Morning shootaround — March 28


VIDEO: All the highlights from Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Hawks clinch Eastern Conference | Mavericks lose Ellis | What’s next for Thunder, Durant? | Shaq would have stayed in Orlando

No. 1: Hawks clinch Eastern Conference — Coming into this season, the Atlanta Hawks were dealing with an underwhelming free agency period, a GM on an indefinite leave of absence, and an ownership group that wanted to sell the franchise. And then the season started, which the Hawks used as a terrific reminder that all the off the court noise ends there, and what really matters is the results on the floor. Friday night, with a win over the Miami Heat, the Hawks moved to 55-17 on the season and clinched the Eastern Conference championship. Yet despite the incredible season and improbable title, as Jeff Schultz writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Hawks acted like it was no big deal …

The Hawks clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs Friday night and they acted as if they had just beaten Milwaukee on a Tuesday in November.

That’s probably a good thing.

“Maybe we’ll do a little, ‘Hip-hip, hooray’ on the plane,” Kyle Korver said.

“I mean, it’s great,” Paul Millsap said. “But we really haven’t been focusing on it. We’ve got bigger goals ahead. We haven’t been looking at the scoreboard or looking at other teams. We’ve been looking at ourselves, trying to get ourselves right.”

The Hawks (55-17), playing the best defense they had in a few weeks, led Miami by 18 points at halftime (55-37) and cruised to a 99-86 win over the remains of the Heat.

Miami isn’t the same team without LeBron James (Cleveland) and Chris Bosh (injured), and with Dwyane Wade seemingly playing on one leg. The Heat’s bandwagon fan base, which used to fill Philips Arena, also appears to have shrunk, or at least morphed into Cleveland fans. Funny how that works.

But the Hawks’ win, combined with Cleveland’s loss to Brooklyn, officially clinched the East, even if it was a bit anti-climactic. It almost seemed fitting that when coach Mike Budenholzer walked into the locker room minutes after the game to tell his players that the Cavaliers had lost, half of the team was in the showers.

“Bud found out, came in and there were only like five guys in here,” Korver said. “He was like, ‘Good accomplishment, we won the East.’”

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No. 2: Mavericks lose Ellis — The Dallas Mavericks have made several changes this season — trading for Rajon Rondo, signing Amar’e Stoudemire — and despite the growing pains involved they have managed to remain in the playoff picture. But a calf injury last night to Monta Ellis not only got Mark Cuban fired up on Twitter, but without Ellis on the floor, as Tim McMahon writes for ESPNDallas.com, the Mavericks offense was a “hot mess” …

The Dallas offense didn’t exactly look healthy without its leading scorer. The Mavs scored a grand total of 22 points in the final 18:43 without Ellis, finishing with their second-lowest point total of the season.

Of course, the Mavs didn’t quite light it up in the first half with a healthy Ellis, either. Dallas scored only 41 points in the first half, shooting 38.6 percent from the floor. But the Mavs closed the first half with a 10-2 run, capped by Ellis speeding through the Spurs for a coast-to-coast layup, and opened the second half with a 13-4 spurt to slash the Spurs’ lead to four.

Then Ellis limped off the floor with 6:43 remaining in the third quarter, a little bit after he got kneed in the calf while defending Manu Ginobili, and took the life out of the Mavs’ offense with him. Dallas didn’t score for the next 3:03 and managed only 15 points in the fourth quarter.

Forwards Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons failed to pick up the slack with Ellis out. They both failed to score in double figures, combining for only 16 points, none of which came in the fourth quarter.

Was that hot mess a preview of the Mavs’ offense minus Ellis?

“We’ll find out,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said before correcting himself. “Hopefully, we won’t have to find out.”

The Mavs will know more about Ellis’ status on Saturday, but his streak of playing in 237 consecutive games is certainly in jeopardy. The Mavs’ next game is Sunday night in Indiana.

“We just have to wait and see what the doctors say and how he feels tomorrow,” Nowitzki said. “Hopefully, he will be OK. We all know he plays injured and sick and he is always there for his team.”

It could be painful to watch the Mavs without their best creator by far, but it also might be in everyone’s best interest if Ellis misses some time. The Mavs have no hope of making a playoff run if Ellis isn’t at his best.

Ellis’ toughness can’t be questioned. He has proven repeatedly that he’ll fight through pain and play through injuries. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, particularly with the playoffs weeks away.

