Posts Tagged ‘Blake Griffin’

Hot-headed Clips trying to cool down

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Clippers won a physical game in Oklahoma City back in late February

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The last time the Clippers and Thunder engaged in battle in late February, L.A. left Oklahoma City with a hard-fought W and three hard-earned Ts.

Technical fouls follow the Clips like a cartoon-strip storm cloud, always overhead, always ready to rain down at a whistle’s notice. Tonight’s meaningful Western Conference matchup between the Thunder and Clippers at Staples Center (10:30 p.m., ESPN), won’t be for the faint of heart or short of temper.

The Clippers are nipping at the Thunder’s heels, just 1.5 games back of the No. 2 seed, important because it guarantees homecourt advantage through the second round. These two title contenders enter tonight’s game ranking in the top seven in the league in three separate categories: Offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and technical fouls.

“Obviously we’ve got to get better because we’re a very emotional team,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul said recently in Dallas after another three-technical outing, in which he got one. “We probably lead the league in techs, something like that.”

Something like that. The Thunder is actually the league’s runaway technical-foul leader with 90. The Clippers are second with 76. It’s a recurring theme first-year coach Doc Rivers inherited and has made him ponder whether his team is too hot-headed. He’s worked hard to, if not eliminate, at least diminish the potentially detrimental trait in his team’s makeup.

“Emotional and mental toughness, they’re all in that same category,” Rivers said. “You have to be able to play with emotion. I don’t think anyone lives life greatly without it, but then you have to be able to control it.”

It’s easier said than done when dealing with a headstrong point guard, frequent target of agitators Blake Griffin and loose canon Matt Barnes.


VIDEO: Chris Paul talks about Blake Griffin and the state of the team

“We’re getting better at it,” said Barnes, who’s technical foul total stands at five, surprisingly low considering he’s been known to get nailed on reputation alone. He does have three of the Clippers’ league-leading nine flagrant fouls.

“All I can say,” Barnes said, “is it’s a work in progress for us.”

Which is enough to have Rivers genuinely concerned. The Clips’ penchant for getting caught up in officiating or the opposition’s antics makes them lose focus and cost them exactly when it can’t — in the postseason.

Last season’s disappointing first-round loss to Memphis in six games, which happened under ex-coach Vinny Del Negro, saw L.A. blow a 2-0 lead and get smacked with 10 techs. Five came in the final, height-of-frustration Game 6. Still, the Clippers earned at least one tech in five of the games.

“We have the fourth-quarter tech rule,” Rivers said. “We don’t want any of those because you can’t make up that. We just have to make sure we stay focused on our task.”

The fourth-quarter rule doesn’t always stick. On March 26 at New Orleans, Barnes got hit with one with 4:14 to go in a tight game. The Pelicans converted the gift free throw and won the game, 98-96, a costly loss for L.A. considering the razor-thin margin in the standings.

Paul earned his 10th technical of the season with five minutes to go at Houston on March 29. James Harden made the extra free throw to cut L.A.’s lead to 102-96. The Clippers would go on to win, 118-107. Over the last seven games, they’ve been whistled for seven technicals. They’ve been tech-free in the last two games, the first time the Clippers have done that since March 22 and 24.

“One thing we always talk about is fourth-quarter techs; we can’t have those,” Paul said. “I don’t care what’s happening. We’ve got to start getting ready for the playoffs.”

The importance is heightened in this final week of the regular season. Griffin and Durant each have 14 technicals on the season, tied for second-most in the league behind Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins with 15. A 16th technical results in an automatic one-game suspension.

It’s in the playoffs, though, where one extra free throw can make the difference between survival and an early exit. Especially so if the Clippers and Golden State Warriors meet in the first round. The teams have developed a healthy dislike for one another and the Warriors will surely be eager to put their Pacific Division rival’s mettle to the ultimate test.

The teams split a heated season-series, 2-2. A combined nine technical fouls were called, five on the Clippers, three on Griffin. Two of Warriors center Andrew Bogut‘s six technicals came against the Clippers. In a wild Christmas Day game, first Draymond Green got to Griffin with an elbow to the throat that drew double technicals. Early in the fourth quarter, Bogut and Griffin tangled and both received technical fouls even though the sequence was instigated by Bogut. The game was tied, 78-78.

Because it was Griffin’s second technical, he was automatically ejected. The Warriors won the game, 105-103. The next day, the league reviewed the play and ruled that Griffin’s actions were not worthy of a technical and, thus, he should not have been ejected. It didn’t change the outcome of the game, and it won’t in the playoffs either.

Such are the perils the Clippers must avoid.

“I think we’re OK because we all understand the big picture, that’s win,” said Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford, who has four technicals. “It’s OK to play on edge, it’s OK to play with that toughness, not just physically being tough, mentally being tough and weathering the storm. I think that’s good for us.”

Time for 5 players to step up in playoffs

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Everybody feels the pressure in the playoffs. No more long six-month regular seasons to work out the kinks and to solve all the problems. No more roller coaster rides of peaks and valleys.

Each player is expected to bring their full energy, their best effort every night as elimination and another long summer looms.

But for different players and for different reasons, the glare of the spotlight is even brighter as their reputations and the expectations carry a heavier burden.

Here are five players who’ll really feel the heat to step up and deliver big in the playoffs:


VIDEO: Dwight Howard talks about his love for the game

Dwight Howard, Rockets — That 800-pound gorilla has been sitting on his back since July when he opted to dump the royal pedigree of the Lakers and move to Texas. Not only was Houston a better fit basketball-wise, with a young All-Star teammate James Harden waiting as a partner, but Houston, for all its heat and humidity, was a place where the media glare is not so hot. That is, until Game 1 of the playoffs when the ball goes up and Howard is expected to be the inside-dominating, rim-protecting workhorse that pulled Orlando’s wagon to the cusp of a championship in 2009. Can it really have been five years? Since that time, the similarly scrutinized LeBron James has been to The Finals three times and won back-to-back titles. While Howard has been happy, content, healthy and has led the Rockets into the top half of the tough Western Conference bracket through the regular season, now the real work begins. Will the happy-go-lucky persona that has resurfaced translate to the grit and grind and intense scrutiny of the playoffs? Will those improved free throws — all things are relative — fall when he’s being fouled intentionally and there’s a series on the line? This is his 10th NBA season, eighth as an All-Star, yet there is so much still to prove.

