Morning shootaround — March 27


VIDEO: Highlights from game played on March 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

James Harden makes MVP case | Pacers clinging to playoff hopes | Crawford says he’ll be back | Amar’e to stick with Dallas?

No. 1: James Harden makes MVP case With the season nearing an end, the MVP talk around the MVP race is heading up. Stephen Curry? Russell Westbrook? LeBron James? Anthony Davis? Or what about in Houston, where James Harden has been perhaps the best offensive player in the NBA this season? USA Today‘s Sam Amick caught up with Harden, who made his case for why he deserves your MVP vote…

“I think if you look at what I’ve been doing all year, only missing one game all year because of the situation (with seemingly-endless injuries to teammates), basically having to carry a load all year, being consistent from the first game of the season,” Harden said. “That should show it right there. But like I said, (the focus is) for me to go out there and continue doing what I’m doing, being consistent, is all I can do.”

And getting to the free throw line at an unmatched rate. Harden — who has converted on 86.6% of free throw attempts — is on pace to lead the league in free throw attempts for the second time in three seasons (10.1 per game). Last season’s leader in that category was the Thunder’s reigning MVP, Kevin Durant (9.9).

“I’m enjoying the whole process of these last (few) games, just trying to win games,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing since Dwight has been out. I don’t really keep track of the other (MVP candidates) or what they’re doing. Obviously everybody knows that Russ is going on a triple-double rally. He’s playing extremely well and they’re fighting for the eighth spot. But all those guys you named (Curry, Westbrook, James, Davis and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers) are very good players, or very talented players. For me, I just focus on what I can control and going out there and doing the best I can do every single right.”

In trying to explain his own MVP-caliber campaign, Harden said his comfort level in the not-so-new surroundings have been key. It’s his third season in Houston, where he came via trade in October 2012 and has progressively found his way as a leader ever since.

“All I needed was time,” he said of the Houston experience. “All I needed was to know what I had around me. And now that I know it, I’m comfortable with it and I can be a great leader. I think that’s probably one of the reasons I’m so successful is that I’m comfortable. I think if you’re comfortable in any situation, and you know what’s going on and you know what you’re going to get, you’re going to be successful.

“It’s about having a good time, about enjoying it, enjoying the grind. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably not doing good.”

***

No. 2: Pacers clinging to playoff hopes A month ago, the Indiana Pacers were firmly in the mix in the Eastern Conference playoff race. But now the Pacers have lost 7 of their last 8 games, including last night against Milwaukee, and with ten games remaining, as of today the Pacers would be out of the playoff picture. The Pacers have been behind in the first quarter of their last ten games. And as Candace Buckner writes in the Indianapolis Star, even with this recent swoon the Pacers are still in the playoff mix

“We’re starting off bad, starting off slow,” C.J. Watson said. “If we don’t get down by 15 or 20, I think we have a chance to win the game in a better position.”

Actually, more than a chance. The Pacers outscored Milwaukee in the remaining three quarters and even made 5-of-10 3-point attempts in the fourth, led by Hill who drained his fourth triple of the quarter with 5:41 remaining. Another come-from-behind moment seemed destined as Indiana pulled to within 94-92. However, Michael Carter-Williams, before fouling out late in the fourth, padded the Bucks’ lead with a layup while getting fouled. Carter-Williams made the free throw and for the duration of the game, Milwaukee retained their small distance, but a distance nonetheless.

After a timeout with 11.6 seconds remaining and the Pacers trailing 110-107, the ball remained in Hill’s hands as he zipped down the lane and back out to the perimeter. Then, Hill, with a Bucks’ big man closing in, pulled from the 3-point arc but the shot teasingly rolled about the rim and ultimately fell out.

“It was probably the best feeling shot all day,” said Hill, who finished with 24 points, five assists and five turnovers. “Just the worst result.”

C.J. Miles led the Pacers with 26 points and Watson scored 23, mainly by getting to the free throw line and making 13-of-15 attempts.

For the Bucks, Ilyasova outpaced all with a career-high 34 points and Milwaukee (36-36) won its second straight after losing six in a row. Something the Pacers know something about.

Only in the 2014-15 Eastern Conference can a team drop six consecutive games, finally win once and still be in the thick of the playoff hunt like nothing ever changed – just like Indiana did with a win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday. Before the game in Milwaukee, Vogel pondered this oddity.

