The Extra Pass: Knicks fighting for something Nets have in odd role reversal

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NEW YORK — The Knicks desperately want something that Brooklyn already has, a playoff spot that was secured thanks to the Nets putting together a 30-12 record since Jan.1, the best in the Eastern Conference during that stretch.

It’s a strange reversal that’s occurred in a relatively short period of time by NBA standards, and an odd one for New York, to say the least.

Less than 24 hours after the Nets officially accomplished one of their preseason goals, the Knicks showed that they aren’t yet ready to give up on theirs. New York blasted Brooklyn 110-81 on Wednesday, and put the game away early by getting out to a lead of as many as 25 points over the game’s first 24 minutes.

“Our guys are hungry,” Knicks head coach Mike Woodson said afterward. “Normally anybody comes off [a West Coast trip], that game getting back is a tough game. Our guys came out with energy and ready to play. It was a 48-minute performance tonight and we will need that the rest of the way.”

Nets head coach Jason Kidd didn’t see much fight out of his guys, perhaps slightly less motivated than New York after clinching a playoff spot, and maybe a little fatigued playing on the second night of a back-to-back set.

“It happens,” Kidd said. “It’s the schedule. We fought last night, tonight we came out a little sluggish. But give New York credit, they won the game and we move on.”

Brooklyn was ready to move on from its little brother status to the New York franchise last summer, when the team traded for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett not only to bolster its postseason chances, but to steal as much of the spotlight as possible.

The Nets want the attention and devotion of the New York basketball market, which is something that’s belonged to the Knicks exclusively for decades despite the lack of anything remotely resembling sustained success. Assembling a team by adding two veteran Hall of Fame caliber champions and spending record payroll dollars did that to a certain extent, but only winning, and doing so at a level above and beyond what the Knicks have been able to will incrementally begin to sway the city’s fan base.

One of Brooklyn’s newest players, however, tried to immediately accelerate the process.

Pierce stoked the flames of the budding rivalry early and often, which meant little to a Knicks team coming off of a campaign that saw them reach the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 13 years; it was easy to dismiss what was coming out of Brooklyn as nothing more than a bunch of noise.

But flash forward more than eight months later, and it’s New York that’s after the adulation that the Nets have recently received.

The Knicks played like it, which they should have considering every game the rest of the way will severely impact their playoff chances. They also got some help with the Hawks losing, which put New York percentage points ahead of them in the standings and back in the playoff picture, if only for one night.

Atlanta doesn’t even seem to care if it gets in, with GM Danny Ferry saying candidly, “Our goal is not to be the eighth seed.” This seemed almost incomprehensible to J.R. Smith, who started off hot against the Nets and led his team with 24 points.

“That’s unbelievable for somebody to say they’re not worried about being in the playoffs,” Smith said. “I thought that’s what you played for, but, obviously not. I guess.”

Carmelo Anthony’s remarks, predictably, stated essentially the opposite.

“It means a lot to know that we’re in a dogfight coming down toward the end of the season,” Anthony said. “And this stretch is important. I thought that West Coast trip was a real big trip for us to come out of it with a winning record, and then to come back tonight and take care of business on our own home court. It was definitely a big win for us, and we look forward to this battle coming down to the next seven or eight games that are left.”

There was doubt for much of the season that the Knicks were playing out a wasted year, but Anthony’s belief never wavered. The schedule is extremely tough the rest of the way, with New York facing Eastern Conference playoff teams in all six of the team’s remaining matchups.

But just as the Knicks did against a better Brooklyn team in this one, Anthony feels like the way the team is playing now is good enough for a strong finish — one that could guarantee them a spot in the postseason, and enable the team to shake this uncomfortable newly-found position of chasing Brooklyn’s success.

“I always believe,” Anthony said. “It’s funny how things work where we’re in this situation now, having a chance to make the playoffs. We control our own destiny — I’m going to keep saying that. We can’t worry about what Atlanta is doing or what anybody else is doing, we’ve got to win basketball games.

“I think if we continue playing the way we’ve been playing, we’ll be there at the end of the season.”

