Posts Tagged ‘Blazers’

Bad call admission by the league doesn’t make Rockets feel better

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

HOUSTON — It was a day late when the Rockets got their apology of sorts with the NBA’s admission that officials were incorrect in calling a foul on Dwight Howard with 10.8 seconds left in overtime of Game 1. In fact, the foul should have been called on the Blazers’ Joel Freeland and Howard sent to the line for two free throws.

Of course, that an $5 will get the Rockets a venti coffee at Starbucks.

“I guess we need to go play the 10 seconds back,” Howard said with a grin following Tuesday’s practice. “We can’t do nothing about it now. It doesn’t matter. We just got to win Game 2.”

Teammate Chandler Parsons nodded his head.

“It’s obvious,” he said. “But it doesn’t do anything for us now that they’ve said that. At least they’ve owned up to it. It still doesn’t change the fact that we lost the game or are down 0-1.

“I don’t care either way. It almost makes me more mad they announced it knowing that it was wrong. One call, one play, it doesn’t determine the outcome of the game. We got to just play better and not let it get to that point.”

Beverley ready to bounce back again

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

HOUSTON — Pat Beverley’s recuperative powers continue to surprise even his teammates.

After the feisty point guard re-injured his right knee in a collision with Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge with 1:04 left in overtime, most of the Rockets feared the worst.

But after an examination by team physician Dr. Walter Lowe Monday morning, Beverley has been cleared to play in Game 2 on Wednesday night against the Trail Blazers.

“I knew how I felt when I woke up this morning that I was OK,” Beverley said after going through practice with the team. “Hearing him agree with me was a blessing.

“I felt a real stiff little pain as far as the knee area where I hurt before. But I’m fortunate. I don’t know. I heal fast, I guess.

I woke up at home, tried to put some weight on it. Squat, it felt good. One leg jump, it felt good. Did this all at home. I just have an ability to heal.”

Beverley had torn the meniscus in his right knee on March 27 and missed eight games. He remained in the game Sunday night after banging into Aldridge on a pick, but hobbled off the court 20 seconds later after fouling out.

“Stoked,” said forward Chandler Parsons. “I didn’t see that coming. He never ceases to amaze me. I’m glad he’s healthy and went through practice today and hopefully he’ll be able to go Wednesday.

“Last night he was really shaken up and pretty much wasn’t walking, was really upset. I didn’t know what to think. I thought the worst.”

Center Dwight Howard expressed relief, both real and comical.

“I’m happy. Our prayers were answered,” Howard said. “He’s playing. I think he went home and just shook his leg a million times and whatever happened, it just popped right back into place. It’s amazing.”

The medical clearance means Beverley will be able to resume his head-to-head battle with Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, who shot 9-for-19, scored 31 points, grabbed nine rebounds and had five assists in the first playoff game of his career.

Lillard and Beverley have squabbled on and off the court this season. Lillard has complained about Beverley’s aggressive tactics and Beverley went on a Houston radio show in response and label Lillard “a whiner.”

“He raises the level of the game when he’s out there,” Lillard said on Monday. “I wish him the best. Hopefully, he’s healthy. When I know he’s subbing in and out of the game, I think they’re just a better team.”

When informed of Lillard’s comments, Beverley did a double-take and then smiled.

“I don’t know if he’s trying to use reverse psychology on me,” he said. “I don’t know how to take it.”

Mavs blow it, then win It vs. Blazers

VIDEO: Mavericks win wild one against Blazers

DALLAS – The Dallas Mavericks described their listless defeat at Denver on Wednesday night as embarrassing. What might have they called losing to the Portland Trail Blazers after leading by 30?

Because they did indeed upchuck a 30-point cushion and it wasn’t looking pretty as they trailed 98-92 with 4:26 to go. Ultimately, Dallas avoided the humiliation of a super-sized “L” lassoed around their throats. What would have gone down as the largest lead tossed aside on their home floor in franchise history turned into the strangest of comeback wins, an 11-0 spurt down the stretch securing a 103-98 win the hard way.

