Celtics stick to their own formula for turnaround

VIDEO: Isaiah Thomas has been critical to the Celtics’ turnaround

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The playoff berth, the turnaround, the return to relevance, if you will, sans a superstar after the end of the Big 3 era.

It wasn’t supposed to happen overnight for the Boston Celtics.

Danny Ainge‘s current rebuilding project is the model for doing it without the saving grace of a marquee superstar. And that’s fine by Brad Stevens, the coach Ainge plucked from the college ranks to guide these surprising Celtics through this process.

Ainge sold Stevens on a long-term vision, signing him to a six-year deal in 2013 that made him the youngest coach (36) in the NBA at the time, that included a transformation of the culture for the winningest franchise in league history. The days of leaning on future Hall of Famers like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to lead the way was over.

And in the early stages of the third year of this new era, the Celtics appear ready for prime time. They face off against the Atlanta Hawks tonight (8 ET, TNT), the first of seven national TV games they’ll play this season after just one last year.

Their 20-9 finish last season led to that playoff berth, where they went after LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in a first-round sweep and served notice that planning for the future didn’t necessarily mean drowning in the misery of the typical rebuilding plan.

Winners of six of their last nine games, the Celtics have shaken off a 1-3 start and gotten back to the ways that led them to the playoffs last season.

Built on a bedrock of defense, depth, player development and shared sacrifice, the Celtics are on to something. With a starting lineup that includes three second-round picks and roster dotted with as many journeymen as high draft picks, Stevens has molded this group into one of the scrappiest crews in the league. And to a man, they point to their young coach and his measured ways as the key to their success.

“His approach is everything, he’s always prepared no matter what the situation, be it in games or practice and that says a lot about a coach in this league” said Isaiah Thomas, the veteran guard who leads the Celtics in scoring (21.6) and assists (6.5). “You never know if he’s happy or mad because he’s so even-keeled. He won’t show it. And that’s how this team is. He’s always talking about looking to the next play. He’s instilled that in us and it’s really defined us as a group. We’re a next play team, no matter what the situation.”

In an environment where basically half of the league is rebuilding perpetually, Stevens has made sure to avoid discussing anything of the sort with his team. Why bother with the obvious, when just talking about it won’t speed up the process?

“We’ve never once talked about it as rebuilding,” Stevens said. “We’ve talked about it as building, growing and improving. We’ve got a lot of young guys. We’re still super young. And we have to take every opportunity as a learning experience. We have to say, there aren’t any excuses in being young and not having that extra experience. That means we have to watch more film, we’ve got to put more time in the gym, we’ve got to shoot more on our own and we’ve to be better to catch up.”

David Lee, 32, is the only player on the roster over the age of 28. He’s also the only former All-Star and he arrived via trade after winning a title with the Golden State Warriors last season. But he doesn’t hold a position above or beyond any of his teammates based on that body of work.

That’s not the way this group works.

“Young and hungry, that’s us,” said fourth-year center Jared Sullinger, the Celtics’ leading rebounder (8.8). “We’ve got a lot of guys who are still trying to establish themselves throughout the league. And we play as a team. On any given night it could be someone’s time to shine and we’re so unselfish. We feed off of that.”

Buying into the system was easy, Sullinger said, because of the collective understanding that none of this would be possible without the entire group diving in. Roles change on the fly, a starter one week could be a key reserve the next. Stevens has fostered an ego-free environment and instead mandated that guys serve the greater good and emphasize the team over all else.

It’s the backbone of any successful team, but particularly in today’s NBA, where the universal embrace of the pace-and-space style has changed the landscape. Stevens pointed to the Hawks and the way they busted out last season, winning a franchise-record 60 wins and earning a trip to the Eastern Conference finals, as the prime example of a team whose success shined a light on what the Celtics are trying to create.

“Offensively, they are who they are. They are outstanding moving the ball,” Stevens said of the Hawks. “They are very intelligent. Their team savvy is off the charts. They are just really organized but still play with a lot of freedom. And they are just fun to watch … I thought it was just awesome last year they got four All-Stars because it talked about what was most important, and that’s the team winning, and all of those guys were playing great off of each other.”

The Celtics might not have four All-Star ready talents just now, but the players are convinced that the foundation and the culture for that kind of success in the future is in the works.

“I always say guys don’t play with each other, they play for each other,” Thomas said. “And on this team, it feels like a college team, for the most part. Guys aren’t running around with big egos, everybody just wants to see each other succeed. And that’s hard to find in the NBA. I think we’ve got a great group of guys and it starts with our coaching staff. Everybody has an equal opportunity to be themselves. And that’s what works for us.”

Morning shootaround — Nov. 24

VIDEO: Highlights from games played Nov. 23


LeBron: Warriors are ‘most healthy’ NBA team he’s ever seen | Ainge pleased with Celtics’ direction | Spurs keep chugging along

No. 1: LeBron: Warriors are ‘most healthy’ NBA team he’s ever seen — The topic of good fortune often comes up when discussing the defending-champion Golden State Warriors, a point some use to illustrate the squad was lucky to win the title for a variety of reasons. Wherever you stand on that point, one thing that is true in terms of Golden State’s good fortune is the team’s health during its championship era. Few player games have been lost due to injury and really, only coach Steve Kerr (back) has been out for a prolonged time. Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James, who was defeated by the Warriors in the 2015 Finals, knows all too well how the Warriors’ health has helped them. ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin has more:

LeBron James says there is a not-so-secret ingredient — beyond a talented roster that features reigning MVP Stephen Curry — to the Golden State Warriors’ success: avoiding injuries.

