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Howard upgraded for Game 3 tonight

HOUSTON — The mystery surrounding Dwight Howard’s left knee is all but gone and the only suspense is whether his Rockets can bounce at home tonight from a 2-0 deficit against the Warriors in the Western Conference finals.

There was debate surrounding Howard’s health status until just a few minutes before the opening tip of Game 2 Thursday, but he wound up playing 40 minutes, scoring 19 points and pulling down 17 rebounds.

The 6-foot-11 center, who suffered a first degree sprain of his left knee as the result of a collision with teammate Josh Smith in the series opener, has been upgraded from questionable to probable for Game 3 at Toyota Center and said at the Saturday morning shootaround that he’s pleased with how the injury responded to the playing time and treatment he’s received.

“It felt pretty good,” Howard said. “We were happy about that. I didn’t want to linger throughout the whole playoffs.”

Maybe now Warriors will get more credit for defense

OAKLAND — The value of Draymond Green being named first-team All-Defense and Andrew Bogut making second-team?

“The value for Andrew is $1.9 million,” said their Warriors coach, Steve Kerr.

Yes, there is that. When Bogut finished with the second-most points at center in voting announced Wednesday, behind only DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers, it triggered a $1.935-million bonus in the extension Bogut signed in October 2013. Money matters and it particularly matters to Bogut in this case since he accepted a smaller guarantee in exchange for the possibility of greater incentives.

Beyond that, though, there is the visual of two Warriors making All-Defense, and with Green receiving the second-most votes and Bogut the eighth-most. The Warriors.

Maybe now the lazy narrative will end and people will see Golden State as more than a jump-shooting team that relies solely on out-racing opponents. That has not been the case for years. The Warriors were very good defensively last season, with Mark Jackson as coach, and they were very good again this season, under Kerr, finishing first in defensive rating and first in shooting defense.

The perception value.

“I think it’s just great that our guys were recognized for their efforts,” Kerr said. “The strength of this team, really the last couple of years, not just this year but the last two or three years has been the defense. No. 1 in defensive efficiency this year. Our work in the Memphis series the last three games defensively changed the series. A lot of people talk about us being a jump-shooting team. We are. But all those jump shots are really set up by our defense. Our defense allows us to stay in games like last night, where maybe we’re getting blitzed early, we usually can count on making five or six stops in a row, getting out and running and making some of those jump shots. That balance of the perimeter shooting with really good defense is kind of our identity.”

Trailing only Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs in first-place votes and total points is the latest moment in Green’s push to the forefront that had already included taking over the as the starting power forward after previously playing behind David Lee, finishing second in balloting for Defensive Player of the Year, also behind Leonard, and second for Most Improved Player. The only thing that makes it better is the timing — Green becomes a restricted free agent on July 1.

Bogut’s defense has been an obvious key as Golden State progressed from playoff newcomer in his first full season with the Warriors, 2012-13, to the top-seeded team in the Western Conference this season. Now comes the official acknowledgement.

“Financially it was really good,” he said. “I’m kind of used to kind of always just missing out, playing in Milwaukee for so many years. But it’s nice to be recognized. I really take pride in my defense and I think that’s the main role on my team, is to be a rim protector and to be a good defender. To get recognized for it is good. Hopefully the referees read the All-Defensive teams and I can get a few more calls going my way.”

The All-Defense announcement came the same day Golden State’s Stephen Curry was fined $5,000 by the league for flopping on offense in the fourth quarter of the 110-106 victory Tuesday in the opener of the Western Conference finals.

“These plays happen every day,” Kerr said. “I don’t think a game goes by where Jamal Crawford doesn’t flop six times on his three-point shots. It’s part of the game. And I don’t blame him for doing it because a lot of times the refs call it. Russell Westbrook does it. Everybody does it. To all of the sudden just randomly to fine Steph just seems kind of strange. Are we just choosing one time to do this? You can pick out flops every single game, half the guys out on the floor. It just seems sort of random.”

 

New stats tools helpful in heralding league’s defensive best

Capturing defensive value and impact through analytics, most NBA numbers-crunchers will acknowledge, still is pretty challenging. Compared to how those folks feel about their ability to track, measure and assess a player’s or team’s offensive components, the other side of the ball remains an inexact science.

