The Extra Pass: Mark Cuban happy to have his friend Nowitzki around longer; plus Tuesdays’ recaps

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To them this is more than a business — Mark Cuban and Dirk Nowitzki are friends. Technically they are boss and employee, but neither sees it that way.

“I kick his ass whenever I’ve wanted to,” Cuban said last week, joking around about his friend the way you ride yours. “It’s kind of like we grew up in this business together….

“If I’m shooting downstairs before a game he’ll come in and stomp up and say ‘Whose house is it?’ I’m like ‘I paid for this s—, it’s my house.”

Nowitzki confirmed again this week what we already knew — he wants to play a few more years for Dallas before retiring. Cuban joked about the end of Nowitzki’s career, too.

“No, it’s when I want (then he laughs), because owners win games, not players,” Cuban said. How very Jerry Kraus of him.

But when Cuban got serious he said the plan is to let Nowitzki leave how the big German wants and on his terms, in part because his game is not slipping — he is scoring 21.1 points a game, with a PER of 23.2.

“It’s up to him, as long as he wants to he’ll be here,” the Mavericks’ owner said before his Mavericks took on the Clippers in Los Angeles. “Like I said earlier Dirk never played off athleticism; he plays off of heart, he plays off of brains, he plays off of technique. He’s a surgeon, he makes it into a science. He’s a student of the game and in a lot of respects that helps him, you’ll see he knows how to protect his body, which makes him look really awkward at times but he understands context.”

Cuban’s point was a simple one — if your game is all about your athleticism, it fades with age. Nowitzki’s game ages well. How does one even begin to defend a 7’0” guy who shoots a deadly one-legged fade-away?

“He’s just more skilled than everyone,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I think it comes down to that with him, he’s seven feet tall, he’s maybe the best shooter in the league or at least top five still, and at that size that makes him almost impossible to guard.”

“It’s not like we were wowed by his athleticism or wowed with his speed,” Cuban said of drafting Nowitzki. “Dirk is all about German precision. He’s like a surgeon out on the court, he knows how to play, he sees the game in slow motion and he knows what’s going to happen and he knows what he needs to do. And it’s that ability to know what he needs to do but also context that continues to make him special.”

Nowitzki off the court is now a father, but he still has the mantra “I’m a warrior” who will do whatever it takes to win.

“I think Dirk’s pretty much the same guy,” Cuban said of he maturation of his friend. “Where I think early on he might have deferred to somebody else, or he might bite his tongue, you don’t see Dirk biting his tongue anymore….

“Dirk still likes to have fun, he’s always had fun. He’s always had a good spirit about him, he’s self-aware and knows what he does on the court is what he does on the court and what he does off the court is who he is.”

Who he is remains the best European player ever in the NBA. We are going to be fortunate to watch that German precision for a few more seasons after this one.

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Kevin Durant dropped 46 and took over the game late, here are his 11 points in the final 3:30 of the game:

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Nets 101, Magic 90: This was actually close for a half, before the Nets cranked up the defense in the third quarter — the Magic shot 14 percent in the quarter — and by the fourth this was a laugher for Brooklyn. Deron Williams came off the bench again but looked sharper than he did in his debut. The real hero for Brooklyn was Andray Blatche who had 18 points and was a force in the paint. As for Orlando… why isn’t Kyle O’Quinn getting more run. Play the man, he’s a spark plug.

Heat 93, Celtics 86: Miami won. If you want to give them credit you can say that on the second night of a back-to-back they were scrappy enough to get the win. But really, the Celtics were the undermanned scrappy team that fought back and showed heart, Miami looked like their slumping selves and played just well enough to beat one of the league’s worst teams right now. Rajon Rondo looked very rusty and was 0-of-8 (don’t be shocked if he sits Wednesday in the Celtics’ back-to-back with the Wizards). LeBron James had 29 points

Kings 114, Pelicans 97: Sacramento opened the game on a 12-2 run and never looked back — they attacked and got 50 points in the restricted area in this game as New Orleans treated rim protection like it was the Hantavirus. Rudy Gay continues his run of great play since coming to Sacramento scoring 41 points on just 25 shots, and Isaiah Thomas added 20. Pelicans’ fans looking for a bright spot, Jeff Withey played his best game of the season.

