The Extra Pass: Behind San Antonio’s hot start and Monday’s recaps

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At least in the standings, the San Antonio Spurs are as good as they’ve ever been.

By walloping the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday, San Antonio tied their franchise best for a start to the season. The Spurs are 13-1 now and winners of 11 straight games.

What can you say? I ran out of adjectives to describe the Spurs about, oh, four years ago. They know who they are, and you know who they are.

If it’s possible, though, the Spurs have been almost more…Spurs-ish this season. Here’s a look at the numbers behind their hot start:

1. No Spurs player is averaging over 30 minutes a game right now.

I’m not sure if any team has done that over an entire season, but the Grizzlies came close in 2004, with only Pau Gasol averaging over 30 minutes a game. If you find a team that hasn’t had a single player average over 30 minutes a game, drop it in the comments and I’ll name you the Extra Pass commenter of the week or something equally free.

While you’d expect Parker to get over 30 minutes a game by season’s end, it’s still incredible that a 13-1 team is barely using their best players.

2. San Antonio’s net rating (offensive rating of points per 100 possessions minus defensive rating) is 13.9. The fourth best team in that category is the Houston Rockets. They have a net rating of 6.4.

Maybe we need to bust out some 1984 newspeak for the Spurs. They’re doubleplus good! San Antonio’s point differential is +12.1 on the season, and they’re the only team in double-digits in that category this year.

3. The Spurs lead the league in defensive rebounding percentage. Tim Duncan is having his worst rebounding year of his career so far.

The Spurs have been rolling with Duncan stuck in neutral. Duncan is shooting an uncharacteristic 38.9 percent, and per 36 minutes he’s averaging career lows in points per game, rebounds per game and free throw attempts per game. He’s been pretty bad, all things told, and it doesn’t matter.

Kawhi Leonard is quietly filling in the cracks for the Spurs. Duncan isn’t cleaning the defensive glass as well, so Leonard is rebounding at a career-high rate. Manu Ginobili’s scoring is down, so Leonard’s is up.

And he’s doing all of that while not saying a word or showing any ounce of emotion. Have you ever seen Kawhi Leonard’s teeth? You have not.

When the time comes for the Spurs to turn a new leaf, Leonard will be perfect as the new face of the franchise. Very clearly, though, that time isn’t upon us yet.

—D.J. Foster

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Celtics 96, Bobcats 86: This was an ugly game with some fairly sizable swings, and the Celtics managed to be the ones still standing when all was said and done. Each team held a lead of double digits at one point in this one, but Boston maintained control throughout the fourth to come away with the victory. Jordan Crawford had the big night for the Celtics, finishing with 21 points on 11 shots in 28 minutes of action. —Brett Pollakoff

Pacers 98, Timberwolves 84: Minnesota continued its struggles on the road, while the Pacers kept on proving that they’re one of the league’s best teams. A strong start got Indiana out to a 12-point lead in the first quarter, behind eight early points from Paul George. And then a 14-2 run to open the fourth helped Indiana pull away for its 13th win in 14 tries this season. The Pacers got big games from Paul George and George Hill who contributed 26 points apiece, while the Timberwolves shot just 29-of-89 from the field and 3-of-19 from three-point distance which ultimately doomed their chances. —BP

Pistons 113, Bucks 94: The Bucks are a complete disaster right now, and though injuries have played a part in their recent demise, the overall lack of talent on the roster is becoming painfully evident with each passing game. The Pistons have struggled themselves this season, and improved to just 6-8 with this victory. But they were able to get out to a lead of as many as 34 points against this terrible Milwaukee squad, behind 15 points and 13 assists from Brandon Jennings who was one of seven Detroit players that finished the game in double figures.—BP

Heat 107, Suns 92: Phoenix was playing its fifth straight game without Eric Bledsoe, who continues to be sidelined with a bruised shin injury. We’re not sure his presence would have mattered against the defending champs, considering LeBron James was able to pour in 35 points on just 14 shots and Dwyane Wade was similarly efficient with 21 points and 12 assists on 9-of-13 shooting. The foundation is being laid in Phoenix, however, as the effort put forth by the team along with its propensity to consistently pass up decent shots for better ones will undoubtedly pay dividends in the future.—BP

