Morning shootaround — Jan. 19



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING
KD, Thunder hit reset button | LeBron feeling fresh as ever | Cousins All-Star testimonials | Larry Sanders has every intention of resuming his NBA career | What makes the Hawks work at the top?

 

No. 1: Reset button pushed in Oklahoma City — The first half of this NBA season couldn’t have gone any worse for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Injuries to superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, for starters, derailed the normal plans. But at .500 near the halfway mark of their season and the main characters finally back in regular form, the Thunder have mashed the reset button with one of their toughest stretches of the season ahead. They are prepared as they could be for the gauntlet, writes Michael Wallace of ESPN.com:

By the time the Thunder put the finishing touches on a 127-99 rout of the Magic — after setting a franchise record with 79 points in the first half — the night was long done for the rotation regulars. But the reality is Oklahoma City’s work, essentially, is just beginning.

“Anytime you get a chance to sit out the fourth quarter, it feels good,” Durant said of the festive atmosphere around the Thunder’s bench down the stretch. “It’s good for us and great to see everyone smiling and happy after a win coming into the locker room.”

Durant, who had 21 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists through three quarters, enjoyed the scene from the bench too much to even think about coming back into the game to chase the two additional assists he needed to secure his first triple-double of the season.

But the reigning league MVP didn’t hesitate to make his strongest point of the night before he exited the visitors’ locker room at Amway Arena: “We have to keep fighting.”

The Magic didn’t put up much of a fight from the outset, which allowed the Thunder to cruise in the second half. That certainly won’t be the case over the course of the second half of the season. After posting their most dominant offensive performances in consecutive wins against Golden State and Orlando, the Thunder improved to 20-20 as they hit the midpoint of the schedule Tuesday in Miami.

The next four games on this five-game trip — at the Heat, Wizards, Hawks and Cavaliers — could either propel the Thunder firmly back into the playoff picture for the first time this season or push them into a sizable deficit that might be too steep to overcome in the ultra-competitive West.

Durant and the Thunder don’t need 20-20 vision to see that though a .500 record might be sufficient to garner the sixth seed in the East, it’ll land you in the lottery in the conference in which they compete. It’s why Durant left Sunday’s game delivering fighting words, considering what his squad is facing.

Now that they’ve endured the worst and have broken even, the Thunder seeks to hit the reset button.

Hampered by injuries to Durant (foot, ankle) and Westbrook (hand) that caused the two catalysts to miss a combined 37 games, Oklahoma City has gone from a team that struggled to find seven healthy players for a game to the healthiest the team has been all season.

***

No. 2: LeBron feeling fresh as ever after two week rest — The last three games have been the best LeBron James has played for the Cleveland Cavaliers. That’s his assessment, not anyone else’s. LeBron says the two weeks of rest he got to take care of a sore back and sore knee allowed him the time to rest and recharge for the monumental task of trying to restore order in Cleveland. Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com explains the change in LeBron:

After missing eight games to rest a sore back and a sore left knee, James made 34 of 65 shots (52.3 percent) with 33.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game against the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers last week.

The Cavs (21-20) finished the trip with back-to-back wins, which James hopes catalyzes his oft-injured squad. Cleveland went 1-7 without James.

“I know, for me personally, [the two-week layoff] helped me out a lot,” said James, whose Cavs play the Bulls on Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET. “I’ve felt better in the last three games than I did the whole season, the whole 30-plus games that I appeared in. We’ve had a 2-1 record since I’ve been back, so hopefully we can continue on that path.”

James’ three-game stretch was “outstanding” from a performance standpoint, coach David Blatt said. James also made 10 of 26 3s on the trip.

For the season, James’ 49.2 shooting percentage is his lowest since the 2008-09 season and his 26.0 points per game his lowest since his rookie year in 2003-04. He is averaging 5.5 rebounds per game, nearly 2 less than his career average of 7.2, though his assists average is up to 7.4 per game.

In late December, the Cavs lost center Anderson Varejao for the season to a torn Achilles. Guard Iman Shumpert, a recent acquisition via trade, is nursing a shoulder injury, and forward Kevin Love missed Friday’s 126-121 win over the Clippers with a back injury.

