Morning Shootaround

Morning shootaround — April 14


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Smith: LeBron the ‘real MVP’ | Blazers’ Batum, Kaman, McCollum injured | Bulls pumped about Rose’s playoff return | Robinson finds a role in Philly

No. 1: Smith backs James as ‘real MVP’ — Two more days to go and the 2014-15 season will be in the books. As such, folks are starting to reveal their choices for the NBA’s awards (if you missed David Aldridge‘s great column, catch up on it). Aside from NBA writers chiming in on who they like, the players will be doing the same thing and Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith his no exception. After last night’s win over the Detroit Pistons, a game in which LeBron James notched a triple-double, Smith crowed about James’ MVP credentials. ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin has more:

Shortly after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 109-97 win over the Detroit Pistons on Monday, J.R. Smith was interviewed by the Quicken Loans Arena’s in-house emcee. He was asked for his thoughts on LeBron James’ second triple-double of the season and 39th of his career.

“Who? The real MVP?” Smith said, his message echoing to the sellout crowd of 20,562 who were making their way to the exits. “There’s a lot of speculation about who should get the award, but we all know who the real MVP is.”

“In actuality, if you really wanted to, you could give it to him every year,” Smith said of James, who won the award four times in his first 11 seasons in the league. “I mean, the numbers, what he does for teams. You see one year removed from a team like Miami — and they probably won’t even make the playoffs — to a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since he left and then, all of the sudden, we’re a 52-win team. So, I don’t think you can do that with anybody else that’s in our league right now.

“Not to knock anything from the other two guys [Stephen Curry and James Harden]. They’re having great years, career years for both of them, but if you want to be realistic about it, you could give it to him every time.”

ESPN.com analyzed the consensus top six candidates’ cases for MVP on Monday, looking at the merits of James, Harden, Curry, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, who happens to be the MVP pick of another one of James’ teammates, Kevin Love.


VIDEO: J.R. Smith is fully backing teammate LeBron James for MVP

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Morning Shootaround — April 13


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 12

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Too much Westbrook not enough for Thunder | Budenholzer: Ferry deserves most credit for Hawks’ roster | Confident Warriors waiting on first round opponent | Monroe to Knicks not a done deal

No. 1: Too much Westbrook not enough for Thunder — They couldn’t get the win on a night when Russell Westbrook went off for a career-high 54 points. And now the Oklahoma City Thunder might have to continue their chase for a playoff spot without their superstar point guard, for at least one game. It’s the disaster scenario Thunder fans have been dreading for weeks with the losses and technical fouls from Westbrook piling up. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman has more:

C.J. Miles lined up the corner three and knocked it in – the ensuing swish, ovation and OKC timeout putting a fitting bow on the most nightmare sequence of the Thunder’s nightmare season.

With only 5:20 left, Miles’ dagger gave the Pacers a 12-point lead in their eventual 116-104 win over the Thunder. At the same time, the Pelicans were holding steady to a surprising advantage down in Houston, a result that would have put OKC on the brink of playoff extinction.

A potential disaster scenario was unfolding. And it was only worsened by what had happened moments earlier.

With the Thunder still in the game – trailing by five with 5:56 left – Russell Westbrook was called for a foul at the top of the key. Luis Scola and Westbrook had collided, Westbrook drew the whistle and didn’t agree. He chirped a little at referee Ed Malloy. Malloy, peeved at the argument, nailed Westbrook with a technical.

In most cases, not a disaster. A small fine for Westbrook, one free throw for the Pacers and the game resumes. But this technical, potentially, came with far greater consequences.

It was Westbrook’s 16th technical of the season, which, per NBA rules, comes with an automatic one-game suspension, meaning he will miss OKC’s crucial home tilt against the Blazers on Monday night.

“He was aware (that he was at 15),” coach Scott Brooks said. “He’s been aware for a while now.”

