Morning Shootaround

Morning shootaround — March 31


VIDEO: Top plays from games played March 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Jackson pleads with Knicks season-ticket holders | Korver gets on track a bit | Lakers lottery hopes take hit

No. 1: Jackson pleads with Knicks season-ticket holders – Much like their high-glamour brethren in the Western Conference (that would be the Los Angeles Lakers), the New York Knicks have endured a disastrous season. From the franchise-record 60 losses this season to losing superstar Carmelo Anthony to injury, 2014-15 has been awful for New York. Team president Phil Jackson, however, continues to ask Knicks fans — and specifically season-ticket holders — to take the long view with his plan for the team. Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com has more:

Phil Jackson has asked New York Knicks season-ticket holders to “remain optimistic” amid what has been one of the worst seasons in franchise history.

In a letter and video message sent out on Monday, Jackson tried to reassure the team’s fan base, saying he has a “clear plan” in place for this 2015 offseason.

“While I know this has been a challenging season for our team on the court, I can also tell you that everyone in the organization is working tirelessly to get our Knicks back to a place where we are once again competing at the highest level,” Jackson said in a video message obtained by ESPN New York that doubled as a pitch to season ticket holders to renew for the 2015-16 season.

In the letter, Jackson talked about the roster moves he’s made to clear up cap space for free agency. The Knicks are expected to have at least $25 million in cap space this summer.

“We have made key roster moves to free up significant cap space that will provide us greater flexibility to acquire talent in this summer’s free agency,” Jackson said. “And for the first time in many years, we expect to have a top pick in the NBA Draft this June. These are key steps to building a roster of players that have both the talent and character to win in New York and who, alongside Carmelo Anthony, will become a team that can become a consistent winner.”

Jackson briefly acknowledged the failures of this season in the video and letter.

“Despite the disappointing 2014-15 season, we are steadfast in our resolve to do what is necessary to deliver on our ultimate goal of bringing a championship back to New York,” Jackson said.

Jackson signed a five-year contract reportedly worth $60 million dollars to take over as Knicks president a little more than 12 months ago.

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Morning Shootaround — March 30


VIDEO: Highlights from game played on March 29

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Morey confident Rockets win it all this season | Report: Mullin mulling St. John’s job offer | Lakers’ Davis unhappy about sideline stint | Report: Magic ready to extend Hennigan’s contract

No. 1: Morey confident Rockets win it all this season – The MVP and a NBA title? It could happen this season in Houston. James Harden is working on snagging that Maurice Podoloff Trophy. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey insists his team is working on the latter, sounding extremely confident that his bunch, with Dwight Howard back in the mix. Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com has more:

Morey’s team is currently the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with nine games remaining in the regular season. In order to reach the NBA Finals, the Rockets will have to overcome several health issues.

Forwards Terrence Jones (lung) and Donatas Motiejunas (lower back pain) have been out recently, and Morey expects them to return before the end of the regular season.

Starting center Dwight Howard has played the past three games under a minutes restriction after missing nearly eight weeks with swelling in his right knee. Howard will not play in Monday’s game at the Toronto Raptors.

Starting point guard Patrick Beverley has a torn ligament in his left wrist and is contemplating surgery. Morey said the team will make a final determination on Beverley’s status on Monday, but if they don’t have him, it won’t deter the team’s goal of trying to win a championship.

“We think we can win the title with or without Beverley,” Morey said on ESPN Radio’s Basketball Insiders show. “Obviously it gets more challenging without Beverley; he’s the key to our ability to guard a lot of these very good point guards in the West.”

Morey said the Golden State Warriors, who own the NBA’s best record and swept the season series against the Rockets this season, should be the favorites to win the title.

“We won’t go in as the favorite,” Morey said. “I think Golden State, deservedly so, gets to be called the favorite. They’ve had a very historic season. I think the Golden State training staff hasn’t been talked about enough this year. That team has been healthy and really that showcased everyone in Golden State. Coach [Steve] Kerr has done a great job. We won’t go in as the favorite. We do feel like we can beat anybody in a seven-game series, and we’re pretty excited to get going with the playoffs.”