Rockets 93, Grizzlies 86: James Harden sat this one out with a sore left foot, and Marc Gasol is out for a while after suffering an MCL sprain. That meant a balanced attack from the players that were left, and it took a monster fourth quarter from Houston to come away with the victory. The Rockets outscored the Grizzlies by 15 points in the final period behind a 14-of-20 shooting effort. Omri Casspi had 11 in the fourth and Chandler Parsons had nine on 4-of-4 shooting to help Houston pull away over a Grizzlies team that fell to just 7-7 on the season.—BP

Nuggets 110, Mavericks 96: The Nuggets have swept a home against Dallas and have moved above .500 — they may be finding their groove under Brian Shaw. This was a close game for the first half then in the third quarter Ty Lawson put up 13 of his 19 on the night to pull the Nuggets ahead. Dallas made some runs in the fourth but Nate Robinson answered all of them on his way to 17 points. It was vintage Nate. Monta Ellis had 22 for Dallas and continued his run or strong play.—Kurt Helin

 Spurs 112, Pelicans 93: Imagine how good the Spurs are going to be when Tim Duncan gets going. Not to knock Duncan, his offense is off to a slow start (just 7 points in this one) but his defense seemed to bother Anthony Davis on the night and the New Orleans star to 3-of-8 shooting. The Spurs defense was on fire all night, holding the Pelicans to 38 percent shooting (and that bumped up from around 33 percent with a late little run). The Spurs did it with balance — seven players in double figures.—KH

Jazz 89, Bulls 83 (OT): This was Black Monday for the Bulls — in the morning they officially lose Derrick Rose for the season, at night they lose to the Jazz (who are now 2-14). Chicago is just struggling to create offense with Rose out (not surprisingly), Luol Deng had 24 and is the guy the Bulls went to late, but he is the only guy who can get shots consistently. Give Utah some credit too — Marvin Williams had 17, while rookie Trey Burke showed some real confidence on his way to 14 points (on 17 shots, but cut the kid some slack). —KH

Trail Blazers 102, Knicks 91: Face the fourth best offense in the NBA this young season with the struggling Knicks defense without Tyson Chandler and this was pretty predictable. Portland went on a 22-6 run that started midway through the first quarter to pull away, and the game was never really in doubt after that. Nicolas Batum had 23 points on 12 shots and along with Damian Lillard (23 points also) had his way with the Knicks defense. Carmelo Anthony had 34 points and 15 rebounds but he alone can only carry the Knicks so far.—KH

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto return trip to Finals? It could happen.

NBA Power Rankings
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
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This is the penultimate NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings (we’ll have one next week before the playoffs start) and we have a new No. 1 in Toronto. Once again this ranking only covers the 22 teams invited to the NBA restart in Orlando.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (51-19, 5-1 in the bubble, Last Week No. 2). Toronto has locked up the two seed in the East and it has done that with its defense — the Raptors are the best defense at the restart, allowing less than a point per possession. The offense has been good enough but not championship level (second worst in the bubble, ahead of only the Lakers) and Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and company must lift that up if the Raptors are serious about a repeat.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (56-16, 3-4, LW 3). Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost certainly be sitting out the Bucks final seeding game after headbutting Moe Wagner (the suspension is coming). It doesn’t really matter, the Bucks have the No. 1 seed locked up. The Bucks played it slow with the ramp up through the restart, but now they are healthy (Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton are with the team) and we will see if the strategy worked.

 
Lakers small icon 3. Lakers (52-18, 3-4, Last week No. 1). The Laker offense has woken up in flashes — a 137.8 offensive rating against the Nuggets (complete with a Kyle Kuzma game-winner), or watching Anthony Davis drop 42 on the Jazz. But the offense has stumbled through other games and LeBron James admitted he is still adapting to playing without fans in the building. It’s all a small sample size and doesn’t matter because the Lakers are the No. 1 seed, but if they face the Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard in the first round, they need to be better.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (48-23, 5-2, LW 8). Winners of four in a row, and that includes a 22-point thumping of the Raptors that should be a confidence booster heading into the playoffs. Versatile teams make deep playoff runs, and a guard/wing rotation with Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward — with Marcus Smart off the bench — is exactly that. Boston looks like a real threat in the East.

