The Extra Pass: Chicago’s never-ending story, plus Thursday’s recaps

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In the early days of mixed martial arts, there were quite a few athletes who would refuse to submit in the ring. Their arm could be on the verge of snapping, but it didn’t matter – they wouldn’t give up. They would rather break their arm.

I remember holding these athletes in such high regard, as if it were some sort of courageous decision to choose to have your arm broken and lose instead of not having your arm broken and lose.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that pride (the emotion, not the MMA organization) can be a very fickle thing. It’s not always an admirable quality to have.

That’s what makes watching the Chicago Bulls hard. You know they won’t quit. This is a prideful basketball team, and it would be almost easier to accept their failures if they were the result of poor effort. But they aren’t, and they won’t be.

The circumstances have not changed this at all. The crushing Derrick Rose injury, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler being banged up, management providing a warm blanket instead of actually putting out fires – it’s just another day in Chicago.

But how bad is it this time? Poor Taj Gibson sounded legitimately excited about the prospect of having “another body” when the Bulls signed D.J. Augustin this week. No one should have to be excited for D.J. Augustin.

And really, no one should be excited to watch the Bulls right now, either. I don’t watch Chicago in hopes of seeing good basketball anymore, even if there’s a good chance of it. I watch Chicago in hopes that the basketball gods will grant them mercy.

It’s just not fun anymore. Great performances by Joakim Noah, which come quite regularly, can’t be appreciated without the nagging feeling that they’re being wasted. Watching  Tony Snell, a guy who probably wouldn’t even sniff the court if Thibodeau had his way, play a game-high 41 minutes is cruel and unusual.

There isn’t even any schadenfreude to be had here like there is in, say, New York. Chicago’s wounds aren’t really self-inflicted, especially if you’re willing to separate management from the coach and the team, which seems to have already been done internally.

And really, the Bulls still represent a lot of the ideals we want our basketball teams to: they defend, they play smart, and they’re tough.

But in spite of those things, it’s hard to classify the Bulls as anything but a beaten team right now.

It’s easy to focus on when Rose will come back and pin hopes on that, but not many are considering what he’ll actually come back to. How drained will this roster and Thibodeau be from just trying to stay afloat? How much more deterioration, both in terms of relationships and personnel, can the Bulls suffer through in the mean time?

Will management tap out, trade Deng and possibly others for future assets and live to fight another day? Will it be Thibodeau who sees the writing on the wall and moves on, spurring a restructuring of the roster under someone else’s vision?

What ends this?

Is it another bad break, or is it acceptance?

-D.J. Foster

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Thunder 107, Bulls 95: The struggling Bulls were without Luol Deng or Kirk Hinrich for this one, meaning we had a pretty good idea how it was going to end before it started. Kevin Durant did what Kevin Durant does — score at will. He had 32 points on 13-of-20 shooting (4-of-5 from three). Oh, ad he chipped in nine rebounds, six assists and three steals. Russell Westbrook had 20 points and 10 assists. Credit the shorthanded Bulls for putting up a fight (Joakim Noah had 23 points and 12 rebounds) but this game never felt in doubt.

Spurs 104, Warriors 102: No Tim Duncan, no Tony Parker, no Manu Ginobili yet the Spurs still find a way to win because their subs execute. Well, that and the Warriors helped them out turning the ball over 24 times (22.7 percent of their possessions) plus they shot 8-of-31 from three, which didn’t bail them out of their mistakes. Stephen Curry had 30 points and 15 assists, David Lee had 32 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Wizards. For the Spurs it was 28 points from Marco Belinelli, 21 from Kawhi Leonard, good defense and a tip-in by Tiago Splitter with 2.1 seconds left that was the difference.

Twitter reaction All-Star pre-game, Fergie’s national anthem vicious, priceless

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LOS ANGLES — In an intensely polarized nation, few things unite Americans anymore. Sunday night the NBA and its All-Star Game broadcast gave us one of those unifying forces — a pre-game run-up so bad it was universally panned.

The NBA is lucky the new format seemed to work and we had a dramatic, actual basketball game to talk about, helping us move on a pre-game show that, to put it kindly, simply did not work.

