The Extra Pass: You may not believe this, but a D’Antoni team is winning with defense, plus game recaps

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LOS ANGELES — Six games ago, a frustrated Mike D’Antoni decided to shake up the rotation of his struggling 3-5 Lakers: Chris Kaman was out of the starting lineup, Jordan Hill was in; Nick Young became a sixth man and Wesley Johnson became the starting three; and with Steve Nash out Jodie Meeks became Steve Blake’s backcourt mate.

It worked — after the Lakers 100-86 win over Sacramento Sunday night, Los Angeles improved to 4-2 with that rotation and they have won three straight. Yes, they have done this mostly at home (5-of-6) but the bottom line is the Lakers are a .500 team at 7-7.

And you can thank the defense.

Seriously. A Mike D’Antoni team is winning with defense. A team that was 17th in the NBA in defense last season then lost its two best defenders is winning with defense.

In those six games the Lakers are allowing just 97.9 points per 100 possessions, which would be fifth best in the NBA on the season. Opponents are shooting just 42.5 percent overall and 31 percent from three. Teams are converting on only 55.2 percent of their shots in the restricted area and they are shooting 31.8 percent from the midrange.

An active and at times swarming Lakers defense frustrated the Kings in the second half Sunday as Sacramento shot just 33.3 percent in the final 24 minutes, putting up just 38 points. The Kings had an offensive rating of 88.1

“We are sticking to our principles a lot,” D’Antoni said after the Lakers win Sunday. “I think they’re getting to the point where they’re not thinking about things and just reacting and sticking to what we are doing. They’re just following the game plan really well. The last part is their effort. They want to do it. I think because you share the ball on offense and everyone feels good about how they are playing that transfers on the defensive end and get more team energy.”

The Lakers are doing it with energy — this is not a team of lock-down defenders or elite athletes known for their defense. But starting with the ball of energy that is Jordan Hill on the back end the Lakers are doing a good job of driving guys to help and closing out on shooters. They are playing hard and fundamentally sound defense. In the NBA, a league full of athletes, defense really starts with effort.

“Intensity,” Pau Gasol said of the defensive improvement. “I think we’re communicating. I think we’re doing a good job defensively. For the most part I think we did a good job of holding this team to 86 points. I think we showed a great effort and we just have to keep that up.”

Is this sustainable long-term? Likely not, at least not at this level. We’ll see if the Lakers can keep that up on the road, with three games in four nights this week — Washington, Brooklyn and Detroit. Then they come home to the red-hot offense of Portland. That is going to test the Lakers newfound defensive commitment. Plus soon they will work Kobe Bryant back into the rotation — a 35-year-old guy coming off a serious surgery.

But at least for a couple of weeks now, the Lakers have done it with defense. Which was about the last thing we expected from them this season.

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Pistons 109, Nets 97: Brooklyn looked like they could get a win at home after a pretty good first half — Joe Johnson had 16 points in the first 24 (he finished the game with 34) and with a late 13-2 run the Nets were up 7 at the break. Then the third quarter happened. The Nets shot 26.3 percent in the third, the Pistons shot 66.7 percent and got to the line. Brandon Jennings had 10 in the quarter. Brooklyn couldn’t make that up in the fourth as the Pistons stayed hot. Rodney Stuckey led the Pistons with 27.

Clippers 121, Bulls 82: Did Chicago miss Derrick Rose? Yes. But that’s not why they lost by 39 — Chicago just did not show up defensively. The Clippers have the second best offense in the NBA this young season and they showed hit hitting 58.5 percent of their shots, they were moving the ball (32 assists on 48 makes) and they had an offensive rating of 129 on the night (they are averaging 108.6 on the season). Jared Dudley led the way for the Clippers with 21 and hit 4-of-5 from three. Chris Paul had 16 points and 17 assists. Don’t expect another bad Bulls defensive performance, Tom Thibodeau seemed frustrated with it after the game.

Suns 104, Magic 96: The Suns took the lead with a 13-5 run in the first quarter, led the whole way on the road and even when the Magic got within three it felt like the Suns would get the win. The reason is Goran Dragic who was just the best player on the floor — 23 points, 13 assists, and no turnovers. Gerald Green added 20 and the Suns just got the tempo up and the Magic could not keep up. Good news for Orlando —Tobias Harris was back in the lineup. He looked rusty but he was at least back.

Thunder 95, Jazz 73: Oklahoma City is a good team in a good groove lately. Utah is a bad team playing worse than anyone in the NBA. Together this is what you get — OKC had doubled up Utah at one point, 66-33. This game had all the suspense of “How I Met Your Mother” will end, we’ll spare you the long story. Suffice to say moving Marvin Williams into Utah’s starting lineup didn’t change anything, and as you might expect rookie Trey Burke struggled in his first NBA start. Utah won the last quarter by 10 or this would have looked a lot worse. Kevin Durant had 19 on 9 shots, Perry Jones had a nice 13 off the Thunder bench. Enes Kanter and Rudy Gobert with 10 each led the Jazz. Yes, seriously.

