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.

Watch Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant trade shots Saturday night

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Kevin Durant won the one-on-one battle — he dropped 40 points on the Golden State Warriors, while Stephen Curry had “just” 26 and needed 26 shots to get there (but did add 10 assists).

But the Warriors built up a lead thanks to their depth and were able to withstand a late Thunder run to get the win.

Enjoy watching Curry and Durant putting on a show Saturday night in the Bay Area.

Nerlens Noel uses length for ridiculous reverse jam

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Nerlens Noel‘s 7’4″ wingspan can come in handy at times.

Such as when driving on Brook Lopez, and getting forced under the basket, he can just reach around the Nets’ center for the impressive dunk.

Noel finished the game with 18 points, Jahlil Okafor had 22, and the Sixers picked up a win against the Nets 103-98.

Kobe Bryant’s 25 points not enough to upset Spurs

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The San Antonio Spurs have watched helplessly as Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant has tormented them for the better part of the past two decades.

Bryant did so again in his final appearance in San Antonio, but the Spurs were able to enjoy this one.

LaMarcus Aldridge scored 26 points and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a throwback performance by Bryant to beat the Los Angeles Lakers 106-102 on Saturday night to remain unbeaten at home.

“I thought it was great,” San Antonio point guard Tony Parker said. “It was a great game, fans were into it. It felt a little bit like the old days in the playoffs, Spurs and the Lakers.”

Kawhi Leonard added 20 points and 13 rebounds to help the Spurs win their 28th straight home game to open the season. The Spurs’ 37th straight home victory dating back to last season was surprisingly difficult.

Bryant had 16 of his 25 points in the third quarter, going 3 for 6 on 3-pointers in guiding the Lakers to an 81-79 lead entering the fourth.

“I watched him growing up,” said Lakers guard and San Antonio native Jordan Clarkson, who finished with 21 points and four assists. “I watched him kill the Spurs.”

San Antonio has trailed for only two minutes in the fourth quarter at home this season, but the Lakers led for all but 23 seconds in the opening seven minutes of the period.

Bryant finished 9 for 28 from the field, but was 7 for 18 in a dynamic second half that electrified a pro-Bryant crowd.

“It’s like watching Michael (Jordan),” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “I was just watching. It was great. It was great. We made some mistakes. He took advantage of it. He’s fantastic.”

After rising to drain a 3-pointer with Leonard squarely in his face contesting the attempt, Bryant turned to an injured Tim Duncan on the bench and shrugged his shoulders.

“He was like, `No way,’ and I was like `Dude,’ ” Bryant said. “What could I do? I miss the easy ones and make some B.S. like that. I don’t even know what to tell you. It was Tim’s version of a yell, so it was a strong whisper.”

The Lakers trailed 101-99 lead after trading 3-pointers following Bryant’s improbable shot, but the Spurs’ were able to hold Los Angeles to just three points in the final 2 minutes.

“Missed defensive assignments,” said Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell, who had 12 points. “They executed their offense to perfection. We were young and that’s an excuse I could give you.”

Bryant had a sore right shoulder, but he was not about to miss one last game against his fiercest rivals. He has faced the Spurs 90 times in the regular season and postseason, his most against any opponent.

TIP-INS

Lakers: The Spurs honored Bryant with a 3-minute video. The Spurs’ Big Three of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all paid tribute to Bryant’s competitiveness along with San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. Bryant walked over to the Spurs’ bench prior to tipoff and hugged Popovich, sharing a few words with San Antonio’s longtime coach.

Spurs: San Antonio’s 12-game lead in the Southwest is the largest ever since the division was formed in 2004-2005. … In addition to Duncan and Ginobili, the Spurs were also without Matt Bonner. The reserve forward suffered a left calf strain Friday against Dallas, which was just his 20th game of the season. … Pop star Selena Gomez sat courtside, wearing a Tony Parker jersey.

 

Spurs honor Kobe Bryant in his last game in San Antonio (VIDEO)

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 30:  Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands next to Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs on March 30, 2006 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  The Spurs won 96-85. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Kobe Bryant farewell tour has gone all around the NBA, but some stops are more emotional than others. His final trip to San Antonio certainly qualifies — the Spurs and Lakers have played each other in the playoffs eight times in his career, including twice in the Western Conference Finals (the Lakers won both times). The only player who has rivaled Bryant’s longevity is Tim Duncan, and the Lakers and Spurs were the two most dominant teams of the 2000s, winning nine of the 12 championships from 1999 to 2010 between them.

So, of course, the Spurs had an elaborate tribute video planned for Bryant. The video ran two and a half minutes and featured narration from Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Watch it below: