The Extra Pass: Why D’Antoni is the right man for the job; plus Sunday’s recaps

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You may consider this curious timing to take up for Mike D’Antoni, considering his Lakers just gave up 137 points at home to a Denver Nuggets team that can best be described as “meh.”

Believe it or not, though, pulling the wool over your eyes isn’t my intention here. Let’s be truthful: D’Antoni’s teams really are awful defensively. In 11 seasons, he’s coached an above-average defense in terms of efficiency just once. His defensive schemes aren’t ever any good, and they likely never will be.

That, understandably, doesn’t sit right with a lot of people. Rarely do below-average defensive teams make the playoffs, let alone go deep in them.

The Los Angeles Lakers, as many of their fans will be quick to remind you of, are all about hanging banners and winning rings. D’Antoni’s track record sure seems to be counter-intuitive to that.

But while we’re being honest here, let’s knock down those expectations a peg. The Lakers weren’t going to win a championship this season. Not with Steve Nash in this condition at 39 years old, not with Kobe Bryant coming off a devastating injury, not with Pau Gasol’s natural decline, and not with Dwight Howard leaving behind no reasonable way to replace his production.

No one was winning anything substantial with this roster – not even the great Phil Jackson, who surely would have a whale of a time coaching Nick Young.

That’s part of the issue with evaluating D’Antoni’s performance this season. What standards should he be held up to? Those set by past coaches and teams far more talented, or ones more in line with reality?

The Lakers have been entertaining, and not solely in just a trainwreck sort of way, as was originally anticipated. This is typically a fun brand of basketball to watch, but more importantly, it’s a style that’s hospitable to star players, Bryant included.

The Lakers move the ball. They feel empowered to take open threes. For the most part, they play pretty unselfish basketball, which is pretty much unheard of considering that nearly everyone on the roster is on an expiring contract and playing for their next job. There are defensive failures, naturally, but what did anyone reasonably expect?

From Lakers’ general manager Mitch Kupchak’s perspective, D’Antoni has probably met his expectations so far this year.

The reclamation project of Kendall Marshall has been a huge success thus far. D’Antoni has a reputation as a point guard whisperer, and maybe it was Kupchak’s confidence in D’Antoni that made giving Marshall a two-year non-guaranteed deal a high-upside play that looks like it’s going to pan out.

That may not seem significant, but it’s a big deal for the Lakers. Most of the players currently on the roster, including Gasol, will be long gone next year. Finding cheap options that can contribute to next year’s team has to be the top priority, so long as we’re going to ignore the white elephants of tanking and taxes.

At least in that sense, D’Antoni is the perfect coach for the Lakers right now. For as unimpressive as his defensive resume is, D’Antoni has a history of unearthing diamonds in the rough. His offensive system can inflate numbers, and in turn, it can inflate the trade value of the players putting up those numbers. That’s important – arguably moreso than wins are at this point.

That won’t stop the pitchforks from being raised, of course. There is a tipping point with D’Antoni that’s been reached multiple times in the past, and bad defense usually reflects worse on a coach than a hapless offense does. There’s a reason D’Antoni has been fired before, and there’s a reason it will likely happen again.

But it shouldn’t happen yet – not so long as D’Antoni is helping to improve the Lakers’ future, one way or another.

-D.J. Foster

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This was the best video of the night — watch J.R. Smith on the left of the screen untie Shawn Marion’s shoe during Dirk Nowitzki’s free throw attempt. Marion plays the entire next possession that way before getting to tie his shoe.

The question on twitter after this… (keep reading)

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Grizzlies 112, Pistons 84: This game was close for the first half (Detroit led by 5 at the break and got good play from their bigs) then the Grizzlies won the second half 61-28 as the Pistons shot just 30.8 percent in the second half and were 1-of-9 from three. The last 24 minutes were everything you feared about the Pistons — Josh Smith taking bad jumpers, Brandon Jennings was 0-of-7, and they didn’t defend. Jon Lauer came off the bench to lead the Grizzlies with 23 points, and a rare shout out this season to Ed Davis (not a good fit in the Grizzlies system most nights) who had 13 points in the fourth quarter to keep this a blow out.

Pacers 82, Cavaliers 78: It wasn’t pretty. To use the Rasheed Wallace classic, both teams played hard. But it wasn’t pretty. This was the kind of game you expect the Pacers to win in the postseason (well, except for the for the lack of crowd noise) — it was a grind-it-out win. They defended and held the Cavaliers to 34.2 percent shooting, or an offensive rating or 89.6 points per 100 possessions. Indiana just couldn’t shoot. Paul George led the Pacers with 16 points on 4-of-10 shooting, while Roy Hibbert had 15 points (on 12 shots).

Heat 102, Raptors 97: Moral victories suck, but Toronto should take this as one — they looked like the third best team in the East right now (which they are) and led entering the fourth quarter. Jonas Valanciunas had 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting and outplayed Chris Bosh for most of the night. DeMar DeRozan looked like an All-Star with 26 points and 7 assists, but he wore down in the fourth. That’s when LeBron James played like the LeBron James you expect — 10 of his 30 points came in the fourth quarter. Once again Beasley was key with 17 points off the bench, he’s becoming a real weapon.

Warriors 112, Wizards 96: Make that nine wins in a row for Golden State, the last five on the road. This one was tied at the half, but the Wizards have had some rough third quarters recently and the Warriors took advantage this time. Golden State started the second half on a 19-3 run and they led comfortably the rest of the way, shooting 50.3 percent on the night. The Warriors were led by 26 points from Klay Thompson, while David Lee had 21 points and 11 boards (10 of his points came in the key third quarter). John Wall had a strong first half but wasn’t a factor in the second and finished with 14 points (tied for most on the Wizards) on 11 shots.

