Morning Shootaround

Morning Shootaround — March 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING


VIDEO: Highlights from games played March 21

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

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

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

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

How might one describe that five-game trip?

“A nightmare,” Aldridge said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

*** (more…)

Morning Shootaround — March 21


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook lifts Thunder in aftermath of Durant news | LeBron leads Cavaliers to playoff spot on rough night | Clippers making their move in the Western Conference playoff chase

No. 1: Westbrook lifts Thunder in aftermath of Durant news – It’s truly Russell Westbrook‘s team now in Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant is out indefinitely with no reasonable expectation that he will return this season, whether the Thunder make the playoffs or not. Whatever the circumstance, Westbrook is bringing the energy and effort needed to lead the charge for Scott Brooks‘ team, just as he did Friday night in the Thunder’s takedown of the Eastern Conference leading Atlanta Hawks. Love him or hate him, right now the underdog is on top after collecting his ninth triple double and pushing the Thunder up the ladder in the chase for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman explains:

The Thunder’s already wavering title hopes took a potentially fatal blow on Friday morning with the latest Kevin Durant injury setback.

But by late Friday night, Russell Westbrook and a patched together lineup had already reminded the basketball world that — while a championship run is now hard to fathom — high-level hoops entertainment will remain for the next month-plus in Oklahoma City.

The East-leading Atlanta Hawks came to town, packing a potent offense to feast on the Thunder’s slumping defense. Void of Serge Ibaka to clean up mistakes, OKC struggled on that end again.

But as has been common of late, even without double-double machine Enes Kanter on this night, the Thunder went all mid-2000s Phoenix Suns and succeeded in outscoring a scoring machine. The final: Thunder 123, Hawks 115.

“It was like an ABA game out there,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks joked.

With the win, OKC became only the fourth NBA team to ever go from nine games under .500 to nine games over in the same season.

And Westbrook, again, was at the center of it all, finishing with 36 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds for his ninth triple-double of the season.

Instead of an emotional letdown after the latest Durant news, the Thunder came out energized and angry, jumping on the Hawks in the opening minutes. Westbrook had seven of his 14 assists in the first quarter. OKC, at one point, held an early nine-point lead.

But after the Hawks weathered that early storm, OKC’s faulty defense sprung leaks and Atlanta started splashing jumpers from all over the floor. On this night, reserve big man Pero Antic played the role of random dude to roast the Thunder’s perimeter defense, going off for 18 points in 12 first half minutes.

The Hawks led 68-61 at halftime. With two minutes left in the third quarter, that lead had ballooned to 12. Shorthanded, it looked like the Thunder would come up short, fittingly capping an emotionally tough day for the franchise.

But then Anthony Morrow got hot and the tone of the game changed.

With 7:54 left in the fourth quarter, Morrow splashed in his third three of the night, cutting the Hawks lead to four. It was the sixth consecutive game Morrow has hit at least three 3s, one of the hotter stretches of his storied shooting career.

But he was just getting started. Over the next four minutes of game action, Morrow drilled three more 3s, the crowd noise rising and the Thunder’s momentum building with each splash.

“I’ve never experienced (a playoff atmosphere),” Morrow said. “But (Westbrook) said that was close to it.”


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook lifted the Thunder on the night they found out Kevin Durant’s season could be over 

*** (more…)

Morning shootaround — March 20


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 19

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Durant held out of practice | Report: Spurs might pursue Grizzlies’ Gasol | Gordon apologizes for Suns talk in 2012

No. 1: Durant held out of practice with Thunder – A little over a week ago, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks said he expected reigning MVP and team star Kevin Durant to return to the lineup in a week or two. Well, here we are eight days later … does it look like Durant will be suiting up soon for OKC? Based on Royce Young‘s report on ESPN.com’s Daily Thunder blog, it sure doesn’t sound like it:

Durant did not practice today, held out with what Brooks called “some soreness,” which is a word I’m quite sick of seeing, personally.

“Experiencing a little bit of soreness,” Brooks said. “That’s expected. We have some peaks and valleys, and we always have a cautious approach, so today he didn’t do anything.”

