Posts Tagged ‘Carlos Boozer’

Barking Without Bite Still Pricey For Boozer, Copeland

The feisty Carlos Boozer received his first technical and ejection of the season in last night's romp of the Pacers.

Carlos Boozer received his first ejection of the season last night against the Pacers (Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images).

CHICAGO – Near the end of the Indiana-Chicago game Saturday night at United Center, Carlos Boozer and Chris Copeland exchanged some shoves and some words. Wham! Bam! Referee Marc Davis got them T’d up, ejected and off the floor quickly, and upheld it all after a replay review.

Many in attendance, especially some former players now in the employ of the two teams, and in the locker rooms were a little startled at the severity of the penalties.

“Honestly, I have never been ejected from anything a day in my life,” Copeland said afterward, welcoming the chance to give his interpretation. “It’s not who I am, it’s not what I’m about. But I felt like at the end of the game, I felt him push me in my back after the play was over. I felt it was unnecessary. I’m not here for that.

“I didn’t think it was an ejection-type situation. I thought it was just, you push me, I push you back.”

It was woofing, all bark, no bite. From the refs’ standpoint, it might have made sense to douse things before a fuse could get lit, given the history of orneriness and vague dislike between the two teams, as well as a game that already was decided if not quite over.

Problem is, the technical fouls will cost Boozer and Copeland $2,000 each, the ejections cost another $2,000 and both count toward their season totals, which can lead to escalating fines, unless something gets rescinded from the league office Monday. Some longtime observers in the arena thought dueling technicals, one each, might have been more appropriate.

“I respect [the decision],” Copeland said. “I just hope it’s not anything serious.

“I just wanted to defend myself as a human, blindsided, cheap-shot pushed in the back. I felt that’s not cool, I’m not going to let you do that.”

The technicals and the ejections were the first each this season for both players. Already this season, the NBA has rescinded technical fouls called in the moment against Carmelo Anthony (Oct. 30 vs. Milwaukee) and Isaiah Thomas (Nov. 1 vs. the Clippers).

Noah Playing Catch-Up After Lost Preseason


VIDEO: Derrick Rose hits winner as Bulls edge Knicks

CHICAGO – Joakim Noah, excitable guy, grabbed the microphone out of postgame show host Steve Kashul‘s hand. Like the other 22,000-and-change at United Center Thursday, Noah had seen Derrick Rose‘s high-arc 12-footer from the right baseline drop over defenders Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton for the game-winner with 5.7 seconds left.

It was a Hollywood finish – Rose finally back after 18 months, winning it in the Chicago Bulls’ home opener over the New York Knicks – so after Carmelo Anthony‘s jumper and Chandler’s tip missed, Noah didn’t so much do an interview as bond and celebrate with the crowd on an already squirrelly Halloween night.

“Love this [expletive]. Love this [expletive],” Noah said, Kashul fidgeting uncomfortably while the fans roared.

The truth is, Noah does love this bleep and the sooner he and the Bulls sync him up with what the rest of them are doing, the better off they’ll all be.

Rose has won and will win plenty of games for Chicago with late heroics such as Thursday’s. But Noah helps them win, too, in almost every way imaginable, given his versatility at both ends of the floor.

Defensively, he’s a 7-footer with, when healthy, uncanny mobility and a taste for bending his knees and earning stops not unlike his (cough) buddy Kevin Garnett. He sweeps the glass with the best of them (including Chandler, who grabbed 19 and blocked four shots), can close on jump shooters and alter trajectories. and he’s a vocal leader in Chicago’s defensive alignments.

At the other end, Noah moves well, has good hands and is a clever, willing passer. Maybe too willing, occasionally passing up shots conceded to his unorthodox form.

“You saw the plays he made in the first half,” Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said, “running the break, hitting guys for layups and dunks. Obviously his rebounding is tremendous, we need that. His energy. He can switch from 1 through 5, guard five positions. And obviously his presence out there – Joakim is a defensive player of the year candidate every year.”

Noah’s presence out there most definitely is requested by his teammates and coach Tom Thibodeau‘s staff. He missed all but 19 minutes of the preseason after slipping in an early practice and suffering a groin strain.

Those missed preseason games have left him a little out of shape and a lot out of rhythm with the rest of the Bulls. The starting combination Thibodeau has used through two games is brand new, and so far is more parts than whole.

After the loss in Miami and the victory over New York, Chicago is shooting 41.5 percent (23.8 percent from the arc) and has 38 turnovers to 43 assists. Rose was 6-of-22 when he launched his game-winner. Jimmy Butler shot 3-for-11 and Noah made only two of his seven shots.

“We know that we have to get better,” Noah said.  It’s going to happen. We missed a lot of shots that we’re going to make later in the year. I think familiarity, just knowing what we’re trying to get out of the offense.

“Even though I played with Derrick for a while, played with Booz for a while, played with Lu [Deng] for a while, just adding Jimmy – [it's] just playing our style and playing together and jelling and trying to figure out exactly what we’re trying to get offensively. Usually you do that in the preseason – I wasn’t able to play in the preseason.”