But the NBA clearly is trying, as evidence by the supporting info provided with the release of its All-Defensive teams for 2014-15.

Consider what was noted about San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard‘s finish as the first team’s top vote-getter. The league’s release read:

Leonard teamed with [Tim] Duncan to help San Antonio hold opponents below 100 points per game (97.0) for the 20th consecutive season. Leonard averaged career highs of 5.9 defensive rebounds and a league-leading 2.31 steals for the Spurs, who were 5.1 points better per 100 possessions on defense when he was on the floor than when he was off the floor, according to NBA.com/stats.

Most of those are old-school stats, no big deal. But the use of defensive rating and on/off numbers is an indication that even the so-called expert voters don’t have to guess, go by reputation or rely solely on anecdotal observations anymore.

Similar numbers were invoked supporting Golden State’s Draymond Green and Memphis’ Tony Allen as elite defenders:

The Warriors allowed a league-low 98.2 points per 100 possessions, a defensive rating that dropped to 96.0 with Green on the court and increased to 102.1 with him off the court. Memphis’ defensive rating was 8.7 points better with Allen on the floor (94.9 per 100 possessions) than with him off the floor (103.6 per 100 possessions). Green ranked 14th in the NBA in defensive rebounding (6.7 per game), and Allen finished third in steals (2.05 per game).

Also of interest in the announcement of the honors was the order of finish. The top three finishers in DPOY balloting – Leonard, Green and the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan – all made the first team, but because positions are specified on the all-defensive ballots, Allen actually had the third-most points. First-team votes count two points and second-team votes count one.

With four guard spots available vs. two center spots, Allen had a better chance to appear on more ballots overall. Allen received 88 firsts and 31 seconds for 207 points, while Jordan went 84-19-187.

None of the breaks between first-team and second-team selections, or second-team and “others,” was close on points. But there were a couple quirky finishes. For instance, LeBron James received six first-place votes at forward to Duncan’s five, but missed a second-team forward spot on points, 64-47. Russell Westbrook got 13 first-place votes at guard, more than John Wall‘s seven, but also lost on points, 67-35.

Finally lucky, next challenge for Timberwolves is to be smart


VIDEO: Wolves owner Glen Taylor on winning top pick

It’s better to be lucky than good, the saying goes. But once lucky, it helps to be smart if one hopes to get or stay good.

That’s nobody’s saying, actually, but it is the challenge now facing the Minnesota Timberwolves and specifically Flip Saunders. Saunders, the team’s president of basketball operations, a part-owner and the Wolves head coach, got lucky at the NBA Draft lottery Tuesday night largely by being the opposite of good. The Wolves were b-b-b-b-bad to the bone this season, diving to the bottom of the league’s standings (16-66) with the single-mindedness of a bomb squad. They got rewarded when their 4-to-1 bet came in.

Now Minnesota not only has the No. 1 pick in the 2015 Draft for the first time in its 26-year franchise history, it likely will become the first team in NBA annals to have on its roster the three most recent No. 1 picks overall: Anthony Bennett (2013), Andrew Wiggins (’14) and either Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns, the two big men projected as this year’s top prospects.

All of which guarantees nothing. Since 1995, only two of the 20 players taken No. 1 overall have won NBA championships: Tim Duncan (1997, five) and LeBron James (2003, two). Eight never made it to an All-Star Game (six if you don’t count youngsters Bennett and Wiggins).

Stockpiling top picks is less important, it seems, than seeing talent and fit where others do not with later picks. It’s a formula executed masterfully by San Antonio and, as Britt Robson of MinnPost.com points out in a piece citing past misguided Wolves decisions, it looks to be working well for current title favorite Golden State:

It is by now an infamous part of Wolves lore that the team passed on Golden State guard and reigning MVP Stephen Curry (twice!) in the 2009 draft, taking Ricky Rubio with the fifth pick and Jonny Flynn with the sixth before the Warriors gleefully snapped up Curry.

