Archive for 2013

Scoring Title Long Shot For Love


VIDEO: GameTime examines the controversial ending against Dallas

When it was over, after Shawn Marion had raked Kevin Love‘s right arm to thwart what might have been the game-tying jumper while somehow avoiding the whistle that could have delivered those points from the line, all Love and the rest inside Target Center could do was stare. And smile, in the bewildered Love’s case, or bark the way Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman and so many fans did at the referees exiting the court as swiftly as the Dallas Mavericks. (Even the NBA, early on Tuesday, had to admit that their guys had messed that one up.)

It was a painful end to an inferior performance by Minnesota (a 21-point deficit prior to the scramble back, just five points from Wolves reserves, vaporish defense enabling Marion’s 32 points).

It also was Exhibit A in the case against Love ever leading the NBA in scoring.

Kevin Love

Kevin Love (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

That possibility came up over the weekend as Love kept plugging against Washington and Milwaukee on a streak of scoring at least 25 points in 11 consecutive games, the NBA’s longest this season (and longest in Wolves franchise history). With 33 against the Bucks Saturday and 36 against the Mavericks Monday (never mind the phantom two and however many more in an overtime that never happened), Love (26.5 ppg) has pushed to No. 2 behind Kevin Durant (28.5). New York’s Carmelo Anthony (26.3) is third, followed by LeBron James (25.5) and Paul George (23.9).

Love wrapped up December with monthly numbers of 30.0 ppg, 13.7 rpg, 4.2 apg while shooting 50 percent overall and 44.2 from 3-point range. That might earn him some Player of the Month love, but it doesn’t change the debate over his shot at scoring title.

Because of, well, Exhibit A.

“I wonder what that would have been if [Dirk] Nowitzki, LeBron James, all the top players in the league – a guy reaches on a last-second shot like that, instead of challenging it. Maybe they don’t understand that Kevin is one of the top five players in the league,” Adelman said.

Maybe ref Ed Malloy didn’t appear to on that final play Monday (Malloy was close but on the far side from Love’s right arm and Marion). Still, Love shot eight free throws in the game, most by anyone on either side. (Nowitzki shot three in 33 minutes and Minnesota never bothered to put Marion on the line at all.) He ranks sixth in the NBA with 230 free throws attempted (and third with 191 makes).

For Love, that’s an average of 7.66 attempts per game. Among the scoring leaders, that’s fewer than Durant (9.26) but more than Anthony (7.25), James (7.13) or – this will get Frank Vogel going – George (5.75). But when a fellow earns those whistles matters, too, and if Love – big strong guy who, in those late-game situations, often is hoisting from at or near the arc – doesn’t get the same benefit of the doubt among elite scorers, he’ll have a tough time capturing a scoring crown.

That leads to Exhibit B: The way Love plays. He is a double-double machine in points and rebounds and, of the league’s 11 performances of 25/15/5 this season, Love has eight. Adelman and boss Flip Saunders challenged Love to boost that last number — and Love challenged himself — from what had been a career 2.7 assists. He is doing it, up to 4.2 apg in 2013-14.

Along with leading the NBA in rebounding (13.7), that’s a lot of varied responsibility, beyond what Durant, Anthony or maybe even James has on a given night. The Heat star can play any of the five positions, certainly, but doesn’t have to attend to the glass the way Love does.

Adelman didn’t sound optimistic about a scoring title in his guy’s future.

“I don’t know,” the Minnesota coach said before Saturday’s game. “I don’t think it’s that important. He’s got disadvantages. He plays a lot inside, too – they’ll take things away from you. I don’t even worry about that. If he keeps getting 25 points, I’ll be happy.”

Some of Love’s rebounds are put-backs but, by playing down low, he’s in heavy traffic more than the game’s wing scorers.

Love might have ambitions to add a scoring title to his growing stats-and-achievements collection – he was tickled to win the 3-point in 2012 when he also finished second in rebounding (13.3) – but he doesn’t harbor any illusions.

“It’s tough to say,” Love said after the Bucks game. “As long as Kevin Durant’s in the league, I doubt I’ll ever lead the league in scoring. He’s a monster out there. For me, I just try to be the most efficient player I can be. If I’m in the top five to 10 in scoring, that’s pretty darned good.”

And that seems fine, considering Exhibit C, the history of it all. Shooting guards and small forwards have won the past 13 scoring titles (Durant 4, Allen Iverson 3, Kobe Bryant 2, Tracy McGrady 2, Dwyane Wade 1, James 1). Prior to that, players in those positions had won 13 of 16 (Michael Jordan 10, Iverson 1, Dominique Wilkins 1, Bernard King 1), interrupted only by centers Shaquille O’Neal (1995, 2000) and David Robinson (1994).

In other words, we’ve got to go back to Utah’s Adrian Dantley in 1981 and 1984 for any scoring champ who played power forward and work so heavily in the paint. Before that? Now we’re talking Bob Pettit with a pair of points titles in 1956 and 1959. Otherwise, it’s been smaller, swifter guys, behemoths like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or occasional hybrids (Bob McAdoo, Elvin Hayes).

Love does have one advantage historically over great power forwards past or present: His 3-point proficiency. This season, he ranks sixth in attempts with 196 – more than any of the other Top 5 scorers – and he’s averaging 6.53 3-point shots per game. Among power forwards, according to basketball-reference.com, only Ryan Anderson (four times) and Antoine Walker (three) have done that, depending how you classify Rashard Lewis (twice in Orlando).

At this point, though, on the day after, Love, Adelman and Minnesota probably would settle for cleaning up Exhibit A.


VIDEO: A closer look at the final play of Mavs-Wolves

Concern Abounds For Thunder As Westbrook Tries To Heal Up Again


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew breaks down the implication of Russell Westbrook’s knee injury

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Starting tonight in Oklahoma City (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV), the Thunder and Trail Blazers will play three times in a span of 43 days. Out of nowhere these two Northwest Division teams separated by 1,500 miles and 1.5 games are on the brink of a meaningful rivalry in a division too often devoid of such anticipated matchups.

Unfortunately much of the oomph vanished with Friday’s out-of-nowhere announcement from Oklahoma City that its All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook needed a third surgery on his right knee in eight months and will be out at least through the mid-February All-Star break.

The Blazers won the initial meeting, a 111-104 thriller in Portland on Dec. 4. The remainder of this regular-season series will be played with the Thunder down a superstar, potentially tipping the division title in favor of the talk-of-the-league Blazers, whose more immediate objective is preventing the season’s first two-game skid from becoming three.