Noah’s rebounding (26 in two games) is ahead of his scoring (just eight points total), and his passing – Thibodeau considers him something of a point-center – is better still. Noah and Rose, in particular, have a nice chemistry in which the big man can find the super-quick slasher with the ball, or vice versa. For instance, Noah whipped one pass to Rose along the baseline that was stunning in its simplicity and effectiveness.

“I’m comfortable being a playmaker out there, and I also have to pick and choose,” Noah said. “I think sometimes I overpass. I have to do a better job of finding them. Just reading the defense and knowing when I should drive, when to pass, things like that.”

When to shoot, too. Noah unleashed his familiar, twisting “toronado” jump shot at one point against New York and drew nothing but air. There’s only one remedy for that: Shoot it again.

“He’s coming around,” Rose said, grabbing a chance to talk about someone’s game other than his own. “He made some great plays on the ball where he made some great passes. For him, he just has to get comfortable enough to make that jump shot. That’s going to be huge for us if he can knock that down.”

Noah doesn’t flaunt his unorthodox delivery any more than Cyrano flaunted his schnoz, but he has worked hard to improve not just as a shooter but a scorer. So this is more rust, not unlike Rose, given Noah’s 2012-13 numbers: 11.9 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 4.0 apg, 2.0 bpg and 33 double-doubles.

The groin strain healed, his game now is coming back in pieces, Noah said. As the excitement of Rose’s hero moment settled, the Bulls center still sounded peeved with that air ball.

“I know that I work really hard on my game every day and I feel like every aspect of the game, I’m trying to be the best player I can,” Noah said. “I’m not happy with where I’m at. I work too hard to not be comfortable on the court. Doing anything.”

No Deal For Deng Means Drama For Bulls

Regardless of how well the players and the coaches fended off the distraction of it, the Chicago Bulls’ 2012-13 season was preoccupied, overshadowed and generally beholden to one question: “Is Derrick back?”

Odds are good, as of Tuesday, that 2013-14 will be colored by a variation on that query, as in: “Is Deng gone?”

With reports that talks of a contract extension between Luol Deng and the Bulls have broken off [CSNChicago.com], followed up by agent Herb Rudoy‘s quote that the All-Star forward “will definitely go through” free agency next summer [Chicago Tribune], a team that grappled with considerable unknowns last season assured itself of a fat one for this year. What it means to the depth and cohesiveness of the Bulls as they try to chase down the Miami Heat and a couple other improving Eastern Conference contenders remains to be seen. But it adds drama where there might have been none.

Derrick Rose, obviously, is the fulcrum on which this season tilts; if he can return from extended rehab (since April 2012) to his status as one of the NBA’s most explosive, elusive players, Chicago looks equipped to challenge the Heat and jockey with Indiana and Brooklyn for East surpremacy.

But Deng has been the Bulls’ glue and constant for the past three seasons, at least. From coach Tom Thibodeau‘s arrival through Rose’s major absence (and lesser ones), the 6-foot-8 forward has been a two-time All-Star and two-way player, coping with and often playing in spite of his own less-spectacular injuries. Deng has been Thibodeau’s go-to guy in you-name-it situations, and it took a rather serious scare last spring – he developed a serious infection after undergoing a spinal tap during the first-round series vs. the Nets – to sit him down for good.

Still just 28 after nine NBA seasons, Deng has been taken for granted by Bulls fans who remember the contract haggles that he and teammate Ben Gordon went through in 2007 and 2008. Deng finally landed his six-year, $71 million deal while Gordon left to seek his fortune (five years, $58 million) in free agency, yet the climate at United Center often seems almost as chilly toward the former as the latter.

As a performer and a teammate, as a workhorse who soaks up innings (Deng has averaged 39.1 minutes the past three seasons, leading the NBA over the past two), the man from the South Sudan has been terrific. His biggest failing? Probably his timing.

Deng’s current contract, signed in 2008, will pay him $14.2 million this season, a big number under the current CBA. He’s coming off what for the Bulls, for all its pluckiness, largely was a lost season, given Rose’s absence. And his own health issue late flipped more opportunity to Jimmy Butler, who emerged over the second half as a potential Deng replacement.

Some might argue that Chicago isn’t even all-in on 2013-14, despite Rose’s need for consistency around him as much as added talent. The Carlos Boozer countdown will be busy, with the veteran power forward headed to the amnesty pile next offseason and with Nikola Mirotic stashed overseas like some new-millennium Toni Kukoc. Rose could be rusty, Boozer and Joakim Noah might be due for  breakdowns, the roster still needs another big and Deng is facing the equivalent of a qualifying year. With the exception that he could be dealt by the Feb. 20 trade deadline.

Deng feels he has earned, and will keep earning, another big contract. But with Rose, Noah and Taj Gibson on the books for more than $39 million in 2014-15 and chairman Jerry Reinsorf having to shell out another $16.8 million for Boozer whether he’s on the books or not, the Bulls either will be looking for a hometown discount from Deng or will have moved on to Butler entirely. Meanwhile, Deng will have options, with teams both ambitious and rebuilding, eager to land a solid player, leader and citizen.

