Posts Tagged ‘Chris Bosh’

Proud Hawks keep playoff streak alive

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Jeff Teague talks about the Hawks clinching their playoff bid against the Heat

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – They did it with their best player sidelined with a torn pectoral muscle since Christmas, with a parade of journeymen and supposedly over the hill stars like Elton Brand filling in and playing huge minutes, with the likes of Pero Antic and Mike Scott, Cartier Martin and DeMarre Carroll playing vital roles.

Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver, fantastic basically from start to the near finish of this regular season for the now playoff bound Atlanta Hawks, can probably walk around the city without being rushed by fans for autographs. Would you even know Hawks All-Star forward Paul Millsap if he walked up on you in street clothes?

Perhaps … but probably not.

Reserve guard Lou Williams, in and out of the regular rotation all season, is arguably the most recognizable face on the roster for locals, and that’s mostly because he played his high school ball in the area at South Gwinnett High.

These Hawks are the poster child for the anti-tanking movement, a motley crew if ever there was one, bound for a first round playoff matchup against either the two-time defending champion Miami Heat (the team they beat Saturday to secure their Eastern Conference-best seventh straight postseason trip) or the struggling Indiana Pacers.

Instead of accepting their fate after All-Star center Al Horford saw his season end the day after Christmas due to a torn pectoral muscle, the Hawks survived and advanced to yet another trip to the playoff line.

Williams, who scored 18 of the Hawks’ 29 fourth-quarter points, including the final 12 Atlanta points of the game, admitted that the opponent Saturday night did not matter. The outcome was the sole focus.

“It doesn’t make a difference (who the opponent was),” he said. “That was our second time beating them this year. We gave them an overtime run earlier this year. It’s a team we’ve played well against this season. It was just satisfying to get a win and be in the groove that we’re in.”

As stubborn as they are fearless, Mike Budenholzer‘s Hawks finished the season series with a 2-2 record against the Heat. They had the same mark against the Indiana Pacers, the team they’d face if the playoffs began today. Whoever earns that No. 1 seed will be dealing with a No. 8 seed just crazy enough to believe they can compete with the best.

They could have packed it in and headed for the lottery, like so many others. Their fans wouldn’t have blamed them. The prospect of a higher pick in the lottery and the wistfulness that comes with it make for an easy sell. What could be is always a powerful elixir when you know there is no hope for a championship.

The hard work and dedication it takes to earn a playoff berth, even in a year when the Eastern Conference is historically weak, shows a level of perseverance that the Hawks should be applauded for showing. They knocked the dysfunctional Knicks (and former Hawks coach Mike Woodson) out of the playoff mix, ending Carmelo Anthony‘s personal playoff streak at 10 seasons.

Budenholzer is working with a much different talent base than Woodson did when he started the Hawks’ playoff streak. Horford, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, Josh Childress, Mike Bibby and Zaza Pachulia comprised the core group. Hawks boss Danny Ferry hasn’t had the time to build a comparable core group, yet.

They backdoored their way into the No. 8 seed in 2008 and promptly scared the life out of the top-seed and eventual champion Boston Celtics with an epic seven-game series that was as entertaining as it was intense, considering one team finished the regular season 66 wins and the other with 37. (It was arguably the Celtics’ toughest series during their championship run, seeing as how they only saw one more Game 7 — against Cleveland — during their march to the Larry O’Brien trophy.)

“I’m happy that we get to play more games and I get to talk more about improving, and getting better each practice,” Budenholzer said after his team outlasted LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Heat before a raucous home crowd Saturday night. “We want to build something here. Miami has been in the Finals for three years in a row. There are a lot of teams that have had a lot of success. It takes time to build your habits. (Miami’s) habits are outstanding. We want to continue to build our habits and continue to improve. Our group has really fought hard and competed hard this year. I think they got what they deserved.”

The Hawks got exactly what they earned, which is at least four more games for this bunch to show that sometimes it’s hard to break a habit of winning your way into the playoffs.


VIDEO: Jeff Teague leads the way as the Hawks earn their seventh straight playoff bid

Morning Shootaround — April 12


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 11

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Heat win the numbers game over the Pacers | Pierce becomes the 18th player to reach 25,000 | Brewer the most unlikely 50-point scorer … ever? | Raptors ready to hang another banner | Clippers to get Crawford back tonight

No. 1: Numbers that matter favor the Heat in Pacers seriesLeBron James made sure the Miami Heat evened their regular season series with the Indiana Pacers, going off for 36 points in the Friday night showdown on NBA TV and making sure there were no doubts heading into the playoffs that the two-time NBA champs are ready for all challengers. But while the Heat own the numbers game over the Pacers, Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote believes there are quite a few assumptions being made about the two teams everyone feels are destined for a playoff rematch in the Eastern Conference finals:

The Heat’s game against the Pacers here Friday night understandably was billed as the battle for No. 1 — for the top conference playoff seeding as the NBA postseason fast approaches. It was supposed to be crucial because it would determine who would have home-court advantage in a deciding Game 7 in these teams’ inevitable Eastern finals rematch.

Nice, neat little story line.

Only one small problem with the premise.

It assumes both teams will advance that far, a presumption that seems mighty flattering right now to one of those teams.

The Pacers look disheveled and done, frustrated and finished. They look lost, their downward spiral continued by a decisive 98-86 Heat victory at the downtown bayside arena, an outcome putting Miami in control of that top seeding.

Here is why the outcome had to be so disheartening for Indiana fans and such a shot of adrenaline for Miami’s chances of a third consecutive championship.

The Pacers were the Pacers again, healthy, rested and supposedly re-energized after their fatigued starters recently were given three consecutive day off.

And the Heat still was not the Heat, not fully, not with Dwyane Wade missing a ninth consecutive game on account of a strained left hamstring.

Yet LeBron James with 36 points led his depleted champions to a resounding triumph that tipped on a 16-0 Miami run to open the second half.

The Heat has too much offensive firepower, even sans Wade, for light-scoring Indiana, which has too little in the way of a counter-punch. Pacers top scorer Paul George has not been anything special most of the second half of this season, and Miami seems to have discovered a weapon to stop Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, the 7-2 behemoth who is a lumbering slug against the rest of the NBA but tends to take a star turn against Miami.

The Heat’s not-so-secret weapon against Hibbert? His name is Udonis Haslem. He held Hibbert to a whispering five points and one rebound Friday. Haslem had fallen out of the rotation this season but seems to be a big factor again as the playoffs loom.

“It’s great to have U.D. back,” James said of Haslem. “He’s the heart and soul of our team.”

Haslem gave up 6 inches and 55 pounds to Hibbert but won the matchup with hustle, with knee burns on wood earned diving after loose balls. Haslem turns 34 in June, right around the time of the NBA Finals. With obvious affection, coach Erik Spoelstra calls him “our old warrior.”

“He set the tone early,” Spoelstra said. “It’s what going on in here, which you can’t teach.”

As he said “here,” Spoelstra tapped his finger on his chest, over his heart.


VIDEO: The Heat’s Chris Bosh talks about the win over the Pacers

***

No. 2: Paul Pierce joins the exclusive 25,000-point club – Not that he needed the boost, but is there any doubt that Paul Pierce will join the Hall of Fame club one day now that he’s scored his pass to the all-exclusive 25,000-point club, becoming just the 18th player in NBA history to reach that mark? It’s a nod to not only his elite scoring ability but also his dedication to the craft and the longevity it takes to reach such heights. Mike Mazzeo of ESPNNewYork.com helps put Pierce’s accomplishment into better perspective:

Pierce became the 18th player in NBA history to score at least 25,000 career points in Friday night’s 93-88 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Barclays Center.

“I told him, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood,’ ” said teammate Kevin Garnett, who is also a member of the exclusive club.

” ‘Truth’ has been a big part of this league. He’s one of my great friends, best friends. We’ve had some accomplishments together, done some great things together, and tonight it was all about him. I’m happy for him.”

Pierce, Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant are the only four active players in the league to have reached the milestone.