“I think it comes with a lot of health,” James said when asked about the Warriors tying the all-time mark for best start to a season at 15-0. “They’ve been healthy. They’ve been the most healthy team I’ve ever seen in NBA history, and they have great talent. Those guys all play for one common goal and that’s to win, and that’s all that matters.”

James said that continuity in the lineup has led to consistency in their play.

“They’ve just been consistent,” James said. “I think the most impressive thing is the way they just they’ve been playing at a high level, man, for so long.”

The Cleveland Cavaliers, meanwhile, are down four of their top eight rotation players at the moment with Kyrie Irving (left knee), Iman Shumpert (right wrist), Timofey Mozgov (right shoulder) and Mo Williams (right ankle) all sidelined.

“I’d much rather be on the other side and having guys in the lineup, having guys healthy,” James said. “I’ve always heard that saying of, ‘Is it a blessing that guys are out and guys can step in?’ I think it’s good for some of the guys that don’t get to play as much — they get an opportunity. But at the same time, I’d much rather be full and know what we’re going to have and play at a high level for most of the year so we know what we can fall back on at the end of the season.

“But that’s one thing you can’t control. You can’t control injuries. The one thing you can control is what you’re doing out on the floor, how well you’re playing, how hard you’re playing and how much you’re sacrificing and giving to your teammates.”

VIDEO: LeBron James talks about how health has aided the Warriors’ success


Kevin Durant to return tonight for Oklahoma City Thunder

VIDEO: Kevin Durant grabs his left hamstring vs. the Wizards two weeks ago

HANG TIME BIG CITY — After missing the last six games while recuperating from a hamstring injury, Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant is set to return tonight against the Utah Jazz (9 ET, League Pass), according to reports…

The Thunder were 6-3 when Durant strained his left hamstring in a game against his hometown Washington Wizards. Without Durant, the Thunder posted a 3-3 record, as Russell Westbrook averaged 32.7 points, 9.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game over that stretch.

Durant was averaging 28.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game when the injury occurred. The added offense will surely be helpful tonight against a stingy Jazz defense, which is ranked second in the NBA in points allowed per game, at 92.4 points per game.

Morning shootaround — Nov. 23

VIDEO: Highlights from games played Nov. 22

Kobe, Lakers stand in way of Warriors and history | Clippers in disarray after third straight loss | Forget Bradley comparison, Porzingis more like Pau and could be better | Warriors more than just 15-0, better than ever

No. 1: Kobe, Lakers stand in way of Warriors and history — The only thing standing in the way of the Golden State Warriors and a history-making triumph is Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers. The Warriors are hunting a 16-0 start, which would rank as the best season-opening sprint in NBA history, and need to whip the Lakers Tuesday at Oracle Arena to accomplish that feat. The Lakers’ dreadful 2-11 start would suggest that they are probably not the team capable of slowing down Stephen Curry and the machine that is the Warriors, but don’t tell Kobe, who suggested otherwise to Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com:

“I’ve seen stranger things happen,” Bryant said Sunday after his team’s 107-93 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center here. “We’ve been playing like s—. We might go up there and we might play like gangbusters up there. You never know. ”

Lakers coach Byron Scott was asked for his thought on the matchup. He laughed.

“That’s my thought right now,” Scott said. “They’re the best team I’ve seen in the league and it’s not close … . They’re the best team I’ve seen in a while.”

With the Warriors chasing history, Scott said he expects the Warriors to be ready.

“They haven’t had a whole lot of lulls in any of the games that they’ve played,” Scott added. “When they do [have a lull], they’ve got so much confidence in the way they play and how they play that they don’t panic.

“You can be up by 23 [against the Warriors] and it doesn’t matter, especially if they’ve got two quarters left. It’s a difference if you’re up 23 with five or six minutes left; then you’ve probably got a great chance of winning that game. But if you give them 24 minutes left in the game, there’s not a whole lot of leads that are too big for them [to overcome].”

Scott admires the way the Warriors play, but he isn’t exactly looking forward to facing them.

“Basically I look at them as a fan, when I watch them play,” Scott said. “Unfortunately I don’t have that luxury Tuesday. I love watching them play because they do all the things we talk about. They share the ball. They play for one another. They play as a team.”


No. 2: Clippers in disarray after third straight loss — Losers of three games in a row and seven of their last nine, it’s easy to see why the Los Angeles Clippers are reeling right now. But things bottomed out after Sunday’s loss to Toronto at Staples Center, a game that saw the Clippers trail by as season-high 29 points and commit season-highs in turnovers (20) and personal fouls (30). And all of this came before Josh Smith‘s locker room meltdown and shouting match with an unspecified Clippers assistant coach. Simply put, the Clippers are in disarray right now and as Kevin Baxter of The Los Angeles Times points out, there no easy solutions in sight:

Just who yelled at whom and about what, no one would say.

“That’s for us in our locker room,” point guard Chris Paul said.

What’s obvious, though, is that when the shouting finished, the Clippers were right back where they had been when it started: in a deep funk for which they can’t find a solution.

