Posts Tagged ‘Bobcats’

Diaw finally finds comfort zone


VIDEO: Tony Parker on the words of wisdom he had for his longtime friend Boris Diaw earlier in his career

MIAMI — The first nervous steps of Boris Diaw‘s NBA career were tough to watch.

The talent was obvious: A 6-foot-8 basketball savant with point guard skills and the size, length and ability to play as many as four positions. What was also clear is that Diaw’s understanding of the game was beyond that of a normal rookie. The Atlanta Hawks’ front office knew it, which is one of the main reasons they selected the young French prospect with the 21st pick in the 2003 Draft.

But there was glitch in the system. Diaw’s coaches had no idea how to use him. The Hawks, at the time, hadn’t figured out how to use a player with Diaw’s hybrid skill set. They couldn’t figure out if he was a point guard or a center or whatever was in between. So they tried him everywhere, from point guard to center … and sometimes all in the same half of the same game.

“Well, I did a little bit of everything,” Diaw said with a smile Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena, the day after helping his San Antonio Spurs to a 2-1 lead over the Miami Heat with a huge Game 3 win in The Finals. “It was helping me to learn pretty much every position. I remember starting the game at the five and going out to do the [opening] tip and then playing point guard during the same game.”

It was a testament to his polish and professionalism at such a young age that the Hawks leaned on him that way, not to mention their sheer desperation, what with a roster that was being rebuilt from the ground up at the time. Diaw, however, wasn’t necessarily ready for a role like that. He’d played at the highest level professionally in France but needed time to adjust his game to the NBA, time he didn’t get in Atlanta.

Back then his teammates whispered about how long he’d last, whether or not he was truly cut out for the NBA and if and when he’d scurry back to Europe.

It wasn’t until much later in his career, after he left Atlanta via the controversial Joe Johnson sign-and-trade deal with Phoenix in the summer of 2005, that Diaw’s best was revealed. He earned the league’s Most Improved Player Award in 2006 the with the Suns, thriving in Mike D’Antoni‘s free-flowing system.

He opened some eyes around the league as the NBA game was evolving into its current form, with floor spacers and a global style that has been the trademark of the top international leagues for years.

San Antonio has proved to be the ideal fit, complete with playing alongside his friend since childhood Tony Parker and in a system that prizes ball-sharing and versatility like no other system in the league. That would explain Spurs coach Gregg Popovich inserting Diaw into the starting lineup before Game 3. His presence forces the Heat into some uncomfortable matchups, specifically for Chris Bosh, who cannot take advantage of Diaw on the perimeter the way he can Tiago Splitter or even Tim Duncan.

In fact, Diaw ends up with the advantage because he can play inside and out while also serving as an extra ballhandler and facilitator and rebounding like a power forward and guarding both in the paint and on the perimeter. He’s one of the best and most creative passers in the league, big man or not. And he’s unselfish to a fault, making him the ideal teammate in today’s NBA.

Again, the Spurs’ system (impact over stats and detail over flash) and Pop’s methods, are the perfect fit.

“Every coach is different, everybody has a different philosophy,” Diaw said. “I’ve had a lot of teams and a lot of coaches in my career. So it’s definitely gratifying when you get a coach like Pop recognizing a little bit of the background and the way we play in Europe, the way we share the ball and not so much the one-on-one basketball. It’s just a lot of fun to play on this team.”

The best part, for both Diaw and Parker, is the chance to realize their hoop dreams together. They won gold at EuroBasket last year as leaders  of the French national team and are two games away from winning a Larry O’Brien trophy together with the Spurs.

“For me it’s a little bit different,” Parker said of Diaw’s career renaissance with the Spurs. “Everything that you see him do today I’ve seen him do it the last four or five years doing that. He was playing great basketball in Phoenix and had some rough years with the Bobcats. When the Spurs asked me about Boris and should we take him, I was like ‘he’ll be a great fit for our team.’ I’m so happy for him, to see him blossom at the big stage. And everybody can see what he’s doing and what he’s capable of.

Diaw’s work with the French national team should not be overlooked. Parker said it was a career-changing time for Diaw, who has made adjustments to his game and lifestyle in the wake of that huge summer.

“It was a big thing for us and I think it made Boris keep improving and keep getting better,” Parker said. “Since he’s been with us we have high expectations every game. We want to win a championship. So it made him be even more focused and take care of his body. He’s got a chef and he’s being very healthy and is playing his best basketball right now. As his friend since I’m 14 years old, it’s like a dream to win a gold medal with the national team and  this year have another opportunity to win a championship. You have to put it in perspective … when we grew up there were not a lot of European guys in the NBA. I never thought I’d be with him on the same team and being two wins away from winning a championship.”

If Parker didn’t, no one did.

Business handled, Heat rest and refocus

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron James talks after the Heat finished off the Charlotte Bobcats

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — They’d have done anything to avoid the spotlight this time three or four years ago. It would have been a welcome relief for the Miami Heat back then, when they were in the formative stages of a championship quest that continues today in a business-like fashion that has become routine for LeBron James and the two-time defending champion Heat.

All of the hype and hoopla that marked their early time together has faded a bit for the Heat, the first team to break through to the next round of the playoffs courtesy of their sweep of the Charlotte Bobcats. The minutiae, the “process,” as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra loves to call it, has infected this team.

“It’s a process,” James said. “I think this was step one for us. I believe this is a great direction we’re going in right now. In four games we played championship-level basketball and we got tested … and the way we responded was a championship-type attitude. We have to continue to get better. We can’t play how we played in this round in the next round. We look forward to our next opponent.”

The Heat’s “process” is why reserves like James Jones and Norris Cole, bit and role players throughout the course of the regular season, can come seemingly out of nowhere to help close out the Bobcats. It’s why Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can work their way into playoff form instead of working under the extreme pressure that other All-Stars around the league are right now as they try to push their teams through to the next round.

The Heat simply handle their business and refocus on the next task. It’s not nearly as dramatic as the reality-TV life they lived in their first two seasons together. But it has benefits that the Heat will cash in down the road.

“Nothing is exactly the same,” Cole said. “So this does feel like a new year. We’re working the same way we always have and going about things in the same way we always have, the way that’s worked for us. But it’s about taking the right steps. And ultimately, winning is everything. And we know everybody on this team has to make certain sacrifices along the way. Sometimes you’re in that mix and sometime you’re not. But you stay ready … you have to on this team.”

