Gasol needs Rose to run with Bulls

(Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images)

Pau Gasol had options, but chose to join a ‘great situation’ in Chicago. (Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images)

CHICAGO – The difference between Derrick Rose‘s first comeback and latest comeback is the difference between Mike Dunleavy and Pau Gasol.

A year ago, Dunleavy – a solid NBA veteran in search not just of some postseason success but of the first .500 team of his career – joined the Chicago Bulls on a modest, role player’s contract to scratch his competitive itch more than his financial one.

Except Rose lasted just 10 games, the Bulls backed off their loftier ambitions by trading Luol Deng midway through the schedule and Dunleavy wound up starting and logging heavy minutes. He appreciated Chicago’s 48-34 finish and could take pride in becoming one of the NBA’s biggest bargains (salary per minute), but no Rose and a five-game ouster by Washington in the first round were profound disappointments.

Now the stakes are higher. The Bulls’ key offseason acquisition is a cut above, in pedigree and possibilities. Gasol brings a Hall of Fame portfolio, two championship rings and international acclaim to Chicago, but also greater expectations and a considerable role reserved from the start. Like Dunleavy, Gasol turned 34 this offseason, and his high hopes and crossed fingers are pretty much identical, too.

“It’s important to the whole team, for sure,” Gasol said of Rose and the Bulls’ dire need for their point guard to A) stay healthy and B) reclaim his All-Star, All-NBA and, ideally, MVP form. “I talked to him before I made my decision. He’s eager, he’s hungry. He’s been working extremely hard to be where he’s at today. Playing in the World Cup in the summer helped him, to be able to get some rust out. I think he’s ready.”

That’s as good as the Bulls have got at this point, thinking and sensing and praying that Rose is sufficiently recovered from the torn ACL injury in his left knee (April 2012) and the torn meniscus in his right knee (November 2013) to lug around their goals and dreams.

If it happens, the 2014-15 season in Chicago could be the brightest since Rose’s MVP year of 2010-11 and maybe even the Jordan-Pippen era of the last millennium. If not, it will be another long season of overachieving and pluck that probably leads nowhere – and a whole bunch of what-if’s for Gasol.

The man had options. He talked with the Spurs, the Thunder, the Heat and the Knicks. He got calls and tests from Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson, the coach with whom he won championships in L.A. in 2009 and 2010.

“I talked to many great, great players that I would be happy to play with,” the 7-foot, four-time All Star said. “Unfortunately I could only play with one team. So I picked a great situation, a great team, a great franchise, a great city.”

Upon making his decision, Gasol got another text from Jackson, the former Bulls coach, saying “I was going to love Chicago, that I was going to be happy here and that it was a great choice.”

If Rose’s health can be trusted, sure.

Gasol spoke with Rose before he signed and, from his spot on Spain’s national team, saw a pretty spry and explosive Bull on Team USA’s roster in the FIBA World Cup tournament. “I don’t have any doubt,” Gasol said. “I hope that he stays healthy, just like everybody else on the team. Everybody is subject to injury. But I believe in his health and I think he’s going to do fine.”

Gasol isn’t here on scholarship. His primary responsibility is to take Carlos Boozer‘s spot in the starting lineup, now that he ($7.1 million in Year 1 of a three-year deal) and Nikola Mirotic ($5.3 million) essentially have slipped into the payroll spot opened by Boozer’s amnesty. Boozer wasn’t a popular Bull, never quite appeasing United Center fans for not being LeBron James after his 2010 signing, or even playing up to his five-year, $75 million deal. Still, he did average 15.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in four Chicago seasons and showed up for all but nine games over the final three.

Gasol, at an older age, will need to maintain his numbers (17.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg) and step up his durability (55 games missed the past two seasons) to match or top Boozer’s statistical production.

Or, maybe, Gasol can do it intangibly by how well he fits with fellow slick-passing big man Joakim Noah, with the shooters – Dunleavy, Mirotic, rookie Doug McDermott – coach Tom Thibodeau can spot around him and, of course, with Rose.

Asked how the two of them might play off each other and boost the other’s effectiveness, Rose visualized and verbalized for the mob at Bulls media day.

“I automatically go to the fourth quarter, where he’s got the ball and I’m out on the perimeter, and I’m just waiting to get a set shot,” Rose said. “Other than that, let him work. You’ve got Joakim or Taj [Gibson] on the other side cleaning up everything else. And you’ve got two other shooters on the floor with me, Jo and Pau.

“I just see him in the post. I’m waiting for a jump shot. And you pick your poison.”

