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Morning shootaround — May 14




NEWS OF THE MORNING
What it takes for Heat | Vogel to Orlando? | Spurs face questions | Mavs eye Howard | Grizzlies talk to Ewing
No. 1: Heat come through when heat was on — Unconventional? Necessary? Desperate? Use your own adjectives. But trailing 3-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Heat had no more room to back up and, as our own Lang Whitaker points out, they did what they needed to do to survive and force Game 7 on Sunday:

While starting a rookie at center was largely prompted from attrition, it was a couple of veterans who did the heavy lifting for the Heat, helping them even the series with a 103-91 win. When the Heat were looking at a possible end of their season in Game 7 of their first round series against the Charlotte Hornets, Goran Dragic took control, scoring 25 points. Facing elimination again Friday, Dragic shredded Toronto for a career playoff-high 30 points, and chipped in seven rebounds.

“I didn’t want to go home to Europe,” Dragic joked. “I wanted to stay here.”

Dragic got significant help from Dwyane Wade, who finished with 22 points, giving him 110 points in his last four games. While Justise Winslow looked Lilliputian lined up against Toronto center Bismack Biyombo, he finished with 12 points and three rebounds, and more than held his own in the paint.

Miami’s rotation shuffles were mostly due to injuries — Miami center Hassan Whiteside went out during Game 3 with a knee sprain, which made the series “go sideways,” according to Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. But the Heat’s smaller group was also a way to give Toronto a fresh look after five games against the same team.

“It’s just unconventional,” said Wade of the smaller lineup. “And sometimes unconventional works… at this time of the series you need something a little different.”

***

No. 2: Magic talk with Vogel — Suddenly confronted with an unexpected coaching vacancy when Scott Skiles quit after one season, the Magic are planning to reach out to former Pacers boss Frank Vogel about taking over the job. Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel caught up to Magic G.M. Rob Hennigan, who might as well have been talking about Vogel when describing the traits he’s seeking in a new coach:

On Thursday and again on Friday, Hennigan said the Magic would seek to hire someone who places a high value on the defensive end of the court.

“Sort of the fulcrum of what we’re looking for,” Hennigan said Friday, “is someone who puts an emphasis on the defensive end of the floor, someone who puts an emphasis on player development and also someone who puts an emphasis on building lasting connections with the players on our roster.”

***

No. 3: Spurs decisions beyond Duncan — The first question to be asked in the seconds after the Spurs were eliminated by the Thunder was whether Tim Duncan had just walked off an NBA court for the final time after a 19-year career. But as Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News points out, the organization that was shockingly upset after a franchise best 67-15 season has plenty of questions that go well beyond their Hall of Fame big man:

Barring trades, the Spurs will bring back at least seven players from a 67-win team: LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, and Kyle Anderson.

Duncan, Manu Ginobili and the 35-year-old David West hold player options that, if exercised, would add their names to the list. Those decisions don’t have to be made until July.

The Spurs own a team option on rookie guard Jonathon Simmons, which they are likely to exercise.

Depending on how those answers shake out, the Spurs could create salary-cap space to pursue another maximum-dollar free agent. They have already been linked to OKC star Kevin Durant and Memphis point guard Mike Conley.

West, who famously gave back $12.6 million in Indiana last summer to accept a veteran minimum deal with the Spurs, says he has no regrets about that decision.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” said West, who remained non-committal about his future. “I needed this for where I am in my career and where I am as a person. It kept me sane. It kept me in basketball.”

Once the free-agency horn sounds July 1, Boban Marjanovic will become the most interesting internal decision for the Spurs’ front office.

He is a restricted free agent, meaning the Spurs retain the right to match any offer he receives, and a provision in the collective bargaining agreement limits the amount he can earn next season to $5.6 million.

Competing teams could choose to structure an offer sheet for Marjanovic with a salary spike in the third year. The Spurs would then have to decide whether to swallow that so-called “poison pill” and match.

***

No. 4: Howard could top Mavericks wish list — The Mavericks have not exactly had a great deal of luck in the past landing big name free agents. Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan are just a few names that have slipped away. But now the Mavs might be turning their attention back toward Howard this summer, according to Dwain Price of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram:

At the top of the Mavericks’ wish list this year is Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard, who plans to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent this summer. Howard, it would seem, has absolutely everything the Mavericks need from a center.

Plus, Howard constantly draws a double team, which would allow Dirk Nowitzki to hang out on the perimeter and basically enjoy target practice during the twilight of his career.

Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, Chicago’s Pau Gasol and Atlanta’s Al Horford are the other centers the Mavericks will probably pursue if they can’t land Howard, who is good friends with Mavs forward Chandler Parsons.

The negatives with Howard are many: He wants a long-term contract with an annual salary of around $30 million, he’s a career 56.8 percent shooter from the free-throw line, and, according to his critics, he doesn’t take the game seriously.

***

No. 5: Ewing interviewed by Grizzlies — With general manager Chris Wallace having already been spotted dining out with ex-coach Lionel Hollins, the Grizzlies have also spoken with Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing about their bench opening, says CBS Sports and Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal:

Ewing, a 53-year-old Hall of Famer, reportedly interviewed for the Memphis job Thursday. He previously talked to the Sacramento Kings about their head coaching job that Dave Joerger filled two days after he was fired by the Grizzlies.

