The Extra Pass: 2013-14 Western Conference All-Star reserve picks; plus Sunday’s recaps

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After selecting the Eastern Conference All-Star reserves on Friday, it’s time to tackle the Western Conference. Once again, we’ll defer to the last ballot returns for our starters, which are decided solely by fan vote. Here’s the projected Western Conference starters:

West Starters (Fan Vote)

Backcourt: Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry

Frontcourt: Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin

We’ll know if this holds up very soon, as the starters will be named on January 23rd.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the format, the reserve picks include two backcourt players, three frontcourt players and two wildcards to fill the 12-man roster. On to the picks:

West Reserves

Backcourt: Chris Paul and James Harden

Curry was last season’s most notable snub, fans appear to have corrected that oversight by making him a starter over Chris Paul (the two were close in the vote after the last round, although with CP3 out injured it seems unlikely he slides back into the start spot with last minute votes). Paul is an easy and obvious choice here — 19.6 points and 11.2 assists a game, true shooting percentage of 57,8%, PER of 27.4, shooting 35.6 percent from three. Whether he is healthy enough to play remains to be seen, but he should get the nod.

Harden’s stock has gone down a bit since the focus shifted to the flaws in his game (particularly on the defensive end), but he’s still unquestionably one of the league’s most dynamic scorers.  Harden is averaging a 24-5-5 line for the season, and no player who has ever done that has been left off the All-Star team.

Frontcourt: Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan

It’s a murderer’s row out West, but Love is averaging 25 points, 13 rebounds and 4 assists a night. No player in NBA history who has averaged those numbers has ever been left off the All-Star team, and Love won’t be the first.

The days of Aldridge being on the cusp of All-Star bids are over. This season he’s averaging career highs in points per game (24.1), rebounds per game (11.3), assists (2.9) and PER (23.2), and even if that wasn’t enough for some reason, Portland’s spectacular first-half pushes him way over the top.

Duncan is having a down year by his lofty standards, but his per 36 minute averages of 18.1 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 3.8 AST and 2.4 BLK are plenty deserving. Duncan is still the best player on one of the conference’s best teams, and no coach is going to snub one of the league’s greatest players ever in what could be his final season.

Wildcards: Dirk Nowitzki, Damian Lillard

You may think Nowitzki is here based on reputation, but his production has been unreal yet again this season. Nowitzki’s points per 36, PER, true shooting percentage, assists and steals are all above his career averages — an incredible feat for a 35-year-old forward. It’s scary, but this first half of the season could be the best shooting performance of Nowtizki’s career. Dallas would be completely lost without him, and it’s hard to see the conference’s coaches leaving him off.

Now here’s the tough one. All of the reserves listed above are plenty deserving, but the last wildcard spot is going to be a free-for-all. It’s incredibly close, but I’m giving the nod to Damian Lillard over the other contenders. Portland deserves plenty of representation, and all of Lillard’s game-winning shots have to be factored in along with his solid per game averages of 21.4 PPG, 5.8 APG and 3.8 RPG.

Just Missed The Cut

Tony Parker is probably Lillard’s toughest competition for the last wildcard spot, and it would be somewhat surprising if the coaches didn’t defer to the veteran when the numbers are so close. While it’s hard to be too upset either way, Lillard has been the more prolific and efficient scorer this season of the two, and he’s had more memorable moments. Ultimately, this might not matter much, as whoever gets left off will almost certainly be an injury replacement for Kobe Bryant.

DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis should both be All-Stars every year for many years to come, but it’s just too tough of a team to crack this year. Cousins is hurt by the quality of his team, as per usual, while Davis has the double-whammy of missed games and a non-playoff team holding him back. If the West’s frontcourt wasn’t so deep and the backcourt wasn’t so banged up, Cousins would have a legitimate argument for the wildcard spot. That’s just not the case, though.

If Russell Westbrook had played in more than just 25 games and wasn’t projected to be out until the All-Star break, he’d be a lock with averages of 21 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds a game. Again, like Cousins and Davis, this may be the last All-Star game Westbrook misses for a long, long time.

D.J. Foster

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Lakers 112, Raptors 106: Nick Young returned after his one-game suspension to lead the Lakers in scoring with 29 points on 13 shots in just over 30 minutes of action, over a Raptors team that had been playing better lately since trading Rudy Gay to the Kings. Young scored 15 of his points over the final 12 minutes, and for Toronto, this game will go down as a missed opportunity — the team led by 19 points in the second quarter before they lost focus and slowly let L.A. back into the game.