Lakers 100, Kings 86: As discussed above, the Lakers had a solid offensive night — Xavier Henry had 21 points, Pau Gasol had 20 points and 10 rebounds — but the Lakers really won this game with defense. In the second half the Kings scored just 38 points on 33.3 percent shooting as the Lakers protected the rim well and closed out aggressively on shooters. The Lakers led most of the way but never by much until the Lakers bench (often its spark plug this season) put up a 10-0 run late in the third then a 15-6 run to start the fourth. At that point it was over. DeMarcus Cousins had 17 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists but couldn’t get really going as the Lakers threw a lot of bodies at him. Greivis Vasquez had 20 points and kept the Kings going in the first half. But the Lakers turned their defense into transition offense and pulled away for the win.

Add Cavs, Blazers, Wizards, Bucks to list of teams calling about Jimmy Butler

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The Jimmy Butler saga in Minnesota has been difficult to track the past couple of days. No doubt that’s due to the irregular nature of the potential transaction, with Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor circumventing his front office to seek a trade for Butler.

It was reported Saturday that several teams were interested in Butler, including some of the teams the star shooting guard reportedly prefers to land. That list included Brooklyn, Detroit, Houston, the LA Clippers, Miami and Philadelphia.

Now, you can add several more teams to the list who have at least placed phone calls to Minnesota now that they know Butler is available to be dealt.

According to multiple reports, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Washington Wizards are interested in seeing what they can do to add Butler to their roster.

Trading for Butler at this juncture is a tenuous balance for all parties. Butler can opt out of his current deal at the end of the season, and is expected to do as much. That means teams must be certain that Butler is going to re-sign with them, or be happy with his rental for whatever assets they decide to give up. It puts the Timberwolves in a tough situation as well, where they won’t to get fair exchange for Butler’s overall worth.

We don’t have many details on actual offers just yet. Things seem to be a bit hectic in Minneapolis and new information is still streaming in. Training camp for the Timberwolves starts on Tuesday, and reports say that they would like to have Butler out of town by then.

What teams are willing to give up is another factor, and that self-imposed timeframe could widen what Taylor sees as a good return for Butler.

For example, any deal for Butler with the Blazers would not include Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, or Jusuf Nurkic, according to NBC Sports Northwest’s Dwight Jaynes. That leaves some value for the Timberwolves, including Al-Farouq Aminu or perhaps Maurice Harkless. But if Portland is reportedly not willing to give up any of their most important core, you can expect other teams are heading to Taylor’s door with similar offers.

More teams being added to the potential list of Butler landing spots is not surprising. When a superstar becomes available, just about every general manager will at least place a courtesy call to the trading office. It doesn’t help that Taylor appears publicly to be in a position of little leverage, so no doubt rival general managers are licking their chops to try to snag Butler away for cheap.

Keep your eyes peeled. This one is going to happen quick.

Knicks reportedly near deal to waive, stretch Joakim Noah, making him free agent

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The Joakim Noah era with the Knicks is finally, mercifully coming to an end.

Back in the summer of 2016 — the summer when NBA GMs spent like a drunk sailor on shore leave — the Knicks’ Phil Jackson looked at Joakim Noah, who had played 29 games the season before due to injury and was showing the wear and tear of Tom Thibodeau miles on him, and thought “I should give him four years, $72.6 million because he will totally bounce back to Defensive Player of the Year form.” In the two year’s since Noah has played in 53 games total, and while he can still grab some boards when he gets on the court, he is not near the defensive force he once was, and he was never a great offensive player.

The Knicks are finally moving on and doing so in the next 48 hours, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at The Athletic.

Much like the Luol Deng move by the Lakers, this is about freeing up cap space for next summer for the Knicks. New York will pay his full $18.5 million salary for this season, then stretch his final season of $19.3 million over three seasons, which works out to about $6.43 million a season on the books. That is without any discount in the buyout Noah may give New York.

For the Knicks, that frees up about $12.9 million in extra cap space next summer, when they want to go big game hunting for free agents. (The Knicks reportedly have Kyrie Irving at the top of their list, although most sources I talk to around the league don’t expect Irving to leave Boston next summer.) It does mean the Knicks will have some of that Noah money on the books through the summer of 2023. The risk for New York is if they strike out in free agency then they still have that Noah money on the books, rather than just taking their medicine and paying the full price, although having him in the locker room and wanting minutes would be a distraction, one the Knicks would like to move past.

As for other teams having interest in Noah, maybe if he can prove he’s healthy some team might consider him for a backup center, or third center on the roster spot. Maybe. But most teams would rather have a young player they can get cheaply and develop in that spot rather than a 33-year-old veteran with an injury history. It’s something to watch, but I doubt the market is very deep. That said, it just takes one.

76ers set to turn promising season into must-see TV

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CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — Ben Simmons is set to turn the 76ers into must-see TV.

But he hopes to have another smash hit off the court. NBC has given a script commitment to “Brotherly Love,” loosely based on the life of the Aussie-born NBA rookie of the year.