Ellis refused to even consider missing any games after straining his left hip two games before the All-Star break. The injury bothered Ellis for weeks, a major factor in an extended slump he finally busted out of with his 38-point performance in Tuesday’s home win over the Spurs.

“Our trainers will evaluate the situation, and we’ll communicate with him,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t see us putting him out there if he’s not feeling good. You can’t underestimate his ability to bounce back from things. He’s a fighter, he loves to compete and he hates missing games. That said, we aren’t going to put him in harm’s way.”

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No. 3: What’s next for Thunder, Durant? — The Oklahoma City Thunder have had bad luck with injuries, but even as Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have missed time the last few seasons, Kevin Durant was able to carry the load, logging heavy minutes and scoring hundreds of points. But after winning the MVP a season ago, this season Durant hasn’t been able to shake the injury bug, and after having two surgeries on his right foot since the summer, the Thunder announced yesterday that Durant will need a third surgery on that right foot that will keep him out four to six months. The bone graft procedure Durant is in for should give Durant his best shot yet at fixing his troublesome right foot. And with free agency for Durant looming in the summer of 2016, as Royce Young writes at Daily Thunder, there are plenty of questions left to answer …

The big question I’m seeing a lot is, “Did Durant come back too quickly?”

The answer is, yeah, probably, in hindsight. But also what you have to understand is the team is in constant consultation with specialists about this. And sometimes, things don’t go as anticipated. It’s not like they were just saying, “I don’t care, get Durant back out there before we lose more games.”

In these situations, it makes everyone feel better to assign blame. Point a finger at someone, lash out, yell, gripe, whatever. And in truth, it probably is someone’s fault in there. Maybe it’s Durant’s. Maybe it’s Sam Presti’s. Maybe it’s the medical team. Maybe it’s your fault, ever think of that?

What’s necessary to keep in mind, though, is no one was being irresponsible here. If Durant did return earlier than he should of, it’s only because he was cleared to do so. The team and Durant can only operate off of what they’re being told, and up until literally a week and a half ago, this thing was healing the way it was supposed to. The thought was that the screwhead had created a severe bone bruise from the constant rubbing, and Durant just couldn’t shake it off without significant time off. That’s what everyone thought. I was told by someone that’s pretty close to it all that he was going to play against the Celtics two weeks ago. That’s how unexpected this turn of events became.

Durant practiced on that Saturday before, doing some 3-on-3, then he played 1-on-1 in Dallas on Monday. And after that, he walked out of the arena with a severe limp, and pretty deflated. It wasn’t improving the way it was supposed to with the increased activity and at that point, the writing was really on the wall.

It doesn’t look good that Durant has had three surgeries on his foot. One is plenty. One is supposed to do the job. With what happened last season with Russell Westbrook, there’s good reason to wonder what’s going on. But I’d look at it this way: The Thunder’s conservative approach opens the door for them to get egg on their face. They didn’t mess around with Westbrook, taking a chance to let him play on a swollen knee. They pulled the plug, and made the decision to scope and deal with the consequences and fallout.

And then they did it again. They knew there would be skeptics and critics, questioning what the hell they were doing. But instead of delaying for the offseason to address it, they prioritized the long-term health of Westbrook and made the decision with only that in mind.

I’d say it worked out pretty well for them, and Westbrook.

The Thunder could’ve taken a different measure here with Durant. They could’ve rested him the next few weeks, then put him back on the practice floor and tried to ease him back on the floor for the postseason. That option was absolutely on the table.

But in collaboration with literally three of the top foot and ankle specialists in the world, the consensus was to go ahead and take the steps to end Durant’s season and do the bone graft. Instead of risking anything in his future, they’re going to just take advantage of the coming offseason which should let him completely heal, and then start over next season.

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No. 4: Shaq would have stayed in OrlandoShaquille O’Neal began his pro career with the Orlando Magic, and he lasted four seasons before leaving Orlando in bitter circumstances and signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. But time heals all wounds, or at least it does in the Magic Kingdom, and last night the Magic welcomed Shaq back and inducted him into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame. In his remarks during the festivities, as Josh Robbins writes in the Orlando Sentinel, Shaq said if he could do it over again, he would have played out his seven-year contract in Orlando and handled things differently …

Flanked by Penny Hardaway, Horace Grant, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, the mammoth center led Orlando to the 1995 NBA Finals, where the Magic lost to Hakeem Olajuwon‘s Houston Rockets in four games.