With higher seeds around the league under siege and complete chaos ruling the day in almost every other series, the Heat have been strictly about the business at hand. They got a spirited effort from the Bobcats, a much more formidable foe than the Milwaukee Bucks team they toyed with in a first round sweep to kick off last season’s championship campaign.

Bobcats All-Star big man Al Jefferson injured his foot in Game 1 and was never able to test the Heat inside the way many expected. That didn’t stop the Bobcats from providing the stern test the Heat needed to prepare them for either Toronto or Brooklyn in the next round.

Sexy rematches from last year — the Heat went through the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and eventually the San Antonio Spurs after whipping the Bucks — are either not going to happen or so far off right now that they’re barely worth discussing.

The Bulls were eliminated Tuesday night by an upstart Washington Wizards team. The Pacers, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff field, are facing elimination Thursday night in Game 6 in Atlanta, down 3-2 to the Hawks. Even the mighty Spurs, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, are locked in a battle with the Dallas Mavericks, the series is tied at 2-2 with Game 5 on tap Wednesday in San Antonio.

The hopes of a Heat-Oklahoma City Thunder rematch from the 2012 Finals are on life support as well. The Thunder trail the Memphis Grizzlies 3-2 and have already lost on their home floor twice in that series.

Like I said, all of the sexy storylines are either useless right now or pure imagination right now, given the current state of affairs everywhere else but Miami.

And that’s fine with Spoelstra, who relishes the opportunity to prepare for and trade blows with each and every opponent in the same manner. Again, it’s that process he loves to talk about.

“We don’t take these wins for granted,” he said. “We’re very pleased to get to the next round. The Bobcats put up a lot of fight throughout and this was a much closer series than the 4-0 outcome would indicate.”

The tricky part for the Heat is making sure to manage the time off. When you are dealing with the oldest team in the league, rest can’t be a bad thing … can it?

“You know we haven’t had much rest like this before, so our rhythm and timing may be off,” Chris Bosh said. “That is the challenge coach and everyone will have. We have been here before, we have learned some lessons from last year, and that is the best part of it. I think we will handle it better this time.”


VIDEO: Heat coach Erik Spoelstra discusses his team’s quick work of the Bobcats

Morning Shootaround — April 21



VIDEO: Daily Zap: April 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Projected salary cap rise boosts Bulls’ plans for Anthony? | Aldridge and the Trail Blazers seize the day | Game 2 is a must-win for Clippers | Jim Buss says he’ll step down if Lakers don’t turn it around in 3-4 years | Dwight Howard has to lead for Rockets to rebound

No. 1: Salary cap projections to bolster Bulls’ pursuit of ‘Melo: — A projected rise in the NBA’s salary cap numbers could turn out to be a bonanza for the Chicago Bulls, who lose home court advantage in their first round series against Washington Sunday when they couldn’t find a go-to-scorer at crunch time in Game 1. They could have two this time next year in Derrick Rose and perhaps Carmelo Anthony, the soon-to-be Knicks free agent. Marc Stein of ESPN.com explains the connection between those projected cap numbers and the Bulls’ pursuit of ‘Melo:

If the projections hold, several clubs will find themselves with more spending money and financial flexibility than they initially planned.

The Knicks remain unquestioned favorites to re-sign Anthony after the March hiring of the decorated Phil Jackson as team president and given the fact that only New York can offer the 29-year-old a five-year deal — one year longer than any other team — in the $130 million range.

But sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that the Bulls — even before these developments came to light Friday night via noted NBA salary-cap expert Larry Coon — were already feeling increasingly optimistic behind the scenes about their chances of convincing Anthony to leave the Knicks in the wake of New York’s failure to make the playoffs. This is the first season Anthony has failed to reach the playoffs in his 11-year career.

It’s believed that the Bulls would still have to shed some veteran salary in addition to releasing former All-Star forward Carlos Boozer via the amnesty clause this summer to be able to make a competitive offer that could persuade Anthony to leave the new Jackson-led Knicks and the Madison Square Garden stage he loves so dearly. But a higher cap figure than anticipated would naturally make things easier for Chicago.

And Houston has quietly expressed confidence for months that it could make the moves necessary — such as trading center Omer Asik and/or guard Jeremy Lin — to thrust itself into the heart of the Anthony bidding depending on how the forthcoming playoffs play out.

The new cap projection for 2014-15, if it comes to fruition, would represent a 7.7 percent increase over this season. The NBA, according to ESPN.com contributor Coon, typically expects a season-to-season rise of 4.5 percent.

Coon reported in a blog on his NBA Salary Cap FAQ website that this is actually the third time already this season that the league has increased its projections for 2014-15.

Yet another spike would suggest that NBA revenues are rising at record rates, which is a notion Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban seemingly echoed earlier this week when he called the $550 million sale of the small-market Milwaukee Bucks “a bargain.”

***

No. 2: Aldridge, Portland find their mark in win over Rockets — The Portland Trail Blazers flexed their muscle in a back-and-forth affair against Houston in Game 1 of their first round series. The Trail Blazers refused to be intimidated and would not allow the Rockets to bully them the way Patrick Beverley intended to rattle Damian Lillard. But it was LaMarcus Aldridge who carried the day for the Blazers. And that’s why they lead the series 1-0 right now, having seized the moment and the initial momentum in this series. John Canzano of The Oregonian has more:

I was going to predict that it would take two games for Portland and Houston to find serious disagreement. But it took just more than two quarters. It got chippy. It got physical. The teams were jawing. Technical fouls were whistled. Fingers were pointed. And I don’t believe Portland has ever been happier than it was in extracting a victory from a pile of wreckage the way it did against Houston in Game 1.

When Lillard took a shot to his leg in the second half, he went to the bench limping. Beverley shadowed him all the way there, you know, just in case. I couldn’t take my eyes off Leonard on the bench. You know, just in case.

LaMarcus Aldridge was a beast. The Blazers scrapped. At times, Portland’s postseason looked suspiciously like its regular season, too reliant on outside shooting and with almost nothing in the way of production coming from the bench players. But in the end, the Blazers pulled it off and a 1-0 lead on paper looks as if they were perfect.

“Every guy fought, every guy took it personal. That was my goal in pregame, I wanted every guy to take their matchup personal,” Aldridge said.