OKC begins a 25-game gut-check march to the All-Star break tonight having won the first two games without Westbrook. Kevin Durant scored 34 and 33 points and the Thunder defense held Charlotte and Houston each to 86 points. The schedule is relatively favorable: 11 home games, 14 road; nine against teams currently .500 or better, 16 against teams below .500; 11 against the woeful East (exception being at Miami on Jan. 29); 14 against the West (including at Houston, at San Antonio and the three against Portland).

But that’s all the narrow focus. The wider scope is more concerning: What to make of Westbrook’s troublesome right knee upon his return? Will the league’s reigning iron man prior to the injury face chronic issues? Or has this simply been a bout of really bad luck and a short-term nuisance?

During a teleconference with reporters Friday, Thunder general manger Sam Presti called this latest setback “disappointing” and “unexpected.” He said expectations are for Westbrook again to quickly return to an elite level of play for the final stretch of the regular season. But Presti also acknowledged something new: “I think we have to understand that this is something that’s probably going to have to be managed.”

What “managed” means — a minutes restriction, taking games off — won’t be known until Westbrook comes back, and beyond.

The initial surgery in late April was clear-cut: repair a torn meniscus caused by the collision with Rockets guard Patrick Beverley in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series. As training camp neared, Westbrook’s return date wasn’t certain, but he was practicing with teammates and by all reports was looking terrific.

On media day, the day before training camp opened, Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Westbrook was pain-free, but also delivered an ominous statement: There was unexplained swelling in the knee. Three days later, Westbrook had a second surgery. The arthroscopy revealed the swelling was caused by a “loose stitch.” Great news. Structurally, the knee was fine and the surgeons, a new team from the one that performed the initial operation — one, again, selected by Westbrook’s camp and not the Thunder — reported excellent progress in the ligament-healing process.

In fact, Westbrook obliterated the team’s timetable for his return by a month, missing just two games. He quickly played with such explosive force that the 25-year-old’s right knee seemed as good as new. The Thunder was rolling and Westbrook was cementing a certain fourth consecutive All-Star bid. The last two weeks might have been his best, averaging 21.7 ppg, 8.4 apg and 8.7 rpg.

On Christmas Day, Westbrook dazzled with a triple-double. On Friday, he was back on an operating table.

“Russell has been playing pain free, but recently had experienced increased swelling,” Presti said Friday. “After consultation and consideration by his surgeon in Los Angeles, a plan was established to monitor the swelling that included a series of scheduled MRIs. On the most recent MRI it was determined by the surgeon that there was an area of concern that had not previously existed, nor was detectable in the previous procedures, and it was necessary to evaluate Russell further. The consulting physician determined that arthroscopic surgery was necessary to address the swelling that was taking place.”

This time a loose stitch wasn’t the culprit. To be clear, this is not an alarming ACL or micro-fracture situation. The last two procedures were both arthroscopies, far less invasive than a full-blown operation. Westbrook had been playing pain-free despite the recent swelling, and for a player dependent on strength, speed and explosiveness, all traits seemed to be back in abundance.

That’s again the hope and belief. Cranky knees have drastically affected Dwyane Wade‘s ability to play effectively throughout an entire season and the Heat now closely monitor him. Wade, 31, has already sat out seven of Miami’s first 30 games to keep him fresh for the long haul. For Westbrook, with far less mileage on his body, to endure similar restraints would be a blow individually and obviously the for a Thunder team that had again looked like a worthy title contender.

“We know that Russell’s work ethic and commitment will help him return to the level of play that we have all come to appreciate,” Presti said.

Clearly a Wade-like situation at this point is not the expectation. Still, a second and third surgery were never the expectation either.


VIDEO: Scott Brooks talks with The Beat’s crew about his team’s play of late

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 31


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Lakers, Cavs talk Gasol-for-Bynum swap | Rondo to D-League for rehab? | Adelman rails over Wolves’ loss to Mavs | Jazz show more improvement

No. 1: Report: Lakers, Cavs talk Gasol-for-Bynum swap — Disgraced Cavaliers center Andrew Bynum had his best years in the NBA as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Pau Gasol, the Lakers power forward who has fallen out of favor with coach Mike D’Antoni, could use a change of scenery himself, too. Those factors, plus a looming luxury tax hit facing the Lakers has L.A. pondering a move that would briefly bring Bynum back to Lakerland, if only to help the Lakers’ cap situation in the immediate future. Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelbourne of ESPN.com have more on the deal talks between Cleveland and Los Angeles:

The Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers have had discussions on a trade that would involve Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, league sources told ESPN.com.

No deal is believed to be imminent, but both sides are mulling it over ahead of a Jan. 7 deadline when the second half of Bynum’s $12.25 million salary would be guaranteed. The Cavs suspended Bynum for one game this weekend for conduct detrimental to the team and have excused him indefinitely from all activities, including games.

By trading Gasol in a package for Bynum and then waiving him, the injury-ravaged Lakers could save more than $20 million in salaries and luxury taxes, which could help them maintain financial flexibility heading into the next few summers. A Gasol-Bynum trade would have to include at least one other player and perhaps other assets from Cleveland.

The Lakers have been luxury-tax payers for six straight seasons. While the luxury-tax savings this season — and ability to avoid the repeater tax penalty that kicks in when a team is a taxpayer in four out of five years starting with the 2011-12 season — would undoubtedly help the Lakers’ long-term flexibility, the franchise’s history and organizational culture make that a difficult prospect to consider.

The Cavs have been after Gasol since this past summer, when they had extensive discussions with the Lakers, sources said. Those talks ended when Dwight Howard signed with the Houston Rockets. The Cavs, who have been struggling, are looking to upgrade their roster as they attempt to end a three-year playoff drought.

The Cavs also have had separate discussions with the Chicago Bulls on a Bynum trade for Luol Deng, according to sources. The Bulls are in a similar position as the Lakers, about $8 million into the luxury tax and dealing with an injury-marred season.

Deng, like Gasol, is a free agent-to-be, and such a trade-and-waive deal with Bynum also could save the Bulls in excess of $20 million in salary and taxes this season. However, the Bulls have maintained they do not want to trade Deng and believe they will be able to re-sign him after the season.

If Bynum is waived by the Cavs or any team that might trade for him by Jan. 7, Bynum likely would have multiple offers to join a team as a free agent.

In addition to talks of a Lakers-Cavs swap, Jason Lloyd of The Akron Beacon-Journal has a very in-depth look at why teams like the Knicks, Nets, Clippers and others could possibly pull a similar cap-room saving deal like the one Los Angeles is after:

There are six teams currently over the NBA’s luxury tax and in line to pay significant penalties at the end of the season. While the Cavs search for a trade to unload Andrew Bynum, those are likely their best — and perhaps only — potential trade partners between now and Jan. 7.