The next year, the Magic fell to Michael Jordan‘s Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals in four games.

O’Neal never played for the Magic again.

The Magic initially made him a low offer, and the Lakers swooped in with a $121 million offer and the lure of Hollywood.

The Magic eventually offered O’Neal a deal that eclipsed the Lakers’ offer, but it was too late. Restricted free agency didn’t exist in those days, so the Magic were powerless to prevent O’Neal from leaving.

And he left.

“We came back later and beat the Lakers’ offer at the closing minutes,” said Magic co-founder and Magic Hall of Famer Pat Williams. “But, emotionally, Shaq was gone.”

O’Neal was 24-years-old when he spurned the Magic in favor of the Lakers.

“It was all business,” O’Neal said. “Do I regret it? I never fully answered. I regret it sometimes. This is where I started, where I should’ve stayed. I actually wish that they [had] made it a law that whoever drafted you, you’ve got to stay there your whole career. No trades. No nothing. No free agency. No anything like that. Do I regret it? I regret it only because the DeVos family, they deserve a couple [of NBA titles].”

As it turned out, he didn’t finally win a title with the Lakers until 2000 — four years after he left the Magic.

“I just wish I would’ve had more patience,” O’Neal revealed. “It was all about I wanted to be protected from the bashing. What I mean by that [is] I wanted to win then. Even when I got there [to L.A.], I still got bashed and it still took four years to win. But I was very impatient. I was very young, and I thought that if I go there with those guys out there, that I could win right away. And that wasn’t the case.

“So now that I’m older now, I wish as a youngster, I wish I had had more patience.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Former Jazz player and announcer Hot Rod Hundley has died at 80 … Warriors big man Draymond Green has launched a line of t-shirts poking fun at Clippers coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers … The Rockets got Dwight Howard back from injury and now lose big man Donatas Motiejunas for a few weeks with a back injury … The Heat hope to get Hassan Whiteside back by the playoffs … The Nets have signed Earl Clark to a 10-day contract

Cuban defends Ellis on Twitter

Mark Cuban is upset with the officiating and in other news, the basketball is round.

OK, jokes aside, Cuban took to Twitter to complain about the calls, or lack of them, against Monta Ellis during a crucial stage of the Mavericks’ 18-point loss to the Spurs. Yes, an 18-point loss was a lot closer than that when the game changed. Ellis took a whack to the right leg midway through the third quarter with the Mavs down four points. He left for good and the Spurs tore away from the Mavs for good.

As for Cuban? Well, he wasn’t good with that.

Does commissioner Adam Silver and his team in the league office study film sent in by fans? Well, maybe they should brace themselves. Cuban has 2.8 million followers on Twitter.

A better question: Is that tweet from Cuban a fineable offense? Probably so, because it involves criticizing the officials. Not that Cuban is hurting for cash or even cares.

Cuban had a right to be upset about Ellis not being able to finish the game. Just three days earlier Ellis erupted for 38 against the Spurs in what was easily his best game of the season and allowed him to break free from a shooting slump. And now, this.

In the big picture, the loss allowed the Spurs to split the season series at 2 apiece and increase their lead over Dallas to 1 1/2 games for sixth place. The Mavericks probably aren’t in danger of being caught by OKC, not with Kevin Durant done for the season, if that’s any consolation.

There was no immediate word on the seriousness of Ellis’ injury and he’ll likely be re-evaluated Saturday.

Durant to undergo surgery on right foot, ruled out for season


VIDEO: Durant to have season-ending surgery

HANG TIME BIG CITY — If the Oklahoma City Thunder are going to make a run in the NBA playoffs — not to mention even making the playoffs — they’re going to have to do it without Kevin Durant.

The Thunder on Friday announced that Durant was done for the season, as he will undergo a third surgery to his right foot, where he suffered a Jones fracture that led to the first surgery before the season began.

According to a release from Thunder VP and GM Sam Presti:

“As we communicated last week, Kevin was going to use this time to engage in consultation and evaluation regarding the persistent soreness in his right foot at this stage of his rehabilitation. As part of this process, Kevin and Thunder personnel traveled to two additional specialists this past week; Dr. Martin O’Malley in New York City and Dr. James Nunley at Duke University. These in-person consults were designed to further supplement the previous evaluations of Dr. Bob Anderson. Several conference calls and discussions amongst the specialist team concluded that, while the majority of the soreness in Kevin’s foot was related to continued inflammation of the cuboid bone and would subside with rest, the evaluation process also determined that the Jones fracture of the fifth metatarsal, which had shown significant healing previously, was now demonstrating signs of regression.

