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Mavs, Griz fight for right to play… OKC?

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Rick Carlisle talks about the Mavs’ season-ending game vs. the Grizzlies

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies might as well just come out and say it: Give us the MVP.

The vibe emanating from both camps as they prepare for tonight’s Grindhouse showdown that will decide the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in the Western Conference is that both teams would just as soon stay away from the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs and take their chances against probable league MVP Kevin Durant and the somewhat shaky-looking Thunder (or still possibly the hard-charging Los Angeles Clippers).

Records before and after the All-Star break

                                    OKC              SA           Memphis       Dallas

Before                       43-12            39-15           30-23              32-23

After                           15-11              24-4             19-9                 17-9

With multiple story lines swirling, the Mavs and Grizzlies, both 49-32, will make this regular-season finale count (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). The loser settles for the No. 8 seed and a first-round playoff series against the Spurs. The winner takes the No. 7 seed and will head to either Oklahoma City or L.A., depending which team takes the No. 2 seed after tonight’s games.

Dallas won the first three meetings against Memphis. The first two came before Christmas when Memphis was a defensive mess. The third, at Memphis in early February, the Grizzlies played without point guard Mike Conley.

Memphis is trying to secure a second consecutive 50-win season. Dallas has been talking up 50 wins as a team goal for weeks, trying to get back to the mark it hit for 11 consecutive seasons, but not since the championship year of 2010-11 (they were 36-31 during the 2011-12 lockout season, falling below the .610 winning percentage of 50 wins, and 41-41 last season to snap a 12-year playoff streak).

After struggling early in the season at home, the Grizzlies are riding a season-best 13-game win there. The Mavs have won their last six road games, their longest such streak this season.

As for the preferred playoff matchup, neither the Spurs nor the Thunder will be a walk in the park. San Antonio ranks fifth in the league in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) and fourth in defensive efficiency. OKC ranks seventh in offensive efficiency and fifth in defensive efficiency. Only the Thunder have looked out of sync since the All-Star break, struggling at times defensively and with cohesiveness because of missing pieces due to injuries.

The Mavs and Grizzlies both stumbled to 0-4 against the Spurs. Worse, Dallas has lost nine straight to San Antonio and Memphis has dropped 14 of 16.

Dallas’ four losses came by an average margin of 11.5 points; Memphis by 11.3. At least the Grizzlies can claim they were without big man Marc Gasol for essentially two of those games. Gasol injured his knee in the 102-86 loss on Nov. 22, playing just nine minutes. The injury that kept him out of the 110-108 overtime loss on Jan. 7, a game defensive bulldog Tony Allen also missed. However, fully loaded on April 6, Memphis got trounced in San Antonio, 112-92.

For offensive-minded Dallas, San Antonio simply presents an awful matchup. The Spurs’ excellent close-out defense limits the Mavs’ 3-point attempts while their precision offense dissects Dallas’ porous defense. In the four meetings, the Spurs have attempted 31 more 3s and outscored the Mavs from beyond the arc by 54 points. In their final meeting on April 10, Tony Parker didn’t play and Patty Mills did the honors, lighting up Dallas for six 3-pointers and 26 points.

Spurs vs. Mavs                      Spurs vs. Grizzlies

Dec. 26: W 116-107                  Oct. 30: W 101-94

 Jan. 8: W 112-90                     Nov. 22: W 102-86

 March 2: W 112-106               Jan. 7: W 110-108 (OT)

April 10: W 109-100                 April 16: W 112-92

If San Antonio has a rooting interest in tonight’s game as they wrap up the regular season at the Lakers, it has to be for the Mavs to pack to their bags for South Texas. Memphis puts up more defensive roadblocks and dishes out far more physical punishment that the Spurs and Tim Duncan, creeping up on his 38th birthday in nine days, would prefer to avoid.

Against Dallas, ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency, the worst among the 16 playoff teams, Duncan averaged 18.5 ppg on 51.1 percent shooting and 12.5 rebounds. Against Memphis, even with Gasol missing time, Duncan averaged 12.0 ppg on 45.0 percent shooting and 8.5 rebounds.

Memphis, which can have a hard time scoring — only the Pacers and Hawks rank lower in offensive efficiency among playoff teams — didn’t fare any better against the Thunder, losing all four games to the team they beat in five games in last year’s conference semifinals. Of course, OKC played that series without Russell Westbrook, as they did twice against Memphis this season. But Memphis can make similar claims with Gasol. As with any regular-season series, who’s in and out of the lineup can alter relevance.

Dallas gained a measure of confidence against OKC over the last month, beating it twice, routing the Thunder at their place on March 16 and outlasting them in a wild OT game at home nine days later. In the two games, Dallas made 28 3-pointers, four more than it managed in four games against San Antonio. Of course, the Thunder was missing Westbrook, defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha and starting center Kendrick Perkins in the first Dallas win and Sefolosha and Perkins in the second.

Thunder vs. Mavs                      Thunder vs. Grizzlies

Nov. 6: W 107-93                            Dec. 11: W 116-100

March 16: L 109-86                        Jan. 14: W 90-87

March 25: L 128-119 (OT)              Feb. 3: W 86-77

–                                              Feb. 28: W 113-107

Finally, after tonight, the playoff pairings will be set and all these numbers can be tossed out the window.

Report: Bucks to announce sale of team

From NBA.com staff reports

The Milwaukee Bucks face an uncertain future — as detailed here by our own Jon Hartzell — as current owner Herb Kohl seeks a new owner who will help keep the team in town and secure a new arena to replace the dilapidated BMO Harris Bradley Center.

A new arena for the Bucks remains up in the air, but it looks like a new owner may be on board. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein first reported today that Kohl has reached an agreement to sell the team to a pair of investors:

The Milwaukee Bucks will announce later Wednesday that longtime owner Herb Kohl has reached an agreement to sell the team to Wesley Edens and Mark Lasry for a purchase price of $550 million, according to sources familiar with the transaction.

