Morning shootaround — May 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lillard’s helpers were invaluable | Miami’s dark side without Whiteside | Lowry comes back for Raptors | Jackson ‘owes’ Knicks job to Rambis?

No. 1:  Lillard’s helpers were invaluable — First things first: Without a medical degree, can you nonetheless hazard a guess as to whether Golden State’s Stephen Curry will play in Game 4 of his team’s Western Conference semifinals series at Portland on Monday night? Even before we got any official updates from Curry, coach Steve Kerr or the Warriors’ crackerjack media staff, it seemed likely Curry would test his sprained right knee rather than risk seeing Golden State slip to even, 2-2, in the best-of-seven series. As for how Portland even got it to 2-1, there was Damian Lillard‘s 40-point performance and then there was the work of other Blazers, such as Al-Farouq Aminu, Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson. Those were the guys Draymond Green was moaning about, per Kevin Arnovitz‘s report for ESPN.com:

The way the Warriors saw it, they began to lose the game on the margins. Green sensed the Warriors could’ve effectively wrapped up the series in the first quarter had they only paid sufficient attention to the smaller details they generally master.

“That team — they had doubt,” Green said of the Trail Blazers. “You could just tell they were unsure about everything that they were doing in the first quarter. Then all of a sudden, like I said, you get a couple of offensive rebounds, hit a couple of shots, that’s when the crowd gets into it. That’s kind of what happened for them. I think right there in that first quarter, they felt like they were on the ropes and we didn’t really take advantage of that.”

When the Warriors ratcheted up their defense on Lillard after intermission, he just pitched the ball out to the likes of Allen Crabbe, Gerald Henderson (who took over defensive duties on [Klay] Thompson) and Aminu, who were a combined 6-for-6 from distance heading into the fourth quarter. Lillard assisted on 18 Trail Blazers points in the third quarter and scored another five of his own, as Portland extended their lead to 93-80 after three quarters.

“[Lillard] getting 40 — that’s not going to beat us if we don’t let Aminu get 23, Crabbe off the bench get 10,” Green said. “If we cover those guys, Dame’s 40 doesn’t beat us. C.J. [McCollum]’s 22 really don’t beat us if we cover the other guys. I think a big part of that fell on me.”

It’s a shame for Green, who put on an individual shooting display of his own in the third quarter. “Draymond from long range” can be a touchy subject in Warriors World, but with the Trail Blazers begging him to shoot from distance, Green politely obliged — draining 5-of-6 3-point attempts in the third quarter and matching a career high for the game with eight total. He finished the game with 37 points, while Thompson added 35.

“All that’s cute,” Green said of his prolific offensive production. “I didn’t do what I do for this team. I don’t feel like I led my troops tonight, and I feel like I was horrendous on the defensive end.”

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 No. 2: Miami’s dark side without Whiteside — If the result of Hassan Whiteside‘s MRI Sunday is as troubling as he and the Miami Heat fear, if he’s facing even the 2-3 week layoff that Curry has endured for Golden State since slipping on that wet part of the court against Houston, then the Heat are in a bad way. Ethan J. Skolnick of the Miami Herald reminds us of young Whiteside’s value to that veteran club, his status as its X factor and the limitations it faces without him merely surviving the current series against Toronto, never mind a possible clash in the next round against Cleveland:

He was the one who, if channeled correctly, could lift this from a nice little squad to a fearsome one, a squad that could even scare the Cleveland Cavaliers should it come to that — since most teams to topple LeBron James in the playoffs have had at least two perimeter players who could make James work (which Miami has in [Luol] Deng and Justise Winslow) and a rim protector who could make him think. He was the unaccountable element, the one who might literally swat away a superior opponent, should he be energized, focused and disciplined for an extended stretch.

