Posts Tagged ‘Chris Paul’

Morning Shootaround — April 27



VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Pelicans plan to sign Davis to the max | Austin Rivers saves Clippers season | Buss says Lakers will celebrate Kobe next season | Trail Blazers vow to show heart, avoid sweep

No. 1: Report: Pelicans plan to sign Davis to the max — The New Orleans Pelicans have a summer to-do-list that starts and ends with taking care of Anthony Davis. The Pelicans’ immediate future rests on making sure Davis is a part of the organization for years to come and that means signing him to a max deal. Marc Stein of ESPN.com has more:

League sources say that the Pels will be as aggressive as possible on July 1 in presenting Davis with a five-year maximum contract that makes him New Orleans’ designated player.

Given that the 22-year-old was voted to start in February’s All-Star Game and will likely earn All-NBA first-team status when voting results are announced in coming days, Davis would be in line to start his max deal at 30 percent of the league’s salary cap as opposed to a mere 25 percent as long as he earns just one of those same honors next season — or if he is named the 2015-16 MVP.

Based on the league’s most recent cap projections, Davis will thus be presented with a five-year pact that will eventually top $30 million annually and could exceed $140 million in total value in a deal that kicks in beginning in 2016-17 and run through his 28th birthday.

Can he really turn down those sort of riches and that level of security in the name of flexibility?

Would he turn that down when he’s clearly comfortable in New Orleans and, by all accounts, highly engaged as the young leader of his team?

Hard to see Davis resisting such lucrative insulation, though he certainly does have the option of signing a shorter extension to keep his free-agent future more open.

***

No. 2: Austin Rivers saves Clippers season — He was supposed to be a bit player in this series, a footnote at best. But make no mistake, with their season on the brink in Game 4 in San Antonio, Austin Rivers stepped up and helped save the Los Angeles Clippers. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports explains how Austin Rivers brought tears to his father’s eyes:

When Doc Rivers walked into the locker room, the scene stopped him. Chris Paul called on the Clippers to congratulate the young guard responsible for saving the season and present him the game ball. Everyone clapped. Everyone let out a long, loud cheer for Austin Rivers.

“For a moment, for a half second maybe, I became a dad in there,” Doc Rivers told Yahoo Sports later on Sunday at the AT&T Center. The tears welled in his eyes, but he quickly wiped them away and stiffened in the concrete corridor.

To trade for his son, Rivers had to make a case on the move’s merits to a dubious basketball community. He’s had to live with the criticism. They’ve had to live with it together. They had Sunday together, too.

Austin Rivers had his finest moment in the NBA on Sunday, scoring 16 points, delivering defense, deflections and a 114-105 victory over the San Antonio Spurs to bring this best-of-seven series 2-2 back to Staples Center. He made deft drives to the basket, fearless finishes to stun the Spurs.

For nine years, Doc Rivers coached and lived in Boston. For most of that time, his wife and children stayed in Orlando. Austin completed middle school and high school, spent a year at Duke and moved onto the NBA. Father and son were separated a long time, often coming and going in moments Doc had flown down and stolen an off-night for a high school game or an ACC game on Tobacco Road.

“Listen, we haven’t been together a lot,” Rivers told Yahoo Sports. “In a lot of ways, I am his coach.”

More coach than father, he’s trying to say. It’s an honest admission, and it comes tinged with a touch of sadness. Nevertheless, Austin Rivers has had to find his own way with these Clippers, earn his own respect. This was a beginning on Sunday, nothing more, nothing less.

***

No. 3: Buss says Lakers will celebrate Kobe next season — It’s all about Kobe Bryant next season for the Los Angeles Lakers. Even with a monster free agent summer on tap, the Lakers’ focus will be on Kobe. Lakers boss Jeanie Buss insists the 2015-16 season will be a celebration of one of the franchise’s and NBA’s all-time greats and his 20 years with the franchise. Sean Highkin of ProBasketballTalk.com has the details:

It’s been more or less known without anybody outright saying it for a while that next year will be Kobe Bryant‘s final year. His contract is up in 2016, which will put his career at 20 seasons, all with the Lakers, and the last three have ended with injuries.

