The Extra Pass: Three new faces and Wednesday’s recaps

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One of the best parts about the start of any season is the chance to get familiar with the new faces in the league.

Guys like Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo will get plenty of publicity, so let’s dig a little deeper and look at a few other players that are impressing in their first substantial minutes in the league.

Nate Wolters, PG, Milwaukee Bucks

This should have been a disaster. The Bucks were already short on playmakers and ballhandlers with Luke Ridnour and Carlos Delfino sidelined to start the year…and then Brandon Knight went down in the first two minutes of the season.

Second-round draft pick Nate Wolters was the last man standing. This should have been ugly, but somehow, Wolters has been able to keep a pretty lackluster Bucks offense afloat thus far. Through four games, Wolters has only turned the ball over just four times while racking up 26 assists.

That’s a crazy assist/turnover ratio for any point guard, let alone a rookie making the leap from South Dakota State to the NBA. Wolters will go through an adjustment period as a scorer, but his solid size (6-foot-5) should help him once he gets in the guts of a defense. If nothing else, Wolters has already shown a much better grasp for distributing than Brandon Knight ever has, so here’s hoping he still gets heavy play once the Bucks’ backcourt gets healthy.

Dennis Schroder, PG, Atlanta Hawks

The young point guard from Germany has also impressed with his distributing, often threading the needle on backdoor cuts or keeping his dribble alive to create openings from nothing.

Schroder’s biggest impact, however, has been on the defensive end. A lot of players will give token ball pressure, but Schroder is a guy who really makes opposing point guards work their way up the floor. He’s that perfect combination of annoying and clever, and his insanely quick lateral movement and long wingspan makes him nightmare to get around in pick-and-roll situations.

Schroder has so much value defensively, even as a rookie, that Mike Budenholzer has played him next to Jeff Teague quite a bit despite a shaky shooting stroke.

Schroder is already a defensive weapon, and there are a lot of natural instincts to like offensively. Keep an eye on him.

Miles Plumlee, C, Phoenix Suns

Did anyone have a better offseason than the Phoenix Suns? Miles Plumlee was supposed to be nothing more than a salary match in the Luis Scola trade with the Indiana Pacers, but he’s probably been the biggest surprise of the season so far.

Plumlee has shown a nice chemistry with Eric Bledsoe in the screen game, timing his rolls correctly while displaying some pretty fluid mobility and a high coordination level. Plumlee was miscast by some coming out of college as a stiff, but he can get up and down the floor and finish pretty well around the rim.

Plumlee ideally would have a little more help on the glass from his frontcourt partner, but he’s shown some good weakside help instincts defensively. Suns GM Ryan McDonough may have pulled off another steal here.

—D.J. Foster

 

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It’s good to have Russell Westbrook back in the game.

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If you’re wondering what this is based on, read up on Caron Butler’s fine.

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Pacers 97, Bulls 80: This was actually a tight game throughout, with Indiana leading by just one heading into the final period. But the Pacers’ defense held the Bulls to just 18 points in the fourth, and under 20 points for three of the game’s four quarters. Roy Hibbert and David West made things miserable for Chicago’s front line, and 12 fourth quarter points from Lance Stephenson along with eight in the period from Luis Scola helped Indiana pull away to improve to a perfect 5-0 on the season. Derrick Rose continued his offensive struggles, finishing with 17 points in 27 minutes on 6-of-15 shooting. — Brett Pollakoff

Magic 98, Clippers 90: This was the Bizaro Clippers — this was the complete and total opposite of the team that destroyed the Rockets Monday night. The Clippers started the game 2-of-10 shooting with three missed dunk attempts. The other thing is the energetic DeAndre Jordan who was yelling out commands like KG on defense in the preseason has gone quiet, and with that the Clippers defense is not good. Nikola Vucevic owned Jordan and owned the Clippers with 30 points and 21 rebounds — he was the best player on the court and looked like the guy you want leading your team in the paint. —Kurt Helin

Thunder 107, Mavericks 93: Oklahoma City looked like the team the rest of the league knows and fears — they forced 21 Mavericks turnovers and converted a number of those into easy points the other way. Dallas couldn’t get its scorers to be efficient — Monta Ellis was 8-of-17, Dirk Nowitzki 5-of-12. The result was the Thunder just kind of slowly taking control of the game. Kevin Durant had 23 points, Russell Westbrook 22, and when the Thunder play like this they are just hard to beat. —KH

