Morning Shootaround

Morning shootaround — Jan. 15


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Hawks keep on soaring | Lakers may shut down Kobe | Gortat pokes Bulls fans on Twitter | Report: Clippers closing in on Rivers trade | Shaw: Nuggets not actively shopping Afflalo, Chandler

No. 1: Hawks’ winning ways show now signs of stopping — Atlanta rested Al Horford and Kyle Korver last night in Boston,  yet still beat the Celtics by 14 points. That makes 10 straight wins for the Hawks. Are there still doubts about just how good this team is? Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journa-Constitution breaks down how Atlanta just keeps winning, and winning and winning:

For the second consecutive night Atlanta rested several starters and still won going away. This time it was Boston that was run out of its own arena against a less-than-complete opponent.

The list of accomplishments for the NBA’s hottest team gets more impressive with each victory.

The Hawks (31-8, 15-5 road) have:

  • Won 10 consecutive games for their longest win streak since they started the 1997-98 season with 11 consecutive victories;
  • Won 10 consecutive games on the road, improving on their franchise record;
  • Won for the 24th time in the past 26 games as they have lost just twice since Nov. 28;
  • Won three in a row against the Celtics, including two this season.

“You have to give credit to the bench,” DeMarre Carroll said of the Hawks’ past two victories. “That shows you the beauty of our team. We’ve got a lot of guys who can play. That is what we expect. These guys work just as hard and when their opportunity came they took advantage of it.”

The Eastern Conference-leading Hawks continue make believers of those around the NBA. Boston coach Brad Stevens called the Hawks “elite” prior to the game.

Then the Hawks went out and proved it.

The remaining three starters, all of whom sat out Tuesday’s victory at Philadelphia, carried the Hawks. Carroll (22), Jeff Teague (22) and Paul Millsap (18) combined for 62 points. Millsap also had 10 rebounds for a double-double. Mike Scott added 11 points off the bench.

“They stepped up to the occasion,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “When you are feeling fresh and healthy and in attack mode, all three of them, it’s really positive. They can score in different ways and impact the game in different ways.”

“We are happy to grow and develop,” Budenholzer said. “Guys get different opportunities. Different players are put in different situations. To find a way to win on the road is always good. I think where we just want to continue to grow and develop and get better. On a night like tonight, we did that. I think last night we did that. Going forward, we have to continue.”


VIDEO: The Hawks have piled up wins against the NBA’s elite all season long

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Morning shootaround — Jan. 14


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Cavs way off course | Miller wants to stick with Wizards long term | Wade day-to-day (hamstring)

No. 1: Cavs remain way off course – When the Cleveland Cavaliers revealed on Jan. 1 that LeBron James would miss two weeks with soreness in his back and left knee, the hope was the team’s other stars would find their rhythm and get the squad on track. Instead, the Cavs went 1-6 during James’ absence and even after he returned to the lineup last night in Phoenix, they still lost. Now sporting six straight losses and defeats in nine of their last 10 games, the Cavs are clearly a mess. ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst digs in on where the problems lie:

One day it’s an offensive quote, such as when David Blatt, in the midst of attempting to belittle a reporter Gregg Popovich-style without the cache or depth of knowledge of the CBA, tripped on his own snark when inaccurately referencing Love’s salary this week. Another day it’s LeBron James’ moving Blatt aside in the midst of an argument with a referee in the first half against the Suns, a move that unfortunately for the Cavs fit way too easily into a shareable social media clip.

It’s fun to be first in team merchandise sales, be on national television 30-plus times and play in sold-out houses every night, but there sure are downsides that come along with it. And when you’ve lost 9 of 10 games to fall to 19-20 on the season as the Cavs have, there’s very little fun.

When the casinos were making the Cavs the favorites to win the title last summer, the idea of a prop bet that the Cavs would be under .500 39 games into the season was so ridiculous, no sports book would’ve taken action. You’d have had a difficult time getting anyone to take such a bet even if they were a pessimist who was a Miami Heat fan who just wanted to make a self-gratifying revenge wager.

It isn’t just the casinos that are agape at how this is playing out — the Cavs were 4-15 in their past 19 games against the spread coming in to Tuesday — so are league scouts, executives and rival players.

They see players appearing to run different plays than the bench calls, see assistant coach Tyronne Lue calling timeouts literally behind Blatt’s back during games, and hear Cavs players openly talking about coaching issues with opposing players and personnel. Not once, not twice, but frequently over the past several months.

For weeks now, the small talk when league personnel run into each other at college games, airports or pregame meals has frequently started with: “What the hell is going on in Cleveland?”

There is a common perception that James is the de facto general manager of the team. His role in getting Love traded to the Cavs in July and talking Mike Miller, among others, into signing in Cleveland only bolstered that.

But over the past few months, the Cavs didn’t come to terms on a contract extension with Tristan Thompson, who is close to James and represented by the same agent, and then issued a strong public backing of Blatt despite what has been an obvious disconnect with veteran players, including James.

Meanwhile, the Love situation continues to befuddle. In the preseason there was a little bobble when Love complained about not getting the ball as much, but after that he’s said nothing but team-supportive things. That includes Tuesday night after Blatt decided to play James Jones ahead of him.

“If you told me I was going to sit out the fourth quarter, maybe I would have thought it would have been tough. But we had a great rhythm going,” Love said. “I thought the group that we had out there was doing a great job of getting us back into the basketball game, and more than anything, they gave us a shot.”

