NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Cats clinch — The Charlotte Bobcats defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 96-94 in overtime last night to clinch a playoff berth for only the second time in franchise history. This is a big moment for the Bobcats franchise, but they aren’t happy to settle for simply a chance in the playoffs. They want to win some series and show that this season has not just been a fluke for this defensive-minded squad led by Al Jeffereson, Kemba Walker and first year head coach Steve Clifford. Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer has more on the story:
The NBA playoffs technically start for the Charlotte Bobcats in two weeks. But tri-captain Gerald Henderson’s message, following Saturday’s post-season clinching 96-94 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, was a good kind of greedy.
“Wednesday we’re playing (sixth-place) Washington. We’re going after them,” said Henderson, who made two huge jump shots in Saturday’s overtime victory. “That’s a playoff game.”
Jefferson was essential to the Bobcats’ turnaround from two seasons that added up to 21-120. He signed as a free agent in July, providing a go-to scoring option this franchise had never really had before.
Did he see playoffs off in the horizon when the team assembled for voluntary workouts in September?
“In September we didn’t have to be there, and everybody was,” Jefferson recalled. “The first day of training camp, I said, ‘If we commit ourselves to the things we need to do, we have a chance.”
First-year head coach Steve Clifford specifically avoided setting any firm goals, as far as victories, because he wasn’t sure what he had in camp. By the end of the preseason it became apparent this team would guard well, rebound better than Bobcats history suggests, and minimize turnovers and fouls.
That’s been the formula all season, and Clifford’s intense pride in the people in that locker room came through post-game.
“That’s a really good locker room – a bunch of guys who are deserving,” said Clifford, a serious candidate for NBA Coach of the Year. “One of our particular strengths all year has been the character and competitiveness of that group. The team was put together with that as the focus.”
While everyone was happy Saturday, this moment seemed particularly special to Henderson, point guard Kemba Walker (20 points and seven assists) and backup center Bismack Biyombo – the remaining three who suffered through 7-59 and then 21-61.
Henderson was technically on the playoff team in the spring of 2010, but never played in those games. He noted he’s playing meaningful basketball for the first time since his days at Duke.
Walker, who went from Connecticut’s national championship to the mess that was 7-59, put it this way: “We’ve been the worst two teams in the NBA. That to now? Night and Day!”
VIDEO: Arena Link: Kemba Walker
No. 2: Garnett returns — The Brooklyn Nets have improved greatly since their horrific 10-21 start to the season and they have done much of this improvement without Kevin Garnett in the lineup after he missed the past 19 games with back spasms. Garnett returned to the Nets last night and delivered 10 points, four rebounds and one assist, block and steal each against the Philadelphia 76ers. Andrew Keh of The New York Times has more on what Garnett’s energy and experience mean to Brooklyn:
Kevin Garnett’s coach and teammates were teasing him Saturday morning, calling him a rookie. It had been so long since Garnett, 37, had joined them on the court that he seemed like a new player on the Nets.
These, of course, were gibes of endearment toward Garnett, a 19-year veteran. “They’re happy to see the rookie back,” Coach Jason Kidd said with a smile.
The Nets have six games before the postseason, and Garnett’s presence may kick their preparations into a higher gear.
“His stat line might not show the numbers we all might have seen in the past, when he was younger,” Kidd said of Garnett, “but he’s the glue of this team, and he’s helped us to where we are today, so we’re happy to have him back.”
Concerns about his health were emphatically answered just after halftime, when he went on a multiplay rampage around the court that was punctuated with a leaping one-handed block on Michael Carter-Williams. Garnett let out a yell in midair.
“It feels good to be back on the floor,” Garnett said. “It feels good to be fluid. It feels good to be able to jump and move. You take for granted certain movements and certain things.”
The Nets had excelled without Garnett, compiling a 14-5 record. But while he remained out of the public eye, his coach and teammates said he was almost as vocal a presence as he had been on the active roster.
“It was the same voice, but just behind closed doors,” said the rookie Mason Plumlee, who started the 19 games Garnett missed.
On Saturday, Garnett was finally on the court and in team huddles. His name was the third called during introductions and received the loudest response — cheers and boos in equal measure — from the crowd.
Garnett won the opening tip-off and grabbed his first rebound after about a minute. He scored his first basket, an alley-oop layup with an assist from Paul Pierce, about two minutes into the game, and fought inside a minute and a half later to sink another basket from close range.
After 4 minutes 15 seconds, Garnett went to the bench, slipped on his warm-up gear and draped a towel over his legs. He sat a few inches higher than his teammates, propped up on some seat cushions, presumably to keep his back from tightening up.
“I’m just glad I didn’t mess anything up,” Garnett said. “The guys were playing great without me.”
VIDEO: KG Returns
No. 3: Teams interested in Gasol — Pau Gasol has been through a lot during his seven seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. However, Gasol can leave the bright lights of Los Angeles (and the uncertainties of the team’s future) behind this offseason as an unrestricted free agent. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated reports that Gasol will be coveted by a number of teams:
This is the kind of year a player with Gasol’s pedigree might want out of. And with two weeks to go, maybe he has: A nasty case of vertigo has forced Gasol to miss five of the last six games and put him on the shelf indefinitely.
Deep down, it’s doubtful the Lakers care. With [Kobe] Bryant in street clothes, with [Steve] Nash doing the medical equivalent of duct taping his body back together and with the NBA’s worst roster this side of Philadelphia, the Lakers are built to lose. They have the NBA’s sixth-worst record and fourth-worst point differential. They have an offense that struggles to score (21st in offensive efficiency) and a defense that can’t stop anyone (28th in defensive efficiency).
