Morning Shootaround

Morning Shootaround — April 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kupchak: Calipari not headed to Lakers | Irving, Waiters try to squash rift talk | Johnson to help NBPA | Report: Dumars set to resign soon | Suns making one last push for No. 8

No. 1: Kupchak: Calipari not headed to L.A. — Just before the start of last night’s NCAA Tournament national championship game between Kentucky and UConn, former Kentucky star Rex Chapman floated a little rumor/bit of potential news on Twitter about Kentucky coach John Calipari:

After the game — which UConn won 60-54 — both Calipari and the Lakers shot down the rumor. of the Los Angeles Times and Brian Hamilton of SI.com have more on the story:

Nothing like putting out a juicy oh-by-the-way rumor before the biggest college basketball game of the season.

But former Kentucky star Rex Chapman tweeted before Monday night’s national title game that Kentucky Coach John Calipari will be the next coach of the Lakers.

Chapman doesn’t site any sources or offer any timetable. Calipari said this week he was probably going to need his hip replaced shortly after Monday night’s title game between Kentucky and Connecticut.

The Lakers denied have any conversations with Calipari.

“I spoke to [General Manager] Mitch Kupchak and he said the rumor is untrue,” Lakers spokesman John Black said. “Mike D’Antoni is our coach. There have been no conversations about any specific names for any replacement.”

Calipari had a 72-112 in three seasons with the NBA’s New Jersey Nets in the late 1990s.

And here’s Hamilton’s report after the national championship game, in which Calipari shot down the rumor:

To believe a former program star’s tweet shortly before tipoff Monday, John Calipari was coaching his final game on the Kentucky sideline before bolting to the Los Angeles Lakers.

To believe Calipari, he won’t need change of address forms anytime soon.

“The Lakers have a coach,” Calipari said after a 60-54 loss to Connecticut in the national title game. “Kentucky has a basketball coach. I got the best job in the country. I’m not going to even dignify that stuff.”

The Lakers reportedly denied any contact with Calipari. Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart sounded unconcerned after the game.

“Cal’s been great, he’s been a great ambassador for this program and he cares a lot about Kentucky,” Barnhart said in the locker room Monday night. “So clearly we love how he represents what we do. He looks great in blue. You live day to day with people and you trust what they do. For five years now, I think I know him fairly well. If there was anything I need to be concerned with, he and I have had conversations, and in those conversations he’s been very, very focused on this tournament. His total focus this season, especially this last month and a half, has been to get the team to a spot where we could compete for something like this. I think he’s done a marvelous job doing that.”

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No. 2: Irving, Waiters try to squash talk of rift — The Cavs wake up on Tuesday morning and find themselves four games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the No. 8 playoff spot in the East. Cleveland has plenty of talent — led by All-Star guard Kyrie Irving — but has never seemed to get on the right page on the court all season. Some of that may stem from a chemistry issue between Irving and second-year guard Dion Waiters. There were reports earlier in the season the duo fought at a players-only meeting, and now, other Cleveland-area sports figures are chiming in on the discord. The two players talked to the media after yesterday’s practice and, as Bob Finnan of The News-Herald & The Morning Journal reports, tried to quiet talk about their supposed discord:

It might be time for TMZ to swoop in.

Better yet, it might make for a new reality series.

The Cavaliers are on the verge of being eliminated from the Eastern Conference playoff race. One more Atlanta victory in its last six games will end the Cavs’ run.

Yet the Cavs were more intent on showing what bosom buddies Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters are. They also wanted to deny a claim by Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon there is any kind of a rift between the two guards.

The Cavs propped up Irving and Waiters in front of the media on April 7 after practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts, just to promote an aura of unity.

Waiters said he was friends with Irving long before he came to the Cavs. They crossed paths in the AAU circuit.

“I just think, man, throughout this whole year with us two not liking each other, it’s total BS,” Waiters said. “We’ve been friends before we even made the NBA, before any of this. I just think y’all saying we don’t like playing with one another. … Yeah, we still need to learn certain things, but I think at the end of the day, we’re genuinely friends. I love him as a friend, teammate, everything. I just want everybody to know that. I don’t hate this guy.

“I’m pretty sure he don’t hate me. I know he don’t hate me. I hope he don’t hate me. Rome wasn’t built in one day. We’re still young. We’re still planning to stay together. We’re still working. As long as we’ve got great communication down, it’s fine.”

Waiters admitted he was neighbors with Gordon and the two often play pool. But he said that’s where the story ends.

“He plays football. I play basketball. Two different sports. At the end of the day, I’m not going to go down there running my mouth on something that he don’t even know what’s going on.”

Irving said he called Gordon and cleared the air.

“I just let him know that the whole situation kind of got blown out of proportion,” he said. “There was no disrespect on my end to him or anything he does. I have the utmost respect for him. But what I was just trying to clearly say was what Dion has been reiterating: What goes on with us, we want to keep it within us.

“We’ve had numerous occasions where we’ve been in the media about me and Dion’s relationship. I think me and him are just tired of it. I just want to move past it and play basketball.”

“I just hate when people put out stories that aren’t true,” he said. “Be man enough to come ask me. I’ll give it to you uncut. I don’t got nothing to hide. I think everybody knows my personality. I may not come off the right way, but I don’t mean no harm. Everybody gets tired of it, especially with our relationship. They don’t know what we do. You’re not going to always see eye to eye on the court.”


VIDEO: Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving address talk of a rift between them

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No. 3: Ex-Suns star Johnson to help NBPA exec search — Sacramento mayor and former Phoenix Suns All-Star Kevin Johnson already has an off-the-court NBA win, of sorts, by playing an instrumental role in helping keep the Sacramento Kings in town. Now, Johnson is trying to help the National Basketball Players Association find its next executive director as it recovers from the fallout of the firing of former NBPA president Billy Hunter. Our David Aldridge has more on the move:

Responding to criticism of its ongoing selection process to find a new executive director, the National Basketball Players Association announced Monday that former NBA player and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson would head a retooled search to fill the position no later than the start of the 2014-15 season.

Johnson, who spearheaded the effort that kept the Kings in Sacramento last year after the team’s former owners had agreed to a deal with a Seattle-based group that would have moved the team to Washington state, will chair a search committee of, according to a statement released Monday by the union, “outside professionals with unique NBPA and executive search connections and experiences to guide the Executive Committee.”

Johnson will continue to serve as mayor while helping the union pick a permanent successor to Billy Hunter, who was fired by the NBPA in 2013 amid investigations into his business practices while running the union.

“I have a deep passion for the NBA and the promise it has for everyone connected to it,” Johnson said in the statement. “Everything I’ve been able to achieve in life was a result of embracing the opportunities I had as an NBA player.”

Bringing in Johnson, a former star with the Suns who has credibility with players and displayed his coalition-building chops in putting together the unlikely group that kept the Kings in Sacramento, is a signal by the union that its membership—many of whom, including its president, Chris Paul, will be busy the next couple of months in the playoffs—may need outside assistance in getting its house in order.

During All-Star weekend in February, union members were introduced to two candidates that were believed to be the finalists for the job — David White, the executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, and Michele Roberts, a partner at the powerful law firm Skadden, Arps. But the process was decried as too secretive and not inclusive by agents and by potential candidates for the job, most notably former player Danny Schayes.

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No. 4: Report: Dumars poised to resign soon — Since June 18, 1985, Joe Dumars has known no other NBA franchise as well as he knows the Detroit Pistons. It was on that day that Dumars was selected by the team with the 18th pick in the 1985 Draft, starting a lengthy career in the Motor City. But after winning two championships as a player (1989, 1990) another one as the team’s president (2004), Dumars has had a rough go with the team as he’s tried — and failed — to rebuild them following that last championship run. Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News reports that Dumars, who has been rumored to be fired at season’s end, may resign once 2013-14 is in the books (if not sooner):

As the Pistons prepare to ride out the last two weeks of the regular season, the sun might be setting on Pistons president Joe Dumars’ reign with the only franchise he’s known.

Dumars has told multiple sources within the NBA that he plans to resign — possibly as soon as this week — after a busy offseason that included the signings of high-priced free agents Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings and led to an underachieving 2013-14 season. The Pistons, who many experts picked to return to the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, are 28-49 and out of playoff contention.

Pistons owner Tom Gores had expected before the season that the team would return to the playoffs.

Compared to his contemporaries, Dumars has been reluctant to be front and center with media as Pistons president of basketball operations and has been quieter than usual recently, perhaps another signal that his time with the franchise — 29 years of work as a player and executive — is coming to an end.

Dumars took over in 2000, one year after retiring as a player, and immediately began making changes, culminating in an NBA title in 2004 and a return trip to the Finals the next season.

After the Pistons’ run ended in 2008, Dumars began a plan to tear down his aging team, in an effort to prevent an extended period of irrelevancy — not unlike his Bad Boys teams after they fell from dominance.

Trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson in November of 2008 was the first salvo, as he wanted to build around second-year guard Rodney Stuckey, but months later, after Davidson fell ill and soon passed away, Dumars’ plan was put on hold indefinitely.

Davidson’s widow, Karen, soon announced her plans to sell, so Dumars couldn’t rebuild on the fly — or even reload. Dumars signed free agents Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon to deals neither lived up to, and Davidson ceased all transactions soon thereafter.

In the 2009-10 season, the first with Gordon and Villanueva, the average salaries of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs was $74.37 million. The Pistons’ overall salary was $58.59 million, and they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and haven’t returned since.

Dumars didn’t execute a single transaction during the 2011-12 season, as Karen Davidson negotiated with local sports owner Mike Ilitch and Gores all season long.

It was a backdrop in the most tumultuous season in team history, as Tayshaun Prince and Rip Hamilton began to openly defy then-coach John Kuester, even taking part in a team boycott in Philadelphia in February 2012.

A little over a month later, Karen Davidson and Gores reached an agreement, right before the NBA lockout, and Dumars was unable to create the same magic working with Gores that he’d accomplished with Bill Davidson.

Gores wanted Lawrence Frank as his coach, and Dumars wanted Mike Woodson, a former assistant with Detroit who’d just led the Atlanta Hawks to a string of playoff appearances.

Frank became the choice, and the sides have not been able to get on the same page. Gores was a new owner with his own ideas, often consulting others outside the Pistons organization for advice, such as Dave Checketts and later, Phil Jackson, acts that never occurred under Bill Davidson’s watch.

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No. 5: Suns hoping to seize their playoff moment — Who hasn’t loved the story of the Phoenix Suns this season? The squad was written off before the season as a group that would be lucky to win 20 games by some experts’ estimation (including some on this very site). But under the guidance of new coach Jeff Hornacek and their star guard combo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix finds itself with a tenuous grasp of the No. 8 spot in the West. As Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic writes, the Suns aren’t about to get all warm and fuzzy about their season — they’re too focused on finishing the job and making the playoffs:

With their best back-to-back wins of the season this weekend, over Portland and Oklahoma City, the Suns kept control of their fate.

“We know that time is running down and we just can’t fail,” Suns guard Gerald Green said. “It’s all or nothing right now. We don’t have a month left to try and make up. We’ve only got a few games left. It’s either win or go home for us.”

The Suns’ playoff picture seems to have been whittled to a three-team race for the final two spots in the Western Conference. The Suns are in the eighth and final playoff slot at 46-31, a half-game behind Dallas (47-31) and a game ahead of Memphis (45-32) with round-robin scheduling ahead when each of the three teams faces each other over the season’s final five nights, starting Saturday.

No team in the 16-team playoff era has failed to make it to the postseason with 49 wins (Golden State was left out at 48-34 in 2008). No 50-win team has ever been left out, although a 49-33 Suns team did not make the 1972 playoffs, when only four teams in the Western Conference qualified.

Although they just won two of the toughest games of their nasty April, tough tests remain: Four of the five remaining games are on the road, starting with a three-game trip this week to New Orleans, San Antonio and Dallas. On Saturday, that crucial Dallas game falls on the second night of a back-to-back set.

If favorites won the remainder of the games, the Mavericks and Suns would finish 49-33 and advance to the playoffs as the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds, respectively, by finishing a game ahead of Memphis at 48-34. Unpredictability still probably lies ahead, which would be right in accord with a Suns team pegged for last place but in a playoff hunt.

While ESPN and other outlets’ playoff-probability odds leave Phoenix out, they do not account for momentum. The Suns are 8-2 in the past 10 games, while Dallas is 6-4 and Memphis is 5-5. The Suns shot a season-high 58.4 percent Sunday against a Thunder team that was ranked third in the NBA this season with a 43.3 opponent field-goal percentage.

As the Suns’ postseason chances grow, so does their support. The Suns had a sellout crowd Sunday for the third time since the All-Star break. Their ratings boom on Fox Sports Arizona continues with an average game broadcast rating of 2.2, nearly doubling last season’s 1.2 average. Sunday night’s average rating was 3.9 (70,301 Valley households), with a peak of 5.4 (97,340 Valley households).

Award votes are being cast around the league with growing sentiment for the Suns to pull off a sweep that would be unprecedented if the franchise had not already been the only one to do it.

Dragic, Markieff Morris and Jeff Hornacek could pull off a team sweep of the NBA’s Most Improved Player, Sixth Man and Coach of the Year awards for the first time in a quarter-century. When Hornacek played for the 1988-89 Suns, Kevin Johnson, Eddie Johnson and Cotton Fitzsimmons won the same awards for a team that went from 28-54 to 55-27. These Suns will wind up with nearly the same win increase after last season’s 25-57 eyesore.


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew breaks down the race for No. 8 in the West

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Tony Parker will be day-to-day with a back strain … Like it or not, it looks like the Atlanta Hawks are playoff-bound … Raptors GM Masai Ujiri has a challenging offseason of roster moves ahead of him … Sixers coach Brett Brown has learned a lot about analytics by working under GM Sam Hinkie

ICYMI of the Night: Yesterday was all about the NCAA Tournament and the national championship game (congrats to UConn, BTW), but before all of that took place, the Hall of Fame named its class of 2014. Among the names were NBA legends Alonzo Mourning and Mitch Richmond, both of whom chatted with GameTime last night about their hoops immortality … 


VIDEO: Alonzo Mourning and Mitch Richmond talk about their Hall of Fame election

 

Morning Shootaround — April 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Frank Vogel under fire in Indy? | Durant passes MJ … Suns pop Thunder | Warriors Jackson knows winning cures all | Battier still intent on proving his worth after all these years | Trail Blazers bolster Olshey’s bid for Executive of the Year

No. 1: Pacers coach Vogel under fire as slide continues – The Indiana Pacers’ 20-18 record over the past three months has thrown not only their season into a tailspin but also raised questions about their future under head coach Frank Vogel, at least in the eyes of some. Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star raises some startling questions about Vogel’s future with the franchise after yet another disastrous performance, a drubbing at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night on their home floor. Benching Roy Hibbert for all but nine minutes, and Hibbert’s bristling during and afterwards, certainly adds more fuel to the drama that has become the Pacers’ season … one that doesn’t appear to be headed for a positive finish:

We know the Indiana Pacers are in trouble, big trouble, BIG trouble, but the question must be asked: Is Frank Vogel in trouble?

