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Morning shootaround — Aug. 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Okafor hoping to re-enter NBA this season | How good can Saric be? | USA ready for stiff challenge in next game

No. 1: Okafor seeks NBA comeback — Just 10 or so years ago, Emeka Okafor was a former Rookie of the Year winner and one of the promising young big men in the NBA. Fast-forward to today and Okafor has been out of the NBA for three seasons and last played in an NBA game on April 12, 2012 as a member of the Washington Wizards. A herniated disc in his back has kept Okafor from playing in a game since that date, but in an interview with ESPN.com’s Jackie MacMullan, Okafor is working toward a return to the league:

Emeka Okafor, the former No. 2 overall pick who has been out of the NBA for three seasons, has decided to attempt a comeback with an eye toward joining a “contending team” in December or January.

Okafor’s agent, Jeff Schwartz, confirmed that Okafor, who last played for the Washington Wizards in 2012-13 before suffering a herniated disc in his neck, is in the gym training and working on his conditioning.

“He’s probably five or six months away,” Schwartz said. “He’s been working hard rehabbing. For some guys that means one thing. To Emeka, who understands his body as well or better than some trainers that have worked with him, it means something else. He’s healthy. He feels great, but he’s a perfectionist, and he wants everything to be right.”

Okafor, who had back surgery in college, struggled with neck pain, and when doctors discovered he had herniated the C4 cervical disc, the injury forced him to step away from the game. In October 2013, Okafor and his expiring $14.5 million contract were dealt to Phoenix in a five-player swap that netted the Wizards center Marcin Gortat. Okafor never played a game for the Suns.

His best years were with the Charlotte Bobcats, the team that drafted him as the second pick after Dwight Howard in the 2004 draft. Okafor averaged 15.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks as a rookie and posted double-double averages in all five of his seasons in Charlotte.

Retired University of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said he spoke with Okafor last week. According to Calhoun, his former player, who helped UConn win a national championship in 2004 (while leading the nation in blocks), is “really excited about getting back.”

“He’s in great shape,” Calhoun said. “He had offers last season from teams for $6-7 million to play just a portion of the season, but you have to know Emeka. He’s only coming back when he feels the time is right.

“He’s not going to make a decision based on money. He doesn’t need it. This is a kid who graduated with a 3.9 GPA. He wants to play a couple more years then go to business school at Harvard. He’s only going to play for a contending team.”

Warriors general manager Bob Myers, whose club lost big men Andrew BogutFestus Ezeli and Marreese Speights in the purge to make room for free agent Kevin Durant, said he had “a conversation” with Okafor a couple of months ago and will monitor the big man’s progress.

In the meantime, the Warriors have signed veterans David West and Zaza Pachulia to fill the void.

“We have 14 players right now, but you learn every year that someone you didn’t expect to be available becomes an option,” Myers said. “Ideally, you try to have the flexibility to keep a spot open in case that happens.”

The biggest hurdle for Okafor will be to prove to teams he’s both healthy and durable. Aside from his back and neck injuries, Okafor missed a chunk of 2005-06 with an ankle injury and part of 2011-12 with a knee injury.

San Antonio lost center Tim Duncan to retirement after 19 seasons and is likely in the market for big man insurance, but general manager R.C. Buford stopped short of expressing interest in Okafor.

“We always pay attention to whatever is out there,” Buford said. “But Emeka is three years removed from a time when his body was letting him down.

“It’s just hard to get enough information to evaluate a player like that, who won’t be in training camp, who hasn’t had game action for a prolonged period of time.”

Calhoun said the long layoff has not only rejuvenated Okafor physically, but also mentally.

“He misses the game,” Calhoun said. “Hey, he’s 6-10 and was a double-double guy in the NBA. He’s also the greatest guy you can find in the locker room. He’ll have plenty of teams lining up to talk to him.”

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No. 2:

How will Saric’s game translate to NBA? — In NBA lore, the list of players from Croatia who have had success in the league includes former standout players such as Toni Kukoc, Peja Stojakovic, Dino Radja and Hall of Famer Drazen Petrovic. The Philadelphia 76ers are hoping they have one of the next players in line in that lore in rookie forward Dario Saric. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe is covering the Olympics and reported on how Saric’s abilities might work in the NBA:

As Pau Gasol reared up to launch the hook shot NBA fans have seen many times, it seemed a cinch he would loft it into the basket and force overtime between Spain and Croatia.

Suddenly, under the rim, a tall man launched himself, raising his right hand to meet the ball at the apex and swat it away. Dario Saric’s block of Gasol’s layup in the final second secured a 72-70 upset win for the Croatians and let the rest of the basketball world know what his homefolks already do.

Saric is headed to the Philadelphia 76ers this fall, and for the first 39-plus minutes Sunday at Carioca Arena he looked as if his transition to the highest level would be difficult. Yet, that block secured a momentum-boosting win for Croatia and perhaps answered some questions about the guile of the 22-year-old, 6-foot-9-inch power forward after being a draft-and-stash for the past two years.

Saric spent two years with his Turkish team after he was drafted 12th overall by Orlando and then acquired in a draft-night trade by the 76ers in June 2014. He took that trip to New York for the draft two years ago, participated in all the activities with the fellow lottery picks — including the Celtics’ Marcus Smart — and walked the stage to shake hands with commissioner Adam Silver, knowing full well he was headed back overseas.

The Croatian signed a two-year deal with Anadolu Efes in Turkey, finally agreeing to opt out of his deal and join the 76ers for next season.

And the pressure is coming from all sides. Philadelphia fans, after years of putrid play in former general manager Sam Hinkie’s “Trust the Process” philosophy that resulted in 47 wins in the past three seasons, want Saric to become an impact player. In Croatia, there also is pressure from his countrymen and the media to become the next Drazen Petrovic or Toni Kukoc.

