Archive for April 2nd, 2013

The Big Jersey Retiree


.
HANG TIME WEST – It’s too bad Dr. Jerry Buss will not be at Staples Center tonight because this is about his emotions and vision as well, the way he knew when it was time to dump Shaquille O’Neal, when it was time to let go of the unfortunate past and when it was time to figuratively bring Shaq back into the fold. The good news is that it is a safe bet O’Neal will mention Buss in a kind way, and so the Lakers owner who passed in February actually will be there.

It has been an automatic for years — no matter how many wanted to suggest doubt after an ugly breakup — that the Lakers would retire jersey No. 34 in tribute to O’Neal. That it is happening late in this of all seasons, Tuesday as the Lakers face the Mavericks in a game with implications for the bottom of the Western Conference playoff pack, is just how things worked out in a strange way: The relationship with Kobe Bryant has gone from setting fire to the locker room all the way to friendly, Mike D’Antoni, briefly Shaq’s coach in Phoenix, now has the Lakers job, and the organization desperately needs the positive vibes of Junes past. All unexpected developments, all making this particularly special.

And there were good times. No, there were great times. O’Neal and Bryant feuded at historic levels – it could be argued that their egos at 40 paces hastened the retirement of Jerry West, exhausted by, among other things, years of having to be Switzerland – and it is no stretch to suggest championship opportunities were missed because the tension overtook the winning. O’Neal showed up Buss by screaming at the owner for a fat extension and increasingly showed less of a commitment to staying in shape. But that team was a thunderclap of talent and unapologetic arrogance.

This is the first of many public commemorations of a special group, to be followed by Bryant having No. 8 or No. 24 (or both) retired, probably the only other member of that team that will get the honor, and O’Neal entering the Hall of Fame in 2017. (Phil Jackson reached Springfield, Mass., in 2007 partly on the strength of his L.A. titles, but would have gotten there anyway just from the Chicago success.) The only way that likely changes, barring a switch to the current way of thinking, is if another player makes the Hall and therefore automatically gets a jersey on the wall, as was the case with Gail Goodrich and more recently Jamaal Wilkes. Their numbers would not have been retired otherwise.

For now, in one of the many watched subplots around the Lakers, it is O’Neal for the next jersey, Bryant as the only certainty after that, and the expectation of Elgin Baylor as the next statue outside Staples Center, as previously reported. That will be some center lineage on the wall, too – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33), Wilt Chamberlain (13), O’Neal (34), plus a mention of George Mikan from the Minneapolis days.

“It takes really good fortune,” West said of the Lakers’ history of acquiring superstar centers. “When things are going great, everybody always praises you about how smart you are and how good you are. It takes a tremendous amount of good fortune to be able to build a team and to acquire players like that. This game is changing greatly because we don’t have as many really good big men as we’ve had before. You look at teams, they have changed. Players 6-5 to 6-9 are all so versatile. We really don’t have a lot of conventional centers today. Shaquille O’Neal, frankly, was probably the last of those. He was just one of those unbelievable players. I couldn’t be more thrilled. He was one of my favorite Laker players of all-time. He was a great guy. Thankfully for us, he chose us instead of going back to Orlando. I knew for all of us in Los Angeles, we knew what we were going to get. And we got a lot as a player, a lot as a personality and we won a few championships with him, which was always the icing on the cake.”

Buss could have stopped tonight from happening with an edict years ago, but rightfully chose not to, wanting to honor someone who meant a great deal to the organization rather than dwelling on how things ended. Shaq himself knows this better than anyone. In the last days of his career, open to a final season with the Lakers in a backup role (L.A. had no interest), he understood the real fence-mending was with Buss, not Bryant. That probably makes this honor extra special. With some franchises, it might not have happened.

O’Neal had such a massive footprint on the Lakers that he was a centerpiece of three championships and had a role in at least one other crown. He was obviously part of Bryant’s drive in 2010, considering how Bryant referenced him so quickly, and not in a pleasant way, after the Game 7 win over the Celtics. Even the bad times were good times. That was some connection and this is some special night.

Willard, 54, Earned Respect From Peers And ‘Adversaries’ Alike

.