With the focus of this process being aimed entirely on Kevin’s long term health and stability, it was the consensus of the specialists team, in addition to a collective decision by Kevin, his representation and the Thunder, that to address the setback of the fracture site, a bone graft procedure would be the most proactive and recommended approach. The bone graft is the standard procedure for the five to eight percent of Jones fracture surgeries that do not initially have success or experience setbacks sometime within the recovery period. While everyone is disappointed that Kevin falls into that group, we are encouraged that the bone graft procedure has historically demonstrated long-term health and stability.

Dr. O’Malley will perform the bone graft surgery early next week in New York. He has extensive bone grafting experience amongst athletes and has been consulting on the case throughout. Kevin will miss the remainder of the 2014-15 season and is expected to return to basketball activities in the next four to six months.”

Durant won the NBA MVP award last season after averaging a career-high 32 points. After surgery in the offseason to repair a Jones fracture in his right foot, Durant missed the first 17 games of this season. He returned in December and played well enough to earn an All-Star nod, but began underwent another surgery at the end of February intended to relieve some pain and discomfort in the foot.

There was still hope that Durant could rejoin the Thunder in time for the postseason, though one week ago Presti said Durant would be “removed from basketball activities” until he was able to return to the floor “without soreness.”

The Thunder are also without Serge Ibaka, who recently had a knee procedure. Russell Westbrook missed 14 games earlier this season after surgery to repair a hand injury.

Despite the terrible luck with their injured superstars, The Thunder are currently 41-31 and hold a three-game lead in the loss column over the Phoenix Suns for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.

Morning shootaround — March 27


VIDEO: Highlights from game played on March 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

James Harden makes MVP case | Pacers clinging to playoff hopes | Crawford says he’ll be back | Amar’e to stick with Dallas?

No. 1: James Harden makes MVP case With the season nearing an end, the MVP talk around the MVP race is heading up. Stephen Curry? Russell Westbrook? LeBron James? Anthony Davis? Or what about in Houston, where James Harden has been perhaps the best offensive player in the NBA this season? USA Today‘s Sam Amick caught up with Harden, who made his case for why he deserves your MVP vote…

“I think if you look at what I’ve been doing all year, only missing one game all year because of the situation (with seemingly-endless injuries to teammates), basically having to carry a load all year, being consistent from the first game of the season,” Harden said. “That should show it right there. But like I said, (the focus is) for me to go out there and continue doing what I’m doing, being consistent, is all I can do.”

And getting to the free throw line at an unmatched rate. Harden — who has converted on 86.6% of free throw attempts — is on pace to lead the league in free throw attempts for the second time in three seasons (10.1 per game). Last season’s leader in that category was the Thunder’s reigning MVP, Kevin Durant (9.9).

“I’m enjoying the whole process of these last (few) games, just trying to win games,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing since Dwight has been out. I don’t really keep track of the other (MVP candidates) or what they’re doing. Obviously everybody knows that Russ is going on a triple-double rally. He’s playing extremely well and they’re fighting for the eighth spot. But all those guys you named (Curry, Westbrook, James, Davis and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers) are very good players, or very talented players. For me, I just focus on what I can control and going out there and doing the best I can do every single right.”

In trying to explain his own MVP-caliber campaign, Harden said his comfort level in the not-so-new surroundings have been key. It’s his third season in Houston, where he came via trade in October 2012 and has progressively found his way as a leader ever since.

“All I needed was time,” he said of the Houston experience. “All I needed was to know what I had around me. And now that I know it, I’m comfortable with it and I can be a great leader. I think that’s probably one of the reasons I’m so successful is that I’m comfortable. I think if you’re comfortable in any situation, and you know what’s going on and you know what you’re going to get, you’re going to be successful.

“It’s about having a good time, about enjoying it, enjoying the grind. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably not doing good.”

***  

Do the Clippers have the D to contend?


VIDEO: NBA Action: What makes the Clippers tick

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Los Angeles Clippers are in a unique position. They’re the only team that won a playoff series last year and is set to hold home-court advantage in the first round this year.

