The Extra Pass: The Raptors press pause, plus Wednesday’s recaps

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When Masai Ujiri jumped from the Denver Nuggets to the Toronto Raptors to take over as general manager, the objective was clear. Ujiri was to do what he does best: tear it down, and try to salvage as much value as possible from the mistakes made by the previous regime.

Ujiri hasn’t failed to live up to expectations. Getting a future first-round pick from an organization as dysfunctional as the Knicks…for Andrea Bargnani? Magic. Dumping Rudy Gay’s potentially massive deal next season on the Sacramento Kings? Smart.

There’s been some major addition by subtraction going on, as the Raptors are very clearly a much better team on both ends without the inefficiency of Gay and the ineptitude of Bargnani.

Dwane Casey, who looked to be playing the role of a lame duck coach, has cobbled together the 8th best defense in the league. Casey is often criticized, but he hangs his hat on defense, and the Raptors have bought in on that end.

Toronto’s vastly improved play (they’re at .500 and would host a playoff series if the season ended today) presents an interesting situation. Can the Raptors put their rebuild on hold? Is giving Ujiri a yellow light in potential trades, particularly given what he’s been able to pull off so far, the best thing for the long-term health of the franchise? Can Ujiri maintain the respect of the players and coaching staff if he continues the rebuilding process when the Raptors are playing their best basketball in a very long time?

Perhaps these are good problems to have, especially opposed to more hopeless ones — like not having enough talent. Toronto has been there, done that.

And while it seems unlikely that Ujiri will stop wheeling and dealing altogether, there are landmines everywhere on the roster. DeMar DeRozan, the player most likely to go in a full rebuild because of his long-term deal, may be the hardest worker and biggest fan-favorite on the team.

People can and will fall  in love with this group, so long as Ujiri lets them. While a general manager’s job isn’t to coddle fans, Ujiri will have a hard time selling the desire to create a “winning culture” if he puts a stop to one that’s developing.

Half measures in the NBA are usually met with derision. You should be all-in, or all-out, all the time. But the Raptors are a good example of why everything isn’t always so cut and dry. Every team wants to reach the same destination, naturally, but there are detours unique to each franchise along the way.

For the Raptors, that detour has been brought on by more winning. Good on them if they ride it out.

D.J. Foster

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Nets 102, Warriors 98: Brooklyn was without Deron Williams in this one, but still managed to end the Warriors’ 10-game winning streak thanks to 27 points from Joe Johnson, a nice overall performance from the bench unit and a throwback fourth quarter from Kevin Garnett. KG had 11 points in just eight minutes of the final period, to go along with three rebounds and two steals — one of which came against Stephen Curry on a critical possession with just 12 seconds left. Curry and Klay Thompson both had below average shooting nights for the second straight game, and played 45 and 43 minutes respectively on the second night of a back-to-back set to end a long seven-game road trip. That’s not ideal for the Warriors, and they may need to trade for some additional help if they want to achieve their ultimate goal this season. –– BP

Spurs 112, Mavericks 90: We’ll go out on a limb here and point out that when four of your team’s starting five, including your franchise’s best player combine to shoot 10-of-36 fro the field, you’re probably not going to win on that particular night. The box score on the Mavericks end looked like a horror show in that regard, with only Monta Ellis and Vince Carter managing to finish in double figures scoring. The Spurs were efficient as always, shooting 52.6 percent as a team with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan leading the way with rock solid performances. — BP

Raptors 112, Pistons 91: Toronto has solidified itself as the third best team in the East since trading Rudy Gay to Sacramento, and the Pistons continue to struggle in fourth quarters to the point where it’s becoming as darkly comical as it is predictable. Something happens to Detroit at halftime, and whatever it is needs to change or the team will have trouble snapping out of a losing funk that’s now reached six straight games. In this one, the Pistons managed just 37 second half points as they were outscored by 25 points over the game’s final two periods. — BP

Hawks 97, Pacers 87: Sometimes, it’s easy to explain why an elite team lost to an average one, and this was a prime example. When Roy Hibbert disappears, so does the Pacers’ status as one of the league’s best teams. Hibbert couldn’t do much of anything offensively, and finished 1-of-8 from the field with two points and four rebounds in 22 minutes. That contributed to an inefficient 11-of-25 performance from Paul George, but for a Pacers team playing its fourth game in five nights, this was a schedule loss more than anything else. The Hawks had five players finish in double figures, and led by as many as 25 points. — BP