Deadline described the pitch like this:

“Brotherly Love is inspired by the life of Ben Simmons and centers on a unique sibling relationship within a multi-ethnic family. Together, they pursue their dreams while navigating life in the spotlight in Philadelphia, a passionate city where sports is in your blood, and your blood is always boiling.”

Don’t touch that dial – well, unless the 76ers are on.

“It’s just funny because a lot of people probably pitch their lives and think everything should be a TV show,” Simmons said Friday. “We brought it to life. (My brother) wrote something up, pitched it to a few different people. NBC loved it and went with it. It’s really going to be about our relationship and how things just happen. It’s more of a comedy-sitcom type of show. It will be pretty funny. Hopefully, that goes through and works out.”

Oh, and LeBron James (through SpringHill Entertainment) is listed as an executive producer.

The 76ers were shooting for Ben & Bron.

The Sixers met with James’ representatives just hours before the free-agent signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, the brief flirtation enough to make the organization think they might have a shot at the NBA great.

“I feel like he could have been a great piece to add to get us where we need to be,” All-Star center Joel Embiid said.

So the 76ers will try to win their first NBA title since 1983 without The King.

But with Embiid, Simmons and 2017 No. 1 NBA draft pick Markelle Fultz aboard, the Sixers believe they can top the 52 wins and a playoff series win from a year ago as they chase a championship.

Embiid, speaking at 76ers’ media day, said a successful season would be “an appearance in the NBA finals.”

That’s a pretty lofty goal for a franchise that made no meaningful offseason additions and just this week named 39-year-old Elton Brand, who retired only two years ago, as general manager.

“I just remember dunking on him really bad,” Embiid said. “That’s crazy it was two years ago.”

Coach Brett Brown expected a dominant season out of Embiid (22.9 points, 11 rebounds) and Simmons, whose friendship with Kendall Jenner made TMZ headlines this summer. He spent the offseason working on his jumper.

“I’ve never been on a team where I have to take shots,” Simmons said.

But the player who can make the most impact as a pseudo-newcomer is Fultz. Bordering on bust territory after just one season, Fultz had his rookie year derailed by a mysterious shoulder injury, a broken shot and confidence issues. He played the first four games, missed 68 games because of the injury and was benched in the playoffs against the Celtics.

Fultz struggled with his mechanics when he played, and his shooting form was widely mocked around the NBA.

Even his personal trainer, shooting coach Drew Hanlen, said Fultz suffered from the “yips” and “completely forgot how to shoot.”

The 20-year-old Fultz said Hanlen used a “misterm in words.”

“What happened last year was the injury, let me get that straight,” Fultz said. “It was the injury that happened that didn’t allow me to go through a certain path that I need to shoot the ball. Just like any normal person, when you’re used to doing something the same way each and every day and something happens, of course you’re going to start thinking about it. It’s just normal.”

Fultz took about 150,000 shots this summer and reworked his form to prove he’s ready join Embiid and Simmons on the Big Three.

“This summer was really just me working to get my mechanics back, my confidence back, my swagger back,” Fultz said.

The Sixers need it all – the swagger, the shots, the early success that can propel them toward Eastern Conference contention. The franchise that won just 10 games three seasons ago is now on the cusp of becoming an elite team.

“It’s going to be a great year,” Embiid said.

 

Minnesota reportedly moving to trade Jimmy Butler after ownership demands it

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Jimmy Butler met with Tom Thibodeau Tuesday and asked for a tradespecifically to the Clippers/Nets/Knicks. Thibodeau wanted no part of that, and he along with GM Scott Layden have shot down any other team that called, and not in a “we’re not doing that.. but what would you offer?” way, but in an “I’m hanging up now” way. Part of that may be smart negotiation tactics, but the more significant factors are that right now offers the trade offers are lowball, plus Thibodeau realizes his job on the line and this team is not as good without Butler.

So owner Glen Taylor has stepped in and laid down the law — he told Thibodeau and Layden to get on with a trade, ideally done by next Tuesday before the first day of training camp, according to multiple reports. From Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Against the displeasure of Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations and coach Tom Thibodeau, owner Glen Taylor has mandated that a deal needs to be negotiated to trade disgruntled All-Star forward Jimmy Butler in the next several days, league sources told ESPN….

Thibodeau has been willing to coach the Timberwolves through the dysfunction that has surrounded his star players, but Taylor has sided with Butler and agreed that the four-time All-Star should be away from the Wolves for the foreseeable future, sources said.

So far, few franchises, if any, are engaged in serious conversations with the Timberwolves on Butler, sources said. The list of organizations interested in talking further with Minnesota is significant, league sources said: Brooklyn, Detroit, Houston, the LA Clippers, Miami and Philadelphia are among the teams interested in probing for deals.

The problem is those initial offers will be lowball ones, in part because there are real concerns about Butler’s durability, while he is just 29 he has a lot of Thibodeau miles on him. The Timberwolves can put the offers they get in front of and his agent, see which teams he would consider re-signing with as a free agent next summer, then using that to get a better deal out of them. But to get all that done by Tuesday seems rushed and like it would lead to even a worse deal.

Even so, within a week Butler could be somewhere else in the league, once again