That might sound absurd given the job he’s done since he took over as an interim coach. The feeling here is, he’s this team’s long-term coach and should be allowed to correct the many things that have gone wrong with his team the last two months.

But know this: Vogel is not Larry Bird‘s guy.

Bird was hesitant to fire Jim O’Brien in the first place, and even after Vogel turned the team around and got them to play competitively in the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls, it took a couple of months before Bird was willing to give Vogel the full-time job. If you remember, Bird wanted Vogel to hire a big-time, experienced assistant, specifically Brian Shaw, before giving him the job.

Remember, too, that in mid-March, Bird took a swipe at Vogel during a four-game losing streak, opining that Vogel wasn’t hard enough on his team at times. Vogel said the comments didn’t bother him; I’m not convinced that’s the truth.

Would Bird come down from the front office and take over for the post-season?

Would he put it in the hands of Nate McMillan, the former Seattle head coach who is a Vogel assistant?

Bird didn’t put this team together to watch it go into the tank. From the moment the season began, he said, “We’re all in” while saying anything short of the NBA Finals would be a disappointment.

It was interesting, then, that in the midst of the Pacers’ humiliating 107-88 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks – winners of eight of their previous 29 games, by the way – Vogel channeled his inner Bird. With the Pacers trailing 17-3 and 6:05 remaining in a brutal first quarter, Vogel benched the entire starting five.

Hallelujah.

“They’re not getting it done,” Vogel said. “They’re not getting it done, we have to go to someone else, see if someone else can get it done.”

Vogel then did another un-Vogel-like thing to start the second half: He benched Roy Hibbert. Hallelujah, again. Hibbert was terrible, going 0-for-5 without a single rebound in 9 ½ minutes.

After the game, Vogel spun it by saying that he was thinking about resting Hibbert before the start of Sunday night’s game. Then, after watching Hibbert struggle – and watching somebody named Pero Antic light him up from the perimeter – Vogel pulled the plug.

Key word there being spun.

“I considered resting Roy before tonight’s game because he looks worn down,” Vogel said during a short, terse post-game press conference. “He’s a 7-2 player that’s played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He’s giving good effort, but he looks to be to be worn down…I decided to play him, but when he got off to a slow start, I decided to rest him.”

Rest him? Now he’s just trying to spare Hibbert’s feelings. There’s no way Vogel would have rested Hibbert in a game that Pacers absolutely had to win in order to remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. No … way.


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers try to explain yet another humbling defeat

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No. 2: Durant passes Jordan with 41st game of 25 or more but Thunder can’t stop Suns — What was supposed to be a night to celebrate Kevin Durant and his scoring streak — he passed Michael Jordan with his 41st consecutive game with 25 or more points — turned out to be yet another stellar performance from Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and the stubborn Phoenix Suns team that refuses to exit the playoff chase in the Western Conference. The Suns win also highlighted a glaring deficiency the Thunder have been struggling to shore up with the playoffs just days away. Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman explains:

At a time when the Thunder is supposed to be fine-tuning for the playoffs, Oklahoma City still can’t seem to figure out how to be sharp defensively. Opposing guards are still slicing through the lane and opposing shooters are still left alone far too frequently.

Suns forward P.J. Tucker became the latest bit player to burn the Thunder, scoring 11 of his career-high 22 points in the fourth quarter. He made seven of nine shots, including four of five 3-point attempts. All four of Tucker’s 3s came from the corner, where Kevin Durant continuously got caught sagging off too far and closing out too slow.

The Suns sprayed in 11 of 23 3-pointers.

“We gave up too many open 3s in the corner,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “That’s a 40 percent shot, so we don’t want to come off on the corner. They roll hard. They penetrate so they get you in a position where you have to make sure you are stopping the ball first. And we didn’t get out to their shooters. But those are all correctable things, things that we’ve done well all year. We just had some bad moments tonight.”

Gerald Green, who erupted for a career-high 41 points in the Thunder’s last trip to the desert, finished with 24 points. He poured in 11 in the third quarter, nine of them coming on 3s.

When it wasn’t Tucker or Green taking it to the Thunder, it was Goran Dragic, the crafty point guard who gave Phoenix three 20-point scorers. He added a team-high 26 points, with 19 of them coming in a first half in which the Suns scored 62 points on 58.7 percent shooting.

Dragic was complemented in the backcourt by Eric Bledsoe, who missed the last meeting while recovering from injury. Bledsoe scored 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

“They give you trouble because they’re small, they attack, they get to the free throw line, they can make 3s and they’re desperate right now,” Brooks said. “They’re fighting for their playoff lives.”


VIDEO: Thunder star Kevin Durant surpasses Michael Jordan with his 41st straight game of 25 or more points

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No. 3: Warriors Jackson knows he has to “just win baby” — Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson knows what he’s dealing with, and it’s a simple scenario. Win and all of the drama fades. It’s like the old Oakland Raiders saying goes, “just win baby.” (It certainly helps to have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Splash Brothers, working overtime for you.) And for Jackson’s self-preservation on the job, the Warriors need to keep piling up the wins (now and into the postseason) to secure Jackson’s situation. At least that’s the way Jackson sees it. More from Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News:

“My job will be determined on winning,” Jackson said before an easy victory over Utah. “I’m fine with that …

“The talk about what these two (ex-assistants) have done, that has nothing to do with me.”

Actually, the dispatching last month of Brian Scalabrine after a philosophical dispute with Jackson followed by the mysterious firing last week of Darren Erman for a team violation has something to do with the head coach.

Jackson is responsible for everybody in that locker room, and if there are problems and failures, he is at some point accountable.

He also has been rightfully credited for re-establishing a sense of unity and defensive purpose on this team and for getting the Warriors into the second round of the playoffs last season.

But there has been grumbling about the team’s occasional lack of urgency and Jackson’s offensive system, which often bogs down in isolation sets with little movement.

Some of that grumbling has come from people in the Warriors front office, by the way.

At times, Jackson has reacted to the chatter indirectly by declaring that this franchise has a history of losing, is winning now and should act like it knows the difference.

On Sunday, when I asked how he’d describe his relationship with co-owner Joe Lacob, Jackson said there are no problems between them.

“You know it’s interesting, I’m reading ‘the dysfunction’ or whatever the term is for my relationship with this front office,” Jackson said. “That’s brand-new to me. And I’d be the first tell you if it wasn’t.”

Jackson then added that he and Lacob talked to each other for 15 minutes on the recent road trip.

Lacob told me in February that he was generally happy with Jackson’s performance but that he was disappointed by some of the home losses.

I also believe that Lacob would view a first-round loss as a sign that the team isn’t moving forward, which is death in the venture-capitalist universe.

“That’s not my call,” Jackson said when I asked him if a first-round loss this season should be considered a step backward.


VIDEO: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson run wild on the Jazz

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No. 4: Battier proves his worth against Knicks – The Miami Heat’s win over the New York Knicks Sunday wasn’t a death-blow to the playoff hopes of Carmelo Anthony and his crew, but it was close to it. And as much as the Knicks can blame LeBron James (38 points), who outshined J.R. Smith on a night when the Knicks’ enigmatic shooting guard drained a franchise-record 10 shots from beyond the 3-point line,  they need to focus their attention on Shane Battier. The veteran forward’s defensive presence was a game changer for the Heat. Even after all of these years in the league, Battier remains intent on proving his worth to his teammates and coaches by playing the game the right way on both ends. David J. Neal of the Miami Herald explains:

The most eye-catching statistics from the Heat’s 102-91 win were from Smith, who attempted an NBA-record 22 three-pointers and made a franchise record 10 to finish with a team-high 32 points. The single-game record was previously held by Damon Stoudemire, who hoisted 21 three-pointers on April 15, 2005.

However, those numbers eventually meant little for the Knicks, whose playoff hopes were seriously damaged by the loss.

The Knicks trail the Atlanta Hawks by three games in the loss column with only four game left in the regular season for the Knicks.

Although Smith started the game sizzling, he went 0 for 5 from the field in the third quarter and 0 for 4 from three-point range. In that quarter, the Heat outscored the Knicks by that final 11-point margin, 25-14.

On the other hand, the Heat went ahead of Indiana by a game for first place in the Eastern Conference behind James, who finished with a game-high 38 points. Bosh added 14 and Allen 12 for the Heat.

Haslem recorded 11 rebounds, including three offensive boards, which tied him with Alonzo Mourning for the most in Heat franchise history with 1,505. Allen’s four three-pointers answered those by Smith. And Battier battled New York scorer Carmelo Anthony into 4 of 17 from the field and 13 points.

“He’s going to have big moments for us in the playoffs,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Battier, one of his favorite players. “Does that mean it’s necessarily a consistent night-in, night-out rotation role, I don’t know. I can’t even attempt to answer that right now.”

The witty, erudite Battier — who played one second Friday against Minnesota and 5:31 last Wednesday against Milwaukee — said he laughed to himself when Spoelstra told him James would start the game defending Anthony then hand the sometimes unstoppable New York scorer over to Battier.

As they normally do, Battier and Anthony, who was playing with a sore shoulder, dished out hip checks and torso thumps to each other at a rate that, Battier said afterward, would have had both fouled out in five minutes if the referees called the game by the book.

“A game like [Sunday], I’m trying to prove myself to myself, and prove myself to my teammates,” Battier said. “That’s what keeps us all going. We’ve all been in that spot here unless you’re name is ‘James,’ ‘Wade,’ or ‘Bosh.’ But [that’s] the reason guys fight to stay in shape is this locker room. We owe it to each other.”


VIDEO: J.R. Smith went crazy from deep, but LeBron James and the Heat got the win

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No. 5: Olshey’s case for Executive of the Year gains momentum – His name hasn’t been mentioned among the favorites. He’s avoided the publicity many of his peers have enjoyed this season, perhaps on purpose, choosing to retool the Portland Trail Blazers’ guts and gears without any of the fanfare normally associated with a rebuilding project of this kind. But Neil Olshey belongs in that conversation for Executive of the Year, writes Jason Quick of the Oregonian:

The Trail Blazers received a well-earned ovation Sunday after clinching a playoff spot with a 100-94 victory over New Orleans, the team’s 50th win this season with four more games left to play.

But nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be found, was the man who perhaps deserves the biggest ovation: general manager Neil Olshey.

They should start bubble wrapping the Executive of the Year trophy and addressing the box to One Center Court, because nobody in the NBA did more with less last summer than Olshey.

Robin Lopez. Mo Williams. Dorell Wright. Thomas Robinson.

It’s not Buck Williams for Sam Bowie, which still stands as the greatest offseason move in franchise history, but the haul in the Summer of 2013 will long be remembered as one of the most influential offseasons around these parts.

The beauty of it all is, few if any, saw it while it was happening.

The Blazers had a modest $11.8 million in cap room last summer and badly needed a defensive minded center, a backup point guard and some scoring pop off the bench. Getting a center figured to cost the Blazers most, if not all of their cap space.

Instead, Olshey got creative, and found a team that wanted to make a financially motivated deal: New Orleans. He worked a deal to get Lopez in exchange for Jeff Withey, who was the Blazers’ second round pick, a future second round pick and cash considerations. New Orleans, in turn, saved paying Lopez’ $5.9 million salary this season.

Lopez, of course, has been awesome. Each time I watch him play, I appreciate him more. He rebounds, blocks shots, sets good screens, has a reliable jumper, and he’s durable, having played in all 78 games. He is averaging 10.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and has 137 blocks, the most by a Blazers player since Theo Ratliff had 158 in 2004-2005. And the guys in the locker room love him.

Olshey should win the Executive of the Year award on the Lopez acquisition itself.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Suns point guard Goran Dragic is a music video star … Clippers super sub Jamal Crawford might not see any action until the playoffs … The Spurs need Cory Joseph to step into the void for Tony Parker … The Hawks’ fast start helps boost their playoff cushion over the Knicks … Mavericks veteran Vince Carter bounces back in style … Oh, by the way, benched Pacers center Roy Hibbert‘s got “nothing for ya!”

ICYMI of the Night: Surely, you didn’t miss J.R. Smith’s 3-point barrage against the Heat Sunday …. but just in case you didn’t see all of his record 22 attempts, you need to see his makes … 


VIDEO: J.R. Smith goes off from deep in the Knicks’ loss to the Miami Heat

 

Morning Shootaround — April 6


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 5

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Cats clinch | Garnett returns | Teams interested in Gasol | Deal in works for Bucks’ sale?

No. 1: Cats clinch – The Charlotte Bobcats defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 96-94 in overtime last night to clinch a playoff berth for only the second time in franchise history. This is a big moment for the Bobcats franchise, but they aren’t happy to settle for simply a chance in the playoffs. They want to win some series and show that this season has not just been a fluke for this defensive-minded squad led by Al Jeffereson, Kemba Walker and first year head coach Steve Clifford. Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer has more on the story:

The NBA playoffs technically start for the Charlotte Bobcats in two weeks. But tri-captain Gerald Henderson’s message, following Saturday’s post-season clinching 96-94 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, was a good kind of greedy.

“Wednesday we’re playing (sixth-place) Washington. We’re going after them,” said Henderson, who made two huge jump shots in Saturday’s overtime victory. “That’s a playoff game.”

Jefferson was essential to the Bobcats’ turnaround from two seasons that added up to 21-120. He signed as a free agent in July, providing a go-to scoring option this franchise had never really had before.

Did he see playoffs off in the horizon when the team assembled for voluntary workouts in September?

“In September we didn’t have to be there, and everybody was,” Jefferson recalled. “The first day of training camp, I said, ‘If we commit ourselves to the things we need to do, we have a chance.”

First-year head coach Steve Clifford specifically avoided setting any firm goals, as far as victories, because he wasn’t sure what he had in camp. By the end of the preseason it became apparent this team would guard well, rebound better than Bobcats history suggests, and minimize turnovers and fouls.

That’s been the formula all season, and Clifford’s intense pride in the people in that locker room came through post-game.

“That’s a really good locker room – a bunch of guys who are deserving,” said Clifford, a serious candidate for NBA Coach of the Year. “One of our particular strengths all year has been the character and competitiveness of that group. The team was put together with that as the focus.”

While everyone was happy Saturday, this moment seemed particularly special to Henderson, point guard Kemba Walker (20 points and seven assists) and backup center Bismack Biyombo – the remaining three who suffered through 7-59 and then 21-61.

Henderson was technically on the playoff team in the spring of 2010, but never played in those games. He noted he’s playing meaningful basketball for the first time since his days at Duke.

Walker, who went from Connecticut’s national championship to the mess that was 7-59, put it this way: “We’ve been the worst two teams in the NBA. That to now? Night and Day!”


VIDEO: Arena Link: Kemba Walker

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No. 2: Garnett returns – The Brooklyn Nets have improved greatly since their horrific 10-21 start to the season and they have done much of this improvement without Kevin Garnett in the lineup after he missed the past 19 games with back spasms. Garnett returned to the Nets last night and delivered 10 points, four rebounds and one assist, block and steal each against the Philadelphia 76ers. Andrew Keh of The New York Times has more on what Garnett’s energy and experience mean to Brooklyn:

 Kevin Garnett’s coach and teammates were teasing him Saturday morning, calling him a rookie. It had been so long since Garnett, 37, had joined them on the court that he seemed like a new player on the Nets.