Derrick Rose waiting for a pass from Pau Gasol is an upgrade this team and the city will take, after all the waiting for Rose himself.

Morning shootaround — Sept. 30


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew reveals their early power rankings for 2014-15

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Durant plans to play in 2016 Olympics | Rose confident Bulls will soon have title run | Wistful KG appreciates his 20th season | Business already good for Cavs | Hinkie unsure if Embiid will play this season

No. 1: Report: Durant plans to play in 2016 Olympics — Team USA secured gold at the 2014 FIBA World Cup despite not having LeBron James, Kevin Durant and several other household names on the roster. While James is still on the fence about playing in the 2016 Olympics, Durant is hoping he’ll get to be back on the squad. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein reports that Durant says in an upcoming interview how he is ready to get back on the court with Team USA and also talks about his future with the Thunder:

Durant withdrew from national-team duty in August shortly before the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain.

“Hopefully I’ll be there. It’s whoever Mr. [Jerry] Colangelo and Coach K [Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski] pick,” Durant said in‎ an interview on his 26th birthday scheduled to air later this week on SportsCenter. “I would love to have the chance to play in another Olympics.”

Durant said again Monday that fatigue was his motivation for leaving Team USA before the World Cup, insisting that neither his summerlong shoe-contract negotiations with Nike and Under Armour nor the season-ending compound leg fracture suffered Aug. 1 by Indiana Pacers star Paul George prompted his withdrawal.

“I was tired,” Durant said. “I just wanted to have some time to just enjoy my summer and continue to work on my game but just enjoy my summer. Coach K and Mr. Colangelo understood and they made this whole thing easy for me.

“The thing I didn’t want to happen was for it to overshadow what those guys were doing because they deserved to be in their moment. I was so excited for them, especially the newer guys that hadn’t played in international competition before. It felt like four years ago when we were playing in 2010 and had all the young guys. That’s what their team looked like, so I was excited they got the W [in the tournament in Spain].”

For Durant, the summer of 2016 also happens to be his free-agent summer, which he also addresses in the SportsCenter sitdown, acknowledging the fact that his future — much like James’ this past season — is already generating plenty of discussion.

Even though Durant is two summers away from free agency, teams such as the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and the Washington Wizards are among those that have already been strongly linked to him.

“You know they’re going to come, [so] just answer them and let people know I really enjoy being in Oklahoma City and I’m just trying to focus on the season,” said Durant, who grew up a Wizards fan as a Maryland native, of the inevitable questions about his future looming this season. “But I know those questions are going to come and I’m not going to lie about them. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t think about it. But also just know, my main focus is trying to be the best player I can be and the best leader I can be for Oklahoma City and we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.‎”

In the interview, Durant also discusses Oklahoma City’s free-agent pursuit of Pau Gasol at length for the first time. Despite repeated personal pleas in July from Durant and fellow Thunder star Russell Westbrook, Gasol elected to sign with the Chicago Bulls as a free agent.

“Sometimes that stuff don’t work out for you, but as long as you can say you put a full-court press on, that’s cool, no matter what,” Durant said. “That was a fun process, so I was excited to be a part of something like that for once. … Never [recruited] before to that extent. I may have texted guys, but no one as big as Pau Gasol. We put all our effort into it. It didn’t work out for us, but sometimes that’s how the game goes.”


VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook chat during OKC’s media day

 

Harden vows to add ‘D’ to his ‘A game’


VIDEO: Kevin McHale, James Harden and Dwight Howard discuss the upcoming season

HOUSTON — If there’s one thing the Rockets tired of more than seeing replays of Damian Lillard’s lethal dagger over the summer, it was hearing the criticism of James Harden’s defense. Or what there was of it.

The All-NBA first team guard was a virtual pin cushion on social media for his lack of commitment to the part of the game that didn’t involve his trying to put the ball into the basket.

“I hear it,” Harden said at the annual Media Day gathering on Monday. “I don’t pay attention to it. I’m not a really good defender. At times I can be really bad.

“A lot of stars, their defense is bad. That’s a category I know I have to get better at. For us to go and reach our potential, that’s something that has to be done. That’s one of the things I’m excited about this season. I have no choice.”

Harden raised some eyebrows when he told an interviewer that he regarded himself as the best all-around player in the NBA.

“I wasn’t saying that to be cocky,” he said. “I’ve just put such hard work and effort into my craft. Obviously we know there’s a lot of great talent out there in this league.”

Perhaps Harden even made the statement to set the bar even higher to motivate himself.

