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Director Grossman’s NBA roots ran deep

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: NBA TV family remembers Sandy Grossman

Sandy Grossman, the Emmy Award-winning sports director who died Wednesday at 78 at home in Boca Raton, Fla., was best known for his work in pro football, including 10 Super Bowl telecasts and more than two decades in the TV truck supporting announcers Pat Summerall and John Madden. As CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said, “For many years, Sandy Grossman’s name was synonymous with excellence in NFL coverage.”

But Grossman’s roots ran deep in the NBA as well. In fact, he was lead director on The Finals 18 times, nearly double his work on the NFL’s premier event. And a full quarter-century ago, Grossman had an answer for what some consider a looming headache to this day: a championship series without big markets to drive the huge audience numbers sponsors like to see.

But based on what Grossman told a reporter from the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel back in April 1989, he wouldn’t have been wringing his hands over the prospect of a Finals pitting, say, Oklahoma City against Indiana. In his mind, the presentation and the individual star power could transcend market size or the absence of legacy teams:

“We found a strong phenomenon last year [1988],” Grossman said. “We had Los Angeles and Detroit, and we set all kinds of records. We were concerned that only an L.A.-Boston final could attract such a large audience. That’s significant, when the quality of the event matters more than who plays in it.

“You have to prepare for the fact you could have Utah-Cleveland at the end. But by that time, people will be familiar with the characters. We’ll be banking on the Mailman [Karl Malone] and [Cleveland's] Brad Daugherty to provide drama.”

Grossman, who started at CBS as an usher working The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957, knew drama. He told the Sun-Sentinel in that 1989 story that his most fulfilling NBA telecast was Game 5 of the 1976 Finals between Boston and Phoenix, the famous “Gar Heard” game that went to triple-overtime.

The accolades poured in for Grossman, who was raised in Newark, N.J., then studied at the University of Alabama, hoping to become a sports announcer. Instead, he wound up behind the scenes and had an even greater impact, from the tributes in the Associated Press story on his passing:

“He was a brilliant director and a thoughtful colleague,” Fox Sports President Eric Shanks said. “He mentored many of us here and throughout the sports TV industry, and we learned more from him than he could imagine.”

His innovations included using music to go into the break during basketball games. After Grossman played “The Hustle” by Van McCoy, his son recalled, sales of the song skyrocketed, so the musician sent him gold records as a thank you.

Visitors to his TV truck over the years included Richard Nixon and Oliver Stone, Dean Grossman said.

“If there wasn’t an envelope to push, Sandy would create one,” said former Fox Sports Chairman David Hill, a senior executive vice president for News Corp.

As Madden put it, “He had guts.”

A piece on the Alabama Media Group’s Web site offered details into Grossman’s creative process and some of the innovations he tried and helped popularize:

Grossman became most famous for his legendary pairing with producer Bob Stenner on Fox and CBS for more than four decades. Grossman and Stenner revolutionized how broadcasters approached games, such as the now-standard production meetings with coaches and players before the telecast.

Those funny comments Madden would make from the booth upon seeing a random fan in the stands? Grossman found those shots, knowing that Madden’s sense of humor would produce funny spontaneous and funny TV.

Grossman has been credited for other contributions in the industry. Among them: music going to commercial breaks (ABA coverage in the 1970s); miking coaches during games (1975 NBA Finals); and having low cameras at half-court and under the baskets.

Grossman is survived by Faithe, his wife of 51 years, and their four children and eight grandchildren.

Tale of the tape: Two Brandons

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

The Milwaukee Bucks haven’t won much this season, but they did win this: Their summertime swap of Brandons.

The July 31 deal was bigger than just that, with Khris Middleton adding to the Bucks’ haul (Viacheslav Kravtsov was just ballast) . But at its core, the sign-and-trade was about a swap of and preference in combo guards Brandon Knight and Brandon Jennings. Jennings had exploded on the scene in Milwaukee in 2009-10, scoring 55 points in his seventh NBA game. That immediately triggered second-guessing in New York, where the Knicks had drafted Jordan Hill two spots ahead of Jennings, and kick-started Milwaukee’s “Fear The Deer” season in which they finished 46-36, reached the playoffs and might have made some real noise if not for center Andrew Bogut‘s arm and wrist injuries from an ugly spill late in the regular season.

Brandon Knight (Bucks) and Brandon Jennings (Allen Einstein/NBAE)

Brandon Knight (Bucks) and Brandon Jennings
(Allen Einstein/NBAE)

Jennings’ quick start as a scorer, however, hurt his game, in the opinion of some NBA scouts. His shoot-first inclinations calcified, despite unimpressive accuracy numbers (39.4 percent shooting, 35.4 on 3-pointers, in four seasons with the Bucks). He also had difficulty finishing at the rim.

Yet Jennings stayed bold with his shot, showing less interest in setting up teammates. That led to some locker-room frustration, even squabbles, especially when Jennings could respond to an All-Star snub by averaging 14.5 assists for a week but was down at 5.7 for four Bucks seasons.

He hit restricted free agency ready for a change. Milwaukee was ready too, agreeing to a swap for Knight while Jennings landed a three-year, $24 million deal in Detroit.

Knight had heard many of the same criticisms in two seasons in Detroit: Not a true point guard, a ‘tweener, and so on. But the Bucks liked his size, his skills, his age and his salary, and despite the presence of other guards (Luke Ridnour, Gary Neal, O.J. Mayo, Nate Wolters, later Ramon Sessions), flipped the keys of their offense to the south Florida native.

Knight showed a lot of Jennings’ tendencies for the Bucks without generating hard feelings. He has shot the ball 200 times more than any teammate, despite his 41.7 percent success rate, and he leads the team in 3-point attempts (306) if not accuracy (32.7). He’s their leader in assists, too, but with an average (4.9) lower than Jennings averaged in his four Bucks seasons. Ditto for Knight’s turnovers (2.6), higher than what Jennings coughed up while there.

But he’s two years younger than Jennings, two years away from unrestricted free agency and a lot more affordable. Coincidentally, Knight is only the second player in Bucks history to lead the team in both points and assists in his first season with the club. The first? Jennings.

Bucks coach Larry Drew talked up Knight before a game against Miami last weekend.

“There was always the big question, could he play point? I still think that Brandon is a very young developing player,” Drew said. “Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Did I know that Brandon was actually younger than Michael Carter-Williams?’ … You think about that. We think of Michael Carter-Williams as a really young terrific NBA player. He has a chance to be Rookie of the Year. It seems like Brandon has been around for a few more years.

