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

Giannis Antetokounmpo: I could never see myself playing for Los Angeles

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All-Star Weekend was (at least) an implicit recruiting tool for the Lakers and Clippers. The host teams could show off Los Angeles – the beautiful weather in middle of winter, the nightlife, the glitz and glamour.

LeBron James‘ praise drew the most attention:

I think L.A. is a perfect place to host All-Star Weekend. It’s one of the few cities that we have in our league that can accommodate all of this. And when I mean all of this, you have over 200-plus countries that’s covering the game. You’ve got so many people from all over the world coming to watch our game and just be a part of All-Star Weekend. And we know the traffic. We understand that. But traffic is traffic and — but L.A. can accommodate that. It’s built for stars. It’s built for entertainment. It’s built for cameras and bright lights, and it’s a great place for it.

Of course, we already knew LeBron was partial to Los Angeles. He has a house there.

But not every All-Star raved about the city.

Bucks forward Antetokounmpo, via Matt Velazquez Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“I could never see myself being out there,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s great for two, three days but it’s a little bit — things are going a little bit crazy.

“Of course, because of the All-Star Game, there was a lot of people there. … In Milwaukee — I love Milwaukee — it’s low-key. I can walk down the road, down the streets without anybody bugging me — nobody interrupts my conversation or anything. I love how quiet and calm Milwaukee is.”

The Bucks ought to appreciate this outlook. Antetokounmpo once said he wanted to stay with them forever, and – as rumors swirled about his future in Milwaukee, he tweeted, “I got loyalty inside my DNA.” But he has since explained how important it is for a team to do right by its star player, supporting him with a winning supporting cast.

Maybe Antetokounmpo will eventually leave the Bucks, but it seems unlikely that’d be just to reach a bigger market. Milwaukee can’t change its location. The Bucks can somewhat control whether they put a winner around Antetokounmpo.

Still, other teams will try to poach Antetokounmpo – like Joel Embiid‘s 76ers. Antetokounmpo, via Velazquez:

“He told me I should trust the process and come play for Philly,” Antetokounmpo said with a chuckle, drawing a laugh. “That was my reaction — I just laughed.”

PBT Podcast: What to watch during stretch run of season

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Are the Cleveland Cavaliers for real? And by “real” do you mean best in the East or threat to Warriors?

Who is going to make the playoffs in the West? Is Utah going in? Portland? The Los Angeles Clippers?

Is James Harden going win MVP? Is it Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year?

Those are just some of the storylines as the NBA races down the stretch run of the season (most teams have around 25 games left). Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down all the things to watch from the end of the season, including if Detroit can climb up into the postseason, and how the top of the East is going to shake out.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Suns, Hawks say they won’t change strategy to tank

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Phoenix shut down healthy players in a transparent bid to tank last season. But Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said not to expect a repeat.

Scott Bordow of azcentral:

Wednesday, McDonough told azcentral sports that the Suns won’t approach the final 23 games of this season the same way. In other words, Phoenix isn’t tanking in order to improve its chances of landing the No. 1 pick in the May 15 draft lottery.

“We’re planning on doing what we have been doing, that’s playing our young players. For us, that’s not a change,” McDonough said. “… We want to continue to have them improve and get minutes and try to win as many games as we can.”

The Mike Budenholzer-coached Hawks also won’t sit their top players.

Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Some other teams near the bottom of the standings have publicly proclaimed they will favor youth over experience for the final four-plus weeks of the season, but Budenholzer said he will stay the course.

“I think we’ve been a mix of young and veteran guys all year,” he said Wednesday. “I think the way we progressed through the season — of course when you start the season you think it could be a little different — (but) right now but I think the way we’ve played, and the way we continue to play, won’t be that much different.”

To some degree, McDonough and Budenholzer are just trying to avoid a Mark Cuban-esque fine. The NBA discourages most talk of tanking.

But Phoenix and Atlanta don’t need to change their rotations to tank. They’re already good at losing! Both teams are a league-worst 18-41.

Some teams will get more serious about tanking down the stretch. The Suns and Hawks are already there. That doesn’t make them more virtuous than the Mavericks.

Still, this is a tight race for the top of the lottery. Four other teams have just 18 wins. Another has only 19, and one more has only 20. If the Suns and Hawks need to get worse to improve draft position, I wouldn’t put it past either team.

By the way, that headline can be read a couple different ways. That’s intentional.

Report: Kyrie Irving requested trade after ‘sloppy’ discussion by Cavaliers’ front office

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The Cavaliers reportedly explored trading Kyrie Irving in June. He requested a trade in July.

Since dealt to the Celtics, Irving has said he’ll never pinpoint his precise reason for leaving Cleveland. But he also said the Cavs “didn’t want me there.”

Did the Cavaliers push him out?

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

On the day of the NBA draft back in June, just days after Cleveland parted ways with former GM David Griffin, a robust Cavs contingent made up of front-office personnel, coaches and team support staff members held an impromptu, “what if?” discussion about Kyrie Irving’s future, multiple team sources confirmed to ESPN.

The discussion, characterized as “small talk” by one source familiar with its content, was less a formal straw poll of what the Cavs should do with their All-Star point guard should trade opportunities present themselves, and more a thought exercise anticipating what the market could bear for a player of Irving’s caliber.

The talk got back to Irving, multiple team sources told ESPN, and that served as the tipping point that led to Irving formally requesting a trade a little more than two weeks later.

“It was sloppy,” one league source familiar with the draft-day discussion told ESPN, adding that any talk about trading a player of Irving’s ilk — however informal it might be — should be handled strictly between the GM and owner, because of the sensitive nature of its content.

While Altman was involved in the meeting, he and Mike Gansey — at that point officially the head of the Cavs’ G League team — were only keeping the ship afloat on an interim basis and had yet to be formally elevated to their current roles as GM and assistant GM, respectively.

This is one spin on the story. Yet another: Irving initially requested a trade before the draft and considered requesting one in 2016.

Both sides are trying to blame the other for the disintegration of their relationship.

It can be difficult to read how serious the draft-day discussion was. Maybe Irving interpreted ut correctly. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just used it to justify a trade request he wanted to make anyway.

What’s more clear: Communication hasn’t been as strong between the front office and players under general manager Koby Altman as it was under Griffin. McMenamin:

While the Cavs were struggling in late December through early January, LeBron James questioned Altman’s absentee status on a long Cleveland road trip, team sources told ESPN.

Altman helped repair that relationship leading up to the trade deadline, looping LeBron in on discussions that culminated with three trades. LeBron appears more invested in the Cavaliers, just in time to keep him next summer.

But some mistakes can’t be fixed before it’s too late. Maybe those Irving trade talks in June were one of them.