Ewing is a retired player who paid his dues as an assistant yet hasn’t been seriously considered for a head position.

“All I can do is continue to coach, continue to work, be good at my craft, and hopefully, one day, that will help me when and if I get that opportunity,” Ewing once told USA Today after being elevated to associate head coach of the then-Charlotte Bobcats under Steve Clifford.

Ewing started coaching as an assistant for the Washington Wizards in 2002. He spent three years on the Houston Rockets bench. The New York Knicks legend also worked under Stan Van Gundy with the Orlando Magic.

“I know he is an excellent coach, and he has more than paid his dues,” Clifford told USA Today. “If you’re around him every day, you see it. I lean on him for a lot of things, the tough times … He helps me in every imaginable way.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Dwyane Wade passed Hakeem Olajuwon for 12th spot on playoff scoring list … Hassan Whiteside says he will not play in Game 7 vs. Toronto … Jerry Sloan talks openly about his battle with Parkinson’s Disease … Kevin Durant says beating the Spurs was “not our championship.”… Rockets fans want Kenny Smith as the next coach in Houston … The Spurs will pursue free agent point guard Mike Conley … The Celtics and Danny Ainge ready for this most important draft … LeBron James would have voted for Terry Stotts as Coach of the Year.

Blogtable: Who made your All-NBA teams?

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: Who made your All-NBA teams? | Which remaining playoff team has the best bench? |
Who should Mavs pursue in offseason?


> Give me your All-NBA selections (first, second and third team).

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

All-NBA First Team

F: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
F: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
C: Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
G: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Generally, my First Team is a reflection of my MVP ballot, which goes five deep. Doesn’t always synch up position-wise but this year it was close (I plugged in Drummond at center and had to put Chris Paul on my Second Team). I don’t agree with the gimmick deployed by a few voters who put Draymond Green as First Team center because of how he and Golden State do in his 15 minutes or so, on average, in the middle. If a guy played only 15 minutes, period, at a position, we’d never consider him All-NBA at that spot.

All-NBA Second Team

F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
F: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
C: DeAndre JordanLos Angeles Clippers
G:
 Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
G: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

There’s Green where he belongs, and Durant would have been sixth on my MVP ballot. I had Jordan on my Defensive Player of the Year ballot, so he’s an easy pick from a Top 6 team. What Lillard did in leading a brand-new group in Portland was, to me, no less impressive than the job Terry Stotts did coaching them up or Neil Olshey did in assembling them.

All-NBA Third Team

F: Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
F: Paul George, Indiana Pacers
C: DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
G:
 Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
G: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

A pair of Pauls at the forward spot, determined by Millsap’s underrated game along with George’s remarkable, reassuring return season. Cousins’ team didn’t make the playoffs, he’s a certified coach killer and he might not “get it” until it’s too late, but there’s no denying the talent. Thompson is a two-way sidekick to greatness who deals well with the shadow Curry casts. Lowry’s postseason hasn’t matched his regular season but then, the latter is what All-NBA status honors. Supremely talented James Harden? Nope. The way he ball-hogs, he’s unwatchable. 

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

All-NBA First Team

F: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
F: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
C: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
G: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Leonard steamrolled onto the first team with his dominant play at both ends of the court. Green practically reinvented the center spot with his versatility. Westbrook was the king of triple-doubles. And do I really need to explain about Steph and LeBron?

All-NBA Second Team

F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
F: Paul George, Indiana Pacers
C: Andre DrummondDetroit Pistons
G:
 Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
G: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

Drummond stakes a claim for the traditional big man. George’s comeback to an elite level was inspirational and maybe is finest season. I still would take Paul as my point guard in one game with everything on the line. Lillard was no surprise on the surprising Blazers. And it’s almost sacrilegious to make K.D. a second-teamer.

All-NBA Third Team

F: LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
F: Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
C: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
G:
 Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
G: James Harden, Houston Rockets

Aldridge made steady progression into the perfect fit in San Antonio. Millsap is the heartbreak in Atlanta. Towns is the future. Thompson spends too much time in Curry’s shadow. And if Harden played just a little less defense — is that possible? — he might have slipped right off the map here.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com

All-NBA First Team

F: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
F:
 LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
C: Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
G: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

The only room for change would be putting Draymond Green at center and moving Drummond to second team. I considered that, before ultimately going the conventional route. Otherwise, the other four spots are pretty locked in.

All-NBA Second Team

F: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
C: DeAndre JordanLos Angeles Clippers
G:
 Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
G: Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

Not too bad of a pair of forwards on the second team. And if CP3 can’t crack the first team, that says a lot about what kind of 2015-16 that Curry and Westbrook had.

All-NBA Third Team

F: Paul George, Indiana Pacers
F: Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
C: Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
G:
 Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
G: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

I thought about George for second team and would have put him there if the dominoes fell once Draymond Green was first-team center. Either way, there is no way to overemphasis the importance of George’s season. The same could be said for Lillard as the foundation in play and personality of the new Blazers.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com

All-NBA First Team

F: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
F: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
C: DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
G: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

I didn’t struggle with this one. Putting aside his team wrecking and coach killing attitude, Boogie was clearly the best center in the game, so he was judged purely on that. In fact, the entire first team is comprised of players who show ability on both ends or at least bring multiple skills, something that helps separate them from their peers.