 


VIDEO: Paul George discusses the Pacers’ struggles

Paul George, Pacers — There’s no better up close witness and authority than James, who had this to say after George went by him like rolling thunder on his way to a slam dunk in Game 2 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals: “He is going to be a great player for a long time.” There has been little reason for anyone to change that opinion during George’s fourth NBA season and second as an All-Star. The question is will he be able to step up and score abundantly and consistently enough to get the Pacers all the way to The Finals? After all, this is an Indiana team that does not exactly pile up points and, having gotten very little out of the midseason acquisitions of Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum, will be challenged to put the ball into the hoop every time out. George forced his way into many of the MVP conversations early in the season with his raised level of play. He is also willing and able to take on the defensive challenge of matching up against the likes of James. But since the All-Star break when the fast-starting Pacers began to at least scrape against — if not run head-on into — the wall, George has not delivered consistently. Maybe it’s the physical toll. Or maybe his concentration drifts. But since the All-Star break, George has shot 50 percent only five times in 26 games and popped in 30 points just twice. Assuming that additional offense is not going to arrive out of thin air in Indy, he’ll have to get back to the production he show during the first half of the season for the Pacers to reach their stated goals.

 


VIDEO: LaMarucs Aldridge explains what Portland has to do down the stretch

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers – The question over the past several years has been whether the Blazers can put a good enough team around Aldridge to make him want to re-sign and stay to take them to the next level. But then the other side of the coin is whether the high-scoring slick forward is the one who can get them there. It’s been three years now since Brandon Roy was the main cog in the machine, Greg Oden was still a hope and Aldridge was the up-and-comer. While he’s cracked through the ceiling to become a member of the Western Conference All-Star team, it’s also true that he’s done most of his best work in the first half of seasons and faded at the finish, just like the Blazers as a whole. The old knock remains that L.A. is content to shoot turnaround jumpers rather than working to get to the hoop. He usually responds to the criticism for a time when it gets sharpest, then reverts to form and goes back to shooting jumpers. While Damian Lillard, another All-Star in the starting lineup, can hold his own among the class of elite point guards in the West, Nicolas Batum teases with his sporadic nights of all-around brilliance and Robin Lopez provides a solid defensive anchor in the middle, any success in the playoffs will require Aldridge to stand and deliver.

 


VIDEO: Are the Clippers a serious playoff threat?

Blake Griffin, Clippers — Four years into his NBA career, he’s a four-time All-Star and still only 25 years old. He’s become far less than just the sergeant at arms of Lob City, working on his mid-range jumper and the defense that had been rightly criticized in the past. New coach Doc Rivers has demanded more out of Griffin and he’s delivered, especially during the long stretch when Chris Paul was sidelined by a separated shoulder and the Clippers could have plummeted in the Western Conference playoff race and lost home court advantage in the first round. Now the challenge will be to maintain his level of improved play and concentration into the postseason. In the 2011-12 season, Griffin dropped from 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game to 19.1 and 6.9 in the playoffs. In 2012-13, he went from 18.8 and 8.3 to 13.2 and 5.5. Now even though he’s got a much improved DeAndre Jordan playing with him in the middle and Paul still orchestrating the attack as the game’s best ball handler, it is a raised level of play that’s expected and required to make the Clippers real challengers for the conference crown.

 


VIDEO: Nets poised to make noise in playoffs

Deron Williams, Nets — It’s easy — too easy — to pick on Joe Johnson and what’s left of that insane six-year, $119 million contract that he got from Atlanta and that the Nets are still paying and say he’s got to live up to it. For one, it was never going to happen. For another, Nets owner Mikhail Prokorov can probably find the loose change in his sofa cushions to pay it off and not break a sweat. On the other hand, the Nets forked over $98 million to Williams in the expectation that he would be the centerpiece to the championship construction project in Brooklyn. For all the moves that general manager Billy King did to add Johnson, trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and to sign Andrei Kirilenko, it was all predicated on Williams being the All-Star performer who was considered to be at the very top of the point guard class before everything blew up in Utah. After he started another season underperforming and underachieving due to ankle problems and eventually asking out of the starting lineup, Williams has come back since the All-Star break to lead the Nets back as they’ve made their charge up through the standings. But Prokorov did not endorse the highest payroll in the league to get the No. 5 — or even No. 4 — seed in the Eastern Conference. Williams is the one charged with the task of making sure there isn’t another first-round playoff flameout, especially at the hands of another undermanned Bulls team. There’s much to prove here.

Analytics Art: MVP leader stats

By Andrew Bergmann (@dubly), for NBA.com

Here are some key stats on the current MVP race leaders.

Tweet who you think should win the 2013-14 Most Valuable Player Award: Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, LeBron James or Joakim Noah, and watch The Starters’ “Starties Awards Show” tonight at 6 ET on NBA TV.

mvp-leaderstats

MVP Leader Stats

Andrew Bergmann’s data driven design work can be found on CNN, NBA, Sports Illustrated, Deadspin, Washington Post and USA Today. See more on www.dubly.com and twitter.com/dubly. Thanks to Tracy Weissenberg for the tip.

 

No debate: It’s time for Howard to sit

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Rockets coach Kevin McHale gives brief update on Dwight Howard

Dwight Howard, as usual, is listed by the Rockets as day-to-day.

Like the rest of us.

Coach Kevin McHale says Howard will not play tonight against the Nets in Brooklyn (8 ET, TNT).

Like the rest of us.

The difference, of course, is the rest of us won’t be expected out there on the court for the opening tip when the playoffs start in 18 days.

So begins the annual April debate in the NBA.

To rest or not to rest?

Sit or play?

Momentum or 100 percent fitness heading into the potentially long grind of the postseason?

The Rockets may just have dodged one bullet when point guard Pat Beverley was examined by respected orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews and told that the torn meniscus in his right knee would not require surgery. It means that the tenacious on-ball defender will immediately start rehab and could be back in the lineup for the start of the playoffs after all.

So now with their free agent jackpot/All-Star center scheduled to sit out for the fifth time in two weeks due to a nagging injury to his left ankle — a cyst was removed — and nine more games left in the regular season, now the question becomes a variation of an old one from Dirty Harry: How lucky do you feel?

You can tell from one glance at the long, sour puss on Howard when he’s not dressing that he wants to play now. But the Rockets need him to be able to play at the level that made him a nearly $89 million investment when the games really count.

It’s the juggling act among coaches and franchises at this time every year among teams headed to the playoffs.

Certainly we know the sentiments of one Gregg Charles Popovich on the matter: “!#*&$#! Go away.”

But seriously, his Spurs are currently sitting on top of the entire standings with the best overall record in the league in large part because Pop manages the minutes of his players throughout the season so scrupulously.