The Rockets came back to beat the Pelicans, tossing the Thunder a temporary life raft during this tidal wave of bad decisions and bad luck. But Westbrook’s potential absence in a near must-win game against Portland could still be the death knell.

“I got no view on it,” Westbrook said of the technical. “He called it, and we’ll move on.”

The Thunder, though, remain hopeful Westbrook’s suspension will get overturned. Last month during a road game in Phoenix, Westbrook was called for a questionable technical. The next day, the league rescinded it.

Following Sunday night’s loss in Indiana, Brooks, who was standing directly in front of Malloy and Westbrook when the brief argument occurred, said he believed the league would take this one back, too.

“I’m pretty confident that one will be rescinded,” Brooks said. “That’s not my decision, but I’m pretty confident about it.”


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook could care less what you think

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Morning Shootaround — April 12



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 11

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Clippers get tough | Gasol goes down | Surgery for Rubio | Rose is blooming | Cousins, Gay sidelined

No. 1: Clippers grit and grind over Grizzlies — There’s nothing like a big win in front of the boss and that’s what the Clippers got with first-year team owner Steve Ballmer enjoying himself from courtside at Staples Center. There’s nothing like a big win coming down the stretch and that’s what the Clippers got with a victory that jumped up to the No. 3 seed in the West. And there’s nothing like using your opponent’s style against him, which is what the Clippers did by getting tough in their 94-86 victory over the Grizzlies. Ben Bolch of of the Los Angeles Times had the blow-by-blow:

“We just had to grit and grind a little bit,” Clippers shooting guard J.J. Redick said, using the catchphrase favored by Memphis.

The Clippers (54-26) moved into a three-way tie with the Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs for the second-best record in the West, though the Grizzlies would own the No. 2 seeding by virtue of holding the tiebreaker that puts them atop the Southwest Division.

The Clippers hold a tiebreaker with San Antonio by virtue of having a better record against West opponents, provided the Spurs do not win their division.

“I guess it’s more confusing now,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers joked of the playoff picture. “When you figure it out, let me know.”

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No. 2: Gasol joins Grizzlies’ growing injury list — It was painful and difficult for the Grizzlies to lose a vital clash — aren’t they all right now? — with the Clippers as they jockey for position in the jam-packed Western Conference playoff race. But more significant may have been center Marc Gasol leaving the game in the first quarter with a sprained ankle. He joins Mike Conley and Tony Allen on the injury list with the start of the playoffs just a week to go. Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal has the details:

Falling in the Western Conference standings might now be the least of the Grizzlies’ concerns.

They keep losing key players to injury.

Grizzlies center Marc Gasol suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter Saturday night and didn’t return in a 94-86 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in Staples Center.

Gasol logged nearly 10 minutes. He tried to continue playing but eventually asked out of the game and went to the locker room for treatment. Gasol returned to the Grizzlies’ bench in the second quarter. However, the 7-footer never re-entered the game and was ruled out at halftime

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No. 3:  Ankle surgery shuts down Rubio — Though there were a couple of big pluses to the Timberwolves’ season — Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine — the season is coming to a painful finish. In the same week that center Nikola Pekovic went under the knife, guard Ricky Rubio now faces surgery for an ankle injury that has nagged him for months. Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune tells the tale:

That’s the ankle Rubio so badly sprained in a game at Orlando at season’s beginning, an injury that has never really healed even though he played 22 games on it this season before he was essentially shut down for the season nearly a month ago.

Rubio visited a specialist in Los Angeles when the Wolves played the Lakers there Friday. The Southern California Orthopedic Institute’s Dr. Robert Ferkel will perform surgery in Van Nuys, Calif., that’s intended to give Ferkel and the Wolves’ medical staff more information about what is still causing Rubio soreness and pain.

Wolves coach and chief basketball executive Flip Saunders said the surgery will “clean up” tissue around the ankle and give everyone involved a better look.