This was just after Love told Cleveland.com that he was not planning to opt out of his contract and become a free agent next summer, something that was deemed a foregone conclusion when he signed the deal three years ago. Not only is it remarkably supportive of the team, but odd considering opting out makes significant financial sense even if his intention is to immediately re-sign in Cleveland. Anyone giving Love objective advice would recommend opting out under any circumstance other than devastating injury.

When the Cavs executed the trade to get Love last summer, they were granted a rare pre-trade. What was said or promised in that meeting has been kept secret because any deal struck about contractual provisions would be against NBA rules. Whatever was said, the Cavs traded the past two No. 1 overall picks and a future first-rounder.

Like everything else done in July and August, Love couldn’t have foreseen all these contingencies. His defense has been predictably shoddy much of the time, but as a team, the Cavs’ transition defense and overall communication are routinely abysmal. The Cavs got down by 19 against the Suns before making a comeback, mostly without Love, but James and Kyrie Irving‘s combined 13 turnovers were more of a culprit than Love’s defensive issues.

On offense, where Love should be a monster, he hasn’t been very often.

“I’ve seen Kevin fall down with the ball more times this season than the rest of his career combined because he’s always in positions where he’s uncomfortable and he’s forced into trying to make some sort of move to get a shot, and that has never been his game,” said one veteran NBA coach. “They almost never put him in position to get the ball that he did in his last few years in Minnesota and I can’t figure out why.”


VIDEO: How will Kevin Love’s benching Tuesday in Phoenix affect the Cavs?

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Morning shootaround — Jan. 13


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 12

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Thibodeau lays into Bulls after loss | Story behind KG-Howard scuffle | Blatt clarifies his ‘max’ player comments | Anthony knows surgery is inevitable

No. 1:  Thibodeau rips into Bulls after loss to Magic – Had Pau Gasol not dropped a career-best 46 points on the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, the Chicago Bulls could be looking at a four-game losing streak. The Bulls have lost three of their last four games, including a surprise loss at home last night to the Orlando Magic. Afterward, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau wasn’t exactly happy with the effort his squad displayed. Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times has more:

It’s been more than a year since Tom Thibodeau brought out “the circle.’’

It’s a mythical place in the mind of the Bulls coach that measures his players, measures the man.

After Monday’s embarrassing 121-114 loss to the Orlando Magic at the United Center, the talk of “the circle’’ was front and center from Thibodeau.

Specifically, which of the Bulls players were going to be in, and which wanted out.

“You can make an excuse every night in this league if that’s what you choose to do, whether it’s new players, the schedule, the start, who’s out, who’s in,’’ an angry Thibodeau said after the game. “There’s an excuse every night. You can’t do that. We have to make good. Either you’re in the circle or you’re out of the circle. You want to be in? Let’s go. You don’t want to be in? That’s fine too. Let’s go.’’

The circle seemed pretty empty against the Magic.

For a Bulls team that’s made its reputation under Thibodeau as one of the stingiest defenses the Association has? Blasphemy as far as the coach was concerned.

“Every aspect,’’ Thibodeau said, when asked what part of his defense needed to improve. “We gotta decide what we’re going to be. If we’re going to come in and just try to outscore people, we’re not going anywhere. I know that doesn’t work. We’re going to have to bring a lot more intensity and the only you bring a lot more intensity is gotta work a lot harder. It’s really that simple.’’

There wasn’t a lot of argument from his players, either.

Pau Gasol, fresh off a career-high 46 points in the win over Milwaukee on Saturday, however, took it a step further, not hiding his anger.

“I am upset. I am upset,’’ Gasol said. “We’ve given away too many home games against teams that we shouldn’t. That has to stop.

“Defensively, we struggled. There was no energy, no aggressiveness, no engagement from our team. So we’ve got to improve … dramatically. Just no energy, not really working together, and that’s something that has to change, has to improve. Can’t give up 120 points … 121 … so that’s something we have to reflect on. If we really want to do something here that’s something that can’t happen.’’


VIDEO: Derrick Rose talks after the Bulls’ home loss to the Magic

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Morning shootaround — Jan. 12


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played Jan. 11

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Cavaliers lack effort in latest setback | What makes Kerr tick? | Trail Blazers enjoy “Lillard Time” every time | Clippers’ bench struggling to find its way

No. 1: Cavaliers lack effort in latest setback — LeBron James can’t get back fast enough for the Cleveland Cavaliers, losers of five straight games after a humiliating loss to the Sacramento Kings Sunday night at Sleep Train Arena. If LeBron’s two-week absence from the lineup has shown us nothing, it’s that these Cavs (even with All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love) are nowhere near the championship outfit they were billed to be over the summer. Yes, it’s just one game and one without the team’s best player in uniform. But as Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group points out, the shocking lack of effort in this latest setback is something for Cleveland fans to worry about:

What happened at Sleep Train Arena on Sunday night was disturbing.

The Sacramento Kings were not supposed to manhandle the Cleveland Cavaliers that way, resulting in a 103-84 rout.

Cleveland (19-19) had just come off of a game where they fought tooth and nail with the Golden State Warriors until things unraveled late in the fourth quarter.

They showed life, promise and the willingness to never quit. But on Sunday, it was an inexcusable amount of exertion placed forth and that simply will not do.

“It wasn’t a good performance by us, honestly,” head coach David Blatt said. “You can’t sugarcoat that…That was not the performance we hoped for.”

When the Kings built a significant lead, shoulders started to slump, heads were hung down and tempers flared. Players started to behave out of character. Not pleased with the lack of calls, Kyrie Irving chased down referee Leroy Richardson as both teams were headed to the locker room for halftime.

Teammates intervened before the All-Star could pick up a cheap technical and it would have been his first ever technical, a sign of how irate he was at the time.

