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Morning shootaround — March 19


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from Friday’s action

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Wade at another career crossroads | Crowder’s absence costing Celtics | Portland avoids “sickening” loss | Frye shows value, quietly and from distance

No. 1: Wade at another career crossroads — You can find plenty of advance coverage on this site to whet your appetite for Saturday night’s Big Game. But there’s another big game that starts an hour earlier pitting two rivals from the other conference – Cleveland at Miami (7:30 p.m. ET, League Pass) – and the Miami Herald’s Ethan Skolnick provides a window into that one with his column on Heat veteran Dwyane Wade and his team’s need for a Wade resurgence during this March Madness portion of their schedule:

“I haven’t been into the best rhythm since the All-Star break that I want to be in,” said Wade, who shot 45.8 percent before the break, and 39.4 percent since. “I’ve had some good games scoring, but I haven’t been into a great rhythm.”

He cited some initial rust, and the need to adapt to all of the team’s iterations. He noted how this is the fourth incarnation of the Heat this season. First, Wade and Chris Bosh and Goran Dragic were the primary ball-handlers. Then Dragic got hurt, and it was Wade and Bosh.

“Chris goes out, now it’s a different kind of team,” Wade said. “Joe [Johnson] comes in, and Chris is out, and Goran is in, and now it’s a different kind of team. These are all the different kind of adjustments you’ve got to make.”

He doesn’t intend these as excuses, but explanations. “Just got to figure it out,” Wade said. “Me and Coach [Erik Spoelstra] talked about some things and areas on the floor that I can get to, that can put me in a better rhythm. The biggest thing is early.”

As in him attacking earlier in possessions.

However he finds his rhythm this late in the season, it’s a requirement that he does.

No matter how many other options have emerged on this revamped roster, the Heat won’t be winning anything of significance this postseason (whether games or rounds) if its most battle-tested playoff performer is off.

It certainly wouldn’t be capable of seriously challenging Saturday’s opponent, LeBron James and the Cavaliers, without an efficient, dynamic Wade, not when Bosh will likely be watching, and not even as the Cavaliers continue to constantly challenge themselves, with a never-ending series of self-inflicted controversies.

It has seemed like the Heat’s stealth strategy has been to wait in the weeds, steel itself amid adversity and position itself to steal the conference crown if the Cavaliers — through ball-hogging, eye-rolling and sub-tweeting — start coming apart.

Certainly, that could still occur, with James seeming at a career crossroads of sorts himself, if more as a leader than a player. Through photos and comments on social media, the four-time MVP has come off as forlorn and frustrated, making no secret that he misses sharing the court and the locker room with a peer of Wade’s status and strength.

Miami probably won’t get Wade from early in James’ time here either, not at age 34. But the one from before the All-Star break will suffice. Wade has already proven plenty this season, starting with his increased availability; he will play his 63rd game Saturday, one more than last season. He insisted his thigh, recently bruised, isn’t bothering him.

“Just got to play the game, man, and continue to do what you’ve always done,” Wade said. “And eventually it will turn.”

***

 No. 2: Crowder’s absence costing Celtics — It’s not likely to earn Celtics forward Jae Crowder many votes on NBA Most Valuable Player ballots, but Boston’s 0-3 slump since the Marquette product suffered a high ankle sprain last week has highlighted Crowder’s individual value within his team’s ensemble approach. Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com examined that after the Celtics’ loss to Eastern Conference rival Toronto:

The Celtics, who held a comfy lead on the third seed two weeks ago, have slipped all the way to No. 6 in the East, a half-game behind both the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat and a game back of the Atlanta Hawks. What Stevens said two weeks ago is actually true now: Boston is four games away from ninth place.

With only 13 games left in the regular season, it remains highly unlikely that the Celtics could fall much further, but given the injuries they’re battling and the poor brand of basketball they are playing, it’s understandable why some might be leery.

“We have to change something up,” Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas told reporters in Toronto. “We got ourselves back into [Friday’s] game, so we showed signs of playing like we know how, but a good team like the Raptors you can’t just play one good quarter.”

Make no mistake, the Celtics are in the midst of a brutally tough stretch, exacerbated by the fact that they lost Jae Crowder to a high ankle sprain last Friday, and one of the players expected to help fill his shoes, Jonas Jerebko, missed the past two games with a left foot injury

Despite visiting a Raptors team that was playing its fourth game in five nights and was coming off an overtime win in Indiana on Thursday, the Celtics let Toronto build a big first-half lead, then didn’t have enough energy themselves to sustain a second-half rally.

The Celtics miss Crowder more than most expected, in part because Boston’s depth at the swingman spot is so thin. What’s more, with Crowder starting the first 66 games of the season, it was not obvious just how much of a drop-off there would be without him.

And while Crowder might be Boston’s best two-way player, the team really seems to miss his swagger and intensity. Boston simply looks tentative, and that may be why there’s an uneasiness in playing with a makeshift rotation in which players called upon to fill larger roles have struggled to rise to the challenge.

Second-year guard Marcus Smart initially elevated to Crowder’s starting small forward role, but with Smart stuck in a bit of a shooting slump, Stevens elected to shake things up a bit on Friday by moving Evan Turner into the starting lineup.

The Raptors — and Luis Scola in particular — shot so well at the start of the game that Boston’s starters were minus-13 in six minutes of floor time. The Celtics, tied for the fourth-best defensive rating in the league while allowing 100.7 points per 100 possessions, saw their first unit allow an offensive rating of 210 over the first six minutes of the first quarter.

***

No. 3:  Portland avoids “sickening” loss — Fans of the Portland Trail Blazers understandably were upset about Kendrick Perkins‘ dangerous clotheslining foul on guard Damian Lillard early in the fourth quarter Friday, a play that got Perkins ejected and put Lillard down hard in New Orleans. But Lillard himself and his teammates were grateful afterward to escape with a victory that, had the Pelicans completed their comeback, might have left the Blazers feeling like they’d left the French Quarter having had way too much to drink and eat. Mike Richman of The Oregonian was there:

As Damian Lillard walked back out on to the court with 1:23 left in the game he glanced up at the scoreboard and started to feel an uneasiness deep in his gut.

“I remember walking out of a timeout and thinking, ‘Man if we lose this game, I am going to be sick. I’m going to be sick about this,'” Lillard said. “After I had that thought, I decided we wasn’t going to lose this game.”

The Blazers flirted with a devastating collapse against the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday night, blowing a 20-point lead and falling behind late in the fourth quarter, before pulling out a crucial, 117-112, win at Smoothie King Center.

