HANG TIME SOUTHWEST –Greivis Vasquez deserves a raise — which he’ll get in due time — or the key to the city or, heck, just make him mayor of New Orleans.
The city, and its beleaguered basketball team, couldn’t ask for a better ambassador than the Venezuelan-born point guard who’s leaving his heart and sweat on the floor every night as he emerges as a top talent in the league.
“The biggest thing is I’m getting an opportunity,” said Vasquez, a recent player of the week recipient. “Still, people don’t know about me as much because I’m playing in a small market, which I love. I love this city, I love this team.”
Pretty refreshing stuff from a third-year player just starting to hit his stride for a franchise that’s endured it’s share of hard knocks in recent years — including a hard-luck 7-25 start to this season.
Because the ridiculously youthful Hornets finally got game-changer and now-healthy shooting guard Eric Gordon in the starting lineup Saturday. It allowed coach Monty Williams to make other changes and roll out the starting five he envisioned.
And this is where Vasquez’s ambassadorial value comes shining through. A 6-foot-6, bearded jolt of energy, smiles, enthusiasm and positivity, his team-first attitude is absolutely contagious. It’s critical to the evolution of this franchise, and no more so than as it relates to Gordon, the 6-foot-3 scoring machine deemed the future of the franchise when New Orleans acquired him in the painful CP3 trade 13 months ago.
“I have a good relationship with Eric and I tell you this, we have been talking a lot,” Vasquez said before Saturday’s comeback victory. “Eric is a pro. I feel him as a player too, because his knee was really bothering him. But now he feels like his teammates got his back, we all got his back. We all know he’s going to make us better and we’re going to make him better. And now, we talked [Friday] night, we’re going to make this situation a great situation. We’re going to start winning games.
“For a guy like that to say that to a guy like me, that means a lot. I’m sure he’s saying that on behalf of the whole team because we’re winners, we want to win and we work. And that has been the main thing of our team, we’re going to work regardless. Whether we lose or win tomorrow we are getting better because our vision is in the future.” (more…)
DALLAS – As far as the New Orleans Hornets are concerned, the season started Saturday night, Jan. 5, with a 99-96 overtime victory over the Dallas Mavericks.
“It kind of is,” said Hornets guard Eric Gordon after his first start of the season and after he scored eight of his 14 points — and the Hornets’ final eight points — in the OT. “We’re still a little bit banged up health-wise and we’re still trying to get there, but I would say this is the type of win that kind of does something for us.”
Hey, 1-0 looks a whole lot better than the 8-and-20-whatever that the official standings will have you believe. But forget the standings when it comes to this scrappy, intruiging group of young kids trying to make it work in NOLA. Even before Saturday night’s big road win, as players dressed and stretched in the visiting locker room, a freshness and exuberance could be sensed.
For one, the 6-foot-3 Gordon was returning to the lineup for just his third game and his first start of the season. He was given the previous game off to rest after playing two games in his long-awaited comeback from a knee injury that followed him to New Orleans from the Los Angeles Clippers in the Chris Paul trade.
And whatever happened with Gordon after the trade, his lingering injury and his Phoenix-or-bust ambitions during the offseason mean nothing now to his growing teammates.
Second, Hornets coach Monty Williams, for the first time this season, trotted out the starting five he envisioned from the start: Emerging point guard sensation Greivis Vasquez, Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Robin Lopez and No. 1 pick Anthony Davis. That quintet’s average age is 22.8 and allows Williams to utilize the 20-year-old Austin Rivers from his rightful spot off the bench.
Vasquez, remarkably the old man of the group in just his third season at age 25, and the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, could barely control his enthusiasm to finally start — and finish — a game next to Gordon, a man of considerable scoring ability.
“What Eric is going to bring to the table is we have been in games without him and now he can close those games out for us,” Vasquez said prior to the game. “He can be our closer. That’s what he does for us.”
Cue the Gordon highlight reel.
After struggling through a rocky shooting night, Gordon rode the coattails of Vasquez’s monster, 15-point fourth quarter that rallied the Hornets to an 89-89 tie after regulation. The underrated Vasquez, stuffing the stat sheet again with 25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and a lone turnover in 41 minutes, had a chance to win in it regulation, but a screen failed to set him free and he never got a clean look as the clock expired.