“Probably, to play the way I know I can play,” he said. “My teammates know I can play. Like I said, I got to get better at both ends. It’s just me focusing on all possessions. Being able to concentrate on small things.”

Coach Kevin McHale, with his pedigree as player, knows about the small and large things that go into the making of champion, including getting defensive effort from even the biggest offensive gun.

“We talked about all that,” McHale said. “We’ve constantly been challenging James to take on challenges. He knows he’s got to improve in areas. We asked him to do a lot last year. We’ll ask him to do a lot this year. There’s a lot of offensive pressure on him to deliver every night, but you still got to go out there and play the other side of the ball.

“He’s a young guy that’s growing into being a leader, growing into who he is. We won 54 games last year. He was first team All-Pro. I know there’s not anything above first team. that’s about as good as you get. He must have done a lot of really good things. Like all our guys, he’s got to improve in areas. He knows that. He’s not afraid to work.

“Your defense is based on help and help principles. But if (a teammate) gets beat every time, I say, ‘Oh, my God I got to get over and help again.’ If (a teammate) shuts down his guy, there’s a calmness in me. I’m not over-helping. I’m not thinking, ‘Oh my.’

“It’s a trust factor of doing your job on defense. It’s not always relying on the trust that is built in. Your object as a defender is to not use that help all that time. Use it when guys make great moves. You can’t get beat on average moves. You can’t get beat on just average stuff. You gotta just make guys work hard to beat you. It’s simple things.

“In the end, if you play on a team that is championship caliber team, there is a huge amount of trust. That trust comes from you doing your job night after night after night after night, so that everybody can trust each other.”

The Rockets are hoping that a lineup that includes three players — Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley — who love to sink their teeth in on defense can rub off and put some bite into Harden’s defense.

“It’s not the fact that I can’t do it,” he said. “I’m a pretty good defender. It’s me being focused on the small things that I lose track of. I know that. Like I said, in order for Rockets to reach potential, I got to get better at that end.”

Thunder happy to have fresh KD


VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook talk about coming into the season well-rested

OKLAHOMA CITY – Kevin Durant turned 26 on Monday. Not exactly old age, but he’s also no longer the kid leader of the 25-and-under Oklahoma City Thunder fun bunch climbing the rungs of the NBA ladder.

He is on the climb to 30 now and things have become a bit more serious as titles have become more elusive. Human frailty has twice sabotaged potential championship runs in successive seasons and Durant’s upcoming eighth season in the league — and who knows, perhaps his penultimate season in OKC — presents another excellent opportunity to finish first. So with age comes a sharpened perspective, a narrowing of time and thus, a wisdom to make different decisions than one might have made previously.

Durant made one such decision in early August and not everybody appreciated it. After committing to play for Team USA and participating in its July training camp in Las Vegas, Durant exited it conflicted. He wanted to uphold his commitment, but his fatigued body was pushing him the other way and his head was telling him training camps would open two short weeks after the six-week World Cup odyssey with Team USA.

“He had actually texted me before he actually made it public that he was going to take a step back from it,” Thunder teammate Kendrick Perkins, a Durant confidant, said Monday. “He asked me what I thought about it. I said it’s what’s best for you. KD did a lot. He carried the load when Russell [Westbrook] was out, he was averaging a lot of minutes, played a lot of time on the court. Going through the season he kept it going to win his MVP and he played at a high level. And we’ve been playing damn near to June every year since I’ve been here. So it’s well-deserved.”

Durant’s decision to leave Team USA three weeks before the start of the FIBA World Cup in Spain came as a surprise to everybody, including chairman Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski. Durant had made a well-intentioned commitment to play even when many of the NBA’s other superstars had not. The 2010 world championship MVP and 2012 Olympic gold medalist put his employer and Thunder teammates ahead of country this one time. He’s been clear he plans to play for Team USA in Brazil 1n 2016.

Yet when Durant offered a well-reasoned explanation for leaving the team on short notice, some called him a quitter, suggested he was being selfish during a summer in which he reaped millions in endorsement deals and said he unfairly left the team in a lurch. The next day, Rudy Gay happily accepted an invitation to replace Durant and the U.S. cruised undefeated to another gold medal, without even having to face Durant’s Thunder teammate Serge Ibaka and might Spain, thought to be Team USA’s toughest foe.  The Americans won their semifinal and championship games by a combined 65 points.

If only they had KD.

“I think it was more so that I didn’t want to be in full-season mode in August or July,” Durant said during the Thunder’s media day on Monday when asked about his decision not to play. “I just wanted that time to just free my body and my mind of it all and just go out there and workout and work on my game and just enjoy the rest of the summer. Because I know how long the season is, and I just wanted to be fully prepared for that.”