“Brandon wants to get better, he wants to learn. We challenge him at that point guard position – that’s such a vital position in our league. He’s still making mistakes, and that’s something we have to continue to work with him on. But after all that’s been said about him from the very beginning, particularly when he was in Detroit, I thought he came into this thing very positive. And I know he was in the mindset of wanting to prove something.”

With their seasons nearly complete and their teams’ series ending earlier this week. it seemed like a good time to tell the tale of two Brandons with a tale of the tape:

Essentials:
Jennings: 6-foot-1, 169 pounds. Born Sept. 23, 1989 (24). No. 10 pick in 2009.
Knight: 6-foot-3, 189 pounds. Born Dec. 2, 1991 (22). No. 8 pick in 2011.
Comment: It’s hard to beat Jennings’ elusiveness and quickness, but Knight is fast, too. And the Bucks feel his size is better suited to playing the defense that, in time, they think he’s capable of providing.
Advantage: Knight.

Team W-L record
Jennings: 27-48, fourth in the Central Division.
Knight: 14-61, last in the Central.
Comment: With nearly double the victories, this might be classified as a blowout for Jennings. Then again, winning 27 gets you a lottery spot same as winning 14, except that Milwaukee might land a guarantee of no pick worse than No. 4. The Pistons will need to get lucky to leap ahead of the Bucks.
Advantage: Jennings (c’mon, winning games still matters).

Basic individual stats
Jennings: 15.7 ppg, 7.8 apg, 3.0 rpg, 34.3 mpg, 2.6 turnovers, 1.3 steals. 37.7 FG%, 34.5 3FG%.
Knight: 17.5 ppg, 4.9 apg, 3.5 rpg, 32.9 mpg, 2.6 turnovers, 1.0 steals, 41.7 FG%, 32.7 3FG%.
Comment: Jennings’ assists numbers are a personal high, reflective of the scoring talent around him – Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, Rodney Stuckey – and Detroit’s presumed desire to win and play right at least early in the season. Knight has self-nominated as the “someone has to score on a bad team” guy.
Advantage: Even.

Advanced individual stats:
Jennings: 107 offensive rating, 112 defensive rating, 35.1 assists %, 44.6 eFG%, 16.3 PER.
Knight: 104 offensive rating, 113 defensive rating, 27.1 assists %, 46.8 eFG%, 16.4 PER.
Comment: A little credit here, a little debit there, it’s awfully close. But then you notice that Jennings’ PER, effective field-goal percentage and offensive/defensive ratings all have gotten worse from two seasons ago (18.4, 47.6%, 106/107) and, two years further along than Knight, he’s headed the wrong way.
Advantage: Knight.

Head-to-head
Jennings: 20.5 ppg, 10.3 apg, 2.8 rpg, 40.9 FG%, 50.0 3FG%, plus-13.4 ppg in four games against Milwaukee.
Knight: 15.3 ppg, 5.8 apg4.3 rpg, 32.1 FG%, 21.4 3FG%, minus-14.6 ppg in the four meetings.
Comment: Jennings left Milwaukee with a fair amount of baggage, even bitterness. It figures he would have more to prove, more of a statement to make, than Knight when facing his former team. And sure enough, Jennings did. The Pistons went 3-1 against the Bucks this season.
Advantage: Jennings.

Contract
Jennings: $7.7 million this season, another $16.3 million in 2014-15 and 2015-16.
Knight: $2.8 million salary this season, $8.3 million the next two years.
Comment: On a per-points, per-assists, per-anything basis, Knight already is a better buy than Jennings and figures to stay that way for another two seasons.
Advantage: Knight.

George at heart of Indy’s problems

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Brent Barry, Dennis Scott and Matt Winer examine the Pacers’ fall

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — We’ll turn over our weekly spot here to NBA TV research ace Kevin Cottrell, who lays out the problem with the reeling Indiana Pacers in the simplest of terms:

They. Can’t. Score.

Here’s Cottrell:

​Entering the season, the Indiana Pacers were pegged as the biggest threat to dethrone the defending champion Miami Heat. Coming off a disappointing Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference finals, the Pacers made their ultimate goal clear.

​“Our focus is to be getting Game 7 on our home court,” David West told reporters at Pacers Media Day.

If home court was goal 1A, enhancing their ability to light up a scoreboard should have been 1B for the Pacers. Heading into Monday night’s matchup with the West leading San Antonio Spurs, Indy posted a 33-4 record at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. But the Pacers are averaging only 97.0 points a game, which ranks 23rd in the league.

Many believe the Pacers’ stingy defense is more than enough to win a title, but the numbers say otherwise. In the Pacers’ five games prior to hosting the Spursthey held opponents to 87.0 points a game. But the Pacers have failed to score 80 points in five of their last six games. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the last team to do so was the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, who set the NBA record for lowest winning percentage in a season (7-59).

So what’s the issue?  Pacers “Do-It-All” Forward Paul George is the team’s only legitimate scoring threat. George is averaging a career high 21.7 points a game, a whopping 7.6 points more than the second leading scorer, Lance Stephenson (14.1). Without a true 1-2 scoring punch, George’s offensive efficiency directly affects the Pacers’ win-loss column. The Pacers started the season 16-1 and George entered the MVP discussion.

Since then, George (and the Pacers’ production) has been on a steady decline month-to-month (see chart below).

Month PPG FG% 3FG% Indy record
Oct 28.0 48-6 41-2 2-0
Nov 23.0 47.2 40.3 13-1
Dec 24.1 46.8 39.4 10-4
Jan 21.3 41.0 31.5 10-5
Feb 21.0 40.1 39.5 9-3
March 18.7 37.2 29.7 8-10
Total 21.7 42.5 36.0 52-23

​Placing all the blame on George’s jump shot may not be fair, but it is accurate. Take a look at the last five NBA Champions (below). It’s no coincidence that all five scored at high clip. Furthermore, each team featured potent scorers: LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant. In the event one of the three aforementioned struggled on a given night, Dwyane Wade, Jason Terry and Pau Gasol could pick up the scoring load.

While some believe defense wins championships, the best teams, especially recently, always have big-scoring offenses.