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Morning shootaround — March 29




VIDEO: Highlights from games played March 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Warriors are No. 1 | Knicks hit bottom | Kanter rips Jazz | Sixers look ahead

No. 1: Warriors clinch top seed in playoffs — Ho-hum. Another night, another landmark in a season full of them. Just 24 hours after flexing their muscles in a heavyweight win at Memphis, the Warriors rolled into Milwaukee and rolled the Bucks. It was Golden State’s ninth straight victory, gave the franchise 60 wins for the first time ever and, more important, locked up home-court advantage all the way through the NBA Finals. But the Warriors weren’t celebrating, because they’ve got their sights set on bigger goals, according to Diamond Leung of Bay Area News Group:

“It’s good to break records and do all that, but I think we have that kind of feel that we haven’t done anything in the playoffs,” center Andrew Bogut said. “So we’re kind of doing all the right things leading into the playoffs, and hopefully it carries in.”

The Warriors, after winning their ninth straight, once again cited their focus.

“Guys have been fantastic all season long just with their commitment to each other, to their work and joy, and it’s been so much fun,” coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s great to rack up these milestones as we go.

“We have a good work ethic every day. We have a ton of fun. Our guys play hard. They play for each other. They laugh. That’s the whole goal, I think, as a goal, is improvement and enjoyment, and they often go hand in hand, and I think that’s what I’m most proud of this year.”

One of the longest-tenured Warriors players, David Lee, credited the first-year coaching staff.

“The hardest part sometimes when you’re playing the way we’re playing is to stay focused every single game, and I think in years past we’ve had problems losing to teams that we’re ‘better than,'”‚” said Lee, who started the game and has been in and out of the rotation this season. “Or losing games that we shouldn’t’ lose. Or losing games at home that you should never lose.

“That always goes back to the coaching staff keeping us on our toes and telling us we need to get better.”

Said Kerr with a laugh: “Fortunately when I got the job that the team was a lot more talented than they’ve been most of their history.”

The Warriors, who have set a franchise record for road wins and have only lost twice at home, are also in good position to earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They took a five-game lead over Atlanta for the NBA’s best record with nine games left.

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No. 2: 60th loss sets Knicks record — At the other end of the spectrum from the beautiful game played by the Warriors in their march into the record books, is the misery at Madison Square Garden as the Knicks make a different kind of history. Loss No. 60 came Saturday night in a 31-point thumping at Chicago and Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News reminds that Knicks fans and executives who couldn’t wait to run Mike Woodson out of town can now look back at those good old days:

It is always worth remembering that since the start of the 2001-02 season, all Knicks coaches who weren’t Woodson are more than 200 games under .500. He was 30 games over .500 in his two-plus years coaching the Knicks, and gave the team its only victory in a playoff series since Jeff Van Gundy was still here, back in the spring of 2000.

But then you were supposed to believe that the Knicks coached themselves when Woodson was here. “Fire Woodson!” they chanted at the Garden. Jackson did that the first chance he got, because he needed a disciple, even though Jackson’s coaching tree actually looks like a tree that misses its leaves in wintertime. He thought Steve Kerr would jump at the chance to come here, and the money Jackson was prepared to throw at him. Kerr wised up and went to Golden State and may win a championship there, and do it this year. So he threw $25 million at Derek Fisher instead.

Now a full season into the Phil Jackson era, and despite all the praise Jackson has heaped on Fisher, we still don’t know if Fisher has the chops to coach an NBA team anymore than we know if Jackson has the chops and energy and vision to build one.

Woodson, who now sits next to Doc Rivers in Los Angeles, was in town the other night as the Clippers did everything except throw the current edition of the Knicks off that Chase Bridge and said, “Hopefully (the Knicks) can rebound this summer and put some pieces together and get back to winning basketball games.”

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No. 3: Kanter goes off on Jazz — It wasn’t exactly a happy homecoming for Enes Kanter in Salt Lake City. Not unless you like your homecoming guests to come bearing a sledgehammer and start immediately to break up the furniture. After languishing on the bench in Utah for 3 1/2 seasons, Kanter feels like he’s been reborn in Oklahoma city and held nothing back in his criticism of his old team and city. Royce Young of ESPN.com has the details:

“I love it,” Kanter said before the game of his change of scenery. “It’s a team I’ve never experienced before and I actually like playing basketball there. I’m just so comfortable and everything is in the right place. I’m just really happy to be there.”
And it showed, as he continued his hot streak with 18 points and 11 rebounds in a 94-89 loss to the Jazz.

Kanter was booed during introductions and every time he touched the ball. He even egged on the crowd at the start.