It wasn’t just that the Blazers almost coughed up a huge lead. The Pelicans played the entire second half without All-Star forward Anthony Davis and the Blazers were in danger of losing three straight games to open a four-game trip. With all that in the background, dropping this game would have rightfully made Lillard ill

“It was truly a test,” Lillard said. “I think that’s the best word to describe it. Coming off two tough losses against OKC and San Antonio and then coming out tonight we played with urgency for most of the game. We were locked in.”

Portland’s offense struggled in the fourth quarter and New Orleans first took the lead on back-to-back three-pointers from guard Jrue Holiday, putting the Pelicans up 105-102 with just over three minutes remaining.

Then after the Blazers knocked down three free throws to go back up one, former Blazer Tim Frazier hit a pull-up jumper to give New Orleans a 107-106 edge with 2:13 left.

“They started really believing and playing with a lot of pace and confidence,” Lillard said. “I think we were down by two with under a minute and it was like, ‘It’s really gut check time'”

After the teams traded empty possessions, the Blazers took a timeout with just under 90 seconds left. Lillard told himself in the huddle he wouldn’t let the Blazers lose and then the star point guard made good on his declaration.

***

No. 4: Frye shows value, quietly and from distance — Might as well lick your index finger and hold it up to the sky to know which way the wind is blowing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who change directions and shift moods as if with the weather. But in the wake of their victory over Orlando, veteran forward Channing Frye – Cleveland’s notable trade-deadline acquisition – looked to have found a helpful role, whether it lasts or not. Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com chronicled Frye’s satisfying performance (14 points) against his former team in the Magic Kingdom and its meaning for Cleveland:

The Frye acquisition has been fruitful for the Cavs, who gave up two future second-round picks for Frye, and also took on the $15 million left on his contract. After drilling 4-for-6 3-pointers Friday, Frye is 25-for-50 from 3-point range in 12 games with the Cavs. It’s the sort of catch-and-shoot big man play that is extremely effective with the team’s other personnel.

“I know he feels good about that,” said LeBron James, who scored 18 points and didn’t keep up the ruse either. “This was definitely for him. He showed up and showed why he’s a valuable part to our team now.”

Frye’s reputation defensively is not strong, but the numbers don’t totally bear that out. Frye ranks No. 4 among all power forwards in real plus-minus, just behind teammate Kevin Love. And Cavs coach Tyronn Lue went with Frye over Love in the fourth quarter as the Cavs executed a comeback.

Truth be told, the Cavs sort of acted as if they knew they could beat a ragtag Magic team with just a half effort, [Victor] Oladipo‘s performance notwithstanding, and move on to a more appetizing game in Miami on Saturday night. This essentially played out as they had dominant shifts during the second quarter and the fourth and it was all that was needed to beat the Magic, who are 10-26 since Jan. 1.

It’s equally a mystery as to whether Fyre’s growing role is real and lasting or just a blip. It was just a few weeks ago that Lue played Frye only 10 minutes over the course of four games. Making a proclamation on anything with this Cavs team is a path to folly, at least to this point.

But Frye will always have this one. The team that signed him to a four-year, $32 million deal in 2014 — and started looking to trade him just a year into it — had to watch him play the role they once envisioned for him.

“When I came [to Orlando], I thought we could kind of resemble the Phoenix style, not necessarily score 120 points, but fast-paced, spread you out and move the rock around. It just didn’t work out like that,” Frye said.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Memphis, despite suffering significant blowouts (2-9 in games decided by 18 points or more), has managed to stay afloat in the grueling West. How? Our John Schuhmann breaks down numbers that reveal the Grizzlies’ resiliency in close games. … ICYMI: Scott Howard-Cooper from right here at NBA.com, in advance of the big Warriors-Spurs game, analyzed Golden State’s end game and how getting whole might conflict with the pursuit of 73 victories. … Carmelo Anthony says he has no idea yet what will happen this summer with his New York Knicks and, naturally, that generates headlines for a tabloid. … If you’re going to feel sorry for Melo in his current Knicks plight, save a little sympathy for Brooklyn’s Thaddeus Young, who has endured more than his share of losing in nine NBA seasons. … John Wall is turning over the ball too often and the Wizards point guard knows it. … Lakers coach Byron Scott would love to see Brandon Bass stick with the team next season for his veteran influence and timely contributions, but the ball most definitely will be in Bass’ court. … Russell Westbrook, in one fell swoop, has done something that surpasses both Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain. … Trey Schwab spent six years working with the Minnesota Timberwolves and, before that, grew tight with former NBA coaches Flip Saunders and Eric Musselman during their time together in the CBA. Those NBA roots are enough to merit inclusion here of a story, long on NCAA tournament flavor, about Schwab’s special relationship with Indiana University coach Tom Crean. Get well, Trey. … And finally, this shout-out to the NBA’s senior “Professor” …

Analytics Art: The three hottest shooters in the NBA this week


VIDEO: Bojan Bogdanovic scores a career-high 44 points against Philadelphia

By Will Laws, Special to NBA.com

PointAfter breaks down the three hottest shooters of the week with interactive visualizations.

Note: All weekly statistics cover games between March 11-17.  

Guard: Josh Richardson, Miami Heat

The Heat have somehow improved their postseason outlook since losing Chris Bosh to health concerns, going 10-5 since he was sidelined. Rookie Josh Richardson, the No. 40 overall pick in last summer’s draft, has helped modernize Miami’s offense in their star forward’s absence.

The former Tennessee Volunteer has paired with trade deadline acquisition Joe Johnson to bolster the Heat’s once dormant spacing. Richardson has converted 46.9 percent of his 3-pointers this year, including a scorching 64 percent clip since the All-Star break. That’s the best mark in the league over that span by more than 10 percent, leading second-place Johnson, another surprisingly capable deep threat for Miami’s suddenly shooter-heavy backcourt.

Richardson scored a career-high 22 points against the Bulls last Friday, then made 4-of-5 3-pointers in a five-point home win over Denver on Monday, proving to be the difference between Miami winning and dropping a game to a lottery team.

Overall, Richardson sank 66 percent of his field goals over the last seven days, including 71 percent of his 17 attempts from downtown in four games. Rookies aren’t supposed to shoot the lights out like this — especially guys who didn’t even scrape 32 percent from beyond the arc in college. But Richardson is doing his best to re-calibrate expectations in Miami, both for himself and the Heat.

Note: You can hover over each shooting zone to see Richardson’s stats compared to the league average.

Wing: Bojan Bogdanovic, Brooklyn Nets

When the Nets took on the 76ers last Friday, Nets interim coach Tony Brown elected to sit Bojan Bogdanovic. Brooklyn then lost to the worst team in the NBA 95-89.