“If we had pinpointed it, then it would be resolved,” said forward Blake Griffin, whose nine points were the fewest he has scored in a full game since 2013. “So I think we need to find that. Whether it’s playing harder, whether it’s having a sense of urgency, whatever the case may be, we need to find it.”

It wasn’t hard to identify the Clippers’ problem Sunday: It was a first half in which they fell behind by 29 points, their biggest deficit of the season. Griffin, the team’s leading scorer, had more fouls and turnovers (three of each) than he did points (zero) in the opening 24 minutes before the Clippers, who looked disorganized and bewildered, left the floor to a chorus of boos trailing, 63-34.

It was the team’s lowest-scoring half of the season, something for which Paul and Rivers shared blame.

“It starts with me,” said Paul, who saw his team outscored by 21 points during his 18 minutes on the court.

“This is on me,” countered Rivers. “Players, we have to put them in a better spot to perform better. And that’s my job.”


No. 3:Forget Bradley comparison; Porzingis more like Pau and could be better — The Kristaps Porzingis show takes its talents to South Beach tonight to face the Miami Heat (7:30 ET, NBA TV) and the New York Knicks’ prized rookie shows up with momentum on his side. He’s had a stellar start to his season and has quickly changed the narrative surrounding who and what he could become in the future. Knicks boss Phil Jackson uttered the name Shawn Bradley in comparison to Porzingis over the summer, a name that “KP” balked at immediately. After seeing the big fella in action this season, the chatter has shifted to a different international big man, Pau Gasol, who thrived in the triangle offense. Frank Isola of The New York Daily News explains:

Long before Phil Jackson compared Kristaps Porzingis to Shawn Bradley — which in retrospect may have been Phil playing one of his notorious mind games — the Knicks president admitted that Porzingis reminded him of Pau Gasol.

Of course, by the time Gasol helped the Lakers and Jackson win their last two NBA championships, the Spanish forward had already established himself as one of the league’s top players. Jackson coached a finished product. Jose Calderon, however, remembers Gasol as a skinny teenager when they first played together with Spain’s national team. Calderon also sees similarities but admits that right now, “Kristaps is better.”

“If I’m not mistaken it took Pau a little bit longer to get those big numbers,” Calderon added. “But also remember, Pau was the Rookie of the Year. Let’s see where we are at the end of the year. But this is a good start.”

Porzingis has been nothing short of a revelation. And it didn’t take long for him to produce one of the best all-around games for any rookie. In fact, it happened in Game 14 as the 7-foot-3 forward scored 24 points with 14 rebounds and seven blocked shots in Saturday’s win over the Houston Rockets. The last 20-year-old to put up comparable numbers was Shaquille O’Neal during the 1992-93 season.

Gasol was 21 when he broke into the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies during the 2001-02 season. By the fourth game of Gasol’s career, he scored 27 points against Phoenix and in his next game he scored 24 against the Clippers. Memphis, though, started that season by losing its first eight games. In his first 20 games, Gasol recorded four double-doubles.

Porzingis has six double-doubles through 14 games, including Tuesday’s 29-point, 11-rebound performance against Charlotte. Moreover, the Knicks have already won eight games.

“The surprise is he’s doing it right away,” Calderon said of Porzingis. “He’s been pretty consistent. That’s what surprises me the most; he’s putting up big numbers now. Nobody expected that.”


No. 4:Warriors more than just 15-0, better than ever — Chasing history is one thing. But doing so the way the Golden State Warriors are doing it, well it’s something more, much more. And their critics called their championship run last season “lucky.” It seems foolish to suggest anything of the sort given the way the Warriors are waxing the competition so far this season. The Warriors handled their business in Denver Sunday, showing off perhaps the greatest trait any defending champion can display in pursuit of an encore: they’ve simply forgotten how to lose. Marcus Thompson II of the Bay Area News Group makes the case for a Warriors team that is better than ever:

The Warriors are too good — even better than last season.

Sounds crazy, huh? The champs taking a step forward. But it’s only a shocker to those who believe last season was some kind of miracle.

It wasn’t luck, but a prelude. The Warriors didn’t max out, they took the next step in a steady progression.

Why are the Warriors’ better? Because Stephen Curry is better, because Draymond Green is better, because Festus Ezeli is better, because the team’s chemistry and execution are better.

The reigning MVP doesn’t usually improve his game. But with Curry, it makes perfect sense.

He has made a habit of turning his game up a notch after the all-star break. The next step was to turn it up from the start of the season. And that’s what he’s done.

Curry averaged 23.8 points per game last season. This season, he’s up to 32.7 points per game — and that’s despite defenses focusing on him more than ever.

He has sculpted his body, honed his skills and developed his strengths. But there’s a cerebral part of the game Curry has been developing. His enhanced understanding of the game has him playing more to his unique strength: long-range shooting. Curry is taking 11.3 shots per game from behind the arc, up from 8.1 last season. Oh, and he’s making more of them: 4.9 per game, up from 3.6. Overall, his shooting has improved to 51.5 percent — absurd for someone who doesn’t stand under the basket.

And here’s a scary thought: “I can still get better,” Curry said last week.

Draymond Green is better. Getting a fat contract — $82 million for five years — didn’t make him fat. Not that anybody thought it would. Like Curry, Green has a work ethic that is off the charts.

Last year was Green’s first as a full-time starter. This year, he’s clearly more comfortable in his role and better at using his skill set, a benefit of experience.