“We don’t know how minor or major it is,” Saunders said before Saturday’s 110-101 loss at Golden State in which Wolves rookie Zach LaVine scored a career-high 37 points and Warriors MVP candidate Stephen Curry again dazzled with circus shots and 34 points of his own. “It wasn’t responding the way we’d expect it to respond. We’ll know more after they get in there.”

The Wolves won’t know a recovery timetable or an expected return to basketball work until after the surgery. Rubio said recently he is fully committed to getting healthy so he can play again for a Wolves team that’s invested $55 million in him for the next four seasons.

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No. 4: Rose is looking Bullish — With the playoffs fast approaching, the Bulls need Derrick Rose to round back into his All-Star form and their franchise player took another step Saturday night. Playing in his third game since Feb. 23 and first at home, Rose took another step on the road to recovery with a solid performance in a win over the Sixers, and Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com was there to see it:

“Every game I play is a stride,” Rose said. “Every day I go in there and work out, do my rehab or training, it’s a stride. It’s a step forward. So every day is a positive day, even if I have a bad game or if I’m having a bad day, I try to erase it the next day.”

Rose has played better every time he has stepped on the floor this week since playing 19 minutes in Wednesday night’s loss to the Orlando Magic. The biggest difference in this contest is that Rose played more minutes — almost 29 — than the 20 he had been averaging in his first two games. Rose also got the feel of playing in the fourth quarter, something he hadn’t done in the past two contests.

He doesn’t seem to be surprised with how well he’s seeing the floor, despite the fact he has missed so much time over the past few years. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Saturday’s game marked just the fourth time in Rose’s career that he had at least 20 points, five assists, five rebounds and zero turnovers. It’s the first time he has accomplished that feat since the 2011-12 season.

“When you miss three years, damn near, you see everything,” Rose said. “I’m just being patient a little bit more and there’s no point in me forcing anything by the way that they’re playing me. They’re not double-teaming me, they’re letting me do whatever I want to do, it’s just all about me catching rhythm.”

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No. 5: Cousins, Gay done for the season — In reality the Kings have been in “wait-til-next-year” mode for quite some time, losing games, changing coaches twice and sinking back down toward the bottom of the standings. But coach George Karl seems to have made that official with the announcement that DeMarcus Cousins and probably Rudy Gay will join Darren Collison on the bench as the Kings play out the string on the season. Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee has the scoop:

DeMarcus Cousins (sore right foot), Rudy Gay (concussion) and Darren Collison (core muscle injury) have all been out, with Collison not playing since Feb. 5. Cousins has missed the last three games and Gay has missed five of the last six games.

“DeMarcus, I think, is done for the year,” Karl said. “I don’t know what’s going to be sent out but the report I got is it looks like they want him to stay off his legs for the rest of the year. I don’t think as an organization we’re going to take a chance on Darren. I would say Rudy is borderline out for the season, too. We’re hoping maybe for a game but I don’t think he’ll play tomorrow. Because he doesn’t play tomorrow, I think they’ll go into the protocol, the concussion protocol, that I don’t understand but I think it’s going to be difficult to get him in either game against the Lakers (next week).”

Cousins leads the Kings averaging 24.1 points and 12.7 rebounds. The Kings are 4-16 this season without their All-Star center.

Gay is averaging 21.1 points and 5.7 rebounds in 68 games.

Collison, who had surgery to repair his injury last month, averaged 16.1 points and a team-high 5.6 assists in 45 games.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Word is the Knicks are already zeroing in on free agent Greg Monroe … Patrick Beverley is determined to return from wrist surgery to join Rockets in the playoffs … Brett Brown wants to see Joel Embiid play in the Summer League … Lakers plans to bring back Tarik Black next season … The Knicks and Magic make history with a historically bad quarter … Clippers pick Lester Hudson over Nate Robinson … It’s all over but the shouting for the once-great Heat.