“He’s for sure underrated and he’s going to be a big-time playmaker,” Gordon said. “He’s definitely underrated and he’s just getting better and better with every game.”
Gordon, unfazed by a 1-for-9 shooting night in regulation, turned the final 1:49 into a clinic of late-game execution. His driving layup cut Dallas’ lead to 94-93. Then he drained a 3-pointer to put the Hornets up 96-94 with 1:18 to go. Mavs forward Shawn Marion tied it at 96-96.
After missing a 3-pointer for the lead with 39.9 seconds to go, Gordon got a reprieve when O.J. Mayo, cold all night, missed a pull-up jumper (plus two earlier open corner 3s in overtime). Gordon went to work on undersized Mavs point guard Darren Collison.
Gordon pump-faked at the top of the circle and Collison bit. Gordon leaned forward, drew contact and heaved a shot that hit the backboard square and dropped in with 4.7 seconds to play. He completed the 3-point play to close it out just as Vasquez envisioned.
“Our record really doesn’t identify who we are,” Vasquez said. “We have been in games and because our inexperience really gets to us, teams have been able to beat us the last two minutes of the game. But it is a learning process. I tell you, we have this vision that we are going to be a great team, and that takes some time. In the NBA, it’s too cruel, it’s cold-blooded. You’ve got to understand that you have to have really a strong mindset because it’s not going to be easy. We’re going through that.”
And on this night they persevered when they could have folded multiple times. After leading 25-19, Dallas bridged the first and second quarters with a 13-0 run. The Mavs led by 11 in the third quarter and with Dirk Nowitzki having made his debut in the starting lineup in his seventh game back, they looked to be salting away a game they desperately needed before embarking on a three-game road trip.
But Nowitzki, who finished with 20 points, would be held to three points on 1-for-5 shooting in the fourth quarter and overtime. Instead it was Vasquez and the 24-year-old Gordon taking charge.
Asked before the game what he hoped to get from his first-time starting five, Williams, the Hornets’ impressive 41-year-old coach said, “Wins.”
He got one. More importantly his young, clawing team finally got rewarded for their effort and got a glimpse for once of what a closer looks like on their own squad. For the first time in the 20th game this season that New Orleans trailed after three quarters, they pulled one out.
“Eric is a player that most people on the East Coast and even here don’t get to see because the Clippers didn’t play on TV as much, or at all when he was there,” Williams said. “But he’s a guy that can score the ball. He can shoot 3s, he can attack the basket, he can get to the free-throw line.”
Gordon did all three in the final 1:49 Saturday night, the first night of the rest of the Hornets’ season.
It’s obviously a happy anniversary around Clippers HQ. They’re winning, Chris Paul has been everything they hoped for in performance and personality and every indication is he will re-sign as a free agent in July, and every certainty is that he has done exactly as promised in keeping the contract issue from turning into a hazmat spill the way it did for others in previous years. Raise a toast.
Not you, Hornets.
One year later, New Orleans can say it has moved on from the Paul saga, except that it really hasn’t. The future of Eric Gordon, the centerpiece of the return among existing players, is an unknown. The future of Austin Rivers, drafted with the pick acquired from the Clippers, is an unknown as a rookie in a difficult transition. The future of Al-Farouq Aminu is more encouraging than any time in his two-plus seasons as a pro, which is something, but a small portion of the resolution.
There is no real closure from Dec. 14, 2011, with Paul, along with a pair of second-round picks, going to the Clippers for Gordon, Aminu, Chris Kaman and the Timberwolves’ first-round pick that landed at No. 10. Kaman played 47 of the 66 games last season before leaving as a free agent without the Hornets flipping him into anything, but all other books are open.
Gordon: He is young (24 on Christmas), talented (22.3 points per game in 2010-11), versatile on offense (has range, handles well enough for a shooting guard that some thought he could be a point guard as he entered college in 2007)… and far away. Gordon played nine games last season in his inaugural Hornets campaign and has yet to play in 2012-13 because of a knee injury. There is no timetable for his return.
