The Extra Pass: 10 teams, 10 observations, plus Tuesday recaps

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Let’s zip around the league with ten observations for ten teams:

Atlanta: I’m digging the former Jazz men. Paul Millsap is already getting along famously with Al Horford, but the smart movement off the ball by flex-bred wingmen Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll is keeping defenses off guard. This is a really unselfish offense already, and somewhere, Jerry Sloan is smiling. Or he’s on a tractor. He’s probably on a tractor.

Boston: The Avery Bradley point guard experience is enough to make your eyes bleed. Through four games, Bradley has more turnovers (15) than assists (12) and he looks completely lost trying to initiate offense while Jeff Green stands there with his hands out asking for the ball. No one’s stock has dropped more than Bradley’s has in the last year.

New York: Speaking of that, I am selling or donating or burning all of my stock in the Knicks if Tyson Chandler is hurt for an extended period of time. I can’t underestimate how bad defensively the Knicks will be with Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire being counted on to do actual big person things like “rebound” or “defend” or “don’t just stand there”.

Orlando: Jacque Vaughn is playing the likes of Solomon Jones and Jason Maxiell over him for some reason, but Andrew Nicholson’s old man post game is a real treat. Nicholson moves like he can’t touch his toes, but his jump-shooting ability (four three-pointers already this season!) combined with a deceptive, hilariously slow pump fake is just killing defenders right now. If Andre Miller were 6-foot-10, he’d be Andrew Nicholson.

Memphis: More post game love. Quick double teams or lots of bodies in the paint can thwart even the best post player, so what do the Grizzlies do to eliminate that for Zach Randolph? Make Marc Gasol the entry passer. Randolph gets the ball delivered right where he wants it every time because of Gasol’s height, and the double down off Gasol is often a center who is either too slow or too out of position to make a difference. It doesn’t work if Gasol can’t stroke a 15-footer, but as you’ve probably seen, he most certainly can.

Phoenix: I wasn’t sure a coaching performance could get retroactively worse, but watching Eric Bledsoe go supernova for the Suns is making me think otherwise. Remember, this is the guy Vinny Del Negro played 16 minutes a night last year in the playoffs. 16 minutes! 16! Willie Green started games over him! I’m angry all over again.

Sacramento: DeMarcus Cousins slipped into the moody, brooding version of Cousins we all know so well for the first time this season against the Hawks last night. So what did rookie head coach Mike Malone do? He sat him down for the final six minutes of the game. Maybe it was because Cousins had five fouls, or maybe it’s because the Kings made a run as soon as he left the game. Still, part of me likes to think this was Malone holding Cousins accountable and earning the respect of the rest of the roster. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but keep an eye on it if (or when) Cousins gets frustrated and lets it impact his play again.

LA Lakers: Remember that time when everyone thought Ramon Sessions was going to be the next great Lakers guard? Oh hey, Xavier Henry. Didn’t see you there.

Houston: Omri Casspi is being revived as a small-ball power forward, because of course he is. He’s currently the first man off the bench for a title-contending team, which is a little crazy since he looked very much like a guy who was going to be out of the league during the last few years. I would have never pegged him to beat out Terrence jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Greg Smith for minutes, but here we are.

San Antonio: Maybe it’s because a lot of the faces are the same, but I still have this tendency to view the Spurs like they’re the 2007 team that just grinds it out in the halfcourt and slowly bludgeons you to death with jab steps and bank shots. It’s kind of jarring to see Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard flying up the court and beating a team like the Denver Nuggets at their own game on their own floor, but this isn’t your slightly younger self’s Spurs team, is it? Gregg Popovich doesn’t get enough credit for the drastic stylistic changes he made to this offense.

D.J. Foster

 

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Heat 104, Raptors 95: Chris Bosh sits this one out (for good reason) and Shane Battier starts, so Toronto opened the game doing the smart thing — pounding the ball inside to Jonas Valanciunas, who had 10 of Raptors’ first 15 (but only 8 the rest of the way). Toronto was able to maintain a lead of around 8-10 much of the first half but the Heat closed the half on 18-5 run. Miami pulled away with 12-0 run at the start of the fourth thanks to fantastic ball movement and a lot of LeBron James (35 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists).

