Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, Josh Smith, Maurice Cheeks

Extra Pass: Are the Detroit Pistons putting a new twist on tanking or being lousy?

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BOSTON – There can be a fine line between unintentionally losing and tanking.

Tanking is encouraging, on some level, your own team to lose in order to gain better position for the draft. That can mean assembling a weak roster, increasing playing time for young and unready players, sitting good players longer due to injury and/or not playing with maximum effort.

Of course, some teams do none of those things and still lose. See the Knicks, New York.

So, how can we tell when a losing teams are tanking and when they’re not?

I’d argue the most sure-fire clue is how much playing time they give their best players. The fewer the minutes, the more likely teams are to be tanking and vice versa.

But the Detroit Pistons are turning that theory on its head.

The Pistons use Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond more than 18 minutes per game, a solid chunk of playing time for arguably the team’s top three players.

“We want to get our best players on the floor together, and that’s just the way we do it,” Pistons coach John Loyer said.

Makes sense.

Except Detroit has been terrible in the 1,140 minutes the trio has shared the court. The offense lacks spacing, and the defense is even worse.

With those three, Detroit’s net rating is -7.5. Of the 43 threesomes to play together so much this season, only one has been worse and just two others are even in the range.

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The only worse trio played for the lowly Philadelphia 76ers – Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young. But Hawes plays for the Cavaliers now, and Turner is with the Pacers. Soon, Smith-Monroe-Drummond will pass that Philadelphia unit in minutes.

The other two similar lineups belong to the Pistons, but they’re really the result of Smith-Monroe-Drummond bringing down everything. One features Jennings rather than Monroe, and the other includes Jennings instead of Drummond. Considering the Smith-Monroe-Drummond trio has played more than 90 percent of its minutes with Jennings, I wouldn’t read too much into Jennings’ inclusion. He’s just being swept along with the current.

Otherwise, every trio to play this much is near neutral at worst or ranges into the very elite on NBA lineups.

Smith-Monroe-Drummond isn’t the worst trio in the NBA. What’s really amazing is how much the unit has played.

Teams typically don’t stick with something that isn’t working this long – at least when they’re trying to win.

Are the Pistons that blind to their weak spot?

Or do they have something else in mind?

When teams tank by playing their young players, they’re also getting the implicit benefit of developing their young players. It’s effectively doubling down on potential.

Well, Detroit’s potential lies with Smith, Monroe and Drummond. No matter how unlikely they are to click on the court together, the three somehow figuring out how to complement each other would give the Pistons their best chance of maximizing this roster.

And if it doesn’t work, well, a few extra losses could help the Pistons keep their draft pick. As a result of the Ben Gordon trade, they owe Charlotte their pick this year unless it falls in the top eight. The Pistons currently have the NBA’s 10th-worst record.

The Pistons might be the first team ever to tank by playing their best players more minutes together.

Honestly, though, if I had to guess from the outside, I don’t believe the Pistons are tanking. They’ve spent too much time, from ownership down, making the playoffs the clear goal. Trailing Atlanta for eighth in the East by three games, the Pistons at least have a shot at the postseason.

Especially if they stagger minutes between Smith, Monroe and Drummond.

When the Pistons have used exactly two of those players – whether it’s Smith-Drummond, Monroe-Drummond or Smith-Monroe – they’ve outscored opponents. That the Pistons have shown such a strong alternative to lumping all three together and still keeps starting all three game after game does leave me unable to completely shake the tanking theory, though.

I asked Monroe about the possibility of shifting rotations to accommodate more two-big and fewer three-big lineups.

“Us splitting up time with just two of us on the court,” Monroe said, “that would defeat the purpose of us being on the team together

John Wall has 29 points, 13 assists as Wizards top Knicks 113-110

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards looks on against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Verizon Center on January 6, 2017 in Washington, DC.  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 Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) John Wall scored the pivotal points and made the saving steal, though the Knicks thought the Wizards had another defender who impacted their final possession even before Wall ended it.