“It’s better to be in the championship club obviously,” Pierce said when told of the comment from Garnett, with whom he won a title with the Boston Celtics in 2008. “Statistical things, they come and go. There’s gonna be players in the future that pass me up, but when you win, that lasts forever. It’s great. I’m gonna enjoy being part of history. It’s just a testament to my hard work and consistency over the years and good health.”

Pierce came into Friday night’s game just five points shy of reaching the mark. He knocked down a 3-pointer with 3:09 remaining in the second quarter to give him 25,001 career points. Pierce had started off 1 of 5 from the field before draining the milestone shot.

“It’s hard not to [think about it],” said Pierce, who finished with 13 points on 5-for-14 shooting. “Everybody’s talking about it. My family’s here, my friends that’s all they’re talking about, and I was the same way when I reached the 20,000-point mark. I remember I couldn’t hit a shot in the first quarter because I was pressing just to get it. I’m just glad it’s over with and I can just focus on the rest of the season.”

Pierce received a nice ovation from the home crowd after his accomplishment was recognized by the public address announcer.

The 36-year-old has averaged 21.3 points per game during his 16-year career. He spent the first 15 seasons with the Celtics, and currently ranks second on the franchise’s all-time scoring list behind John Havlicek.


VIDEO: Paul Pierce joins the 25,000-point club

***

No. 3: Brewer the most unlikely 50-point scorer ever? — Welcome to the 50-point scorer’s club Corey Brewer, we had no idea you’d be joining the party. Since you’ve never scored 30 points in a game in your seven seasons in the league … until Friday night, of course, when you smoked the Houston Rockets for half of a hundred. Brewer also joined the elite list of Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Rick Barry as the only players to score 50 points and collect six steals in the same game. The other three guys are either already in or locks for the Hall of Fame. Brewer … is not, as Ryan Feldman of ESPN Stats & Information explains:

Brewer is the sixth player in NBA history to score at least 50 points in a game without having previously scored 30 points in a game.

The lowest previous career high for a player to score 50 points in a game was 26 by Terrence Ross (earlier this season for the Toronto Raptors) and Tony Delk (in 2000-01 for the Phoenix Suns).

Brewer, in his seventh NBA season, is the most experienced player ever to score 50 points without having previously scored 30.

The only other players to score 50 before ever scoring 30 among players with at least two full seasons of NBA experience were Delk (fifth season in 2000-01) and Willie Burton (1994-95 season with the Philadelphia 76ers was his fifth season).

Brewer averaged 9.9 points per game in his career entering Friday, the fifth-lowest career scoring average for a player at the time of scoring 50 points. The lowest was Ross, who averaged 7.4 before scoring 51 back in January.

Brewer now averages 10.0 points per game, the fifth-lowest career scoring average for any 50-point scorer (including every career game for players after they scored 50). The lowest on that list? Walt Wesley (8.5 career points per game), who joined the 50-point club with the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 1970-71 season.

And let’s not forget about a few other notables:

Tracy Murray, who scored 50 for the Washington Wizards in 1997-98, averaged 9.0 points per game for his career.

Phil Smith and Phil Chenier both joined the 50-point club in the 1970s before ever scoring 30 in a game.

Dana Barros had eight 30-point games, all for the 76ers in 1994-95, his only season averaging more than 13.3 points per game. That season, he scored 50 against the Rockets on 21-of-26 shooting.

***

No. 4: Raptors ready to hang another banner with Atlantic Division title wrapped up – No one said it was going to be easy, the Toronto Raptors getting to the top of the heap of the Atlantic Division. After all, the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks were both projected to finish ahead of them in the race this season. But as the sun rises this morning north of the border, it’s the scrappy Raptors (losers to the Knicks Friday night on their home floor) who have emerged victorious in the chase. Losing your way into winning a division title makes for a rather odd but satisfying celebration, according to Cousin Doug Smith of the Toronto Star:

The lone banner signifying Raptors success will soon have another flying next to it in the Air Canada Centre.

It was an odd celebration — barely a celebration at all — but the Raptors did manage to secure the second Atlantic Division title in franchise history on Friday night.

Coach Dwane Casey was deconstructing a 108-100 loss to the New York Knicks at about the same time the players were bemoaning a lost opportunity and the Atlanta Hawks were providing a helping hand by beating the Brooklyn Nets to hand the division to the Raptors.

So while there were commemorative t-shirts mandated by the league — Atlantic Is Ours, they said — there was hardly a raucous celebration raging in the locker room.

“It sucks that we lost the game, especially with us trying to hold on to the third spot (in the East) but it feels great to win the division,” said DeMar DeRozan. “I don’t think anyone would have picked us to win it, so it is definitely an accomplishment.

“The feel is we are still anxious, we want more, we aren’t satisfied with anything. We still have much basketball to play and have a long road to go.

“We want to take advantage of it, not just get there and say we got there and say we got there when people doubted us. We feel like we can go in there and make some noise.”

***

No. 5: Clippers Crawford set for a Saturday return – The best sixth-man in the business is set for a Saturday return, per Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com. And it comes at the perfect time for the Los Angeles Clippers, as they welcome back Jamal Crawford in the lead up to the first round of the Western Conference playoffs:

Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford practiced with the team Friday and is expected to play Saturday against the Sacramento Kings.

Crawford has been sidelined the past five games with a strained left calf. It was the same injury that sidelined him for eight of nine games last month.

The Clippers are officially listing Crawford as a “game-time decision” for Saturday but he is expected to play for the first time since March 29.

“I think it’s huge from a chemistry standpoint to get everybody back healthy,” Crawford said. “At that point we’d just be missing Danny [Granger]. Just to get back into rhythm after missing some [time] would be huge. You want to play your best heading into the playoffs.”

Granger, who has missed the past six games with a strained left calf, shot with the team on Friday and is hoping to return for the team’s playoff opener next week.

Coach Doc Rivers last week thought Crawford and Granger would be out until the playoffs started, but with Crawford coming back and Granger on track to return next week, Rivers could have a fully healthy roster for the first time this season just as the playoffs begin.

“I think it’s great,” Rivers said. “I think it’s great for him and the team.”


VIDEO: Corey Brewer goes off for a career-high 51 points

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Pacers have changed their tune now that the No. 1 seed seems to have slipped away …  The Warriors bounce back, bounce Lakers and clinch playoff berth … Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva is facing an uncertain future …  The Atlanta Hawks mourn the death of “Sweet Lou” Hudson …

ICYMI(s) of the Night: Steph Curry goes off again and Big Al Jefferson shreds the competition inside once more …


VIDEO: All of the Lakers found out the hard way what it means to deal with Steph Curry

 


VIDEO: Al Jefferson 32-point, 10-rebound night was routine work for the Bobcats big man

 

Most Valuable Player by the numbers

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Starters have their say on the LeBron-Durant MVP race

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Is the Kia NBA Most Valuable Player award for the most outstanding player or the most important player? If it’s the latter, is it more important to turn a playoff team into a championship contender than it is to turn a Lottery team into a playoff team?

Where would the Bobcats be without Al Jefferson? The Raptors without Kyle Lowry? How about the Mavs without Dirk Nowitzki? None of those three guys are in the top 10 of our MVP Ladder as of last Friday.

In reality, MVP voting is typically a combination of three things…

  1. Team success – Each of the last 25 MVPs played for a 1 (20) or 2 (five) seed in their conference. The last MVP not on one of the top two teams in his conference was Michael Jordan in 1988.
  2. Production – Each of those 25 MVPs have averaged at least 36.8 points + rebounds + assists per game, with 20 of the 25 averaging at least 40.
  3. Importance – This can lead to a narrative creeping into the conscience of a voter (see Derrick Rose in 2011), but it’s something that advanced stats can help quantify.

Obviously, in terms of production, Kevin Durant and LeBron James lead the pack. They rank first and second in our PIE statistic. And through Thursday, their teams each rank second in their conference.

All stats are through Wednesday, April 9.

But can we tell which guy has been more important to their team’s success? If you look at team numbers with each on and off the floor, they’re both in the same ball park.