Durant has led the Thunder to at least the Western Conference finals in three of the last four years. No player logged more minutes than he did last season and his workload over the last five seasons is beyond reproach.

“I’d rather have a guy tell the powers-to-be, ‘you know what, I can’t give you my 100 precent effort both mentally and physically,’ because if you don’t you’re not going to help your team,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “I have a lot of respect for Kevin stepping up. That was not an easy decision, but he stepped up and said, ‘I wasn’t mentally and physically ready to compete with the 12 guys we had.’ He played a lot of basketball. He’s entitled to have a summer off, right?”

Westbrook also pulled out of Team USA to properly rest a right knee that had been operated on three times in the span of eight months and sidelined him for half of last season. Both players had as restful a summer as they’ve had in years. Ibaka is back at full strength from the calf injury that forced him out of the first two games of the West finals against the Spurs. There is a lot of optimism entering camp that OKC is equipped to get back to the NBA Finals.

“I was glad to see him make a decision he felt like he needed to do,” said Nick Collison, Durant’s teammate since his rookie season in Seattle. “He felt that he needed to step away and I was glad he was able to make that decision because I know that was a tough decision. So, yeah, for our team, for us, I think it’s a positive that those guys [Durant and Westbrook] are coming in fresh.”

Rejuvenated Barnes ready for new start


VIDEO: Clippers coach Doc Rivers and players discuss upcoming season

PLAYA VISTA, Calif. – One of the reporters at Clippers media day Monday asked about Blake Griffin.

“He has really nice hair,” Matt Barnes responded.

It was on.

“Did you guys see his abs in the GQ issue?” another teammate, J.J. Redick, jumped in.

Barnes: “Oh, my gosh.”

Redick: “They’re amazing.”

Barnes: “I couldn’t believe it.”

Redick: “Amazing. They had to oil those up.”

Barnes: “But I don’t think it’s Photoshopped. I think that’s real life.”

So it was that the Clippers had their first controversy of the season, and who knows if they have ever faced such an off-court distraction before.

Besides, Barnes should talk. He’s the one who reported about 20 pounds lighter than last season and re-energized despite never exactly lacking for energy in the first place. He’s the one who, pushed by losing 19 games to injury in 2013-14, spent his summer eating better, stretching more and reversing the aging process.

“It’s crazy because I keep feeling like I’m getting better, and I’m getting older at the same time,” said Barnes, who is 34. “This summer was amazing for me, just to be able to avoid all the injuries, kind of rebuild my body and understand my body and just being ready. I have so much (energy) built up from last year and the motivation, with everything we have going on and the opportunity we have this year. I’m going to be out there flying around.”

An increased contribution from Barnes would be a big lift for the Clippers, whether he returns to his usual role as a high-energy reserve able to defend multiple positions or the early plan comes true and he starts at small forward. The Clips know Barnes feeling better potentially means the rest of the Western Conference feels worse.

So even though the biggest 2013-14 injury problem was 16 games lost to problems with the left eye, not the kind of thing that can be helped by improved conditioning, he made the offseason about working on his body.

He went to his first yoga class, very out of place with tattoos and a white tank-top undershirt among the group of older women, and felt as foreign. He kept coming back and they kept encouraging him. The next thing Barnes knew, he was at 210 pounds, the lightest, he recalled, since 10th or 11th grade.

“Yoga. Eating right. A lot of stretching,” Barnes said. “I think the eating right kind of food went hand in hand with the weight program I was doing. For me to be able to drop 20 pounds and still feel strong and as fast as I’ve ever been and back to jumping how I used to jump. Just the whole package. I’m excited to get back and get my game legs and just get back to work with these guys.

“Last year was, personally for me, a tough season, to be hurt in the summer, hurt in training, hurt the whole (first) half of the season, and then kind of finally catch my groove after All-Star break. I just sat back and took some time off and just re-focused and re-dedicated myself to basketball as far as my body…. I feel great. It’s as fast as I’ve been, jumping. I feel good. I just took a step back and let the dust clear and really went hard this summer.”

Barnes is feeling better, has a new layer of energy and now a unique opportunity after starting more than 41 games just once in a career that began in 2003-04. Even if someone else on the team made GQ instead.

Unfinished business in NY for Melo


VIDEO: Media Day: Knicks State of Mind

GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Carmelo Anthony had chances to put himself in a better situation to win a championship. His contemporaries from the 2003 Draft class — LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade — all have multiple titles, while he has none.