“I didn’t really care. I like pressure, the boos didn’t mean nothing to me,” Kanter said. “It was just a regular game. I never felt like I was a part of this thing, so it was just a regular game. We came and we leave and that is it.

“I am not taking nothing back.”

Kanter has been an offensive revelation for the Thunder, putting up a double-double in eight consecutive games — the longest streak for the Thunder/Sonics franchise since Shawn Kemp had 10 straight in 1996, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“I think the difference is, I like playing basketball there,” Kanter said. “I think that’s the most important thing. I never liked playing basketball before in my NBA career, and this is the first time I felt like playing basketball there, for my team, for the fans, for my teammates for my coaches, for everybody. So, that’s the first time.”

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No. 4: Embiid, Noel could team up in summer — After suffering through two long seasons of piling up losses, the Sixers might give fans their first glimpse of brighter future this summer. A decision hasn’t yet been made, but coach Brett Brown told our own Scott Howard-Cooper that Philly’s last two No. 1 draft picks — Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid — might take the court together at the NBA Pro Summer League in July:

Embiid playing at all will be an important update after sitting out all 2014-15, barring a shocking change of plans by the Sixers in the final couple weeks, because of a stress fracture in his right foot that led to surgery, just as Noel was sidelined all last season by a torn ligament in his left knee. The chance to see Embiid, the No. 3 pick, with Noel, though, would provide extra value as an early look at 2015-16 as Philadelphia works to figure out how the two centers fit.

“It’s hard for me to go on record and say for sure,” coach Brett Brown said when asked about Embiid playing in July, “but everything is pointing toward that and I’d be very disappointed if he wasn’t on the court with us in summer league.”

As for Noel playing as well, Brown said he has not broached the topic with Noel yet, but said, “Personally, I’m open to it. If it’s something that he really wants to do, we’ll talk about it. If you put a gun to my head right now, I don’t know if I’m going to make him play in summer league.

“We’re going to talk it through, he and I, and figure it out. It would make a little bit of sense — well let’s have a look with him and Joel together. I understand that reason. But I don’t feel strong one way the another yet. I might after the season. At the moment I don’t. And whatever we do, I’m going to do it with him.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul George is still hopeful of getting back onto the court with the Pacers this season….Dario Saric is leaning toward staying in Turkey next season….Joe Dumars could be heading back to his native Louisiana for a spot with the Pelicans…After winning another Super Bowl, Tom Brady is playing pickup basketball in the Bahamas with Michael Jordan…Alma mater St. John’s might want Chris Mullin as next head coach.

Morning shootaround — March 28


VIDEO: All the highlights from Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Hawks clinch Eastern Conference | Mavericks lose Ellis | What’s next for Thunder, Durant? | Shaq would have stayed in Orlando

No. 1: Hawks clinch Eastern Conference — Coming into this season, the Atlanta Hawks were dealing with an underwhelming free agency period, a GM on an indefinite leave of absence, and an ownership group that wanted to sell the franchise. And then the season started, which the Hawks used as a terrific reminder that all the off the court noise ends there, and what really matters is the results on the floor. Friday night, with a win over the Miami Heat, the Hawks moved to 55-17 on the season and clinched the Eastern Conference championship. Yet despite the incredible season and improbable title, as Jeff Schultz writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Hawks acted like it was no big deal …

The Hawks clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs Friday night and they acted as if they had just beaten Milwaukee on a Tuesday in November.

That’s probably a good thing.

“Maybe we’ll do a little, ‘Hip-hip, hooray’ on the plane,” Kyle Korver said.

“I mean, it’s great,” Paul Millsap said. “But we really haven’t been focusing on it. We’ve got bigger goals ahead. We haven’t been looking at the scoreboard or looking at other teams. We’ve been looking at ourselves, trying to get ourselves right.”

The Hawks (55-17), playing the best defense they had in a few weeks, led Miami by 18 points at halftime (55-37) and cruised to a 99-86 win over the remains of the Heat.

Miami isn’t the same team without LeBron James (Cleveland) and Chris Bosh (injured), and with Dwyane Wade seemingly playing on one leg. The Heat’s bandwagon fan base, which used to fill Philips Arena, also appears to have shrunk, or at least morphed into Cleveland fans. Funny how that works.

But the Hawks’ win, combined with Cleveland’s loss to Brooklyn, officially clinched the East, even if it was a bit anti-climactic. It almost seemed fitting that when coach Mike Budenholzer walked into the locker room minutes after the game to tell his players that the Cavaliers had lost, half of the team was in the showers.

