Here’s a look at some of the more important playoff implications in Friday night’s games:
LAKERS (vs. Golden State, 10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): With the battle for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference down to the final three games, the Lakers (42-37) face a Golden State team that is currently seeded sixth, just a half-game up on the Rockets … A Lakers win and a Jazz loss to the Timberwolves would put L.A. up two games with two to play … Kobe Bryant scored 47 points while playing all 48 minutes in Wednesday night’s 113-106 win in Portland … The Lakers are up 2-1 in the season series.
JAZZ (vs. Minnesota, 9:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): The Jazz (41-38) have lost control of the race with the Lakers for the No. 8 seed and can’t lose focus in the first of consecutive games against the wounded Timberwolves … Utah leads season series 2-0 … Utah needs to win out and hope for an L.A. loss … A short bench missing Enes Kanter, Marvin Williams and Alec Burks was costly in Wednesday night’s loss to OKC … This could be the final home game for Jazz free-agents-to-be Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.
THUNDER (at Portland, 10 p.m. ET, NBA TV): Thunder (58-21) show no inclination to take their foot off the pedal in the fight for No. 1 seed in the West … Holding tie-breaker over the Spurs, they now control the race … After whipping the Warriors on Thursday night — and getting plenty of rest for the starters — OKC wraps up a back-to-back and closes out road schedule … Thunder are 3-0 against the Blazers this season, who went flat in a loss to the Lakers on Wednesday night … Three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant (28.3 ppg.) says he’s OK giving up title to Carmelo Anthony.
SPURS (vs. Sacramento, 8:30 ET, League Pass): Even if the Spurs (57-21) win out, they need OKC to stumble once to reclaim the top spot in the West … But do they really care? Tony Parker is in a tug o’ war with coachGregg Popovich over whether he’ll play … Parker sat out Wednesday’s loss at Denver with a sore neck and other assorted ailments and Pop says that championship teams must be able to win on the road anyway … Boris Diaw’s back injury puts DeJuan Blair back into the rotation and could slide Kawhi Leonard into minutes at power forward … They lead series with Kings 3-0. (more…)
It’s not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone — Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver…whoever. – Kobe Bryant
Over his 17 seasons in the NBA, Bryant could always guarantee that he’ll do something absolutely amazing with the basketball just about every time he steps onto the court.
He can shake off an 0-for-10 shooting start to bury a half dozen jumpers and an opponent in a fourth-quarter blink of an eye.
He can duck and whirl through traffic, change hands with the ball and squeeze through a crack in the defense for a clutch how-did-he-do-that bucket.
He can rise up with a hand in his face, almost down his throat, and knock down an impossible 3-pointer with the sheer grace.
He can lead a 20-0 comeback in the final 6 1/2 minutes to pull out a dramatic and critical 108-106 win over the Hornets.
But no matter how many times or how emphatically he says it, what Bryant cannot guarantee is all that can happen with the teams in front of his underachieving Lakers in the Western Conference standings. For even if the Lakers put on a strong finishing kick — say 14-6 or 13-7 — they will still likely need one or more of the Warriors, Rockets and Jazz to tumble.
Can it happen? Sure. Will it happen? Nothing guaranteed. Sometimes it’s not about the hunter, but the prey.
No. 6 — Warriors (35-27)
Back in those long ago days of early February when his team was threatening to compete for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the playoffs, coach Mark Jackson liked to shake his head and scowl at the doubters who didn’t think his Warriors could run and shoot and play defense all at the same time. Maybe those doubts were just premature. Over the past five weeks, the Golden State defense has fallen off any one of the area’s picturesque bridges and sunk to the bottom of the bay. (more…)
HANG TIME, Texas — The clock ticks down, the trade deadline draws near and all 30 NBA general managers are burning up their phones with possibilities realistic and absurd.