These, of course, were gibes of endearment toward Garnett, a 19-year veteran. “They’re happy to see the rookie back,” Coach Jason Kidd said with a smile.

The Nets have six games before the postseason, and Garnett’s presence may kick their preparations into a higher gear.

 “His stat line might not show the numbers we all might have seen in the past, when he was younger,” Kidd said of Garnett, “but he’s the glue of this team, and he’s helped us to where we are today, so we’re happy to have him back.”

Concerns about his health were emphatically answered just after halftime, when he went on a multiplay rampage around the court that was punctuated with a leaping one-handed block on Michael Carter-Williams. Garnett let out a yell in midair.

“It feels good to be back on the floor,” Garnett said. “It feels good to be fluid. It feels good to be able to jump and move. You take for granted certain movements and certain things.”

The Nets had excelled without Garnett, compiling a 14-5 record. But while he remained out of the public eye, his coach and teammates said he was almost as vocal a presence as he had been on the active roster.

“It was the same voice, but just behind closed doors,” said the rookie Mason Plumlee, who started the 19 games Garnett missed.

On Saturday, Garnett was finally on the court and in team huddles. His name was the third called during introductions and received the loudest response — cheers and boos in equal measure — from the crowd.

Garnett won the opening tip-off and grabbed his first rebound after about a minute. He scored his first basket, an alley-oop layup with an assist from Paul Pierce, about two minutes into the game, and fought inside a minute and a half later to sink another basket from close range.

After 4 minutes 15 seconds, Garnett went to the bench, slipped on his warm-up gear and draped a towel over his legs. He sat a few inches higher than his teammates, propped up on some seat cushions, presumably to keep his back from tightening up.

“I’m just glad I didn’t mess anything up,” Garnett said. “The guys were playing great without me.”


VIDEO: KG Returns

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No. 3: Teams interested in Gasol – Pau Gasol has been through a lot during his seven seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. However, Gasol can leave the bright lights of Los Angeles (and the uncertainties of the team’s future) behind this offseason as an unrestricted free agent. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated reports that Gasol will be coveted by a number of teams:

This is the kind of year a player with Gasol’s pedigree might want out of. And with two weeks to go, maybe he has: A nasty case of vertigo has forced Gasol to miss five of the last six games and put him on the shelf indefinitely.

Deep down, it’s doubtful the Lakers care. With [Kobe] Bryant in street clothes, with [Steve] Nash doing the medical equivalent of duct taping his body back together and with the NBA’s worst roster this side of Philadelphia, the Lakers are built to lose. They have the NBA’s sixth-worst record and fourth-worst point differential. They have an offense that struggles to score (21st in offensive efficiency) and a defense that can’t stop anyone (28th in defensive efficiency).

Fans, frankly, seem fine with it: They know the Lakers’ future is brighter with a high percentage shot at [NBA prospects] Andrew Wiggins or Dante Exum than a few meaningless wins.

In 2006-2007, Gasol was part of 22-win team in Memphis, another defenseless bunch that Gasol didn’t join until 23 games into the season because of a broken foot he suffered the summer before.

Gasol remembers the frustration of that season, but it doesn’t compare to this.

“It’s a little different being with the Lakers, a franchise that is known for being successful, that has high expectations every year,” Gasol said. “The good thing here is that we get sellouts, we get an extremely nice crowd of people that are supportive through this struggle. In Memphis, the stands were half empty. That was rough. We would play at home and we needed that extra energy that your fans give you. That’s what we get here. It was frustrating in Memphis but it’s tougher here because of the support we get.”

Gasol understands this car wreck of a season is probably a necessary evil for the Lakers. Bryant was never going to be Bryant, not this year anyway. And Nash’s once-promising tenure with L.A. effectively ended when the effects of small fracture Nash suffered at the beginning of last season rippled through his body like a tsunami. The two-year, $48.5 million contract Bryant signed last November established the window the Lakers have to win a championship with their aging star and the only realistic way to do that is to stink bad enough to be in position to land one of the franchise-changing talents that are expected to be available at the top of the draft.

Gasol has to know his chances of being a part of that window are slim.

Neither side will rule out a Gasol return (which would have to be at a steep discount from the $19.3 million Gasol will make this season) but throw in Gasol’s problems playing for Mike D’Antoni and it doesn’t appear to be a top priority for either.

Gasol, though, will have options. A poll of NBA executives on Gasol’s future returned many of the same answers: Chicago. Cleveland. Charlotte, if the Bobcats believe a Gasol-Al Jefferson front line can stop anybody. Memphis, if Zach Randolph opts out. Even after a disappointing season — and with the understanding that Gasol has never been a strap-a-team-on-his-back kind of player — Gasol will be among the most sought after free agents on the market.

“There are a couple thoughts out there on Pau,” says an Eastern Conference executive. “Some people say he is worn out, that he is too far past his prime to really help a contender. There are others that think that LA, that environment the past two season, that style of play has destroyed him and if he goes somewhere else, plays with a different coach, he might be rejuvenated. I could see someone who thinks the latter paying him $10 million a year.”

“I want to be in a team that is going to be built to win a championship,” Gasol said. “That’s my top priority. Money won’t be the main priority. Length and money are factors, but we’ll see. Until I know all the options, I won’t be able to measure them. But we’re getting close to the end of my career. I want to be in a good situation. It’s an important decision to make.”

***

No. 4: Talk of Bucks’ sale premature? –  ESPN.com and Grantland.com writer Bill Simmons set the NBA world (well, at least the Milwaukee Bucks-following NBA world) ablaze with the following tweet Saturday morning:

Bucks owner Herb Kohl has long been seeking a new owner for the team — particularly one who is dedicated to keeping the team in Wisconsin — and this report made it seem like Kohl’s wishes might be coming true. But Don Walker of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that talk of a sale of the Bucks might not be happening as soon as is thought:

Steve Greenberg of Allen & Co., the New York based firm that former senator Herb Kohl retained to bring in new Milwaukee Bucks investors, said Saturday the process is ongoing, adding that reports out Saturday of a possible sale were premature.

“There is a lot of speculation out there,” Greenberg told the Journal Sentinel. “There is an active and ongoing process with respect to the Bucks. But we are not going to comment on speculation.”

Greenberg, who is representing Kohl in the sale process, said it was “premature to make any sort of announcement of a possible sale. We do not intend on saying anything publicly.”

Earlier Saturday, ESPN analyst Bill Simmons said on Twitter that the Bucks were close to being sold, pending league approval.

Greenberg acknowledged that he had been receiving calls on Saturday in connection with Simmons’ post and contacted the Journal Sentinel to clear the air.

At least in the eyes of the National Basketball Association and Commissioner Adam Silver, a new arena is self-evident. The league and Silver have already said the BMO Harris Bradley Center is dated by league standards and a new arena is needed or should be under construction by the time the Bucks’ lease at the arena ends in 2017.

A Bucks team official said Saturday he had no knowledge of a possible sale.

Milwaukee business leaders serving on a Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce task force are currently studying ways to finance a new arena. The task force retained the Hammes Co., which has experience in finding ways to finance sports arenas and stadiums.

Last week, the Journal Sentinel reported that the task force had essentially concluded that retrofitting the BMO Harris Bradley Center was not feasible.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kyrie Irving scored a career-high 44 points last night in an overtime loss to the Bobcats. … The Pistons’ Andre Drummond erupted for 19 points and 20 rebounds in a 115-111 win over the Celtics. … Bobcats’ rookie Cody Zeller recorded his first career double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. … The Jazz claimed rookie Erik Murphy off waivers. … The Sixers loss to the Nets last night was their 60th loss on the season. This is the first time their franchise has lost 60 games since the 1996-97 season.

PLAYOFF PICTURE:

As of April 6, 2014

As of April 6, 2014

ICYMI OF THE NIGHT: Most notably destroyed by DeAndre JordanBrandon Knight has been on the bad end of too many dunk facials. The Milwaukee Bucks’ point guard got his revenge last night, though, with an impressive crossover and huge throwdown over the Toronto Raptors’ Jonas Valacunias


VIDEO: Knight Gets Nasty

Morning Shootaround — April 5


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Garnett could return Saturday | Nash will play again this season | Wade expected back soon

No. 1: Garnett could return Saturday — Kevin Garnett has missed the last 19 games with back spasms. And while the Brooklyn Nets have gone 14-5 in that stretch, they need Garnett to help them on the glass. They rank dead last in defensive rebounding percentage since he first went out. Garnett, by the way, leads the league in individual defensive rebound percentage. And he could be back Saturday night in Philadelphia, as Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York writes:

While coach Jason Kidd wouldn’t fully commit to it, the Nets coach sure seemed optimistic about the possibility.

“[Kevin] felt better today,” Kidd said Friday night following his team’s 15th consecutive home victory. “We’ll see how his plane ride goes, and then we’ll see in the morning how he feels. We would like to try to get him to go tomorrow, but it’s up to him.”

Garnett has missed the past 19 games due to back spasms. The Nets (41-34) have gone 14-5 without him.

Asked if he is worried about reintegrating Garnett into the lineup, Kidd replied, “Nope. Kevin is a professional. He’s been doing it for a million years, so there’s nothing to worry about. He’s about the team. He’s about what we as a team stand for — unselfishness, defense — so he won’t have a problem with that.”

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No. 2: Nash will play again this season — Before meeting the Mavs on Friday, Steve Nash speculated that it might be his last game of the season, with Jordan Farmar set to return from injury in the coming days. But after Nash dished out seven assists (watch video) in 19 minutes, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said that the 40 year old will play again over the last 11 days. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin has the story from L.A.:

Nash left the arena without speaking to reporters Friday, but his coach is making sure there will be at least one more encore performance.

“I said this is not your last game,” D’Antoni relayed after the Lakers’ 107-95 loss to the Mavericks. “He said, ‘OK.’ So, we’ll play him.”

There are only six games left to the Lakers season and Nash already all but ruled himself out Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers, fearing he won’t have enough recovery time to prepare himself for the early 12:30 p.m. PT tip.

He has repeatedly said he wanted to get out of the way when Jordan Farmar returns from a strained groin injury next week, preferring to give the minutes he’d play to Farmar and Kendall Marshall so they have the opportunity to prove themselves with free agency coming for each.

But D’Antoni, who first coached Nash a decade ago in Phoenix, isn’t going to let Nash disappear so easily.

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No. 3: Wade expected back soon — The Miami Heat might not really need Dwyane Wade before the conference semifinals, but his health will always be a concern. Wade has missed 24 games this season (some just for rest), including the last five with a strained left hamstring. The Heat are 16-8 without Wade, but their defense is at its best when he’s healthy and active. The playoffs are exactly two weeks away, but there’s not a high level of concern in the Miami locker room, as Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald writes:

A strained left hamstring sidelined Heat guard Dwyane Wade for a fifth consecutive game on Friday night, but Heat players said he’s improving, and LeBron James said Wade “probably” will return “within the next week.”

There doesn’t appear to be concern about Wade’s availability for the start of the playoffs in two weeks.

But there is some uncertainty about a timetable. Udonis Haslem said Friday “it’s hard to tell” when Wade will play in a game again.

The Heat host the Knicks on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ABC).

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Thabo Sefolosha is getting closer to a return for the ThunderTayshaun Prince went down with an ankle injury in the Grizzlies’ win over Denver … Ty Lawson was benched after missing a team meeting (and then turned his ankle too) … The Bulls may sign one or more vets after waiving rookie Erik MurphyEric Gordon went to L.A. to have his knee checked out … and Leon Powe wants to own an NBA team.

ICYMI of The Night: Gerald Green went off the glass to himself as the Suns picked up a huge win in Portland:


VIDEO: Play of the Day: Gerald Green

Morning Shootaround — April 4


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 3

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lakers may be done with Gasol | Jackson acknowledges Anthony’s tough road | Cuban to fund HGH study | Riley opens up on Heat’s road

No. 1: Lakers may be done with Gasol … for good — Two days ago in an interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin, Lakers forward Pau Gasol recounted his bout with vertigo that, until Tuesday, kept him out of L.A.’s lineup since March 23. The former All-Star big man is still dealing with issues from vertigo and, as playoff-eliminated L.A.’s season heads into its final seven games, it is unlikely Gasol will suit up between now and then. With this season likely over, Gasol, an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, might not be a Laker again, too. Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times has more:

Pau Gasol might have played his last game in a Lakers uniform.

The team is leaning toward sitting him for its final seven games while he recovers from a severe recurrence of vertigo.

He won’t play Friday against Dallas after dizziness kept him confined at the team hotel Wednesday while the Lakers played Sacramento. He flew back on the team charter that night after missing a fifth game because of the illness.

It was the latest downturn in a rough season for Gasol.

In addition to various verbal tussles with Coach Mike D’Antoni about his role in the offense — and the small-ball concept in general — Gasol missed seven games in February because of a strained groin and three games in December because of a respiratory infection.

He leads the team in scoring (17.4 points a game) but is shooting only 48%, the second lowest accuracy of his career.

Gasol, 33, becomes a free agent after this season, sure to take a pay cut from the $19.3 million he currently makes but unsure where he will land. If it’s somewhere else, his last game with the Lakers will have been a nine-point, four-rebound effort in a 124-112 loss Tuesday to Portland.

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No. 2: Jackson praises ‘Melo, acknowledges his burden — As we wake up on the morning of April 3, the New York Knicks are in sole possession of No. 8 in the Eastern Conference. That’s a surprising state for a team that has grossly underachieved this season and, yet, finds itself somewhat in control of its postseason destiny. New Knicks president Phil Jackson addressed the media on Thursday and (somewhat) praised the team for its rise and singled out All-Star Carmelo Anthony as well. Jackson had compliments — but also some criticisms — for Anthony in a state-of-the-team address with New York media, which Fred Kerber of the New York Post details:

In 17 days as Knicks president, Phil Jackson has seen the best of times, he has seen the worst of times.

And he has seen a lot to like in Carmelo Anthony.

Jackson, during a 16-minute state-of-Knicks Nation address with the media Thursday at the team’s Greenburgh practice facility, praised the energy and effort he has witnessed from the Knicks while admitting they have been playing to the level of the opponent.

“They’ve been up and down,” said Jackson, who reiterated he has “no intention of coaching” again.

“I’ve thought they’ve played a lot better against higher-quality teams or tougher teams than they have sometimes against also-rans. But they’re playing with great energy now and they’re playing with purpose, and I appreciate that.”

Among other positive developments, the 13-time NBA champion – a record 11 times as a coach, twice as a player — has seen Anthony flash parts of his game that certify the All-Star forward as among the true elite. Jackson and Anthony have chatted, but the talks did not address the player’s future. The here and now – specifically a push to the playoffs in the final six games – is sort of big.

“Carmelo’s really stepped into another level of trying to help players,” said Jackson, who referred to a critical assist Anthony made during the victory at Sacramento. “That’s one of the things we see that Carmelo can do and that he’s grown as he’s gone along.”

,,,

“We’ve had a couple occasions to talk. We haven’t really delved into the future as much as what’s going on [and] getting to know each other…see how he’s feeling about playing,” Jackson said. “He’s had to carry a big load. It’s been a tough year for him. But it’s been a tough year for everyone. It’s not just isolated with him, but I think he feels the weight of it a lot more on himself.”