  • 2012-13:​  Heat ​​102.9 (5)
  • 2011-12:  ​Heat 98.5 (7)
  • 2010-11:  ​Mavericks ​100.2 (11)
  • 2009-10: ​ Lakers ​​101.7 (12)
  • 2008-09: ​ Lakers ​​106.9 (3)

​If the Pacers’ lack of scoring is their biggest hurdle, their ability to win on the road is a close second. After a 40-12 start, Indiana is 12-11 since the All-Star Break. Nine of the 11 losses have come away from the Fieldhouse. Combine their road woes with the fact that they’ve been held to 92.7 points a game since the mid-season break and you’ll find a recipe for an early playoff exit.

The way things are shaping up, the Pacers will likely face the Bulls and/or Heat in an attempt to win the East. Indiana is a combined 0-3 on the road against those two, with an April 11th meeting in Miami on NBA-TV still to go. Ironically, the Pacers may have to win a regular-season game in Miami for a chance to host a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals.

Defense has been the Pacers calling card, but winning it all without scoring is rare. If they manage to capture a title despite scoring 96.8 points a game, the Pacers would become the first team to win the title averaging 97 points or less since the 2004-05 Spurs (96.2). Even the Spurs organization, which places an emphasis on defense, currently averages 105.6 points a game. If the Pacers learned anything from their Monday night loss to the Spurs, it’s that the best defense may be a good offense.

Rockets’ Beverley not lost for season

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

HOUSTON –Prior to Saturday night’s game against the Clippers, Pat Beverley said if the medical staff would let him just slip a protective brace onto his injured right knee, he would have been back in the Rockets’ lineup.

That time might now be closer than originally thought.

Following an examination by renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, the word is that Beverley will be able to avoid surgery for the torn meniscus and be able to return to the court after several weeks of rehab.

When Beverley suffered the injury on Thursday, it initially was thought that he was lost for the season, which would have been a significant blow since he brings critical aggressiveness and defense to the Rockets’ starting lineup.

However, following another MRI and an exam at his office in Alabama, Andrews determined that Beverley will be able to work his way back through a rehab regimen. He is expected to be sidelined for at least another week. Exactly when Beverley returns will depend on the pace of his rehab progress.

Beverly had said on Saturday that the swelling already had gone down in his knee and he was feeling no pain.

“It’s always a great thing,” Beverley said. “No swelling is a great thing. It wasn’t in the same area where a lot of players tore their meniscus at. It’s a pretty solid area. I feel pretty confident about it.”

The Rockets had their five-game winning streak snapped by the Clippers with Jeremy Lin replacing Beverley in the starting lineup. Beverley is averaging 9.9 points through 53 games this season.

Miami lineups change, LeBron plays on

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron dunks on the Bucks on a night when he rested during the fourth quarter

MILWAUKEE – In the last game of LeBron James‘ seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he took the floor against Boston in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, Antawn Jamison and 38-year-old Shaquille O’Neal. Combined points-per-game of the four starters besides James: 50.9.

Against the Milwaukee Bucks Saturday night, James stepped on the court with Chris Bosh, Toney Douglas, James Jones and Udonis Haslem. Combined scoring average at tipoff of this “supporting cast”: 26.2.

This was not what the smoke, lasers and dance music were all about back in July 2010.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has shuffled through 19 different starting lineups in 72 games this season. One – the familiar one from the past two Finals, with James, Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier – has been used 30 times,with the Heat going 20-10 in those games. The other 18 actually have yielded better results – 30-12 – despite none getting more than eight starts together and eight of the combinations going one-and-done.

None of this is by design, mind you. Injuries and ineffectiveness have pulled the handle on Miami’s lineup slot machine, not Spoelstra, the fruit tumbling and landing based on who’s available and contributing. Everyone knows about Wade, whose increasingly brittle body has been nursed through the 2013-14 schedule (51 games in, 21 games out) as if it’s Stephen Strasburg‘s right arm. Ray Allen at times has looked every bit of his 38 years, eight months, one week and three days. Battier’s planned retirement after this season has had a few false starts.

Eternally rehabbing Greg Oden has been more mascot than center, the way this season has gone.

“People think we’re overanalyzing it, we have some plan right now,” Spoelstra said Saturday evening before his guys did their work early in the 88-67 breeze past the Bucks. “Guys who are able to play right now are playing, period. Guys who cannot play, who are not passing the test, they’re not playing. The thing about this season, we’ve had a lot more of those than we’ve had in the past where guys aren’t able to play.”

In the middle of it all stands James. He’s the constant in the Heat’s season of change – OK, Bosh has missed one game and Norris Cole none but they orbit James the same as Miami’s other planets and moons. The four-time MVP has missed three games himself – broken nose, groin and ankle sprain, he recounts swiftly when the topic comes up – but no one on the roster has played within 300 minutes of his time. At 2,592, he has played nearly seven full games more than Bosh (2,258) and the equivalent of twice that compared to Chalmers (1,887).

James sat down after 30 minutes Saturday, skipping the fourth quarter entirely thanks to the score and who the Heat were playing. He orchestrated and facilitated more than dominated – two shots and two points in the first half, 13 points and seven rebounds by night’s end – but he was out there. Wade again was sitting on the bench in a suit. Chalmers and Oden were sidelined, too, and the flu sweeping through Allen’s family kept him off the three-game trip entirely.

Frankly, James would be within his rights to look around and wonder whether this patchwork attack and relative M*A*S*H unit of teammates will be enough to reach and win another Finals. And if he did, the opt-out in his contract this summer would loom so large, it’d throw a shadow over Miami’s entire postseason.

If James’ teammates feel sheepish or some extra obligation to pick up the pace and durability in fairness to him, they’re not saying. “We’re a team. We have to come through for each other,” Wade said after the Milwaukee game. “So we all are obligated for each other. Obviously myself, LeBron and Chris wanted to play together.”

Then again, if his heavier work load while others sit is an issue, James hasn’t let on.

“It’s gotten to the point now where I don’t even think about it,” the Heat star said, “and if I’m in the lineup tonight, then I’ve got to do my job. You just worry about controlling things you can control. Us having injuries, us having guys in and out of the lineup, that’s something I can’t control.”

It is something he’s noticed, at least. Never before has James played for a team with such a revolving door on its trainers room.

“I can’t really recall it, as many guys as we’ve had [out],” he said. “In that sense it’s challenging, not only for myself but for the guys who are in – they may not have played for two months – and then out and they may not play for 14, 15 games.