No team that actually wants Bynum is likely to trade for him because his contract for this season becomes guaranteed for $12 million after Jan. 7. But a team trying to get under the luxury tax threshold of $71.7 million could trade a hefty salary to the Cavs for Bynum and release him prior to Jan. 7, while Bynum’s cap figure can be reduced to $6 million.

The problem is the Cavs are no longer interested in taking on bad money for contracts that extend beyond this season, so they would either be searching for an expiring contract or it would have to be a player they genuinely like. It’s a narrow window of teams, which is what makes trading Bynum tricky.

If the Cavs don’t find a deal to their liking, they can either release him prior to next week and clear $6 million in cap space leading up to February’s trade deadline or hold onto Bynum, pay him the full $12 million for this season and try again to trade him around the draft. They would have until June 30 to trade him before his $12 million salary for next season becomes guaranteed.

By retaining him and paying him the full $12 million, it would essentially force Bynum to miss the rest of the season and create a $12 million trade chip around the draft.

One more disclaimer, it’s conceivable (though not likely) a non-contender could do the same thing. Another team with cap space could trade for Bynum, slide his $12 million figure into their cap and only have to physically pay him about half of that for the rest of the season. Then they would have a $12 million trade bullet to fire around the draft and until June 30.


VIDEO: The Beat crew chimes in on the Cavs and Andrew Bynum

***

No. 2: D-League stint a possibility as Rondo continues rehab — If things go how Celtics coach Brad Stevens plans, the attendance at Maine Red Claws games could soon see a serious spike. Stevens’ star point guard, Rajon Rondo, is continuing to practice with the team, but his return to the lineup remains a ways off. While Boston readies for a West coast road trip. Stevens told Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe that sending the All-Star guard to Boston’s NBA D-League affiliate for additional rehab work isn’t out of the question:

Rajon Rondo practiced again with the Celtics on Monday and is slowly returning to basketball shape and perhaps his rehabilitation may include a stint with Maine of the NBA Development League, according to coach Brad Stevens.

Stevens said Rondo likely wouldn’t return to the Celtics during their five-game West Coast road trip beginning on Jan. 5 but he could spent time with Maine practicing and playing in D-League games before coming back to the NBA.

Rondo has not played since Jan. 25 because of a torn right anterior cruciate ligament.

“I would make that a decision on him and our staff,” Stevens told the Globe following practice at the Celtics Training Center at Health Point. “That is something that has been discussed, probably some positives and negatives to that, but at the end of the day, it is an option as part of his rehabilitation.”

When asked if Rondo would travel west with the Celtics, Stevens said: “And playing? I have not been given any indication he would be playing that soon. It’s going to be on him. Physically, I think he’s looking better and better. But that’s to be expected, you’re going to gain more confidence but I don’t know when that translates to ready to play.”

Stevens former point guard at Butler, Ronald Nored, is a player development coach in Maine and he and Rondo have discussed the possibility of Rondo spending some time there.

“That would be positive,” Stevens said of Nored’s presence with Maine. “The extra practice time they have between games is a possibility, getting a chance to play multiple games in that area is a positive. So there are a lot of positives, getting your legs underneath you a little bit.”

The Celtics have not used their D-League affiliate for rehabilitation over the past few years. The last Celtics regular to see a stint there was Avery Bradley during his rookie season. Little-used rookies Fab Melo and Kris Joseph spent time with Maine last season.


VIDEO: Celtics coach Brad Stevens talks about Boston’s upcoming game against the Hawks

***

No. 3: Adelman, Wolves rail about loss to Mavericks — Minnesota has been struggling to get itself over the .500 mark for the last few weeks, but last night’s game against Dallas would have given the Wolves their fifth chance this month do perform that feat. The Wolves found themselves down 21 at one point, but rallied back and had a shot at a game-tying bucket with 3 seconds left in the game. Minnesota worked the ball over the Kevin Love for a baseline jumper, who appeared to be fouled by Shawn Marion, but no call was made. Marion saved the ball before it went out of bounds and the Mavs left with a victory. Afterward, the Wolves — and coach Rick Adelman in particular — lamented the seeming lack of star treatment that Love received, writes Jerry Zgoda of The Star-Tribune:

When it was all over and they had carefully selected their words in attempts to ease their frustration without lightening their wallets, the Timberwolves lamented Monday’s 100-98 home loss to Dallas both because of their astoundingly uneven ­performance and Kevin Love’s still presumably incomplete superstar status.

Afterward, the Wolves ­discussed both how they lacked urgency in a game they had every reason to win and how they were wronged by no whistle when the game was on the line and the ball was in the hands of their star who had already delivered another 36-point night.

While Marion sat in the Dallas locker room, chuckling and saying he committed no foul, Wolves coach Rick Adelman expressed his exasperation.

“He got fouled,” Adelman said. “I wonder what that would have been if [Dallas star Dirk] Nowitzki, LeBron James, all the top players in the league … A guy reaches on a last-second shot like that instead of challenging it. Maybe they don’t understand Kevin is one of the top five players in this league.”

Long after the final horn, Love was asked if he had been fouled. “You saw the replay,” he said.

Then he was asked about Adelman’s comments.

“Of course I agree,” Love said. “I’m the type of person that if you see a foul — an obvious foul — you call it. I thought that was pretty, pretty obvious. Just look at the replay: Without saying too much, you look at the replay and it was obvious he got arm. I didn’t know how to react. I couldn’t, I wasn’t going to yell at him. That wasn’t going to do anything.

“I just walked off the court, just tried to keep my head up.”


VIDEO: Wolves coach Rick Adelman fumes after no foul was called on Kevin Love’s final shot

***

No. 4: Jazz continue to show improvement — With a 1-14 start to the season, the Utah Jazz looked to be headed for perhaps their worst season ever in Salt Lake City. What was lost on many during that putrid start, though, was that the Jazz were playing without their prized rookie point guard, Trey Burke, and were giving major minutes to journeyman point guards such as John Lucas III and Jamaal Tinsley. While Utah hasn’t pushed for the playoffs or anything since Burke has returned, it has looked like a more formidable squad with a brighter future than was seen just a month ago, writes Trevor Phibbs of The Deseret News:

Tanking for lottery position? Not exactly.

After starting the season 1-14, it appeared Utah was headed for record-setting futility. However, with the emergence of rookie point guard Trey Burke, the Jazz have climbed to respectability. Their ascension continued Monday as they closed the 2013 calendar with an 83-80 win over Charlotte at EnergySolutions Arena.

It was the 10th straight win over the Bobcats for Utah, which improved to 9-7 with Burke, Gordon Hayward, Richard Jefferson, Marvin Williams and Derrick Favors together in the starting lineup.