Green improved his 3-point shooting. He’s making 43.9 percent from deep, making opponents really pay for double-teaming Curry. Green’s ball-handling is much improved, too. He pushes the tempo and regularly leads the fast break. He also leads the team in assists at 6.7 per game.

And he’s the key to one of the Warriors’ lesser-known lethal weapons: the small lineup. With the 6-foot-7 Green at center, and four perimeter players around him, the Warriors have five players on the court who can score and still defend.

The Warriors play together better.


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Philadelphia 76ers are chasing a little history of their own, but not the good kind … Why in the world did LeBron James remove the Cleveland Cavaliers from participating in the pregame introductions? … Avery Bradley is coming off of the bench for the Boston Celtics and thriving in that rolePatrick Beverley is on the way back to the lineup for the Houston Rockets, who need all hands on deck if they want to turn things around under J.B. Bickerstaff … It hasn’t been easy, of course, but Alvin Gentry is trying to make the best of a great opportunity in New Orleans

Clippers’ frustration boils over

VIDEO: Danny Granger, Rick Fox and Brent Barry discuss the Clippers’ locker-room issues.

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Midway through the second quarter on Thursday, the Los Angeles Clippers had a 23-point lead on the 12-0 Golden State Warriors. Chris Paul hadn’t missed a shot and the champs were on the ropes.

A lot has changed since then. The Clips were outscored 92-62 over the final 30 minutes on Thursday, 25-8 when the Warriors went to their devastating small-ball lineup in the final six minutes. They went to Portland on Friday and got outscored 16-6 in the final 3:30 of what was a one-point game. And then they came back home and got thumped by the Toronto Raptors, trailing by 29 points at halftime.

As you might expect, that sequence of events has led to some frustration in Clipperland. As Dan Woike of the Orange County Register reports, there were some raised voices in the Staples Center locker room in the moments after Sunday’s embarrassing loss

Josh Smith and an unspecified Clipper coach were involved in a frustration-fueled argument following the Clippers’ 91-80 loss to Toronto Sunday.

Profanities and yelling made their way through the cement walls separating the Clipper locker room from an adjacent room where the media was waiting to speak to head coach Doc Rivers.

Rivers and Clipper players didn’t offer details on the incident.

“It’s (like any) locker room after you lose and play like that. Guys are upset,” Rivers said. “That’s about it.”

The Clippers are supposed to be contending for a championship again this year. But they’re 6-7, having lost seven of their last nine games, with issues on both ends of the floor. Summer additions Paul Pierce, Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson have all shot less than 40 percent, the Clips rank near the bottom of the league in 3-point percentage, and they’ve been the league’s worst defensive team over the last 2 1/2 weeks.

It’s still early in the season, but Thursday’s collapse seems to have been a powerful blow to the Clippers’ psyche.

Morning shootaround — Nov. 22

VIDEO: The Fast Break — Nov. 21

Cuban lets loose | Deron Williams rebounds | Fast-improving Favors is officially a Utah favorite | Warriors not stressing over record

No. 1: Cuban lets loose — The most sought-after interview in the NBA never changes. It’s significant time with Mark Cuban, the Mavericks owner and the maverick owner who always speaks his mind, which he can literally afford to do. Cuban is always entertaining and forthright and pretty much on-point with his thoughts on basketball or really anything you ask of him. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe managed to get some time with Cuban and we’re all better off for it:

He remains the most entertaining owner in the NBA, and he’ll offer an opinion on anything he is asked, making him one of the most transparent figures in sports.

Cuban was asked about the firing of Kevin McHale by his rivals, the Houston Rockets. Cuban has had very public feuds with Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, especially when the Mavericks nabbed swingman Chandler Parsons from the Rockets with a mega-deal in July 2014.

“I like Kevin, I feel bad for him personally, but the rest of it? Whatever,” Cuban said. “I mean, we’ve been in a high-expectation position before. We go to the Finals, we started 0-4 [in 2006-07], and it’s ‘what’s wrong?’ and we came back to win 67 games and lose in the first round.

“So I’ve said it before, the hardest thing for an NBA owner to do is hire a coach. The easiest thing to do is fire a coach. The reason it’s hard to hire a coach, coaches are great at date-face, they know exactly what your weaknesses are and they know exactly how to sell to those weaknesses, so it’s really difficult to pick it right and it’s 90 percent luck.”

Cuban recently signed his coach, Rick Carlisle, to a five-year extension.

“If the hardest thing to find is a good coach, you marry him, you put a ring on it,” Cuban said.

Asked about the escalating salary cap that will kick in next season with the new television contract, Cuban said, “It’s going to change a lot. More from a strategy perspective, it makes the value of draft choices go through the roof because they’re pegged at a certain price. Minimum contracts will go through the roof. Anybody that signs for the mid-level, the value goes through the roof.

“It’s going to be a lot of tough decisions. And in reality, if everything sticks to the projections that we come up with, the cap will go down after that. So that changes what you do as well.

“It will be really interesting. There will be some guys that will get way paid. When guys are making $30 million-plus, it’s going to be tough to have more than one of them.”

Cuban said he has no issues paying players such exorbitant salaries because that is the price of a championship.

“What’s a championship worth?” he said. “I always look at it as a team. The biggest mistake people make in this business is they say this player is worth ‘X.’ That’s never the case. When you insert that player as one of 15, if he can increase the value of [the team], he’s cheap.