“It’s the luxury of having unselfish guys. That’s what we have. I don’t know too many teams who can do this – that can have guys like James Jones who – I don’t know, has he played this year [before Friday]? – then to start [in Detroit] and contribute. Guys like that, it’s amazing.”

For the record, Jones had played a total of 70 minutes in a dozen games across Miami’s first 70, before logging 54 minutes in the back-to-back against the Pistons and the Bucks. But what about James? Has fatigue made him crave a couple games off just to rest or reset?

“Only if I’m injured, for the most part, will I sit down,’ ” James said. “I don’t have too many ‘mental days.’ “

In past seasons, when Miami’s playoff berth has been secured, Spoelstra has spotted James a game or two to set up for the playoffs. He will again, unless Indiana keeps the East race for No. 1 close till the end.

But the Heat aren’t there yet. And James has no hand up in search of a breather.

“If I tried to sit him out of a shootaround or a practice, he would look at me cross-eyed,” Spoelstra said. “This summer he had more rest than he’s had any other offseason. So that’s probably triple [rest] for most people, because he loves the game so much, he loves to compete.”

Consider Friday, the day Miami played in Detroit. James showed up at Oakland (Mich.) University not long after sunrise to work out at the gym where his childhood friend and high school teammates Sonny Weems serves as an assistant coach. Then he went through the Heat’s shootaround later than morning. Nine or 10 hours after that, he posted a triple-double against the Pistons.

During warmups against the Bucks, James took time to meet and visit with Ebony Nettles-Bey, a girls high school basketball player from Verona, Wis., who is battling a Stage 4 cancer. He shot around with her prior to tipoff, then spoke warmly about their encounter after the final horn.

“What she’s going through every single day, the challenges she’s facing every single day with the Stage 4 cancer that she has,” James said, “she’s the stronger one out of us two.”

After that, any further questions about work load and rest, not just James’ but any NBA player’s, seemed a little silly.

“There’s no such thing as well-rested at this point,” James said. “Every season is different. My mentality changes from season to season. Every challenge is different. You just go about it however it presents itself.”

With Aldridge back, so is Blazers’ edge

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Trail Blazers cruise past Bulls in Chicago

CHICAGO – LaMarcus Aldridge realized early that it wasn’t going to be his night offensively.

“My first shot, I took it quick but I saw Bulls coming baseline,” the Portland Trail Blazers All-Star power forward said. “And I remembered [in Portland in November] they doubled me the whole game. I’d had some good games versus them in my past, so I felt like they wanted to take me out. So I knew early I was going to try to be more active defensively.”

What mattered more to Aldridge was that it was going to be his night at all. He had missed seven consecutive games with a bruised lower back prior to Thursday, then got busy against the Hawks in Atlanta for 25 points, 16 rebounds and 32 minutes. The Blazers won, pulling up ever so slightly in what had been a nosedive (3-4 without Aldridge, nine losses in 15 games overall).

This game against Chicago, at the end of their five-game Eastern trip, was no time to start plummeting again.

“As long as I woke up and I could walk, I was going to play,” Aldridge said.

This wasn’t one for the portfolio – five points, 2-for-10 shooting – at the offensive end but he represented well on defense. Aldridge grabbed 13 defensive boards and had four steals, clogging up things inside against a Bulls team that was no threat outside (3-for-17 from the 3-point line).

And frankly, Aldridge’s mere threat, misfiring or not, drew extra defenders often enough to free up other Portland shooters. Free up and energize even. Hey, LaMarcus is in passing mode!

“They get more energy, and they get more happy of course,” Aldridge said after the Blazers hit 10 of their 22 attempts from the arc. “When teams double-team me, I feel like guys pull over to the ball faster, I think guys are more locked in. When I have the ball normally, I’m going 1-on-1 and I’m always shooting it. But I feel like tonight, my teammates were more engaged.”

Better now than never. Portland’s struggles over the past 10 weeks have been well-documented, notably by our guys Fran Blinebury and Sekou Smith here and here in the past few days alone. The Blazers’ freefall was all the rage as a media topic, certainly in Portland, and even though the players and coaches were on the road, they couldn’t escape it.

“Look, we all know where things are in the standings and the playoffs,” coach Terry Stotts said after a solid, assertive 91-74 victory at United Center. “Every game is critical. We let a couple get away on this trip but I didn’t have to say anything – the team knows where we are and what we need to do.”

Getting Aldridge back was their top priority – a big no-duh, frankly – because life without him was a double-whammy: the Blazers lost his production and opponents felt freshly enthused, eager to test Portland’s vulnerability.

But there was more, perhaps some unconscious acknowledgement that, with or without their big guy, they weren’t the same team that had blitzed the league in the first two months. “Maybe not sustainable,” Aldridge said of the swift start.

Every team has lulls, but the Blazers’ looked more like doubts.

“Other than us getting our best player back – which changes everything – our urgency has gone up after the loss in Orlando [Tuesday],” point guard Damian Lillard said. “You realize, ‘All right, it’s time to turn it around right now. We can’t wait. We can’t have one of these lackadaisical efforts.’ The last two games we’ve really defended and done everything together.”

The unity Portland has flexed at its best was there particularly on defense, where having the other man’s back is king.

“I think the biggest example I can give you,” Lillard said, “is how consistent we were [against the Bulls] chasing over ball screens and communicating and pushing the ball up and moving the ball. Just everything the coaches are telling us and constantly on us about, we’ve been able to execute those things on the floor consistently.

“We were really missing that over that tough stretch.”

Aldridge made sure not to rush back, lest his back pains reoccur and he miss more time even closer to the playoffs. The Blazers are 7-5 without him this season, 40-22 when he plays. They locked up a winning record on the road in 2013-14 (21-18 now) and are 12-7 on the tail end of back-to-backs.

Going through the hard times – with no guarantees they’re gone, of course – did put a chip back on the Blazers’ shoulders, if that’s any help.

“I think we’re at our best,” Lillard said, “when everybody starts to doubt us and says, ‘Oh, they might not be in the playoffs. They’re falling off.’ That’s when we come together. We want to prove people wrong.”

For Scola and Pacers, it’s about fixing carefully what was broken barely

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Pacers stifle Bulls; George tallies triple-double

INDIANAPOLIS – There was a rush to judgment for some inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse Friday night, a desire driven by desperation to declare that the kids were all right. That the Indiana Pacers, in beating a good team (Chicago) in ways most familiar (stifling defense, balanced scoring, ball movement, sweeping of the boards), were back, baby.