Nets 104, Jazz 88: The Nets were desperate for a win to get to .500 and they opened the game on a 12-2 run and never gave up the lead. Brooklyn moved the ball well on offense, while on the other side they forced 20 turnovers and turned a lot of those easy buckets in transition on the other end. Brook Lopez had 27 points as the Nets starters just outplayed he Jazz starters all night.

Pacers 99, Pistons 92: In a battle of the big front lines the win went to Indy’s Roy Hibbert, who had seven blocked shots and owned his end of the paint. Indiana’s defense turned the Pistons into jump shooters and Detroit just doesn’t do that well — Detroit shot 25 percent outside the paint. Indiana went on a 23-6 run midway through first quarter and led most of the game behind 31 from Paul George, but the Pistons kept making runs to keep it interesting. Detroit just couldn’t string together enough consistent offense against the Pacers D.

Bobcats 102, Knicks 97: Not only did the Knicks lose their third in a row, not only did they trail almost the entire game at home to lowly Charlotte, they also lost Tyson Chandler to a knee injury and he while we don’t have details (he will be examined again Wednesday) it looks like he could miss at least a few games. Without Chandler on the court the Bobcats grabbed the offensive rebound on 42.1 percent of their missed shots and just seemed to control the paint. Kemba Walker had 25 points. The Knicks offense was stagnant and isolation heavy, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did a good job defending Carmelo Anthony late (‘Melo had 32 points but on 10-of-28 shooting).

Suns 104, Pelicans 98: Phoenix is off to a 3-1 start to the season after overcoming a slow start and coming back from a 14-point first quarter deficit to get a nice road victory. Goran Dragic missed this one with a sprained ankle, which just meant more time for Eric Bledsoe to continue to do his thing. On this night, that meant 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting, to go along with four rebounds, five assists, and three steals in 32 minutes of action. Gerald Green started in the place of Dragic, and hit four of his six threes on the night during a key third quarter stretch. On the Pelicans side, they just have too many guards. Brian Roberts was strong where Tyreke Evans was weak; Eric Gordon was solid while Jrue Holiday was brutal. And then there’s Austin Rivers, who received his third DNP-CD of the season.

Mavericks 123, Lakers 104: This was a game that was not as close as the score would indicate. The Lakers have plenty of role players but few stars capable of stepping up and providing real on-court leadership, especially on the road. The result was falling behind by as many as 30 points for the second time in this very young season to a Mavericks team that is at least anchored by enough skilled veterans to get the job done. Dallas got whatever they wanted most of the night offensively, and shot better than 52 percent from the field as a team. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni may have decided that the Shawne Williams experiment has run its course, as Jordan Hill replaced him in the starting lineup to begin the second half.

Spurs 102, Nuggets 94: Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw continued his early season lineup tinkering, but there was no difference in the final result. Jordan Hamilton and Kenneth Faried were newly-minted starters against the Spurs, and both produced just fine in their new roles. But too many combinations of players and not enough consistency has Denver struggling to find a rhythm and a cohesiveness, and especially against a tenured Spurs team that is far more measured with its veteran players, the outcome was far from a surprise. Shaw is eager and clearly unafraid to mix and match his players, but he’d be better served settling on a more steady lineup and rotation for a period of time to try and develop some chemistry.

Rockets 116, Blazers 101: This was a great example of just how good the Rockets can be when playing against a team that’s offensively challenged. Houston committed 20 turnovers and shot a dismal 6-of-22 as a team from three-point distance, but Dwight Howard finished with 29 points on 10-of-12 shooting, and even hit nine of his 12 free throw attempts, while James Harden added 33 points and seven boards to the winning cause. Portland only has four players capable of putting up decent numbers offensively, and all of them were inefficient on a night where Houston’s stars were unable to be stopped.