Aldridge had 46 points. Anyone else think a younger Aldridge, say circa 2009, would have carried the Blazers the way he did on Sunday?

When Aldridge fouled out he turned to Lillard, playing in his first playoff game and said, “take it over.” Lillard did.

The hope now is that Portland plays an even better Game 2, and carries a 2-0 lead back to the Moda Center. There’s hope, too, that by withstanding the initial pesterfest that Lillard somehow has the upper hand on Beverley, who left the court under the shoulders of two Rockets assistants. He has a sprained right knee, MRI scheduled for Monday. There’s hope, too, that Howard’s confidence is shaken after being pulled late in regulation because he couldn’t be trusted to make a free throw.

The Blazers are in control of this playoff series. It could have been Beverley sitting in that spot. It could have been Howard or James Harden. But in the end, Portland fought and won.


VIDEO: LaMarcus Aldridge goes in on the Rockets before fouling out in an overtime win

***

No. 3: Game 2 is a must win for the Los Angeles Clippers — There’s no need to sugar coat things for the Los Angeles Clippers. They’re in a hole after just one game in their first round series against the Golden State Warriors. That makes Game 2, tonight at Staples Center, an absolute must-win for Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the rest of the crew. Clippers coach Doc Rivers doesn’t have to belabor the point with his team. They know what they are facing. And so does everyone else in the Southland, as Broderick Turner of The Los Angeles Times details:

Maybe the Clippers could have won Game 1 if the officials had called Draymond Green for a foul on Chris Paul, as the NBA office on Sunday said should have happened Saturday.

But the fact is, the Clippers are down 0-1 in the best-of-seven series.

And with Game 2 Monday night at Staples Center, the Clippers have the opportunity to change the course of the series in which they gave up the home-court advantage to the Warriors.

“We definitely need to win,” Paul said. “When it’s must-win, that means somebody has three wins. We definitely need to win.”

The NBA issued a statement Sunday that said Paul was fouled by Green and should have been awarded two free throws during Game 1.

The Clippers trailed the Warriors, 107-105, when Paul was double-teamed by Steve Blake and Green out near the arc.

Paul lost the ball out of bounds with 18.9 seconds left, turning it over to the Warriors.

“Just prior to the ball going out of bounds, Paul was fouled by Green and Paul should have been granted two free throws,” the NBA statement said. “Contact preceding out-of-bounds calls is not a reviewable matter.”

The officials looked at the replay monitor to make sure the ball went out off Paul, awarding the ball to the Warriors.

“We still had opportunities to win,” said Paul, who also mentioned that his right hamstring, which he grabbed in Game 1, was “OK.” “When the ball went out of bounds, I knew it was off me. It felt like it was a foul, though.”

“That was a big call. Chris Paul goes to the line now with two free throws to tie the game,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “Having said that, there’s nothing we can do about it. A mistake happened on their [officials'] end. But we made our own mistakes, and so we have to take ownership of that.”

Rivers implied Sunday the Warriors were better prepared to handle the tense moments than the Clippers in the first game because of Golden State’s playoff experience.

“They [the Warriors] played with great confidence and focus,” Rivers said. “But more importantly, I thought they played with great calm and we didn’t do that so well.”


VIDEO: The Clippers are gearing up for Game 2 vs. the Warriors tonight

***

No. 4: Jim Buss says he’ll go if Lakers can’t turn it around in next 3-4 years — So this is how it will end. If the Los Angeles Lakers don’t dig out of their current mess and return to their place among the NBA’s elite in the next three to four years, Jim Buss is gone. Those are his words, per Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times. It’s no secret among the Buss clan, whose obligation to the city of Los Angeles goes beyond just running the most high-profile franchise in town but also making sure said franchise competes at the highest level year after year. More from Bresnahan:

The six brothers and sisters, with a gap of 31 years from eldest to youngest, gathered in the winter near the first anniversary of their father’s death to discuss some problems about the family business. It’s also the city’s treasured sports team — the Lakers.

The team was nose-diving in the standings, losing the interest of fans, and grinding toward its worst season since the team moved to Los Angeles in 1960.

So Jeanie Buss posed an elementary question to her siblings: What was going on with the Lakers?

Her older brother Jim Buss, 54, in charge of the Lakers’ basketball operations, spoke up in the boardroom of the team’s El Segundo training facility and pledged to resign in a few years if the suddenly dark fortunes of the franchise weren’t reversed.

“I was laying myself on the line by saying, if this doesn’t work in three to four years, if we’re not back on the top — and the definition of top means contending for the Western Conference, contending for a championship — then I will step down because that means I have failed,” he told The Times about the meeting. “I don’t know if you can fire yourself if you own the team … but what I would say is I’d walk away and you guys figure out who’s going to run basketball operations because I obviously couldn’t do the job.

“There’s no question in my mind we will accomplish success. I’m not worried about putting myself on the line.”

It was an emotional meeting, and the siblings — including Johnny, Janie, Joey and Jesse — agreed that Jim deserved more time on the job.

Their father, Jerry Buss, died in February 2013. He left his six children — each with an equal vote — in charge of a family trust, with a 66% ownership stake in the team. But the results of their first season as co-owners weren’t close to championship caliber.

“We’re watching a very unfortunate thing happen to a beloved team right now,” former Lakers coach Phil Jackson told The Times before taking the job last month as president of the New York Knicks. “Everybody is kind of aghast at it and people that are the best customers that any franchise can possibly hope for are dissatisfied, and rightly so.”

***

No. 5: Will Dwight Howard step up and lead Rockets from Game 1 stumble? — Dwight Howard has been through this before. He’s heard the whispers, listened to his NBA elders question his commitment and work ethic, his ability to lead. The grumbling will be louder than ever now that the Rockets have lost home court advantage to the Portland Trail Blazers. How Dwight responds will tell the tale of his season and, to this point, his time in Houston. Because, as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reports, the Rockets don’t rise from the rubble of Game 1 without their big man leading the way:

Across the seasons, Howard has to come to understand the most important lesson in leadership. The Rockets won’t listen to the franchise star now as much they’ll watch him. In crisis and calm, this is forever the burden of a superstar.

For Howard, this has long been something of a lost cause in his career. Never mind that James Harden played the most prominent part in the Rockets’ Game 1 loss, everyone understands the ultimate blame of an early exit from these playoffs will be thrust onto last summer’s biggest free agent.