It started with a roughly 20-minute singing and dancing skit that was supposed to be about comedian Kevin Hart’s journey to being an NBA player (I think that’s what it was, anyway, it made as much sense as the movie “Wild, Wild West”). It felt forced, was not funny, and just dragged on and on. Even a Kardashian thought this was terrible television.

And that wasn’t even the worst part of the pregame, nor the part that sparked the most outrage online.

Fergie’s sexy, slow, bluesy rendition of the national anthem became the lightning rod.

Charles Barkley joked on TNT that he “needed a cigarette” after the Black Eye’d Peas’ singer’s performance. Shaquille O’Neal jumped in quickly to defend her (“Fergie, I love you. It was different. It was sexy. I liked it.”) as the broadcast quickly pivoted away from that topic.

Twitter was not so kind, and Draymond Green‘s face caught by camera’s during the anthem became a quick meme.

Twitter had a field day with Fergie’s rendition.

Now, let us never discuss this All-Star opening ever again. Please.

Three things to know from All-Star Weekend: New format worked, for now

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LOS ANGELES — Our regular feature “Three Things to Know” usually wraps up and breaks down the news of the day in the NBA, but in this case we are stepping back to take in all of All-Star Weekend. Three Things will then be off this week until Friday (there are no games until Thursday night as the league takes a little break).

1) The new “captains pick teams” format may have worked as intended. But will it last? This much we can agree on: This was the best played, most dramatic All-Star Game we have seen in a while. There was some actual defense played, guys tried and played with a little pride, they played hard, we had a close and intense ending, and (unlike last season) the night featured something that resembled basketball. There was even a game-tying and game-winning shot.

The new format — where captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry (the highest vote-getters from fans) picked the teams playground-style — got the credit for the change.

“The great thing about our commissioner, he’s absolutely okay with trying something new, to change the format, and it definitely worked out for everybody,” said LeBron, who scored 29 points including the go-ahead bucket late, and was named MVP. “It worked out not only for the players, not only for the league but for our fans, for everybody. It was a great weekend, and we capped it off the right way.”

Was it really the format that led to the change? Tune in next year, and frankly the next few years, to find out.

First off, the players were genuinely embarrassed by the lack of defense and level of play in last year’s game, they talked about it afterwards in New Orleans and it was players’ union president Chris Paul who first pushed for the format change as a way to inject some energy into the game. To a man, the players and coaches talked about “changing the narrative” around the game.

The reality is the game was close, and often in the past when the All-Star Game was close late we got real energy and something resembling defense the final six minutes or so of the game. This year’s game was close, so the genuine energy late was not wildly out of character.

If the league had stuck with East vs. West (but upped the payout to winners and kept the new charity component) would the players have come out and played with this same energy and defense from the start to change the narrative anyway? My sense is probably, again they didn’t want to embarrass themselves again. We’ll never know for sure, but the format got credit for bringing a new energy to the game that may have been coming anyway.

The NBA is going to keep this format — although expect the player draft to be televised next time around — so we will see in Charlotte next February and in Chicago in 2020 if the change was about the format or just a conscious effort by the players to make the product better.

Either way, let’s hope it continues.

2) Donovan Mitchell, welcome to the spotlight. Utah’s rookie Donovan Mitchell is averaging 19.6 points and 4.5 assists a game (and much more than that the past couple of months), has become the Jazz’s go-to scorer and shot creator late in games, and for my money is the current frontrunner for Rookie of the Year (with Ben Simmons a close second). Yet for casual fans Mitchell was flying under the radar — people don’t really tune in to see the Jazz play (they don’t get on national television much) and in a deep rookie class with big names the No. 13 pick out of Louisville was not one of the pre-draft hype guys.

People know who he is now — he took over the spotlight in Los Angeles for a while. He was featured Friday’s Rising Stars challenge, then on Saturday went out and won the Dunk Contest.

“I’ve always been a player who’s not really been talked about a lot,” Mitchell told NBC Sports heading into the weekend. “Never really hyped coming out of high school — I was ranked top 50, but I wasn’t a name that was all over Ball is Life and all those platforms. Then coming into college I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, I wasn’t one of those guys averaging 30.

