VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 31
NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Gasol: Bulls lack discipline — After more than half a season of struggling to operate consistently on a high level, reality has set in for Pau Gasol and the Chicago Bulls. After Sunday’s listless effort in a loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles, their second worst loss of the season, reality has set in for a team thought to be a legitimate contender this season. The Bulls’ lack of discipline has cost them and will continue to do so, perhaps even tonight in Utah against the Jazz (9 ET, League Pass), writes Nick Friedell of ESPN.com:
Pau Gasol has been in the NBA long enough to be painfully honest.
That’s why the 15-year veteran was so blunt in the criticism of his own team after Sunday’s disheartening 120-93 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
“We’re not disciplined,” Gasol said. “Yep. We’re not. That’s it. It’s true. It’s a fact.”
The Chicago Bulls are so unpredictable that they have become predictable. When they play well, as they did in an impressive win against the hapless Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night, they are not able to sustain the solid play. Their six-game winning streak a month ago was the outlier, not the rule.
“It’s been the story of the year,” Bulls guard Derrick Rose said. “The story of the year. If I could put a finger on it, I swear I would. I watch a lot of basketball, and the only thing I can think of is just that effort and sticking with the game plan.”
The Bulls’ single biggest flaw, aside from the fact that players such as Doug McDermott, Tony Snell and Nikola Mirotic have not proven to be as good as advertised this year after being given plenty of opportunities, is that this group just isn’t as mentally tough as it has been in years past. Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg has discussed the issue several times during the season and was again frustrated with the lack of passionate play at times on Sunday. To blame the issues on Hoiberg, the first-year head coach, wouldn’t be fair, because the troubles the Bulls are having with inconsistencies are the same ones that started to creep up last season in Tom Thibodeau‘s final year at the helm.
The Bulls’ problem is they don’t seem to have any clue how to fix the problems. More than halfway through the season, this is who they are: an inconsistent bunch of athletes who still don’t appear to enjoy playing with one another.
“We’re letting guys do whatever they want to do out there,” All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler said. “Not putting bodies on people, not rebounding, letting guys get to their strengths. That’s the will if you want to. Defense is all about toughness. When we’re not guarding anybody, we don’t look very tough.”
Stop me if you’ve heard that before.
Bulls players are sick of talking about the problems, but not enough to create change from within.
“You’ve just got to keep talking about it,” Hoiberg said of trying to build up the mental toughness that hasn’t been there all year. “That’s what you got to do. You’ve got to fight through it. Again, I’ve been saying this all year. I hate to sound like a broken record. We are a really good team when things are going well. We can go out there and play with a swagger and a confidence. But we lose that, we lose that when things aren’t going well. They scored 69 points in the second half. You ain’t beating anybody when that happens.”
VIDEO: Bulls lose to Clippers in L.A.
No. 2: LeBron has high praise for Coach Lue — The sample size isn’t huge. But the immediate reaction to Tyronn Lue‘s coaching style in Cleveland, at least from the most important player in Cleveland, is nothing but positive. LeBron James refrained from sharing his thoughts about Lue’s predecessor, David Blatt, but he’s been effusive in his praise for Lue and the changes he’s made since taking over the top job. Our very own Steve Aschburner was in Cleveland over the weekend to observe the new vibe the Cavaliers will take into tonight’s matchup against the Indiana Pacers (7 ET, NBA TV):
Without time to break down the video, LeBron James wasn’t prepared to say that the Cavaliers’ 117-103 victory over the mighty San Antonio Spurs was his team’s most impressive of the season.
But no one had to call in the Elias Sports Bureau to identify a different but equally important superlative: James set some sort of personal best Saturday for the number of times he mentioned his head coach in the noisy postgame dressing room.
It was noisy because James’ personal music player was blasting through the room, loudly, its hard, vulgar lyrics bleeding into and drowning out video and audio interviews with teammates Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving while the Cavaliers superstar showered, dressed and savored the victory. James only turned it down — not off — when he was ready to do his “media.”
And when he did, he came with a torrent of direct and indirect references to Tyronn Lue, the lead assistant promoted to head coach when David Blatt was fired the previous week. Counting all variations — “Coach Lue,” “coach” and “he” — James mentioned Lue 16 times in slightly less than six minutes.
Sixteen? James might not have mentioned Blatt 16 times in any month in the season and a half they were together. Certainly not as glowingly, as respectfully, as deferentially as he talked up Lue late Saturday. As in:
“Coach Lue has done a great job of clearing the air of what he expects out of all of us. Including Kev, a big focal part of our team. … Coach Lue wants to defend. … For us, Coach Lue is the captain. He’s the captain of the ship. And we’ve got to do whatever it takes, and do whatever he barks out.”
We get it. Between James’ lavish praise of Lue and the boss-is-gone, crank-that-thing-up-to-11 atmosphere in the locker room, this is a looser, happier, more free Cavs team with Blatt gone. At least, a looser, happier, more free Cavs leader.
And whether that alone gets Cleveland on its merry way — or whether it’s some stew of strategy tweaks offensively and defensively installed by Lue, a level of trust and friendship with the new guy that didn’t exist with the old, a full shouldering of responsibility now that the chief scapegoat is gone and a bunch of stuff that was going to happen regardless as winter turned to NBA spring — James, Irving, Love and the rest were all smiles and earnestness after pushing their post-Blatt record to 4-1.