Thunder & Heat NetRtg with Durant and James on and off the floor

On floor Off floor Difference
Player MIN NetRtg MIN NetRtg NetRtg Rank
Kevin Durant 2,961 +8.2 808 +3.6 4.5 67
LeBron James 2,830 +8.1 954 +3.3 4.9 64

NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
Rank = Among 244 players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes with one team

The Thunder have been 8.7 points per 100 possessions better offensively and 4.2 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Durant on the floor. The Heat have been 8.1 points per 100 possessions better offensively and 3.3 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with James on the floor.

Those numbers are influenced by who Durant and James are playing with and against. Both have All-Star teammates that have missed big chunks of the season. Russell Westbrook has missed 35 games for the Thunder, while Dwyane Wade has missed 27 games for the Heat. Durant (43 percent) and James (41 percent) have each played less than half of their minutes with their costars on the floor.

But Serge Ibaka and Chris Bosh are both really good too. And both have missed just one game all season.

James has played more minutes without either Wade or Bosh than Durant has played without either Westbrook or Ibaka. But the Thunder’s only-Durant minutes have been much more successful than the Heat’s only-James minutes.

Thunder efficiency with Durant on the floor

On floor MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Durant + Ibaka + Westbrook 1,128 110.1 103.9 +6.2 +143
Durant + Ibaka, no Westbrook 1,195 107.0 100.7 +6.3 +162
Durant + Westbrook, no Ibaka 146 113.3 98.2 +15.1 +43
Durant, no Ibaka or Westbrook 492 114.7 99.6 +15.1 +153

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions

Heat efficiency with James on the floor

On floor MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
James + Bosh + Wade 1,022 109.5 101.4 +8.1 +156
James + Bosh, no Wade 1,113 115.4 101.6 +13.8 +270
James + Wade, no Bosh 127 107.8 107.8 -0.0 +2
James, no Bosh or Wade 568 109.0 109.9 -1.0 -18

James and Bosh have been a better tandem, but Durant has been, by far, the better solo act. Those 568 minutes are just 20 percent of James’ total playing time, but the numbers make it clear that Bosh has been a critical component to the Heat’s defense. His presence on the floor has been more important for the Heat than Ibaka’s has been for the Thunder.

These guys are never playing by themselves, of course. Beyond each team’s big three, the Thunder have gotten more consistent production from their role players. Nick Collison has the best on-off-court differential of OKC regulars.

But Collison has played less than 1,300 minutes and Durant’s on-court numbers appear to have been less influenced by the other stars on his team. The Thunder have the better record overall (57-21 vs. 53-25) and the better record when star No. 2 is out (35-10 vs. 27-10).

If James is going to be the fourth player to win five or more MVP awards, it probably won’t happen this year.

Heat, Pacers and the fight for No. 1

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Miami Heat and Indiana Paces have been battling all season for that No. 1 spot in the East

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — LeBron James insists the collective health of the Miami Heat means more to him than chasing the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings.

Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel rested his entire starting five Wednesday night in Milwaukee, swearing that his starters needed a break (mentally, physically and emotionally) more than they needed to continue their season-long quest to wrest away that top spot from the Heat.

What do you take us for, gentlemen? Surely you don’t think we’re buying this business about the No. 1 seed in the East, and the home-court advantage that will come with it in the Eastern Conference finals, suddenly morphing into some trivial pursuit at this late stage of the season.

We all know what’s at stake Friday night in Miami (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV) in your final regular-season matchup of the season. Don’t toy with our emotions because yours are frayed after a wild, roller coaster of a season that has seen both of your teams endure your fair share of struggles  (relatively speaking, of course, for two teams with a combined 107 wins and just 50 losses). It’s basically a winner-take-all showdown for that No. 1 spot, a chance for the struggling Pacers to make one last statement to the world about their intentions for the postseason and the Heat’s opportunity to remind the upstarts from Indianapolis that if they want the crown they better be ready to bleed for it.

“It’s going to be intense,” said Heat forward Chris Bosh, a man always good for an introspective word or two about the challenge at hand. “It’s going to be a hard-fought game. There’s something at stake. It’ll pretty much be the playoffs and I think it’ll be a great atmosphere. … We expect them at their best. Everybody we play, we expect them at their best because that’s what we get.”

It doesn’t matter that neither the Heat nor Pacers have looked like a championship team for much of the past six weeks. The Pacers have won just eight of their past 20 games and struggled to get most of those, while the Heat (playing without Dwyane Wade for eight straight due to a hamstring injury) have won just 10 of their past 21 while struggling to find the groove that guided them to 27 straight wins down the stretch last season.

This last regular-season game between to the top two teams in the conference sets up as a battle royale, with the Pacers holding a 2-1 edge in the season series and needing a third win for their collective psyche if nothing else. These past few months have been tumultuous, to say the least, for a fragile bunch that’s struggled with the weight of increased expectations brought on by their mercurial start to the season.


VIDEO: The Game Time crew weighs in on the Heat’s struggles

The way they’ve played recently doesn’t guarantee that either the Heat or Pacers will have what it takes to get past the Western Conference representative in The Finals. The San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers are all primed for a world-class tussle if they get that far.

But this is about the Heat and Pacers first and whether or not either one of them is psychologically prepared for what comes next. The Heat, grinding through a fourth straight season with a target on their chests every night, appear to be wearing down just a bit under that relentless pressure. The Pacers, who thought they knew what it took to be an elite team night after night, are finding out that it’s much easier to talk about it than to be about it.

“If I’m Indiana, I just want to get my mojo back,” TNT and NBA TV’s Chris Webber said, “go to wherever Stella went and get my groove back. Right now, they’re not playing well and it’s obvious to everyone in the league.”

TNT’s Reggie Miller knows this rivalry game from the inside out, having spent his entire Hall of Fame career with the Pacers. He knows the politically correct thing for all involved to say is that they want that No. 1 spot, but …

“Both will say, ‘We want the No. 1 seed.’ You always want Game 7 in your building, but when you’re the two best teams, you can go on the road and actually get a win. If I’m Miami and I’m looking at the landscape of the Eastern Conference, you get by that first round, you’re very well going to play either Chicago or Brooklyn, and Brooklyn has won four straight against Miami this year. I’m not quite sure you don’t want to get that No. 2 spot and take a little bit road less traveled to the Eastern Conference finals.”

That’s blasphemy in Miami, of course, where Heat boss Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra demand that the Heat walk through every fire necessary to reach the summit that is hoisting that Larry O’Brien trophy at season’s end. No challenge is too great when you’re aspiring to be one of the game’s all-time great teams.

That said, the Heat learned a valuable lesson last season while chasing history and that 33-game win streak. They spent so much energy during the regular season that they were riding on fumes midway through their postseason run. They had to survive themselves and the Pacers in the conference finals and then barely survived the Spurs in The Finals.

They know that controlling your own destiny based on home-court advantage comes at a price. That regular-season grind is expensive, it takes a toll on the body and mind, one that the Heat are a bit reluctant to pay when they know that they have an extra gear they can get to in the postseason.

“It’s not controlling our destiny about the No. 1 seed,” LeBron told reporters after the Heat lost in Memphis on Wednesday night. “We want to get healthy. That’s all that we care about, going into the postseason healthy. Once everyone comes back, then we can get everything rolling.”

Why wait for the playoffs when you can get it rolling against the Pacers one last time? The playoff-level intensity is already embedded on both sides. They cannot stand each other and play like it every time they suit up against one another. This fourth time this season will be no different.

And keep in mind, the only way these two will see each other again after this regular-season finale will be in the Eastern Conference finals … provided they both make it there.


VIDEO: Round 4 of Pacers-Heat this season should be as intense as ever with all that’s on the line

 

Five teams already looking ahead

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The start of the playoffs is just over the horizon and there will be plenty of unexpected bounces before the 2014 NBA champ is crowned in June.

