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.

LeBron James, Cavaliers hope to even series with Pacers

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — LeBron James has been in this playoff position before, just not in the first round.

With Cleveland down 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers in the first round, James was asked if Game 4 in Indianapolis Sunday was a must win.

“It’s the postseason,” said James, who is 10-0 in his career in first-round playoff series with Cleveland and Miami. “Every game is a must win. You want to come in and play well and win no matter what. No matter if you have home-court advantage or if you’re starting on the road, that’s the mindset you have to have. I felt like (Friday) was a must win. We didn’t win, obviously, but it’s the same mindset on Sunday.”

James, who scored 28 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and delivered eight assists in a 92-90 road loss Friday night, rejected what he felt were reporters’ attempts to ask if the other players needed to do more.

“You guys think I’m going to throw my teammates under the bus? I’m not about that,” James said. “Guys just, we have to be better, including myself. Had six turnovers (Friday). I was horrible in the third quarter, couldn’t make a shot. If I had made some better plays in the third quarter, the lead doesn’t skip.”

The Pacers cut a 17-point halftime deficit to six points in the third quarter and finally took their first lead in the fourth quarter.

“We know we all gotta play better as a collective group, no matter who it is,” James said. “We got production to start the game and in the second half there wasn’t much production. We still had a chance to win. We’ve got to regroup and figure how we can be better in Game 4.”

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said the Cavaliers were limited because George Hill‘s back “locked up” in the second half. Hill played only nine minutes in the second half, scoring two of his 13 points. Lue used James and Jordan Clarkson rather than backup point guard Jose Calderon in the fourth quarter. If Hill can’t go Sunday, Lue said he will likely start Calderon.

Hill had an MRI on Saturday, but the results weren’t back. He is listed as questionable for Game 4 with back spasms. Hill was hurt during Game 1 when Trevor Booker set a back screen and felt stiffness before Game 2, but played 20 minutes.

For the Pacers, Bojan Bogdanovic was the difference maker, scoring 15 of his team-high 30 points in the fourth quarter. Bogdanovic struggled shooting the first two games of the series.

Bogdanovic, who made 7 of 9 3-pointers, kept his focus after two quick fouls in the first quarter and had to leave briefly in the fourth when he picked up his fifth foul. The seven 3-pointers tied a franchise playoff record, also held by Reggie Miller twice, Chuck Person and Paul George.

“I thought it was going to be another poor performance from myself, but in the second half I started hitting shots and started feeling (much) better and I think a did a great job (Friday night),” the Croatian forward said.

Bogdanovic said he was most pleased with his defense against James.

“Everybody thought before this season that I cannot play defense,” he said. “I don’t say that I am playing great defense, but I am working hard at trying to make it tough for each offensive player that I am guarding.”

Bogdanovic said he tries to push James so he catches the ball far from the basket.

“Against those type of players you just try to stay aggressive on them,” Bogdanovic said.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan was impressed with his ability to produce both ways.

“You’re taking a pounding if you’re on the defensive end of the floor if you’re guarding LeBron,” McMillan said. “But offensively he found some energy. He got some good looks and he knocked them down.”

The Pacers came back to win eight times during the regular season after being down 15 or more points.

“We’ve been resilient,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “We made an adjustment in the second half and it helped us. But it’s only one game; I’m looking forward to Sunday.”

Rumor: Portland coach Terry Stotts could lose job after being swept out of playoffs

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Regular season: Terry Stotts was mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to 49 wins and the three seed in the West, led by a top 10 defense.

Playoffs: Portland was swept out of the postseason in the first round by Anthony Davis.

The latter part of that is going to lead to some real soul searching and changes coming to the Trail Blazers. That could include Stotts losing his job, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

There is plenty of blame to go around for Portland’s quick exit from the postseason, Stein is right that it’s not all on Stott’s shoulders. In fact, I would argue most of it is not.

However, this is the third time in four years Portland is out in the first round, and it leads to the question “what is it about their style that makes them so defendable and beatable in the playoffs?” This is a little like Toronto in recent years, where despite a lot of talent they were predictable and therefore defendable in the postseason. How much of that falls on Stotts vs. the roster he has to coach?

After a period of reflection in Portland, there are going to be changes in the wake of this sweep. Stotts’ job will be part of that discussion, no matter how good a job he did. The question for Blazers management is, if not Stotts then who is next? Who are they getting that’s better?

That said, if Stotts were to be let go he would hand on his feet very quickly.

After Ricky Rubio’s triple-double, Russell Westbrook promises to “shut that s*** off”

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Ricky Rubio outplayed Russell Westbrook Saturday night in Utah and now the Jazz are up 2-1 in that series.

Rubio did his damage from the midrange — he was 5-of-5 between the key and the arc — on his way to 26 points, to go with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. All series the Thunder have dared Rubio to shoot and to beat them, Saturday he did. It was a stark contrast to Westbrook’s 14 points on 17 shots Saturday with eight turnovers.

When asked about Rubio’s big night postgame, Westbrook was looking ahead to Game 4 and using a little NSFW language (hat tip to Ben Golliver of SI, who loves him some playoff podium video).

There you have it, a personal guarantee.

Rubio struggled some in Game 1, taking 18 shots and mostly the ones the Thunder wanted him to. However, after that he has been better at getting to his spots and taking the shots in rhythm, and it’s worked — he’s averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game this series. OKC has been focused on making life difficult for rookie Donovan Mitchell (with limited success) and it’s freed up Rubio to make plays.

More than just slowing the Spanish point guard, Westbrook and the Thunder need to figure out how to get their offense back on track against a Jazz defense that was best in the NBA once Gobert got healthy last season. Oklahoma City lost Game 2 when their big three — Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony — went 0-of-15 in the fourth quarter. In Game 3, OKC averaged 100 points per 100 possessions (well below their season average of 110.2) and Westbrook shot 29.4 percent. Do that again in Game 4 and it will not matter what Rubio shoots, what matters is the Thunder could be looking at a 3-1 deficit. The Thunder need to even this series before it heads back to Oklahoma City.

Gregg Popovich will not coach Game 4 following death of his wife, Erin

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will not be on the sidelines again for Game 4 Sunday following the death of his wife, Erin, to a lengthy illness.

Ettore Messina will again coach the Spurs.

Popovich also missed Game 3. His San Antonio Spurs are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the first-round matchup. None of that matters compared to the loss of a woman he loved and was married to for four decades.

Erin Popovich’s passing has cast a pall over the series, especially with Warriors coach Steve Kerr being very close to the Popovichs dating back to his playing days with the Spurs.

The reaction and sadness about Erin’s passing has reached well beyond this series.

Our thoughts are with the Popovich family in this difficult time.