Joining James Harden and Dwight Howard in Houston or Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in Chicago would have given Anthony a serious chance to get a ring right away. In New York, he’ll have to wait at least a year before the Knicks clear the contracts of Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani off their books and have the opportunity to maybe add more top-line talent alongside Anthony. Maybe.

The Knicks, of course, had the ability to offer Anthony a lot more money (via bigger raises and a fifth season) than any other team. That’s what they did. So Anthony stayed in New York.

Was it all about the money? Well, Anthony admits it wasn’t all about basketball and says the decision was “hard.” But, speaking at Knicks Media Day on Monday, he said that it came down to his conscience.

“I made a commitment to stay here in New York,” Anthony said. “I made a commitment to the Knicks’ organization. I made a commitment to Derek Fisher and Phil Jackson. I also made a commitment to my teammates. That right there goes to show you that it wasn’t all about just running, jumping ship, and trying to get something in the immediate future.”

The immediate future in New York offers an opportunity to compete for the playoff spot that the Knicks lost last season. But the ceiling isn’t very high and won’t be unless Jackson makes major changes in the next year.

“I’m willing to be patient,” Anthony said. “How long I’m willing to be patient, I can’t really tell you that. But I’m willing to be patient. I’m willing to take risks. I’m willing to take that chance.”

Anthony wasn’t willing to be patient after seven seasons in Denver, when he made it clear to the Nuggets that he wanted out. He got what he wanted, a February 2011 trade to New York, a transaction that sent a lot of the Knicks’ assets west. So while Anthony has been, by far, the Knicks’ best player in the 3½ seasons since, he felt that he owed the team and its fans more.

“For me to just get up and leave like that,” he said, “I wouldn’t have felt right, within myself. From a basketball standpoint, it probably would have been, maybe, the greatest thing to do. But for me, personally, I wouldn’t have felt right with myself, knowing I wanted to come here. I kind of forced my way to New York and I have some unfinished business to take care of. So I wouldn’t have felt right from a personal standpoint, just getting up and leaving.”

Though he says he can be patient, Anthony also believes the Knicks can improve on last season’s 37-45 record. He said he’s excited to work within the Triangle offense and knows that improvement has to start on D. But he’s not just going to throw this season away.

“I can tell you for sure,” Anthony said, “that we’re going to have a much better season that we had last year.”

Morning shootaround — Sept. 29

 

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Wolves willing to wait on Rubio extension | Stephenson ready for breakout season | Hollins expects Williams to return to All-Star form | Report: No extension talks between Shumpert, Knicks

No. 1: Wolves willing to wait if Rubio won’t take four-year extension — Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio is up for a contract extension and can sign one by Oct. 31. But the thinking all along has been that Rubio and his representation want a five-year extension. Will the Wolves be willing to give him that? And what will Rubio do if he gets a lesser offer? Charley Waters of TwinCities.com has more on that situation:

Contract talks that could make Ricky Rubio the second-highest-paid Timberwolves player will take place in person this week, and both the 23-year-old point guard and the Wolves seem ready to make a deal.

Rubio and Wolves owner Glen Taylor spoke several times by telephone last week, with each expressing hope a contract extension can get done soon.

Rubio is to be paid $5.08 million this season. A new deal, expected to be for four years, could be worth $11 million annually. Center Nikola Pekovic is the highest-paid Wolves player at $12.1 million a year.

If there is no deal before Oct. 31, Rubio could become a restricted free agent after the season, but the Wolves would have the right to match any offer.

Rubio’s representation has been seeking a five-year maximum contract that could be worth about $75 million. The Wolves are willing to wait if Rubio decides a four-year deal isn’t enough.

Contrary to rumor, the Wolves were not seriously interested in restricted free-agent point guard Eric Bledsoe, who re-signed with Phoenix, because a deal would have had to have been a sign-and-trade and simply too complicated. Bledsoe, though, was willing to consider Minnesota, pending Rubio’s status with the Wolves.

 

Morning shootaround — Sept. 28


VIDEO: Nets’ expectations for 2015

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron: ‘This is Kyrie’s show’ | Kupchak still talking titles in LA | Hollins installing new system one step at a time | Vogel still believes in Pacers

No. 1: LeBron: This is Kyrie’s show — The new look comes with a new outlook for LeBron James, whose return to Cleveland puts him in a position where he has to adjust his game significantly for the second time in four years. He had to make adjustments to the way he played when he left Cleveland for Miami in 2010 to play alongside fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and will have to do so again now that he’s back home in Northeast Ohio playing alongside fellow All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.  While it’s clearly LeBron’s house, the world’s best player makes it clear that it’s Kyrie’s show now. Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com explains:

With two championships under his belt and the storybook factor of coming back home on his side, the presumption was that LeBron James would be the unequivocal top dog of Cleveland’s new-look Big Three.