Hawks 105, Kings 100: Atlanta led this game by 19 points late in the third quarter, before Sacramento rallied to have a legitimate chance to win it in the fourth. Isaiah Thomas was a blast with 18 fourth quarter points, but ultimately it was too little too late. Atlanta’s front line of Al Horford and Paul Millsap destroyed the Kings for a combined 52 points and 21 rebounds on 20-of-34 shooting, while DeMarcus Cousins was limited to just 11 points and six rebounds in 29 minutes of action.

Portland survives against Nets 134-133, advances to play-in; Suns out

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Damian Lillard looked every bit the seeding games MVP — he carried Portland for critical stretches against a scrappy Nets team and was a leader on the biggest night of the Trail Blazers season.

Portland is going on the West play-in games as the eighth seed — win one of two games against Memphis on Saturday or Sunday and the Trail Blazers will face the LeBron James and the Lakers in the first round.

All because Portland held on for a 134-133 win against Brooklyn.

The Portland win means the Phoenix Suns — the darlings of the bubble at 8-0 behind Devin Booker‘s play — are going home. As impressive as the Suns were in the bubble, they could not climb out of the hole they dug the first part of the season, before the coronavirus shut the league down.

Monty Williams — very likely the winner of the “Coach of the Seeding Games” award — deserves credit for getting his team to take advantage of the extra games and practices to get better in a way that Sacramento, New Orleans, and other teams did not.

Thursday night, however, belonged to Lillard.

Lillard finished with 42 points on the night, bringing him up to a 37.5 points per game average in the bubble.

Brooklyn tried, they threw two guys and Lillard and blitzed trying to force the ball out of his hands and anyone else to beat them. Enter CJ McCollum, who did not play like someone with a back injury on his way to 25 points.

Both Lillard and McCollum played every minute of the second half — and Portland might not have won if they didn’t.

Brooklyn’s effort and scrappy style of play has caught teams off-guard all restart long, and it pushed Portland. Caris LeVert added to his “sure we have Kyrie and KD, but I should get some touches too next season” case with 37 points.

Portland came into the restart with the goal of making the playoffs, and it is now just one win away. The first game between Portland and Memphis is on Saturday at 2:30 Eastern. If the Grizzlies win, it forces a second game, Sunday at 4:30 Eastern.

Memphis is an impressive young team, but it’s tough to beat Lillard when he is playing like an MVP.

 

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First round dates, times, matchups

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We’ve all had our fill of the seeding games appetizer, it’s time to dig into the main course: The playoffs. On Thursday, the NBA released the first-round playoffs schedule for 2020.

Those seeding games saw unexpected stars — Indiana’s T.J. Warren looking like an elite scorer — and teams we didn’t expect exploding on the scene, such as the 8-0 Suns. The playoffs promise even more of that — and a few upsets.

Here are a few more notes on the NBA’s first-round playoff schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing with the Summer League/AAU style format with four games a day spread out over the course of the day.
• Games are played every other day in all eight series.
• It will not be known who which team the West’s top seed (the Lakers) will face in the first round until the play-in games on Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday.
• The first Western Conference Play-In game is Saturday, Aug. 15 at 2:30 ET (ABC). If the eighth-seeded team wins the series is over and that team moves on to the Lakers; if the eighth seed team loses a second game will be played on Sunday at 4:30 ET (ESPN).
• The Heat and Pacers played last Monday, meet again on Friday, then next Tuesday start a best-of-7 series. Miami won that first game in impressive fashion.
Chris Paul, now wearing a Thunder uniform, will take on his former team, the Houston Rockets.
• The NBA has released an NBA Finals schedule to teams.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020, first round, by date (all times are Eastern):

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. Play-in winner

Game 1: Aug. 18, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 8:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 L.A. Clippers vs. Dallas

Game 1: Aug. 17, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

No. 3 Denver vs. No. 6 Utah

Game 1: Aug. 17, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

Oklahoma City vs. Houston (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee vs. No. 8 Orlando

Game 1: Aug. 18, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 Toronto vs. No. 7 Brooklyn

Game 1: Aug. 17, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 1:30 p.m. (NBA TV)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Philadelphia

Game 1: Aug. 17, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

Miami vs. Indiana (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 6:30 (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Memphis advances to play-in; Phoenix goes perfect 8-0 but needs help to join them

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Memphis entered the bubble with a 3.5 game cushion as the eighth seed in the West. All Ja Morant and company had to do was hold on to that and they would be in the league’s new play-in series.