“As a leader of this team, I can say whatever I want to these guys, but they’re not going to follow me unless I go out and do it now,” Howard said.

All hell broke loose in Clutch City on Sunday night, Game 1 toppling these Rockets like a tsunami reaching shore. The Rockets lost Game 1 in overtime, a 122-120 defeat that turned out to be a testament to the Blazers’ spirit and staying power, and, yes, their superstar talent.

Houston lost a 10-point lead with four minutes left in regulation, lost home-court advantage in this Western Conference playoff series, and maybe most frightening of all, lost irrepressible point guard Patrick Beverley to a re-aggravation of his knee injury. He gets an MRI on his right knee on Monday morning, and the loss of Beverley could make Blazers point guard Damian Lillard impossible to stop for Houston.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey walked the Toyota Center corridors with an ashen face late Sunday, devastated over the defeat and well aware Howard and Harden hadn’t been brought together to lose a first-round playoff series.

Make no mistake: The Rockets stars lost to the Blazers’ stars on Sunday night. LaMarcus Aldridge delivered a performance for the ages, 46 points and 18 rebounds until fouling out in overtime. In his professional playoff debut, Lillard had 31 points and closed out the Rockets in the final minutes of regulation and overtime.

Once the Blazers resorted to the Hack-a-Howard strategy, his painful procession of misses on the free-throw line brought Portland back into the game. Once the lead started slipping away, the Rockets’ offense unraveled – with Harden unloading wayward shot upon wayward shot. He missed 20 of 28 shots, including a final chance at the buzzer to end the game.

“Quick shots,” Howard would say later. “We didn’t value possessions.”

History has made Howard understand this truth: No one will care he had 27 points, 15 rebounds and four blocked shots. He’s chasing championships now – chasing playoff victories, for starters – and this was the kind of loss that promised to attach itself to him.

“We played awful – we couldn’t have played any worse – and we still should’ve won the game,” Chandler Parsons told Yahoo Sports. “We’re pissed off. We had it won, and we gave the game away.”

This is a star’s sport, and they’re ultimately judged most harshly in defeat. For those who remember Howard at the end of the San Antonio Spurs’ sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in April a year ago, they remember him getting himself thrown out of Game 4. They remember a most ignoble departure out of Staples Center, out of the Lakers.

Now, Howard has come to Houston for redemption – has come for championship validation – and these Rockets still have a long, long way to go. Nevertheless, this devastating defeat had Howard promising to deliver them out of a dark night and into the light of morning.

“No panic,” Howard said.


VIDEO: Dwight Howard talks after the Rockets fall in Game 1

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Al Jefferson will definitely play through his injury against the Heat. … Jim Cleamons doesn’t care who the coach of the Knicks is or will be, he wants in on the party … Oklahoma City’s quality depth showed itself, as planned, in its Game 1 win over the Grizzlies …  The Inside crew delivers their best of #GetWellSager tributes … Steph Curry foiled the Clippers’ plans in Game 1, but can he do it again in Game 2?

ICYMI OF THE NIGHT: That rest at the end of the regular season was exactly what LeBron James needed, because the Heat star looked refreshed in the Game 1 win over the Bobcats … 


VIDEO: LeBron James and the Miami Heat start fresh for the playoffs

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!

 

Suns hot pick in NBA March Madness

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The selection committee has done its job, the field is complete and now the intrigue starts all around the NBA — filling out those March Madness brackets.

But for a different kind of insanity, we thought it might be fun to go into a few arenas and locker rooms to ask one question: If the NBA playoffs were set up like the NCAA Tournament, who would be your Butler, a below-the-radar team capable of making a deep run?

Ray Allen, Heat: “In an NCAA format, one game and advance, anything is possible. Charlotte’s a team that would be dangerous. They can get hot. They’ve developed confidence. They play hard. They’re running a new system. Atlanta is a team that’s running a San Antonio offensive system and they play good defense. Both of those can really play defense. So if you put them in win-or-you’re-out format, teams like those that always play hard and don’t care about who their opponent is, they’re gonna be capable. There would definitely be more drama in that kind of a playoff system. Obviously, it would never get to that because of all the money that’s at stake over the long playoff series. But as players, you would appreciate it. You’d have to leave it all out there on the line. And every night — with the best players in the NBA going at it — it would really be madness. There would be some true grudge matches. Oh, that would be interesting.”

Mario Chalmers, Heat: “Dallas. That’s a team with weapons and can score.”

Roy Hibbert, Pacers: “In the East, I could see Toronto and Charlotte doing that. Even Chicago. In the West, Phoenix has played great a surprise people all year. Phoenix has a style of play that’s fast-paced and they have guys that are built for that.”


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses the Suns’ solid season to date

Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN analyst: “Memphis. Because of the style they play. Who else plays like Memphis? Who else has those two big guys like Z-Bo (Zach Randolph) and (Marc) Gasol to beat you up and wear you down. That’s a team that could walk into a tournament setting, get on a real roll and just start knocking people out. And in the East I’d say Chicago for a lot of the same reasons. They don’t have those two big bangers in the low post, but with Noah and the middle and the aggressiveness and the ferocity that they play with, the Bulls could make a tournament very interesting and tough on everyone.”

Chandler Parsons, Rockets: “I like Phoenix as my Butler in the West, because they’re so explosive offensively. In transition they’d get out and they’d beat a lot of good teams. In the East, I like Chicago. They’re playing really well. Joakim (Noah)has been unbelievable for them. He’s doing everything, getting triple-doubles. Plus they’re such a good defensive team. Those are definitely two teams you don’t want to see in the NBA playoffs and in an NCAA Tournament type scenario with sudden-death, no way. Even Memphis, if they sneak in at No 8 in the West. That’s a team that could do a lot of damage. Us? We’re above that Butler level. We’re Florida. We’re Duke.”

Matt Bonner, Spurs: “Phoenix. It’s about style of play. It’s about scoring points from a lot of different places. It’s about playing at a fast pace. Definitely Phoenix.”

Shane Battier, Heat: “Who is that dark horse team? Really, still no one is talking about Houston. They have played fantastic and the Rockets would be a buzz saw to play in any single game or even a seven-game series. You know they’re gonna shoot 30 3s. If they get hot, that’s an amazing number to try to match offensively. And no one is really talking about them. The hubbub is OKC and San Antonio and the Clippers to a large extent. People are talking about Golden State and the Splash Brothers more than they are about Houston. I think Houston is a legitimate team.”