Sources told ESPN.com that the deal, subject to league approval, will be confirmed in an afternoon news conference.

The Bucks have a news conference scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET today, presumably to announce this transaction.

Sixth Man Of the Year: Jamal Crawford

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Jamal Crawford has made a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year

There came a point this season where Jamal Crawford was starting so many games as an injury fill-in that it seemed impossible he’d be eligible to make another run at the Kia Sixth Man of the Year award.

He won it in 2010 with Atlanta and he thought he should have won it last season with the Clippers. Instead J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks — remember him? — took the prize. This season, the Clippers wouldn’t be in control of the Western Conference’s No. 3 seed and in line to nab the No. 2 seed with a bit of help (an Oklahoma City loss) before tonight’s season finale at Portland (10:30 p.m., ET, ESPN).

Whether Crawford was coming off the bench, where he’s averaged 17.2 ppg and 3.1 apg, or putting up 20.6 ppg and 3.3 apg in 23 games as a starter in place with either J.J. Redick or Chris Paul or both out, Crawford’s playmaking and shot-making have been invaluable. The lone blemish on his resume is the left calf injury that kept him out of all but eight games since the end of February.

Two games before the calf injury occurred on Feb. 26, Crawford scored 36 points in 40 minutes as a starter to help the Clippers win at Oklahoma City. It was his 11th game of 25 points or more and fourth of 30 points or more. Since, he’s made it five with 31 points in 35 minutes off the bench on March 26 at New Orleans.

“I don’t want to toot my own horn,” Crawford told NBA.com after that Thunder game. “I think I’ve been a professional, honestly. Starting, coming off the bench, being ready at all times, I pride myself on that.”

Crawford certainly faces stiff competition. Candidates include San Antonio’s resurgent Manu Ginobili, Chicago’s rugged Taj Gibson, Phoenix’s Markieff Morris, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Nick Young, Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson and even Dallas’ Vince Carter.

Yet none electrify a game and their team with scoring outbursts quite the way Crawford can. Boasting one of the game’s great handles, the 14th-year guard can still live up to his nickname and Twitter handle, @JCrossover, defying foes with tremendous moves off the bounce to get to the rim. He splashes 3-pointers with a rainbow release from virtually any distance, connecting on the 3-ball at a 36.2 percent clip.

His 18.4 scoring average, significantly higher than any of the other candidates, would rank as the third-highest by a Sixth Man of the Year Award winner in the last 20 years behind only Jason Terry (19.6 in 2009 with Dallas) and Ginobili (19.5 in 2008). Crawford would become the oldest player to win the award and he’d join Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce and Detlef Schrempf as two-time winners.

“Growing up, it wasn’t like I wanted to be a sixth man,” Crawford recently told Ramona Shelbourne of ESPN Los Angeles. “It only happened because I got to this point where I just wanted to win more than anything. When you bring one of your top scorers, your top players off the bench, it really gives your team balance.”

The contenders

Manu Ginobili, Spurs – A year ago it seemed the Argentine might have come to the end of his rope after a glorious NBA and international run. He looked slow and out of sorts, particularly in the NBA Finals. But he came back to the Spurs, 36 years of age, and put together an inspiring bounce-back season, averaging 12.4 ppg, 4.3 apg and 3.0 mpg in 22.8 mpg.

Taj Gibson, Bulls – There should be an award for the entire Bulls team, maybe the Perseverance Award or something. Gibson continues to get better and often pushed Carlos Boozer off the floor in the fourth quarter. His larger role pushed his minutes per game up by five and he responded with 13.1 ppg, a five-point increase from last season, and 6.8 rpg, up 1.5.

Markieff Morris, Suns – Also a Most Improved Player of the Year candidate, averaging career-highs by a wide margin with 13.8 ppg and 6.0 rpg. He’s transformed himself into a dangerous mid-range shooter, making 48.6 percent of his shots, up from 40.7 percent last season and 39.9 percent as a rookie. Morris was vital to the Suns’ 47 wins with one game to go.

Reggie Jackson, Thunder – He got his training on the fly during the 2013 postseason. Since then, he’s provided the Thunder with stability and scoring off the bench as well as in the starting lineup during Russell Westbrook‘s absences. Jackson is averaging 13.1 ppg, fourth on the Thunder, 4.2 apg and 3.9 rpg in 28.5 mpg. He averaged 5.3 ppg and 14.2 mpg last season.

Vince Carter, Mavericks – Carter has kept himself in tip-top physical condition and, at 39.5 percent, has transformed himself into a dangerous 3-pointer shooter. No player in the league has come off the bench and dropped more than Carter’s 145. He’s played in all but one game this season, averaging 12.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg and 2.7 apg in 24.3 mpg.

Nick Young, Lakers – Swaggy P had his swaggy moments, like celebrating a 3-pointer that didn’t drop, but the L.A.-born sixth man was mostly money for the injury-riddled Lakers. He led the team in scoring with a career-high 17.9 ppg while hitting 38.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, his highest percentage since 2010-11.

Bucks face uphill battle for new arena


VIDEO: Adam Silver on Milwaukee’s arena situation

By Jon Hartzell, NBA.com

MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Bucks need a new arena, and they need it soon. New NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said so. The Bucks’ owner has said it. Everyone across the league acknowledges the need to replace what has become maybe the NBA’s most dismal arena.

How the Bucks plan to pay for one is a different story, and one which recently intensified as reports indicated owner Herb Kohl may be close to selling the team, with an announcement possible at the NBA Board of Governors meetings later this week in New York.

The 79-year-old Kohl has stated his willingness to sell, but he also has said he’s dedicated to finding an owner who will keep the team in Milwaukee. A new downtown arena is the quickest way to secure the franchise’s future in Milwaukee.

“In order to keep the Bucks, we have to have a facility,” Kohl said during Bucks media day in October. “And in order to get a facility, we have to keep the Bucks. So it’s like a two-fer: We’re either going to get both in the years ahead or we’re going to have neither.”