“Maybe you guys are not aware,” Croatian guard Roko Ukic said. “But whoever comes from our country to the NBA is like our next big thing [in Croatia], so much pressure from the media and for us, if we are like sixth in the Olympic Games, it’s not great. It’s pressure for those kinds of kids [like Saric], so this kind of game can give him a push in the back for his career.”

In a key sequence late in the fourth quarter with the Croatians trailing by 1 point, Saric used his ball-handling skills to get to the basket, only to be tied up by Spain’s Felipe Reyes and Croatia lost the possession.

Until the final seconds, Saric appeared to be another European product not quite ready for the rigors of the NBA. And then that final play happened, and his international image soared.

“This last play from Saric, that’s like a picture of our team,” Ukic said. “Everybody thinks he needs to get the medal by himself. It’s not easy to play the first time in Olympic Games and things didn’t go well for him offensively, but the effort he made and saved the day with the last block, that shows character.”

Croatia is seeking to return to respectability. They did not qualify for the 2012 London Games and finished 10th in the FIBA World Cup in 2014. They needed three consecutive wins, including in the FIBA qualifying tournament final against host Italy, to clinch an Olympic berth.

So his comrades are accustomed to such clutch plays from Saric, and that block against a six-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion perhaps catapulted Croatia to the favorite in Group B.

“He has no fear of anything,” Croatian coach Aleksandar Petrovic said. “[Sunday] he just wasn’t able to gain offensive rhythm, but he’s a guy who brings us a lot of different [things] so he maybe misses five shots but he [does] so many little things that makes my team better. I’m not afraid at all [that he won’t play well], not here, not in the future with his NBA team in Philadelphia.”

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No. 3: True test lies ahead for Team USA on Wednesday — The U.S. men’s national team is 2-0 in their first two games in the Rio Olympics, having won both of those games by a combined 101 points. Those victories combined with how the team looked in its exhibition slate has left many wondering just how good the team is given the gap in talent and ability between it and its opponents. That will change in USA’s next game as it faces a solid Australia team, writes our John Schuhmann who is on hand for the Olympics:

The U.S. plays its final three pool play games against Australia, Serbia and France. And suddenly, Wednesday’s opponent looks like it will be the Americans’ toughest test in pool play … and maybe in the entire tournament.

Before the last few days, you might have overlooked Australia as a medal contender because it only had to outscore New Zealand in a two-game series last summer to qualify for the Olympics. Other teams, especially those in Europe, had a much tougher route. And before action tipped off on Saturday, the next tier of teams behind the United States appeared to be France, Lithuania, Serbia and Spain. In fact, Australia was below those three teams, Argentina and Brazil in the latest FIBA rankings.

But Australia has begun the tournament by beating two of Europe’s top four. It opened with an easy win over France on Saturday and followed that up by outlasting Serbia on Monday afternoon. Australia doesn’t just have six more NBA players than the Americans have faced in their first two games (zero), it’s been playing the best of any team not wearing “USA” on its chests. And there should be no intimidation factor on Wednesday.

“It’s the ultimate test,” Australia’s Andrew Bogut said. “They’re the best team in the world, best players in the world. I think if we go out there with the mindset that we can compete with them, win or lose, we will be happy with that. If we go out there and we’re intimidated by them, try to get our shoes signed before the game, and a signed jersey, we won’t win with that mindset.”

Australia will have two ball-handlers — Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills — who run the pick-and-roll better than anybody the U.S. has faced in its five exhibition games or its two games in Rio. Mills (47 points in two games) has been Australia’s leading scorer, while Dellavedova has tallied 23 assists and just one turnover in the two wins. They’re bench guys in the NBA, but they’ll still test a defense that has only been together for three weeks.

“Delly’s ability to read defensive coverage and systems over the course of games,” Australia coach Andrej Lemanis said, “is really, really impressive.”

“Offensively, we started to understand what was required in order for us to put some heat on the rim and find different ways to exploit their defensive schemes,” Lemanis said. “We got some really smart players and over the course of the game, they figure out what are the best offensive opportunities for us.”

Though he usually focuses on one opponent at a time, USA coach Mike Krzyzewski has clearly been paying attention to what Australia has done so far. In talking about Dellavedova and Bogut, “two of the better passers in the tournament,” Krzyzewski said that they have “maybe 35 assists” and “four or five turnovers.” He almost nailed it, as the pair have combined for 34 assists and only four turnovers. The preparation for this particular opponent started early.

The U.S. beat Australia in the quarterfinals of each of the last two Olympics, winning by 31 points in Beijing and by 33 in London. But this will be the best Australia team the Americans have ever faced.

Australia has already put itself in position to finish second in Group A and be placed on the opposite side of the Americans in the elimination-round bracket. After Wednesday’s game against the U.S., it will complete pool play with games against China and Venezuela.

It’s playing its best basketball at the right time, both to compete for an Olympic medal, but also to give the Americans a much tougher challenge than they’ve faced thus far.

“They can beat us,” Krzyzewski said. “We know that, and we’ll prepare accordingly.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Rudy Gay is reportedly interested in being traded to the Miami Heat … Philadelphia 76ers rookie Ben Simmons could end up taking on some point guard duties next season … LeBron James has his own locker in Ohio State’s locker room … Former Sacramento Kings forward Kenny Thomas is opening a new restaurant near the Kings’ new Golden 1 Center … Former Utah Jazz big man Kyrylo Fesenko may be nearing a deal with an Italian league team … The Oklahoma City Thunder may have Ronnie Price on their radar

Morning shootaround — March 17


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 12

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Thompson hobbled after win | Blatt: Cavs ‘got to’ finish No. 2 in East | Nuggets unhappy about resting top players | ‘Crash’ pondering retirement?

