The Extra Pass: Mark Cuban happy to have his friend Nowitzki around longer; plus Tuesdays’ recaps

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To them this is more than a business — Mark Cuban and Dirk Nowitzki are friends. Technically they are boss and employee, but neither sees it that way.

“I kick his ass whenever I’ve wanted to,” Cuban said last week, joking around about his friend the way you ride yours. “It’s kind of like we grew up in this business together….

“If I’m shooting downstairs before a game he’ll come in and stomp up and say ‘Whose house is it?’ I’m like ‘I paid for this s—, it’s my house.”

Nowitzki confirmed again this week what we already knew — he wants to play a few more years for Dallas before retiring. Cuban joked about the end of Nowitzki’s career, too.

“No, it’s when I want (then he laughs), because owners win games, not players,” Cuban said. How very Jerry Kraus of him.

But when Cuban got serious he said the plan is to let Nowitzki leave how the big German wants and on his terms, in part because his game is not slipping — he is scoring 21.1 points a game, with a PER of 23.2.

“It’s up to him, as long as he wants to he’ll be here,” the Mavericks’ owner said before his Mavericks took on the Clippers in Los Angeles. “Like I said earlier Dirk never played off athleticism; he plays off of heart, he plays off of brains, he plays off of technique. He’s a surgeon, he makes it into a science. He’s a student of the game and in a lot of respects that helps him, you’ll see he knows how to protect his body, which makes him look really awkward at times but he understands context.”

Cuban’s point was a simple one — if your game is all about your athleticism, it fades with age. Nowitzki’s game ages well. How does one even begin to defend a 7’0” guy who shoots a deadly one-legged fade-away?

“He’s just more skilled than everyone,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I think it comes down to that with him, he’s seven feet tall, he’s maybe the best shooter in the league or at least top five still, and at that size that makes him almost impossible to guard.”

“It’s not like we were wowed by his athleticism or wowed with his speed,” Cuban said of drafting Nowitzki. “Dirk is all about German precision. He’s like a surgeon out on the court, he knows how to play, he sees the game in slow motion and he knows what’s going to happen and he knows what he needs to do. And it’s that ability to know what he needs to do but also context that continues to make him special.”

Nowitzki off the court is now a father, but he still has the mantra “I’m a warrior” who will do whatever it takes to win.

“I think Dirk’s pretty much the same guy,” Cuban said of he maturation of his friend. “Where I think early on he might have deferred to somebody else, or he might bite his tongue, you don’t see Dirk biting his tongue anymore….

“Dirk still likes to have fun, he’s always had fun. He’s always had a good spirit about him, he’s self-aware and knows what he does on the court is what he does on the court and what he does off the court is who he is.”

Who he is remains the best European player ever in the NBA. We are going to be fortunate to watch that German precision for a few more seasons after this one.

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Kevin Durant dropped 46 and took over the game late, here are his 11 points in the final 3:30 of the game:

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Nets 101, Magic 90: This was actually close for a half, before the Nets cranked up the defense in the third quarter — the Magic shot 14 percent in the quarter — and by the fourth this was a laugher for Brooklyn. Deron Williams came off the bench again but looked sharper than he did in his debut. The real hero for Brooklyn was Andray Blatche who had 18 points and was a force in the paint. As for Orlando… why isn’t Kyle O’Quinn getting more run. Play the man, he’s a spark plug.

Heat 93, Celtics 86: Miami won. If you want to give them credit you can say that on the second night of a back-to-back they were scrappy enough to get the win. But really, the Celtics were the undermanned scrappy team that fought back and showed heart, Miami looked like their slumping selves and played just well enough to beat one of the league’s worst teams right now. Rajon Rondo looked very rusty and was 0-of-8 (don’t be shocked if he sits Wednesday in the Celtics’ back-to-back with the Wizards). LeBron James had 29 points

Kings 114, Pelicans 97: Sacramento opened the game on a 12-2 run and never looked back — they attacked and got 50 points in the restricted area in this game as New Orleans treated rim protection like it was the Hantavirus. Rudy Gay continues his run of great play since coming to Sacramento scoring 41 points on just 25 shots, and Isaiah Thomas added 20. Pelicans’ fans looking for a bright spot, Jeff Withey played his best game of the season.