Love practiced Sunday and is officially questionable for the Bulls game.

“We’re starting to pick it up and guys are starting to get healthy, so I’m looking forward to seeing what we can become up until the All-Star break and even more than that,” James said.

***

No. 3: Cousins All-Star testimonials come from all over — Who says you can’t change minds about who and what you are in the NBA? Sacramento Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins has done exactly that with his performance this season, even with that extended absence stemming from his bout with viral meningitis. The testimonials to Cousins the All-Star are flowing in from all directions, including opposing coaches and perhaps most important, from his peers. James Ham of Cowbell Kingdom provides the details:

If you need more on why Cousins is an All-Star, here are a few testimonials from respected opposing coaches:

“He’s become a great young player.  He plays extremely hard.  He’s very physical.  He’s relentless.  He goes after everything.  He’s a great rebounder, and he’s got a great inside game.  He can drive it, he can shoot outside.  There’s no weakness in his offensive game, and defensively, he’s one of the top guys at taking charges.  He gives his body up, and he plays his butt off.  From afar, I’ve got great admiration for the growth of his game.” – Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle

“I think he’s been amazing.  I’m so proud of him. I really am.  Listen, he’s an opponent, but I’m a fan of the league and when you watch a young kid like this grow up… he’s grown up emotionally.  His game has grown up.  I think he’s the best low-post player in the league, and he’s doing it every night.  He’s doing more than just scoring, he’s doing everything.  So I’m just very proud of him.” –Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers

Rivers would go on to say that in his mind, Cousins is an All-Star.  And so will almost every coach in the league when asked point blank.

If the coaches he plays against aren’t enough, how about a quote from NBA All-Star Blake Griffin?

“Absolutely,” forward Blake Griffin told Cowbell Kingdom when asked if Cousins is an All-Star.  “The way he’s played is incredible and you can’t deny his production, his numbers.  You saw what happened when he wasn’t playing, but I say this every year – there are guys that deserve to play in the All-Star game that unfortunately don’t get to play in the All-Star game.”

***

No. 4: Larry Sanders has every intention of resuming his NBA career Larry Sanders is not done. Far from it, if you believe what sources close to him are saying, his current issues can be worked out. Sanders vows that he will put an end to the extra carricular activities and stick to the business of NBA basketball going forward. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports has more:

Sanders wants to continue his basketball career and has been coming to the realization league rules won’t permit that unless he stops testing positive as part of the league’s drug program, sources said.

Whether Sanders will play again in Milwaukee remains unclear. A new ownership group and new coach have found a measure of success without needing to depend on Sanders. The revitalized Bucks could seek to pursue a contract buyout with Sanders, but that’s a discussion that’s yet to take place with Sanders’ representatives.

At his best, Sanders has proven to be a dominant defensive player and an emerging offensive threat. Sanders has been marginally productive since signing a four-year, $44 million contract extension in 2013. Nevertheless, suspensions and injuries have derailed his career over the past two seasons with the Bucks.

Sanders had been suspended for the final five games of the 2013-14 season for a positive marijuana test. Under league rules, his next positive test and suspension called for the 10-game suspension without pay.

***

No. 5: Why the Hawks work as the No. 1 team in the East — Convenient explanations have evaded us all in trying to figure out the Atlanta Hawks. But there is no denying this star-less bunch through the first half of the season. They are absolutely legit and true contender right now. How they could do this requires keen observation and a discerning eye. Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution offers up his own theory as to why the Hawks work as the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference:

Here are five reasons (and there are plenty more) for the Hawks first-half success:

Defense

It took a season and a handful of games for coach Mike Budenholzer to hammer home one point to his team. Yes, they can score. However, this team won’t win without a commitment to defense.

“I think our defense is moving in the right direction,” Budenholzer said. “It’s allowed us to have a little bit of success. But I think we’ve all seen if we are not good defensively, we are probably a very average team. We want to keep getting better there.”

The Hawks are fifth in the NBA in defensive efficiency at 99.8. Only the Warriors, Rockets, Bucks and Trail Blazers are better in the stat that tracks the number of points a team allows per 100 possessions.