No. 1: Thompson hobbled after win vs. Lakers — Golden State’s dream season continued last night with a win over the Los Angeles Lakers that, coupled with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s loss, let the Warriors become the first team in the West to clinch a playoff spot. Despite the positive vibes in Oracle Arena after the win, though, there was some news to possibly monitor. According to Monte Poole of CSNBayArea.com, Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson had a noticeable limp after the game:

It’s not unusual for Klay Thompson to be slow peeling off his jersey before heading into the shower. What was unusual Monday night was his gait once he got moving.

Thompson was limping. And it was a very, very obvious hobble.

The Warriors issued no update late Monday night, but Thompson left the game in the third quarter of a 108-105 win over the Lakers, retreating to the locker room to have his right ankle re-taped.

Though he returned in the fourth quarter, scoring 5 points in the final 4:31, he still was in pain after peeling off the tape. His status for Wednesday’s showdown with the Atlanta Hawks is uncertain, pending closer examination.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr, in his postgame news conference, said he didn’t think Thompson had sustained a serious injury.

“I don’t think it’s bad,” Kerr said, “but we’ll see what JoHan (Wang, the head athletic trainer) says.”

 


VIDEO: Golden State tops the Lakers to clinch a playoff berth

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Pacers could take advantage of rough Eastern Conference


VIDEO: Recap: Rodney Stuckey scores 22 points as the Pacers defeat the Knicks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — In the Western Conference, the Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder are fighting for the final playoff spot. And, unless the Dallas Mavericks continue to slide, two of those teams will miss the postseason.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, we’re going to have two playoff teams out of a group that includes …

  • The 20-25 Miami Heat, who are missing Dwyane Wade for the next 2-3 weeks.
  • The 19-27 Charlotte Hornets, who have the league’s worst offense outside of Philadelphia and are without Kemba Walker until at least mid-March.
  • The 18-27 Brooklyn Nets, who are looking to trade their three highest paid players and are 3-17 against teams currently over .500.
  • The 16-28 Boston Celtics, who have already traded two of their three highest paid players and just lost to the 8-37 Minnesota Timberwolves.
  • The 17-30 Detroit Pistons, who are 0-3 with a 20-point loss to the Sixers since losing Brandon Jennings for the season.
  • The 17-31 Indiana Pacers, who rank 28th offensively and are 2-8 in their last 10 games, with losses to the Sixers, Wolves, and Hornets.

Oof.

The good thing about the East is that there’s some fresh blood at the top. The top six teams in the standings won a total of one playoff series last year, so we’re going to have a lot of new faces in the conference semifinals.

But who will take those last two playoff spots? The numbers could help us with the forecast.

First, with apologies to Bill Parcells, let’s accept the notion that the standings don’t tell us everything about how well or how poorly a team has played.

Point differential is a better predictor of future success than wins and losses. And there’s a formula to calculate how many wins a team should have (“expected wins”) based on their point differential. That formula says that both the Pacers and Celtics should have about three more wins than they do.

20150130_expected_wins

Indiana has a better NetRtg (point differential per 100 possessions) than Brooklyn, but is 2 1/2 games behind the Nets in the standings, in part because the Pacers are 11-18 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, and the Nets are 11-11.

The Celtics, meanwhile, have the eighth best NetRtg in the East (just a hair behind the Heat), but are 8-16 in close games.

Among the group of teams listed above, the Pistons, Heat and Hornets have played the toughest schedule thus far. But the Celtics aren’t fare behind. And going forward, the schedule favors the Pacers.

Indiana actually has more games remaining vs. teams that are currently at or above .500 than vs. teams that are below. But they have six more home games than road games and have 13 games left against teams that are playing the second night of a back-to-back.

When you adjust for those situations, the Pacers have the easiest schedule of the six teams that have between 17 and 20 wins in the East …

20150130_future_sched

Of course, the Pacers are just 9-12 at home and just 4-7 against teams on the second night of back-to-back. As noted above, they’ve lost to both the Wolves and Sixers this month.

But when you take into account some bad luck in close games and a favorable future schedule, they have a decent chance of moving up from 12th to seventh or eighth.

First Team: ‘Bron still after one award

In this five-part series, I’ll take a look at the best games from last season’s All-NBA first team. The metric I’ve used to figure out the best games is more art than formula, using “production under pressure” as the heuristic for selection. For example, volume scoring in a close game against a stout team on the road gets more weight than volume scoring against the Bucks at home in a blowout. Big games matter. Big clutch games matter more.

Despite being hailed as a stellar defender, LeBron has yet to nab a coveted Defensive Player of the Year award.

Despite being hailed as a stellar defender, LeBron James has yet to nab a coveted Defensive Player of the Year nod.

Many will remember the 2013-14 season for what LeBron James didn’t accomplish.

No third straight MVP. No third straight championship. No Defensive Player of the Year award. No … well, that’s about it. When you’ve turned the NBA upside down over the past 11 years, your list of failures is short.

Last season, ‘Bron scored 27 points per game on 57 percent from the field. What gives for the outlandish accuracy? He has mastered the drive. He can certainly shoot it, but his dominance is due to his pronounced ability to control the area closest to the rim. It’s the same strategy his transcendent high-flying predecessors — Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan — adopted.

The other side of the ball holds his lingering individual motivation. James has made no secret about his desire to capture the top defensive award. After famously shedding serious weight this offseason, he promises to be quicker and more agile and disruptive than ever.

A Defensive Player of the Year award may come to Cleveland, although the franchise would gladly accept a championship first.

Here are his top games last season:

November 15, 2013 — Torching The Old Nemesis

The Line: 39 points on 14-for-18 shooting

The Quote:If I get 37 shots in a game, I’m going to put up 60. Easy.” — James


VIDEO: LeBron James runs wild on the Mavericks for 39 points

Earlier in the week, Rudy Gay set an NBA record with 37 field goal attempts. On this night, LeBron shot about half that number for 10 more points.