The Heat knew how much it needed him, Erik Spoelstra above all. That’s why, for all the warts (in Whiteside’s game) and worries (about his contract) Spoelstra invested more personal time in the 26-year-old center than anyone else in the past eight years. That’s why, on the Friday night prior to Game 3, with so much else at stake, Spoelstra was at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, dining in a group with Whiteside and Bill Russell, aiming to expose Whiteside to the ultimate winner.

That’s why Dwyane Wade, as the team leader, while critical of Whiteside at times, also took opportunities to pump him up, even suggesting this could be a “Hall of Fame career.”

This wasn’t just a passing interest, after all. The Heat wants to make Whiteside a core component, wants to see his development all the way through, especially after improvements in foul shooting and screen-setting and — to a degree — composure, in the second half of this second Miami season. And perhaps, regardless of the severity of the injury, that will still occur; maybe, in the worst case, it comes at a reduced cost in free agency in this cruelest of businesses.

But, for this particular postseason, it’s hard to see how the Heat competes for much without Whiteside. Win this series? Maybe. Wade nearly saved them Saturday, with a remarkable 38-point performance, and Udonis Haslem was his usual spirited self while playing a season-high 22 minutes. Heat players generally believe the Raptors are beatable, though some were baffled about why movement was mostly taken out of the offensive plan for Game 3. And Toronto started making rollicking rim runs as soon as Whiteside went out.

Beat Cleveland?

That seems fantasy. Wade has gone above and beyond already, and everything he’s doing should be appreciated. But the Cavaliers are rolling now, 7-0 in the postseason, seeming past their regular season drama.

Whiteside was always the X-factor.

Now he may be X’d out.

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No. 3:  Lowry comes back for Raptors — Playoff basketball means more than hard fouls, no easy layups and cherished possessions. It also means seeing the individual highs and lows of the participants, usually under the brightest and least forgiving lights. When things are going well – say, for LeBron James or LaMarcus Aldridge these days – those lights can make a guy shimmer like the star he is. But when things are not going so well – think Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry – every flaw gets uncovered and it’s the heat of the lights that matter more than the illumination. Lowry had been suffering through a postseason of personal torment, the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur wrote, until the second half of the Raptors’ Game 3 at Miami Saturday:

[Finally], Kyle Lowry came back. Toronto had been waiting for him, and he came back. The Raptors were winning Game 3 against the Miami Heat, who had lost their monster centre, and then the Raptors lost their monster centre, like this was some kind of chess match, like they had exchanged queens. The Heat started rolling, and Dwyane Wade, the old Hall of Famer, rose to the moment. The Heat crowd, a laid-back crew, were singing along with Seven Nation Army, thundering. The Raptors were coming apart.

But Kyle Lowry came back. He had hit a three-pointer to start the half, and then another. Hmm. The 30-year-old points had missed 96 of his last 139 shots, had openly said it was messing with his head. In Game 1 he had tried to avoid shooting the ball altogether. In this game, with Toronto’s two all-stars flailing again, [Jonas] Valanciunas had become the centre of things. Lowry had four points in a quiet first half.
Then Valanciunas was gone. Lowry came back.

“That’s the Kyle I know,” said DeMar DeRozan.

“Kyle went back to being Kyle,” said head coach Dwane Casey.

“I don’t think we played him that poorly, either,” said Miami Heat coach Eric Spoelstra.

Lowry’s third quarter was revelation, a flashback, a return. He scored 15 points, and Wade exploded for 18, and the game was tied entering the fourth. The Heat run reached 32-13 and with 8:49 left Miami was up six, and the Raptors’ offence looked gummed in glue again. All season long the Raptors relied on Lowry in these situations: they’d be up two or three, tight game, and he’d hit a string of middle-finger shots to cinch it.

Two games earlier his teammates said he looked beaten. His old friend Goran Dragic said he was thinking too much. All that vanished into the afternoon air.

“He was hitting shots, he was happy,” said Patrick Patterson. “We just tried to do whatever possible to keep him happy. We tried to free up some room for him to create opportunities, and just keep feeding the monster. He was hitting shots, and he was keeping us in that game. When he was hitting the shots, he started calling more plays for himself. He was just feeling it, saying he wanted the ball.”