Looking forward and evaluating how to lessen that load is big for Jackson as he and all the president’s men try to figure out how to improve the Knicks. With collegiate games going on, Jackson has had a chance to meet with scouts and personnel evaluators.

If the Knicks make the playoffs, some players suggested the Knicks can do some damage. The chief reason, as Jackson sees it, are the contributions from the likes of J.R. Smith and Amar’e Stoudemire to ease Anthony’s load.

“Now they have more than one option out there on the floor, and I think that we’ll give teams trouble,” said Jackson, who explained the playoff format is big for evaluating the future.

“You’re playing a team in a seven-game series, you’re really seeing who’s going to be attacked, how they stand up to the pressure, who performs in the critical situations, what the grind of a multiple-game series does to a team and how they react,” Jackson said. “Those are all valuable lessons.”

While many believe coach Mike Woodson is living on borrowed time, Jackson spoke positively about how the team has responded.

“Mike has a philosophy. It’s worked for him in the past. It’s worked for him in Atlanta,” Jackson said. “One of the reasons why they’ve been successful in the last month and a half … has been their defense has improved.”


VIDEO: Knicks president Phil Jackson talks about the team’s surge of late

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No. 3: Cuban backing HGH study — Earlier in the season, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he thought human growth hormone research could be done better, at least in terms of how it relates to athletes. It seems Cuban is putting his money where his mouth is, writes Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com, who says that Cuban is helping fund a university study on HGH:

Cuban said Thursday he has made a significant financial commitment to fund a potential university study on the issue.

“It’ll be a two-year study that applies HGH to injuries preoperative to postoperative injury recovery,” Cuban said before the Mavs-Los Angeles Clippers game at Staples Center.

“So if you’re able to retain more muscle going into an operation because you’re working out and HGH helps your muscle. And you’re able to regain it faster, then we cut the recovery time.

“And it’ll be geared around one type of injury that has hundreds of thousands of examples a year. So we’ll be able to do a placebo environment without hurting anybody, right? So here’s the way we do it now. And here’s how we do it with HGH. So hopefully it will accelerate recovery.”

Cuban declined to divulge many details because the study needs approval from the Food and Drug Administration and Drug Enforcement Agency. He would not specify the university that plans to do the study other than to say it has a highly respected medical school.

Because of the need for approval from the government agencies and other paperwork, Cuban is not certain when the study would begin.

Cuban broached the subject of HGH use for athletes recovering from injuries at the NBA Board of Governors meetings in October …

“I just want to know what reality is,” Cuban said. “And if we can improve recovery time, obviously that’s a plus for all of us, but there was never any basis in fact for not allowing it for use [while recovering from injuries]. It was all marketing. So let’s find out. Let’s find out what’s real and not real.”

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No. 4: Riley sees Heat’s big picture – As most know, the mastermind behind the Miami Heat’s signing of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade was Heat president and NBA icon Pat Riley. His ability to land those three All-Stars have made the Heat the power they are today. And in a fantastic story by ESPN.com’s Michael Wallace, we get a look into not just how that 2010 bonanza went down for the Heat, but also how Riley and Heat owner Mickey Arison has plans to keep Miami among the NBA’s elite for as long as he possibly can:

Riley’s résumé, as a Hall of Fame coach and executive, along with his reputation one of the league’s most respected — and shrewd — businessmen in the game, have made him as polarizing as he is successful. But his methods and high-risk gambles have frequently produced championship results — seven, to be exact — from his days coaching the Showtime Lakers and overseeing major overhauls of the Heat’s roster. But even Riley, who once compared himself during trade talks to a riverboat gambler, has concerns about the uncertainty that looms after this season.

“You always fear,” Riley told ESPN.com. “It’s not a real fear. I always have concern when players are in the situation they’re in. But we feel we have the best organization in the league for those players to stay, and to also attract others to want to come here. With our three guys, we hope that this turns into a generational team. And that it’s not just we’re at the end of this four-year run right now because players have some options this summer.”

Riley’s confidence in his roster has withstood some frustrating and inconsistent stretches this season. The Heat president started his career coaching Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy to four titles over the span of nearly a decade in the 1980s. Now Riley, who turned 69 last month, has visions of a perfect bookend to his decorated career.

The goal is to retool the Heat’s roster around James, Wade and Bosh to keep them together and in title contention for another handful of years and produce another dynastic decade. Despite difficult financial decisions looming amid a more punitive luxury tax set to kick in this offseason, Riley hopes to rely on three franchise pillars that have kept the Heat proactive and productive all these years. It starts with stability.

Riley believes he still works for a team owner in Micky Arison who remains as committed to winning and producing an elite product now as he was when they first met 19 years ago. Securing James in 2010 was the most recent splash, but Riley points out that Arison has been willing to create waves for decades. The process began in 1995 when, just two months after Riley was hired, Arison signed off on a trade that brought in Alonzo Mourning and later led to deals for P.J. Brown, Juwan Howard, Tim Hardaway and Dan Majerle. Riley said what the Heat pulled off in the summer of 2010 was similar to what they initially had visions of doing over a nine-month span in the mid-1990s before the NBA voided Howard’s contract.

“Ever since I came here, and Micky and I hooked up, the whole concept was you wanted to win,” Riley said. “He really wanted to win and wanted to put on a great show and have a great product. Right off the bat, right out of the blocks, we were able to trade for Alonzo. Then the league took Juwan away. But Micky has always been one that tactically and with great thought, weighing all the pros and cons, has swung for the fences. And I have too.”

While many believe James, Wade and Bosh — three of the top five picks in the 2003 draft — began plotting their course to eventually becoming teammates during their time together in the 2008 Olympics, Riley already had planted his own seed the day Wade signed his first major extension in 2006.

“This is how I think you plan and have a vision and look forward, hoping you can do something that’s special,” Riley said. “Coaching Kareem and Magic and James Worthy, and playing against [Larry] Bird, [Kevin] McHale and [Robert] Parrish, and [Joe] Dumars, Isiah Thomas and [Bill] Laimbeer, you need to have three really, really great players. There’s two superstars and another truly great player. You’ve seen that on pretty much all championship teams have had that kind of element.”

Riley remembers getting a call from Heat general manager Andy Elisburg on July 11, 2006.

“Andy was at a gas station,” Riley said. “And he said Dwyane had accepted his extension, and it was a three-plus-one [three years guaranteed, plus one option year]. And it was Dwyane and LeBron James and Chris Bosh and Amar’e Stoudemire and a bunch of other guys that signed their extensions and they’re all three years with one option. And I said, ‘Well, who are the other guys?’ And he gave me the list. And I said, ‘Well, we’re going to be players in 2010.’”

But amid all of Riley’s roster building and burning and rebuilding over the years, very little emphasis was ever placed on the draft or tapping into the foreign-player market.

“Everything we did from 2006 to 2010 was to be able to sit down at the table with LeBron and Chris and Amar’e and [Carlos] Boozer and Mike Miller, all these guys, to try to bring them to Miami,” Riley said. “We were fortunate that they came, but we also planned for it. There have been some deals that we’ve made that haven’t worked, but they haven’t really been deals that really cost us a lot or hurt us.”

But Riley admits he’s had to adapt in some other ways to better relate to modern NBA culture. In the past few seasons, he has opened a Twitter account, relented on his stance against players wearing headbands and has allowed James’ manager and the personal trainers for James and Wade greater access.

But mostly, Riley steps back and allows coach Erik Spoelstra to legislate the team culture.

“LeBron, being who he is in this world, in this game, has a very heavy load,” Riley said. “There’s a heavy load off the court and on the court. It’s a lot different than what it used to be. He manages everything he has to manage that maybe Magic Johnson didn’t have to manage back in the 1980s. I’ve adapted to that.”

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No. 5: D’Antoni, Kaman burying the hatchet? — Just a little over a week ago, Lakers center Chris Kaman was openly complaining to the media about coach Mike D’Antoni‘s gameplan and useage of him this season. But it appears a chat with D’Antoni’s agent may have helped Kaman see just how hard D’Antoni’s job has been and softened the tension between the two, writes Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

Warren LeGarie, the agent for embattled Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, was doing all the talking.He was doing the pointing, jabbing his index finger into Chris Kaman’s chest. LeGarie also stood up periodically to yell down at the Lakers center hunched in a courtside seat Tuesday night, ball in his lap, postponing his pregame court work to listen.

Head bobbing in emphatic declarations, LeGarie gestured numerous times toward the Lakers bench where D’Antoni is positioned during games. Kaman threw his hands up a few times but had little to say to LeGarie, who represents so many NBA coaches and executives that he qualifies as more of a power player in this league than any 7-footer.

Kaman is the type who has done far more talking than listening in his life, and some of his talking this season has been about D’Antoni’s rigid, uncommunicative, distrustful coaching of the Lakers while not giving Kaman consistent playing time. Just one week earlier, Kaman had revealed that D’Antoni hadn’t talked to him for the previous three weeks.

D’Antoni has one more guaranteed season left on his Lakers contract, and the club is leaning toward retaining him despite some privately disgruntled players and massive public disdain. It’s not clear which way the organization will go with him.

But Kaman’s 15-minute conversation with LeGarie ended with the agent yelling two words to Kaman: “Thank you. Thank you.”

After the Lakers’ 124-112 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers was complete, I asked Kaman about his pregame chat with LeGarie and whether it had given him any new perspective on D’Antoni’s situation.

“We were just talking,” Kaman said. “We were just talking about everything. He’s just a good buddy of mine.”

I asked Kaman where he stands now in his feelings about D’Antoni.

“It’s been a tough year for him, as it has been for a lot of guys,” Kaman said. “Me, in particular, just being in and out, in and out, just trying to figure my way through all of this, I can sort of put myself in his shoes and try to look myself in the mirror and say, ‘What would I do if I was him?’ And it’s hard to answer that question; it’s a tough position.

“Especially with all the injuries we’ve had and all the different things we’ve had to go through, I think it’s no easy task for a coach. Especially with the Lakers. This is a first-rate organization, and they do things better than most. They’re used to winning, and it’s a lot of pressure. And all these injuries didn’t make it any easier for him.”

Bear in mind, just one week ago Kaman was saying this season was “by far” and “tenfold” worse than any other in his 11-year NBA career.

While not naming a name and saying “it doesn’t get anyone anywhere” to spout negativity with the season a lost cause, Kaman said last week that the key to good coaching is “being a mediator as opposed to being someone in authority all the time. It’s about putting little fires out—small fires here or there—and keeping everybody’s egos together and managing that. Players know how to play if you give them enough guidance in the beginning.”

Late Tuesday night, when I asked Kaman if D’Antoni’s communication could’ve been better, Kaman said generously: “It always can be better with any coach, not just Mike. It’s such a big balance to be a head coach. It takes a lot. It takes a lot out of you. You see guys who can’t even finish years sometimes; they have to defer and hand it over to someone else. It drives people nuts.

“It takes a special person to coach a team, and in this day and age, the way the game is played, it’s a lot of pressure. You get two, three years, maybe, and then you’re outta there if you don’t produce. It’s no easy task. So I’ve got to look myself in the mirror and put myself in his shoes; it’s tough. It isn’t easy. With all the injuries and everything, it’s hard to say what would’ve happened if we would’ve had a healthy team.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Rockets point guard Pat Beverley expects to return in time for the playoffs … UNC forward James Michael McAdoo is headed to the NBA Draft … Rockets assistant coach-turned-University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson could earn $1 million a season in his new gig … The Celtics might be interested in re-signing forward Kris Humphries this summer … Guard Jodie Meeks wants to stick with the Lakers next season … Former Heat center Alonzo Mourning is reportedly headed to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

ICYMI of the Night: The Mavs’ Brandan Wright gives Blake Griffin a taste of his own (dunking) medicine … 


VIDEO: Brandan Wright powers home a dunk over Blake Griffin

 

Morning Shootaround — April 3


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 2

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Knicks back in playoff race | Noah: Bulls won’t be ‘soft’ down stretch | Hollins ready to coach again | Noel readying for Summer League play | D’Antoni, Kaman bury hatchet?

No. 1: Knicks show playoff fight vs. Nets — Entering last night’s Knicks-Nets game at Madison Square Garden, New York found itself on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture and facing a Brooklyn team that has perked up over the last few months. But an inspired performance from Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the Knicks powered New York to a 110-81 rout that, combined with Atlanta’s home loss to Chicago, lifted the Knicks into the No. 8 spot in the East. While New York has the playoff berth this morning, finishing off the task is a tall order … and one that it may be up to, writes George Willis of the New York Post:

Maybe this how it’s going to work out for the Knicks. Maybe this is the way they’ll secure the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and qualify for the postseason.

The schedule that sees them playing their final seven games against teams with winning records was supposed to work against them. But maybe just maybe, it will work for them as it did Wednesday night against the Nets at Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks played with energy, passion and aggression, shooting 60 percent from the field, forcing 15 steals and dominating in rebounds 41-23. The Nets, meanwhile, looked like a team hung over after a playoff-clinching celebration.

The team that set a franchise record with its 14th straight home win one day earlier played uninspired against the Knicks.

“We’re playing for something,” Knicks point guard Raymond Felton said. “They’re already in the playoffs. We’re trying to get into the playoffs and capitalize on these wins and see what happens.”

Next come the Wizards on Friday, followed by games against the Heat, Raptors, Bulls, the Nets again and the Raptors. All those teams have clinched playoff berths.

Jobs and even careers are hanging in the balance. Newly named Knicks president Phil Jackson was at the Garden, trying to figure out who might stay next season and who needs to leave.

Coach Mike Woodson’s chances of remaining go from slim to none if the Knicks don’t make the playoffs, and the idea of remaining with the franchise might not be as attractive to Carmelo Anthony when he becomes a free agent in the offseason.

“We want to get there,” said Anthony, who scored 23 points. “That’s the goal. Despite this up and down season, it will be a big deal to get in the playoffs. That is our goal and we are fighting right now.”

Though percentage points ahead of the Hawks for the eighth spot, the Knicks will need to keep winning to secure their position.

The Hawks have what is viewed as a more favorable schedule with games against the Bobcats, Bucks, Pistons and Cavaliers. But those teams have nothing to lose, while the teams the Knicks play have less incentive to win.

Maybe this is how it’s going to work out for the Knicks.


VIDEO: Coach Mike Woodson talks about New York’s big win against Brooklyn

***

No. 2: Bulls won’t try to lose way into better matchup — Given Chicago’s never-say-die attitude since coach Tom Thibodeau has been at the helm, what Bulls center Joakim Noah had to say after last night’s win over the Hawks should come as no surprise. The Bulls are the East’s No. 4 seed and would face a surging Brooklyn Nets squad if the playoffs started today. That matchup might be a challenge for Chicago in some senses, but don’t expect it (or Noah, for that matter) to try and lose games and get into a better matchup, writes Nick Fridell of ESPNChicago.com:

The Chicago Bulls didn’t tank games earlier in the season when they lost Derrick Rose to another season-ending knee injury and traded Luol Deng to Cleveland, so they aren’t going to do so now even if it means a better matchup in the playoffs. Bulls center Joakim Noah made that clear after the his team’s 105-92 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night.