Bogdanovic was on the court when the two squads clashed again on Tuesday, and single-handedly made sure the Nets wouldn’t suffer another embarrassing defeat. In a contest that ended with 245 combined points, only one player accounted for more than 20. That man was Bogdanovic, who poured in a career-high 44 points on a 17-of-27 night from the floor.

The Croatian wing wasn’t too shabby in Brooklyn’s other two games this week, either, tallying a combined 39 points on 14-of-26 shooting. Bogdanovic has taken on a larger role on Brooklyn’s offense since Joe Johnson was traded, and the results have been extremely encouraging.

He’s nearly doubled his scoring average since the All-Star break to 16.4 points per game, boasting a shooting line of 48.1/41.2/81.6. It’s safe to assume the Nets currently don’t possess many players who’ll be on their next playoff outfit, but Bogdanovic just might be one of them.

Forward/Center: Channing Frye, Cleveland Cavaliers

After being acquired by Cleveland ahead of the trade deadline, Channing Frye initially struggled to assimilate into his new digs. Now, he’s fitting like a glove in the Cavaliers’ offense, which has unveiled a new, Warriors-esque level of efficiency when the stretchy forward is on the court.

Frye’s averaged 14.3 points in less than 21 minutes over Cleveland’s last four games, far above even the best per-minute scoring average of his career over a full season. And this hasn’t been against the dregs of the NBA — the Cavs played the Clippers, Jazz and Mavericks this week.

The former No. 8 overall pick is simply a perfect fit for Cleveland’s offense as a perfect backup to Kevin Love. It seems Cavaliers GM David Griffin has once again pulled off a master stroke of a roster move to strengthen Cleveland’s stronghold on the Eastern Conference.

This story was published by PointAfter, a partner of NBA.com.

Will Laws is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA players, NBA historical teams and dozens of other topics.

Morning shootaround — Feb. 27


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Johnson heading to Miami | They the North | Rivers wants replay challenge system | Cuban suggests deeper 3-point line

No. 1: Johnson heading to Miami The Miami Heat are in the mix to finish in the top half of the Eastern Conference’s playoff teams, but for the most part sat out the trade deadline, not making any major moves. Instead, it appears they managed to pick up a seven-time All-Star yesterday without having to move any assets: After accepting a buyout from the Brooklyn Nets, Joe Johnson will be signing with the Miami Heat, according to multiple reports. As Ethan Skolnick writes in the Miami Herald, Johnson’s relationships with Miami’s players probably had a lot to do with his decision

Dwyane Wade made it clear. If his contemporary and friend Joe Johnson accepted a buyout from the Brooklyn Nets, Wade would be “blowing up his phone” to recruit him to Miami.

Johnson, after initial resistance, did take that buyout.

It appears that Wade got his man.

According to several league sources, Johnson, a seven-time All-Star, has chosen to join the Heat after he is expected to clears waivers Saturday night. Johnson was pursued by nearly all of the NBA’s top contenders, including LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, with James even saying “he knows we want him” while speaking to reporters at Friday’s Cavaliers shootaround in Toronto.

But, according to sources, Cleveland, with its crowded backcourt and wing rotation, wasn’t one of the finalists. Johnson narrowed his choices to Miami, Oklahoma City and Atlanta due to the possibility of greater playing time, and the chance to prove worthy of another contract this season, even after earning nearly $200 million in his career.

Also helping Miami? His relationships with many of the Heat players. That started with Wade, with whom he became close when they were U.S. teammates in the 2008 Olympics.

While Johnson isn’t quite what he was — and got off to a terrible start with the broken Nets in the 2015 portion of the 2015-16 schedule — he has played extremely well since New Year’s, averaging 13.4 points and 4.4 assists and shooting 46 percent from three-point range. Miami is last in the league, shooting 32.1 percent from three-point range, and its two most reliable three-point shooters, Chris Bosh and Tyler Johnson, might both be out for the season, Bosh with a blood clot and Johnson with a surgically-repaired shoulder.

Joe Johnson has had an odd career arc, going from underrated to overpaid to somewhat underrated again. He was the player the Heat most feared in the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals, because of his ability to post up, catch-and-shoot, play isolation and made critical plays down the stretch.

The question wasn’t whether the Heat would be interested. It was whether Miami could make it work, while also meeting another aim — staying under the luxury tax, to avoid being classified as a “repeater” team, and dealing with the punitive tax multipliers.

To stay under the tax, when it was roughly $218,000 from the line, Miami would have needed Johnson to wait to start a new Heat contract for at least another 10 days. But, with the Johnson commitment, the team began exploring options that would allow him to come sooner, and still stay under the tax. That could include waiving a current player, such as injured point guard Beno Udrih, but it would only help if another team claimed him. Miami has also explored adding outside shooter Marcus Thornton, whom it nearly signed this summer, signing Gerald Green instead; Thornton was recently traded from Houston to Detroit but, after that trade was negated by the league, was waived by the Rockets.

There was no official update on Bosh on Friday, and he didn’t speak to the media at the team’s annual gala Thursday night. But teammates are proceeding as if he won’t return this season. But now, if he doesn’t, Miami appears to have an opportunity to remain highly competitive in the Eastern Conference, with a lineup of either Amar’e Stoudemire or Hassan Whiteside at center, Luol Deng (coming off four straight double-doubles) at power forward, and either Johnson or Justise Winslow at small forward, with Wade and Goran Dragic in the backcourt. Johnson, who is 6-foot-7, could also play some power forward in smaller lineups, or some shooting guard, occasionally pairing with Wade in the backcourt.

***

No. 2: They the North The Toronto Raptors entered this season with high expectations, fueled by last season’s 49-win team and the addition of free agent DeMarre Carroll. Yet even with Carroll missing most of the season with injuries, the Raptors have met those expectations, and entered last night’s game against the Eastern Conference champ Cleveland Cavaliers looking to make a statement. They didn’t disappoint, as Kyle Lowry was up to the challenge, scoring a career-high 43 and leading the Raptors to a come-from-behind 99-97 win. As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst writes, it was a much-needed win for the Raptors, who still have plenty to prove

Trying to play it cool in the wake of one of the greatest moments of his career, Kyle Lowry went straight Bill Belichick.

“We’re moving on to Detroit,” Lowry said with a straight face, in reference to the Raptors’ next game, after his Toronto Raptors upended the Cleveland Cavaliers 99-97 after a furious fourth-quarter comeback Friday night. “It’s just a win.”

The Raptors do not have a storied history or much of an inventory of unforgettable moments outside the Vince Carter early years file. As such, it was not much of a stretch to say Lowry’s 43 points, a career high, against the Cavs rank as one of the greatest shows in team history.

