Guess Who’s back?

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Now that we have that pesky NCAA Tournament out of the way (congrats Duke and bravo Butler) can we please get down to real basketball business at hand?

The NBA schedule makers gave the college kids (and Tiger Woods, Major League Baseball and Monday night, but we’ve got the big boys back tonight.

There are eight games on the schedule and playoff positioning on the line in six of the eight games, starting in Charlotte where the Hawks and Bobcats will square off at 7 p.m. ET and finishing up in Sacramento, where the Spurs and Kings will lock horns in the final Fan Night game of the season at 10 p.m. ET on NBA TV.

Have you seen the standings lately? The Hawks and Celtics are locked in a down to the wire battle for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. Out West, the Mavericks, Nuggets, Jazz and Suns all have 50-27 records behind the first place Lakers.

You want drama in the last week of the NBA season, you’re going to get it every night.

Some news, notes, quotes and opinions from around the league and the world of basketball (with a video nod to the latest batch of Hall of Famers):

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PIPPEN BEAT THE ODDS TO MAKE THE HALL

Sam Smith of Bulls.com: “Scottie Pippen shouldn’t be in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Oh, he deserves it, and it became official Monday in Indianapolis when the Hall of Fame announced that Pippen would be part of the Class of 2010 to be inducted in Springfield, Mass., in August. But there surely is no one who really was less likely to reach the zenith of basketball immortality than Scottie Pippen. He wasn’t even a scholarship player in college. And that wasn’t even at a big school, just tiny NAIA University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Ark. Pippen was just another gangly kid from rural Arkansas, the last in a family of 12 kids living in two rooms in Hamburg, Ark. Scottie played basketball and football in high school, just one of the guys, about six foot and 150 pounds, nothing special, really, just a kid who liked to hang around the players. College wasn’t expected in Hamburg, so Scottie worked as a welder and his high school coach, as a favor, asked the coach at Central Arkansas if Scottie could have a role. Not a scholarship, not even a position on the team. Manager. You know, handing out the towels, cleaning up in the locker room for guys who had no chance of playing at any big time program. Yes, Scottie was there to pick up for them. Perhaps a symbol for his future, though. I’ve asked him about it many times and he said he enjoyed it, liked being around the guys and the games, never thought much about it as demeaning or beneath him. Scottie’s dad, Preston, worked in a local paper mill but was disabled by a stroke when Scottie was 14. The bigger kids all helped out around the house, Scottie’s sisters much older and out by now so he could have a bed. Scottie was the baby, and a bit spoiled, he’d concede. Still, it was just part of life to work and get along and have some fun.”

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COACH K SAYS NYET TO NETS!

J.P. Pelzman of the Record: “Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is the No. 1 head coach option for incoming Nets’ billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov, as reported by the The Record in Monday’s editions. But he told ESPN.com Monday morning that he has no interest in the position. “I haven’t been contacted,” Krzyzewski said as he rode the team bus to Duke’s shootaround in preparation for the NCAA title game against Butler at Lucas Oil Stadium. “I wouldn’t have any interest in the job. You would be flattered if someone would offer you a job, but I would not be interested.” On Sunday, Krzyzewski was asked how tempted he was by the Lakers’ offer to be their head coach in 2004. “I was more than tempted,” he said. “I seriously considered it. One, because it was the Lakers. [General manager] Mitch [Kupchak] is great. It would have been an opportunity to work with Kobe [Bryant]. He and I are very close. “I guess because I did not accept it,” he added, “it really speaks to how much I love Duke and college basketball, but especially Duke. When we were talking a little bit earlier, a few minutes ago, about commitment, Duke has been committed to me when I wasn’t with [Bob] Knight and [Adolph] Rupp and those guys [in coaching accomplishments]. “They were committed to me when we were 38-47. … That will never leave my heart, that type of commitment. So I’ll be at Duke even after I stop coaching. “I haven’t changed in that regard,” Krzyzewski told espn.com Monday adding of the Lakers’ opportunity in 2004, “The Lakers’ thing, with their franchise and my history with Kobe, if you were going to do it, I don’t know how you can jump for anything better than that.”