“The emotions,” Irving said. “Like I said, I’m usually composed, but my emotions just got the best of me going into halftime.”

DeMarcus Cousins talked trash and he backed it up, bruising the Cavaliers’ frontcourt for 26 points and 13 rebounds. Rudy Gay dissected Cleveland’s defense with an array a midrange jumpers to end with 23 points on an efficient 9-for-14 shooting.

Sacramento, a team that was six games under .500 entering the game, made it look easy and that’s because it was easy.

“We didn’t have the best effort,” Kevin Love admitted. “We missed some good shots but all in all, it wasn’t there for us tonight.” He later said, “In anything that you do, that’s unacceptable. We have to compete and compete every single night.”


VIDEO: Kyrie Irving discusses the Cavs’ loss in Sacramento (more…)

Morning shootaround — Jan. 11


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played Jan. 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Will the Nets move Lopez? | Break up the Sixers | Boston’s drafty future | Amundson joins elite club

No. 1: Will the Nets move Lopez? — Last night’s 98-93 loss to the Detroit Pistons dropped the Brooklyn Nets to 16-21 on the season. And while their NYC neighbor the New York Knicks are in full-on rebuilding mode, the Nets are trying to battle through injuries and still make the playoffs. But as Alex Raskin points out in the Wall Street Journal, the Nets may be open to trading All-Star center Brook Lopez, which could be their best hope of strengthening the roster as the playoffs loom…

Only now, with the Nets’ playoff hopes clinging to a thinning backcourt, the time may finally be right. The emergence of second-year center Mason Plumlee has relegated him to the bench, and not because Lopez has played particularly poorly.

Despite undergoing right-foot and left-ankle surgery over the off-season, Lopez appears to be healthy, even after some December back issues. In fact, Lopez has played two of his better games in recent memory over the last two weeks, scoring 29 points in a spot start against Chicago on Dec. 30 and a 22-point performance in Monday’s loss to Dallas in which he briefly outscored the Mavericks, 18-17.

And on Friday, Lopez played well for the most part, scoring 18 points and hitting a game-tying hook shot with 25 seconds left. However, Hollins did pull Lopez in favor of backup Jerome Jordan for a significant portion of the fourth.

They might be motivated sellers, but the Nets still think Lopez could fetch valuable players in a trade, according to one league source. His history of foot problems notwithstanding, the biggest issue in moving Lopez ahead of the Feb. 19 trade deadline has nothing to do with his health.

Rather, it’s the $16.7 million Lopez is owed next season, since trading him would normally mean taking back a significant amount of salary.

The Nets, according to multiple sources, are willing to deal Lopez, but they are against taking on expensive or lengthy deals in order to do so.

Instead, the Nets are looking to accomplish the rare feat of shedding a bit of salary while remaining competitive in the East, where sub-.500 teams will have a chance to earn a seventh seed. (The Nets are currently in seventh place).

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No. 2: Break up the Sixers — The Philadelphia 76ers began this season with a historic 17-game losing streak. Everyone knew the Sixers were rebuilding, but nobody thought they would be as catastrophically bad as they were at the start of the season. But since that streak, the Sixers have gone 7-12, and yesterday’s win over the Pacers was their second in a row and makes wins in three of their four games. As Keith Pompey writes in the Inquirer, the Sixers are gaining confidence by the day…

The Sixers take a 7-29 record into their home matchup Tuesday against the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks. Saturday’s win enabled the Sixers to post wins on consecutive nights for the first time since road victories over the Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings on Jan. 1 and 2, 2014.

The Pacers dropped to 15-24.

“This win definitely takes a bad taste out of our mouth,” Nerlens Noel said about the start to the season. “We feel good about the position we are in now and the progress we’ve made.

“We are proving to people that we are a team that is going to fight hard every night.”

Noel had six points, nine rebounds, and a game-high five blocks. Michael Carter-Williams, a second-year point guard, finished with 15 points to go with nine assists. Backup point guard Tony Wroten led the Sixers with 20 points and nine assists.

West had a game-high 28 points and nine rebounds.

“This win definitely builds confidence,” Carter-Williams said. “For us to be in games and to come up clutch in clutch moments is great.”

***

No. 3: Boston’s drafty future — The Celtics have been in rebuilding mode going on two years now, and as part of that project, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been stockpiling future draft picks as he trades away veteran players. Their latest move, swapping Jeff Green, just adds picks to the war chest. And while they continue playing games with a roster whittled by attrition, looming in the future is a remarkable wealth of picks. Brian Robb of boston.com has a look at what’s ahead

The Celtics would reportedly acquire a future first round pick and Tayshaun Prince in exchange for Green, if the current deal holds. Boston’s small forward was pulled off the floor before Friday night’s loss to the Indiana Pacers and could be dealt as soon as Monday, the earliest any trade can become official.

As a result of these trades, the Celtics added a few new selections to their incredible stockpile of draft picks over the next several years. Here’s a list of what picks the Celtics are likely to own as the focus turns to the future.

2015: 2 first-round picks; 3 second-round picks
2016: 4 first-round picks; 4 second-round picks
2017: 1 first-round pick; 2 second-round picks
2018: 2 first-round picks; 1 second-round pick
2019: 2 first-round picks; 1 second-round pick

All in all, the Celtics are likely to own 11 first-round picks and 11 second-round picks over the next five NBA Drafts once the Green deal becomes official. With the trade deadline still more than a month away, Danny Ainge still has plenty of time to add to this stockpile, as he prepares for plenty of wheeling and dealing this offseason.