It was easy to get drawn into the feel-good atmosphere in the moments soon after the Pacers’ 91-79 victory, a game they blew open in the third quarter and managed comfortably to the end. The numbers stacked up beautifully, an homage to Indiana’s 16-1 start that got everything rolling this season:

  • They held the Bulls to 79 points. The Pacers are 12-0 when doing that in 2013-14.
  • They limited the guys in black to 36.4 percent shooting. Anything under 40 percent, Indiana is 25-2.
  • They controlled the glass 51-36 against a normally sound rebounding team, grabbing 13 on the offensive end. When they’re in double digits at that end, the Pacers are 24-4.
  • They had 27 assists on 34 field goals. They’re 34-3 just cracking 20.
  • And when all five starters score in double figures, this generally kumbaya crew is 12-2.

So the ball was hopping, the Fieldhouse was hot (Indiana guys got the game’s three technical fouls, though Chicago was more frustrated) and the Pacers’ recent worrisome streak – four straight losses earlier this month in which they gave up an average of 106 points, and a clunker in New York Wednesday – was getting brushed off almost blithely. After all, didn’t even coach Frank Vogel embrace Friday’s performance as a statement game about how dominant his guys can be and how legit their aspirations are?

“I think we did remind ourselves of who we are,” Vogel said, “in terms of a potentially suffocating defensive team that plays together on the offensive end and shares the basketball. We have a lot of weapons.”

It was left to Luis Scola to throw a damp blanket over the evening.

“I don’t think we’re out of it yet,” Scola said, soberly coming down from one of his best games this season, a season-high 19 points with 12 in the second quarter when Indiana’s bench jump-started most of the good stuff that followed.

“We just played one good game,” Scola said. “I believe in us, as much as anybody else or more. But we just played one good game.

“It wasn’t just one bad game we had. The longer you’ve been down is probably the longer it’s going to take you to come out of it. … If we go [Saturday] and lose against Memphis, it doesn’t mean nothing. We need to play well. Then we need to go to Chicago and we’ve got to play well again.”

Scola has earned the right to be cautious. No one game this season has fast-tracked his adjustment to contributing off the Pacers bench as a backup and reasonable facsimile for starter David West. Acquired last July from Phoenix, Scola has been inconsistent in the role. At times, he even appeared to regress: he went from 19.1 minutes, 8.4 points and 4.8 rebounds in November to 14.9, 5.8 and 4.8 in February. Those February numbers were eerily similar to the 2012-13 production of Tyler Hansbrough, the fellow over whom Scola was supposed to be such an upgrade.

So far, March has gone a little better individually for Scola – he’s shooting 53.8 percent, after hitting 37.6 percent the first two months of 2014. But this business of fitting in with a proven group and somehow fixing what was, at worst, only slightly broken is tricky. Evan Turner has learned that since arriving at the trade deadline in the surprise deal for Danny Granger. Big Andrew Bynum‘s swollen knee has blocked him from finding out.

“How to fit in and not stop their rhythm,” Turner said Friday of the challenge with which he’s still grappling. “And at the same time not be too passive or overly aggressive. Each night I have to figure out which way I have to play, whether I need to be aggressive or some nights I need to play defense and just pass the ball.”

Vogel takes responsibility for Scola’s limited opportunities or minutes variations – West still is averaging 30 a night, with Scola playing a career-low 17.1. But the Pacers coach didn’t sound bothered or unhappy with the 33-year-old’s impact.

“Scola’s just extremely passionate about playing great basketball,” Vogel said. “I probably have not rewarded him enough when he has a good burst. [He] played the whole second quarter [against Chicago] because he was playing his tail off. He’s a great competitor, great warrior. And a really good basketball player who, when he gets opportunity, he’s going to produce for you.”

Early in the season, Scola was noticeably rattled by the pace of his Indiana learning curve, displeased with his contribution. He didn’t fess up to that Friday but, when pressed, did admit to a new set point for what he considers a good night’s work.

“I’m just happy to be on a good team,” Scola said. “That could be something I learned. I learned it’s more fun to play less on a team like this, vs. play more on a bad team. Which I didn’t know early in the year.

“Playing more was very important to me. And it still is, but if I have to play 30 minutes on a team that is not in the playoffs, it’s less fun than this.”

Forget the sweeping statements for the Pacers or for Scola Friday. Somebody could use the word “fun” in their postgame locker room, and for a night, that was progress enough.

Award races head into stretch run

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Four weeks from today the regular season is over. All eyes will be on the playoffs. And that means the final push is on for the 2013-14 awards.

The duel for MVP honors has been a match race all season between Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Michael Carter-Williams jumped out of the pack early as the one to beat for Rookie of the Year. But the other races have been wide open.

Here’s one man’s view as we head into the home stretch:

Most Improved Player

Anthony Davis, Pelicans — This is why the Pelicans were so happy to make him the No. 1 pick in the 2012 Draft. This is what coach Monty Williams says Davis probably could have shown last season if the coach hadn’t kept a tight rein on his prized rookie, limiting his minutes and his exposure to getting overpowered while he built up his slender body. When Davis erupted for 40 points, 21 rebounds, three assists and three steals against the Celtics, it was the culmination of a spectacular sophomore year. He’s been steady and breathtaking at both ends of the court all season, enough to beat out the likes of worthy candidates Goran Dragic and Lance Stephenson in a crowded field of contenders. Also getting votes: DeAndre Jordan, Trevor Ariza.


VIDEO: Anthony Davis was nominated for Kia Player of the Month for March

Sixth Man of the Year

Manu Ginobili, Spurs – Following an injury-plagued 2012-13 season that saw him enter the playoffs last spring looking bedraggled, the player who puts the jolt into the Spurs attack is back playing like a live wire in his 12th season. His field-goal percentage is up and his he’s back to doing all the things at both ends of the floor that make him a disruptive force and a difference maker. Jamal Crawford is the closest contender and has done many of the same things for the Clippers. The deciding factor has to be overall team performance. L.A. is in the top half of the Western Conference standings, but that’s once again the Spurs at the top. The return of Manu to his old form is a prime reason. Also getting votes: Reggie Jackson, Markieff Morris.