Celtics 97, Jazz 87: Brad Stevens beats Gordon Hayward and wins the “Battle of Butler.” Haywood had 10 points in the first quarter (he finished with 28) and helped spark a 14-0 run that had Utah out front early, but Boston owned the second quarter with a 25-6 run to pull away and never really look back (well, the fourth quarter did get interesting). Stevens move of starting Jordan Crawford and bringing Gerald Wallace as a spark plug off the bench (9 points, 9 rebounds) seemed to work. Brandon Bass had 20 for the Celtics. —KH

Pelicans 99, Grizzlies 84: New Orleans went on a 14-2 run in the first quarter, led by as many as 19 in that first frame, and never really looked back as they cruised to a win. Zach Randolph left early to be there for the birth of his son (congratulations!) but that was not the Grizzlies problem. Again for Memphis it was the defense not being the same; they gave up 112.2 points per 100 possessions. And the turnover problem remains for Memphis — they had 18 turnovers, which was 20 percent of their possessions, a number of those being live ball turnovers the Pelicans turned into fast points. Same old problems for Memphis. The new one — Anthony Davis put up 18 points and 9 boards and outplayed Marc Gasol all night. Davis looks really good. —KH

Warriors 106, Timberwolves 93: Stephen Curry went out in the third quarter (he is officially day-to-day with an ankle injury but is expected to play Friday against the Spurs) so Klay Thompson went off for 19 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter to help secure the win. Andre Iguodala stepped into the point role with Curry out and help organize the offense, plus had 20 points on the night. David Lee had 20 points and 15 boards. Kevin Love continues to put up numbers — 25 points and 16 boards — but he shot just 40 percent and as a team the Timberwolves shot just 37.8 percent. Not good enough against the Warriors offense (which shot 50 percent). —KH

Bobcats 92, Raptors 90: Enjoy this fact — Charlotte is tied with Miami for the first place in the Southwest (Orlando in there, too). The Bobcats shot 75 percent in the first quarter and led by 14 after one, but the Raptors second unit had a 21-7 run to tie it at the half. That was pretty much it for the good Raptors offense, they shot just 35.1 percent in the second half and that didn’t get it done. Rudy Gay finished with a team high 20 points but needed 21 shots to get those points. Gerald Henderson had 23 to lead the Bobcats.

There are just so many questions for Toronto — and most of them are aimed at coach Dwane Casey. Like why Jonas Valanciunas, who had 12 points and 10 boards and was a catalyst when he played, sat the entire fourth quarter? Or why when the Raptors were down 2 and the Bobcats got the ball back off a DeMar DeRozan miss with 26 seconds left, Casey let Charlotte run the clock all the way down without fouling? Charlotte got off a shot just before the 24-second clock expired but then the game ended before the Raptors had the rebound. —KH

Wizards 116, Sixers 102: The Wizards set the tone in this one by scoring 39 first quarter points, and never looked back the rest of the way. Washington led by as many as 17 points, and shredded the Sixers’ defense for better than 54 percent shooting from three-point distance, while seeing seven players finish in double figures. This was the Sixers team we expected to see at the start of the season, giving up easy baskets and open looks while having very few weapons to counter their opponents’ activity. Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes continued their above-average and consistent level of play, while rookie Michael Carter-Williams put up stat sheet-stuffing numbers once again, albeit somewhat inefficiently. — BP

Bucks 109, Cavaliers 104: This was a battle of the guards, and Milwaukee’s were simply more effective on this night. O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal combined for 51 points on 50 percent shooting, and killed it from beyond the arc by combining to shoot 10-of-12 from three-point distance. Number one overall draft pick Anthony Bennett finally hit a shot for the cavaliers, and Andrew Bynum logged over 14 minutes, but was ineffective as he continues to work his way back into game shape. — BP