“Playing under (Rick) Pitino (in college), it’s grit and grind basketball, and that’s how I was perceived. That just adds to the chip I have on my shoulder.”

Mitchell had plenty of style and flash in Los Angeles. First, he brought out a second backboard, and did a self-alley-oop off one to the other.

Then he sealed his Dunk Contest win with a tribute to Vince Carter and one of his legendary dunks.

No player did more for his national profile over the three-days in Los Angeles than Donovan Mitchell.

3) Dunk of the weekend? Give that one to Larry Nance Jr. The newly-minted Cleveland Cavalier Larry Nance Jr. (he was traded from the Lakers at the deadline just more than a week before) may have come in second in the Dunk Contest to Mitchell, but he had the best dunk of the weekend. No doubt.

It was the double self-alley-oop off the backboard.

That was the dunk we’ll be talking about out of the weekend.

‘Tired’ Jimmy Butler sits out All-Star Game at his own request

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LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game at 37.3. He’s ninth in the league in total minutes played and played 77:35 minutes in the two games leading up to All-Star Weekend.

Butler was tired and asked Mike D’Antoni to give him some rest, according to both parties (despite speculation this was really a win for the Los Angeles nightlife). Butler did not play in Sunday’s All-Star Game.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

“He was tired and he just felt like his legs weren’t there,” Team Stephen head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He didn’t practice yesterday or play today. You have to respect that. He plays hard. Sometimes your body just needs a rest.”

Butler is having the kind of season that has him in the discussion for a place on the MVP ballot. He’s averaging 22.4 points per game with a very efficient true shooting percentage of 59.3, plus he’s playing strong defense. He and Karl-Anthony Towns have led the Timberwolves to a 36-25 record that has them as the current four seed in the West, poised to break an 11-year playoff drought for the franchise.

Still thankful, LeBron James breaks Michael Jordan’s record for years between All-Star MVPs

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Los Angeles – When LeBron James became the youngest-ever NBA All-Star MVP in 2006, he said during the trophy presentation: “I’d like to thank the fans for voting me in as a starter.”

Twelve years later, he sounds similar, maybe just a little more thoughtful: “It’s always been my fans who voted me in. For 14 straight years, my fans have voted me in as an All-Star starter, and it’s been up to me to go out and let them know and show them, listen, I appreciate that, and here’s what I’m going to give to you every time you vote me in.”

He plays similarly, too.

LeBron again won All-Star MVP, leading his team to a 148-145 victory Sunday. He finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“Every night I step on the floor, I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level,” said LeBron, 33. “I feel great.”

The 12-year gap between LeBron’s first and last All-Star MVP – he also won in 2008 – is the longest in NBA history. It tops the 10 years between Michael Jordan’s first (1988) and last (1998).

Here’s the difference between the first and last All-Star MVP for every multi-time winner:

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Players’ effort in this exhibition game comes and goes, but LeBron appeared invigorated .

When LeBron’s team trailed by 15 in the second quarter, he checked in and quickly led it back into the lead. When his team fell behind by 13 midway through the fourth quarter, he again led a spirited comeback. He hit the go-ahead bucket.

Despite playing a game-high 31 minutes, his intensity lasted all the way through the final buzzer.

His coach, the Raptors’ Dwane Casey, said he asked LeBron whether to foul or defend on the final possession while up three. LeBron said defend.

“If he says that, or any great players say that, you want to go with them because it was their idea, their belief, and he had it,” Casey said. “…He got the guys jacked up and juiced up as far as wanting to get a stop.”

LeBron and Kevin Durant swarmed Stephen Curry, who couldn’t shoot and could barely pass. Curry’s team didn’t even get a shot off:

“As you can hear in my voice, that tells how competitive it was,” LeBron said scratchily.

Again, his message echoed 2006: “We’re competitors, and our competitive nature kicked in and said let’s get some defensive stops.”

A lot will get made about the format change, and it might have mattered.

But maybe LeBron is just uniquely capable of dominating and embracing of this stage all these years later.