Where was this Wizards team all season?

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

VIDEO: Wizards stay perfect on Chicago’s home court in playoffs

CHICAGO – In a span of two games, on the road in a tough building, the Washington Wizards have shifted the conversation from how their long-awaited taste of the postseason probably wouldn’t last more than one round to where the heck this team was all season.

When you look at what the Wizards have done in grabbing their 2-0 lead over the Chicago Bulls in the best-of-seven series and apply it to the 82 games that preceded this, it suddenly seems like their 44-38 record and certain middling stats (17th in offensive rating, 20th in rebounding, 25th in foul shooting) represent some shameful underachieving.

Consider some of the things they accomplished on their stay in the Windy City, which wrapped with the 101-99 overtime playoff nightcap:

  • Overcame a 13-point deficit in Game 1 in one of the most boisterous and stoked road gyms in the league to grab the series opener.
  • Toyed with Chicago’s vaunted defense at times, as in outscoring the Bulls 61-38 across the final quarter of Game 1 and the first 12 minutes of Game 2.
  • Kept their focus through some physical shenanigans first between Kirk Hinrich and Bradley Beal, later between Trevor Ariza and Joakim Noah, without getting intimidated or spinning out of control.
  • Clamped down defensively again when it mattered most. The Wizards limited Chicago to just 12 points, total, in the final six minutes of the two fourth quarters.
  • Squandered an early 17-point lead in Game 2, fell behind by 10 with seven minutes left, yet caught the Bulls with a 14-4 run to close regulation, Beal scoring nine of those Washington points.
  • Pressured Chicago just as hard at the end as they did at the beginning, limiting the home team to 2-for-9 shooting in the overtime while generating just enough offense of their own (Nene, six points)

Had the Wizards played that way all season, they might have, what … pushed toward 50 victories, which would have been good enough for the No. 3 seed? Put some heat on the Heat in the Southwest Division? Made life a lot easier on their coaches, their fans and themselves by locking up their postseason berth sooner, with a little less late-season drama?

Of course, this team isn’t that team. And vice-versa. The Wizards apparently had to go through the trials of their first 82 to prepare for the moments to which they’ve risen in Games 1 and 2.

“We’re a different team,” Ariza said. “We’re a team that learned from our mistakes. We’re learning to play hard and play through everything. Like tonight, the game, I guess, was a little chippy. We didn’t let that rattle us.”

Ariza, the small forward whose volunteer defensive work on the Bulls’ smaller shifty-quick D.J. Augustin helped to limit Chicago’s scoring options, continued: “We’re definitely more locked in. We’re paying more attention to detail in shootarounds and practice. We’re talking more – communication is a big part of being a good team. And our 1 [John Wall] and 2 [Beal], they’re maturing.”

The Wizards have gone from a 25-27 team at the All-Star break to that unpredictably dangerous bunch that Miami looks wise to avoid as long as possible. By slipping into the East’s No. 2 seed, the Heat kept Washington at bay as long as possible, the Bulls-Wizards winner due to face whichever team emerges from Pacers-Hawks.

Yes, it helps to have Nene healthy, back from his sprained left knee. And granted, tightening the screws on Chicago’s often-gasping attack isn’t the toughest task for a legitimate NBA defense. But somebody was out there sticking to the Bulls’ best weapons.

“That team is under the radar,” Bulls sixth man Taj Gibson said. “They’re a great defensive team. It shows, how poised they were come late [in the game].”

Late in the season, too. As recently as March, the Wizards were giving up 101.4 points per game. In April, that got whacked down to 92.9. Take away the overtime Tuesday and the Bulls have averaged 92.0 in the two games while shooting 42.6 percent. And Chicago has been nearly choked off at times, going six or seven minutes without a field goal.

Stacking up defensive stops like that has a cumulative effect, coach Randy Wittman said.

“It’s going to be easier even when we show ‘em the tape,” Wittman said. “When you get six, seven stops in a row when you’re down 10, that’s how you can win the game.

“We keep track of it throughout the game – how many stops we get in a row. My coaches will tell me what it is, and if it’s one or two in the course of a game, that’s not very good. We got it going there at the end of the fourth quarter where I think it was six or seven. That energizes those guys too – they take pride in it.

And lo and behold, Washington is up 2-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series for the first time since 1979.