A result: Tim Duncan was just named Western Conference Player of the Week less than four weeks shy of his 38th birthday.

You can be sure that Popovich will find time for Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard to all put their feet up and just watch a game or two coming down the stretch. It wouldn’t even be a surprise if he left one or two of them home Thursday from what is supposed to be a glamor showdown in Oklahoma City, because it’s the second night of a back-to-back.

The Heat have been keeping Dwyane Wade and his aging knees on a short leash all season as he’s played in just 51 of 73 games and he sat out again Monday night against the Raptors.

Teams like the Trail Blazers can’t afford to sit a key cog such as LaMarcus Aldridge heading toward home after they took a nose dive without him following a hard fall in San Antonio.

On the other hand, the Clippers could be feeling good enough about their current position at No. 3 in the West to keep Blake Griffin sitting until he is well past any questions or confers about the back spasms that made him fall to the floor writhing on Saturday night in Houston. They also have to weigh how far to push their luck with bench spark plug Jamal Crawford going toward the playoffs. Griffin and Crawford were both held out of Monday’s win at Minnesota.

“It depends on your group,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “Honestly, if I felt like a couple other guys needed the rest, we’d sit them. I don’t have any problem with that. I’ve done that in the past.

“So far, our guys have been pretty good. They’re young, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need rest. We can get fooled by that as well. It’s a good case of ‘we’ll see.’ “

While the Pelicans are out of the playoff picture, there have been questions asked about whether they should shut down forward Anthony Davis for the rest of the season as he deals with a soft tissue injury in his left ankle. Do you want to get as much NBA playing time going head in or not take any career risks at all with a 21-year-old budding star? After playing just four minutes in the previous two games, Davis was back in the lineup against the Kings Monday night.

For the Rockets, the choice would seem to be no choice at all. They didn’t sign Howard to be the iron man that played the first 66 games of the season injury-free. He is in Houston for what he could do to lift them to contender’s status and give them at least a puncher’s chance for a championship.

A stated goal coming into the season was for the team to earn home-court advantage in the playoffs, and it would seem that could be kept in their grasp with their big man on the sidelines. At No. 4 in the West, the Rockets would have to like their chances in the first round against Portland, Golden State or Phoenix.

Any ensuing rounds would be a step up in class and require all they can get from Howard with no impediments.

So day-to-day.

Like the rest of us.

Then check back in a week or so.

Morning Shootaround — April 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 31

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers lose No. 1 spot in East | Griffin likely to sit out vs. Suns | Cavs readying for major deal? | Gasol recounts ‘scary’ vertigo bout | Gay weighing next move

No. 1: Pacers lose grip on No. 1 in East — Practically since the Eastern Conference finals ended and the Indiana Pacers walked off the court as the losers in Game 7, they have focused and told anyone who will listen how getting No. 1 in the East is their goal in 2013-14. And for every day of the season heading into last night’s Spurs-Pacers game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indiana held up its end of the bargain. But the Pacers have stumbled of late and after last night’s embarrassing 103-77 loss to San Antonio (and the Miami Heat’s win vs. the Toronto Raptors), they no longer have that lofty perch. Our Steve Aschburner was on the scene in Indianapolis last night and takes stock of a locker room that is in a true funk:

Be careful what you wish for. Someone might snatch it away. That’s not quite how the saying goes, but it’s the queasy version that applies now to the Indiana Pacers.All season long, from back in training camp through the many trips and back-to-backs, despite the physical dings and emotional drain of trying to go wire-to-wire, the Pacers had staked out the No. 1 playoff berth in the Eastern Conference as their goal within a goal. They get that, and any Game 7 against their rivals from Miami would be played in Indiana.

It was a marvelous carrot for an 82-game schedule that wields some serious sticks. A rabbit to chase and, once claimed, to flex. A fix for what slipped away last year, when the Pacers did so many things right in Game 6 against the Heat, only to step on that plane to South Florida for one more.

And then, on the final night of the season’s fifth month, it was gone.

The Pacers just hit the snooze button on their own nightmare.

“Good for them. We don’t deserve it,” center Roy Hibbert said in a home dressing room that was more demoralized than angry. “We’ll see, in the playoffs. But we’ve got to figure things out. Miami is a good team. They’ve had a couple hiccups themselves. But we don’t deserve that No. 1 seed.”

Indiana forward David West, who hinted at a variety of basketball and chemistry issues ailing his team now, said: “We’ve got to concede that we haven’t played basketball well enough to deserve the top spot. That’s pretty much it. We haven’t played well enough. We haven’t been a good-looking basketball team for quite some time now. That’s on the guys in this locker room.”

Not “a good-looking basketball team?” West was given another crack at his description of the Pacers at the moment. “We’re probably the most downtrodden, 50-plus win team in the history of the game,” he said. “We watch film from a few months ago, we don’t even recognize ourselves.”

Said Hibbert: “We should all go to group therapy. … We’ve been spiraling. Now we’re splintering a little bit.”

“We’re not playing the game the right way right now,” Paul George said after scoring 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting and, later, citing a severe lack of screen-setting. “We’re not playing for one another. It’s tough to score on any team in this league when you’re trying to do it against the whole team.

“San Antonio is the perfect example. It’s hard to guard them because they move the ball, they share the ball. And it’s regardless of who’s shooting. They want the best shot on offense. That’s the problem we’re having right now.”


VIDEO: David West and others talk about Indiana’s loss at home to San Antonio

***

No. 2: Griffin likely to sit out vs. Suns — As was pointed out by our own Sekou Smith in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, Clippers star Blake Griffin has solidified his place of sorts as the NBA’s third-best player this season. So when Griffin suffered a back injury that took him out of the game in Houston on Saturday (which L.A. won), concerns were raised about whether or not he’d be healthy for the Clips’ playoff run. Griffin sat out last night’s win in Minnesota and plans to do more of the same so he will be ready come playoff time, writes Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

Blake Griffin stood erect with his back up against the basketball stanchion for support, contemplating whether it was wise to push through back spasms that forced him from the game Saturday night in Houston or to rest.

Griffin decided to rest rather than play against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night. He probably won’t play at Phoenix on Wednesday.

The Clippers have seven regular-season games left before the playoffs start in about three weeks, and they want make sure Griffin is 100% healthy.

“This part of the season is important, obviously, as far as [playoff] positioning and everything else,” Griffin said. “The last two years in the playoffs, I’ve been banged up. I haven’t been 100%. I don’t want it to be that way this year. So I’m trying to be smart about it and I’m trying to be proactive and not do anything to make it a prolonged, healing process.”

