The Extra Pass: Nets clinch a playoff spot, and may do some real postseason damage

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NEW YORK — The Nets clinched a playoff spot on Tuesday by taking care of the shorthanded Rockets, and the team’s overall body of work since the first of the year makes you believe that they may be able to do some real postseason damage now that they’re officially in.

Brooklyn’s 105-96 victory was the team’s 14th straight at home, a new franchise record, and the team’s 13th in their last 17 games overall. Miami and Indiana are at the top of the Eastern Conference standings for their season-long excellence, but the Nets are the ones with the East’s best record since Jan. 1 at 30-12 — more than a half-season worth of dominance.

Playoffs for this Nets team seemed like a long shot in December, when they ended the month tied with the likes of Cleveland and Orlando with a record of 10-20 that had them well outside of the postseason picture. Most of the veteran stars on the club, however, including head coach Jason Kidd, said their faith never wavered following Tuesday night’s clincher.

“I’ve seen too many games,” Kidd said. “The league is very fragile. Things change quickly. For us, when you look at the group of guys in that locker room, they all believed that if we stayed together, we stayed professional and we worked, and we always never had an excuse. We never came to the podium, or never when you guys asked a question used an excuse. We took our lumps, but we felt that we could get better, and right now we are — but we still have a long ways to go.”

“It means a lot,” said Deron Williams of officially making the playoffs. “We talked about it this morning. It’s always good to know you’re in, to know you’re in the playoffs and kind of take that pressure off. We expected it at the beginning of the year, and we’ve been expecting it lately with the way we’ve been playing.”

“We expected to be in the playoffs,” Paul Pierce said. “It’s just another step toward our goal. We’re happy with the way we’ve been playing lately, over the last couple of months. But as far as making the playoffs, this is something we already expected to do. Happy  to make the playoffs, but that’s just a small goal of ours.”

The only one who admitted to being troubled early on was Joe Johnson, who was magnificent against Houston in finishing with 32 points.

“Honestly I couldn’t even see it,” he said. “I kept saying to myself, things are going to turn around, things are going to turn for us. Eventually, it did. At the start of the new year we were a different team. Our mindset was different, and the way we played was different.”

The Nets have found their way by going smaller with their lineups, a move made out of necessity once Brook Lopez was lost for the season with a foot fracture. This recent stretch of wins has come with Kevin Garnett sidelined, but rookie Mason Plumlee has been able to take Garnett’s 20 or so minutes per game in the rotation and act as a legitimate placeholder until he returns.

The reason that Brooklyn has been able to be so successful in the latter part of the season has been the coming together of what was envisioned when all of those payroll dollars were committed over the last two summers. The team has three legitimate stars in Williams, Pierce and Johnson who are all capable of taking over offensively on a given night. It’s been Pierce the last two games, getting off to insanely strong first quarter starts and leading his team in scoring. It was Johnson on this night, and it’s been Williams on several others.

As for the Nets and their postseason chances, they are 3-0 against the defending champion Heat this season, and all of those wins have been gritty, extremely close contests. They’re 0-3 against the Pacers, but two of those losses came in the early part of the season, and the most recent was by a single point on the road back on Feb.1. And, given the laundry list of problems in Indiana right now, the Nets would feel just fine about their chances in a postseason matchup.

It’s taken perhaps longer than expected, but the Nets are in a good place, and have been for quite some time. The season is long and there has been plenty to overcome, and Kidd seemed to have the patience that others lacked when assessing the team in the early part of the year — and to this point, it’s paid off as few could have imagined.

“I think when you look at the high expectations, the new faces, maybe the new defensive and offensive schemes, guys just finding their way, being traded for the first time — there’s a lot of different things that are going on, and you’ve got to put the pieces of the puzzle together,” Kidd said. “You sprinkle in some injuries, and it’s just a matter of time being patient. We didn’t get off to a great start, but guys kept working and we found our way.”

“Tired” Jimmy Butler sits out All-Star Game at his own request

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LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game at 37.3. He’s ninth in the league in total minutes played and played 77:35 minutes in the two games leading up to All-Star Weekend.

Butler was tired and asked Mike D’Antoni to give him some rest. Butler did not play in Sunday’s All-Star Game, at his own request.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

“He was tired and he just felt like his legs weren’t there,” Team Stephen head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He didn’t practice yesterday or play today. You have to respect that. He plays hard. Sometimes your body just needs a rest.”

Butler is having the kind of season that has him in the discussion for a place on the MVP ballot. He’s averaging 22.4 points per game with a very efficient true shooting percentage of 59.3, plus he’s playing strong defense. He and Karl-Anthony Towns have led the Timberwolves to a 36-25 record that has them as the current four seed in the West, poised to break an 11-year playoff drought for the franchise.