But it is more instructive to look beyond Curry on the Golden State roster to appreciate how shrewd drafting fostered the 67-win team that now leads Houston in the conference finals and is the favorite to become NBA champions this season. You can go back to 2005, when the Warriors plucked Monte Ellis in the second round with the 40th overall pick. Seven years later, Ellis had become such a dynamic scorer that Golden State offered him as the main bauble in a five-player deal that enabled them to acquire Andrew Bogut, the top pick in 2005 and a current anchor of their low post defense.

Or go to the 2011 draft, when the Warriors, choosing eleventh, grabbed the shooting guard, Klay Thompson, who made Ellis expendable. The Timberwolves picked second in that draft and chose forward Derrick Williams, who was traded away for peanuts (specifically, Luc Mbah a Moute, who lasted 55 games in Minnesota) two years later.

Then slide up a year to the 2012 draft. The Warriors took their current starting small forward, Harrison Barnes, with the seventh pick. They acquired their current backup center, Festus Ezeli, with the 30th pick. And they grabbed their current power forward, Draymond Green — who just finished second in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting — with the 35th pick in the second round.

After recounting Minnesota’s sorry history of botched personnel calls, Robson snaps back to the present. On the heels of two fortunate outcomes – getting Wiggins last summer for one final season of Kevin Love and landing the No. 1 pick next month – he says it’s now on Saunders to maximize return from draft positions where hard work and keen eyes get rewarded against long odds. Specifically, the Wolves need to upgrade from dead last in 3-point attempts and 25th in accuracy.

In his season-ending meeting, Saunders himself brought up the need to become better from long range, and, in answer to my question, said that one of the later draft picks could be a good way to remedy that need. The Wolves currently own the first pick in the second round (31st overall), as well as the 36th overall pick, acquired in the Corey Brewer trade.

[Curry] is the reigning MVP, and had a wonderful game in Tuesday night’s win over Houston. But the most important player on the floor was …Green, the 35th pick in 2012, who keyed the surge with his defense and quickness after Golden State went to a smaller lineup.

Saunders and the Wolves have been uncommonly bold and uncommonly lucky in the past twelve months. At this propitious moment, it is time for this franchise to be uncommonly smart with all of the resources at its disposal.

NBA’s Frantic Four trying to change history


VIDEO: Relive the biggest moments from the semifinals

There’s no official and catchy distinction for the last teams standing in the NBA semifinals, no Final Four or Frozen Four or anything like that, but here’s one that might best describe the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets: Frantic Four.

Yes, there’s more than a sense of desperation. These are four franchises that haven’t won an NBA title in a combined 162 years. Not since 1958 for the Hawks (based in St. Louis then), since 1975 for the Warriors, since 1995 for the Rockets and since, like, never for the Cavs. There are adult fans of those teams who’ve never known the thrill of the ultimate victory or seen a parade or felt the need to brag. In the case of the Hawks, they’ve never been to the East finals before, and once they beat the Wizards last week and advanced, Atlanta nearly reacted as though it won a real championship.

And so, with regard to these four teams searching for a change of fate, we examine their level of desperation for this 2015 title and rank them accordingly.

No. 4: Houston Rockets


VIDEO: Houston wraps up its second championship in 1995

In the midst of a celebration in June of 1995, Rudy Tomjanovich grabbed the mic and uttered one of the most memorable lines in NBA history: “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.” Rudy T was tweaking those who thought the Rockets were too old to repeat, which they did, but it’s been a 20-season long dry spell since. Evidently, everyone correctly estimated the staying power of the Rockets.

That two-time championship team died gradually. The Rockets tried to tape it together with an old and broken down Charles Barkley and that crew eventually made the 1997 West finals. But they had to watch as John Stockton sank a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in Game 6 (in Barkley’s face) to send the Utah Jazz to The Finals. Then, in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, they added another dinosaur: Scottie Pippen. Within four years, all of the important pieces of the championship era were gone, including Hakeem Olajuwon, looking grotesquely out of place in a purple jersey with a cheesy reptile in Toronto.

Houston did give it another go with Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, but injuries kept interrupting their time together and the Rockets advanced beyond the first round only once.