But you can’t blame a handful of teams from already taking an early peek at what will surely be better times ahead next season:

 


VIDEO: Joakim Noah joins Arena Link after a recent Bulls win

Chicago Bulls – There’ s still plenty of havoc to be made by Joakim Noah and his “no tanking here” gang. Sitting in the No. 4 spot in the East, the Bulls are already shuffling their hooves at what could be another rip-snorting first-round series against the Nets and possibly a chance to put a few bruises on the Pacers or two-time champions from Miami down the line. But while it’s unrealistic to think Chicago can go all the way this season, the title hopes are back in view next October. Starting, of course, with a healthy return by Derrick Rose, the Bulls get their former MVP and most talented player back onto the court to supplement a lineup that has Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler.

While the dealing away of Luol Deng didn’t sink the Bulls in the standings, it brought a first round draft choice that the Cavs had picked up from Sacramento. They saved $20 million on Deng’s contract next year, can amnesty the vastly overpaid Carlos Boozer and be at the front of the line to make a recruiting pitch to head of the class free agent Carmelo Anthony. The lure of Phil Jackson‘s zen magic will probably make it tougher to get him out of N.Y., but if he really wants to make a run at a title instead of just being hero-worshipped, Melo would jump at the chance to join the Bulls where a recuperated Rose gives them the 1-2 punch that is almost necessary these days to be elite. As much fun as they’re having now, the real excitement could return next season.

 


VIDEO: Thaddeus Young, Jarvis Varnado discuss the progress and potential of Nerlens Noel

Philadelphia 76ers — It can’t get worse than losing a record-tying 26 games in a row, can it? It will still be only Year Two in general manager Sam Hinkie‘s long-term building project for the future. But at least next season the Sixers will be able to put a team out on the floor that has more than just Michael Carter-Williams, Thad Young and Tony Wroten as real NBA talent that could be part of something positive down the road. Hinkie has cleared out the payroll, but it’s far too early for the Sixers to even give a thought to luring free agents to Philly. They’ll have two lottery picks — their own and the Pelicans’ spot from the Jrue Holiday trade — and go digging for bargains with another pair of picks in the second round.

Of course, there’s the big bonus of finally getting big man Nerlens Noel into the lineup, after he sat out all of this season with a torn ACL. Noel has been champing at the bit to play now, but the team will hold him back till summer league and then turn him loose. Hinkie is positively giddy about what a bulked-up, more physically fit Noel will be able to do. The Sixers are not even dreaming of playoffs, just putting the building blocks in place.

 


VIDEO: Andrew Nicholson talks about staying positive in Orlando

Orlando Magic — Two years ago, Rob Hennigan dealt away Dwight Howard and the instant reaction from many corners was that the rookie GM had been fleeced. Of course, the way things turned out in L.A., Philly and Denver, it seems that Hennigan was the one doing the fleecing, picking up Nic Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Arron Afflalo, who are now main parts of a young roster on the rise. Mix in last year’s top draft pick Victor Oladipo with Tobias Harris, Kyle O’Quinn and Andrew Nicholson and while the Magic are again near the bottom of the standings with the third-fewest wins in the league, there has been a method to Hennigan. The jury is still out on making Oladipo a point guard, but he’s clearly a talent.

Hennigan is following in the footsteps of his mentor Sam Presti in OKC, constructing a roster that is flexible in terms of both talent and salary. The Magic are not beholden at this point to a single individual and are willing to be in the trade market for any upgrade that makes sense at any position. Then toss in the potential of adding an Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker to the lineup and the Magic are suddenly a team back in the spotlight with a new franchise star and a future that could lead back to chasing the playoffs maybe even as soon as next year in the Eastern Conference.

 


VIDEO: Giannis Antetokounmpo is adjusting to life in the NBA and U.S.

Milwaukee Bucks – As bad and depressing as things got for the Sixers during their 26-game losing streak, the fact is they were never able to drop below the Bucks in the standings. This is the worst team in the league, but it doesn’t have to be this way in 2014-15. For one thing, it’s about timing in the draft. The Bucks have been fortunate enough to win the lottery twice in the past, getting Glenn Robinson with the No. 1 pick in 1994 and Andrew Bogut in 2005. “Big Dog” had had his moments and Bogut is playing nicely these days for the Warriors, but neither was ever the kind of game-changer than can take a franchise to the top.

Now with the deepest lottery in a while, it seems that Milwaukee is in a can’t-miss position. GM John Hammond is said to be setting his sights on center Joel Embiid, who could anchor the middle of a lineup with exciting rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo and Larry Sanders, who hopefully can get his head back into the game and save a career that could go off the rails. Hammond unloaded the contracts of Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal at the trade deadline and would probably like to jettison O.J. Mayo. Brandon Knight has been up and down, but shows that he can score. Rookie Nate Wolters has probably exceeded expectations and creates optimism for the future.

It’s Antetokounmpo who creates the most excitement with his raw talent and potential. Whether they go with Embild with their first pick or Wiggins, Parker, Julius Randle or Dante Exum, this time the Bucks could get the game changer they need at a time when owner Herb Kohl is trying to sell the franchise. This could be a lineup worth buying and watching next season.

 


VIDEO: Dwight Howard explains why he likes it in Houston

Houston Rockets — Yes, yes, yes. The Rockets are already a top four seed in the rugged Western Conference and have flexed their speed and muscles and shooting prowess against some of the best teams in the league this season. The pairing of Dwight Howard with James Harden has given Houston the 1-2 All-Star punch that was expected. Yet even with some folks tabbing the Rockets as a dark horse threat when the playoffs begin, the truth is their best days are still ahead. Wheeler and dealer GM Daryl Morey knows that his job is not yet done and that’s why he’s played the payroll and salary cap like a Stradivarius and will again have the Rockets in position to make a run at at the biggest names on the free agent market this summer. If he deals Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik ($15 million each next season), the Rockets could offer close to the max.

Howard and Harden are still getting to know each other and this team might need to experience the pain of a playoff loss to get recommitted and take things to the next level. The Rockets could also use another scorer/defender on the wing to go toe-to-toe nightly with the elite contenders. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony? Let us saddle you up as part of the posse, pardner. Of course, it’s unlikely that James is going anywhere. But Anthony would have to have give long and serious thought to Houston if he decides that the magic of Jackson isn’t going to turn the Knicks around in the next year or two. Put Melo in a lineup with Howard and Harden and the 145 points the Rockets rung up the other night against the Lakers could become a nightly occurrence. If not Anthony, Bosh could return home to Texas. The Rockets made a free agent pitch for him several years ago and his adaptable skills could fit in nicely on the front line.

The Rockets will be different next season. They always are. And with Howard and Harden as anchors, now different means better. The start of next season can’t come soon enough in Houston.

Heat’s margin of error has vanished

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron James did his usual work for the Miami Heat in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – With the start of the playoffs just 10 days away, I never expected to be questioning the Miami Heat.

Normally, you’ve earned the benefit of all doubt when you smash your way to three straight Finals, win back-to-back titles and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are capable of handling any challenge thrown your way on the road to that sort of success.

And yet I cannot get the words of TNT’s Steve Kerr out of my head. He was the first to fire off a warning about the perils of the sort of journey the Heat are on, the taxing nature of not only chasing a three-peat, but the exhausting grind of playing to the final day of the NBA season four years in a row. It’s a grueling process that has worn down the best of the best before, so why shouldn’t it do the same to the Heat?

“There’s a reason these teams don’t do it,” Kerr said in September. “Emotionally, it’s just exhausting to keep doing it year after year, particularly when you have to deal with everything Miami has to deal with on a daily basis, just the constant critiquing and scrutiny on the team, and then you factor in the injuries with Wade and Bosh and their health. I don’t think Miami will get out of the East this year.”

Even if they get out of the East (which I think they will), their margin of error in The Finals — which was razor-thin last season — has vanished. They were on the ropes against the San Antonio Spurs, 30 seconds away from going down in Game 6 before they found the magic needed to survive that game and the energy to finish the Spurs off in Game 7.