All-NBA Second Team

F: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
C: Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
G: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
G: Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

All-NBA Third Team

F: Paul George, Indiana Pacers
F: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
C: DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
G: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
G: James Harden, Houston Rockets

John Schuhmann, NBA.com

All-NBA First Team

F: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
F: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
C: DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
G: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

I’m tempted to put Draymond Green at center, but he played most of his minutes at power forward. I’m taking Chris Paul over Russell Westbrook, because he was just as important to his offense as Westbrook is, and was a much better defender. Center is obviously the weakest position and it’s difficult to find one that really deserves a first-team designation, but Jordan was a two-way force for a team that ranked in the top six on both ends of the floor.

All-NBA Second Team

F: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
C: Andre DrummondDetroit Pistons
G: Russell Westbrook,
Oklahoma City Thunder
G:
 James Harden, Houston Rockets

The guards and forwards here are pretty straightforward. Green really deserves a first-team designation, but the forward position is just stacked. Harden’s defense was a disaster, but he carried such a huge load for a top-10 offense.

All-NBA Third Team

F: Paul George, Indiana Pacers
F: Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
C: LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
G: Klay Thompson,
Golden State Warriors
G:
 Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

Bending the position designations a little bit, so that I can include Aldridge, George and Millsap. Aldridge was huge in the second half of the season for a team that won 67 games, George was the best player on both ends of the floor for a playoff team, and Millsap was an all-around stud for a top-four seed. Lowry and Thompson were pretty easy picks, though it was difficult to leave off Damian Lillard. He’s obviously a great player, and he emerged as a real locker-room leader this season.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com:

All-NBA First Team

F: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
F: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
C: Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
G: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Despite rumors of his demise, LeBron remains the most dominant all-around talent in the game, Leonard has emerged as the best two-way threat in basketball, Drummond’s a double-double machine. Curry had an otherworldly season and Westbrook morphed into a walking triple-double down the stretch of the season.

All-NBA Second Team

F: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
C: DeAndre JordanLos Angeles Clippers
G: Klay Thompson,
Golden State Warriors
G:
 Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

Green could have been on this team at two positions. Durant showed us this season that he’s all the way back from his injury hiccup. Jordan’s continued improvement (everywhere but the free throw line) is remarkable. Thompson is the best shooter in the world not named Curry and Paul was as valuable to his team as any player in basketball after Christmas.

All-NBA Third Team

F: Paul George, Indiana Pacers
F: LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
C: DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
G: Damian Lillard,
Portland Trail Blazers
G:
 Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

George’s comeback from his nasty injury to two-way superstar is complete. Aldridge clearly made the right choice to leave Portland for San Antonio in free agency. Cousins, as much as it pains me to reward someone who causes as much drama as he does, is simply a force. Baby Dame put on a show this season and Lowry led the Raptors to the best season in franchise history.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com

All-NBA First Team

F: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
C: Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
G: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

Whiteside turned the Heat into the No. 7 team defensively. Paul (and Jordan) kept the Clippers in contention without Blake Griffin. My most difficult absences are James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins, whose tremendous statistical years were offset by their disappointing leadership.

All-NBA Second Team

F: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
F: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
C: DeAndre JordanLos Angeles Clippers
G:
 Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
G: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

All-NBA Third Team

F: LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
F: Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
C: Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
G:
 Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
G: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog

All-NBA First Team

F: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
F: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
C: DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
G: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Picking three centers was the toughest call for me. I know some people argued that Draymond Green could be an All-NBA center, but to me that’s not his primary position, and I think Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli would agree. So, DeAndre makes the cut, which I don’t mind because of his durability and defensive presence for a top-four team in the best conference.

All-NBA Second Team

F: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
C: DeMarcus CousinsSacramento Kings
G:
 Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
G: Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

For the most part, I tried to reward winning with my selections. And then there’s DeMarcus Cousins. I thought about it a lot, but eventually came to the conclusion that I couldn’t entirely blame Cousins for the dysfunction in Sacramento, and his 26.9 and 11.5 per game were just too great to overlook.

All-NBA Third Team

F: Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
F: Paul George, Indiana Pacers
C: Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
G:
 Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
G: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

I thought really hard about putting Andre Drummond in as my third-team center, but couldn’t justify saying someone is one of the three best at his position in the NBA when he can’t play at the end of games. The one player who I couldn’t find room for was James Harden, who is still an elite scorer but, at least to me, wasn’t one of the best six guards in the NBA this season.

Can Duncan turn back Father Time again?

Over a career that will travel directly from San Antonio to Springfield, Mass., Tim Duncan has beat them all: Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and more. But here at age 40, it’s clear he’s waging an ultimately futile battle against some guy with a long gray beard and a hooded robe.

We’re reminded once again that Father Time is unbeatable, and on the heels of him giving Kobe a shove — gently, of course — is Father Time turning his attention to Duncan in these playoffs?

Duncan has struggled in two games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and when you weigh the entirety of the 2016 playoffs, he has been inconsistent at best. He’s 12-for-24 on shots right at the basket, he’s seldom blocking (or altering) shots and doesn’t always find himself on the floor in the moment of truth. Duncan’s role with the Spurs seems more likely a ceremonial one compared to his prime. He’s averaging just 21.6 minutes per game and although he has been a presence on the glass, he’s a secondary offensive option and rarely has plays run for him.