Morning shootaround — April 11


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Curry for MID award | Duncan hands Father Time first loss? | Cavs or not, Celtics can’t be choosy | Hawks’ Antic, NBPA talk N.Y. incident

No. 1: Curry for Most Improved Defender award — By now, most NBA observers expect Golden State’s floor leader and marvelous 3-point shooter Steph Curry to finish first or second in balloting for the league’s Most Valuable Player. But if you look closely at Curry’s performances on the other end of the court, listen to his coaches and study the Warriors’ numbers in thwarting the opposition, Curry might merit consideration for a wholly fictitious award: Most Improved Defender. Breaking down the components of good individual and team defense with Golden State assistant coach Ron Adams, ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss enumerated the many ways in which Curry has tightened up his game that way, and concluded:

The Warriors challenged their top player to get better, and it worked. They’re having the best regular season — in terms of point differential — we’ve witnessed since Jordan‘s Bulls.

The notion of Curry as defensive ace might be subversive, but perhaps not as subversive as the next statement: Curry got better not just because he wants to be the best player alive, but also because he thinks it’s within his reach.

“He wants to be the best,” [coach Steve] Kerr said. “He knew that to be the best he had to be better at that end.”

Even as Curry is favored to win an MVP award, the concept of a skinny, 6-3 point guard as league alpha strikes people strangely. That spot is usually reserved for physical freaks like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. It all just smacks of basketball heresy.

Curry’s star continues to rise in defiance of convention, though. He markets himself as “the patron saint of the underdog” for a reason. Curry doesn’t look like a good defensive player, but then again, he never looked like a Division I college player, he never looked like an NBA draft pick, and he never looked like an NBA superstar. But he has accomplished all of those things. If reputations are often based on appearances, Curry aims to forge a reputation as someone who transcends that expectation. And his aim is excellent.

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Morning shootaround — April 10


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kerr: Curry wants MVP | Kidd opens up on Giannis benching | Blazers’ Afflalo injures arm vs. Warriors | George helped Pacers, even as he healed

No. 1: Kerr: ‘Better believe’ Curry wants MVP — If you missed it last night/this morning, Houston Rockets star James Harden chatted with our Fran Blinebury and didn’t pull any punches when it comes to talk of this season’s Kia MVP. Said Harden, “I feel as though I am the MVP. I think the MVP is the most valuable player to your team. Obviously you have to be winning and be one of the top teams in this league and we are.” Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors has yet to make such brash statements, but he has said plenty with his play — and did so again last night. He dropped 45 points on the Portland Trail Blazers and broke his own record for 3-pointers in a season to boot. Afterward, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said that Curry is as hungry for the MVP as any other name in the mix, writes Jeff Faraudo of the Bay Area News Group:

Until the playoffs arrive, the Warriors will take motivation where they can find it. On Thursday night, fueled by a determination to avoid their first three-game losing streak in a long season, they rode 45 points from Stephen Curry to beat the Portland Trail Blazers 116-105 at Oracle Arena.

“We’re a prideful team,” said Curry, who added 10 assists for his first career 40-10 game. “We know we’ve clinched a lot already in the regular season. It’s just about how many wins can we get at this point … for us to build momentum into the playoffs.”

Curry scored 19 fourth-quarter points, 15 in the final 5:16 as the Warriors finally pulled away. He shot 8 for 13 from the 3-point arc to break his own NBA single-season record for 3-pointers. He has 276 and counting.

Asked about his star guard’s performance, coach Steve Kerr said, “Nothing left to say, except he’s the MVP. He never talks about it, but you better believe he wants it.”

Curry is aware of the constant MVP chatter but said he forces it out of his head when the game begins.

“Finally played a fourth quarter, so I wanted to get out there and make some plays,” said Curry, who has sat out 17 fourth quarters. “It was fun. Never go out there with that as a motivation. You get sidetracked if you start doing that, kind of playing outside of yourself.”

“He’s our MVP,” teammate Klay Thompson said, “and he should be for the league because he does it on a nightly basis and he’s at his best at crunch time.”