“We’ve been blowing leads all year,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, leaving the carnage of five blown leads of at least 17 points unspoken. “We’ve blown a lot of big leads, so this is one of the realities that we face with this team, and we’re going to keep working to prevent it from happening next time. That’s all we can do, that’s all we can do. … With 19 games left, we’ve got to work to prevent because tonight, if you talk about doing it the hard way, there’s no harder way to do it than tonight.”

Dallas built a 40-10 lead and then was outscored 79-42 and trailed 89-82 with 8:36 left in the game.

Five times this season Dallas has blown leads of at least 17 points. Just a few nights ago inside the American Airlines Center, Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls crushed a 16-point first-half deficit and beat Dallas. Afterward, Dirk Nowitzki said he almost wished they hadn’t of built such a big lead so early.

He’ll also recall the 21-point bulge the Mavs had in the first quarter at Toronto on Jan. 22 and eventually lost. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been overly shocking since Dallas led the Raptors by 19 in Dallas and sill lost.

The worst relinquished lead, though, had to be that January night in Los Angeles against the Clippers. The Mavs were burying the Clips in the fourth quarter and cruising toward a huge road victory. They led 123-106 with 4:35 to go and lost in a wild ending, 129-127.

This one was equally crazy in the final minutes. Portland wasn’t amused that Dallas got into the bonus basically three minutes into the fourth quarter, and then a close blocking call on Damian Lillard with 24.6 seconds left in a tie game allowed the driving Devin Harris to complete a three-point play for a 101-98 lead.

“I didn’t agree with the call,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said not surprisingly. Lillard agreed. Harris, also not surprisingly, said he didn’t believe Lillard had squared his shoulders, therefor the proper call was executed.

“A charge or a no-call, yeah,” Stotts said of what should have been where he stood. “It was [a big play]. I’m not going to complain about the officials. I disagree with the call. It was the play of the game because it was a tie game and a three-point play. It changes everything.”

But it wasn’t the only play. The Blazers couldn’t miss in the third quarter, shooting 63.6 percent to win the quarter 36-18. LaMarcus Aldridge scored 18 of his game-high 30 points in the period. But in the final 4:26, Portland failed to score on nine consecutive possessions and Aldridge missed his last five shot attempts after his alley-oop dunk gave the Blazers a 98-92 lead. He couldn’t convert late near the hoop in all manner of traffic and Aldridge couldn’t believe he didn’t hear a whistle.

“I definitely felt like there were some calls that they got earlier that I didn’t get late,” Aldridge said. “The one that Dirk pump-faked and the guy went up in the air, I did it in the paint, they didn’t call it. I feel like one of the offensive rebounds I got hit a few times, so I mean, I don’t know, but I have to be better in the stretch.”

With 19 seconds left and the Blazers needing a 3 to tie, there was a cross-up and Aldridge threw the ball out of bounds, effectively ending any chance of coming back in a game they had already come back from down 30.

“I had some big miscues down the stretch,” the Dallas native Aldridge acknowledged. “I missed some shots down the stretch, so you know, fighting all the way back and being up and having an opportunity to win — not taking care of business.”

Season On The Brink For The Hawks?

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Atlanta Hawks vs. Magic

The Atlanta Hawks have struggled to keep up their early-season success of late.

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Sooner or later, one way or another, you knew it was all going to catch up with the Atlanta Hawks.

The injuries.

The close losses.

The missed opportunities.

The injuries.

They weren’t going to stay above the fray in the Eastern Conference mix behind the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat forever. Not without Al Horford. Not with coach Mike Budenholzer pushing every button possible to make up for the loss of the team’s franchise player after his season-ending pectoral muscle tear the day after Christmas.