Kohl has stated he is willing to contribute a significant personal financial investment to replace the current BMO Harris Bradley Center. The “Fortress on Fourth” was a privately funded gift built in 1988 with funds donated by philanthropists Jane Bradley Pettit and her husband, Lloyd Pettit. In addition to housing the Bucks, it is home to the Marquette University men’s basketball team and the Milwaukee Admirals of the Arena Hockey League.

But it has gradually fallen into disrepair, with a leaking atrium and a refrigerant system that’s no long permitted in the United States. The Bradley Center struggles to generate the revenue needed to make fixes due to a lack of suite space and no year-round, on-site restaurant.

Kohl might be willing to fund an arena by himself if he could afford it. But with a reported net worth around $264 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Kohl may not have the desire or the means. Especially after he contributed $25 million to the Wisconsin Badgers’ arena in Madison, now named the Kohl Center, in 1998.


VIDEO: Kohl on Potential Investors

A pricey proposition for Kohl, Milwaukee

This is where a sale of the team could solve the Bucks’ problem. Recent reports from Grantland’s editor-in-chief Bill Simmons suggest the sale price for the franchise will be upward of $550 million, far greater than the $405 million that Forbes valued the team at in January. (Kohl paid an estimated $18 million for the franchise in 1985.)

Some speculate that given an arena price tag like that, Kohl might be willing to make a big investment in a new building after the team is sold. Others suggest that the sale of the franchise will depend largely on a commitment from the new ownership group to make a major contribution to an arena. These two sources could get the Bucks close to the $500 million necessary to construct an arena (the Sacramento Kings’ new arena is projected to cost $448 million), though Kohl has said he believes funding should come from a combination of public and private funds.

It may be difficult to raise enough private funds. But one of the groups reportedly interested in the Bucks, New York-based hedge-fund billionaires Marc Lasry and Wes Edens, have an estimated combined net worth around $3 billion, according to Forbes. They reportedly were close to closing a sale on the Bucks less than a week ago for $550 million, but a “late flurry of offers” drove the price up and re-opened negotiations, according to Simmons. Grantland also reported that Kohl refused to sell to a Seattle ownership group led by Chris Hansen and former Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer (who is worth approximately $20.1 billion, according to Forbes).

The other names to emerge as possible investors are nowhere near as wealthy as Lasry and Edens. But they all have at least some connection to Milwaukee, or the Midwest, which would ease the fear that a new ownership group would attempt to relocate the team. The most likely of these local investors are Chicago-based businessman Richard Chaifetz, who donated $12 million to build an arena at his alma-mater (Saint Louis University), former Bucks player (and one of Wendy’s largest franchisees), Junior Bridgeman, Wisconsin-based consultant Jon Hammes and current Milwaukee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, who previously stated he would be interested in investing in a new arena. It seems likely Kohl would remain involved with the team in some capacity if he decides to sell to a local ownership group, and he could even remain the majority owner.

While a local ownership group sounds like a smart way to keep the team in Milwaukee, most believe that to go that route with the potential investors whose names have surfaced, significant public funding for a new arena would be needed. And local governments do not seem too keen on that idea.


VIDEO: Kohl on Arena (2012)

Tax-for-arena argument won’t help cause

Southeastern Wisconsin residents continue to have a sour taste in their mouth over the five-county, 0.1 percent sales tax enacted in 1996 to fund the development of the Brewers’ Miller Park, which opened in 2001. The tax initially was to expire in 2012. But it was delayed to 2014 and now 2020 as tax revenues in the region have declined.

The battle over that tax was fierce in 1995. It passed by just one vote, cast by Racine County State Senator George Petak, who was quickly recalled nine months later because of the vote. Racine County already passed a resolution in July stating it would not support a tax for a new arena, and the other three local counties have made similar statements. Some have suggested extending the Miller Park tax to cover the new arena, but that seems unlikely at this point.

Local apathy is a huge hurdle in getting public money for a new arena. The perception around town is that a new arena would be only for the Bucks, rather than for the community. And the Bucks, the third-winningest team in the NBA during the 25 years prior to Kohl, have not gained many fans during the Kohl era. They’ve advanced past the first round of the playoffs just once since 1989 and are in the midst of their worst season ever.

All public funding hope is not lost, however. The private contributions from Kohl, Attanasio and a new ownership group would at least lessen the burden placed on the public to fund the arena. So the tax would not need to be as large as it was for Miller Park, which received $290 million in public funds in 1996 (equivalent to roughly $437 million in 2014). There are also emerging ideas about a “cultural tax” which would not only fund a new arena, but also parks, museums and the Milwaukee County Zoo. The concept was successfully used in Oklahoma City to fund the construction of the Thunders’ Chesapeake Energy Arena.

New public funding ideas will continue to emerge (“Super TIF,” anyone?). Still, it seems clear most Milwaukeeans are not enthusiastic about helping rich owners fund a new arena.

Bucks on-court product has some hope

All of this hullaballoo comes at the end of a season in which the Bucks will finish with the worst record in the NBA, after an offseason which saw them add 11 new players and coach Larry Drew in hopes of making another exasperated run at the playoffs. The Bucks will have a top pick in this year’s NBA Draft, joining a young core of Larry Sanders, John Henson, Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton, Nate Wolters and 19-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo. The future of the franchise and the arena may be cloudy, but the roster’s future is arguably bright.

Silver is pleased with Kohl’s efforts to keep the team in Milwaukee, where it has been since 1968. But Milwaukee will force the NBA’s hand if there is no plan in place for a new arena when the Bradley Center’s lease expires in 2017. Current signs point toward Kohl selling the team. But many thought current Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan was going to buy the franchise in 2003 before Kohl pulled out late in the negotiation.

It’s been a horrible season for the Bucks, one that mercifully ends tonight when they host playoff-bound Atlanta at the Bradley Center (8 ET, League Pass). After that, with the franchise on the selling block, an unsettled arena situation and a critical top four pick in the Draft, the Bucks will step uncertainly into what may be their most important offseason yet.