And so, as the Spurs prepare to play two games in OKC in a series that’s tied at one apiece, an important and fair question must be asked: Has Duncan hit the final wall of a career?

At this time a year ago, he was the finest player on a floor that included Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Kawhi Leonard. Duncan was superb in the Spurs’ classic seven-game, first-round series with the Clippers when he averaged 17.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks and served as a mighty closer in several of those games. Once again, the Spurs’ strategy of keeping Duncan in a regular-season deep freeze worked; he was preserved for the playoffs and delivered the energy and production. Over the last three seasons, Duncan’s playoff numbers were higher than his regular season numbers, and this despite the fact the competition got tougher and the games obviously took on a higher meaning.

This season, circumstances have changed things a bit. The Spurs not only signed LaMarcus Aldridge, but Leonard’s role and talent have soared, thus reducing the need for Duncan to play major minutes. In fact, the three principle members of the Spurs’ glorious run of championships — Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — have all seen a reduction in roles and production. This is no longer “their team” as the Spurs have successfully introduced a new nucleus and have hardly suffered for it. Plenty of teams would kill to have this level of bump-free transition, which is a credit to coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs’ organization.

But against a quality team like OKC (and then again against the Golden State Warriors, if the expected Western Conference finals showdown materializes), the Spurs need all hands on deck. Parker is averaging 4.5 points against Russell Westbrook in this series. He was benched for a fourth-quarter stretch in Game 2 that was costly, because his replacement, Patty Mills, shot horribly. Ginobili has been inconsistent off the bench, and his decision to pass out to Mills in the crazy closing seconds of Game 2, rather than shoot a potential game-winning 10-foot floater, was strange.

There’s still time for Parker, Ginobili and even Duncan to put their signature on this series. The most curious case-study will be Duncan. He’s at an age where just being able to play on an NBA level is noble. And aside from a few offensive hiccups, he has been a contributor. But two games into the West semifinals, and really throughout these playoffs, Duncan hasn’t stood out. And this has never happened before in 18 years.

It’s all something that’s hard to imagine or even get used to seeing. Hopefully for the Spurs’ sake, Duncan still has a rewind button that’s still fully functional.

 

Morning shootaround — April 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

What’s next for ‘tough luck’ Clippers? | Walton offers Lakers hope | Wade digs deep, goes deep | Portland’s underdog ride blazes on

No. 1: What’s next for ‘tough luck’ Clippers? — One day and two months. That’s the latest way to frame this so-called curse that hangs over the Los Angeles Clippers, who failed to push their first-round Western Conference playoff series to a Game 7 Friday night in Portland. For one day – the time between Stephen Curry‘s sprained right knee and their own calamitous injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin – it looked as if the Clippers might have gotten a fortunate break (admittedly due to Curry’s and Golden State’s misfortune). But then their own stars went down with even more serious injuries (Paul’s hand fracture and Griffin’s quad strain). That brought the Clippers’ history of lousy luck roaring back, and a team that hoped to be playing into June couldn’t even make it out of April. Here are more thoughts on the seemingly snake-bit Clips from ESPN.com’s Arash Markazi:

It was another dramatic and heartbreaking close to a season for the Clippers. They have now squandered a 2-0 first-round series lead by losing four straight games twice, and last season blew a 3-1 second-round series lead by losing three straight games. No team in NBA history has ever blown a two-game series lead three times in four years. The last team to do it in consecutive seasons was the Phoenix Suns in 1994 and 1995.

Teams that go up 2-0 in a best-of-seven series are 258-16, and teams that go up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series are 222-9. As good as the Clippers have been recently, they continue to find themselves on the wrong side of history and fate this time of year.

Of course, the way the Clippers’ season ended Friday, with Paul and Griffin watching the final game of the season back home in Los Angeles while recovering from surgeries, made the result more understandable. But it doesn’t change the end result.

Paul has now been on three of the last four teams to blow a 2-0 series lead, and no player in NBA history has played in more postseason games without getting past the second round than he has. Doc Rivers also becomes only the second coach in NBA history to have his team blow three best-of-seven series when leading either 2-0 or 3-1.

So where do the Clippers go from here? They are the only team other than the San Antonio Spurs to win at least 50 games over the past four seasons, but they have nothing to show for it except for two Pacific Division banners that hang in their training facility along with a handful of game balls from some memorable wins. Even the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets have found a way to sneak into the conference finals during that time.

Paul, Griffin and [DeAndre] Jordan are all under contract for next season, but Paul and Griffin probably will opt out of the final year of their deals and become free agents in the summer of 2017. Jordan can be a free agent the following summer (2018).

Looking at the rest of the roster, J.J. Redick will be a free agent after next season; Jamal Crawford, Jeff Green and Luc Mbah a Moute will be free agents this summer, and Austin Rivers, Cole Aldrich and Wesley Johnson probably will opt out of their deals and become free agents as well.

Paul Pierce, 38, signed a three-year, $10 million contract with the Clippers last year, but said after the game he’s “50-50” on whether he will retire following the worst season of his professional career. Pablo Prigioni, who turns 39 next month, probably will retire after also having his worst season.

