The Extra Pass Wednesday Roundup: Talking tanking (or not) in Phoenix

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PHOENIX — After the Suns traded their projected starting center in Marcin Gortat to the Wizards in exchange for an injured player who might not play this season and a future first round draft pick, and did so less than a week before the start of the regular season, it doesn’t exactly send the message that Phoenix is all that interested in competing this season.

The leadership of the organization, from the president of basketball operations to the GM to the team’s head coach all had to talk to the players that remained the day following the trade to ensure that the message was clear: Develop, compete, and try to win as much as possible.

“I talked with them the next morning,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said about the trade before his team opened the season on Wednesday. “[Ryan McDonough] came down and talked to ‘em, [owner Robert Sarver] came and talked to ‘em. The main part was, you’re going to read a lot of stuff out there and hear a lot of stuff that we’re tanking, or this or that. Not once has anyone ever said, ‘Go out there and lose games.’ They want us to win every game we can, so we wanted to re-emphasize that with the players.”

Tanking, of course, happens at the organizational level, and happens by making trades like the one the Suns made involving Gortat. But no matter the circumstances, it never trickles down to the players or coaches, and Hornacek made it clear that things were no different in Phoenix.

“Is it a rebuilding process? Probably,” he said. “Does it benefit teams to have high draft picks? Yes, but we’re not just going out there throwing games to get that. I think that’s bad karma anyway to do that, so we’re going to go out and play as hard as we can, and try to win as many games as we can.”

After a fairly painless 104-91 opening night win over the Blazers, there’s no question that the team Phoenix is fielding is giving its all, at least in the early stages of the season.

The backcourt tandem of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe carved up Portland to the tune of 48 combined points, 13 rebounds, and 15 assists. The Blazers had their reigning Rookie of the Year point guard in Damian Lillard pour in a game-high 32 points by himself, but besides a 28-point effort from LaMarcus Aldridge, no other Portland player finished in double figures.

The Suns got a monster game from Miles Plumlee, who came over from the Pacers in the trade for Luis Scola. He finished with 18 points, 15 rebounds, and three blocked shots, while playing close to 40 minutes as the team’s starting center.

Plumlee had a few post-up plays called for him once he got rolling — a product, Hornacek said, of his increased ability from a footwork standpoint after working with assistant coaches Mark West and Kenny Gattison. And although he wasn’t expecting that, he appreciated the confidence his coach and his teammates showed in him after his strong start.

“With this team, I feel like I’m going to find easy things with Goran and Eric, so I didn’t focus on that,” Plumlee said. “But once I started getting a couple buckets and saw I had a little bit of an advantage with my speed, it was nice to see the ball come to my hands a couple of times.”

Bledsoe had a huge game offensively, even if he tended to over-dribble at times and didn’t exactly show the best court vision. He viewed his situation last season as being very similar to Plumlee’s.

“Me and Miles, we were a little bit kind of in the same situation,” Bledsoe said. “He was in Indiana playing behind some great players; Roy Hibbert, Ian Mahinmi. Finally for Miles to get a chance to play man, he was just unbelievable.”

And as for the combination that Bledsoe and Dragic bring: “It keeps the defense on their toes,” Bledsoe said. “You saw it tonight.”

The Blazers saw it, and between the guard play, Plumlee’s breakout performance and P.J. Tucker’s contributions on both ends of the floor, the Suns looked like anything but a tanking team on opening night.

“We had a tough year here last year,” Hornacek said. “We’re trying to get back to where the Phoenix Suns belong, and that’s at the top of the NBA. It’s a good start for us, and I’m happy for our guys.”

—Brett Pollakoff

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Highlights of the first quarter of the Sixers win over the Heat, when Philly raced off to a 19-0 lead.

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Metta World Peace took the subway (the F train) into Madison Square Garden for the Knicks opener and tweeted out his Instagram of the experience. We thought a picture is worth a thousand tweets so we bring you the Instagram instead.

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Sixers 114, Heat 110: Take the defending champs playing on the second night of a back-to-back without Dwyane Wade who was held out to rest as a precautionary measure, put them up against the team projected by everyone to be the league’s worst on the road, add in a huge helping of disrespect, and this is the outcome you get. The crazy thing about this game was the fact that after the heat fell behind by 22 points in the first quarter, they actually led by eight with under five minutes remaining. But the Sixers closed on a 15-3 run to end it and come away with the improbable victory.

