The Extra Pass: King of the Hill and Monday’s recaps

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Everyone has their spot. A guy like Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson, for example, has gone to his spot with such frequency over the years that he’s  been deemed the “mayor of the left block.” No matter the opponent or teammates, you know where to find him on a nightly basis.

LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t all that dissimilar. While it’s admittedly strange to see the Portland Trail Blazers atop the Northwest Division standings, ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder no less, Aldridge grounds everything by being so wonderfully predictable.

The consistency is alarming. Every time down, there’s LaMarcus Aldridge, on the left side of the floor about 15-feet out, ready to unleash one of his three moves that all counter each other and all seem to lead to the same result.

If Jefferson is the mayor of the left block, Aldridge is the emperor of mid-range.

During the 2012-13 season, Aldridge put up a whopping 753 mid-range field goal attempts. For the sake of context, the third most prolific mid-range shooter, Carmelo Anthony, put up 179 less attempts than Aldridge did from that range (10-23 feet).

After attempting 10.1 shots per game from the mid-range area last year, Aldridge has ramped that number up to 12.8 attempts per game this season. He’s not bashful.

This might be a huge problem if Aldridge was just prolific and not proficient, but that isn’t the case. Aldirdge  has made 65 of his attempts (46.1 percent) this year, which is twice as many as any other player in the league not named Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Smith, or Evan Turner.

It hasn’t been all Aldridge though, of course. Portland’s player movement and ball movement so far this season have been spectacular to watch, and second-year coach Terry Stotts deserves a ton of credit for turning this offense into a fine-tuned machine.

The early returns still feel a bit unusual, though. A big part of Portland’s production comes from places on the floor that don’t typically yield great results, which can certainly put opposing defenders into a bit of quandary. Forcing a player into shooting the most inefficient shot in basketball is a great thing against every other team, but what do you do when a guy like Aldridge is actively seeking out and knocking down that shot?

It’s not just Aldridge’s shot selection, either. Above the break threes are much more difficult to make than shorter corner threes, as the league shoots a higher percentage on those attempts from the corner. With that in mind, Damian Lillard is tied for first in makes above the break with Stephen Curry, while Wes Matthews is shooting a blistering 51.4 percent on his attempts from that same zone. Basically, the Blazers are excelling in the areas most teams try to avoid.

It’s working, though. Portland ranks third in offensive efficiency so far this season, even if they are just 22nd in made field goals in the restricted area and second in mid-range attempts. That’s typically a combination that leads to disaster offensively, and the Blazers are keeping company in those categories with some of the dregs of the league.

But it’s hard to argue with results, isn’t it? The Blazers are killing it offensively, even if it’s being done in a way that few others are travelling. It’s certainly unconventional, but perhaps that will make the Blazers a little tougher to knock off their spots than we might think.

D.J. Foster

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Trail Blazers 108, Nets 98: It was a tale of two halves for Brooklyn (well really one quarter and then a half). The first quarter of this game was ridiculous — the Blazers shot 72.2 percent and trailed by 9, 40-31. Kevin Garnett and 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting, just scoring with easy over Aldridge, and as a team the Nets shot 73.7 percent. The Trail Blazers hung close thanks to the three ball. Then in the second half the Nets reverted to the stagnant isolation basketball they have played of late and they got in trouble for it — they scored 35 points on 22 percent shooting in the second half. Meanwhile the Blazers kept making plays and getting buckets, staring the third on a 21-8 run and never looking back. This game was a microcosm of two teams going in the opposite direction.

Bulls 86, Bobcats 81: The Bulls’ offense still has not found its groove — they shot 36 percent as a team in this one and Derrick Rose was 4-of-13 — but what the Bulls do maybe better than anyone is grind out wins when their offense is off. They held the Bobcats to 36.3 percent shooting, but say this for the Bobcats they are scrappy. Gerald Henderson had 10 of his 16 in the fourth including some key buckets to cut the Bulls lead to one. But with it all on the line Rose hit a driving lineup then Luol Deng hit a key three (he finished with a team-high 21). Not pretty, but Chicago will take the win.

