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.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.

Magic center Mo Bamba had coronavirus

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba has fallen behind Khem Birch as the Magic’s backup center (to Nikola Vucevic). At the NBA’ resumption at Disney World, Bamba has played in only two of Orlando’s four games, receiving just four and six minutes. Magic coach Steve Clifford cited the 22-year-old’s conditioning.

Bamba wants you to know the full story: He had coronavirus.

Josh Robbins of The Athletic:

Bamba received word of his positive test on June 11

The illness temporarily robbed him of his senses of smell and taste, made him unusually fatigued and caused muscle soreness.

“Part of me is reading the temperature of the room and just knowing that there are definitely going to be questions, and sometimes you’ve just got to address them with honesty,” Bamba said. “In this case, I think it’s best for them to have that context and have that understanding of what, exactly, is going on.

“I want people to know that I’m still working as hard as ever, if not even harder, and I’ll get through this.”

Bamba thought he had endured the worst by the time the Magic entered the NBA bubble on July 7. But the false positives required him to have an additional three-day in-room quarantine while his teammates practiced together on July 9, July 10 and July 11.

I appreciate Bamba being so forthcoming. It was easy for people to suspect he didn’t train properly during the hiatus. Though medical privacy should also be valued, transparency often alleviates the worst suspicions.

At least 54 NBA players have tested positive for coronavirus. Does that number already include Bamba? It’s unclear.

After going quiet during most of the shutdown, the league has announced the number of players who’ve tested positive since June 23. Maybe Bamba continued to test positive on June 23 or later. Or perhaps he’s an additional case from the quiet period. There definitely were some cases in that timeframe.

False positives are an issue – an unavoidable one. It’s unfair Bamba was stuck in his hotel room, not training, longer than necessary. But the NBA can’t risk allowing a potentially contagious player into the bubble. Better to err on the side of safety.

The No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Bamba improved steadily from an underwhelming rookie season. He still needs more work to become a quality NBA player. This is a setback, and one that makes him unlikely to contribute much the rest of this season. Hopefully, he’ll be able to pick up next season where he left off when this season got suspended.

Three Things to Know: What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

“This one stings, for sure.”

That was 76ers coach Brett Brown, who has had to deal with a lot of injuries to players during his tenure in Philadelphia. But this one hurts a little more because of the timing. The Sixers will be without Ben Simmons for a while after he suffered a subluxation of the left patella — his kneecap essentially dislocated then popped back into place — against Washington.

The 76ers were adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward during the restart in Orlando. Now there are just questions.

How long will Simmons be out? That’s the big one and the answer is nobody knows for sure. The Sixers are evaluating treatment options. As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes notes, Allen Crabbe had the same injury earlier this year and missed 11 days (three games), but he had no damage to the ligaments or rest of the knee. That’s the most common outcome for this injury and it would have Simmons back around the start of the playoffs. However, if there is any ligament damage, Simmons could be out much longer. (The early reports were the MRI came back clean, but that doesn’t tell us much about the real level of damage other than it wasn’t severe.) Philadelphia has always been cautious when it comes to bringing its stars back from injury.

Who starts for Philadelphia while Simmons is out? That’s one Brown has to decide by today (Friday) and the game against Orlando. He could plug Al Horford back into the starting lineup — the Sixers were +1.4 points per 100 possessions this season with Embiid and Horford on the court together without Simmons (it was -0.7 with all three and the floor spacing was a mess). Or, Brown could keep Horford on the bench and go with another wing such as Matisse Thybulle or Furkan Korkmaz.

Philadelphia seems locked into the six seed in the East (they are one game back of five seed Indiana with four to play, but the Pacers beat the Sixers last Friday and have the tiebreaker, so it is in practice a two-game lead).

Philadelphia is 6-5 this season without Simmons, and while they can plug other players into the four they will not have Simmons’ elite defense, nor his passing skills, and the new player will not be the same threat in transition. Philadelphia is just not the same threat in the East without Simmons.

2) Portland is in control of ninth seed in West after win, New Orleans loss

There is going to be a play-in series in the West — and Portland is going to be in it.

That much seems obvious after Thursday’s action, where Jusuf Nurkic was dunking on Bol Bol and Portland was picking up a 125-115 win over Denver.

That win has Portland half a game back of  Memphis for the eighth seed in the West — and the 0-4 Grizzlies face a tough game against the Thunder Friday. The West could be tied by Saturday morning.

Portland looks to be a lock for the play-in.

Can anyone else crash that party? Sacramento earned it’s first win in the bubble on Thursday, knocking off Zion Williamson and New Orleans, meaning now both the Kings and Pelicans sit 2.5 games back of the Grizzlies with four to play. Both need to win out and hope Memphis continues losing to have a chance to get into a play-in with Portland.

The undefeated-in-the-bubble Suns and the Spurs both sit two games back of the Grizzlies and with a chance to make a play-in. Just as with the Kings/Pels, the Suns and Spurs essentially need to win out and count on the Grizzlies continued stumbles to have a chance.

Memphis controls its own destiny. But without Jaren Jackson Jr., and with Ja Morant struggling from three, a sharp turnaround is needed.

3) Milwaukee wraps up No. 1 seed in East

This was expected, but the Bucks made it dramatic. Miami led this game by 23 points in the first half, but both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton turned it on — both finished with 33 points each — and Milwaukee came back to get 130-116 win. With that, the Bucks officially wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the East.

While this is good for the Bucks — who now get an easy first-round playoff matchup against Brooklyn or Orlando — they know they will be judged on the playoffs. This is a Finals-or-bust team. And Milwaukee fans don’t want to think about the options for bust.

Milwaukee has eased into games in the NBA restart, not worrying about wins now and rather being healthy and firing on all cylinders when the games matter. They have that luxury with the lead they built up in the East, but they need to flip the switch eventually. As they did coming back on the Heat.