“I remember back when we [acquired] Erick Dampier [in the middle of a $49 million contract] and everybody said we were idiots. Without that big body, we don’t go to The Finals, and we still should have won that Finals if it weren’t for three blind mice [i.e. the officials].”


No. 2: Deron Williams rebounds — OK, there’s no sense in proclaiming him the leader for comeback story of the year, since Paul George is way ahead and probably won’t look back. But Deron Williams is experiencing somewhat of a rejuvenation in Dallas after being dumped by the Nets and declared finished as a productive player. He’s hardly in All-Star form, yet the Mavericks are surprisingly flourishing right now and Williams is one of the reasons. Last season in Brooklyn, he was on the bench in tight games in favor of Jarrett Jack. But now, the ball’s in his hands and the Mavericks have confidence in him. More importantly, Williams has confidence in himself. Here’s Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News with the details:

He was a crunch-time beast Friday as the Mavericks weathered a hard push from Utah, steadied themselves behind their point guard and whipped the Jazz 102-93 at American Airlines Center for their sixth consecutive victory, matching their longest streak of last season.

At 9-4, the Mavericks hit the road for a three-game trip starting Sunday at Oklahoma City.

Williams finished with 23 points, eight assists, six rebounds and three steals. His 3-pointer after a nice feed from Raymond Felton with two minutes to play put the Mavericks up 95-87. He added to that cushion with a pair of free throws — running his streak to 35 without a miss this season — as the Mavericks finished off the Jazz, who fell behind by 20 but got as close as five down the stretch.

Williams missed almost all of training camp with nagging injuries and had a knee problem early in the regular season. He has rounded into form nicely of late. He took over the Boston game on Wednesday with 11 fourth-quarter points and was every bit as dominant against the Jazz.

Williams isn’t quite ready to pronounce himself as the Mavericks’ closer, but he’s certainly sent a message that he’s capable of doing so.

“Everything’s coming together,” he said. “It’s still early. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. But I definitely feel more comfortable out there. I’m getting opportunities in the fourth. I’ve had a chance to have the ball in my hands at the ends of games, and I can make plays not only for myself and others.”

It’s a nice feeling, one that Williams hasn’t enjoyed often enough in recent seasons. He got overlooked or overshadowed too many times in Brooklyn.

“There were times when I did a lot of standing, a lot of watching,” he said. “And that takes away your aggressiveness. That’s not what I’m good at.”


No. 3:Fast improving Favors is a Utah favorite — Interesting thing about Deron Williams: He cost the Nets a lot, and not just $100 million. Remember, the Nets surrendered a promising teenage power forward named Derrick Favors to get Williams, and years later, it’s clear that Utah came out ahead. Favors’ game is maturing and he’s becoming a double-double guy, following previous Jazz low-post beats who collected doubles, Karl Malone and Al Jefferson. The sixth-year forward spent time with Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune, who offers this:

“I think last year was my first time having fun again, playing basketball,” Favors said. “I got comfortable with talking to the coaches. I felt more responsible and got more comfortable as a team leader. I have more responsibility offensively and defensively. I feel better in my role, and I think that’s made me open up a lot more.”

As the Jazz prepare to face the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, Favors is shining in his role as a difference-making power forward.

Favors, in his sixth season out of Georgia Tech, is averaging 16 points and nine rebounds per game, to go with 1.5 blocks. He’s been a hub offensively in the post and on the perimeter when he drifts to 15-18 feet from the basket. Defensively, he’s been almost spectacular, not just blocking shots, but in pick-and-roll coverages and defending the perimeter against stretch power forwards and smaller guards.

Beyond the numbers, Favors is playing with an edge previously unseen. For the first time in his career, he’s showing emotion on the floor, scowling after snatching rebounds, celebrating after baskets. People are noticing. Whispers around the league suggest Favors could have a shot at the All-Star Game, if he continues to play well and if the Jazz find consistency in the win column.

Yet, he remains unfazed.

“I think I’ve played well, but I feel like can play a lot better,” Favors said. “As far as offensively, I feel like I can play better, like there’s more stuff I can do. As far as being an All-Star, you never know. You never know how stuff works out, as far as how political the process is.”

So, how has Favors been able to explode? He said the maturation has been six years in the making. He came into the NBA a raw specimen, a 6-foot-10 athletic man-child with few refined skills.

As the No. 3 pick of his draft, Favors was supposed to dominate from the jump. He didn’t, and needed time to adjust, something the then-New Jersey Nets decided they didn’t have enough of. So Favors was brought to Utah in the Deron Williams trade.

Favors was stung by that trade, and to this day plays with a chip because of it. He felt discarded, unwanted at a young age, and was stung by the criticism of him needing development.

The result today is a Favors with an offensive game that’s becoming more well-rounded by the year. He has a consistent jumper. He’s effective with his back to the basket. He’s always been great rebounding the ball for points and he’s becoming a better passer.


No. 4:Warriors not stressing over record — How did we make it this far in the Morning Shootaround without the obligatory Warriors mention? OK, here it goes. The Warriors can tie the NBA record for fastest start tonight against the Nuggets and maybe you’ve heard about that. Well, if you believe the Warriors, they’re taking this historic start in stride, which is in their best interest. Nothing makes these guys sweat, which is easy to avoid when you have Steph Curry on the squad, hitting jumpers, and others filling in. Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle is with the gang and filed this observation:

The Warriors go for 15 wins in a row Sunday night, and they’ll have to descend about 2 miles in order to reach Pepsi Center’s mile-high altitude. This is a team that is locked in and loosey-goosey, a dangerous combo.