Drifting jumpers, quick dribble-drives, long 2s … in short, James had the full repertoire working. The Mavs elected to follow the Spurs’ 2013 Finals strategy of not double teaming, but contesting every perimeter shot he took. In other words, Shawn Marion, Jae Crowder and Monta Ellis were on their own.

A one-legged Dirkian fadeaway by James with a little over two minutes left gave the Heat the cushion needed to put Dallas away. (more…)

Heat defense still a question


VIDEO: The Starters: Heat’s journey to Finals

SAN ANTONIO — It’s the difference between a team that has done enough to get by and a team that will win a third straight championship.

Defense is the big variable for the Miami Heat and has been all season. It comes and goes. And whether they win or lose, defense is usually the reason why.

The Heat’s fourth season with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was their worst of the four on the defensive end of the floor. After ranking in the top seven in defensive efficiency each of the last three years (and in the season before James and Bosh arrived), they ranked 11th in 2013-14, allowing 102.9 points per 100 possessions.

The highest the Heat defense ranked in any month was seventh, and that was in November. They finished with the second best record in the Eastern Conference and knew that they could get a playoff win on the road when needed, but for most of the year, they did just enough to get by.

They held the Charlotte Bobcats under their regular season offensive numbers in a first round sweep. But Charlotte’s offensive threats consisted of Kemba Walker and a hobbled Al Jefferson.

The Brooklyn Nets had more guys who could score, and after taking a 2-0 series lead, the Heat didn’t do much to stop them, allowing the Nets to score more than 114 points per 100 possessions over the final three games of the series. But they took care of business with offensive execution and big fourth quarters in Games 4 and 5. Again, they were doing just enough to get by.

Then, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, they played one of the worst defensive games we have ever seen them play. In the first game of the series, there was little incentive for the Heat to bring their best. They had three more chances to get the road win they needed and their lack of urgency was clear.

“I don’t know if we’ve been that poor,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said the next day, “certainly in the way we’ve graded it, since we put this team together. Across the board, that was about as poor as we’ve played defensively. And all aspects of it. It was the ball pressure. It was the commitment on the ball. It was the weak side. It was finishing possessions. It was doing it without fouling. It has to be much better, a much more committed effort, across the board.”

LeBron struggles on defense

At the center of a lot of the breakdowns was James, who couldn’t handle the obligations of defending one of Indiana’s big men. His pick-and-roll defense was poor, he got beat back-door more than once, and he even got bullied under the basket by Lance Stephenson.

A year ago, James was upset about finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. But if he wanted to win the award this season, he didn’t show it. He had what was clearly his worst defensive season since before he was ever an MVP.

Maybe the absence of Wade for 28 games put more of a burden on James offensively. Maybe three straight trips to The Finals had taken their toll. Or maybe he wasn’t in peak shape at the start of the season. Whatever the reason, the Heat’s defensive regression started with their best player.

Things got better after Game 1 in Indiana. James went back to defending perimeter players (sometimes the Indiana point guards), Rashard Lewis took on the West assignment, and the effort all around was more consistent. The Heat got the road win they needed by getting stops in the second and fourth quarters of Game 2. It wasn’t a complete game, but again, it was enough. (more…)

Morning Shootaround — April 29



VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played April 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers, Vogel ponder lineup changes | Heat soak in another sweep | Report: Ex-Warriors assistant taped conversations | Rockets’ Alexander offers solution for Sterling issue

No. 1: Pacers, Vogel ponder changes after Game 5 shocker —  As our own Steve Aschburner pointed out last night, the Pacers find themselves and their Finals-hopeful season on the brink after a Game 5 loss at home to the Hawks. A telling second quarter — in which Atlanta outscored Indiana 41-19, mostly on the heroics of reserve Mike Scott — has the Pacers thinking some lineup changes will be necessary for Game 6, although even that notion is a bit mixed. Mike Moneith at Pacers.com has more on the team’s state after the loss:

This qualifies as a desperate time, and therefore calls for a desperate measure.

Then again, is it really desperate to change the starting lineup when you’re down 3-2 and in danger of becoming the sixth No. 1 seed in NBA history to lose to a No. 8 seed? The bold thing would be to go with the status quo.

“I consider everything at this point,” Frank Vogel said in the wake of his team’s 107-97 loss to the Hawks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Monday.

Changes to the starting lineup, or even playing rotation, aren’t as simple they’re often made out to be, given the lack of time for preparation between games in a playoff series, but a team trailing 3-2 doesn’t have the luxury of getting virtually nothing from its starting center. None of the voices heard in the Pacers’ somber postgame locker room could be heard calling for a drastic change. David West even went so far as to say “we can’t change our starting group.”

When they were down 30 midway through the third quarter, the Pacers’ lineup consisted of Chris Copeland, C.J. Watson, Paul George, David West and George Hill. That group got Atlanta’s lead down to 20 by the end of the period. Lance Stephenson and Ian Mahinmi started the fourth quarter but Mahinmi was subbed out less than three minutes later and Stephenson was back on the bench with 5:23 left. The group that started the comeback from 30 down finished the game from there, and got within nine points twice before it was too late. Their last reasonable hope came after Paul Millsap missed twice and the Pacers got the ball back, but George missed a three-pointer with 1:10 left that could have made it a six-point game.

Still, the lineup worked.

(more…)

Heat stay focused, go up 3-0 on Bobcats

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Postgame: Erik Spoelstra

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — In a first round series in which they have much more talent, much more experience and better health, the Miami Heat just have to stay focused. They did their best job of that in Game 3 in Charlotte on Saturday, handling the Bobcats 98-85 to take a 3-0 series lead.

