The Extra Pass: Chemistry clicking in Denver as Nuggets beat Nets to win seventh straight, and Tuesday’s recaps

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NEW YORK — If it was a fight, they would have stopped it.

To say the Nuggets beat the Nets on Tuesday to earn their seventh straight win wouldn’t at all be an accurate description of how Denver came out and destroyed Brooklyn in the third quarter, and then continued the assault against a depleted and dejected opponent while turning the game into a 111-87 laugher well before the final buzzer sounded.

The Nets, playing without Paul Pierce (and Deron Williams, and Jason Terry, and Andrei Kirilenko) were able to hang around for a little while with some above average effort through the first two quarters that kept the deficit within single digits. But Denver’s athleticism and overall cohesiveness on both ends of the floor showed just how far away this Nets team is from anything resembling a club that can compete with the more together units that have been able to form over the early part of this season.

In the Nuggets locker room afterward, the mood was understandably light. But there was a camaraderie present that is impossible to force or manufacture, and that’s what the players believe has led to the team’s recent string of success.

“Guys are making shots, we’re playing hard, we’re sharing the ball,” said Nate Robinson, when asked to explain the factors present in his team’s current winning streak. “We’re in a good place. This locker room has been great. Every guy’s contributing. Even guys that don’t play, they come in and give us a great look, they practice hard, and it’s just been that type of feeling in the locker room, man. And it’s going to stay like that. We’re going to help each other.”

Kenneth Faried playfully “helped” Timofey Mozgov conduct his postgame interview, after Mozgov ended up with 20 rebounds to go along with 17 points on just nine shots. Mozgov said it might have been his best game as a pro, while Faried put ice down his shirt which ended the interview and had Mozgov briefly and legitimately upset.

Mozgov got revenge on Faried in the shower area with an icing of his own, and Robinson congratulated him on his way back to the locker room for doing just that. By the time Faried came out, he slapped hands with Mozgov and extended similar pleasantries while expressing appreciation for a job well done.

The chemistry is real on this team right now, and it was proudly on display. Ty Lawson similarly explained to me that the team’s coming together is as much of a factor as anything in its recent string of victories.

“It’s all about the guards,” Lawson said in jest, before getting more specific.

“Nah, just jelling,” he said. “It’s getting to learn coach’s system. We started off a little slow, but now everything’s clicking. Right combination (of guys), learning the plays, what situations — we’ve got seven new players, too. We’ve had to find out who best fits together, and I think we know that right now. We know we’re going to get each other shots, where we like it and things like that. And it’s working out for us.”

While things are working perfectly for the Nuggets right now, the season continues to be a disaster for the Nets.

Kevin Garnett takes the postgame podium in Brooklyn even before head coach Jason Kidd does, and he continues to be perplexed as the losses pile up. Garnett seems to legitimately be wondering how this can all be happening to a team with so much preseason promise, and looks to be trying to decipher it on the fly as the questions keep coming.

The Nets play next on Thursday, when they’ll host the rival yet equally dismal Knicks in a nationally televised contest. When Garnett was asked if there was any additional pressure for his team to perform in that one given all that’s at stake, he turned his thoughts to his own team instead of worrying about what losing to New York might mean in the grand scheme of things.

“I think at this point we’re trying to figure out who we are and fix this,” Garnett said. “We’re at home getting beat by 30, 40 points. It’s not what we want, it’s not what anybody even close to predicted where we were going to be. We’re just tying to understand. Like I said, there’s a lot of things going on here, but no excuses. This is a non-excuse league. We don’t care about that, we care about performance and coming out and having a better showing at home. We need to come out and have a better showing, period. And we will. We have no choice.”

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Sixers 126, Magic 125 (2OT): Rookies Michael Carter-Williams of the Sixers and Victor Oladipo of the Magic each finished with triple-doubles, marking the first time in NBA history that two rookies achieved the statistical feat in the same game. Arron Afflalo (43) and Glen Davis (33) each posted career-highs in points for Orlando in the loss. Andrew Nicholson (8) and Ronnie Price (1) combined for the Magic’s only bench points — just eight of the team’s 125 total.

Celtics 108, Bucks 100: When the Celtics are making shots like this, you can expect it to be their night. Boston was led by Jordan Crawford with 25 points and improved to 8-12 on the season with the victory — which, in the Eastern Conference means a four-seed in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Nuggets 111, Nets 87: Denver extended its winning streak to seven games with the victory, and used a 31-15 third quarter to build a lead of as many as 28 points before all was said and done. Fans that stayed until the final buzzer sounded did so seemingly only to boo the home team, which competed for a half or so before succumbing to the athleticism, talent and energy advantage that Denver brought to this one.

Pistons 107, Heat 97: Dwyane Wade sat this one out, LeBron James was merely human, and Detroit’s bigs were too much inside so the Pistons snapped the Heat’s 10-game winning streak. Detroit used a balanced attack that saw seven of its players finish in double figures, and beyond 23 points from James and limited effectiveness from Chris Bosh against Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, Miami didn’t have enough offense on a night where its defense (which allowed the Pistons to shoot better than 51 percent) wasn’t its usual self.