Luke Walton, the interim head coach, was talking Friday night about the Warriors’ team vibe. Apparently, behind closed locker-room doors, these fellows laugh a lot. Walton recalled a pregame moment from last season’s NBA Finals. The Warriors were coming off a loss, they were in trouble, looking beatable in Cleveland.

Steve Kerr and his assistants were huddled in their own locker room minutes before show time, mapping last-minute strategy. They were also wondering about the emotional state of their players.

From next door in the Warriors’ locker room, peals of raucous laughter rang out.

Kerr said to his staff, “I guess they’re going to be all right.”

They were. They are.

In this expert’s opinion, the Warriors will not go 82-0 in this regular season. But whatever losses they suffer won’t be due to the pressure finally getting to them.

One of the key elements Kerr brought to the Warriors — and it remains solidly with them even during his absence from bench — is that, dammit, you’d better have fun.

That’s why the Warriors end many practices with a wild free-for-all shooting contest, as mature as a food fight.
Kerr’s philosophy is that this is dead-serious business, but it’s basketball, played best with a soaring spirit and childlike exuberance.

“Fun, that’s the No. 1 priority,” Draymond Green said Friday night. “That’s what coach Kerr has preached from Day 1: Have fun. Got the best job in the world, we come to play basketball for a living, with guys that we like.”

So the streak is not weighing on you?

“Absolutely not. Not at all.”

Of course, it’s easier (I’m guessing) to have fun when you never lose. There will be sterner tests ahead of the Warriors’ joviality. Right now, they’ve got the top down and they’re enjoying the ride.

But enjoying it too much? If Kerr were speaking publicly these days (no timetable on his return, by the way, but indications are that his recovery is progressing) he would likely express some concern about his team getting a little too loose.

Kerr wants the Warriors to be lightning-fast and creative, but not sloppy and careless. He convinced his team last season that it’s possible to be fast and smart.

The last three games, team leader and floor general Stephen Curry has crossed over into Kerr’s concern area, to the point where Kerr kidded Curry about how much money he’s losing to his mom in their ongoing turnovers bet.

Curry averaged 3.9 turnovers last year as the league MVP. He said before the season that, because of the team’s maturing and his own off-season training, he expected turnovers to go down. Sure enough, through the first 11 games, Curry averaged 3.1 turnovers.

But the last three games Curry turned the ball over seven, seven and six times. Too many.

Walton said Curry’s recent turnover flurry was partly due to opponents’ scouting and scheming for Curry’s tendencies, and the Warriors’ coaches and Steph would need to counter.

But some of it is just Curry’s attack/create mentality. He’s not looking to make crazy passes just to show off, but he is constantly seeking a higher level of basketball, which steepens the risk-reward curve.


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Gregg Popovich is amazed that folks in San Antonio want to name schools after him. … Dwyane Wade is getting older and he’s getting smarter. … Lance Stephenson was supposed to help the Clippers, remember? What happened? … Toronto must find a way to minimize the absence of Jonas Valanciunas, out with a broken bone in his non-shooting hand, and good luck with that. … Meanwhile, Brandon Jennings is getting close to making his return.

Report: Toronto’s Valanciunas opts against surgery

VIDEO: Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas fractures his finger.

Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas has decided not to have surgery on a fractured finger in his left hand and will instead try rehabilitation, Yahoo reported Saturday.

Valanciunas suffered the injury on his non-shooting hand Friday against the Lakers in Los Angeles. There was no immediate estimate on how long he will be sidelined, but coach Dwane Casey was preparing for the possibility of small ball by moving Luis Scola from power forward to center as soon as Sunday against the Clippers at Staples Center, according to the Toronto Star, with Patrick Patterson or James Johnson starting at power forward.

Casey also had the option of moving Bismack Biyombo from backup center into the opening lineup. Another big man, Lucas Nogueira, was expected to join the Raptors from the D-League in time for the game against the Clippers.

“There are different things we can do, we just can’t change all of our sets and all of our defensive schemes,” Casey said, according to the Star. “Luis is very versatile, there’s Patrick, DeMarre Carroll at the four, AB (Anthony Bennett), James Johnson at the four. There are a lot of variables we can have at the four and the five.”

Valanciunas is averaging 12.7 points and 9.3 rebounds in 27.3 minutes.

Morning shootaround — Nov. 21

VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from Friday’s action

Beal could be back | Porzingis impresses | Karasev apologizes | Warriors need faster starts

No. 1: Beal feels ready to return — The Wizards have won two straight games, but it never hurts to get the key cog in your offense back into the lineup. That could happen Saturday in Detroit with Bradley Beal ready to get back in action. The Wizards’ leading scorer has been out for two weeks with a should injury, but told Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post that he’s feeling no pain:

“I want to play. I had a good practice today,” Beal said. “I just have to see how I recoup tomorrow and go through shoot-around and see how I feel before the game and go from there.

Beal, Washington’s leading scorer, hasn’t played in nearly two weeks, but has missed just three games because of the Wizards’ inactive schedule. The team called the ailment a shoulder contusion but he contended that the injury also included muscle tightness in his neck and back. He said the discomfort lingered.