In short, the Clippers are a team in flux that has hit a ceiling.

***

 No. 2: Walton offers Lakers hope — For a team so down-trodden this season, the past couple of weeks sure turned out to be heady ones for the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans. Starting with Kobe Bryant‘s 60-point farewell performance in the season finale, right through the announcement that Byron Scott – a popular former Lakers player but hardly that as the teams’ most recent head coach – had been fired, there actually was some buzz about the proud-but-sputtering franchise. Then came the word Friday night that Luke Walton, another former Laker but more important Golden State coach Steve Kerr‘s right-hand man up in Oakland, had been tabbed as L.A.’s replacement for Scott. The honeymoon began instantly, though Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com was quick to remind readers that the task Walton faces is a daunting one:

By hiring Walton, the Lakers accomplished several feats. They’re hiring a young, smart, well-regarded, up-and-coming coach from a successful, forward-thinking organization. They’re once again bringing back one of their own, as Walton will become the eighth former Lakers player who went on to coach the team. And the fact that the Lakers are bringing in a beloved familiar face — a Southern California native, no less — will undoubtedly help them not only win the media conference but establish patience from their fans as Walton tries to steer the team out of the depths of rebuilding.

And yet the reality is, for as happy as the Lakers and their fans are now, there’s plenty of reason for skepticism. Walton will become the youngest active head coach in the NBA. In fact, at 36 years, 32 days old, Walton is 1 year, 218 days younger than the just-retired Bryant. And Walton’s first NBA head coaching job will be leading a rebuilding team that currently offers a few promising young players but little else. Walton will be tasked with developing those fledgling talents and helping lure free agents back to the Lakers after the team has struck out in that arena for three straight offseasons, though it’s unclear what kind of sway he’ll have with free agents, let alone his own players.

Beyond that, the Lakers aren’t considered to be the most modern-minded franchise, so Walton will have to assist in installing a new culture that helps them turn the page from their past (and Kobe) to whatever successful future he hopes to forge.

This is an extremely tall task for someone who two years ago was a part-time assistant with the Lakers’ D-League team, the D-Fenders. Though, in an odd way, Walton’s experience dealing with those players should come in handy considering the roster he’s now taking over.

There will be expectations for Walton to replicate some measure of success that he had when keeping the seat warm for Kerr, and to infuse some of that Warriors’ DNA into the Lakers. However, such expectations must be tempered.

[It’s] fair to wonder if Walton would’ve been given this offer a year ago.

It’s fair to wonder if his 39-4 mark with the Warriors may have hypnotized some. The Lakers will back him and say that Walton will be a great coach, as they should. But they’ve said that for their previous three coaches, too, all of whom departed before their contracts expired.

Walton has learned under Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr, as well as Mike Brown and Byron Scott, and now the Lakers have gone back to a familiar well, bringing back one of their own. Walton could be the greatest hire in Lakers coaching history, a perfect fit. But, if we’re being honest, no one knows much about Luke Walton as a head coach, as someone who can hire a staff, observe a roster and set a course for success.

The once and future Laker is entering an organization that, on many levels, couldn’t be more different than the one he’s about to depart. The Warriors are a well-oiled machine with total buy-in, a modern-day top-down philosophy, a confluence of so many good elements that, together, have produced something almost magical — that’s truly a joy to watch.

The Lakers are none of that.

Jim Buss, part-owner and executive vice president of basketball operations, could well be gone next summer and so could Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. Could Phil Jackson return? Such questions loom heavy over the Lakers’ future.

“The number one thing is this,” said one source familiar with both the Warriors and Lakers. “The Lakers are dysfunctional as an organization. A coach can’t change this.”

Indeed, but at the very least, Walton will be (or should be) better than Scott, who is one of the worst coaches in recent memory. Walton has a chance to be good if he develops and is given time, which the Lakers should certainly grant him. Walton knows the Los Angeles market, the Lakers organization, their fan base, the expectations and history. He wanted the Lakers and they wanted him.

He has his dream job and now the Lakers have something they haven’t had in a while: hope.

***

No. 3:  Wade digs deep, goes deep — Neither Dwyane Wade nor Udonis Haslem was ready to have it end Friday night. They have been together in Miami for 13 years, through five trips to The Finals and three NBA championships, so the idea of falling short in Game 6 in Charlotte held no appeal whatsoever for the veteran Heat players. Wade was the one in position to do the most about it, and that’s what he did. In the most unlikely way possible: digging deep and shooting deep. Ethan J. Skolnick of the Miami Herald chronicled the events:

They’re not men prone to all that much mistiness, though the years can do something to you, and so can the fears of another ending. And so, after Friday’s shootaround, hours before what could have been the final game of the 13th season they’ve shared together, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem paused to reflect.

“About how much this meant to us,” Haslem said. “About how much this has meant to us. This opportunity, this organization, being able to lead these guys, and be able to pass the torch at some point…”

“Just being here together,” Wade said. “For 13 years. We’ve been a part of making this organization a championship organization. We’ve been to five (NBA) Finals in 10 years, and we know how hard it was to do that. We just talked about trying to get the guys who have never been here to understand how hard it is to be successful.”