Steve Kerr on military displays at games: “Sometimes, it’s really inspiring… sometimes it feels like we’re being patronized”

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Things changed in sports after 9/11. The national anthem had always played before sporting events, but in the wake of our national tragedy American sports leagues turned to patriotic and military displays before games as a way to help unify fans. In a small way, some sporting events helped heal the country after that life-altering event.

However, those militaristic displays have continued on 17 years later, with some leagues buying in more than others, and not everybody in the sports world is comfortable with that.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr, never someone shy about speaking out about political and social issues, was asked about the displays at sporting events as part of a wide-ranging interview with Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area, which can only be seen in full on the new NBC Sports My Teams app, but we have a clip.

“Sometimes, it’s really inspiring. You see a mother and daughter or a father and son reconnected after a tour of duty, and everybody gets emotional. And sometimes it feels like we’re being patronized. Like this is being used. We’re just playing a sport here, and it feels sort of nationalistic, if that makes sense. So we are kind of wandering down a dicey path on this front.”

Kerr speaks out on politics — usually to bash President Donald Trump — and likely will do more of that with the midterm elections coming up. However, don’t think he takes that step lightly, or that he thinks it’s for everyone. Kerr has a nuanced view and understands the risks of what he does.

“First, you have to feel comfortable with what you’re talking about and what you’re discussing. So if you’re not comfortable with speaking about social issues, then I don’t blame anybody for not doing so. But there’s also a sense, when you’re in a job like this, that you’re working for people. You’re working for a league. You’re working for an owner. You’re working for an organization. And almost everything you say is going to be looked at two different ways. You start to worry about offending people. You start to worry about ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ ‘Am I going to get fired?’ ‘Am I going down the wrong path?’ ‘And I really like this job and I like coaching basketball and I just want to coach. So you sort of leave that alone. I’ve got no problem with that.”

Kerr can speak out because he’s in a secure space (same with the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich). For a lot of coaches, the backlash from speaking out may not be worth the hassle, not from just fans but from within the organization.

Kerr also teamed with Rock The Vote to try and get more people to use their voice at the ballot box. Kerr also knows his megaphone is larger than that, and he’s not afraid to use it.

Did Suns deserve all 35 of their assists? (video)

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The Suns had 35 assists in their season-opening win over the Mavericks last night.

That’s their most assists since… their final game last season, when they also dished 35 assists against Dallas. But the Mavericks were tanking hard. Before that, Phoenix last had 35 assists with Steve Nash at point guard.

How did they Suns do it?

They moved the ball well and knocked down shots.

They also appeared be quite generous in scorekeeping.

The NBA defines an assist as a “pass that directly leads to a basket. … An assist can be awarded for a basket scored after the ball has been dribbled if the player’s pass led to the field goal being made.”

Would you say all four of these assists led directly to a basket?

Many scorekeepers systematically award assists if the shooter took two or fewer or dribbles after receiving the pass. Those above plays are not egregious in league-wide context, though maybe a couple of them should be.

But this Deandre Ayton pass really stretches the limit (hat tip: Carter Rodriguez of Fear The Sword):

Again, maybe we just have to live with a hard-and-fast two-dribble rule. Even though Josh Jackson turned and hesitated a couple times while using both dribbles, this technically falls under the threshold.

But then explain this Trevor Ariza assist to Jackson, who took three dribbles:

That looks like more of an assist than some of the two-dribble plays above. So, maybe the standard is fitting the spirit of the definition OR a player shooting within two dribbles. That casts quite a wide net.

But remember, don’t cast stones at the Suns from inside a glass house. They’re not alone in their loose assist-granting.

LeBron James set to make debut for Lakers at Trail Blazers tonight

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PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) — It’s not going to be just a game when the Los Angeles Lakers invade Moda Center Thursday night to face the Portland Trail Blazers in the regular-season opener for both teams.

It will be a happening.

It’s the first game in the splendid 16-year NBA career of LeBron James that the future Hall of Famer will be wearing the uniform of a Western Conference club — the Lakers, with whom he signed a free-agent contract during the offseason.

Members of the national media and a TNT audience will be watching along with a full house at the 20,000-seat Moda Center. And James has caught the fever.

“The season is here,” James told reporters after a recent practice. “First of 82 (regular-season games). It will be fun.”