More than a decade ago, Greg Willard got the sort of attention NBA referees traditionally abhor — and he wasn’t even working the game.

The Minnesota Timberwolves were on their way to getting ousted from the first round of the playoffs for the sixth time in as many years. This was back in 2002, in the best-of-five days, and the Wolves’ lone home game in the series against Dallas wasn’t half over when Minnesota coach Flip Saunders erupted. He had to be physically restrained by a pair of assistants from closing the gap on ref Bill Spooner.

Turns out, Spooner had dropped a line on Saunders that demonstrated he had Willard’s back. It wasn’t the first time, either — Steve Javie had said something similar to the Wolves’ coach in the aftermath of a snit Saunders had with Willard more than a month earlier.

Here’s the backstory: In a 112-80 blowout of Toronto on March 19, 2002, Willard made a remark as he ran past Saunders about Minnesota forward Sam Mitchell‘s 3-pointer in the final minute, possibly about the sportsmanship Mitchell showed or the trouble he could have incited. Saunders snapped back along the lines of,  “I thought referees were supposed to ref games. I didn’t know they were supposed to give opinions.”

Let Saunders pick up the story:

“Since that time,” he said after the Wolves were bounced that day 11 years ago, “I’ve had two referees that, when I asked them about something, said, ‘I thought you didn’t want referees to give opinions.’ … I told them I thought that was total bull. First of all, my problem was not with them, it was with Greg Willard. To bring something like that up in the heat of the battle, I don’t know what you’re thinkin’. … They all talk.”

They surely do. The fraternity of NBA referees is a tight one, reaffirmed constantly by the rigors of their travel, the pressures inherent in their jobs and the guff they take while working from players, coaches and fans. Then there are their shared experiences, the close quarters of the refs’ dressing rooms throughout the league and the collegial respect that comes from knowing who’s good and, well, who’s still learning in a tough profession of split-second decisions.

Willard had that respect and more, not just from how he worked as a ref but how he endured his year-long battle with the pancreatic cancer that killed him Monday at age 54. He was one of the NBA’s senior officials, officiating nearly 1,500 regular-season games along and 136 more in the playoffs, two in The Finals and the 2006 All-Star Game. He achieved the best kind of status for someone in a competitive pursuit, the appreciation not only of his peers but most of those — those coaches and players — with whom he butted heads in the heat of their most intense moments.

Saunders and Willard made peace over their dispute soon after it happened and shared, in their respective roles, NBA courts for another 10 years. That sort of on-court silliness evaporated with the news last spring of Willard’s illness. It’s another example of that instant perspective, and life’s reminders, that none of us ought to need.

“Greg epitomized what it meant to be an NBA referee through dedication to his craft, hard work, and integrity both on-and-off the court,” said Lee Seham, general counsel for the National Basketball Referees Association, said in a statement Tuesday. “He was not only a great NBA Referee, but more importantly a wonderful person, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”

Some of the highest regard shown by an NBA player to a ref came back in October, after the Los Angeles Lakers faced Utah in a preseason game in Anaheim. Willard had worked that game, despite his worsening condition, and Kobe Bryant shared thoughts on the moment via ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Ramona Shelburne:

Longtime referee Greg Willard, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June, had just taken the court and officiated the game even as his body showed the ravages of the pernicious disease.

The Lakers had already sent the game ball to the referees’ locker room. Several had shook Willard’s hand after the game. Bryant stopped by for a visit on his way out.

“He’s an extremely good ref,” Bryant said of Willard. “He doesn’t hold grudges. He just makes the call in front of him.

“Honestly, tonight I wanted him to T me up for old time’s sake. I didn’t want him to have any kind of special night. I wanted it to be just like it’s always been. I wanted to drop a couple F-bombs to him.

“I wanted it to be like how it’s always been. That’s the best way. “

All NBA game officials will wear wristbands or patches with Willard’s jersey number 57 for the balance of the season to honor his memory.

Injuries Loom As Teams Make Playoff Push

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Oklahoma City, Memphis and Miami, feel fortunate, very fortunate, and proceed with caution.