Since 1995, the Rockets have basically been a mixed bag, reaching the West finals once and then being mercifully teased by the T-Mac-and-Yao era. GM Daryl Morey then stole James Harden from OKC and signed Dwight Howard as a free agent and, well, here they are. In that span, they moved to a state-of-the-art downtown arena (Toyota Center) and enjoyed big crowds. Not exactly the picture of doom, which means, life without a title hasn’t been totally dreadful. (more…)

Gibson-Dellavedova ruckus rocks The Q


VIDEO: GameTime crew breaks down Gibson-Dellavedova altercation

CLEVELAND – Taj Gibson said he gave Matthew Dellavedova a look before things really got out of hand Tuesday night. “A look like, ‘What are you doin’, this is basketball, this isn’t wrestling,’ ” the Chicago Bulls forward said.

Didn’t matter. Within minutes, Gibson had been banished from the court at Quicken Loans Arena and had a towel thrown at him as he headed through a tunnel, exiting in a clamor worthy of a World Wrestling villain.

A ruckus that started with Gibson and Dellavedova, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ backup point guard, rapidly engulfed both teams and the sellout crowd early in the fourth quarter. Gibson and Dellavedova had banged a couple of times already, colliding in pick-and-roll switches and vying for rebounds, when it happened again with 10:25 remaining

The 6-foot-9, 238-pound Gibson pushed down Dellavedova, who stands 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds. Lying face down under the basket, the Cavs guard sended Gibson’s left leg between his, down near his ankles. So he clamped down, making it difficult for the Bulls player to move.

That’s when Gibson, claiming only to be freeing his leg, jerked his foot loose in what, in the primary camera’s view, appeared to be a swift kick to Dellavedova’s backside (or undercarriage).

Or as LeBron James, who was watching from the Cleveland bench, described it: “They kind of get tangled up a little bit, and then [Taj] kicks him in the ass. That’s what happened. And the skirmish starts after that.”

Gibson’s version differed considerably.

“I didn’t kick him at all,” he said. “He just leg-locked me. It got chippy at the end, of course. I tried to pull my leg back. It looked like I kicked him from the way and the force I was pulling my leg out, but … I have to deal with the consequences. They ejected me. I have to deal with whatever the league passes out. But I didn’t kick him at all.”

Gibson was assessed a flagrant-2 type foul, which carries an automatic ejection. The Cavaliers, with their fans fully engaged, rode the emotions of the moment to a little spurt that put them up 92-77 before James re-entered.

But Chicago righted itself enough to outscore Cleveland 24-14 the rest of the way, in spite of going down a second big man (Pau Gasol sat out his second consecutive game in the series with a strained left hamstring.)

“Both teams kind of swarmed the situation and made it bigger than what it was,” Gibson said. “Nobody threw any punches. I’m just sad I couldn’t finish the game and help my team.

“I mean, I didn’t say anything to him. We all react. But this is basketball – we can’t fight. I don’t know why guys always take to that kind of fuss, like they’re gonna do something. I just tried to pull my leg back. When you’re on TV, everything always looks different. But I just try to play basketball. I’m just frustrated I couldn’t finish the game.”

Gibson downplayed a hard screen he had set on Dellavedova to start the play and didn’t ‘fess up to any extra contact when shoving him for rebound position. The Cavs guard does tend to bounce around with kinetic energy, so it wasn’t clear if his reactions to Gibson’s bumps were entirely legit or accentuated.

But James felt Gibson had set the tone on a previous Aaron Brooks-Gibson pick-and-roll.

“It was a couple plays before that that kind of transpired that. Taj threw Delly across the lane a few plays before that on another box-out,” James said. “The same thing happened again: They ran a high pick-and-roll … and we switched. Taj elbows Delly in the back of the head and puts him on the ground.”

And that, James said, was when Gibson kicked his teammate.

Referee Joey Crawford assessed the flagrant-2 foul, reviewing the play while the crowd saw it five or six times on the massive videoboard at The Q – and reacted angrily with each replay of the alleged kick.

Gibson didn’t have much time to give his version to the referees. “Once that official makes a decision, that’s what it is,” he said. “It was really hard to get an explanation when it’s so loud in there. And we’ve got our security, Eric Buck, he just grabbed me and we tried to get off the court in a timely fashion.”

James said he made sure that no Cavs players left the bench area, which by NBA rules would bring certain suspensions from the hotly contested playoff series.

