Utah Jazz v Phoenix Suns

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.

Cavaliers’ 3-point shooting was excellent. THEN, they made 25 in a game

Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith (5) reacts after the Cavaliers beat the Atlanta Hawks 123-98 in Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Cleveland. Smith hit seven 3-pointers in the game. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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The Cavaliers set a record for 3-pointers in a team’s first six playoff games on this Kyrie Irving shot:

Did you notice anything strange about that clip?

It came in Game 1 against the Hawks – Cleveland’s fifth playoff game.

That’s right, the Cavs needed just five games to set a record for 3s through six playoff games. Then, they piled on 25 3-pointers – a record for any NBA game – in their Game 2 win over Atlanta on Wednesday.

Cleveland’s 97 3-pointers through six postseason games absolutely crushes the previous record:

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The difference between the Cavs and second place equals difference between second and 88th.

In fact, Cleveland has already demolished the record for 3s through EIGHT playoff games (previously 90 by the 2014-15 Hawks). Again, the Cavaliers have played just six games this postseason.

Where is all this outside output coming from? The key long-distance shot makers:

Add it all up, and the Cavs are making 16.2 3-pointers per game – which would easily set a playoff record:

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Cleveland could make no 3-pointers in its next two games – and still rank first for 3s per game in a postseason.

Not that the Cavs appear likely to go cold from distance anytime soon.

Their stars generate open looks and make 3s themselves. Smith is an unrepentant gunner, and he’s feeling it.

These are the Cavaliers as scary as they get.

John Wall undergoes surgery on both knees, expected to be ready for start of next season

Washington Wizards guard John Wall speaks during a media availability before an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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John Wall tried putting the Wizards on his back and carrying them into the playoffs.

Washington fell short, but the process still took a toll.

Wizards release:

The Washington Wizards announced that guard John Wall underwent a successful procedure today to excise calcific deposits in his left patella tendon in order to eliminate pain and assist healing.  He will begin the rehabilitation process immediately and is expected to be available for the start of the 2016-17 season.  Wall also underwent an arthroscopic lavage on his right knee in order to remove loose bodies.

If the Wizards are just using the next date most fans care about, this might not be such a big deal. That would open the door for Wall being healthy at any point over the summer.

But if the start of next season is his targeted return, that’s more troubling. Sitting an entire offseason is a big deal, and that means potential complications are more likely to cause him to miss games. It’s also a worse indicator for his long-term health.

As the Wizards enter free agency primed to spend, the last thing they need are questions about the length of their franchise player’s prime.

Larry Bird shows courage in his convictions by firing Frank Vogel

Larry Bird, Frank Vogel
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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Larry Bird sounded cruel.

The Pacers president announced to the world that Frank Vogel begged for his job. Not only did he oust the coach anyway, Bird seemed to toy with him at a press conference today. Asked what he’d tell someone checking Vogel’s references, Bird answered with a resounding: “He’s the best.” What will Bird look for in the Pacers’ next coach? The same things that led him to Vogel during the last search.

So why did Bird fire Vogel?

“My experience has been good coaches leave after three years,” Bird said.

And maybe Bird is cruel, foolish, self-absorbed or any other adjective being thrown at him today.

But also realize he sincerely believes this.

After all, he also ousted a coach who went 147-67, reached two conference finals and an NBA Finals and won Coach of the Year in his three-year tenure.

Himself.

Bird coached Indiana from 1997-2000, and even though he guided the team to the 2000 NBA Finals, he still stepped down after that third season.

“Three years is enough for a coach in any one place” Bird said he told the Pacers when they hired him.

Despite all his success, he stuck to it.

Bird said he spoke to Red Auerbach about the value of coaching turnover, and Boston had plenty. Bill Fitch got four years at the helm of Bird’s Celtics, K.C. Jones five – “nicest man I ever met, and they let him go, and we were having success,” Bird said – Jimmy Rodgers two and Chris Ford two (and another three after Bird retired).

Vogel coached Indiana five-and-a-half years.

“That’s a long time for me for a coach,” Bird said.

As so many teams across the NBA chase continuity, Bird actively rejects it – maybe to his detriment. Five of the six longest-tenured coaches in the league are still alive in the playoffs: Gregg Popovich (Spurs), Erik Spoelstra (Heat), Dwane Casey (Raptors), Terry Stotts (Trail Blazers) and Mike Budenholzer (Hawks). The Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle is the exception.

Bird just doesn’t want to follow that model.

“Every day the same voice and the same, I think guys sometimes tune that out,” Bird said. “It happens. It’s unfortunate.”

It is unfortunate, and it cost Vogel a job he appeared to be succeeding in and wanted to keep. You can wonder whether Bird and not just players tired of Vogel’s message, even if it were a wise one. Bird clearly believes he can assemble a roster, and he has own ideas about how he wants it coached (small, up-tempo, dynamic).

But don’t wonder about Bird’s intentions when he brings up three-year term limits for coaches.

Right or wrong, he believes in them.

Larry Bird: Kevin McHale won’t coach Pacers

Larry Bird
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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1. Kevin McHale withdrew from the Kings’ coaching search.

2. The Pacers fired Frank Vogel.

Will McHale reunite with former Celtics teammate Larry Bird in Indiana?

“I would not do that to Kevin, have him to work for me,”Bird said at a press conference today. “That’s just not fair. I respect the man too much, and we’ve been through too many battles together to bring him in here and be my coach. I would love for him to be my coach, but it ain’t going to happen, because our relationship.”

It would have been compelling to watch Bird and McHale work together, but I’m not convinced McHale is the best coach available – though that’s not the only concern.

After all, Bird just ousted someone who might be a better coach than any replacement.