Lowry’s stepback jumper over Matthew Dellavedova with 3.8 seconds left, the winning points, was unequivocally one of the best moments of Lowry’s career. It was his first game winner since he tipped one in at the buzzer when he was at Villanova. It was a moment to celebrate under any circumstances. If Lowry did so, though, it was in private.

“I will maybe enjoy it for a few minutes,” Lowry said.

Here is why.

There isn’t a day or so that goes by in which the Raptors don’t remind themselves of the past two seasons. Their first-round playoff exits, despite home-court advantage, hang over them like a cloud, amplified by the two Atlantic Division banners hanging above their bench that can feel like a needless, pointless taunt.

As masterful as Lowry was Friday — his relentless attacking and aggression wore the Cavs’ defenders out — it only briefly covered up the sting of his wilting a year ago. He refuses to let the way his body betrayed him with back and leg injuries be driven from his mind. Lowry was almost helpless in his team’s four-game sweep by the Washington Wizards last year. Injuries or no, it is a black stain on his record that doesn’t easily come off.

That’s what inspired him to report to this season in tremendous shape, and it is what won’t allow him to accept February success as anything but that.

“I know this sounds boring, and you’re going to get tired of hearing it,” Lowry said. “But we have to just focus on the process. We’ve been here before.”

Lowry has twice taken down the Cavs this season. Back in November, he scored six points and had two assists in the final five minutes of a quality win. In this one, with DeMar DeRozan and Cory Joseph battling illness and DeMarre Carroll recovering from knee surgery, the Raptors appeared to be toast without Lowry. They were almost toast anyway; the Cavs held the lead for most of the first 44 minutes.

For the Cavs, it was infuriating to watch, with Lowry getting to the line 15 times and thoroughly outplaying Kyrie Irving, who had just 10 points and one assist.

“We’ve got to get somebody who can guard him,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said.

***

No. 3: Rivers wants replay challenge system The Los Angeles Clippers have developed a reputation as a team unafraid to let referees know when the disagree with a call. But Clips coach Doc Rivers has an idea that might simplify the appeals process. As Marc Spears writes for Yahoo, Rivers is in favor of an NFL-style replay challenge system

While the NBA has instant replay, it currently doesn’t allow coaches to challenge a ruling on a play. Rivers said the NBA has discussed the subject of a coach’s challenge during competition committee meetings in recent years, but it has not come close to being approved. NFL coaches are allowed two challenges per game before the snap of the ball at any time before the two-minute warning of each half or overtime period.

“I would throw it out [a challenge flag] with both hands like a shot. That’s why I couldn’t shoot,” Rivers said Friday morning during the Clippers’ shootaround for the Sacramento Kings game. “It’s a tough one to me. It’s not like officials are trying to make mistakes, but they do at the end of the games.”

A controversial call during the Clippers’ 87-81 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday sparked Rivers’ call for a challenge system.

With 30.4 seconds left and the Clippers down 85-81, Los Angeles forward Jeff Green was called for an offensive foul on a made basket after driving into defender Danilo Gallinari. The NBA admitted on its “NBA Officiating Last Two Minute Report” on Thursday that the referee made a mistake on the offensive foul call on Green. Green potentially could have had a made basket with a free throw. Rivers described it as a “horrible call, which the league acknowledged.”

“I’ve been pushing for a [challenge] flag for a year now,” Rivers said. “We should have a challenge flag. That is the third time this year [against the Clippers] that [the NBA] has come back and said it was a bad call. It doesn’t do anything for us.”

One of the games Rivers noted was a 100-99 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 21 that he said included three missed calls late in the contest. The Clippers (37-20) are in fourth place in the Western Conference standings and 3 ½ games behind the third-place Thunder (41-17).

“The league has done a great job of transparency and that has been phenomenal,” Rivers told Yahoo Sports. “But the problem with it is you don’t get anything from it if you’re the [losing] team. … The one thing I keep saying and make the point of is the refs are trying to make it right, too. It’s not like we’re mad at refs. We just want to get it right.”

***

No. 4: Cuban suggests deeper 3-point line Shooting a 3-pointer used to be something of a novel concept around the NBA, a high-risk, high-reward chance at a bonus point on a field goal attempt. But these days some teams (e.g. the Warriors) throw up threes like they’re layups, and as ESPN’s Tim McMahon writes, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wonders if perhaps moving back the 3-point line would open up the floor even more …

Mark Cuban has a suggestion to reintroduce the midrange shot to the NBA game: Move back the 3-point arc.

“It’s getting too close,” the Dallas Mavericks owner said Friday night of the 3-point arc, which is 23 feet, 9 inches at the crest and 22 feet in the corners, where there is no room to move it back. “Guys are shooting a foot behind it anyways. … That’s something we should look at. It’s worth looking at.

“I don’t think the number of shots would decline, but I think it would reward skill and open up the court some more. So guys would still take [3-point] shots if it’s seven inches back or whatever, but at the same time, it opens up the court for more drives, more midrange game.”

The midrange jumper has become an endangered species of sorts, while NBA players are firing 3-pointers at record rates. The single-season record for 3s is 55,137; according to ESPN Stats & Information, teams are on pace to hit 58,477 this season.

Cuban thinks moving back the 3-point arc is an idea the NBA should consider, not to discourage the deep ball, but to improve the spacing of the game.

“I think it’d open it up more so guys with different skill sets could play,” Cuban said. “It would open up play for more drives. Guys with midrange games would be rewarded and that would stay in the game. There would be more diversity of offensive action in the game.

“You’d see a little bit of decline in the 3. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that we shoot so many 3s, but it’s worth it in the D-League to see what happens [with a deeper 3-point line].”

Cuban quickly dismissed a question about whether the NBA would benefit from adding a 4-point line, perhaps 30 feet from the basket.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Jerry Colangelo says it’s too soon to come to any conclusions about the 76ers … Is Gregg Popovich mellowing? … Dwight Howard has parted ways with his longtime agent Dan FeganTiago Splitter had successful hip surgery … Vince Carter’s eponymous restaurant is closing

Report: Joe Johnson to sign with Heat

HANG TIME BIG CITYJoe Johnson is taking his talents to South Beach, according to one report. Just hours after agreeing to a buyout and being waived by the Brooklyn Nets, Johnson has agreed to sign with the Miami Heat, writes Shams Charania of Yahoo

Johnson, 34, had narrowed his teams to the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks after reaching a buyout agreement with the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday. Johnson is expected to clear free-agency waivers on Saturday.

Johnson, a seven-time All-Star, averaged 11.8 points, 4.1 assists and 3.9 rebounds in 57 games for the Nets this season.

In his 15th NBA season out of Arkansas, Johnson has career averages of 17 points, 4.2 assists and 4.1 rebounds while playing for Boston, Phoenix, Atlanta and Brooklyn. He was the No. 10 overall pick in the 2001 NBA draft.