Instead, it turns out James is more than willing to share the spotlight, as well as when it comes time to decide which player will have the ball in his hands for the majority of the Cavaliers’ possessions.

“I’ll probably handle the ball a little bit, but this is Kyrie [Irving's] show,” James said Saturday following the team’s first practice of training camp. “He’s our point guard. He’s our floor general, and we need him to put us in position to succeed offensively. He has to demand that and command that from us with him handling the ball.”

James split ballhandling duties with Dwyane Wade most of the time during his four years with the Miami Heat, causing Mario Chalmers often to play off the ball on offense even though he defended the opposing team’s point guard on the other end.

Now, James will have another ball-dominant guard in Irving to play with, and not only is it something that he accepted in his return to Cleveland, it actually played a role in selling him on the move from Miami.

“Coming back, my [Sports Illustrated] letter kind of spoke for it, what this city and Northeast Ohio, what I mean to it. That had a lot to do with it, probably 95 percent of it. And the fact that Kyrie was here as well. That’s a huge part,” James said. “I’ve never played with a point guard like Kyrie Irving, a guy that can kind of take over a game for himself. We need it. So, that was a huge thing and that was way before we even got [Kevin] Love and signed Mike Miller and Trix (Shawn Marion) and the rest of the guys. That was very intriguing.”

 

Not just another pickup game

Golden State GM Bob Myers (left, in green shirt) and assistant coach Jarron Collins (right) took on some inmates at San Quentin State prison over the weekend. (Photo courtesy Warriors)

Golden State GM Bob Myers (left, in green shirt) and assistant coach Jarron Collins (right) took on some inmates in a pickup game at San Quentin State Prison over the weekend. (Photo courtesy Warriors)

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. – They walked back out some two hours and 45 minutes later, past death row with the loud cadence of the Mexican Mafia counting off exercises, through the two metal-bar doors that slam shut with exactly the shock value portrayed in movies, and to the final check of sliding a wrist under the fluorescent light to make sure the underside of the lower arm had been stamped with “PASS” on the way in, indicating a guest allowed to leave.

“No glow, no go,” the guard manning the lamp said.

Nineteen Golden State Warriors players, coaches and executives had been inside San Quentin State Prison on Friday morning for a another pickup game against inmates, and it didn’t matter that they were back for the third year in a row. You don’t get used to San Quentin. About a 20-mile drive from Oakland, the prison boasts 3,873 inmates, 732 of them on California’s only death row for men. Some 400 convicts ringed the outdoor court to watch the game; an official estimated 80 percent of them were serving life sentences. So, no, you don’t get used to that.

The game was played in a yard near a baseball field, a tennis court, a track and weight-lifting equipment, the same kind of outdoor setting that could be found anywhere, except that this one also included razor wire looped along the top of the fence that ran the length of the sidelines and one baseline. Because blowing a whistle is a signal for trouble — inmates are required to hit the deck, everyone else must freeze — hunters’ duck calls are used. (In a non-Golden State game about five years ago, one of the refs with the visiting group, unaware of the rule, tweeted a regular whistle. Rifles flashed into view from towers in an instant.) Cell phones are not allowed without prior permission. Outsiders are prohibited from wearing blue, even jeans, or grey for fear of being confused with inmates’ wardrobes, so the Warriors, mostly dressed in the approved black and white as they arrive, slipped on green jerseys.

A unique basketball experience?

“Probably the No. 1,” said coach Steve Kerr, the former shooting specialist who did not play. “I spent about three years in Egypt when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school. We didn’t have a gym. We’d play on a dirt court, light bulbs hanging on cords to light the court. That was No. 1. This replaces it.”

A different vibe?

“I watch the TV shows, I watch the movies,” Festus Ezeli, the projected backup center this season, said. “To be here today is almost surreal.”

A scary situation?

“My sisters, they were nervous about it, to be honest,” assistant coach Alvin Gentry said. “My older sister called this morning to say, ‘Be careful.’ Obviously there are a lot of things associated with San Quentin.”

All of the above. The Warriors have never had anything close to a problem in the three visits, though, not so much as a member of the home team trying to stare them down on the court or hoping to get in their head by suggesting a special brand of prison justice as intimidation. As officials and convicts themselves note, the only people who get hurt if game action goes too far are the inmates. They don’t want the visit to go away.