DeRozan makes like Pierce to help Raptors even series

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan scores 17 in the fourth quarter to help the Raptors win Game 2

TORONTO – Game 2 of the first-round series between the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets was a lot like Game 1, except that the role of Paul Pierce was played by DeMar DeRozan and the role of DeMar DeRozan was played by Paul Pierce. Since they play for different teams, the series is tied at one game apiece following the Raptors’ 95-90 victory.

Down two with less than 30 seconds left in the game, the Nets ran a really nice play to get Pierce wide open in the left corner. But his shot went in and out, and they never got another chance to tie or take the lead. Pierce shot 2-for-11 for the game, missing all six of his 3-point attempts.

“Sometimes they fall,” Pierce said afterward, “sometimes they don’t.”

But that end of the floor wasn’t the problem for the Nets. They were up two to start the fourth quarter and scored 29 points in the final 12 minutes. The problem was that the Raptors scored 36, shooting 12-for-16 from the field and scoring on 18 of their 23 possessions. After playing seven quarters of good defense, the Nets couldn’t get the stops they needed to take a 2-0 stranglehold on the series.

“We can’t have 4th quarters like that,” Kevin Garnett said. “Thirty-six points. That’s too many points for anybody. Preschool, Little League, YMCA, Raptors.”

But this is who the Raptors are. They were the league’s best fourth-quarter team in the regular season.

“Early in the year, we said we wanted to be the Freddy Krueger of the NBA,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Not give up. Not give in. I think our guys have done that. We won against a very veteran team like Brooklyn, and that is a very difficult thing to do.”

On Tuesday, they found a way to finally break through the Brooklyn defense, scoring eight of those 12 fourth-quarter buckets (and drawing a couple of fouls) in the paint.

But those wouldn’t have meant anything if DeRozan didn’t do his best Pierce imitation in the fourth, shooting 3-for-4 on mid-range jumpers and drawing fouls on three more. Apparently, he only needed one game to look like a postseason vet.

He also needed some time to himself after picking up his fifth foul with 7:13 left in the game. In the next timeout, DeRozan sat alone at the end of the bench, away from his team’s huddle.

He gathered himself, reentered the game with 3:48 left, and couldn’t be stopped. He was more patient than he was in Game 1, waiting for the one-on-one matchups that he liked. And when the Nets did throw a second defender at him, it just opened the lane for Kyle Lowry to get a key basket down the stretch.

It lacked the herky-jerkiness, but it was as good of a Pierce imitation as you’ll see. DeRozan shot just 5-for-16 through the first three quarters, but came up big with the game on the line.

“For him to come through,” Casey said, “after a tough first game, everyone doubting him and that type of thing, I was really happy with that.”

The Nets got the one victory they needed out of the first two games, but they have issues to address. There were some defensive breakdowns mixed in with DeRozan’s tough baskets and they got absolutely killed on the glass, allowing Toronto to grab 19 offensive rebounds. It’s been an issue for them since they went to a small lineup and the Raptors know they can take advantage.

More important, DeRozan knows he can have big games in the playoffs. Maybe he’s the next Paul Pierce.

Time for Stephen Curry to be great

By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com


VIDEO:  Reggie Miller and Kevin Harlan preview Game 3

PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — Stephen Curry from behind the arc. Stephen Curry runner off the glass. Stephen Curry driving layup with a finger-roll finish. Stephen Curry three-point play.

It was the third quarter Monday night, and it was on.

If it was already obvious to most that the Warriors would need their All-Star point guard to be more playoff sensation than ever to eliminate the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs, it’s as if those 12 minutes inside Staples Center were when Curry accepted the fact as well. He couldn’t make a difference in a Game 2 that had long before gotten out of hand, eventually becoming a 138-98 victory for L.A. and a 1-1 series, but he could make a statement.

“It looked to me like Steph saying, ‘I’m going to get it going,’ ” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said Tuesday before practice.

It was 20 points of statement in the quarter as part of 24 for the night, eight baskets in 11 shots of declaration, the way Curry put the Warriors on his back in his electric 2013 playoffs against the Nuggets and Spurs that vaulted an emerging player into a new level of attention. And the Clippers know it was probably just a coming attraction of the mindset Curry will have when the best-of-seven first round resumes Thursday in Oakland.