It’s amazing it took this long for the wheels to come off for the Hawks. They held on to their top-four status in the East for a good month after Horford went down. Jeff Teague played his guts out before injuries interrupted his season and he hasn’t been as consistent since. Elders like Elton Brand and Kyle Korver and pups like Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack rose up when they were needed. Paul Millsap even earned an All-Star nod, the first of his career, stepping into the void to replace what Horford gave the Hawks on a nightly basis.

But here they are now, with the smoke clearing and the mirrors smashed, facing their most grueling stretch of the calendar with their season on the brink as they cling to the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

Wednesday night’s game in Boston begins a season-defining road stretch that includes stops in Phoenix Sunday, Portland (March 5), Golden State (March 7), Los Angeles (the Clippers on March 8) and finishing up in Utah (March 10). Survive this stretch and there is still hope that the Hawks can get healthy enough in time to at least fend off late-season charges from issue-laden Detroit, Cleveland and even woeful New York.

If the Hawks get buried on this road trip, they’ll surely get caught (and be passed up) by one of those teams. Not that they are looking that far ahead.

“You never should look ahead that far,” forward DeMarre Carroll said. “We’re just trying to get better and trust the system and let our work do the talking.”


VIDEO:
Al Horford suffers a season-ending pectoral injury in Cleveland

The power of positive thinking might not save the Hawks this time around. They overachieved early this season and their above-.500 work through early February was fool’s gold. The Hawks are 2-9 this month and don’t exactly boast a road reputation that gives reason to think this big trip will end well.

They are 9-19 on the road with wins over the likes of Sacramento, Charlotte, New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Boston, Orlando, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Of that group, only the Bobcats are in the playoff mix.

The only saving grace for the Hawks is that they are not alone. Every team in the Eastern Conference not named the Pacers or Heat have to operate like their season is on the line over the course of the next four to six weeks. That’s how fluid the playoff picture is. Whoever gets hot the fastest can chew up some real estate in the standings and push their way into that No. 4-5-6-7 mix in the pecking order.

“We talked about that Monday in our meeting after the [Sunday loss to Miami],” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said, taking his cue from Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “Thibs said it best, we cannot exhale right now. We have to push through these next couple of games and weeks because this next stretch can alter your season and what you want to do if you let the fatigue of the season get to you. We look at the loss columns for everybody and we feel like we’re right there. You have to bounce back from tough losses and get back at it. Miami and Indiana have separated themselves from the pack, so everybody else has to be fighting for that next spot, that No. 3 seed. And we’re grinding for it right now.”

The Bulls are also grinding without the face of their franchise, Derrick Rose. They’ve surely dealt with their fair share of injuries and adversity this season. But some teams handle it better than others. They are 16-8 since trading Luol Deng to Central Division rival Cleveland. While the Hawks struggle to dig out from under their February avalanche, the Bulls surge along.

Thibodeau oozes confidence when talking about his wounded group, insisting that they have more than enough to get the job done each night. The Bulls’ experience operating under duress in recent seasons certainly aids that cause. Their familiarity with one another (and Thibodeau’s hard-charging style) are assets as well.

The Hawks, with a first-year coach in Budenholzer and a largely revamped roster, have no such benefits. General manager Danny Ferry had a chance to look for some temporary roster help at the trade deadline, but didn’t come away with anything that would make a significant impact.

The fact is, the Hawks are still finding out if they are cut from that same tough fabric the Bulls are. Time will tell. And time, particularly the next 13 days or so, will tell about these Hawks. They are 10-17 without Horford and their confidence seems to be fading.

“The interesting thing about the East,” Hawks veteran guard Lou Williams said, “and I’m trying to say the politically correct thing here … a couple of wins in a row here and you’ll be right back in the fold. We recognize and understand that. So our job is just go out, take it one game at a time and see if we can put a string of wins together and get there.”

That’s much easier said than done at this juncture for the Hawks, who can hear the clock ticking on their season.


VIDEO: The Hawks fight back, but can’t finish off the Bulls in Atlanta

Spurs Need To Get Healthy On Rodeo Trip


VIDEO: Tim Duncan has 23 points and 17 rebounds as the Spurs beat the Kings

In one way, the 2014 edition of the Spurs’ Rodeo Trip is like all the others. It’s a time for coming together.