“We’re in such awe of them being here that we don’t have time to process that,” inmate Juan Haines said while watching from behind the Warriors bench. “We’re the ones intimidated.”

The inmates were exceedingly polite Friday, greeting the visitors with waves of high fives, handshakes, embraces and conversation, participants and watchers alike. One said the appearance was like getting Christmas at a different time of the year. Another told Ezeli the appearance that had nothing to do with marketing to sell tickets or merchandise “made us feel a little human.” Bill Epling, who has been coming to San Quentin to play basketball for about 15 years and for the last 11 has led the outreach program that now extends to the Warriors, called the game “a little moment of escape today from the daily grind” as part of his pregame invocation at mid-court.

Kerr, just as he is everywhere he goes, was asked about playing with Michael Jordan. Rookie guard Aaron Craft was questioned about playing at Ohio State and about Ohio State football. General manager Bob Myers heard about the upcoming season. One inmate said he wanted to ask Jonnie West, the associate general manager of Golden State’s D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz, about Jonnie’s father, Jerry. Ezeli, coming off a knee injury, was questioned when he was getting back on the court.

On and on. The usual fan stuff.

Inmate Rahsaan Thomas was asked during the second quarter what he would like to ask one of the Warriors.

“My question is,” Thomas said, “who talked you into walking into prison? It took guns and warrants to get me in.”

OK, so not always the usual fans.

Players — Craft, Ezeli, Ognjen Kuzmic, James Michael McAdoo, Marreese Speights, training-camp invite Mitchell Watt this year — attend strictly for the experience and the support, not to get on the court. General manager Bob Myers and assistant general manager Kirk Lacob, who organizes the Warriors group and comes to San Quentin other times as part of the outreach program, played, along with assistant coaches Luke Walton and Jarron Collins while Kerr and Gentry stayed on the sideline, with Gentry running the team. (Gentry, turning to the bench just before tipoff: “I’m going to show you how a real coach does it. Bob, Kirk, you can shoot any time you want.”)

The benefit from the Golden State perspective, Lacob said, “I think there’s an element of good community… and it’s a great learning experience. An educational experience, I’ll call it, for anyone who goes in, seeing how other people live and what else is out there, because we live in a pretty rosy world in sports. It’s basically you win or you lose but you’re still in a great environment. On top of it, the thing that I always come back to, it’s that mutual shared interest, that shared love of basketball that brings people together. There’s just something when you connect with people. It’s hard to explain, but that idea that you can connect with someone so different from yourself at such a deep level I think is valuable. But every year that we’ve gone with the Warriors, I think people have come out with a great appreciation for their own lives and what they do.” The team has even donated old practice gear to the inmates.

Death row is 300 yards away from the court. Guards are everywhere. The razor wire.

The game is lighthearted enough most of the way, with running commentary over a public-address system from one of the inmates, then becomes a close finish. It is a good, intense pickup run with a lot of contact, and Collins and Walton, with long NBA careers in their backgrounds, and Myers, a member of a national-championship team at UCLA, chug hard under the sun and light breeze coming off San Francisco Bay. Finally, the inmates close out the 92-86 victory, their first win in three tries.

Both sides consider the day a success. The convicts, after spending weeks talking about the upcoming game, got to go against players they had seen on TV and spend time in conversation. Plus, the win. The Warriors got to experience San Quentin — then got to walk out through the yard, up a slight hill into a courtyard within hearing range of death row, through the doors and, finally, to their cars.

They plan to be back for another game next year. It has become part of the annual routine. But it will never be something they get used to.

Warriors assistant coach Alvin Gentry (center) and new head coach Steve Kerr (in white shirt) go over some strategy in their pickup game with inmates at San Quentin over the weekend. (Photo courtesy Warriors)

Warriors assistant coach Alvin Gentry (center) and new head coach Steve Kerr (in white shirt) go over some strategy in their pickup game with inmates at San Quentin over the weekend. (Photo courtesy Warriors)

First Team: Harden’s O shines above all

In this five-part series, I’ll take a look at the best games from last season’s All-NBA first team. The metric I’ve used to figure out the best games is more art than formula, using “production under pressure” as the heuristic for selection. For example, volume scoring in a close game against a stout team on the road gets more weight than volume scoring against the Bucks at home in a blowout. Big games matter. Big clutch games matter more.

At 25, James Harden is on track to become a perennial All-NBA contender for years to come.

At 25, James Harden is on track to become a perennial All-NBA contender for years to come.