Morning Shootaround — April 16


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 15

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lillard, Blazers gear up for Rockets | Spurs’ Buford in it for long haul | D’Antoni didn’t know lottery rules | Nelson facing finale with Magic?

No. 1: Lillard gearing up for Rockets, matchup with Beverley — Few point guards in the NBA have established themselves as defensive pests as quickly as Rockets guard Patrick Beverley has. The high-energy, pressuring guard is crucial to Houston’s success this season and is expected to play a key role for the Rockets as they face the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. Beverley will have the task of trying to slow/pester Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard throughout the series, but Beverley already got under Lillard’s skin earlier this season. CSNNW.com’s Chris Haynes details the layers of the Beverley-Lillard matchup and the bad feelings that may lie therein that trace back to a March game between the teams:

Dwight Howard versus Robin Lopez, James Harden up against Wesley Matthews, Chandler Parsons trying to outdo Nicolas Batum, super reserves Jeremy Lin going toe-to-toe with Mo Williams.

But without a doubt, the most intriguing, intense matchup will be at the point guard position featuring Patrick Beverley and Damian Lillard. Aside from the fact that Beverley, and his defense, arguably gives Lillard the toughest time, there’s some recent bad blood that could creep up.

The day after an early March game between these two teams, a contest the Rockets won at home 118-133 in overtime, Beverley did a local radio interview and went out of his way to respond to what he perceived to be a slight from Lillard.

The interview was coming to a close after nearly nine minutes and Beverley quickly interrupted the host as he was in the process of thanking the guard for coming on.

“Ah, you didn’t ask me no question about Damian Lillard,” Beverley said to the gentlemen on Sports Talk 790 AM in Houston, followed by urging them to ask a question about Lillard in which they did.

“…Damian Lillard whines,” he went on to say. “I’m not a big fan of that. I don’t go out there and try to start fights with anybody. I go out there and play my game. That’s what I do. I don’t go out there and try to hack people. I don’t go out there and do that.”

Beverley was responding to Lillard’s comment saying the Rockets’ defensive guard was irritating and that he tries to get under your skin to get you to react. When Lillard heard the interview and how Beverley brought up his name out the blue, he was taken back.

“I was surprised,” Lillard told CSNNW.com after practice on Tuesday. “I said that what he was doing in that game was kind of irritating. It wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. It was meant to say it was irritating. But to go on the radio and them not even ask about me and then you bring me up, I thought that was unnecessary.”

To be frank, this is shaping up to be one hell of a first round series.

When asked today if the two needed to talk before the series began in order to clear the air, since all this was just a simple misunderstanding, Lillard rebuffed that notion.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” Lillard responded. “I don’t have no beef with the dude. He’s competing just like I’m out there competing and that’s it. There’s nothing to hash out because we’re not best friends. We don’t know each other off the floor. There’s nothing really to hash out. But I respect him as a player, but the radio and all that stuff, that’s not my style. It was unnecessary.”

There’s clearly respect from both sides. Beverley was disturbed that Lillard didn’t give him his due credit as he made that clear in the radio interview. Lillard didn’t feel he was criticizing Beverley’s play with his comments, but contends that radio interview was over the top.


VIDEO: The Rockets beat the Blazers in an intense March matchup

***

No. 2: Buford in for long haul with Spurs — San Antonio has cemented the No. 1 seed throughout the 2014 NBA playoffs, it has a full, healthy roster ready to make another NBA Finals run and, despite knowing that Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan will soon one day retire, remain an overall stable NBA franchise. Much of that credit goes to Spurs GM R.C. Buford, who, in a recent conversation with Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe, says he expects to be around after Duncan, Ginobili (and Tony Parker) hang it up and San Antonio builds around youngster Kawhi Leonard. Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News has more on Lowe’s chat with Buford:

Coach Gregg Popovich has backed away from previous jokes that he’ll be following Duncan out the door. And general manager R.C. Buford, who alongside Popovich and Duncan has helped establish the Spurs as one of the most stable organizations in North American professional sports, has every intention of overseeing the process.

“I’m incredibly happy where I am,” Buford said. “If somebody tells me they don’t want me around here anymore, then I’ll have to worry about where I go next.”

Buford’s comment was part of an extensive podcast with Grantland’s Zach Lowe, in response to why a team in a larger market wouldn’t simply throw a ton of money at he or former understudy Sam Presti, now the architect in Oklahoma City. But like many of his colleagues, particularly Popovich and Duncan, Buford treasures working in a smaller market where distractions from the task at hand — winning championships — are kept to a minimum.

Among the other topics covered –

* Duncan’s recent injury scare: “I was sitting near Jon Barry, who was doing the game for ESPN Radio. He said that’s the fastest he’s ever seen me move.”

* The advent of player tracking and advanced statistics: “From a basketball standpoint, knowing everything that happens on the floor should help us get better at evaluating and executing the strategies that we’ve chosen. It’s helped us recognize how much work goes into being a point guard. I think it gave us better appreciation of what (Tony Parker) really goes through.”

* This year’s trade deadline: “I think we felt we had some things that might happen that could help our team, and we had a value of what those were that we were comfortable extending. Other teams didn’t feel that way. You never know how close you are because there are conversations going on in a lot of places.”

* Whether Oklahoma City is an especially problematic matchup for the Spurs: “Kevin Durant is a problematic matchup for every team. And Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. They’re a really good team. We’re going to play the people who are in front of us and hopefully we’re playing well.”