Wizards 102, Pelicans 96: Washington took charge of this game with a 12-0 run to start the second quarter on a night they got good bench play from guys like Garrett Temple and Jan Vesely. It looked like the Wizards would get a laugher, leading by 23 in the fourth quarter, but a 21-4 New Orleans run made it interesting late. Trevor Ariza had 21 points including some key threes, and John Wall had 20. Eric Gordon led a listless Pelicans team with 23. — KH

Rockets 113, Lakers 99: Houston got focused in the third quarter and ran away with it behind 38 points from James Harden. We broke this game down in more detail here. –KH

Suns 104, Timberwolves 103: Minnesota continues to find painful ways to lose close games — Phoenix went on a 9-1 run to close out the game capped by a Gerald Green bucket to come from behind to steal a win. This was a Suns team without Eric Bledsoe on the second night of a back-to-back, but they executed at the end of the game and once again the Timberwolves did not — Minnesota is now 0-10 in games decided by four points or less. Some of that is bad luck, but some of it is just execution under pressure and this team has to figure out how to do that if they are going to get over .500. Goran Dragic had 26 for the Suns, Kevin Martin had 20 for the Timberwolves. — KH

Trail Blazers 110, Magic 94: Orlando actually led much of the first three quarters and looked like they might pull off an upset — mostly because the vaunted Blazers offense was off, shooting just 41.8 percent through three quarters. Orlando also got a boost from Arron Afflalo, who had 14 of his 22 in the second quarter. Then Portland woke up for the fourth, shot 60 percent, knocked down 5 threes and won the final 12 minutes 39-19. Ballgame. LaMarcus Aldridge had 26 points for Portland. –KH

Clippers 111, Celtics 105: Every win the Clippers get without Chris Paul in the lineup is a good one — they are 3-1 since the injury. The Clippers raced out to a 26-10 lead behind Blake Griffin, who had 11 of his 29 in the first quarter. Then of course the Clippers relaxed and Boston fought back, but in the third the Clippers regained control and held on for the win. Jamal Crawford had 26 for the Clippers. Avery Bradley and Jordan Crawford each had 24 for Boston. Oh, and Griffin destroyed Kris Humphries on a dunk. — KH

Paul George floors Jeremy Lamb with crossover, hits step-back 3-pointer over him (video)

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The Thunder suffered a rough home loss to the Hornets, but at least Oklahoma City produced a couple fun highlights.

Not only did Russell Westbrook have this powerful dunk, Paul George put the moves on Jeremy Lamb.

David West pump fakes past one Trail Blazer, posterizes another (video)

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David West is 37 years old.

Three Things to Know: Rockets extend win streak to 10, Thunder… not so much

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Here’s a roundup of Monday night’s action you might have missed while paying for a $14,000 Uber ride.

1) Rockets fall behind in a shootout, but come back from 13 down late in the third to extend win streak to 10. This was as good a game as the Pelicans could play without Anthony Davis — they put up 103 points on 58.7 percent shooting and hitting 17 threes. DeMarcus Cousins was a beast in the paint, while Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore couldn’t seem to miss from beyond the arc. Late in the third the Pelicans were up 13, and they were up 10 at the start of the fourth.

It was not enough.

James Harden had 12 points in the fourth (and finished the game with a career-high 17 assists).

Chris Paul added 11 in the fourth, and the Rockets stormed back winning the fourth 37-20 and the game 130-123, extending their win streak to 10 games.

The Rockets are 21-4 and are outscoring teams by 11.4 points per 100 possessions this season — they are the best team in the NBA right now. CP3 and Harden mesh on offense — the Rockets are +7.8 points per 100 when they are on the court together — and Houston surprisingly has the fifth best defense in the NBA this season. None of this is a fluke. This team is playing hard right now, establishing an identity, and establishing themselves as a contender.