Carmelo Anthony and Courtney Lee said a Washington assistant coach standing on the court too close to Lee kept him from taking a tying 3-point attempt. He instead passed to Brandon Jennings, who had the ball stolen by Wall.

“He was on the court,” Anthony said. “They had six players on the court.”

Wall didn’t need extra help. He had 29 points and 13 assists and scored the surging Wizards’ final four points in the last 32 seconds of their 113-110 victory Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Anthony’s miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

“Just trying to make the big-time plays,” Wall said. “But, if it’s me scoring or me passing, I’m going to live with the results if it’s the right read and the right play, and tonight I came up with some big shots and we won.”

Anthony finished with 34 points but threw the ball to Lee near the Wizards’ bench on the last possession. Lee said he heard someone standing close to him and yelling as if he was a nearby defender, confusing him enough into thinking that if he took the shot, it could be blocked.

Replays showed Wizards assistant Sidney Lowe standing on the court near Lee, who dribbled left and passed the ball hurriedly to Jennings, who had it knocked away by Wall.

“I’m not sure if he had his hands up or not, but I mean, he fooled me,” Lee said, adding he thought the NBA should look into the play. “I still should’ve took the shot, I mean it’s at the end of the game, but I drove and tried to make a play. I seen Brandon standing there but it didn’t work out.”

Derrick Rose added 20 points and Kristaps Porzingis came off the bench for 15 in his return from a sore left Achilles tendon.

The Wizards trailed 67-66 at halftime after Anthony scored a Knicks-record 25 points in the second quarter, then outscored New York 34-19 to take a 100-86 lead into the fourth.

The Knicks came all the way back to take a 110-109 lead when Rose put back his own miss with 48 seconds to play. Wall handled things from there as the Wizards won for the seventh time in eight games. They are 20-10 following a 3-9 start.

“It’s good to get a road win. We’ve had so many last-second shots on the road that didn’t go our way,” coach Scott Brooks said. “It’s nice to get a close-out tonight.”

Porter, who matched the career high for 3-pointers he set Wednesday against Memphis, had 15 points in the third quarter. The Wizards are 12-2 when he makes three or more 3s.

TIP-INS

Wizards: Wall, the NBA leader in total steals, has one in a career-best 30 straight games. … The Wizards have won six straight at Madison Square Garden.

Knicks: Joakim Noah missed his second straight game with a sprained left ankle. The Knicks lost for the first time in six games this season without their starting center. … Hall of Famer Willis Reed and Allan Houston shared the previous franchise record, having both scored 24 points in a quarter. Reed also did it in the second period, while Houston’s outburst came in the fourth.

BACK-TO-BACK FACTS

Washington improved to 2-7 on the second night of back-to-back games – with both victories against the Knicks, who are even worse in that situation. New York is 1-9, including a loss at Washington on Nov. 17.

UP NEXT

Wizards: Visit the Pistons on Saturday. The Wizards won 122-108 at home against Detroit on Dec. 16 behind 29 points and 11 assists from Wall.

Knicks: Host the Suns on Saturday as coach Jeff Hornacek tries to beat his former team for the first time. Phoenix pulled out a 113-111 overtime victory against New York on Dec. 13.

Kawhi Leonard has 34, Spurs overcome Pau Gasol’s injury to top Nuggets

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard runs up the court after scoring during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 106-92. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the short-handed San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver’s three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson‘s shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol’s return.

Murray started in place of Parker, who sat out with a sprained left foot. The rookie responded by shooting 7 for 11, including 3 of 5 on 3-pointers.

Popovich did not get to see the Spurs improve to 15-2 at home since Nov. 11 after picking up his fifth and sixth technical fouls. Zach Zarba ejected Popovich with 1:36 remaining in the first half after he became incensed over a foul called on Davis Bertans against Jokic.