It’s asking too much for the Heat to muster that sort of energy and effort again … especially after they’ve already spent a considerable amount of energy and effort dominating the way they have for four seasons running.

This Heat team, the one where LeBron James does the nightly heavy lifting while Chris Bosh does his part and Dwyane Wade helps (when he’s healthy and feeling good enough to suit up) reminds me of the 2011 group that lost to the Dallas Mavericks in The Finals.

It’s a game-to-game thing with the Heat now. Things appear to be fine after a win against a contender from the Eastern or Western Conference, while a loss to a contender starts the chorus of concern all over again. We’ll see it again in the next 48 hours. Losing to Memphis Wednesday night raised all the same red flags about the Heat’s ability to answer the bell against a desperate team. But a win Friday night (7:30 ET, NBA TV) in their fourth and final battle of this regular season against the Indiana Pacers will silence the cynics — at least for a few hours.

A year ago, the Heat were in the midst of a stunning finish to the regular season that saw them win 27 straight games as they chased the Lakers’ NBA-record 33-game win streak. No one had any doubts that they were ready for the playoffs, ready to handle the rigors of winning back-to-back titles and solidifying their status as the league’s preeminent force.

These days, each outing offers more and more signs of decay. It’s a natural erosion that comes with the Heat pounding the rock every night since James, Wade and Bosh joined forces. You don’t have to be a Heat hater to see it either. You simply have to watch, study and give an honest assessment of what we’re seeing out of Miami as the regular season ends.

The same way Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Israel Gutierrez of ESPN.com did after that loss to the Grizzlies:

The other somewhat troubling sign Wednesday was how quickly the offense went from free-flowing with great ball movement in the first half to a stagnant, LeBron-or-nothing affair that played very much into Memphis’ hands.

James happened to keep Miami in the game because he had his jumper going. But the entire offense came to a standstill on several possessions, leading to forced drives into traffic and easily convertible turnovers.

“It’s something you always have to stay conscious of,” Spoelstra said. “Even as beautifully as we move the ball sometimes, it’s a game you have to work at. You have to do it under duress, when the defense steps up their pressure, which they did.”

LeBron says he would rather play the ball-movement game and keep his teammates involved. But when he’s got it going, he can also take the offense out of rhythm when calling his own number.

“That is a fine balance in this league,” Spoelstra said. “Because he, along with Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, they’re the best end-of-possession, bail-you-out options for the offense.

“But that can’t be your offense, and we understand that.”

Ultimately, this comes down to Wade. Will he be able to navigate a healthy path and play at an elite level long enough during the postseason to give the Heat that extra playoff edge they’ve had their last two playoff runs?

Because asking LeBron to carry the load without that help this time around might not be feasible.

Flipping that Heat playoff switch is not an option, either. Not when the margin of error has vanished before the postseason has even started.


VIDEO: A desperate Grizzlies team was too much for LeBron James and the Heat

Defensive Player of the Year by the numbers

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com

Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut have been key cogs in the Warriors' defense. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut have been key cogs in the Warriors’ defense. (Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Defense is difficult to quantify.

In the boxscore, we have steals and blocks, which don’t really tell us much. Two of the league’s top five in total steals plus blocks – Josh Smith and Andre Drummond – are Pistons. The Pistons are awful defensively and worse when Smith and Drummond are on the floor together than they are when one or both is off the floor.

NBA.com/stats tells us how many points per 100 possessions a player’s team has allowed when he was on the floor, a category dominated by players on the league’s best defensive teams.

To be considered for the Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, you should be on a good defensive team. The last player to win the award that wasn’t on a team that ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency was Dikembe Mutombo in 1997-98. And 12 of the 15 winners since then (including each of the last six) played for teams that ranked in the top five.

And you can find plenty of great defensive players in this season’s top five teams in defensive efficiency. Indiana (1) has both Paul George and Roy Hibbert. Chicago (2) has Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. Golden State (3) has Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut. Oklahoma City (5) has Serge Ibaka.

It’s hard to pick a Spur for DPOY candidacy when none of them have averaged 30 minutes per game. Beyond the top five defensive teams, Chris Bosh, Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan could be candidates. Their teams all rank in the top 12 in defensive efficiency, and Howard’s Rockets have only dropped out of the top 10 since he started missing games.

This season, we have SportVU data to tell us how well opponents shoot near the basket when a player is there defending it. And we can supplement that with data on how often opponents actually shoot near the basket when that player is on the floor. Big guys should get credit for keeping the other team away from the basket, after all.

All stats are through April 7, 2014.

Big men DPOY candidates, defending the rim

Player %FGA Rank1 FG% Rank2
Andrew Bogut 27.5% 1 45.5% 7
Chris Bosh 32.1% 34 52.5% 39
Marc Gasol 30.3% 20 50.4% 24
Taj Gibson 31.1% 27 45.0% 6
Roy Hibbert 28.3% 4 41.7% 1
Dwight Howard 30.7% 24 47.8% 13
Serge Ibaka 34.2% 53 44.3% 3
DeAndre Jordan 31.9% 32 49.4% 19
Joakim Noah 29.6% 13 46.1% 8

%FGA = Percentage of opponent shots taken from the restricted area with player on the floor.
Rank1 = Among 72 bigs who have been on the floor for at least 2,000 opponent shots.
FG% = Opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim while player is defending it.
Rank2 = Among 58 players who have defended at least 5.0 shots at the rim per game for at least 50 games.

There’s more to defense than protecting the rim, though. For a big man to be an impact defender, he has to be able to contain ball-handlers on pick-and-rolls. This is where a guy like Bosh can show his value on a team that defends like the Heat. It’s also where a guy like Drummond still has a lot of work to do.

SportVU has numbers on how efficiently opponents have scored when a player is the help defender on pick-and-roll.

Big men DPOY candidates, defending pick-and-rolls

Help Defender Screens Poss. Team PTS PTS/Poss
Andrew Bogut 725 688 624 0.91
Chris Bosh 1,120 1,063 1,051 0.99
Marc Gasol 765 726 759 1.05
Taj Gibson 715 695 699 1.01
Roy Hibbert 1,159 1,111 1,026 0.92
Dwight Howard 1,343 1,271 1,293 1.02
Serge Ibaka 961 924 925 1.00
DeAndre Jordan 1,494 1,441 1,500 1.04
Joakim Noah 974 939 879 0.94

There’s a lot that goes into these numbers. They’re from all possessions in which that player defended a ball-screen and the results (a score or no score) could be several passes away. So they do depend on his teammates quite a bit. Still, we can see that Bogut, Hibbert and Noah have distinguished themselves as both rim protectors and pick-and-roll defenders.

The other thing we can look at his how much of an impact these guys make on their team defensive numbers.

DPOY candidates, on and off the court

On floor Off floor Difference
Player MIN DefRtg MIN DefRtg DefRtg Rank
Andre Iguodala 1,976 96.6 1,745 103.1 -6.5 9
Chris Bosh 2,395 100.8 1,293 105.7 -4.9 20
Paul George 2,823 95.9 941 97.8 -1.9 74
Roy Hibbert 2,331 95.6 1,433 97.5 -1.9 76
Dwight Howard 2,310 102.1 1,368 103.5 -1.3 90
Andrew Bogut 1,688 99.1 2,033 100.2 -1.1 98
Taj Gibson 2,216 97.2 1,525 98.2 -0.9 105
Joakim Noah 2,619 97.5 1,122 97.9 -0.4 114
DeAndre Jordan 2,766 102.0 993 101.4 +0.6 139
Marc Gasol 1,775 102.8 1,941 101.5 +1.3 150
Serge Ibaka 2,475 101.3 1,198 99.8 +1.4 154

Rank = Among 239 players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes for a single team

If a team has better defensive numbers when a player is off the floor, it doesn’t mean that he’s a bad defender. The Thunder are typically defending the opponents’ best players when Ibaka is on the floor and their subs when he’s off.

Who these guys are being replaced with also plays a role. Hibbert’s the best rim protector in the league, but Ian Mahinmi is also a very good defender.