“It gives us a lot of confidence winning close games, especially at home,” explained Burke, who scored a game-high 21 points with five assists. “We feel we’re coming together as a team and we’re learning to play with each other more and more. As long as we continue to strap down on defense I think we’ll be good.”

Leading 78-77, Burke hesitated deep into the shot clock, beat Walker off the dribble and iced the win with a scoop off the glass.

“That’s why I went to the basket,” Burke said. “There was about two seconds left and I figured he thought I was going to shoot the shot, but I felt I could get a better shot and I went after it.”


VIDEO:
Rookie Trey Burke talks about his basket to clinch Utah’s win over Charlotte

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Raptors could be making a color scheme change in the future to a black-and-gold look inspired by musician Drake … The Bucks will be without young big man John Henson (ankle) for two weeksKevin Love is the latest of many NBA stars to copy Dirk Nowitzki‘s patented one-legged fallaway jumper

ICYMI Of The Night: As a guard, the 6-foot-4 John Wall is a pretty decent shot-blocker. But who knows what he was thinking when he decided to go up and contest this coast-to-coast dunk by 6-foot-11 Pistons big man Greg Monroe


VIDEO: Greg Monroe posterizes John Wall with a coast-to-coast jam

Crawford Also Producing As A Starter


VIDEO: Jamal Crawford scores 27 as the Clippers beat the Nuggets on Dec. 21

HANG TIME WEST – It was the first quarter of his first game back in the opening lineup, Dec. 14 at Washington. Jamal Crawford remembers the specific time and place because he doesn’t exactly have a long history of people telling him to shoot more.

“It was kind of weird,” Crawford said. “It was encouraging to hear it, though.”

Coach Doc Rivers called him over to the Clippers bench during a dead ball. Crawford seemed too concerned about fitting in with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Yes, the same Crawford who spent all last season as their teammate, the same Crawford in his 14th season, the same Crawford who every other day seemed eternally aggressive as one of the premier bench-scoring threats of his generation.

“C’mon now,” Crawford recalls Rivers telling him, “I didn’t bring you in here to just be passive.”

And that was it. End of conversation, end of adjustment period.

Crawford, a leading contender for Sixth Man of the Year a few weeks ago, and pretty much every season, quickly re-configured his approach to become the starting shooting guard averaging 19.1 points in the eight games in the starting lineup. The Clippers, not coincidentally, are 6-2 in that time, with losses by two points at Golden State and four at Portland on the second night of a back-to-back.

He is not shooting well, at 38.6 percent in the eight games as starter, but passive? Crawford is not that either. Try 17.5 shots in 37.2 minutes per game, more than leading scorer Griffin is taking (15.9) in fewer minutes (36.6) overall and Paul (14.7 in 35.3 minutes).

“When you’re a starter, you can be a little bit more patient,” Crawford said. “You don’t have to rush as much. Off the bench, you have to make something happen. It’s not necessarily as a scorer, but you have to have an immediate positive impact. When you’re starting, you can kind of feel the game out a little bit better.”

The chain reaction started when J.J. Redick fractured his right hand and tore ligaments in his right wrist in a fall Nov. 29 at Sacramento. Willie Green initially took Redick’s spot, but Rivers eventually turned to Crawford, the 2009-10 Sixth Man of the Year in Atlanta who had started six times in 291 appearances the previous four seasons with the Hawks, Trail Blazers and Clippers.

“I don’t know if there’s much (difference),” Rivers said of Crawford’s dual roles. “I think the biggest difference would be that with the bench, he knows he has to be the guy…. I had to remind him that he was a really good offensive player. You usually don’t have to tell Jamal that. But when you’re playing with Blake and Chris, he was overpassing. ‘No, I want you to be the same Jamal with the starters or not.’ But he is more conscious of who he’s playing with when he’s with the starters. I don’t want him to get too used to that, quite honestly. I can’t wait to get him back on the bench so he can come in and be our sparkplug.”

It’s Still Heat And Everyone Else


VIDEO: Chris Bosh’s game-winning 3-pointer sinks the Blazers

Dwyane Wade flips a behind-the-back pass with a move that is slicker than anything on a South Beach dance floor and Chris Bosh lets fly a 3-pointer that would have sailed over the top of a palm tree.

Bosh’s game-winner did not just serve as the deciding margin in the most entertaining NBA game of the season to date, but as another difference between the two-time defending champs and everybody else.

The Heat have it figured out.

Even with the Trail Blazers rising to the challenge against a full-throated home crowd. Even with LaMarcus Aldridge showing why he belongs in the MVP conversation. Even with Wesley Matthews lighting it up. Even with LeBron James left to only play the role of world’s roughest, toughest cheerleader.

As we prepare to flip the pages another calendar year, the one thing that doesn’t change is Miami’s ability to survive and thrive. Is it myopia or jealousy or sheer boredom that keeps running new contenders up the flagpole and ignoring the resolve and sheer talent of the Heat’s Big Three?

This is, after all, why Pat Riley went to such great lengths to put them in the same uniforms, so that they wouldn’t ever be forced to rely on just one of them?

Here was yet another season that began with yet another set of questions about Wade’s knees and Bosh’s guts and whether James was already peeking ahead to next summer and a chance to return to the Cleveland. And here they are looking like anything but a trio that is ready to surrender its championship grip or prevailing aura.

The standings may show the Heat currently with the fourth-best record in the league, behind the Pacers, Thunder and Blazers and yet you can have the entire field of 29 teams as long as I get to keep Miami.

The Pacers are a fierce and committed blend of burgeoning youth and smart veterans who have made it their goal to finish with the best regular season record and grab home-court advantage all the way through the playoffs into late June. Paul George is an MVP-in-waiting, only the year(s) in question, Roy Hibbert brings the inside bulk and power of a road grader and the rest of the Pacers lineup is filled with weapons.

Yet after beating Miami in Indy on Dec. 10, they let a 15-point lead slip away eight nights later in a rematch, even on a night when James and Mario Chalmers were jawing at each other on the sidelines.

The Thunder were in the spring of 2012, and are still, supposed to be rising young challengers whose games swell with growth and confidence each season. But it’s that swelling in Russell Westbrook’s right knee that has now once more required surgery and could stop OKC from ever reaching its full potential. With James Harden in Houston, they don’t have the three-way luxury of the Heat lineup, and the 2013 playoffs demonstrated that as good as he is, Kevin Durant likely can’t finish the job himself.

The explosive rise of the Blazers behind Aldridge and Damian Lillard and Nic Batum has been as fun and exciting a story as any in the league this season. Yet even on a night when they drop in 11 3-pointers and out-rebound the Heat, they couldn’t close the deal.

