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.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.