“We’re just trying to play good basketball,” Noah said. “There’s no way in hell we’re going to try and lose games to match up against anybody. I think whatever happens, happens, so we’re just going to keep playing our game, keep winning as much as we can, and then (we) can’t wait for the playoffs.”

“I think losing games to try to play somebody, I think that’s soft,” Noah said. “That’s soft. We’re not soft.”

Noah’s comments shouldn’t come as a surprise given how outspoken he was when it came to the notion of tanking games earlier in the year. When asked in January what he would say to fans who thought the Bulls should lose games on purpose to give themselves a better chance in the draft lottery, Noah made his feelings known.

“What do I say to those fans?” Noah told ESPNChicago.com after the Bulls’ 128-125 triple-overtime victory Wednesday over the Orlando Magic. “I don’t say nothing to those fans. It’s all good. You’re allowed to have your opinion. It’s just … that’s not a real fan to me. You know what I’m saying? You want your team to lose? What is that? But it’s all good.”


VIDEO: The Bulls pick up a win in Atlanta on Wednesday

***

No. 3: Hollins ready to coach again– Former Memphis coach Lionel Hollins has done OK for himself since the Grizzlies decided not to renew his contract after last season’s end. He’s working parttime for NBA TV and co-hosting an NBA show on SirusXM Radio and enjoying life away from the NBA grind. But Hollins, as Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune reports, sounds more than ready to get back into a coaching job should one present itself:

Life is uncomplicated for Lionel Hollins these days.

The former Trail Blazers guard and NBA head coach is working as a studio analyst for NBA-TV and hosts a two-day-a-week NBA talk show on Sirius radio.

“I get to see my kids more often. Recently saw my grand baby in Arizona. I’m reading books again. Went grocery shopping the other day. I get to spend a lot of time on my charity. Get to support the charities of other people who have supported mine over the years.

“The freedom to not be in a gym, at practice, in a meeting … I’ve had an opportunity to enjoy what life is all about again.”

Though Hollins has enjoyed his time away from coaching, don’t get the wrong idea. Hollins would have liked nothing more than to have been on the bench with the Grizzlies when they played Portland at the Moda Center on Sunday. He’d love to be coaching Memphis, or another team, when the playoffs arrive in a couple of weeks.

“Of course,” Hollins says when asked if he’d like to return to the coaching ranks. “I miss coaching. What I miss is the teaching … the development of the team and the players. … the players working together and watching them grasp it mentally, and then have them go out and do it physically.”

Hollins pauses, then adds, “Don’t take this the wrong way. I mean no disrespect to Dave Joerger (his successor as Memphis coach). But anybody (the Grizzlies) hire, if he lets the players play the way they want to play, they’re going to win. They know how to win. When I got there, they didn’t know how to win.”

Hollins fell victim to a change in ownership and management. Former owner Michael Heisley sold the club to a group led by California tech billionaire Robert Pera, now 36. Jason Levien, an attorney and former sports agent who had worked in the front office of the Sacramento Kings, became CEO and managing partner of the Grizzlies. Levien took over the basketball operations from Chris Wallace, who remains the club’s vice president/general manager in title only.

“It seemed like they had their minds made up when they came in,” Hollins says. “They had an agenda of how they wanted to do things, and what they wanted to spend. I didn’t fit into that.

“I can accept that. It’s their prerogative. But when you look at the big picture, you say, ‘Wow, you’ve had some pretty good success.’ If I were at FedEx, for instance, I wouldn’t fire the employees who made it successful.”

The bottom line is very important to Pera and the new ownership group. Money surely played a part in Hollins’ demise, but there were other issues.

In the weeks that followed Hollins’ ouster, other reasons emerged through “inside sources.” That Hollins couldn’t accept analytics and the advanced scouting metrics that are becoming increasingly in use in pro sports. That he clashed with John Hollinger, the one-time Portland resident who is an analytics devotee hired last season by the Grizzlies as vice president/basketball operations. That Hollins bellyached about the midseason trade that sent small forward Rudy Gay to Toronto for Tayshaun Prince, a deal that save the Grizzlies millions in future salary. That Hollins was having increasing problems communicating with his players.

There is some truth to all of this. Hollins is an old-school coach, a strong personality who has developed a coaching style through the years based on a high level of expertise and intuitiveness about his players and how to put together a team. There was an incident with Hollinger at practice, during which Hollins loudly objected to his interference with a player. Hollins says he spoke with Hollinger afterward and that both men apologized to each other. (Hollinger did not return a pair of phone messages.)

“I have no problems with John,” Hollins says. “I have no problems with analytics. The only problem I have is with the idea there’s just one way to do things. You look for every advantage and whatever tools you can utilize to help your team be better. Part of that is having relationships with the players I have to deal with every day.

“It’s not just numbers. I’m dealing with emotions and egos and sensitivities and insecurities. It’s easy to say these guys need to play so many minutes and this group is the best group to have on the floor at the particular time. It’s not cut and dried like that.

“I want to be perfectly clear, I have no problems with analytics. I expressed that to management here. If there is a sophisticated mechanism to help us win, I’m all for it. But there has to be a balance. I don’t think basketball is as numbers-oriented as baseball, for instance. A coach knows who he can count upon at different times during a game. It’s why I trusted Zach (Randolph) to walk up there and make free throws at the end of a game. It’s a feeling that has nothing to do with numbers. The experiences a coach has cannot be discarded completely.”

After being fired, Hollins interviewed for vacancies with Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers.

“With the Nuggets, I don’t think I was high on their radar,” he says. “If Doc (Rivers) had stayed in Boston, I think I’d have been the Clippers coach. Doc was the better fit, and he’s a great coach. They made a good hire there.”

Hollins says he chose not to pursue an assistant coaching job in the NBA. “I’ve been a head coach the last five years,” he says.

Would he take a head coaching job in college? “It would have to be a really good opportunity,” he says.

Does Hollins think he’ll get another NBA head-coaching job?

“I have no idea,” he says. “I think I will, but with certainty? No. I have confidence I will, yes. But we’re in a crazy business.”

***

No. 4: Sixers won’t see Noel take court until Summer League – If you’ve paid attention to the comings and goings of hobbled Sixers rookie Nerlens Noel and the team’s plans to get him ready for the NBA, you already know the team has been rebuilding his jumper, watching him progress in workouts and drills and saw him try to tease of a debut this season (which Philly quickly shot down). While Noel won’t play this season, one place you will be able to see him is during the 2014 Summer League, writes Dei Lynam of CSNPhilly.com:

The date Nerlens Noel tweeted that was speculated as being his Sixers debut is only three days away.

Noel had fans excited when he initially sent that message out on social media, but now it’s the big man’s coaches that are getting riled up about his progression.

“The first thing that I have fallen in love with is that he is beyond competitive,” coach Brett Brown said after Thursday’s practice. “There is a dog in him, a toughness in him that I misjudged.

“He doesn’t talk a lot, but he is a fantastic listener. You go through all those months shooting one-handed with him and then you see him come out here.”

With just eight games remaining it seems unlikely Noel will participate in a contest this season. However, Brown would not confirm that. The coach simply reiterated the special ability he sees in the center and how that bodes well for the franchise’s future.

“He is a fierce competitor and that is the number one quality for me that makes someone special,” Brown said. “Then you get into the athleticism. He has a bounce. People that can block a shot, hit the floor and go back up are special and he can do it with both his right hand and left hand.”

Noel will likely participate in a game for the first time since February of last year during this summer when the Sixers field a summer league team. When Noel does finally take the court how will that year and a half out of action with an ACL tear impact his game?

“He’ll do what everybody does — he will play too fast,” Brown explained. “He will try to rush things. He won’t let the game come to him. He will try to impose himself on the game. He will be very erratic. He will be turnover prone and foul prone.

“He’ll do all those things, but that’s to be expected. But for him to be doing what he is doing now in itself is exciting and this city should be really excited.”

Brown doesn’t know how much or how little the Sixers will play Noel whenever the center returns to game action. The coach just knows it will be a process and he will trust his gut.

“We won’t make him play 38 minutes and try to force feed it,” Brown said. “We will go at a pace that is realistic and see how he goes. It will be more of a gut-feel formula than anything. We won’t be shy with him, but we will be smart.”


VIDEO: Brett Brown talks about Nerlens Noel’s progress of late

***

No. 5: D’Antoni, Kaman burying the hatchet? — Just a little over a week ago, Lakers center Chris Kaman was openly complaining to the media about coach Mike D’Antoni‘s gameplan and useage of him this season. But it appears a chat with D’Antoni’s agent may have helped Kaman see just how hard D’Antoni’s job has been and softened the tension between the two, writes Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

Warren LeGarie, the agent for embattled Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, was doing all the talking.He was doing the pointing, jabbing his index finger into Chris Kaman’s chest. LeGarie also stood up periodically to yell down at the Lakers center hunched in a courtside seat Tuesday night, ball in his lap, postponing his pregame court work to listen.

Head bobbing in emphatic declarations, LeGarie gestured numerous times toward the Lakers bench where D’Antoni is positioned during games. Kaman threw his hands up a few times but had little to say to LeGarie, who represents so many NBA coaches and executives that he qualifies as more of a power player in this league than any 7-footer.

Kaman is the type who has done far more talking than listening in his life, and some of his talking this season has been about D’Antoni’s rigid, uncommunicative, distrustful coaching of the Lakers while not giving Kaman consistent playing time. Just one week earlier, Kaman had revealed that D’Antoni hadn’t talked to him for the previous three weeks.

D’Antoni has one more guaranteed season left on his Lakers contract, and the club is leaning toward retaining him despite some privately disgruntled players and massive public disdain. It’s not clear which way the organization will go with him.

But Kaman’s 15-minute conversation with LeGarie ended with the agent yelling two words to Kaman: “Thank you. Thank you.”

After the Lakers’ 124-112 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers was complete, I asked Kaman about his pregame chat with LeGarie and whether it had given him any new perspective on D’Antoni’s situation.

“We were just talking,” Kaman said. “We were just talking about everything. He’s just a good buddy of mine.”

I asked Kaman where he stands now in his feelings about D’Antoni.

“It’s been a tough year for him, as it has been for a lot of guys,” Kaman said. “Me, in particular, just being in and out, in and out, just trying to figure my way through all of this, I can sort of put myself in his shoes and try to look myself in the mirror and say, ‘What would I do if I was him?’ And it’s hard to answer that question; it’s a tough position.

“Especially with all the injuries we’ve had and all the different things we’ve had to go through, I think it’s no easy task for a coach. Especially with the Lakers. This is a first-rate organization, and they do things better than most. They’re used to winning, and it’s a lot of pressure. And all these injuries didn’t make it any easier for him.”

Bear in mind, just one week ago Kaman was saying this season was “by far” and “tenfold” worse than any other in his 11-year NBA career.

While not naming a name and saying “it doesn’t get anyone anywhere” to spout negativity with the season a lost cause, Kaman said last week that the key to good coaching is “being a mediator as opposed to being someone in authority all the time. It’s about putting little fires out—small fires here or there—and keeping everybody’s egos together and managing that. Players know how to play if you give them enough guidance in the beginning.”

Late Tuesday night, when I asked Kaman if D’Antoni’s communication could’ve been better, Kaman said generously: “It always can be better with any coach, not just Mike. It’s such a big balance to be a head coach. It takes a lot. It takes a lot out of you. You see guys who can’t even finish years sometimes; they have to defer and hand it over to someone else. It drives people nuts.

“It takes a special person to coach a team, and in this day and age, the way the game is played, it’s a lot of pressure. You get two, three years, maybe, and then you’re outta there if you don’t produce. It’s no easy task. So I’ve got to look myself in the mirror and put myself in his shoes; it’s tough. It isn’t easy. With all the injuries and everything, it’s hard to say what would’ve happened if we would’ve had a healthy team.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Some potential bad news for the teams gunning for this year’s NBA Draft Lottery: Kansas’ Joel Embid and Duke’s Jabari Parker may end up staying in schoolDaniel “Boobie” Gibson is eyeing a comeback next season … Lakers young big man Jordan Hill will not re-sign with L.A. unless he will have a bigger role next season … Pistons forward Jonas Jerebko, who has a player option for next season, will decide to stay or leave based on Detroit’s next coachDonnie Nelson says he expects Samuel Dalembert to be back on the Mavs next seasonGreivis Vasquez has learned to humble himself as a backup point guard in Toronto …

ICYMI(s) of the Night: Ummm, why was Marcin Gortat in the middle of the Celtics’ huddle last night?

You all know we love Kenneth Faried around here when he’s in full “Manimal” mode, as he was last night against the Pelicans.

And, lastly, there are deep 3-pointers … and then there’s this shot Paul George nailed last night against Detroit …


VIDEO: Marcin Gortat joins the Celtics’ huddle


VIDEO: Kenneth Faried runs wild in Denver’s win over New Orleans


VIDEO: Paul George nails a stand-still 3-pointer from just inside halfcourt

Morning Shootaround — April 2


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 1

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Wade: Big Three haven’t talked opt out yet | Warriors band together in OT | Howard has fluid drained from ankle | Report: Lillard nearing deal with adidas | Lakers to build new practice digs

No. 1: Wade: Big Three not decided on future plans yet– The playoffs are nearly here, which means all eyes will be on the Miami Heat to see if the squad led by stars Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh can make a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance and, perhaps, win a third straight title. Whenever Miami’s playoff run comes to an end — and likely, well before that even happens — the next topic folks will discuss is whether or not James, Bosh and Wade will opt out of their contract this summer. ESPN.com’s Darren Rovell reports that in an upcoming ESPN the Magazine article, Wade says he and the rest of the Big Three haven’t broached that topic yet:

Miami Heat teammates Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh all have opt-outs in their contracts at the end of this season, but no collective decision has been made as to whether they will all choose to test the free agent waters.

The three met before they made their free agent decision in 2010 and could have another such meeting before their June 30 opt-out deadlines, which allows them to leave in 2014, 2015 or 2016.

Wade revealed on Tuesday as part of an interview for the cover story of an upcoming issue of ESPN The Magazine that the three, who have gone to three straight Finals and won the last two, plan to have that conversation at some point.

“I’m at a position where I don’t really have to worry about it,” said Wade, who also won a title for the Heat in 2006. “I’ve been with the same organization for now 11 years. We’ve won multiple championships, so it’s no reason where I need to think about that yet. I’m not at a point where we are a bad team and I need to think about the future so right now I’m really focused on just enjoying this team, enjoying our quest to try to ‘Three-peat.’ And when the season is over, and whatever happens, then I will sit down and I will sit down with Chris and I will sit down with Bron and I will sit down and make the best decision for myself and my family.”

Last week, Bosh hinted that he and LeBron would stay in Miami when he answered “True” to a question posed by ESPN’s Dan Le Batard as to whether he and James would be back with the team next year.

“When we sat down and we signed our deals and all of us made sure we had an opt out in that fourth year, that was our option, so the option is there and you would hope that someone wants to be able to use their option as a player,” Wade said:

“As players, you only have so much time and you only have so many moments where you have the ability to control your own fate, so it’s not a bad thing at all if that’s what someone is thinking. I haven’t had that conversation with Chris. I haven’t had that conversation with Bron,” he added.