Thunder 105, Trail Blazers 97: With 3:15 left in a tight game late, Kevin Durant was whistled for the charge on a bang-bang play, and in frustration at the call he slammed his hand on the scorer’s table — which led to a technical foul on KD. That fueled the best scorer in the game — he had 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting the rest of the way and led the Thunder to the win. Durant was a beast all night and scored 46 (on just 25 shots), his ninth game in a row scoring at least 30 points. LaMarcus Aldridge had 29 points and 16 rebounds, but he shot 1-8 in the fourth quarter. All of that covered by the much maligned Kendrick Perkins, who also hit a key baseline jumper (we’ve slammed him here before, got to give him credit now).

Timberwolves 112, Jazz 97: Minnesota went on a 17-2 run early in the first and never looked back from there. The Timberwolves were the more aggressive team, getting to the line twice as much as the Jazz (24-12), plus the Timberwolves ball movement was improved. Corey Brewer and Kevin Love each had 19 points to lead five Timberwolves with at least 15 points. Gordon Hayward had 27 for the Jazz. One other note, Ricky Rubio has not had a great season but looked pretty sharp Tuesday night.

Stephen Curry says talk of lack of competitive balance “disrespectful” to Warriors, Cavaliers

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This year’s NBA playoffs have been horribly lopsided and they lacked drama because we all knew where it was headed: Golden State vs. Cleveland. They were so dominant that between them they lost one playoff game so far. This has brought up discussions of competitive balance — we have seen the same Finals three years in a row, and we will almost certainly head into next season expecting a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.

Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry isn’t a fan of the lack of competition argument, saying it disrespects the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

“That almost is kind of disrespectful, because it’s not like it’s easy for us to get here. It wasn’t that at all. Us and Cleveland worked our butts off all year to put ourselves in a position to be playing for a championship. The league is as strong talent-wise across the board as it’s ever been. Every night we get challenged. Obviously, we had that one stat I guess, point differential, all year. We had a pretty solid showing in that respect. But, every night was hard. Every night was challenging. You can’t just sleepwalk through a season and sleep walk through the playoffs and expect to be here. You got to do something. You got to come out every night and prove yourself. Granted, anybody who was betting on who was gonna be in the Finals probably picked those two. It’s easy for them to say that and just wake up in June and see it happen. We had to put that work in all year long to make it happen.”

Curry is right in that nobody should question the work the Warriors and Cavaliers put in to get to this point, and that the other teams did not just roll over for them. Also, both teams did get a little lucky with injuries.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that right now there is a dominant team in each conference, and that sucks the drama out of the postseason. (Maybe a healthy San Antonio team could have pushed the Warriors, we didn’t get to find out.) Golden State has four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA, and that makes them a juggernaut — again, regardless of the work put in. Other teams don’t have much of a chance if the Warriors are healthy and focused, not in a seven game series. The fact that it was flukey circumstances that put a dominant team in each conference — there isn’t another LeBron James returning home, and out West it took a one-time salary cap spike to add Kevin Durant to a 73-win team — doesn’t change the fact this season has felt like a foregone conclusion from the start.

Right now we’ve got what we wanted and expected, the trilogy between the Warriors and Cavaliers. But if we head into next season expecting (and maybe getting) round four of this matchup in the Finals, is that good for the league? Why watch the movie if you know how it ends before it starts?

Bill Laimbeer on LeBron vs. Jordan comparisons: “I’ll take LeBron James, absolutely”

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LeBron James is headed to his seventh straight NBA Finals. He just passed Michael Jordan to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fourteen years into his NBA career, he has put together a resume that few in the game’s history can match — and he’s not done.

You don’t have to think that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, however, if you don’t think it’s a valid discussion, you’re blinded by bias.

Former NBA All-Star, champion, and WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer of the “bad boy” Detroit Pistons was asked about the LeBron/Jordan comparison on “The Rematch” podcast, and he said we’ve never seen anyone like LeBron (hat tip the USA Today).