Eight days ago, Brooks updated Durant’s timetable to return to play in a “week or two.” That followed two one week re-evaluations. So since Durant underwent a second surgery on Feb. 23, he’s missed almost four weeks.

Asked if he’d classify Durant’s soreness as a setback, or how he’d classify it, Brooks worked around the edges of answering that.

“Just he experienced some soreness,” Brooks said. “I think when you go through rehab, we all know through the rehab process you’re going to have some peaks and valleys, and you just have to adjust accordingly. That’s why he was off today, and he’s definitely not playing tomorrow. That’s all part of the process with his rehab.”

Asked directly if Durant’s timetable has changed, Brooks gave maybe the most revealing answer of all.

“I don’t know that yet,” he said. “But we’ll definitely take, with all our players, with injuries we’ll always take the best interest of the player and always take a cautious approach.”

That’s worrisome. Again, Durant was given a timetable of “a week or two” eight days ago, which suggested he would be back soon. Him not practicing today is certainly a step in the wrong direction of returning, and it certainly appears he’s not on track.

Obviously, with all of this Durant stuff, there’s a lot of worry and concern. But I’ll say this: I have every reason to believe Durant will return in the regular season. I have been told repeatedly by those who would know that Durant’s Jones fracture isn’t at risk. It’s about the pain he’s experiencing as a result of the screw head rubbing against a bone for weeks.

 


VIDEO: OKC’s players are readying for a big showdown with the Hawks tonight

*** (more…)

Morning shootaround — March 19


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Wade, Heat rising fast | Warriors pass big test vs. Hawks | Noah trying to remain optimistic about role, minutes

No. 1: Wade feeling great in Miami – Many may have figured the Miami Heat would fade from the Eastern Conference playoff picture once All-Star forward Chris Bosh was lost for the season due to blood clots on his lungs. But in the 13 games since that news came down, Miami has gone 8-5, which includes last night’s thrilling home win over the Portland Trail Blazers. That win — and much of Miami’s success of late — came courtesy of a fourth-quarter scoring surge by Dwyane Wade, who told ESPN.com’s Chris Wallace that he’s feeling better than ever:

Dwyane Wade credits improved health and a recent change in his workout routine as the driving forces behind his recent surge in production amid the Miami Heat’s push to make the playoffs.

“This is the best I’ve felt in years right now,” Wade said Wednesday. “You question it. And you try not to question it, like ‘Why? Why couldn’t I feel like this the last two years?’ But it is what it is. I’m feeling like this now, when I need it individually to (carry) more of a load to help this team.”

The quiet moment of reflection for Wade came as he sat in his locker after he scored 32 points to help rally the Heat late in a 108-104 victory against the Portland Trail Blazers. It was the seventh consecutive game Wade has scored at least 25 points, marking his longest such streak since eight in a row in 2010.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said the team’s strategy has been simplified in recent weeks as Wade started to regain his form after dealing with three separate hamstring injuries before the All-Star break.

Wade has averaged 29.1 points and shot 53 percent from the field over the last seven games.

“He understands the moment right now,” Spoelstra said of his expectations for Wade. “We don’t have to talk about it. It’s, ‘Here’s the ball. Make a play for the team.’ Quite frankly in the fourth quarter, the best offense really was to get the ball to Dwyane and let him create some kind of action.”

With LeBron James back in Cleveland and Bosh sidelined for the rest of the season to recover from blood clots in his lungs, the bulk of the leadership and production has shifted to Wade. An 11-time All-Star in his 12th season, Wade said he recently started his workout routine a few hours earlier than normal on game nights and has been spending more time on the court with assistant coach and former NBA forward Juwan Howard to simulate the bigger defenders he faces on switches.

But the ultimate source of Wade’s success is his health. He reached toward the side of his locker Wednesday night and knocked against the wooden frame, having played in 14 of the past 15 games. Wade leads the league in fourth-quarter scoring after adding 15 of his 32 in the final period Wednesday, including the Heat’s final eight points of the game.

“It feels good, man,” said Wade, who is averaging 21.8 points, 5.2 assists and 3.7 rebounds in 49 games. “I’ve taken a lot of criticism and I’ve worked very hard on my body to get to the point where I know, fourth quarter, it shows. That means a lot to me. When everyone is tired, I go up a notch. And for an old guy, that’s not bad at all to have that extra level to go to.”