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No. 4: Amundson joins elite club — When the Knicks traded J.R. Smith to the Cavaliers, they received veteran center Louis Amundson in return. After waiving Amundson, they re-signed him to a 10-day contract which, as ESPN’s Marc Stein points out, puts Amundson in select company: Amundson is one of a dozen players to play for at least 10 different teams…

Below are the only 12 players in league history to have played for at least 10 different teams:

12 teams: Chucky Brown, Jim Jackson, Tony Massenburg and Joe Smith.
11 teams: Mike James and Kevin Ollie.
10 teams: Lou Amundson, Earl Boykins, Mark Bryant, Drew Gooden, Damon Jones and Aaron Williams.

Of those, only Amundson and Washington’s Gooden are active, although veteran guard Mike James is on the hunt for potentially his 12th different NBA employer if he can land a D-League call-up. James, 39, is currently playing for the Texas Legends in the D-League.

Amundson is still only 32 years old, which means he theoretically has plenty of time to add to his total of teams and potentially become the NBA’s first 13-team player. But he’s not the youngest player to get to 10 teams. That would be current Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach Damon Jones, who was just 29 when he hit the 10-team mark before spending the next three seasons in Cleveland and then returning to Milwaukee to finish his career.

Amundson’s 358 career regular-season games, though, are by far the fewest of anyone on the list. His longest stay in one spot in terms of games played was Phoenix, where he played 155 games over two full seasons. His travels around the league include a two-minute stint in Utah, three minutes with the Bulls spread over two stops and his 12-game cameo with the Cavs this season. Those travels technically do not include the Sacramento Kings, who were the first NBA team to sign him out of UNLV but let Amundson go before the start of the 2006-07 regular season.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: During yesterday’s Dallas/Clippers game, longtime referee Joey Crawford went down with a knee injury. They finished playing the game with just two referees … LeBron James helped the Ohio State football team get free headphones, which is not an NCAA violationKevin Seraphin joined Nic Batum in wearing a t-shirt to pay tribute to the French attack victims …

Morning shootaround — Jan. 10


VIDEO: Trevor Booker taps in possibly the shot of the year

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Booker practices those ‘circus’ shots | Tarpley, dead at 50, ‘could do it all’ | Cavs find sunshine through dark clouds | Rock bottom in 5 seconds for Nets

No. 1: Booker practices those ‘circus’ shots — Necessity is the mother of invention, but it occasionally can be the father of ridiculous. That’s how it felt Friday night in Oklahoma City, when Utah Jazz forward Trevor Booker took resourcefulness to an outrageous level and made not just the play of the night but the shot of the 2014-15 NBA season, at least based on rarity and degree of difficulty. Booker’s back-to-the-basket, no-time-except-to-tip, underhanded flip of a field goal attempt stunned pretty much everyone in the gym. Here’s Jazz beat writer Jody Genessey on the play:

With 0.2 seconds remaining on the shot clock, the Jazz got the ball out of bounds on the far sideline. The only shot that can even be completed in that amount of time is a tip, and that’s what Jazz coach Quin Snyder called for.

Booker said he didn’t even know the play that his coach barked out, so he headed to the hoop thinking Gordon Hayward would probably throw a lob. When that didn’t materialize, Booker rushed over toward Hayward and stopped with his back toward the basket.

That’s when, as the NBA marketing department might say, amazing happened.

Hayward made a bounce pass to Booker, who creatively and instinctively tipped the ball with both hands and flipped it up and over his head in the nick of time. It’s a move that might come in handy next summer when he plays volleyball again.

Incredibly, the ball plopped into the net, helping the Jazz take a 50-44 lead into the break.

“We try to cover a lot of game situations. That was not one,” Jazz coach Snyder said. “I have to say they manufactured that.”

While Snyder, Hayward and everyone else was startled, Booker grinned and immediately thought to the hours he and his cousin, Lakers forward Jordan Hill, spent practicing – yes, practicing – such goofball shots and situations. As cited by Aaron Falk of the Salt Lake Tribune:

“I know you won’t believe me, but I really do practice those shots,” he said in the locker room afterward. “My cousin [Lakers forward] Jordan Hill, he texted me after the game and said, ‘They’re not going to believe we practiced those shots all the time growing up.’ I guess you could say the hard work finally paid off.”

The Jazz lost the game, 99-94, and dropped to 13-24. But Booker was buoyant afterward about his team as well as that shot.

“That’s a good [team] right there,” he said of the Thunder. “Let’s not forget that they went to the Finals a couple years ago. We’re playing good ball right now, playing hard. I told the group, there’s no group I’d rather go to war with than these guys. We’re still trying to figure everything out, but as long as we keep playing hard the way we are, we’re going to be fine.”

***

No. 2: Tarpley, dead at 50, ‘could do it all’ — He was a child of the ’60s, which meant that Roy Tarpley was a young professional athlete in the ’80s, and while no decade has held exclusive rights to illegal drug use among major sports figures, that one ranks high. Tarpley was the seventh player picked in the 1986 NBA Draft – five spots after Len Bias, the poster guy for squandered dreams and tragic ends even today. Others taken early that day included Chris Washburn and William Bedford, two more whose careers washed out to substance abuse. Other sports had similar tales, and Tarpley’s came to an end with the news Friday that the former Dallas Mavericks forward had died at age 50. Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News chronicled the sad news:

Cause of death was not immediately known Friday night, although when the Mavericks arrived in Los Angeles for their game Saturday against the Clippers, several members of the traveling party had been informed that liver failure was at least partly to blame.

The 6-11 Tarpley was the seventh pick in the 1986 draft by the Mavericks out of Michigan. In his second season, he was the NBA’s sixth man of the year before drugs and controversy shrouded the rest of his six seasons in the league.