Usually that means bonding as a team, forging a closeness in spirit, identity and execution on the court.

This time it simply means picking up the pieces and trying to glue them all together.

As they open the nine-game, 8,989 mile odyssey tonight in New Orleans, the Spurs would appear to be about as fragile as Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl legacy. They good news is they’ll face only four teams with records above .500 on the trip. They bad news is they’ll do it with a roster that has Manu Ginobili (hamstring), Kawhi Leonard (hand) and Danny Green (hand) all in various stages of injury rehabilitation and Tiago Splitter (shoulder) just getting back into the rotation after more than three weeks on the shelf.

“We’ve still got to go play all the games,” coach Gregg Popovich told reporters before Saturday’s home win over Sacramento. “When the game is over nobody cares. Nobody says, ‘Well, who was out for that team?’ You either won or you lost and you got better or you didn’t. So it’s all the same stuff. We want to concentrate on all the same things offensively and defensively, the things we want to get better at, and just go.”

Despite their current position tied for the No. 2 seed in the West, the Spurs do have a need to get better quickly, having lost three of their last four games and five out of eight since the middle of January. After a stellar 35-6 home record a year ago, they have also lost eight games already this season at the AT&T Center. Perhaps most telling, the Spurs are just 1-11 against opponents with the top six records in the NBA this season — Pacers, Thunder, Blazers, Heat, Clippers and Rockets.

It would then hardly seem a good time for a team to embark on a lengthy All-Star break-straddling road trip that will take them from coast to coast and playing games in four time zones before their next home game on Feb. 26.

However, the Spurs have traditionally used the period they have to vacate their own stable for the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo as time to solidify their standing in the conference and make a push for elite playoff seeding.

Since the beginning of the tradition in 2003, the Spurs have an overall mark of 65-26 on 11 rodeo trips and have posting a losing record. In the past three seasons, they are 21-6.

According to Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News, while the Spurs have the best winning percentage (70.5) in North American professional sports since Tim Duncan joined the team in 1997, they are actually better on the rodeo trip (71.4).

A year ago the Spurs went 7-2 on their trek, even though they played the first five games without the injured Duncan and Ginobili.

But this might be a more difficult challenge. In their final home game before departing, a narrow 95-93 escape past the Kings, the Spurs started a deep backup point guard Cory Joseph at the shooting guard spot and started at small forward with Shannon Brown, a player who’d just been signed to a 10-day contract and never had time for a practice.

With Splitter getting back onto the floor briefly against Sacramento, Green is expected to be the next to return, maybe playing by the end of the week. Leonard is a possible addition by the time the Spurs hit the West Coast after the All-Star break, while Ginobili could miss the entire journey.

“They’re trickling in,” Duncan said. “It’s great to have bodies back out there, great to start getting everyone healthy. Now it’s about getting their rhythm back, their wind back and get into game shape.”

It’s Still Heat And Everyone Else


VIDEO: Chris Bosh’s game-winning 3-pointer sinks the Blazers

Dwyane Wade flips a behind-the-back pass with a move that is slicker than anything on a South Beach dance floor and Chris Bosh lets fly a 3-pointer that would have sailed over the top of a palm tree.

Bosh’s game-winner did not just serve as the deciding margin in the most entertaining NBA game of the season to date, but as another difference between the two-time defending champs and everybody else.

The Heat have it figured out.

Even with the Trail Blazers rising to the challenge against a full-throated home crowd. Even with LaMarcus Aldridge showing why he belongs in the MVP conversation. Even with Wesley Matthews lighting it up. Even with LeBron James left to only play the role of world’s roughest, toughest cheerleader.

As we prepare to flip the pages another calendar year, the one thing that doesn’t change is Miami’s ability to survive and thrive. Is it myopia or jealousy or sheer boredom that keeps running new contenders up the flagpole and ignoring the resolve and sheer talent of the Heat’s Big Three?