VIDEO: Dwyane Wade knows he must drive Miami’s playoff push 

*** (more…)

Morning shootaround — March 18


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bulls get good news on injuries | Silver: Talk of work stoppage ‘premature’ | Randolph, Grizzlies miffed after loss | Popovich: Spurs’ effort vs. Knicks ‘pathetic’

No. 1: Injury cloud may soon be leaving Bulls – As The Starters discussed on their show yesterday, several teams in the NBA this season have been unlucky when it comes to losing players due to injury. One such team on that list is the Chicago Bulls, who, of late, have been without the services of Taj Gibson and All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose. Things are starting to look up for Chicago, though, as Gibson and Butler are nearing a return and Rose may be ahead of schedule for a comeback, too. The Chicago Tribune‘s K.C. Johnson has more:

Ater an injury-riddled, 4-7 stretch and talk of minutes restrictions and internal discord, the Bulls needed some positive news.

They got it.

Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson practiced fully Tuesday at the Advocate Center and Derrick Rose participated in the non-contact portions. All three players remain on schedule to return, with Butler and Gibson possible later this week and coach Tom Thibodeau saying Rose is “maybe even slightly ahead” of his four to six week timeline that began Feb. 27.

“This was very good,” an upbeat Thibodeau said of the day’s developments.

Butler sprained a ligament and suffered a small bone impaction in his left elbow when he ran into DeAndre Jordan’s screen on March 1. He wore a brace but even got up left-handed shots — his non-shooting hand — after practice.

“My body feels great in the morning. My first practice back, I had a few bumps. But I think it’s possible,” Butler said of returning late this week. “But I can’t rush it. I don’t want it to get any worse. It’s never going to have full range while I’m playing, but I think it will feel better in a few days.

“My teammates, coaches and management are all in my corner, telling me to be careful. Obviously, I know that. But it’s hard when I want to play so bad. You want to get back, but you know you shouldn’t come back too early.”

Gibson severely sprained his left ankle Feb. 27, the same day Rose underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a small tear in his right meniscus. The Tribune reported Feb. 25 that Rose expected to return this season.

“It’s the next phase of his rehab,” Thibodeau said of Rose participating in parts of practice. “He still has to obviously strengthen the knee. But it’s a good step for him.”

So, obviously, would returning to full strength. The Bulls are 15-4 when Rose, Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol start.

*** (more…)

Morning shootaround — March 17


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 12

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Thompson hobbled after win | Blatt: Cavs ‘got to’ finish No. 2 in East | Nuggets unhappy about resting top players | ‘Crash’ pondering retirement?

No. 1: Thompson hobbled after win vs. Lakers — Golden State’s dream season continued last night with a win over the Los Angeles Lakers that, coupled with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s loss, let the Warriors become the first team in the West to clinch a playoff spot. Despite the positive vibes in Oracle Arena after the win, though, there was some news to possibly monitor. According to Monte Poole of CSNBayArea.com, Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson had a noticeable limp after the game:

It’s not unusual for Klay Thompson to be slow peeling off his jersey before heading into the shower. What was unusual Monday night was his gait once he got moving.

Thompson was limping. And it was a very, very obvious hobble.

The Warriors issued no update late Monday night, but Thompson left the game in the third quarter of a 108-105 win over the Lakers, retreating to the locker room to have his right ankle re-taped.

Though he returned in the fourth quarter, scoring 5 points in the final 4:31, he still was in pain after peeling off the tape. His status for Wednesday’s showdown with the Atlanta Hawks is uncertain, pending closer examination.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr, in his postgame news conference, said he didn’t think Thompson had sustained a serious injury.

“I don’t think it’s bad,” Kerr said, “but we’ll see what JoHan (Wang, the head athletic trainer) says.”

