The Extra Pass: A big test for the Clippers; plus Thursday’s recaps

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Pressure reveals character, and the last minutes of the Clippers road matchup with Portland did just that.

Down the stretch, both teams played perfectly to their strengths. The Blazers ran everything through LaMarcus Aldirdge (32 points) on the left block, surrounding him with three-point shooters and daring the Clippers to double. The Clippers, meanwhile, put the ball in Chris Paul’s hands, gave him a simple ball screen and let the magic happen.

None of Paul’s 34 points appeared bigger than his fading jumper on the baseline to give the Clippers a three-point lead with about eight seconds left in regulation. After a frustrating loss to Golden State the night prior, it looked like the Clippers would exact some revenge on another Western Conference foe.

But then Portland did what they’ve been doing to every team around the league. In need of a bucket, Terry Stotts drew up a beautiful sidelines out of bounds play to get a clean look for Nicolas Batum, who buried the open three at the top of the key to tie the game and eventually send it to overtime.

So here the Clippers were, on the second night of one of the toughest back-to-back sets imaginable, playing on the road in overtime against one of the league’s hottest teams.

And right at the beginning of the overtime period, there was Blake Griffin on the floor. Not from exhaustion or the kind of flop he’s most closely associated with now, but because there was a loose ball to go after. Then it was Matt Barnes on the floor, chasing that same loose ball.

There were many moments or highlights to sum up the game for the Clippers, both positive and negative, but this was the one to remember.

I know what you’re thinking. Can a title contender really have moral victories? Isn’t that for, you know, the teams who can’t pull off actual victories?

It’s a fair point, and it didn’t help that the Clippers had their flaws exposed (defense on the perimeter, frontcourt depth) once again.

But still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there were multiple opportunities for the Clippers to pack it in. The excuse of a back-to-back was readily available, and there were a few plays the screamed “it’s not your night.”

For as encouraging as a win this is for Portland in their ongoing quest to prove their sustainability, it was equally positive for the Clippers. It’s important to know just how deep you can dig as a team, both physically and mentally.

It’s a long season, but the Clippers may not be tested like this again. Chances are, they needed that experience more than they need the win.

—D.J. Foster

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Hawks 127, Cavaliers 125 (2OT): What a fun battle of point guards. Kyrie Irving went off for 40 points on 33 shots, plus he dished out 9 assists — he looked like a guy who deserves to start in the All-Star Game. He single handedly had the Cavs up five to start the second overtime. But that is when — with Al Horford having left the game with an injury — it was Jeff Teague who made the plays. He had 12 of his 34 points in the overtimes. He played maybe his best game of the season, plus he drained the game winner.

Rockets 100, Grizzlies 92: Second night of a back-to-back, coming off a signature win on national television, down 13 in the third quarter — if the Rockets had lost this game we would have shrugged and blamed the schedule and the Rockets inconsistency. Instead the Rockets cranked it up in the fourth quarter, held the Grizzlies to 27 percent shooting, got 14 points from Jeremy Lin and 11 from James Harden (27 for the game) to storm back and win. That’s the sign of a team that is maturing, growing together.

Spurs 116, Mavericks 107: This was vintage Spurs. Just a day ago after the Spurs lost to the Rockets on national television, I noted that San Antonio had struggled some against teams over .500. Thursday night they came out against a more rested Mavericks team, went on a 12-2 rum late in the first to take the lead, one they never relinquished. Tim Duncan was brilliant with 21 points and 13 rebounds, including four straight points in the fourth when it looked like Dallas would make a little run. Tony Parker added 23 points. They are still the Spurs and they still execute.

Trail Blazers 116, Clippers 112 (OT): Tonight it was the Clippers turn — the Blazers have done this to teams all season at home. They looked beaten, down three with eight seconds to go after a Chris Paul baseline jumper. But then a clever play freed up Nicolas Batum and he nailed the three, and we were headed to overtime. LaMarcus Aldridge had a big night — he had barely eaten for four days after having his wisdom teeth pulled, yet he went out and dropped 32. Chris Paul had 34. In the end we had another thrilling Trail Blazers game, and once again they found a way to win.

Nike “very concerned” after LeBron James’ jersey rips on opening night

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In the team’s first preseason game, the jersey of the Lakers’ Tyler Ennis was torn in the back with a tug from an opponent. Everyone made tearaway jersey jokes and moved on, thinking it was a one-off situation.

Then LeBron James‘ jersey ripped down the back on opening night, on national television.

Now Nike is looking into the issue, reports Darren Rovell of ESPN.