The basketball world is intrigued to find out how well the 33-year-old James will mesh with his mostly younger teammates, and how much he can help them improve on their 35-47 record of a year ago. Thursday at Moda Center is the first step, but Lakers coach Luke Walton isn’t taking it as a giant leap for mankind all in one swoop.

“We’ve got four years,” said Walton, referring to James’ contract, which calls for three years guaranteed and a player option for a fourth. “We want to make sure we’re not only playing our best come the end of the season, but that he is fresh. It’s a goal for us, and it’s not a one-year journey.”

James, who led the NBA with 36.9 minutes played per game in 2017-18, likely won’t match that average this season. Even so, he figures to be on the court a lot Thursday night.

“If my body is feeling good, then I’m out there,” James said. “If my body is not able to perform at the level I would like to play for my teammates, then I won’t.”

The Lakers could have drawn an easier first opponent that the Trail Blazers, against whom the Lakers have had no success in recent years. Portland holds a 15-game win streak in the series dating to March 2014, and has won seven in a row at Moda Center.

The Blazers mostly stood pat after going 49-33 and earning the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs a year ago, then getting swept in four games by New Orleans in the first round. Portland added a pair of low-cost free agent guards, Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas, to bolster its perimeter shooting game. The Blazers may also have a more significant role available now for 7-1 stretch forward Meyers Leonard, who shot .783 from the field and .727 from 3-point range in the preseason.

“Seth and Nik give us a totally different element with Meyers, the way he shot in the preseason,” Portland general manager Neil Olshey said. “We brought in guys who could have more of an impact at the offensive end.”

The Blazers may be without their starting small forward, Moe Harkless, who missed the entire preseason while rehabbing from knee surgery. His place will likely be taken Thursday night by third-year pro Jake Layman, who averaged 12.0 points and shot .512 from the field and .500 on 3-point attempts through the preseason.

“We’re pleased with the way Jake has seamlessly stepped into that role,” Olshey said.

Report: Clippers “have a better than not chance of getting” Kawhi Leonard next summer

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This line of thinking has gone from a quiet buzz around league circles to a rumor to the point where the game’s top news breaker — Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN — is reporting it as 50/50 or better:

Kawhi Leonard could be coming to the Clippers next summer as a free agent.

Here is what Wojnarowski said on a podcast with Zach Lowe:

“What the Clippers are doing right now is very below the radar. What they’ve done to put themselves in position. They didn’t gut themselves and they’re not tanking. They’re putting a competitive team on the floor. I think, right now, with Kawhi Leonard, they have a better than not chance of getting him. We know things will change. He could love Toronto…

“The Clippers are in great position with him. They have two max slots. They will be heard from again, I think, in these Jimmy Butler trade talks.”

The Clippers name came up in the Butler trade talks early, but Minnesota (read: Tom Thibodeau) reportedly asked for Tobias Harris and the Clippers shot that down cold. The talks have gained no traction after that, according to sources. The Clippers like Harris (who is a free agent this July and wants to get paid) and ideally want to keep him, but there will be serious roster overhaul in Los Angeles this summer and what happens to Harris will depend on a lot of other variables. Leonard included.

What Wojnarowski is reporting here is along the lines of what a lot of people around the league are talking about. This isn’t out of left field.

I can hear Lakers fans now: He is coming to us. (Knicks fans may be thinking that too, unless they are busy dreaming about Kevin Durant.) But there are a couple of reasons the Clippers make sense over those other markets.

First is the shadow of LeBron James. Not everybody wants to play in it. If Leonard — or, more accurately, the people around Leonard — want to build his brand and have him become the center of a marketing machine, being in that shadow could be seen as stunting his growth.

Them there is just fit with an organization. By his nature, Leonard does not seek out the brightest lights, he is not on social media, he does not dream of being part of the celebrity culture, and Leonard does not like a lot of drama in and around the locker room. All of those things come with signing a Lakers’ contract, and the same thing with the Knicks. While the Clippers are in Los Angeles and players there can seek out all those distractions if they want, the Clipper brand isn’t doesn’t bring the same intensity of spotlight that the Lakers with LeBron would.

All of those reasons — plus one extra guaranteed year at north of $40 million — could keep Leonard in Toronto if the team does well this season. However, if next July he’s looking to move on, the Clippers really could be his new home.