Lakers president Jeanie Buss seems to know the end of the Kobe era is coming, if you go by her comments on a Sunday morning Bleacher Report radio interview:

Bryant has said that he doesn’t want a Derek Jeter-style farewell tour when he hangs it up, but it seems pretty obvious that it’s coming. And for the impact he’s had on the NBA and the sport worldwide, he deserves to take a victory lap regardless of what the Lakers do next season.

***

No. 4: Trail Blazers vow to show heart, avoid sweep — The Portland Trail Blazers insist they will not go away quietly. They will not be swept out of these playoffs without a fight. Their season is on the line tonight against the Memphis Grizzlies and they vow to fight until the very end. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian explains:

A little more than nine weeks ago, the Trail Blazers‘ practice court was brimming with confidence and gusto.

They had just made a splash at the NBA trade deadline, acquiring Arron Afflalo to strengthen their bench and add depth for what figured to be a long and successful playoff run. Pundits universally lauded the move. San Antonio Spurs Gregg Popovich hailed it as a “great addition.” The Blazers boldly pronounced they were poised to contend for an NBA Championship.

Oh how things have changed.

On Sunday afternoon, that confidence and gusto had been replaced with disappointment and dejection. The Memphis Grizzlies have pummeled the Blazers in their best-of-seven Western Conference playoffs series, using muscle, moxie and better talent to build a 3-0 lead. No team in NBA history has overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series.

And that history hovered over the Blazers like a thick fog Sunday at the practice facility in Tualatin, where they gathered for what could be their final practice of the season. No one said the season was done. Everyone promised to show heart and fight and claw until the final buzzer sounds at the end of Game 4, which is scheduled for 7:30 Monday night at the Moda Center.

But there was no escaping the daunting challenging in front of them. And there was no masking the inevitable gloom that comes with the reality the season is all but over.

“Right now, we’re at the point where we have to just have some heart and have some pride,” Damian Lillard said.

The Blazers spouted off the usual array of clichés, promising to take the series “one game at a time” and “only think about tomorrow’s game.” But history is impossible to ignore. And when the Cleveland Cavaliers swept the Boston Celtics on Sunday, they became the 112th team in 112 chances to win a series after building a 3-0 lead.

“You can’t think about it,” LaMarcus Aldridge said. “You just have to go game-by-game. If you try to think about, ‘Oh, we’re down 0-3 and let’s try to win the series,’ I think that’s when you think about the history. But if you just go game-by-game, just focus on getting Game 4, then anything’s possible.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Boston’s summer pursuit of Kevin Love will no doubt be complicated after the “bush league” play from Kelly Olynyk … Knocked down and out, gutsy Jae Crowder embodied toughness of Celtics this season … The Hawks are still a bit salty after their poor shooting effort in a Game 3 loss to the Brooklyn NetsSteals could help the Bucks steal another playoff win if the Chicago Bulls aren’t more careful with the ball … Kevin Love‘s absence in Cleveland with that shoulder dislocation will depend on his personal injury history

 

Parker ready for tonight’s Game 3

SAN ANTONIO — Tony Parker is a go for Game 3 but that doesn’t mean Parker will definitely go, in terms of acceleration.

As Tim Duncan stated earlier, Parker is “a gamer. I guarantee he’ll be out there because that’s the player he is.” Actually, Parker’s presence wasn’t much in doubt; his ability to roam the floor freely without any restriction or pain is in question. He has battled leg injuries for a segment of the season, first the hamstring and lately the quad and Achilles, which caused him to skip the last five minutes of regulation and OT in Game 2 without scoring a basket. Obviously his health is of great importance to the Spurs’ chances of beating the Clippers in this first-round series, let alone repeating as champs.

“Been a tough year,” Parker said. “But nobody cares about that. I’ll be alright.”

A limping Parker conjures up images of last season when he couldn’t finish a pair of playoff series, but the Spurs won without him. There’s a difference this time, though. Parker didn’t get injured until late in those rounds. This time, he’s gimpy right from the start, which puts the Spurs in a bind. If he can’t play at or near his level, that’s asking the Spurs to beat Chris Paul with Patty Mills three more times.