And, when the conversation concluded, Haslem understood clearly:
“Not tonight.”

Not tonight, because, to secure a 97-90 victory and a 3-3 tie in this first-round series — with Game 7 coming Sunday afternoon — Wade truly did need to use whatever means necessary.

Even the least likely of all.
“I’m Kyle Korver now,” Wade joked later.

Well, not really. Not when, before Friday, he hadn’t made a three-pointer in the calendar year 2016, missing all 21 attempts since Dec. 16. But he’s warning reporters that he can still stroke it — he did make 88 during the 2008-09 season, and reminded Joe Johnson that he “bombed” Johnson’s Hawks out of Game 2, with six makes, in the 2009 first round. He’s spoken of some sort of mental block, that stops him just as he readies to release.

But, after scoring 13 points in the first half and just two through the first 21 minutes of the second half (”my stroke left me”), Wade did rise up after receiving a pass from a doubled Luol Deng.

And he did rattle it in, off the rear of the rim.

Then, after [Kemba] Walker’s dazzling reverse layup in transition cut the Heat lead to two — and both the Heat and Hornets had empty possessions — Wade did take the ball from Haslem after a rebound, dribble to the top of the circle, then bounce away from traffic in the middle, and step back to the left into another steady 26-footer.

Then he did gesture toward a purple-shirted harassing Hornets fan, who had been angrily advising him the entire game to retire.

“Yeah, I was tired of his mouth,” Wade said. “I mean, I hadn’t said nothing to him.”

Nothing was required, as it turned out.

He’d made his point.

With three points. Twice.

“They gave it to me,” Wade said. “This is a good defensive team. Courtney Lee is a good defensive player. You’re not always gonna get what you want.”
But what you get can still be what your team needs.

“He was shooting them yesterday, and I told him, ‘Man, we’re gonna need you to make some of them [bleep],’ ” Joe Johnson said. “He was like, ‘I’m gonna shoot ’em. I’m gonna shoot ’em.’ So we come down the stretch and I was not surprised, because Courtney Lee kept backing off of him, playing him for the drive. I mean, nobody expected D-Wade to shoot the three. And if he does, you’re like, OK, I’ll live with that. And he made two huge threes.”

After not making one since mid-December.

“Man, are you serious?!” Johnson said, before shouting across the room. “Damn, D-Wade!”

Haslem, naturally, had no issue with the shot selection.

“He was working on it,” Haslem said. “I didn’t know he was going to shoot it, but he was working on it. Clutch situation, that’s my guy, man. I trust every decision that he makes, and every shot that he takes.”

***

No. 4: Portland’s underdog ride blazes on — The story of the Portland Trail Blazers’ overachieving 2015-16 season has been written often and in multiple ways lately. It’s evident in the voting results for NBA annual awards that have come out, what with guard C.J. McCollum‘s triumph as Most Improved Player and Terry Stotts‘ ballot-love in Coach of the Year voting. But the chapter added Friday night with their dispatching of the Clippers and advancement to the playoffs’ conference semifinal round was special enough to earn inclusion here, courtesy of Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com:

There are no asterisks in the NBA postseason — not for abbreviated seasons, and not for series wins over short-handed teams missing two All-Stars. Coaches and players sound this trope all the time: It’s so hard to win in the NBA. Hard to win a game, hard to win a series, hard to win a title.

So please excuse the Portland Trail Blazers if they see their 106-103 Game 6 closeout win over the Los Angeles Clippers at the Moda Center on Friday night not as a fluke born out of Chris Paul’s fractured hand or Blake Griffin’s aggravated quad injury, but as a logical extension of a season-long process.

“Behind closed doors, we felt like we could make the playoffs in September,” guard CJ McCollum said. “We felt like we had enough pieces to get there, but it was going to be a process. We needed to get everybody together. We needed to execute. We were going to take some lumps.”

Even as the Trail Blazers drained seven consecutive 3-pointers in the third quarter, they still couldn’t shake the Clippers. More Rivers’ vengeance off the bounce, and Jordan reversed the Blazers’ fortunes on the glass. As the game moved into the fourth nip and tuck, the prospect for irony was ripe: The league’s most opportunistic underdogs might squander their ready-made ticket to the conference semis.

Ultimately, Portland became their best selves when they needed to in the fourth. A merry-go-round of multiple offensive actions created a drive-and-dish for [Damian] Lillard, who found McCollum for a 3-pointer with a little over four minutes remaining. Same thing a couple of minutes later: Movement, drive, kick, three from McCollum to keep Portland a length ahead of the Clippers

“I was really happy with the way we executed down the stretch,” Lillard said. “We didn’t panic when they put up a fight for us. We did the things necessary to win the game.”

The Trail Blazers had little time to reflect on the closeout win before the departure time for their Saturday afternoon flight to San Francisco was scrawled on the whiteboard. Golden State awaits in 36 hours time, and the Warriors without Steph don’t resemble the Clippers’ skeleton crew.

The mood following the game was lively, but like a class that finished one exam and has to trek down the hall to the next final, there was a certain focus, even among the relief. “There wasn’t no champagne popping or anything,” big man Ed Davis said.

While Lillard has the most stage presence, and McCollum might be the most expressive of the core, Davis displays the most unvarnished thoughts in the locker room.