Nearly three days after one of its jerseys tore in the first regular-season game of its new deal with the NBA, Nike released a statement Friday expressing worry about the issue, without offering insight as to what happened or what will be done.

“The quality and performance of all our products are of utmost importance,” the company said in a statement. “We are obviously very concerned to see any game day jersey tear and are working with the NBA and teams to avoid this happening in the future.”

This is the first year Nike has the NBA apparel contract, having just taken it over from Adidas. They made the jerseys similar to what had been done for the 2016 Rio Olympics, where there were no issues, but these jerseys are lighter than the former Adidas ones. It’s unclear what, if any, changes could be coming.

Like many of the jerseys from opening night, LeBron’s ripped one is being auctioned by the NBA to raise money for hurricane relief.

Reports: Rockets think Chris Paul could be sidelined for up to a month

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The Rockets’ opening night win over the Warriors was a boost to their confidence — they believe they can challenge the Warriors next May in the playoffs.

Chris Paul is a big part of that plan, which is why we may not see him for up to a month (even though he is listed as day-to-day, and officially only out Saturday). With that, the Rockets are considering adding another point guard to the roster. Marc Stein of the New York Times and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news Friday afternoon.

At the top of the free agent point guard list is Jameer Nelson, the veteran was just waived by Denver to make room for Richard Jefferson.

C.J. Watson and Trey Burke also are available.

Chris Paul and Harden still need to smooth out playing together, something that will take time on the court together. CP3 being out until mid-November is not ideal, but the Rockets are thinking about May, and ideally June, so they will sacrifice a few games now to have him healthy then.

Dwight Howard still feeling ‘super’ expectations with Hornets

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DETROIT – Dwight Howard went from leading Orlando in the NBA Finals to playing in star-studded Los Angeles to joining a Houston team that also fancied itself a contender to being the highest-paid player in his hometown Atlanta to… landing in Charlotte, a small-market franchise with modest ambitions.

The spotlight finally off the former No. 1 pick, Howard doesn’t feel reduced pressure.

“Everybody expects me to be Superman every single night,” Howard said.

Howard is diving into his new situation – his third team in three years – headfirst. He’s leading pregame huddles and the Hornets onto the court.

“I have the most experience,” said Howard, in his 14th season. “So, it’s not to come in and fit in. It’s to come in and be a leader.”

This is the latest referendum on Howard. Despite eight All-NBA selections (most of them first-team) and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he faces relentless criticism of his legacy.

His exit from the Magic was so ugly, it’s known as the Dwightmare. His feuding with the Lakers great is the stuff of legend in Kobe Bryant mythology. Howard never clicked with James Harden with the Rockets. The Hawks unloaded him for a paltry return in what was more salary rearrangement than salary dump, and his former teammates reportedly cheered.

Howard just seems to rub people the wrong way.

That makes his latest test in Charlotte so interesting. Howard is supplanting maybe Kemba Walker as the face of the team and definitely Cody Zeller as starting center. The Hornets have found success with Zeller, going 63-53 when he starts and 57-73 otherwise the last three seasons.

“The nature of his game, he plays in a way to help other people play better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Zeller. “He is a screener. He is a ball-mover.”

In other words, the type of player teammates love.

Is Howard?

Howard is still solidly productive. In Charlotte’s season-opening loss to the Pistons, he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks – and ruffled a few feathers. Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

https://twitter.com/Vincent_Ellis56/status/921100491362365440

Dirty-work players who irritate opponents are revered. High-priced players who irritate their teammates are loathed.

Howard walks a fine line.

He returned to Atlanta with emotion and expectations. By the end of his time with the Hawks, everyone seemed unhappy. Still, Howard says he’s grateful for the opportunity to play in front of people, especially his grandparents, who watched him grow up.

“Atlanta is going to be my home,” Howard said. “The Hawks is always going to be my favorite team.”

It’s just never easy for Howard.

Even a career Basketball Reference pegs as 99% likely to end in the Hall of Fame based on his tangible accomplishments stirs controversy.

“He’s a Hall of Famer right now if he never played another game,” Clifford said.

Said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando: “It’s mind-boggling to me that would be any debate there.”

It’s probably easier for Van Gundy and Howard to recall their time together fondly than it was to enjoy it while partnered. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles while Howard was there, is just getting into his time as Howard’s head coach.

It’s those middle moments, in the throes of long seasons, that have proven difficult for Howard and those around him.

Here he is in Charlotte, hosting the Hawks tonight, and facing another challenge. The Hornets would probably be happy just making the playoffs and ecstatic advancing, which would be their first playoff-series victory since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Howard, who has reached three conference finals, is counting on himself to lead them there – even if nobody else is anymore.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.