Griffin suffered a sprained right ankle before the Clippers played Game 5 of the Western Conference first-round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies, limiting his effectiveness.

Over the last few weeks, Griffin has had his back wrapped up in ice and heat because of off and on back spasms.

“Most of the time it’s manageable,” Griffin said. “It felt like Saturday wasn’t really manageable. That was the reason for not coming back in.”


VIDEO: The Clippers win in Minnesota without Blake Griffin

***

No. 3: Cavs positioning selves for major trade? — When a playoff-hopeful team (like the Cleveland Cavaliers) signs a player who has never been in the NBA (in this case, Scotty Hopson), it might be seen as a move to add some last-minute depth. But according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, the Cavs’ signing of Hopson yesterday is about anything but that. According to Windhorst, the Cavs’ roster move was one made with an eye toward allowing Cleveland to possibly pull off a major trade this offseason:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to put themselves in position to make a major trade around June’s NBA draft, sources told ESPN.com.

To help facilitate it, the team made an unorthodox but strategic move Monday by signing point guard Scotty Hopson to a two-year, $3.8 million contract. Hopson has never played in an NBA game but will get a check for $1.35 million just for the Cavs’ final seven games of the regular season, sources said.

The Cavs are interested in Hopson, a 6-foot-7 University of Tennessee product who went undrafted in 2011, as a prospect after he played well in Turkey this season. But this move is also aimed at expanding the team’s options in June and July.

Team owner Dan Gilbert approved the last-minute spending in an effort to set his team up to be hunters over the summer. It’s the second significant move made by acting general manager David Griffin, who traded for Spencer Hawes at the trade deadline.

The second year of Hopson’s deal, worth $1.45 million, is nonguaranteed. The Cavs now have a stockpile of nonguaranteed or partially guaranteed contracts that could be attractive in trades around June’s draft.

Combined with the contracts of Alonzo Gee, Matthew Dellavedova and Anderson Varejao, the Cavs have a trove of options to use as trade bait for a team that wants to clear salary-cap space. In addition to their all their own draft picks, the Cavs also own future first-rounders from the Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat.

At this time of year, teams routinely sign prospects to contracts with nonguaranteed second years. For example, the Brooklyn Nets signed guard Jorge Gutierrez to such a contract last week. The Heat signed center Justin Hamilton to such a deal two weeks ago.

But these contracts were given out at the league minimum, which is commonplace. The Cavs are taking the extra step of using their more expensive mid-level exception, known as the “room exception,” to create a larger contract for Hopson so he becomes a more valuable trade piece.

***

No. 4: Gasol recounts ‘scary’ bout with vertigo – The Lakers host the Blazers tonight as part of TNT’s doubleheader (10:30 ET) and L.A. should have forward/center Pau Gasol back on the court. The big man’s return to the lineup hasn’t been easy and his season overall has been marred by injury, with his last injury being perhaps the most frightening. Gasol hasn’t played since a March 23 home win over the Orlando Magic as he dealt with a bout of vertigo. ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin has more on Gasol’s return and more:

The Los Angeles Lakers big man recounted the “scary” experience Monday.

“Just really light-headed, dizzy, drowsy state for five to six days at home without really moving much,” Gasol said. “Just laying (down). Let my system kind of readjust. Because it was scary. A scary moment for me and my family and the ones that love me.”

Gasol left the Lakers’ 103-94 win against the Orlando Magic on March 23 at halftime because of dizziness and nausea. The 13-year veteran received immediate medical attention in the locker room and was taken by ambulance from Staples Center to a local hospital for overnight observation.

“It was a nightmare,” said Gasol, who has missed the Lakers’ last four games because of the illness. “I was feeling terrible. Everybody that saw me, they felt bad because I was extremely pale. I was kind of shivering. I couldn’t really move. I had three liters of IV fluid. I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t sit. They had to take me to the hospital on a stretcher. So, the whole experience was not pleasant.”

The cause of Gasol’s vertigo is undetermined. He does not believe that he was struck in the head against the Magic. Doctors surmised that it could be related to the persistent upper respiratory infection that plagued him for much of the first half of the season.

Or, it simply could have been a new virus that caused the inner-ear infection that threw off his balance and brought on the vertigo.

“They could only guess a couple things but nothing for sure,” Gasol said.

“It was scary,” Gasol said. “Luckily I’m a pretty calm person. I usually take things lightly for the most part. I don’t react emotionally very easily, so that kind of plays in my favor. Because I don’t dwell. I don’t overthink. I don’t think of the worse-case scenario. I don’t get nervous. So that kind of helped me out. But a lot of things could have gone through my mind at that point where after a few hours, I couldn’t really move. I couldn’t really move my eyes even because it would make me nauseous or I would vomit and stuff like that.”

The 33-year old has been visiting an ear, nose and throat specialist on a daily basis since being released from the hospital last week after an MRI on head came back normal. He went through a non-contact practice Monday and will test how he feels at shootaround Tuesday to determine if he will play against the Blazers.

“We’ll see how my body reacts when I get up tomorrow after the exercise today,” Gasol said. “I would love to (play).”

Gasol wore a medicinal patch behind his left ear on Monday and continues to do treatment to recoup his balance.


VIDEO: Pau Gasol talks about his bout with vertigo

***

No. 5: Kings’ Gay weighing next contract move — Swingman Rudy Gay has played in 68 games this season, the last 50 of which have come as a member of the Sacramento Kings. The team picked him up in an early December trade with Toronto Raptors and the move has somewhat paid off for Sacramento: Gay is third in points scored (1,012) and second in ppg (20.2). Sacramento, however, has the third-worst record in the Western Conference and must make decisions about its future and roster. That’s where Gay comes in: he has a player-option on his contract for next season and as he tells our Scott Howard-Cooper, he’s weighing what his next move will be:

He says he has not made a decision on the $19.3 million on the table or whether he wants to remain with the Kings at any price. He has so not made a decision, Rudy Gay insists, that he is asked to list a couple factors that will go into the final call and responds, “I don’t know.”It is long after another loss at Sleep Train Arena, this time to the Knicks, in a near-empty locker room after most teammates have left. Gay is sitting in front of his stall, showered and changed and contemplating the unexpected search for career stability.

Memphis for 6 ½ seasons, and then suddenly Toronto and Sacramento in a little more than 10 months, and the career intersection over whether to stay in the current contract with $19.3 million on the books for 2014-15 or declare himself a free agent is approaching. In that setting, feeling so undefined about the future is actually understandable.

