The Extra Pass: The Raptors press pause, plus Wednesday’s recaps

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When Masai Ujiri jumped from the Denver Nuggets to the Toronto Raptors to take over as general manager, the objective was clear. Ujiri was to do what he does best: tear it down, and try to salvage as much value as possible from the mistakes made by the previous regime.

Ujiri hasn’t failed to live up to expectations. Getting a future first-round pick from an organization as dysfunctional as the Knicks…for Andrea Bargnani? Magic. Dumping Rudy Gay’s potentially massive deal next season on the Sacramento Kings? Smart.

There’s been some major addition by subtraction going on, as the Raptors are very clearly a much better team on both ends without the inefficiency of Gay and the ineptitude of Bargnani.

Dwane Casey, who looked to be playing the role of a lame duck coach, has cobbled together the 8th best defense in the league. Casey is often criticized, but he hangs his hat on defense, and the Raptors have bought in on that end.

Toronto’s vastly improved play (they’re at .500 and would host a playoff series if the season ended today) presents an interesting situation. Can the Raptors put their rebuild on hold? Is giving Ujiri a yellow light in potential trades, particularly given what he’s been able to pull off so far, the best thing for the long-term health of the franchise? Can Ujiri maintain the respect of the players and coaching staff if he continues the rebuilding process when the Raptors are playing their best basketball in a very long time?

Perhaps these are good problems to have, especially opposed to more hopeless ones — like not having enough talent. Toronto has been there, done that.

And while it seems unlikely that Ujiri will stop wheeling and dealing altogether, there are landmines everywhere on the roster. DeMar DeRozan, the player most likely to go in a full rebuild because of his long-term deal, may be the hardest worker and biggest fan-favorite on the team.

People can and will fall  in love with this group, so long as Ujiri lets them. While a general manager’s job isn’t to coddle fans, Ujiri will have a hard time selling the desire to create a “winning culture” if he puts a stop to one that’s developing.

Half measures in the NBA are usually met with derision. You should be all-in, or all-out, all the time. But the Raptors are a good example of why everything isn’t always so cut and dry. Every team wants to reach the same destination, naturally, but there are detours unique to each franchise along the way.

For the Raptors, that detour has been brought on by more winning. Good on them if they ride it out.

D.J. Foster

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Nets 102, Warriors 98: Brooklyn was without Deron Williams in this one, but still managed to end the Warriors’ 10-game winning streak thanks to 27 points from Joe Johnson, a nice overall performance from the bench unit and a throwback fourth quarter from Kevin Garnett. KG had 11 points in just eight minutes of the final period, to go along with three rebounds and two steals — one of which came against Stephen Curry on a critical possession with just 12 seconds left. Curry and Klay Thompson both had below average shooting nights for the second straight game, and played 45 and 43 minutes respectively on the second night of a back-to-back set to end a long seven-game road trip. That’s not ideal for the Warriors, and they may need to trade for some additional help if they want to achieve their ultimate goal this season. –– BP

Spurs 112, Mavericks 90: We’ll go out on a limb here and point out that when four of your team’s starting five, including your franchise’s best player combine to shoot 10-of-36 fro the field, you’re probably not going to win on that particular night. The box score on the Mavericks end looked like a horror show in that regard, with only Monta Ellis and Vince Carter managing to finish in double figures scoring. The Spurs were efficient as always, shooting 52.6 percent as a team with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan leading the way with rock solid performances. — BP

Raptors 112, Pistons 91: Toronto has solidified itself as the third best team in the East since trading Rudy Gay to Sacramento, and the Pistons continue to struggle in fourth quarters to the point where it’s becoming as darkly comical as it is predictable. Something happens to Detroit at halftime, and whatever it is needs to change or the team will have trouble snapping out of a losing funk that’s now reached six straight games. In this one, the Pistons managed just 37 second half points as they were outscored by 25 points over the game’s final two periods. — BP

Hawks 97, Pacers 87: Sometimes, it’s easy to explain why an elite team lost to an average one, and this was a prime example. When Roy Hibbert disappears, so does the Pacers’ status as one of the league’s best teams. Hibbert couldn’t do much of anything offensively, and finished 1-of-8 from the field with two points and four rebounds in 22 minutes. That contributed to an inefficient 11-of-25 performance from Paul George, but for a Pacers team playing its fourth game in five nights, this was a schedule loss more than anything else. The Hawks had five players finish in double figures, and led by as many as 25 points. — BP

Wizards 102, Pelicans 96: Washington took charge of this game with a 12-0 run to start the second quarter on a night they got good bench play from guys like Garrett Temple and Jan Vesely. It looked like the Wizards would get a laugher, leading by 23 in the fourth quarter, but a 21-4 New Orleans run made it interesting late. Trevor Ariza had 21 points including some key threes, and John Wall had 20. Eric Gordon led a listless Pelicans team with 23. — KH

