The Extra Pass: Blake Griffin’s alternate reality; plus Wednesday’s recaps

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Tell me if this sounds at all familiar.

24 years old, about 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9. Roughly 250 pounds. Stronger and faster than just about everyone. Phenomenal basketball IQ. Highly skilled, but often criticized for what he can’t do instead of appreciated for what he does.

That’s Blake Griffin.

And at one point, that was LeBron James, too.

The parallels between Griffin and James have never been clearer than they were during the Miami Heat’s 116-112 victory over the shorthanded Los Angeles Clippers.

Maybe we just had to see Griffin and James next to each other, sizing each other up, going at each other throughout multiple points in the game, trading dunks and jumpers and perfect cross-court skip passes.

Or perhaps it’s because Griffin, without Chris Paul or J.J. Redick, was playing the role of a one-man offensive wrecking crew; a role James occupied for many years during his time in Cleveland.

Then again, it could have been the raw numbers that triggered it. Griffin’s 43 point, 15 rebound and 6 assist line is the type that sends off alarms in your brain and makes you start the search for other players who are capable of doing such things. LeBron, surprisingly, has never quite done it, although he’s put up similar lines over the years.

All the similarities and comparisons beg the question: what would Griffin look like if he came up like LeBron did?

It’s a difficult question to answer. Of course, playing with the league’s best point guard in Chris Paul has placed Griffin in situations to succeed, but there’s also been some deference of responsibility as well. Late in games for the Clippers, it’s the CP3 show, with Griffin playing solely a supporting role. Over the course of his career, the fourth quarter has statistically always been Griffin’s least productive quarter. He doesn’t disappear entirely, but he fades into the background for sure.

That isn’t to say that Paul is stunting Griffin’s growth by stealing reps, but rather that he might have seriously altered his development in his formative basketball years. That’s perfectly normal. Players don’t become who they are regardless of their surroundings. It’s nature and nurture.

It’s interesting to think of James in that light as well. Although Ricky Davis wanted him to, James never played second fiddle to anyone in Cleveland. If that wasn’t the case, maybe LeBron ends up more like Magic than Michael if all the scoring responsibility isn’t placed on him from the very start. Maybe he’s something else entirely if he’s playing with an elite point guard like Paul.

That idea that players don’t adhere to straight line trajectories often seems lost on many. There are ups and downs, gains and losses. We assume we know what to expect, but new coaches, new players and new roles can change things drastically.

Paul’s injury has offered a small glimpse of what Griffin might have become without him, or maybe what he still could be if he assumes more offensive responsibility. The version of Griffin we eventually “know” will be the player he becomes next to Paul, but even if this last month has changed nothing in the grand scheme of things, to say it’s been a pleasant interruption in Griffin’s career would be understating things. Griffin should have a better grasp of what he alone is capable of now, and knowledge is power.

D.J. Foster 

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source:  Lakers 119, Cavaliers 108: The Lakers are a mess, but that’s solely due to the insane amount of injuries the team has had to endure this season. The Cavaliers are a whole other kind of mess — the kind that gets rolled by a team that finished the game with just four active players. L.A. scored 70 first half points and led by as many as 29 before it got a little bit closer late. Jordan Farmar finished with 21 points and eight assists, Steve Blake had a triple double line of 11 points, 10 rebounds and 15 assists, and rookie Ryan Kelly finished with a career-high 26 points. The shorthanded Lakers also set a franchise record for three-pointers made with 18. If Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert hadn’t already fired Mike Brown once a few years back, he might be strongly considering it after what was a particularly embarrassing loss. — Brett Pollakoff

Celtics 114, Sixers 108: These are two of the bottom-four teams in the league in terms of offensive efficiency, but you wouldn’t know it by how easily the scoring came in this one. Jeff Green led the way with 36 points for Boston, 17 of which came in the fourth quarter where the Sixers crept within four points but could get no closer. — BP