“I could be just sitting here and it’d be throbbing and hurting and I couldn’t move,” said Beal, who has never dealt with shoulder troubles before. “So it was a lot worse than people just saying it was a bruised shoulder. I think I’m tougher than that.”


No. 2: Nowitzki calls Porzingis the real thing — Over the past two decades there have been plenty European imports who were labeled the next best thing since Dirk Nowitzki came to the NBA from Germany. Just a few years back, the Knicks themselves had their month of fantasy from American home-grown Jeremy Lin. So while it may be tempting to say that the early excitement around Kristaps Porzingis should be tempered, none other than Nowitzki himself told Marc Stein of ESPN.com that the Knicks rookie is legit:

The greatest European import of them all, when asked this week by ESPN.com for his initial impressions of the Latvian, didn’t hesitate.
“He is for real,” Nowitzki said.

Dare I say Dirk would know. In January 1999, when the NBA’s first-ever lockout abruptly ended, Nowitzki had to suddenly make the leap from mysterious European prospect to frontcourt starter in the best league in the world. The same leap Porzingis is making as we speak.

As well as anyone you could consult, Nowitzki understands how broad of a jump it is.

In one of the more memorable stories of my 20-odd years on the NBA beat, then-Mavericks coach Don Nelson told me for a piece in The Dallas Morning News that he expected Nowitzki to win NBA Rookie of the Year honors. Which was great for the newspaper and a terrible disservice to the skinny 20-year-old kid who had to shoulder the weight of such an audacious forecast.

The transition from the thoroughly unknown DJK Wurzburg X-Rays of the German Bundesliga to the moribund Mavericks of the rugged Western Conference proved to be so bumpy that Nowitzki would confess years later that he gave serious thought to going back to Europe for Year 2.

So if you don’t want to listen to windbags like me try to convince you that Zinger’s start is legitimately special, perhaps you’ll be interested in Nowitzki’s take.

Says Dirk: “He is long. He is athletic. He is tough. He’s got a touch. He can put it on the floor.

“He is for real,” Nowitzki repeats. “Sky’s the limit.”


No. 3:Nets’ Karasev doesn’t want out — We all know how it is with family. Sometimes you want to hug them and sometimes you feel like you want to choke them. Nets’ swingman Sergey Karasev was in full retreat and apology mode after his father complained about lack of playing time and said his son was looking into a trade away from coach Lionel Hollins. The younger Karasev told Brian Lewis of the New York Post that Dad was speaking out of turn and he’s committed to the Nets:

“My dad, he’s my biggest fan, so he has his own opinion. I can’t control what he says to the press. A lot of people want that I play, especially back home in Russia, so they have their own opinion,’’ Karasev said. “I’m with the Nets. I love this organization, I like Coach Hollins, so I just keep working hard. I’m just with this team right now. All my focus, all my mind is to win the game. That’s why I’m here.’’

“I talked with [my father] and he said, ‘Yeah, I know, I apologize.’ But … that’s his opinion. I can’t control this. He can say whatever he thinks. That’s not what I’m thinking. We are like thinking different directions.’’
Modal Trigger

Which is something Hollins — father of several basketball-playing children himself — understood. He brushed the comments off.

“Put it this way: Sergey’s father is a father. I’m a father. I had sons that played basketball. I had a daughter that played basketball. We all want our kids to be first position,’’ Hollins said. “So he has his opinion, and I understand where he’s coming from as a father. But it’s just that: his opinion.’’

The 22-year-old Karasev also spoke with Hollins several days ago about what he needed to do to earn more playing time.

“[Hollins] said I need to be more aggressive on the court and that’s what I try to do right now. I try to work hard every day. I work on my conditioning because … .you need to be in shape every day to be ready, because that’s why you have 15 players on the roster,’’ Karasev said. “I talked with him, and he said he likes how I worked the last practices, so I think I go in the right direction.’’


No. 4:Walton wants faster starts for champs — Admittedly, it might be quibbling. Like finding flaws in the Mona Lisa or telling Kate Upton she should stand up straight. But champions are held to a higher standard and even at 14-0 interim coach Luke Walton wants the Warriors to stop digging themselves early holes, according to Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:

“To me, it’s two things,” Warriors interim head coach Luke Walton said before Friday’s game. “It’s people wanting to be the first to give us a loss, and they’re coming out and playing like it’s a playoff game. It’s the biggest game of the season for them.

“Two, we’re not matching their intensity early. We were thrilled with our intensity early in the season — as far as the way we were starting games. That was one of the focal points of training camp, and we did a great job of it early. We’ll continue to talk about it and make it a point in our meetings, but it’s something that our guys out on the court need to change.”

The Warriors outscored their first 10 opponents by an average of 30.5-23.3, keeping four opponents to fewer than 24 points during the span. But their past four opponents have outscored the Warriors by an average of 32.8-25.8.

It’s no coincidence that three of the Warriors’ four toughest wins came after allowing Brooklyn (36 first-quarter points), Toronto (25) and the Clippers (41) to get off to fast starts. Brooklyn took the Warriors into overtime, the Warriors squeaked out a five-point win over Toronto, and they had to overcome a 23-point deficit to beat the Clippers.


SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Hip surgery sidelines Wizards’ Martell Webster for the season…J.R. Smith accused of choking 19-year-old…Metta World Peace says “Malice at Palace” brawl sent him into depression…NBA players often bond over popcorn and movies…John Calipari’s name keeps getting linked to Sacramento…Kobe Bryant and Caron Butler have stayed like brothers down through the years.