James added: “We just want to play ball. We know there’s going to be some games where it’s going to be physical. My message to my guys is, just play basketball. We’re going to protect ourselves, obviously. J.R. [Smith], Double-T [Tristan Thompson], they all came to the aid of Delly.”

Dellavedova is one of James’ favorite teammates, so the superstar’s protectiveness of his underdog Australian hustle player was understandable.

“Anyone who starts something with Delly, seriously, Delly doesn’t bother anybody,” James said. “He doesn’t even bother himself, so how’s he going to bother somebody else?”

Gasol out, Irving in as Bulls, Cavs cope

CLEVELAND – The cautious route vs. the gutsy route: the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers were taking different paths toward the same desired destination, a spot in the Eastern Conference finals, in some key players’ handling of injuries.

The Bulls went into Game 5 at Quicken Loans Arena Tuesday night without All Star big man Pau Gasol for the second consecutive game due to a strained left hamstring. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, were counting on an increasingly gimpy Kyrie Irving, whose sprained right foot has led to a sore left knee since he began favoring the initial injury.

Gasol, 34, stretched and tested his left leg Tuesday morning before the Bulls’ shootaround and was only able to run at about “40 percent” effort, he said. Still to come: running at full speed, changing directions, jumping and exploding off that leg.

“Still some stuff I need to get done in the next 48 hours to be able to play an NBA game,” Gasol said. “I feel it’s improving. We’re doing everything we can to get me on the floor as soon as possible.

“By the tests that we did, clinically, it’s not a terrible strain. Otherwise it would put me out for a while. … Right now we’re just staying positive. Everyone’s working hard so I can be out there the sooner the better. Because we’re in an urgency situation.”

Gasol said he suffered hamstring strains – one per leg – twice previously in his 14-year career. One put him out for a month, the other sidelined him for two-and-a-half weeks. This one, which he first noticed in Game 2 and aggravated in Game 3, comes at an especially inconvenient time.

“Very difficult,” Gasol said of sitting on the side while the Bulls try to win the best-of-seven series against the Cavaliers. “Not to play at this time when we need everyone on the floor that we can possibly have, this is hard. I feel I can make a difference on the floor and help the team have a better chance.”

Irving, 23, feels the same way and is playing through his foot and knee discomfort. Cleveland’s All-Star point guard has left no wiggle room in recent days – he was playing, not sitting – so it would seem to fall to coach David Blatt, his staff and the Cavs’ medical staff to make sure a) Irving isn’t doing further damage, and b) his limitations aren’t hurting the team on the floor.

“I really feel we have been as conscious and as considerate of his physical state as possible,” Blatt said before the game Tuesday. “If [Kyrie] said to me, ‘I can’t go’ or ‘I don’t feel I can do this,’ we would be the last people to push him to do so. The results of his tests are such that, he has issues but they’re not issues that endanger him in terms of being injured going forward.”

Some diminished contribution from Irving still is better, apparently, than what some different but totally healthy Cleveland player can give them.

“His best in the worst of conditions is invaluable to us and we want to get that from him,” Blatt said. “I’m not going to stop playing him just because perhaps he’s not playing at 100 percent of his normal level. Because still what he’s giving us is extremely important to us.

“I won’t play him if he’s too badly hurt. Or if we’re in a situation where it endangers him going forward.”

Cavs turn to Thompson, Bulls prepared


VIDEO: Tristan Thompson won’t confirm he is starting Game 2

CLEVELAND – Tristan Thompson, who finished fifth in balloting for the NBA’s Kia Sixth Man Award as Cleveland’s first big man off the bench, will move into Cavaliers’ starting lineup for Game 2 against Chicago Wednesday, according to multiple reports.

The No. 1 problem facing the Cavaliers and coach David Blatt in their Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Bulls is plugging the lineup hole opened by Kevin Love‘s postseason-ending shoulder injury. Thompson is a logical choice – he ranked fourth on the team in minutes logged this season and played 37 minutes off the bench in Game 1 Monday.

Blatt started veteran wing player Mike Miller in that one, but Miller took only two shots, hit one, scored three points with five rebounds and was a minus-19 in 16 minutes. The other two veterans Blatt used in that rotation, James Jones and Shawn Marion, went scoreless in a combined 14-plus minutes.