Note: Winning the Northwest Division guarantees the Blazers a top-4 seed, but they wouldn’t have home-court advantage against a lower seed with a better record (like L.A. has right now).

The Clippers are also the worst defensive team among Western Conference playoff squads. They rank 18th in defensive efficiency through Wednesday, having allowed 103.1 points per 100 possessions.

For the fourth straight season, the Clippers have a top-five offense. But each of the last two seasons, the they’ve complemented and elite offense with a top-10 defense. This year, they have not. They’re below average on D, with the sixth biggest regression on that end of the floor from last season to this one.

History tells us that you need a top-10 defense to contend for a championship. The Clippers play the Sixers on Friday and have two more games against the Lakers, but that’s probably not enough to get them near the top-10 by April 15.

So where have the Clippers fallen off? The numbers point to 3-point defense and an inability to keep their opponents off the free throw line.

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The 3-point defense had nowhere to go but down after ranking No. 1 last season, and it’s been better (fewer attempts) since the All-Star break. The free throws continue to be a problem. The Clippers have given up 19.2 points per game at the free throw line, 2.0 more than the league average. Take away those two points per game and they’re a top-10 defense.

The Clippers’ defensive system puts pressure on both their bigs and their perimeter players. They bring the bigs out high to defend pick-and-rolls…

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This scheme usually takes the ball out of the ball-handler’s hands. Opposing ball-handler’s have passed the ball on 68 percent of ball screens that the Clippers have defended, the highest rate in the league, according to SportVU.

But the scheme, in turn, puts pressure on the Clippers’ wings, who have to help on the opposing big when he rolls to the basket. And if he catches the ball, those wings are often in a position to do nothing but foul or concede a layup…

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If the ball doesn’t go to the roll man, that guy who was helping on the roll now has to close out on the perimeter to both contest a shot and contain a drive…

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And if the drive isn’t contained, the pressure goes back to the bigs to defend both the driver and his own man.

Other teams employ a similar scheme. The Miami Heat often suffocated their opponents with it when they had LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the wings. But when the Heat’s defense wasn’t on point, it could be broken down by teams that passed the ball well (see Spurs, San Antonio).

The Clippers don’t have James or Wade. They have J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers trying to help on those rolls, recover out to those shooters, and contain those drives. And those guys aren’t quick enough or disciplined enough to do all that on a high level and on a consistent basis.

The opponents’ free throw rate has been highest with the Clippers’ reserves on the floor. When it comes to both the opponent free throw rate and overall defense, there’s a big gap drop-off when at least one of their starters takes a seat.

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And that goes back to the big issue regarding the Clippers. Their starting lineup is among the best in the league, while their bench (especially with Crawford out) is a liability. The roster moves of team president Doc Rivers are going to test the patience of head coach Doc Rivers when his reserves are on the floor in the playoffs.

Chris Paul isn’t worried too much about where his team stands defensively in the regular season, believing that, once the postseason begins, it’s all about matchups.

“When you get to the playoffs, all of the other stuff that you did during the season goes out the window,” Paul said Wednesday. “All of those stats ain’t going to mean nothing if you’re playing against a team that you can never beat.”

The Clippers have played all of their fellow Western Conference playoff teams pretty evenly. And they have a top-10 defense against four of the seven, including the team – Portland – they’re currently in position to face in the first round and the team – Golden State – they’d most likely face in the conference semifinals if they got there.

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But history disagrees with Paul. In the last 37 years (since turnovers started being counted in 1977), only one team has ranked as low as 18th defensively and reached The Finals. That team was the 2000-01 Lakers (defending champs at the time), who ranked 19th defensively, flipped the switch once the playoffs began, and went 15-1 with the best defense in the postseason.

The Clippers don’t have championship experience on which they can fall back. Nor, does it seem, do they have a defense on which they can rely.

Morning shootaround — March 26


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 25

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bulls secure winning road record | Howard’s return a boon for Houston | Could Love-LeBron rift force Love to sign with Knicks?

No. 1: Bulls lock up winning record on road – The Chicago Bulls, as is their wont during the coach Tom Thibodeau era, have held things together nicely and stayed in the tick of the upper crust in the East despite a multitude of injuries. Things are getting better in Chicago as Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup earlier this week, Joakim Noah is playing more and healing up and superstar Derrick Rose said he hopes to rejoin the team before the season’s end. And, oh yeah, the Bulls won in Toronto last night to secure a winning record on the road — a rarity in franchise lore. K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune details that feat and other positives for Chicago:

Michael Jordan never experienced it. Neither did Scottie Pippen. Not even Phil Jackson accomplished the feat.