Still thankful, LeBron James breaks Michael Jordan’s record for years between All-Star MVPs

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Los Angeles – When LeBron James became the youngest-ever NBA All-Star MVP in 2006, he said during the trophy presentation: “I’d like to thank the fans for voting me in as a starter.”

Twelve years later, he sounds similar, maybe just a little more thoughtful: “It’s always been my fans who voted me in. For 14 straight years, my fans have voted me in as an All-Star starter, and it’s been up to me to go out and let them know and show them, listen, I appreciate that, and here’s what I’m going to give to you every time you vote me in.”

He plays similarly, too.

LeBron again won All-Star MVP, leading his team to a 148-145 victory Sunday. He finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“Every night I step on the floor, I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level,” said LeBron, 33. “I feel great.”

The 12-year gap between LeBron’s first and last All-Star MVP – he also won in 2008 – is the longest in NBA history. It tops the 10 years between Michael Jordan’s first (1988) and last (1998).

Here’s the difference between the first and last All-Star MVP for every multi-time winner:

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Players’ effort in this exhibition game comes and goes, but LeBron appeared invigorated .

When LeBron’s team trailed by 15 in the second quarter, he checked in and quickly led it back into the lead. When his team fell behind by 13 midway through the fourth quarter, he again led a spirited comeback. He hit the go-ahead bucket.

Despite playing a game-high 31 minutes, his intensity lasted all the way through the final buzzer.

His coach, the Raptors’ Dwane Casey, said he asked LeBron whether to foul or defend on the final possession while up three. LeBron said defend.

“If he says that, or any great players say that, you want to go with them because it was their idea, their belief, and he had it,” Casey said. “…He got the guys jacked up and juiced up as far as wanting to get a stop.”

LeBron and Kevin Durant swarmed Stephen Curry, who couldn’t shoot and could barely pass. Curry’s team didn’t even get a shot off:

“As you can hear in my voice, that tells how competitive it was,” LeBron said scratchily.

Again, his message echoed 2006: “We’re competitors, and our competitive nature kicked in and said let’s get some defensive stops.”

A lot will get made about the format change, and it might have mattered.

But maybe LeBron is just uniquely capable of dominating and embracing of this stage all these years later.

Defense? Dramatic finish? Team LeBron wins All-Star Game that’s worth watching

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LOS ANGELES — The NBA gambled its new format — with captains picking teams playground style — would produce an All-Star Game where the players showed some pride, played hard, and the showcase again would become something that resembled basketball (unlike last season).

It worked.

For proof guys were invested this time around, check out how Team LeBron responded to winning with a defensive stop, taking away Team Stephen’s attempt to get a clean look at a game-tying three in the closing seconds.

The THRILL of #NBAAllStar VICTORY!

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“It had a real game feel to it,” LeBron James said.

Team LeBron beat Team Stephen 148-145. LeBron was named MVP with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists. He also hit the game-tying and go-ahead shot that got the win.

“I played with (LeBron) a few times,” Kyrie Irving said of the play and pass that set up that LeBron game-winner. “I cut back door, (Russell Westbrook) was driving, I saw the opportunity. I saw, before even Russ even passed to me, LeBron was going to circle to the rim, and he’s one of the best finishers at the rim.”

Most importantly, this was an All-Star Game with some defense — it had 81 fewer points than the layup line game last year, and the fewest points in five years. It also proved to be the closest game in six years.

“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” Kevin Durant said. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”

There was more defense than last year from the start of the game — for example, LeBron blocked an alley-oop pass in the first quarter. Of course, “better than last year” was not a high bar to clear, but there was some effort to not just have a layup line. Most of the time.

Also to start the game, Anthony Davis came out wearing the “0” jersey of injured teammate DeMarcus Cousins (he switched back to his own #23 before the first half was over).

On the night, Team LeBron got 19 points out of Kevin Durant, 16 from Paul George, and 14 from Andre Drummond. Team Stephen was led by 21 from both DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard, and 19 points and eight rebounds from Joel Embiid in his first All-Star Game.

The fantastic ending made up for what was a laughable opening skit/national anthem before tip-off that did something very rare — it unified NBA Twitter. It was awful.

Now all anybody is talking about is the game itself. And that’s what the NBA wanted.

LeBron James hits go-ahead shot in All-Star win (video)

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LOS ANGELES – LeBron James‘ team trailed by 13 midway through the fourth quarter of the All-Star game, but he led a competitive comeback.

This shot put his team up 146-145 over Stephen Curry‘s team, and Team LeBron held on for a 148-145 win:

Great penetration by Russell Westbrook, and he and Kyrie Irving moved the ball well. LeBron made it count.