According to a medical examiner’s report, Tarpley’s death happened at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital. It is a sad ending to one of the most gifted players in franchise history. Tarpley had a rare combination of strength and speed that made him one of the best athletes of his era.

“Our condolences go out to the family of Roy Tarpley,” Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban said via Twitter. “RIP Roy. Mavs fans everywhere will remember you fondly.”

Tarpley’s off-court troubles probably followed him into the NBA from the University of Michigan and largely defined his time in Dallas, with the Mavericks assisting in significant ways. When he was right, he was very right; the 6-foot-11 native of Detroit averaged 12.6 and 10.0 rebounds in 280 regular season games over parts of six seasons. In 24 playoff games, his numbers were even better: 17.0 points, 12.8 rebounds and a 20.8 PER. He led the NBA in total rebound percentage (22.6) while winning the Sixth Man Award in 1987-88 and he led in that category again two years later. That’s the Tarpley fans would prefer to remember.

“If Roy had stayed healthy, he could have been one of the top 50 players ever,” said Brad Davis, the Mavericks’ radio analyst and player-development coach who played with Tarpley. “He could do it all, shoot, score, rebound, pass and defend. We’re all sorry to hear of his passing.”

Tarpley would spend most of his career battling personal problems. He was suspended by the NBA after five games in the 1989-90 season after being arrested for driving while intoxicated and resisting arrest. In 1991, he drew another suspension after a second DWI arrest and, a few months later, had a third violation and was banned from the league for violating the NBA’s drug-use policies.

He returned to the Mavericks briefly in 1994 but then was permanently barred in December 1995 for violating terms of his aftercare program.

***

No. 3: Cavs find sunshine through dark clouds — Some of us at Hang Time HQ have chided some of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ knee-jerk critics for ignoring the one thing everyone said that team would need in 2014-15, namely patience. Then again, a stretch of seven defeats in eight games, a four-game losing streak and two weeks without LeBron James – all while nearing the mid-point of January – might be an appropriate time to … PANIC! And yet, there was a calm of sorts about the Cavs after their 18-point drubbing at Golden State Friday and even some rays of optimism, as Cleveland beat guy Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com saw it:

It’s amazing how much the direction of a team can change once its members change the perception of their situation.

Monday in Philadelphia it seemed as low as you could go, with the Cavs blowing an early lead and losing to the laughingstock of the league with Kyrie Irving not making the trip because of a back injury and LeBron James away from the team, also nursing strains to his back and left knee while making a quick rehab trip down in Miami.

Five days later, with the team having pulled off two trades (in essence Dion Waiters for J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, and a couple of first-round picks for Timofey Mozgov and a second-rounder), Irving back in the lineup, and James back with the team for its five-game road trip — and even going through “minor” on-court activities for the first time since sitting out Dec. 30 — there’s some sunshine peaking through the clouds, according to coach David Blatt.

“It’s tough right now and I know it’s tough to see, but when we do get back to full strength, we’re going to be good,” said Kevin Love.

It was particularly noteworthy that Love was waving the encouragement flag because he took only 11 shots — compared to 23 apiece for Smith and Irving — but instead of focusing on his involvement in the offense after the fact, he set his sights on what the Cavs will look like in the near future.

Blatt took the same tone.

“I think you see we’re a better team today than we were yesterday and we were a week ago,” Blatt said. “I’m not even going to talk about the guys that aren’t playing, because we’re a better team today.”

The signs are more encouraging than sappy stuff like playing tough teams close – Houston, the Warriors – without their best player. There are no guarantees, but at least there have been some changes and the LeBron arrow is pointing up:

The new faces are already making their presence felt, whether it was Smith’s 27 points against the Warriors (“I told you coming in; I had nothing but a good feeling about J.R. joining our team,” Blatt said), or it was Mozgov’s nine points and eight rebounds in his debut and his reaction to how he was received (“The guys meet me so good,” the Russian-born Mozgov said in endearing broken English, “make me be the part of the family on the first day. … So, I love it”), or Shumpert’s competitive side relishing the fact he was leaving a sinking ship for a team that’s playoff-bound (“I didn’t want my season to end early,” Shumpert said).

There are no “gimme” games in the Western Conference, but Sacramento should be a winnable game on Sunday; and then, if James comes back just slightly ahead of his two-week rest schedule he could be in the lineup Tuesday in Phoenix, and if that happens you get the lame-duck Lakers next, and possibly have picked up a full head of steam going into the trip finale Friday against the Clippers.

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No. 4: Rock bottom in 5 seconds for Nets — Realists in this league have a saying they occasionally invoke: “You are what your record is.” Pessimists around the Brooklyn Nets woke up Saturday believing that their team is about 10 games worse than its record, though, because the 16-19 Nets somehow blew a game against the 6-29 Philadelphia 76ers Friday night at the Barclays Center. The blog TheBrooklynGame.com had an intriguing snapshot of the team hitting rock bottom – actually, it was more of a film analysis, second-by-second, of Brooklyn’s best last chance in the game. It began with coach Lionel Hollins‘ admonitions that the Nets really aren’t a good team and then dissected an inbounds play that led to center Brook Lopez launching a prayer from beyond 3-point range on a failed attempt to win or tie:

With may-day approaching after three failed screens and little misdirection, Lopez shot up towards [Alan] Anderson, extending his left arm away from Nerlens Noel to catch the ball, as the only player left who had a chance.

The option was doomed from the start. The seven-footer, who has never made a three-pointer in the regular season, caught a wide pass from Anderson one-handed, spun counterclockwise to the middle of the floor, performed a ball-fake against the long and talented Noel to no avail, and flung a contested, fallaway three-pointer wide right, officially listed at 27 feet away but might as well have been from the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk.