VIDEO: Manu Ginobili talks about the Spurs’ season and his play

Rookie of the Year

Michael Carter-Williams, Sixers — He was the sixth guard selected (11th overall) in 2013 and wasted no time showing he never should have lasted that long. He’s put up big numbers even as the Sixers have suffered through what is a historically inept season. If all of general manager Sam Hinkie’s decisions turn out so well, the pain will be worth the price. The fun could just be starting when MCW gets to team up with a healthy Nerlens Noel next season. It’s a long way back to the No. 2 man in the voting for this category, but we’re jumping the more likely pick and going with Tim Hardaway Jr. His hard-charging style has been one of the few reasons to watch the Knicks all year. Also getting votes: Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke. Kia Rookie Ladder


VIDEO: At the All-Star break, Michael Carter-Williams talks about his season

Defensive Player of the Year

Joakim Noah, Bulls — The Pacers spent the early part of the year polishing their reputation as the league’s top defensive team, with center Roy Hibbert starting to clear room on his mantle as the pre-eminent rim protector in the game. But it is no coincidence that the Pacers’ struggles fit with a slippage in Hibbert’s game. The truth is, when you get him just a little bit away from the basket, he’s not so dominant. Meanwhile the Bulls have shrugged off the loss of Derrick Rose and Luol Deng because Noah simply won’t let them stop working and scrapping and competing. He’s the heart and soul of the team, especially that ferocious defense as Chicago charges late and the Pacers try to regain their equilibrium. Also getting votes: Serge Ibaka, Dwight Howard.


VIDEO: Rachel Nichols talks with Joakim Noah about his surge in play of late

Coach of the Year

Gregg Popovich, Spurs — The first instinct is to say that Jeff Hornacek has taken a Suns team that everyone assumed was diving for the lottery — and the Las Vegas wise guys had pegged for 21.5 wins — and turned them into an uplifting story and playoff contender, and that’s worthy of consideration. The next instinct is to say that Tom Thibodeau is like the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, virtually getting limbs chopped off and yet ignoring the wounds and keeping right on with the fight. But when you get right down to the meat of things, it’s all about winning games and some how, some way, Popovich keeps doing that better than anybody else. Never mind that Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are practically senior citizens. Never mind that an assortment of injuries has forced the Spurs to use two dozen different lineups. Never mind all of those lingering mental scars from The Finals last June. Popovich expects the best and his team keeps producing it. Excellence should be recognized and rewarded. Also getting votes: Frank Vogel, Dwane Casey, Steve Clifford.


VIDEO: GameTime delves into how deeply Gregg Popovich’s influence is felt around the NBA

Most Valuable Player

Kevin Durant, Thunder — It’s been a two-horse race between Durant and LeBron James almost from the opening tip. You can almost never go wrong picking James, who still reigns as the league’s best player with his ability. It looked like James might be making a late charge for an MVP three-peat with his 61 point game a couple of weeks ago. But an ensuing slump by both LeBron and the Heat took the steam out of that charge. Durant responded and has raised his game even higher over the past 1 1/2 weeks. We also have to go back to Durant’s body of work without Russell Westbrook for 30 games — and counting — as he keeps the Thunder in the hunt for best overall record and heads toward what should be the first of multiple MVP wins. Also getting votes: Joakim Noah, Blake Griffin. Kia Race to the MVP Ladder


VIDEO: Chris Webber and Greg Anthony debate and discuss the MVP race

Spurs’ Big 3 top Showtime in stability

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

San Antonio's Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

San Antonio’s Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

SAN ANTONIO — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

For a dozen seasons, coach Gregg Popovich has been able to walk into the locker room and write those names into his lineup.

Earth, wind and fire. Like the fundamental elements, we just expect them to be there. The years have practically blended them together into one multi-syllabic name with a single identity.

TimTonyManu. Working, playing, synchronizing and simply moving on, the basketball version of a Swiss watch.

Tick, tick, tick.

In a sport where knees tear, tendons break, tempers snap and egos explode, only two other trios in NBA history have stayed bound at the hip for so long and experienced such success.

Gregg Popovich (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

Gregg Popovich (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

When Duncan, Parker and Ginobili take the court for tonight’s game at the AT&T Center against the Lakers (8:30, NBA TV) for their 664th game together, they’ll pass the “Showtime” Lakers trio of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper as the second-mot durable trio in NBA history. Their 490 wins currently ties L.A. Holding down the No. 1 spot is the Celtics combination of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

“Being a human, sure, one takes it for granted when you don’t stop and think about what those guys have done and how long they’ve been together and what they’ve gone through listening to me for all these years,” said Popovich. “One does have to stop and really think about what that’s meant to our program and how consistent those three guys have been. Because that doesn’t happen that often in the league. We all probably need to appreciate it more around here in San Antonio, for sure.”

When Ginobili was first learning to throw his body all over the hardwood in his hometown of Bahia Blanca, Argentina, the only way to see the high-flying act of Magic, Kareem and Coop was on snippets from highlight tapes. “We were not watching those games live,” he said. “It was not easy to watch the NBA then. You could get tapes and things like that.

“Of course, I remember. The Showtime thing — [James] Worthy flying for dunks, great defense and Magic flying to find open guys in the lane. Bryon Scott to Kareem. I never watched a full game. But I saw plenty of highlights and for sure they were an inspiration and those games against the Celtics were legendary.”

They are as disparate a trio as one might find and yet symbolic of the NBA’s globalization in the quarter-century since the Lakers were winning five championships from 1980-89. A lanky swimmer from the U.S. Virgin Islands, a Belgium-born Frenchman and an Argentinian whose games possesses all the hot passion of the native tango.

Most games played together
729 — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish (Celtics)
711 — Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson (Pistons)
663 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper (Lakers)

663 — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili (Spurs)
632 — Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Satch Sanders (Celtics)

Most victories by an NBA trio
540 — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish (Celtics)
490 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper (Lakers)

490 — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili (Spurs)
468 — Bill Russell, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones (Celtics)
463 — Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Satch Sanders (Celtics)

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili won a championship in their first season together in 2003 and added another in 2005 and one in 2007.

“A great run and it feels very special,” Parker said. “I feel very blessed to play with Timmy and Manu and I feel very lucky and privileged to be named next to Magic Johnson and Kareem and Michael Cooper. I grew up watching them and never thought in my wildest dreams that my name would be next to them. It’s crazy just to think about it. Once I retire, I can look at it and enjoy it. Now I try to stay focused on the season, but it’s unbelievable.

