VIDEO: Highlights from Thursday’s games
NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Irving says Cavs still ‘team to beat’ in NBA — The Cleveland Cavaliers have already matched last season’s win total (53) with seven games to play. They seem to have a solid grip on the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They are also, however, 2-2 in their last four games and have looked a bit shaky at times since the All-Star break. Cavs star guard Kyrie Irving isn’t hearing any of that doubt, though, and had some strong words to say about his team’s place in the NBA hierarchy after last night’s win against the Brooklyn Nets, writes Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com:
“We’re still to the team to beat honestly, regardless of what anybody else says,” he said after the 107-87 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday. “‘[Pundits talking about] what we need and what we don’t need and what we need to get better at. . . . ‘ Us internally, we know we have to improve on a lot of things but we’ve just got to handle business as professionals and continue to get better.”
Clarification was needed. I asked him if he’s saying the Cavaliers are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference or in the entire league. He didn’t backtrack.
“I feel like we’re the team to beat,” he replied. “Honestly, it’s open season until we get into the playoffs. I’ve got a lot more confidence than I think that anyone realizes in our team and what’s going on in our locker room.”
Their latest victory put them at 53 wins for the season, the total they accumulated last season. When LeBron James was informed of Irving’s comments, he didn’t completely join in on the “we’re the team to beat” narrative.
“I think we’re all confident in our ability when we’re playing at a high level,” James said. “We want to continue to use these games to get better. When the postseason starts, hopefully we can lock in, which I believe we can and make a run at it.”
A team with James, Irving and Kevin Love will always be a force to be reckoned with. At times the team has played down to the level of its competition and lost games it shouldn’t have. But the Cavs also have had some impressive road wins over some of top teams this league has to offer.
Cleveland has the third-best record in the association. So why aren’t the Cavaliers getting the respect they feel they deserve?
“It seems like that because everybody is watching Golden State. That’s why,” big man Tristan Thompson told cleveland.com. And that could be true. The Warriors are on pace to eclipse the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ NBA record of 72 wins, and Stephen Curry is rapidly becoming the face of the league.
“We’ve had a damn good season to this point and we’re going to continue that,” James said.
VIDEO: Kyrie Irving has some strong words after Thursday’s win
No. 2: Report: Kobe turned down offer to play in Euroleague in 2015-16 — In late November, Kobe Bryant announced his this would be his final NBA season and since then, he’s had a hero’s welcome at every stop his Los Angeles Lakers have made on the road. But according to a report transcribed by ESPN.com, FC Barcelona in the Euroleague made Bryant an offer to play this season overseas. Bryant declined the offer, of course, but Barcelona officials tried as hard as they could to woo Bryant to Europe:
Last summer, the Los Angeles Lakers’ five-time NBA champion was offered a contract by European club FC Barcelona and a chance to extend his basketball career overseas, but Bryant politely turned the offer down, according to a report in Spanish sports newspaper Mundo Deportivo.
Senior officials at the Catalan club ramped up their overtures toward Bryant after hearing him talk about ending his basketball career with Spanish big man Pau Gasol at the club that doubles as his favorite soccer team, according to the report.
In July, club officials said Kobe told them he “would love to finish my career playing for Barca with Pau Gasol,” the former Lakers teammate with whom Bryant won NBA titles in 2009 and 2010.
Bryant spent his childhood in Europe and has often expressed his admiration for European players, but the 37-year-old resisted last year’s Barcelona pursuit because, according to the report, he said he didn’t know if he could count on a rebound in his health and doubted he could stay mostly healthy for the entire grueling Euroleague season.
Mundo Deportivo said Bryant passed on an offer from Barcelona to compete exclusively for the club in the more high-profile Euroleague games, which pit up to 18 of the best basketball teams in Europe against one another every season.
No. 3: Westbrook’s drive helps Thunder avoid embarassing loss — Well before last night’s L.A. Clippers-Oklahoma City Thunder matchup, the Clippers announced they would give stars Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick a day off for rest. That left Los Angeles decidedly shorthanded against a full-strength OKC crew that boasts All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Yet the Clippers kept it close all night with their bench crew-turned-starters and nearly pulled off an upset win. Thanks to some clutch plays by Westbrook, notes ESPN.com’s Royce Young, the Thunder dodged a potentially ugly defeat:
The score was tied 117-117 with 40 seconds left. The Thunder were hunting a 2-for-1 possession, and Kevin Durant launched a wing 3 that clanged high off the back of the rim. Wesley Johnson skied for a rebound, securing it on his way down. Russell Westbrook knifed in from behind, popping the ball from Johnson’s hands. Westbrook grabbed it and signaled to the bench for a timeout. On the next possession with a tipped rebound, Steven Adams put the Thunder ahead.