VIDEO: LeBron James talks with Steve Smith about his contract future with the Heat

***

No. 2: Warriors come up with big OT win — With less than 10 games left in their respective seasons, last night’s Warriors-Mavericks game in Dallas took on plenty of significance. Both Dallas and Golden State are, in their own ways, fighting for their playoff lives. And both put on a classic game last night as the Mavs built a sizeable first-half lead and seemed to be in control for a win before the Warriors came back and forced in OT. In the extra period, Steph Curry took the spotlight and delivered a game-winning jumper with :00.1 left to give Golden State some extra breathing room in the postseason chase. Our Jeff Caplan was on hand and details how Golden State stuck together all game long: 

Jermaine O’Neal will always be remembered most for his days as an Indiana Pacer. But now the 18-year veteran seeking one last shot at glory plays for the Golden State Warriors, a team that’s fought through injury and adversity, and down the pressure-packed stretch run just might be the antithesis of O’Neal’s fraying former club.Starting at center once again Tuesday night for the injured Andrew Bogut in a game magnified by playoff implications for both the Warriors and Mavericks, O’Neal ripped Dallas for 20 points, eight rebounds and one massive, game-altering blocked shot. Late in the fourth quarter, Mavs guard Monta Ellis dunked over O’Neal to give Dallas a 102-97 lead and a wave of momentum in an arena buzzing with playoff-style excitement. This time, as Ellis tried to turn the corner, O’Neal made his move. He snared Ellis’ baseline fallaway with his right hand with 11.6 seconds to go in overtime, and in one motion brought it down and fed it out to Draymond Green, who got it to Stephen Curry, who ended it with a tough, contested jumper over Jose Calderon from the left wing with 0.1 seconds showing on the clock.

As time expired, the Warriors, rallying late in the fourth and again in overtime, celebrated the 122-120 victory as furious Mavs owner Mark Cuban, befuddled that no goaltending was called on O’Neal, engaged in an animated discussion with the referees.

The margin for error in Tuesday’s game was as razor thin as the separation in the standings. A Dallas win would have moved them one-half game behind Golden State, who now head to San Antonio to grapple with the Spurs’ 18-game win streak. Instead, it’s the Mavs who slipped from seventh to out of the playoff picture in ninth, one-half game behind Memphis and Phoenix.

The Warriors, feeding off a belief that many see them as down and out, found a different interpretation of a wild 53 minutes in Big D.

“This is late in the year and I have seen teams say how easy it is to let go of the rope,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. “This is a team that’s not going to do it. Contrary to anything, we’re not going to do it. This is a quality win against a team  that had everything going their way and I’m proud of these guys. They deserve the credit.”

Jackson called his bunch a “tied-together team,” and emphasized, “I don’t think you need more evidence.”

Sharpshooter Klay Thompson, who had 27 points, including the game-tying 3-pointer with 1:01 to go in regulation, played up the Warriors’ unbreakable mindset.

“People think we’re down and out, it just proves we have a lot of basketball in us,” Thompson said. “We never hang our heads. We might have done that in the past, but this is a changed team. When we get those guys [Lee and Bogut] back, we’ll be even better.”


VIDEO: Golden State’s players celebrate a big win in Dallas

***

No. 3: Howard has fluid drained from left ankle — Much like fellow All-Star big man Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers, it sounds like Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard is going to do all he can to be fully healthy for the playoffs. Howard is recovering from an ankle injury and had some fluid drained from it, but remains confident he’ll be fully ready to go once the playoffs begin, writes Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

Aiming to be 100 percent by the playoffs, center Dwight Howard said Tuesday he had fluid drained from his left ankle for a second time but that he is “not worried at all” that the issue will linger through the remainder of the Rockets’ regular-season schedule.

“There was more fluid in there the next time I saw the doctor,” Howard said. “It was best I get the fluid out and just rest. I’m not worried.”

Howard, who missed four of the Rockets’ past six games, has no target date to return, but he won’t play Wednesday in Toronto.

Forward Terrence Jones sat out Tuesday with flu-like symptoms.

Coach Kevin McHale said a timetable has not been determined on point guard Pat Beverley’s return, saying the Rockets will “play it by ear.”

“(Howard) had a shot in the back of his ankle to ease some of the pain,” McHale said. “He had some swollen soft tissue in there. When that calms down, he’ll go.”

Howard missed three games last month before returning to play against Charlotte and Philadelphia. The soreness returned in the third quarter against the Sixers last Thursday. He sat out Saturday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers and is sitting out this week’s two-game trip to Brooklyn and Toronto.

“The main thing is that I am able to run and be who I am without any concerns,” Howard said. “For a while, I (felt good) in both games. But after a while, it started hurting again so I couldn’t do all the things I wanted to do. (Playing in those two games) wasn’t smart.”

***

No. 4: Report: Lillard nearing deal with adidas – To say that 2013-14 has been a breakout season for Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard is a bit of an understatement. Lillard, who is second on the team in scoring (21.1 ppg) and leads it in both assists (5.6 apg) and 3-pointers made (204), became an All-Star this season and helped Portland surpass last season’s 33 wins weeks ago. It’s no surprise that more marketing opportunities are opening up for him and as Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports, a new shoe deal is coming down the pike for the Blazers guard:

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard and adidas are on the cusp of finalizing a multiyear, lucrative shoe endorsement deal barring any hiccups, a league source informed CSNNW.com.Once official, an announcement is expected in the coming days.

“We’re close,” Lillard told CSNNW.com on Tuesday. “Nothing final yet. I’m excited.”

Adidas had a 30-day exclusive window to reach an agreement with Lillard and that period was set to expire on April. 1, according to another source briefed on the situation. If a deal was not reached, conversations with Nike and other shoe rivals would have commenced as soon as this week, we’re told.

However, the talks have progressed to the point where adidas is in the driver’s seat.

Lillard, along with his agent Aaron Goodwin, were spotted on Tuesday with adidas’ officials at the JW Marriott in downtown Los Angeles, Calif., where positive back and forth dialogue took place, CSNNW.com learned.


VIDEO: Damian Lillard talks after his monster game against the Lakers on Tuesday

***

No. 5: Lakers to build new practice facility — The Los Angeles Lakers have plenty of history and a future Hall of Famer in Kobe Bryant on their roster that they hope will entice some free agents to look their way this summer. But one thing that likely won’t draw tons of free agents to L.A. is the Lakers’ outdated practice facility. The Lakers, though, are working with a local company to buy five acres of land on which they’ll one day build a new practice facility, writes Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:

For all the glitz and glamour surrounding the Lakers’ franchise, their current practice facility does not exactly exude such a mystique.

The Lakers have only one basketball court and its office space is somewhat cramped. So in an effort both to expand room for their day-to-day operations and provide a mechanism to lure free agents beyond their storied championship history, the Lakers plan to build a modern practice facility in El Segundo.

The Lakers did not provide any details on the beginning or completion date. But they announced entering an agreement with CDC Mar Campus, LLC to purchase a five-acre undeveloped portion at Campus El Segundo near the northwest corner of Mariposa Avenue and Douglas Street. The completion of the purchase hinges on the City of El Segundo’s approval.

The Lakers currently practice at Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, a building shared with the NHL’s Kings and a skating rink that is often open to the general public. The Lakers would own their future facility and would have more room to accommodate their business and basketball operations. The Lakers’ marketing, ticketing, corporate sponsorships and community relations are located in a different building about a block away. The Lakers also have no sign of their logo outside of the building proclaiming their existence.

The Clippers opened a $60 million practice facility in Playa Vista in 2008 that includes two basketball courts, spacious offices and expansive video and weight rooms. They had practice before at Spectrum, an El Segundo health club, and L.A. Southwest College.

Part of the Lakers’ thought process entails wanting to have another mechanism to attract free agents, according to a source familiar with the details.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Pacers’ Paul George is an All-Star, but he hasn’t been living up to the scoring task of late for Indiana … Suns guard Goran Dragic gets his own Slovenian music video tribute … Blazers forward Victor Claver isn’t happy with his role and playing time in Portland … Jason Kidd downplays his new Coach of the Month Award

ICYMI(s) of the Night: There were lotsa great blocks in Dallas last night, starting with Shawn Marion‘s denial of Marreese Speights and ending with Jermaine O’Neal‘s game-saving block that led to Steph Curry‘s game-winner …


VIDEO: Marion takes flight to deny Speights’ jam


VIDEO: Jermaine O’Neal gets the crucial late-game denial vs. the Mavs

Morning Shootaround — April 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 31

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers lose No. 1 spot in East | Griffin likely to sit out vs. Suns | Cavs readying for major deal? | Gasol recounts ‘scary’ vertigo bout | Gay weighing next move

No. 1: Pacers lose grip on No. 1 in East — Practically since the Eastern Conference finals ended and the Indiana Pacers walked off the court as the losers in Game 7, they have focused and told anyone who will listen how getting No. 1 in the East is their goal in 2013-14. And for every day of the season heading into last night’s Spurs-Pacers game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indiana held up its end of the bargain. But the Pacers have stumbled of late and after last night’s embarrassing 103-77 loss to San Antonio (and the Miami Heat’s win vs. the Toronto Raptors), they no longer have that lofty perch. Our Steve Aschburner was on the scene in Indianapolis last night and takes stock of a locker room that is in a true funk:

Be careful what you wish for. Someone might snatch it away. That’s not quite how the saying goes, but it’s the queasy version that applies now to the Indiana Pacers.All season long, from back in training camp through the many trips and back-to-backs, despite the physical dings and emotional drain of trying to go wire-to-wire, the Pacers had staked out the No. 1 playoff berth in the Eastern Conference as their goal within a goal. They get that, and any Game 7 against their rivals from Miami would be played in Indiana.

It was a marvelous carrot for an 82-game schedule that wields some serious sticks. A rabbit to chase and, once claimed, to flex. A fix for what slipped away last year, when the Pacers did so many things right in Game 6 against the Heat, only to step on that plane to South Florida for one more.

And then, on the final night of the season’s fifth month, it was gone.

The Pacers just hit the snooze button on their own nightmare.

“Good for them. We don’t deserve it,” center Roy Hibbert said in a home dressing room that was more demoralized than angry. “We’ll see, in the playoffs. But we’ve got to figure things out. Miami is a good team. They’ve had a couple hiccups themselves. But we don’t deserve that No. 1 seed.”

Indiana forward David West, who hinted at a variety of basketball and chemistry issues ailing his team now, said: “We’ve got to concede that we haven’t played basketball well enough to deserve the top spot. That’s pretty much it. We haven’t played well enough. We haven’t been a good-looking basketball team for quite some time now. That’s on the guys in this locker room.”

Not “a good-looking basketball team?” West was given another crack at his description of the Pacers at the moment. “We’re probably the most downtrodden, 50-plus win team in the history of the game,” he said. “We watch film from a few months ago, we don’t even recognize ourselves.”

Said Hibbert: “We should all go to group therapy. … We’ve been spiraling. Now we’re splintering a little bit.”

“We’re not playing the game the right way right now,” Paul George said after scoring 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting and, later, citing a severe lack of screen-setting. “We’re not playing for one another. It’s tough to score on any team in this league when you’re trying to do it against the whole team.

“San Antonio is the perfect example. It’s hard to guard them because they move the ball, they share the ball. And it’s regardless of who’s shooting. They want the best shot on offense. That’s the problem we’re having right now.”


VIDEO: David West and others talk about Indiana’s loss at home to San Antonio

***

No. 2: Griffin likely to sit out vs. Suns — As was pointed out by our own Sekou Smith in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, Clippers star Blake Griffin has solidified his place of sorts as the NBA’s third-best player this season. So when Griffin suffered a back injury that took him out of the game in Houston on Saturday (which L.A. won), concerns were raised about whether or not he’d be healthy for the Clips’ playoff run. Griffin sat out last night’s win in Minnesota and plans to do more of the same so he will be ready come playoff time, writes Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

Blake Griffin stood erect with his back up against the basketball stanchion for support, contemplating whether it was wise to push through back spasms that forced him from the game Saturday night in Houston or to rest.

Griffin decided to rest rather than play against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night. He probably won’t play at Phoenix on Wednesday.

The Clippers have seven regular-season games left before the playoffs start in about three weeks, and they want make sure Griffin is 100% healthy.

“This part of the season is important, obviously, as far as [playoff] positioning and everything else,” Griffin said. “The last two years in the playoffs, I’ve been banged up. I haven’t been 100%. I don’t want it to be that way this year. So I’m trying to be smart about it and I’m trying to be proactive and not do anything to make it a prolonged, healing process.”

Griffin suffered a sprained right ankle before the Clippers played Game 5 of the Western Conference first-round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies, limiting his effectiveness.

Over the last few weeks, Griffin has had his back wrapped up in ice and heat because of off and on back spasms.

“Most of the time it’s manageable,” Griffin said. “It felt like Saturday wasn’t really manageable. That was the reason for not coming back in.”


VIDEO: The Clippers win in Minnesota without Blake Griffin

***

No. 3: Cavs positioning selves for major trade? — When a playoff-hopeful team (like the Cleveland Cavaliers) signs a player who has never been in the NBA (in this case, Scotty Hopson), it might be seen as a move to add some last-minute depth. But according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, the Cavs’ signing of Hopson yesterday is about anything but that. According to Windhorst, the Cavs’ roster move was one made with an eye toward allowing Cleveland to possibly pull off a major trade this offseason:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to put themselves in position to make a major trade around June’s NBA draft, sources told ESPN.com.

To help facilitate it, the team made an unorthodox but strategic move Monday by signing point guard Scotty Hopson to a two-year, $3.8 million contract. Hopson has never played in an NBA game but will get a check for $1.35 million just for the Cavs’ final seven games of the regular season, sources said.

The Cavs are interested in Hopson, a 6-foot-7 University of Tennessee product who went undrafted in 2011, as a prospect after he played well in Turkey this season. But this move is also aimed at expanding the team’s options in June and July.

Team owner Dan Gilbert approved the last-minute spending in an effort to set his team up to be hunters over the summer. It’s the second significant move made by acting general manager David Griffin, who traded for Spencer Hawes at the trade deadline.

The second year of Hopson’s deal, worth $1.45 million, is nonguaranteed. The Cavs now have a stockpile of nonguaranteed or partially guaranteed contracts that could be attractive in trades around June’s draft.

Combined with the contracts of Alonzo Gee, Matthew Dellavedova and Anderson Varejao, the Cavs have a trove of options to use as trade bait for a team that wants to clear salary-cap space. In addition to their all their own draft picks, the Cavs also own future first-rounders from the Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat.

At this time of year, teams routinely sign prospects to contracts with nonguaranteed second years. For example, the Brooklyn Nets signed guard Jorge Gutierrez to such a contract last week. The Heat signed center Justin Hamilton to such a deal two weeks ago.

But these contracts were given out at the league minimum, which is commonplace. The Cavs are taking the extra step of using their more expensive mid-level exception, known as the “room exception,” to create a larger contract for Hopson so he becomes a more valuable trade piece.