Oh, and rookie Michael Carter-Williams? He went nuts, finishing with 22 points, seven rebounds, 12 assists, and nine steals.

Suns 104, Blazers 91: We said plenty about this game up top, but here are a few additional notes that weren’t emphasized. P.J. Tucker was big as a hustle player, of course, but ended up with 18 points offensively, which included knocking down a couple of corner threes. The Suns’ defense wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but their guards caused havoc in the passing lanes and the bigs swarmed the post to make things difficult inside.

As for the Blazers, they’re going to have a tough go of it this season if Nicolas Batum doesn’t bring it consistently to match the effort of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge to give them that third offensive threat. There’s also zero bench on this team — Mo Williams finished 1-of-9 from the field, but no other reserve played more than 12 minutes or contributed much at all. Anyone predicting playoffs out of this team is wearing Rose (Garden) colored glasses.

(I know it’s the Moda Center now, and to that I say: Yeah, but still.)

Thunder 101, Jazz 98: This feels like how a lot of Thunder games are going to go until Russell Westbrook makes it back. Kevin Durant poured in 42 points, but was horribly inefficient in doing so shooting 9-of-24 from the field. He made 22-of-24 free throws which certainly helped, but the defense was locked in on him all night and it will be that way until he gets some help.

Odd night for Gordon Hayward, considering he’s looking for a monster contract extension before the end of the week. Just 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting in only 28 minutes of action.

Rockets 96, Bobcats 83: Say “it’s just the Bobcats” all you want, but Dwight Howard looked dominant, and all the way back from any health concerns that may have limited in him in the first part of last season. He finished with 26 rebounds (!) to go along with 17 points, and Omer Asik had 14 boards of his own alongside Howard in the starting lineup. The only thing that kept this game close was Houston’s 18 turnovers to just seven for Charlotte.

Kings 90, Nuggets 88: Denver almost spoiled the party in Sacramento, which featured a raucous crowd celebrating the fact that their historically terrible team wasn’t sold and relocated to Seattle. Ty Lawson’s missed layup with a second remaining prevented overtime, and the Kings came away with the opening night victory.

DeMarcus Cousins impressed with a 30-point, 14-rebound performance that was a game-best in both categories.

Warriors 125, Lakers 94: With this Lakers roster you are going to get up and down performances — Tuesday night was up, Wednesday was way down. Then they ran into the buzz saw of Klay Thompson, who had 27 points in the first half on his way to 38 points on 15-of-19 shooting. The Warriors exposed the Lakers defense to the tune of 120.1 points per 100 possessions. Or we can note they were 15-of-27 from three. It was a clinic.

Cavaliers 98, Nets 94: Andrew Bynum was back and although he was 1-of-5 from the floor his size had an impact in the 7:43 he was on the court — he was a +8, the second best on the Cavaliers. Cleveland had balance with six players in double figures. However, the key was defense for the Cavs, holding the Nets to 40.2 percent overall (the Nets helped that with poor ball movement and a lot of overdribbling). After the game Kevin Garnett reminded everyone what they have a ways to go and this will be a process in Brooklyn. With that payroll, an expensive process.

Raptors 93, Celtics 87: It’s not like anybody in Boston noticed the Celtics lost, they were a little busy celebrating something else. Boston was careless with the ball and it cost them — 22 turnovers. The Raptors were in control of this up 16 in the third quarter, but Jeff Green helped inspire a comeback (he had 25 points) but it wasn’t enough. Rudy Gay had 19 for Toronto and was the man in the fourth quarter to hold off the Celtics rally.

Pistons 113, Wizards 102: Detroit’s front line lived up to the billing on Wednesday — Greg Monroe had 24 points and 16 rebounds, Josh Smith had 19 points and was very active at both ends. Andre Drummond was 6-of-7 for 12 points plus 8 boards. The Wizards had no answer up front (Marcin Gortat played 16 minutes off the bench). Trevor Ariza was the only reason it was that close, he had 28 points. John Wall was 8-of-21 shooting overall and 3-of-13 outside 8 feet, that’s not going to get it done.