Rockets 113, Lakers 99: Houston got focused in the third quarter and ran away with it behind 38 points from James Harden. We broke this game down in more detail here. –KH

Suns 104, Timberwolves 103: Minnesota continues to find painful ways to lose close games — Phoenix went on a 9-1 run to close out the game capped by a Gerald Green bucket to come from behind to steal a win. This was a Suns team without Eric Bledsoe on the second night of a back-to-back, but they executed at the end of the game and once again the Timberwolves did not — Minnesota is now 0-10 in games decided by four points or less. Some of that is bad luck, but some of it is just execution under pressure and this team has to figure out how to do that if they are going to get over .500. Goran Dragic had 26 for the Suns, Kevin Martin had 20 for the Timberwolves. — KH

Trail Blazers 110, Magic 94: Orlando actually led much of the first three quarters and looked like they might pull off an upset — mostly because the vaunted Blazers offense was off, shooting just 41.8 percent through three quarters. Orlando also got a boost from Arron Afflalo, who had 14 of his 22 in the second quarter. Then Portland woke up for the fourth, shot 60 percent, knocked down 5 threes and won the final 12 minutes 39-19. Ballgame. LaMarcus Aldridge had 26 points for Portland. –KH

Clippers 111, Celtics 105: Every win the Clippers get without Chris Paul in the lineup is a good one — they are 3-1 since the injury. The Clippers raced out to a 26-10 lead behind Blake Griffin, who had 11 of his 29 in the first quarter. Then of course the Clippers relaxed and Boston fought back, but in the third the Clippers regained control and held on for the win. Jamal Crawford had 26 for the Clippers. Avery Bradley and Jordan Crawford each had 24 for Boston. Oh, and Griffin destroyed Kris Humphries on a dunk. — KH

Myles Turner says he’s staying focused, tuning out trade rumors

Minnesota Timberwolves v Indiana Pacers
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Myles Turner heard his name come up all summer in trade rumors, particularly to the Lakers in a massive Russell Westbrook swap. It never happened as the Lakers would not throw in two first-round picks to seal the deal. Since the season started, the trade rumors around Turner have not stopped, with the Clippers mentioned as having interest.

Turner is trying to ignore all of it.

That was especially difficult on a recent swing through Los Angeles, and Turner spoke to Law Murray from The Athletic about it.

“Nothing changes,” Turner told The Athletic.”Just go out there and focus on getting wins for this team. That’s just where my focus lies. You can’t pay attention to outside noise … doesn’t change anything, bro. All I can do is go out there and play my game.”

Every player says some version of that, but Turner has lived up to it. Able to play his natural spot at the five without Domantas Sabonis sharing the paint (Sabonis was sent to the Kings in a trade that brought back Tyrese Haliburton to Indiana), Turner is averaging a career-high 18 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, while shooting 39.7% from 3. Plus, Turner remains an elite rim-protector, averaging 2.6 blocks per game (second in the league).

Turner is playing the best basketball of his career, coincidentally as he heads into summer as a free agent.

Whatever team trades for him will have to pay him next summer impacts Turner’s trade market, as does the fact that the Pacers are a surprising 12-8 start — Indiana is reportedly not as eager to trade Turner. If a team wants to trade for him, they are going to have to overwhelm the Pacers.

Turner has hinted he likes the idea of a brighter spotlight than he has seen in recent years, but in the end money will talk. Turner has kept his head down and his play this season has earned him more of it.

Damian Lillard reportedly targeting Sunday for return from calf strain

Portland Trail Blazers v Cleveland Cavaliers
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How much the Portland Trail Blazers miss Damian Lillard was on clear display Tuesday night in maybe their ugliest loss of the season. The Trail Blazers led by 18 in the second half, Anfernee Simons was on his way to putting up 37, and they were facing a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. Yet Portland came from ahead to lose. Their defense was bested by the unstoppable offensive weapon that is Nicholas Batum (32 points). Portland just let go of the rope in this one.

The Trail Blazers are now 1-4 with Lillard out with a strained calf (the second time this year). The good news for the Blazers is Lillard is targeting Sunday against the Pacers for a return, reports Chris Haynes of TNT.

Haynes is well connected with the Lillard camp, this is a report that can be trusted.

Portland is trying to keep its head above water and is now 11-10 on the season but has struggled this past week, with games at the Lakers and at the Jazz before Lillard’s targeted return.

Lillard is averaging 26.3 points and seven assists a game this season, showing the explosion we were used to seeing before he was slowed by an abdominal injury that required surgery.

Bulls extended coach Billy Donovan before season started

Denver Nuggets v Chicago Bulls
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Bulls’ fans are not thrilled with a 9-11 team sitting 11th in the East, outside the play-in.