“I’ll take Lebron James, absolutely,” Laimbeer said to host Etan Thomas… “He’s 6-8, 285 (James is listed at 250 pounds). Runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. Phenomenal leader since he’s been 12 years old. Understood when he came into the league how to involve his teammates from the start. And you can’t guard him. You can’t double-team, he’s too big, he powers through everything. Michael was a guard. Yeah, he was 6-6, but he wasn’t a real thick and strong guard. It took him a lot of years to learn how to involve his teammates in order to win championships. Don’t fault him for that, it’s a learning experience. But we’ve never seen anybody like LeBron James physically. He just bullies you.

It was Laimbeer and the Pistons who taught Jordan to win — they beat the Bulls year after year in the playoffs, until Jordan broadened his game (and got better teammates) and the Pistons started to fade. People point to MJ’s unblemished Finals record, but he was seen for years as a guy who couldn’t get a team to the Finals because of those Pistons (LeBron learned his lessons on a different stage, taking some early Cavs teams that had no business in the Finals to that stage anyway, only to get crushed).

LeBron has a more versatile game than Jordan, which better suits this era: When Jordan was a force in the ’80s and ’90s there was no zone defense, which led to a lot of clear-out sets where eight guys watched a one-on-one battle from the other side of the key, and if the double-team came it was obvious from where. Jordan’s skill as a guy who could get his shot, kill it from the midrange or get to the rim, his ability to physically play through contact, and the legendary killer instinct made him great. But he was aided by timing — the booming popularity of the sport in the 1990s, the rise of Nike as a marketing giant, and the fact he didn’t have a true rival, a Bird to his Magic, that could best him.

LeBron has reached the point in his career that the legacy talk and where he ranks all-time is the only real discussion left — and Jordan sits as the bar to clear. Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell, and a few others should be on that tier as well, part of the discussion, but the point is LeBron has moved on to that level of discussion. He’s earned it. The fact some people on Twitter/sports talk radio feel the need to rip him for everything doesn’t change that — if Jordan played the social media era he would have heard the same things from the same people.

Report: Celtics focused on adding All-Star-caliber frontcourt player

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Isaiah Thomas said he he’d happily forgo a renegotiation-and-extension if the Celtics use their cap space to upgrade their roster.

Where are they looking?

A. Sherrod Blakey of CSN New England:

Multiple league sources have told CSNNE.com in recent weeks that the Celtics are focused on landing an All-Star caliber talent in the frontcourt.

In the last three years, 22 frontcourt players have been All-Stars. Boston already has one: Al Horford. Could the Celtics land any of the other 22?

Almost certainly unavailable

Free agency

Trade

Free agency or trade

  • Pau Gasol (Though Gasol said he’d opt in, San Antonio might try pushing him out to pursue Paul. If Gasol opts in, the Spurs could also trade him to clear space for Paul.)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (The Mavericks have a $25 million team option on Nowitzki for next season. Nowitzki going to Boston, via trade or free agency, would probably require a mutual agreement between Dallas and him that pursuing a title elsewhere is the right way for him to end his career.)

Report: Spurs exploring Chris Paul pursuit

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The Clippers are taking the Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumors seriously.

And apparently so are the Spurs.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs are exploring the feasibility of making a free-agent run at All-Star point guard Chris Paul, league sources told ESPN.

San Antonio must complete three difficult objectives to land Paul:

  • Clear cap space. Even if they trim their roster to Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker, the Spurs would still have to dump two of them to clear max room. Can they convince Gasol to reverse course and opt out, maybe re-signing at a major discount? Would they trade Parker, who has meant so much to the franchise? Would they deal Aldridge or Green, players who would make major contributions to a Leonard/Paul-led team?
  • Convince Paul to accept a projected max of $152 million over four years rather than the projected $205 million he could get over five years from the Clippers. Although the annual difference is just $3 million and Paul could sign another deal in four years, it’s unlikely he recoups that at age 36.
  • Convince Paul to leave big-market L.A. for small-market San Antonio. Remember, Paul forced his way from small-market New Orleans then ascended into one of the NBA’s biggest endorsement stars.

The Spurs boast a fantastic basketball culture, and Leonard and Popovich make great partners in a championship chase. There are reasons San Antonio is gaining traction with Paul.

But there’s still a lot for the Spurs to overcome. Will they? At least they’re trying rather than just dismissing the plot as unfeasible.