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HUGE WEEK FOR THE RAPTORS

Michael Grange of the Globe and Mail: “In an alternate universe, the Toronto Raptors  roll in to Cleveland Tuesday on a six-game winning streak, having played some of their best basketball of the season at precisely the right time, and surging for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. It’s not entirely far-fetched. The Raptors arguably should have won every one of their past six starts, and in fact had to go out of their way to lose three of them. Head coach Jay Triano has been in the job just over one full season, but he sounded like a grizzled old NBA veteran as he reflected on his club’s last-second loss to the Golden State Warriors at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday. “We shot 47 per cent against Denver, 49 per cent against Miami, 50 per cent against Charlotte, 61 against the Clippers and 56 against Philadelphia,” he said, the numbers still fresh in his head. “And then we play Golden State, the 30th team in the NBA in opponents’ field goal percentage, and we shoot 39 per cent? How does that happen? Actually, that’s just part of the story. Chris Bosh, who has been resurgent of late, shot 11 of 19 himself – meaning the rest of the team shot just 34 per cent – but of course it was Bosh who missed the potential game-tying layup as the clock ran out. But being a head coach in the NBA requires a broad optimist’s streak. So rather than head into Tuesday’s game – which starts the most pivotal week of the season – lamenting the one that slipped away, Triano is seeing the shot chart as half-full. “I can’t complain about anything really,” he said before boarding the team’s flight for Cleveland. “We out-rebounded them; we only had 10 turnovers and gave up 12 fast break points. We won every category except shooting the ball.” … “We have to approach every game the same,” he said. “We have to try and sweep the rest of the way.”

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THUNDER-JAZZ, A PLAYOFF PREVIEW?

Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman: “While players and coaches downplay the significance of the Thunder’s 3-0 record against the Jazz going into tonight’s series finale at Utah, there is mounting evidence that Oklahoma City’s success against Utah could make the Jazz a favorable foe in the postseason. The Western Conference playoff picture remains as murky as ever with Dallas, Denver, Utah and Phoenix all deadlocked at 50-27. And the currently sixth-seeded Thunder, shocking as it might seem, still has a chance to climb as high as the No. 2 seed or fall to the eighth spot. Listen to the Thunder, though, and it seems as if no one wants to risk adding bulletin-board material to the Jazz’s locker room by overstating this year’s success against Utah. “We’ve just been blessed and fortunate to win three games against them,” said forward Jeff Green. “Once the playoffs start, those games won’t matter. No matter how many times we beat them in the regular season, if we see them in the playoffs it’s going to be a totally different story.” Or will it? Golden State’s first-round win over Dallas in the first round of the 2007 playoffs serves as the most recent example of how regular season success can carry over. The Warriors, despite being the No. 8 seed, upset No. 1-seeded Dallas in six games after sweeping the Mavs 3-0 in the regular-season series. And one look at the Thunder’s performance against the Jazz indicates that none of this year’s wins were a fluke. “We match up with them well,” said Kevin Durant. “They have a big point guard. We have a big point guard. Jeff and Carlos Boozer go at it a lot. And we have a shooting center in Nenad just like they do in Okur. Down the line, it’s even. Andrei Kirilenko is long an athletic. I’m long and athletic, too. So it’s an even matchup all the way down.”

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JOE A NO-GO FOR THE KNICKS?

