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

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim keeps fabricating NBA draft stats

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Sophomore forward Tyler Lydon declared for the NBA draft, which Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim seized as an opportunity to spew more nonsense.

Connor Grossman of The Daily Orange:

Boeheim cautioned Lydon about jumping into the NBA Draft now, knowing he lacked the “monster year” it would’ve taken for him to get lottery pick consideration.

“He didn’t demonstrate this year that he can be a lottery pick,” Boeheim said, “but next year I know he can be. That’s what I told him. I think he can come back here and demonstrate that he can be a lottery pick.

“I think it’s a better way to go to the NBA. You make money, they draft you high, they play you. Half the picks between 20-30 are out of the league within three years.”

We don’t yet know whether anyone drafted in 2014 or later will last more than three years in the NBA. So, let’s examine the prior 10-year period: 2004-2013. I exempted Nikola Mirotic, who jumped late to the NBA and is in his third season right now (even though I’d be shocked if he’s not in the NBA next season).

In that span, 22% of players picked between 20-30 were out of the league within in three years.

That’s not even half of Boeheim’s stated figure.

A third of those picks who washed out so quickly were international players. NBA teams are pretty good at scouting and developing college players, who face fewer hurdles in translating to the to the league. So, Lydon being projected to go in the first round means something.

The most recent college player picked in this range to fall out of the league, Perry Jones, got paid for a fourth season. Even the cases that count for Boeheim are poor examples.

And who’s to say Lydon would develop into a lottery pick if he stayed another year at Syracuse? The only guarantee would be missing an opportunity at a year of NBA earnings. Lydon’s stock could fall, a precarious possibility for someone who doesn’t excel at creating shots. Lydon can develop with an NBA team, maybe even spending time in the D-League – while earning far more than the college-sports cartel allows.

Boeheim’s self-serving approach is painfully evident. He enriches himself on the backs of young college players, and when the most talented among them leave early, that hurts his stature. So, he makes up bogus figures in attempt to get what he wants.

It’s shameful.

Heat’s James Johnson says he can roundhouse kick a ball wedgied between backboard and rim

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James Johnson is having a career year for the surging Heat. The forward is doing a bit of everything – scoring, distributing, defending.

But we apparently haven’t seen all he can do.

Johnson, in a Q&A with Anthony Chiang of PalmBeachPost.com

Q: Can you really roundhouse kick a ball that’s stuck between the backboard and the rim?

James: “That’s a fact.”

Q: When was the last time you did it?

James: “The summer before last season.”

Q: So the last time you did it, you were with Toronto?

James: “And I was heavier. I still have everything I can do. It’s not like I lost anything. If anything, I’ve gained [more ability]. I lost weight. I’m stronger, more flexible. I might be able to get it easier now.”

Q: How old were you when you realized you could do this?

James: “Probably like 15, 16. That’s when I first knew I could do it. Then it was just something I could always do.”

Video or it never happened.

LeBron James, making career-low 67%, pledges to shoot at least 80% on free throws in playoffs

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LeBron James is making a career-low 67% of his free throws this season.

LeBron, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“Yeah it’s killing me, it’s killing me,” James said

But I’ll be fine for the playoffs. For the rest of the regular season I’m going to end up shooting in the 60s, which is a career-low for me, but the postseason I’ll be up there in the 80s.

LeBron has never shot better than 78% in any regular season. He has only once eclipsed 78% in a postseason, shooting 81% in 2014.

If he could simply decide to shoot better from the line, why hasn’t he done it already?

That said, the Cavaliers look like they’re just biding their time until the playoffs. Their focus should increase, and LeBron’s free-throw percentage should rise with it.

But to 80%? Though I’ve learned never to count out LeBron, I’m skeptical.

Dwight Howard ate equivalent of 24 candy bars daily for about a decade

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Dwight Howard‘s love for candy is infamous, though in recent years he has talked more about healthy habits.

Just how much candy did he consume at his peak?

Baxter Holmes of ESPN:

By February’s All-Star break, it was time for a full-blown intervention, and Dr. Cate Shanahan, the Lakers’ nutritionist, led the charge, speaking to Howard by phone from her office in Napa, California. Howard’s legs tingled, he complained, but she noticed he was having trouble catching passes too, as if his hands were wrapped in oven mitts. Well, he quietly admitted, his fingers also tingled. Shanahan, with two decades of experience in the field, knew Howard possessed a legendary sweet tooth, and she suspected his consumption of sugar was causing a nerve dysfunction called dysesthesia, which she’d seen in patients with prediabetes. She urged him to cut back on sugar for two weeks. If that didn’t help, she said, she vowed to resign.

To alter Howard’s diet, though, Shanahan first had to understand it. After calls with his bodyguard, chef and a personal assistant, she uncovered a startling fact: Howard had been scarfing down about two dozen chocolate bars’ worth of sugar every single day for years, possibly as long as a decade. “You name it, he ate it,” she says. Skittles, Starbursts, Rolos, Snickers, Mars bars, Twizzlers, Almond Joys, Kit Kats and oh, how he loved Reese’s Pieces. He’d eat them before lunch, after lunch, before dinner, after dinner, and like any junkie, he had stashes all over — in his kitchen, his bedroom, his car, a fix always within reach. She told his assistants to empty his house, and they hauled out his monstrous candy stash in boxes — yes, boxes, plural.

Howard is 6-foot-11 and muscular, and he does strenuous workouts daily. He can handle far more food than the average person.

Still, dear lord, that’s a lot of candy.

This anecdote was part of Holmes’ fantastic story on peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches’ place in the NBA. I suggest reading it in full.