One game, OK. But three?

Mills dropped 18 on the Clippers and was huge in overtime. Also, Duncan turned back the clock with 28 points and 11 rebounds, but had to labor 44 minutes. Essentially, it took a lot for the Spurs to win Game 2, which would’ve gone the Clippers’ way had Blake Griffin not lost a crucial turnover late in regulation (and another in OT).

As if Parker’s problems weren’t enough, the Spurs are getting little from Manu Ginobili, who seems a step slow on the floor and one step quicker toward possible retirement this summer.

Morning Shootaround — April 20


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Sunday

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Wise LeBron shows Cavaliers the way | Green downplays ‘scrimmage’ comments about Pelicans | Clippers rough up Spurs | Bulls expecting different Bucks in Game 2

No. 1: Wise LeBron shows Cavaliers the way — The man with all of the playoff experience in Cleveland set the tone for the home team Sunday. Yes, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love shined in their playoff debut. But wise old head LeBron James is the man who lit the path for his teammates and put the Cavaliers in control in Game 1 against the Boston Celtics. Joe Vardon of the Plain Dealer provides the details:

Fatherhood has been a theme for LeBron James throughout the course of this season.

James’ wife, Savannah, gave birth to the couple’s third child, daughter Zhuri, in October. So, naturally, that was a reason for James to talk about being a dad.

The topic came up again for more philosophical reasons; deep, philosophical issues like when to talk to his two sons about racism or whether or not it’s safe to let them play football.

Once, after a November win over Boston, James, 30, said his teammates were “like my kids” — a reference to the Cavaliers’ younger players learning the finer points of basketball the way his sons learn their school material.

Really, James has played the role of teacher all season, with varying degrees of success.

The thing about being a parent, though, is sometimes the lesson is taught by example. The Cavs’ 113-100 win over the Celtics in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round playoff series Sunday was that time for James.

When the ball went in the air Sunday, James became the franchise’s all-time leader with 72 playoff games. It was his 159th career playoff game, counting his four years and two titles with Miami, and during the game he surpassed Michael Jordan (1,022 assists) for the ninth-most playoff assists in league history.

By contrast, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and Matthew Dellavedova – four players James relies on in some form — were playing their first-career playoff games.

James spoke to the team before the game about his first playoff game (more on that game later), but he needed to show them. Matched up defensively against former Ohio State standout Evan Turner, James hounded him over the game’s first five minutes. Once, the ball landed in Turner’s hands behind halfcourt, and James was so close to him that Turner could barely turn around.

Turner was trying to move along the perimeter, both with and without the ball, and James was stuck on his every step. Offensively, James scored on a layup in transition and got to the foul line twice. He registered two assists before his hand shot up with 6:45 to go – not even halfway through the first quarter – for coach David Blatt to give him a breather.

“LeBron really pushed himself early, almost to the point of forcing himself to hit that limit, come out, catch his second wind, and then play,” Blatt said. “I think he even did it on purpose.”

*** (more…)

Paul still pounding at the championship door


VIDEO: Chris Paul talks Clippers-Spurs matchup.

LOS ANGELES — When Doc Rivers took over the Clippers job two summers ago and met with Chris Paul, he had this to say to the point guard, rather bluntly: “You haven’t won anything in this league.”

And Paul later admitted: “Yeah, he’s right. I haven’t.”

Here they are, another 50-plus win regular season in the books, another splendid season by Paul behind them, another chance to win something, and the Clippers get the Spurs in the first round starting Sunday night. It’s almost as if the basketball Gods are punishing Paul for stealing the athletic ability from his commercial twin brother Cliff. Or something like that. Paul is perhaps the best point guard of the last half-decade or so, and 10 seasons into a certain Hall of Fame career is still one of the top 10 players in the league, and yet his heavy list of personal accomplishments hasn’t translated into a championship or even a trip beyond the second round of the playoffs.

He is either headed down the same path as Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing, titans without a title, or maybe the coronation is coming soon, perhaps this June. All Paul knows is the nightmare of last summer, often relived by critics, when he crumbled in Game 5 against Oklahoma City and stumbled into a long, hot summer.