“Growing up in France, soccer’s the main sport and they’re changing all the time. You go and buy [players] and stuff like that. In basketball, it’s a little bit harder to trade guys. But it’s still rare to have the same guys, us three for all those years, and the same coach.”

Toss in Popovich as the only coach that any of them have ever played for in the NBA and the stability and constancy of the Spurs is a little more understandable, yet it remains unprecedented. The Lakers were coached by Jack McKinney, Paul Westhead and Pat Riley during their run in the ’80s. The Celtics were led to their three championships in that decade by Bill Fitch (1981) and K.C. Jones (1984 and 1986).

“It is remarkable,” Ginobili said. “I guess we’re going to win a few more [games]. But even if you didn’t tell me about that stat, we know we are in a very unique position and situation having played together for 12 seasons with the same coach.”

Parker plays without his teammates during summers for the French national team.

“So sometimes I’m used to it,” he said. “But in a Spurs jersey, they are both gonna retire before me, so it’s definitely going to be weird. Hopefully it’s not anytime soon.”

It takes durability, compatibility, a shrewd front office plan and just plain good luck for three players of All-Star caliber to last so long together. In this era of free agency, LeBron James and Chris Bosh can choose to bolt for Miami to chase titles, Carmelo Anthony can go from Denver to New York and maybe have his sights set elsewhere this summer. Even Shaquille O’Neal, the most physically dominating player of his era, bounced to six different teams.

Then there are the debilitating injuries that this year alone have taken down Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have never seriously looked to leave San Antonio.

The once-proud Lakers team staggering into San Antonio tonight, potentially the worst team in the Western Conference this season, demonstrates how long the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili combo has endured and prospered. It’s bad enough in L.A. that the Spurs have sympathy for their long-time rivals — especially Bryant.

“It’s very odd, very unusual after so many playoff games and a very tough, great rivalry,” Ginobili said. “They’ve had so many injuries and, of course, you have two of your best players — Nash and Kobe — out for so long. I’ve never been been through anything like that. Achilles is as bad as it gets.”

Said Parker: “I don’t wish that on anybody. I wish everybody was playing. I wish D-Rose was playing. I hope [LaMarcus] Aldridge is OK. I don’t like injuries. I wish everybody was healthy and we are competing against each other.

“We definitely miss the Lakers. When the Lakers are good, it’s great for the NBA and it’s great for everybody. I love that rivalry — Spurs-Lakers. I miss that a little bit. We definitely are gonna miss Kobe (tonight) and hopefully he’ll be back 100 percent next year.”

The fundamental elements — Duncan, Parker and Ginobili — will be waiting.

Noah sears his way into MVP talk

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

JoakimNoah_March13_575x275

CHICAGO – When Joakim Noah switched on screens a couple times Sunday to find himself against LeBron James, the world saw the Chicago Bulls’ adrenalized, frenetic 6-foot-11 center seizing the moment, squaring up and – wait, no, really? – clapping his hands almost in James’ face.

Here he was, isolated against the NBA’s three-time MVP, who had the ball in his hands, the rim 20 feet away and a game to win. Noah might as well have been throwing rocks at a grizzly bear or wading into traffic on the Kennedy.

Noah, though, didn’t see it that way. For an instant on the court at United Center, in some recess of his mind, he was back in Teaneck, N.J., a dozen years ago. James was a high school underclassman from Akron, Ohio, already having his every movement scouted and stalked as the NBA’s next big thing. Noah? He was the gawky kid with the frizzy hair shagging rebounds for James.

LeBron James, Joakim Noah (Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

LeBron James, Joakim Noah (Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

“I was a ball boy,” Noah said after a Bulls practice this week, asked about the famous Adidas ABCD basketball camp he first attended as a sophomore. He hadn’t done enough to earn a spot as a player, so he went with his high school coach and rebounded for James, Lenny Cooke, Sebastian Telfair and other phenoms.

Every once in a while, you hear about an NBA player who spent time as a ball boy, helping and staring a lot while navigating wet towels and giant men in locker rooms. This was different, though.

“At least they’re fetching things for guys who are in the NBA,” Noah said. “I was fetching things for guys who were my age. I didn’t have my own bed – slept on the floor.

“I could have been in France with my father [tennis star Yannick Noah], I could have been traveling with my mom [Cecilia Rodhe, Miss Sweden 1978] in the summertime. But I knew that was where I needed to be if I wanted to make it. My dream was to play at that camp, to play in college and to play one day in the NBA.

“Y’know, I think it gives me my underdog mentality. I cherish those times because those are the sacrifices I had to make. Even as a ball boy, it wasn’t humbling – I just knew I had to be there, because it gave me an opportunity to see where I needed to get to.”

James, Noah said, has not mentioned their initial brush in the years since and probably doesn’t remember it.

“I wasn’t ready,” Noah said. “Physically I was a late bloomer. Y’know, I was 6-5 and 140 pounds. They used to call me ‘Stick Man.’ “


VIDEO: Noah’s All-Star journey

> Bringing it every night

James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Miami Heat might have called Noah a few other things Sunday, after he helped Chicago beat them 95-88 with 20 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks in 42 matinee minutes. The Bulls outworked Miami, getting 27 second-chance points, and Noah outworked everyone else in the building.

In fact, with his father beaming along with other family member in the stands, and with the red meat of the team he “hates” most as the opposition, the ever-emotional Noah seemed about to boil over a few times. He picked up one technical foul in the third quarter for playing keep-away on a dead ball with Miami guard Mario Chalmers. But the dude abided after that, with help from his friends.

“Sometimes I talk to him because you don’t want him to get another tech,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “But he knows his limit. He’s been doing that for years. You really can’t tell him much. He’s ‘Joakim Noah.’ He’s going to do it regardless. But he knows his limits.”

Most of the time, anyway. There was the game at Sacramento Feb. 3, when Noah got bounced in the third quarter after arguing a phantom foul whistled against him. The anger seized up on him and he appeared to drop an F-bomb on each of the three officials before he was hustled off the floor. Noah apologized after the game, but it still cost him a $15,000 fine. It at least gave Noah the distinction of being the first player penalized under new commissioner Adam Silver.

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, before Tuesday’s game at United Center, was asked if his roster of adults could accommodate a player who runs as “hot” as Noah.