“We have nothing to lose,” Davis said. “We go out and [get] swept, that’s what everyone is expecting so that’s how we have to play it — give it all we got, the whole 48 minutes out there and see what happens. We really have nothing to lose. All of y’all are expecting us to lose and the only people who think we’re going to win it are the 15 on the roster and the coaching staff.”

As the scrum dispersed, Davis pleasantly added, “All of y’all expect us to lose, don’t even lie to me.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: It was Indiana’s night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Friday but it was Toronto’s nightmare, with pressure shifting back big-time onto the Raptors’ heads in Game 7 Sunday night. … Injured Warriors guard and presumptive repeat MVP Stephen Curry is trying to beat his target date of May 9 in recovering from that sprained right knee. … Cleveland’s Tyronn Lue apparently hasn’t actually signed the contract offered by the Cavaliers when he got promoted from assistant to head coach, taking over upon David Blatt‘s firing. In a fluid market, it makes one wonder whether the numbers verbally agreed to might change. Maybe something bigger? … The Lakers’ gain is the Warriors’ loss, with Steve Kerr now faced with replacing another lieutenant on his bench. … Looking like Dallas point guard Deron Williams will be opting out of his deal with the Mavericks, if only as a good business move. … We’ll say it again: It’s possible that Paul Pierce has played his last NBA game. If so, the memories he made are remarkable ones.

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 236) Featuring Dan Woike

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The “Clippers Curse” seems all too real these days for Doc Rivers and his crew.

You lose Blake Griffin to a quad injury for the remainder of the playoffs after losing Chris Paul (broken hand), on the same night, and yes, you are entitled to believe in any urban legend you’d like if you are a Los Angeles Clippers fan.

Rivers still has a chance to do the unthinkable and guide his team to the conference semifinals without Griffin and Paul in uniform. It’ll require him trusting the role players and supporting cast in ways no coach has had to in years.

It’s up to you Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, and Austin Rivers. And you Paul Pierce, Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan. And yes, even you Cole Aldrich.

It’s going to take everyone for the Clippers to survive the Portland Trail Blazers in this first round series and that still might not be enough to get past Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and their suddenly confident supporting cast.

That curse … it’s real.

We discuss that and all things Clippers and playoffs on Episode 236 of The Hang Time Podcast featuring Dan Woike of the Orange County Register. And Woike is pronounced “woy-key.”

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.

– 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: Can the Clippers win without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin? We’re all about to find out

Blogtable: How will Blake Griffin’s return impact Clippers?

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: Another early exit for Raptors? | NBA’s best backup point guard is …? |
Impact of Griffin’s return?



VIDEODoes Blake Griffin’s return make the Clippers a contender?

> Blake Griffin’s return to the Clippers’ lineup will be _____.

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: Mandatory for any hopes the Clippers have in the playoffs. It’s a rite of spring to bash Blake’s postseason production — and coming off his recent shenanigans, he won’t get the benefit of the doubt from anyone, nor should he. But dude averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists in the 2015 playoffs. Let me say that again: 25.5 points, 12.7 boards, 6.1 assists. Per game. And he shot 51 percent. Yeah, he’ll help.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com Intensely chronicled. No one likes it when their office, store or factory runs too smoothly without them around — everyone wants to be missed and feel wanted, at some level — but the Clippers’ 29-14 mark without Griffin this season (compared to 17-13 when he has played) has convinced some they’re better off without him. I disagree, while acknowledging that he’ll probably need to tread lightly in his return so as to not upset the current pecking order. He can’t play chastened but he needs to be appropriately humble about the position he put L.A. in with his foolishness. Then it’s on coach Doc Rivers to bring it all together Ubuntu-style. All the while, writers both locally and nation wide will have their hands clamped to Griffin’s and his teammates’ wrists, constantly monitoring their pulses. It’s a tricky situation at an inopportune time.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com Overwrought and overanalyzed. As soon as Griffin hits the floor, the chat and rumors about him getting traded over the summer will grow louder with every missed shot and Clippers loss. The silly talk that the Clips are actually better without him will be resurrected. Just plain dumb. For the Clippers to be contenders, Griffin has to be a big, big part.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com Filled with drama. It’s the Clippers so that’s a given, right? But especially in this case. Griffin was out this long after a leg injury because during that absence he also punched an assistant equipment manager. The Clips had their best stretch of the season when he was out. The playoffs are coming soon and he needs to get back in a good place with his rhythm and conditioning pretty quick. There are layers of intrigue as he returns.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com Scrutinized. He let his teammates down with that silly decision to clobber a club employee and perhaps cost Los Angeles a chance to move to the No. 3 spot and avoid the Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals. I also wonder if the time off will create rust, which won’t go over well in the playoffs which demand intensity. Griffin will likely feel guilty enough to elevate his game and make up for lost time, but he needs to play at MVP level to help Chris Paul and the Clippers finally reach the elusive conference finals.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Interesting, to say the least. So many roles have changed since Christmas, the last time we saw Griffin in game action with his Clippers teammates. Someone will have to sacrifice a bit of what they’ve been doing if Griffin is going to resume his role as one of the Clippers’ top two players. I said it before the season, before Griffin’s torn quad and long before he lumped up his buddy/equipment staffer at that restaurant in Toronto. The Clippers did better than expected in Griffin’s absence, thanks in large part to the heavy lifting done by Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan. Having Blake back in the lineup and ready to go for the playoffs should provide a huge boost for a team that will need it throughout its playoff run.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com Stunning. One of two outcomes is sure to follow: Either the Clippers will struggle to reintegrate him, or else this resilient team that persevered without Griffin will be inspired by the return of a Top-10 star playing on fresh legs with a lot to prove. I’m guessing on the latter.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog *Insert fire emoji*. Absence seems to make the heart grow dumber, if not fonder. I think with Griffin out and the Clippers winning, at least initially, it was easy to forget that Griffin was one of the NBA’s best players last season, who finished top ten in MVP voting and third-team All-NBA. While he’s done a valiant job carrying the load in Griffin’s absence, Chris Paul is seemingly wearing down, as evidenced by his backing out from USA Basketball consideration, and could use some scoring help. The Clips are adding an elite talent at exactly the right time.