Minutes earlier, Popovich was upset over a non-call for Bertans.

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Jokic has led the team in scoring or shared the high mark in 10 of Denver’s past 18 games after doing so just once in the previous 22 games. . Jokic was the only Denver player who did not have a losing record as a starter until Thursday’s defeat. He is 11-12 as a starter. . C Jusuf Nurkic had five points, leaving him one shy of 1,000 for his career. . F Juancho Hernangomez made his second career start. . During Popovich’s ejection, Nuggets G Emmanuel Mudiay shadowed Zarba and mimicked the official calling a technical foul and ejecting the Spurs’ coach. . Denver has had two three-game winning streaks this season. The previous streak was snapped 119-102 by the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 20.

Spurs: Gasol missed his first game due to injury this season. He sat out two games for rest. He is averaging 11.7 points and 7.9 rebounds in 39 games. . Parker has missed eight games this season, including two for rest. The point guard missed three games with a sore right knee, one due to a bruised left quadriceps and another because of a bruised left knee. . At least one Spurs player has appeared in the All-Star Game in all but two of the franchise’s 40 years in the NBA – 1989 and 1997. … Leonard has scored in double figures in 74 straight games, the longest streak by a Spurs player since Duncan had 75 in 2004-05.

UP NEXT

Nuggets: At the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday night.

Spurs: At the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night.

Goran Dragic scores 32 as Heat top Mavericks 99-95

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 22:  Goran Dragic #7 of the Miami Heat drives to the basket during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at American Airlines Arena on December 22, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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MIAMI (AP) Just like in 2006 and 2011, the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks are essentially in the same place.

Different spot in the standings, though.

Goran Dragic had 32 points, Tyler Johnson scored 10 of his 23 in the fourth quarter and the Heat beat the Mavericks 99-95 on Thursday night, snapping Dallas’ season-high three-game winning streak.

“Like an old-school Miami-Dallas game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

He said it with a smile, not entirely serious, of course. The stakes in Heat-Mavs games are far different now, with both teams languishing in the bottom half of their respective conferences and not going back and forth in the NBA Finals. But both franchises have been a bit better of late, providing hope for the second half.

“We worked hard for this, the whole team,” Dragic said. “We lost a lot of close games, but we’re getting better in those close games and we feel like tonight we defended well, the ball was moving and we made the right plays.”

Hassan Whiteside scored 13 and Dion Waiters added 12 for the Heat.

Dirk Nowitzki had 19 points for Dallas, which went 1 for 8 from the field during a late stretch of the fourth quarter and never got the lead again.

“It was a really tough stretch for us,” Nowitzki said. “We went from being up a couple to down seven or eight and then we put the starters back in or the other unit, so that was a bad stretch … and after that we had to play catch-up.”

Wesley Matthews scored 18 for the Mavericks, who got 15 apiece from Harrison Barnes and Seth Curry.

“It’s not exactly 2011,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s two franchises that are competitive, and that are playing a little better in recent games. It’s a competitive game. We’ve had health issues. They’ve obviously had health issues.”

Nowitzki made two of three free throws with 18.5 seconds left to get the Mavs within 95-92. The Heat needed to burn two timeouts before even getting the ball inbounded on the ensuing possession, and Johnson hit two from the line five seconds later to help seal the win.

TIP-INS

Mavericks: J.J. Barea scored 13 points and has reached double figures in 11 of his 17 games this season. At 32, he’s on pace to average more than 12 points a game for the first time. … Dallas took only 11 free throws to Miami’s 29.

Heat: Miami improved to 3-21 when trailing at halftime. Dallas led 53-44 at the break. … Okaro White made his NBA debut. He was signed to a 10-day deal earlier this week. … Wayne Ellington got his 1,000th career rebound and is one 3-pointer shy of 500.

PROMOTION ISSUE

A fan avoided injury when a door – depicting a hotel room door – on a wheeled frame fell over during a promotion after the first quarter. The promotion had several fans slide hotel “keys” into the door, and the one that worked won a hotel stay. The floor was slightly damaged near midcourt.