Michael Beasley, Heat: “Miami. That’s the only team I’m worried about, the only team I think about. I don’t even want to imagine nobody else making a run, nobody else doing nothing.”


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the Bobcats and Al Jefferson’s play

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers: “I think every team in the West is capable of being that Butler type team. It’s so close, so many good teams. It just depends which week or two you’re talking about. We’ve seen that all season long. Remember how Memphis came in and beat San Antonio in the playoffs a couple of years ago? Golden State over Dallas a few years earlier. I think everybody is close and there are so many good teams in any matchup that in the NCAA Tournament arrangement, you might be able to play it three or four times and get a different team out of the West every time.”

Paul George, Pacers: “I think Phoenix. I think the Suns could do it because that’s a consistent team. They don’t rely on just one or two players to get most of their offense. They really spread things around. They really get after you all the time. They always play hard and bring it to you. They always want to attack. And in a tournament setting, they’ve got enough guys to make shots and make plays. They would just have to get hot at the right time, which we’ve seen from them this season. They’ve taken down tough opponents. They beat us twice, OKC. So that’s a team that could be very dangerous if it was tournament time.”

Dwight Howard, Rockets: “The Rockets. Despite anything that we’ve done and any games that we’ve won, I think in general we’re still a team that nobody’s looked at as a real contender. But you know, I like being the underdog. We’d like to keep ourselves being overlooked as much as possible through the end of the season and going into the playoffs. In a tournament, in the playoffs, we’re that kind of team that I believe and rise up and surprise people.”

Dwyane Wade, Heat: “I guess if look at the West, I’d say Phoenix could be a bracket-busting Butler. That’s a team that could get hot. Lot of weapons, lot of different people and ways to score and they don’t seem to let up. That style they play, they’re always going. In the East maybe the Bobcats. They play very well together. They’ve got a big man in Al Jefferson that can go 1-on-1 and can score. That’s a team that’s also been playing hard all year, been really gaining in confidence. So if you tossed them into a tournament setting, I’d say, yeah, they could go on a run.”

Danny Green, Spurs: “Phoenix. I was watching them play and they’re very dangerous at home. You know they don’t back down from anybody. They beat Indiana and OKC. We’ve lost to them this season. They love to get out and run. They move the ball fast and they don’t ever let up. If they’re healthy, they’re gonna come after you nonstop and they could do something like go on a run through a tournament. That pace of play is tough to deal with. Another team you’d have to watch out for is Dallas. They’ve got weapons and you’d always have to watch out for Dirk getting on a roll.”

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers: “Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that. But if you want a dangerous team that maybe nobody would pick, I’d say Sacramento. They got a lot of weapons — Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, now Reggie Evans over there with some experience. Derrick Williams. They got a lot of pieces they can throw out there. If they get going, they could beat some people and go far. That’s a capable team.”

Wesley Matthews, Trail Blazers: “In the West anybody can beat anybody. You’ve got four or five teams with over 40 wins at this point in the season. You’ve seen teams go on runs with different styles. Houston went on a run recently. We went on a run earlier. Pick a day of the week. Anybody could be Butler.”

Francisco Garcia, Rockets: “I would say Phoenix, because they score in so many ways. I think everybody would take them lightly at the beginning of a tournament since they’re young and they don’t have a team filled up with All-Stars. It’s easy from the outside to overlook them. It’s only when you get out there on the court and see how hard they play and see how they are so good at moving the ball around and getting offensive from a lot of different places that you find out how good they can be. So if you put them in that kind of situation, where you get to play them only once, they could have a lot of success and make a run.”


VIDEO: The Starters talk about teams primed to make noise in the playoffs

Have the Pacers lost their Edge?




VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses Paul George’s slump and the Pacers’ struggles

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The playoff bid is clinched, locked up before anyone else in the league. Yet after five games in seven nights, there is suddenly a lingering fog surrounding the Indiana Pacers.

That brash, bruising, defensive-minded machine we saw before the All-Star break doesn’t look nearly as intimidating these days. That team that vowed to chase the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, in an effort to play host a potential showdown against reigning two-time NBA champion Miami Heat in the conference finals, has been humbled lately with crushing defeats both at home and on the road.

The Pacers’ best players — All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert, as well as Lance Stephenson and David West — have all endured their fair share of struggles. Coach Frank Vogel remains as confident as ever, something you’d expect from a coach who understands that seeing the Pacers reach their ultimate goals is a painstaking process fraught with trials and tribulations. Vogel and his crew know that unmitigated attention to detail is required to overcome any adversity.

Still, it’s enough to make you wonder — have the Pacers lost a little bit of the edge that led them to the top of the standings? They were so good so fast this season that a bit of a letdown was inevitable. But it’s dangerous to play this game this close to the end of the regular season.

“Over the last 20 games or so, we just haven’t had our mojo,” West said after the Bobcats beat the Pacers Wednesday night in Charlotte on the back-end of a back-to-back. “We’ve got to change some things up because these last 20 games is going to be a battle.”

“Right now I think we’re on our downs,” Stephenson said. “We just got to get back on our ups, work together and play as a unit.”

The Pacers also have to return to the identity that led them to the top of the standings.

They were a defensive juggernaut to start the season, holding teams down in every facet and allowing just 90.3 points per game through All-Star weekend. In the nine games since then, they are giving up close to 100 points a night.

“We can’t get teams under control,” West told the Indianapolis Star. “Nobody’s afraid of us and we got to regroup. We got to get back to the basics. We got tough two-game trip out West and it’s got to mean something to us to go out and do whatever we have to do to win these games.”

The road trip he’s speaking starts Friday with a date with the Houston Rockets, who have the league’s best record since Jan. 1. Then comes Sunday’s game in Dallas against the Mavericks. They’ll be tested by two Western Conference playoff teams with the ability to make the Pacers uncomfortable in many different ways.

There is also a seven-games-in-11-days stretch looming at the end of the month, a grind that includes two games against the Chicago Bulls (home and away), road games in Memphis, Washington and Cleveland and showdowns with the Heat (March 26) and San Antonio Spurs  (March 31) that will shed more light on whether or not these Pacers are as ready for prime time as they appeared to be just a month ago.

Changes to their make-up (Evan Turner and, eventually, we assume, Andrew Bynum) will also force the Pacers to continue to tweak their chemistry. They have to be proactive in terms of how they make their own internal adjustments.