PeterVescey of the New York Post: “Checking out of Atlanta — a top four team in the East that was a conference also ran until Johnson became its franchise player — to join a grubby outfit like the Knicks at age 29 (July 29) is backward thinking. Been there, done that, and the birth was hardly beautiful; for two seasons (26 and 30 wins) he second guessed his judgment to force a sign-and-trade, and questioned his aversion to hold down Steve Nash  and Amare’ Stoudemire on the Suns stage. Conversely, these last three seasons (37, 47, 49 wins and counting), as the supporting actors kept being upgraded and others improved, Johnson prospered proportionately in his role as leader of the playoff pack. Other than those easily led astray investigative types, who honestly believes Johnson would leave a team he hoisted toward the top of the standings and whose stands he helped replenish? Why give up a situation that allows him to become All-Star relevant and handle and shoot the ball whenever he wants, as often as he pleases? So, one way or the other, the Knicks have no chance to hire Johnson, either as their deadliest gunslinger or as deputy dog to LeBron James. Especially, the latter! Ain’t no way Johnson is going to modify his style of game and downscale his governance to be LeBron’s understudy.”

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SPURS ARE SUDDENLY THIN AT THE POINT

Jeff McDonald of the Express-News: “For the duration of his acclaimed career, Tim Duncan has harbored a secret. It is a desire so outlandish that, until now, he dared not verbalize it. Like an actor who yearns to be a rock star, the greatest power forward in NBA history has always dreamed of making his living another way. “I’ve been wanting to play point guard for about 12 years now,” Duncan said. “I might finally get my chance.” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich isn’t quite that desperate. Not yet, anyway. A couple more ill-timed injuries though, and Popovich might have no choice but to unleash Duncan’s inner Magic Johnson. All-NBA point guard Tony Parker has been on the injured list since fracturing his right hand on March 6. Second-year combo guard George Hill thrived as Parker’s replacement for 16 games before injuring his right ankle in Sunday’s otherwise celebratory win over the Lakers. An MRI taken Monday in San Antonio revealed Hill’s injury to be a strained right peroneal tendon, casting the rest of his regular season in doubt. Though the team has not announced a timetable for Hill’s return, he has been ruled out of games tonight at Sacramento and Wednesday at Phoenix. That leaves the Spurs devoid of a true point guard, now and for the immediate future. It is a disheartening turn of events for a team that has won 15 of its past 20 games and appeared to be jelling just in time for the playoffs. Popovich says he is “real worried about everything coming up without Georgie.” Manu Ginobili refused to even consider the possibility.”

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CAVS EARN PERK FOR BEST RECORD, STARTERS REST

Brian Windhorst of the Plain Dealer: “The relative efficiency with which the Cavaliers clinched the top record in the NBA has given them plenty of options going into the last five games of the regular season. Over the past four years, once the Cavs have locked into a playoff spot, coach Mike Brown has sat starters to provide rest. But never have things been settled with so much time left. That fact, plus another huge variable, Shaquille O’Neal, has the team pondering just how to use the time their strong play has afforded them. “I’m not sure there is a right way to do it,” Brown said. “It’s a luxury to be able to rest players so we’re going to want to do that.” LeBron James has made it clear he favors taking some time off. He’s a little banged up and has been dealing with a sore left elbow, among other minor maladies, the past few games. James will probably get at least two of the remaining five games off. Which ones, however, are part of the process the team is considering now. “You’d love to get some rest before the playoffs start,” James said. “I think there’s a few guys who want to keep playing but there’s a few guys who want a little rest and I’m one of them. Once we’ve clinched, the games take on a different meaning.” Of course fans who have tickets to the last several games are going to be interested in which games James might skip. But that may depend on O’Neal. Though the Cavs are not publicly talking about it, the belief within the locker room is that team doctors could clear O’Neal to play within a week. He’s five weeks off his thumb surgery now, which is ahead of the 6-8 week window the team placed on the injury. But recent tests have indicated O’Neal’s thumb has healed quickly and well. That would leave the option of O’Neal getting a game or two in before the playoffs start in two weeks. It might help the Cavs get some of the rust out in a meaningless regular-season game with O’Neal, instead of in a playoff game. If that comes to fruition, it is possible James and some other regulars would take a look at skipping some of the games this week — tonight vs. Toronto, Thursday at Chicago or Friday vs. Indiana — and then coming back together with O’Neal next week. “It is up to Shaq, but if I was him I’d try to play,” James said. “But it doesn’t matter. If we can’t get an opportunity, I just wait until I play with him in the playoffs.”

