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

Warriors eliminate Spurs, advance to face Pelicans

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Kevin Durant drained a pull-up 3-pointer reminiscent of his signature NBA Finals shot in the final minute of the third quarter. The Spurs ended the quarter with a flurry and kept coming.

Durant made consecutive mid-range jumpers over Kyle Anderson midway through the fourth quarter. The Spurs called timeout, subbed  Rudy Gay for Anderson and kept coming.

Durant drove past Gay and dunked. The Spurs called another timeout and kept coming.

Each of those Durant shots seemed as if they could be the backbreaker. Credit San Antonio for continuing to play hard.

But without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were just overmatched against the superstar small forward in the Warriors’ 4-1 first-round victory – which ended with Golden State’s 99-91 Game 5 win Tuesday.

The Warriors’ next opponent – the Pelicans, who open their second-round series Saturday – could soon learn the feeling.

New Orleans relies on E'Twaun Moore, Darius Miller and Solomon Hill at small forward – not the slate of stoppers that seems ready for Durant. Even on an off night (1-for-8 on 3-pointers, five turnovers), Durant scored 25 in Game 5. He’s a tough cover. But those three Pelicans – Moore (size), Miller (fundamentals) and Hill (speed) – each have major defensive liabilities Durant can exploit.

And Durant will have plenty of help.

Klay Thompson (24 points) appears headed back on track after a clunker in Game 4. Draymond Green (17 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists) looks locked in.

And, of course, Stephen Curry is poised to return sometime against the Pelicans.

The Warriors weren’t very impressive in the San Antonio series. Nor did they need to be. The Spurs were just overmatched, unable to summon nearly enough offense.

But Golden State showed enough focus and reminders of its talent to retain favored status even against better opponents – like New Orleans, which swept the Trail Blazers. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday lead a surging team.

The Spurs want to get back on that level, and that stars with solving the Leonard dilemma this summer.

Will they offer him a super-max extension? Would he take it? Will they trade him? Will he request a trade?

With questions like that facing San Antonio, by comparison, the Pelicans are stable at small forward.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.