Johnson will join a Heat team that is currently 32-25, in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. The Heat have been playing without Chris Bosh, who is out indefinitely after suffering a calf injury and missing the All-Star Game.

Numbers notes: The other great shooting backcourt in the NBA


VIDEO: Stephen Curry scores 51 points in Orlando

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Stephen Curry is following up his MVP season with … another MVP season.

On Thursday, Curry set the record for most consecutive games with a 3-pointer and hit 10 of them for good measure. He’s currently 10 away from his own record for most threes in a season (286), and he has 25 games left to play. He has shot an amazing 35-for-56 (62.5 percent) from 28 feet and out.

Klay Thompson, meanwhile, is quietly having the best shooting season of his career. He’s the only player within 100 threes of Curry and ranks fifth in effective field goal percentage among players who have taken at least 500 shots.

There’s no arguing that the Warriors don’t have the best shooting backcourt of all-time. But here’s a fun comparison …

Backcourt A has shot 44.4 percent from mid-range (between the paint and the 3-point line).
Backcourt B has shot 46.0 percent from mid-range.

Backcourt A has shot 44.3 percent from 3-point range.
Backcourt B has shot 43.9 percent from 3-point range.

Backcourt A has shot 44.3 percent on all shots outside the paint.
Backcourt B has shot 45.0 percent on all shots outside the paint. (more…)

Report: Johnson, Nets talk buyout

It was earlier this month when famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil predicted the arrival of an early spring. Now the first sign of an NBA thaw might be showing in Joe Johnson’s resolve to remain with the Nets.

The 34-year-old swingman has begun talks with new Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks about buying out the rest of his $24.9 million contract this season, according to Marc Stein of ESPN.com:

As long as Johnson is released by new Nets general manager Sean Marks by Tuesday, he’ll be playoff eligible for his next team.

“I think he’s deserved the right to (play on a playoff team if that’s what he wants),” Marks said of Johnson during an appearance on WFAN on Thursday.

Johnson, 34, is earning $24.9 million this season in the final year of a mammoth six-year, $124 million deal that was the league’s largest at the time when he signed it with the Hawks in 2010. Brooklyn absorbed the remaining four years and $89.3 million left on Johnson’s deal — soon followed by the acquisitions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett — in a bid to first convince then-franchise point guard Deron Williams to stay with the Nets and then to make a run at the NBA championship that Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov vowed to win within the space of five years.

But the Nets have only won one playoff series after acquiring Johnson and don’t have control of their own first-round pick until June 2019.

For the new GM Marks, moving on from Johnson would be the second step in what promises to be a tremendous undertaking to turn the Nets around. He had released forward Andrea Bargnani.

Despite averaging just 11.8 points per game on 40.6 percent shooting this season — his lowest numbers in more than a dozen years — Johnson will have no shortage of would-be contending teams lining up to add him to their playoff rosters. Stein reports Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Houston, Miami, Oklahoma City and Toronto have already made contact.

Morning shootaround — Feb. 25


VIDEO: Highlights from Wednesday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors go ‘Splash Bros.’ on Heat | James feeling ’10 times’ better than in ’14-15 | Bickerstaff: ‘Not worried’ about playoff race | Hollins sounds off on Nets’ front office

No. 1: Warriors go to ‘Splash Brothers’ well to upend Heat — When the Golden State Warriors drafted Klay Thompson in the first round of the 2012 Draft, pairing him with Stephen Curry led to the dawn of the ‘Splash Brothers’ era just a season later. That duo powered Golden State into the postseason and a first-round series victory. Yet the Warriors have grown much from those days — and have a championship to prove it — but last night in Miami in a nip-and-tuck game with the Heat, they went back to those ‘Splash Bros.’ days, writes Ethan Strauss of ESPN.com:

The Splash Brothers dynamic no longer defines the Golden State Warriors, but every now and then, it revisits to save the Warriors. That was more or less what happened in a fairly artless 118-112 Golden State victory over a Miami Heat team that outplayed its visitor for much of the game.

As Warriors coach Steve Kerr said afterward: “That’s Steph and Klay. That’s what they do. When they both do it on the same night, that’s when we’re really tough to beat. And it shows you how good Miami was that we needed every point to win the game.”

In the middle of the Miami big three’s epoch, Warriors digital marketing coordinator Brian Witt coined a nickname to describe a suddenly frisky squad out West. The “Splash Brothers,” established the Warriors’ brand right as the team began its ascent. Catchily, succinctly, it conveyed the unusual idea of a backcourt that specialized in 3-pointers. It’s how the public came to understand Golden State as something of an entertaining gimmick, before it became clear this iteration of gimmickry would end teams’ seasons.

Quickly, the Warriors grew beyond their nickname, with Green emerging as a star, and other additions proving essential. The Warriors are no longer the “Splash Brothers,” but the organization’s belief in this backcourt was a part of its foundation. And maintaining that foundation was, at one point, heretical. In 2014, much of the Las Vegas summer league was abuzz over how stupid the Warriors were for balking at a possible Thompson for Kevin Love trade.

Jerry West, who serves on Golden State’s executive board, loved Thompson’s game, and believed in the vision of this 3-bombing backcourt. He cited Golden State’s meager 2013-2014 passing numbers as a reason Thompson might be unleashed in a new offense. Kerr, who took the coaching job that season, also preferred continuity, knowing that, at the very least, the defense would be elite.

After this particular victory where he scored 33 points, Thompson said of the dynamic, “We can both get hot. It was a tough game tonight and when you have scoring lulls and stuff like that. Steph has incredible takeover ability. I try to play at his level but obviously not as electrifying as him, but I think we can both get hot at the right time if need be.”

The Warriors certainly don’t win without the MVP. En route to 42 points, Curry sank two deep, contested 3s within the last 1:10 of play. The final flourish was enough to overshadow how he also drained a 40-foot first quarter buzzer beater with as free and easy a stroke as you’d see on a foul line jumper. Those 40-footers are part of the warm-up routine. It’s not crazy to expect more of them in the future.

For now, the present is what absorbs these Warriors, especially at a time when every news conference contains a question about “73 wins.” “Process” is the focus, “one day at a time,” is the clichéd phrase of choice. Whether Golden State reaches that benchmark or not, they’ve undeniably built something special, a vision to behold in the wake of Miami’s run as four-year title favorite. It all started with “Splash,” before building into something no one could fathom.


VIDEO: Warriors.com recaps the team’s win in Miami

***

(more…)

Reports: Novak headed to Milwaukee


The 10th time might be a charm for NBA journeyman sniper Steve Novak.