Knicks 90, Bucks 83: It was a tale of two halves. The Knicks owned the first half, 56-31, with Carmelo Anthony scoring 12 points on just 6 shots, and the Knicks played defense. Then the second half and he Bucks shot 52.4 percent and outscored the Knicks 52-34. The Knicks held on for the win and that’s what matters, but this wasn’t pretty or one they’ll want to remember.

Timberwolves 120, Magic 115 (OT): Kevin Love ladies and gentlemen. He finishes with 31 points — including the three that ties the game and sends it to overtime — plus 17 rebounds. Kevin Martin has 23 for Minnesota and seven players are in double figures scoring. Aaron Afflalo has 28 points for a feisty Orlando team that has some of the same traits as last season’s versions — they fight hard for coach Jacque Vaughn but don’t have the talent to win many games.

Pacers 95, Pelicans 90: You can credit Paul George with getting the Pacers to 2-0 to start the season. New Orleans led most of the game thanks to Eric Gordon (25 points) and Jrue Holiday (24), even though the Pelicans only shot 40 percent as a team on that strong Pacers defense. However it was the Pacers that made plays down the stretch, led by George who had 32 points on 19 shots. This was a one-point game with 31 seconds to go, but it was a George Hill three that was the dagger.

Mavericks 118, Hawks 109: We have an efficient Monta Ellis sighting — 32 points on 11-of-17 shooting. Combine that with Dirk Nowitzki’s 24 points on 14 shots and you have a Dallas team that shot 57.1 percent and scored 117.3 points per 100 possessions. Dallas pretty much was in charge of every aspect of this game. They’ll win a lot of games if we see more of efficient Monta.

Spurs 101, Grizzlies 94: San Antonio took control of this game with a 30-7 second quarter and while the Grizzlies made it close late this was an easier Spurs win than it looked. It was vintage Spurs with a balanced attack — six guys in double figures and the team shot 52.6 percent. Zach Randolph did not help himself earn a big new contract next summer as the Spurs front line dominated him (without Tim Duncan much of the second half). Z-Bo was 1-of-6 shooting for 2 points and Memphis shot 41.9 percent.

Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to lead peaceful protest

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While many NBA players have spoken out on social media and attended rallies in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police, maybe none has been as vocal and active as the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown.

Saturday, he drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to lead a peaceful protest at the Martin Luther King National Historic Park.

Brown was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Brown’s protest still had a run-in with Atlanta police.

This protest is one of many nationwide happening for a fifth straight night in the wake of the death of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. That death happened not long after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man killed while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood.

Derek Chauvin, the man pictured kneeling on Floyd’s neck — which he did for more than eight-and-a-half minutes — was fired from his job in the Minneapolis Police Department and was arrested on Friday and charged with third-degree murder.

Brown, like many nationwide, hope these protests and this frustration can be channeled into real change. Something this nation needs.

Pistons’ Dwane Casey’s says “we all have to be and do better” in wake of George Floyd’s death

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A lot of NBA players have spoken out about the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis Police officer. Stephen Jackson, a friend of Floyd’s, has been the most vocal. Recently players have spoken out about the racism they felt at other times in their lives.

Few have had the experience of Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey. He grew up in Kentucky during desegregation and was in the midst of some of the uglier days of our nation.

Casey released this statement in the wake of Floyd’s death.

“Fifty-four years ago I was an eight-year-old boy living in rural Kentucky when the schools were desegregated.  I walked into a white school where I was not wanted nor welcomed.  At that time there were no cell phones to record my treatment, no cable news stations with 24/7 coverage, no social media to record the reality of the situation or offer support nor condemnation.  But I can remember exactly how I felt as an eight-year-old child.  I felt helpless.  I felt as if I was neither seen, nor heard, nor understood.  As I have watched the events unfold in the days following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a city where I coached and once called home, I see how many people continue to feel those same feelings – helpless, frustrated, invisible, angry.

“I understand the outrage because it seems the list continues to grow: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd.  The injustices continue to mount and nothing seems to be changing.