“I think so,” Popovich said. “He is a highly emotional guy, but he brings it every night. It’s something that infuses the whole team. He sets a standard on the court for the team. Each of us is different, our personalities. He’s like the opposite of Timmy [Duncan] in that respect. Tim is the most introspective and non-emotional guy on the court, but the fire’s burning, just in a different way. … As long as it’s directed for the good of the team, which it obviously is 100 percent, I think it’s great.”

So does the Bulls’ marketing department, which sells the “heart of Chicago basketball” with a commercial that’s nothing more than super-slo-mo video of Noah in full emotional eruption. All spasm and gyrations, sweat and spittle, primal scream, arms pumping, body quaking.

“Does it sometimes go over the edge? Yeah,” former coach-turned-ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said over the weekend. “But would you ever ask him to tone it down? Absolutely not. You have to accept that 99 percent of the time it’s a positive. The 1 percent of the time it’s a negative, you don’t overreact to that. Him and [Tom] Thibodeau, they’re both intense, passionate people. That’s why I think they’re perfect for each other.”

Thibodeau, who signed on as Bulls coach four years ago, had watched Noah from afar and seen the same frenzied guy. Then he went to work with Noah.

“You never want to take that away from a player,” Thibodeau said. “That’s his make-up. It’s who he is. When we were in Boston with Kevin Garnett, Doc [Rivers] once talked to him about [toning down his intensity]. By halftime, Doc was screaming, ‘Go back to being who you are.’ Whatever it is that makes you go, that’s what you’ve got to stay with.”

Noah’s game used to run on emotion and little else. He was a glorified energy guy chosen No. 9 by Chicago in the 2007 Draft, picked after Al Horford and Corey Brewer, his teammates with the Florida Gators. They had won NCAA titles together in 2006 and 2007, but Horford’s and Brewer’s games allegedly translated better to the NBA.

What people didn’t grasp was that Noah, a slow hoops learner in high school and college, would have the same trajectory as a pro. In his sixth NBA season, he became an All-Star. In his seventh, he did it again and has heard his name dropped in MVP and Defensive Player of the Year conversations.

“I think Noah is the best ‘non-scorer’ in the NBA,” Van Gundy said. “He’s not ever going to average 16, 17 points, but you have to take into account his defense, his rebounding, his passing. Tom’s not trying to force him to be something he’s not by scoring in the low post. He’s got him in the high post, initiating offense. It opens up the basket area for the rest of the guys, which really helps.

“Let’s face it, the special teams have those guys who can force double-teams. Chicago doesn’t have that. But you want hard-playing, unselfish, low-maintenance players, too, and that’s exactly what Noah is.”

> Learning to play smart

For someone whose game isn’t best measured by numbers, Noah, 29, has put up some stellar ones. With three triple-doubles in the last month, he became the first center to post three in a season – with assists as one of the categories – since David Robinson in 1993-94. Noah is averaging 12.2 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists – 7.1 in his last 16 games – and is trying to join Garnett (six times), Charles Barkley (three) and Anthony Mason (once) as the only players since 1990-91 to average 12.0, 11.0 and 4.5 over a full season.

His knack for facilitating the offense and finding cutters has earned him a “point center” reputation of late, and Noah has gone beyond that.


VIDEO: Noah notches a triple-double against the Knicks

“He’s just playing smart,” Thibodeau said. “He’s playing from the high post a lot and when people get up on him, now he’s reading: Are they sitting on the pass and backing off? If they are, he’s going to make another play. So I think you have to play him honestly. If you try to take the pass away, he’s going to score. That’s what I like, he’s making quick decisions, that’s probably the most important thing.”

Thibodeau said that, contrary to some elite players who add particular moves or skills each summer, Noah has ratcheted up his game across the board. After four years of continuity with Thibodeau’s system, he has blossomed.

“He’s not getting a lot of iso’s or plays where he gets on the block and gets post-ups,” said San Antonio forward Boris Diaw, Noah’s teammate in international competition on France’s national team. “He’s getting points a different way, which is hard. But he’s a hard roller [on pick-and-rolls], he’s getting in the slots all the time. He’s smart, getting always in the right place at the right moment. And getting a lot of offensive rebounds and second chances.”

Said Noah:

“I’m just being myself. I’m working on my game. I’ve never felt so confident as a basketball player. Derrick [Rose] gives me a lot of confidence, too, always telling me what I need to work on, what type of shots I’ve got to take for when he comes back.”

It is a long way off, but Thibodeau and Noah are eagerly awaiting the day Rose returns from his second season lost to knee injuries. Maybe, Rose can throttle back some of his explosive fury thanks to facets added this season by Noah.

“That’s the plan,” Noah said. “I feel like I can affect the game in a lot of different ways. And I think Derrick can as well. I’m not worried about none of [the doubts about Rose's future], because I know his mind is in the right place and he knows my mind is in the right place. All the other stuff – the accolades and all that – it’s bigger than that.”

> Getting his due

The MVP talk – even if he’s destined to be no higher than No. 3 on anyone’s ballot, slotting in somewhere after Kevin Durant and James – makes Noah uncomfortable. He’d welcome the DPOY, though he’d never campaign for it, nor for all-NBA center status that will focus both on him and his matchup Thursday against Houston’s Dwight Howard.

Howard told NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan that he was looking forward to the matchup and planned to have fun against Noah when the Rockets and Bulls clashed. Noah talked about Howard as a guy he has known since high school, too, and who finally looks happy and healthy in Houston.

Noah, while healthier than he’s been in years (mostly avoiding plantar fascitis foot issues), isn’t quite ready to be happy. Not the way he’ll be if he, Rose, Thibs and the rest – minus friend Luol Deng (a midseason blow emotionally when he was traded) – get someday what Miami has.

In the meantime, he’ll get low in his defensive crouch and, whether it’s against point guards, centers or the best player on the planet, clap excitedly in the other man’s face. So what if he is risking the most glaring sort of embarrassment in those moments? (For the record, Noah and James split their little showdowns, Noah getting a stop and triggering a fast break once, James cutting by him for a left-handed layup on the other.)

“It’s the life we choose,” Noah said smiling. “Being in the public eye, playing basketball in front of a lot of people who are watching. I’m an emotional guy, that’s who I’ve always been, if there were 10 people at an AAU game or now. I’m not going to change who I am.

“I feel lucky. There’s not a lot of jobs where you can just make a play and scream as loud as you can. There’s nobody sitting at the office who’s going to stand up and scream. It’d be like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ “

It’s all going on for Noah these days, and he can’t help but share it.