At 6-foot-8 and 225 pounds, Thompson gives Cleveland a more traditional look up front, while freeing LeBron James from having to guard one of Chicago’s bigs. James prefers more freedom and less banging at that end, and the move meshes with what many expect to see a more offensively assertive Cavs superstar.

“The thing is, [Thompson] played 37 minutes in the last game, so we have an idea of who he is and how he fits in,” Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said. “They can play him at the five, play him at the four. And because of all the things LeBron can do, that gives them great flexibility. Obviously the biggest concern will be the rebounding aggression.”

With 274 offensive rebounds in 2014-15, Thompson ranked fifth in the NBA, and he was fourth in offensive rebound percentage (14.5). In four games against Chicago, he averaged 9.0 points – his 36 points were only seven fewer than Love scored against the Bulls – and 8.4 rebounds.

Cleveland was 5-10 in the games Thompson started this season.

“The thing with Thompson,” Thibodeau said, “the second shots can really hurt you. And then they don’t play conventional after that. We could see the second lineup with all guards.”

Conley’s return fate waits 48 hours

With political scandals, they say, it’s not the act, it’s the cover-up. With sports injuries, it’s not the surgery, it’s the recovery. And that’s what Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley faces now.

Conley, who had successful facial surgery Monday in Memphis after being inadvertently elbowed by Portland’s C.J. McCollum Saturday in Game 3 of the Grizzlies-Trail Blazers first-round series, now must wait 48 hours for swelling to subside. Only then, reported Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, will Conley and his team be able to assess his prospects for a possible return in these playoffs.

Conley already was scratched from Game 4 in Portland Monday, with the Grizzlies ahead 3-0 in the best-of-seven series. If it continues, Game 5 is scheduled for Wednesday in Memphis, Game 6 Friday in Portland and a possible Game 7 Sunday back in Memphis.

Here is the essence of Wojnarowski’s report, citing league sources:

There are scenarios in which Conley could return in a possible Western Conference semifinal series against the Golden State Warriors, league sources said, but that’s uncertain until the healing process begins, the pain lessens and Conley can be fitted for a mask.

Twitter also provided bits of Conley-related info:

Stepping into the void again for Conley, particularly if backup Beno Udrih continues to be limited with an ankle sprain, could be second-year man Nick Calathes, who finished strong for the Grizzlies in Game 3.

Morning shootaround — April 25




VIDEO: All the highlights from Friday’s playoff action

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Kawhi shines for Spurs | Small Wizards big hit | New Rose blooming | Pelicans pick up pieces | Hack-a-Shaq to get review

No. 1: Leonard makes another statement for the Spurs — On the night he was presented with the Kia Defensive Player of the Year Trophy, Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard added to his growing legend by proving that he is more than a one-trick pony. Just ask the Clippers, who watched him bury jumpers, throw down lob dunks and do virtually anything he pleased in carrying his team past L.A. 100-73 to take a 2-1 lead in the first-round playoff series. Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News had the blow-by-blow:

“He’s like Deion Sanders,Doc Rivers said. “You’re trying to find where the hell in the backfield he is.”
The answer Friday: Everywhere.

Rivers wasn’t sure if Leonard’s 32 points — on 13-for-18 shooting — spoke volumes Friday, but conceded they might have.

“I think he was trying to tell all the voters he’s a player, not just a defensive player,” Rivers said.

With Leonard playing Pied Piper, the Spurs unleashed the kind of fury that seemed like a nightly occurrence last spring, en route to torching Miami in the most lopsided Finals in NBA history.

They shot 51.6 percent, a high for the series, and hit 41.7 percent from 3-point range. That was a marked improvement from Games 1 and 2 in Los Angeles, when the Spurs made only 18 of 58 from long range.

“I don’t know about effort and execution,” Rivers said. “I know we got our butt kicked.”

Afterward, Gregg Popovich was quick to put the blowout in perspective.

“We just had a heck of a night,” Popovich said, “and it was just one night.”