Thunder 119, Celtics 96: It was the second night of a back-to-back after a tough game against Minnesota, yet this was the best the Thunder have looked in a week. You can thank Reggie Jackson for that, as he had a career high 27 points and played with a lot of confidence from the start (he opened the game 4-of-4 shooting). He seems to be growing into the role of starter with Russell Westbrook out. Boston got 19 a piece from Avery Bradley and Jeff Green, but this one was never close. Kevin Durant had 21 and never got off the bench in the fourth quarter.

Knicks 92, Mavericks 80: Dirk Nowitzki was right, Dallas didn’t look like a playoff team in this game. They looked flat. Even without an ill Tyson Chandler New York took the lead with a 21-5 run in the first quarter and held that the rest of the way, fighting back each Mavericks’ run. While Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 19 points it was the seven points late in the fourth quarter from Iman Shumpert that sealed the win the win. Dallas got 18 out of Nowitzki but the team scored just 35 points in the first half and seemed uninspired.

Nuggets 137, Lakers 115: Fast paced, high scoring, this was a little bit of a throwback to a 1985 Lakers/Nuggets game. Except much more sloppy. Denver took control of this game in the third quarter with a 17-2 run sparked by Ty Lawson (20 points on the night) and they got strong play off the bench with from Timofey Mozgov (who also had 20). Brian Shaw needs to play Mozgov and Kenneth Faried together more. On the other side, the Lakers continue to get good play out of Kendall Marshall — he had 17 assists and when he sat the Lakers offense loses all structure.

—Kurt Helin

Check out Lakers’ stretch of hitting 15 straight shots to end third quarter (VIDEO)

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The Lakers lost to the Wizards because they are young, inconsistent, and defend like traffic cones at times.

But that young Lakers core also has its moments.

Los Angeles strung together 15 straight made buckets to end the third quarter Tuesday night. Some of it was flukey, like Corey Brewer driving and finishing contested layups like he’s Kyrie Irving, but there were things Lakers fans should want to see such as D'Angelo Russell draining threes, Jordan Clarkson working hard off the ball and his teammates finding him, and Julius Randle just attacking.

After this run the Lakers led by 13 going into the fourth, but lost the game.

It’s official: Joakim Noah cleared to play, 20-game suspension starts tonight

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What this ultimately means is next season the Knicks should have Joakim Noah available just before Thanksgiving.

Noah has been suspended 20 games for testing positive for a banned substance, but because he was out due to knee surgery the suspension did not start until he was “physically able to play.” Noah said on Tuesday that he had been cleared, but that was just by the team doctors. He also had to be cleared by the NBA’s doctors (because if teams could cheat they would).

That happened Wednesday, according to Ian Begley of ESPN.

Noah’s first season in New York after signing a four-year, $72 million deal has been a disappointment. To put it kindly. He’s not been completely healthy, and any observer of him the past few years had to wonder if he would ever be fully healthy again. He had lost a step from the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year before the Knicks signed him. The Knicks don’t need him to necessarily be that dominant a force again (although it would be nice), but they need to get more out of him and see if he is a fit next to Kristaps Porzingis for now as the Knicks try to build a roster for next season that can play a little defense. And the triangle.

Report: Pacers bring back Lance Stephenson in time for playoffs; deal for three-years, $12 million

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The Indiana Pacers need healthy bodies for their playoff run, and they had three rotation guys injured between Al Jefferson, Glenn Robinson III, and Rodney Stuckey. Wednesday, the Pacers waived Stuckey to create an open roster spot to bring in some help (they were not going to pick up his option for next season anyway).

Who are they bringing in? The prodigal son Lance Stephenson returns, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

The surprising part of the deal was the security Stephenson got, as first reported by Adam Zagoria at his blog — three years, $12 million, with a player option for the final year. (This has since been confirmed by other sources.) Other teams were looking at giving Stephenson a 10-day contract, the length of the Pacers’ offer is a surprise.

Stephenson played in six games for Minnesota recently, averaging 3.5 points per game off the bench, but an ankle sprain kept the Timberwolves from really having to decide whether to keep him for the season. Stephenson knows how to create shots for himself and can be a good defender when focused, something we saw with the Pelicans at the start of this season — he became a key part of their rotation averaging 9.7 points and 4.8 assists per game until he tore his groin.

It’s a little strange to see him back in Pacers colors. It will be particularly strange if the Pacers stay in the seven seed and the Cavaliers remain the two-seed setting up a first-round playoff series. Because I don’t think any of us need to see this again.

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Tuesday’s win gives Wizards first division crown since 1979

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Divisions are almost forgotten in the NBA. They exist still as quaint reminders of days gone by, but they don’t matter other than as a potential tie breaker with a non-division-winning team. Winning your division doesn’t even guarantee a team a playoff spot anymore.

Yet, the last time Washington had won a division title they were in the Atlantic division and when you turned on the radio you were likely to hear that new hit Heart Of Glass by Blondie. It was 1979.

That was until Tuesday when John Wall led a 13-point comeback in the fourth quarter against the Lakers to get the Wizards the win and the SouthEast division title.

According to CBSSports.com, that 38-year division title drought was longer than any team in any major U.S. professional sports — NHL, NFL, and MLB.

Congrats to the Wizards. They also have locked up home court in the first round, and they are currently the No. 3 seed in the playoffs (who they face in the first round is up in the air still as only three games separate seeds five through nine).

With Scott Brooks at the helm this feels like a far more dangerous — and healthy — team heading into the postseason. Wizards fans have waited a lot time for a team like this.