But the on-off court numbers make a strong case for Iguodala. The Warriors have been a much better defensive team with Iguodala on the floor and Bogut off than vice versa. Opponent shooting numbers, when you compare Iguodala to some of the league’s other good defenders at the small forward position, also make a case.

Top five small forward scorers* with defender on the floor

On floor FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3PT% FTA PTS eFG% TS%
Luol Deng 68 180 37.8% 21 57 36.8% 61 208 43.6% 50.3%
Paul George 82 170 48.2% 11 30 36.7% 62 232 51.5% 58.8%
Andre Iguodala 65 156 41.7% 17 43 39.5% 48 185 47.1% 52.2%
LeBron James 97 210 46.2% 24 67 35.8% 73 272 51.9% 56.2%
Kawhi Leonard 64 139 46.0% 8 26 30.8% 51 179 48.9% 55.4%

* Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Paul George and Rudy Gay
EFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
TS% = PTS / (2 * (FGA + (0.44 * FTA)))

Ron Artest (2003-04) and Gary Payton (1995-96) are the only perimeter players to win Defensive Player of the Year in the last 25 years. And it’s hard to argue against a pick of either Hibbert or Noah as the anchors of the two best defensive teams in the league.

But Iguodala should definitely be in the conversation. He’s the biggest reason why the Warriors have jumped from 13th in defensive efficiency last season to third this year, and why the Denver Nuggets have gone in the opposite direction (from 11th to 21st).

Morning Shootaround — April 2


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 1

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Wade: Big Three haven’t talked opt out yet | Warriors band together in OT | Howard has fluid drained from ankle | Report: Lillard nearing deal with adidas | Lakers to build new practice digs

No. 1: Wade: Big Three not decided on future plans yet– The playoffs are nearly here, which means all eyes will be on the Miami Heat to see if the squad led by stars Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh can make a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance and, perhaps, win a third straight title. Whenever Miami’s playoff run comes to an end — and likely, well before that even happens — the next topic folks will discuss is whether or not James, Bosh and Wade will opt out of their contract this summer. ESPN.com’s Darren Rovell reports that in an upcoming ESPN the Magazine article, Wade says he and the rest of the Big Three haven’t broached that topic yet:

Miami Heat teammates Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh all have opt-outs in their contracts at the end of this season, but no collective decision has been made as to whether they will all choose to test the free agent waters.

The three met before they made their free agent decision in 2010 and could have another such meeting before their June 30 opt-out deadlines, which allows them to leave in 2014, 2015 or 2016.

Wade revealed on Tuesday as part of an interview for the cover story of an upcoming issue of ESPN The Magazine that the three, who have gone to three straight Finals and won the last two, plan to have that conversation at some point.

“I’m at a position where I don’t really have to worry about it,” said Wade, who also won a title for the Heat in 2006. “I’ve been with the same organization for now 11 years. We’ve won multiple championships, so it’s no reason where I need to think about that yet. I’m not at a point where we are a bad team and I need to think about the future so right now I’m really focused on just enjoying this team, enjoying our quest to try to ‘Three-peat.’ And when the season is over, and whatever happens, then I will sit down and I will sit down with Chris and I will sit down with Bron and I will sit down and make the best decision for myself and my family.”

Last week, Bosh hinted that he and LeBron would stay in Miami when he answered “True” to a question posed by ESPN’s Dan Le Batard as to whether he and James would be back with the team next year.

“When we sat down and we signed our deals and all of us made sure we had an opt out in that fourth year, that was our option, so the option is there and you would hope that someone wants to be able to use their option as a player,” Wade said:

“As players, you only have so much time and you only have so many moments where you have the ability to control your own fate, so it’s not a bad thing at all if that’s what someone is thinking. I haven’t had that conversation with Chris. I haven’t had that conversation with Bron,” he added.


VIDEO: LeBron James talks with Steve Smith about his contract future with the Heat

***

No. 2: Warriors come up with big OT win — With less than 10 games left in their respective seasons, last night’s Warriors-Mavericks game in Dallas took on plenty of significance. Both Dallas and Golden State are, in their own ways, fighting for their playoff lives. And both put on a classic game last night as the Mavs built a sizeable first-half lead and seemed to be in control for a win before the Warriors came back and forced in OT. In the extra period, Steph Curry took the spotlight and delivered a game-winning jumper with :00.1 left to give Golden State some extra breathing room in the postseason chase. Our Jeff Caplan was on hand and details how Golden State stuck together all game long: 

Jermaine O’Neal will always be remembered most for his days as an Indiana Pacer. But now the 18-year veteran seeking one last shot at glory plays for the Golden State Warriors, a team that’s fought through injury and adversity, and down the pressure-packed stretch run just might be the antithesis of O’Neal’s fraying former club.Starting at center once again Tuesday night for the injured Andrew Bogut in a game magnified by playoff implications for both the Warriors and Mavericks, O’Neal ripped Dallas for 20 points, eight rebounds and one massive, game-altering blocked shot. Late in the fourth quarter, Mavs guard Monta Ellis dunked over O’Neal to give Dallas a 102-97 lead and a wave of momentum in an arena buzzing with playoff-style excitement. This time, as Ellis tried to turn the corner, O’Neal made his move. He snared Ellis’ baseline fallaway with his right hand with 11.6 seconds to go in overtime, and in one motion brought it down and fed it out to Draymond Green, who got it to Stephen Curry, who ended it with a tough, contested jumper over Jose Calderon from the left wing with 0.1 seconds showing on the clock.

As time expired, the Warriors, rallying late in the fourth and again in overtime, celebrated the 122-120 victory as furious Mavs owner Mark Cuban, befuddled that no goaltending was called on O’Neal, engaged in an animated discussion with the referees.

The margin for error in Tuesday’s game was as razor thin as the separation in the standings. A Dallas win would have moved them one-half game behind Golden State, who now head to San Antonio to grapple with the Spurs’ 18-game win streak. Instead, it’s the Mavs who slipped from seventh to out of the playoff picture in ninth, one-half game behind Memphis and Phoenix.

The Warriors, feeding off a belief that many see them as down and out, found a different interpretation of a wild 53 minutes in Big D.

“This is late in the year and I have seen teams say how easy it is to let go of the rope,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. “This is a team that’s not going to do it. Contrary to anything, we’re not going to do it. This is a quality win against a team  that had everything going their way and I’m proud of these guys. They deserve the credit.”

Jackson called his bunch a “tied-together team,” and emphasized, “I don’t think you need more evidence.”

Sharpshooter Klay Thompson, who had 27 points, including the game-tying 3-pointer with 1:01 to go in regulation, played up the Warriors’ unbreakable mindset.

“People think we’re down and out, it just proves we have a lot of basketball in us,” Thompson said. “We never hang our heads. We might have done that in the past, but this is a changed team. When we get those guys [Lee and Bogut] back, we’ll be even better.”


VIDEO: Golden State’s players celebrate a big win in Dallas

***

No. 3: Howard has fluid drained from left ankle — Much like fellow All-Star big man Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers, it sounds like Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard is going to do all he can to be fully healthy for the playoffs. Howard is recovering from an ankle injury and had some fluid drained from it, but remains confident he’ll be fully ready to go once the playoffs begin, writes Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

Aiming to be 100 percent by the playoffs, center Dwight Howard said Tuesday he had fluid drained from his left ankle for a second time but that he is “not worried at all” that the issue will linger through the remainder of the Rockets’ regular-season schedule.

“There was more fluid in there the next time I saw the doctor,” Howard said. “It was best I get the fluid out and just rest. I’m not worried.”

Howard, who missed four of the Rockets’ past six games, has no target date to return, but he won’t play Wednesday in Toronto.

Forward Terrence Jones sat out Tuesday with flu-like symptoms.

Coach Kevin McHale said a timetable has not been determined on point guard Pat Beverley’s return, saying the Rockets will “play it by ear.”

“(Howard) had a shot in the back of his ankle to ease some of the pain,” McHale said. “He had some swollen soft tissue in there. When that calms down, he’ll go.”