For the Heat, it’s on defense where their focus can really waver. In the first quarter, they allowed Al Jefferson to take them to school. In the post or on pick-and-pops, Jefferson ran the Miami defense ragged, scoring 15 of the Bobcats’ 27 points on 7-for-9 shooting. The passing lanes were open and the catches were easy.

“Every catch was exactly where he wanted it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward, “right in his wheelhouse, right in his comfort zone, where he could inflict incredible damage to our defense. There was not a lot of resistance to it. It was just too easy and we did not have a disposition.”

Then the Heat turned up the defensively intensity and Jefferson barely touched the ball over the final three quarters. He scored just one more field goal and finished with 20 points. After those first 12 minutes, the Bobcats scored just 58 points on 65 possessions.

It was a two-pronged smothering. Direct entries into the post were impossible, because the Miami bigs fronted Jefferson. And pick-and-rolls had no effect either, because the Heat stopped the ball-handler in his tracks and cut off his passing lanes with an aggressive trap.

“But they just got up,” Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said, “got great ball pressure on the perimeter, got up in the passing lanes, and made it just so difficult for us to be able to get him the ball.”

This is what the Heat do when they’re focused. There are some teams that can handle their defense better than others, but when they bring all their energy and effort on that end of the floor, there’s no better D in the league.

And the most important part of that defense is Chris Bosh. He’s the guy smothering those pick-and-rolls, recovering back to protect the rim, and handling Jefferson in the post. His defensive brilliance was on full display in Game 3.

“In the third quarter, he was outstanding,” Spoelstra said, “covering a lot of ground in pick-and-rolls and really putting a lot more pressure on Jefferson’s catches. He either couldn’t catch in the post or had to really work for it and catch it further out on the court.”

There will be much tougher challenges down the line, but it was encouraging to see the Heat keep their foot on the gas in a game they didn’t necessarily need.

“I was curious to see what our mind set would be coming into shootaround this morning,” Spoelstra said. “The guys were locked in and we certainly saw some carryover, not only in the activity level, but the focus and the details. It was professional win.”

The next step is to do it again in Game 4 on Monday (7 p.m. ET, TNT) and earn some extra rest before a matchup with the Brooklyn Nets or Toronto Raptors in the conference semifinals.

“If we come out with the same mind set or even greater focus on Monday,” LeBron James said, “we can give ourselves a great chance to win. It doesn’t always result in a win, but we can be satisfied with the results if we come in with the same mind set that we had tonight.”

Morning Shootaround — April 26


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played April 25

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Will Nene and/or Gortat play? | LeBron seeks equal treatment | Lakers sticking with D’Antoni | Westbrook’s brother still rankled

No. 1: Will Nene and/or Gortat play? — Losing Nene down the stretch of Game 3 was bad enough for the Washington Wizards. It very well might have cost them the game, a 3-0 advantage in the best-of-seven series and so much momentum heading into Sunday’s Game 4 that the Bulls might have licked their wounds and started planning for summer. Instead, Chicago didn’t have to worry about the big guy who had been the Wizards’ X factor in the first two games and its own bigs, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, had an easier time navigating foul trouble. The biggest concerns now for Washington are whether a) Nene’s ejection ended it or whether he’ll face a suspension from Game 4, and b) center Marcin Gortat will get whacked for leaving the bench area in the heat of the moment. In the immediate aftermath, Brandon Parker assessed the situation in the Washington Post’s Wizards Insider blog:

What happened after that and how the NBA office will levy punishment has now become as great of a concern as how the Wizards respond following their first loss of these young playoffs.

It’s a given that Nene will at least be fined for his inflammatory role in Friday’s altercation, but whether or not he is suspended is up to the NBA. But Nene might not be the only one in trouble. There was some debate as to whether Marcin Gortat left the bench area during the scuffle. Since the Bulls were charged with calling a timeout immediately following Nene’s basket, Gortat, along with all the bench players and coaches, would be allowed to come onto the floor. But should the NBA deem that Gortat was making his way onto the court before or during the moment the timeout was called, the Wizards center would automatically be suspended for one game, according to NBA rules.

Both are judgement calls but by comparison, take the case of Charlotte’s Josh McRoberts. In Game 2 versus Miami, the Bobcats forward threw a forearm to the nose of LeBron James but rather than being whistled for a flagrant foul during the game or being suspended afterward, McRoberts was fined $20,000.

Playing without one or both of their starting big men could obviously be catastrophic for the Wizards in what’s now a must-win Game 4. Playing with one or both of them still doesn’t leave the Wizards in the clear, as the Bulls are apparently intent on trying to mentally rattle and discourage Washington’s players in what’s sure to be an intense environment.

***

No. 2: LeBron seeks equal treatment — Retaliation is officially off the table, at least according to what the Miami Heat players and coaches are saying in the wake of Josh McRoberts‘ flagrant-2 foul against LeBron James in Game 2 of the Miami-Charlotte first-round series. McRoberts didn’t get ejected after putting an elbow to the throat of the Heat superstar as he attacked the rim, but the foul was upgraded the next day with a $20,000 fine attached. Instead of retribution, James spoke about getting a fair shake from the referees. His view, as related by Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, is that he takes more hits because of his ball dominance and foes get away with more because he is so big and strong. Instead of “star treatment,” in other words, James feels he has been enduring Shaq treatment:

James wouldn’t say Friday whether McRoberts should have been suspended, but said “it should have been a Flagrant 2 at that point in the game.”

“What frustrated me is when I watch other games. [In Thursday’s Warriors-Clippers game], it was three flagrant fouls called that got checked [on replay]. My foul didn’t even get checked, and it was a crucial point of the game. … I don’t cry for fouls. If the game is played and [called] how it’s supposed to be, I’m OK with it.”