The Spurs are still piling up wins against the lesser lights in the league, but may have permanently lost their grip on any chance for a fifth franchise championship in those fateful 28 seconds of Game 6 in The Finals.

The fretting over or knocking of Miami arises any time the Heat lose two straight games, a leftover product of the hype and expectation that greeted their coming together. But if the past three seasons should have taught anything, it is that James, Wade and Bosh are the ones who have assumed nothing and put themselves to the task.

While the Pacers, Thunder, Blazers and the rest are trying to figure it all out, the Heat have amassed what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich calls “the corporate knowledge” of what it takes to play with each other, trust each other and get the very most out of each other.

The result is an offense that is second-best in efficiency this season and a defense, rated eighth, that can close like a fist around a windpipe and choke off opponents when it’s time.

There is no doubt that, at 32, Wade’s knees require the delicate care of hothouse orchids, yet he can still bloom and take your breath away. Bosh continues to have his inner strength and his consistency questioned, but explodes for 37 points and leaves nothing untapped in Portland. James, well, simply plays the game on a planet where he is the only inhabitant.

So while everyone else around them in the NBA is wondering how Riley and team owner Micky Arison can — and whether they want to — keep the band together after next summer, the Heat keep knocking out hits and asking the only question that matters: Why not?

Metrodome, Site Of NBA Attendance Mark, Will Crumble Before Record

As a baseball park, the HHH Metrodome in Minneapolis was an affront, its plastic grass and Hefty-bag curtains producing a version of the national pastime that was the equivalent of playing marbles in a bathtub. For football, much of the joint’s lousy public relations came from the likes of Mike Ditka (“the Rollerdome,” he slandered it) and that remote-camera video of the December 2010 roof collapse, the Teflon-covered dome losing its poof from too much snow and ice.

But for one memorable season, the Metrodome was a basketball Mecca, drawing more customers to the NBA than any other arena before or since.

With Target Center under construction for what would be the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves’ second season, the Dome (as it was known in the Twin Cities) became the new team’s temporary digs for its 1989-90 inaugural home schedule. Like other domed stadiums turned into makeshift gyms – the Superdome in New Orleans, the Pontiac Silverdome north of Detroit – the configuration for basketball wasn’t ideal.

The court had to be snugged up to one section of the permanent grandstand, with portable bleachers on the other sides. The vastness and lighting messed with shooters’ backgrounds. Then there were the locker rooms, accessed through the baseball dugouts, followed by a long trek up into the bowels of the concrete structure.

“The hardest thing about it was the walk from the court to the locker room,” said Sam Mitchell, the former NBA forward and coach-turned-analyst who scored the first points in Timberwolves history. “You could pull your hamstring in the time it took. It took us forever.

“They had to give us an extra five minutes to get from the locker room down to the court. That was a pain in the butt. You had about 200 stairs to go up and down. And it was cold in there in the wintertime. But from the standpoint of fan support … it’s just something I’ll never forget.”

Don’t be distracted by the Wolves’ 22-60 record; this was more than just a lousy expansion team’s first season. The NBA once had been hot in Minneapolis, the Lakers establishing the league’s first dynasty by winning five titles with George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Slater Martin, Vern Mikkelsen, coach John Kundla and the rest. But the franchise was moved to Los Angeles in 1960, so the Wolves’ arrival tapped into a pent-up demand for an NBA that – with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as its stars – had grown into a monster.

The Dome, with cavernous capacity built for the NFL and MLB and large enough to host the NCAA Final Four twice, was more than capable of accommodating that.

A crowd of 35,427 showed up for the Wolves’ home opener, with Jordan scoring 45 points for the yet-to-be-champion Chicago Bulls. Boston, with Bird and state hero Kevin McHale, pulled in a crowd of 35,713. When the Lakers came to town on St. Patrick’s Day and narrowly escaped with a 101-99 victory – with Wolves coach Bill Musselman pestering Johnson with 7-foot-3 center Randy Breuer defensively – there were 43,606 in that building that night.

Musselman’s grinding, physically-and-mentally demanding style won over fans, too, some of whom remembered his work with the University of Minnesota Gophers in the early 1970s. The Wolves were as rag-tag as you’d expect for a squad built off the league’s leftovers – the starting five for the opener in Seattle featured Mitchell, Tony Campbell, Tod Murphy, Brad Lohaus and Sidney Lowe – but they slowed the pace to a crawl, defended up in their opponents’ grills (No. 2 in fewest points allowed, 99.4) and took on their feisty head coach’s personality. Whether they liked it or not.

“The Wolves used the visitors’ [baseball] clubhouse, on the other side of the laundry room,” said Clayton Wilson, the Timberwolves’ longtime equipment manager, who worked for the Twins before switching over with the move to Target Center. “Tom Kelly [Twins manager] could sit in there and listen to Musselman rip into the players. ‘Lohaus, you [bleep]!’ Muss would get in their faces a little bit.”

Kelly was a season-ticket holder, like Twins Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett.

“T.K. loved the Xs & Os,” Wilson said, “so he would go in pregame and listen to them, and then [during the game] he’d say, ‘OK, see how the coaches said they were going to deny this guy the ball and get it to that guy? That’s what they’re doing.’ “

There were more than a few nights, Wilson said, that Kelly – rattling around his Dome office in the middle of a Minnesota winter – would give the regular laundry guy a night off and wash the Wolves’ sweaty uniforms and socks.

With a clubhouse built for 25 players, the Wolves had space but few creature comforts in their ersatz locker room. Not that it mattered.

“Most of us had not played in the NBA,” Mitchell said over the weekend. “And the guys who had been on NBA rosters, hell, they had barely played. So I would have played in a brier patch. It didn’t matter to me. I would have played butt-naked, outside and barefoot. Just give me an NBA jersey.”

The team’s attendance had been strong all season. It went 17-24 at home and outscored visitors by 0.4 points, vs. 5-36 on the road with an 8.8 points deficit. But that huge Lakers crowd put Minnesota within reach of something special. The NBA’s home attendance mark belonged to the Pistons, who drew 1,066,505 fans in 1987-88 – the first Detroit “Bad Boys” club to reach The Finals.

After 38 home dates, the Wolves were at 937,148, averaging 24,662 per game to Detroit’s 26,012. That’s when president Bob Stein, marketing whiz Tim Leiweke (now the Toronto Raptors’ top exec) and the rest of the front office shifted into another sales gear. Targeting the NBA record, the Wolves packed in 45,458 for Orlando’s visit on April 13, 40,415 to see Utah two nights later and finally 49,551 for the home finale against Denver on April 17. More than 135,000 tickets – some at wildly reduced rates, many with horrible upper-deck sightlines – were sold for a team that lost 60 games and eight of its final nine. Their final count: 1,072,572, an average of 26,160.