Oakland native Damian Lillard, who scored 20 points for the Blazers, was effusive after watching Curry shoot 17 for 23. “Our coverages didn’t matter,” he said. “He made shots with a hand in his face, off balance and deep. He made everything.”

 


VIDEO: Stephen Curry breaks his own mark for 3-pointers in a single season

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Morning shootaround — April 9


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Mistakes spoil Rose’s return to Bulls’ lineup | Report: Copeland in ICU | Cuban bemoans state of college hoops | Noel suffers ankle injury

No. 1: Mistakes mar Bulls in Rose’s return to lineup Derrick Rose returned to the Chicago Bulls’ lineup last night after a 20-game absence and overall, he looked rusty. Still, just getting him out on the court was a net positive for the Bulls (as our Fran Blinebury noted last night). What wasn’t a positive for Chicago was how sloppy the team played against a low-level team as the season winds down. K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune has more:

With minutes left in the Bulls’ 105-103 collapse to the Magic on Wednesday night, at a time he used to dominate, Derrick Rose rose from his seat on the bench and implored his teammates to communicate better on defense.

That Victor Oladipo followed shortly thereafter with a blow-by of Jimmy Butler for the game-winning layup over late-arriving help from Joakim Noah should be as troubling as another late-game fade to a sub-.500 team.

Simply put, the Bulls couldn’t follow Rose’s lead in his return from missing 20 games to arthroscopic right knee surgery, whether that be on the court in an active first-quarter stint or off it with his late words.

The loss not only spoiled Rose’s return, which featured nine points, four turnovers and two assists on 3-for-9 shooting in 19 minutes, 24 seconds, it dropped the Bulls into the East’s fourth seed with four games remaining. The Cavaliers also clinched the No. 2 seed and the Central Division title.

“We were scoring, matching them, but defensively, we weren’t getting there,” Rose said. “Communication or whatever, it just wasn’t there. Win the game on a layup so we just got to make sure we talk a little bit more and make sure that someone is over there.”

“I felt good,” Rose said. “I didn’t feel any discomfort at all, so that’s a good sign. I’m just happy to be playing.”

“It’s upsetting,” Pau Gasol said. “There’s a time when you have to be sharp. You can’t have these type of games. We’re trying to figure a lot of things out right now with guys coming back and different rotations and guys sharing minutes. That’s what happens when you have a deep team. But we have to figure it out quickly.

“Continuity has been tough, for sure. At times, we look like we’re a little bit all over the place. That’s why we had so many turnovers pretty much all season long.”

The Bulls dropped to 15-5 in games with their starters intact.


VIDEO: Derrick Rose reflects on his return to the Bulls’ lineup

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Morning shootaround — April 8


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Davis: Warriors called matchup a ‘scrimmage’ | Report: Copeland stabbed in NYC club | Playoff hopes dimming for Thunder

No. 1: Davis: Warriors called matchup a ‘scrimmage’ — Entering last night’s game between the Warriors and Pelicans, two things were certain — Golden State had assured itself days earlier of the Wests’ best record and New Orleans was still fighting for its playoff life. According to Pelicans star Anthony Davis, the Warriors were so confident they would prevail, one player told New Orleans’ bench the game would be like a scrimmage for Golden State. After New Orleans beat Golden State 103-100 last night, Davis recounted that tale and more to ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss:

Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis says a Golden State Warriors player told the host team’s bench in a spate of trash talk before a 103-100 victory for New Orleans that it would be an easy win for the West’s No. 1 seed.

“They came out and said it was going to be a scrimmage game,” Davis said of the Warriors in a TV interview after the game. “We kind of took that personal.”

In the locker room, Davis would not publicly elaborate on who the Warriors player was.

New Orleans trailed in the first half but rallied with a 60-point second half. Davis led the Pelicans with 29 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks.

“We just tried to come out and play,” Davis said. “They said what they said. You try to worry about us and what we’re going to do to try to win this game.”