***

No. 2: Wizards go big by getting small — Back in the the 1970s, Steve Martin had a hit comedy album called “Let’s Get Small.” Is Wizards coach Randy Wittman ready to hit the charts with an updated version? Is it possible that Wittman had this planned all through the second half of the regular season, when the Wizards played rope-a-dope with the rest of the league and just reeled everyone in? A team that looked barely mediocre over the last 2 1/2 months has looked stunning in building a 3-0 lead on the Raptors and the Wiz have done it by going to a small lineup that makes the most of Paul Pierce and Otto Porter, according to our own John Schuhmann:

Then the regular season turned into the playoffs and a different Wizards team emerged. This one plays a small lineup, with Paul Pierce at power forward, liberally. This one has scored 116 points per 100 possessions over the last two games, and it took just 12 of its 76 shots from mid-range in Game 3 of the first round on Friday.
This Wizards team took two games in Toronto and is up 3-0 on the Raptors after a 106-99 victory back at home, with a chance to complete the sweep on Sunday.

Game 3 of this series followed a similar script as Games 1 and 2. The Raptors had a lead midway through the second quarter when Wizards coach Randy Wittman unleashed his secret weapon, a lineup that features Pierce and Otto Porter at the forward spots.

Pierce is the 37-year-old, grizzled vet who’s been here before.
Friday was career playoff game No. 151.

“That’s why we brought him here,” Wittman said, “for these kind of situations.”

Porter is the 21-year-old, former No. 3 pick who played a grand total of 319 minutes as a rookie last season and who was again out of the rotation just a month ago. On March 27 against Charlotte, he was a DNP, coach’s decision. Friday was career playoff game No. 6.

“He’s just growing up, right before your eyes,” Pierce said of Porter. “What better way to come out like this than in the spotlight of the playoffs.”

One of the reasons Porter got some minutes in early April was to keep Pierce fresh for the playoffs. After March 3, the pair never played more than seven minutes together in a game.
But apparently, Wittman was playing possum.

“We finally tweaked some things we’ve been saying we want to do all year,” Pierce said. “It makes us more versatile as a team, moving me to the four, giving John more space to get to the lane, opening up things for our scorers and our shooters.”

For the third straight game, the Wizards took the lead when Wittman went to the small lineup in the second quarter. This time, it was needed again in the fourth.

***

No. 3:  That’s not the same old Rose leading the Bulls — Forget everything that long-time basketball playwright William Shakespeare ever told you. The same old Derrick Rose by any name is not the sweet young thing that won the 2011 MVP and used to fly recklessly around the court for the Bulls. The new Rose, in a reflective mood, tells our Steve Aschburner that he’s smarter and better now:

“It’s over,” he said. “That player that you saw, that reckless player is smarter now.”
Rose laughed.

“If I didn’t grow in this game, I’d be mad at myself,” he said. “Just trying to take the shots that they’re giving me, trying to adjust while I’m playing.

“I love this player. This player’s better. Smarter. More effective. I think I’m not rushing anything while I’m out there. Letting the game come to me. The only thing I’ve got to handle is my turnovers, but in crucial situations I think they haven’t cost us. Every game I have it on my mind to try to keep the turnovers down, but playing the game of basketball, it’s not a perfect game.”

Breaking into stages his repeated and occasionally aborted comebacks from multiple knee surgeries, Rose has managed to keep them reasonable and, so far this time, achievable. With his play through three games against the Bucks — he’s averaging 24.0 points, 8.0 assists, 10-of-22 on 3-point attempts and a mighty 120/96 split in offensive and defensive ratings — Rose unofficially has reached the “pinch me” stage for the Bulls and their fans.

Many of them never thought they’d see again the day they could enjoy, free of worry, Rose’s romps through the lane and violent bursts in changing direction. To them, Rose’s comments were meant to be reassuring, offering up a player who might not drop jaws quite like the 22-year-old who took home the Maurice Podoloff MVP trophy but one who is better equipped to stick around and lead the Bulls where they all want to go.

***

No. 4: Pelicans must grow from painful lesson — The shock and pain of watching the ugly game video from the stunning Game 3 loss is past. The hurt of seeing Stephen Curry’s game-tying 3-pointer out of the left corner has numbed them. The knowledge that a chance to throw a real scare into the Warriors has slipped through their fingers has sunk in. Now comes the heavy lifting for the Pelicans, says our Fran Blinebury. Turning the agonizing lesson into fuel for the future fire:

On one hand, just making the rally to get into the playoffs should have been the accomplishment for a nascent roster to grow on. But to win a game when they had their hands around the best-record-in-the-league Warriors’ necks for most of the night would have been a shouting-from-the-rooftops cry that their day was coming fast.