Thunder 105, Trail Blazers 97: With 3:15 left in a tight game late, Kevin Durant was whistled for the charge on a bang-bang play, and in frustration at the call he slammed his hand on the scorer’s table — which led to a technical foul on KD. That fueled the best scorer in the game — he had 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting the rest of the way and led the Thunder to the win. Durant was a beast all night and scored 46 (on just 25 shots), his ninth game in a row scoring at least 30 points. LaMarcus Aldridge had 29 points and 16 rebounds, but he shot 1-8 in the fourth quarter. All of that covered by the much maligned Kendrick Perkins, who also hit a key baseline jumper (we’ve slammed him here before, got to give him credit now).

Timberwolves 112, Jazz 97: Minnesota went on a 17-2 run early in the first and never looked back from there. The Timberwolves were the more aggressive team, getting to the line twice as much as the Jazz (24-12), plus the Timberwolves ball movement was improved. Corey Brewer and Kevin Love each had 19 points to lead five Timberwolves with at least 15 points. Gordon Hayward had 27 for the Jazz. One other note, Ricky Rubio has not had a great season but looked pretty sharp Tuesday night.

Kawhi Leonard arrives in Orlando, Nikola Jokic expected soon

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The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard has arrived in the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando. The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic is not far behind him.

They are two of the biggest name players who were delayed arriving in Orlando, but for them the delays were short.

“Kawhi, he is here, he is going through the protocol,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said Saturday, adding the two-time Finals MVP arrived Friday night and is in the midst of the two-day/two-test quarantine all players and staff went through. If things go smoothly, he should be practicing with the team by Monday. Leonard’s arrival was delayed for “personal reasons” (and Leonard doesn’t open up much about his personal life).

Jokic tested positive for the coronavirus back in his native Serbia, which delayed his arrival stateside (where there were more tests and quarantine time). Nuggets coach Mike Malone said Jokic should arrive soon.

That leaves the two Houston stars — James Harden and Russell Westbrook — as the biggest names not yet in Orlando. Both are expected to arrive in the coming days. The Rockets have resumed practice without him.

Doc Rivers challenges Sen. Josh Hawley to acknowledge Black Lives Matter

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Missouri U.S. Senator Josh Hawley used the NBA’s list of social-justice messages players could put on their jerseys as an opportunity to grandstand. He wants more politics in the NBA — just his politics. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski got in trouble for his succinct response to Hawley (Woj reportedly has been suspended).

Clippers coach Doc Rivers had a longer response — and a challenge for Hawley.

“I mean, we have a senator that Tweets at Woj yesterday just because he was talking about what we were going to put on the back of our jersey,” Rivers said from the NBA Orlando restart on a conference call with reporters. “And they always try to turn it into the military or the police. There’s no league that does more for the military than the NBA.

“But how that about that Senator? I’ll make a challenge: We will do things for the troops as long as he acknowledges Black Lives Matter. I think that would be really cool for him to do.

“You know, it’s funny, whenever we talk about justice, people try to change the message. Colin Kaepernick kneels, it had nothing to do with the troops. It had to do with social injustice, and everyone tried to change the narrative. How about staying on what we are talking about and dealing with that, instead of trying to trick us or change or trick your constituents? How about being real?

“I guarantee you, we’ve done more for the military than probably that Senator. And I guarantee you this: We also are going to do things for Black Lives Matter. How about him? Maybe he should join into that.”

Well said, Doc. Well said.

NBA players and coaches will continue to speak out throughout the Orlando restart, and there will be steps toward action. In an election year, expect other politicians to try and use that as a cheap opportunity to grandstand.

Unknown long-term effects of COVID-19 has team execs concerned

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Doctors and scientists studying the coronavirus and COVID-19 are concluding this is not a respiratory disease, but a vascular one. That means the virus does not attach in the lungs and the airway, like the influenza virus; instead, this coronavirus attaches to blood vessels. This means any area of the body where there are smaller blood vessels — the heart, lungs, kidney, brain, and more — is at risk of long-term damage from mini-clots in those vessels (something found in autopsies of some COVID-19 victims).

The heart issues in particular — and everything we don’t know about a virus that is still only about 10 months old — has NBA team executives concerned about the long-term effects on players as they head to Orlando for the restart of the season.

Baxter Holmes of ESPN had fantastic insight on this subject, speaking to team officials for his story.

“There are unknown effects it has on lung capacity, unknown effects it has on cardiac health,” said one general manager of a team entering the NBA bubble, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “What if a 24-year-old catches it in Orlando and, in 14 days, he quarantines and is fine, but then he has these everlasting heart problems? [Or he] gets winded so easily, or he becomes a little bit too susceptible to fatigue? … These are all the unknowns.”