James added: “I take a lot of hard fouls. I understand that. Guys try to stop me from getting three-point plays. We all know the difference between a basketball foul and a non-basketball foul.”

“I already know there’s going to be a headline tomorrow: ‘LeBron is crying for fouls.’ I don’t want that. It’s not about me wanting fouls or wanting to be pampered. I’m going to be my aggressive self and get to the free-throw line and put pressure on their defense.”

So does he simply want to be treated like everyone else?

“I’m not going to be treated like everyone else,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been treated like everybody else.”

Retaliating is not an option for two reasons, James said: “Every time we hit back, we get suspended or get fined. We tried that tactic. It don’t [work] for us.”

And also: “The game is different. If this was the 1980s, I would come out swinging. It’s not. I mean too much to our team. I can’t do that. Me being out of the game hurts us more than it would hurt the other team. I get frustrated at times.”

***

No. 3: Lakers sticking with D’AntoniWhile their former coach and ring-collecting leader, Phil Jackson, settles in and sifts through his coaching candidates in New York, the Los Angeles Lakers face a situation of their own involving coach Mike D’Antoni, who just lead the team through a forgettable failed season. According to Mark Heisler, venerable NBA columnist who has relocated from the Los Angeles Times to the Orange County Register, that situation essentially has been resolved: D’Antoni will be back next season. Heisler writes with authority about the Lakers’ mess and their limited options for 2014-15 overall – basically a strategy of signing players to one-year deal and keeping their salary-cap powder dry for the free-agent classes of 2015 and 2016. He does include one juicy tidbit about L.A., if it gets lucky in the lottery, possibly offering their first-round pick this spring to Minnesota for All-Star forward Kevin Love. Here‘s some Heisler:

Ready for Mike D’Antoni III? After 10 days of soul searching, the key figures in Lakers management are agreed on bringing back D’Antoni for a third season as coach, a source with knowledge of the deliberations told the Register.

Keeping D’Antoni, of course, would be unpopular among Lakers fans, united in their desire to see him fired and Jim Buss resign.

The Lakers aren’t commenting, but Jimbo’s not planning on leaving. With Pau Gasol making no secret of his dissatisfaction and Kobe Bryant reportedly in favor of a change, D’Antoni was widely expected to be fired.

But one thing you’ve got to love about the Lakers – I do, anyway – they don’t always do the easy thing.

D’Antoni took himself out of the running for the Marshall University coaching job last week, which went to his brother, Dan.

However, reports from West Virginia that the Lakers told Mike he was returning are incorrect.

D’Antoni decided he didn’t want to return to Marshall, where he once starred, in any case.

The Lakers have yet to inform D’Antoni of anything, but they intend to keep him, absolving him of blame for the 27-55 finish without Bryant and Steve Nash for 141 of a possible 162 games.

Nor are they discomfited by Gasol’s announcement on his website. (“I’ve never concealed the fact that D’Antoni’s style doesn’t suit my game. … I don’t know if my decision will be swayed by whether Mike stays or leaves. Obviously, the coach is a very important factor for any team.”) Jeanie Buss, who noted recently, “I’m the boss,” is continuing her preference to leave basketball decisions to the basketball people.

Jim is aligned with GM Mitch Kupchak, a steadfast D’Antoni defender emerging as an ever-stronger figure with a multi-year extension in the wake of their misadventures.

***

No. 4: Westbrook’s brother still rankledWhile Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook prevailed on his brother Ray to delete a Tweet from late Thursday night suggesting Thunder head coach Scott Brooks be dumped, he didn’t exactly change his younger sibling’s mind. After practice Friday, Westbrook told reporters: “I took care of that. We don’t conduct business like that. Scotty and me got a great relationship.” But Ray Westbrook, while complying, wasn’t necessarily on board with the damage control, according to a blog by The Oklahoman sports columnist Barry Tramel:

[We] got back to our hotel after the game, probably around 1:30 a.m., and decided to get something to eat. So we walked the few blocks to Blues City Cafe, which is open from 11 a.m. to 5 a.m. And on the way, we ran into a certain Ray Westbrook.

Yes, the same Ray Westbrook whose big brother plays a little hoops for the Thunder, and the same Ray Westbrook who in the middle of Game 3 tweeted that the Thunder needed a new coach.

Ray is a friendly fellow, and we asked him about the tweet. He said the Thunder already had reached out to him to express its displeasure, but he was unapologetic. “That’s how I felt,” he said. “If you don’t like it, don’t follow me.”

Of course, by the next morning, Ray Westbrook had apologized for the outburst. But it’s pretty safe to assume he didn’t mean it.

Morning Shootaround — April 24



VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played April 23

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Harden shooting blanks in playoffs | Paul vows to play in Game 3 | Jefferson has ‘no mobility’ right now | Beverley’s injury can’t get any worse

No. 1: Harden’s game goes missing in playoffs— If you’ve watched any of the Portland-Houston series to date, you know the man of the hour is Blazers All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. The big man has put together back-to-back 40-point games to help Portland to a 2-0 series lead. But the other story in this series is about who isn’t making baskets, Rockets All-Star guard James Harden. He was 6-for-19 from the field in last night’s Game 2 loss and as our Fran Blinebury reports, is seemingly all out of sorts at exactly the wrong time:

If the Rockets are going to climb out of the 0-2 hole against the Trail Blazers, first they’ll need to put a lasso or handcuffs on LaMarcus Aldridge.

But just as important, they’ll have to find a way to get their two-time All-Star guard (and leading scorer) to put the ball into the basket.

Through the first two games of the playoffs, Harden has made just 14 of 47 shots (29.8 percent) from the field and looked very rarely and very little like the attack-the-basket, 3-point shooting scourge of the regular season.