“Bud found out, came in and there were only like five guys in here,” Korver said. “He was like, ‘Good accomplishment, we won the East.’”

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No. 2: Mavericks lose Ellis — The Dallas Mavericks have made several changes this season — trading for Rajon Rondo, signing Amar’e Stoudemire — and despite the growing pains involved they have managed to remain in the playoff picture. But a calf injury last night to Monta Ellis not only got Mark Cuban fired up on Twitter, but without Ellis on the floor, as Tim McMahon writes for ESPNDallas.com, the Mavericks offense was a “hot mess” …

The Dallas offense didn’t exactly look healthy without its leading scorer. The Mavs scored a grand total of 22 points in the final 18:43 without Ellis, finishing with their second-lowest point total of the season.

Of course, the Mavs didn’t quite light it up in the first half with a healthy Ellis, either. Dallas scored only 41 points in the first half, shooting 38.6 percent from the floor. But the Mavs closed the first half with a 10-2 run, capped by Ellis speeding through the Spurs for a coast-to-coast layup, and opened the second half with a 13-4 spurt to slash the Spurs’ lead to four.

Then Ellis limped off the floor with 6:43 remaining in the third quarter, a little bit after he got kneed in the calf while defending Manu Ginobili, and took the life out of the Mavs’ offense with him. Dallas didn’t score for the next 3:03 and managed only 15 points in the fourth quarter.

Forwards Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons failed to pick up the slack with Ellis out. They both failed to score in double figures, combining for only 16 points, none of which came in the fourth quarter.

Was that hot mess a preview of the Mavs’ offense minus Ellis?

“We’ll find out,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said before correcting himself. “Hopefully, we won’t have to find out.”

The Mavs will know more about Ellis’ status on Saturday, but his streak of playing in 237 consecutive games is certainly in jeopardy. The Mavs’ next game is Sunday night in Indiana.

“We just have to wait and see what the doctors say and how he feels tomorrow,” Nowitzki said. “Hopefully, he will be OK. We all know he plays injured and sick and he is always there for his team.”

It could be painful to watch the Mavs without their best creator by far, but it also might be in everyone’s best interest if Ellis misses some time. The Mavs have no hope of making a playoff run if Ellis isn’t at his best.

Ellis’ toughness can’t be questioned. He has proven repeatedly that he’ll fight through pain and play through injuries. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, particularly with the playoffs weeks away.

Ellis refused to even consider missing any games after straining his left hip two games before the All-Star break. The injury bothered Ellis for weeks, a major factor in an extended slump he finally busted out of with his 38-point performance in Tuesday’s home win over the Spurs.

“Our trainers will evaluate the situation, and we’ll communicate with him,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t see us putting him out there if he’s not feeling good. You can’t underestimate his ability to bounce back from things. He’s a fighter, he loves to compete and he hates missing games. That said, we aren’t going to put him in harm’s way.”

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No. 3: What’s next for Thunder, Durant? — The Oklahoma City Thunder have had bad luck with injuries, but even as Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have missed time the last few seasons, Kevin Durant was able to carry the load, logging heavy minutes and scoring hundreds of points. But after winning the MVP a season ago, this season Durant hasn’t been able to shake the injury bug, and after having two surgeries on his right foot since the summer, the Thunder announced yesterday that Durant will need a third surgery on that right foot that will keep him out four to six months. The bone graft procedure Durant is in for should give Durant his best shot yet at fixing his troublesome right foot. And with free agency for Durant looming in the summer of 2016, as Royce Young writes at Daily Thunder, there are plenty of questions left to answer …

The big question I’m seeing a lot is, “Did Durant come back too quickly?”

The answer is, yeah, probably, in hindsight. But also what you have to understand is the team is in constant consultation with specialists about this. And sometimes, things don’t go as anticipated. It’s not like they were just saying, “I don’t care, get Durant back out there before we lose more games.”

In these situations, it makes everyone feel better to assign blame. Point a finger at someone, lash out, yell, gripe, whatever. And in truth, it probably is someone’s fault in there. Maybe it’s Durant’s. Maybe it’s Sam Presti’s. Maybe it’s the medical team. Maybe it’s your fault, ever think of that?