 


VIDEO: Golden State tops the Lakers to clinch a playoff berth

*** (more…)

Morning Shootaround — March 16


VIDEO: Highlights from games played March 15

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron questionable for second return to Miami | Thunder get big win vs. Bulls | Garnett hosts his Brooklyn friends

No. 1: LeBron questionable for second return to Miami — That emotional return to Miami the first time around for LeBron James might not have a second act. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar is questionable for tonight’s game after taking an awkward fall on his right leg in Sunday’s win over Orlando. The Cavaliers have Kyrie Irving to carry the load if LeBron cannot go. But as NBA.com’s John Schuhmann points out, the Cavs are just 2-9 without LeBron this season and have been outscored by 7.9 points per 100 possessions with him off the floor. But missing another game in this particular season wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for James. Joe Vardon of the Plain Dealer explains:

James has already missed a career-high 11 games this season due to injury. Additionally, both he and the Cavaliers have expressed a desire to rest James for some games leading up to the playoffs in April.

But a rematch with the Heat in Miami, where James won two titles in four years and where he was received warmly when the Cavs played there Christmas Day, was not one James planned to skip.

James’ first game in Miami this season was emotional for him and included a video tribute and standing ovation from the home fans.

He cut a video testimonial for Bleacher Report about the emotions of playing against former teammates Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, and others.

On Sunday night, James agreed the next South Beach visit would have a much different feel.

It’d be really different if he didn’t play.

“For me to be able to just finish the game, you know, the way I fell, the way I took that fall, it just goes to my training, the way I approach the game off the floor,” James said. “That time I was able to stay on the floor with my teammates.”

James scored four points and dished out three assists while playing 10 of 12 minutes in the fourth quarter.

It’s also worth noting that James’ best, most athletic dunk was in the final period, when he reached the ball high above the rim as he glided past defenders and crushed it with his right hand with 5:31 left.


VIDEO: LeBron James talks about how he’s feeling after the Cavs’ win in Orlando

*** (more…)

Morning Shootaround — March 15

 

VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Celts still streaking | Five in row for Jazz | Noel likes Sixers’ future | Jackson doesn’t hustle
No. 1: Celtics closing in on playoffs — Friday night’s topic of conversation was “Cater-gate,” when Evan Turner claimed that coach Brad Stevens was so angry at halftime against the Magic that he canceled the food for the postgame flight to Indianapolis. Turns out that was not true at all, but the hungry Celtics still went out Saturday night and devoured the Pacers’ seven-game winning streak. Suddenly Boston is with in a half-game of the final playoff spot in the East and only a game behind No. 7 seed Indy. Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald says Stevens ate it all up:

Brad Stevens was in heaven.
“These are the kinds of games I’ve always loved. Just find a way,” said the Celtics coach. “It’s nice when you have a game where you’re making every shot, but that’s one of those nights, and one of those nights is called that for a reason. You’re not going to have it very often, and you just have to find a way.”

The result was the Celtics’ 93-89 win over Indiana, a team that had won its last seven games, all but one at home.

The C’s, suddenly on a four-game winning streak, thus made up ground on everyone in the chase for the seventh and eighth playoffs seeds. They moved into a tie with ninth place Miami, within a half-game of eighth place Charlotte and a game outside of the seventh place Pacers.

They suddenly feel like they should pass all of these teams.
“Winning takes care of everything,” Brandon Bass said with an especially restive smile, thinking back two months to when the Celtics didn’t have much chance of winning these games.

“We went through our struggles early on, not being able to finish games, and it’s paid off for us,” he said. “I don’t mind these grind out games. Maybe it would be better at home if we could see Gino, but we’ll win whatever we can get.”

***

No. 2: Jazz getting big Favors up front — With his stature and his dominant play of late, it’s certainly been hard to overlook the play in the middle of Utah’s fabulous Frenchman Rudy Gobert. But perhaps lost in the shadow of the “Stifle Tower” has been the resurgence of Derrick Favors at power forward. He’s back to playing the position where he’s most comfortable and has been large part of what has now grown into a five-game winning streak. Aaron Falk of the Salt Lake Tribune has the details:

C “I’m just taking my time,” Favors said, “reading what the defense gives me.”
After Favors scored a game-high 26 points, helping push the Jazz to a fifth straight win, his coach put it another way.

“He’s hard to guard,” Quin Snyder said.

Rudy Gobert has garnered much of the attention in Utah’s shift from defensive ineptitude to defensive powerhouse. But Snyder has been vocal about the role Favors has played, since sliding over to the 4-spot. Favors’ size has allowed the Jazz to compete against big lineups. His speed — his ability to switch, even on point guards — has kept him on the floor against smaller lineups.