“What does my gut tell me?” Gay says of the looming decision and possibly decisions, plural. “I don’t know. My gut tells me different things every day.”

There is this, though: A lot of his comments land on the side of staying with the Kings, whether under the existing deal or by becoming a free agent that would mean giving back a large portion of the next season’s money in exchange for a the security of a larger payout over longer time. It’s light years from Gay committing to Sacramento — and in fact he says he doesn’t want to put numbers on the chances he stays “because right now I’m giving it my all and for me to tell them I’m going to be gone next year, that wouldn’t be fair” — but it is interesting.

The thought of another life change? “It’s tough moving around when you have a family. I have a kid on the way. It’s tough. I want to be settled, obviously, and I want to be comfortable. That has a lot to do with it.” (Which is double-sided, of course. Gay may decide to hit free agency now to get the next move out of the way, rather than another season in Sacramento and the open market in summer 2015.)

And the money. Of course the money. No way he walks away from $19.3 million, right? He’s staying in the deal and will be a King at least next season, right?

“I don’t think about that at all,” he says. “I love this game. I don’t play it for money. Obviously it’s a very big plus that we make a lot to play this game, but I think it’s more important to be happy.”

But people say no one leaves that kind of money on the table.

“They’re not in the NBA,” Gay says. “Those people don’t do the job and work as hard as I do.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kevin Garnett plans to return to the Nets’ lineup next week … Last night, Celtics star guard Rajon Rondo made his debut as a TV analyst for the team’s games … ICYMI, the Kings and DeMarcus Cousins put on an early April Fool’s Day gag … Raptors reserve big man Patrick Patterson has his review of “300: Rise of an Empire”Jay-Z‘s Roc Nation sports agency may end up representing ex-Kansas star Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 Draft … The Lakers might just keep Steve Nash and Kendall Marshall around next seasonOur own David Aldridge and ESPN.com’s J.A. Adande with some must-read views on Kobe Bryant‘s recent comments about Trayvon MartinLou Williams put on a performance reminiscent of his Philadelphia days against the 76ers last night … Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t play against the Jazz last night so he could rest his knees

ICYMI(s) of the Night:One thing we love around here is good passing … and a good dunk … and, while we’re thinking about it, a great call from someone on the broadcast team, too. Thankfully, we’ve got all of that on one sequence here from the Bulls

And, impressive as that Taj Gibson play was, LeBron James (of course) had a play last night that kind of one-ups whatever anyone else did …


VIDEO: Taj Gibson finishes off the Bulls’ passing clinic with a power jam


VIDEO: LeBron James makes the amazing happen with this and-one layup vs. Toronto

Morning Shootaround — March 31


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Struggling Pacers have hit rock bottom | Knicks finally ready to close in on 8th spot | Win or lose, Lakers facing crossroads this summer | The age of analytics or overload? | Haywood says one-and-done kids hurt NBA game

No. 1: Struggling Pacers have hit rock bottom after loss to Cavaliers — The Indiana Pacers have officially hit rock bottom. Sure, it’s a strange thing to say about a team that currently occupies the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. But there is no other way to describe what the Pacers are going through after watching them get taken apart by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their current state of affairs is not conducive to a long and productive postseason run. And after warnings being sounded from every direction, including Pacers’ boss Larry Bird, the struggles continue. Their lead in the standings over the Miami Heat has dwindled to just one game. And the Pacers have no explanation for how things have unraveled the way they have. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star paints the picture:

On Sunday afternoon at Quicken Loans Arena, the Pacers searched for their first road win since March 15 but could not find it. Then, after the 90-76 defeat, they searched for something to explain this most mystifying late-season plunge that has left them holding a scant one-game lead over the Miami Heat.

Again, the Pacers couldn’t find it.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Paul George, only after raising his head from his hands.

“I’m lost right now,” Lance Stephenson muttered under his breath. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know,” David West said, the words struggling to escape from his gravelly voice, “what else we can do.”

The Pacers may not know what’s behind this latest stretch of basketball as they’ve lost five straight on the road, but know this – they have reached the lowest point of the season.

“Yeah, I would say,” West answered. “For us to be playing like this just as a group, just to be so out of sync and out of sorts – we just got to find an answer. Something happened and all of us are sort of searching for what that is and why we’re playing the way we’re playing and why we’re looking the way we look when we’re out there on the floor.”

Indiana, now 52-22, has played on the offensive end as if it’s an agonizing ordeal to simply put the ball through the hoop. For the fourth consecutive road game, the team could not eclipse the 37-percent shooting clip.

“We had trouble catching passes and trouble knocking down open shots,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys are out of rhythm right now. We got to figure it out. That’s what we gotta do.”


VIDEO: David West talks about Indiana’s loss in Cleveland

***

No. 2: Knicks close in on playoff spot — One huge road win could very well be the tipping point that allows the New York Knicks to finally catch and pass the struggling Atlanta Hawks for that eighth and final playoff spot they have been eyeing for months now. The gap has been closed, after the Knicks’ stunning win on the road over the Golden State Warriors. The way they did it, with Carmelo Anthony struggling through a 7-for-21 shooting night and with J.R. Smith, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tim Hardaway Jr. and others stepping up, only makes the stretch run more intriguing for the always dramatic Knicks. It’s down to one, as Marc Berman of the New York Post explains:

It’s down to one.

With Atlanta in free fall, the Knicks are lucky to be alive. And so they are very much, closing to one game of the final playoff spot with a 89-84 upset victory in a surprising defensive struggle over the Warriors at Oracle Arena, when they shut down Stephen Curry twice in the final 30 seconds.

The Knicks used rare gritty defense and a 15-0 run late in the second quarter to keep their postseason dreams alive. They had lost 10 of their last 11 games in Oakland before rising to the challenge — and bottling up Curry on the final possession.

“Our defense finally stepped up,’’ coach Mike Woodson said.

The Knicks moved to 2-2 on their five-game West Coast trip. With eight games left, the Knicks finish up the Western trip Monday in Utah. The Hawks face the Sixers.

“If we head home, get [Monday] night, it will be a great road trip,’’ Carmelo Anthony said. “We control our own destiny. I just hope we win and bring the same mindset and focus into Utah.’’

The Knicks had allowed 127 points in Los Angeles, including a 51-point third quarter, and 112 in Phoenix before buckling down in Oakland, where team president Phil Jackson continued to stay away.

