The Extra Pass: The Wild West, can Portland last, and Sunday’s Recaps

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Let’s jump around the Western Conference with a few observations:

Portland: 20 percent of the regular season is in the books, and the Trail Blazers hold the pole position in the Western Conference. It’s a great accomplishment and something absolutely no one expected, but the Blazers should come back down to earth soon enough.

Wesley Matthews is just one of the reasons why this run at the top should be short-lived. Matthews is posting a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 70.5 percent, a number that’s only been reached over a full season (at least 1000 minutes) by Artis Gilmore and Tyson Chandler, who never shot anything that wasn’t from point-blank range.

For context sake, the highest true shooting percentage posted by Ray Allen, unquestionably one of the greatest shooters ever, was 62.4 percent. One would assume that Matthews will become human again at some point this year.

When the offense inevitably slows down a bit, will the defense compensate?

Portland is 20th in defensive efficiency despite their hot start, and there are tough matchups on the horizon. Just in this month, Portland will be tested with games against Indiana, Houston, Miami, LAC and the Thunder twice. Add in three sets of road back-to-backs to that tough slate, and this is probably the last we’ll see of Portland at the top of the standings, even though it’s been one fun ride.

Oklahoma City: It’s pretty clear that Scott Brooks is attached to Kendrick Perkins and that Sam Presti won’t send him to Belize, so maybe it’s time for armchair coaches to take up a new campaign for the Thunder.
While you can understand the desire to have a bigger perimeter defender next to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant so that they can conserve energy for offense, should Thabo Sefolosha really be playing more than Reggie Jackson?

I realize I’m cherry-picking after Jackson’s 11-point fourth quarter explosion against the Timberwolves, but the ball really seems to move better and more spot-up chances seem to be created for Durant and Westbrook’s way with Jackson’s penetration and speed on the floor. Sefolosha is a nice role player, but the ball dies in hands far too often.

According to NBA.com, Oklahoma City has six lineups that have played over 15 minutes together and produced a positive net efficiency rating. Jackson has played in five of those lineups, and the only one he hasn’t played in has been a garbage time unit. Sefolosha, meanwhile, is only in two of those positive net rating lineups.

Jackson is getting around 22 or 23 minutes a night compared to Sefolosha’s 28 minutes, so it’s not a huge deal. The Thunder need Jackson to lead the second unit, and he’s done a nice job of that so far. All that said, keep an eye on what lineups OKC closes games with going forward. We know who Brooks is starting, but the finishing groups could get interesting.

Utah Jazz: They didn’t get as much hate/love for their tanking job, but the Jazz made one clinching move where other franchises messed up: keep a lame duck coach on the bench.

Jeff Hornacek (PHX), Brett Brown (PHI) and Brad Stevens (BOS) have all been able to squeeze varying degrees of production from their teams in their first seasons, but Ty Corbin is just sort of sticking around and really helping the Jazz pull off this Bad News Bears vibe they have going on. Utah can’t possibly see him as the coach of the future, but it doesn’t appear that Corbin is ready to resign. This is organized ugly.

New Orleans: Sad news on Anthony Davis fracturing his hand. He was having a monster season, and now the “injury prone” murmurs will only grow louder, fair or not.

While I like Jrue Holiday, this is precisely the reason you keep your dealt pick lottery protected instead of top-5 protected. Everyone knew what direction 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie wanted to go, so you’d like to think that Dell Demps could have held out for a slightly bigger safety net in the draft day deal that landed Holiday in exchange for a 2014 first round pick. Now Davis is out indefinitely, Tyreke Evans is struggling mightily and sapping up all the future cap space, and a pick that could be in the 8-10 range in slated to go elsewhere.

Losing Davis is unlucky, but everything else was about pushing the chips in far too early.

—D.J. Foster

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Nuggets 112, Raptors 98: Nate Robinson was the story here, taking control like we saw him do more than once with the Bulls last season. He scored 18 fourth quarter points on seven shots to put this one in the win column for the Nuggets. Denver’s bigs got whatever they wanted for most of the game, especially Timofey Mozgov and Darrell Arthur who combined for 30 points and 18 rebounds off the bench.