No. 3: Middleton plays second fiddle no more — He’s no All-Star, but Khris Middleton has arrived. The Bucks’ swingman, who will be in action tonight when the Bucks play the Sacramento Kings at Sleep Train Arena (10 ET, NBA TV), is the clear-cut leader of the pack in Milwaukee. Lori Nickel of the Journal Sentinel has more:
So often, Khris Middleton was the other story. The sidebar, the subhead, the second thought.
When he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in July 2013, some might have considered him the throw-in of the Brandon Knight-for-Brandon Jennings swap.
When the 6-foot-8 shooting guard signed his five-year, $70million contract extension last summer, the Bucks held a news conference that paired him and Greg Monroe, a coveted free agent who made the bigger splash by signing a three-year, $50 million contract.
“I worked out with him before the draft — and I was the big-time draft pick,” Bucks forward John Henson said of Middleton. “He was the second-rounder, grinding, traveling every week, coming in and out.
“It’s been good seeing him become a success story.”
At last, he has arrived. The 24-year-old Middleton has started to play like a key figure and the future for this franchise that so badly needs it. He has shown he can be Milwaukee’s go-to scorer, aggressive passer and improved game finisher — averaging a team-high 17.7 points while chipping in 4 assists in 35.9 minutes per game.
“We’re on the brink of deciding to be a playoff team or some team that isn’t, and his actions are speaking louder than his words,” said Henson. “He’s playing as hard as he can every night — and carrying us some nights.”
This is what Middleton wanted all along. He kept it to himself — which is pretty typical —but this is what he envisioned when he was traded to Milwaukee after a rookie year in Detroit noted mostly for injuries. He said he was promised playing time if he came to Milwaukee in good shape.
“When I got traded, I definitely looked at it as a positive,” said Middleton .
His first year with the Bucks, in the 2013-’14 season, Middleton showed potential — he averaged 12 points and 30 minutes per game — but he also struggled, especially at the end of games. He had to work on that — not on how to make the shots, but how to handle it when the shots didn’t fall.
“We had a lot of close games, we were losing games,” said Middleton. “Failing in those opportunities — when the game was close? And we needed a bucket or a stop? I wasn’t able to come through. It’s just…something that you get comfortable with as time goes on. You’re OK with failing, as long as you’re trying as hard as you can.
“Now, I’m not afraid. Or getting myself down about missing shots or missing an assignment late. The game goes on. You’ve got another chance. That’s definitely a mental thing.”
No. 4: Warriors’ other All-Stars carve up Knicks — The Golden State Warriors are not a one-man show, even if it seems like during those times when Stephen Curry is playing like he’s in his own galaxy. The Warriors have two other All-Stars, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, who took turns carving up the New York Knicks Sunday at Madison Square Garden. Thompson recorded his third straight game with at least 32 points while Green collected his league-leading ninth triple-double. It was an educational experience, of sorts, for the upstart Knicks, writes Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:
It was just another day at the office for what may be the best team in NBA history. The Knicks offered no resistance.
Despite a poor night from star Stephen Curry, the Warriors blasted New York on Sunday evening, 116-95, behind a second-half surge, a triple-double from Draymond Green (20 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) and a big night from Klay Thompson (34 points, 14-for-18 shooting).
The victory improved Golden State’s record to 44-4, which is on pace to break the NBA record for most wins in a season (72). The Knicks (23-27), losers of five of their last six, kept it close until the third quarter, when the Warriors took a 17-point lead and cruised to the inevitable, merciful conclusion.
Green and Thompson carved up New York’s outmatched defense as the visitors shot 59 percent, including 16-for-29 from beyond the arc.
In a game devoid of drama, Carmelo Anthony dropped 24 points in 36 minutes. Kristaps Porzingis was a non-factor with 14, and Arron Afflalo was especially awful while shooting 2-for-12 with five points. In his last six games, the misfiring Afflalo has made just 25 of his 78 attempts.
“You just have to make them work and keep competing, and know that they’re going to make shots,” Knicks coach Derek Fisher said before the game. “They’re going to score points. You’re going to play great defense. They’re still going to score. You’ll play great defense. They’re still going to score. They’ll get an offensive rebound, kick it out to somebody, and they’ll make a three. You just have to find ways to keep playing the game and not give in to the ups and downs of it.”
The Knicks gave in Sunday and reiterated what was already known: they’re not a title contender.
The blowout defeat occurred despite just 13 points on 5-of-17 shooting from Curry.
“I just think you’ve got to be willing and not worried about being embarrassed,” Fisher said about defending Curry.
“Guys are so sensitive about being on the highlight,” Fisher said. “Their job is to play down in front of the world. Don’t worry about the highlight. Just keep guarding, and keep playing. If he makes a three in your face, fine. If he crosses you over, fine. The next time he comes back, you should still be standing right there.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Thunder could get rookie point guard Cameron Payne (concussion) back in the rotation for tonight’s game against the Wizards … The Spurs will play their fourth straight game without Tim Duncan tonight when they host the Orlando Magic … Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat steamrolled Southeast Division rival Atlanta for their fourth straight win …Detroit rookie Stanley Johnson refuses to back down on defense …