The Extra Pass: A Google goggle revolution dream, plus Wednesday’s recaps

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I have this odd vision for the future of the NBA, and in it everyone looks like Kirk Hinrich.

Well, everyone doesn’t actually look like Kirk Hinrich, but all the players are wearing goggles nonetheless. That’s not just because they look cool and I think Hinrich is the undisputed king of accessorizing, and it’s not just because I’m a proponent for eye protection. These goggles are being used for information.

Let me backtrack.

A few years ago, I was in a locker room postgame, hopping from scrum to scrum, mining for quotes. I was hoping to pick up on a conversation more interesting than the standard fare of canned media responses and questions like, “talk about your game tonight” that tend to fill up most of the airspace in that setting.

I was in luck. I hopped in on a reporter asking Eric Bledsoe if he knew what his plus/minus number for the season was.

Bledsoe, who was then just a rookie, didn’t know the answer because he didn’t know what plus/minus was.

As the reporter halfway incredulously explained what that number entailed, it dawned on me that a stat like that, at least for Bledsoe’s purposes, was completely useless.

Sure, his agent could use it in negotiations. His coach could make more informed lineup decisions based on it. His general manager could keep it in mind when mapping out the future of the team. But Bledsoe? What did he need it for?

Great advancements have been made in the NBA when it comes to analytics. Player tracking and injury tracking services are potential game-changers, but a lack of data isn’t necessarily the issue at hand. The focus of any analytics movement should be on how to make that data digestible and useful for those who need it most, and perhaps no one could better apply the information gleaned from the data than the players themselves.

But let’s get back to my goggled utopia.

Let’s say that Eric Bledsoe, now in Phoenix and fully aware of the fact that all reporters are scum (except for Brett Pollakoff, who is lovely), is going heads up against James Harden.

Bledsoe’s coaching staff lets him know that Harden likes to drive all the way to the rim when he goes left, but if he goes right he prefers the pull-up. The eyes and the numbers support that.

Bledsoe is aware of this, but things get crazy during the game. Staring down one of the best players in the league leaves very little time for planning ahead or remembering something your coach said hours ago.

So here’s Harden in the triple-threat, where he’s one of the most dangerous players in the league. Bledsoe readies himself, his hips sunk, his feet ready to slide.

And in the bottom corner of his vision in clear print, the tendencies for which way Harden will go are right there for him: L 75% R 25%.

Bledsoe sees this and remembers, and he jumps on Harden’s left hand and gets a steal. There are 39 seconds left. In his vision, “2-for-1, find shot in 11 seconds” pops up and a timer starts to tick down. Bledsoe races the ball up the floor. He knows exactly how many timeouts he has, and he knows Houston has a foul to give. To avoid a Chris Webber situation, all he needs to do is have his eyes open.

So now I ask you: could an invention like Google Glass one day change the NBA as we know it?

Better yet, as fans would we want our players to have those capabilities? Seeing athletes play smarter and come closer to actualizing their full athletic potential is almost always welcomed, but would it make the game less human?

Would a league that prohibited Dwyane Wade from wearing tinted goggles because opponents couldn’t see his eyes even consider this for a second? I mean, baseball just adopted instant replay, for goodness sake.

And there’s this: would the players even want all that information?

It’s hard to say. In that same year with the Clippers and Bledsoe, it was Ryan Gomes who quickly established himself as the guy to talk to when you needed to know what was going on the floor.

Gomes knew it all. He could recount every situation. He could tell you how the defense countered and what the right play to make was. But even though Gomes knew all those things, he wasn’t able to apply it, and he suffered through the worst season of his professional career. It was painful to watch him think on the court instead of play.

It was a classic case of what’s called “paralysis by analysis”, and there’s a real concern that overloading players with too much information could cause this. Ignorance can be bliss for an athlete. Confidence can be irrational and yet completely required.

Bledsoe didn’t need to know about plus/minus, so he didn’t. And that’s the question that should be asked for new player data: is this useful for the player? If it’s not, what would be?

Should Trevor Ariza be aware of the fact that he’s shooting 57.4 percent from the corner 3 but 21.8 percent from above the break? Yes. Should he know how many times he touches the ball a game compared to the rest of his teammates? Perhaps not.