Novak, after playing for nine teams in 10 seasons, is expected to return to his roots, based on reports that he could join the Milwaukee Bucks once he clears waivers. A teammate of Miami star Dwyane Wade on the Marquette University team that reached the 2003 NCAA Final Four, Novak played his high school ball in the Milwaukee suburbs and is a native of northern Illinois.

In his NBA travels, he had yet to play for either the Bucks or the Chicago Bulls. But Marc Stein of ESPN.com initially reported the Milwaukee team’s interest after Novak, 32, was traded from Oklahoma City to Denver Thursday, when waived. Charles Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel confirmed that.

The 6-foot-10 Novak’s most marketable NBA skill is his 3-point shooting, something the Bucks sorely lack. Heading into Saturday’s game at Atlanta, they ranked 29th in both attempts and made shots from the arc, as well as 29th in the percent of 3-point shots among their overall attempts.

Milwaukee’s .350 accuracy as a team ranks 19th, with only Jerryd Bayless (.436) and Khris Middleton (.410) shooting better than .325 from that range. Only once since Novak’s rookie season with Houston has he shot worse than .396.

To open a roster spot for Novak, the Bucks were likely to cut Chris Copeland, as reported by ESPN.com‘s Brian Windhorst. Copeland, 31, had averaged .373 3-point accuracy in his first three NBA seasons but had made only 10 of 36 (.278) in limited minutes with the Bucks this season.

In other post-trade deadline developments, the Brooklyn Nets waived Andrea Bargnani, general manager Sean Marks announced today.  Bargnani, who signed with the Nets last summer, appeared in 46 games for Brooklyn, with averages of 6.6 points and 2.1 rebounds in 13.8 minutes per game.

Morning shootaround — Feb. 20


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from busy Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lillard out-MVPs the MVP | Spurs bid Kobe adieu | Playoffs (PLAYOFFS?!) fading for Knicks | Mavs need more from Matthews

No. 1: Lillard out-MVPs the MVP — It was offered as high praise, but when Golden State coach Steve Kerr invoked Steph Curry‘s name as a way of lauding Damian Lillard‘s electric night against his Warriors — “He looked like Steph Curry out there” – it felt a little wrong. For one night, the Portland Trail Blazers guard deserved to stand alone in the spotlight, not sharing it with the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player or Portland’s stunning 32-point throttling Friday of the league’s defending champs. Even the Blazers’ surprising 28-27 record, far better than a lot of so-called experts imagined, could wait in the kudos line behind the point guard for whom there wasn’t room on the Western Conference All-Star team. Here is some of Oregonian beat writer Joe Freeman‘s report:

An undeniable reality surfaced during the 48 hours leading up to the most prolific individual performance of Damian Lillard’s career.

He felt like crud.

His legs were rubbery. His feet ached. His body wasn’t quite right. In two Trail Blazers practices following a weeklong All-Star break, Lillard committed turnovers in bunches and hoisted more bricks than he could count.

So on Thursday, after a particularly forgettable display, the two-time All-Star turned to assistant coach Nate Tibbetts with a surprising statement.

“Every time I feel like this,” Lillard told Tibbetts, “The next day, I just always have it.”

And he certainly had it Friday night. In one of the best individual performances in franchise history, Lillard recorded a career-high 51 points, a career-high six steals and seven assists to lead the surging Blazers to a stunning 137-105 victory over the Golden State Warriors at the Moda Center.

Lillard was so good, he did the unimaginable — he upstaged the Blazers’ startling 32-point victory over a seemingly invincible team poised to finish with the best record in NBA history. With a barrage of deep three-pointers, slick slashing layups and pull-up jumpers, Lillard was virtually unstoppable, making 18 of 28 field goals, including 9 of 12 three-pointers.

Lillard started hot, scoring or assisting on seven of the Blazers’ first nine field goals. And he finished even hotter, recording 21 points in a dazzling fourth quarter that had the Moda Center rocking like no other time this season. During Lillard’s most breathtaking stretch of the game, midway through the fourth quarter, he scored 13 consecutive Blazers points, breezing past the 40-point mark so fast he said he couldn’t remember doing so…

“He got into a zone twice,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “At the end, it was just ridiculous.”

And any outsider who watched Lillard during the 48 hours leading up the game, when he was bricking shots and tossing turnovers, would have been stunned.

Lillard said he was restless Friday, eager to fix his body and settle his mind, and he unintentionally altered his game-day routine. Following the Blazers’ morning shootaround, he hopped in the cold tub at the practice facility for a frigid 15-minute soak, then moved to the steam room, where he joined Al-Farouq Aminu for a 15-minute steam.

Afterward, he drove to his Lake Oswego home, slipped a splint on his left foot and took a nap, which he rarely does.

“I usually don’t even take naps,” he said. “I got up and I just felt good.”

Before he knew it, Lillard was driving to the Moda Center ahead of schedule. He strolled into the locker room about 3:50, roughly 30 or 40 minutes earlier than normal, and ran into Ed Davis, the only other person in the room. They shot the breeze for a while and Lillard killed time before going about his normal routine. By the time he started hispregame workout, his felt his mojo creeping back.

“When I did my routine before the game, I just felt good,” he said. “Going side to side, when I was pulling up off the dribble, I just felt in a good rhythm. The ball felt good in my hands.”

Lillard shot chart

***

 No. 2: Spurs bid Kobe adieu — Competitive to the end. How it had gone for most of Kobe Bryant‘s clashes with the San Antonio Spurs over the years is pretty much how it went in his final meeting with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, coach Gregg Popovich and the rest Friday in Los Angeles. Across two decades of regular-season and postseason showdowns, Bryant and Duncan faced each other 82 times – the equivalent of a full NBA season – with the Spurs’ big man owning a 43-39 advantage. Then again, Bryant was quick to point out their head-to-head in playoff series: “Four to three.” The principals had met shortly before the All-Star break but this time was for the last time, so it’s worth reviewing, per the San Antonio Express-News’ Jeff McDonald:

The Lakers star was as competitive as ever, at one point popping a dislocated finger into place so he could finish this game. As has been the case for much of the 37-year-old’s farewell tour, the Spurs got the best of the Lakers, winning 119-113.

“It’s been fun competing against those guys for all these years,” Bryant said after scoring 25 points in his Spurs swan song. “I’ve truly enjoyed it. They’ve pushed me to fine-tune and sharpen my game.”

In many ways, Friday marked the end of a rivalry two decades in the making, between two players emblematic of their generation.

“We’ve played against each other for so many years,” said Duncan, who had 12 points and 13 rebounds for his first double-double since Jan. 3. “It was always a great game against him. You knew you had to bring your A game, because he’s going to bring the best out of you.”

Even toiling for a Lakers team that could not avoid its 46th loss Friday, Bryant refused to go down without a fight.