“CP is on a mission and that’s good for everybody,” Rivers said.

Paul seems humbled by his lack of summer success. Introspective by nature, and a proud leader to boot, Paul doesn’t get snippy when asked about his missing ring. He acknowledges his fate without accepting it and simply says, sounding very believable, that his next crack at a championship will be his best crack while also conceding that time waits for no one.

“I feel like you’ve got to seize the moment every year,” he said. “You never know what could happen with injuries and all that different kind of stuff.”

On the even of Clippers-Spurs, a first-round matchup with the aroma of a Western Conference final, Rivers tried to reduce the temperature in the room. Failing to win a title this season, Rivers said, doesn’t mean all is lost. The Clippers are relatively young and the core is still in its prime.

“I don’t think (our) sense of urgency is greater than Tim Duncan’s, and they won the title last year,” Rivers said. “My hope is every single player wants to win a title. Then, isn’t everyone’s urgency the same? I laugh when people say `it’s a must win for (us).’ But isn’t it a must win for the other team?”

Well, sure. It does. But Rivers knows, deep down, the rules are different for superstars. They make the most money, reap the most benefits, luxuriate in the most praise and therefore, in order to confirm their status, shouldn’t winning a title be part of the deal?

Yes, there are excuses. Barkley was stuck on lousy teams in Philly and in Phoenix, he couldn’t beat Michael Jordan. Ewing couldn’t beat Jordan either, and when the window opened a crack after Jordan played baseball, Ewing couldn’t beat Hakeem Olajuwon. Paul can’t beat the Spurs; he’s 0-2 against them in the playoffs, but there’s no icon standing between him and the trophy unless you feel Steph Curry already qualifies.

Paul has been gifted with a top-5 coach like Rivers, and a top-5 forward in Blake Griffin, and a top-5 big man in DeAndre Jordan, and one of the best sixth men in Jamal Crawford. The bench is mostly baloney but if the Clippers are reaching deep into the rotation for help in the playoffs, nothing can save them. Basically, while the Clippers aren’t heads and shoulders above the other contenders in the West or the NBA, they have a chance. Paul has his chance.

And yet he also has perhaps his hardest road ever. He must get through Popovich and Duncan and Parker, and then maybe Harden, and then maybe Curry, and if all goes well and the Clippers are in the NBA Finals, he’ll likely say hello to LeBron.

Therefore: If Chris Paul this summer finally wins his first title, wouldn’t it feel like he just won two?

Morning Shootaround — April 18


VIDEO: Ahmad Rashad goes one-on-one with Steph Curry

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pierce savoring these final playoff moments | Pelicans’ Davis eager to take next step | Clippers using Spurs blueprint to knock off champs | Kidd at center of Bucks’ turnaround

No. 1: Pierce savoring these final playoff moments — The truth is Paul Pierce knows this might be one of the last times he’s on this stage, this playoff stage. And the Washington Wizards’ veteran swingman is savoring each and every second these final playoff moments of his career. Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post provides the details:

The end is near for Paul Pierce. Next season will be his 18th and final tour as a professional basketball player, meaning scenes like the one that will unfold Saturday afternoon in Toronto, Game 1 of an NBA playoff series, are dwindling for the future Hall of Famer.

“It’s very different for me because I don’t have too many chances left in my career of playoff basketball and opportunities to try to win a championship,” Pierce said. “So I enjoy each and every moment, each and every practice, each and every game.”

Pierce, 37, will step onto the Air Canada Centre hardwood Saturday before a frenzied crowd in a Washington Wizards uniform, his third playoff appearance in three years with a third different team. He will be Raptors fans’ Public Enemy No. 1, the result of his clutch play as a Brooklyn Net against Toronto last postseason and his recent comments on the Raptors’ lack of the “It” factor, whatever “It” is.

The setting is why the Wizards hired him, to supply his famed shot-making ability, valuable experience and notorious swagger to help ascend the Wizards to another level when the stakes are highest.

“He can help on the floor. Off the floor. Around the floor,” guard Bradley Beal said. “Whatever it is related to basketball and life in general. You can basically call him the Oracle. He knows pretty much everything.”