What’s necessary to keep in mind, though, is no one was being irresponsible here. If Durant did return earlier than he should of, it’s only because he was cleared to do so. The team and Durant can only operate off of what they’re being told, and up until literally a week and a half ago, this thing was healing the way it was supposed to. The thought was that the screwhead had created a severe bone bruise from the constant rubbing, and Durant just couldn’t shake it off without significant time off. That’s what everyone thought. I was told by someone that’s pretty close to it all that he was going to play against the Celtics two weeks ago. That’s how unexpected this turn of events became.

Durant practiced on that Saturday before, doing some 3-on-3, then he played 1-on-1 in Dallas on Monday. And after that, he walked out of the arena with a severe limp, and pretty deflated. It wasn’t improving the way it was supposed to with the increased activity and at that point, the writing was really on the wall.

It doesn’t look good that Durant has had three surgeries on his foot. One is plenty. One is supposed to do the job. With what happened last season with Russell Westbrook, there’s good reason to wonder what’s going on. But I’d look at it this way: The Thunder’s conservative approach opens the door for them to get egg on their face. They didn’t mess around with Westbrook, taking a chance to let him play on a swollen knee. They pulled the plug, and made the decision to scope and deal with the consequences and fallout.

And then they did it again. They knew there would be skeptics and critics, questioning what the hell they were doing. But instead of delaying for the offseason to address it, they prioritized the long-term health of Westbrook and made the decision with only that in mind.

I’d say it worked out pretty well for them, and Westbrook.

The Thunder could’ve taken a different measure here with Durant. They could’ve rested him the next few weeks, then put him back on the practice floor and tried to ease him back on the floor for the postseason. That option was absolutely on the table.

But in collaboration with literally three of the top foot and ankle specialists in the world, the consensus was to go ahead and take the steps to end Durant’s season and do the bone graft. Instead of risking anything in his future, they’re going to just take advantage of the coming offseason which should let him completely heal, and then start over next season.

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No. 4: Shaq would have stayed in OrlandoShaquille O’Neal began his pro career with the Orlando Magic, and he lasted four seasons before leaving Orlando in bitter circumstances and signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. But time heals all wounds, or at least it does in the Magic Kingdom, and last night the Magic welcomed Shaq back and inducted him into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame. In his remarks during the festivities, as Josh Robbins writes in the Orlando Sentinel, Shaq said if he could do it over again, he would have played out his seven-year contract in Orlando and handled things differently …

Flanked by Penny Hardaway, Horace Grant, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, the mammoth center led Orlando to the 1995 NBA Finals, where the Magic lost to Hakeem Olajuwon‘s Houston Rockets in four games.

The next year, the Magic fell to Michael Jordan‘s Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals in four games.

O’Neal never played for the Magic again.

The Magic initially made him a low offer, and the Lakers swooped in with a $121 million offer and the lure of Hollywood.

The Magic eventually offered O’Neal a deal that eclipsed the Lakers’ offer, but it was too late. Restricted free agency didn’t exist in those days, so the Magic were powerless to prevent O’Neal from leaving.

And he left.

“We came back later and beat the Lakers’ offer at the closing minutes,” said Magic co-founder and Magic Hall of Famer Pat Williams. “But, emotionally, Shaq was gone.”

O’Neal was 24-years-old when he spurned the Magic in favor of the Lakers.

“It was all business,” O’Neal said. “Do I regret it? I never fully answered. I regret it sometimes. This is where I started, where I should’ve stayed. I actually wish that they [had] made it a law that whoever drafted you, you’ve got to stay there your whole career. No trades. No nothing. No free agency. No anything like that. Do I regret it? I regret it only because the DeVos family, they deserve a couple [of NBA titles].”

As it turned out, he didn’t finally win a title with the Lakers until 2000 — four years after he left the Magic.

“I just wish I would’ve had more patience,” O’Neal revealed. “It was all about I wanted to be protected from the bashing. What I mean by that [is] I wanted to win then. Even when I got there [to L.A.], I still got bashed and it still took four years to win. But I was very impatient. I was very young, and I thought that if I go there with those guys out there, that I could win right away. And that wasn’t the case.

“So now that I’m older now, I wish as a youngster, I wish I had had more patience.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Former Jazz player and announcer Hot Rod Hundley has died at 80 … Warriors big man Draymond Green has launched a line of t-shirts poking fun at Clippers coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers … The Rockets got Dwight Howard back from injury and now lose big man Donatas Motiejunas for a few weeks with a back injury … The Heat hope to get Hassan Whiteside back by the playoffs … The Nets have signed Earl Clark to a 10-day contract

Morning shootaround — March 27


VIDEO: Highlights from game played on March 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

James Harden makes MVP case | Pacers clinging to playoff hopes | Crawford says he’ll be back | Amar’e to stick with Dallas?