Fans, frankly, seem fine with it: They know the Lakers’ future is brighter with a high percentage shot at [NBA prospects] Andrew Wiggins or Dante Exum than a few meaningless wins.
In 2006-2007, Gasol was part of 22-win team in Memphis, another defenseless bunch that Gasol didn’t join until 23 games into the season because of a broken foot he suffered the summer before.
Gasol remembers the frustration of that season, but it doesn’t compare to this.
“It’s a little different being with the Lakers, a franchise that is known for being successful, that has high expectations every year,” Gasol said. “The good thing here is that we get sellouts, we get an extremely nice crowd of people that are supportive through this struggle. In Memphis, the stands were half empty. That was rough. We would play at home and we needed that extra energy that your fans give you. That’s what we get here. It was frustrating in Memphis but it’s tougher here because of the support we get.”
Gasol understands this car wreck of a season is probably a necessary evil for the Lakers. Bryant was never going to be Bryant, not this year anyway. And Nash’s once-promising tenure with L.A. effectively ended when the effects of small fracture Nash suffered at the beginning of last season rippled through his body like a tsunami. The two-year, $48.5 million contract Bryant signed last November established the window the Lakers have to win a championship with their aging star and the only realistic way to do that is to stink bad enough to be in position to land one of the franchise-changing talents that are expected to be available at the top of the draft.
Gasol has to know his chances of being a part of that window are slim.
Neither side will rule out a Gasol return (which would have to be at a steep discount from the $19.3 million Gasol will make this season) but throw in Gasol’s problems playing for Mike D’Antoni and it doesn’t appear to be a top priority for either.
Gasol, though, will have options. A poll of NBA executives on Gasol’s future returned many of the same answers: Chicago. Cleveland. Charlotte, if the Bobcats believe a Gasol-Al Jefferson front line can stop anybody. Memphis, if Zach Randolph opts out. Even after a disappointing season — and with the understanding that Gasol has never been a strap-a-team-on-his-back kind of player — Gasol will be among the most sought after free agents on the market.
“There are a couple thoughts out there on Pau,” says an Eastern Conference executive. “Some people say he is worn out, that he is too far past his prime to really help a contender. There are others that think that LA, that environment the past two season, that style of play has destroyed him and if he goes somewhere else, plays with a different coach, he might be rejuvenated. I could see someone who thinks the latter paying him $10 million a year.”
“I want to be in a team that is going to be built to win a championship,” Gasol said. “That’s my top priority. Money won’t be the main priority. Length and money are factors, but we’ll see. Until I know all the options, I won’t be able to measure them. But we’re getting close to the end of my career. I want to be in a good situation. It’s an important decision to make.”
No. 4: Talk of Bucks’ sale premature? — ESPN.com and Grantland.com writer Bill Simmons set the NBA world (well, at least the Milwaukee Bucks-following NBA world) ablaze with the following tweet Saturday morning:
Bucks owner Herb Kohl has long been seeking a new owner for the team — particularly one who is dedicated to keeping the team in Wisconsin — and this report made it seem like Kohl’s wishes might be coming true. But Don Walker of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that talk of a sale of the Bucks might not be happening as soon as is thought:
Steve Greenberg of Allen & Co., the New York based firm that former senator Herb Kohl retained to bring in new Milwaukee Bucks investors, said Saturday the process is ongoing, adding that reports out Saturday of a possible sale were premature.
“There is a lot of speculation out there,” Greenberg told the Journal Sentinel. “There is an active and ongoing process with respect to the Bucks. But we are not going to comment on speculation.”
Greenberg, who is representing Kohl in the sale process, said it was “premature to make any sort of announcement of a possible sale. We do not intend on saying anything publicly.”
Earlier Saturday, ESPN analyst Bill Simmons said on Twitter that the Bucks were close to being sold, pending league approval.
Greenberg acknowledged that he had been receiving calls on Saturday in connection with Simmons’ post and contacted the Journal Sentinel to clear the air.
At least in the eyes of the National Basketball Association and Commissioner Adam Silver, a new arena is self-evident. The league and Silver have already said the BMO Harris Bradley Center is dated by league standards and a new arena is needed or should be under construction by the time the Bucks’ lease at the arena ends in 2017.
A Bucks team official said Saturday he had no knowledge of a possible sale.
Milwaukee business leaders serving on a Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce task force are currently studying ways to finance a new arena. The task force retained the Hammes Co., which has experience in finding ways to finance sports arenas and stadiums.
Last week, the Journal Sentinel reported that the task force had essentially concluded that retrofitting the BMO Harris Bradley Center was not feasible.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kyrie Irving scored a career-high 44 points last night in an overtime loss to the Bobcats. … The Pistons’ Andre Drummond erupted for 19 points and 20 rebounds in a 115-111 win over the Celtics. … Bobcats’ rookie Cody Zeller recorded his first career double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. … The Jazz claimed rookie Erik Murphy off waivers. … The Sixers loss to the Nets last night was their 60th loss on the season. This is the first time their franchise has lost 60 games since the 1996-97 season.
ICYMI OF THE NIGHT: Most notably destroyed by DeAndre Jordan, Brandon Knight has been on the bad end of too many dunk facials. The Milwaukee Bucks’ point guard got his revenge last night, though, with an impressive crossover and huge throwdown over the Toronto Raptors’ Jonas Valacunias …
VIDEO: Knight Gets Nasty