Magic 112, Pistons 98: Orlando led by as many as 20 points, but the teams played dead even in three of the game’s four periods. The Magic outscored their opponent by 14 in the second, though, thanks to 10 in the period from Victor Oladipo while the team shot 56.5 percent. Josh Smith led the way for the Pistons, and finished with 25 points on 11-of-19 shooting to go along with 12 rebounds. — BP

Spurs 125, Wizards 118 (2OT): Washington has been playing much better as of late, with wins over the Thunder and the Blazers in its last two outings. And they continued to battle in this one, even when the game seemed to be finished. There shouldn’t have been a need for a second overtime session, considering the Spurs led by four with eight seconds remaining in the first one, and held a two-point lead with possession of the ball and six seconds left. All Tim Duncan had to do was safely inbound the ball and the game would have likely been sealed at the free throw line. But a high errant pass enabled John Wall to get the improbable steal and score the layup at the other end to force five more minutes. San Antonio outscored Washington 10-3 to finish things off, but expended perhaps more energy than they should have to get this win — something that may be a problem in Brooklyn against the Nets the very next night. Tony Parker left this game with a back issue, and is not expected to be available on Thursday. — BP

Blazers 94, Knicks 90: Not a great game for the Blazers, especially during a 17-point fourth quarter that saw the Knicks crawl back into it and have a small chance late to steal it. LaMarcus Aldridge hit the dagger, but was just 5-of-17 shooting on the night. On the New York side, Carmelo Anthony scored 26 points but needed 28 shots to get there, and besides J.R. Smith’s 18 and a throwback performance from Amar’e Stoudemire, who finished with 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting to go along with seven rebounds in under 22 minutes of action, there wasn’t a whole lot of production from anyone else. — BP

Rockets 122, Suns 108: Phoenix had trouble from an energy standpoint against the Bulls on Tuesday, and suffered a similar fate against a much better offensive team the very next night. Houston led by as many as 12 in the first quarter, and by the time the fourth came around, the Suns were out of gas. They had no answer for Dwight Howard all night long, who dominated inside with 34 points and 14 rebounds. And the fatigue showed on the defensive end, where the Rockets were allowed to shoot close to 55 percent from the field on the night, and knock down an obscene 68.8 percent of their attempts from three-point distance. — BP

Mavericks 110, Grizzlies 96: Memphis is the team most likely to threaten to take away the Mavericks’ playoff spot in the standings, so this was an important win for Dallas even with so much of the season still left. Samuel Dalembert and Brandan Wright essentially canceled out Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol from a numbers standpoint, and with Mike Conley sidelined due to injury (and of course, 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting from Dirk Nowitzki) that was plenty. — BP

Pelicans 105, Hawks 100: Anthony Davis isn’t an All-Star yet, but has a shot to be named to the squad as an injury replacement for Kobe Bryant. He went up against one in Paul Millsap, and outplayed him in helping his team to victory. Millsap finished with 26 points on 20 shots to go along with 10 rebounds, while Davis finished with 27 and 10, on a more efficient 9-of-14 shooting. Davis also anchors the defense in ways others can’t, and scored 10 of his points in the final period to lead his team to a nice come-from-behind victory. — BP

Thunder 106, Timberwolves 97: No Kevin Love for Minnesota, he was out with a stiff neck. Also out were starters Nikola Pekovic and Corey Brewer. Considering all that Minnesota played a scrappy game just go hang around in this one for three quarters, but a 13-4 OKC run to open the fourth put the game in a place Minnesota could not recover from. Kevin Durant “only” had 26 for the Thunder (plus 9 rebounds and 7 assists), Reggie Jackson pitched in 20. Ricky Rubio stepped up his scoring with 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting. –Kurt Helin

Nuggets 110, Bucks 100: This wasn’t a terribly well played game, but in the end the Nuggets backcourt of Ty Lawson (18 points, 13 assists) and Randy Foye (20 points) proved to be too much for the Bucks. Denver was up 18 early in the fourth quarter but Milwaukee made a couple runs as Brandon Knight played well, it took a couple of Wilson Chandler threes late to seal the victory. –KH

