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Notes from second night of Salt Lake Summer League

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz play at the second highest elevation in the NBA, 4,226 feet, or 8/10ths of a mile. The air is a little thin.

For young players working on their conditioning — and especially some young players playing the second night of a back-to-back — it showed on Tuesday. Dylan Windler, the Cavaliers standout from Game 1, looked gassed by the second half. He wasn’t alone. It led to some sloppy basketball at points, even by the sliding scale of Summer League standards.

Here’s my notebook from the second night of games in Salt Lake City.

• With three games in three nights in Utah, the Fourth of July off, then games starting at the Las Vegas Summer League on Friday, teams rested a lot of guys on Tuesday. The Spurs sat Lonnie Walker IV (who scored 20 the night before), and the Grizzlies rested Yuta Watanabe (who also had 20 on opening night). Utah rookie Jarrett Brantley, who looked good in the opener, also got a night off. Combine that with the other guys sitting for injuries, such as Darius Garland (knee), or guys not yet officially traded so they can’t suit up (Kevin Porter Jr. for the Cavs, Brandon Clarke for the Grizzlies) and Tuesday was a little thin on names you know suiting up in Utah.

• It’s gotta be the shoes!

Spurs rookie Keldon Johnson — the Spurs’ No. 29 pick in this draft, a wing out of Kentucky — scored 29 points on 10-of-17 shots, including 3-of-4 from three. But all anyone wanted to talk about was his LeBron kicks.

With Walker and others out for the Spurs, Johnson found the ball in his hands a lot, but it was his defensive effort the Spurs coaching staff — and Johnson himself — liked.

“Defense comes first, then offense will come,” said Johnson, who had questions about his defense going into the draft. “Today I felt I was more assertive and more aggressive, which I felt translated on the offensive end.”

“Expecting that [level of offense] every day is a lot, but I thought he was good,” Spurs Summer League coach Blake Ahearn said. “He made some plays.”

Among those plays was the shot of the night, this half-courter at the buzzer.

The Spurs needed Johnson to step up with all the guys resting, and he did. That’s a good start for the rookie.

• Players who have had even a taste of NBA-level basketball often have a level of competence that means they just take over a Summer League game.

Case in point, Jazz big man Tony Bradley — the No. 28 pick back in 2017, who spent most of last season playing well for Utah in the G-League but has had played in a dozen NBA games — had probably the best night of anyone in Salt Lake Tuesday.

Bradley had 26 points on 9-of-13 shooting, pulled down 16 rebounds, and Cavaliers coach John Beilein credited him for making the Cavaliers miss a lot of shots at the rim.

“After the season, [Jazz coaches] gave me a few things to work on: defensive rebounding, communicating on defense, and being loud…” Bradley said. “I think I’ve done a better job.”

He’s done an impressive job so far.

• Along those same lines, Cleveland’s Naz Mitrou-Long has had a couple of cups of coffee in the NBA — 15 games total, he was on a two-way contract with the Jazz last season — but that little bit of experience and the touch of class he brings was evident in the first two games with the Cavaliers. He had 16 points and 8 assists in the first game on Monday, and 17 points in the second game.

“Experience is definitely the best teacher,” Mitrou-Long said. “I’ve been through this twice now, this is my third time. Especially being in this building, very comfortable here. So it’s something that definitely plays a big role.”

• Spurs Summer League legend Jeff Ledbetter showed out on Tuesday night, scoring 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting from three.

Ledbetter, 31, stands out in Summer League because of his smart play, hustle, shooting — and because he’s on the Spurs Summer League team seemingly every year. He’s not an NBA guy, he has spent the last three seasons with the Spurs G-League team and may do that again, or may go to Europe and bank a little cash. He’s a guy a lot of overseas teams could use.

Whatever happens with him next season, if he’s not back with the Spurs for Summer League next year it will be weird.

• The alley-oop of the day belonged to Utah second-round pick Justin Write-Foreman, who has some hops (and 20 points on the night).

Honorable mention in this category goes to the Spurs Thomas Robinson (yes, that Thomas Robinson).

• Spurs first-round pick Luka Samanic once again showed he has a good feel for the game, once again showed his three-point range (although he hesitated on a couple he should have pulled the trigger on), and displayed some deft passing skills. Also once again showed he’s just got to get stronger — three times over two days he tried to drive and dunk on someone only to get rejected. He got pushed around a few other times on defense. There’s a lot to like, but he’s a project.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

Nate McMillan extension
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The rumor that Nate McMillan was on the hot seat in Indiana? Turns out, about as accurate as the rumor Nicholas Cage is a time traveler.

McMillan and the Pacers have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Wednesday (it was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). McMillan had one year remaining on his current contract. There are no details about the length or compensation. But McMillan isn’t going anywhere.

“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”

This is the right move by the Pacers, McMillan has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the past couple of seasons (he was fourth in Coach of the Year voting a season ago and will get votes again this season). He has gotten the Pacers to exceed their on-paper talent level a few seasons in a row. Talks to extend McMillan were likely in the works already, but the push to get a longer contract announced now — while the Pacers are still playing at the NBA restart in Orlando — likely was tied to that rumor going public.

The Pacers are the fifth seed in the East and will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That Indiana got there without a healthy Victor Oladipo — thanks to strong play from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis for most of the season, then from T.J. Warren at the NBA restart — is a testament to McMillan’s coaching.

McMillan’s style isn’t flashy or modern — the Pacers are bottom eight in both three-pointers attempted and pace this season — but it works. The Pacers offense has been pretty average this season overall (18th in the league), which is not bad considering the team was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level). The Pacers also have found and developed good young players.

All of that ties back to coaching, which is why McMillan earned this extension.