“You have to be extra on guard when Steph is in the building, period,” Rivers said. “Every night. What he did was he tried to make an adjustment to what we were doing. He was going before the picks were set. He was basically turning the game into an iso game, and he hurt us with it. That’s an area we have to improve on because we have to be ready for that. Steph is a great player, and he’s going to try to be great.”

With the third quarter of Game 2 as the running start.

“No doubt,” Rivers said. “I don’t like anybody making any shot, especially in a blowout. I got on our guys late because they allow a guy to make a three. To me, you don’t ever let anybody out of the box. If you got ‘em in something, keep ‘em in it. Don’t let them get comfortable. It’s different than the way they’ve played though. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. We’ll have to find that out.”

Welcome to Curry’s new world, the post-2013 one where he can’t afford to have bad showings for the Warriors to have a chance to win the series, especially with Andrew Bogut sidelined by a fractured rib and no update of when he could be ready to play. Avoiding bad showings is understating it, actually. Curry needs to be great, a flashback to the Denver-San Antonio days a year ago, as unguardable as any time in his career.

The third quarter Monday was a glimpse. Now the Warriors need the full version, for Curry to surf the wave of noise at Oracle Arena for Games 3 and 4 and take over. They need that for a lot of quarters.

“He’s going to have to be aggressive,” Golden State coach Mark Jackson said. “I like that he got a rhythm and he was in attack mode. It’s tough because you’re trying to make the right plays and trust your teammates. They’re trapping him. They’re aggressive with him. But Steph is going to be fine. I really like the way he competed. He did what leaders do. He could very easily have folded his tent and looked forward to Game 3. But he battled and he established a rhythm.”

That has been a rarity for any Warrior in the series. They scored 109 points Saturday in the opener to win by four, but while committing 23 turnovers, with Curry contributing seven to go with just 14 points on six-of-16 shooting. That sloppy play oozed into 26 more turnovers Monday, though only two by their point guard in 31 minutes in addition to making nine of 17 attempts.

George adjusts, Pacers rebound and pound Hawks

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers regain their composure and rout the Hawks in Game 2

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Forget the sticks and stones next time. Just go straight to the name-calling. And the bigger the name calling out the Indiana Pacers, the better.

The Eastern Conference No. 1 seed needed a wake-up call, apparently that Game 1 defeat at home to the Atlanta Hawks wasn’t quite enough. Neither was their mediocre, at best, finish to the regular season.

Getting called out by TNT’s Charles Barkley, however, seems to be just what the Pacers needed to find themselves before Tuesday night’s must-win Game 2 effort against the Hawks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

A subtle reminder from the Chuckster that they were embarrassing themselves for the world to see (he called them “wussies”) served as inspiration for a Pacers crew that has tried a little bit of everything to get their groove back. The Pacers reacted and rebounded the way you’d expect the No. 1 seed to after being humbled in Game 1. Their 101-85 drubbing of the Hawks won’t be inconsequential if they continue to handle their business in this series, which resumes Thursday with Game 3 in Atlanta.

Paul George won’t have to answer those awkward questions about his team’s fragile psyche if he keeps working the way he did in Game 2. He’s the one who demanded Frank Vogel allow him to take the challenge of guarding Hawks point guard Jeff Teague. It was his energy, on both ends, that fueled the Pacers’ 31-13 third quarter clubbing that broke the game open.

It’ll be his sustained play that will guide the Pacers this postseason, not Roy Hibbert‘s or Lance Stephenson‘s, no offense to either one of those men. Yes, the Pacers will need contributions from all over, yeoman’s work like Luis Scola provided Tuesday night. But your superstars carry you in the playoffs. Legends are made in the postseason.

George knows as much. He’s never been shy about discussing the lofty aspirations he has for himself and his team. He showed that he was more than capable during the Pacers’ run to the Eastern Conference finals last season. He showed it again Tuesday night, finishing with 27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals, infusing the Pacers’ attack with just the right mix of swagger and grit (his barking session with Teague and the entire Hawks bench early set just the right tone).

“That’s why he was in the MVP conversation early,” Vogel said.

George’s 3-point dagger to punctuate the Pacers’ run didn’t hurt either.


VIDEO: PG punctuates the Pacers’ third quarter run with this buzzer-beating pull-up 3-pointer

“We put our print on this game in the third quarter, which we’ve done in November, December and January basketball,” George said. “We got back to that. I thought we did a great job of really just locking in, coming out in the second half, on what we needed to do.”