When asked who the specific player was, Davis responded, “I don’t know who said it.”

“We don’t want to be this pushover team, guys come in and do whatever they want. That’s how we want to look at ourselves,” Davis said of beating the top-seeded Warriors.


VIDEO: Anthony Davis elaborates on his postgame comments

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Morning shootaround — April 7


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 6

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Front-runners emerge in Hawks’ sale | Knight likely to be shut down for season | Report: Knicks willing to re-sign Bargnani

No. 1: Report: Front-runners emerge in ownership of Hawks — The Atlanta Hawks were officially put up for sale on Jan. 8 and, for the first time since then, there appears to be some movement on what’s next for the team. Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that two groups are considered finalists, while another group has pulled itself out of the running:

Two front-runners for ownership of the Hawks are emerging as the lengthy process to sell the franchise and Philips Arena continues into its seventh month.

 

There is a deadline of April 10 for final bids. However, that date could be moved, as one or more bids are still being considered.

Several people with knowledge of the situation told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that two groups are considered finalists. Current Hawks ownership and prospective buyers have signed non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from speaking publicly on the sales process.

One leading group is led by Grizzlies minority owner Steve Kaplan, who is joined by Indonesian billionaires Erick Thohir and Handy Poernomo and former Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien. Braves great Hank Aaron also has been associated with the group.

The other leading group is led by Lionsgate Entertainment’s Mark Rachesky, who is joined by New York investment banker Steve Starker. Jesse Itzler, who has done consulting work for the Hawks and attends many games, is also associated with the group. He is married to Spanx founder Sara Blakely.

At least one group considers itself out of the running after having no contact with the search firms for some time.

The entire process may take until June to complete. The sales process began in September when controlling owner Bruce Levenson announced his intention to sell his stake as part of a firestorm of controversy that engulfed the franchise.

 

“It’s amazing how long this has taken,” one person familiar with the situation said.

At least one of the prospective ownership groups has concerns with Philips Arena, according to a person familiar with the situation. The group feels the team’s practice facility is subpar and could be a hindrance in attracting free agents. The weight-room facilities also are considered below NBA standards, and the group has expressed a concern over the setup of the arena luxury boxes.

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Morning Shootaround — April 6


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 5

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Paul George makes Pacers better right now | James Harden is the ultimate facilitator | Noah, Bulls would love a piece of Cavaliers in the playoffs

No. 1: Paul George makes Pacers better right now — The future can wait. Paul George is back and ready to lift the Indiana Pacers right now. That chase for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference race got a lot more interesting after George made his triumphant return from injury. Will it be enough to lift the Pacers past the crowd and into that last spot? Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star tackles that question and more:

Paul George makes the Indiana Pacers better, not in the future but right now. And not a little better, but a lot better. At both ends. The Paul George that came back Sunday night against the Heat came back a star in full, scoring 13 points in 15 minutes, making a mess of the Miami Heat’s half-court offense, breaking the game open with consecutive 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter.

This game was not going to be easy for the Heat, not without injured center Hassan Whiteside and not playing their second road game in 24 hours and their third in four days, but it wasn’t going to be this ugly. It wasn’t going to be a 112-89 blowout for the Pacers, except for one guy.

And the guy isn’t Luis Scola.

All due respect to Scola. He had 23 points and 12 rebounds in 19 minutes. He was sensational. But he was not the point of this game, not the spark, not the havoc-wreaking agent at both ends that Paul George was in his return after missing 76 games following that gruesome broken leg in August with Team USA in Las Vegas.

The Pacers are better with George, but how much better? Good enough to pass the Boston Celtics, who are a game ahead for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot? I asked Pacers coach Frank Vogel exactly how much better this Paul George, rusty as he may be, makes the Pacers for the final five games.

“Tough to measure,” Vogel said, “but certainly we’re a lot better with him. We missed him on both ends, but what he’s able to do on the defensive end is almost unparalleled in the NBA. Certainly we’re a lot a stronger on that end, and (with) the scoring punch he gives us on the offensive end as well.”