This all will be played out over 82 games, many of which Deng probably will play hurt again, will get left on the court too long or will be sent back in by Thibodeau to nail down the outcome. The mileage on his odometer will spike and, this time, it will be dinging a market value in which the Bulls will have no future stake.

It all might set a good team guy like Deng to wondering why one player can get treated as gingerly as the Stanley Cup while others get used as if they’re Dixie.

‘Amnesty THAT!’ An Amnesty Find Is Rare

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HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The two-word tweet Kobe Bryant directed at Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban after he grilled Cuban’s team for 38 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in a game last season was priceless. Earlier that week, Cuban suggested that the Lakers should consider amnestying Bryant this offseason as a means for Los Angeles to shrink the enormous luxury-tax bill coming after next season.

The notion was resurrected after Bryant, due to make $30.45 million in 2013-14, tore his Achilles tendon in the third-to-last game of the regular season because of the assumed probability that he will miss a chunk of next season. Of course, the Lakers had no intention to amnesty Bryant by Tuesday’s deadline.

Had they, making him available to a team for dirt cheap, Bryant would have become the first superstar cut loose via the amnesty provision that took effect at the conclusion of the 2011 lockout as part of the new collective bargaining agreement.

Twenty players in all have been waived via the amnesty provision. Three got the news Tuesday, bringing this summer’s amnesty total to five.

The wisdom of the provision is to allow each team the one-time ability to remove a contract from its books. The team must still pay the player’s remaining salary, but it no longer counts against the salary cap or luxury tax.

The amnestied player (who must have been under contract prior to the new CBA) goes through a waiver process with teams under the salary cap granted first crack to acquire the player through a bidding process. The highest bidder wins and signs the player at the bid price with the former team responsible for the balance.

It could provide a cheap way for a team to fill a hole with a serviceable rotation player set free by a team needing financial relief – which was the Miami Heat’s purpose Tuesday in amnestying popular sharpshooter Mike Miller. More often than not, however, teams, naturally, have utilized the amnesty provision to eradicate expensive mistakes or free themselves of players no longer worth their lucrative deals such as waiving disappointing, non-productive players (Darko Milicic, Travis Outlaw), older/high-mileage players (James Posey, Elton Brand) or headcases (Gilbert Arenas, Andray Blatche).

Of the 15 players amnestied in 2011 and 2012, four (Posey, Charlie Bell, Ryan Gomes and Milicic) were never signed by another team and eight (Arenas, Bell, Josh Childress, Baron Davis, Gomes, Milicic, Posey, Brandon Roy) are currently out of the league. Only five players remain with the teams that signed them through or after the amnesty waiver process, and of those just three — Luis Scola (Phoenix), Blatche (Brooklyn) and Chris “Birdman” Andersen — played significant roles last season.

Of the five players amnestied this summer, the underwhelming Tyrus Thomas has yet to be signed. Drew Gooden, Linas Kleiza and Miller are in the midst of the 48-hour waiver bidding process. Metta World Peace, amnestied by the Lakers, signed a two-year deal with his hometown New York Knicks.

The 6-foot-11 Blatche and the Brooklyn Nets are hands-down the feel-good story of the amnesty provision. Just 26, Blatche’s talent is immense, but so was his penchant for doing dumb things with the dysfunctional Wizards. Fed up, Washington gave up on him. Few teams bit until the Nets figured they had nothing to lose, signing Blatche to a one-year deal for less than $1 million while the Wizards were on the hook for more than $7 million. Blatche emerged as an integral part of the Nets’ return to the playoffs, averaging 10.3 ppg and 5.1 rpg off the bench. Last week Blatche re-signed for a reported two years and $2.9 million.

But Blatche is clearly the exception. The Mavericks hoped to get a steal with their winning bid of $2.1 million for the amnestied Brand, who was due to make $18 million last season with the Philadelphia 76ers. Brand, while well-liked in Dallas, posted his worst statistical season of his career, averaging 7.2 ppg and 6.0 rpg. He recently signed a free-agent deal with Atlanta.

Chauncey Billups, amnestied in 2011 by the Knicks to make room to sign Tyson Chandler, played just 42 total games the last two seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, and recently signed a free-agent deal with the Detroit Pistons. Center Brendan Haywood was nonexistent in Charlotte last season after being amnestied by the Mavs.

And remember the potential Childress had? Amnestied by the Phoenix Suns in 2012, he’s one of the eight players no longer working in the NBA. The amnesty bust list goes on and on.

So who are the 10 teams yet to play their amnesty card, and which players are eligible? Here they are: Atlanta (Al Horford), Boston (Rajon Rondo), Chicago (Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah), Detroit (none), Memphis (Mike Conley, Zach Randolph), New Orleans (none), Oklahoma City (Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Durant, Nick Collison), Sacramento Kings (John Salmons), San Antonio (Tony Parker) and Utah (none).

But that is now speculation for next summer.

Projecting The East Playoff Order





HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – We’re still two days away from the NBA’s moratorium on free-agent signings and trades being lifted. So, Dwight Howard isn’t officially a Houston Rocket and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce aren’t officially Brooklyn Nets until Wednesday.