***

No. 4: Gasol recounts ‘scary’ bout with vertigo – The Lakers host the Blazers tonight as part of TNT’s doubleheader (10:30 ET) and L.A. should have forward/center Pau Gasol back on the court. The big man’s return to the lineup hasn’t been easy and his season overall has been marred by injury, with his last injury being perhaps the most frightening. Gasol hasn’t played since a March 23 home win over the Orlando Magic as he dealt with a bout of vertigo. ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin has more on Gasol’s return and more:

The Los Angeles Lakers big man recounted the “scary” experience Monday.

“Just really light-headed, dizzy, drowsy state for five to six days at home without really moving much,” Gasol said. “Just laying (down). Let my system kind of readjust. Because it was scary. A scary moment for me and my family and the ones that love me.”

Gasol left the Lakers’ 103-94 win against the Orlando Magic on March 23 at halftime because of dizziness and nausea. The 13-year veteran received immediate medical attention in the locker room and was taken by ambulance from Staples Center to a local hospital for overnight observation.

“It was a nightmare,” said Gasol, who has missed the Lakers’ last four games because of the illness. “I was feeling terrible. Everybody that saw me, they felt bad because I was extremely pale. I was kind of shivering. I couldn’t really move. I had three liters of IV fluid. I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t sit. They had to take me to the hospital on a stretcher. So, the whole experience was not pleasant.”

The cause of Gasol’s vertigo is undetermined. He does not believe that he was struck in the head against the Magic. Doctors surmised that it could be related to the persistent upper respiratory infection that plagued him for much of the first half of the season.

Or, it simply could have been a new virus that caused the inner-ear infection that threw off his balance and brought on the vertigo.

“They could only guess a couple things but nothing for sure,” Gasol said.

“It was scary,” Gasol said. “Luckily I’m a pretty calm person. I usually take things lightly for the most part. I don’t react emotionally very easily, so that kind of plays in my favor. Because I don’t dwell. I don’t overthink. I don’t think of the worse-case scenario. I don’t get nervous. So that kind of helped me out. But a lot of things could have gone through my mind at that point where after a few hours, I couldn’t really move. I couldn’t really move my eyes even because it would make me nauseous or I would vomit and stuff like that.”

The 33-year old has been visiting an ear, nose and throat specialist on a daily basis since being released from the hospital last week after an MRI on head came back normal. He went through a non-contact practice Monday and will test how he feels at shootaround Tuesday to determine if he will play against the Blazers.

“We’ll see how my body reacts when I get up tomorrow after the exercise today,” Gasol said. “I would love to (play).”

Gasol wore a medicinal patch behind his left ear on Monday and continues to do treatment to recoup his balance.


VIDEO: Pau Gasol talks about his bout with vertigo

***

No. 5: Kings’ Gay weighing next contract move — Swingman Rudy Gay has played in 68 games this season, the last 50 of which have come as a member of the Sacramento Kings. The team picked him up in an early December trade with Toronto Raptors and the move has somewhat paid off for Sacramento: Gay is third in points scored (1,012) and second in ppg (20.2). Sacramento, however, has the third-worst record in the Western Conference and must make decisions about its future and roster. That’s where Gay comes in: he has a player-option on his contract for next season and as he tells our Scott Howard-Cooper, he’s weighing what his next move will be:

He says he has not made a decision on the $19.3 million on the table or whether he wants to remain with the Kings at any price. He has so not made a decision, Rudy Gay insists, that he is asked to list a couple factors that will go into the final call and responds, “I don’t know.”It is long after another loss at Sleep Train Arena, this time to the Knicks, in a near-empty locker room after most teammates have left. Gay is sitting in front of his stall, showered and changed and contemplating the unexpected search for career stability.

Memphis for 6 ½ seasons, and then suddenly Toronto and Sacramento in a little more than 10 months, and the career intersection over whether to stay in the current contract with $19.3 million on the books for 2014-15 or declare himself a free agent is approaching. In that setting, feeling so undefined about the future is actually understandable.

“What does my gut tell me?” Gay says of the looming decision and possibly decisions, plural. “I don’t know. My gut tells me different things every day.”

There is this, though: A lot of his comments land on the side of staying with the Kings, whether under the existing deal or by becoming a free agent that would mean giving back a large portion of the next season’s money in exchange for a the security of a larger payout over longer time. It’s light years from Gay committing to Sacramento — and in fact he says he doesn’t want to put numbers on the chances he stays “because right now I’m giving it my all and for me to tell them I’m going to be gone next year, that wouldn’t be fair” — but it is interesting.

The thought of another life change? “It’s tough moving around when you have a family. I have a kid on the way. It’s tough. I want to be settled, obviously, and I want to be comfortable. That has a lot to do with it.” (Which is double-sided, of course. Gay may decide to hit free agency now to get the next move out of the way, rather than another season in Sacramento and the open market in summer 2015.)

And the money. Of course the money. No way he walks away from $19.3 million, right? He’s staying in the deal and will be a King at least next season, right?

“I don’t think about that at all,” he says. “I love this game. I don’t play it for money. Obviously it’s a very big plus that we make a lot to play this game, but I think it’s more important to be happy.”

But people say no one leaves that kind of money on the table.

“They’re not in the NBA,” Gay says. “Those people don’t do the job and work as hard as I do.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kevin Garnett plans to return to the Nets’ lineup next week … Last night, Celtics star guard Rajon Rondo made his debut as a TV analyst for the team’s games … ICYMI, the Kings and DeMarcus Cousins put on an early April Fool’s Day gag … Raptors reserve big man Patrick Patterson has his review of “300: Rise of an Empire”Jay-Z‘s Roc Nation sports agency may end up representing ex-Kansas star Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 Draft … The Lakers might just keep Steve Nash and Kendall Marshall around next seasonOur own David Aldridge and ESPN.com’s J.A. Adande with some must-read views on Kobe Bryant‘s recent comments about Trayvon MartinLou Williams put on a performance reminiscent of his Philadelphia days against the 76ers last night … Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t play against the Jazz last night so he could rest his knees

ICYMI(s) of the Night:One thing we love around here is good passing … and a good dunk … and, while we’re thinking about it, a great call from someone on the broadcast team, too. Thankfully, we’ve got all of that on one sequence here from the Bulls

And, impressive as that Taj Gibson play was, LeBron James (of course) had a play last night that kind of one-ups whatever anyone else did …


VIDEO: Taj Gibson finishes off the Bulls’ passing clinic with a power jam


VIDEO: LeBron James makes the amazing happen with this and-one layup vs. Toronto

Morning Shootaround — March 31


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Struggling Pacers have hit rock bottom | Knicks finally ready to close in on 8th spot | Win or lose, Lakers facing crossroads this summer | The age of analytics or overload? | Haywood says one-and-done kids hurt NBA game

No. 1: Struggling Pacers have hit rock bottom after loss to Cavaliers — The Indiana Pacers have officially hit rock bottom. Sure, it’s a strange thing to say about a team that currently occupies the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. But there is no other way to describe what the Pacers are going through after watching them get taken apart by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their current state of affairs is not conducive to a long and productive postseason run. And after warnings being sounded from every direction, including Pacers’ boss Larry Bird, the struggles continue. Their lead in the standings over the Miami Heat has dwindled to just one game. And the Pacers have no explanation for how things have unraveled the way they have. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star paints the picture:

On Sunday afternoon at Quicken Loans Arena, the Pacers searched for their first road win since March 15 but could not find it. Then, after the 90-76 defeat, they searched for something to explain this most mystifying late-season plunge that has left them holding a scant one-game lead over the Miami Heat.

Again, the Pacers couldn’t find it.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Paul George, only after raising his head from his hands.

“I’m lost right now,” Lance Stephenson muttered under his breath. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know,” David West said, the words struggling to escape from his gravelly voice, “what else we can do.”

The Pacers may not know what’s behind this latest stretch of basketball as they’ve lost five straight on the road, but know this – they have reached the lowest point of the season.

“Yeah, I would say,” West answered. “For us to be playing like this just as a group, just to be so out of sync and out of sorts – we just got to find an answer. Something happened and all of us are sort of searching for what that is and why we’re playing the way we’re playing and why we’re looking the way we look when we’re out there on the floor.”

Indiana, now 52-22, has played on the offensive end as if it’s an agonizing ordeal to simply put the ball through the hoop. For the fourth consecutive road game, the team could not eclipse the 37-percent shooting clip.

“We had trouble catching passes and trouble knocking down open shots,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys are out of rhythm right now. We got to figure it out. That’s what we gotta do.”


VIDEO: David West talks about Indiana’s loss in Cleveland

***

No. 2: Knicks close in on playoff spot — One huge road win could very well be the tipping point that allows the New York Knicks to finally catch and pass the struggling Atlanta Hawks for that eighth and final playoff spot they have been eyeing for months now. The gap has been closed, after the Knicks’ stunning win on the road over the Golden State Warriors. The way they did it, with Carmelo Anthony struggling through a 7-for-21 shooting night and with J.R. Smith, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tim Hardaway Jr. and others stepping up, only makes the stretch run more intriguing for the always dramatic Knicks. It’s down to one, as Marc Berman of the New York Post explains:

It’s down to one.

With Atlanta in free fall, the Knicks are lucky to be alive. And so they are very much, closing to one game of the final playoff spot with a 89-84 upset victory in a surprising defensive struggle over the Warriors at Oracle Arena, when they shut down Stephen Curry twice in the final 30 seconds.

The Knicks used rare gritty defense and a 15-0 run late in the second quarter to keep their postseason dreams alive. They had lost 10 of their last 11 games in Oakland before rising to the challenge — and bottling up Curry on the final possession.

“Our defense finally stepped up,’’ coach Mike Woodson said.

The Knicks moved to 2-2 on their five-game West Coast trip. With eight games left, the Knicks finish up the Western trip Monday in Utah. The Hawks face the Sixers.

“If we head home, get [Monday] night, it will be a great road trip,’’ Carmelo Anthony said. “We control our own destiny. I just hope we win and bring the same mindset and focus into Utah.’’

The Knicks had allowed 127 points in Los Angeles, including a 51-point third quarter, and 112 in Phoenix before buckling down in Oakland, where team president Phil Jackson continued to stay away.

Smith, who has been rising as a secondary scorer, finished with 19 points at halftime on 8 of 11 shooting and wound up with 21. Anthony finished with just 19 points but had four in the final 1:30. He shot 7 of 21. Amar’e Stoudemire was a beast on the boards, finishing with 15 points and a season-high 13 rebounds.

‘For us to bounce back after that loss in Phoenix, We did a great job tonight,’’ Anthony said. “It says a lot we can put this stuff behind us quickly.’’


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the Knicks’ big win in Oakland

***

No. 3: Win or lose the Lakers facing dilemmas at every turn at season’s end — As enjoyable as that win over the Phoenix Suns might have felt for Lakers fans who have endured an unthinkable season, the sad facts of this season remain. No matter what they do between now and the end of this regular season, this summer is setting up as a critical crossroads for the franchise. There is so much uncertainty that some of the starch is taken out of any of the good vibrations Chris Kaman and Co. provided with that surprising rout of the Suns. Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times sets the table for what the Lakers are facing:

The Phoenix Suns were in town and handed the Lakers much more to ponder beyond another surprisingly rare and easy victory.

The Suns couldn’t control Chris Kaman, lost Sunday’s game by a 115-99 score and offered the perfect time to explore some big-picture questions involving their past employees.

What will the Lakers do with Coach Mike D’Antoni?

What will happen with Steve Nash, who won two NBA most-valuable-player awards in Phoenix under D’Antoni? And what of Kendall Marshall, a first-round bust of the Suns who found plenty of playing time with the Lakers?

The answers in quick succession as of now — undetermined, staying and staying.

The Lakers have a dilemma with D’Antoni, who coached the Suns for five successful seasons. They still owe him $4 million next season and don’t want to look like a franchise with a coaching turnstile.

But Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol don’t support his small-ball offense and Lakers fans don’t support him, period.

So the team will decide fairly quickly after the April 16 regular-season finale — pay him to not coach the team, just like Mike Brown, or try to make it work next season.

General Manager Mitch Kupchak said last week he thought D’Antoni was “doing a great job under the circumstances,” but how great would obviously be revealed in coming weeks.

Nash sat out another game, which is no longer surprising for a player who appeared in only 12 this season.

For financial reasons, the Lakers currently plan to keep him next season, The Times has learned, eating the remainder of his contract ($9.7 million) in one swoop instead of waiving him and spreading the money out over three years.

It would give them more money to spend in the summers of 2015 and 2016, when they figure to be active players in the free-agent market amid such possible names as Kevin LoveLeBron James and Kevin Durant.

***

No. 4: The new age of analytics … overload or advantage? – It’s one thing for fans and pundits alike to debate the merits of advanced statistics, or analytics (if you will). It’s something altogether different, however, when players, coach and front office types are still haggling over the merits of that information and what it means in the overall matrix of the game. In Boston, where the advanced metrics movement got its start in the NBA, there is no better context than the one painted by All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, former Celtics coach and current Clippers boss Doc Rivers and Celtics president and brain waves guru Danny Ainge. Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe provides this illuminating take on where things stand by framing the debate:

Rondo has savant-like math skills and a well-documented interest in advanced statistics. But he has his doubts about SportVU.

“I don’t think it means anything,” Rondo said. “It doesn’t determine how hard you play. It can’t measure your heart. It can maybe measure your endurance. But when the game is on the line, all that goes out the window.”

Rivers, on the other hand, considers himself a proponent.

“There’s a really good use for it,” Rivers said. “There’s a use for us, each team, depending on how they play and how they defend. You can find out stuff.”

And while Ainge is also a proponent, he remains cautious.

“You have to be careful with how you utilize the information that you have,” Ainge said. “It is sort of fun and intriguing and I understand why media and the fans are intrigued by it all, but I think it’s blown way out of proportion of how much it’s actually utilized.”

Ainge’s point was echoed by several analytics officials employed by NBA teams who corresponded with the Globe on the condition of anonymity.

Naturally, none of them could speak in specifics about how their teams use the data, but many said that numerous challenges — such as how many variables can affect a player on any play — keep this from being an exact science.

“Our sport is just not a pretty sport for isolating things,” one official said.

Above all, several officials emphasized that how the discussion is framed is key, as analytics are often discussed publicly in black-and-white terms — “they’re great” or “they’re pointless” — when reality is in the middle.

One official wrote in an e-mail, “People don’t understand the limitations of the data and only focus on the articles that are written about it and the way it is ‘sold’ by the NBA and the teams that use it. Some of the data is much more along the lines of trivia as opposed to something that can be useful for an NBA team. But make no mistake, there’s plenty of good stuff in there, too.”

Another said, “The underlying data, I think, is incredibly valuable in the way that diamonds or gold under a mountain are valuable, but it takes a lot of effort and infrastructure to get at it and then take advantage of it.”

