The Extra Pass: Knicks fighting for something Nets have in odd role reversal

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NEW YORK — The Knicks desperately want something that Brooklyn already has, a playoff spot that was secured thanks to the Nets putting together a 30-12 record since Jan.1, the best in the Eastern Conference during that stretch.

It’s a strange reversal that’s occurred in a relatively short period of time by NBA standards, and an odd one for New York, to say the least.

Less than 24 hours after the Nets officially accomplished one of their preseason goals, the Knicks showed that they aren’t yet ready to give up on theirs. New York blasted Brooklyn 110-81 on Wednesday, and put the game away early by getting out to a lead of as many as 25 points over the game’s first 24 minutes.

“Our guys are hungry,” Knicks head coach Mike Woodson said afterward. “Normally anybody comes off [a West Coast trip], that game getting back is a tough game. Our guys came out with energy and ready to play. It was a 48-minute performance tonight and we will need that the rest of the way.”

Nets head coach Jason Kidd didn’t see much fight out of his guys, perhaps slightly less motivated than New York after clinching a playoff spot, and maybe a little fatigued playing on the second night of a back-to-back set.

“It happens,” Kidd said. “It’s the schedule. We fought last night, tonight we came out a little sluggish. But give New York credit, they won the game and we move on.”

Brooklyn was ready to move on from its little brother status to the New York franchise last summer, when the team traded for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett not only to bolster its postseason chances, but to steal as much of the spotlight as possible.

The Nets want the attention and devotion of the New York basketball market, which is something that’s belonged to the Knicks exclusively for decades despite the lack of anything remotely resembling sustained success. Assembling a team by adding two veteran Hall of Fame caliber champions and spending record payroll dollars did that to a certain extent, but only winning, and doing so at a level above and beyond what the Knicks have been able to will incrementally begin to sway the city’s fan base.

One of Brooklyn’s newest players, however, tried to immediately accelerate the process.

Pierce stoked the flames of the budding rivalry early and often, which meant little to a Knicks team coming off of a campaign that saw them reach the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 13 years; it was easy to dismiss what was coming out of Brooklyn as nothing more than a bunch of noise.

But flash forward more than eight months later, and it’s New York that’s after the adulation that the Nets have recently received.

The Knicks played like it, which they should have considering every game the rest of the way will severely impact their playoff chances. They also got some help with the Hawks losing, which put New York percentage points ahead of them in the standings and back in the playoff picture, if only for one night.

Atlanta doesn’t even seem to care if it gets in, with GM Danny Ferry saying candidly, “Our goal is not to be the eighth seed.” This seemed almost incomprehensible to J.R. Smith, who started off hot against the Nets and led his team with 24 points.

“That’s unbelievable for somebody to say they’re not worried about being in the playoffs,” Smith said. “I thought that’s what you played for, but, obviously not. I guess.”

Carmelo Anthony’s remarks, predictably, stated essentially the opposite.

“It means a lot to know that we’re in a dogfight coming down toward the end of the season,” Anthony said. “And this stretch is important. I thought that West Coast trip was a real big trip for us to come out of it with a winning record, and then to come back tonight and take care of business on our own home court. It was definitely a big win for us, and we look forward to this battle coming down to the next seven or eight games that are left.”

There was doubt for much of the season that the Knicks were playing out a wasted year, but Anthony’s belief never wavered. The schedule is extremely tough the rest of the way, with New York facing Eastern Conference playoff teams in all six of the team’s remaining matchups.

But just as the Knicks did against a better Brooklyn team in this one, Anthony feels like the way the team is playing now is good enough for a strong finish — one that could guarantee them a spot in the postseason, and enable the team to shake this uncomfortable newly-found position of chasing Brooklyn’s success.

“I always believe,” Anthony said. “It’s funny how things work where we’re in this situation now, having a chance to make the playoffs. We control our own destiny — I’m going to keep saying that. We can’t worry about what Atlanta is doing or what anybody else is doing, we’ve got to win basketball games.

“I think if we continue playing the way we’ve been playing, we’ll be there at the end of the season.”

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.

Meek Mill gets out of jail, takes helicopter to 76ers-Heat, rings bell pregame

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Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid had been one of the most notable NBA players leading the charge for the #FreeMeekMill movement. The rapper Meek Mill, a Philadelphia native and Sixers fan, has been incarcerated for violating the terms of his probation multiple times.

At the heart of the movement to free Meek Mill is the idea of comparative justice, that he has been unfairly targeted because of his race as an absorber of punishment from the penal system despite it being a decade since he committed his crime. People from Embiid to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft have made their voices heard on the subject.

Today, Meek Mill was released from prison and was sent a special gift: the opportunity to fly via helicopter, provided by 76ers minority owner Michael Rubin, to Game 5 between the Sixers and Miami Heat.

When he arrived at the game, the rapper rung the ceremonial bell before tip-off.

Not a couple of hours fresh out of the joint.

Russell Westbrook fined $10,000 for confrontation with Gobert, no suspension

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The rule in the NBA is clear and strictly enforced (just ask Amar’e Stoudemire and the Suns): Leave the bench during an altercation and you get suspended for a game.

Monday night, in the fourth quarter of the chippy game Monday where the Jazz beat the Thunder, Russell Westbrook was set to check into the game when there was a little dust-up between Rudy Gobert in Raymond Felton, and Westbrook came in and escalated it. Did he leave the bench, or was he coming into the game and that’s different.

The NBA decided he was coming into the game already — Westbrook got a $10,000 fine and an after-the-fact technical, but no suspension.

OKC needs Westbrook — and an aggressive Westbrook who is knocking down his midrange shot — to have a chance to avoid elimination in Game 5 Wednesday. The Thunder have had their strengths turned against them, and have not shown the versatility to adjust in this series, and if Westbrook and company cannot change that Wednesday their season will end.

Nets hire Pablo Prigioni as assistant coach, Tiago Splitter as scout

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired former NBA player and Argentine guard Pablo Prigioni as an assistant coach.

The Nets also announced Tuesday that former Spurs center Tiago Splitter was hired as a pro scout.

Prigioni spent most of his professional career in Spain and won a bronze medal with Argentina in the 2008 Olympics before coming to the New York Knicks in 2012 as a 35-year-old rookie. He spent four years in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets and Clippers.

Splitter helped San Antonio win the 2014 NBA championship before spending the final two seasons of his seven-year career with Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nets said Splitter, who also played for Brazil’s national team, will have added duties related to player on-court development.