Magic 93, Celtics 91: Someone had to win a game between two teams that couldn’t possibly seem less interested in winning, and on Sunday, it was the Magic. Orlando hadn’t yet won in 2014, and the win over the Celtics snapped a 10-game losing streak. Boston, meanwhile, has now lost 11 of 12. Arron Afflalo led the Magic with 20 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.

Thunder 108, Kings 93: Kevin Durant followed up Friday’s 54-point effort with a more subdued but just as deadly 30 points, nine assists, six rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots in 32 minutes of action. OKC led by as many as 24 points in this one, and since it wasn’t much of a game, go read Sam Amick’s piece on DeMarcus Cousins which details how the Kings franchise is stuck with covering for his continued pattern of deplorable behavior.

Spurs 110, Bucks 82: Gregg Popovich told reporters before tip-off that he expected his team to play as if they were facing the defending champion Heat instead of the league’s worst team in the Milwaukee Bucks. The Spurs largely did that, outrebounding their opponent by 18, shooting 56.6 percent from the field, and getting out to a lead of 13 points in the first quarter to remove all doubt as to how this one would turn out as soon as was reasonably possible.

Suns 117, Nuggets 103: The frustrating thing for the Nuggets on this night was the fact that they were beaten by the Suns from top to bottom. Not only did Phoenix’s starters get off to a fast start in scoring 34 first quarter points, but the reserves finished the job by putting 33 on the scoreboard over the game’s final 12 minutes. Four of the Suns’ five starters sat the entire fourth period, while Channing Frye, who led all scorers with 30 points on 12-of-16 shooting, appeared in the fourth for just two and a half minutes.

Kevin Love in concussion protocol, listed as out for Game 7

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As if winning a Game 7 on the road against a younger, more athletic team that has not lost on its home court all playoffs was not difficult enough, things just got harder for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Kevin Love has a concussion and is not expected to play in Game 7 on Sunday.

While it is technically possible for Love to clear out of the concussion protocol in 24 hours, it is highly unlikely. He would have to pass a rigorous physical test and have no concussion-related symptoms, something cleared by both the team doctor and a league-approved neurologist. This is something that tends to take days if not weeks to get over.

Love was injured just five minutes into Game 6. Love had set up position in the midpost and was setting a screen for George Hill, who was curling out to the arc. Jayson Tatum was trailing Hill and he banged heads with Love. It wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and did not return to the game.

LeBron James is going to have to carry even more load in Game 7, and now more pressure falls on George Hill (the bellwether for this Cavs team), J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and others to step up without Love there to space the floor and get buckets.

Report: Raptors interview Spurs’ assistants Ettore Messina, Ime Udoka for coaching job

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It’s not officially a coaching search until some Spurs’ assistants are interviewed.

So it looks like the Toronto Raptors’ search is underway.

Raptors’ president Masai Ujiri fired Dwane Casey right after Casey’s peers voted him Coach of the Year for leading the Raptors to 59 wins and the No. 1 seed in the East. That said, after several frustrating years of running into the brick wall that is LeBron James in the East, maybe the Raptors did need a new voice and some changes to try to take the next step (especially with Boston and Philadelphia coming on fast in the East hierarchy).

But if you’re going to fire a 59-win Coach of the Year kind of guy, you better have an impressive replacement in hand or at least a clear plan.

Ujiri reportedly wanted Mike Budenholzer, but the former Hawks’ head coach took the job in Milwaukee after meeting with Toronto.

The leading candidate for the job is still considered to be Nick Nurse, the Raptors’ assistant who was in charge of their changed and improved offense last season. The Raptors also interviewed two other internal candidates, assistant coach Rex Kalamian and G-League coach Jerry Stackhouse.

Casey, by the way, is the target of the Detroit Pistons.

Despite injury scare, LeBron James will be ready to go in Game 7

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It was the kind of injury that has felled many players — think of Rudy Gobert this season. Twice. A player falls into the side of another player’s leg, putting a strain on the ligaments.

That’s what happened in the fourth quarter of Game 6 in Cleveland Friday night, Larry Nance Jr. falls back and LeBron James‘ knee bent in a way it should not.

“After the game, I didn’t know who got me,” LeBron said. “But after the game, Larry asked me if I was I OK, so I’m guessing he was the culprit of it. I just felt someone fall into my leg and my leg kind of went in. I felt some pain throughout my entire right side of my ankle into my leg. I was just hoping for the best, obviously, because I’ve seen so many different injuries, and watching basketball with that type of injury, someone fall into one’s leg standing straight up. Luckily, I was able to finish the game.”

James scored 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting with a couple of dagger threes to secure the win after that scare, but he didn’t seem to have the same lift after that and was seen favoring his leg walking out of the building.