Did Lowry tell them he was feeling good, finally? That his shot was back in alignment, smooth and assured?

“He never does it,” said Patterson. “The Cleveland game (when Lowry scored a career-high 43), he didn’t did that. No matter how he’s feeling, he doesn’t let us know. He’s just playing within the moment.”

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No. 4: Jackson owes Knicks job to Rambis?Phil Jackson‘s affinity for the triangle offense that won his Chicago and Los Angeles teams a total of 11 NBA championships – even if that offense has had limited success when run by others whose rosters don’t include two Hall of Fame stars – is, at least, an understandable factor in how he might shape the New York Knicks’ search for a head coach. But Marc Berman of the New York Post cites a noted NBA author and relative Jackson insider when exploring a secondary, more deeply rooted reason for Jackson to stick with Kurt Rambis. It might have something to do with guilt and the employment history of Jackson and Rambis, Berman writes:

Phil Jackson may have cost Kurt Rambis a potentially promising head-coaching career back in 1999, back when they didn’t know each other.

Rambis was the hot, young Lakers assistant, coming off a cult-hero playing career in purple and gold during which he won four championships. Rambis passed over head-coaching offers from the Kings and Clippers, believing he had a bright future on the Lakers’ bench.

Indeed, Rambis took over for fired Del Harris in February of the 1999 lockout season as interim, with promises he would become the permanent guy.

Rambis closed with a 24-13 record, lost in the second round to the eventual champion Spurs, but had plans to smooth a frosty partnership between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

Late Lakers owner Jerry Buss, his new Staples Center and expensive skyboxes set to debut, changed his mind once Jackson expressed interest. Buss felt he needed a marquee name. Rambis was removed from the staff completely, demoted to broadcaster and, according to the controversial biography “Mindgames,” conducting arena tours.

According to the 2002 biography, Buss’ daughter, Jeanie, who didn’t know Phil Jackson from Andrew Jackson, was furious. Jeanie had been close friends for years with Rambis’ wife, Linda, since the 1980s.

“Mindgames” cited Rambis as “discouraged, confused and bitter.’’ Two years later, in 2001, at Jeanie’s behest, Jackson promoted Rambis to his staff, demoting triangle legend Tex Winter. But Rambis’ head-coaching career never took off.

Jackson’s current Knicks coaching search has been ongoing for 3 ½ weeks, with indications he is leaning toward Rambis. Is Jackson, who won five titles in L.A., making up for 1999?

Knicks general manager Steve Mills reached out to newly freed former Pacers coach Frank Vogel. But it might take a striking turn for Jackson, at his Montana think tank, to hire Vogel.

Roland Lazenby, the “Mindgames” author who is out with a new book on Kobe Bryant in August, said he believes Rambis will be the guy and explained a move that would not go over well with fans on social media.

If Jackson is making up for 1999, it’s in his subconscious.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Miami isn’t the only conference semifinalist sweating out a big man’s injury; Toronto’s fate might swing on Jonas Valanciunas‘ sprained ankle. … With Dave Joerger out, the Memphis Grizzlies can talk about stability if they like, but it’s a concept with which they’ve had very little experience, writes Geoff Calkins in Memphis. … Joerger was scheduled to spend at least part of his Sunday in Sacramento being interviewed for the vacant Kings coaching job. Though circumstances suggest he’ll likely end up getting hired, there are other candidates in play, at least for appearances sake. … Maurice Harkless and his sore hip might be out of Portland’s rotation for Game 4 . … Acquiring Channing Frye was a bold and expensive move at the trade deadline for the Cavaliers, but it has the look of a difference-maker for Cleveland in its NBA title quest. … Here’s one more look at Howard Garfinkel, the grass-roots basketball legend who died Saturday, as well as some appreciative tweets from fellows whose professional lives he touched. …

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