His teammates chasing him down after that 3-pointer to end the third quarter was a cathartic celebration, one that validated the Pacers’ return to the frame of mind that George mentioned they had in November, December and January.

“We’re together,” he said. “We’re together. If that’s what it took for everyone to understand how close this team is, that’s what it was. We’ve got each other’s backs. That’s what if felt like … that’s exactly what it felt like.”

That said, George and the Pacers need to be extra careful as the series shifts from their home floor to Atlanta. They still have plenty of work to do repair the damage done to their brand since All-Star Weekend. They haven’t even crawled completely out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves in this series.

They still have to snatch home-court advantage back from the Hawks and make good on their season-long yapping about the importance of securing that No. 1 seed in the East.

It won’t be easy. The Hawks are well aware of the matchup advantages they own in this series. Teague and Paul Millsap weren’t nearly as devastating as they were in Game 1, much of Teague’s struggles were due to George’s locking in on him on defense, but they’ll no doubt be energized by their home crowd and the huge opportunity that awaits in Game 3.

But even if his teammates are not yet up to the task, George seemed energized. Maybe that fishing trip the other day did wonders for the All-Star swingman. Perhaps getting away from the chaos in that way was just what he needed, and in turn exactly what the struggling Pacers needed.

George is the only legitimate superstar on the Pacers’ roster, so he’ll have to carry the heaviest load the rest of the way regardless. As aware as any young star in the league of what needs to be done to become the sort of player he aspires to be, George knows better than anyone that this is a critical phase for the Pacers.

Had they gone down 2-0 to a feisty Hawks team, the “gone fishing” thing would have a completely different context. So that lack of urgency the Pacers exhibited in the first half, when the Hawks seemingly had control of the game, has to end now. There’s no room for that sort of lethargy from a team that claims to be focused on much bigger and better things.

The Pacers must finish this series and continue in these playoffs, by any means necessary, with George taking up whatever assignment needed to get his team back on track. That’s non-negotiable for a team that spent months building a bridge back to the Eastern Conference finals, a bridge that begins and ends on their home floor …

Provided, of course, George can lead them there.


VIDEO: Paul George and Luis Scola meet the media after the Pacers’ Game 2 win

Coaches get the day-after call reversals but would rather avoid them

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com



VIDEO: The foul that should have gone the other way

CHICAGO – Former NBA center Darryl Dawkins, one of the league’s most colorful characters known both for shattering backboards and high quotability, once said, “When everything is said and done, there’s nothing left to do or say.”

Hard to quibble with that, be it here or on Chocolate Thunder’s planet Lovetron. Yet the NBA’s recent policy of informing teams, and the public, the day after a game that a particular officiating decision was wrong and should have gone the other way, goes against that notion.

The final horn of a game used to mean everything was said and done. Now, with the league’s emphasis on transparency when reviewing referees’ calls, there can be much more, well, at least to say. The Houston Rockets had to cope with that Tuesday after learning that a foul called on Dwight Howard should have been a Portland foul sending Howard to the line with 10.8 seconds left in overtime. There wasn’t much satisfaction after losing and yet, in talking to the media, the Rockets had to be cautious they didn’t say anything that might get them fined.

That’s why Washington coach Randy Wittman prefers to have that stuff dealt with above his pay grade.

“All that does is get me even more riled up,” said Wittman, who did play college ball for Bobby Knight, after all. “I let our front office deal with that. it doesn’t do me any good to have somebody tell me they blew a call. Those guys are human like we are. We make mistakes; they do. But I don’t like it.”

Transparency is an important value for the NBA these days, referred to frequently by new commissioner Adam Silver. For instance, the league is posting online for the first time the ballots of the writers and broadcasters for the 2013-14 annual awards as each honor is announced.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau took a broader view when discussing the day-after policy. Of course, as he spoke, tipoff of Game 2 between Chicago and Washington was nearly two hours away. He wasn’t stalking the sideline in full-game growl yet.

“The league I think has done a good job with that,” he said. “The more you’re around, the more you understand: Look, there’s a lot of these calls that are 50-50 calls. They could go either way.”

Thibodeau added of the refs: “Hey look, everyone in their job, you want to get ‘em all right. It’s not going to happen. They get a lot of them right. They’re really good. You can go back and replay a play many times, and you still can’t tell what’s right. Most of the time, they’re on. These guys are great pros. They’re not here by accident.”