Westbrook wasn’t done. Austin Rivers drove the lane looking for a tying layup. He missed long off the backboard, and there was Westbrook again, trampolining above the other nine players on the floor to pull in the sealing rebound as the Thunder held on, 119-117.
“He jumped really high,” Adams said. “Really high.”
These are just plays Westbrook makes. In a big spot, in a crucial moment, he comes up with something. It’s what he does. He doesn’t really know how to explain how. Or why. He just knows he keeps doing it.
“I just try to make the plays that help us win games, man,” Westbrook said. “I’m the type of guy that would try to make something happen. Sometimes I gamble, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But I’m the guy that is going to put my body on the line for my team and try to find a way to help us win.”
“I’ve seen a lot of guys play and he’s by far the best loose-ball guy I’ve ever seen,” coach Billy Donovan said. “He has an incredible ability, and if you watch him he’s engaging when he shoots free throws. He notices right where it’s missing, where it’s going to go. He watches the flight. He sees shots go up and all of sudden he’s taking off before anybody else is moving. He’s got great speed and closing speed to come up with those plays.”
Westbrook’s “clutch” numbers won’t really impress you much. Actually, they might even surprise you. On the season, he’s shooting only 38 percent in clutch moments (last five minutes of a game within five points). In games within five points with less than a minute left, he’s only 17-of-56 shooting.
But those numbers can’t quantify the swinging plays he finds a way to make. Like the steal on Johnson. Or the rebound over the entire Clippers organization. Where there’s a Westbrook, there’s a way.
“You have to want it more than the next man,” Westbrook said. “And I feel like every night, I come out and try to be the hardest-working player on the floor. Play hard every night, regardless of what’s going on, who’s on the floor. That’s what I’ve tried to do since I’ve been in the league.”
VIDEO: Thunder hold off Clippers
No. 4: Report: Terry meets with UAB about coaching vacancy — Houston Rockets shooting guard Jason Terry is in the midst of his 17th NBA season and ranks third all-time in 3-pointers made with 2,160. He’s in the last year of his contract and may be nearing retirement from the league. As such, he’s open to opportunities once his playing days end and the University of Alabama-Birmingham has a coaching vacancy it needs filled. According to Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com, UAB has reached out to Terry about having him fill that role:
Houston Rockets veteran guard Jason Terry interviewed Thursday for the UAB men’s basketball team’s vacant head-coaching position.
The interview occurred in the afternoon, hours before the Rockets’ 103-100 home loss to the Chicago Bulls.
The UAB job opened when Jerrod Haase left to become the head coach at Stanford. UAB finished the year at 26-7, first in Conference USA, before losing to BYU in the first round of the NIT.
“It went well,” Terry said. “UAB is in an interesting situation, the success they had, but Coach Haase’s immediate departure left that job open. I have deep roots in the Birmingham community — uncles, cousins, aunts — and so I’m very familiar with the area. So we’ll see what happens. It was a good meeting that I had.”
Terry said he isn’t sure yet whether he’ll retire at the end of the season, but he wanted to have options.
“In this business, you have to plan for your post-career,” he said. “This is no different, being prepared. You always have to be prepared. Would I like to play a couple more years? Yes. But I have to leave my options open. And if this offer is better than what I have on the horizon, then I’m going to have to jump head-first in it. There is some longevity in it, and it is my passion.”
According to reports, interim coach Robert Ehsan and Auburn assistant coach Chuck Person are also involved in UAB’s coaching search.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert is slowly developing confidence in his outside shot … NBA legend Julius Erving is tired of seeing his Philadelphia 76ers flounder at the bottom of the NBA standings … Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan and Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers are campaigning for Enes Kanter and Jamal Crawford, respectively, for Kia Sixth Man of the Year … Washington natives (and Boston Celtics guards) Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley still miss the Sonics …