This will be Pierce’s 12th career playoff appearance. He has crashed the tournament seven straight springs. He has been on underdogs, on favorites. He has suited up for underachievers and overachievers. He has experienced nearly every possible scenario, including both ends of regular season sweeps that were reversed in the playoffs. So he insists that the Wizards losing all three meetings with the Raptors during the regular season doesn’t concern him.

“Each team’s [0-0], so right now we’re a confident group,” Pierce said. “We feel like we can beat pretty much any team in the East.”

*** (more…)

Numbers preview: Clippers-Spurs


VIDEO: West Series Preview: Clippers – Spurs

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — This just isn’t fair. The Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs were the league’s second and third best teams according to point differential (whether you want go by raw plus-minus or pace-adjusted numbers). And one of them won’t be going to conference semifinals.

The Clippers had the No. 1 offense in the league, despite a 15-game absence from Blake Griffin, and won 14 of their last 15 games. The Spurs are one of only three teams that ranked in the top seven in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and went 21-4 after Feb. 25.

But that 21-4 run only pushed the Spurs from seventh to sixth in the Western Conference. Their loss on the last day of the season put them in this matchup, which may be worse news for the Clippers than anybody else.

The good news is that these two teams are on the opposite side of the bracket from Golden State. So a potential Warriors-Spurs showdown or Warriors-Clippers slobberknocker is in line for the conference finals.

Here are some statistical notes to get you ready for Clippers-Spurs, with links to let you dive in and explore more.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Los Angeles Clippers (56-26)

Pace: 97.0 (11)
OffRtg: 109.8 (1)
DefRtg: 103.0 (15)
NetRtg: +6.9 (2)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. San Antonio: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Clippers notes:

20150417_on-off

San Antonio Spurs (55-27)

Pace: 95.9 (17)
OffRtg: 106.2 (7)
DefRtg: 99.6 (3)
NetRtg: +6.6 (3)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Clippers: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Spurs notes:

The matchup

Season series: Tied 2-2 (1-1 at each location).
Pace: 98.0
LAC OffRtg: 109.8 (1st vs. SAS)
SAS OffRtg: 104.8 (12th vs. LAC)

Matchup notes:

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 197) Changing The Game

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Russell Westbrook‘s exploits on the basketball court this season have wowed us all.

The fury, focus and fearlessness he has displayed is truly awe-inspiring.

But is the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar playing an outdated style for today’s NBA? For all of his hard work, Westbrook will likely find himself on the outside looking in when the MVP votes are tallied — giving way to either Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors or former teammate James Harden of the Houston Rockets, or both — due to conditions beyond his control.

The iso-era of the NBA is over, having been replaced by a universal embrace of a pace and space game that lends itself to teamwork as much as it does individual star power. The San Antonio Spurs used the system to perfection last season to dethrone LeBron James and the Miami Heat in The Finals. And the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks have used it to rise to the top of the standings in the Western and Eastern Conferences, respectively.

The game is changing before our very eyes … but is one of the league’s most mercurial talents paying attention? We debate and discuss that and so much more on Episode 197 of the Hang Time Podcast: Changing The Game.

While Rick Fox is “on set” for one of his many potentially award-winning roles, the rest of the crew dives in on the playoff possibilities, the business of ballots that come with the end of the regular season and a vigorous debate about the shape-shifting of the game of basketball from the NBA all the way down to the grassroots level (the good and the bad changes).

You get it all and more on Episode 197 of The Hang Time Podcast … Changing The Game …

LISTEN HERE:

As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com,  Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand and the best sound designer/engineer in the business, Andrew Merriman.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook just doesn’t care what you or anyone else thinks about the way he plays the game

Blogtable: Your All-Defensive Team …

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Surprise and disappointment? | Under-the-radar free agents? | Your All-Defensive team



VIDEOAndrew Bogut denies Wesley Johnson’s dunk attempt

> Last week it was the All-Rookie first team. This week, we want to hear your All-Defensive first team.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com:
F Rudy Gobert, Utah

F Andrew Bogut, Golden State
W Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio
W Draymond Green, Golden State
W Tony Allen, Memphis

