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.”

Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis lead way, Bulls blow out Kyrie-less Celtics 108-85

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CHICAGO (AP) — Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis are starting to draw attention for their play together instead of their fight with each other.

Mirotic scored 24 points, Portis added a career-high 23 and the Chicago Bulls blew out Boston 108-85 on Monday night with Celtics star Kyrie Irving sidelined because of a bruised left quadriceps.

Owners of the NBA’s worst record, the Bulls (6-20) built an 18-point lead in the second quarter against the Eastern Conference leaders. And when Boston cut it to 12 in the fourth, the Bulls simply pulled away for their third straight win.

Leading the way were two players who made headlines for all the wrong reasons before the season started.

Their fight at practice left Mirotic with facial fractures, causing him to miss the first 23 games. Portis served an eight-game suspension.

But the two have played well together the past two games.

“We need to give the credit to (coach Fred Hoiberg),” Mirotic said. “Fred is the one who is making us play. He’s the guy who is calling the plays for us and putting us in the right spots to play.”

As for the fight?

“Man, that situation’s over,” Portis said. “Everybody’s talking about that. But that doesn’t matter anymore. We’re just trying to win games.”

Mirotic made his first start of the season with leading scorer Lauri Markkanen sidelined because of back spasms and shot 9 of 14 with eight rebounds. Through three games, the 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 16.3 points.

Portis shot 10 of 15 and nailed all three 3-pointers.

Al Horford scored 15 for Boston (23-6). Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier added 13 points apiece in the Celtics’ most lopsided loss of the season.

“Sometimes you get your butt kicked. It was simple as that,” coach Brad Stevens said. “Chicago dictated the whole game. They played harder than we did. They played with more presence than we did. They played more competitive than we did. They played with more authority than we did. You’re not going to win many games when you play like that.”

 

Russell Westbrook threw it down all over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

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A rough night for the Thunder will not stop the Russell Westbrook highlights.

The Thunder had another poor game and fell to a Hornets. Westbrook tried to push the team back, but the Thunder defense that has kept them in games all season was not good enough against Charlotte, and the OKC offense was once again up and down.

Westbrook had 30 points on 22 shots on the night, and none of them were as impressive as this transition throwdown on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Jahlil Okafor excited about fresh start with Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jahlil Okafor finally got the fresh start he wanted.

Okafor was the consensus No. 1 high school player in his class, won a national championship at Duke, and averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds in his rookie campaign for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Then things changed drastically.

Okafor struggled with injuries and a logjam at his position in his second season.

“When I first got drafted there, we already had Nerlens (Noel) there, Joel (Embiid) was there, so we’re trying to have three starting centers on the same team,” Okafor said Monday at his introductory news conference with his new team, the Brooklyn Nets.

“It just never really was the right fit.”

The 76ers traded Okafor along with seldom-used guard Nik Stauskas and two draft picks to the Nets on Thursday. Philadelphia got forward Trevor Booker from Brooklyn.

Okafor also had off-court problems during his time in Philadelphia. He got a speeding ticket for driving 108 miles per hour and was suspended by the 76ers for two games after in an altercation outside of a Boston nightclub with a heckler.

“Speeding obviously is illegal,” Okafor said. “I know that’s not what you’re supposed to do. I guess you just learn how the page can turn on you and how everything can flip. I can’t really say I learned anything, because you know going in that’s not right. You just learn from your mistakes, but (it was) a tough thing that I went through, I got past, and I’m looking to better times now.”

Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, joins D'Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the same draft class, on the Nets.

“We’re just very excited to get on the court together,” Okafor said. “You never would’ve thought the number two and number three picks would be playing on the same team a few years after, but like I said, everything happens for a reason and I’m really excited.”

Russell also had problems on and off the court with the team that drafted him. He was criticized for recording a video of former Lakers teammate Nick Young that aired sordid details about Young’s private life. The Lakers gave up on Russell and drafted Lonzo Ball as his replacement.

“I feel like we’re similar in that we have a lot to prove,” Okafor said. “I know he’s working his (butt) off as well. Right now he’s rehabbing, trying to get back on the court. I think we both have a chip on our shoulder and we have a lot to prove. We’re definitely similar in that regard.”

Okafor understands he has areas to improve, mainly defense and rebounding.

“I’m not a perfect player,” Okafor said. “I’m 21. There are things that I need to work on, that I have worked on and that I’ll continue to work on.”

He’s excited about fulfilling his potential with a new team.

“I feel really motivated right now, but I’ve always been motivated,” Okafor said. “This is the first time where people are against me in a sense because I’ve always been the hyped-up guy. It’s something new for me to experience, so I’m glad that I am experiencing it.”

 

Report: Celtics’ Marcus Morris to miss “extended time” to let knee heal

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Marcus Morris missed the Celtics’ first eight games of the season in an effort to get healthy. Upon his return he’s been solid, first as a starter, then coming off the bench, but his left knee continued to be an issue.

Morris was out Sunday when the Celtics beat the Pistons, and he’s going to miss more time trying to get a troublesome left knee right, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

How much time is “extended time?” Probably at least a couple of weeks.

Morris has averaged 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game this season, with a true shooting percentage of 52.5, which is right around the league average.

This could mean more run for rookie forwards Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis, both of whom have played well in limited minutes.