Bulls’ management is not either, but they aren’t laying the blame at the feet of coach Billy Donovan — in fact, they extended him just before the season began, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic and since confirmed by Bulls’ media relations staff to K.C. Johnson NBC Sports Chicago.

Why the extension? Because Donovan and head of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas have a tight relationship, Johnson writes.

Karnišovas’ continued belief in Donovan centers on Donovan’s leadership and communication skills. The two men talk virtually daily and there’s never any misunderstanding in their shared, direct conversation — even when the subject matter becomes difficult.

And not everything has been or continues to be smooth sailing for the Bulls, who have played without Lonzo Ball since January and are off to a 9-11 start in a season with modest outside expectations.

No details about the length of the extension were made public.

This is a decision about stability. Donovan is a solid coach and the front office trusts him. That’s enough to get some extra years on your deal in Chicago.

The Bulls’ issues are not because of Donovan, it’s more a roster that has a “playoff team but not much more” ceiling — a ceiling that is lower this season due to injuries forcing constantly shifting rotations. The Bulls are especially hamstrung without the defense and transition play of Lonzo Ball (still out after another knee surgery). Chicago has defended well this season without Ball (10th in the league), but the offense is bottom 10 and misses the easy buckets Ball helps get with his passing and transition (plus he can knock down some 3s). Donovan has done a respectable job with the players he has.

That is good enough in Chicago to get a few more years.

Three things to know: Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

Luka Doncic vs. Stephen Curry.

The schedule makers gave us a showdown of early-season MVP candidates but also two guys who have had to carry a massive load this season, waiting for their teams to come together around them. Curry has gotten more of that lately as Klay Thompson has started to find his legs and some rotation shifts have improved play off the bench.

Luka is still on a Brunson-sized island waiting for help. Tuesday night that island got smaller when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of the Warriors’ Jordan Poole.

That just meant more Doncic, and he reminded everyone why nobody wants to play the Mavericks in the playoffs with a 41-point triple-double (12 rebounds, 12 assists).

Doncic was a force of nature, although Curry had his chance in the final 10 seconds but got called for traveling (a call the Warriors disputed).

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas, but this was the Luka Doncic show.

Doncic has been asked to carry a massive load for Dallas this season. He has a usage rate of 38 through the first quarter of the season, a number that would rank in the top-10 all time (right around 1987 Michael Jordan and 2006 Kobe Bryant).

How long can Doncic do this without starting to wear down? Without risking injury? Sure those other players like Jordan and Kobe got through the entire season, but they also didn’t make the kind of playoff runs Dallas is hoping for. Coming off EuroBasket, Doncic entered this season in the best shape he has ever been in to tip-off an NBA campaign, but there have already been stretches where he has started to look worn down. Then there are nights like Tuesday when he carries the Mavericks to a win and looks unstoppable.

Doncic is young, but asking him to carry this load also puts a ceiling on how good this team can be. Curry is getting that help. Giannis Antetokounmpo is also putting up historic usage percentage numbers this season, but Khris Middleton will return to the Bucks and take on some of that load. The Mavericks touted Christian Wood as an answer, but he is coming off the bench and his defense does not have him in Jason Kidd’s good graces. It’s a one-man show more than ever in Dallas.

If the Mavs want to win in the postseason, it can’t just be the Luka show. But during the regular season, some nights that is enough. At least until he wears down.

2) Damian Lillard to return Sunday, not soon enough for Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers miss Damian Lillard (calf strain, his second this season) — they are 1-4 in the current five-game stretch without him, playing their worst defense of the season. The latest of those losses — a come-from-ahead loss to a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George — was maybe the team’s worst loss of the season. Anfernee Simons put up 37, the Trail Blazers led by 18 in the second half, and yet they collapsed against a team whose best offensive weapon was Nicholas Batum (32 points).

The good news for the Blazers is Lillard is due back on Sunday, reports Chris Haynes of TNT.

If you didn’t watch the late game on TNT, you missed a battle of two teams trying to keep their heads above water while their star (or stars) sit out injured.

Portland is still 11-10 on the season but has struggled this past week. What was ugly about Tuesday’s loss was the team just let go of the rope. This was a winnable game, but when it got tight they let go.

Powell scored 22 points in the fourth quarter and took over to get the 13-9 Clippers another win.

Los Angeles has done it against a soft schedule, but they keep finding ways to win until their stars return. Nobody is sure how good this team ultimately can be, but Tyronn Lue has got his squad defending and finding ways to win until everyone does get right. It’s an impressive coaching job.

3) Karl-Anthony Towns out weeks with calf strain (likely more than a month)

The MRI is in and Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports Towns likely will miss 4-6 weeks.

Not good, but it looked a lot worse when it happened.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his stats are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

The Timberwolves are not off to the start they thought they would be, and if they don’t figure out a way to win without Towns the next month this season could get sideways on them.