Pop led Spurs out of Finals doldrums

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Gregg Popovich accepts his third Coach of the Year award

SAN ANTONIO – Last summer was unlike any of the previous 17 in Gregg Popovich‘s career as coach of the San Antonio Spurs. The long days passed, but the doldrums from the Spurs’ heartbreaking Finals defeat to Miami bogged down like a stagnant lake in the Texas heat.

The 2013 championship was right there, 28 seconds from glory for a proud San Antonio franchise, the model of the NBA if not professional sports as a whole. But everybody knows what happened next. Popovich lived with it every day thereafter until he finally could not any longer, when the players returned to begin, somehow, a brand new season.

“The way we lost in the Finals wasn’t an ordinary loss; it was pretty devastating,” Popovich said Tuesday afternoon at the Spurs’ practice facility as he received the Red Auerbach Coach of the Year trophy. “And we decided that we would just face that right off the bat at the beginning of the season and get it out of the way; don’t blame it on the basketball gods or bad fortune or anything like that. The Miami Heat beat us and won the championship and that’s that, and you move on. In all of our lives there are many things more important than winning and losing basketball games and that’s the perspective we had to take. And our team showed great maturity and resilience in being able to do that, so I’m very proud of them for that.”

Their resiliency also came during a period of transition on the bench. Popovich’s longtime aids, Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer, became head coaches.

But nothing seems to phase this group. With Manu Ginobili turning 36 over the summer and Tim Duncan celebrating his 38th birthday on Friday, neither had to return, or return in better shape than they finished the previous season. When this season could finally have been the one that signaled the inevitable descent it seems has been predicted for the past half-dozen seasons, the Spurs won 62 games, the second-most of Popovich’s 18-year career and earned home-court advantage throughout the playoffs with the league’s top record.

With the Spurs, everything is a collective effort. They win together, lose together and plan how to win again together.

“We’re fortunate,” Popovich said. “These guys don’t care about stats, they only care about winning basketball games. You might get a championship, you might not, but you give it your best effort. But these guys could all have better stats. I play them for 29 or 30 minutes a game in their careers and their stats suffer because of it, but that sacrifice helps our entire team. and this year, whatever adversity we had — every team has adversity — but our bench really helped us through that. We would not have had the same success without what our bench did. I think that and the leadership that our older players showed helped us get through the hard times.”

In accepting his third Coach of the Year trophy, joining only Pat Riley and Don Nelson as three-time winners, Popovich spoke sincerely. He praised owner Peter Holt for granting he and general manager R.C. Buford, who sat next to his friend of more than two decades at the table during the news conference, the freedom to do their jobs, and said he was humbled to be singled out among the many worthy candidates this season that included first-year coaches Jeff Hornacek at Phoenix and Steve Clifford at Charlotte, plus Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Portland’s Terry Stotts and others.

None faced quite the unpredictable psychological hurdle that Popovich did with his heartbroken team.

“I think his steadfast attention to detail and facing the realities of last season’s end and immediately getting it behind us was really important,” Spurs general manager Buford said. “And his approach with his staff was different because it was a different staff, but the energy and the leadership we’ve seen has been consistent throughout his time as a coach.”

But of course it wouldn’t be a Popovich press conference without a measure of snark, and Pop didn’t disappoint.

When asked about losing his two longtime assistants, he interrupted the questioner:  “Thank God.”

Asked where he displays his Coach of the Year trophies, Popovich said: “They’re on the hood of my car. … I’ve got three of those right on the hood.”

As a younger man, Popovich dreamed of a playing career in the NBA before turning to coaching, getting his start as an assistant at the Air Force Academy. Asked if he knew he wanted to coach in the NBA once he didn’t make it as a player, Pop responded: “Larry Brown screwed me as a player. He had the unmitigated gall to pick David Thompson over me back when he was the Nuggets coach.”

Brown, of course, is one of Popovich’s mentors and who helped him get to the NBA, a place Popovich said was never truly a goal. He said he would have been happy to live out his days where he spent his early coaching days at Division III Pomona-Pitzer College in California.

“For me, the NBA was watching on TV back when they had the long nets and watching the ball go through the long nets; I really enjoyed that,” Popovich said. “I was fat, dumb and happy as a Division III coach. I could do it the rest of my life, it was fantastic, I loved it. But all of us take a different road here and there. The NBA was never a dream or thought of, ‘I’m going to go to the NBA and be a coach and do this.’ I had no clue.

