NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Blazers turn to defense to keep rolling — If you missed it yesterday, our own John Schuhmann had a tremendous breakdown piece using NBA.com/Stats that delved into the Blazers’ hot start and how formidable Portland truly is. One of the key points of the piece is how the Blazers are using a Pacers-type defensive philosophy and that seemed to be apparent last night in Milwaukee. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian has more details on the Blazers’ eighth straight win, their defense and more:
The Blazers continued their improbable early-season march Wednesday night, defeating the Milwaukee Bucks 91-82 before 11,789. It was the Blazers’ eighth consecutive win, including their sixth in a row on the road, and moved their record to 10-2.
What’s more, the victory delivered the Blazers a rare sweep of four-game trip through Boston, Toronto, Brooklyn and Milwaukee — the franchise’s first sweep of a trip at least four games long since January 2003.
And, in a change of pace, the Blazers won Wednesday with what most consider their Achilles heel: Defense.
“We didn’t really shoot the ball well,” Damian Lillard said, smirking. “So we had to do something to win the game.”
No one would mistake Wednesday’s game for a work of art, as play was sluggish and sloppy throughout. Neither team generated consistent offensive momentum and rhythm and a sparse, dormant crowd created a lifeless, uninspiring environment. But in the middle of the muck — at least in the second half — was a Blazers defense that was physical, effective and stingy.
In the second half, the Blazers limited the Bucks to 31 points, 14 field goals and 37 percent shooting, while forcing 13 turnovers. Only one Milwaukee player — reserve John Henson — scored more than five second-half points, and he had six.…
The Blazers’ offense has been so good during their hot streak — ranking second overall and third in offensive efficiency in the NBA over the previous seven games — that it was bound to have a hiccup. But they had enough to win ugly against the reeling Bucks (2-8).
The national media has started to take notice of the Blazers’ sizzling start, and multiple publications and websites have poked around at this team and what it’s doing. Most have noticed the Blazers’ offense is dynamic and fun to watch, while the defense is average at best. But the team sees things differently.
“We’ve won a lot of games shooting under 45 (percent),” Matthews said. “It’s got to be something.”
The Blazers have feasted on teams with losing records this season as eight of their 10 wins have come against teams with sub-.500 records. The popular question to ask: Are the Blazers for real? The answer could surface by the end of the week.
The Blazers host the Chicago Bulls (6-3) on Friday and travel to the Golden State Warriors (8-3) on Saturday as part of a challenging home-and-away back-to-back.
“That’s going to be a huge test,” backup big man Joel Freeland said. “It’s really going to show us where we’re at. We’ve been playing great, and hopefully we can keep going with the flow and ride it into these next games.”
No. 2: Knicks’ Smith says he’s ‘panicking’ on court — It’s doubtful things could be going much worse for the Knicks of late as they have lost four straight games and have the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference. Last night against the East-leading Indiana Pacers, New York held the lead for much of the game, but made several mental errors down the stretch and ended up falling in OT. What’s worse is that shooting guard J.R. Smith tells ESPNNewYork.com’s Ohm Youngmisuk that he is often panicking on the court during games:
J.R. Smith said the New York Knicks are mentally “frustrated” and that he personally is panicking after they lost their fourth straight game.The Knicks’ 103-96 overtime loss to the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday was the team’s sixth in a row at Madison Square Garden.
“We’re frustrated,” Smith said of where the team is mentally, despite most saying it’s too early to panic. “Like you say, it’s too early to panic, but me personally, I’m panicking. I don’t like this.
“I don’t want to play 3-8 basketball,” Smith continued, in regard to the Knicks’ record. “I don’t want to play 50-50 basketball. If we’re going to be a championship-caliber team and call ourselves that, then we’ve gotta play like that. It can’t be no other way.”
The Knicks are 2-5 since losing Tyson Chandler to a fractured right fibula. Carmelo Anthony had 30 points and 18 rebounds, and the Knicks led by three with 9.2 seconds left. But Iman Shumpert was called for a foul on a Paul George 3-point attempt, and George (35 points) made all three free throws to force overtime.
The Knicks put forth effort Wednesday night, but it hasn’t always been there this season. And that has been frustrating for Smith.
“Lack of intensity,” Smith said. “I hate to say it, but our defense’s backbone is on Tyson and Tyson’s not here right now and we know that and he’s not going to be available for a few weeks now, so we’ve gotta step it up individually. It’s team game but individually we’ve got to take pride in guarding the ball, guarding our man. We have to enjoy stopping the other team.”
Smith, who scored 21 points but missed an open 3 with 57.1 seconds left and a tip at the end of regulation, said the Knicks can’t just talk about putting forth effort. They have to do it if they want to be a contender.
“We play too up and down,” Smith said. “When we are on the highs, we are great. When we are on the lows, we are terrible. We got to have that steady pace throughout the whole year.”
No. 3: Nowitzki, Ellis spoil Howard’s big night —Through three quarters in Dallas last night, it looked like Dwight Howard was going to have the last laugh against Mavs owner Mark Cuban and Co. Cuban, who famously said this season that Howard made a mistake by not signing with Dallas over the summer, got the last laugh as his free-agent addition, Monta Ellis, and his go-to star, Dirk Nowitzki, powered the Mavs to a thrilling win, writes our own Jeff Caplan:
This was Dwight Howard‘s big night, a made-for-national-TV highlight reel. His coming-back party.