Smith, who has been rising as a secondary scorer, finished with 19 points at halftime on 8 of 11 shooting and wound up with 21. Anthony finished with just 19 points but had four in the final 1:30. He shot 7 of 21. Amar’e Stoudemire was a beast on the boards, finishing with 15 points and a season-high 13 rebounds.

‘For us to bounce back after that loss in Phoenix, We did a great job tonight,’’ Anthony said. “It says a lot we can put this stuff behind us quickly.’’


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the Knicks’ big win in Oakland

***

No. 3: Win or lose the Lakers facing dilemmas at every turn at season’s end — As enjoyable as that win over the Phoenix Suns might have felt for Lakers fans who have endured an unthinkable season, the sad facts of this season remain. No matter what they do between now and the end of this regular season, this summer is setting up as a critical crossroads for the franchise. There is so much uncertainty that some of the starch is taken out of any of the good vibrations Chris Kaman and Co. provided with that surprising rout of the Suns. Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times sets the table for what the Lakers are facing:

The Phoenix Suns were in town and handed the Lakers much more to ponder beyond another surprisingly rare and easy victory.

The Suns couldn’t control Chris Kaman, lost Sunday’s game by a 115-99 score and offered the perfect time to explore some big-picture questions involving their past employees.

What will the Lakers do with Coach Mike D’Antoni?

What will happen with Steve Nash, who won two NBA most-valuable-player awards in Phoenix under D’Antoni? And what of Kendall Marshall, a first-round bust of the Suns who found plenty of playing time with the Lakers?

The answers in quick succession as of now — undetermined, staying and staying.

The Lakers have a dilemma with D’Antoni, who coached the Suns for five successful seasons. They still owe him $4 million next season and don’t want to look like a franchise with a coaching turnstile.

But Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol don’t support his small-ball offense and Lakers fans don’t support him, period.

So the team will decide fairly quickly after the April 16 regular-season finale — pay him to not coach the team, just like Mike Brown, or try to make it work next season.

General Manager Mitch Kupchak said last week he thought D’Antoni was “doing a great job under the circumstances,” but how great would obviously be revealed in coming weeks.

Nash sat out another game, which is no longer surprising for a player who appeared in only 12 this season.

For financial reasons, the Lakers currently plan to keep him next season, The Times has learned, eating the remainder of his contract ($9.7 million) in one swoop instead of waiving him and spreading the money out over three years.

It would give them more money to spend in the summers of 2015 and 2016, when they figure to be active players in the free-agent market amid such possible names as Kevin LoveLeBron James and Kevin Durant.

***

No. 4: The new age of analytics … overload or advantage? – It’s one thing for fans and pundits alike to debate the merits of advanced statistics, or analytics (if you will). It’s something altogether different, however, when players, coach and front office types are still haggling over the merits of that information and what it means in the overall matrix of the game. In Boston, where the advanced metrics movement got its start in the NBA, there is no better context than the one painted by All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, former Celtics coach and current Clippers boss Doc Rivers and Celtics president and brain waves guru Danny Ainge. Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe provides this illuminating take on where things stand by framing the debate:

Rondo has savant-like math skills and a well-documented interest in advanced statistics. But he has his doubts about SportVU.

“I don’t think it means anything,” Rondo said. “It doesn’t determine how hard you play. It can’t measure your heart. It can maybe measure your endurance. But when the game is on the line, all that goes out the window.”

Rivers, on the other hand, considers himself a proponent.

“There’s a really good use for it,” Rivers said. “There’s a use for us, each team, depending on how they play and how they defend. You can find out stuff.”

And while Ainge is also a proponent, he remains cautious.

“You have to be careful with how you utilize the information that you have,” Ainge said. “It is sort of fun and intriguing and I understand why media and the fans are intrigued by it all, but I think it’s blown way out of proportion of how much it’s actually utilized.”

Ainge’s point was echoed by several analytics officials employed by NBA teams who corresponded with the Globe on the condition of anonymity.

Naturally, none of them could speak in specifics about how their teams use the data, but many said that numerous challenges — such as how many variables can affect a player on any play — keep this from being an exact science.

“Our sport is just not a pretty sport for isolating things,” one official said.

Above all, several officials emphasized that how the discussion is framed is key, as analytics are often discussed publicly in black-and-white terms — “they’re great” or “they’re pointless” — when reality is in the middle.

One official wrote in an e-mail, “People don’t understand the limitations of the data and only focus on the articles that are written about it and the way it is ‘sold’ by the NBA and the teams that use it. Some of the data is much more along the lines of trivia as opposed to something that can be useful for an NBA team. But make no mistake, there’s plenty of good stuff in there, too.”

Another said, “The underlying data, I think, is incredibly valuable in the way that diamonds or gold under a mountain are valuable, but it takes a lot of effort and infrastructure to get at it and then take advantage of it.”

***

No. 5: Haywood: These one-and-done kids aren’t ready for the NBA – Few people can offer the perspective on the one-and-done dilemma that Spencer Haywood can. He changed the landscape for early entrant candidates in 1971 when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, after he starred for two seasons at the University of Detroit, and allowed underclassmen to enter the professional ranks. In an op-ed for the New York Daily News Haywood explains why one season on a college campus is not sufficient preparation for anyone with aspirations of joining the game’s elite. In short, Haywood believes the one-and-done rule has to go, mostly because the NBA game is suffering because of it:

I jumped to the ABA in what would have been my junior year and won the ABA Rookie of the Year and MVP honors with the Denver Rockets. I had a fair amount of seasoning before I challenged the system. I wouldn’t have been able to handle the rigors of the NBA on and off the court after my freshman year.

The NBA is now strewn with underclassmen, most notably players who have left after their freshman year, who have yet to make a significant impact.

Look no further than last year’s NBA draft, when five freshmen — Anthony Bennett, Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, Steven Adams, Shabazz Muhammad — were selected among the top 15 overall picks.

How many are difference-makers for their respective teams? None.

How many are averaging double digits in points and minutes? None.

The high scorer among this group, McLemore, is averaging 7.5 points per game. The other players are all averaging less than five points and 12 minutes. Noel is out this season due to a knee injury.

Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers, clearly needed more seasoning at UNLV and I told him as much before he made his decision to declare for the draft.

I live in Las Vegas and I saw most of his freshman year. I wish he would have listened. His NBA rookie season has been marred by being out of shape, injuries and failing to live up to the expectations of being a No. 1 overall pick. Averages of 4.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game aren’t exactly what the Cavaliers had in mind when they selected him with the top pick.

Will these players ultimately have long and meaningful NBA careers? Time will tell. But all of them would have benefited by staying at least one more year in college.