Some need to make deals to solidify playoff teams, others simply can’t bear the thought of sitting still. As Thursday gets closer, here are seven GMs with big decisions to make:
Danny Ferry, Atlanta Hawks
Is it finally time to give up on the hope that Josh Smith can be more than a numbers-gatherer in Atlanta? Ferry, the first-year Hawks’ GM, wasted no time in moving out Joe Johnson’s big contract. Part of the decision was that J-Smoove would blossom without Iso-Joe taking up a big part of the offense. Instead he’s averaging 1.4 fewer points and one rebound less than a year ago, his efficiency rating is down from 21.14 to 19.90 and he’s shooting only 50 percent from the free-throw line. The sense is that it’s “just time.” Still, that doesn’t mean Ferry has to move him. He’s positioned the Hawks so that they could afford to keep Smith and still sign a pricey free agent next summer. But that won’t stop the likes of the Bucks, Suns, Celtics, Wizards and Sixers from making a run. The Rockets have long had eyes for Smith, but might be more inclined to wait to make their moves in free agency.
Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics
Despite their 8-1 record since Rajon Rondo’s season ended due to torn knee ligaments, it’s too hard to see the Celtics making a serious and deep playoff run on the aging legs of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The obvious move would be with the 36-year-old Garnett and making that long-rumored deal to the Clippers (Eric Bledsoe). The challenge is getting K.G. to waive the no-trade clause in his contract. Can Ainge appeal to Garnett’s own best interest to get another ring or his loyalty to the Celtics organization to help them start over? Even if Rondo’s knee injury isn’t as severe as first thought and he’s able to get back on the floor for the start of training camp, the rebuilding in Boston has to start sometime. It might as well be now.
Billy King, Brooklyn Nets
If King could know for sure that Deron Williams will shake off the injuries and inefficiency and return to the All-Star form he showed in Utah, then he’d be more inclined to sit back and put his feet up. Or maybe not in the realm of Mikhail Prokhorov. The Russian billionaire owner is willing to shell out big bucks, but also expects immediate results and does not handle mediocrity well. See Avery Johnson, who was fired with a 14-14 record, a Coach of the Month title pinned to his resume. The Nets will likely try to get Paul Millsap from the Jazz and could be in the running for the popular Josh Smith. Last year’s All-Rookie team member MarShon Brooks is on the block. Would Charlotte’s offer of Ben Gordon for Kris Humphries be enough? The Nets have been so inconsistent that with the possibility of a first-round bounce due to a bad matchup looming, you have to believe King won’t sit still.
Donnie Nelson, Dallas Mavericks
“The Bank of Cuban is open.” That was team owner Mark Cuban’s declaration last month, but what must be determined is in which direction the Mavericks are headed right now. They enter the post-All-Star stretch six games under .500 and 4 1/2 games out of the last playoff spot in the West. If the Mavs decide they’re better off reloading with a fully-recovered Dirk Nowitzki next season, they certainly have a good trade chip in Vince Carter, who’d be a wonderful addition to any playoff contender. He could also bring in future assets for Shawn Marion, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand.
Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets
You put him in this slot just because Morey lives with an itchy trigger finger and might be inclined to make a deal just because he can. But with the James Harden steal under his belt and the free agency hits on Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, the Rockets will probably strike only if it’s a chance at a home run. With the youngest team in the league, a position in the West playoff race and a payroll that could make them big, big players in free agency, next summer is probably when they’ll make their move. But Houston is now big-game hunting for talent to play with Harden. If a chance to scoop up a true All-Star comes their way, Morey won’t hesitate.
Mitch Kupchak, L.A. Lakers
It’s almost obligatory to put the Lakers on any potential trade deadline list, despite Kupchak saying publicly that he’s not at all interested in dealing Dwight Howard or breaking up his All-Star group of underachievers at this point. He can’t trade Pau Gasol as long as the possibility exists that Howard walks as a free agent next summer — which it does. Besides, the Lakers problems are not about needing more players but getting the ones they have to play every night with passion.