With their 116-103 victory over the Raptors Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre, the Bulls guaranteed their fifth straight winning road record for the first time in franchise history. Overall, the Bulls improved to 113-79 away from the United Center under Tom Thibodeau.

That’s a .589 road winning percentage. And that, plus the eventual addition of Derrick Rose, who said earlier in the day he would be cleared for contact “sometime this week or next,” is the kind of stuff that gives the Bulls confidence moving forward. That confidence is there regardless of their playoff seed, whether or not they have home-court advantage.

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Raptors’ DeRozan missed ‘the bun,’ gaffed the pass

 

VIDEO: Raptors’ DeRozan sends pass to wrong player in white shirt.

It hardly seemed fair. Joakim Noah was standing up in front of his chair at the visitors’ bench at Air Canada Centre and the Chicago Bulls’ warm-up shirt he had on was primarily white – like the home uniform color of the Toronto Raptors.

So when Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan got in trouble with the ball and off-balance in the lane nearest to Chicago’s bench, he did what anyone would do while making a split-second decision: DeRozan fired the ball toward the wide-open guy in the white shirt.

Oops! That turned out to be Noah, who caught the pass for a turnover and tilted his head somewhat quizzically. Before, of course, clapping that Noah clap over the Raptors’ turnover.

We can’t exactly say the gaffe was a turning point – Toronto already trailed 112-103 with 1:21 left, though the Bulls sandwiched a pair of 3-point misses around the Raptors star’s misplay. Had Toronto scored on that lost possession and gotten a make instead of a miss on Lou Williams‘ 25-footer with 47.9 seconds left, it might have … aww, who’s to say?

As it was, Toronto backed its way into a playoff berth when Boston and Charlotte lost. DeRozan assured himself of a spot on the weekly Shaqtin’ A Fool segment. And it was left to Noah to point out how lacking DeRozan’s powers of observation were in that pressurized moment.

“Yeah, I was wearing a white shirt. My white practice shirt,” Noah told reporters afterward. “So he thought that I was a Toronto Raptor. Unfortunately there’s nobody with long hair and a beard – and a bun – on the Toronto Raptors. Go Bulls.”

Rockets gain one, could lose another


VIDEO: Howard return to get back on the court

Dwight Howard returns tonight in New Orleans for the Rockets after a 26-game injury layoff, which is welcome news for a team that somehow stayed among the top-4 in the West without him. Credit their defense, the addition of Josh Smith and of course, those MVP fumes James Harden is inhaling.

“I wish we had more time for him to practice,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “You need practice and rhythm. He’s going to have to do that during the game.”

Howard will help with rebounding and badly-needed interior offense but he can’t play point guard, too, which is a bit troublesome for the Rockets, since they could be without Patrick Beverley until … when, exactly?

Houston won’t know the extent of Beverley’s left wrist injury for another week. Initially diagnosed a sprain, it’ll be up to a specialist to get a more accurate reading on his time off and required treatment. Yahoo reported he could miss the rest of the season although the Rockets weren’t saying Wednesday, saying they needed additional information.

Beverley was the Rockets’ starting point guard although, in a sense, that’s a bit misleading. The ball mainly belongs to Harden in the Rockets’ offense and he dictates what happens next. Still, Beverley’s toughness on defense will be missed and the Rockets must now turn to a committee of replacements to do the job.

But Howard’s return is paramount. His swollen knee is no longer an issue and suddenly, the Rockets have size and a presence near the rim. The Rockets were out rebounded in 16 of those 26 games he missed. Depending on how well Howard adjusts — and he’ll be on a minutes ration initially — he could be the difference-maker for Houston in the playoffs. Especially against the Warriors, who don’t offer much inside.

Remember, in the playoffs last year, Howard was the best player on the floor for Houston. And yes, Harden played that first-round series against the Blazers, which the Rockets lost in heartbreaking fashion when Damian Lillard dropped a buzzer-beating catch-and-shoot 3-point dagger that remains an all-time playoff highlight. Howard averaged 26 points, 13.7 rebounds and almost three blocked shots in those six games.