In the Rockets’ 122-120 overtime loss in Game 1, Harden shot just 8-for-28 and followed it up in the 112-105 Game 2 loss by hitting just 6 of 19. It is his worst two-game shooting stretch of the season.

“I’m not worried about my offense,” Harden said. “It’s basketball. You’re gonna miss shots. It’s basketball, like I said.”

Harden averaged 9.1 free throws per game during the regular season, but got to the line twice in Game 2.

Of course, the trouble could be the tendency of defenses to tighten down and generally lock up in the playoffs.

The most troubling concern for the Rockets is that it could be a trend more than just a blip. In the last three playoff series in which Harden has played, he shot 18-for-47 (38.2 percent) against Miami in the 2012 Finals, 45-for-115 (39.1 percent) a year ago in the first round against Oklahoma City and now, this.

For the most part, Harden didn’t want to talk about his own troubles, preferring to change the topic time and again to the Rockets’ own defense.

“When shots are not falling, it’s tough,” Harden said when pressed. “They’re running their offense. They’re milking the clock and we gotta go back down and go against their set defense.

“Like I said, they’re a very long team. They’re a very good defensive team. But for the most part, we just gotta get stops.”


VIDEO: Go inside the huddles with the Rockets and Blazers in Game 2

***

No. 2: Clips’ Paul misses practice, but insists he’ll play in Game 3The Los Angeles Clippers know what life is like this season without Chris Paul. The team went 12-6 during an 18-game stretch while Paul recovered from a shoulder injury on Jan. 3. He’s been in the starting lineup for both of the Clips’ playoff games thus far and while he missed practice on Wednesday with a right hamstring injury, he vows that he’ll play in Game 3 tonight against the Golden State Warriors. As Ramona Shelbourne of ESPNLosAngeles.com reports, though, coach Doc Rivers is taking a wait-and-see approach with his All-Star point guard tonight:

Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul was held out of practice for the second straight day Wednesday with a right hamstring injury that has bothered him since late in the first half of Saturday’s playoff series-opening loss to the Golden State Warriors.

Paul was able to play through the injury in the Clippers’ Game 2 win over the Warriors on Monday night and says he will be ready for Game 3 in Oakland on Thursday.

“I’ll be ready, I’m OK,” Paul repeatedly said when asked about the injury. “As long as I’m out on the court, I’m good.”

That’s been a familiar refrain for Paul, who mostly deals with injuries by refusing to acknowledge they affect him.

“I love that approach, because I do believe that. Your mind is strong,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I just have to watch his movement during the games. The only way you can find out with injuries is to go out and play — then you’ll see.

“But I thought he’s been great. In the second half [of Monday’s win], I thought he got tight — tight legs, not tight physically — you could see his movement wasn’t there.”

Paul has been getting round-the-clock treatment on the hamstring since he was injured trying to chase down a loose ball with Golden State’s Stephen Curry with 27 seconds remaining in the first half on Saturday. He came out of the game twice to get the hamstring looked at, but played extended minutes in the second half and during Monday’s win.


VIDEO: Chris Paul talks with the media after Wednesday’s practice

***

No. 3: Clifford says Jefferson has no mobilityNo one can rightfully accuse Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson of refusing to gut it out in the playoffs. The big man is dealing with a nagging plantar fascia injury he suffered early in Game 1, yet last night, he played 40 mintues and finished with a double-double (18 points, 13 rebounds). The Bobcats clawed back into Game 2 and although they ultimately lost, they head back to Charlotte down 0-2. After the game, Bobcats coach Steve Clifford told the Charlotte Observer‘s Rick Bonnell that Jefferson’s mobility is almost completely gone right now:

Jefferson played with a plantar fascia injury first suffered in the first quarter of Game 1. Jefferson had to leave this game in the first half after, in his words, “I felt it rip all the way through.”

Jefferson continued, “It came up midway through my foot and it was just pain. Doctor said there was nothing more I can do to hurt it, so I just had to play through it.”

That he did, finishing the game with 18 points and 13 rebounds. Jefferson can’t create the same leverage he usually does to score in the post, but the Bobcats can still run offense through him.

“He’s not anywhere close to 100 percent, but we can still play through him,” Clifford said. “He has no mobility basically, but he still had 18 and 13.”


VIDEO: Inside the NBA’s crew debates whether or not Al Jefferson should keep playing in the series

***

No. 4: Agent: Beverley’s knee can’t get any worse— Houston Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley re-injured his gimpy right knee during Game 1 of the Rockets-Blazers first-round series and concerns were he might be out for the series. After undergoing an MRI, Beverley was cleared to play in last night’s Game 2. He started the game and finished with 14 points on 5-for-11 shooting in 41 minutes. It seems Beverley will be OK to play the rest of the playoffs, writes Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, according to Beverley’s agent:

With Rockets guard Pat Beverley returning on Wednesday from the sprained right knee he suffered in Game 1, his agent Kevin Bradbury said the injury had no relation to his torn knee cartilage March 27 and that Beverley was in no greater danger of further injury by playing again on Wednesday.

Beverley was helped off the court on Sunday after he ran into a screen set by Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge fouled out on the play and Beverley fouled out less than a minute later.

“The other night, he hyper-extended that thing and banged it on the ground,” Bradbury said. “That will cause lots of pain, but there was no swelling. It calmed down. If a doctor tells me there is a chance he can do something more to himself, it’s a tough spot to be in, but you have to make the best decision for the kid’s future.”

Bradbury said that he had a surgery scheduled for Beverley on March 31 in the days following his cartilage tear , but Dr. James Andrews said after reviewing two sets of MRI results that he would not recommend surgery. Had surgery repaired the cartilage, Beverley would have been out for the season. Had a torn piece of cartilage been removed, Beverley would be just returning now. Instead, he missed eight games and played in the final three of the regular season.