They didn’t.

Phoenix entered the bubble as a playoff afterthought, so far back of Memphis — and with so many teams between them — that Devin Booker would have to explode and the Suns would need to be perfect in the bubble.

They were. With a win over Dallas Thursday, Phoenix went 8-0 in the seeding games.

That still may not be enough.

Memphis beat Milwaukee 119-106 Thursday, with that the Grizzlies are assured of a spot in the play-in as at least the nine seed.

That means Phoenix needs Brooklyn to beat Portland later Thursday night. If the Nets pull the upset, the Grizzlies become the eight seed and the Suns would jump to the nine seed. If Portland wins, it is in the play-in against Memphis (with the Trail Blazers as the eighth seed), and Phoenix takes off for Cancun and the offseason.

The Grizzlies and Suns winning means the San Antonio Spurs historic playoff streak ends at 22 seasons, they are now mathematically eliminated.

Thursday’s games came with the promise of playoff-chase drama but ended up the kind of duds we see at the end of a typical regular season when one team has something to play for and the other is coasting and disinterested.

The Grizzlies didn’t win because Rookie of the Year to be Morant put up a triple-double (12 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists).

Rather it was a testament to the Memphis front office building out a solid, balanced roster around their young stars. Memphis got 31 from third-year player Dillon Brooks (a second-round pick they developed), plus 26 points and 19 rebounds from Jonas Valanciunas (acquired in a trade).

The Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo who was suspended one game for headbutting Moe Wagner of the Wizards. That certainly helped the Grizzlies, although it’s unlikely the Greek Freak would have played significant minutes.

Phoenix got 27 points from Devin Booker, plus balanced scoring behind him. Dario Saric added 16 points off the bench.

A lot of fans had hoped to see Booker and the electric Suns in the play-in game, but in the NBA winning games matters — and not just the last eight in the bubble. All of them. The Suns didn’t do enough of that before the coronavirus shut down the NBA for four months.

The Grizzlies did, so they advance.

Adam Silver: Players not in bubble have heard such positive reports, they’ve asked to join

NBA commission Adam Silver and Warriors star Stephen Curry
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
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NBA commission Adam Silver warned that everyone involved must be comfortable with some positive coronavirus tests in the bubble.

So far, there have been none.

Silver, in a Q&A with Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

SI: The bubble—sorry, the campus—is operational. Is it what you hoped it would be?

AS: It’s better than what we had envisioned. Players have taken to it in a more spirited way than we thought they would. We knew that this would require enormous sacrifice on everyone’s part, but I think that what is hard to calibrate—and this maybe goes to my experience when I first came into the arena—is the human emotion that comes with being around other people. And I think everyone realized they missed it more than they even understood. There are players either whose teams are not participating, who were unable to engage this summer because of injuries or other issues, who, once they spoke to fellow NBA players, have asked to join the experience down in Orlando.

People generally enjoy being around other people. Basketball players like to play basketball.

The NBA bubble has made those activities – otherwise dangerous due to coronavirus – sufficiently safe.

That surely must be fulfilling for participating players (even if the reason for the whole operation is money, not fulfillment).

Warriors star Stephen Curry admitted his FOMO, and the Trail Blazers – presumably with Trevor Ariza on board – reportedly tried to get Ariza late admission into the bubble.

But I wonder whether there’s a level of “grass is greener on the other side” from the players who asked to join. The bubble participants are away from their families and friends for at least a month, longer if their team advances. That’s easier to accept in theory without actually experiencing it.