Just so we’re clear, my terminology for this squad is F for “frontcourt” (good enough for All-Star balloting) and W for “wing.” I’m not getting pinned down by the five traditional position designations when I could have guys who can ball-hawk and rim-protect like these five. I’m not sure what sort of offensive numbers my group could put up but I’ll take my chances on yours scoring fewer.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com:
C Andrew Bogut: 
For all the pretty offensive plays the Warriors make, his defense in the middle is driving championship hopes.
F Tim Duncan: 
Only the players he defends and ties into knots every night want Old Man Riverwalk to retire.
F Kawhi Leonard: Pound for pound, inch for inch, simply the league’s defensive knockout champ.
G Draymond Green: He can cover all five positions like Spandex on Beyonce, so I’m sliding him into the backcourt.
G Tony Allen: Still the the one who puts the grind in the Grind House.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com:
C DeAndre Jordan

F Draymond Green 
F Kawhi Leonard
G Tony Allen
G John Wall

Center is so tough, with Andrew Bogut especially and also Tim Duncan, Rudy Gobert, Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol all deserving votes. And probably others I am forgetting. The depth is that good.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com:
C DeAndre Jordan
F Anthony Davis
F Draymond Green
G Tony Allen
G Kawhi Leonard

All of the selections are very good but there wasn’t that solid, no-brainer lockdown guy this season. I also liked Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Nerlens Noel. The most improved defender? James Harden. But he only had one direction to go.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com:
C Rudy Gobert
F Draymond Green
F Kawhi Leonard
G John Wall
G Tony Allen

Allen and the two forwards were easy picks, though it’s tough to leave Tim Duncan and Andre Iguodala off the list. I gave Wall the edge over Chris Paul, because the Wizards are a top-5 defense and they’ve been much better with Wall on the floor. And I gave Gobert the edge over Andrew Bogut because he’s played 500 more minutes.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com:
C Andrew Bogut
F Kawhi Leonard
F Anthony Davis
G John Wall
G Tony Allen

As far as postseason awards go, the first five on the All-Defensive team might be the easiest group to identify. Wall and Allen are no-brainer picks in the backcourt. Leonard and Davis have the forward spots locked down. And Bogut gets the nod at center as the league’s most dominant rim-protector and post defender.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com:
C DeAndre Jordan

F Draymond Green
F Kawhi Leonard
G Tony Allen
G Chris Paul

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog:
C DeAndre Jordan

F Draymond Green
F Anthony Davis
G Chris Paul
G Kawhi Leonard

I’m cheating and putting Kawhi at guard but I really feel like he’s one of the best defenders in the NBA and deserves a spot. This is a big-guy heavy team I’ve assembled, but just try and score on them.

amex1
For more debates, go to #AmexNBA or www.nba.com/homecourtadvantage.

Morning shootaround — April 5


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Streaking Celtics adopt ‘win now’ approach  | Grizzlies in fight for playoff positioning | Blazers must shore up their D | Dirk gives Shaun Livingston a pass for low blow

No. 1: Celtics make convincing playoff push — They very easily could justify missing the playoffs this season and then cashing in on their growing cache of draft picks, but the rebuilding Celtics have evidently decided to go for it. When Marcus Smart dropped a buzzer-beater Saturday night against the Raptors, it only confirmed as much. Boston entered Sunday with the No. 8 spot in the East, a half-game lead over the Heat, and to hear the players and brass, the playoffs are where this young team belongs. It’s a rather refreshing tone considering how much tanking has dominated the conversation in the NBA this season. Zach Lowe of Grantland did a study on the Celtics during this playoff push and here’s some of what he found out:

“The playoff-chasing Celtics of 2015 are a cute feel-good story — and little more. The rebuild is moving faster than expected, with a surprise run at the no. 8 seed in a dreadful conference, but there is a giant chasm separating this plucky, starless group from what it aspires to be.

“The important thing to remember about us,” coach Brad Stevens said in a sit-down with Grantland last week, “is that we have a long, long way to go.”