But when you build up the sort of reservoir of victories and the quality body of work the Pacers did out of the gate, it’s almost impossible to squander it now. A two-game tailspin can be survived.

If there are cracks in the foundation, though, you better believe the other contenders on both sides of the conference divide have noticed. And they’ll be sure to do whatever they can to exploit that in the future.


VIDEO: The Bobcats thumped the Pacers and shut down Paul George and Roy Hibbert in the process

Walker Injury Cripples Improving ‘Cats


VIDEO: Heat vs. Bobcats, Jan. 18, 2014

This time — after Al Jefferson, after Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, after Jeffery Taylor – it’s Kemba Walker. This time, it’s a sprained left ankle and the Charlotte Bobcats saying Walker will miss 10 to 14 days.

This time, it’s different.

The Bobcats have faced a series of health issues this season and remained in playoff contention in the Eastern Conference, but a couple weeks without their starting point guard may become the biggest test yet. The timetable for Walker to be back is good news. Sitting a full 14 days and seven games is not bad, considering how awful the injury looked, with Walker’s ankle and left leg practically at a 90-degree angle as he stepped on the foot of Miami’s Chris Bosh on Saturday. Walker had barely hit the court before Jefferson, watching from behind while trailing the play, put both hands on his head in concern of what appeared to be a serious injury.

Otherwise, the injury is a huge concern. Walker not only leads the Bobcats in scoring (18.7), assists (5.0) and minutes (35.7), but he had been playing particularly well lately, at 21 points per game and 45.6 percent shooting in the last five outings (he’s now at 42.1 percent for the season). While never known as a distributor, Walker had at least eight assists in four of the last seven games, including in 22 minutes against the Heat. In those seven games, he had only 13 turnovers.

Walker, Jefferson told Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer, is the “heart and soul” of the team. The Bobcats, he said, lost their “fight” when Walker went out in the third quarter against the Heat. A 64-57  lead turned into a 104-96 overtime escape for Miami.

Playing without Walker changes everything. Opponents will be able to double Jefferson in the post more aggressively without Walker’s outside shooting, Bonnell points out, and the Bobcats will have to do without the Jefferson-Walker pick-and-roll — just as it had become a late-game option, developed over time after Jefferson missed most of November with a bruised right ankle.

Jefferson, the starting center, missed his first nine games as a Bobcat after signing as a free agent with the bad ankle. In Jefferson’s seventh game back, small forward Kidd-Gilchrist fractured his left hand, costing him 19 games. In that time, Taylor, MKG’s backup, ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon, ending his season. Yet despite the health woes, the transition to new coach Steve Clifford, an unreliable offense and concerns about a declining intensity on defense, Charlotte, even at 17-25, was just a game behind the Nets for the final playoff spot.

The Bobcats had been better after a recent five-game losing streak, with Clifford telling the Observer, “I feel a lot better about our team than a week ago. We showed the fight we were showing early in the year. … We’re playing hard and smart.” They had gone 3-4, and then came the double loss — Walker to the ankle injury and the game to the Heat — Saturday at Time Warner Cable Arena.

Now Charlotte faces home games against the Raptors and Clippers, at the Knicks, back home against the Bulls and then a Western swing that begins with stops against the Nuggets, Lakers and Suns with Walker out. Several opponents are dealing with point-guard injuries, too, but the Bobcats are beginning the stretch by playing four games in six days, further taxing a bench that will be thinned out with Ramon Sessions or Jannero Pargo moving into the lineup.

Sessions is the obvious choice for the promotion to the lineup Monday against the Raptors, but Clifford could choose the seldom-used Pargo to start, keeping the second unit intact while hoping the experienced starters step up around Pargo. The decision arrives with the Bobcats a game behind the Pistons and Nets, battling for the last playoff spot.

20 Teams Dream Big On MLK Day


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew previews all of the MLK Day action

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — More than Christmas or even All-Star weekend, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday provides the NBA a platform to showcase some of the best players and teams the league has to offer. Stars young and old, championship teams and those aspiring to join those ranks … they’ll all be on display Monday.

A total of 10 games from across the country will highlight a day of celebration of both the game and the Dream Big mantra of not only Dr. King but also the league. What to watch for during the MLK Day hoops smorgasbord, the official halfway mark of the regular season:

Dallas vs. Cleveland, 1 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: The Cavaliers are feeling good after a 3-2 road trip and look to take advantage of a Mavericks team still smarting from getting blown out by Portland Saturday night. Luol Deng has infused the Cavaliers with a new energy, much like what Monta Ellis has done all season for Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks. That loss to Portland was a wake-up call for Rick Carlisle’s team, a group riding high after winning four-of-five prior to that humiliating defeat. “We regressed. The first three quarters are beyond embarrassing,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle told the team’s official website. “We weren’t playing together. We weren’t helping each other. Do that against a quality team … and they’re going to make you pay a heavy price.”

L.A. Clippers vs. Detroit, 1 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: Losses to the league’s elite have left a cloud over the Clippers’ season to this point. They look like a championship team on paper and when everything is clicking (and when everyone, Chris Paul specifically, is healthy). The Clippers are 0-5 on the road this season against the league’s top five teams, and while this game against the Pistons doesn’t provide a similar test, Clippers coach and Senior VP of basketball operations Doc Rivers is constantly evaluating his crew. “I like our team,” Rivers told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “That doesn’t mean we won’t make changes. We’re not looking to make changes, but we’re always looking just like every other team. I like our team right now. If the season ended and we had the group we have right now, I like how we look. Obviously, I’d add Chris Paul to that group — but other than that I like our team a lot.”

Toronto vs. Charlotte, 2 p.m. ET, (League Pass)

The skinny: Playoff dreams in Charlotte this season have a lot to do with Kemba Walker and how well the point guard plays at what is the league’s deepest and most difficult position. If you don’t believe it just look at what Kyle Lowry has meant to the Raptors during their post-Rudy Gay-trade renaissance. So with the news that Walker will miss the next 10-14 days with a second-degree sprain of his left ankle, the Bobcats need Ramon Sessions to step up in a major way to keep the playoff vibes alive. The Raptors, meanwhile, are 6-4 in their last 10 games and can continue their momentum with another big road win.