Rivers: The son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers is the first to say the career turn to becoming a full-time point guard is an adjustment. It’s also just beginning, not only because Austin is one-fourth of the way through his rookie season, but because he will eventually, presumably, have to learn to play in the same backcourt as Gordon. For now, the former Duke standout is averaging seven points, 2.9 assists and 1.4 turnovers in 27.6 minutes while shooting 32.5 percent with 11 starts in 20 games.
Aminu: The No. 8 pick in 2010 by the Clippers has gone from 5.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 20 minutes and 40.2 percent his first two seasons to 9.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 29.3 minutes and 47.2 percent. Although the majority of his success is coming very close to the basket, Aminu hitting any shot, after 39.4 percent as a rookie in L.A. and 41.1 last season in New Orleans, is an important. He was once a top prospect, but he’s still just 22 and could have a future yet at small forward.
Given Gordon’s health and Rivers’ inexperience, it will probably be at least one more anniversary and maybe longer, depending on the Gordon recovery, until any solid read on the deal working out for the Hornets. If they get a starting backcourt for eight or 10 years out of it, that’s a pretty good salvage job from a bad situation. But if Gordon is limping through seasons, plural, it obviously becomes a much different outcome.
DALLAS – As Chris Kaman returns to Los Angeles Wednesday for the first time to play the Clippers since the team that drafted him sixth overall in 2003 traded him nearly one year ago for Chris Paul, the 7-foot center shared his unique perspective on his former club’s sordid history under owner Donald Sterling and its ongoing venture to reverse field as…
“The worst possible franchise in NBA and all sports history … to one of the top ones,” Kaman said.
But, before you think Kaman is about to roll on the floor laughing…
“And I think that’s possible,” continued Kaman, now the starting center for the Dallas Mavericks after a brief stop in New Orleans following the Dec. 14, 2011 trade that also sent Eric Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu to the Hornets, and completely recast the Clippers. “They’re in L.A., they got the market, they got the sponsors, they got the people, they got the fans, they’re getting the players. It’s getting there.”
With All-Stars Paul and Blake Griffin surrounded by a deep and talented supporting cast, the Clippers sit atop the Pacific Division at 11-6. They are in the very real position of turning three decades of failure and embarrassment into a bright, new era bubbling with possibility if…
“If Sterling sold the team,” Kaman quipped, “they might be able to.”
But, before you think Kaman is about to rip on the stingiest and arguably the most abhorred owner in league history…
“The truth of the thing is, while I was there my first four to six years, he was tight with everything. He didn’t want to spend the money,” Kaman said. “I think as he’s getting older he’s realizing, ‘Hey, I don’t know how much time I have left, whatever it is, I’m older.’ You can’t, you know, win in the grave. I’m serious. I think he’s getting close to 80 years old and I think that he’s seeing like, “Hey, I’m getting older, I’m not getting any younger, I want to try to win.’ So he’s putting that money out.”
Kaman noted the team’s $50 million, state-of-the-art practice facility that opened in 2008 in an upscale West Los Angeles neighborhood, the contract extension afforded to Griffin, the free-agent signings of Caron Butler and Jamal Crawford and several other smaller examples of Sterling opening his wallet that are less noticeable to the public, but that players notice.
The question now is whether it will be enough to keep Paul, who promised to give the Clippers a two-year test run and is expected to become a free agent after the season. The truth, of course, is the Clippers need Paul more than Paul needs the Clippers.
Yet, few franchises offer the promise of becoming a living legend if Paul helps to turn one of sports’ worst franchises into one of the best.
“They made the trade last year for me, Eric and Farouq and I thought for the organization of the Clippers, that was an awesome trade,” Kaman said. “You’ve seen since they picked him up all the guys wanting to be there. Before he was there no one wanted to be there. It was like people hated themselves for being there.”
If the Clippers can convince Paul to stay, he and Griffin will play together for at least the next four seasons. And that has the potential to transform L.A’s longtime red-headed stepchild of a franchise into a targeted destination of future free agents and, against all odds, a perennial contender.