***

No. 5: Haywood: These one-and-done kids aren’t ready for the NBA – Few people can offer the perspective on the one-and-done dilemma that Spencer Haywood can. He changed the landscape for early entrant candidates in 1971 when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, after he starred for two seasons at the University of Detroit, and allowed underclassmen to enter the professional ranks. In an op-ed for the New York Daily News Haywood explains why one season on a college campus is not sufficient preparation for anyone with aspirations of joining the game’s elite. In short, Haywood believes the one-and-done rule has to go, mostly because the NBA game is suffering because of it:

I jumped to the ABA in what would have been my junior year and won the ABA Rookie of the Year and MVP honors with the Denver Rockets. I had a fair amount of seasoning before I challenged the system. I wouldn’t have been able to handle the rigors of the NBA on and off the court after my freshman year.

The NBA is now strewn with underclassmen, most notably players who have left after their freshman year, who have yet to make a significant impact.

Look no further than last year’s NBA draft, when five freshmen — Anthony Bennett, Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, Steven Adams, Shabazz Muhammad — were selected among the top 15 overall picks.

How many are difference-makers for their respective teams? None.

How many are averaging double digits in points and minutes? None.

The high scorer among this group, McLemore, is averaging 7.5 points per game. The other players are all averaging less than five points and 12 minutes. Noel is out this season due to a knee injury.

Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers, clearly needed more seasoning at UNLV and I told him as much before he made his decision to declare for the draft.

I live in Las Vegas and I saw most of his freshman year. I wish he would have listened. His NBA rookie season has been marred by being out of shape, injuries and failing to live up to the expectations of being a No. 1 overall pick. Averages of 4.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game aren’t exactly what the Cavaliers had in mind when they selected him with the top pick.

Will these players ultimately have long and meaningful NBA careers? Time will tell. But all of them would have benefited by staying at least one more year in college.

The first 30 years after the court ruled in my case, there were only three players who came out of high school early: Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby. Moses bounced around a few teams before becoming an all-time great, but Dawkins had a stagnant, underwhelming career because he wasn’t trained well enough and Willoughby had a marginal eight-year career with six teams.

If you look at the current generation of players from Kevin Garnett to Kobe Bryant to Dwight Howard, only one player was able to make an immediate impact right out of high school — LeBron James.

The NBA is a man’s league. The transition from college to the NBA is huge, on and off the court. The players are faster, stronger and smarter. You’re playing an 82-game schedule, not to mention preseason and if you’re lucky, the playoffs. Suddenly, you’re a teenager going up against the likes of James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George — all men — on a nightly basis.

One and done players need the extra year to successfully transition off the court, too. A lot of these players are still acquiring life skills: Critical thinking, time and money management, self-discipline, moderation and simply learning to say no.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: After a season filled with turnover issues, the Thunder finally seem to be getting grip on their most glaring flaw … LaMarcus Aldridge and the Trail Blazers turn the tables and secure a much-needed win over their nemesis from Memphis … After missing 16 straight games is Kevin Garnett finally on his way back to the rotation for the Brooklyn Nets? … The Cavs, who are also chasing Atlanta for that eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings, are hoping to get Kyrie Irving back sometime this week

ICYMI of the Night:  Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Johnson doesn’t normally make a fuss when he does his business, but Sunday was a milestone day for the seven-time All-Star, who surpassed the 17,000-point mark for his career …


VIDEO: Joe Johnson hits a career milestone by reaching the 17,000-point mark

Morning Shootaround — March 30



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 29

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Doc sends Davis to locker room | Sixers win | Carter wants to re-sign with Mavs | O’Neal praises Mark Jackson | Tuckers seeks a larger contract from Suns

No. 1: Doc sends Davis to locker room – The Los Angeles Clippers are rolling. They’re 15-2 over their last 17 games, and last night, despite losing All-Star Blake Griffin early to injury, they  were able to defeat the Houston Rockets 118-107. Unfortunately, things aren’t all roses in Lob City, as coach Doc Rivers was forced to call arena security to escort forward Glen Davis to the locker room midway through the game. Broderick Turner of The Los Angeles Times has the story:

Losing All-Star power forward Blake Griffin with back spasms had already put the Clippers in a tough predicament, but it got more difficult when Coach Doc Rivers grew so upset at Glen Davis that he had the backup forward escorted from the game.

The Clippers just pressed on, walloping the Houston Rockets yet again, 118-107, Saturday at Toyota Center, to sweep their four-game season series.

But after the Clippers clinched a playoff spot for the third consecutive season, Rivers was forced to address the Davis situation.

“He was emotional tonight and we told him to go sit down,” Rivers said. “And I just thought he was a distraction. When guys are a distraction, I don’t think they should be on the bench.”

After Rivers had pulled Davis early in the second quarter, Davis yelled something at Rivers, who in turned yelled, “Sit your big … down.”

A few seconds later, associate head coach Alvin Gentry went to talk to Davis at the end of the bench, but Rivers then told the team’s security to take Davis to the locker room.

Rivers obviously still was upset at his power forward, which left the Clippers even more short-handed because Griffin was still in the locker room getting treatment.

“Nothing went on with me,” Rivers said. “I thought Baby was too emotional.

“And for me if you’re too emotional, I always send you back to the locker room and keep you back there until the next game. I love Baby. I just didn’t think emotionally he was ready to play tonight so we told him go to the locker room.”

***

No. 2:Sixers win – The long, national nightmare is over as the Philadelphia 76ers are back in the win column after trouncing the Detroit Pistons 123-98 last night. The Sixers 26-game losing streak tied the mark set by the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers for worst streak in NBA history. However, the win also pushed the Milwaukee Bucks lead on the worst record in the league to two games over the Sixers. It should be an exciting race to end the season. Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer has more on the win:

The Sixers downplayed the victory.

“It’s just like another win,” reserve guard Tony Wroten said. “It’s the NBA. You all are talking about the pressure. We weren’t worried about a streak. We were just trying to get better every day.”

Sixers coach Brett Brown said he never mentioned the losing streak to his team.

“I never went into a room and said, ‘We have to get out of the streak,’ ” he said. “We talked about, ‘Let’s bang out great days.’ I’m glad tonight that the win validates that.”

The win was a big lift for a franchise that turned into the laughingstock of professional sports during the skid.

ESPN had been poking fun at the team after each of its recent losses. Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon even roasted the Sixers Friday night for losing 26 consecutive games.

That’s because they equaled the run of futility established by the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the 1976 and 1977 seasons. The Cleveland Cavaliers tied that record and set an NBA mark with 26 straight losses during the 2010-11 season.

No. 27 never came, as the Sixers dominated the lifeless Pistons (26-47), handing them their 11th loss in 13 games.

“I think we came out with fire like we try to do in a lot of these other games,” Sixers rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams said. “We didn’t change anything. We wanted to win the ball game just like we’ve been doing every single day, every game, and every practice, just going out there playing hard.”

While they were made fun of, the Sixers said the losing streak didn’t affect them.

Sacrificing wins has been part of the team’s plan since Sam Hinkie was hired as general manager in May. The Sixers are using this season for player development, evaluating talent, and developing a culture. In the process, they hope to lose enough games to secure a top pick in the NBA draft in June.

“Our judgment day isn’t today, and it won’t be tomorrow,” Brown said before the game. “We are on a three- to five-year plan. Obviously, we want to win. We want to win every time we come on the floor. I coach to win. Our players play to win.”

Surely this victory provided relief for the Sixers, right?

“Not a relief,” [Hollis] Thompson said. “It’s just a sign that we have been doing the right things and working on the right things, and it’s finally playing off.”

***

No. 3: Carter wants to re-sign with Mavs – Vince Carter is 37 years old, but this has not stopped him from having a great season in Dallas averaging 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists in just 24.4 minutes per game. He’s a key contributor for the playoff-hopeful Dallas Mavericks, who utilize Carter’s new-found 3-point game which he has developed over his last three seasons in Dallas. This contribution allows Carter to hope he will be re-signed by Dallas this offseason, despite his age. Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News has more:

In three seasons with the Mavericks, Carter has seen them go from defending champions to barely making the playoffs to missing them entirely.

Neither he nor anybody else knows if this season will produce a return to the postseason. But Carter does know two things.

This team is better than last year’s. And he desperately wants to hang around to see this rebuilding project through to the end.

Or at least next season.

“I think I’ve earned the right to stick around,” Carter said.

The 6-6 future Hall of Famer will be a free agent after this season. Carter’s three-year contract he signed before the 2011-12 season has been a huge bargain, as the Mavericks paid him only about $9.3 million for those years of work.

He hopes it is a no-brainer that he re-signs with the Mavericks.

“My fingers are crossed,” he said. “Next year might be even better. We can attract some more people, more talent. Now I know my role, and I know the system, it’s second nature to me now. I know the city very well. I’m stepping out, going to SMU games and getting out and about. I’m very comfortable here.

“I like the guys. I like the nucleus we have here. With my role and the way I play and the way I go about things, it really helps guys here. And they like that. Hopefully, that’s enough so that they can still have trust in me enough to play significant minutes and help the other guys out.”

It’s hard to say the 37-year-old Carter has put together one of the best seasons of his career if you base it solely on numbers. If you factor in personal satisfaction, however, it may be the best year he’s ever had.

Carter probably won’t win the NBA’s sixth man of the year award, but he’s deserving of consideration. He’s the true definition of the role. He plays about half the game, averages a point every two minutes played, can still levitate like it’s 1999 and has a burning desire to see this team continue to get better.

And that includes seeing what happens next. But Carter is wise enough to know that things may not work out.

“The business side, it happens,” he said. “And maybe they need the money. But I’m hoping we’re talking right here at this time next year.”

Carter’s play as this season has gone along has made it clear he’s not finished as a player. While he enjoys the mentoring role — you can see him on the sideline offering his experience to younger players during games — he’s still a gamer.

And he likes being the sixth man on a good team.

“In the beginning, that first year, it was learning how to go about it,” he said. “It’s still having the starter’s mentality, be aggressive, make plays, but within the confines of the offense. And understanding my role.

“That’s the biggest thing for all players, particularly for guys coming from a starting position into a backup role, is accepting the new position. Once I understood it, everything is easier.”

***

No. 4: O’Neal praises Mark Jackson – The Golden State Warriors, at 45-27, would be the sixth seed in the Western Conference with a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers if the playoffs started today. Not a bad spot, but lower than many expected the Warriors to be this season after their playoff run last year and with the addition of Andre Iguodala this offseason. But despite these rough spots, center Jermaine O’Neal can’t stand speculative talk about how the Warriors should fire coach Mark Jackson. Diamond Leung of the San Jose Mercury News has O’Neal’s comments:

Warriors veteran big man Jermaine O’Neal called any talk of firing coach Mark Jackson “ridiculous” and “unfair” before offering a vote of confidence unique to his own NBA career.

O’Neal is considering retirement, and if the 35-year-old were to decide to play next season, he said it would be because of Jackson and that the team he would choose would be the Warriors.

“It’s a couple reasons why I will come back,” O’Neal said Saturday. “This fan base, this organization is first class, and obviously my teammates are great, as well.

“But the No. 1 reason that I will come back and play another year is because of Coach Jackson. I’m absolutely, 100 percent positive about that. He makes it easy to come in this gym every day, and there’s not a lot of coaches that do that.”

O’Neal, whom Jackson noted was “underpaid” and “a steal” while playing on a $2 million, one-year contract, said he would choose Golden State despite the distance from family because Jackson has shown just how much he cares about his players.

Offering up an example, the business-minded O’Neal said Jackson allowed him to miss practice Tuesday so he could go to Mountain View to attend Y Combinator’s Demo Day, which features startup companies making presentations.

O’Neal also appreciated how Jackson has been mindful of putting too much of a physical burden on him because of his age and experience.

With Andrew Bogut going down with a pelvic contusion in Friday’s win against Memphis, O’Neal’s presence in the lineup could be needed once again for Sunday’s game against New York as the Warriors look to close out a playoff berth with 10 games left.

“To me, it’s one of the most unfair things that I’ve seen in a long time,” O’Neal said. “And it truly is a team that’s 18 games over .500. Eighteen. And we’re talking about firing a coach with 10, 11 games left?

“Here’s the facts. To everybody that’s negative out there, you may not ever see this again. I know that firsthand because I’ve been in the position. It may take 10 years to be back in that position, so do you want to accept us with open arms and continue to show the support?”

***

No. 5: Tucker seeks a larger contract from Suns – It’s no secret that Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker is a bargain at his current league-minimum contract of $884,000. He’s arguably the motor which keeps the Suns’ high-energy engine running and he does so while averaging 9.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.3 steals (along with superb defense) in 30.9 minutes per game. This bargain for the Suns may not last long, as Tucker hopes to sign a larger contract this summer. Paul Coro of Arizona Central Sports has the quotes:

Suns forward P.J. Tucker picked up a technical foul recently and joked that he wants the Suns to have it taken out of next year’s salary.

For one, Tucker knows he will be making much more money next season after playing on a veteran’s minimum contract for the next two seasons. It also played his hand that he wants and expects to be back with the Suns next season despite becoming a restricted free agent in July.

“Of course, why would I not?” Tucker said. “They brought me here. I think I exceeded their expectations and mine with what has transpired. Of course, I want to retire a Sun.”

Tucker, 28, was a second-round pick by Toronto in 2006 who was assigned to the D-League and released before his rookie season ended. Tucker became an overseas star, playing in Germany, Ukraine, Israel and Puerto Rico, before he joined the Suns’ Summer League team in 2012 and signing a two-year, partially guaranteed deal.

He emerged as a standout defender and the Majerle Hustle Award winner and started all season this year with improved 3-point shooting. “Forbes” magazine named Tucker the most underpaid player in the league for his $884,000 salary.

“The love I have for this organization will always be,” Tucker said. “They gave me a chance to prove myself and actually to prove that I’m a player in this league. It’s almost emotional for me to think about everything I’ve been through and for them to give me an opportunity to do it. Not just to be on the team, but in two seasons, I’ve started a whole year and a half for the team on a minimum contract. That doesn’t happen.

“When I sit back and think about it, which I never do, it’s too much. So I’ll always be indebted.”

Friday night’s game emphasizes Tucker’s value to a team beyond being a locker room leader. Knowing they have a defender of the caliber, strength and versatility of Tucker allow the coaching staff to assign him to top wing scorers like Carmelo Anthony and create a defensive game plan around that.

In restricted free agency, the Suns will be able to match any offer sheet that Tucker signs with another team and keep him. He knows his value is about to skyrocket.

“The moment you sit back and think, ‘Hmmm,’ that’s the moment you’re losing,” Tucker said. “You can’t do that. Not right now I can’t.

“I’m nervous but excited at the same time. This is the most important time in my career. I kind of took a pay cut to come so this is my one chance.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Andrew Bogut suffered a pelvic contusion and was scheduled to undergo an MRI on Saturday. … The San Antonio Spurs win their 17th-straight game. … Chris Paul recorded 30 points and 12 assists to lead the Clippers past the Rockets.

ICYMI of the Night: Ebony Nettles-Bay is an AAU high-school basketball player who was diagnosed with cancer in September. If you haven’t read her story, you can (and should) here. She’s a huge LeBron James fan who had the dream of meeting him. This inspired the hashtag #LeBronMeetsEbony which you may have seen on social media. Her dream came true last night as she met her hero in Milwaukee. James spoke about the moment after the game.


VIDEO: James on Ebony Nettles-Bay