Benefitting from the absence of All-Star Kawhi Leonard, out for the second straight game with a calf injury, Bryant finished with 25 points.

Late in the fourth quarter, with the Spurs clinging to a five-point lead, Bryant dislocated a middle finger tracking a loose ball. Lakers trainer Gary Vitti popped the digit back into place, taped it to his index finger, and Bryant returned for the final 1:56.

“He’s played through stuff that nobody will ever know about,” Popovich said. “He’s a warrior.”

Bryant made one field goal with his finger injured, a runner that pulled L.A. within 111-107 with 1:23 left.

Later, in what will go down as the final shot of his career against the Spurs, he fired up an airball 3-pointer.

Bryant’s career against the Spurs was over, and Popovich had trouble pinpointing how he felt about it.

“In some ways, it will be great,” Popovich said. “In other ways, we will miss him a lot. The whole league will miss him. But I won’t have to worry about guarding him, that’s for sure.”

***

No. 3:  Playoffs (PLAYOFFS?!) fading for Knicks — At 22-22, the New York Knicks were looking like this year’s version of the 2014-15 Milwaukee Bucks, who took an Andre the Giant-sized stride from horrible (15-67) to respectable (41-41) in a single season, boosting themselves all the way into the playoffs with a few nips and tucks (and, in the Bucks’ case, a new coach in Jason Kidd). But now Knicks fans have begun to puzzle at the gaps between victories, their team sinking fast at 23-32 with no optimism in sight. Losing to crosstown rival Brooklyn Friday night brought on the best in New York critics, focusing on the worst of Knickerbocker basketball. Consider snippets here of New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro:

That was the Nets — not the Thunder, not the Clippers — who rattled off a 20-2 run in the third quarter to turn a five-point Knicks lead into a 13-point Nets lead. That was the Nets who, after letting the Knicks draw within three points early in the fourth quarter, put them away with an immediate 10-0 surge.

That was the Nets who made the Knicks look so enfeebled, so non-competitive, so slow, so …

“We didn’t execute. On either end,” interim coach Kurt Rambis said. “That’s disappointing.”

Yes. That is one word. Here are a few others: Putrid. Lousy. Rotten. Unwatchable.

Playoffs?

Playoffs? Are you kidding me?

This is no longer a regression. The Knicks had lost 10 out of 11 heading into the break, the season already had gone sideways, the postseason already was looking like a longer long shot than Chuck Wepner.

You could talk yourself into anything you wanted to: the floor had started to tilt on the Knicks when Carmelo Anthony tripped over that referee’s foot. Kristaps Porzingis was dealing with the rookie wall. All of that. And to add red meat for the masses, Fisher was sacrificed. Is there more of a time-honored solution for turning things around — at least for a week or two — than axing the coach?

The Knicks had been off since Feb. 9. They were rested. They were as healthy as they had been in weeks. The first time these teams played, in December, the Knicks took a 30-point lead by the midway point of the second quarter.

Those were the heady days — hard to conjure now — when every small victory the Knicks posted was celebrated, because anything — just about everything — compared to last season’s 17-win dumpster fire could be celebrated as progress. That was before anyone figured this could end up in the playoffs, when just not watching stink rise up from the Garden floor was worth rejoicing.

Yeah. That feels like an awfully long time ago.

***

No. 4: Mavs need more from Matthews — When Dallas owner Mark Cuban reacted to the DeAndre Jordan switcheroo last summer by throwing even more guaranteed money, in a longer free-agent contract, at damaged-goods Portland shooting guard Wesley Matthews, it didn’t just seem impulsive; it seemed like retail therapy, the sort of things shopaholics do to self-medicate in times of unrelated stress. It even seemed a little out of character, given the red flags that were unmissable thanks to Matthews’ season-ending Achilles surgery last spring. So what the Mavericks are getting – or missing – from Matthews deep into his comeback season isn’t any big secret, but it is a legitimate concern, given how much time and money remains on his four-year, $70 million deal. Tim McMahon of ESPNDallas.com looked at the gap between Matthews’ production and compensation:

The Mavs certainly aren’t getting their money’s worth right now. They must get much better bang for the buck from their highest-paid player to have any hope of being more than first-round fodder — and perhaps even to make the playoffs.

The fact that the 29-year-old Matthews is struggling through the worst season of his career can’t be considered surprising. The history of players coming back from torn Achilles tendons, if they come back at all, is frighteningly poor.

It was an expensive vote of confidence from Cuban in Matthews’ remarkable will and work ethic. It was also a vote of confidence in the Mavs’ support staff — specifically head athletic trainer Casey Smith and athletic performance director Jeremy Holsopple — and the new medical technology that wasn’t available to players whose careers were ruined by a ruptured Achilles in the past.

And it was a decision made with the long term in mind.

“We didn’t sign him for this year,” Cuban said recently when asked if Matthews’ extended slump concerned him.

Not that Matthews, who surprised many by making good on his vow to play in the season opener less than eight months after suffering his injury, is looking for excuses for his struggles. Nor does he expect Mavs fans to have much patience in him if he doesn’t perform well.

“I’ve got to play better,” Matthews said after scoring only five points on 2-of-10 shooting in Friday’s overtime loss to the Orlando Magic. “I take that onus up. I take that ownership. I will.”

Matthews’ value to the Mavs can’t be measured simply by his stats. He’s a tremendous teammate who leads the Mavs in minutes played, a respected voice in the locker room and a proud defender who readily accepts the challenge of guarding the opponent’s best perimeter scorer on a nightly basis.

But Dallas desperately needs Matthews, who established himself as one of the NBA’s premier perimeter shooters the previous five seasons in Portland, to snap out of his offensive funk.

Matthews gave the Mavs one really good offensive month. He averaged 15 points and hit 42.5 percent of his 3-point attempts in December, numbers that were pretty close to the norm during his five-year tenure with the Trail Blazers. Matthews was plus-89 in those 14 games. Not coincidentally, the Mavs had their best month of the season, going 9-5.

The Mavs are 9-13 in games in which Matthews has played since the calendar flipped to 2016. He has averaged only 10.7 points during that time, shooting 37.4 percent from the floor and 30.5 percent from 3-point range. He is minus-69 in those 22 games.

It’s not trending in the right direction, either. Matthews is minus-55 in six February games, averaging only 8.8 points per game. Not coincidentally, the Mavs are 1-5 this month, sliding to 29-27 overall, putting them four games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for fifth in the Western Conference and giving them only a 1 1/2-game cushion before falling out of the playoff pack.

“This is not a Wes thing. This is a team thing,” coach Rick Carlisle said, downplaying concerns about Matthews’ slump.