Howard missed three games last month before returning to play against Charlotte and Philadelphia. The soreness returned in the third quarter against the Sixers last Thursday. He sat out Saturday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers and is sitting out this week’s two-game trip to Brooklyn and Toronto.

“The main thing is that I am able to run and be who I am without any concerns,” Howard said. “For a while, I (felt good) in both games. But after a while, it started hurting again so I couldn’t do all the things I wanted to do. (Playing in those two games) wasn’t smart.”

***

No. 4: Report: Lillard nearing deal with adidas – To say that 2013-14 has been a breakout season for Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard is a bit of an understatement. Lillard, who is second on the team in scoring (21.1 ppg) and leads it in both assists (5.6 apg) and 3-pointers made (204), became an All-Star this season and helped Portland surpass last season’s 33 wins weeks ago. It’s no surprise that more marketing opportunities are opening up for him and as Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports, a new shoe deal is coming down the pike for the Blazers guard:

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard and adidas are on the cusp of finalizing a multiyear, lucrative shoe endorsement deal barring any hiccups, a league source informed CSNNW.com.Once official, an announcement is expected in the coming days.

“We’re close,” Lillard told CSNNW.com on Tuesday. “Nothing final yet. I’m excited.”

Adidas had a 30-day exclusive window to reach an agreement with Lillard and that period was set to expire on April. 1, according to another source briefed on the situation. If a deal was not reached, conversations with Nike and other shoe rivals would have commenced as soon as this week, we’re told.

However, the talks have progressed to the point where adidas is in the driver’s seat.

Lillard, along with his agent Aaron Goodwin, were spotted on Tuesday with adidas’ officials at the JW Marriott in downtown Los Angeles, Calif., where positive back and forth dialogue took place, CSNNW.com learned.


VIDEO: Damian Lillard talks after his monster game against the Lakers on Tuesday

***

No. 5: Lakers to build new practice facility — The Los Angeles Lakers have plenty of history and a future Hall of Famer in Kobe Bryant on their roster that they hope will entice some free agents to look their way this summer. But one thing that likely won’t draw tons of free agents to L.A. is the Lakers’ outdated practice facility. The Lakers, though, are working with a local company to buy five acres of land on which they’ll one day build a new practice facility, writes Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:

For all the glitz and glamour surrounding the Lakers’ franchise, their current practice facility does not exactly exude such a mystique.

The Lakers have only one basketball court and its office space is somewhat cramped. So in an effort both to expand room for their day-to-day operations and provide a mechanism to lure free agents beyond their storied championship history, the Lakers plan to build a modern practice facility in El Segundo.

The Lakers did not provide any details on the beginning or completion date. But they announced entering an agreement with CDC Mar Campus, LLC to purchase a five-acre undeveloped portion at Campus El Segundo near the northwest corner of Mariposa Avenue and Douglas Street. The completion of the purchase hinges on the City of El Segundo’s approval.

The Lakers currently practice at Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, a building shared with the NHL’s Kings and a skating rink that is often open to the general public. The Lakers would own their future facility and would have more room to accommodate their business and basketball operations. The Lakers’ marketing, ticketing, corporate sponsorships and community relations are located in a different building about a block away. The Lakers also have no sign of their logo outside of the building proclaiming their existence.

The Clippers opened a $60 million practice facility in Playa Vista in 2008 that includes two basketball courts, spacious offices and expansive video and weight rooms. They had practice before at Spectrum, an El Segundo health club, and L.A. Southwest College.

Part of the Lakers’ thought process entails wanting to have another mechanism to attract free agents, according to a source familiar with the details.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Pacers’ Paul George is an All-Star, but he hasn’t been living up to the scoring task of late for Indiana … Suns guard Goran Dragic gets his own Slovenian music video tribute … Blazers forward Victor Claver isn’t happy with his role and playing time in Portland … Jason Kidd downplays his new Coach of the Month Award

ICYMI(s) of the Night: There were lotsa great blocks in Dallas last night, starting with Shawn Marion‘s denial of Marreese Speights and ending with Jermaine O’Neal‘s game-saving block that led to Steph Curry‘s game-winner …


VIDEO: Marion takes flight to deny Speights’ jam


VIDEO: Jermaine O’Neal gets the crucial late-game denial vs. the Mavs

Miami lineups change, LeBron plays on

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron dunks on the Bucks on a night when he rested during the fourth quarter

MILWAUKEE – In the last game of LeBron James‘ seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he took the floor against Boston in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, Antawn Jamison and 38-year-old Shaquille O’Neal. Combined points-per-game of the four starters besides James: 50.9.

Against the Milwaukee Bucks Saturday night, James stepped on the court with Chris Bosh, Toney Douglas, James Jones and Udonis Haslem. Combined scoring average at tipoff of this “supporting cast”: 26.2.

This was not what the smoke, lasers and dance music were all about back in July 2010.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has shuffled through 19 different starting lineups in 72 games this season. One – the familiar one from the past two Finals, with James, Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier – has been used 30 times,with the Heat going 20-10 in those games. The other 18 actually have yielded better results – 30-12 – despite none getting more than eight starts together and eight of the combinations going one-and-done.

None of this is by design, mind you. Injuries and ineffectiveness have pulled the handle on Miami’s lineup slot machine, not Spoelstra, the fruit tumbling and landing based on who’s available and contributing. Everyone knows about Wade, whose increasingly brittle body has been nursed through the 2013-14 schedule (51 games in, 21 games out) as if it’s Stephen Strasburg‘s right arm. Ray Allen at times has looked every bit of his 38 years, eight months, one week and three days. Battier’s planned retirement after this season has had a few false starts.

Eternally rehabbing Greg Oden has been more mascot than center, the way this season has gone.

“People think we’re overanalyzing it, we have some plan right now,” Spoelstra said Saturday evening before his guys did their work early in the 88-67 breeze past the Bucks. “Guys who are able to play right now are playing, period. Guys who cannot play, who are not passing the test, they’re not playing. The thing about this season, we’ve had a lot more of those than we’ve had in the past where guys aren’t able to play.”

In the middle of it all stands James. He’s the constant in the Heat’s season of change – OK, Bosh has missed one game and Norris Cole none but they orbit James the same as Miami’s other planets and moons. The four-time MVP has missed three games himself – broken nose, groin and ankle sprain, he recounts swiftly when the topic comes up – but no one on the roster has played within 300 minutes of his time. At 2,592, he has played nearly seven full games more than Bosh (2,258) and the equivalent of twice that compared to Chalmers (1,887).

James sat down after 30 minutes Saturday, skipping the fourth quarter entirely thanks to the score and who the Heat were playing. He orchestrated and facilitated more than dominated – two shots and two points in the first half, 13 points and seven rebounds by night’s end – but he was out there. Wade again was sitting on the bench in a suit. Chalmers and Oden were sidelined, too, and the flu sweeping through Allen’s family kept him off the three-game trip entirely.

Frankly, James would be within his rights to look around and wonder whether this patchwork attack and relative M*A*S*H unit of teammates will be enough to reach and win another Finals. And if he did, the opt-out in his contract this summer would loom so large, it’d throw a shadow over Miami’s entire postseason.

If James’ teammates feel sheepish or some extra obligation to pick up the pace and durability in fairness to him, they’re not saying. “We’re a team. We have to come through for each other,” Wade said after the Milwaukee game. “So we all are obligated for each other. Obviously myself, LeBron and Chris wanted to play together.”

Then again, if his heavier work load while others sit is an issue, James hasn’t let on.

“It’s gotten to the point now where I don’t even think about it,” the Heat star said, “and if I’m in the lineup tonight, then I’ve got to do my job. You just worry about controlling things you can control. Us having injuries, us having guys in and out of the lineup, that’s something I can’t control.”

It is something he’s noticed, at least. Never before has James played for a team with such a revolving door on its trainers room.

“I can’t really recall it, as many guys as we’ve had [out],” he said. “In that sense it’s challenging, not only for myself but for the guys who are in – they may not have played for two months – and then out and they may not play for 14, 15 games.