Philadelphia vs. Washington, 2 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: The Wizards are trying desperately to reach the .500 mark, for both tangible and symbolic reasons. The break even mark gives them a chance to climb above .500 as they continue their playoff chase. And getting above that mark allows them to think about themselves in a different light, as they continue to work through the inconsistencies that have plagued their season. They haven’t had a winning record since starting the 2009-10 season 2-1. “Somebody just needs to not tell us our record and we’ll just go out and play,” shooting guard Bradley Beal said. “Every time they tell us ‘.500,’ we just pressure ourselves too much and end up not showing up.” Wizards point guard John Wall and his Sixers counterpart Michael Carter-Williams better show up for their showdown.

Brooklyn vs. New York, 2:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

The skinny: There’s no shortage of subplots in this Battle of the Boroughs. Both Knicks coach Mike Woodson and Nets coach Jason Kidd have survived all of the turmoil of the early season and, courtesy of a feeble Eastern Conference playoff field, remain in the thick of the hunt for postseason positions. The Knicks are still dealing with myriad injury issues, not to mention the ongoing J.R. Smith drama. The Nets just want a little payback after the Knicks beat the starch out of them in their last meeting (a 113-83 rout on Dec. 5). “We definitely do,” Nets point guard Shaun Livingston told ESPNNewYork.com. “They came in and beat us pretty well at our place. We have to take that upon ourselves and take it personally. We’ve got to come and compete.”


VIDEO: Pacers big man Roy Hibbert encourages the children at an Indianapolis elementary to Dream Big

New Orleans vs. Memphis, 5 p.m. ET (NBA TV)

The skinny: The Grizzlies five-game win streak is tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the best current run in the league. The surge couldn’t have come at a better time for a team that has been bolstered by the return of All-Star center Marc Gasol. He will do his best to help take advantage of an injury-plagued Pelicans team that doesn’t know if it’s coming or going. Even with Anthony Davis playing out of his mind, the Pelicans cannot find a groove. Davis is averaging 22.4 points and 11.1 rebounds during the Pelicans’ eight-game skid, both above his season averages. But he needs help if the Pelicans are going to avoid sliding all the way down the ladder in the Western Conference. “It’s adversity,” Davis said. “We have to learn how to deal with it.”

Miami vs. Atlanta, 5:30 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: The best way for the Heat to shake out of their recent funk is to continue to find inspiration wherever they can. For LeBron James, it’s watching his biggest rival and good friend, Thunder star Kevin Durant, who has been on a tear of late.  The unfortunate recipient of LeBron’s wrath could end up being the Hawks. Because Durant has raised the bar, even for a LeBron. “I do a lot of checking and seeing what guys have done overnight,” James told ESPN.com’s Heat Index of keeping up with the performances of other players. “After every game, I always go … and see what guys did. I didn’t have to look too far to see what K.D. did last night. As soon as I looked at my phone, a family member of mine said, ‘K.D. had 54, you only had 21. You stink.’ So, there it is.”

L.A. Lakers vs. Chicago, 8 p.m. ET (League Pass)

The skinny: It’s tough to get excited about these two teams squaring off when their best players are wearing designer suits instead of uniforms. It’s a good thing the Lakers and Bulls have learned how to operate without Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose, respectively. To their credit, the Lakers enter the game riding the wave, however slight it might be, of a two-game win streak. That’s a good way to hit the halfway mark of the season for team that has to feel like it’s endured 82-games worth of tumult already. “We just have a lot of injuries and a lot of stuff,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said after Sunday’s win over the Raptors. “We got some guys who are improving and we’re not as good as we’d like to be, obviously this last stretch really knocked us for a loop, but our whole goal is to get back and win one at a time and play well, just get better, keep our energy up and our spirits up and see if we can have a good second half.”

Portland vs. Houston, 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

The skinny: It’s funny the way things work out sometimes in the NBA. The Trail Blazers are every bit of the elite, title-contending team most of the pundits predicted the Rockets would be last summer when they landed Dwight Howard in free agency. The Blazers have done it all season with a steady mix of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and arguably the most underrated supporting cast in the league. It won’t be that way for long if it’s up to Nic Batum, who told our very own Jeff Caplan that he believe he’s an All-Star. “You know, KD, is way up there, so can’t reach him he’s so far. But the West has to take a small forward after KD; I think it should be me. The West is crazy. I talked about it with Tony Parker two nights ago — I had dinner with him — that in the West, for a bench, to pick seven guys is pretty tough. KD is going to start at small forward, but I know if I get a chance to be on the bench to be a backup to KD, I would be very happy to do it.”

Indiana vs. Golden State, 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

The skinny: Paul George‘s 360 dunk has been the talk of the basketball world the past 24 hours and rightfully so. But that one dunk shouldn’t overshadow what is a most appropriate nightcap of a monster day of hoops. We get the most consistent team in the Eastern Conference and perhaps the league against arguably the most exciting team, though not the most consistent, in the league. George, Steph Curry, Lance Stephenson and Klay Thompson will provide the offensive fireworks. But the fellas up front on both sides love to mix it up (David West‘s pockets are $15,000 lighter after he was fined for that elbow to the jaw of the Clippers’ Blake Griffin). Keep an eye on West, Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi of the Pacers and Andrew Bogut, David Lee and HT fave Draymond Green of the Warriors. They’ll wage their own battle during the game.


VIDEO: Pacers star Paul George leads the top 10 dunks of the week

Free-Agent Barometer: Boom or Bust

Back in the hot fun of summertime, when there seem to be more dollars available than grains of sand, every free-agent signing is made to feel like a day at the beach.

Now, as we approach halfway mark of the season, it’s time to take the temperature:

GLOWING


VIDEO: Relive Dwight Howard’s signing with the Houston Rockets

Dwight Howard, Rockets — There are times when he is too passive and does not demand the ball enough from all of the inexperienced hands in the Houston lineup. But a healthy, happy Howard has been everything the Rockets hoped for when they forked over $88.5 million to lure him away from the Lakers. There is a bounce to his step and joy to his game that had been missing since the 2008-09 season in Orlando. With him in the middle and playing off James Harden, the Rockets are on track to eventually becoming a championship contender.

Andre Iguodala, Warriors — Don’t try to pigeonhole him or stick on a label as an elite defender or a greyhound that thrives in the transition game. He is simply a wonderful all around player that can do whatever is necessary in any situation. He was the spark that lifted the Nuggets a year ago to a franchise-best 57 wins and he’s moved to Golden State to become a difference-maker for the Warriors. For all of the (deserving) All-Star accolades to Stephen Curry and attention paid to Klay Thompson, Iguodala is the one that makes this fun and entertaining team truly dangerous.