***

No. 3: D’Antoni didn’t know draft implications of Lakers-Jazz game — Monday night’s Lakers-Jazz game from Salt Lake City was likely of interest to L.A. and Utah fans for perhaps one key reason: NBA Draft Lottery positioning. The Jazz entered with a 24-56 mark while the Lakers were 25-55 and a loss by the Jazz would assure Utah of no worse than the NBA’s fourth-worst record, and, with that, increased odds for a top 4 pick in the 2014 Draft. The Lakers would go on to a 119-104 rout that gave Utah what it hoped for. After the game, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni made a surprising revelation that he had no idea how the Lakers-Jazz game could have actually benefited L.A.’s lottery hopes. ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin has more:

Intentional or not, there was more to D’Antoni’s accomplishment of snapping a seven-game Lakers losing streak with a 119-104 win against the lowly Utah Jazz. He also put himself firmly in the crosshairs with a faction of the purple and gold faithful who care only about the Lakers’ draft position at this point, rather than chasing meaningless wins to close out the season.

“What are you going to tell them? ‘Don’t play hard’?” D’Antoni said when asked whether the subject had been broached with his team before playing an equally abysmal Utah team. “That’s not right.”

If D’Antoni had stopped talking right there, he could have been spared the ire from the fan base, as the unexpected win would have been chalked up to Nick Young (who hit the 40-point plateau for the second time in eight games) and big nights from Jodie Meeks (23 points), Jordan Hill (21 points) and Kendall Marshall (15 assists).

But D’Antoni didn’t stop there, of course.

He continued his answer to reveal that he didn’t know exactly what was at stake for the Lakers, who went into the night with a 25-55 record, playing against a Jazz team that was 24-56.

“They played hard, and I think, if I’m not mistaken, it’s the same number of pingpong balls, right?” D’Antoni said. “They flip a coin, or something.”

Turns out, he was mistaken. The Lakers went into the night with the sixth-worst record in the league. A loss to the Jazz would have put them in a tie for fifth with Utah, with the Lakers owning the tiebreaker as the worse team — should the Jazz close out the season with a loss in Minnesota and L.A. finish things out with a loss in San Antonio — because Utah would have won the season series 3-1.

A reporter informed D’Antoni that the win by the Lakers actually cemented the Jazz with a worse record and thus better lottery chances.

“I mean, you kind of hate that,” D’Antoni responded, realizing what the win did to the potential draft order. “But, I thought we had the same rank.”

Another reporter chimed in to tell D’Antoni that if the Lakers had lost to Utah, the coach would have been correct.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” D’Antoni said. “Oh, OK. That’s all right; we’re going to beat San Antonio, anyway. So, it’s all for naught.”

***

No. 4: Nelson facing finale with Magic?A cursory look at the Orlando Magic’s all-time leaderboard in various stats reveals that point guard Jameer Nelson has etched a solid place in team lore. Nelson is the club’s all-time leader in assists and ranks in the top five in points, games played, 3-pointers made, steals and more. The Magic close out their lottery-bound season tonight with a home date against the Indiana Pacers and Nelson, whose deal next season is only partially guaranteed, could be saying farewell to the only NBA team he’s ever known. Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel has more:

Nelson might not be with the franchise next season. Although he’s about to complete just the second year of a three-year contract, his salary for the 2014-15 season is only partially guaranteed. If the Magic waive him before July 15, the team would owe him only $2 million instead of $8 million.

Nelson, a diminutive point guard who has spent all 10 of his NBA seasons with the Magic, has said repeatedly he wants to remain with the team because his family loves Central Florida.

“I’m very cognizant it could be my last home game,” Nelson said. “It’s not up to me. It’s up to the team. It’s the team’s option. I would like to still be here and finish my career here. I have a lot more years left in me. Good years. I’m not sure what they have in store for me, but I’m just going to play it out and see what happens. Like I said, it’s just one of those things. I don’t have control over it. I don’t know what their thoughts are right now.”I have kids, so I’m worried about it. That’s the biggest thing for me. My family is more important to me than anything. I just want to be treated the right way. I want to be treated fair. I want to be treated the right way. I feel like I’m a guy of loyalty, so I just want everybody that’s involved in my life and in the organization to be loyal to me.”

A league source said the Magic haven’t made a decision on Nelson’s future.

Nelson has made only 39.4 percent of his shot attempts — the second-lowest field-goal percentage of his career — largely because of poor shot selection. But through Monday, he ranked eighth in the NBA in assists, averaging 7.0 per game.

The past two seasons have been difficult for Nelson. Last season, the Magic finished with a 20-62 record. This season, the team will bring a 23-58 record into its final game. He was a member of the Magic teams that reached the 2009 NBA Finals and the 2010 Eastern Conference finals, so he wasn’t accustomed to losing.

Magic officials have been pleased, though not surprised, that he has welcomed the team’s young players over the last two seasons.

“Jameer means everything to me,” second-year big man Kyle O’Quinn said. “I couldn’t be more lucky to have a vet like him. On the court, off the court he’s there for you no matter what. He even gets upset with you if you make a decision without him. That’s how much he wants to be involved. I love him like a brother.”`

Magic fans’ appreciation for Nelson has grown, too.

Back when the team was a title contender, some fans regarded Nelson as a liability because of his lack of height, his deficiencies as a defender and his shoot-first ways.

In recent years, however, he’s become a fan favorite, almost always receiving the loudest cheers during pregame introductions.

“The fans have definitely embraced me, and whenever I get to see fans or people that I know that are outside of the basketball arena, it’s all love,” he said. “It’s nothing but love.”


VIDEO: Jameer Nelson reflects on his career with the Magic

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Celtics legend Cedric Maxwell was standing in the spot where the Boston Marathon bombings took place last year about “7-8 minutes” before the event took place … Paul George, David West, C.J. Watson and Lance Stephenson will all get the night off tonight against the Magic … The Mavs are trying to value this 50-win season as much as any other … If he starts tonight’s game against the Sacramento Kings, Suns forward Channing Frye will, amazingly, have started all 82 games this season … How has Jeff Green done this season as Boston’s go-to guy?