None of what we’ve seen shake out over the past seven days can become official until then.

But that doesn’t mean the business of basketball isn’t going on. From summer leagues to free-agent deals being agreed upon and trade opportunities still being explored, the ball never stops bouncing.

That’s why we’re skipping ahead to training camp and the 2013-14 season here at the hideout and forecasting — fearlessly, mind you — to April 2014 and who we believe will shake loose from the pack and be the cream of the playoff crop in the Eastern Conference (the Western Conference list will drop Tuesday morning).

We’ve got the usual suspects and a surprise or two as well, listed in projected order of finish:

MIAMI HEAT

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The last time we saw the Heat, they were popping bottles in the locker room at AmericanAirlines Arena after winning their second straight Larry O’Brien trophy. Apparently Larry really does love Miami. They are the only franchise in the league capable of sitting out both the Draft and free agency and maintaining their position atop both the Eastern Conference and the league. Ray Allen sticking around for another year is certainly a good thing. But the most important thing for the Heat to accomplish during this offseason is to make sure LeBron James gets as much rest as possible, Dwyane Wade takes care of his knees and Chris Bosh brushes off all of the criticism he took last season and comes back ready to redeem himself for that pedestrian playoff performance. No one has done anything to put the Heat’s hold on the league in jeopardy. Team boss Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra will sort out the rotation and add and subtract the periphery pieces necessary to ensure the Heat start the season where they’ve finished each of the last two … on top!

INDIANA PACERS

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Larry Bird couldn’t stay away, not with the team he built so close to achieving the ultimate goal of bringing a championship to his basketball-made home state. Bird’s first order of business was to make sure Pacers’ locker room and emotional leader David West didn’t get away in free agency. West, Paul George and Roy Hibbert comprise one of the best inside-out trios in the league. Add in a healthy Danny Granger for the 2013-14 season, and the Pacers have every reason to believe that they will finally catch a Heat team that might be worn down from the grind of three straight Finals trips. Adding role players like C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland gives the Pacers an edge and shooting stroke in the backcourt and frontcourt they didn’t get from D.J. Augustin and Tyler Hansbrough. Whatever changes were made, the Pacers’ title hopes rest on what point guard George Hill and Granger (and, to a lesser extent, Lance Stephenson) can give them now that George has taken over as the All-Star face of the franchise. Anyone expecting him to take a backseat to a healthy Granger (or anyone else) is dreaming. George’s coming out party lasted the entire 2012-13 season, culminating in an eye-opening performance against James (in particular) and the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Expect it to keep going for years to come.

CHICAGO BULLS

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What looked like a lost season to some in Chicago was more of a revelation of what the Bulls are working with sans their best player, Derrick Rose. His absence from the court (well, for anything but the practices he was rumored to dominate) shined a light on a supporting cast that is far tougher than they’ve been given credit for in recent years. All-Star Joakim Noah‘s playoff effort, while battling injury himself, should not be overlooked. He’s moved up our list of quality big men, well into the top five and perhaps the top three. Having smoothed out the rough edges offensively, Noah became a two-way force to be reckoned with and an ideal inside counterpart for Rose. Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng (who needs to get healthy this summer as well) provide the sort of veteran leadership teams overspend for every summer. But Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has shown us that no matter what the parts look like, he will put a team on the floor capable of grinding with anyone in the league. What he’ll have in a ticked off Rose, who will carry all of the foul things said about him last season with him to the court every night, is a game changer that no other team in the East can match. No draftee or free-agent pick up this summer is better than adding the former MVP back to your mix.

BROOKLYN NETS

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The Nets have the stars lined up. From rookie coach Jason Kidd to a starting five — of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Pierce, Garnett and Brook Lopez — that looks as good or better than any starting five in basketball, at least on paper. Translating all of this from paper to the floor is where the Nets will run into the same issues that have plagued other franchises that have tried to fast track their way to a championship (the 2007-08 Celtics are the last team that rode the wave from summer construction to championship parade the next summer). The irony of this whole thing? The Nets were the team Howard named as his preferred destination when he forced his way out of Orlando. Had things gone the way he and Williams had planned, there would have been no need for all of the trades that have reshaped this seasoned and expensive starting five into the unit that it has become. The expectations for this crew will dwarf anything that Williams, Johnson and Lopez experienced in their inaugural season in Brooklyn. There was a tempered excitement with everything from the roster to the arena being so shiny and new.  There was hope that things would turn out well, but certainly no concrete expectation that a championship contender was on the immediate horizon. This time around, anything short of a spirited charge to the conference finals will be considered a colossal failure.