It’s a record that still stands, even if the building in which it was set – the Vikings played the final Metrodome game there Sunday and demolition already has begun – soon won’t be.

Point Of Origins For Cavaliers, Warriors




VIDEO: Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving waged an intense point guard battle Sunday night

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Random games like Sunday night’s Golden State Warriors-Cleveland Cavaliers matchup need to come with a disclaimer:

“Objects on the screen might appear to be similar but most certainly are not” 

An overtime game led by potential superstar young point guards that are the keys to their respective rebuilding projects – Stephen Curry for Golden State and Kyrie Irving for Cleveland — was as close as it gets. But there’s a fork in the road dividing these two franchises right now.

The Warriors have won a season-high five straight games (tying last season’s season-high) and finally appear to be back on the track many (myself included) predicted for them before the season began. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers have lost five straight and continue a twisted spiral into the Eastern Conference abyss, a voyage fraught with solid decisions gone awry (the Andrew Bynum experiment) and missed opportunities at nearly every stop along the way.

While the Warriors have been mostly praised for all that’s gone well — and rightfully so — the Cavaliers have somehow escaped the discerning eye of many due to what I call the LeBron James Left ‘Em Syndrome.

But how many swings and misses do the Cavaliers get? How long will they be allowed to use that as cover for a failure to get it together on and off the court?

From owner Dan Gilbert and his declaration that the Cavs would win a title before LeBron would in Miami (completely misguided when initially uttered and even more foolish now that the Heat have been to The Finals three straight years and won two titles) to repeated misfires in the Draft (Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett) and coaching hires (Byron Scott and perhaps Mike Brown the second time around … the jury is still out), it’s been one tire fire after another.

At a time when playoff positions from three to eight are wide open in the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers’ performance is excruciatingly painful. Not only has there reportedly been friction between Irving and both Waiters and Bynum, now the former Lakers’ and Sixers’ big man has basically been exiled (with pay) by the Cavs until they can either figure out what to do with him or pawn him off on someone else.

The repeated stumbles on the court during their current tailspin only magnify the mistakes made off the court by general manager Chris Grant and his staff. You have to wonder if they are learning from all of these mistakes or not.

“I feel like we’re close,” Brown told the Plain Dealer after the loss to the Warriors. “Obviously, these losses bother our guys, and they bother them in the right way. But we have to stay at it. All these experiences are great for us to go through, you just hope you can come out on the winning end on most of them. I’ve got to give my guys credit because they’re competing. I’ve just got to try to keep helping them at the end of games.”

While the Cavaliers continue to struggle and continue to try to “figure it out,” the Warriors are moving on from early season injuries and transitions for guys like Andre Iguodala, and finally grooving a bit. The work done by the Warriors’ front office, led by the totally understated and completely underrated Bob Myers, has been splendid.

They’ve been aggressive in the Draft, with trades and in free agency. They’ve cashed in with the likes of Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee, Andrew Bogut, Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli comprising a core group that should be the envy of rebuilding outfits from coast to coast. They’ve battled through injuries to their stars to continue their ascent.

Warriors coach Mark Jackson, a risky hire when he was plucked from his analyst seat at ESPN and ABC without any coaching experience, has developed nicely along with his team (eat your heart out, Brooklyn). They’re building something that is more than just a one-time, flash in the playoff pan.

Much of it has to do with Curry, his game and his personality. He’s become a point guard in every sense of the word. When you start there and build properly around a player like that, the process runs much more smoothly.

The Warriors have pulled this off not only by rebuilding a roster, but rebuilding a culture and fueling it with tangible results. It’s a blueprint the Cavaliers would be wise to sneak a peek at as they continue to try to “figure it out.”

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 30


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 29

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Parker might listen to free-agent offers | Durant gets fired up vs. Rockets | More minutes on horizon for Bennett? | Redick nearing return?

No. 1: Parker not opposed to leaving Spurs one day — Much like teammates Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, point guard Tony Parker seems destined to join that duo as a life-long Spur. But Parker, responding to an ESPN.com report that says the Knicks have interest in pursuing him once he becomes a free agent in 2015, isn’t so sure he’d stick with San Antonio no matter the cost. While Parker says staying with the Spurs is his top choice, he told the San Antonio Express-NewsJabari Young that he’s also open to testing the free-agent waters should things not work out as he hopes in San Antonio:

Tony Parker to the New York Knicks?

Unlikely, but Parker wouldn’t rule it out. In fact, he wouldn’t rule out going anywhere if certain circumstances aren’t in place.

A report last week by ESPN.com said the Knicks hope to target the All-Star point guard in 2015, when Parker is set to become a free agent. Told of the report, Parker smiled and said he hadn’t seen it, but is keeping all his options open.

Parker made it clear though, his first choice it to remain in San Antonio as long as he could.

“If I can yeah”, Parker told the San Antonio Express-News. “The history here, they always take care of the guys. They did it with [Tim Duncan] and Manu [Ginobili], so hopefully they take care of me. At the end of this year they have to guarantee my year after, so, technically, maybe, I’ll be a free agent this summer.”

The 31-year-old Parker, who is averaging 17.8 points and 6.0 assists this season, signed a four-year, $50 million extension in 2010. He is owed $25 million in the last two years of his contract, but the final year is partially guaranteed for $3.5 million if he is waived by June 30, 2014 and fully guaranteed for $12.5 million after that.

Said Parker: “I just don’t want a guarantee, I want an extension, too.”

Even if Parker remains in San Antonio for the final year, his decision to stay beyond 2014-15 will depend on his coach and teammates.

Who knows when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will hang it up, though it may not be too far away, and Duncan has a $10 million player option next season, which is the final year of his deal. Will he be around beyond that?

“I want to stay positive,” Parker said, “but if it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t work out. My wish is to stay here and play my whole career here, but if there is no more Pop or Timmy or Manu, I’m not against going somewhere. I’m not against that.”

Parker being targeted is nothing new, though, and he always expresses his desire to remain in San Antonio for the remainder of his career. But what if the Spurs and Parker don’t reach an extension, would Parker seek a trade?

“I don’t even think like that because I think Pop and [Spurs General Manger R.C. Buford] they always take care of their guys,” Parker responded. “They did it with Timmy and Manu, so I don’t see no reason why they’re not gonna do it with me.”

***

No. 2: Durant shows fire in win over Rockets — In late October, Kevin Durant told The Oklahoman he wasn’t going to be as ‘obsessed’ about winning a championship as he was a season ago. The Houston Rockets would like to argue otherwise. Durant, in the Thunder’s first game against a contender since losing Russell Westbrook (again), simply dominated on Sunday night against Houston. OKC’s star was going full-tilt, as usual, on offense, but as longtime Thunder observer Darnell Mayberry notes, there was an added passion to Durant’s game:

Perry Jones III hadn’t been in the game 90 seconds.

