night, Phoenix is officially red hot. Five straight wins won’t melt away the talks of rebuilding or trading Dragic altogether, but Bledsoe has given McDonough the same flexibility off the court that he gives the Suns on it.

-D.J. Foster  

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Kings 106, Rockets 91: Here is my key takeaway from this game — DeMarcus Cousins completely outplayed Dwight Howard. Cousins had 21 points on 14 shots plus pulled down 10 boards, and he held Howard to 13 points. Rudy Gay dropped 26, Isaiah Thomas had 11 of his 19 in the second quarter when the Kings took control of the game. Houston’s league-best offense got open looks but simply didn’t hit them (they were 3-of-8 from the midrange and shot 25 percent from three).

Timberwolves 101, Grizzlies 93: Minnesota took the lead with a 17-4 run in the first quarter and while Memphis made it interesting at points (Mike Conley’s 15 pints in the third quarter helped that) the Timberwolves never trailed. Kevin Love put up 31 points and had 9 boards, but he also played good post defense on Zach Randolph to help keep the Grizzlies attack under control. Love can play straight up post D pretty well (when he avoids fouls).

Trail Blazers 111, Pistons 109: Detroit fell victim to one of the classic blunders — the most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia” — but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never get in a close game with the Trail Blazers!” Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! (Seriously this team just does not lose close games, only once this season to Monta Ellis and the Mavs, aside that they just make shots at the end of games. It was Damian Lillard’s turn this time to throw the dagger.)

Thunder 101, Magic 98: If you were expecting a blowout that’s what you got, with OKC leading comfortably most of the second half, until an 18-4 Magic run late in the fourth quarter made it interesting. Arron Afflalo had 9 of his 25 in the fourth quarter and had a key three to cut the Thunder lead to four with less than a minute. Next a Mo Harkless dunk cut it to two. Kevin Durant split two free throws and the Magic got one last shot to tie — but a Glen Davis fadeaway three was not what they had in mind. Durant had 28 points to lead everyone.

Nuggets 102, Pelicans 93: A lot of Denver players pitched into this one, but it was two guards who were really key. One was Ty Lawson, who had an awful game in the loss to the Jazz, but he bounced back with a good game (12 points, 8 assists) directing the offense. The other was Nate Robinson off the bench with 14 points, but you know he can score; it was a couple key blocks and some good defense we didn’t expect that really mattered. Ryan Anderson had 26 for the Hornets but he was 10-of-21 shooting and missed a lot of good looks.

Suns 106, Warriors 102: The backcourt of Eric Gordon and Goran Dragic stood toe-to-toe with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in this one — the Suns/ starting backcourt had 45 points, 12 assists and 9 rebounds. (For the record, the Warriors starting backcourt had 49 points.) Credit the Suns defense for forcing turnovers on 19.3 percent of the Warriors possessions (they have been turnover prone lately). Also, the Warriors miss Andre Iguodala as teams load up on Curry to prevent his threes.

Report: Clippers’ management remains committed to re-signing Blake Griffin

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Maybe Friday night in Utah, maybe not for a few weeks, but the Clippers season is going to end before they reach the conference finals, and with Blake Griffin sidelined by injury. It’s an all-too-familiar scene. It will be six seasons of the Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Griffin experience in Los Angeles, and they will not have gotten out of the second round (unless you think they can come back on the Jazz from down 3-2, then beat the Warriors).

That has come with a lot of talk about the Clippers breaking up the core. Jordan remains under contract, Paul would be too hard to replace, and that leads to a lot of speculation — inside and outside the league — that Griffin could be on the move this summer, when he becomes a free agent.

That’s not what the Clippers want, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports in a video essay.

Management remains committed to signing him to a long-term deal this summer, league sources tell me.

Doc Rivers has said he wants to bring back this core. Multiple times. His argument is that this is a 50+ win team that is one of the better teams in the NBA, why would you take a big step back rather than look for the tweaks that get the team to a title?

Steve Ballmer has the checkbook deep enough to pay both Paul and Griffin max money (although keeping fellow free agent J.J. Redick as well would be difficult). The Clippers will have one of the highest payrolls in the NBA, and is this team worth that? Especially in a conference where the Mount Everest of Golden State is not going anywhere for a few years, not to mention the Spurs and Rockets will remain good, Utah is on the rise, and so are teams like the Wolves. The Clippers will be a good team that needs a lot of breaks to go their way to really contend — how much would Ballmer pay for that?

The Clippers need to do some soul searching this offseason.

Just don’t be shocked if the result of that is them running this team back again.

Playing through sore knee, Jimmy Butler says “I’m good,” will go in Game 6

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At this point in the season, everyone is banged up. It’s just a matter of degree.

But with Rajon Rondo listed as out for Game 6, the Bulls’ need a big game from Jimmy Butler if they are going to extend this series to a Game 7. And he is not near 100 percent.

In Game 4, Butler banged knees with a Celtic and it impacted him during Game 5, as Vincent Goodwill detailed at CSNChicago.com.

But he could only muster two shots and barely seemed to push off on his left foot—his lead foot, and it hampered what the Bulls could do late as he was their prime fourth-quarter performer.

He couldn’t even go straight up on a jumper over the diminutive Isaiah Thomas without pump-faking, throwing off his rhythm. He wouldn’t elaborate on the injury, although he said it happened during the second half of Game 4 on Sunday night when he collided with a Celtics player.

“I’m good. Everyone’s a little nicked up; I’ll be all right,” Butler said in the locker room.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune added this detail.

Boston has done a good job of limiting the number of times Isaiah Thomas is exposed on defense, having to cover Wade or Butler. Essentially, the Celtics switch in sort of a matchup zone to keep IT covering a shooter on the wing, even if his man goes up and sets the pick. Zone’s can be exposed (there’s a reason they’re more a change-of-pace rather than a basic set defense in the NBA), but it involves getting into the middle, getting into the paint. Which comes back to driving the ball and pushing off, things that Butler is struggling to do at his usual level.

There are a lot of other factors favoring Boston in Game 6, but if Chicago is going to force a Game 7 Sunday they need Butler to be an All-NBA level player.

Knicks’ Joakim Noah has expected shoulder surgery to repair rotator cuff

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NEW YORK (AP) — Knicks center Joakim Noah has had right shoulder surgery to repair his rotator cuff, a procedure that could sideline him until training camp.

The Knicks say Noah had the surgery Wednesday at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, performed by Dr. David Altchek.

The team didn’t give a timetable for Noah’s recovery, but coach Jeff Hornacek said late in the season that if Noah had the operation, the recovery time could be five months.

Noah had an injury-plagued season that ended early when he was suspended 20 games by the NBA for violating the league’s anti-drug policy. There are still 12 games remaining on the penalty that he will have to serve next season when healthy.

Noah had surgery on his other shoulder last season, limiting him to 29 games in his final season in Chicago before signing a four-year, $72 million deal with New York.

PBT Extra: Pacers offseason moves start with Paul George

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Larry Bird, when not delivering All-Star Game bids, should be spending his time lighting candles and praying in churches all over Indianapolis that Paul George makes an All-NBA team.

If PG13 makes the cut, Bird’s job this summer becomes more clear: Offer George the designated player max extension, get him to sign the deal, then get back to building a contender around him.

If George doesn’t make the cut, things get much tougher for Bird. I discuss all of it in this new PBT Extra.