The big man couldn’t miss from the floor, flushing alley-oops at will and swooping through the lane for lefty hooks as if he invented it. He made his first 11 shots, not missing until three minutes deep into the fourth quarter. He was even on fire, as much as Howard can be on fire, from the free throw line.
Through three quarters, Ellis was putting on a show to be sure, but it was Dwight truly announcing his presence and taking names.
Until Ellis, the erratic shooting guard Cuban signed with his leftover free-agent cash, and the venerable all-timer, Dirk Nowitzki ended the party. The duo hijacked Dwight’s night with one of the great two-man performances of the season — and in recent memory — in a rousing 123-120 win, rallying all the way from 93-75 late in the third quarter when the capacity crowd actually started to file out.
In the fourth quarter it all ground to an inexplicable halt for Howard and Houston, which officially has a closing problem. It left coach Kevin McHale bleary eyed and exasperated.
Nowitzki and Ellis outscored the Rockets, 22-19 on 9-for-11 shooting. Heck, Nowitzki and Jose Calderon outscored them 21-19. Howard suddenly couldn’t buy a bucket, going 1-for-5 in the quarter, and he got stripped late by Nowitzki in the paint as everything fell apart. Harden missed shots and hopelessly chased foul calls. Chandler Parsons, 4-for-5 from beyond the arc and playing beautiful basketball with 11 assists through three quarters, didn’t take a 3 or dish a dime in the final 9:17 he played.
In the first three quarters, Houston scored 40, 28 and 33 points. Then poof. Again. Rockets fourth quarters are becoming as collapsible as a rickety lawn chair. One reason they’re now 8-5 and looking up in the standings at the surprising 8-4 Mavs.
“It’s growing pains,” Howard said afterward. “Something we have to learn from. We’re a young team. We’ve got to realize what we have in the locker room and what we can do as a team when we play the right way on both ends. We didn’t do that at the end of the game.”
No. 4: No tearful reunion for Hawks, J-Smoove — After recording more than 10,000 points, 1,400 blocks, 800 steals and (to the chagrin of Hawks fans) 900 3-point attempts, Josh Smith returned to Atlanta for the first time as a foe. Although Smith’s new team, the Pistons, ended up losing to the Hawks 93-85, Smith wasn’t getting overly emotional about his comeback. Our own Sekou Smith, who was around for much of J-Smoove’s rise and fall in Atlanta, has more on his return:
Wednesday night was supposed to be his moment, the first time homegrown star Josh Smith walked into Philips Arena as a member of the “other” team.
His first steps down that hallway he’d walked so many times was supposed to be cathartic, a chance for Smith to finally put his near-decade with the Hawks behind him. It was also a chance for the fans who endured that roller coaster ride from the impetuous, sky-walking teenage J-Smoove to the matured husband, father and veteran that is today’s Smith to either pay their last respects or bid him farewell in a not-so-special way.
The hype was better than the actual event itself. Smith was introduced to an equal smattering of cheers and boos, which is pretty much the way he was greeted throughout his tenure here. Few players in my years covering the league have inspired such a spirited split from the home fans, love and … hate is such a strong word, perhaps “loathe” is better, for the way they play the game.
The mixed bag is also what Smith expected, “a few cheers and a few boos,” he said. “But it’s all good.”
It certainly seems that way. There’s nothing to see here anymore. The time for holding grudges or being upset, on either side, is over. The moment has passed for Smith and for the Hawks, who chose to move on from their homegrown star in free agency this past summer when they allowed Smith to sign a four-year, $54 million contract with the Detroit Pistons without so much as making an offer to him.
Smith didn’t offer up any colorful soundbites. He noted that it was a bit surreal, the whole homecoming thing, and insisted that he wouldn’t let any of it affect him or his approach to the business at hand (his 5-for-15 shooting effort, 0-for-4 from beyond the 3-point line, much to the delight of the Hawks’ partisans in the crowd, would suggest otherwise).
He’s focused on the Pistons now, on making them better and on making sure he does whatever he can to enjoy the second chance he’s gotten in Detroit.
“I have to admit, it’s been humbling to play in front of those fans [in Detroit] with the way they support the home teams,” Smith said. “To play in a first-class organization that has the championship history that we have in Detroit, it’s something I had to experience to appreciate. It’s from the ownership level to the front office and coaching staff all the way down to the last man or woman in the organization. It’s just a different feel, and something that I never understood since I spent my entire career in one spot.”
The most surprising part for me, having covered Smith from his rookie season through his the trials and tribulations that preceded the Hawks’ six-year (and potentially counting, based on what we’ve seen from coach Mike Budenholzer‘s team so far) playoff run, was seeing the way the fans eased up on him from the start.
It was a pleasant surprise. One that you wish Smith’s father, Pete Smith, had been in his customary baseline seat closest to the Hawks’ bench to witness himself. He wasn’t able to do so since he was home battling off the ill effects of the flu.
It would have been nice for him to see that not everyone in this town holds his son in contempt now that everyone has moved on. I know deep down both father and son feel that Josh has never been properly appreciated for what he did to help revive the hometown franchise.
“I just hope they show my son a little love,” the elder Smith said by phone before the game. “I think he earned it, he deserves that much.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Lakers big man Pau Gasol is donating $1,000 for every point he scores Friday to the Typhoon Haiyan relief fund … The Bobcats, after last night’s win over the Nets, are looking more and more like a solid squad …
ICYMI Of The Night: Pacers star Paul George got a nice chasedown block in the season-opener against the Magic and recorded another solid one last night at the expense of Iman Shumpert …