Boston has the tiebreaker on Indiana, so the Pacers have to not only catch the Celtics but pass them to make the playoffs. Each team has five games left. Time is running out. But it’s like Vogel said.

“There’s no bad time to get a Paul George back,” he said.


VIDEO: Paul George’s return was a hit for the Pacers

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Morning shootaround — April 5


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Streaking Celtics adopt ‘win now’ approach  | Grizzlies in fight for playoff positioning | Blazers must shore up their D | Dirk gives Shaun Livingston a pass for low blow

No. 1: Celtics make convincing playoff push — They very easily could justify missing the playoffs this season and then cashing in on their growing cache of draft picks, but the rebuilding Celtics have evidently decided to go for it. When Marcus Smart dropped a buzzer-beater Saturday night against the Raptors, it only confirmed as much. Boston entered Sunday with the No. 8 spot in the East, a half-game lead over the Heat, and to hear the players and brass, the playoffs are where this young team belongs. It’s a rather refreshing tone considering how much tanking has dominated the conversation in the NBA this season. Zach Lowe of Grantland did a study on the Celtics during this playoff push and here’s some of what he found out:

“The playoff-chasing Celtics of 2015 are a cute feel-good story — and little more. The rebuild is moving faster than expected, with a surprise run at the no. 8 seed in a dreadful conference, but there is a giant chasm separating this plucky, starless group from what it aspires to be.

“The important thing to remember about us,” coach Brad Stevens said in a sit-down with Grantland last week, “is that we have a long, long way to go.”

It says everything about the difficulty of rebuilding that Boston has absolutely nailed Phase 1 and yet has no clear path to 50 wins. Multiple rival executives described Boston’s trading spree of the last two years as “a masterpiece” in rebuilding. Contract timetables, injuries, and other variables made it impossible for Boston to deal its aging stars at peak sell-high times, and yet Danny Ainge still nabbed great value for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo. The Celtics have as many as six extra first-round picks1 coming and oodles of cap space, they’ve drafted solid players across the first round, and they just acquired a dynamic young point guard — Isaiah Thomas — on the cheap.

But they have no stars and no clear path to getting one outside a major break in free agency or the trade market. The Celtics have made the leap to mediocrity so fast that they may have no easy way out. They’re still not good, but they’re not bad enough to get an early first-round pick — to get a clear shot at a star, in other words. Even if they lose this season’s slap fight for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, they will likely pick in the late lottery — a range that looks like their draft ceiling for the next few seasons. “That’s a concern for all 30 teams,” Ainge says of being stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity. “It’s the nature of our league. You definitely need good fortune.”

The Celtics discussed holding off on the Thomas deal to deflate their win total, but decided after some debate that they could lose out — or pay a higher price — if they waited until the summer. “Ideally, he might have been someone you pick up in the summer,” Ainge says. “But someone else might trade for him. You might be in a bidding war. You have to move while the iron is hot.”

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No. 2: Grizzlies in fight for playoff positioning — The most intriguing April drama in the West is about playoff positioning near the top. The Rockets now hold a half-game lead over the Grizzlies for the No. 2 spot, and why is that so important? Well, the No. 2 team will most likely get the Mavericks and avoid the suddenly-smoking Spurs in the first round. Memphis had successfully fended off all threats for the No. 2 spot until now. And while the race is hardly over, the contest between Memphis and Houston will only intensify, especially with Dwight Howard back in the mix for the Rockets (though on a minutes restriction). Here’s Michael Wallace of ESPN on the Grizzlies, who lost a tough game to the Wizards on Saturday:

“I don’t think it’s the toughest division in our league; it’s the toughest division in all major leagues,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. “Year in and year out, it’s ridiculous. So for our guys to get rewarded for their hard work, it would be positive.