It says everything about the difficulty of rebuilding that Boston has absolutely nailed Phase 1 and yet has no clear path to 50 wins. Multiple rival executives described Boston’s trading spree of the last two years as “a masterpiece” in rebuilding. Contract timetables, injuries, and other variables made it impossible for Boston to deal its aging stars at peak sell-high times, and yet Danny Ainge still nabbed great value for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo. The Celtics have as many as six extra first-round picks1 coming and oodles of cap space, they’ve drafted solid players across the first round, and they just acquired a dynamic young point guard — Isaiah Thomas — on the cheap.

But they have no stars and no clear path to getting one outside a major break in free agency or the trade market. The Celtics have made the leap to mediocrity so fast that they may have no easy way out. They’re still not good, but they’re not bad enough to get an early first-round pick — to get a clear shot at a star, in other words. Even if they lose this season’s slap fight for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, they will likely pick in the late lottery — a range that looks like their draft ceiling for the next few seasons. “That’s a concern for all 30 teams,” Ainge says of being stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity. “It’s the nature of our league. You definitely need good fortune.”

The Celtics discussed holding off on the Thomas deal to deflate their win total, but decided after some debate that they could lose out — or pay a higher price — if they waited until the summer. “Ideally, he might have been someone you pick up in the summer,” Ainge says. “But someone else might trade for him. You might be in a bidding war. You have to move while the iron is hot.”

***

No. 2: Grizzlies in fight for playoff positioning — The most intriguing April drama in the West is about playoff positioning near the top. The Rockets now hold a half-game lead over the Grizzlies for the No. 2 spot, and why is that so important? Well, the No. 2 team will most likely get the Mavericks and avoid the suddenly-smoking Spurs in the first round. Memphis had successfully fended off all threats for the No. 2 spot until now. And while the race is hardly over, the contest between Memphis and Houston will only intensify, especially with Dwight Howard back in the mix for the Rockets (though on a minutes restriction). Here’s Michael Wallace of ESPN on the Grizzlies, who lost a tough game to the Wizards on Saturday:

“I don’t think it’s the toughest division in our league; it’s the toughest division in all major leagues,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. “Year in and year out, it’s ridiculous. So for our guys to get rewarded for their hard work, it would be positive.

“It’s what’s important to you. You hear about San Antonio, right? They don’t care about a division title. They don’t care about seeding. Well, we’re not them.”

While it’s all about the end game for the Spurs, who are going for their second straight championship and sixth in the past 16 years, the Grizzlies are still focused on the intermediate steps toward success. Winning an NBA championship remains the top goal for Memphis, but hanging the franchise’s first division banner in the rafters of the 10-year-old FedEx Forum along the way is a major priority.

The last time every team from an NBA division made the playoffs was in the 2005-06 season, when the Pistons, Pacers, Cavaliers, Bulls and Bucks advanced. That’s never happened in the NFL or Major League Baseball, although it’s occurred in two different divisions in the NHL over the past five seasons.

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No. 3: Blazers must shore up their D or else — If you’re a Blazers fan you, must be thrilled with the way the team has hung in there in the rugged West despite missing Wesley Matthews and an inconsistent season from Damian Lillard and with LaMarcus Aldridge playing through a thumb that’ll require surgery in the offseason. Portland once again is in position to do damage in the playoffs (ask the Rockets, who are still stinging from Lillard’s series winner last spring), but not if they don’t clean up their biggest issue first: defense. Oregonian writer John Canzano, still stung by the Blazers surrendering 126 to the Clippers last week, discusses:

But on the other hand, Chris Kaman was willing to address the biggest issue that coach Terry Stotts whiffed on — atrocious team defense by the Blazers. The biggest problem for Portland if any of this should come to a Clippers-Blazers playoff series.

Decide for yourself which guy had the worse post-game peformance. I’m not up in the air. Kaman settled it when he said, “We scored 122 points. That’s not stopping anybody. And we didn’t stop them either, they had more points (126) than we did. We got hurt on transition and on threes.” He was only saying what everyone could obviously see at Moda Center.

I like Stotts. I championed his hiring. I banged the drum for his contract extension even before the end of last season. I like where he’s headed with this rig, but if he’s unable to get real about the deficiencies of this team and remains in denial, I’m concerned about the short-term prognosis for a team that has fought to this point.