“Fifty-four years later, my son is now eight years old and I look at the world he is growing up in and wonder, how much has really changed? How often is he judged on sight?  Is he growing up in a world where he is seen, and heard, and understood?  Does he feel helpless?  Will he be treated like George Floyd or Ahmaud Abrey?  What have we really done in the last 54 years to make his eight-year-old world better than mine was?  We all have to be and do better.

“We have to change the way we see and hear each other.  We have to work together to find solutions to make the justice system just.  Black, white and brown people have to work together to find new answers.   The only way we can stop the systemic problems that people of color have faced all our lives is through honesty and transparency.  We have to understand why people are at their limit at this moment.  It takes empathy, in its truest form.  It takes a culture shift, it takes action.  Let’s stop the injustice now.  Let’s not allow another generation to continue to live in a world where they are treated as unequal.  Now is the time for real change.”

Now is the time for change, but we need to act to make it happen, not just hope.

Jerry West: Lakers vs. Clippers NBA Finals “would be the ultimate competition”

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Jerry West is a Lakers’ legend, a Hall of Fame player who led the franchise to its first championship, later helped put together the Showtime Lakers as the GM. He has a statue outside Staples Center and has a case for greatest Laker ever.

Right now, West is a consultant to Steve Ballmer and the Clippers.

If the NBA goes with a 1-16 seeding in its return, it sets up a potential Lakers vs. Clippers NBA Finals — and West wants to see it, he said on the Dan Patrick Show.

“For me, Dan, that would be the ultimate competition. I think in Los Angeles, they have so many Laker fans, my goodness. The enormous success that the Lakers have had over the years, they are a really good team now, two of the best players we’ve seen in a long time on one team. I think it would be incredible for the people in the west. I’m not sure how that would go over for the teams back east who want to see their respective teams get an opportunity to play.

“That would be a situation where I think it would be unbelievably competitive. It would be compelling. I don’t know how many teams in the same city have competed for a championship in any sport, much less the NBA. It would make a compelling story, but, in all likelihood, I think you’re going to see things that will be a little bit more normal.”

Some teams are pushing back again the 1-16 seeding, not because of this season when all the teams are in Orlando but because if it happens it would open the door to that seeding every playoffs (a lot of teams oppose it in a traditional season).

That hallway series between the Lakers and Clippers would lose some luster being played in a fanless building on the other end of the country (the Lakers would basically have seven home games, their fans have at least a 50/50 split at Clippers’ home games). However, in a league driven by star power, LeBron James and Anthony Davis vs. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — with Patrick Beverley talking a lot of smack — would draw ratings.

One way or another, we need to see this series these playoffs.

 

GMs want more players, roster flexibility when NBA restarts games

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If the NBA had polled general managers last summer — long before the coronavirus had upended our lives and the league — GMs would have wanted more roster flexibility and players. They want more options. It’s the default position for any GM.

However, throw in the coronavirus and the restart of the NBA coming in July, and those GMs see that flexibility as a must. That’s what they said in the GM survey given recently by the league, as reported by Tim Bontemps at ESPN.

One thing that achieved widespread consensus was the need for teams to have more flexibility with their rosters no matter how the league chooses to resume play. When asked if the playoffs should have expanded rosters or teams should have more of an ability to replace players sidelined by injury or illness, only two teams voted for neither option. Twelve voted for expanded rosters, and 16 voted for an increased ability to replace players who are injured or sick…

There also was a strong preference to add two-way players to playoff rosters — something that previously wasn’t the case. Only three teams said they would vote against adding two-way players to playoff rosters, while 19 said they would support it if rosters remain the same size. The eight other teams said they would support adding two-way players even if rosters expanded beyond 15.

In addition, 16 teams said they preferred that the league add two roster spots for the playoffs, while nine voted for one extra spot and five voted for three.

Making two-way players — guys already in the team’s system — available for the playoffs feels like a no-brainer for the league. Adding a roster spot so playoff teams could add a veteran at a position of weakness makes sense as well.

The reason the GMs want the flexibility is obvious — this is an unprecedented situation, the schedule will be condensed (with teams playing every other day), and it’s possible a player or players could be sidelined by the virus for a couple of weeks. Depth is going to matter to teams.

Expect the league to allow some modifications to rosters, and some of those may well carry over into next season.