NBA: Sacramento Kings at Miami Heat

The Extra Pass: Rudy Gay taking control of his own story in Sacramento; plus Monday’s recaps

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The Memphis Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay and reached the Western Conference Finals. The Toronto Raptors traded Gay and are streaking toward home-court advantage in the first-round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Regardless of anything Gay did, his perceived value dropped considerably in the last two years.

But might Gay be taking control of his own narrative now?

Gay has played well in his 15 games with the Sacramento Kings, at first alternating gems and duds throughout the first seven contests as he’s done for much of his career. But in the last eight games, Gay has taken off while helping Sacramento to a 5-3 record. He’s producing better than usual across the board, the biggest uptick coming in the area he’s under the strongest microscope: scoring.

In his last eight contests, Gay is averaging 23.0 points per game. Everyone knows Gay can score. He’s had 23 other eight-game stretches within a single season where he’s scored this much, all with the Grizzlies.

But the typical questions revolve around how he scores. Is he efficient? Is he helping his team’s offense? The answers in this stretch are a resounding yes and yes.

In this stretch, Gay has made 57.3 percent of his shots and the Kings have a 112.1 offensive rating with him on the court. Both marks best his previous 23 eight-game stretches with at least 23.0 points per game.

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But it’s difficult to see why Gay has been scoring so much better.

He’s working within the flow of the offense about as much as usual. His baskets aren’t any more likely to be assisted than prior to this run.

His shot selection by area of the floor is basically the same as usual, too.

And it’s probably not the opposing defenses, either. The Kings’ last eight opponents – Heat (10th in defensive rating), Spurs (5th), Rockets (11th), 76ers (28th), Bobcats (8th), Magic (18th), Trail Blazers (22th), Cavaliers (16th) – average out to an approximately median defense. (Though the Kings are scoring a solid 105.7 points per 100 possessions without Gay in these eight games, at least leaving the door open that something larger than Gay is afoot).

The simplest answer is that Gay, for all his foibles, is an extremely talented player and this is well within his range. Gay has never matched individual volume and efficiency like this, let alone mixing in the team-wide offensive success. But the results are not so far beyond his previous high-water marks that this couldn’t be another regular wave, splashing just a little higher toward shore.

One contributing factor might be the Kings’ schedule. They haven’t played a back-to-back in these eight games, the last five of which have been at home. Gay, an impressive athlete, has looked particularly explosive in this stretch – elevating quickly and highly on his jumpers, starting and stopping on drives and just making strong moves with the ball in his hands.

Sacramento begins a six-game road trip that should really test just how far Gay has come, and the results could reveal themselves very soon.

Tonight, he’ll face the Pacers, who are led by small forward Paul George, one of the NBA’s best defenders at the position. A Wednesday game with the Timberwolves will mean Gay’s first back-to-back since this run started. And then Friday, he’ll be back in Memphis, where he’ll surely want to prove the Grizzlies erred by giving up on him.

Gay has never played like this before. I’m not sure he ever will again.

But the chance to prove this improved production, or something near it, is sustainable begins tonight in Indiana.

-Dan Feldman

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Knicks 98, Suns 96 (OT): The Knicks won their fifth straight, but they didn’t make it easy on themselves against a Suns team that has a reputation for fighting until the end this season, no matter the circumstances. New York led by as many as 14 in this one, but found itself trailing by five with less than five minutes left. Leandro Barbosa, who Phoenix recently signed to a 10-day contract, showed flashes of his former Suns self with 14 fourth quarter points, and made the two free throws that forced the extra session. Carmelo Anthony led all scorers with 29 points, and Raymond Felton had a good night offensively with 19, but struggled to contain or even slow Barbosa and Goran Dragic on the perimeter. This was the final night of a five-game, seven-day road trip for Phoenix, and it showed in overtime where the team struggled to get good looks and went 0-for-7 from the field in the last five minutes. —Brett Pollakoff