“They’re coming a long ways,” Kaman said. “And I think the next three to five years, if they can keep on to Chris Paul, and maybe get some other young talent in there, they have a great opportunity to at least be successful, whether it’s winning the championship or just getting there.”
LONDON – Moments after a 47-point beating of Tunisia Tuesday night, Tyson Chandler was asked if he had seen anyone on the opposing team capable of joining him one day in the NBA.
Ever the diplomat, Chandler didn’t take that bait.
“Well, I honestly wasn’t focused on that,” he said. “My focus was on winning the game and that’s really all I was thinking about.”
That’s fair. Tunisia is the only team in the Olympic field that doesn’t boast at least one player with NBA experience. Nigeria, the team that the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team tussles with later today (5:15 p.m. ET) will provide a different test than that young Tunisia team did.
Nigeria has several American-born players with NBA ties on their roster, including Hornets swingman Al-Farouq Aminu, the No. 8 pick in the 2010 Draft, and former NBA players Ike Diogu and Olumide Oyedeji. Aminu’s older brothe, Alade, is a former Georgia Tech star.
Nigeria might be the most surprising team here, considering the road it had to travel to get to the Olympics.
The Nigerians pulled off a couple of stunners in the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament, including upset wins over Lithuania and Greece, as well as a 25-point, 10-rebound performance by Diogu in a win over Hawks All-Star center Al Horford and the Dominican Republic that clinched Nigeria’s first ticket to the Olympics.
The Nigerians didn’t waste any time making themselves comfortable, knocking off African champion Tunisia in their opener before coming back to earth Tuesday in an ugly 72-53 loss to Lithuania.
LONDON – Lithuania’s veterans helped them to their first win in Olympic competition this morning as Darius Songaila and Linas Kleiza combined for 23 points in a 72-53 win over Nigeria.
Rimantas Kaukenas added 10 points and Sarunas Jasikevicius nine points and nine assists for Lithuania, which built a 19-point lead before halftime only to see Nigeria close to within seven points, 34-27, by halftime. But they resumed the basketball clinic after halftime, outplaying Nigeria on both ends of the floor throughout second half.
Al-Farouq Aminu and Ike Diogu had double-doubles for Nigeria. Aminu had 12 points and 11 rebounds; Diogu finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds. But Nigeria made just one of their 16 attempts from beyond the 3-point line and shot just 24 percent (16-for-66) for overall.
There were familiar faces (to NBA fans) on the court all day and night, as Brazil, Spain,Russia, Argentina and Nigeria all made good first impressions at the Olympic Basketball Stadium.
A quick round-up of the action …
NIGERIA 60, TUNISIA 56:
The Aminu brothers, Alade and Al-Farouq combined for 25 points and 18 rebounds as Nigeria, the last team to qualify for this 12-team field, held off a late rally from the African champions in the first game of the day. Ike Diogu added 13 points and 10 rebounds. Amine Rzig scored 15 of his 18 points in the second-half to lead Tunisia in what was the Olympic debut for both teams.
BRAZIL 75, AUSTRALIA 71:
Leandro Barbosa scored 16 points but it was his backcourt mate, Brazilian captain Marcelo Huertas, who played the hero as they held off a late push from Australia on two free throws from Huertas with five seconds to play. David Andersen scored all 14 of his points after halftime and Patty Mills led Australia with a game-high 20 points, but it wasn’t enough.
SPAIN 97, CHINA 81:
Pau Gasol was dominant, scoring 21 points and grabbing 11 rebounds and Serge Ibaka added 17 points, as the silver medalists and two-time European champs whipped China. Yi Jianlian was impressive in defeat, scoring a game-high 30 points for China, which had no answer for Spain’s depth and quality backcourt duo of Juan Carlos Navarro (14 points) and Jose Calderon (12).
RUSSIA 95, GREAT BRITAIN 75:
The gracious hosts were no match for the Minnesota Timberwolves-bound duo of Andrei Kirilenko (35 points) and Alexey Shved (16 points and 13 assists, who sparked Russia’s dominating performance. Luol Deng scored the first basket of the game, the first for the British in the Olympics since 1948, and finished with 26 points. But he and Pops Mensah-Bonsu (22) couldn’t help the home team overcome Russia or an ugly 4-for-26 effort from beyond the 3-point line.