The first 30 years after the court ruled in my case, there were only three players who came out of high school early: Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby. Moses bounced around a few teams before becoming an all-time great, but Dawkins had a stagnant, underwhelming career because he wasn’t trained well enough and Willoughby had a marginal eight-year career with six teams.

If you look at the current generation of players from Kevin Garnett to Kobe Bryant to Dwight Howard, only one player was able to make an immediate impact right out of high school — LeBron James.

The NBA is a man’s league. The transition from college to the NBA is huge, on and off the court. The players are faster, stronger and smarter. You’re playing an 82-game schedule, not to mention preseason and if you’re lucky, the playoffs. Suddenly, you’re a teenager going up against the likes of James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George — all men — on a nightly basis.

One and done players need the extra year to successfully transition off the court, too. A lot of these players are still acquiring life skills: Critical thinking, time and money management, self-discipline, moderation and simply learning to say no.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: After a season filled with turnover issues, the Thunder finally seem to be getting grip on their most glaring flaw … LaMarcus Aldridge and the Trail Blazers turn the tables and secure a much-needed win over their nemesis from Memphis … After missing 16 straight games is Kevin Garnett finally on his way back to the rotation for the Brooklyn Nets? … The Cavs, who are also chasing Atlanta for that eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings, are hoping to get Kyrie Irving back sometime this week

ICYMI of the Night:  Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Johnson doesn’t normally make a fuss when he does his business, but Sunday was a milestone day for the seven-time All-Star, who surpassed the 17,000-point mark for his career …


VIDEO: Joe Johnson hits a career milestone by reaching the 17,000-point mark

Clippers rewriting the book on selves

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Clippers rally for 118-107 win in Houston

HOUSTON — The signs and the opportunities were all there.

The night was barely six minutes old when Blake Griffin went to the floor reaching for his back and had to be helped into the locker room by the training staff.

Back spasms.

They hadn’t even played two minutes into the second quarter when Glen “Big Baby” Davis was yanked off the floor by coach Doc Rivers, exchanged a few careless words with the boss and was then escorted to the locker room by security guards.

Lip spasms.

Thirty six seconds later, Houston rookie Isaiah Canaan pulled up to nail a 3-pointer and the hole was 15 points.

This was always the book on how to beat the Clippers. Show them some adversity, get them running their mouths instead of their offense and they’d come unwound like the springs in a cheap watch.

It happened time after time when opposing teams would reach in to push and grab and topple Griffin on one of his rim-rattling sorties to the hoop. It happened when Chris Paul would get caught up in a frenzy and draw technical fouls that didn’t just cost his team points, but let opponents know they were rattling him. It happened after they built a 2-0 lead on the Grizzlies last year in the first round of the playoffs.

Not this time. Not now. Not so much anymore in a season where the Clippers are getting closer, wiser, tougher. Maybe just growing up.

“I think it’s big,” said forward Matt Barnes after a 118-107 comeback win. “I think it’s what we lacked last year. I think it’s a big sign of maturity. It comes from just more experience … I think it’s just a collective effort.

“Last year that was our weakness. We were mentally weak. Collective focus on being mentally tough has got us a long way this year.

“Hats off to our team for putting up with it — the tic-tac fouls and technical fouls and Blake getting beat up. It’s all a tactic by the other team to get us out of our game. So far, I think we’ve done a pretty good job this season to sticking with the course.”

Rivers has brought a much-needed sense of know-how and stability to an organization and a team that won a franchise-record 56 games a year ago, but didn’t really comprehend how to handle or channel the things that make for real success.

The veteran coach and classroom teacher gave another lesson when he didn’t think twice about bouncing Davis from his own lineup, even on a night when Griffin had already been lost.

“Nothing went on with me,” Rivers said. “I thought Baby was just too emotional. For me, if you’re too emotional, I always send you back to the locker room and keep you there till the next game.

“I love Baby. I just didn’t think emotionally he was ready to play tonight. So we told him to go in the locker room.

“I’ve said it about emotional hijacks. If you have one, you’re gonna sit in the back. We’ve talked about that as a group.

“I didn’t make a big deal. I didn’t address it at halftime. It’s not a big deal. We needed him, but he wasn’t here emotionally. So you tell him to go sit.”

While Davis sat and another backup big man Danny Granger was sent back to Los Angeles with a strained hamstring, the Clippers dug deep into the roster for help from Jamal Crawford (also nursing a calf injury), Willie Green, Jared Dudley, Reggie Bullock, Ryan Hollins, even Hedo Turkoglu to close out a 4-0 sweep of the season series over the Rockets and to officially clinch a spot in the playoffs.

The Rockets were playing without the injured Dwight Howard (ankle) and Patrick Beverley (knee), but these are different days, different times, for the Clippers, when making the playoffs is no longer the goal. And if they are going to finally get over that playoff hurdle, this is how they’ll have to do it.

“I look at all that stuff as good stuff for us,” Rivers said. “Blake goes down. Jamal’s going in and out. That stuff’s good for us. We don’t want it. We don’t want any of it.”

They’ll simply live with it and move on.

The Clippers played 19 games when Paul was out with a separated shoulder and not only stayed afloat, but rose. J.J. Redick has missed 44 games and hasn’t played at all since early February due to a bulging disc and they’ve had others step up to hit the outside shots. Crawford’s ongoing leg problems could force Rivers to sit him down the stretch to make sure he’s fully healed and ready for the playoffs. They thought they’d get more of a bump when they signed Granger as a free agent, but that has not happened.

Yet they’ve won eight of their last 10 and — depending on the prognosis on Griffin’s back — seem to have a firm hold on the No. 3 seed in the West. He and DeAndre Jordan are the only two to play in every game this season.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team like this,” Paul said. “I think when guys come to the arena they’re just ready. It’s happened all season long. Nobody’s ever sitting over there not expecting to play. Guys know that their number might be called.

“On a lot of teams, when a guy goes down, guys start looking for excuses and stuff like that. I’ve been on teams like that. But our teams, it’s, ‘all right, we know what to do. You know what your role is.’ “

Experience, wisdom, being disciplined and mentally tougher rather than simply talking tough are steadily becoming valued traits.

Maybe it’s time to think about rewriting that old book on the Clippers.

“I think so,” said Paul. “It’s not just a few of our guys. It’s the whole team. From guys like Willie Green, Matt, Dud, guys coming in, guys like that. We’re playing with a purpose.”