“It’s the luxury of having unselfish guys. That’s what we have. I don’t know too many teams who can do this – that can have guys like James Jones who – I don’t know, has he played this year [before Friday]? – then to start [in Detroit] and contribute. Guys like that, it’s amazing.”

For the record, Jones had played a total of 70 minutes in a dozen games across Miami’s first 70, before logging 54 minutes in the back-to-back against the Pistons and the Bucks. But what about James? Has fatigue made him crave a couple games off just to rest or reset?

“Only if I’m injured, for the most part, will I sit down,’ ” James said. “I don’t have too many ‘mental days.’ “

In past seasons, when Miami’s playoff berth has been secured, Spoelstra has spotted James a game or two to set up for the playoffs. He will again, unless Indiana keeps the East race for No. 1 close till the end.

But the Heat aren’t there yet. And James has no hand up in search of a breather.

“If I tried to sit him out of a shootaround or a practice, he would look at me cross-eyed,” Spoelstra said. “This summer he had more rest than he’s had any other offseason. So that’s probably triple [rest] for most people, because he loves the game so much, he loves to compete.”

Consider Friday, the day Miami played in Detroit. James showed up at Oakland (Mich.) University not long after sunrise to work out at the gym where his childhood friend and high school teammates Sonny Weems serves as an assistant coach. Then he went through the Heat’s shootaround later than morning. Nine or 10 hours after that, he posted a triple-double against the Pistons.

During warmups against the Bucks, James took time to meet and visit with Ebony Nettles-Bey, a girls high school basketball player from Verona, Wis., who is battling a Stage 4 cancer. He shot around with her prior to tipoff, then spoke warmly about their encounter after the final horn.

“What she’s going through every single day, the challenges she’s facing every single day with the Stage 4 cancer that she has,” James said, “she’s the stronger one out of us two.”

After that, any further questions about work load and rest, not just James’ but any NBA player’s, seemed a little silly.

“There’s no such thing as well-rested at this point,” James said. “Every season is different. My mentality changes from season to season. Every challenge is different. You just go about it however it presents itself.”

Heat-Pacers packs punch as playoff preview, palate cleanser

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Pacers edge Heat in chippy East clash

INDIANAPOLIS – Surely, Washington and Detroit would understand. Same with Cleveland and Milwaukee and the other teams on the Indiana Pacers’ and Miami Heat’s schedules over the short term.

If the NHL could shut down for a few weeks to accommodate the Winter Olympics, the NBA and its member teams no doubt would oblige by staging the Eastern Conference finals now, wouldn’t they?

This one – Pacers 84, Heat 83 – was that special. And raggedy. And nasty. And hot.

There were grimaces and grumbles in the visitors’ dressing room afterward, smiles and a couple of exhales over on the home team’s side, and for a night – portending, soon enough, a fortnight – all was right with the NBA world.

Not all right in the sense that Miami lost and, with it, an opportunity to squeeze the Pacers a little harder in that chase for the East’s No. 1 seed. But all right in the way storm clouds over both teams got shoved aside by the sun burst of playoff-worthy basketball from all involved.

No one mentioned doldrums. Whatever the bad math lately – seven losses in 12 games, or was it eight in 13? – it was rendered irrelevant. Both teams clinched their divisions, one by winning, the other by losing (thanks, Washington), and naturally that meant nothing to them either.

Getting a game like the one at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Wednesday, one that lived up to the hype and then transcended it, has the effect of a palate cleanser at this point in the regular season. Of course, that’s way too genteel a metaphor for what went on – clotheslines and elbows and flagrants, oh my! – unless we sub out the sorbet for a squeegee, a bar rag and some styptic pencils.

The Pacers and the Heat hadn’t faced each other in anger (and that’s no mere cliché in this matchup) since Dec. 10 and Dec. 18, back before the season had gotten much traction. The battle everyone expected, and still expects, them to have as the East’s last two standing was, well, out there somewhere.

Now it’s right there, in relative terms. And the margin was as slim as Indiana strongman David West‘s shocking 3-pointer on an inbounds play with 50.2 seconds left that made it 84-80, followed by Miami forward Chris Bosh‘s hurried 22-footer to win just before the buzzer on what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra admitted was a “gunslinger” play. The ball had come in to LeBron James with just two seconds left and he followed orders by shoveling it to Bosh. Two passes in two seconds, yeah, a little gunslinger.

But it was that sort of night.

“It was definitely a playoff game,” Bosh said. “Close, going back and forth. Each possession was crucial. We just had [19] turnovers and didn’t do a very good job of taking care of the ball. Especially down the stretch [two in 21 seconds late in the fourth quarter]. Against a good team like that, you have to get good shots. You can’t come away with empty possessions, because that puts them in position to really strangle you.”


VIDEO: LeBron James talks about Miami’s loss in Indiana

Strangle? Nah, that was one of the few forms of mayhem not on display Wednesday.

Emotions ran hot, as evidenced by the dueling technical fouls on Lance Stephenson and Dwyane Wade for barking close in the third quarter. Later, both were gone, done in by their respective fatal flaws: Stephenson’s immaturity and Wade’s assorted ailments.

The Pacers’ mercurial guard taunted Wade after a basket with 5:01 left in the fourth and foolishly got his second T, earning an automatic suspension. Wade grabbed at his left hamstring three minutes later and had to exit.

Physically, this was May, not March. James, one of the league’s brawniest players, was in the thick of it. On one play, he got dragged down by Indiana big man Ian Mahinmi. It was reviewed as a flagrant foul but recast as a shooting foul. Next, he was whacked hard by Luis Scola, his recently broken nose taking impact. It too was reviewed as a flagrant but recast as a common foul.

“I see me and Blake Griffin take some hard hits,” James groused afterward. “They call it how they want to call it.”

So naturally, when James drove strong soon thereafter, his right elbow caught Pacers center Roy Hibbert smack on the jaw, sending the big man to the floor and briefly on rubber-leg street. And that was ruled a flagrant-1 foul.

James, unhappy most of all with the outcome, clipped his answers to postgame questions off at three or four words. But he went longer when someone wondered if the hit on Hibbert was retaliatory.

“If I could jump in the air, elbow somebody in the face in the air and still try to finish the play, I must be a kung-fu master or something,” James said. “I mean, his face happened to hit my elbow or my elbow happened to hit his face.”

Bosh stuck up for his friend.

“Our guys are getting punched in the face and clotheslined out there and we’re getting two shots,” Bosh said. “Then we get an offensive foul called – and it’s a flagrant. I guess we really need to decipher what ‘flagrant’ means. Because I don’t feel they were going for the ball. Especially in those two situations.

“If you can come down and clothesline somebody, I mean, it’s open season. People are going to get hurt. I don’t know, we’re going to have to revisit what ‘flagrant foul’ means to see if it’s even. But they had one and we had none, even though LeBron got punched in the face and clotheslined.”

West, when he heard about Bosh’s complaint, was incredulous: “He [James] shot 15 free throws!”

How perfect was this stuff? There had been no handshakes before the game, no chit-chat or fraternity hugs. There certainly won’t be any next time, not now, not after the bodies spent sprawling and the blood spilled Wednesday.

West had an air of satisfaction about him as the Pacers’ locker room cleared. He and some teammates had given Stephenson a talking-to after the final horn, reminding him to knock off the foolishness. Their team, for the most part, also had eased some of Paul George‘s burden by getting the ball out of his hands, sending him through and around the Miami defense as a cutter and generally keeping the Heat guessing.

But best of all, as West saw it, Indiana matched Miami in rugged play and giving as good as they got. With the game in their gym, they felt they had a solid chance to stay even on the whistles.

“They’re a tough team and psychologically, against most teams, they have the edge,” West said. “They have the best player in the game. Wade and Bosh are Hall of Fame guys. They’ve got that pedigree, their entire organization. You understand what you’re gonna get.”

Better than that, fans of both teams and the league in general understand what they’re gonna get when these two teams meet again. And, soon enough, again and again and again.


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers discuss their big win over the Heat