And the results have been good.

“We don’t necessarily have to go small to match up,” Snyder said. “So what ends up happening is sometimes he’s got a mismatch.”

Favors, meanwhile, is also settling into an offensive groove. Favors has topped 20 points in four of his past seven games.
“He’s just more poised,” Snyder said. “I think that’s just experience. We’ve seen him improve as the season progresses.”

Favors averaged 15.9 points per game before the All-Star break. Since then (coinciding with the Enes Kanter trade and Favors’ move to the 4), Favors has put up 18.7 points per night.

***

No. 3: Noel wants chance to play with Embiid — He was already shocked once this season when point guard Michael Carter-Williams was shipped out at the trade deadline. So Nerlens Noel is hoping to avoid more upheaval going forward next season. He told Tom Moore of The Intelligencer (Pa.) that he wants a chance to play alongside a healthy Joel Embiid next season:

And what if the Sixers end up with Duke center Jahlil Okafor or Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns in the draft? They already have a core center in 7-footer Joel Embiid, who is sitting out his rookie season with a foot stress fracture.
“I really hope nothing happens,” Noel said last week. “I like this team. I like what we’re building. I hope we can stick together and continue to grow.”

Noel is confident that he and Embiid — with Embiid likely playing power forward on offense and center at the defensive end — will turn out to be a terrific tandem.

“Jo is going to get more and more healthy and more active,” Noel said. “I see things really taking shape (next season).”

Still, Noel gets that “at the end of the day, it is a business. You always have to keep that in mind. You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do, work on your thing.”

Noel has been working and it’s been paying off. He’s moved into the league’s top 10 in blocked shots (sixth) and steals (10th) and, while he remains a work in progress on offense, he’s having a considerable impact on defense.

On Wednesday, Noel became the first NBA player since the Rockets’ Hakeem Olajuwon in November 1988 to accumulate at least 10 rebounds and four steals in four straight games. Through Friday, he was averaging 11.8 points, 12.8 rebounds, 3.1 steals and 2 blocks in his last eight games with six double-doubles.

***

No. 4: Jackson benched in another Pistons loss — It was only a few weeks ago when Reggie Jackson was delighted to finally be traded out of a reserve spot in the OKC lineup and given a chance to run a team of his own in Detroit. It seems like the blink of an eye since the Pistons were happy to welcome Jackson to town as their point guard of the future. Well, you might want to put the brakes on the talk of a new contract next summer and a blissful marriage. Coach Stan Van Gundy yanked Jackson off the floor for lack of hustle in Pistons’ loss at Utah, their 10th in a row. Terry Foster of the Detroit News detailed the ugliness:

On a night the Pistons hustled for nearly everything they got it, was a non-hustle play that angered the coach.
Van Gundy can tolerate mistakes and questionable shot selection as long as there is some effort behind it. But he will not tolerate lazy play on the court.

And that is when Jackson relaxed and got burned. He came in for Spencer Dinwiddie with 5:50 remaining and play immediately bogged down.

Jackson turned the ball over and later watched as Dante Exum hustled down a loose ball and fed Rodney Hood for a layup, which gave the Jazz a 78-74 lead with 4:32 remaining.

“He (Jackson) wasn’t being very aggressive and when he didn’t chase down the loose ball and Exum got it that was a huge hoop in the game,” Van Gundy said. “As I told him when I took him out of the game, I will tolerate mistakes, but we are in a battle trying to win a fourth game in five days and you’re not going to make an effort?”

Jackson got the message loud and clear from Van Gundy.

“I just assumed the ball was going out of bounds,” Jackson said. “You can never make an assumption. You have to always complete the play.
Unfortunately that play really cost us tonight. It was a big possession. We were trying to make a comeback. Whether it is going out of bounds or not I have to be in position to make the play.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Stephen Curry got a birthday cake from the Warriors and a win from the Knicks…The Clippers are hoping that Blake Griffin returns to the lineup today against the Rockets….  Andre Miller is still surprised that Wizards traded him to Sacramento…Bucks plan to keep Khris Middleton….Hawks’ Scott to miss four to six weeks with broken toe.