Maybe it won’t be the super goggles I’ve imagined, but technology and innovative data collection will continue to heavily impact the NBA. If the focus shifts more on what the players can actually use, the impact will only be that much greater.

-D.J. Foster

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Kyle Korver has now hit a three in 89 consecutive games, tying the NBA record.

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Cavaliers 98, Nuggets 88: If you’re a Denver fan, this game is the argument for shortening the regular season schedule. The Nuggets looked like world beaters Tuesday night in Brooklyn after disposing of the depleted Nets by 24 points in a game that wasn’t even that close. But playing on the road again on the second night of a back-to-back against a rested Cavaliers team, it was a very different story. Timofey Mozgov had maybe his best game as a pro in a 20 rebound effort on Tuesday, but managed just three boards in this one. Denver as a team had tired legs, and shot 39.1 percent from the field while finishing on the wrong end of a 15-rebound differential. The Nuggets are better than the Cavaliers at this point in the season; scheduling circumstances made that reality impossible to showcase. — Brett Pollakoff

Hawks 107, Clippers 97: When the Clippers lose, it isn’t because of their offense. The defense was rough in this one, as evidenced by the fact that they let Kyle Korver connect on 6-of-9 three-point attempts to finish with 23 points. That’s like, what he does, and L.A. allowed him to get loose for those looks nonetheless. Paul Millsap had a huge all-around game in finishing with 25 points, nine rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots. Atlanta finished the game shooting 51.2 percent from the field. — BP

Suns 97, Rockets 88: The Suns bounced back from one of their most disappointing efforts of the season on Tuesday to rip the shorthanded Rockets. Houston was without Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons and Greg Smith due to injury, and Phoenix took control early to ensure victory. The Rockets shot just 35.2 percent as a team, and James Harden had one of his worst statistical performances in Houston, finishing with just 14 points on 3-of-17 shooting while missing all 10 of his attempts from three-point distance. — BP

Pistons 105, Bucks 98: As a frame of reference, the Pistons now have the same record as the Minnesota Timberwolves (9-10) after winning their third straight over the Bucks, In the East that means a guaranteed playoff spot, so we’ll go with the assertion that Detroit is playing well as of late. Brandon Jennings had a sub-par shooting night, but still managed to light up his former team for 17 points and 11 assists in almost 42 minutes of action, despite shooting just 4-of-16 from the field and committing six turnovers. Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe continued to batter their opponents on the boards with 36 rebounds combined, and Ersan Ilyasova had a nice 22-point, 10-rebound performance off the bench for the Bucks in the losing effort. — BP

Mavericks 100, Pelicans 97: This game was won inside out — Dallas limited New Orleans to 48 percent shooting in the paint on the night, meanwhile Dallas was 11-of-24 (45.8 percent from three). It also doesn’t hurt to have Dirk Nowitzki on your side. Nowitzki had 11 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter and he had four blocks in the game. Jrue Holiday had 26 points and 9 dimes for the Pelicans.

Pacers 95, Jazz 86: Credit the Jazz who took the lead with a 12-0 first quarter run and led through the first half. Trey Burks had 8 of his 13 points in the first quarter to help spark that. Still, you just knew it wasn’t going to last. In the second half the Pacers brought out the grinding defense, which held the Jazz to 38.2 percent shooting over the final 24 (while the Pacers shot 52 percent) and the game ended pretty much as you expected. Derrick Favors did have 22 for Utah to lead all scorers.

Spurs, Timberwolves, game postponed: It looked like someone flipped on the arena lights during a Snoop Dogg concert — the arena in Mexico City where the game was supposed to take place had a generator fire near an elevator and it filled the arena with smoke. The arena had to be evacuated. No way the game could be played, the game was called off and will be replayed in Minnesota later this season. Feel bad for the fans in Mexico City, but no way the game could go on.

Trail Blazers 111, Thunder 104: How about those Trail Blazers? First Indiana and now Oklahoma City fall this week — and in both cases it’s a come-from-behind win for the Blazers. LaMarcus Aldridge was the best player on the court and finished with 38 points on 17-of-28 shooting, plus he pulled down 13 rebounds. His play forced Scott Brooks to put Kendrick Perkins back in the game (it was the right move, Aldridge was abusing Serge Ibaka and Perkins at least got some stops, but he’s an offensive black hole) and once again the isolation ball of the Thunder down the stretch could not get it done. Kevin Durant had 33 and 8 points in the fourth. Portland is a jump shooting team but when those shots are falling they can hang with anyone.