As the regular season churns down to a handful of games over these final 16 days, the three teams above are the only ones of the 16 current playoff teams, plus the desperately-trying-to-get-in Los Angeles Lakers, currently unaffected by injury — or injuries.

Playoff seeding, and ultimately playoff series, could tilt on an injury report that seems to grow with each passing game.

The Grizzlies caught a break with the quick return of center Marc Gasol from an abdomen injury. Initially the team listed him as out “indefinitely.” Later, Gasol said he’d be back for the playoffs. Next thing you know he’s back after missing just two games and right back on his game.

The Heat missed Dwyane Wade for a couple games during their win streak and, of course, he, LeBron James and Mario Chalmers came down with those, ahem, previously unreported injuries prior to Sunday’s game at San Antonio. Speaking of the Spurs, Manu Ginobili‘s most recent ill-timed injury (hamstring) has put the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed firmly in play Thursday night when San Antonio visits a Thunder team as healthy as any can be 70-something games in.

Few are so fortunate, and let’s start with the carousel of injuries that have beset the Lakers. Kobe Bryant continues to play through a sprained ankle and whatever else, Dwight Howard still deals with the sporadic shooting pain from the torn labrum in his shoulder and Pau Gasol is finally back. But Metta World Peace (knee) won’t be back and Steve Nash (hip) is “doubtful” for tonight’s big showdown against the never-say-die Dallas Mavericks (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

The Lakers won’t receive sympathy cards from Denver, which could be without spark plug point guard Ty Lawson (heel) until the playoffs. As soon as Chauncey Billups (groin) finally returned he was gone again, and couldn’t the sinking Clippers use him right about now?

Houston’s All-Star James Harden can’t seem to shake a sprained right ankle. Jazz reserve big man Enes Kanter (shoulder), whose March was his biggest month of the season, is out indefinitely. Golden State is essentially healthy, having lost Brandon Rush way back in the opening days of the season.

Over in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls shake their heads at any team ruffled by a single injury, or two. The Celtics, having adjusted to life without Rajon Rondo, plus rookie Jared Sullinger are without Kevin Garnett (ankle) and Paul Pierce missed Monday’s loss at Minnesota for “personal reasons,” according to coach Doc Rivers. Meanwhile, Boston is dangerously close to slipping into eighth place and a first-round matchup against the Heat.

In the Big Apple, the injury list goes on and on: Tyson Chandler (neck) remains wait-and-see, Amar’e Stoudemire (knee) and Kurt Thomas (foot), very likely could join Rasheed Wallace (foot) as being shut down for the season. The Knicks, busting through it all with an eight-game win streak, continue to battle for the No. 2 seed with the Indiana Pacers, who have five straight and learned last week that Danny Granger (knee) won’t be making the late-season comeback they had expected just days earlier.

And those scrappy, scrappy Bulls by now must be resigned to a full season without Derrick Rose (knee), and they may have lost Rip Hamilton (back) for the season. They hope to soon get center Joakim Noah (foot) back in uniform, as well as Marco Belinelli (abdomen).

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets, finally with Deron Williams healthy and playing like an All-Star again, would love to say the same about Joe Johnson (heel).

As the playoffs quickly approach, time is running short for players and teams to get healthy.

What’s Wrong With The Clippers?





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – That rant Vinny Del Negro unleashed on his team after Saturday night’s blowout loss to the Houston Rockets (sans James Harden) was not an elaborate pre-April Fool’s Day ruse. It was real.

“They played harder than we did,” Del Negro said. “We were terrible. Our effort was terrible, our attitude was terrible, our urgency was terrible. Very disappointed. I didn’t see the fight in us tonight, and we need guys to step up.”

“We’re fighting for a spot, and we come out with that second-half — pretty much the whole game — effort. It was poor.” Del Negro said. “I know it’s the fourth game in five nights, but that’s no excuse. We’ve got plenty of depth. No excuses. I don’t believe in that.”

The vitriol … the disappointment … all of it was real.

With seemingly everything to play for — a top-three seed in the Western Conference playoffs, home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, simple professional pride — the Clippers cannot find the energy to finish the season the way they started (with a bang).