ARGENTINA 102, LITHUANIA 79:
Luis Scola scored 32 points, Manu Ginobili finished with 21, 10 rebounds and six assists and Carlos Delfino added 20 points for the 2004 gold medalists, who struggled in their exhibition run-up to this competition but celebrated Ginobili’s 35th birthday in style. Linas Kleiza scored 20 points to lead Lithuania, which defeated Argentina in the opener for both teams four years ago in Beijing.
HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Men’s Basketball Olympic field is set. Nigeria earned the 12th and final spot in London with a huge 88-73 victory over the Dominican Republic in the third place game of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Caracas, Venezuela on Sunday.
Ike Diogu, the former Warrior/Pacer/Blazer/King/Clipper/Spur, was the star for Nigeria, who qualified for the Olympics for the first time ever. Diogu scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds and hit 10 of 14 shots.
Nigeria led 47-39 at the half, but the game was tied with less than six minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Diogu came up huge down the stretch though, hitting back-to-back 3-pointers as Nigeria scored 29 points in the final period to win going away. The Hornets’ Al-Farouq Aminu played the Scottie Pippen role, finishing with 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and five blocks.
The Kings’ Francisco Garcia led the Dominican with 17 points. Al Horford dealt with foul trouble and had just 12 points in 29 minutes.
The U.S. is in Group A with Argentina, France, Lithuania, Russia and Tunisia. They’ll play their first exhibition game against the Dominican Republic on Thursday in Las Vegas. You can watch that one (taped) at 12 a.m. ET on NBA TV.
HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – As the United States named its 12-man roster for London 2012 on Saturday, two teams earned trips to London with victories in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Caracas, Venezuela.
Russia and Lithuania, two of the favorites in the 12-team qualifying tourney, are teams Nos. 10 and 11 in the Olympic field.
In the first of Saturday’s games, point guard Alexey Shved (who looks to be NBA-bound this fall) led Russia to an 85-77 win over Nigeria, scoring 22 points and dishing out six assists. The game was tied at 26 early in the second quarter, but Russia outscored Nigeria 20-5 to close the period and led by as many as 21 in the second half.
Andrei Kirilenko added 19 points, eight rebounds and four steals for Russia, while Ike Diogu (who played two games for the Spurs last season) led Nigeria with 16 points and 14 boards. The Hornets’ Al-Farouq Aminu scored 13 points, but had seven turnovers.
Russia shot a scorching 14-for-27 from 3-point range. They were arguably the U.S. Team’s toughest competition in the medal rounds in the 2010 World Championship, losing 89-79 in the quarterfinals.
The team the U.S. beat in the ’10 semifinals was the second team to qualify for the Olympics on Saturday. Lithuania, who had a disappointing finish in last year’s Eurobasket (which they hosted), redeemed themselves with a 109-83 blowout of the Dominican Republic.
Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.
Which non-L.A. team has improved the most since June?
Steve Aschburner: Indiana. I like what the Pacers have done in adding David West, in making Frank Vogel the permanent head coach (in NBA terms, anyway) with an upgraded staff and in challenging their core to improve from within. Even Danny Granger, an All-Star, is being nudged to grow his game, which sets a standard for the other guys. If George Hill and Tyler Hansbrough are on the second unit, that’s a pretty solid rotation. The key remains Roy Hibbert, who will put it all together one of these seasons. Unless he doesn’t.
Fran Blinebury: Putting Tyson Chandler in the middle of the lineup with the big guns of Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Baron Davis should enable the Knicks to finally move up and out of the Borough of Mediocrity where they’ve been cozily living like it’s a rent-controlled apartment for years. Note that I said should.
Scott Howard-Cooper: The Pacers, beating out the Knicks. Indiana turned a mid-first pick in a bad draft into George Hill and later signed David West at the low risk of a two-year commitment. Not only two proven starters, but at very good prices.