“We’re honestly playing down to these teams these last few games,” Lopez said. “We’re better than this, and we’re doing it to ourselves. And we have to be better than this for the entirety of the game.”

It should’ve never come down to Lopez taking that final shot, because it never should’ve come down to a final shot at all.

“When we executed and made good decisions, and defended, and rebounded, we were ahead. Soon as we relaxed and made some bad decisions on offense, made some bad decisions on defense, they came back.”

Now, the Nets can only look ahead, and the road is ugly. 13 of the team’s 17 games before the All-Star break (and the trade deadline) come against teams slated to be in the playoffs, and that’s not including tomorrow night’s contest against the Detroit Pistons, who had won seven straight games before barely losing to the Atlanta Hawks, the Eastern Conference’s best team, Friday night.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Phoenix Suns considered Brandan Wright the “best backup center in the league” even before they acquired him from Boston. … Skip the soap-opera stuff, Mark Jackson‘s return to Golden State scarcely could have been more moving. … Don’t assume the Boston Celtics are done, even after they spend the weekend working out the kinks of their Jeff Green-to-Memphis trade. … No Kobe, no problem for the Lakers, who got a big boost off the bench from new guy Tarik Black. …

Morning shootaround — Jan. 9


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Deng says he doesn’t want trade | LeBron headed to Miami to heal up | Blazers’ Batum shows support for countrymen | Report: Hinkie reneged on waiving Kirilenko

No. 1:  Deng says he hasn’t requested trade from Heat – As was reported in this space yesterday, the Memphis Grizzlies are interested in swinging a trade for Luol Deng of the Miami Heat. The Sun-Sentinel has confirmed that the Grizz are indeed interested in Deng, but Deng says he doesn’t want a trade from the team. Ira Winderman has more:

While the Memphis Grizzlies have expressed interest in Miami Heat forward Luol Deng, it apparently is not a two-way street.

The Sun Sentinel has confirmed an ESPN report that the Grizzlies have expressed interest in Deng, reaching out to the Heat. That, however, apparently is where the discussion ended.

Asked if anything was going on with his team personnel-wise, coach Erik Spoelstra said after Thursday morning’s shootaround at the Moda Center, “no.”

While Spoelstra huddled with Deng prior to the game against the Portland Trail Blazers, it merely was to discuss strategy.

“I would never go to a GM or anybody and ask if it’s true or not,” he said. “I think, if anything, they would come to me. It’s not something that I’m worried about. I’m not a rookie.

“People will always have ideas and rumors, whether they’re true or not, it’s not something that’s in my hands or anything. I’ve just got to continue to do what I need to do.”

According to the ESPN report late Wednesday, the Grizzlies, in hopes of bolstering their perimeter rotation, expressed interest in Deng and Boston Celtics forward Jeff Green.

Unlike Green, who does not necessarily fit into the Celtics’ youth movement, Deng to this point has not been linked to the trade market.

Deng said Thursday that he took the report as business as usual in the NBA.

Deng said Thursday he has not requested a trade.

“I’ve had no issues,” he said. “My whole thing I’ve been saying this year is we’ve been trying to get it right, fit everybody in. It’s never that I’m unhappy or anything. Just because they’re trade rumors, I’m not the one asking for trades.”

(more…)

Morning shootaround — Jan. 6


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 5

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Durant: We’ll make Waiters feel ‘wanted’ | True test for Knicks lies in offseason | How will Cavs’ new faces fit in? | Report: Spurs’ Leonard back in 2 weeksWarriors keep on trucking

No. 1: Durant: We’ll make Waiters feel wanted — If you somehow missed it last night or this morning, there was a decent-sized, name-worthy, three-team trade in the league. In the deal, the New York Knicks sent J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland, the Cavs sent Lou Amundson, Alex Kirk and a 2019 second-round draft choice to New York, OKC sent Lance Thomas to the Knicks and a future first-round pick to Cleveland, and the Thunder got Dion Waiters. The Cavs and Waiters struggled to make their relationship work in the team’s new, LeBron James-led world. Waiters may now have a better opportunity in OKC and reigning MVP Kevin Durant told Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman he plans to do what he can to make Waiters feel welcome:

Late Monday night, a disappointed Thunder locker room was still in the process of digesting an ugly 117-91 loss to the Warriors.

But at the same time, players were also still gathering all the facts surrounding the three-team trade that netted Dion Waiters as their new teammate. The deal actually didn’t become official until the game had actually started.

But the news had spread. And Kevin Durant — the voice of the Thunder — was peppered with questions about it. Here were his answers:

Kevin, your initial thoughts on Dion and the trade?

“I’m excited about bringing Dion aboard. A guy that has a lot of toughness. Being from the East Coast, I know a lot about Philadelphia, South Philly, where he comes from. Those guys are tough and they play with an edge. And that’s what we need here.”

Any kind of relationship with him prior to this?

“Just knowing him from playing against him. We’re gonna make him feel wanted. I don’t think he felt that the last couple years. He’s gonna fit in well. He’s gonna get comfortable real quick. It’s on the leaders — Russell, myself, Nick — to make him feel at home and feel special and let him play his game.”

Can he be James Harden-like for you guys?

“I’m not saying he’s James’ replacement, we’re far past that. But, yeah, he can play, can come off the bench for us and score and make plays. He’s a really good player, man. A lot of people take him for granted, I think. Because he’s been around and you hear different things about him that’s not true. But he can play basketball. So he just needs to come out here and be himself, be aggressive and make plays.”