No. 1: James Harden makes MVP case With the season nearing an end, the MVP talk around the MVP race is heading up. Stephen Curry? Russell Westbrook? LeBron James? Anthony Davis? Or what about in Houston, where James Harden has been perhaps the best offensive player in the NBA this season? USA Today‘s Sam Amick caught up with Harden, who made his case for why he deserves your MVP vote…

“I think if you look at what I’ve been doing all year, only missing one game all year because of the situation (with seemingly-endless injuries to teammates), basically having to carry a load all year, being consistent from the first game of the season,” Harden said. “That should show it right there. But like I said, (the focus is) for me to go out there and continue doing what I’m doing, being consistent, is all I can do.”

And getting to the free throw line at an unmatched rate. Harden — who has converted on 86.6% of free throw attempts — is on pace to lead the league in free throw attempts for the second time in three seasons (10.1 per game). Last season’s leader in that category was the Thunder’s reigning MVP, Kevin Durant (9.9).

“I’m enjoying the whole process of these last (few) games, just trying to win games,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing since Dwight has been out. I don’t really keep track of the other (MVP candidates) or what they’re doing. Obviously everybody knows that Russ is going on a triple-double rally. He’s playing extremely well and they’re fighting for the eighth spot. But all those guys you named (Curry, Westbrook, James, Davis and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers) are very good players, or very talented players. For me, I just focus on what I can control and going out there and doing the best I can do every single right.”

In trying to explain his own MVP-caliber campaign, Harden said his comfort level in the not-so-new surroundings have been key. It’s his third season in Houston, where he came via trade in October 2012 and has progressively found his way as a leader ever since.

“All I needed was time,” he said of the Houston experience. “All I needed was to know what I had around me. And now that I know it, I’m comfortable with it and I can be a great leader. I think that’s probably one of the reasons I’m so successful is that I’m comfortable. I think if you’re comfortable in any situation, and you know what’s going on and you know what you’re going to get, you’re going to be successful.

“It’s about having a good time, about enjoying it, enjoying the grind. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably not doing good.”

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Morning shootaround — March 26


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 25

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bulls secure winning road record | Howard’s return a boon for Houston | Could Love-LeBron rift force Love to sign with Knicks?

No. 1: Bulls lock up winning record on road – The Chicago Bulls, as is their wont during the coach Tom Thibodeau era, have held things together nicely and stayed in the tick of the upper crust in the East despite a multitude of injuries. Things are getting better in Chicago as Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup earlier this week, Joakim Noah is playing more and healing up and superstar Derrick Rose said he hopes to rejoin the team before the season’s end. And, oh yeah, the Bulls won in Toronto last night to secure a winning record on the road — a rarity in franchise lore. K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune details that feat and other positives for Chicago:

Michael Jordan never experienced it. Neither did Scottie Pippen. Not even Phil Jackson accomplished the feat.

With their 116-103 victory over the Raptors Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre, the Bulls guaranteed their fifth straight winning road record for the first time in franchise history. Overall, the Bulls improved to 113-79 away from the United Center under Tom Thibodeau.

That’s a .589 road winning percentage. And that, plus the eventual addition of Derrick Rose, who said earlier in the day he would be cleared for contact “sometime this week or next,” is the kind of stuff that gives the Bulls confidence moving forward. That confidence is there regardless of their playoff seed, whether or not they have home-court advantage.

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Morning shootaround — March 25


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 24

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron has no issue with Love’s MVP vote | Golden State wraps up Pacific | McHale expecting worst with Beverley’s injury; Howard may return tonight

No. 1: James not faulting Love for his MVP choice – Cleveland Cavaliers power forward Kevin Love has been in the spotlight a little bit after some recent interviews. He recently told ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike” how his relationship with Cavs star LeBron James is ‘evolving’ and, in a chat with “The Dan Patrick Show”, Love said that if he had an MVP vote, it would likely go to Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (and not his teammate, James). So is James miffed over who Love would pick if he could vote? Not in the slightest, writes Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com:

“I don’t really think too much of it, really,” James said after Cleveland Cavaliers practice on Tuesday. “I don’t really get involved in that. I think the voters are going to decide who is the MVP. I think what Russ has been doing, his numbers have been pretty crazy keeping those guys afloat in the West in his play. Steph Curry can make a case, for sure, what he’s been doing — James Harden and myself, as well. So, Kevin has his own opinion of who he believes is the MVP. No one should fault him for that.”