Also, consider these top-10 numbers. The Hawks are tied for first in the league in opposition points allowed at 96.6. With a ranking of sixth overall in points scored (103.3), they are second in differential at plus-6.7. They are fourth in opponent points per shot (1.16), fifth in steals (9.0) and opponent field goal percentage (.437), seventh in opponent 3-point field goal percentage (.337) and eighth in turnovers (15.3).

“Defensively they are very connected,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “They play very hard and their numbers bear that out.”

Healthy Horford

The Hawks’ two-time All-Star center is back from a torn right pectoral muscle that cost him last season after 29 games. The team brought Horford along slowly, but it is clear he is at 100 percent now. Horford is a big part of the Hawks offense. The pick-and-roll game with Jeff Teague was lost last season. The Boss is back.

“I think the most important thing is they have an All-Star in Horford who is healthy,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Early this season, he didn’t have the rust off the pipes, so to speak. Now he does.”

Horford is averaging 15.2 points and 6.6 rebounds this season. However, In January, he is averaging 17.0 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists. His shooting percentage, especially midrange, is again a staple of the Hawks offense. In the past four games, Horford is 27 of 32 (.844) from the field.

In addition, the chemistry between Paul Millsap and Horford has gotten better. While many think they are essentially the same player, the Hawks look at the combination as an advantage. So do opposing coaches.

“You forget that Horford is an All-Star type player,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He has already shown that. He is one of the elite bigs in the league. You add in Millsap it’s a tough cover. Their bigs can shoot. They can put it on the floor. They can post. They have a lot of weapons.”

Road warriors

The Hawks are winning on the road in impressive fashion. They are 17-5 away from Philips Arena, the most road wins of any team in the NBA. They also have the best winning percentage in the league away from home.

The Hawks currently have a 12-game road win streak. The run includes a just completed four games in five nights. They own road wins against the likes of the Rockets, Mavericks, Trail Blazers, Clippers, Wizards, Cavaliers, Raptors and Bulls.

The Hawks were 14-27 on the road last season.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Veteran forward Tayshaun Prince is exploring all of his optionsMichael Beasley is following the lead of Steph Marbury and others before him and tearing it up in China … The Phoenix Suns are shopping Miles Plumlee … The NBA’s Aussie Invasion was on full display with four men from Down Under playing in games at the same time Sunday night

ICYMI of The Night: Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks quarterback) wasn’t the only “Russell” showing off Sunday. Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder quarterback, so to speak) did his thing as well:


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook can get up off the floor with ease

6 Comments

  1. harriethehawk says:

    It feels good to see the Hawks at the top. Let’s Go!

  2. dustydreamnz says:

    4. Larry Sanders is always in trouble for something new, hope he finally works it out because he is talented.
    5. Anyone who doubts the Hawks isn’t watching their games.
    Miles Plumlee is a predictable trade, the Suns need a SF. I like PJ Tucker but would prefer him not to start.

  3. johnny dawson says:

    If pot is legal in Colorado, does that mean that the Nuggets get to smoke? Wouldn’t it make more sense to let the players have their game do the talking? If a player can smoke pot and still do well on the court, what is the problem?

  4. Nick says:

    If Clevelend would play real basketball as it was designed to be played like the Spurs and Hawks there would be no stopping them

  5. TL says:

    hawks are winning because they are unselfish and play team basketball. no one looks to play hero like kobe or harden. they rely on each other and they trust each other, on both ends of floor.

    if you look at spurs it’s the same thing. people say spurs have the big 3, but that’s not really true – they are too old. they are nowhere near the elite players today. however, they all buy into pop’s system and play great team basketball, and they proved that they can win that way.

    so it’s great to see another team like this that are winning..

    warriors is actually not too different, though they do have some great players. but if you look at them, curry is also the type of player who really trusts his teammate. if you look at their end-of-game situation, he doesn’t play iso very often. he usually looks to see who’s hot or who has an advantage. therefore, many of their players have taken the last shot.. like curry, lee, iguodala, harrison barns, klay thompson, and so on.