The Clippers have fallen off the mark in the second half of the season, squandering a league-best 32-9 start by stumbling their way to a .500 finish (17-17) with seven games remaining in the season. Chris Paul‘s MVP turn during All-Star weekend might very well serve as the lone highlight for the Clippers during the season’s stretch run if they can’t shake out of their funk.

They managed a 7-7 record in March and didn’t exactly get off to a rousing start to this final month of the regular season with Monday night’s home loss to the Indiana Pacers, a game that saw the Clippers trail by as many as 24 points before closing the gap late in a 109-106 loss.

Deciphering exactly what’s wrong with the Clippers from a schematic standpoint is basically a waste of time. They have certain deficiencies that cannot be cured this season unless both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan magically locate reliable post moves overnight. That’s not meant as a slight to either of the talented young big men, it’s just a fact.

The Clippers are not capable of playing inside-out for long enough stretches to make other high-level teams uncomfortable. Kicking off a crucial, four-game home stand with a deflating loss to the Pacers is no way to inspire confidence. And when Paul, Jamal Crawford and the rest of the Clippers’ perimeter stars are taking turns struggling as well, it confirms all of the fears we’ve been expressing about this team since their second-half struggles began.

This is code red time for the Clippers. They’ve lost four of their last five games and the finger-pointing (direct and otherwise) has already begun. The effort and energy from the players seems to be lacking, suggesting an underlying issue between the players and the coach that is undefeated in terms of the final results (the coach always has to go).

Del Negro has taken a rather aggressive approach, tinkering with his rotations and even benching starters in an effort to jumpstart his team.

“It’s up to them,” Del Negro said of his players to ESPN.com‘s J.A. Adande after the loss to the Pacers. “All I can do is take them in and out of the games.”

For any of this to be said on a team with some of the best locker room leadership in the league (Paul, Caron Butler, Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups) is a bit startling.

Just as startling is Del Negro’s pointed criticism at his biggest stars, particularly his benching of Paul and Griffin recently, moves that are sure to erode the coach-player dynamic on a team that has always had issues in that regard under Del Negro. This madness is going on with a team that needs just one more win to clinch the franchise’s first 50-win season in history.

This puts the entire operation on alert for the postseason. If the Clippers slide in and then slide out just as quickly, then it’s anyone’s guess as to where the Clippers go from there in the offseason.

Start the playoffs on the road and suffer the fate then that you did during your recent tour through the Southwest Division, a 1-3 plank walk, and whatever is wrong with the Clippers will be someone else’s problem.

Del Negro won’t have to worry about it anymore!

No, Bo Doesn’t Know Rose On This

CHICAGO – Bo knows Rose. But Bo Jackson doesn’t necessarily know squat when it comes to the anterior cruciate ligament surgery from which Bulls star Derrick Rose is recovering, or the timetable for Rose’s specific rehab, or the relationship between the 2011 NBA Most Valuable Player and his team.

Jackson, the amazing two-sport athlete whose NFL and MLB careers were cut short by a debilitating hip injury, threw out the ceremonial first pitch Monday at the Chicago White Sox’s opening game at U.S. Cellular Field.

That team, like the Bulls, is owned by a group headed by chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. Jackson. who played two seasons with the White Sox, still lives in the Chicago suburbs. But the connections pretty much end there, as far as informing Jackson’s Rose opinions with any particular insight.

In a press box chat Monday, as reported by the Chicago Tribune’s David Haugh, Jackson defended what appears to be Rose’s cautious return to NBA action. The Bulls’ point guard is in his 11th month of rehab since surgery last May 12.

“I am quite sure that Derrick is going to come back when he needs to,” Jackson [said]. “I couldn’t say either way whether he should or not. Derrick will know when it’s time to come back. I think he has handled it very well. It seems like the people who are having fits about this are you guys.

“Derrick has handled it well. He is a new dad and seems happy. Why push it? Between the media and the public pushing him, ‘he should come back, he should come back’ … what if he did come back and reinjure himself? Then you’re going to point fingers at the staff of the Bulls saying he shouldn’t have come back. You guys can’t have it both ways. Let him heal, come back home and when he comes back home, welcome him.”