“We run a lot of the same drills to be honest with you, pivoting drills and sitting on chairs, silly things like that, but all fundamental basketball stuff. After that, let the players play. They know how to get it done.”

So, too, does Pop.

Wizards’ Wall, Beal grow up on the fly

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau looks ahead to Game 2

CHICAGO – John Wall and Bradley Beal have the talent necessary to compete with, maybe even defeat, the Chicago Bulls in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference series. They have the health, they have the stamina, they have the enthusiasm.

What the Washington Wizards’ young starting backcourt doesn’t have is playoff experience. And getting it on the fly against a salty Bulls team seemed to many like it might be asking too much. By the time the Wiz guards fully get it, folks figured, five, six or seven games – and four defeats – might have slipped away.

But that didn’t happen in the first postseason games of Wall’s and Beal’s career, their Game 1 victory Sunday at United Center. So there’s way less reason to think it would show up in Game 2 Tuesday or at any point as the series grinds on.

“A 20-year vet is going to have jitters, the first game of the playoffs,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said at the Wizards’ shootaround. “If you don’t, you’re not into the game. I thought our guys were in tune and ready to go. I don’t anticipate anything different [the rest of the way].”

If the “rest of the way” for the newbie Wizards were to take them all the way to The Finals, it would be like winning the Tour de France on training wheels. That they could even walk around the Bulls’ city for 48 hours wearing the yellow jersey was a triumph of its own.

“We’ve got great veteran guys and our young guys are mature for their age,” Wall, the 23-year-old point guard, said midday Tuesday. “Even though it was our first playoff game, we didn’t get rattled, we didn’t try to do it on our own. We stuck with the game concept and making the right plays. And even though me and Brad’s shots weren’t falling, we were staying aggressive and doing things at the defensive end to help us win.”

Wall and Beal did pester Chicago’s backcourt players, particularly reserve point guard D.J. Augustin, who missed 12 of his 15 shots and had three turnovers. The Wizards’ pair missed shots of their own – they were a combined 7-of-25 – but Wittman didn’t sweat their shot selection and both stayed active enough to have positive impacts.

How positive? They both were plus-11, tops in that category on either side. They combined for 13 assists, eight rebounds and 15-of-17 foul shooting, totaling 29 points.

It’s worth noting too that Chicago’s defense, as directed by coach Tom Thibodeau, paid enough attention to the potent guards that it opened up opportunities for big men Nene (24 points) and Marcin Gortat (15).

Beal, who won’t turn 21 for another two months, said he had heard about how different the playoffs are from the regular season, all that stuff about intensity and being scouted inside and out and never taking plays off. It all came true, he said, but it didn’t steamroll him or his buddy.

“You’re always going ot have nerves, of course, but at the same time, you’re just out there with four other guys on the floor playing against the opponent. You can’t focus on the crowd – you notice that they’re there – but at the same time, while you’re playing, it’s like you’re just playing in open gym. It’s like no one’s around.

“Hopefully we can come out and play more desperate. Like we’re down 0-1.”

Bad call admission by the league doesn’t make Rockets feel better

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

HOUSTON — It was a day late when the Rockets got their apology of sorts with the NBA’s admission that officials were incorrect in calling a foul on Dwight Howard with 10.8 seconds left in overtime of Game 1. In fact, the foul should have been called on the Blazers’ Joel Freeland and Howard sent to the line for two free throws.

Of course, that an $5 will get the Rockets a venti coffee at Starbucks.

“I guess we need to go play the 10 seconds back,” Howard said with a grin following Tuesday’s practice. “We can’t do nothing about it now. It doesn’t matter. We just got to win Game 2.”

Teammate Chandler Parsons nodded his head.

“It’s obvious,” he said. “But it doesn’t do anything for us now that they’ve said that. At least they’ve owned up to it. It still doesn’t change the fact that we lost the game or are down 0-1.

“I don’t care either way. It almost makes me more mad they announced it knowing that it was wrong. One call, one play, it doesn’t determine the outcome of the game. We got to just play better and not let it get to that point.”