BOGUT CLOSER

Dallas center Andrew Bogut missed his fourth straight game with a right hamstring strain. He worked out on the court before the game and is improving, though he isn’t expected to play Friday against Utah.

UP NEXT

Mavericks: Host the Utah Jazz on Friday. Dallas is 0-7 on the second night of back-to-backs this season.

Heat: Host the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday. Miami is 1-1 against the Bucks, with both teams winning at home.

LeBron James, Kyrie Irving lead Cavaliers to 118-103 win over Suns

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 08:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against TJ Warren #12 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on January 8, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Cavaliers defeated the Suns 120-116. 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND (AP) Before their first home game following a long trip that ended with a miserable thud at Golden State, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue showed his team video clips to remind them who they are.

The message?

“Do that,” LeBron James said.

Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, James, his All-Star teammate, had 21 points and 15 assists, and Cleveland looked more like an NBA champion in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road swing (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss to the Warriors. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance, ball movement and defense while improving to 30-11 – the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA title season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

“Coming off our road trip we just weren’t playing Cavalier basketball,” said James, “and getting the ball popping from one side to the other. It was good to get back to the way we’ve been playing for most of the season.”

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games.

Phoenix closed within 12 in the fourth, but was unable to get any closer.

“They always make the right play offensively and defensively,” said Suns guard Devin Booker, who finished with 21 points on 4-of-12 shooting. “They’re always on a string together on both ends of the floor. You can hear them talking out there. You can hear them communicating. I guess that’s one thing you can learn from them, how comfortable they are with themselves and the way they talk to each other.”

Already thin on their front line with Love out, the Cavs lost forward Tristan Thompson in the second quarter with a dislocated left index finger. However, Thompson returned after halftime.

And Cleveland’s offense was in a much better rhythm from the start after a trip that wasn’t always pleasing to the eye.

Irving and James shined as always, but it was the contributions of Cleveland’s supporting cast that made the difference.

“We definitely needed it,” James said. “We needed guys to step up and you know, we had that tonight out of everybody, especially Channing.”

While trying to integrate newly acquired Kyle Korver into their rotation on the road, the Cavs got into some bad habits as they forced passes to one of the league’s best shooters. A couple of practices seem to have helped as Korver made a pair of 3-pointers in the second quarter of his home debut to help Cleveland open a 21-point lead.

The Suns made a brief run in the third and got within 12 before Shumpert hit a pair of 3s and Jones hit one from long range.

IRON MAN

Thompson injured his finger when he got it caught on Chandler’s jersey. For a moment, he was worried it might affect his consecutive games streak that now stands at 411 – the longest current run in the league.

“Once they told me it was only dislocated, I knew the streak was still alive,” he said.

TIP-INS

Suns: G Brandon Knight returned after missing two games with a sprained right wrist, but had a short night after committing four fouls in four minutes in the first half. … Chandler has at least 15 rebounds in six straight games, matching the club record set by Jim Fox in 1969. … Booker had averaged 30 points in his past six games.

Cavaliers: Korver finished with nine points. … James, who missed his 46th career triple-double by one rebound, will be making his 13th consecutive All-Star Game appearance next month. He said the honor never gets old. “Just means I’ve been doing something right in this league,” he said. “Means I’m consistent and taking pride in my individual ability to go out and produce for the team every night, and whatever team I’ve been on in my career. It’s always great to see my name up there with the best guys in the league, so it’s a pretty cool thing.” … G J.R. Smith has had the hard cast removed from his surgically repaired thumb. He’s expected back in late March. … Jones made his first start since April 2, 2015.

UP NEXT

Suns: At the New York Knicks on Saturday. Phoenix won the first meeting this season in overtime.

Cavaliers: Host the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday in a matchup between two of the NBA’s best teams.