“It’s what’s important to you. You hear about San Antonio, right? They don’t care about a division title. They don’t care about seeding. Well, we’re not them.”

While it’s all about the end game for the Spurs, who are going for their second straight championship and sixth in the past 16 years, the Grizzlies are still focused on the intermediate steps toward success. Winning an NBA championship remains the top goal for Memphis, but hanging the franchise’s first division banner in the rafters of the 10-year-old FedEx Forum along the way is a major priority.

The last time every team from an NBA division made the playoffs was in the 2005-06 season, when the Pistons, Pacers, Cavaliers, Bulls and Bucks advanced. That’s never happened in the NFL or Major League Baseball, although it’s occurred in two different divisions in the NHL over the past five seasons.

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No. 3: Blazers must shore up their D or else — If you’re a Blazers fan you, must be thrilled with the way the team has hung in there in the rugged West despite missing Wesley Matthews and an inconsistent season from Damian Lillard and with LaMarcus Aldridge playing through a thumb that’ll require surgery in the offseason. Portland once again is in position to do damage in the playoffs (ask the Rockets, who are still stinging from Lillard’s series winner last spring), but not if they don’t clean up their biggest issue first: defense. Oregonian writer John Canzano, still stung by the Blazers surrendering 126 to the Clippers last week, discusses:

But on the other hand, Chris Kaman was willing to address the biggest issue that coach Terry Stotts whiffed on — atrocious team defense by the Blazers. The biggest problem for Portland if any of this should come to a Clippers-Blazers playoff series.

Decide for yourself which guy had the worse post-game peformance. I’m not up in the air. Kaman settled it when he said, “We scored 122 points. That’s not stopping anybody. And we didn’t stop them either, they had more points (126) than we did. We got hurt on transition and on threes.” He was only saying what everyone could obviously see at Moda Center.

I like Stotts. I championed his hiring. I banged the drum for his contract extension even before the end of last season. I like where he’s headed with this rig, but if he’s unable to get real about the deficiencies of this team and remains in denial, I’m concerned about the short-term prognosis for a team that has fought to this point.

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No. 4: Dirk gives Shaun Livingston a pass for low blowDirk Nowitzki is usually a cool customer except when threatened with severe physical pain, as anyone else would (see Chris Kaman last week regarding Chris Paul). So at first, he was taken aback when he was whacked in the private area by Shaun Livingston. But when these things happen, you must take into account the history of the offending party. Livingston doesn’t exactly conjure up memories of flagrant assaults. And so, while Mark Cuban wasn’t in a forgiving mood Saturday, Dirk gave Livingston a pass. Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News has some golden quotes from Dirk:

Livingston, trying to defend Nowitzki in the post, was using his right hand to hand-check Nowitzki in the back. Somehow, his hand got in between Nowitzki’s legs and clearly caught Nowitzki in the groin area.

For the rest of the game, the AAC crowd booed Livingston every time he touched the ball and in the fourth quarter, Livingston and coach Rick Carlisle exchanged words briefly after a foul was called on J.J. Barea against Livingston.

Things escalated after the game when owner Mark Cuban talked to Golden State coach Steve Kerr and Livingston, then assistant coach Alvin Gentry, as they left the court.

Nowitzki had this to say about the play, which was reviewed and ended up with Livingston called for a flagrant foul, penalty one.

“Well, I give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s really not that type of player,” Nowitzki said. “He hasn’t been his entire career. I’m not really sure what he was trying to do there, if he was trying to get to the ball through my legs or anything. But like I said, he’s not a dirty player.

“But I really enjoyed his tight grip he got. I really enjoyed that.”

Nowitzki was laughing as he said that last line.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul Millsap’s shoulder injury should be defined a bit better today. The Hawks forward suffered the injury Saturday against the Nets and did not return in that game. … Boston’s Evan Turner has joined exclusive company: One of only 5 Celtics with 3 or more triple doubles in a season … All systems go for Paul George in his return tonight.