With all due respect to Jackson, this one might be above his pay grade and outside his wheelhouse. More than that, he sounds like the 50-year-old former athlete that he is. He admitted that he hadn’t talked to Rose about the injury “just like I wouldn’t want anybody to talk to me about my golf game.” Can anyone imagine Jackson at age 24 or 26, though, listening to some old guy’s advice to proceed with caution, to miss more games rather than fewer or to focus on daddyhood rather than rushing yards and home runs?

It was a nice gesture by a once-in-a-generation, maybe once-in-a-lifetime athlete who gave us this and this, and who proved his toughness when he came back to play 160 games in the major leagues after having a hip replaced.

But Rose’s decision to delay his return to actual NBA competition until he feels “110 percent” is solely on him and his advisors (formal and informal). The playing-as-a-part-of-rehab stage considered so necessary by so many medical experts won’t be satisified and the rust of his long layoff won’t be flaked off until he participates in some uncertain number of games for the Bulls, whether that happens this spring or in the relative shadows of October’s preseason.

It really is not, as Rose suggested in a recent interview aside, a “Nobody-knows-but-God” thing. Nor is it a nobody-knows-but-Bo thing.

Morning Shootaround — April 2

Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.

The one recap to watch: Several good ones to pick from last night, including the sizzling Jazz winning their fifth straight, the Rockets rolling along with James Harden on the bench and the Pacers doing just enough to escape the Clips in L.A. But we’ve gotta give it up for the Grizzlies this morning for their win over the (albeit injury-depleted) Spurs last night.  Memphis was at it’s Grit-and-Grind best and showed they can change up their style a bit, too. With San Antonio pressuring big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol all night (and neither one having a particularly wowing stat line), the Grizz turned to Mike Conley, who came through time after time and nailed the game-winning layup with :00.6 left.

.

News of the morning

Why Heat weren’t punished for resting Wade, James | Smith becoming an all-around force | Shaq’s big day in L.A. | Corbin pulls prank on Jefferson | Dunlap glad Bobcats have tough schedule

Heat escape punishment for resting stars Heading into Sunday night’s Heat-Spurs matchup in San Antonio, one of the talking points was the team’s last meeting in December. That game is famously known for two reasons: first, for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sending Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green back to San Antonio to get rest rather than play them in back-to-back games and second, for the Spurs giving the fully stocked Heat a real game despite missing those standout players. The rematch on Sunday lacked LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers, who all sat out due to injury but, unlike the Spurs’ quartet in December, were sitting on Miami’s bench during the Heat’s eventual win. Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today explains why the Spurs were fined $250,000 for their antics in December and the Heat weren’t leveled any punishment for theirs:

There are multiple reasons why NBA Commissioner David Stern hammered the Spurs:

It was an early-season game, long before it becomes customary for playoff teams to give top players a game off.

The Spurs didn’t list a reason why their players (who were sent home) didn’t play other than “NWT” — Not With Team. The Heat gave reasons for James (strained right hamstring) and Wade (sprained right ankle).

In a statement addressing the Spurs’ fine in November, Stern said the Spurs violated league policy “against resting players in manner contrary to the best interests of the NBA. … The team also did this without informing the Heat, the media, or the league office in a timely way. Under these circumstances, I have concluded that the Spurs did a disservice to the league and our fans.”

It can be concluded that the Heat informed the Spurs, media and league office in a timely way, since Miami was not penalized.

At the April 2010 Board of Governors meeting just before the playoffs began, Stern said owners addressed the issue of teams sitting players in the final weeks of the season and concluded, “We also had what I would call a spirited discussion on the subject of players being rested down the stretch. And I think it’s fair to say that there was no conclusion reached, other than a number of teams thought that it should be at the sole discretion of the team, coach, general manager, and I think it’s fair to say that I agree with that, unless that discretion is abused.”

It can also be concluded that Popovich abused that discretion in November and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra did not in late March.

Knicks’ Smith picks up his all-around gameJ.R. Smith is the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the usual reason players get that award: he’s been sizzling hot in his last few games. In the last three weeks in particular, Smith has forsaken his love of the 3-pointer for more aggressive drives to the basket and is doing work on the glass as well. Tommy Beer of HoopsWorld.com has more on Smith, who is rolling and fueling the Knicks as they are in the midst of an eight-game win streak:

Smith has been consistently aggressive. He’s relentlessly attacking the basket rather than settling for perimeter jumpers.