Grizzlies 110, Suns 91: Phoenix had control of this one with an eight-point halftime lead, before completely falling apart over the final two periods. The Suns were outscored 64-37 after the break, and allowed Memphis to shoot 66.7 percent from the field over the game’s final 24 minutes.

Mavericks 89, Bobcats 82: You would have thought the Commodores were playing at halftime early in this game because both teams were trying to build a “Brick House” (it’s mighty mighty). Charlotte had a third quarter lead thanks to 19 points from Al Jefferson and some solid defense. But you can’t keep a blanket over Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks all night — Nowitzki had 9 of his 25 in the fourth quarter, Monta Ellis had 10 of his 22 in the final frame and Dallas went on a 20-7 run to take the lead and never look back.

Thunder 97, Kings 95: This is exactly why our man D.J. Foster suggested Isaiah Thomas is the early frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year — he came in guns blazing for the fourth quarter, scored 21 points and almost single-handedly led the Kings to a comeback win. Kevin Durant had 27 points, Jeremy Lamb had 7 of his 15 in the fourth quarter to help the Thunder hold on for the road win.

Warriors 113, Raptors 102: Toronto had a 27-point third quarter lead and still led by 18 entering the fourth, thanks to 20 points from DeMar DeRozan and an efficient 7-of-8 shooting from Amir Johnson. But as Golden State started to get hot (8-of-11 from three in the fourth) the Raptors started to make silly moves — they tried trapping on the perimeter, and one pass later Golden State was draining an open three. Stephen Curry had 14 of his 27 in the fourth, Klay Thompson 12 of his 22. It was a dramatic come-from-behind win that was fun for the people in Oracle. At least most Raptors fans were asleep by the time their team collapsed in this one.

The time Shaq peed in Suns teammate Lou Amundson’s shoes – and worse!

Suns players Lou Amundson and Shaquille O'Neal (Shaq)
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Gilbert Arenas has earned a reputation as the NBA player who relieved himself in a teammate’s shoe (Wizards forward Andray Blatche’s).

But Arenas’ tactic wasn’t unique.

Shaquille O’Neal got into a prank war with Suns teammate Lou Amundson during the 2008-09 season. It got intense as Phoenix, coached by Alvin Gentry, reached the final game of its season.

ESPN’s Amin Elhassan on “The Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz” local hour, hosted by Mike Ryan:

Shaq is the big prankster, the big joker. But if you do something against him, there’s no tit for tat. There’s tit for nuclear war.

He goes to Lou’s locker, grabs his sneakers, pees in them.

That’s the start, right? He then goes and let’s just say “messes with” some of Lou’s haircare devices, like his brush and his comb and stuff. Messes with them. Let me put it this way: Messes with them in a way that – I was comfortable telling you he peed in the shoes. I’m not comfortable telling you what he did to the hair stuff. And then this part, I will tell you: He tampers with Lou’s mouth guard.

He tampers with it.

He tampers with it.

Lou shows up at like 8 or whenever he usually shows up. And he’s skittish and nervous. And Suns.com is there like, “What do you think Shaq is going to do?” “I don’t know. I think he’s going to do something, though.”

So, I’ll never forget this. He’s sitting at the locker, and he opens – he starts to reach for the sneakers and then looks at them and says, “Nah, something doesn’t feel right.” Opens the door up, pulls out a fresh pair of sneakers for the last game of the year, right? Again, this is irregular behavior. Usually, you have a couple of sneakers. You break them in for the year, and you switch between two or three or three or four, whatever. So to break out a whole brand new pair … was weird.

Most of the time when you’re an NBA player, you don’t put on the mouth guard immediately. You have it in a case, and you give the case to the trainer. Then, you go out to the bench. Then, when you’re about to come into the game, that’s when you grab your mouthpiece.

There’s no funnier image than Alvin drawing up a play, kneeling down, coaches standing around him. Lou is sitting there, because now he’s in the game. The guys who are in the game are usually seated. Sitting there just staring at the clipboard, like, “OK, coach. I got you.” And everyone else is just staring at Lou. No one’s paying attention.

Puts the mouth guard in. One, two [sounds of disgust], takes the mouth guard out and flings it with tremendous accuracy at the bench. Everyone starts dying. I remember going back and watching the broadcast, “Oh, Suns bench seems to be getting a lot of fun.” They had no idea what’s happening.

What did Shaq do to Amundson’s mouth guard? My imagination is running WILD.

Elhassan also explains why Grant Hill took 25 shots – his most in four years – in that game. Hill needed to score 26 points to average 12 points per game for the season, which would trigger a large bonus in his shoe contract. Hill’s gunning got him 27 points.

It’s a good podcast with other fun anecdotes and worth a listen.

Magic: Mo Bamba out for playoffs, undergoing post-coronavirus evaluation

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba contracted coronavirus, fell out of shape, recovered, joined the Magic in the bubble then struggled to contribute on the court.

