The Extra Pass: Our awards at the quarter pole, plus Monday recaps

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Believe it or not, we’re nearly at the quarter mark of the NBA season already. That means it’s time to start believing a little more in what we’ve seen so far, and maybe even time to dish out a few awards.

Remember, these aren’t predictions for what will happen at the end of the season. These awards are based solely on performances thus far.

MVP of the Quarter: LeBron James, F, Miami Heat

I almost went with Chris Paul or Paul George here, but it all felt a little too Karl Malone for my taste. Maybe we’re just a little bored by LeBron’s dominance at this point, but once again he’s been the best player in the league.

James is shooting nearly 60 percent from the field, he has a true shooting percentage of nearly 70 percent (which only two players in NBA history have ever achieved over a full season), he’s first in the league in PER and the Heat are 14-3. There are trendier choices out there, but this is LeBron’s award.

Coach of the Quarter: Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers

This one is a no-brainer. The Portland Trail Blazers have been the surprise of the league thus far, as most pundits didn’t even have them pegged to break .500 or make the playoffs. Stotts has built one of the best offenses in the league, and the incorporation of multiple new players off the bench has been seamless. Frank Vogel and Gregg Popovich deserve praise at every turn, but Stotts trumps everyone right now.

Rookie of the Quarter: Michael Carter-Williams, G, Philadelphia 76ers

This hasn’t been much of a race. Victor Oladipo is the only competition at this point for Carter-Williams, but he’s averaging more turnovers per game than assists.

Carter-Williams has been the better distributor and has the higher PER on the year, and it’s also pretty impressive that he currently leads the league in steals per game. He’s been a great fit in Philadelphia’s uptempo offensive system, and believe it or not, the 76ers are only one game back of a playoff spot.

Sixth man of the Quarter: Isaiah Thomas, G, Sacramento Kings

DeJuan Blair has done a fantastic job off the bench in Dallas, but there’s a reason this is an award traditionally reserved for scoring guards. Thomas has legitimately been Sacramento’s best player next to DeMarcus Cousins, as he’s putting up 17 points a game and a gaudy PER of 21.2.

Thomas’ PER and 5.9 assists per 36 minutes is higher than J.R. Smith, James Harden, Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry in their Sixth Man of the Year winning seasons. Thomas may not have the benefit of playing for a winning team, but so far he’s been one of the best bench players we’ve seen in years.

Defensive Player of the Quarter: Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana Pacers

Blocks are generally a bit overrated as a stat, but it’s hard to overstate just how good of a rim protector Hibbert has been. Hibbert’s ability to remain vertical and stay out of foul trouble has made Indiana even stingier defensively than last season, which is no easy feat.

It’s hard not to reward the anchor of the league’s most dominant defense here, particularly because Hibbert’s ability to man the paint allows everyone else on the floor to stay home and defend one-on-one. He’s been a complete game-changer.

Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Arron Afflalo, G, Orlando Magic

There’s a tendency to hand the Most Improved Player award to a young player who has received a spike in minutes or opportunity, but I find that to be a little silly. This should be an award that recognizes a player who improved their game and didn’t just benefit from outside factors, more exposure or a natural maturation process.

Afflalo fits my criteria as a 7th year player who is posting career highs in PER (20.7), points (21.4), rebounds (4.4), assists (4.4) and three-point percentage (48.1%) even though he’s playing close to the same amount of minutes as he did last year. Afflalo has turned himself into a post-oriented guard who is also a dead-eye spot-up shooter from behind the arc, and that’s proven to be a deadly combination.

—D.J. Foster

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Wizards 98, Magic 80: With the win the Washington Wizards are 9-9 — they are at .500 for first time since Nov. 3, 2009. The reason they won this game is the reason after a slow start to the season they are even now — coach Randy Wittman is just leaning on his starters. There isn’t much depth for the Wizards’ starting five Monday played 20 minutes and they were +18. Trevor Ariza was red hot for Washington with 24, Arron Afflalo had 21 for the Magic.

Pelicans 131, Bulls 128 (3OT): No Derrick Rose. No Anthony Davis. This game was supposed to be a disappointment and it turned into one of the more epic clashes of the season. Despite the stars being out both teams got plenty of offense on the night (Chicago had 109.4 points per 100 possessions, the Pelicans 115, via NBA.com). Luol Deng had 37 points and Taj Gibson 36 for Chicago. For the Pelicans Ryan Anderson had another big game with Davis out and had 36 points, Eric Gordon had 23. But the Bulls had a big defensive breakdown on the final play of the game, a clever design from Monty Williams that had Jrue Holiday getting to the rim for an and-1. Quality road win for New Orleans.

Spurs 102, Hawks 100: Mike Budenholzer has seen Tim Duncan rip the hearts out of teams for years as a Spurs assistant, I don’t think he liked it as much from the other bench. The Spurs were a bit sloppy in this one and the Hawks almost made them pay with a balanced attack — Jeff Teague led the way with 19 including an amazing pull-up three to tie the game at 100-100. But Duncan was too much and rescued the Spurs, finishing with 23 points, 21 rebounds and one dramatic game winner.

Jazz 109, Rockets 103: Gordon Hayward had 17 first quarter points, Trey Burke added 10 and it was everything that has been wrong with Houston’s perimeter defense this season in one shining quarter. And it cost them, Utah was up 36-23 after 12 minutes. The Rockets battled back, even took the lead for a stretch, but they had given the Jazz confidence by that point. Houston couldn’t get stops. James Harden did finish with 37 points and 8 assists. Hayward had 29 on the night, Burke is finding his groove and had 21, as did Alec Burks. Quality win for the 3-15 Jazz. Houston should feel sick.

Trail Blazers 106, Pacers 102: Great win for the Trail Blazers, who were able to come from behind on Indiana (who was on the second night of a rough back-to-back after facing the Clippers). LaMarcus Aldridge played like an All-Star despite Roy Hibbert being in his path all night, scoring 17 of his 28 points in the second half. Damian Lillard had 14 of his 26 in the fourth quarter and hit a lot of big shots. Paul George almost turned the fortune of this game himself, scoring 43 points on 30 shots and looking like an MVP candidate.

Portland did it again with offense, scoring at a 107.6 points per possession pace on the best defense in the league.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.