Consider these statistics to help put Smith’s recent play in proper context: Smith played 35 games for the Knicks last season after signing with New York in mid-February and attempted a total of 55 free throws over the course of the 2011-12 season. In contrast, over the Knicks’ last 10 games, Smith has attempted 89 free throws. Yes, he has gotten to the line 34 more times in 25 fewer games.

Over this 10-game stretch, dating back to March 14, Smith is tied with Kevin Durant for the most free throw attempts in the entire league.

During this current 10-game span, Smith is shooting over 48 percent from the floor and has scored 250 points on just 168 field goal attempts. Those numbers compare favorably with even the league’s most efficient scorers.

Smith certainly hasn’t eliminated the three-pointer from his arsenal (he averaged 6.3 three-point attempts in March), he’s just been more selective. In addition, he has drastically reduced the amount of long two-pointers he’s taking. Smith is either taking threes or getting to basket, which typically results in a dunk, lay-up or trip to the charity stripe.

In March, Smith was one of just five NBA players who knocked down at least 20 three-pointers as well as 80 free throws. The other four members of that exclusive club: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, James Harden and Durant.

Coming into this season, Smith had never averaged more than 4.1 rebounds per contest, but is pulling down 5.2 rebounds a night in 2012-13. He’s also dishing out a career-best 2.8 assists per game. He is one of just six players this season averaging at least 17 points, five rebounds and 1.3 steals (Russell Westbrook, James, Durant, Paul George and Rudy Gay are the other five).

O’Neal readies for his moment to be immortalizedTo a generation, Shaquille O’Neal may mostly be known as the new face on Inside the NBA, a pitchman and an adopter of practically all forms of social media. But before you pigeonhole Shaq as merely and entertainer, don’t forget his days as the most dominant force in the league as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Although O’Neal never played an entire healthy season in L.A., he nonetheless ran roughshod over opponents, particularly during the Lakers’ three-peat years from 2000-02. Tonight, his No. 34 jersey will be hung from the rafters at Staples Center, joining other Laker legends as we all take a moment to reflect on his career, writes Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times:

If Shaquille O’Neal needed a nickname on his first day as a Laker, it could have been the Big Worrywart.

As dominant as he was, the best big man in the NBA recognized he represented just a fraction of the Lakers centers who had come before him.

George Mikan won six titles while becoming Mr. Basketball. Wilt Chamberlain won two titles (one as a Laker) and scored 100 points in a game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six titles (five as a Laker) and was the league’s all-time leading scorer.

What had O’Neal done, besides help the Orlando Magic go poof in a four-game sweep during the 1995 Finals?

“It was something I was terrified of,” O’Neal said of the Lakers’ legacy of centers. “We made it to the Finals that one year. That was good, but it wasn’t as good as them yet. Because in my mind I’m like, ‘Wilt’s got two [titles], Kareem’s got six and I have none.'”

O’Neal’s insecurities were only reinforced when Jerry West, then the Lakers’ executive vice president, placed his hands on the center’s broad shoulders shortly after he joined the team in July 1996 and told him to look up at the jerseys hanging from the rafters inside the Forum.

“He said, ‘Son, if you do everything correctly and do everything in a professional manner,'” O’Neal said, recalling their conversation, “‘you may be up there one day.'”

O’Neal was famous for bestowing nicknames upon himself: Shaq-Fu, Big Aristotle and MDE, for Most Dominant Ever.

He never called himself the best Lakers center ever, and he isn’t about to now.

“I’m just good enough to be in the conversation,” said O’Neal, 41, who was given the night off from the TNT broadcast of the Lakers-Mavericks game to enjoy his jersey retirement ceremony.

O’Neal overpowered defenders, using his massive 7-1, 340-pound body as leverage before spinning away for layups or dunks. He teamed with Kobe Bryant to help the Lakers win three straight titles from 2000-02. “My style was dominating and intimidating people, making them quit, making them flop,” O’Neal said.