Dennis Lindsey, Utah Jazz
Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson? Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap? With the contracts of both of the frontcourt veterans expiring, it was assumed since Day One of this season that the rookie GM Lindsey would have to deal one of them by the deadline, if for no other reason than to make room and more playing time for Derrick Favors. It would seem to make sense, but only if the Jazz can get a bonafide star in return. That’s what the 30-24 team lacks right now. But there is no reason to make a deal just to make a deal. The future is based on a young core of Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks. Millsap is the more likely one to go, but maybe only for another expiring contract in return. Salt Lake City is not a desired location for free agents. But as the effects of the new collective bargaining agreement are felt and big names teams try to avoid the increasingly punishing luxury tax, players will want to simply get paid. Don’t expect a panic move here.
Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.
Rondo seeking second opinion on ACL — A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com reports that Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who was found to have a torn ACL on Sunday, will meet with several other doctors — including the famed Dr. James Andrews — as well as players from other sports to get a second opinion on the severity and recovery process from his injury:
“He (Dr. Andrews) is one that we’re definitely considering,” Rondo’s agent Bill Duffy, told CSNNE.com. “If he’s No. 1, there’s a couple 1As and 1Bs we’re looking at as well.”
Duffy said the second opinion on Rondo’s knee will not be made for at least another four or five days in order to allow the swelling to go down.
In addition, Duffy said they are in the process of setting up meetings with other athletes who have had similar injuries.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is among those that Rondo’s camp hopes to speak with very soon.
Peterson suffered a torn left ACL and MCL injury on Christmas Eve in 2011, and was back on the field for the season opener in September – less than nine months after the injury.
Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose suffered a torn left ACL injury during the first round of the playoffs against Philadelphia on April 28th last year, with his return likely to be shortly after the all-star break next month.
Duffy said Rondo’s trying to be as positive as he can about his injury.
“He’s distraught but he understands what he has to do,” Duffy said. “We have to have him channel all that energy into getting stronger and healthy as soon as possible.”
“I’m a competitor, I’m a guy that thinks I bring a lot to the table, and not being on the floor is something that I don’t like, I don’t appreciate,” Gasol said.
Gasol had seven points, seven rebounds and seven assists in 21 minutes as the Lakers built an 83-73 lead through the first three quarters.
“It’s a challenge,” Gasol said when asked about toeing the line and accepting D’Antoni’s decision so that he doesn’t take away from the team while still defending his personal ability. “We’re challenged every day, and I’m challenged every day to keep my calm and keep my peace and not let my emotions take over my words.”
Speaking out after a win against the Hornets might seem like poor timing from Gasol, but even while begrudgingly accepting a bench role, he stated his desire to continue to play in crunch time.
“I think the finishing is more important (than starting),” Gasol said recently. “I think the best players should finish off games. That’s just the way it’s got to be. When the game is on the line, you want to be on the floor. That’s more important.”
It was the same sentiment that led Gasol to be upset Tuesday.
“It’s fun to win but when a team comes back on you the way the Hornets did tonight and you are not there as a high-quality player and as a competitor, it’s frustrating,” Gasol said.
Aldridge always happy to see Dallas — Not surprisingly, LaMarcus Aldridge‘s phone was blowing up after his game-winning turnaround shot to sink the Mavs last night. What’s interesting, as The Columbian’s Candace Buckner points out, is that the former prep and college standout from Texas seems to particularly enjoy tormenting his hometown team:
LaMarcus Aldridge, a Dallas native, saved his best to down his hometown team, hitting the game-winning jump shot as time expired for the Trail Blazers’ 106-104 victory.
With a well-executed inbounds play, a flick of the wrist and a perfect jump shot, the Blazers (23-22) shook off a large second-half deficit after the Mavericks pulled ahead by 21 points. So by the time Aldridge returned to the Blazers locker room, his phone had over 20 messages on it. Just a glance and he could tell that his mother, Georgia, was about to make his cell phone battery die.
“She’s watching (the game),” said Aldridge, who finished with a game-high 29 points and also contributed 13 rebounds. “She texted me like five or six times.”