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TIME RUNNING OUT FOR FERNANDEZ

Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune: “Enjoy Rudy Fernandez while you can, Trail Blazer fans, through the rest of the season. Because the Spanish sensation won’t be in a Portland uniform next season. Fernandez will do his best to help the Blazers achieve success in the playoffs. Then he’ll be gone – perhaps to play professionally in Europe next season, perhaps to another NBA team via an offseason trade. I’ve thought all season that Fernandez – a household name in his home country with the talent to be the starter on half of the teams in the NBA – wouldn’t be satisfied much longer as a backup. Now I’m convinced. The 6-5 shooting guard is mired in a bonafide slump, lonely and looking forward to a return to his native country in the offseason. “It’s a tough situation for me,” Fernandez confided Monday after the Blazers’ practice session. “I miss my family and my friends. Yesterday was a hard day. My (25th) birthday, and I was by myself.” A year ago, Fernandez had countryman Sergio Rodriguez as a teammate. And Rudy’s family visited a couple of times, as did his girlfriend and a coterie of friends. “It’s been a tough year for Rudy,” coach Nate McMillan said. “He is without Sergio (now with New York), and his mother was here a little more often (last season). I’m sure that’s tough.” Since coming to Portland before last season, Fernandez has had to learn a new language and culture. “I can’t even imagine going to a different country to play basketball,” McMillan said. “Honestly, I would never have done that. I don’t think I could have dealt with being away from my family that long, or being in a foreign country by myself.”

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BYNUM’S RETURN REMAINS A MYSTERY FOR LAKERS

Elliott Teaford of the Los Angeles Daily News: “Lakers center Andrew Bynum underwent an MRI exam on his injured left Achilles tendon Monday, and the results were unchanged. He continues to suffer from a strain and there is no timetable for his return to the active roster, a team spokesman said in an e-mail. Bynum will continue to receive therapy from the team’s athletic training staff. He was injured while running back on defense in the third quarter of the Lakers’ victory March 19 over the Minnesota Timberwolves. He sat out for the eighth consecutive game Sunday, when the Lakers lost to the San Antonio Spurs 100-81. The Lakers are 4-4 without the 7-foot Bynum in their lineup.”

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BUCKS TRYING TO REGROUP WITHOUT BOGUT

Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel: “Nobody was downplaying Andrew Bogut’s season-ending injury after the Milwaukee Bucks’ practice session Monday. His teammates knew full well they had absorbed a major body blow when the 7-foot center crashed to the floor Saturday night against Phoenix, suffering a broken right hand, dislocated right elbow and sprained right wrist in one horrific tumble. But the Bucks players also sounded determined to respond as a group to Bogut’s absence and to continue the streak of strong play that has them poised to clinch an Eastern Conference playoff berth. The Bucks (42-34) have reduced their magic number to two and can clinch their first post-season berth since 2006 if they defeat the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night at the United Center. “I’m really disappointed for Andrew,” Bucks forward Jerry Stackhouse said. “I think he’s worked really hard to put this team in position to be in the playoffs. There’s no way we’d be anywhere close to it without him. “It’s disappointing he doesn’t get an opportunity to taste it a little bit. He’s labored a few years to try to get the team to this point. Obviously the team will try to pick up where we can. It’s going to be difficult. “But we’ve got a lot of guys with a lot of pride. No one guy is going to be able to do it, what ‘Bogues’ does for us defensively and being able to set the tone for us offensively. But I think as a committee we’ll be able to get it done.” Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles confirmed veteran Kurt Thomas would replace Bogut as the starting center and also said 6-foot-10 Ersan Ilyasova could be used at the 5 spot in certain situations, when the Bucks are able to use a smaller lineup. “You’d like a little more time to tinker with things, and we don’t have that,” Skiles said. “Each guy has to do a little bit more. “Andrew makes a lot of hustle plays for us, rebounding the ball and taking charges and things like that. Those are things anybody can do. All the guys know the importance of Andrew to our team. But at the same time, they know they have to go on right now.”

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