Kings 109, Raptors 101: Sacramento took control of this game early as their big front line overwhelmed Toronto — Marcus Thornton had 12 first half points, DeMarcus Cousins 11 and by the third quarter this looked like a rout. But thanks to Steve Novak knocking down threes (he had 11 points in the fourth quarter) Toronto went on a 19-2 run and make a game of it. There was some terrible officiating at the end — Kyle Lowry got robbed of a four-point play and his reaction got him tossed — but the Raptors lost because they were don 22 at one point, not the officials. Cousins finished with 25 points and 10 boards, Rudy Gay chipped in 24-10.

Heat 116, Clippers 112: One of the more entertaining games of the season, especially if you like dunks. Miami raced out to a comfortable early lead but Los Angeles answered with their own run to make it interesting late. We broke this game down in more detail here. –KH

Teams forced into difficult choices to trim traveling parties for restart

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The 22 teams participating in the NBA restart were all at the Disney campus together for the first time Friday.

None of them, however, made it to the Orlando, Florida, area with their usual travel party.

Leaving families behind for several weeks — or maybe even three months, depending on how deep a team goes in the playoffs — during a pandemic isn’t the only hardship that teams are dealing with during this restart. Space limitations within the quasi-bubble at Disney also meant that teams had to cut their official traveling parties down to 37, including players, so many people who usually travel with a club aren’t on this trip.

“We’re not able to take everybody — and that stinks, because of the amount of work that they all put in every single day,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve tried to identify how to be the most efficient we can be with people that can be excellent remotely as well. I think that that’s one of the things that we’ve had to identify. In some cases, their excellence remotely probably hurt their chances of going initially.”

It’s expected that as the bubble population shrinks after six teams are eliminated from playoff contention and then eight more are ousted in the first postseason round, teams will be allowed to bring in more staff.

But until then, while teams are playing games on-site at Disney, there will be plenty of work done back in home markets and home arenas as well. Some teams left player development coaches behind, some even left assistant coaches, and all teams traveled with only one media relations staffer and one equipment manager. In normal circumstances, some teams travel with as many as three people to handle media requirements and two for equipment.

“You know, it’s tough,” Orlando President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “We kind of shied away from some of the language that was being thrown around — the whole idea of essential (staff) and non-essential (staff). It’s not about that. This is a very narrowly defined circumstance, and it requires certain skill sets to address this circumstance.”

Players counted against the list of 37, and most teams brought the full complement of 17 players. That left 20 spots for coaches, assistant coaches, player development, video, security, strength and conditioning, athletic training, media relations and content creators.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the process of figuring out who goes and who doesn’t was brutal.

“We already have had a model of everybody sharing responsibilities,” Spoelstra said. “We already had a meeting about this where there’s an absolute understanding that this is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation. And that means bags, laundry, cleanup, everything … that’s not just for equipment managers, that’s everybody — coaches, trainers, weight room staff, head coach, coaches, we’re all going to be involved in every aspect of it.”

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan also expressed disappointment that tough decisions had to be made on the staffing end.

He completely understands the NBA perspective. Keeping the number of people in the bubble manageable is a key part of the NBA’s plan for being able to finish the season; the more people in the bubble, the more risk there is of something going wrong.

“Everybody deserves the opportunity, but for the safety of the league and the players we can’t do that,” Donovan said. “So, what we’ve got to do is understand, whether it’s myself or assistant coaches, we may have to be setting up video equipment, we may have to have one of our coaches filming practice in Orlando. There’s things that we’re going to have to do that are going to be outside the box that will normally been taken care of.”

Chris Paul playing cornhole. Luka Doncic trick shots. Welcome to life in the NBA bubble.

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Teams have emerged from quarantine in the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando, getting some run in on the court, and are starting to explore life in the NBA bubble.

Then they are documenting it on social media.