This is, after all, why Pat Riley went to such great lengths to put them in the same uniforms, so that they wouldn’t ever be forced to rely on just one of them?

Here was yet another season that began with yet another set of questions about Wade’s knees and Bosh’s guts and whether James was already peeking ahead to next summer and a chance to return to the Cleveland. And here they are looking like anything but a trio that is ready to surrender its championship grip or prevailing aura.

The standings may show the Heat currently with the fourth-best record in the league, behind the Pacers, Thunder and Blazers and yet you can have the entire field of 29 teams as long as I get to keep Miami.

The Pacers are a fierce and committed blend of burgeoning youth and smart veterans who have made it their goal to finish with the best regular season record and grab home-court advantage all the way through the playoffs into late June. Paul George is an MVP-in-waiting, only the year(s) in question, Roy Hibbert brings the inside bulk and power of a road grader and the rest of the Pacers lineup is filled with weapons.

Yet after beating Miami in Indy on Dec. 10, they let a 15-point lead slip away eight nights later in a rematch, even on a night when James and Mario Chalmers were jawing at each other on the sidelines.

The Thunder were in the spring of 2012, and are still, supposed to be rising young challengers whose games swell with growth and confidence each season. But it’s that swelling in Russell Westbrook’s right knee that has now once more required surgery and could stop OKC from ever reaching its full potential. With James Harden in Houston, they don’t have the three-way luxury of the Heat lineup, and the 2013 playoffs demonstrated that as good as he is, Kevin Durant likely can’t finish the job himself.

The explosive rise of the Blazers behind Aldridge and Damian Lillard and Nic Batum has been as fun and exciting a story as any in the league this season. Yet even on a night when they drop in 11 3-pointers and out-rebound the Heat, they couldn’t close the deal.

The Spurs are still piling up wins against the lesser lights in the league, but may have permanently lost their grip on any chance for a fifth franchise championship in those fateful 28 seconds of Game 6 in The Finals.

The fretting over or knocking of Miami arises any time the Heat lose two straight games, a leftover product of the hype and expectation that greeted their coming together. But if the past three seasons should have taught anything, it is that James, Wade and Bosh are the ones who have assumed nothing and put themselves to the task.

While the Pacers, Thunder, Blazers and the rest are trying to figure it all out, the Heat have amassed what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich calls “the corporate knowledge” of what it takes to play with each other, trust each other and get the very most out of each other.

The result is an offense that is second-best in efficiency this season and a defense, rated eighth, that can close like a fist around a windpipe and choke off opponents when it’s time.

There is no doubt that, at 32, Wade’s knees require the delicate care of hothouse orchids, yet he can still bloom and take your breath away. Bosh continues to have his inner strength and his consistency questioned, but explodes for 37 points and leaves nothing untapped in Portland. James, well, simply plays the game on a planet where he is the only inhabitant.

So while everyone else around them in the NBA is wondering how Riley and team owner Micky Arison can — and whether they want to — keep the band together after next summer, the Heat keep knocking out hits and asking the only question that matters: Why not?

13 NBA Reasons To Be Thankful


VIDEO: NBA players give thanks for their communities and more

Before we dig into the turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie, here’s a baker’s dozen things on the NBA plate to appreciate on Thanksgiving Day:

Kobe Bryant: We get two more years — at least — of the most ruthless, relentless, never-show-a-weakness competitor the league and maybe pro sports has seen since Michael Jordan was chewing up the scenery and opponents in Chicago. In the wake of his signing a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension, we also got a slew of critiques about impact on the salary cap and physical limits of your average 35-year-old body that overlook his unquenchable thirst to play, his drive to get back onto the court for the Lakers. Love him or hate him, you’ll miss him when he’s gone.