Raptors 116, Bucks 94: The Bucks have the worst record in the league at 7-30, and the Raptors have been surging since the trade of Rudy Gay, and have won eight of their last 10 games. As a result, Toronto took charge of this one from the jump, scoring 38 first quarter points and leading by as many as 14 points over the game’s first 12 minutes. The lead reached 31 before the night was through. Kyle Lowry, whose name was mentioned in trade talks earlier this season, continued his strong play with a team-best 23 points on eight shots, to go along with five assists. —BP

Rockets 104, Celtics 92: This was an ugly game for Boston when you look at the way the Rockets clobbered the Celtics for most of the night, outscoring them 65-38 over the second and third periods. Boston made it uglier in the fourth when they went to the strategy of intentionally fouling Dwight Howard and sending him to the line 14 times in the game’s final period. Howard made six of those and finished 10-of-18 from the line for the night. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said afterward that he would support a change in the rule that allows the intentional fouling to take place, even though he used it, and achieved less-than-ideal results. So maybe it’s time. —BP

Wizards 100, Bulls 87: So much for the Bulls five-game win streak — this is not a team or roster than can take a night off from executing on defense, Chicago did and they paid. Washington opened this game on an 8-0 run and never trailed in this game. Washington shot 59 percent in the first half and 52 percent for the game. The wizards were led by John Wall and Nene, each of whom had 18 points — when they are both healthy and working well Washington is a pretty dangerous team. Wall was able to basically get wherever he wanted on the court, he was too quick for the Bulls defenders. — Kurt Helin

Spurs 101, Pelicans 95: Consider this a moral victory for the shorthanded Pelicans (no Ryan Anderson or Jrue Holiday for a while). The Pelicans got 9 points from Eric Gordon in the first quarter, 12 from Anthony Davis in the first half and they did a good job defending the arc. Then the fourth quarter came and the Spurs shot 60 percent overall, hit 4-of-6 from three, got 8 points from Marco Belinelli and pulled ahead for the win. Tony Parker was a stud — 27 points and 7 assists. Tell me again how he shouldn’t be an All-Star this year. —KH

Mavericks 107, Magic 88: The Mavericks went on a 14-4 run in the first quarter to take control of this game, and that was pretty much it. Oh, they played more than three quarters because NBA rules demand it, but the game was never in doubt. Monta Ellis had 21 points, Vince Carter 17 and it was a professional, taking care of business win for Dallas. For Orlando… well, there was one stretch in the second half where they played better. Orlando has lost eight in a row, seven now by double digits. —KH

Jazz 118, Nuggets 103: Utah had a monster offensive night — led by Alec Burks 34 points the Jazz shot 55.7 percent as a team, or to look at it another way they had an offensive rating of 123.2 points per 100 possessions in this game. That was tied to some terrible defense from Denver — the Nuggets played poor defense in the paint (we’re looking at you Kenneth Faried and J.J. Hickson) which forced the guards to come down and help in the paint, which left the Utah guards open and they made Denver pay. Derrick Favors had 19 points for Denver, Trey Burke 18. —KH

Phil Jackson says his goal for Knicks last season was 35 wins

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Phil Jackson predicted the playoffs for the Knicks in 2014-15, and he’s again drumming up postseason buzz for 2016-17.

Between, he was much more cautious.

The Knicks president didn’t make any bold proclamations entering last season. But, somewhat after the fact, he revealed his goal for the team.

Jackson in a March interview with Charley Rosen of Today’s Fastbreak that was published this month:

I’m also still hopeful that we can win the 35 games I had said was our goal before the season. That would be a vast improvement. More than twice the number that we won last year. We need to go 7-5 to get there.

“I know the guys don’t care about winning 35. They’re not marking it as their own goal. They just feel better about winning.

That’s a pretty pathetic aspiration – and the Knicks still didn’t meet it. They finished 32-50.

Jackson can say the players didn’t care about 35 wins, and they probably didn’t. It’s hard to see Carmelo Anthony appreciating aiming so low (though he might not resent it enough, which is anther issue).