NEW YORK KNICKS

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If Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 overall pick by the Toronto Raptors in the 2006 Draft, has any chance of shedding that “bust” label that has plagued him throughout his NBA career, his pending stint with the Knicks might be his last chance to do so. His critics are probably chuckling at the idea of the big man thriving on a team with Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Amar’e Stoudemire. There are others, however, who feel that Bargnani has found the perfect fit for his skill set in coach Mike Woodson‘s system. “Listen, Andrea can play. He has a skill set that is undeniable,” said a former NBA coach of the Year. “You have to get over the fact that he’s not going to be Dirk [Nowitzki] or even Pau [Gasol], at his best, and realize that he’s a 7-footer that can shoot the cover off the ball. You put him in the right system, where he can play pick-and-pop and play his role, and he’s going to be dangerous.” The Knicks need dangerous and then some. They found that out in the playoffs, when it became clear that their hobbled group was not up to the task of dealing with a grimy Pacers crew that worked them over inside. The Knicks have likely fallen behind the Nets entering next season, but if Stoudemire is healthy and Anthony is refreshed, that could change quickly. The Knicks have the firepower to challenge for a top-three spot in the East.

WASHINGTON WIZARDS

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Stunner, right? The lowly Wizards hanging out in playoff territory isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. If you watched the Wizards down the stretch last season, or at least when both John Wall and Bradley Beal were healthy and rolling, you know why we’ve got the Wizards this high. Drafting Otto Porter Jr. with the No. 3 pick was a no-brainer for a team in need of swingman capable of playing alongside Wall and Beal. Porter provides the defense Wizards coach Randy Wittman and his staff seek and is capable of stretching the floor as a 3-point shooter with the size (6-foo-8) necessary to worry teams who focus solely on Wall and Beal. The Wizards also have the workman-like bigs (Emeka Okafor and Nene) that will handle all of the dirty work and allow this ultra-talented backcourt to play at a pace that suits them. Fleshing out their roster by retaining shooter Martell Webster, picking up backup point guard Eric Maynor and snagging Glen Rice Jr. in the second round of the Draft, the Wizards finally have a top-to-bottom type roster capable of making an impact any night.

ATLANTA HAWKS

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Paul Millsap. DeMarre Carroll. Kyle Korver. And maybe Monta Ellis? That’s not exactly the kind of superstar haul Hawks fans were expecting when the franchise made it clear that they were going to put that $34 million-$40 million in cap space to good use by chasing Howard and Chris Paul. Those dreams were dashed immediately. Howard gave the Hawks a courtesy meeting when he knew all along that there was absolutely no chance he was coming back home to chase rings. And the minute Doc Rivers went to the Clippers, the dream of making up for passing over Paul in the 2005 Draft (for Marvin Williams) was dashed. Still, the Hawks should have a nucleus of the aforementioned players added to Al Horford, Lou Williams and John Jenkins, a group capable of securing one of the final three playoff slots in a top-heavy Eastern Conference. New coach Mike Budenholzer will have his work cut out for him with a mismatched roster that Horford will have to anchor from the center position he was hoping to escape with the addition of a quality center in free agency (Andrew Bynum and restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic are still out there …). And there is till an unsettled point guard position to deal with. Restricted free-agent point guard Jeff Teague is rumored to be the target of the Milwaukee Bucks, who have a restricted free agent of their own in Brandon Jennings that might interest the Hawks. The franchise has a string of six straight playoff appearances going right now. They should have the necessary parts to make it seven straight.

DETROIT PISTONS

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The addition of Josh Smith, for four years and $56 million in free agency, does not put the Pistons into the playoff picture. Not by itself. But there is a void this crew can possibly fill for that No. 8 spot in the East. Adding Smith to a maturing frontcourt that includes Greg Monroe, rugged young monster Andre Drummond, rotation players Kyle Singler and Jonas Jerebko and second-rounder Tony Mitchell gives the Pistons the size, depth and versatility that screams playoffs. Adding an athletic specimen like Kentavius Caldwell-Pope, the No. 8 pick in the Draft, to pair with point guard Brandon Knight and it’s clear that the Pistons are working with resources that should finally get them out of the lottery mix.  Perhaps the most important thing for the Pistons was the hiring of Mo Cheeks as their coach. He replaces Lawrence Frank, now the top assistant in Brooklyn under Kidd, who never could find the right connection with his young crew. Cheeks is coming into this situation having helped nurture an extremely talented and hard-working group of young stars in Oklahoma City. Expect him to have a clearly defined plan for all of these guys to improve their individual games. Cheeks and Pistons general manager Joe Dumars also have the ear and respect of Smith. They are the ones who swayed him during the recruiting process. If he plays the way they think he can, this should be a breakout season for the Pistons.

JUST MISSED THE CUT: Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors

Planning The 2014 Parade Route

HANG TIME, Texas — Horns will be honking, confetti will be falling, fans will be wildly celebrating the championship season.

No, it’s never too soon to look at where the victory parade might roll in 2014.

Not so fast, Knicks. Last season was your best shot. The Clippers finally landed Doc Rivers, but without the rest of the makeover that Kevin Garnett provides, the Clips are still a Lob City sideshow.

The smarter-than-everybody front office booted the best coach in franchise history, so that takes the Grizzlies a step back. The Warriors are so much fun, but the fragile state of Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut will again be a concern.

Can we really talk about the Lakers with Kobe Bryant rehabbing his Achilles’ and Dwight Howard with his head in the clouds?

So let’s take a peek at the six most likely teams to be dancing next June.