VIDEO: The Starters talk about Kobe Bryant’s new deal

The Heat Wave: Never mind that the Celtics did it in 2008 with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, the Celtics did it in 1980 with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, the Celtics did all through the late ‘50s and 1960s with Bill Russell and an entire wing of the Hall of Fame and the Lakers did it with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. The Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami is just what the doctored ordered in the overreactive, hypersensitive age of social media — something to cheer, complain and obsess about. And, oh yeah, they’re damn good.

LeBron James: For all of the disappointment over not getting to the top in Cleveland, bad judgment and bad taste of “The Decision,” he took his talents to South Beach and has delivered on the promise. Would Jordan or Bird or Magic or Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell have stood up to the 24/7 scrutiny under which James has played his entire career? Be thankful you get to see him now, because 20-30 years from now you’ll be bragging to the grandkids that you did.


VIDEO: LeBron James is off to a monster start again this season

Riquickulous: It’s not just a clever TV commercial for Nike. On almost any night he laces up his sneakers, it never gets old to know that the game’s greatest ball handler and top point guard Chris Paul is quite likely to pull off a variation of the “the pull-back-hop-step-under-the-left-leg-behind-the-back-right-hand-two-dribble-half-pokey-crossover-between-two-defenders-drop-step-take-tweet-through-over-the-shoulder-pop-pass-into-the-sidestep-power-jump-stop-double-clutch-offhand-reverse-floater-layin.”

Anybody need me to repeat that?


VIDEO: Chris Paul puts a ridiculous move on the Rockets’ Jeremy Lin

The Spurs Way: They’re the often unseen lining on the inside of an expensive fur coat, the overlooked soles on the bottom of a pair of $1,000 designer shoes. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and all of the stability and professionalism they stand for in San Antonio prove that you don’t have to live in the headlines to be deserving of them.

John, Paul George & Ringo: Because of where they’re from, because of who they are, the Pacers will likely never be known as the Fab Four or Five, even if they’re lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. It’s a team-wide commitment to the task that has the Pacers steely-eyed and focused on the rolling up the best record in the league. But watching the growth and transformation of George from talented rookie into team leader and MVP candidate has been nothing short of breathtaking.


VIDEO: NBA Action takes a closer look at Indiana’s fast start to 2013-14

LaMarcus Aldridge: Another MVP candidate from another team with a geographical handicap that keeps the world of headlines and acclaim from beating a path to his door. The Blazers forward could have become discouraged and looked to bail out of Portland after three straight non-playoff seasons in the prime of his career. Instead he’s doing it all and having his best season in the NBA Go ahead, tell me you saw 13-3 coming.


VIDEO: The Blazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge has helped Portland start off solid

Gregg Popovich vs. Craig Sager: Those terse, contentious in-game chats on TNT between the acerbic Spurs coach and a guy wearing one of Secretariat’s old stable blankets are some of the most uncomfortable and hilarious bits in the history of television. Other sideline reporters have tried to horn in on the act, but this is Ali-Frazier of the genre.

Russell Westbrook: Yes, he’s wild, restless, unpredictable, flamboyant, stubborn and burn-down-the-house crazy at times on the court. But we watch him with our jaws dropped because of those traits. I know you expected me to say Kevin Durant, and I have nothing but respect for K.D.’s silky smooth, just-go-about-his-business approach to the game. But when it comes to the Thunder, you can’t help but be drawn to the lightning.


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook runs wild on the Nuggets in Oklahoma City’s victory

Love Story: Everybody knew he could rebound coming out of UCLA, but not like this. Everybody knew he could shoot and score and pass when he entered the NBA. But not like this. There are still general managers in the league who foolishly label Kevin Love as “unathletic” every year in their annual poll and you have to wonder how they keep their paycheck or any sense of credibility. The Timberwolves power forward is challenging LeBron in the early MVP race with a game that is deliciously well-rounded.


VIDEO: Kevin Love is leading the league in rebounding

Stephen Curry: Slender as a reed and maybe as frail as a snowflake, Curry is delicate yet dangerous, in some ways the 21st century version of George Gervin because he can shoot with such ease and from unexpected angles and barely ever looks like he’s breaking a sweat. It’s his propensity for injuries that makes you want to take in as much as you can see right now, just in case.