Matthews sat down the stretch of regulation Friday night. He played the entire overtime, missing both of his shot attempts — a driving layup and an open corner 3 that both would have tied the score.

“I’ve been making those shots since I’ve been in the league. As soon as I get frustrated, it takes away from everything else that I can do on the court. When I start doing that, then I’m selfish. I’ve just got to continue being me [and] stay confident, which I am. I’m not worried about it. The team trusts me. Coaches trust me, and I’m going to work my ass off.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Dallas’ loss in OT in Orlando included a few sweet-nothings between big man Zaza Pachulia and wing Chandler Parsons. … Don’t think the Golden State Warriors didn’t learn anything from their loss to Portland Friday, or what it had in common with their four previous defeats. … If Thursday’s trade deadline didn’t scratch your itch for player movement, enjoy what transpires in the coming days of “buyout season,” as noted by our own Shaun Powell. … Then there’s the guy in Cleveland about whom trade rumors never seem to end, deadline or no deadline, writes our man Steve Aschburner. … Ricky Rubio enjoyed all the trade gossip – with a certain exception. … The guy most likely to be moved by the deadline was not. So what’s next for Dwight Howard?

Five takeaways from the deadline

VIDEO: Houston’s Dwight Howard may opt for a new address over the summer

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The 2016 trade deadline came and went rather quietly. Dwight Howard is still in Houston, Jeff Teague is still in Atlanta, and Ryan Anderson is still in New Orleans. Blake Griffin and Kevin Love were never going anywhere.

But some deals – two on Tuesday and 10 on Thursday – were made at the deadline. And a couple of them involved title contenders, though none were moves that will make a major impact.

Here are five takeaways from a deadline day that didn’t exactly alter the NBA landscape…

Stay tuned for the summer

This summer was already set to be a big one. With revenue and the salary cap rising, almost every team in the league will have cap space and most will have enough to sign at least one max-level player. The list of 2016 free agents includes Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Mike Conley, Al Horford, Nicolas Batum, Andre Drummond, Harrison Barnes and Bradley Beal, as well as LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan and Howard (if they decline their player options).

But cap space can also be used to absorb players via trade without having to send out salary, and the opportunity will be there for teams to unload players in July.

So if the Hawks want to hand the reigns to Dennis Schroder, they could shop Teague (who still has one more year left on his contract) again in the summer. There definitely will be multiple teams looking for a starting point guard at that point, and Conley is the only one on the list above.

Brooklyn is another team that could decide to be a seller in July. Sean Marks was hired as the Nets’ new general manager less than five hours before the deadline, so he didn’t have much time to make a decision on Thaddeus Young (who was reportedly in demand) and Brook Lopez. Both of those guys have two guaranteed years left on their contracts and Marks could look to move them this summer if he wants to go for a slower and more organic rebuild.

The Cavs and Clippers will take one more shot at a championship with Love and Griffin. And if either team falls short again (at least one of them will), other teams will come calling, wondering if Cleveland and L.A. are ready to try something different.

All that cap space may have also kept teams from trading multiple assets for players – like Anderson, Al Horford and Howard – they could lose to free agency (or sign away from the teams they’re still on) in the summer.

Playoff push in the East

The three teams that made the most impactful moves are currently sitting in the eighth, ninth and tenth spots in the Eastern Conference.

On Tuesday, the eighth-place Charlotte Hornets (27-26) traded for Courtney Lee, while the Detroit Pistons (27-27) got Tobias Harris from Orlando. On Thursday, Detroit gave up their first round pick for Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton, and the Washington Wizards (23-28) traded for malcontent Markieff Morris.

There was some risk involved in those last two deals. Motiejunas has played just 14 games this season, dealing with back problems. He was a key to the Rockets’ success last season, but might not be ready to help the Pistons get over the hump. Morris, meanwhile, fought with a teammate (Archie Goodwin) just last week and has actually shot worse this season (effective field goal percentage of 42.2 percent) than one of the guys – Kris Humphries (47.8 percent) – he was traded for.

Only 2 1/2 games separate the fifth-place Miami Heat from the ninth-place Pistons with 28 or 29 games to go. So the opportunity is there for both Charlotte and Detroit to move up into a position where they don’t have to face Cleveland in the first round. The Wizards have a lot more work to do, but also seem to have more pressure on them to make something of this season.

All about the bottom line

The No. 1 concern for the Heat right now is Chris Bosh, and if the All-Star isn’t going to be available down the stretch, Miami could fall out of the playoff picture for a second straight year.

But whether they’re going to the playoffs or not, the Heat had some fiscal issues to deal with. And team president Pat Riley and general manager Andy Elisburg used three trades in the last three days to unload fringe salary and get under the luxury tax line.

Miami was one of *two teams that was subject to repeater tax levels this season. While other teams over the tax line pay $1.50 of tax for every dollar they’re over the line, the Heat were going to pay $2.50. So before Tuesday, Miami had a tax bill of more than $25 million. But the three trades they made (sending Chris Andersen, Jarnell Stokes and Brian Roberts out) got them under the tax line. Now, they’ll get some of the luxury tax paid out by the remaining tax paying teams (like Cleveland and Oklahoma City).

* Brooklyn was the other, but got under the tax line with its buyout of Deron Williams and a couple of minor moves in July.

Two contenders get bench help

The Cavs and Thunder also lightened their tax bills with moves that were seemingly more about the fringe of their rotation. Cleveland swapped Anderson Varejao for Channing Frye, whose shooting should complement LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Oklahoma City, meanwhile, traded D.J. Augustin (who had lost his back-up point guard spot to Cameron Payne) for Randy Foye.

Foye has shot less than 30 percent from 3-point range this season, but he gives the Thunder more depth in the backcourt with Andre Roberson out, another option when Dion Waiters isn’t shooting well, and a little more flexibility in regard to playing small against a team like the Golden State Warriors.

It’s hard to believe, though, that either of those moves will make much of a difference against the champs or the San Antonio Spurs.

Trash or treasure?

A trade that got in just before the buzzer was a swap of disappointing reserves on Western Conference playoff teams. Of course, if you paid attention to what they did at their previous stops, you can’t say that Jeff Green and Lance Stephenson were all that disappointing in Memphis and L.A., respectively.

Green gives the Clippers a little more stability, but it’s hard to believe that he moves the needle for a team that has played at a level below the three best teams in the West. The Grizzlies’ season is seemingly on the brink with Marc Gasol suffering a broken foot before the break, but they’ll take a shot with a roster that now includes a plethora of interesting characters and a lot of small ball, featuring Zach Randolph at center.

Green has an expiring contract and Stephenson has a team option for next season, so the only long-term risk is with the Clippers sending a first round pick to Memphis.


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