Miami Heat

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Oh, there will be a summer of hand-wringing and debating about what to do to improve a team that’s won two consecutive titles and played in three straight NBA Finals. All this from people who would probably stand inside the Sistine Chapel and complain about Michelangelo’s brush strokes. Chris Bosh will be left out to dry more than a discarded bikini top on South Beach.

Then the regular season will begin, the Heat will eventually lose a game and the sky will fall again. Lose two in a row and there will be an all-out panic. Dwyane Wade will be sized up for a wheelchair to roll down Collins Avenue with the rest of the senior citizens. Even a 28-game winning streak won’t stop the fretting. Never mind that LeBron James will likely be on his way to a fifth MVP award.

But after all they’ve been through, all they’ve survived, all they’ve proven about themselves over the past two years, do we really doubt that the Heat can raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy again?

San Antonio Spurs

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Go ahead, doubt them, disparage them, write them off as being too old and injury-prone. Again.

For all of the stumbling and bumbling around the court done by Manu Ginobili for most of The Finals, there was the overlooked and under-appreciated work done by Kawhi Leonard. At 21, he was a slashing force to the basket and a capable 3-point shooter, as well as a willing rebounder and the man who shouldered the defensive burden through every round of the playoffs. Maybe he is the future face of the franchise.

Yet there is no reason to think that a recommitted and fit Tim Duncan can’t hit the high notes again and Tony Parker can’t lead the offense again. After pushing the Heat to the seven-game limit — and coming within 5.2 seconds in Game 6 of winning the series — a fit Spurs team next spring remains Miami’s toughest challenge in The Finals. (more…)

Miami’s Most Important Player? It’s Bosh



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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – LeBron James spent the better part of the past four days making headlines for “flopping”, according to Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. Dwyane Wayne‘s curious wardrobe choices are more interesting than anything he’s contributing on the court right now, what with that nagging bone bruise in his right knee slowing him down.

And then there’s Chris Bosh, the man who Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra insists has been his team’s most important player for quite some time. Yeah, Spoelstra’s right. Bosh might not look like the stand-alone star he was in Toronto, but he has become the Heat’s X-factor. His nightly performance often pushes them over the top and allows the Heat to “play our game,” as the coach explained earlier in this postseason when he was trying to describe Bosh’s role in Miami.

LeBron is a machine who gives the Heat everything you’d expect a four-time MVP to give in the playoffs. And no one is suggesting that Bosh is challenging LeBron as the Heat’s most valuable player. But Bosh’s steady presence at his position is what  unlocks the box for the Heat, who need to be able to spread the floor and attack to play at their best. He’s made Bulls forward Carlos Boozer the invisible man in a battle that is as one-sided as the Heat’s 3-1 series lead.

Bosh struggled in the series opener, finishing with just nine points and six rebounds as the Bulls shocked them at AmericanAirlines Arena. Since then, he’s schooled the Bulls routinely. He dropped 13 points, five rebounds and three assists in that Game 2 blowout win, 20 points, 19 boards, four assists and two blocks in that grimy Game 3 win at the United Center and another 14 points, six rebounds and four blocks in Monday night’s Game 4 rout.

Even more impressive than the numbers, though, is Bosh’s presence and the way he has stressed the Bulls. Wade has been a shell of himself in this series, which would provide an opening for teams good enough to still be participating in the playoffs. But not when Bosh is the threat he has been in this series.

Wade has been a warrior and should be lauded for the adjustments (in his ego and in his game) he’s made to accommodate both James and Bosh since they joined forces in Miami. But at this stage of their careers, you could make an argument that Bosh is more important to the Heat’s bottom line than is the beloved Wade. The Heat don’t get past the Bulls without Bosh playing at a high level in support of LeBron.

And it’s clear a single superstar will not be leading his team to a championship anytime soon. Just ask LeBron, who learned that the hard way in Cleveland, or better yet, Kevin Durant.

All that brings me back to that little stir Bosh created earlier this season when he told Fox Sports Florida that already a lock for the Hall of Fame.

“Hell, yeah, of course. I’ve been a Hall of Famer like four years ago,” he said. “And I say that very serious, though. I’ve talked about it before with my friends.”

I’ve talked it over with a few of my friends as well, and, to a man, they disagree with Bosh. They still have a hard time seeing him as a true Hall of Famer. But I’ve come around to Bosh’s side over the last two seasons. I remember the Heat wobbling last year while he was injured in the playoffs and the boost both he and Wade provided when they got healthy and helped the Heat put away the Oklahoma City Thunder in The Finals.

The Hall of Fame isn’t a far-fetched notion for a player with Bosh’s credentials: career averages of 20 points and nine rebounds, eight All-Star nominations (and counting) and who knows how many championship rings he ends up with during this run with the Heat.

Playing Hard Simply Not Enough For Robinson, Bulls Against Heat

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CHICAGO – Nate Robinson unwrapped yards of elastic bandages from around his left shoulder, the bandages finally revealing and releasing a large ice bag on his left shoulder. Robinson had taken a hit from Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole or one of the other Miami Heat players who landed on top of him as if — like Robinson’s Chicago Bulls teammates — he might ride the tough little point guard through what was left of this series.

