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

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

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The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.

Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young among players attending Rockets’ mini-camp

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The Houston Rockets have potential roster spots open.

With Iman Shumpert turning them down, the Rockets have just nine fully guaranteed contracts right now, plus eight guys on temporary deals. When the season starts, Houston has to have at least 13, and likely will have 14 or 15, players on the roster, even if some of those remain temporary contracts. In an NBA where guaranteed contracts are the norm, leaving very little drama for training camp, the Rockets are an exception.

Which is why a number of veterans — Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young, Thabo Sefolosha among them — are going to Houston’s mini-camp, reports Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Mbah a Moute has since changed his plans and will not show up.

Can Brewer and Felton — at their age — beat out guys such as Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Frazier, Ben McLemore, and Gary Clark for spots on the Rockets’ roster? I’m not sold that they can (Hartenstein is very likely to make the final roster), but the first step is a good showing at mini-camp, which can lead to a training camp invite.

The Rockets are not a deep team, at this point in the summer they may present the best opportunity for anyone to earn their way into an NBA contract.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.