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (47-23, 3-3, LW 4). Montrezl Harrell is back in the bubble and going through quarantine, which means Doc Rivers may have a full roster of players for the Clippers final seeding game (Friday, against Oklahoma City, a game that could have seeding implications on the West) and into the playoffs. The Clippers shooters need to find their legs and there are chemistry questions because this team hasn’t played together, but they are still a title contender.

 
Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (44-26, 4-2, LW 5). Houston has the fourth best defense in the bubble. Let that sink in. If a team with James Harden and other bombers from three (plus Russell Westbrook) is also defending at a high level, then you are looking at a title contender. Whether they can defend like that against a taller team for seven games remains to be seen, but Houston’s defense has looked legitimate in the bubble.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (44-27, 3-3, LW 7). Jimmy Butler got in T.J. Warren’s face, shut down the leading scorer in the bubble, and the Heat got a statement win against the Pacers, their likely first-round opponent. Butler has been a perfect fit into the Heat culture and his ability to rise to the occasion in the playoffs could see Miami challenging the presumptive power in the East in the second round of the playoffs.

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (43-28, 4-2 LW 9). T.J. Warren is a lock for the All-restart team, his scoring leap has been one of the wonders of the bubble. But, Jimmy Butler holding Warren to a 5-of-14 shooting night this week is concerning, mostly because come the playoffs the good teams can always take away (or at least slow down) offensive option Plan A, and it’s a working Plan B (and C and D) that gets teams deep into the postseason. Do the Pacers have that with Victor Oladipo right now?

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (43-27, 3-3, LW 6). Their seeding may come down to the final day of “seeding games” on Friday when Chris Paul takes on his former team, the Clippers. It’s a potential playoff matchup with another former CP3 team, the Rockets, that has NBA fans (and television network executives) buzzing. That would be fun to watch, and the series could turn on how many minutes (and how well) the recently returned Andre Roberson could cover James Harden a game.

 
Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (34-39, 5-2, LW 11). Damian Lillard is on a tear — 112 points last two games on 55% shooting — that has put the Trail Blazers in the drivers’ seat for a return to the playoffs. Win on Thursday and Portland is the eighth seed, meaning they only need to win one-of-two play-in games and they will be back in the postseason (against the Lakers in the first round). Gary Trent Jr. has been a breakout star for the Blazers in the bubble.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (46-25, 3-3, LW 10). Jamal Murray was back on the court over the weekend and instantly was hitting big shots and showing how important he is for the offense. Combined with the emergence of Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets offense has looked good (top 10 in the bubble). However, Denver has the worst defense in the NBA restart and that makes it very vulnerable to a first-round upset (regardless of who the Nuggets face, and that is still up in the air).

 
Suns small icon 12. Suns (33-39, 7-0, LW 17). BREAK UP THE SUNS! Phoenix was an afterthought in the West heading into restart but a 7-0 record has it on the brink of getting into the West play-in tournament. The Suns need to beat the Mavericks and get some help (a Memphis or Portland loss), but even being in this position is impressive. Devin Booker has made his case for bubble MVP.

 
Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (43-31, 3-4, LW 13). Luka Doncic has been magical in the bubble, but the Dallas defense has been terrible (third worst in the bubble) and because of that the Mavericks don’t scare anyone heading into the playoffs. It’s not written in ink yet, but a first-round matchup with the Clippers seems destined (and that bad wing defense by Dallas makes that a brutal matchup for them).

 
Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (32-38, 5-2, LW 15). The playoff streak of 22 years is going to need a lot of help to stay alive. The Spurs need to beat the Jazz on Thursday (and Utah is playing for seeding) then get losses from two of the Grizzlies, Blazers, and Suns. Even if the streak dies, the bubble has been another testament to the brilliance of Gregg Popovich. He overhauled the LaMarcus Aldridge/DeMar DeRozan system they played all season to go with a fast-paced four-guard/wing lineup that has been fun to watch and won games. Derrick White has been one of the breakout stars of the bubble.

 
Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (42-29, 3-3, LW 12). No Ben Simmons. Joel Embiid is expected to be back for the playoffs (and maybe the final seeding game)but will be coming off a tweaked ankle. The 76ers will almost certainly face the Celtics in the first round. Al Horford has played well in the restart, and if Matisse Thybulle, Alec Burks, Josh Richardson and others can find chemistry together this is still a good defensive team. But they don’t scare Boston right now.