Robinson winced then and he winced now, nearly an hour after Chicago’s 88-65 loss in Game 4 Monday night at United Center. There were all sorts of miserable franchise playoff records set by the Bulls’ discombobulated offense — fewest points in a game, fewest in a quarter (nine in the third), lowest shooting percentage (25.7 percent) … sputter, gasp, fizzle. Robinson himself was a hot mess: an 0-for-12 night, including 0-for-5 from 3-point range. He had four turnovers to go with four assists, never got to the foul line and played 32:04 without scoring.

The instant-offense backup Chicago had turned to so many times this season and particularly this postseason was, this time, the battery in need of a jump start. No one else had the spark, either, so as their Energizer bunny ran down, so did everything the Bulls hoped to accomplish offensively.

You hold a team to 88 points — 34 in the second half — you ought to be able to win a playoff game. The Bulls never got close. They trail 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, with Game 5 Wednesday night in Miami.

Robinson, the crush of cameras and reporters finally gone, his sore shoulder finally freed, wadded up the elastic bandages and from the chair in front of his dressing stall, fired them hard to the floor. Well, at least he hit that. He dropped his head into one hand and kept it down for a while.

“Couldn’t make shots,” Robinson said. “You go out there and try to execute, you try to shoot shots that you make every day — every day — and it doesn’t fall, it takes a toll on you. Then you don’t want to feel like you’re hurting the team by shooting the ball, and that goes not just for me, I could see it on other guys’ faces.”

The Bulls trailed 11-2 in the first five minutes. They fell behind by 10 early in the second quarter and then, in the third, the bottom dropped out. They took 13 shots and missed 11. Robinson went 0-for-6. The nine points they did score stirred ugly echoes of their 10-point quarter against Miami in a 2011 East finals game that didn’t go well either.

By the end, their half of the stats sheet was whack-a-doodle: Twelve assists, 17 turnovers, 19 field goals. Miami had nine steals, blocked nine shots and contested or cut down angles on just about everything else. And the focal point of it all was Robinson, who got the sort of treatment normally reserved for Derrick Rose. (more…)

Nets Have Much On The Line In Game 7

BROOKLYN – After a brutal loss in Game 4 of their first-round series with the Chicago Bulls, the Brooklyn Nets have fought their way back and earned a Game 7 on their home floor on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, TNT).

Game 7s are always huge for both teams, but these 48 minutes will absolutely define the Nets’ season. It will be the difference between accomplishment and disappointment.

The guys Tom Thibodeau puts on the floor will fight for every possession, but the Bulls basically punted this season with the moves they made (or didn’t make) last summer. Their star player hasn’t played a single minute and four more key players are far less than 100 percent. If they lose, we understand that they were undermanned and they retool for next season. They’ve already established a culture of defense, toughness and resilience, which will be there as long as Thibodeau is on the bench.

The Nets, however, haven’t established anything other than a willingness to spend money. There’s a lot of culture outside the Barclays Center, but not necessarily in the locker room.

But if the Nets win Game 7, they’ve at least established themselves as a top-four team in the Eastern Conference and put themselves in a conference semifinals matchup with the juggernaut Miami Heat, where no one will expect them to win more than a game. They will have proven that they too have some resilience, becoming only the ninth team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit.

If the Nets lose, what are they? They’re a team that didn’t come close to making the most of their talent and lost to a depleted team held together by gauze tape.

Derrick Rose and Luol Deng are not playing. Kirk Hinrich probably isn’t playing either. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are banged up and Nate Robinson was throwing up on the bench on Thursday. No, the Nets aren’t 100 percent, but their issues are nothing compared to those of Chicago’s M.A.S.H unit.

So Game 7 is truly a referendum on all things Nets. Here’s who has a lot on the line Saturday:

Billy King: The Nets general manager got his contract extension, but still has a lot of work to do if he wants to turn this team into a true contender. Brooklyn was the league’s most improved team this season, because King spent a lot of Mikhail Prokhorov‘s money.

But $139 million of that money is going to Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson, who are both on the wrong side of 30 and who both had disappointing seasons. There’s spending money, and there’s spending money wisely.

A playoff victory doesn’t necessarily validate the trades that brought Johnson and Wallace here, but the Nets aren’t necessarily done putting this team together either. A series win is something to build on and maybe something to help convince veteran free agents (and/or a great coach) that this is the place to be.

The Nets’ defense: The Bulls are a pretty bad offensive team. They ranked 24th on that end of the floor in the regular season, and that was with some of their players healthier than they are now. But they’ve been able to hang with the Nets in this series, in part because the Brooklyn defense has been rather porous, especially when trying to stop Chicago’s pick-and-roll attack.

Chicago basically has two guys who can beat you: Carlos Boozer and Robinson. And Robinson is just as likely to shoot the Bulls out of a game as he is to shoot them into one. If the Nets can’t stop these guys, they’ve got a lot of ‘splaining to do.

Deron Williams: Williams has silenced his critics, playing much better over the last 2 1/2 months and making it clear that his early-season struggles were injury-related. But if he’s truly back to being an elite point guard, he has to prove it on Saturday. He has got to be aggressive offensively, get his team to move the ball, and put it on himself to stay in front of Robinson defensively.