Have you reached out to him yet?

Nah, probably gonna talk to him later on after this. It’s pretty late on the East Coast, but I’ll probably shoot him a text soon.

In a separate story, Slater also details how this trade will help OKC going forward:

For the Thunder, this is a deal that clearly bolsters its talent level. Waiters is a score-first shooting guard — taken fourth overall in the 2012 Draft — who averaged 15.9 points and 3.0 assists last season. This year, his third in the league, Waiters production has dipped and his role has changed. He’s averaging 10.5 points coming off the bench, struggling to fully adjust to a LeBron James-led team that has a ton of talent around him.

That led to this deal, which nets the Thunder some scoring punch likely for its bench. But it also puts OKC slightly over the luxury tax by around $1.5 million, something they’ve been unwilling to pay in the past.

Presti has said that the franchise would be willing to exceed it at some point for the right move. But there’s also a possibility that the Thunder isn’t done making moves. Waiters arrival would seem to make Jeremy Lamb expendable, with Anthony Morrow, Andre Roberson and now Waiters likely to remain in front of him in OKC’s rotation.

Waiters is making $4.06 million this season and $5.1 million next season before he can become a restricted free agent.


VIDEO: Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick explains how Dion Waiters will fit in with the Thunder

(more…)

Morning shootaround — Jan. 5




VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Stoudemire is shocked | A new-look Love? | Rocky Mountain Zzzzzzs | Kareem helps Hibbert | A special anniversary in Dallas

No. 1: Knicks boggle Amare’s mind — The Knicks are bad. Historically bad. You’d have thought that reality might have set in on the bench and in the locker room weeks ago. Maybe it’s the pages on the calendar turning from the old year to the new, but the plunge to the bottom of the standings has hit veteran Amar’e Stoudemire in a way he didn’t expect. Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com has the details:

“It’s beyond my imagination at this point,” he said Sunday before a 95-82 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks that extended their losing streak to 11 games. “I never thought I’d see this. … This is definitely kind of mind-boggling.”
The Knicks (5-31) dropped their 21st of 22 and have the most losses in the NBA.

Carmelo Anthony missed his second straight game due to knee soreness. There was no clear timetable for his return.

“It’s a tragic thing,” said center Samuel Dalembert of the mounting losses. Though healthy enough to return, Dalembert did not play after missing three straight games with an ankle injury.

The Knicks are now one loss shy of tying the franchise mark of 12 straight defeats, last done in 1984-85. New York has already set the record for consecutive home losses. It was the team’s 10th straight loss at home.

Of course, this wasn’t how Stoudemire — who missed his fourth straight game due to knee soreness — envisioned what could be his final season in New York playing out.

When Stoudemire signed a five-year, $100 million contract with the Knicks in the summer of 2010, he declared the team would return to relevance. He mostly delivered on that promise, helping New York reach the playoffs for three straight seasons.

But things have fallen apart this season. Now, in the last year of Stoudemire’s contract, it seems as if the only thing the team is competing for is a lottery position.

“When I first signed with New York, that wasn’t the game plan,” Stoudemire said. “… But the past is not here. And neither is the future, so we’ve got to deal with the now, and I think we’ve just got to continue to try to get better as a team and as players, try to keep improving.”


VIDEO: The Bucks handle the Knicks at MSG (more…)

Morning shootaround — Jan. 4


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Jan. 3

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Loss to Rockets have the Heat, Bosh falling in the East standings | Change in ownership looming, Hawks sell themselves on courts | Reality bites the Wolves

No. 1: Loss to Houston has Heat dazed — Funny how the NBA grind goes sometime. The Rockets went into their game with Miami wobbly from a 28-point thumping against  the Pelicans that was so bad, Rockets coach Kevin McHale benched his entire starting five at one point and remarked afterward: “I wish we never played again … we’re falling apart.” Then on Saturday they turned around and beat Miami by 36. The NBA season is weird that way. The other interesting subplot in this game involved Chris Bosh, who weighed a free agent offer from the Rockets last summer before returning to Miami. It was a hectic period for Houston. Essentially, they lost Chandler Parsons in free agency because they were chasing Bosh, who was born and raised in Texas (Dallas). With Bosh, the Rockets envisioned a starting five of Parsons, Bosh, James Harden and Dwight Howard and figured to make a much more serious run in the West. As it was, Bosh took the max offer and stand in South Beach. Well, things worked out well financially for Bosh, but here in Year One without You Know Who, the Heat have lost four straight and are in eighth place in the East, one game ahead of the Pacers for the final playoff spot. Their ninth set of back-to-back games will conclude Sunday against the Nets. Bosh is among those wondering where the next winning streak will come. He could’ve taken less money and won more games in Houston but refuses to re-think his choice. Jenny Dial Creech of The Houston Chronicle has more:

“I wanted to see if I could have that increased role and still be successful and it’s out there in front of me and it’s out there in front of this team so I just have to make sure I do my part and make sure we don’t lose track of whats important, as far as our effort and energy on the court,” Bosh said. “We have to continue to bring it, no matter what happens.”

Bosh’s role has increased and he has been relied on to bring more offense to the Heat. He went from averaging 16.2 points per game last season to 21.4 this season.

With the added offensive responsibilities comes better defense. Bosh said teams play him differently this year and he is trying to use that competition to become a better player in his 12th season.

“That’s all I’m trying to concentrate on, most of the time,” Bosh said. “It’s different every night and I have to read and react very quickly throughout the course of the game and figure things out.”