But Kevin Durant didn’t like what he was seeing.

And so the Thunder star called over his second-year teammate, pulling him off the lane during a free-throw attempt despite OKC owning a 15-point lead.

“Wake your (blankety blank) up,” Durant barked at Jones near the scorer’s table.

No one needed to give Durant a wake-up call.

But it wasn’t just the numbers that defined Durant’s night.

It was the pep in his step, the look in his eyes and the fire and intensity with which he played. He took his game to a higher level Sunday in a showdown he knows could turn into a playoff rematch this spring.

From chewing out an up-and-coming teammate to a second-quarter stare down of old nemesis Francisco Garcia when things got too physical on the low block, Durant was dialed in the whole way.

He harassed an official when he drew a foul call and it was called on Terrence Jones instead of Dwight Howard.

He squawked at the Rockets bench after hitting a jumper over former teammate James Harden, a play he orchestrated the entire way when he called for a screen that would force Harden to switch and be left isolated on the right wing.

“He feel like he got to come and set the tone, and he doing that,” said Kendrick Perkins. “I’m liking the mean KD; giving stare downs when he’s dunking on people. I’m rolling with that.”

Durant, meanwhile, is too politically correct to speak on it publicly, and so he downplayed the source of his efforts after the game. But all throughout the summer, when Houston commanded the league’s attention with its blockbuster acquisition of Howard and caused many to wonder whether the Rockets had surpassed the Thunder, Durant grew testy each time the topic was brought up. The focus, Durant always said, should be on the Thunder. That’s the way he wanted to keep it.

With Sunday’s performance, Durant did his part to make sure it stayed that way.


VIDEO: Highlights from Kevin Durant’s monster game vs. the Rockets

***

No. 3: Bynum’s suspension opens up minutes for Bennett — ICYMI somehow over the weekend, things aren’t going so great for the Cavaliers in their attempts to restart Andrew Bynum‘s career. On Saturday, the team suspended him for conduct detrimental to the team and by Sunday, rumors were swirling that the Clippers and Heat were interested in landing the one-time All-Star center. As Cleveland navigates its future with Bynum, one player who could benefit from the fallout is rookie Anthony Bennett, writes Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal. Lloyd has info on that, plus some news on what is next for the Cavs and Bynum, too:

Andrew Bynum’s removal from the Cavaliers clears two spots in Mike Brown’s rotation. One will go to Tyler Zeller, the other to Anthony Bennett.

The top pick in the draft has played sparingly to this point, but no longer. The Cavs are committing significant minutes to Bennett moving forward, which is why Mike Brown acknowledged Sunday that he needs to give Bennett time to play through inevitable mistakes.

“I have to continue trying to have patience with him,” Brown said. “This is an opportunity for him to go out and play some minutes and show what he’s capable of doing.”

After saying that, he only played Bennett 11 minutes in the 108-104 overtime loss Sunday to the Golden State Warriors after playing him 19 minutes in the loss to the Boston Celtics on Saturday.

“I’m still clueless about this whole thing,” Bennett said. “I’m still trying to learn a lot. I can still learn from my teammates, from the coaching staff, watching film. I just feel like this whole league is all about learning, just going out and playing.”

He has played a fraction of the minutes other top picks in last summer’s draft are receiving. The Cavs hope more consistent minutes will mean more production.

Brown has juggled Bennett’s role from power forward to small forward and now back to power forward, which seems to have further confused the rookie. When he switched Bennett back to power forward, Brown said there is still the possibility he could see minutes on the wing. For right now, Brown likes some of the things Bennett is doing away from the ball. He just wants the rookie to slow down and show some composure when he has the ball.

In terms of Bynum, it looks like the Cavs will have to move quickly on a trade if they want to spare themselves having to pay the majority of Bynum’s salary this season:

Bynum’s suspension was lifted Sunday, but he is still excused from all team activities. He was docked one game’s pay (roughly $110,000). The Cavs have until Jan. 7 to trade or release him or they will be responsible for the balance of his $12 million deal.

If they can’t find a deal by Jan. 7, a league source confirmed the team is considering holding onto him anyway. They would have until June 30 to trade or release him before his $12 million deal for next season becomes guaranteed.

Bynum’s locker hadn’t been cleaned out yet at Quicken Loans Arena. Among the items left behind was a pair of headphones. He is also still part of the pregame introduction video. The team did not hand out his Fathead on Sunday, as was previously scheduled. They also did not hand out game-day programs, called “Tipoff Tonight,” because he was featured on the cover.

To make up for the Fathead issue, kids 14 and under received a certificate to redeem for future Fathead packs.


VIDEO:
Coach Mike Brown talks after the Cavs’ OT loss to the Warriors on Sunday

***

No. 4: Redick nearing return for Clips? — As one of the marquee additions to the team in the offseason, the Clippers’ J.J. Redick got off to a solid start for Los Angeles before a torn ligament in his wrist sidelined him for 6-8 weeks in early December. He’s been rehabbing the injury ever since and Clippers coach Doc Rivers tells Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times that Redick could be on his way back to the lineup soon:

Clippers rookie swingman Reggie Bullock, who is out with a sprained right ankle, has been working out and is making progress.

Coach Doc Rivers said Bullock shot some during the team’s shoot-around before Saturday night’s game against Utah.

“Yeah, he’s getting closer,” Rivers said.

J.J. Redick, who is out with a broken right hand and torn ligaments on the right side of his wrist, now has a soft cast on his hand and not the hard cast anymore.

Redick, a right-handed shooter, has not been shooting the ball yet.

“He’s close too, would be my guess,” Rivers said. “I think it’s a couple of weeks, maybe.”

.***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Blazers rookie C.J. McCollum is getting closer and closer to his NBA debut … The Knicks might be closing in on a deal with big man Jeremy Tyler, a move that could result in the cutting of Chris Smith … The Wizards’ Bradley Beal is a much better shooter when Marcin Gortat is on the courtBlake Griffin has been playing some MVP-type basketball the last few games

ICYMI Of The Night: Maybe there are times now, what with Russell Westbrook being injured, that Kevin Durant misses his old teammate James Harden. But he made a point to see him up close again when he dunked on him last night


VIDEO: Kevin Durant drives in and dunks over ex-teammate James Harden

Injuries Open Spots, But Picking All-Star Guards Won’t Be Easy


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook will be out until after the All-Star break

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Kobe Bryant is going to win a starting job on the Western Conference All-Star team. A second round of returns has the Lakers star well ahead in votes among the West’s legion of worthy backcourt candidates. Bryant has played in just six games and although he could return from a fractured knee in time to play in the Feb. 16 All-Star Game at New Orleans, let’s assume that he will not play.