ICYMI of the Night: Back in the mid-to-late 2000s, Andrei Kirilenko was making highlight reels as a member of the Jazz with amazing, no-look dimes like this one he threw to Mason Plumlee last night …


VIDEO: Andrei Kirilenko throws a behind-the-back, no-look pass to Mason Plumlee for the dunk

Mills ready to fire away for Spurs

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Patty Mills hangs 26 points and six assists on the Mavs on April 10

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Meet Patty Mills, the latest once-anonymous, low-minute man to thrive as a meaningful member of the San Antonio Spurs.

In a game last week at Dallas, a bad back sidelined All-Star point guard Tony Parker. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has typically started Cory Joseph in these instances to keep Mills firing off the bench. On this night, with the Mavericks desperate for a win as they chased a playoff spot, Popovich surprised the 6-foot Mills by starting him at point guard for just the second time this season.

Mills responded by destroying Dallas’ backcourt with six 3-pointers and a game-high 26 points, six assists, a couple steals and not a single turnover in 36 minutes. If you squinted, it almost looked like the jitterbug wearing No. 8 was really Parker’s No. 9. The Spurs won the game, going on to sweep the regular-season series 4-0 against a Mavs team they might see again this weekend when the playoffs begin.

The first-round matchup will be determined Wednesday when Dallas plays at Memphis (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). The loser will assume the eighth seed and head for San Antonio. The Grizzlies are also 0-4 against the Spurs.

After the big victory over Dallas, Mills was asked if he finds himself looking ahead to the playoffs considering he’s headed for his first postseason as an integral part of a rotation.

“No, no, and obviously it’s not easy to do,” Mills said in a softly spoken Australian accent. “You really need to focus on the job at hand and we’ve got games like tonight we’ve still got to play which are going to develop us and give us a good opportunity to get better against playoff teams.”

He quickly added: “I think whether we won or lost tonight’s game, I think it was a matter of how well we played that we came out of this game, you know, better.”

It reminded of the line Popovich delivered earlier this month to his club during TNT’s timeout peek into the Spurs’ huddle at Oklahoma City:

“I could care less whether we win or lose this game. I’d rather win but I want to win the right way.”

Mills, told he sounded much like Pop, said with a grin: “I’ve been around him for a while now, so…”

Hailing from Canberra, Australia, Mills, 25, played two seasons at Saint Mary’s in Northern California and was the 55th pick of the Portland Trail Blazers in 2009. During the 2011 lockout he returned to Australia and went to China briefly. San Antonio signed him in March 2012 and re-signed him the ensuing summer. In his first full season with the Spurs, Mills averaged 11.3 mpg and 5.1 ppg in 58 games.

When the Spurs didn’t re-sign long-distance shooting guard Gary Neal  last summer, the 180-pound, quick-footed Mills ascended into the rotation.

“He can score,” Popovich said. “He’s not afraid to shoot it, that’s for sure. That’s how he plays, he’s always aggressive, that’s what he does. He’s not going to get a whole lot of rebounds or stop a whole lot of people, but he’s going to shoot it, that’s what his skill is.”

Logging a career-high 18.3 mpg in 80 games this season, Mills, making $1.1 million in his final season under contract, is averaging 10.2 ppg and converting 42.5 percent of his 3-point attempts (134-for-315) — both better marks than Neal produced last season.

Mills’ effective field-goal percentage (eFG%, adjusted for 3-pointers being more valuable than 2-pointers) is 59.4 percent, the highest in the league among reserve guards who average at least 15.0 mpg.

However, he’s entering an all new ballgame now. His postseason experience consists of scarce minutes, a total of 79 in his career. Is he prepared to produce as he has during the regular season in his first playoff pressure-cooker?

“I don’t doubt him,” Manu Ginobili said. “He’s very young and doesn’t have that much experience, but he’s played big games for Australia, and in the Olympics. The guy can score. The guy is a scorer and I don’t see a scenario where pressure can really bother him. We trust him and rely on him, too.”

Mills is fully indoctrinated in the San Antonio way. Popovich last week provided his seal of approval.

“He’s ready,” Popovich said. “He’s not a 21-year-old rookie. He’s played all over the world in all kinds of situations. He’ll be fine. I’m not worried about him.”

Can’t win two? It’s Larry Drew

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Milwaukee Bucks clinched the league’s worst record on Monday. They’ll go into next month’s Lottery with the best odds at getting the No. 1 pick. They’ll have a 25 percent chance at No. 1 and will have no worse than the No. 4 pick in the June draft.

Though the Philadelphia 76ers tied an NBA record with 26 straight losses between Jan. 31 and March 27, the Bucks managed to stay behind them in the standings.

How did they do it? Well, their longest losing streak of the season was only 11 games, but they never won two in a row. In fact, Monday’s loss in Toronto also clinched a little bit of history for the Bucks.

The Bucks are the third team in NBA history to play an 82-game season without ever winning two straight. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only two other teams to do it were the 1986-87 Clippers and the 2004-05 Hawks.

Amazingly, those three teams have something in common. His name is Larry Drew.

Drew and Mike Woodson both played for the ’86-87 Clippers. Woodson was the coach and Drew an assistant for the ’04-05 Hawks. And, of course, Drew is the coach of this year’s Bucks.

The 2011-12 Bobcats also failed to win two straight in the lockout-shortened, 66-game season.

Hat tip to Bucksketball’s KL Chouinard for noting the Drew connection.

One gear: Thibodeau, Bulls continue to grind forward

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Tom Thibodeau's intensity has set the tone for the one-speed Bulls. (Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

Tom Thibodeau’s intensity has set the tone for the one-speed Bulls. (Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

CHICAGO – If the Chicago Bulls didn’t exist, NBA commissioner Adam Silver would have to invent them.

As this team rests its star players for a fresh start in the NBA postseason, as that team eyeballs the standings to scale its efforts on a given night to playoff positioning or lottery chances, the Chicago Bulls trudge forward, always forward.