The family celebrated, the 18,888 in the Rose Garden rejoiced and even Aldridge – who so often just describes this whole NBA thing as a “job” – beamed broadly as teammates bum rushed him near the Dallas bench.
“He was smiling like a rookie after his first NBA game,” Nicolas Batum said, describing Aldridge.
He seems to be happiest devastating the hometown team.
Last April at the American Airlines Arena, Aldridge carried the Blazers to the 99-97 victory over the Mavericks with a step-back jumper at the buzzer. Then, Terry Stotts watched from the other sideline as a Dallas assistant coach. Surely, from Stotts’ perspective, this Aldridge game-winner felt a bit better.
“People can think what they want to think, but LaMarcus, there’s no question in my mind that he’s an All-Star,” Stotts said. “He didn’t have to make that shot to prove he’s an All-Star. He proves it every night.”
He also happens to prove it whenever he plays against Dallas.
Aldridge scores 21.2 points per game against the Mavericks, according to basketball-reference.com and the figure ranks as second highest in his career against any NBA team. Through the last four games versus Dallas, Aldridge has averaged 26.7 points and 11 rebounds.
Oden wants back in NBA; Cavs next? — Former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden is readying himself for an NBA return and the Heat and Cavs are reportedly on the top of his destination list. How likely is it he’ll be a Cav? Doug Lesmerises of The Plain Dealer digs in:
Former Ohio State star Greg Oden is confident he will return to the NBA after his many knee injuries, but he would not venture a guess about whether he’ll wind up in Cleveland.
“I’m worried about the knee,” he told The Plain Dealer when asked if the Cavs could be a destination for him. “That’s it.”
Oden was in Columbus to take in the Buckeyes’ 58-49 victory over Wisconsin. He has been living in Columbus and taking classes, but he said now that he’s working out in his hometown of Indianapolis and splitting time between the cities.
Asked if he was playing at all, Oden said, “I’m just getting my knee ready so when things do happen I’ll be ready to play next year.
“I’m still in the rehab process, but I’m it taking slow. I could possibly be playing at this point, but I’ve done that before and I got injured before, so I’d rather take everything I am doing slow. Right now I’m just doing strength stuff with my knees.”
He said he was confident he would return to the NBA.
“I like how my knee is going, the way it’s going,” he said. “I still like the time I’m taking, just to make sure nothing happens. You can’t predict the future. But if it doesn’t happen, I’m happy.”
Stuckey, Frank mend fences — Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey and coach Lawrence Frank have had a touch-and-go relationship the last few days. But Terry Foster of the Detroit News reports that’s all behind both men now:
There’s peace again at The Palace. That’s if you believe Pistons coach Lawrence Frank and reserve guard Rodney Stuckey.
Frank ended the one-game benching of Stuckey in time for Tuesday night’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Palace. But Stuckey was a non-factor during the Pistons’ 117-90 blowout loss to the Bucks at The Palace. He played 27 minutes and finished with just seven points.
Stuckey admitted the men clashed before the Pistons’ game Sunday in Orlando. Frank punished Stuckey by benching him for that game and refused to tell the media why. Frank was mostly close-mouthed again but he equated to a family squabble.
“Things happen every single day,” Frank said. “You deal with it and you move on. There are no grudges. Made a decision and we move on today. During the course of the season you are going to have a bunch of disagreements.”
Neither man would say what happened but it is believed they had a disagreement during practice.
Jazz corner market on youth?– The West-leading Oklahoma City Thunder often get a lot of credit for the way their youthful, lottery-picked duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook has helped them develop into a contender. But you’d likely be surprised to learn that the Thunder don’t have the most under-25 ex-lottery picks on their roster. According to Mike Sorensen of the Deseret News, that honor belongs to Utah:
Remember the NBA list of the 50 greatest players ever that came out about 15 years ago? Of those 50 players, all but a handful were top-10 selections and 32 of them were top-5 picks. Of the players who have played since that list came out, those that would be considered among the all-time greats — James, Duncan, Kevin Durant — most have been high draft picks.
That brings us to the Utah Jazz.
While five teams have more total lottery picks on their rosters (New York has the most with nine, but four are 38 years or older), no team has more under the age of 25. And the Jazz has the most under the age of 22 with Gordon Hayward (22), Derrick Favors (21), Alec Burks (21) and Enes Kanter (20).
One of the teams closest to the Jazz in terms of young, high lottery picks is Wednesday night’s opponent, New Orleans, which has three under the age of 22 in 19-year-old Anthony Davis, 20-year-old Austin Rivers and 22-year-old Al-Farouq Aminu.
Other teams with three lottery picks under age 22 include Washington (John Wall, Bradley Beal, Jan Vesely), Charlotte (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kemba Walker, Bismarck Biyombo) and Cleveland (Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson).
Walton takes on mentoring role — Ex-Laker Luke Walton wasn’t sure what his role would be when he was traded to the Cavs at last season’s trade deadline. But it’s become clear that the one-time starter in L.A. is embracing his role as a coach of sorts for Cleveland’s young big men Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller, writes Stephen Brotherson of HoopsWorld.com:
“At the beginning of the year, the coaches [told] me, you got to [help Thompson and Zeller],” Walton said. “So I knew that was going to be part of my role this year whether it was while I was playing or while I was not playing. I had a lot of good vets that had taught me a lot about this game, so when I am out there playing with these young talented big guys, if I see something that they are doing or I see something that would be more effective for them during a timeout, I will let them know or if we are in the game together, I will try to point it out so we can do it because if we do it in a game, it will reinforce it. They are both such great kids. They want to learn. They want to get better. It has been a lot of fun doing that.”
Thompson and Zeller have enjoyed playing with Walton this season. The veteran has been showing them how to be a facilitator and setting them up when they get open.
“[Walton is] fun,” Zeller said. “You know he is going to find you if you are open and he can make a lot of great plays. We have a lot of confidence in him that he can score, pass and defend. He is really a great all-around player.”
“He is a great passer,” Thompson said. “He keeps the offense flowing. He sees the court. He might not be the most athletic big guy or the tallest guy, but he is so smart that he knows where the ball needs to go, what works and what doesn’t work. We are blessed to have him on our team.”
“It’s awesome,” Walton said. “Obviously losing is very hard, but just being back out there on the court and being able to help some younger players, now having the opportunity to play again and play the way basketball is meant to be played with sharing the ball and passing, I am having a blast right now.”
ICYMI of the night: Before we all get a little too excited over the Lakers’ three-game win streak, let’s not forget there are still more kinks to work out … as this play below illustrates:
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 team most surprises you in the West at this point: Clippers, Jazz or Suns?
Steve Aschburner:Utah. In winning five straight through Tuesday and six of their last seven, the Jazz are navigating close ones and blowouts, high-scoring tilts such as the 113-105 pasting of Cleveland and grinders like their 85-73 victory over Milwaukee last week. The ball is moving – even through notorious stopper Al Jefferson, a great guy with something to prove. They’re also getting quality work from contributors young (Alec Burks, Derrick Favors) and old (Earl Watson, Josh Howard).
Fran Blinebury: After the Jazz opened up the schedule getting clobbered in three of their first four games by an average of 15.6 points, it certainly looked like the first full season P.S. (Post Sloan) was going to bring nothing but misery. Instead coach Tyrone Corbin has shown a stubbornness to stick with the ancient Raja Bell in his starting backcourt and a willingness to let his kiddie corp – Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks — learn on the run. It’s paid off with some fun, aggressive ball. The Jazz are in deep Northwest Division water with OKC, Portland and Denver, but it looks like they’ll be able to tread water until ready to make a splash in the future.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Slight edge to the Jazz because they have recovered from a slow start despite having the farthest to go. The Clippers were always going to be good and the Suns were always going to be competitive, but Utah has been particularly encouraging with such a young roster. (more…)