For Heat to succeed, Miami needs big performances from Little 12

By Lang Whitaker, NBA.com


VIDEO: Erik Spoelstra speaks with the media after Heat practice (April 22)

MIAMI — You probably know all about the Big Three, Miami’s terrific trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Those three form the Heat’s power base. But for the Heat to three-peat as champs, they also need big performances from what Shane Battier says the players refer to as The Little 12.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has referred to his bench as a bullpen for a few years now, borrowing some baseball terminology. On Sunday, Spoelstra revived this trope when referring to James Jones, who made a somewhat surprising appearance off the bench in Game 1 against Charlotte and came up huge. After the Heat’s practice Tuesday, Spoelstra stressed that the bullpen parallel was simply a way to get players to understand what they were working toward.

“This year is different than years before,” Spoelstra said. “Look, it’s not an -ism or anything like that. It’s something they can wrap their minds around. It’s something that’s been done before. Because of the way the season went on and the makeup of this group, we have a lot of guys that can contribute, and we’ll need those contributions, but it might be different game to game, series to series, quarter to quarter, and it’s a little bit different than the way this team was before. And the quicker we’re able to wrap our minds around it and adapt to that, I think the more we can play to our strengths. Hopefully.”

Spoelstra has shown that he’s not afraid to make bold moves with Miami’s bench rotation. Last season, Battier didn’t play in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, but in Game 7 he scored 18 points in 28 minutes. During those same Finals, Mike Miller went from the bench into the starting lineup, getting the nod in the final four games against San Antonio.

While Miller is the only one of Miami’s top 11 rotation players departed from last season’s team, this season Spoelstra has juggled minutes up and down the bench. In February, Udonis Haslem and Rashard Lewis combined to play 17 minutes for the month. Against Charlotte on Sunday, Haslem started, and he and Lewis combined to play 21 minutes.

Spoelstra said that having this loose collective of versatile players is something the Heat have been trying to compile for a few seasons, noting they’ve played 14 deep three straight years: “Our first year, we did not have enough depth. That wasn’t the reason why [we lost in the 2011 Finals] — Dallas beat us, fair and square. But we had injuries, and we got to that point and we were very flat. That was the first step of doing it, but it’s constant sacrifice. Constant acknowledgement of that sacrifice. It’s not easy. Everybody says, in life, in business, and in pro sports, ‘Yeah, I’ll sacrifice.’ But it’s always easy to sacrifice when you’re not the one sacrificing. As long as it’s somebody else sacrificing, everybody buys into the sacrifice.”

“Look, every player wants to play,” Battier said. “Once you get to this league, we’re all here for a reason. But you have to have to understand what we’re trying to accomplish. And although you don’t agree with it, for the betterment of the team, you suck it up, you cheer your guys on, and you produce when your number is called.”

According to Haslem, having other teammates go through similar journeys makes it more relatable for the rest of The Little 12.

“You never really know what a guy in that situation is going through until you go through it,” said Haslem. “But there’s other guys who are going through it with you. So what we did is we kind of formed a pact, the guys who weren’t playing. We made sure we kept each other encouraged, we kept each other ready, we played pick-up games with each other, three-on-three, four-on-four, whatever we could do. We got shots up together, we did conditioning together. You know, it’s a lot easier when you got guys that are in the same position going through it with you.”

On Sunday, with Miami up 35-34 with 4:19 to play in the second quarter, Spoelstra brought in Jones, earlier than he usually looks for him.

“I was a little surprised,” Jones said after the game. “Not surprised that he called my name. I was surprised he went to me early. But not so surprised that I wasn’t prepared. We’ve said all along, we have 15 guys who can play. Most nights we only play nine. Which nine play? We don’t know. But we don’t need to know. We just need to know that whichever nine go out there will commit and perform.”

Jones had announced he was “definitely thinking” about retiring … back in 2012. He did not, though this season he logged just a combined 70 minutes from November through January, and didn’t play a single second in February. He also didn’t play in any of Miami’s four regular season wins against the Bobcats. And yet Jones posted a plus-9 player rating in just over 4 minutes of action in the first half. By the time he’d totaled 12 minutes of court time, it was up to a plus-17. He finished with 14 minutes of action and a plus-18 rating, to go along with a dozen points.

“We learned this from early on, that he is a unique guy,” Spoelstra said of Jones following Game 1. “He is one of those unique players that you can pull out of your bullpen and not many guys have that type of mentality — patience to understand the big picture, willing to sacrifice, and don’t have an ego in that regard, yet having incredible confidence when they do play. That’s a tough balance to achieve and he understands the big picture. These are small opportunities but he makes the most of it.”