He does have a few regrets about a career in which injuries limited him to an average of 63 games a season.

“I’m kind of upset with myself for missing 250 games,” said O’Neal, who ranks sixth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 28,596 points. “If I had played those games and gotten an extra 5,000 points, I would have passed Wilt Chamberlain and then I would have the right to say I’m the most dominant big man ever to play.”

Corbin pranks red-hot Jefferson — The Jazz are the hottest team in the West, having won five straight games. Those victories have come at an opportune time, considering Utah is in a scrap with Dallas and the L.A. Lakers for the No. 8 spot in the West (although Utah does hold the tie-breakers over both teams). Key in that surge of late has been center Al Jefferson, who was named the Western Conference Player of the Week and has dominated inside while the Jazz are slowly regaining the rhythm that made them a solid-if-not-certain playoff team earlier in the season. Jody Genessy of the Deseret News has more on Jefferson, his award and a little joke played on him by his coach, Tyrone Corbin:

Al Jefferson got an unexpected phone call from Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin on Monday afternoon.

At first, Big Al thought he might be in trouble.

Jefferson then wondered if he was a prank victim.

“He called me out of the blue, and I was thinking I did something wrong,” said Jefferson, who then quickly was reminded it was April Fools’ Day. “(Coach) was like, ‘Yeah, I’m calling to trade you. …

“But, oh yeah, that’s right,” Corbin added, “we can’t trade.”

The real reason for the call?

The coach was informing Jefferson he’d been named the NBA’s Western Conference player of the week.

“I think it’s a tremendous honor for where we are,” Corbin said. “He’s a huge part of the success that we’re having.”

Big Al averaged 19.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 1.5 blocks during the pivotal week, which helped the Jazz work their way back into the eighth and final playoff spot out West.

“It really did (surprise me). It caught me off guard so bad,” Jefferson said. “I’m so focused trying to just get into the playoffs. I ain’t really thought about our record this week and what I averaged this week.”

Jefferson, who had 24 points and 10 rebounds in Utah’s 112-102 win over Portland on Monday, has been named a player of the week five times in his nine-year career, including twice with the Jazz (the first time being April 23, 2012).

That came as a surprise to him. He thought this was his fourth time.

“For real?” he said when informed he’s earned the honor twice in Utah, twice in Minnesota and once with Boston. “It’s a great feeling, but there’s bigger fish to fry. The main goal is to win a championship.”

Dunlap glad Bobcats face tough final scheduleCharlotte is in a game-by-game battle with Orlando for the worst record in the Eastern Conference and is set up for likely a third straight season of 25 wins or less. Of the Bobcats’ final eight games, five are against playoff teams. That would seem to be exactly what a young, struggling team like Charlotte wouldn’t want to face, but coach Mike Dunlap tells Charles F. Gardner of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel the opposite is true:

Charlotte coach Mike Dunlap said he’s glad his team is playing teams in contention for the playoffs.

“The great thing about playing the Bucks tonight is they have the playoff fever,” Dunlap said. “Every possession presents itself with an intensity that is good for our young guys to understand.”

Charlotte scored 60 points in the first half but only 42 in the second half as the Bucks won their 10th consecutive home game against the Bobcats.

The Bucks and Bobcats met twice early in the season, with Charlotte prevailing at home, 102-98, on Nov. 19 and the Bucks winning at home, 108-93, on Dec. 7.

Charlotte started 7-5, matching its total of victories last season. But it has won just 10 more times since that promising start.

“Youth, is one,” Dunlap said. “And two is you have them in a concentrated period of the training camp and you come right into the season. There’s a bit of fizz there in terms of clarity.

“We’ve had a story line that’s quiet. But we’ve run into major injuries. We’re on the margin, so when a Gerald Henderson is out for the better part of two months, that impacts us. You can see what he’s doing. Then (Ramon) Sessions goes out. We can’t afford to lose a Sessions. That’s like losing a (Mario) Chalmers or something along those lines.”

ICYMI of the night: Game by game, Ricky Rubio is regaining the form that made him a standout last season and, game by game, Derrick Williams is benefiting from Rubio’s play: