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.

USA’s 78-game international win streak ends at hands of Australia, Patty Mills, 98-94

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Gregg Popovich wanted his USA team to face some adversity. For them to be challenged and see how they’d respond.

He got his wish on a Saturday afternoon in Australia and has to be disturbed by the result.

Australia, behind a red-hot Patty Mills who finished 30 points and drained seemingly every big bucket down the stretch, tore up the USA defense and outplayed the Americans when it mattered most, beating Team USA 98-94 in an exhibition match in front of a raucous 52,000 people in Melbourne.

Team USA had won 78 consecutive games — including both friendlies and in international tournaments — before this loss. The last USA exhibition game loss was in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics (when the Americans took home the bronze).

The USA opens FIBA World Cup play in just more than a week, facing the Czech Republic in their first game on Sept. 1. The Americans enter that tournament as the favorites, but the combination of improved international play and a lot of elite American talent staying home means the USA’s margin for error very slim. Teams such as Serbia and Spain — not to mention Australia — have to see this result and gain confidence.

This loss comes just two days after the USA had beaten this same team by 15 points, pulling away in the second half.

“They wanted it more than us tonight,” Kemba Walker said after the game. “Lesson learned for us.”

Those lessons include needing to clean up a defense that still has communication issues, and to find more consistent shot creation outside of pick-and-rolls with Kemba Walker or Donovan Mitchell.

Walker, who came off the bench to score 22, was clearly America’s best player. His ability to penetrate was the only thing all night that either forced the Aussie defense to collapse, or it allowed him to get space for a good shot. Donovan Mitchell, who finished with a dozen points including seven straight late in the game, was able to provide a little shot creation, but the Americans lacked much ball or player movement in this one. Harrison Barnes finished with 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting.

Popovich is clearly still experimenting with lineups and combinations, and that is the silver lining of this USA loss. This was not the American’s best foot forward.

But don’t take anything away from Australia, which played a physical and feisty game all afternoon. They put the ball more in the hands of Utah’s Joe Ingles and he responded with 15 points, seven assists, and he and Andrew Bogut set up the offense and were smart with their passes. Bogut finished with 15 points. The Australian team played as a unit and their off-the-ball movement was impressive.

Team USA takes on Canada in a final exhibition game in a couple of days, before heading to China for the World Cup.

Report: Dwight Howard gave back $2.6 million in buyout with Memphis, what he will make in L.A.

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Dwight Howard will get his money, the full $5.6 million he opted into this summer. The man is getting paid.

The checks are just coming from two different teams.

To facilitate a move to the Lakers, Howard is giving back $2.6 million in a buyout with the Grizzlies — exactly how much he makes on a minimum contract with Los Angeles. From Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks of ESPN:

My guess is the Grizzlies will just take the cap hit this season to get Howard off the books.

This is exactly how this was expected to go down financially if Howard came to Los Angeles. The risk for Howard is he will sign a non-guaranteed contract with the Lakers — they can waive him for whatever reason, pay a small buyout fee, and Howard loses out on the $2.6 million.

That’s motivation for him to follow through on what he promised the team.

 

Former NBA, ABA coach Tom Nissalke dead at 87

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Tom Nissalke, who won coach of the year honors in the NBA and ABA, has died. He was 87.

Nissalke passed away at his home in Salt Lake City on Thursday after facing a “series of health-related problems” in recent years, according to the Deseret News.

He was the first coach of the Utah Jazz after the franchise relocated from New Orleans in 1979.

Nissalke was also an NBA head coach in Seattle, Houston, and Cleveland.

Nissalke got his start in the pro ranks as an assistant with Milwaukee and helped guide a team featuring Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to an NBA title in 1971. His work with the Bucks landed him a head coaching gig with the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals. He led them to a 42-42 record in his first season and was named the league’s top coach.

He was hired the next season in Seattle but was fired after a 13-32 start. Nissalke then coached the Utah Stars and San Antonio before returning to the NBA with the Rockets. He won 124 games in three seasons with Houston, twice taking the team to the playoffs and the 1977 Eastern Conference finals.

Nissalke was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year after going 49-33 in 1976-77.

After retiring, he was active with the YMCA and worked as a radio analyst.

Nissalke is survived by a daughter, Holly, son Thomas Jr, and two grandchildren. His wife, Nancy, died in 2006.

 

How Dwight Howard convinced the Lakers to take a chance on him

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Laker fans Friday sounded like your friends after an ugly relationship and breakup, when you suddenly consider taking that person back. Laker nation took to Twitter screaming “ARE YOU SERIOUS? What are you thinking? Are you even thinking?”

The Lakers, however, are entering a second relationship with Dwight Howard with their eyes wide open — he will sign a non-guaranteed contract to be the team’s center (sharing duties with Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee). Howard will have to prove himself, on and off the court. The Lakers have leverage and can waive Howard and move on to Joakim Noah or someone else quickly if things do not pan out.

But how did it even get to this point? How did Howard — who did his annual summer media tour saying “I have changed, I am taking the game and my conditioning seriously, I just want a chance” and league observers shrugged because they have heard the same thing for years — convince the Lakers to roll the dice on him again? Shams Charania of The Athletic laid it all out.

Howard’s message to [Laker assistant coach Jason] Kidd and the Lakers was the same one he delivered to The Athletic in July from NBA summer league: He’s learned from the past several seasons, learned that, at age 33, he is simply one of the guys now. Howard believes he can contribute at a high level for any NBA team, but the eight-time All-Star also understands he has to focus on rebounding, defense, blocking shots, finishing around the rim and simply playing whenever he is asked… Kidd became convinced about Howard’s newfound awakening…

The Lakers then began setting workouts for free agents, and Howard traveled from Atlanta to Los Angeles on Wednesday. His meeting and workout with the Lakers was set for Thursday, but Howard went to the Lakers’ facility in El Segundo, Calif., on Wednesday afternoon for his own training session. The Lakers were surprised to see him, sources said, and many key decision makers were in attendance…

League sources said Howard had a convincing and emotional meeting with the players and Lakers officials, explaining how he had reached rock bottom a season ago and needed to find a new mindset in his life. On and off the floor. He was not the teammate he needed to be in playing for three teams in the past three years. He did not take the game seriously enough, he did not understand what was needed to turn the corner.

Howard has said all that before. Multiple times. To multiple teams and teammates. Maybe this time he has genuinely figured things out, but whatever he did and said was enough to convince the Lakers to buy in…

To a point.

One could argue — and I would make the case — that Noah would be a better fit on the court for the Lakers’ needs in terms of passing and defense, but he comes with plenty of risks as well (health, getting along with LeBron James, and how much he liked the nightlife as a Knick in New York and what that would mean in L.A.). At least with Howard, the Lakers mitigated that risk with the non-guaranteed contract. If Howard will not accept his role and is disruptive (as he has been in recent stops), if he is still eating candy like a bingeing 10-year-old on Halloween night, if he can’t stay healthy, the Lakers can waive Howard and move on. If the Lakers brought in Noah, they would have been smart to have the same non-guaranteed contract (if Noah would have signed that kind of deal).

For now the Lakers have their man, but he’s basically on probation. Howard has to prove in deeds everything he has said in words.