“Well,” Vogel said, starting to chuckle. “I’m just thankful that it’s that way because losing six straight in March when you’re on the cusp of the eighth seed… that could be a death sentence, and hasn’t been so far but we still have a lot of basketball to play and fortunate that we’re still in the mix.”

Yet, with the constant slow starts, the Pacers have pulled themselves back out of the picture. Though Indiana started the night with the identical record of the eighth-seeded Boston Celtics, the loss lowers the Pacers to a half game behind for the final playoff spot.

***

No. 3: Crawford says he’ll be back The Los Angeles Clippers have had their share of injuries this season, and now that Blake Griffin is back from a staph infection, the Clippers are awaiting the return of Jamal Crawford. As one of the NBA’s best scorer’s off the bench, Crawford would strengthen the Clippers’ bench and give them much-needed depth in the backcourt, especially in the postseason when rotations shorten. Crawford has been out for almost a month with a bruised calf, which he calls the “weirdest” injury of his career. Crawford still isn’t running, but as Ben Bolch writes in the Los Angeles Times, Crawford believes he’ll be back this season

“It’s hard not playing,” said Crawford, who is not traveling with the team on its current three-game trip, “but I just look at it as each day is a little closer to coming back. The team is playing well and I see my family a little more, so I’m trying to look at the positives.”

Crawford sustained the injury March 2 when a Minnesota Timberwolves player bumped into him. He has resumed shooting and seemed confident he could accelerate his recovery soon, even though Clippers Coach Doc Rivers recently described Crawford as “idling” in his comeback.

“It’s just a slow process because this is a sensitive area,” said Crawford, who has had his calf drained to promote healing. “This is probably the weirdest [injury] because you just don’t see it happen in basketball.”

Crawford, 35, is familiar with the downside to coming back from an injury prematurely. He returned in late March of last season after missing eight of the nine previous games because of a strained left calf. After playing in five games, he had to sit out the next five when the calf became aggravated.

Asked whether he was concerned his current injury might end his season, Crawford said, “No, I’m not worried. I believe I’ll be fine.”

***

No. 4: Amar’e to stick with Dallas? When the Knicks bought out Amar’e Stoudemire, the big man had several teams interested in his services for the stretch run. Stoudemire chose the Mavericks, and, as Tim McMahon writes for ESPN Dallas, it looks like the relationship will extend beyond just this season…

At 32 with chronic knee issues, Stoudemire is no longer the athletic freak he was during his high-flying Phoenix days, when he routinely soared high above the rim to catch lobs from Nash and finish in highlight fashion. But Stoudemire remains plenty capable of providing scoring punch off a playoff team’s bench and plans to continue doing so for a long time to come, speculating that he could play five or six years with the proper maintenance.

The Mavs — who signed Stoudemire for the veterans minimum after he received an All-Star break buyout from the final season of his five-year, $99.7 million contract with the New York Knicks — will be among the teams expressing interest in him this summer. He’s been productive as the Mavs’ backup center, averaging an efficient 9.8 points and 3.4 rebounds in 15.8 minutes per game.

Owner Mark Cuban has made it clear that he’d like Stoudemire to stay in Dallas, comparing him to Vince Carter, another former perennial All-Star who contributed in a reserve role for the Mavs.

“I love Amar’e — love, love, love the guy,” Cuban said. “There’s not enough superlatives. He’s just a great guy on the court and off. I just love his physicality. He just wants to win and is a great guy.”

Stoudemire chose the Mavs over several other suitors last month, so clearly there’s mutual interest. Money, minutes and maximizing the chances of winning his first championship — not necessarily in that order — will likely be the biggest factors in Stoudemire’s decision this summer.

The Mavs will probably offer Stoudemire a significant piece of their midlevel exception. Stoudemire, who says he can “compete at a high level for years to come,” will likely request a multiyear deal.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Isaiah Thomas is not thrilled with the way Dwyane Wade stared at him after he was injured … Metta World Peace has signed with a team in Italy … The Clippers will wait and see before re-signing Nate Robinson to another 10-day contract … The Wizards will waive the injured Touré Murray and sign Will Bynum to replace him … The Jazz have waived Ian Clark and signed Chris Johnson … Steph Curry sent his shoes from All-Star weekend to the family of a murdered fan

One Comment

  1. harriethehawk says:

    The MVP decision is going to be a toss up between James Harden and Steph Curry. But winning counts and Curry will win.