Nikola Jokic announces he will play for Serbia in World Cup

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This year’s World Cup is going to be stacked with elite NBA players. It usually is a big draw, but this World Cup brings a couple additional things to the table. First, it’s part of the Olympic qualifying process for the 2020 games in Tokyo.

More importantly for players, the World Cup is in China. That is a fast-growing basketball shoe and apparel market and that will push Nike, Adidas, Reebok and any other shoe brand you can think of to “encourage” their stars to go. For example, the Sixers’ Ben Simmons will be playing for Australia.

Nikola Jokic will be one of those stars. The Denver Nuggets center told the Serbian state news agency, via ESPN.

“I am very pleased with everything I did in the NBA this season. I had a great year in which I performed at the All-Star Game and was selected [to the All-NBA first team]. For me, the cherry on top of this whole season would be a medal with the national team.”

Jokic and Serbia may be the USA’s biggest threat in that tournament, this is the team that picked up the silver medal in the last Olympics. Jokic is a better player than he was a few years ago and the team has a long list of quality players including Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milos Teodosic, and Boban Marjanovic.

The World Cup tips off Aug. 31 in China, right up against the start of NBA training camps.

 

Rumor: Clippers not interested in Jimmy Butler, he would sign with Lakers for max

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Should a team feel comfortable giving Jimmy Butler — who will turn 30 before next season, is a hard-charging personality who plays a hard-charging style that can be hard on his body, and has only once played 70 or more games in the past six seasons — a four-year, $141 million max contract?

If the Lakers strike out with Kyrie Irving and other top targets (Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are not interested, according to sources), should they give Butler the max and sign him comfortable or not?

LeBron James has already reached out to start recruiting Butler, and if the Lakers offer him the max Butler would love to come, Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times said on the Colin Cowherd. Markazi adds that the Clippers are not interested because they are aiming higher on the food chain.

That is what a lot of sources have said about the Clippers, they would need to move Danilo Gallinari (and do a little more) to sign both Leonard and Durant, but would and should in a heartbeat.

Butler is going to have options, starting with the Philadelphia 76ers, who do not want to let him go. As it got near the end of Philly’s playoff run it had seemed Butler had found a home, both on the court as a primary ball handler in the halfcourt, and off the court as a leader and someone who bonded with Joel Embiid. Also, Philadelphia can offer more money, a projected $190 million over five years, and for a guy who has had injury issues that extra year and extra money might matter a lot.

Is Butler going to stay? What should we read into his cryptic Instagram post? If he leaves, does he want to play with LeBron? Is that the Lakers’ best option? (I think the Lakers should prefer Irving, who is younger and coming off an All-NBA regular season, plus he has a track record of winning with LeBron, but if not him…)

It is going to be a wild July in the NBA.

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starters are -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — were -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

In Game 5, it was the Raptors’ bench that led the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one, except that Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.

Are Rockets trying to push Mike D’Antoni out the door?

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After a slow start to the season, by the end the Houston Rockets had found their groove and were the second best team in the West. That still wasn’t good enough to get by the Warriors dynasty. That has led to some soul searching in Houston.

And some changes to the assistant coaching staff. First came the news Jeff Bzdelik would not return in his defensive coordinator role. Then on Friday, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle put out a series of Tweets talking about the other coaching changes coming.

Cho had been with the Rockets for a decade. Roland worked closely with James Harden, among others.

This is a near total overhaul of Mike D’Antoni’s staff, which has led to speculation the Rockets are trying to push their coach out the door, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

D’Antoni has done an excellent job — and adapted his style — to coach these Rockets into being contenders. He is part of the reason this franchise is a contender. The Rockets have fallen short the last two seasons not because of D’Antoni, but rather because of the Warriors. Golden State is an all-time dynasty level team, they are beating everybody.

This feels like the East in recent years when coaches lost jobs and teams were broken up because they could not get past LeBron James‘ teams when the issue was really LeBron is one of the game’s all-time greats.

There could be other dynamics at play in Houston, but the challenge there is not the coach. If Tilman Fertitta is frustrated his team fell short again, he should start by looking in the mirror at the cost-cutting moves his team made this season to get under the tax line. That put a ceiling on this team more than anything D’Antoni did.