“I’m just ready to play,” he said. “I haven’t played for a while … anytime you miss a lot of games, you’re anxious to get back on the floor.”

Houston is No. 3 in the West, just ahead of the Blazers, and went 17-9 without Howard. That’s likely where they’ll stay; they’re only 2 1/2 games behind the Grizzlies but there’s just 12 games left. They could be staring at an all-Texas first-round matchup, either against the Mavericks or Spurs.

 

Rockets’ Howard to return tonight


VIDEO: Dwight Howard is itching to get back on the court

From NBA.com staff reports

The Houston Rockets have managed to get along just fine without center Dwight Howard over the last two months. But they will gladly welcome him back into the starting lineup — and luckily for Houston, Howard will be back in action tonight.

“Sitting on the sidelines wishing you could play, it’s tough. It’s kind of new for me to be sitting on the sidelines in a suit instead of being on the floor. It was an adjustment, but it makes you miss the game a little bit more,” Howard said.

According to Rockets coach Kevin McHale, Howard will start as Houston travels to face the New Orleans Pelicans (8 ET, League Pass), but will be on a minutes restriction. Howard said he will play about 16 minutes a game and is looking to get into rhythm for the postseason, where Houston currently holds the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.

The All-Star center has missed the last 26 games to mend a nagging knee injury that took him out of the lineup on Jan. 23. During his absence, Houston went 17-9, a record due mostly to the MVP-level play of shooting guard James Harden.

 

Rose readying for yet another return


VIDEO:
 Can Derrick Rose regain his familiar form again?

He’s used to this sort of thing. Unfortunately. Derrick Rose is entering the final phase of his comeback, and with no setbacks, he expects to be back on the floor before the regular season ends.

K.C. Johnson of The Chicago Tribune has more on Rose’s plans:

Derrick Rose said he expects to be cleared for contact either this week or next and remains confident he’ll return from arthroscopic right knee surgery this season.

“I’m feeling good. I’m trying to do all the right things. Put all the positives in the bag and just try to go with it. It’s something that I’ve been doing for a long time. Rehab is definitely a grind. But I’m getting used to it.”

Rose had a small piece of his right meniscus removed on Feb. 27. The Bulls estimated his return to action at four to six weeks. Friday marks four weeks since the surgery.

“Should be sometime this week or next week,” Rose said when asked about taking contact. “Gotta talk to (Director of Sports Performance) Jen (Swanson) and go from there.”

Rose is doing everything basketball-related with the Bulls, including Wednesday’s morning shootaround at Air Canda Centre, except taking contact. Rookie Doug McDermott, who underwent a similar procedure to Rose but doesn’t share his injury history, was activated five weeks and two days following his surgery.

“It depends on how you take the contact,” Rose said. “If I don’t have any setbacks, I would say 1-2 weeks (after being cleared for contact).”

 

Rose said he has no pain or swelling in his right knee and is confident that the Bulls could have a deep playoff run.

“We can be really good,” he said. “It’s just all about everyone being healthy, a little bit of luck and everyone staying together.”

 

Yes, there are certain tasks you’d rather not be an expert at, and rehabbing from surgery is one. That said, Rose sounds optimistic about his prospects this time, a stark contrast to the mood in the basketball room when he re-injured his knee and required surgery on Feb. 27 to remove a piece of his right meniscus. Rose said it “should be this week or next” when he resumes contract drills.

With Rose looming, the Bulls are the league’s biggest mystery as the playoffs approach. All season, we really haven’t seen the real Bulls for various reasons. Injuries to Rose and Jimmy Butler have kept the Bulls without their starting backcourt for a combined 42 games. Joakim Noah hasn’t been healthy all season. Luckily for Chicago, rookie Nikola Mirotic has improved greatly in the last month, averaging 23 points and 7.4 rebounds in his last five games.

How all of this comes together will provide some drama in Chicago, where championship dreams exist despite the strange season. It is possible the Bulls haven’t yet played their best basketball. Or, they’ll remain inconsistent and stumble in the post-season.

Obviously, lots depends on Rose and what he’ll contribute. Before his latest surgery, he shot poorly (40 percent) and was average defensively. In a best-case scenario, Rose finds a reasonable rhythm, yields at times to Butler and Pau Gasol in big moments and the Bulls improve defensively. That’s what it’ll take to be on par with the hard-charging Cleveland Cavaliers, who turned their season around, and the Atlanta Hawks, the East leaders since winter.