Of course, LeBron will be good to go for Game 7 in Boston Sunday. If Friday night was any indication, he’s not going to be slowed by it at all.

“As soon as I leave here, I’ll start to prepare (for Game 7),” LeBron said from the podium postgame. “I’m going to get in the car and head back to Akron. As soon as I get home, I’ll start my treatment. I’ll do the same all day tomorrow from before we leave to go to Boston, and then once we get into Boston I’ll do that as well. Try to get as much sleep as I can with tonight and with tomorrow and even on Sunday before the game. That’s the best recovery that you can possibly get, is when you’re sleeping. It’ll be around-the-clock treatment, and we’ll see what happens.”

What’s going to happen is a dramatic Game 7 in the Garden, and we know that for Cleveland to have any chance LeBron has to be superhuman. Again.

Warriors facing elimination but undaunted entering Game 6

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HOUSTON (AP) — If the Golden State Warriors are worried as they head into Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on the brink of elimination, they aren’t showing it.

“We have a chance to tie the series at home. That’s a pretty good position to be in,” coach Steve Kerr said. “We’ve got to win two basketball games and we’ve done that an awful lot, so we’re very confident.”

The defending champions trail Houston 3-2 in the best-of-seven series after consecutive wins by the Rockets, capped by Thursday night’s 98-94 victory. Now the series shifts to Oracle Arena, a place where the Warriors have lost just one time in their last 17 playoff games.

Stephen Curry said the Warriors are encouraged despite falling behind in the series because they believe both games could have gone their way and that a few simple corrections will get them back on track.

“We have an opportunity to re-establish ourselves at home, get a big win, keep ourselves alive, and then roll the dice into Game 7,” Curry said. “Not all is lost.”

Houston’s big win in Game 5 was tempered by a hamstring injury to star Chris Paul which will keep him out of Saturday’s game. It’s a major blow for a team which is looking to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in more than two decades.

The Rockets believe they can absorb this loss and don’t seem daunted by the setback, noting that they found ways to win in the regular season in many games where Paul sat out with injuries.

“I don’t have a doubt,” D’Antoni said. “They see the challenge … whether CP’s there or not, it’s a heck of a challenge, and they’re up to it. They’re looking forward to it.”

James Harden, who has struggled offensively in the last two games and went 0 for 11 on 3s in Game 5, rolled his eyes when asked if Paul’s injury puts more pressure on him.

“Pressure for what? It’s Game 6 of the Western Conference finals,” he said. “There is pressure on everybody.”

While that may be true, the onus is on Harden to step up and deliver an MVP-caliber performance if the Rockets hope to close out this series. Harden has had plenty of playoff disappointments in the last few years and embraces the chance to get Houston back into the finals.

“It’s an opportunity that a lot of people never had and probably won’t ever have,” he said. “It’s our job to go out there and have fun with it and do the same thing we’ve been doing. We want to take advantage of it.”

While the Rockets will be down a starter, the Warriors could get one back if Andre Iguodala can return on Saturday. The Warriors have missed the defensive presence of Iguodala who has missed the last two games with a bruised left knee.

Iguodala is listed on the injury report as questionable for Game 6 and Kerr said he didn’t have an update on his condition on Friday. But he did address what it would mean to Golden State if he’s healthy enough to go on Saturday.

“He’s a great player,” Kerr said. “He’s one of our keys, and we’ve missed him the last two games. But we can’t count on it. Injuries happen, and you’ve just got to play with whoever’s out there. So we’re hoping he’s back, and we’ll see what happens.”

Iguodala’s absence has been magnified in this series that has morphed into a defensive slugfest instead of the high-scoring shootout that most expected when it began. The Rockets take great pride in the fact that they’ve limited Golden State to less than 100 points in the last two games and think continuing to play great defense is the only way they’ll advance.

“It’s something we talked about building up all year,” Houston’s P.J. Tucker said. “To see our defense now be as good as it is, we still think it could be a lot better. We watched film, and honestly … we didn’t play great defense last night. Everybody will talk about how good a defense we played, but we really don’t feel like that. So just keep working and trying to get better.”

Kerr said the experience of his team, which is trying to reach the finals for the fourth straight year, will be valuable as the Warriors try and climb out of this hole and force Game 7. He referenced the conference finals in 2016 when they fell behind Oklahoma City 3-1 before winning the next three to take the series.

“We’ve been here before,” Kerr said. “We’ve faced elimination on the road before – this team has – a few years ago. We faced series deficits before. We’ve won all of those series. Our guys have the ultimate confidence that we can get it done this time, too.”