For example, Chris Paul and Darius Bazley played some cornhole.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic was hitting trick shots on the court.

Then Doncic and Boban Marjanovic were doing Disney Channel ads.

Complaints about the food by players have died down, in part because they are out of quarantine and get a choice of restaurants, in part because they saw the backlash and realized the complaints looked elitist. Or maybe it’s just the Mickey pancakes.

Everyone is out and exploring the campus and having fun…

Well, except for Robin Lopez, who sees no reason to leave his room.

Zion Williamson “just went back to square one” with quarantine workouts

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Zion Williamson looks cut — like he spent the entire quarantine doing workouts — and ready to be a force at the NBA restart in Orlando.

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Built for this 💪

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What workouts did Zion Williamson do during the break to get that look? He took everything back down to step one and built it up again working out with his stepfather Lee Anderson, Williamson told reporters on Friday (hat tip Andrew Lopez of ESPN):

“It just felt like I was 5 years old again,” Williamson said Friday. “Just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at 5 again. It was a great process to learn it all over.”

Williamson did a little more than that. He also had approval from the league to go to the Pelicans practice facility throughout the quarantine and get treatment on his knee, the one that kept him out the first 45 games of the season. So he stayed healthy.

He also worked on other aspects of this game, such as his jump shot. Williamson took 76.7% of his shot attempts at the rim this season, and while getting to the rim is critical to his game, he’s going to have confidence in his shot and knock down jumpers to reach higher levels in the league.

The Pelicans enter the bubble 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West, and with the softest schedule of any team in Orlando (matching their schedule before the interruption), they have a legitimate chance of forcing a two-game play-in series. It’s not easy, but there is a path to the playoffs for New Orleans (setting up a Zion vs. LeBron James first-round showdown that league broadcast partners are drooling over).

A stronger, improved Zion could help get the Pelicans there.

Paul George: “I feel great again,” says Clippers finally fully healthy

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Paul George symbolized the Clippers’ health all season long. George missed the first 11 games of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, then all season long it was still a lingering issue — until the suspension of play gave him time to heal.

“The whole season, all the way up until maybe a month or two ago, I had to always do shoulder rehab stuff, warming the shoulder up,” George said Friday on a conference call with reporters. “Just so much went into stuff I had to do before I actually took a foot on the floor. Now I feel great again.”

It wasn’t just Paul George, the Clippers had Kawhi Leonard managing his knee/thigh issue and an assortment of other injuries that didn’t give Doc Rivers the full arsenal at his disposal. That was until around the All-Star break — after that break Los Angeles went 7-2 with a +11.5 net rating that was best in the league by far.

The season being shut down may have halted that momentum, but it also gave a banged-up Los Angeles roster a chance to get healthy.

“For this team, man, I think our aspirations, again, this time off has given us what we needed,” George said. “We had some guys that was banged up, nagging injuries. The more time gave us more time for us to aid those injuries and to get back to 100.”

Health matters — which is why Montrez Harrell brought his own personal, portable sauna, a secret Reggie Jackson let out of the bag.

Health matters to Rivers, too, but what he wants more is that team chemistry back — and the Clippers have a long way to go on that end in Rivers’ eyes.

“This is not a normal way of starting back,” Rivers said of the mini-training camp all 22 teams at the NBA restart will get in Orlando. “Usually going into training camp, guys have been scrimmaging for three and four weeks, they’ve been playing, shooting on hoops. That’s not happening. This is a group, some of the guys have not touched a basketball or seen a gym until two weeks ago. We got a lot of work to do on both ends.”

The Clippers are not alone, every team is going to take time to find its rhythm again. Pick-and-roll combos need to get used to reading each other (and the defense) again at full speed, defensive rotations will be a step slow, and a few passes are going to head into the bench rather than the player in the corner.

When the Clippers get that rhythm back, with a healthy roster — finally — they again become a legitimate threat to win it all.

First, they just need to navigate the bubble. And maybe borrow Harrell’s sauna.