 
Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (43-28, 2-4, LW 14). The Jazz have struggled with critical aspects of what they want to do — defend the paint, hit threes, much more — during the restart, but have shown flashes of it coming together in recent games (Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles have both had strong games). Still, this was a team all about elite defense the past two seasons, but in the bubble their defense has been average and the offense has not been good enough to carry the load. If the defense doesn’t improve (particularly on the perimeter) it doesn’t matter who they play.

 
Nets small icon 17. Nets (35-36, 5-2, LW 20). It was a rag-tag roster thrown together late because of all the players the Nets lost, but Jacque Vaughn coached this team to wins over the Bucks, Kings and Clippers, and the Nets have locked down the seven seed (avoiding the Bucks in the first round… not that Toronto is a pushover). Chris LeVert and Jarrett Allen have shown why they should get minutes next season on a deeper Nets roster. Joe Harris has shown why the Nets need to back up the Brinks truck and re-sign him this summer.

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (32-40, 2-5, LW 16). Orlando struggled in a run of games against some of the better teams in the East, and that has locked them into the eighth seed — meaning they will face the Bucks in the first round without Jonathan Isaac or Aaron Gordon. Good luck with that. If you’re a Magic fan looking for a bright side… Gary Clark has shown some flashes. That’s all we got.

 
Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (33-39, 1-6, LW 19). Ja Morant shot a respectable 34.3% from three for the season, but that has fallen to 25% in the bubble and its one of the things holding the Memphis offense back (no Jaren Jackson Jr. hurts, too). Despite all that, the Grizzlies can advance to the play-in game if they can find a way to knock off the Bucks on Thursday (Milwaukee may be without Giannis Antetokounmpo due to suspension for headbutting Moe Wagner).

 
Kings small icon 20. Kings (30-41, 2-5, LW 21). Sacramento’s playoff drought is now up to 14 seasons, the second longest in NBA history. Whatever is happening on the court, the Kings have been getting it right in the community and that includes their latest effort, “Rally the Vote,” which is working with 19 other professional sports teams to encourage people to register and vote.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (30-41, 2-5, LW 18). The rumors about Alvin Gentry’s job status have been around for a while and picked up a lot of momentum after the Pelicans entered the restart with so much hype, only to have the pieces not quite fit together (and Zion Williamson not be fully available at the start, although that was beyond Gentry’s control). Would a strong Xs and O’s coach help put the talent of the Pelicans in better positions? Would New Orleans ownership okay a coaching change during a pandemic when there is a short offseason and financial losses are piling up? It’s worth watching.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-47, 0-7, LW 22). The Wizards were always a longshot for the playoffs, the hope was to find some young guys who might fit well in a rotation next to John Wall and Bradley Beal next season. Washington found a couple, Troy Brown Jr. and big man Thomas Bryant have played well in the restart. They deserve a longer look next season as the Wizards try to put a playoff-level team on the court and then keep it healthy.

Giannis Antetokounmpo suspended, ramifications on Western Conference playoff race

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Giannis Antetokounmpo headbutted Moritz Wagner.

OF COURSE Antetokounmpo was getting suspended for that.

NBA release:

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has been suspended one game without pay for headbutting Washington Wizards center Moritz Wagner during a stoppage in play, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

Antetokounmpo will serve his suspension Thursday when Milwaukee faces the Memphis Grizzlies

This is a huge game for the Grizzlies. If they win, they’ll make the play-in. Lose, and they’d need both the Suns (to the Mavericks) and Spurs (to the Jazz) to lose in order to advance.

Obviously, Antetokounmpo is a force. But Milwaukee has nice depth and has been quite good without him. On the other hand, Bucks have also already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and might take it easy tomorrow, regardless. On the other other hand, Milwaukee – with a chance to reach the NBA Finals – might be one of the teams trying to get the top-seeded Lakers the toughest-possible first-round matchup in the West.

That’s not Memphis, which has limped to the finish. The Grizzlies are just 1-6 in seeding games. Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow are all injured.

Memphis has a chance against the Bucks tomorrow. Antetokounmpo’s unavailability only increases it. But it’s not as if this suspension suddenly gives the Grizzlies a shoe-in victory.

As has been the case all along, they’ll have to earn their way into the playoffs.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.