“We said it early in the year,” noted Wade. “If we want to win a championship this year, we’re going to have to do it a little different. Last year, Rashard Lewis didn’t play as much, or James Jones didn’t play as much. This year those guys are going to have to be a huge part of it.”

So if Spoelstra signals down the sideline during the rest of the postseason, he may well be calling for a lefty reliever or a groundball specialist from his tried and tested ‘pen, although Battier said the “bullpen” analogy is mostly reserved for Jones, who had an uncle who was a major league baseball player.

“He’s the Joe Nathan, the Rivera if you will,” Battier said. “When we can’t make a shot, he’s the guy who you signal for the righty, and bring him in. It’s a metaphor for the rest of us. We call it The Little 12. Bullpen, Little 12, call it what you will.”

Just so long as you call them.

Blazers, Stotts plan to stick to Hack-a-Howard strategy

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Dwight Howard talks after the Rockets’ practice on Monday

HOUSTON — This being the NBA playoffs, there were pre-game fireworks, flames roaring up almost to the ceiling and canned music cranked to absurd levels.

But by far the loudest sounds to come out of the Rockets’ 122-120 overtime loss to the Blazers in Game 1 were: Clank! Clank! Clank! Clank!

Yup, Dwight Howard shooting free throws.

His team down by nine points with 4 1/2 minutes left in regulation time, Blazers coach Terry Stotts needed a dramatic shift and there are few things fraught with more raw thrills than the sight of the eight-time All-Star at the foul line in the fourth quarter.

So one of the key subplots to watch as the series continues will be Stotts’ willingness to intentionally hack Howard and he says he won’t be shy.

“If I think it’s in our best interest to do it, we will,” he said. “I had no qualms about using it going into the game, and I feel the same way now.”

Stotts instructed his team to intentionally foul Howard on three consecutive possessions. Howard made the first two free throws to the howling delight of the Toyota Center throng. But then he missed four in a row as Portland went on a 7-0 run that turned around the game and could ultimately turn the series.

Howard was a 54.7 percent foul shooter during the regular season and made 26 of 40 (65 percent) in four games against the Blazers. He managed just 9 of 17 in Game 1.

“That changed (the game) somewhat,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said of the strategy. “We missed some free throws. They came just pushing it down and we didn’t defend…then we were kind of back on our heels. They pushed it up on us.”

More important, the Blazers pushed the Rockets over the edge.

Ten years into his career, free-throw woes remain an old, familiar tale with Howard.

The Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, just named Coach of the Year for the third time, has often said he hates the “Hack-a-________” tactic and would be in favor of eliminating it with a rule change. But even Popovich readily employs it to help his team.

Stotts is not so dismissive and refuses to buy into the notion that fouling Howard (or any other inept foul shooter) somehow taints the game.

“I was thinking about this because I was kinda anticipating the question,” Stotts said. “There were over 1200 NBA games played this season. How many times was it used in over 1200 games? Ten or 20 times in over 1200 games, 48-minute games?

“So to change the rule for something that isn’t used that very much? I think it adds excitement to the game, to be honest. When he made his first two, the crowd erupted. It adds interest. It adds interest whether we’re going to foul him or not. It adds interest whether he’s going to make them or not.”

Howard at the foul line in the fourth quarter is like seeing a member of the Wallenda family on a tightrope, with so much hanging in the balance.

From Wilt Chamberlain to Shaquille O’Neal to Howard to any player who has ever stood there with his knees knocking, arm wobbling and tossing up bricks with a game on the line, it has always been a silly debate.

How is hacking Howard any different than intentionally walking Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera? And in the case of baseball, Cabrera doesn’t even get a chance to swing the bat. All Howard has to do is learn to make his free throws and everybody will leave him alone.

The fact is there are prime time players and those who say they are.

Watch Howard at the end of a Rockets’ practice. He’ll stand there and calmly stroke them in eight, nine, 10 in a row without a flinch.

Now watch him the next time the Blazers, or anybody else, puts him on the spot.

“I think it adds a little drama,” said Stotts with a grin.

The loudest noise in the room: Clank!

Sometimes you can hear a win drop.


VIDEO: Shaquille O’Neal and the Inside the NBA guys discuss the ‘Hack-a-Howard’ strategy