Morning shootaround — March 14


VIDEO: Check out all the highlights from Friday

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook a stat-seeking missile? | Pacers’ George treading lightly | Jazz’s Gobert: from clunker to hardware | NBA season in ‘twilight time?’

No. 1: Westbrook a stat-seeking missile? — It is considered bad form for a restaurant server or anyone else in the service industry, frankly, to flat-out ask for a tip. But it was OK in OKC for Russell Westbrook Friday night, his suggestion to the scorekeepers paying off in nice, round statistical fashion for yet another triple-double. No one here at Hang Time HQ is accusing Westbrook of lowering himself to Ricky Davis levels, and there often have been different interpretations applied to assists and rebounds (remember all the home-cooking accusations about Jazz great John Stockton‘s dimes in Salt Lake City games?). But Royce Young reported on Westbrook’s big numbers against Minnesota, then concluded that they were bonafide. Or at least justified:

The Thunder were enjoying an impressive blowout over the young Minnesota Timberwolves, and Westbrook was going to be left to watch the final couple of minutes a single rebound short. That’s when he took matters into his own hands. He looked over at the Thunder’s official scorekeepers, holding his arm up.

“Tip?” he said, nodding his head. “Tip?”

A quick conference at the scorer’s table and right around the time the buzzer sounded on the Thunder’s 113-99 win, Westbrook suddenly had his triple-double: 29 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists. His eighth of the season, sixth in the last eight games, and the first player since Jason Kidd in 2007-08 to have eight or more in a season (Kidd had 13).

The rebound appears to be a tad dubious, an offensive board awarded with 2:35 left where Westbrook went up to tip back a missed 3-point attempt by D.J. Augustin. Westbrook was given a missed shot on it, so everything is on the up and up, but still, hard not to raise an eyebrow.

So, was he campaigning for the rebound or what?

“Uhh, no,” Westbrook said.

The idea is that stat-padding breeds selfishness, a label Westbrook already battles against, but his play actually separates the two things entirely. The stats are a means to the end, a necessity in winning. Westbrook is single-minded when it comes to winning, and with that in the bag on Friday, there’s nothing wrong with wanting another bullet point added to the growing MVP resume.

Because while an extra “10” in the box score is pretty arbitrary, it means a lot when you start talking history. Westbrook became only the fourth player in the last 30 years to record six triple-doubles in a season with at least 25 points (LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson). As he continues to build an MVP case, that’s another feather in his cap. And we can’t act as if individual accolades don’t matter. It’s all part of the game, and Westbrook knows how to compartmentalize and separate that from the bottom line.

Westbrook actually nearly had a quadruple-double with eight turnovers, giving him an eye-popping 27 over his last three games. It has been a stat that has sort of been glossed over because of how much he’s doing for the Thunder, along with how he’s giving the ball away. It’s not really the classic out-of-control Westbrook that’s barreling down the lane and leaving his feet with no plan. It’s forced pocket passes, soft post-entry passes, unselfish extra passes fired at point-blank range.

“I do know one thing, I know I need to stop turning the ball over. I can tell you that much,” Westbrook said, unprompted. “It’s so frustrating, trying [to] find and make passes and turn the ball [over], but at the same time, we won, so I’ll go back to the drawing board and take care of it.”

***

No. 2: Pacers’ George treading lightly — Maybe Paul George had a late-night phone conversation with Derrick Rose. Maybe his anticipated return from the serious leg fractures suffered last August was a diversion all along, meant to take Indiana fans’ focus off its team’s struggles for most of this 2014-15 season. Or, most likely, George has seen the Pacers’ recent tear and move into playoff position in the Eastern Conference as the proverbial ain’t-broke object no longer in need of his fix. The Pacers’ All-Star wing player sounded a little conflicted Friday about making a comeback for what’s left of this season, less due to his own physical condition than to the team’s encouraging play of late. Mark Montieth of Pacers.com reported on George’s quandary after the player’s weekly media chinwag:

“I’m on the fence,” he told reporters following Friday’s light workout at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “They’ve come together. To shake up the chemistry and add another body, I don’t want to be that guy who destroys what these guys have going. And then there’s part of me who thinks I can definitely help turn these tough games into games we have fully under control.