Sometimes they march. Sometimes they plod. Every once in a while, the game flows more freely and you’d swear you saw swooshes on their work boots. But this is a one-direction, one-speed, one-gear team – forward, forever in overdrive – that doesn’t apologize when critics seize on that as a problem at this time of year: The Bulls play so hard all the time, so there’s no “next level” to which they can take their game in the playoffs.

Like that’s a bad thing.

So what if Chicago doesn’t click-clack through the shift gate like some exotic sports coupe flitting about the Riviera? Armored tanks, steamrollers and threshers seem to do fine without dual-clutch 7-speed gearboxes. So do Terminators, a.k.a., Tom Thibodeau.

“We’re not changing,” Thibodeau said after the 108-95 victory over Orlando in the Bulls’ home finale. “We’re trying to win games. … We’re not changing our approach: Every game, analyze what we’re doing well, what we’re doing not as well as we would like, make our corrections, move on to the next one, know the opponent well, keep moving forward. That’s all we can do.”

You could stump a few Chicagoans by asking to identify the source of the following quote: “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” Who said that: Michael Biehn‘s character in the original “Terminator?” Or a Bulls player, requesting anonymity, in describing Thibs?

Forward Taj Gibson didn’t take the unnamed route when he went there Monday.

“You guys have been around for a minute now,” Gibson, a top Sixth Man candidate, told reporters. “You guys should know that guy in the other room over there, he’s not going to tell anybody to take any rest. He’s old school. He doesn’t believe in that. He just believes in pushing forward.


VIDEO: The passion of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau

“Like he said, ‘The finish line is ahead. You’ve got to just run through it. You can’t slow up, you can’t try to trot through. You’ve got to run full speed ahead through it and whatever happens, happens.’ He told us, ‘We want to walk through the fire together as a team, as a unit. Nobody’s going to take that from you. You’ve just got to keep walking through it. Don’t stop for anything.’ “

OK, so there’s no ring collection in the Chicago locker room. Backup center Nazr Mohammed is the only player to have reached The Finals, never mind win the title, and the Bulls’ collection of Larry O’Brien trophies has fit on the same shelf for 16 years now.

But then, Thibodeau and his crew aren’t preachy about their relentless ways – heck, it might scare off some free agents the way tales of Pat Riley‘s taped, full-contact, two-hour “shootarounds” used to. Grinding steadily forward simply is what has worked for Chicago.

There really wasn’t much choice, after the long-anticipated return of MVP candidate Derrick Rose ended just 10 games in. Rose’s second season-ending knee injury and the subsequent trade of All-Star Luol Deng threatened to do more than just slam shut this Bulls edition’s championship window. It had some fans luridly licking their chops over lottery slots. They, of course, were the ones who know nothing about Thibodeau.

The Bulls are 21-8 since the All-Star break and 34-17 since trading Deng in early January. Their defense is a constant, the relentless embodiment of their head coach. And though Chicago ranks ranks 28th in offensive rating (102.7), the Bulls lately have been almost breezy, scoring 100 points or more in five of their past seven.

With Gibson and Joakim Noah developing as scoring options, with shooter Mike Dunleavy moving into a starting spot up front and with D.J. Augustin dusting off his career as Thibodeau’s latest point-guard reclamation project, the offense has hit triple digits 14 times in its 29 post-break games vs. 11 times in the 52 before it.

Their 100-89 loss Sunday in New York snapped a seven-game winning streak, but at least it wasn’t the result of guessing at the Indiana-Miami flip-flopping atop the conference and trying to game the playoff seedings. If anything the Bulls Game 7 everything.

“It’s made us who we are,” guard Kirk Hinrich said after the Magic victory. “That’s just kind of the makeup of this group and the beliefs that [Thibodeau] goes by. Us as players, there’s something to be said about just coming in, preparing. You feel prepared, you’re confident, and that goes a long way.”

Dunleavy occasionally has rolled his eyes at the work-load demands he has faced under Thibodeau. Then again, the 6-foot-9 forward didn’t play on a .500 team in his first 11 NBA seasons, so he’s not complaining.

“Playing with high intensity like we do all year helps,” he said. “I certainly am going to keep the same approach in the playoffs. It’s just another game because I think we prepare for every regular-season game like it’s a playoff game. That’s the way we’ve been doing it, and hopefully we roll right through in terms of smoothness and transition into the postseason.”

Roll? Typically by this time each spring, the Bulls are limping and bleeding. Once the smoke and smell of sulfur from Rose’s latest demise cleared, though, the rest of the roster got and largely has remained healthy. As hard as Thibodeau pushes, they have become true believers in the ol’ “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” ethos.

“We believe in ourselves, we believe in our abilities,” Noah said. “We think we’re going to be a tough out. We’re going to go out there and give them hell.”

Forty-eight minutes of it, sometimes served up that way per man (see Jimmy Butler, 2013 postseason). All in one gear, at one speed.

Defensive Player: Do-it-all Joakim Noah

By Lang Whitaker, NBA.com


VIDEO: Joakim Noah is a nominee for April’s Kia Eastern Conference Player of the Month

My choice for Kia Defensive Player of the Year does not lead the NBA in rebounding, blocks, steals — any of the categories that for years were traditionally cited when considering the best defensive players in the NBA.

That said, it is easy to defend the choice of Joakim Noah as Defensive Player of the Year because he’s been the linchpin defender for a team that ranks as one of the best in the NBA. This selection was influenced in many ways by the always-unreliable eye test: Noah looks like he defends harder than anyone else, reading the opponents plays, heartily embracing the challenge of stopping whichever player he is asked to defend each night, clapping his hands, using defense to fuel his intensity.

Considering what they have been through this season — losing Derrick Rose to injury, trading away Luol Deng; the Bulls have basically held this season together with twine and strategically placed scotch tape — the Bulls have needed Noah like never before. And Noah has been the straw that stirs the drink. As Houston coach Kevin McHale said about Noah a few weeks back, “He should be defensive player of the year. He’s done a great job with these guys. They’ve been winning a lot just on his energy and effort, his kind of determination and toughness. Those are all qualities everybody appreciates.”