VIDEO: Jamal Crawford talks about Clips’ win, stretch run

MVP ladder: Blake takes his place (no. 3)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com



VIDEO: Player of the Month honors for Blake Griffin … why not? He’s certainly earned it

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Admit it, you doubted Blake Griffin would get here. You didn’t think he’d improve this much in such a relatively short period of time.

Seriously, it’s okay to fess up now.

Because Griffin is real. The hype is justified. He’s more than just a pitch man and a walking, talking and dunking highlight reel waiting to happen. Griffin is a legitimate MVP candidate and the clear-cut No. 3 (in a two-man race) behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

Griffin has separated himself from the rest of the pack outside of the top three of the KIA Race to the MVP Ladder. It’s been a season-long labor of love for Griffin, whose own coach Doc Rivers, as well as others like Dallas Mavericks boss Rick Carlisle, can’t say enough about Griffin’s hard work and dedication paying off the way it has this season for a Los Angeles Clippers team that is in thick of things in the Western Conference playoff chase.

Joakim Noah and James Harden round out the top five of the Ladder this week.

Dive in here for more on who made the cut on this week’s KIA Race To The MVP Ladder!

 

Blogtable: The NBA’s most dynamic duo

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe 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.


BLOGTABLE: Indy’s roster tweaks | Style police | Most dynamic duo



VIDEO: LeBron James and Chris Bosh combined to snuff out Portland’s chance at a win Monday

> Right now — taking health problems and everything else into consideration – who would you name the most formidable pair of teammates in the NBA?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: This reminds me of the trivia question about baseball’s all-time brother act among HR hitters. Of course it’s the Aarons, on the strength of Henry’s 755 and Tommie’s 13. To me, any pair of teammates that includes LeBron James as one of them is a serious contender as top tandem. Some might argue that Chris Bosh is Miami’s second-best player now, but I’ll stick with a rested and recuperating Dwyane Wade as wingman to the NBA’s best player (not necessarily the 2014 MVP), based on how well Wade and the team have managed his health and workload.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Because there are questions going forward about how Russell Westbrook will hold up over the long haul of the playoffs and because there are constantly questions about Dwyane Wade’s knees, you have to go past the obvious.  I’ll put Chris Paul and Blake Griffin at the top of my 1-2 punch list.  Paul can run the break, get everybody a good shot at any time and Griffin has raised his all-around game to be part of the MVP conversation.  Formidable isn’t the word to describe Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, just incredibly efficient.  The pairing that could leap up and make an even bigger splash still in the playoffs is James Harden and Dwight Howard.

Blake Griffin, Chris Paul (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Blake Griffin, Chris Paul (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comKevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. I know Westbrook’s been in and out of the lineup and might be a knee bump away from potentially being shelved again, but together this tandem of 25-year-olds is a two-way terror like none other. Durant is the best player in the game right now, simply unguardable. Put the strength and speed of Westbrook, practically unguardable in his own right, next to KD and say goodnight.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comFour first names and two players equal one top tandem: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin. The best point guard in the world and one of the top, maybe the top, power forward gives the Clippers a dynamic inside-outside pairing with a season of Griffin’s commendable improvements and Paul coming back from the shoulder injury. James Harden-Dwight Howard and Paul George-Roy Hibbert (defense, defense) are in the conversation. Paul is not 100 percent, but the potential challengers of Westbrook-Durant, Lillard-Aldridge, Rose-Noah have larger health issues.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comLeBron James and Chris Bosh. James is the best player in the world and Bosh is the next most important player on the Heat, with his ability to defend the pick-and-roll and space the floor offensively. Dwyane Wade can create more offense when James is off the floor, but Bosh is the better complement. He’s bigger and a better perimeter shooter.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The most lethal pair of teammates, injuries included, remains Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. There aren’t two guys working in tandem that can wreak more havoc or affect more change, on both ends of the floor, during the course of a game than the Oklahoma City Thunder’s dynamic duo and their Miami Heat counterparts. When they crank it into high-gear, who else can wade into that deep water and still stay true to what they do best? Sure, Westbrook and Wade have dealt with more than their fair share of injury issues this season. But the entire league knows what happens when they have it going. They are the obvious choices for the most obvious of reasons, we’ve seen them go to that next level so often over the past three or four years that there should really be no argument here.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: I’m sure we’ll see nominations for Westbrook and Durant, Harden and Howard, maybe even LeBron and Bosh. But I think I’ll go with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. I don’t think CP3’s leadership or toughness have ever been questioned, and with CP3 missing time this year due to injury, I think we saw exactly how good and complete a player Blake has become. The thing I also like about these two is that they combine to form a terrific inside-out combination, or at least as much of an inside-out combination as exists these days in the NBA.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: Right now it’s the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin duo. The smartest PG in the league paired with one of the most athletic big man gave us Lob City, but now that Griffin is evolving into something more than just a spectacular dunker, the Clippers have a spectacular duo who’s winning a ton of games. They can both win games by themselves, as a duo or involving their other teammates. I really like what Doc Rivers has turned them into. Without injuries, I’d go with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade over Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: I was thinking about Howard/Harden, Nowitzki/Ellis, Paul/Griffin and Westbrook/Durant. But right now I don’t believe that any duo is as good on both sides of the floor as LeBron James and Chris Bosh. In his fourth season with the Heat, Bosh is so much more than the third-best player of the team. You could argue that Miami would be going nowhere if they didn’t have the lefty big man. He takes and makes big shots with great regularity and is capable of a key defensive play anytime. And LeBron is just the best player on the planet. I really believe that if you have those two players working together, you’re guaranteed a shot at the title. And they’re the only duo I think about in those terms.

MVP ladder: make room for big Al!

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com



VIDEO: Al Jefferson takes “old school” to new heights this season with the Bobcats

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Moses Malone?

To most players currently collecting NBA paychecks that name evokes memories of one of the game’s all-time greats, but a face many of the league’s young stars might not recognize. That’s not the case for Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson, captain old school himself, who fashions his pristine low-post game after the great Moses, who put on big man clinics on a nightly basis during a career that included his ABA days and his time in the NBA.

Jefferson is bringing old school back today on the KIA Race to the MVP Ladder. The Bobcats big man joins the party this week at No. 9, and truth be told has been knocking on the door for weeks now. Not only is he leading the Bobcats’ march to the playoffs, he’s doing it with a style that has been lost among today’s generation of big men who prefer stretching their shooting range out beyond the 3-point line rather than mastering a two or three pet moves around the basket.

Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Joakim Noah and James Harden comprise the top five of the Ladder this week.

Dive in here for more on who made the cut on this week’s KIA Race To The MVP Ladder!