“It’s difficult. It’s a difficult point right now…but we take it day to day.”

George still spoke optimistically of the physical improvement he’s made since breaking his leg on Aug. 1. He experiences some soreness “but I push through those days.” He’s worn an elastic sleeve on his right leg the past two days in practice because his leg feels better when he does, but he has no significant pain in the formerly broken leg.

George had thrown out a mid-March return as his goal during interviews over All-Star Weekend last month, but isn’t guessing at dates now. Coach Frank Vogel earlier in the week had nixed the possibility of him playing on Saturday, but nobody is saying yes or no to future dates. The Pacers’ first game next week is Monday at home against Toronto. They follow with road games at Chicago on Wednesday and Cleveland on Friday, and then have a home game against Brooklyn on Saturday.

“Is there a chance you’ll play next week?” he was asked.

“I have no idea,” he said.

If and when he does return, George will come off the bench and play spot minutes. He likely would continue to play as a reserve, potentially strengthening a unit that’s already one of the best in the NBA.

***

No. 3: Jazz’s Gobert: from clunker to hardwareRudy Gobert, Utah’s blossoming 7-foot-2 French import, didn’t generate a lot of excitement when he first appeared on the NBA scene. As ProBasketballTalk.com’s Dan Feldman tells it, Gobert – despite remarkable size and wingspan, definite NBA attributes – was nursing a sore knee that hurt his performance in workouts. But whatever perceived lack of athleticism caused him to plummet to the bottom of the first round in the 2013 Draft, Gobert has more than made up for with his play lately. In fact, Feldman makes a case that the Jazz reserve big man could be a legit contender for multiple awards this spring:

Gobert is averaging 7.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. In 11 starts since Utah traded Enes Kanter, Gobert’s averages have jumped to 10.5 points, 14.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. The Jazz are 9-2 in that span, including wins over the playoff-bound Trail Blazers, Spurs, Bucks, Grizzlies and Rockets

If the 2013 draft were re-done – with consideration to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nerlens Noel, Victor Oladipo, Michael Carter-Williams, Mason Plumlee and everyone else – Gobert makes a compelling case to go No. 1 overall.

Now, in his breakout season, Gobert is a legitimate contender for three awards – Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player.

He might not win any, and two would be tough. Three would be unprecedented.

Just six players have won two of the major player awards – Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player – in the same season:

Darrell Armstrong, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player in 1999
Hakeem Olajuwon, Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in 1994
Michael Jordan, Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in 1988
Alvin Robertson, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player in 1986
Wes Unseld, Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in 1969
Wilt Chamberlain, Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in 1960

***

No. 4: NBA season in ‘twilight time?’ — Certainly there’s churning and jostling for playoff position taking place within the East and West conferences. But on a macro level, we know who most of the playoff teams are likely to be, same as we know who most of the lottery teams are this spring. That’s why longtime NBA writer Mark Heisler suggests in the L.A. Daily News that the 82-game schedule is too long, leading to this stretch of March and April where the NCAA game grabs basketball’s spotlight and even swipes Charles Barkley:

Most good teams are resting stars, easing injured players back in — this makes two weeks in a row that the Clippers’ Blake Griffin is expected back — and otherwise lying in the weeds.

All that remains is securing the final playoff slots.

Three teams are vying for the last West slot: New Orleans (just got Anthony Davis back) Oklahoma City (soon to get Kevin Durant back) and Phoenix (unfortunately not getting anyone back).

Then there’s the East dogfight for No. 7 and 8 among the Pacers, Heat, Hornets, Celtics and Nets. Two will get in even if they’re on pace to win 39-37-36-35-33, respectively.

That makes 13 teams assured of playoff slots with eight more aspiring to, even if five are in the farcical East race.

Lining the bottom of the cage are the seven marking time until the lottery (Lakers, Knicks, 76ers, Timberwolves, Magic, Kings, Nuggets).

That leaves the Jazz and Detroit, another team of comers that started late. The Pistons’ problem didn’t turn out to be paying Josh Smith $30 million to leave, but waiting until they were 5-23.

That’s all there is — with five weeks until the playoffs. In other words, thank heavens for the NCAA Tournament.