Love was a guest on “The Dan Patrick Show” on Monday and was put on the spot to pick either Oklahoma City’s do-everything guard or Cleveland’s captain for the NBA’s most prestigious individual award.

“I would just say because of time spent on the court, you know ‘Bron took those few games off and those couple of weeks off. … They’re both having MVP-type seasons, but I’m going to go with Russell Westbrook because every single night you’re looking at his stat sheet, they’re fighting for a playoff spot even with Serge Ibaka going down now, Kevin Durant potentially being out the rest of the year and [Westbrook] still going out there and really fighting for his team and them winning and fighting for that seventh and eighth spot in the playoffs,” Love told Patrick. “I think Russ is arguably having the better season.”

Love expanded on his choice on Tuesday when asked if he was surprised all the attention his answer caused.

“If you choose to get the little three or four second clip,” Love said, believing his answer was controversial only when taken out of context. “In my whole answer I said LeBron could very well be the MVP. Steph Curry, James Harden — those are guys that you all talk about. You know very well all of them could be named (MVP).”

James said he doesn’t judge this season for him based on his previous MVP campaigns, but rather on his impact he’s made in the games he’s played.

“When I’m on the floor, you judge me by when I’m on the floor and my winning and do I win?” James said. “And when I’m on the floor, do I play at a high level? And that’s all I care about. When I’m on the floor, is my team winning? Because I think that has a lot to do with it. And, how are my numbers when I’m on the floor? Judge me by that and then when I’m not on the floor.”


VIDEO: LeBron James talks after practice about Kevin Love’s MVP comments

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Morning shootaround — March 24


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 23

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Howard’s return may come soon | Love opens up on season, playing with LeBron | Mavs worried about Ellis’ attitude? | Bird expects George to play this season

No. 1: Rockets may speed up comeback date for Howard – The Houston Rockets continue to get along just fine, even as center Dwight Howard nears the two-month mark in suiting up for them. Houston is 17-9 in the 26 games it has played since Howard went down with a knee injury on Jan. 23 and talk of late has been that he’ll be back in the lineup soon. But given a recent stretch of injuries Houston has suffered — and with the playoffs drawing closer — there’s a good chance Howard’s timetable for return may be bumped up. Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle has more:

While there is no set return date for Rockets center Dwight Howard, coach Kevin McHale said it has to be soon.

After the team’s 110-100 win over the Pacers on Monday, McHale said he might have to start putting Howard back into games.

“We are so down on bodies and we don’t have a lot of practice time,” McHale said. “We might have to start throwing him out there and letting him get some minutes in the game, whether he starts out 15-20 minutes and getting game time. But he has to start playing here pretty soon because otherwise the season is just going to go by and you can’t wait for the playoffs to come back, so we’ll see.”

The Rockets next game is on Wednesday night in New Orleans.

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Morning Shootaround — March 23


VIDEO: Highlights from games played March 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Spurs run clinic on Hawks | Thunder rely on defense (Westbrook) for latest win | Carlisle: We don’t play hard all the time

No. 1: Spurs run clinic on Hawks – The teacher schooled the master Sunday at Philips Arena. Everyone saw it. There was no doubt which system ruled the day. The original pace-and-space kings from San Antonio owned the floor against the imprint version that has led the Atlanta Hawks to outlandish success this season. The Spurs rolled to their third straight win by running a clinic on the Hawks. Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News has more:

It was billed as a battle of the Spurs vs. Spurs East, aka the Atlanta Hawks.

Instead, the Spurs ran a clinic on the team that has raced to the top of the Eastern Conference by emulating the Spurs, scoring a 114-95 beatdown to complete a 2-0 season sweep.

Mike Budenholzer, the longtime Gregg Popovich assistant who has incorporated his former boss’ approach since becoming Atlanta’s head coach in 2013, didn’t stick around to watch the destruction, thrown out after getting two technical fouls in the third period.

The win was the third straight for the Spurs, 44-25 and sixth in the Western Conference.

Kawhi Leonard was three assists shy of what would have been the first triple-double of his career, getting 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in just 31 minutes and 41 seconds, his presence hardly necessary in the final period of a start-to-finish domination by the Spurs.