Talent has never been a question with Williams. Leadership, however, has. To win a Game 7 against a resilient opponent, the Nets will need a leader on the floor.

Brook Lopez: Returning from two foot injuries suffered last season, Lopez has established himself as an All-Star and the best offensive center in the league. Just as important, he has taken a step forward defensively.

Lopez has been the best player in this series, but has struggled in the second half of some of these games. He has shot 8-for-24 in the third quarter, in which the Nets have struggled most of the series (and most of the season too).

In fact, in the second half of 10 total games against the Bulls this season, Lopez has shot just 28-for-70 (40 percent). The final regular season meeting ended with Lopez turning the ball over, getting blocked by Nazr Mohammed, and missing a jumper to tie at the buzzer, allowing the Bulls to escape with a two-point victory.

It’s one thing to be an All-Star. It’s another to be a guy your team can count on to get you big buckets in a do-or-die situation. And even before we get to the closing moments of Game 7, Lopez’s pick-and-roll defense will also be in the spotlight.

P.J. Carlesimo: It seems like a foregone conclusion that the Nets’ interim coach won’t be asked to return this summer, and he probably won’t receive much credit if the Nets win this series. But he’ll clearly get much of the blame if they lose, because it’s supposed to be the coach’s job to make the most of his team’s talent.

This team hasn’t done that. The offense has been inconsistent and the defense has been mediocre, at best. Reserves MarShon Brooks and Mirza Teletovic, who could possibly have contributed more (and helped space the floor), failed to develop.

Carlesimo wasn’t put in an easy position, of course. He was handed a team that had lost 10 of its last 13 games in late December. He deserves credit for righting the ship and getting the Nets’ best players playing better. That probably won’t save his job though.

In this series, Carlesimo has been slow to adjust. His starting lineup has struggled offensively, but has played the most minutes (119) of any lineup in the postseason (no other Nets lineup has played more than 13 minutes). He has navigated his team through two elimination-game victories, but has one more to go and can’t let a bad lineup stay on the floor for too long.

Time For The Nets To Show Resolve

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The Brooklyn Nets aren’t going to out-tough the Chicago Bulls. No team can do that.

Led by Tom Thibodeau, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, the Bulls are certainly the most resilient team in the league, Exhibit A being Saturday’s comeback from 14 points down with three minutes to go in regulation and the ability to outlast the Nets in three overtimes with Noah, Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson having fouled out.

“That’s been the nature of the team all season,” Thibodeau said Sunday. “They’ll keep battling. Things weren’t going our way, but there was no give-in. They just kept going.”

Now, it’s not like the Nets are pushovers. It takes a certain amount of toughness to build a 14-point lead in a hostile environment when you’re down 2-1 in the series. And the Nets managed to bounce back from blowing that 14-point lead to make some (just not enough) big plays down the stretch. Really, if just one of those crazy Robinson shots didn’t go in, this series would be tied 2-2.

It’s not though. And the Nets are now faced with the challenge of having to win three straight games. If they can’t, we can certainly declare their season a disappointment.

So Brooklyn will have to show more of its own resilience in Game 5 on Monday (7 p.m. ET, TNT). Playing well in the face of elimination is a mental thing, especially in the wake of such a heartbreaking loss.

But the Nets shouldn’t lack confidence going forward. They have put up big numbers against the staunch Chicago defense twice in the series thus far. And though they’re 2-6 against the Bulls this season, they’ve been outscored by just 12 total points over the eight games.

“I don’t think it’s difficult for our guys to feel that they’re capable of doing this,” Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo said. “I think that they feel we can beat the Bulls. Have we done it? No, we haven’t done it enough. But they know that we can do it.”

The Nets have seemingly been a team without character all season. They’re to be praised for taking care of business against bad teams (they were 35-7 against teams that finished below .500) and for compiling the league’s fifth-best road record (23-18). But they’re to be questioned for their 14-26 mark against winning teams and their defense, which wavered ranged from poor to mediocre most of the season.

Maybe that’s just who the Nets are, a good team that can’t hang when the going gets tough. Or maybe they haven’t shown us everything they have.

If the Nets are to show some resolve on Monday, it must manifest itself in execution as much as energy. They can continue to beat the Bulls’ defense if they get into their offense early, keep their stars – Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez — on the move, and knock down some shots. The absence of Kirk Hinrich — out with a calf injury — should benefit Williams on the perimeter.

Defensively, the Nets need to cut off Robinson in the pick-and-roll and put more pressure on Carlos Boozer at the high post. No other Chicago player has really been able to hurt them and the Bulls have been somewhat fortunate in that they’ve shot so well (54 percent) from mid-range. That number is not sustainable, especially if Brooklyn does a slightly better job of challenging those shots.

It’s all right there for the Nets. Chicago is certainly the tougher team, but not necessarily the better team. Down 3-1, proving that will be difficult, but nothing worthwhile comes easily.

It starts with Game 5.

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Hinrich’s absence (is status beyond Game 5 is unknown) could be a real killer for the Bulls. Here are some numbers that don’t paint a pretty picture for Chicago…