Spurs 99, Suns 96: Phoenix continues to play with effort and energy beyond that of its competitors, but sometimes, as was the case in San Antonio on Wednesday, talent ultimately wins out. Tony Parker turned in a dominant fourth quarter performance, pouring in 15 points in the period on a perfect 7-of-7 shooting to ensure his team would come away with the victory. The Suns got a big night from Markieff Morris, who seems to be improving now that he’s choosing his offensive looks a bit more carefully. He finished with game-highs of 23 points and 12 rebounds, on 11-of-13 shooting in 30 minutes off the bench. Coaches will tell you that it doesn’t matter who starts the game and that it’s all about who finishes it, but production would dictate that Morris should supplant Channing Frye in the starting lineup in the very near future. — BP

Masai Ujiri ‘confident’ Kawhi Leonard will return to Toronto Raptors

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TORONTO (AP) Still absorbing the magnitude of his team’s accomplishment, Raptors President Masai Ujiri is confident Kawhi Leonard and the rest of Toronto’s core will reunite next season in a bid for another title.

“We’re on to the next issue, which for us is coming back and being champions again,” Ujiri said Tuesday in his first news conference since Toronto won its first title nearly two weeks ago. “We want to experience this moment here again and again and again.”

Retaining Leonard is the most pressing issue. The two-time finals MVP is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent. Toronto can offer a five-year deal worth about $190 million – one year and some $50 million more than any other team.

“I know what we’ve built here,” Ujiri said. “I’m confident, and you see how these things go.”

Ujiri stressed the main selling points of his pitch to Leonard: health, trust, success.

“I said we have to be ourselves, and we were ourselves for the whole year,” Ujiri said. “I think he saw that. I think we built a trust there.

“I believe winning a championship, him seeing who we are, working with his medical staff combined with our medical staff and getting him to where he wanted to be,” Ujiri added.

Injured for all but nine games in his final season with San Antonio, Leonard played 60 games this season and another 24 in the playoffs. After averaging career bests of 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the regular season, Leonard raised his averages to 30.5 and 9.1 in the playoffs.

Ujiri says he and Leonard have had multiple talks the past several days, discussions he called “positive.”

The Raptors will stay in touch and meet formally once free agency begins Sunday. After that, Ujiri is not worried about how long Leonard takes to decide.

“I texted Kawhi last night, I talked to his uncle this morning,” Ujiri said. “For us, there’s that trust regardless of wherever it goes, and there’ll be constant communication.”

Center Marc Gasol also has a player option for next season, and guard Danny Green is a free agent.

“I think they know what the effect of Kawhi’s decision is, but we’re really approaching it like we want to bring everybody back on this team,” Ujiri said. “That’s a priority for us.”

Less urgent is a potential extension for forward Pascal Siakam, a runaway winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The parties plan to meet during the summer league.

“Pascal has gotten to a place where he’s definitely a priority for us and it’s definitely going to be a conversation that we’ll have,” Ujiri said.

Ujiri said little about his confrontation with a deputy following the Game 6 clincher. The deputy’s lawyer, David Mastagni, says his client is on medical leave with a concussion and jaw injury and is considering a lawsuit.

Ujiri says his lawyers are updating him about the investigation.

“I am confident about who I am as a person, my character and as a human being,” Ujiri said. “For now, I’ll just respect their process there and wait for the next steps.”

Asked to address reports linking him to NBA job offers, Ujiri stresses that his family loves Toronto.

“My kids are Canadians,” he said. “For me, the blessing is being wanted here and finding a place that makes you happy and finding challenges that really make you grow as a person.”

As for celebrating the NBA title with political leaders, Ujiri says the team has yet to decide on a White House visit if invited. He adds that seeing Canada’s prime minister would be a “priority.”

Ujiri did have one regret Tuesday – not bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy with him. But minutes before the news conference ended, the golden trophy arrived and was placed on the table next to him. Ujiri carried it out as he left.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PJ Tucker says Chris Paul-James Harden rift is ‘fake news’

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There have been reports out of the Houston Rockets organization that both James Harden and Chris Paul are upset with each other. The situation has reportedly become untenable, with Harden as the franchise cornerstone apparently hoping that general manager Daryl Morey will be able to ship Paul off somewhere else.

It was already expected that Morey would be trying to move Paul’s contract this summer. Paul has fallen off, and the rift between the two players was noticable. Still, it’s a tall task to move CP3’s deal — it’s enormous, and his skills are clearly in decline.

But at least one player things that all of this talk is just… talk.