Yes, I’d say the NBA season is a little on the long side.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Miami’s Hassan Whiteside felt bad enough to phone up Boston’s Kelly Olynyk to offer an apology. And after what Olynyk said to Whiteside, the Heat center felt even worse. … The Raptors broke through for their second victory in three weeks and old-school Charles Oakley was there to witness it – and sneer at today’s lack of physicality the way Oak does. … The Clippers have gone 9-6 without Blake Griffin, whom they hope to get back as soon as Sunday vs. Houston. They’ve also gone 42-24 without Spencer Hawes, essentially. … It’s impossible to separate Eric Gordon‘s recent swell shooting from the New Orleans guard’s recent swell health. …

Morning shootaround — March 13


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 12

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Irving proves his worth to Cavs | Wall felt disrespected by Grizzlies | Jackson: Knicks’ season ‘a project gone awry’

No. 1: Irving dominates — and proves he’s a worth sidekick to LeBron — The NBA world is abuzz this morning about Kyrie Irving‘s 57-point masterpiece of a game in the Cavs’ OT win over the Spurs last night. (If you missed it, you can watch every single one of his buckets right here). Not only did the win help keep the Cavs in the chase for the No. 2 spot in the East, it also proved, writes Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com, that Irving is turning out to be a more-than worthy sidekick to LeBron James:

Before Kyrie Irving could become the hero and score the last nine points of regulation, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to force overtime, and before Irving could top even that by scoring 11 of the Cavs’ 18 points in OT to earn the 128-125 win in what had to be the league’s best regular-season game this season, James needed to remind all of his guys that even when down double digits in the lion’s den, they had the power to make something happen.

“LeBron told us in the timeout, ‘Win, lose or draw, still fight to the end,'” Tristan Thompson said. “And guys believed.”

Spend enough time in the Cavs’ locker room and you’ll hear a version of James’ message uttered on a daily basis. Guys will chirp, “Stay with it,” as a sort of catch phrase that’s become an inside joke (they usually pronounce it more like, “Stayyyy wittttt it”), quoting a recurring piece of advice imparted by assistant coach James Posey.

“Coach Pos started it,” James said. “You know, stay with it, and that’s what we’ve got to do. No matter what’s going on throughout the game, no matter what’s going on throughout the season, we’ve got to stay with it, stay with our process, stay with what we need to do, both offensively and defensively, on the bus, on the plane, whatever the case may be. We’ve always got to stay with what we’re trying to build around here, and that’s championship DNA.”

To build that DNA, first the Cavs had to draw blood from a champion.

There was room for only one truly transcendent star on this night, anyway, and it was Irving.

Once James got his teammates to believe, he showed how strong his belief was in them right back. Rather than being the one to get the last shot and try to, with one flip of the wrist, exorcise the AT&T Center demons that have haunted him the past nine months when his hopes for ring No. 3 died, James took the ball out of bounds and passed to Irving for the final shot of regulation.

The historical significance of the performance was baked in, as Irving topped his own NBA season-high mark of 55 points while simultaneously edging James’ Cavs franchise record of 56 points and also managing to tie Purvis Short’s record of 57 points for the most points ever scored by a San Antonio opponent. And, to give context to just how well the Spurs played and still lost, it was just the second time in the Popovich-Duncan era that San Antonio shot 56 percent or better at a team (it shot 56.3 percent Thursday) and didn’t win.

But he didn’t want any part of it. “I don’t want the game ball,” he told a team attendant afterward. Nor did he seem to be too keen on setting aside any keepsake from the night — Mike Miller was the recipient of his autographed, game-worn sneakers, which Miller toted out of the locker room with a smile on his face. Irving did say he planned to go to Disney World on Friday, but those were plans he already made before going bonkers on the Spurs, what with the team heading to Florida for an Orlando/Miami back-to-back.

What Irving got out of this night was an ascendance to James’ level and an acceptance from the four-time MVP that he doesn’t just have a young, talented guy out there by his side, he has a partner. When Irving scored 55 points against Portland earlier in the season, James was out with a sore wrist. When he scored 57 against San Antonio, it came on a night when James scored 31 and the two of them combined to score Cleveland’s final 27 points (20 for Irving, seven for James).


VIDEO: Relive some great moments from Kyrie Irving’s big game vs. the Spurs

*** (more…)