Shoulder strain puts ‘LeBron project’ Mozgov on ice for 10-14 days

Cleveland center Timofey Mozgov will be out 10-14 days, the Cavaliers announced Friday, due to the strained right deltoid shoulder muscle injury he suffered in the second quarter of their game against Milwaukee at Quicken Loans Arena Thursday. That will put on hold some of the extensive tutoring and intense expectations the 7-foot-1 Russian has faced from star teammate LeBron James.

Mozgov isn’t the only ailing Cavs player. Guard Mo Williams won’t play Saturday against the Atlanta Hawks at The Q (7:30 ET, League Pass), missing his second game with a sore right ankle. Williams is listed as doubtful to play Monday at home against Orlando, the team reported.

But Mozgov is the player who will be absent from the extra attention he’s been receiving – and not exactly in a coddling manner – from James. Cavs beat writer Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com looked at the “tough love” James has shown Mozgov so far this season as a way to prep him for the important clashes to come. What the big man has been giving them – 7.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.1 bpg in 20.8 mpg – is down significantly from last season (10.6, 6.9, 1.2, 25.0):

James will shout at Mozgov for a failed defensive assignment, criticize him when a play isn’t executed properly, implore the big man to make every part of his 7-foot-1, 275-pound frame felt by the opposition.

James and the Miami Heat often lashed out at Mario Chalmers during the Big Three era. Now Mozgov is getting guff from James in Cleveland.

Cavs associate head coach Tyronn Lue even made an example of Mozgov at practice after the big man was repeatedly scored on in the post by Philadelphia 76ers rookie Jahlil Okafor in the fourth game this season.

Lue showed Mozgov what he wanted — crouch low, lean his weight into the opposition, spring up straight — and then had Mozgov try. Over and over again, Lue stopped to correct Mozgov before hailing James over from an adjacent court to join in. Mozgov appeared anything but comfortable as nearly half the team gathered and watched him struggle.

“The spotlight is going to be on us like that as a team every game this season,” James told ESPN.com when asked about the scene. “He has to become comfortable with it.”

In James’ first stint in Cleveland, he pretty much wrote off J.J. Hickson, according to multiple sources. James was fed up with the big man’s shoddy work ethic. But James admits tough love might not be the best tactic with Mozgov.

“I think I may have to change my approach a little bit,” James said to ESPN.com. “A lot of it is predicated on how much he means to our success, how big of an impact he made once he got here last year. And when you see that type of impact, you expect it. And you expect it every single night and you expect it consistently, but I may have to change my approach how I lead him. I think I’ll figure a way out. I’ll figure another method.”

It’s clear Mozgov is testing James’ patience. When Mozgov collided with Anderson Varejao during a drill after practice this week and fell to the floor, clutching his forehead, James could be heard loudly telling a teammate, “You can’t make this s— up,” gesturing to Mozgov laying down in the paint.

“I’m the leader of this team, whatever it takes,” James said Tuesday. “So if it’s laying into them, I’ll do that. I also lead other ways as well. Obviously that makes more headlines than others, but whatever this team needs I’m going to do. I’m going to hold everyone accountable, including myself. And I expect nothing less than greatness out of all of us and if we’re not able to do that, then I feel like I’m failing.”

Bulls’ Rose won’t play vs. Warriors

VIDEO: BullsTV previews tonight’s Bulls-Warriors game in Oakland

Even as a best-case scenario, Derrick Rose figured to be no more than a game-time decision to play for the Chicago Bulls against the Golden State Warriors tonight (10:30 ET, ESPN). But Rose never even made it that far, his sprained left ankle still too sore to compete – especially against defending MVP Stephen Curry and his championship teammates on their blistering 13-0 roll.

Coach Fred Hoiberg ruled out Rose when talking with Bulls reporters at the team’s shootaround Friday morning, reports K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

With backup point guard Aaron Brooks (hamstring) also out, Chicago will resort to Plan C, Plan D or anything it can muster to defend against Curry and the NBA’s most lethal attack. Some of those limited options were kicked around as they prepped for the matchup, as chronicled by Johnson in the Chicago Tribune:

If Rose joins Brooks on the sideline, Kirk Hinrich will spend at least some time on Stephen Curry. Hinrich is coming off an impressive 6-for-7 night that featured strong defense and a critical 3-pointer late.

That performance won’t do much for the Curry assignment, which has been a nightmare for the entire league.

“It’s impossible to guard,” Hinrich said. “It’s just ridiculous what he’s doing.”

In this sense, the Bulls must show similar fortitude to what they displayed last January when they posted the last regular-season victory by a visiting team in Oakland, Calif. Curry is going to hit shots, regardless of who is guarding him.

Not hanging their collective heads when he does and limiting the damage of others is the only chance at victory.

“You can’t just give him one look. He’s too good; he’ll figure it out,” Hoiberg said. “You have to throw different guys at him, different coverages, and understand and know that he’s going to hit some crazy shots. You’ve got to keep playing. And they will go on runs. You just have to try and limit them.

“But you have to put your game plan around the superstar. You did it when you played the old Bulls teams with Michael [Jordan]. With LeBron [James], obviously, that’s where it starts with that team. Same thing with Golden State and Steph but knowing they have other guys who can hurt you as well.”