Beneficiary of Leonard’s slickest assist of the game — a half court bounce pass that produced a layin — center Tiago Splitter recorded a season-high 23 points. It was the second time in the last two games Splitter scored a season-high.

Ball movement again keyed an efficient Spurs offense. They had 30 assists on 46 baskets and shot 56.1 percent.

The Spurs will go down as the only team in the league the Hawks have not beaten this season. But just as important on this lone trip to Atlanta for Popovich was a chance to catch up with his good friend and TNT’s very own Craig Sager:

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Morning Shootaround — March 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING


VIDEO: Highlights from games played March 21

Aldridge re-injures hand in loss to Grizz | Pacers on the brink? | Steve Nash’s retirement felt hardest in Phoenix | Grizz move Green to bench

No. 1: Portland’s nightmare road trip — When it rains, it pours. After surviving an early-season injury to LaMarcus Aldridge, the Portland Trail Blazers managed to survive and become title contenders. But then Wesley Matthews went down for the season with a torn Achilles, and though they vowed to carry on without Matthews, the Blazers have had what they call a “nightmare” road trip. Now, with Nicolas Batum and Aldridge battling injuries, as Joe Freeman writes in The Oregonian, the Blazers may have reached their toughest point of the season:

A five-game trip that started with so much promise went from bad to worse on Saturday night as the Blazers not only lost 97-86 to the Memphis Grizzlies, but also lost two more key players to injuries.

If you’re counting, the Blazers have four players — three starters and their top backup big man — dealing with varying levels of injuries. And, as if that weren’t enough, they also happen to be in the middle of a four-game losing streak, the longest of the season. That impressive victory over the Toronto Raptors was only seven days ago, but it feels like seven months.

How might one describe that five-game trip?

“A nightmare,” Aldridge said.

And his health is reason No. 1 for that harsh reality. Aldridge injured his left hand — the same body part that already features a torn thumb ligament — with 4:37 left in the first quarter against the Grizzlies, when Tony Allen smacked it as he lunged for a steal.

On the play, Aldridge collected a pass from Damian Lillard just above the left elbow and drove toward the hoop. Zach Randolph charged from the middle and Allen blitzed from the left, reaching at Aldridge with his left hand to dislodge the ball, smacking Aldridge’s hand in the process. The four-time All-Star instantly winced and cupped his left hand with his right, a sight that no doubt sent a shiver across Rip City considering he has played with a bum left thumb since Jan. 24.

He played the rest of the  quarter and gave it a go in the second for six minutes, but did not play after halftime, finishing with 16 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes.

The good news? The results of in-game X-rays were negative. The bad news? After the game, Aldridge’s hand was swollen, in pain and he said he could not bend it.

“It didn’t exactly go the way we planned,” center Robin Lopez said of the Blazers’ five-game trip.

Despite the rash of injuries, the Blazers (44-24) actually held their own in the second half against the second-best team in the Western Conference. Less than 24 hours after an embarrassing loss to the Orlando Magic, the shorthanded Blazers trimmed an 18-point Memphis lead down to seven in the fourth quarter, causing 17,898 at the FedExForum squirm in their seats down the stretch. With Dorell Wright raining threes, snatching steals and completing smooth coast-to-coast layups, Lopez scoring inside and rebounding and Damian Lillard doing it all, the Blazers made things interesting.

But the Grizzlies (49-21) were too deep and talented to wilt completely, and in the end, Mike Conley (21 points, nine assists) was too good, Green (23 points, nine rebounds) was too smooth, Tony Allen (10 points, 11 rebounds, six steals) was too menacing and their long-range attack (11 for 18 from three-point range) was surprisingly too effective.

Lillard finished with 27 points and seven assists, CJ McCollum added 13 points and six rebounds and Wright had 10 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals. But it was all for naught. And as the Blazers walked away from that postgame scene in the locker room, they chose not to dwell on the injuries or the losing streak.

Instead, they chose to look forward. They’ve no doubt reached their toughest moment of the season. But they insist they have plenty of fight left.

“We’ve got our backs up against the wall right now,” Lillard said, before adding, “I’m not concerned. We’ve just got to play better. If we play better, just keep doing what we’re doing, keep believing in each other, I think we’ll be fine.”


VIDEO: Blazers coach Terry Stotts discusses the team’s loss in Memphis

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