“The debris (from the initial injury) is gone,” Bradbury said. “It’s smooth. Dr. Andrews said ‘I would not recommend doing anything on this even if it was the off-season.’ He was cleared medically to play. You are not going to re-tear it. That piece of meniscus is gone. It’s not coming back and getting torn again. It’s gone.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: LeBron James confirms that he has signed with a Hollywood talent agency … Add ex-Missouri coach and current Atlanta Hawks assistant Quin Snyder to the list of names the Jazz may be interested in … Celtics big man Jared Sullinger is planning to put in a lot of work on his game this summer … Check out the trailer for the Allen Iverson documentary … After a rough showing in Game 1, Dallas Mavericks point guard Jose Calderon looked a lot more solid in Game 2 … San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard was a virtual no-show in Game 2 last night …

ICYMI OF THE NIGHT: We love hustle plays around here and we REALLY love hustle plays in the playoffs. It’s no surprise, then, that Gerald Henderson gets the nod this morning for this fantastic block on Udonis Haslem


VIDEO: Gerald Henderson gets up to deny Udonis Haslem’s dunk

Despite 0-2 deficit, Bobcats still believe

By Lang Whitaker, NBA.com


VIDEO: Heat hold off Bobcats’ late rally to take 2-0 series lead

MIAMI — With 3:03 left to play in the first quarter of Game 2 between Miami and Charlotte, Bobcats coach Steve Clifford walked slowly up the Charlotte sideline from the bench toward halfcourt. His arms were folded, his head angled toward the court. If the floor were made out of dirt, he might have kicked it at that moment.

It wasn’t just that the Heat were up 18-13 at the time, but that they were in the middle of a 10-0 run at the time, and the Bobcats weren’t doing much to abate Miami’s progress. Moments later, Al Jefferson would head for the locker room for treatment on a foot injury that left him laboring up and down the court like his shoelaces were tied together. The Heat compiled a 16-6 run to end the first quarter. For the period, the Bobcats had just one assist imbalanced against six turnovers. Kemba Walker’s first points came with 6 minutes to play in the first half. By halftime, the Bobcats had rolled up 11 turnovers.

Before Game 1 of this series, Clifford talked about the importance of protecting the ball against the Miami Heat. During the regular season, the Charlotte Bobcats averaged 12.3 turnovers, the lowest rate in the NBA. During Game 1, the Bobcats piled up 15. Through the first half of Game 2, they totaled 12.

“You gotta give [Miami] credit, though,” Josh McRoberts noted. “It’s not like we were just out there throwing it around. They do a great job pressuring, trapping, playing their coverages to make it tough.”

Despite all of this, the Bobcats hung around all night, making a game out of a game that probably didn’t seem like it should have been much of a game. They protected the ball much better in the second half, adding just three more turnovers to their total. Jefferson gallantly played through the injury, though with every step the pain was painted not only on his face but across his entire body — Jefferson still logged 40 minutes and finished with 18 points and 13 boards. (“He’s a tough hombre,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. “He’s a tough guy. I mean, that is not an easy thing to fight though.”)

By the end of the game, the Bobcats had the ball down three with 10 seconds left to play, but a broken play ended with a turnover and an eventual 101-97 win for Miami.

The Bobcats have looked tenacious against the Heat in spurts, but they haven’t been able to sustain that production on either end of the court. In Game 1 of the series, according to SportVU numbers, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist held LeBron to one point on 0-for-4 shooting from the field in 5:10 of matchup time. The problem was foul trouble: Kidd-Gilchrist played just 14 minutes and finished with four fouls. In Game 2, Kidd-Gilchrist played 34 minutes and scored 22 points, but even with his best efforts, LeBron finished with 32 points, eight assists and six rebounds.

After a first-round playoff knockout in 2010 at the hands of the Orlando Magic, it took the Charlotte Bobcats four seasons, dozens of players, four coaches and two general managers to get back to the postseason. And it definitely got worse before it got better — in 2011-12, the Bobcats won just .109 percent of their games, a record for futility. Two seasons later the Bobcats finished with 44 wins and a rosy outlook: The Bobcats have both youth and cap flexibility on their side. Of course, having a bright future is cold comfort when you’re down 0-2 to the defending NBA champs, and have lost 18 games in a row to the Heat.

After the game, I asked McRoberts if he could take anything positive from the loss — that even though they lost, they were within three with 10 seconds remaining.

“No.” McRoberts said. “I mean I’m sorry to do that to your question, but no, I don’t take anything positive from it. We didn’t play that well. We made too many mistakes. We played horrible in the first half. You can’t do that and expect to beat the best team. You can’t beat the championship team with that level. So no, we want to win. We were disappointed.”

“It’s just more on us,” Jefferson said of the Bobcats’ situation. “We just got to get better and stop making so many mistakes that we should know better. Time and time over again. We gave them too many turnovers, 20 points off turnovers in the first half. That’s all we gave them Game 1 and we gave that to them in the first half. We just got to slow down and just play the right way. We’re letting them get us on our heels and we just got to get better in there.”

“Honestly man, I think we’re still really confident,” Walker said. “We just have to learn from our mistakes. Our coaches do a great job at getting us prepared to play in these games and getting us prepared to win these games. We’re going to go back home, we’re going to go back to the drawing board, we’re going to dissect these guys as well as we can, and get ready for the next one. I think we have a chance, man. I know these guys are defending champs, and it’s not going to be easy. We’re trying to win these games, and like I said, I think we have a chance.”

McRoberts said he, like Walker, believes the Bobcats still have a chance in this series: “You got to, right? I mean, that’s what we play for, that’s what we’re going to try to do. I’m not coming out guaranteeing anything, but we expect to win 82 times during the season and every time in the playoffs, too. That’s the mindset you gotta play with.”


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