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No. 4: Dirk gives Shaun Livingston a pass for low blowDirk Nowitzki is usually a cool customer except when threatened with severe physical pain, as anyone else would (see Chris Kaman last week regarding Chris Paul). So at first, he was taken aback when he was whacked in the private area by Shaun Livingston. But when these things happen, you must take into account the history of the offending party. Livingston doesn’t exactly conjure up memories of flagrant assaults. And so, while Mark Cuban wasn’t in a forgiving mood Saturday, Dirk gave Livingston a pass. Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News has some golden quotes from Dirk:

Livingston, trying to defend Nowitzki in the post, was using his right hand to hand-check Nowitzki in the back. Somehow, his hand got in between Nowitzki’s legs and clearly caught Nowitzki in the groin area.

For the rest of the game, the AAC crowd booed Livingston every time he touched the ball and in the fourth quarter, Livingston and coach Rick Carlisle exchanged words briefly after a foul was called on J.J. Barea against Livingston.

Things escalated after the game when owner Mark Cuban talked to Golden State coach Steve Kerr and Livingston, then assistant coach Alvin Gentry, as they left the court.

Nowitzki had this to say about the play, which was reviewed and ended up with Livingston called for a flagrant foul, penalty one.

“Well, I give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s really not that type of player,” Nowitzki said. “He hasn’t been his entire career. I’m not really sure what he was trying to do there, if he was trying to get to the ball through my legs or anything. But like I said, he’s not a dirty player.

“But I really enjoyed his tight grip he got. I really enjoyed that.”

Nowitzki was laughing as he said that last line.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul Millsap’s shoulder injury should be defined a bit better today. The Hawks forward suffered the injury Saturday against the Nets and did not return in that game. … Boston’s Evan Turner has joined exclusive company: One of only 5 Celtics with 3 or more triple doubles in a season … All systems go for Paul George in his return tonight.

Morning shootaround — March 27


VIDEO: Highlights from game played on March 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

James Harden makes MVP case | Pacers clinging to playoff hopes | Crawford says he’ll be back | Amar’e to stick with Dallas?

No. 1: James Harden makes MVP case With the season nearing an end, the MVP talk around the MVP race is heading up. Stephen Curry? Russell Westbrook? LeBron James? Anthony Davis? Or what about in Houston, where James Harden has been perhaps the best offensive player in the NBA this season? USA Today‘s Sam Amick caught up with Harden, who made his case for why he deserves your MVP vote…

“I think if you look at what I’ve been doing all year, only missing one game all year because of the situation (with seemingly-endless injuries to teammates), basically having to carry a load all year, being consistent from the first game of the season,” Harden said. “That should show it right there. But like I said, (the focus is) for me to go out there and continue doing what I’m doing, being consistent, is all I can do.”

And getting to the free throw line at an unmatched rate. Harden — who has converted on 86.6% of free throw attempts — is on pace to lead the league in free throw attempts for the second time in three seasons (10.1 per game). Last season’s leader in that category was the Thunder’s reigning MVP, Kevin Durant (9.9).

“I’m enjoying the whole process of these last (few) games, just trying to win games,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing since Dwight has been out. I don’t really keep track of the other (MVP candidates) or what they’re doing. Obviously everybody knows that Russ is going on a triple-double rally. He’s playing extremely well and they’re fighting for the eighth spot. But all those guys you named (Curry, Westbrook, James, Davis and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers) are very good players, or very talented players. For me, I just focus on what I can control and going out there and doing the best I can do every single right.”

In trying to explain his own MVP-caliber campaign, Harden said his comfort level in the not-so-new surroundings have been key. It’s his third season in Houston, where he came via trade in October 2012 and has progressively found his way as a leader ever since.

“All I needed was time,” he said of the Houston experience. “All I needed was to know what I had around me. And now that I know it, I’m comfortable with it and I can be a great leader. I think that’s probably one of the reasons I’m so successful is that I’m comfortable. I think if you’re comfortable in any situation, and you know what’s going on and you know what you’re going to get, you’re going to be successful.

“It’s about having a good time, about enjoying it, enjoying the grind. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably not doing good.”

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