But part of Jackson’s job is setting a tone for the organization. If he’s shooting for merely nearing mediocrity, that trickles down.

Jackson said entering the season he changed the Knicks’ culture. I’m not nearly as convinced.

51Q: Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 27:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets waits on the court before the game against the Atlanta Hawks at Toyota Center on November 27, 2013 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

It’s hard to remember an NBA star whose perception has changed as much in five years as Dwight Howard’s has. He hasn’t really helped matters — his messy exits from the Magic and Lakers, as well as his rumored feud with James Harden in Houston and declining production due to injuries have clearly lowered his standing. It’s easy to forget that five years ago, he was a three-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, legitimate MVP candidate and had recently been the best player on a team that went to the Finals.

As insane as it is to think about, the three-year deal Howard signed with his hometown Atlanta Hawks this summer is something of a reclamation project for a once-perennial All-NBA player. And the Hawks may be the perfect situation for him to rehabilitate his career.

From a pure talent standpoint, Howard in 2016 is a downgrade from Al Horford, who left Atlanta for Boston in free agency. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s system is predicated on spacing, and Howard offensively is useless from outside five feet. But he does undeniably fill holes. Last season, the Hawks were one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, with the third-lowest rebound rate, per NBA.com. Rebounding is one of the things that Howard can still do consistently at an elite level.

Howard also brings enormous value as a pick-and-roll finisher, when he wants to accept that role. In Los Angeles and Houston, he was still under the impression that his best use was as a post-up big, likely in large part due to Shaquille O’Neal’s nonstop criticisms of his game on Inside the NBA.

If Howard is willing to play the pick-and-roll and doesn’t demand touches, he can still be an impact player in Atlanta. The hope would be that after leaving three teams on bad terms, Howard accepts that at this point in his career, he isn’t a first option on offense anymore, and he’s willing to play a role similar to what Tyson Chandler was on the Mavericks’ 2011 title team: a rebounder and rim protector who feasts offensively on putback dunks and scores in the pick and roll.

If Howard can do that, the Hawks have enough talent to stay in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference despite losing Horford. They have other question marks on their roster — they still haven’t found a full-time replacement for DeMarre Carroll, and the transition from the just-traded Jeff Teague to Dennis Schroder is going to be rocky.

But they have the pieces, the coach and the culture for Howard to be successful in Atlanta if he wants to be.

Little kid in silly green hat eliminates Avery Bradley in knockout (video)

Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, left, gestures as Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) steps on the court in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Sacrament Kings, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Boston. The Celtics won 128-119. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
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Tired of NBA players dominating kids during the summer?

Here’s the video for you.

Celtics guard Avery Bradley loses in knockout – thanks to the smallest kid in the clip, who’s wearing a shirt way to big for him and a silly green hat.

Brian Robb of Celtics Hub:

Children in NBA player camps everywhere, you have been avenged.

Marc Gasol says he nearly played in Olympics, his foot seems fine

MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 24:  Marc Gasol #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies celebrates against the Oklahoma City Thunder during  Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum on April 24, 2014 in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Marc Gasol missed the final two months of last season and Olympics with a foot injury.

When will the Grizzlies center return?

Gasol in L’Esportiu, as translated by Jorge Sierra of HoopsHype:

On his foot injury:

“I’m really well and looking forward to starting (the season). I miss the competition, playing and enjoying basketball. All indications are that the foot is fine. I’ve practiced with the (Girona basketball club) juniors all I could, especially half-court sets.”

On almost making it to the Olympic Games:

“I was a couple of weeks away.”

After hurting his foot, it always seemed highly improbably Gasol would play in the Rio Games. But maybe he wasn’t that far off.

It’d be a huge boost to Memphis if Gasol is healthy as he sounds. The Grizzlies kept their window for winning open by re-signing Mike Conley and signing Chandler Parsons this summer, but Gasol is central to that. If healthy, Gasol is in the running for the NBA’s best center.  Memphis went 30-22 with him and 12-18 without him last season (though other injuries contributed to the downfall).