Paul Millsap, Hawks — When it finally came time for the Hawks to cut the cord with Josh Smith, they went for his polar opposite. Not at all flamboyant, never trying to things outside his job description, Millsap comes to work every night and never leaves his team feeling shortchanged. His two-year, $19 million contract might have been the best free-agent bargain of the summer and he’s fit right in perfectly on the frontline in Atlanta. He’s blue-collar ways in the low post and on the boards has been needed even more since Atlanta lost Al Horford for the season.

Al Jefferson, Bobcats — One thing rookie coach Steve Clifford knew was that for the Bobcats to pick themselves up from their semi-permanent residence on the Eastern Conference floor, they needed a low-post presence to get some hard-fought points in the paint. He suffered an ankle injury in training camp and started slow, but once Jefferson got his legs under him, he’s averaged 16.8 points and 10 rebounds. It’s no coincidence that Charlotte (16 wins) is a sure bet to surpass last season’s 21-win campaign.


VIDEO: NBA Action catches up with Mavericks guard Monta Ellis

Monta Ellis, Mavericks — We won’t go as far as Dallas owner Mark Cuban to say that the jury is still out on whether Ellis or Howard is the free-agent catch of the season. After all, we’re pretty sure Cuban would make a 1-for-1 swap right now. As coach of the Warriors years ago, ex-Mavs coach Don Nelson called Ellis selfish. But the once shot-happy Ellis has reined some of his tendencies and found a comfortable home in Dallas. He’s averaging 5.8 apg and his upbeat production is keeping the Mavs alive in the West playoff race.

Kevin Martin, Timberwolves — Every team he’s played on throughout a 10-year NBA career has gotten efficiency and production. He’s one of those players who can give you 20 points a game on a minimum number of shots due to a knack for drawing free throws. There have been many things lacking for Minnesota during another underachieving run, but Martin has come through with the kind of numbers — 19.3 points per game — that were expected.

SUNBURNED


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses where Andrew Bynum may end up next

Andrew Bynum, CavaliersSigning him to a two-year, $24 million contract (that was only half-guaranteed in Season 1) was supposed to make it a no-brainer for the Cavs. Of course, the no brain place continues to be between Bynum’s ears as he quickly alienated teammates, the coaching staff and the entire organization. He had a pair of 20-point games with 13 and 10 rebounds. But his biggest positive effect was as a payroll-slashing trade chip that eventually brought in Luol Deng.

Josh Smith, Pistons — Don’t let Joe Dumars near your piggy bank. Four years ago, the general manager wasted a Brinks truck full of money to bring in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and put the Pistons into a deep hole. This time Dumars dug deeper with his idea that he could give $54 million for four years to Smith and put him into a super-sized front line with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Smith has clashed with coach Maurice Cheeks, found himself sitting on the bench at the end of games and still takes bad shots at a high rate. Is anybody surprised?

Chris Kaman, Lakers — The money spent by the Lakers — $3.2 million, one year — could probably have been scraped up out of the sofa cushions in the luxury suites at Staples Center. But no matter how you slice it, the thought that Kaman was going to return to L.A. and help the Lakers in their most trying season was laughable in hindsight. Kaman has never found a way into the rotation, has frequently expressed his displeasure with coach Mike D’Antoni and now spends more time lobbing verbal bombs in frustration than tracking down rebounds or shooting.

IN THE SHADE

Tyreke Evans, Pelicans — With Jrue Holiday out of the lineup indefinitely with a stress fracture in his leg and the team still reportedly trying to trade Eric Gordon, this would be the time when Evans can step up and really shine. He’s been far from a bust and doggedly fought to keep himself in the Pelicans’ lineup despite the fact that he keeps reinsuring a sprained left ankle. But that $44 million, four-year contract raises expectations for more than 12.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. At this point, the jury is still out.

Jefferson Credited For — Yes — Defense

Charlotte Bobcats v Sacramento Kings

Al Jefferson is pleased to get a rare compliment about his defense. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Because his hearing was never the problem, the comments about his poor defense registered loud and clear, as did the diplomatic non-answer answers through the years whenever a coach or teammate was asked about the topic and didn’t want to trash Al Jefferson. He got it.

So when Jefferson joined the Bobcats this season, coach Steve Clifford quickly made the point that Jefferson’s defense wasn’t really as bad as people made it seem. There was a back-handed compliment in there somewhere, but there was also a match strike that led to the veteran center being newly motivated on that side of the ball and becoming a key component of the team that is fifth in the league in shooting defense and sixth in points allowed per 100 possessions.

“It means a lot,” Jefferson said of Clifford’s comments, words of praise that have continued long past the start of the season. “It motivates me. It motivates me to continue to get better on defense. I never heard my name and ‘great defense’ in anything. People always criticized me about my defense. I really don’t care what people think, but just to finally hear somebody giving me a compliment.”

Clifford gave him that compliment, but also a challenge. Tapping into pride, the new coach talked to Jefferson about his reputation. He put the image of a talented post scorer who gives a lot of the points back in the other end in front of Jefferson.

“He didn’t want to be the weak link defensively,” Clifford said. “And I think as he’s come in, despite the fact that he’s not healthy, he’s really done a good job.”

The bruised right ankle that cost Jefferson nine games in November remains a problem, reducing his lift, but he is at 17 points and 10.1 rebounds while 34th in defensive impact,  a measurement mostly of big men on blocks, steals and protecting the rim.

“I think he’s played a lot better defensively than anybody ever gave him credit for in the past,” Clifford said. “Whatever the knock on him, I guess, when he was younger was that he didn’t pass the ball out of the post, which he does very efficiently now. And the knock on him when we got him was that he wouldn’t defend. His defense has been good. It’s been solid. What people don’t know is, he’s not near a 100 percent. His ankle is what it is. I don’t think for the rest of this year he’s going to have the lift or the explosiveness he had last year and yet he goes out every night, doesn’t say anything. He competes hard.”

The Bobcats, at 15-21 on pace for the playoffs, are trying to recover from a decline in defensive intensity. Clifford has wanted to see better focus, but Charlotte should also benefit from the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who fractured his left hand Dec. 3, as soon as Tuesday against the Knicks.