Andre Miller: He’s old and slow … and he’s been that way for what seems like decades now. But at 37 and in his 15th season, if you bounced him out of Denver right now and into Chicago, the Bulls would have just the smart, tough point guard they need to stay in the Eastern Conference race. There’s something about watching an experienced, heady veteran surviving and thriving that is satisfying.

Motor City Jerseys: OK, let’s not get carried away and see Kobe wearing “La-La Land,” Dwight Howard “H-Town” or LeBron “South Beach” across his chest. Detroit and the Motor City nickname has history, tradition, staying power. It really means something to a town that has taken its share of lumps and bruises through the years and a franchise with a long-standing championship pedigree. The Pistons in the Motor City jerseys are just, well, cool.

D’Antoni Drinking From Kobe’s Full Cup

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HANG TIME, Texas – It turns out Kobe Bryant isn’t the only one thinking the experts will be eating crow when he and his teammates report for duty in the playoffs next spring.

While he isn’t quite cackling on national TV with Jimmy Kimmel, coach Mike D’Antoni insists that the Lakers can improve on their 45-37 record from last season. At least that’s what he told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

“I don’t see why not,” he said. “I think we can be better because I don’t think we reached our potential last year. Our lack of defense came mostly from lack of energy from guys that didn’t feel right in their place on the team. Defense is energy, concentration and the desire to do it.

“If something is sapping that energy — distractions, injuries, not feeling good about the team — then you’re not going to put your heart and soul into it and it comes out on the defensive end. They just didn’t feel each other.”

It’s a simple recipe, really. You simply subtract a seven-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, five-time NBA rebounding leader — including last season when he wasn’t fully fit — and the kumbaya spirit of cooperation lifts the entire boat.

Of course, D’Antoni didn’t mention Dwight Howard by name and we think that’s a good thing, since there has been far too much dredging up the pains of the past by everyone in the Laker organization from team president Jim Buss down to the valet parking attendants at the Staples Center. It is time — way past time, in fact — for the Lakers to move on and part of that has to be adopting the old Stuart Smalley from the long ago days of Saturday Night Live: “We’re good enough.”

Can the Lakers be good enough in a Western Conference where they had to go to the final night of the regular season in 2012-13 to finally secure the No. 7 spot in the playoffs and where Houston (with Howard) and Golden State (with Andre Iguodala) would clearly rank ahead of them now in the pecking order. Then there’s the matter of teams such as Minnesota, Portland and New Orleans coming up from behind. The Timberwolves are rebounding from a season fraught with injuries, while the Blazers and Pelicans have made moves to improve their talent.

The Lakers still have the biggest question mark in the league on their side of the ledger, wondering when — and really if — at age 35, Bryant can return to his Black Mamba form. Until that time, they must rely on 39-year-old Steve Nash and 33-year-old Pau Gasol  to carry the load with aging bodies that both broke down last season. D’Antoni’ said he believes that Nash and Gasol will be 100 percent healthy heading into training camp, but this is certainly a time, for their own good and that of the team, that their minutes will have to be monitored closely and likely limited. The defending Western Conference champion Spurs have been able to get away with fewer minutes from Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili because young guys such as Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are rising through the pipeline. That’s not quite the case with the Lakers, whose offseason additions have been Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson and Chris Kaman.

D’Antoni says he’s not going into the season looking over his shoulder in terms of his job security, especially after surviving a summer of blood-letting in the NBA coaching ranks.

“I’m sure it’s out there. If you don’t win, it’s there,” he said. “If you’re coaching in Fort Wayne, it’s going to be the same thing. I think the Lakers are a special case because they’re the No. 1 team that’s on ESPN. You just do the best job you can do and go on. If you get caught up in what they’re saying, you can’t do your job.”