Let’s get the elephant out of the way: James Harden is not a defensive specialist. His inattention to that end of the floor is common knowledge at this point. Long before a compilation of Harden’s defensive fails made its Internet rounds, Rockets fans were routine witnesses to his off-the-ball watching, feet-in-the-mud, swipe-around defense.

Like fellow perimeter non-defensive specialist Steve Nash (All-NBA first team from 2005-07), Harden plays with an innate feel for the game that warrants overlooking some blown coverages. The court vision is there. He is a deft passer. He uses his body and low center of gravity to find his way to the iron. Once he gets there, he is strong enough to finish through contact or earn a trip to the line, where he is near automatic.

For this reason alone, The Beard will be able to generate offense for a long time in the NBA. He is still young enough to make himself a stout deterrent. He plucked 1.6 steals per game last season, good for 17th in the league. He has quick, bear hands and a nose for the ball.

But that day may never come. Until then, his predictable yet unstoppable Euro-steps, old-man game and frequent scoring sprees should hold us over.

December 25, 2013 — Too Much For The Spurs

The Line: 28 points on 11-for-16 shooting, 16 in 4th quarter

The Quote:Coming into the game I wanted to keep (teammates) involved and keep them going and try to get mine at the end. It played out well.” – Harden


VIDEO: Harden lights it up on Christmas Day

Harden is not a quiet scorer. He can get hot in a hurry and before you know it, he has a 15-point quarter. After building an 18-point lead early, the Rockets saw the Spurs claw back in it a little over a couple minutes into the fourth quarter. That’s when The Beard got busy.

He scored on the next four Houston possessions. His 3 with about five minutes left capped off 11 straight points and gave the Rockets a double-digit lead that would carry them to the end.

This was the second of four times last season the Rockets sent the future champs home in disappointment.

January 3, 2014 – Nail Biter With The Knicks

The Line: 37 points on 10-for-19 shooting, 12-for-12 at the line

The Quote: “It wasn’t the prettiest win, but at the end of the night a win is all that matters.” – Harden


VIDEO: Harden’s huge game holds off ‘Melo and the Knicks

Harden didn’t think the win had aesthetic value, but his game was artistic. From the onset, he controlled matters for Houston, connecting on a bevy of step backs, pull-up shots and hard dribble drives. Frustrated Knicks defenders were unable to defend him without fouling or getting buried with a bucket.

With two and a half minutes left in the game, he sized up Carmelo Anthony and dropped him off on a pretty step-back jumper for his last deuce.

March 9, 2014 – Dousing The Blazers In H-Town

The Line: 41 points, 10 rebounds, 7 3s, 6 steals, 6 assists

The Quote:He is a freak. He is ridiculous. He is unbelievable.” – Chandler Parsons on Harden


VIDEO: Harden powers Houston’s comeback against Portland

Down 13 points to the Blazers at home in the fourth, Jimmy Beard went into overdrive. He cranked out four 3-pointers in the final frame, including one from the left corner to send the game into overtime. Time after time, he bailed the Rockets out with his isolation magic and led Houston to one of the season’s best comeback victories.

April 4, 2014 – Bashing The Thunder

The Line: 39 points, 17-for-20 from the line, 9 rebounds, 7 assists

The Quote: “We were in ‘whatever it takes to win’ mode. We got it done.” – Harden


VIDEO: Harden schools the Thunder to clinch a playoff berth

Mr. Harden doesn’t seem to lack for motivation in games against his ex-teammates. He had the aggression going early and often. When he wasn’t getting to the stripe, he was exercising accuracy from deep (4-for-8). When he wasn’t bombing from the land of trey, he was dishing to waiting teammates.

Eight of his 13 fourth-quarter points came at the line. The Thunder were foul-happy, yielding 37 attempts. Harden tallied more than half of that amount. Amazingly, Harden was able to coax fouls at will from a team he spent his first three years with. Fittingly, the win clinched another playoff berth.

April 12, 2014 – Snatching Victory From Jaws Of Pelicans

The Line: 33 points, 14 in 4th quarter, 13 assists

The Quote:We needed this win more than anything.” – Harden


VIDEO: Harden scores 14 in the fourth to lift Houston

For the third time this season, the Rockets were behind late to the Pelicans. For the third time this season, they overcame. Harden put on a show in the period with his usual trinity: 3s, penetrations, free throws. But that almost wasn’t enough.

Down 104-96 with 2:48 remaining, The Beard dished two dimes and scored another six to help Houston end the game on a 15-0 blitz to put away the Pels. This win stopped a skid and helped them maintain their hold on the fourth playoff spot in the West.