NBA All-Star 2014Oklahoma City’s injured point guard Russell Westbrook was well on his way to a fourth consecutive selection as one of seven reserves to be picked by Western Conference coaches until Friday’s stunning announcement that he underwent a third surgery on his troubled right knee. Westbrook will not be back in time for the All-Star Game.

That leaves (potentially) two backcourt spots up for grabs.

But first, ink Chris Paul in as the starter at point guard. He’s second in fan voting and in all likelihood won’t come close to relinquishing that spot as an automatic starter. Golden State’s Stephen Curry, last season’s sympathy case as the most notable snub, is third in fan voting and should start at shooting guard.

Now comes the difficult part for the West’s coaches: There’s so many worthy point guards — just point guards — that you could select an All-Point-Guard All-Star team even without Westbrook. Check this out:

PG: Paul

SG: Curry

SF: Damian Lillard

PF: Eric Bledsoe

C: Ricky Rubio

Bench: Tony Parker, Ty LawsonMike Conley, Jrue Holiday

OK, so it takes some of imagination there, but you get the idea how deep the West is at the quarterback position. Then you’ve got the shooting guards to consider. James Harden figures to be a lock for a second consecutive selection. And what about Klay Thompson, Monta Ellis, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Wesley Matthews and Jamal Crawford, who felt he got dissed last year? Even 36-year-old Manu Ginobili can make a compelling case.

There’s plenty of basketball to go before fan voting ends on Jan. 20 (the starters will be announced on Jan. 23) and until the reserves are announced soon after, so selections could become more crystallized by then. But probably not.

So of five guards to get a 2014 All-Star nod, here’s my early locks: Paul and Curry as the starters with Harden as a reserve. That leaves two spots open.

Let’s begin with the power of elimination. As strong as they’ve been, apologies to Martin, Dragic, Matthews and Crawford. Holiday was an East All-Star last year and benefited from Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose being hurt, and even though he’s a hometown Pelican, I’m not seeing it. Rubio has gone from the magician everybody wants to see up close to standing in the back of the line.

Onto the rest. This is going to be tough and there could be not one, not two, not three … but even more deserving guards taking the snub.

Here’s a brief comparison of a few of the backcourt candidates that I don’t consider to be locks (in no particular order):

>Parker, Spurs – Scoring (17.8 ppg) and assists (6.0) are down, but he’s the irreplaceable team catalyst, San Antonio is rolling and it’s hard to see him not making it

>Lillard, Blazers – As clutch as any player going, the reigning Rookie of the Year is averaging 21.1 ppg, 5.8 apg and is shooting 43.1 percent on 3s for a team that’s taken the league by storm

>Bledsoe, Suns – A fearless competitor, has meshed beautifully with Dragic while averaging 18.4 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.3 rpg and is shooting 49.2 percent overall for arguably the most surprising team in the league

>Ellis, Mavericks – He’s turned analytics on its head, averaging an efficient 20.7 ppg — highest since 2007-08 — and 5.8 apg, and he’s as exciting swooping to the cup as anyone

>Lawson, Nuggets – He’s slowed a bit as the team has struggled recently, but still putting up 17.5 ppg, 7.9 apg and 3.4 rpg in a new, slower-tempo system

>Thompson, Warriors – The other half of the Splash Brothers, he’s scoring 19.6 ppg on 43.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc, plus 2.7 apg and 3.3 rpg.

>Conley, Grizzlies – He’s been garnering greater respect for a few seasons now and while the team has struggled, especially without fellow All-Star Marc Gasol, Conley’s averaging 17.0 ppg, a career-best, and 6.2 apg

Clips Need Dudley’s 3-Ball To Heat Up


VIDEO: Jared Dudley steals and passes to Blake Griffin for the finish

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – When the Los Angeles Clippers engaged in a three-team trade that netted J.J. Redick from Milwaukee and Jared Dudley from Phoenix, it seemed like a great idea. The Clippers needed floor-spacers and accurate 3-point shooters around Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

Then it became clear that Redick and Dudley, both mostly career backups, would be starters for a team with title aspirations. The 6-foot-4 Redick is essentially a one-trick pony, a sharpshooter, who was hitting just 35.9 percent of his long balls before fracturing his right hand. He played in 17 of the Clippers’ first 32 games and is expected to miss another two to four weeks.

Dudley has never averaged more than 12.7 ppg and his best statistical seasons from beyond the arc came as a 26-minute-or-less bench player with the Suns. So far as the Clippers’ starting small forward — he replaced the aging Caron Butler —  he’s slogging through the worst shooting of his career — 43.6 percent overall and 34.1 percent from beyond the arc. He’s averaging 8.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg and 1.5 apg, numbers that rank near the bottom in every category for a starter at his position.

While the league’s general managers voted both Redick and Dudley as two of the most underrated moves during the offseason, Dudley also finished in a tie for third in the category: Which player makes the most of limited natural ability. If Dudley’s long ball isn’t falling, then his contribution to the team is going to be limited.

In the last five games, Dudley has logged more than 28 minutes once and is 4-for-19 from 3-point territory. The Clippers rank 26th in 3-point percentage (33.2) despite ranking seventh in the 3-point attempts per game (23.6).

“I don’t know why he’s not playing well, but we need him to play well,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers told the Los Angeles Times. “That [small forward] spot right now, it’s been hurting us a little bit. But Jared is still not healthy. He’s getting healthy. We’ve got to get him in better shape.”

Dudley is playing through tendinitis in his right knee, although it hasn’t caused him to miss any games. He told the Times that he’s playing at about 85 percent, but that he’s markedly better than the first 15 to 20 games.

He also knows he just hasn’t been playing well. A rough shooting stretch during the middle of the month, Dudley, a active and fan-friendly user on Twitter, actually apologized to Clippers fans:

During four consecutive wins from Dec. 16-22, Dudley knocked down 22 shots on 39 attempts and was 13-for-23 from downtown. In the last four games he’s just 9-for-26 from the floor. He has just eight points in the last three games, including being shut out at Portland.

The Clippers’ offensive efficiency is the same with Dudley off the floor as it is with him on the floor.

“When you’re a role guy, there are games when you’re not going to shoot that much,” Dudley told the Times. “One game I shot eight 3s. Some games you’re not going to shoot a 3, depending on the defense. You’ve got to be ready.”

As the starting small forward, and especially with Redick shelved for a few more weeks, Dudley’s point production from beyond the arc is critical for a team in a dead heat with Houston for the all-important fourth seed in the West.