Can they beat a healthy Warriors team in a seven-game series? I am not going that far, I think there are things that can be exploited in a series, but we are five months away from the Rockets needing to answer that question. What Houston has shown is it is the team best suited to challenge Golden State — the Rockets can play at pace and thrive, they have multiple elite scoring playmakers (and coach Mike D’Antoni staggers them so one is almost always on the court), they have a switchable defense that can attack the Warriors wings, and they have the right mindset. GM Daryl Morey put together a team to go after the Warriors, and he did it better than anyone. They are a legit threat to the title holders, and the Rockets should only get better as the season moves along.

2) Celtics lose with Kyrie Irving out. Thunder lose because… you tell me? There were a couple of upsets Monday night in the NBA, but only one was easy to excuse.

The lowly Chicago Bulls have not been quite so lowly the past week, winning three straight games, the latest one handily against the Boston Celtics 108-85. Credit best friends Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis (*cough*) who combined for 47 points, plus the improved play of Kris Dunn lately continued as he had a dozen points. We would normally call this a terrible loss for the Celtics, and you can be sure Brad Stevens didn’t like it, but with Kyrie Irving sitting out with a left quad contusion, there is at least a good reason for the off night.

There is no good reason for the Thunder — fully healthy — to lose at home to the Charlotte Hornets 116-103. The Hornets hit 13-of-25 from three, and Dwight Howard outplayed Steven Adams all night on his way to 23 points, Kemba Walker had 19 points and 9 assists, but this is the kind of game the Thunder should win. After a Russell Westbrook highlight slam over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the game was tied 66-66, but then the Hornets went on a 22-2 run. Of late, the Thunder looked like they were turning a corner with three straight wins, but then followed it up losing 2-of-3 now and needing to go to overtime against a shorthanded Grizzlies team to get that one win. Royce Young re-tweeted himself and hit the nail on the head.

There is no one thing wrong with the Thunder, but more and more focus is turning to Carmelo Anthony. Not just his lack of defense or his shooting slump — he had 11 points Monday and is shooting 33 percent overall and 16.7 percent from three his last five games — but the roster depth OKC gave up to get him. Paul George and Russell Westbrook have a grove together (the Thunder are +4.8 per 100 when they are paired) but things slow when Anthony is added to the mix and another star sits while Anthony plays. In ‘Melo’s last five games OKC is -1.8 per 100 with Anthony on the court.

The Thunder still have time, but each day the inconsistent play and losing get more concerning. As George said after the game, “We can say we’re going to figure it out, we can say all that, but at some point it’s got to stop.”

3) Matt Barnes retires. Barnes announced Monday on Instagram that his 15-year NBA run was over.

For a lot of fans, mention Barnes and they think of the guy who tried to get in a fight with Derek Fisher. Or the New York nightclub incident with Cousins. Or the guy who was a pest on the court and seemed a magnet for technical fouls and fines from the league office. But Barnes was the kind of guy you wanted coming off the bench on your team and hated to play against — he went hard, he could shoot threes, he defended, and he brought a spark to the game. He was the kind of opponent you hate to go against.

Barnes was a second-round pick out of UCLA who played for nine teams during his career. He was the guy teams turned to for a spark off the bench — both because he could shoot the rock and because he played a fiery, emotional game. Barnes finished his career averaging 8.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Barnes won an NBA title with the Warriors last season, and he played well after Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury and Barnes was thrust into a larger role (the Warriors went on a 14-game win streak in that time).

While he had a rough exterior, off the court he was one of the more thoughtful basketball interviews out there — ask him about the game and he gave smart, calm, intelligent answers, not just clichés. He was active with charities and gave of his time and money, it wasn’t just a tax write off for him. He’ll be missed by some of us, but he’s a guy ready for life after basketball.

Rockets’ Clint Capela dunks, blocks, plays DeMarcus Cousins to standstill (VIDEO)

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Welcome to Clint Capela‘s big night.

Going toe-to-toe with DeMarcus Cousins — who has been playing at an All-NBA level this season and had 24 and 14 on Monday night — the Rockets’ athletic big played Cousins to a standstill. Capela had a career-high 28 points on 13-of-14 from the field with most of his shots being dunks (every one of this shots was at the rim), plus he had five blocks, most of Cousins.

It was the best game the Swiss national has had as a pro, who also had eight rebounds on the night. Check out his big night above.