Now, he’s departing the bubble for good.

Magic:

The Magic are huge underdogs in their first-round series against the Bucks. This doesn’t really change the equation. Bamba had already fallen from the rotation, which is now comprised of Nikola Vucevic and Khem Birch at center.

But it raises thorny long-term questions.

Bamba was the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Though he has underwhelmed so far, the Magic were still hoping he’d grow into a quality NBA player. Bamba at least improved from his rookie season.

His progress has obviously been halted. For how long? Will he face lasting effects?

Everyone is trying to get to the bottom of these difficult questions.

Reported Bulls coaching candidates: Kenny Atkinson, Stephen Silas, Darvin Ham, more

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The Bulls fired Jim Boylen. 76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner for the job, but Chicago will conduct a full search.

Who else is in the mix?

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

The broad search is expected to include former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas, Bucks assistant Darvin Ham and 76ers assistant Ime Udoka, among others, sources said.

Atkinson is the only former head coach on that list. Like Tyronn Lue for win-now teams, Atkinson is the top available coach for rebuilding teams. (If fired by the 76ers, Brett Brown could supplant Atkinson.) Atkinson had a strong record of player development before Brooklyn shifted priorities.

The Bulls – with Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and a high first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft – could use someone like him.

But Atkinson could have options, and Chicago might not be the most desirable opening.

Udoka, Silas, Ham and Unseld are all rising assistants who have earned head-coaching consideration. Interviews should help determine whether they’re ready for that step.

PBT NBA All-Bubble Awards

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard and Rockets star James Harden
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The NBA will announce seeding-game awards tomorrow.

But the play-in is already set. Other playoff matchups are already set. The final seeding games today are just glorified scrimmages.

So, why wait to name the top performers in the bubble?

Here are our picks using the same format as the league – a Most Valuable Player, two five-player teams (no positions) and a coach:

Bubble MVP

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

Kurt Helin: It isn’t simply that Damian Lillard led the bubble in scoring at 37.6 points per game. It wasn’t how he got those points, with ridiculously deep threes and driving layups. It was when he did it that makes him bubble MVP: When the Trail Blazers had a rough outing (as did Lillard) and looked like they might fade from postseason contention, he came back next game and dropped 61. Then 51 the game after that. Then 42 in the final bubble game with the playoffs on the line. Lillard was the ultimate leader and willed his team to the play-in series, and that’s what makes him MVP of the seeding games.
Dan Feldman: James Harden was more consistently good and even sometimes great. But nobody hit higher levels than Lillard, who stepped up in the biggest moments to lead Portland into the play-in with the eighth-place advantage. Lillard set an emotional tone for a team constantly vulnerable of falling from the playoff race, and he delivered on the court with brilliant offense. He wasn’t perfect, but he went to great lengths to ensure the Trail Blazers met their goal. That’s the bubble MVP.

All-Bubble teams

First team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)
Devin Booker (Suns) James Harden (Rockets)
T.J. Warren (Pacers) Devin Booker (Suns)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) T.J. Warren (Pacers)
James Harden (Rockets) Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

Second team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Jayson Tatum (Celtics) Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)
Kawhi Leonard (Clippers) Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
DeMar DeRozan (Spurs) Paul George (Clippers)
Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks) Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks)

Kurt Helin: It was difficult leaving Antetokounmpo off the first team, he played brilliantly but his team was in cruise control (plus he took himself out of the last game by headbutting Moe Wagner). A few players such as Fred VanVleet and Michael Porter Jr. also almost made the cut.

Dan Feldman: Lillard, Harden, Booker and Warren were first-team locks. Antetokounmpo was absolutely dominant when he wanted to be, which was limited with the Bucks locking up the No. 1 seed early. Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet were among the contenders for the final second-team spots.

Coach of the Bubble

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Monty William (Suns) Monty William (Suns)

Kurt Helin: Every young team talked about it heading into the restart (and developing teams not invited to the restart begged for the same opportunity): Using the bubble games as a chance for a young core to grow and take a step forward. Except teams like Sacramento and New Orleans didn’t do that. Phoenix, behind Monty Williams did — they became the story of the bubble at 8-0. Devin Booker exploded and got himself in MVP talk, Deandre Ayton played brilliantly, and the Suns came from six-games back of Memphis to almost make the playoffs. Williams set the Suns up to be a playoff team in the West next season.

Dan Feldman: Phoenix went 8-0! That alone is pretty darned impressive, and the context reflects even more favorably on Williams. The Suns entered the bubble with the lowest playoff odds among the continuing 22 teams. Needing to make up 2.5 games and – more significantly – jump four (!) teams, Phoenix could have easily arrived unmotivated and ripe for distraction. Instead, Williams had the Suns playing fearlessly, cohesively and joyously. Williams even leaned heavily on his young players rather than his veterans, taking excellent advantage of a player-development opportunity and positioning Phoenix to ascend next season.