These are also all qualities that aren’t easily quantifiable. So just to make sure my eyes weren’t lying to me, I checked with our stat guru John Schuhmann to see if the numbers matched my brain. I asked Schuh for a few advanced stats that needed to be considered when selecting the best defensive player. John initially mentioned team defense: As of today, the Bulls have the second-best defensive rating in the NBA, at 97.8. John also mentioned looking at the plus/minus numbers for the players I was considering. The Bulls are +4 when Noah’s on the court, and -3.6 when he’s off the court.

Finally, John said, to measure the effect of a big, look at how they defend at the rim: Noah ranks 12th in the NBA. Noah also has shattered his career high in rebounds with 877 total, which includes (as of today) 600 defensive boards; his previous season high was 484 defensive rebounds.

What really underscores his value is that Noah is versatile enough to step out and defend stretch fours on the perimeter, while also able to dig in and bang with bigs on the interior. Noah can do almost everything on the defensive end, and if there’s something he can’t do, he doesn’t seem to notice, giving the type of effort that coaches dream about. Noah does all of this with terrific consistency, working his butt off night after night, like a physical manifestation of coach Tom Thibodeau’s raspy verbal exhortations.

• For me, the player who came closest to beating out Noah for this award was Indiana’s Roy Hibbert. Hibbert is probably the NBA’s best rim defender, but his rebounding numbers have plummeted the last few months, and as the Pacers have struggled the last few weeks, particularly on offense, they haven’t been able to look to defense to sustain them.

• Other bigs in the mix for this award? Besides Hibbert and Noah, I also considered DeAndre Jordan, Andrew Bogut, Serge Ibaka, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol.

• As far as perimeter players go, numbers make a bold case for Andre Iguodala. As Schuhmann pointed out in his Defensive Player of the Year By the Numbers post, with Iggy on the court, Golden State holds opponents to 6.5 fewer points than when he’s not on the court. Iguodala has helped the Warriors become a top-5 defensive team.

Paul George and LeBron James round out my list of best all-around perimeter defenders. As of Monday, George was tied with Noah for the lead in Defensive Win Shares at 6.4.

• Finally, I don’t think his defense will earn him a place among the top five defenders, but if I had to choose a player who I find to be the most fun player to watch play defense, that nod would go to Houston’s Patrick Beverley.

Grizzlies deserve praise for grit, grind and playoff perseverance

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Grizzlies scratch out a crucial win against the Suns

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – You’ll have to forgive the Memphis Grizzlies for scoffing at the idea of a short NBA regular season.

For a team that suffered through a tumultuous 15-19 start to 2013-14 after making the 2013 Western Conference finals, the Grizzlies 34-14 finish (which includes Monday night’s playoff-clinching win over the Phoenix Suns) is a testament to the power of the grit-and-grind movement the that has been cultivated in Memphis the past few seasons.

We counted them out early, there’s no shame in admitting it now.

But they persevered, kept the playoffs in their sights and battled their way through for that final playoff spot. The Suns are being praised for fighting their way into the playoff mix in a season that most of us assumed would end exactly where it did … in the lottery. It’s the way the Suns went about their business, though, that captivated the basketball-loving public.

This season, they were surprising, exciting and as entertaining to watch as any team in the league. Even though it goes against everything I believe in, this is one of those rare times where I would advocate a change to the traditional playoff structure, if only to watch the Suns play four or five more games.

Jeff Hornacek will get the love he deserves in the Coach of the Year balloting, just as Goran Dragic and Gerald Green will get their due during awards season. Their accomplishments will be appreciated in the end.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph talks after the Grizz top the Suns in Phoenix

The Grizzlies, whose style isn’t nearly as pleasing to the flash-and-dash crowd, are just as worthy of our attention. So while it’s fine to bemoan the Suns just narrowly missing out on the postseason, we should spend just as much time heading into the postseason appreciating the fine work of new coach Dave Joerger as well as Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony AllenCourtney Lee, Mike Miller and the rest of Memphis’ relentless crew.

“This is a culmination of not just this week or not just March or April, this is a culmination of everything we’ve been through since December,” Joerger said after the clinching win over the Suns. “For these guys, it’s a happy locker room, a relieved locker room and just a bunch of very proud guys with great chemistry.”

A Grizzlies front office that was second-guessed repeatedly (here and beyond) throughout the course of this season for replacing Lionel Hollins with Joerger (and other decisions) should be feeling good that their calculated risks paid off.

In a business notorious for the what-have-you-done-lately belief to determine a franchise’s success, the Grizzlies’ brass went against the grain and proved the haters wrong. They beat back every theory that said they shouldn’t finish the season with a playoff bid, and that includes the in-house data model constructed by vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger 

The folks who should be really worried about the Grizzlies grinding their way into the postseason live in San Antonio and Oklahoma City. The Spurs and Thunder are the ones who’ll have to deal with Randolph, Gasol, Allen and Conley by the weekend. They’ll be someone else’s headache in a few days and that’s an issue that every other team in the Western Conference playoff mix would admit to not wanting to deal with.

“No one wants to play Memphis in the first round,” an assistant coach for a Western Conference team told me weeks ago, long before the final spot was locked up. “With Z-Bo and Gasol you’re going to get your big men beat up right away. That’s not a good look for anybody. They’re attacking you in the middle and with that physical style. You have to survive them in a playoff series.”

The Grizzlies have added weapons this year in Miller and Lee, guys who can stretch the floor in ways the Grizzlies have not been able to in the recent past. Had Gasol not missed 22 games with injury, there’s no telling how high the Grizzlies might have finished in the standings.

With everyone healthy and the Grizzlies’ collective playoff experience, there isn’t a more dangerous team in the entire postseason landscape. They might not be the darlings that the Suns were all season, but the Grizzlies are certainly the sort of team anyone should be able to appreciate this time of year.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph scores 32 in the playoff-clinching win over the Suns