Pacers 105, Clippers 100: The Clippers are not a team that’s particularly deep in terms of overall offensive talent, so losing J.J. Redick and his 15.8 points per game for a while with a fractured hand injury is going to sting. Willie Green got the start in redick’s place against the Pacers, but managed just two points in 15 minutes of action. L.A. battled back from a double digit fourth quarter deficit to tie it and make it a possession-by-possession contest down the stretch, and while the Pacers didn’t hit a field goal in the final 4:25, they did score their final nine points of the game from the free throw line to seal it. With the victory, Indiana improved to a league-best 16-1 on the season.

Pistons 115, Sixers 100: Andre Drummond was absolutely dominant, and made history by finishing with 31 points, 19 rebounds, six steals, and two blocked shots. It’s the first time since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1990 that a player has finished with a stat line like that, and it could have been worse — Drummond played less than 33 minutes because of how out of hand the game was.

Warriors 115, Kings 113: Remember that time Mark Jackson said that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are the best shooting backcourt combination of all time? It’s games like this one that he was talking about. The pair combined to hit 13 of their team’s 15 three-pointers on the night, with Curry finishing with 36 points and 10 assists while Thompson ended up with 28 points of his own. Sacramento was up to the challenge on this night, however, and had DeMarcus Cousins performing at an unstoppable level in the game’s final minutes. Andrew Bogut blocked a shot from Isaiah Thomas at the rim in the closing seconds to seal the win for the Warriors, while the Kings fell to just 4-11 on the season.

Heat 99, Bobcats 98: Charlotte had a legitimate chance to get this victory in theory, taking a 12-point lead into the fourth quarter and leading by 11 with under 7:30 to play. In the least surprising news of the day, Miami rallied to make a game of it, and then Chris Bosh gave the Heat the lead by hitting three straight shots from three-point distance. Kemba Walker was huge for Charlotte and finished with a game-high 27 points, but Miami’s experience simply won out over the game’s final few possessions.

Thunder 113, Timberwolves 103: Not to be outdone by Andre Drummond, Kevin Durant finished this victory with an historic stat line of his own, and it was somehow even more ridiculous than the one put up by the big man of the Pistons. Durant’s triple double of 32 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists, four steals and four blocked shots hasn’t been done by anyone since 1985, via Royce Young. Durant awesomeness aside, OKC turned the pressure up defensively in the fourth, and held the Timberwolves to just 26.1 percent shooting in the final period while outscoring their opponent 35-20 to seal it.

Pelicans 103, Knicks 99: This seemed to be a prime opportunity for the Knicks to snap their eight-game losing streak, but even after Anthony Davis went out with a broken hand injury, the team couldn’t come up with enough key plays late to prevent it from reaching nine. New Orleans put together a 10-0 run that lasted almost four minutes to take a five-point lead with 2:30 to play, and while the Knicks had their chances, they couldn’t execute or get any ket shots to fall in the closing moments. New York got a bit of a bright spot with the performance of rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., who came off the bench to score 21 points on 10 shots in under 25 minutes of action. The Knicks have a few days to try to figure things out, and will try to avoid losing their 10th straight game when they head to Brooklyn on Thursday to face the Nets.

Trail Blazers 114, Lakers 108: This win makes the Blazers 14-3 and the No. 1 seed in the West right now. Didn’t see that coming. You have to give the Lakers this: They are resiliant. They fight back and do not give up. Portland raced out to a 21-4 lead but the Lakers clawed back to make it a three-point game at the half. Portland’s ball movement was great in the third quarter and they put up 41 points, then the Lakers stormed back behind Xavier Henry (11 in the fourth quarter, 27 for the game) to get within one in the fourth quarter but it just wasn’t enough. LaMarcus Aldridge had 27, Damian Lillard 26 for Portland.

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.