Thunder 115, Nuggets 113: Ty Lawson was dishing and scoring (he finished with 29 points) and Denver was finally clicking, up on the Thunder by 9 entering the fourth quarter… then Oklahoma City started its run. Russell Westbrook had 11 of his 30 in the fourth quarter and Kevin Durant had 13 of his 38 in the final frame as they led OKC back to take the lead then they held on for the win. And I mean hung on, Denver had a chance with 2.7 seconds left but ran an odd lob play for Timofey Mozgov. Brian Shaw is still learning, too.

Mavericks 97, Sixers 94: From their 8-0 run to open the game Philadelphia led most of the first three quarters. Evan Turner led the way with 26 points on the night and Tony Wroten had 19 (Michael Carter-Williams is still out injured). The Sixers was scrapping, they shot just 38.4 percent but they got the offensive rebound on 29.5 percent of their misses. Still, a 14-4 run late in the third gave Dallas the lead and they held on the rest of the way. Monta Ellis had 24; Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion had 20 a piece.

Warriors 98, Jazz 87: It was a night when the shots were not falling for Golden State, especially in the second half (they shot 31.4 percent), and they were vulnerable… but they were playing the Jazz who were shooting no better (39.5 percent for the game). Golden State put up 37 in the second quarter and was up 23 at the half. It was only close at the end of the game because the end of the Warriors’ bench gave up the lead and Mark Jackson had to put his starters back in. Except for Stephen Curry, who had a Jazz player fall on his head and could have a concussion when Marvin Williams fell on his head.

Grizzlies 106, Clippers 102: Memphis is getting back to their style — call it “grit and grind” or whatever you wish — but it is physical and other teams find it hard to play against. The Clippers did — Memphis imposed their style and will on this game and the Clippers could not win that way. Even if Tony Allen did get ejected for kicking Chris Paul in the face. Memphis led most of the way and every time the Clippers threatened the Grizzlies would make a little run (one 8-0 and another 9-2 both in the fourth quarter). Zach Randolph was a beast with 26 points and 15. Marc Gasol is just a joy to watch play because everything he does is smart and he almost had a triple-double with 23 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists. Chris Paul had 18 points and 11 rebounds.

James Harden on shooting struggles: ‘Who cares?’

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A couple of years ago, could anyone have imagined James Harden not only saying he’s willing to give up scoring to do the little things to win but then actually doing it?

That’s exactly what Harden has done through five games against Golden State, and it’s why his Houston team is up 3-2.

Harden has struggled with his shot the past two games: He has shot 16-of-47 overall the past two games (34 percent) but also 3-of-23 from three. Yet he has done a good job setting up others. In Game 5, in particular, he did a better job getting into the middle of the paint, opening up passing lanes when the defense collapsed on him. He’s also worked hard on the defensive end, played Stephen Curry reasonably well, and been a solid team defender.

With his team one game from the Finals, he’s not concerned about his shot.

“Who cares?” Harden said to reporters after the game. “I’m just missing shots. But we’re winning, and I’m trying to compete on the defensive end and do other things to help my team win. But if we’ve got a guy like Eric Gordon making shots and being aggressive, who cares?”

A lot of players give that idea lip service, but in recent games Harden has backed it up.

“It’s just the shots [are] not falling, and a lot of it has to do with how hard everybody is playing,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Probably his legs aren’t the freshest things in the world. But he’s invaluable to the defense and offense.”

The Rockets are going to need more scoring from Harden to close this series out — Chris Paul is out for Game 6 with a strained hamstring, and it’s unlikely he plays if there is a Game 7. Eric Gordon will get the start and has lit it up the past couple of games (he led the Rockets with 24 points in Game 5), but more scoring and shot creation will fall on the Harden’s shoulders.

If the Rockets are going to close this series out, Harden is going to have to look every bit the presumptive MVP. The little things are great, but Houston needs him to get buckets now.