“You have to take ownership of it,” said coach Monty Williams said. “You can’t sugarcoat it. We’re all feeling like dirt right now, so obviously you want to build them up, but there is nothing that can build you up in a situation like that. It can be a growth moment for us. It’s just tough. To have the game, and to lose it that way, there is no way to fix it right away. We’ve got to deal with it and own it.”

The Pelicans gave Curry not one, but two chances to tie the game in the final six seconds of regulation. They gave up 10 offensive rebounds and 16 second-chance points in the fourth quarter. They didn’t smartly foul Marreese Speights when he pulled in the critical rebound and before he got the ball back to Curry in the left corner. They watched a Warriors team show that the only way to really close out a game is to keep hammering and hammering away at it until there is not a single tick left on the clock.

For all the game situations and different looks and predicaments that can be encountered over the long 82-game regular season schedule, they are not the kind of lessons that can be learned in December and January or even March and April. It takes the finality of the playoffs — win or go home — to be the stern, painful, enduring teacher.

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No. 5:Poor free-throw shooters of the world can celebrate — Let rim benders rejoice. No more long, tedious hours in the gym wasted on improving one of the most fundamental parts of your craft. NBA commissioner Adam Silver told Tim McMahon of the ESPNDallas.com that there will be serious discussion about the “Hack-a-Shaq” rule in various league meetings this spring:

Silver, who replaced the retired David Stern as commissioner in February 2014, acknowledged that the discussion is “in part” about weighing the value of entertainment and strategy.

It’s been a talking point during the playoffs, with the San Antonio Spurs sending the Los Angeles Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan to the foul line 17 times in a playoff victory earlier this week.

“I really don’t know. I think we’re clearly going to look at it, and even though I have D.J. [Jordan], I still go back and forth on it,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers told reporters before Friday night’s Game 3 against the Spurs. “I was put on the committee to look at what’s good for the league, not our team, and it’s still a tough one for me even though it’s obvious for everyone. Every ref, every game it starts, he [Jordan] looks over at me and says, ‘You guys have to stop this.’”

Rivers’ conflicted opinion of the strategy mirrored Silver’s.

“It’s a tough one for me. I go back and forth on it because I look at the other side as if you make it, they won’t do it,” Rivers said.

“That’s too simple, I think, and I think fans watching it, I don’t think it’s that enjoyable to watch and we’re all waiting for the game where a team has one [poor free throw shooter] on each team and the coaches go back and forth and do it. The game is going to last forever, No. 1, and it would be ugly to watch, so that’s my answer.”

Silver reiterated his awareness and responsibility of the balance between protecting how the game is played and creating a compelling product.

“But at the end of the day, it’s about the game,” Silver said. “I used to run something called NBA Entertainment, but I always remind myself in my job now as commissioner and managing the league office, it’s the game above all. So I think we have to [determine] what makes the most sense for the game.

“That’s why I’m sensitive about guys being able to make their free throws, and I also find that sometimes it’s a fascinating strategy,” Silver said. “We’re very conservative when it comes to changing the rules of the game. That’s why changing the rules of the game requires more than the majority of the owners; it requires a super majority. So we’ve got to be very careful, but it is something that we’re looking at closely.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Down 3-0 to the Rockets, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle comes out swinging at the referees…After a career playoff high 26 rebounds, there are no more questions about Dwight Howard’s health…Kyle Lowry’s struggles continue as Raptors go down 3-0…By the way, league office says OT might not have been necessary.  Stephen Curry was also fouled on that clutch game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation Game 3… Count the Celtics as being surprised that the situation between Rajon Rondo and the Mavericks blew up so badly…Kawhi Leonard will remain a Spur next season and could help recruit LaMarcus Aldridge to join him in San Antonio.

ICYMI(s) of The Night: A sequence like this illustrates why Paul George is among the best two-way players in the game today …:

VIDEO: Paul George gets the steal and then caps the break with a fancy jam