The NBA and the NBPA were particularly focused on the heart and cardiac concerns based on studies that found exercise while ill by people who had even a mild form of COVID-19 increased the risk of heart issues. The NBA’s director of sports medicine John DiFiori put it this way (as general advice) in the ESPN story:

“If you don’t feel well, don’t try to push through this. This is not a situation where anyone, whether you’re an athlete or not, should try to push through or minimize symptoms or try to ignore symptoms and try to push through to try to continue to work or continue to play a sport.”

What that means for players is if they test positive in the Orlando bubble they will be put on a two-week quarantine without exercise or much activity. The challenge then becomes that once said player is cleared they will have lost some conditioning and need to work out to get in shape again — they cannot just step back onto an NBA court and play. The bottom line, if a player tests positive they may be out more than only two weeks.

Ultimately, doctors know little about the long-term impacts of the disease on the body because this strain is so young — even the first people in China who had COVID-19 and recovered did so fewer than nine months ago. There are concerns about impacts on the heart and lung — not to mention other areas of the body — and far more questions than answers.

Which is why the NBA and players union want to be cautious. And why team executives are concerned.

Gregg Popovich had reservations, sees bubble as safest place to be

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Gregg Popovich fondly remembers his freshman year at the United States Air Force Academy, even though as a first-year cadet he was extremely limited in where he could go and what activities were allowed.

Lockdown at Walt Disney World, he said, reminded him of those days.

“But two days, anybody can do that,” the San Antonio coach said Saturday.

He made it through that freshman year with ease, made it through the two days of in-room Disney quarantine as well, and now the longest-tenured and oldest active coach in the league is free to roam within the NBA bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have reservations about being part of the NBA restart, given the ongoing issues of racial strife, social inequality, and the coronavirus pandemic.

“If you’re thinking person, you’re going to look at all sides of a situation,” Popovich said. “And, especially being 71 years old, I thought, ‘Is this where I want to spend a lot of my time, doing this, under these circumstances?”‘

The answer was yes, and Popovich was running his first practice in more than four months Saturday as the Spurs began getting ready for a playoff push. When the season resumes July 30, San Antonio will be 12th in the Western Conference – only a half-game from ninth, where the Spurs would have to be and within four games of the No. 8 spot to force their way into a play-in series.

“I honestly do believe – it’s not just being a loyal soldier of the NBA, I’ve done my share of criticizing here and there when I thought it was necessary – I don’t know where else you would be as safe as we are right now,” Gregg Popovich said.

LeBron James completely agrees with that sentiment.

Like the Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers – the West leaders, with James leading the way back into title contention after six consecutive years of not even making the playoffs – took to the Disney practice courts for the first time Saturday. And James said the notion of not being part of the restart “‘never crossed my mind.”

“This beautiful game of basketball, that brings so many people together, that brings happiness, that brings joy to the households, to so many families … I’m happy to be a part of the biggest sports in the world,” James said. “And I’m happy to have a platform where not only people will gain joy from the way I play the game, from the way our team plays the game, but also from what I’m able to do off the floor as well.”

And on the health standpoint, James, like Popovich, raved about what NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and many others teamed together to make happen at Disney.

“They took all precautionary reasons, measures to make sure that we as a league are as safe as we can be,” James said. “Obviously, in anything that you do, there can be things that could happen, but we will cross that line if it happens.”

But Popovich’s age called into question whether he should be at the restart.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people 65 and over can be more vulnerable to the virus. The NBA has three head coaches who have celebrated that birthday; New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry, 65; Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, 69, and Popovich. Pelicans assistant Jeff Bzdelik, 67, and Los Angeles Lakers’ assistant Lionel Hollins, 66, are not at Disney for the restart.

“We have special guidelines and special things that we have to abide by,” Spurs forward Rudy Gay said. “I think going into this bubble, everybody has to take the proper precautions and do their own part … not just our team, but other teams. It’s definitely serious. It’s a serious issue. But we vow to do the right thing.”

Popovich points to rising virus numbers in Texas as proof that on the NBA campus, where players and coaches will be tested daily and exposure to the outside world is basically cut off, his health shouldn’t be more at risk.

And to him, this is much more than basketball. The NBA restart will be about raising awareness on social issues and combating racism, and Gregg Popovich wants to be a big part of that conversation.

“If this bubble works, I’m safer here than I would be in Texas,” Popovich said. “And since the decision was made to do this to start the season again, under these circumstances, with all the precautions, what a great opportunity.”