Suns GM: ‘Overwhelming likelihood’ team keeps No. 1 pick

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It takes a rare kind of courage, an extraordinary level of organizational backing, and a special kind of draft to do what Danny Ainge did a year ago trading the No. 1 pick. While a consensus had formed around Markelle Fultz as the best player in the draft, Ainge was a Jayson Tatum guy. Doubts about the top pick are common, but that alone is far from enough to trade that pick away — most GMs don’t have the job security to know if they miss on moving the pick and sliding down they will not be let go. Ainge had that, and he had his confidence in his scouting, so he made the move to trade the No. 1 pick to Philadelphia. (While it looks good now for Ainge, it’s too early to judge how that pick plays out — Fultz has barely played, we don’t know what extra pick the Celtics will get out of this, it takes time to fully judge these kinds of moves.)

This year is different. DeAndre Ayton is more of a clear No. 1, a guy with franchise changing potential. Plus Suns’ GM Ryan McDonough may not be standing on the kind of bedrock that allows for the trade of a No. 1 pick.

Recently McDonough said he’d listen to trade offers for the pick. That’s very different from trading it, as Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic had the GM saying Friday.

Because they should do their due diligence, the Suns will look at Luka Doncic (who does have a relationship with new coach Igor Kokoskov) and Marvin Bagley III, among others. Rumors may leak, spun by agents or other teams. However, at the end of the day, good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks Phoenix will not take Ayton — who attended college in Arizona — to be the inside to Devin Booker‘s outside. It’s the smart play.

Kokoskov and the Suns have a lot of work to do to build a foundation for success with this franchise. However, that almost never starts by trading away the top pick in the draft.

Rumor: Paul George’s agent telling people client will re-sign with Thunder

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That rumor Paul George will leave the Thunder?

How about the exact opposite?

Dean Blevins of News 9:

Allegedly, apparently, Paul George plans to stay with the Thunder. I know. It’s not what people believe. But in separate conversations, I’m told P.G.’s agent has told people associated with the NBA that P.G. believes the injury loss of Andre Roberson was huge and he’s staying. Disclaimer, though: Believing everything that agents allegedly say can be dangerous to your health.

This, by Blevins’ own admission, isn’t the staunchest reporting. Nonetheless, I appreciate him sharing and contextualizing it. We can evaluate it for what it’s worth.

George is known to share his plans – though the previous example was him planning to sign with the Lakers. And he might have really believed it at the time, when he was still with the Pacers.

But throughout the season, George seemingly went out of his way to profess his affection for Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder. That only raised expectations in Oklahoma City of George staying, and if he leaves after doing that, he’d be inviting even more backlash. I think he’s smart enough to understand that, which is why I thought he made those especially strong pro-Thunder comments only after deciding he’d likely stay.

On the other hand, even if my assessment was correct, conditions change. The Jazz brutally exposed Oklahoma City’s flaws, and if George re-signs and Anthony opts in, the Thunder will have minimal cap flexibility to upgrade the roster. In fact, they might take a step back with the supporting cast to keep the luxury-tax bill manageable. George could see free agency as his chance to escape that mess.

Roberson was a huge loss, and if George is focused on that, that would bode well for Oklahoma City. Though Roberson was just a role player, he was pivotal to the Thunder’s defense. And his teammates had learned how to play around his offensive shortcomings. Oklahoma City didn’t have any good replacements for him on the roster. Roberson getting healthy is the clearest way for the Thunder to improve next season.

Of course, that’s predicated on George returning, too. Will he?

One last note of caution: People often believe what they want to hear. It’s easy to see someone in Oklahoma City hearing George bemoan the loss of Roberson and elevate that to George planning to re-sign, even George wasn’t going that far.

Draymond Green guarantees Warriors will beat Rockets in Western Conference finals

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Warriors coach Steve Kerr is confident despite his team trailing the Rockets 3-2 in the Western Conference finals.

Golden State forward Draymond Green goes further.

Green, via Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic:

“We still winning this,” Draymond Green said. “Book it.”

Of course, Green is confident. He’d never say he expects his team to lose.

But he didn’t need to frame it this way. He could’ve said he was just focused on the next game rather than make such a bold proclamation.

He’s taking pressure upon himself and putting his reputation on the line. If Golden State loses, especially in Game 6 at home with Chris Paul out, Green will be widely mocked.

If he and the Warriors pull through, he’ll probably deserve praise for setting a tone that helped them advance.