Then he mentioned his peers in what was a surprisingly cranky, impatient off-season.

“Look at what happened to coaches this year. Eleven get let go. And three or four of them had the best years the franchise has ever had,” D’Antoni said. “So who am I to say they’re treating me bad? What about all those other guys?”
D’Antoni never feared for his job security despite the first-round playoff flameout.

“No, because Mitch [Kupchak] and Jim Buss were really supportive and great,” he said of the team’s front-office executives. “I couldn’t ask for anything better from the staff and franchise. I don’t want to be flippant, but you also have to have an attitude of, ‘To hell with everything. Concentrate. Go forward.’ You can’t get distracted by the noise.”

Westbrook Tough Break, Not A Dirty One

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HOUSTON — Patrick Beverley
plays hard and he plays fast and he plays much, much bigger than his listed height of 6-foot-1.

Beverley does not play dirty. At least he did not on the play that might have ended Russell Westbrook’s season.

The injury to Westbrook’s right knee was untimely, unfortunate and could ultimately prove to be the undoing of the Thunder’s chance to win the NBA championship this season. But it was not unsportsmanlike conduct.

It was hustle. It was aggressive. It was the way virtually every coach who ever carried a clipboard wants his to players to play — until he hears the whistle.

Was Westbrook trying to call a timeout? Probably. But he hadn’t and no referee had signaled for play to stop.

Were the chances of Beverley making the steal slim? Probably. But the best players don’t always need the odds in their favor. They force the action.

It is understandable that fans in Oklahoma City have been devastated by the news that one of their two All-Star players could be lost for the rest of the season following surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.

It is not understandable, reasonable or even civilized for fans to direct threats toward Beverley on Twitter.

For those over-reactors in the 24-hour media maw, have you watched the video replays? Westbrook dribbled across mid-court and was perhaps a bit too cavalier in thinking he was going to get a timeout and Beverley did what he always does — he played.

The two players bumped knees and when that happens, often someone gets hurt. In this case, it was Westbrook who turned and slammed down his fist onto the scorer’s table.

Take note: Not only was there no foul called on the play, but Kevin Durant, who was standing right there, did not even give Beverley the slightest derisive look. And not a single player or coach on the Thunder bench reacted as if a breach of etiquette had occurred. By the way, Westbrook played all 24 minutes of the second half, scoring 16 of his 29 points.

Injuries happen and they have derailed more than a few teams and careers. This season alone injuries have kept the likes of Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose and Danny Granger, among others, on the sidelines in the postseason. Dikembe Mutombo’s long and glorious career came to an end when he collided with Portland’s Greg Oden in a playoff game in 2009. The 1989 Lakers were a flawless 11-0 in the playoffs and maybe motoring toward a “three-peat” when hamstring injuries claimed Magic Johnson and Byron Scott on the eve of The Finals and they were swept out by the Pistons.

These are the playoffs and these are the big leagues. Through the years I have seen Spurs coach Gregg Popovich stand up as if he were going to call a timeout. Then the defenders relax and Tony Parker scoots all the way in to the basket for an uncontested layup. It occurred most famously at the Staples Center in a playoff game against Shaq, Kobe and the Lakers.

Two years ago, while playing for the Blazers, Andre Miller dribbled across the half-court line, head-faked toward the referee and when the Hornets defense stopped in its tracks, turned the corner and scored a cheap bucket.

It’s a bad time for Westbrook, who had played 439 in a row and never missed a game in his career. It’s bad luck for the Thunder, who will now have to lean on Durant more than ever and have others step up to fill the void. It’s a bad break for everybody who wants to see the best go head-to-head at this time of the year. It was not bad basketball.

Those who suggest that the Rockets be fined, suspended or somehow punished should perhaps turn to croquet, tea parties or other gentler pastimes.

Beverley was playing frantic, frenzied, feverish, furious. Sassy and smart too.

But he wasn’t dirty.
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Playoffs Snapshot — April 12

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 coach Gregg 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…)