According to Rockets swingman PJ Tucker, there aren’t big issues between Paul and Harden. In fact, speaking to The Athletic Sam Amick this week, Tucker called the supposed conflict “fake news” and that the tension after the team’s Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors wasn’t anything out of the ordinary given the circumstances.

Via The Athletic:

“I’m sick of the fake news man. It’s fake. Everybody – I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue.

“It was what it was. Everybody’s mad. Everybody’s pissed. You can’t – I’m sick of all the highlight of whoever this person is trying to come up with all this crap, like I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue with each other. Like, I’m the center, focal (point) of the argument because I’m always yelling at somebody and they’re yelling at me. So for me, it’s like ‘If you’re not arguing…’ You don’t think Kobe and Shaq argued?”

The problem here is that reports have said that Harden is sick of Paul trying to coach the team. Meanwhile, Paul has found that Harden’s ability to generate offense for himself isn’t necessarily what he thinks is best for the squad. It’s an impasse.

And of course, Kobe and Shaq hated each other so much they broke up a dynasty. Paul and Harden don’t compare to that tandem in their prime right now, and Tucker’s example is ignoring the fact that Shaq got shipped off to the Miami Heat.

It’s possible that Tucker is giving out the information he knows to be true. It’s also possible that he’s simply being a good teammate for the Rockets. And, begrudgingly, I will admit it’s also possible that the discourse between Paul and Harden is par for the course for stars of their stature and competitive nature.

Still, I won’t hold my breath for things to get smoothed over in Houston.

Report: Klay Thompson could be interested in Clippers if Warriors don’t max him

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Most everyone has expected that Klay Thompson will return to the Golden State Warriors next season. That seemed even more of a lock after Thompson tore his ACL, which might scare off outside teams.

Thompson is certainly a max-level player, and the Warriors will need to decide whether they are going to offer him that contract this summer. It’s not clear whether Thompson would be willing to take a discount, or if he’s finally ready to cash out in a big way.

Golden State will have a hard time keeping their core intact as everyone continues to get more expensive. Finding some leeway with Thompson’s contract has been seen as one way for the Warriors to at least limit their luxury tax bill.

But according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, there are other teams interested in giving Thompson a hefty sum if the Warriors decline to offer him a max deal.

Via ESPN’s “Woj & Lowe” special:

“The one team that I think — my information is — he would be very open to going down to sit down with are the Clippers. And if they have a chance to sell Kawhi Leonard with Klay Thompson, certainly that’s an appealing sell for any free agent.”

It seems unreasonable that the Warriors would not try to max both Thompson and Kevin Durant. Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe said as much during their special.

But we have seen made promises to spend in the past, and often that decision has been reversed. Golden State might end up choosing a handful of their core players to keep, and either Durant or Thompson could be left looking elsewhere.

There will be plenty of suitors for either of these guys, and both are still max-level players despite their catastrophic injuries. Whether both, one, or neither will be in San Francisco next year is the question heading into July 1.

Danny Green on fans trying to delegitimize Raptors title in light of Warriors injuries: ‘We don’t care’

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The Toronto Raptors are your 2019 NBA champions. For some folks, this title comes with a caveat thanks to injuries suffered by Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Many fans feel as though there should be some kind of asterisk next to their championship in the record books.

This is, frankly, is sour grapes at best and patently insane at worst.

What-ifs are some of the more fun things to contemplate in a league like the NBA, but reality is inescapable. What has come to pass is the truth, and in front of our very eyes we saw the Golden State Warriors go down in six games to Toronto. And should have been five.

Raptors guard at Danny Green shares the same sentiment, saying is much too the New York Times Marc Stein in his newsletter this week. When asked about the prospect of adding an asterisk to the Raptors championship in light of Golden State’s injuries, Green disagreed.

Via NYT:

In a phone interview Monday night, Toronto’s Danny Green forcefully scoffed at the asterisk question before I could even finish the sentence. “We don’t care,” Green said. “Doesn’t matter to us.”

Should I be surprised that this is an actual conversation happening between NBA fans in 2019? Probably not. I’ve been around for too long. But here I am, and the incessant idiocy of excuses remains ever-present.

Now, if only we knew with this kind of certainty where Kawhi Leonard was going to sign this summer.