***

No. 2: Change in ownership is coming, and so are Hawks — Well, look who’s in first place in the East all of a sudden. An unexpected season in Atlanta just turned up a notch when the Hawks went to Portland and had their way against the Blazers. They led for much of the night and kept holding off Portland and suddenly you must ask yourself: Are the Hawks for real? It looks that way. Not only are they leading the East, the Hawks have beaten some of the best teams in the West, including the Clippers, Mavericks, Rockets and now Blazers to win 18 of their last 20, including four straight. Paul Millsap scored 27 points and pretty much secured a spot on the All-Star team with another solid night and the Hawks once again used an offensive system built on finding the open man to confuse Portland,which was 18-2 and 9-0 against East teams at home. This comes on the heels of news that current Hawks ownership has agreed to sell 100 percent of the team. This might be the first time the Atlanta Spirit group agreed on anything. Since forming and buying the Hawks, the multi-layered group has clashed on issues. But after seeing the purchase price for the Bucks and Clippers, the owners have agreed to cash out in unison, which will only help hike the purchase price. The identity of the next owner remains to be seen but there is a chance the Hawks could change hands this season. And when that ownership swap happens, only then will the fate of Danny Ferry be decided. That’s the weird part about the Hawks and their first-place status. The guy who built them is in exile after a tumultuous summer, choosing to take a leave of absence. But you have to think Ferry will have an excellent chance to slide back into his office, given how the Hawks have played lately. We should also add that Jeff Teague is averaging 24 points and 8 assists over the last four games. Anyway, while it’s hard to single out one player on the Hawks who’s responsible for what we’re seeing, Millsap is having a strong season here in his walk year. The Hawks would love to extend not only him, but Al Horford, who’s deal has one more season left. Tony Jones of The Tribune has more on Millsap, the former Jazz forward:

The points. The rebounds. The career high numbers in assists and steals. The All-Star recognition of last season and the realization round the NBA that he’s one of the best power forwards in the league. None of it matters much to Paul Millsap. It’s nice and all and yes, he’s opened eyes since leaving the Utah Jazz two summers ago. But Millsap has been and always wants to be known for winning, and this may be his best chance.

As the calendar turns to 2015, Millsap and the Hawks have a common goal: Taking the Eastern Conference.

“We feel like we have a shot,” Millsap said. “We know that last year didn’t end up the way we wanted. We thought we should’ve won that seventh game at Indiana (in the first round of the playoffs). We want to go farther this year.”

Millsap is a walking nightly mismatch. Yes, he’s undersized as a 6-8 power forward. But he now possesses three-point range, and the ability to take bigger guys out with him on the perimeter. He’s never stopped rebounding the ball. Him and Al Horford are difficult to contain on the interior.

“When I first came to the team, my relationship with Paul was just a normal teammate to teammate kind of thing,” said Gordon Hayward. “But once I started playing more, and me and Paul started talking more, I got to know him a lot better. We got a lot closer. I’ve always admired how hard he works.”

Millsap figures to be a hot commodity once July rolls around. And with the way he’s played the last two years, deservedly so.

“I just try to stay in the moment,” Millsap said. “We have a great team, and we have an opportunity to do some special things as a team this season. That’s all I’m focused on right now.”

***

No. 3: Reality bites the Wolves after 11th straight loss — You’re tempted to yell “tim-berrrrrrrr” at the Wolves, but that would suggest they’re falling from a high perch. The reality is the Wolves were never high to begin with, and right now this young and injured team is clearly struggling. Not only are they playing a batch of rookies and second-year players, they’re missing three starters and playing in the West. That’s a recipe for what you’re now seeing, nights when the Wolves are barely competitive. For the second time in five days, they lost to the Jazz, and Utah isn’t exactly a powerhouse. All of a sudden, coach Flip Saunders is talking possible lineup changes, but is there really any way to fix the Wolves this season? Eventually they’ll get Ricky Rubio, Nik Pekovic and Kevin Martin hack from injuries, so that’ll help a little. But probably not a lot, not in the deep and very dangerous West. Basically, this season is shaping up to be as expected, with Minnesota playing young players and giving them room and time to grow, while taking it on a chin hard enough to land another high lottery pick next June. It will be considered a successful year if these young players are more consistent by February and March and making fewer mistakes. Until then, there will be more nights like Saturday, when the Wolves, who have only won once since the day after Thanksgiving, giving up 15 rebounds to guys like Trevor Booker and a career high 13 points to guys like Rudy Gobert. Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune explains:

Saunders vowed lineup changes and other corrective measures to help right a listing ship. It’s one that tilted even further toward the horizon Saturday. Saunders lamented his young team’s lack of energy and willingness to compete against a Utah team that, while also undermanned, has won six of nine games.

“Energy comes from within,” Wolves rookie Andrew Wiggins said. “No one can tell you to play hard. You have to want to play hard.”

“They beat us on energy plays and they ripped in and took our hearts away,” Saunders said.

The Wolves also had no answer for Jazz point guard Trey Burke, who shook Friday’s 2-for-19 shooting performance (including 0-for-11 on three pointers) against the Hawks and scored a season-high 28 points.

“He’s be first team all-league if he played against us every time,” Saunders said of Burke. “Maybe I should’ve drafted him based on how he’s played against us and in this arena.”

“Like I told our guys, don’t think it can’t get any worse,” said Saunders. “It definitely can.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Byron Scott wants Kobe Bryant to shoot more, not less … Kobe took a shot at the AAU system, but didn’t KD and CP3 and LeBron go through that very same system? … Knicks still contemplating whether to shelve Carmelo for the year  …

ICYMI OF THE NIGHT: Jazz center Rudy Gobert made one of the best blocks of the season on Shabazz Muhammad…


VIDEO: Block of the night