Morning shootaround — March 28


VIDEO: Highlights from Sunday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bulls’ season on the brink | Blake Griffin’s return date set | Heat want to keep Whiteside, even with price rising | Kobe plans on playing final nine games

No. 1: Bulls’ season on the brink — Three straight losses to sub .500 teams has caused a panic in Chicago, where the hometown Bulls have been struggling with consistency all season. But a team meeting before Sunday’s practice and tonight’s game against the Atlanta Hawks (8 ET, NBA TV) exposed some issues that have plagued the team all season. With their season on the brink, the Bulls finally cleared the air, writes Vince Goodwill of CSNChicago.com:

There’s been a lot of talk and rhetoric in this underwhelming Bulls’ season to date, but perhaps there hasn’t been enough honest and raw communication between the principle parties as things have gone south.

To that end, there was a team meeting before Sunday morning’s practice, following their third straight loss to a sub .500 team, the latest a drubbing at the hands of the Orlando Magic.

There didn’t appear to be any furniture moving or expletive-filled rants by the coaching staff or the players, which one can interpret myriad ways.

“We did get together and talk. That was a big part of what today was about, getting in there and talking about some things and hopefully airing some things out,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We came out and competed. We got after it in practice, not for long stretches because of our upcoming schedule. But I thought it was a productive day.”

As for the meeting, it seemed to have a measured tone, not necessarily one where guys got after each other for mishaps and mistakes, but presumably there was an air of responsibility for the current state of affairs.

“I don’t know about angry. I think just disappointed,” forward Mike Dunleavy said. “I think we feel like we can play better and win more games. I don’t think we’re a 60-win team or anything, but I think we should have some more wins right now, and probably be in a better position to get into the playoffs. But we are where we are, and we’ve got to make the most of it.”

Hoiberg termed the meeting “productive”, but with the schedule turning more treacherous and the Bulls having squandered a huge opportunity to close the gap on Detroit and Indiana, one has to wonder if it’s too little, too late.

“As always happens in those type of meetings, yeah,” said Hoiberg when asked if voices were raised. “You talk about things and obviously we have a lot to correct right now. We had a three-game win streak and the last three have been very poor performances by our team to say the least. I think it had to be done. And again, I thought it was productive.”


VIDEO: The Game Time crew tackles what’s going on in Chicago

***

(more…)

Report: Players union, NBA agree to shorter free agent moratorium

So now the Clippers are going to have to be quicker with their planes, trains and automobiles emojis. Coach Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin will have to get the sofa barricaded in front of the door faster.

In plugging what has long been an annoying, unnecessary — and last summer an embarrassing — hole in the off-season talent bazaar, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association have agreed to shorten the moratorium period for free agents from 10 days down to five.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, teams were informed with a memo on Thursday that verbal commitments can be made with free agents starting July 1 and the moratorium would end on July 6.

The DeAndre Jordan Rule has found its way into summer free agency.

In the aftermath of the free-agent center’s tortured change-of-heart that led him to return to the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA and the players association agreed to shorten the July free-agency moratorium and allow verbal commitments to become signed contracts in a shorter period of time, league sources told The Vertical.

The NBA and union agreed to make an alteration to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, shortening the moratorium this summer to July 1-6, sources said.

Teams were informed with a memo on Thursday evening, sources said.

As the NBA points out, though, contracts cannot actually be signed until July 7.

Of course, it will forever be known as the “DeAndre Rule” in the aftermath of last summer’s silly circus played out on Twitter and in headlines after a dramatic change of heart by the Clippers’ free-agent center, DeAndre Jordan.

Jordan had agreed to terms on a maximum contract to jump from the L.A. Clippers to the Dallas Mavericks in the opening days of the 2015 free agency period. The Mavs had promised to make Jordan the centerpiece of their offense and touted him as their next franchise player to eventually succeed Dirk Nowitzki.

But a full-court press by Rivers, various Clippers players at Jordan’s house in Houston, resulted in a flip-flop by the leaping 7-footer and he eventually jumped at the opportunity to return to L.A. as part of the core trio with Griffin and Chris Paul.

All the while that the Clippers entourage was holed up with Jordan, the Mavs were unable to make contact with him. Team owner Mark Cuban was angry with the reversal and the way the whole affair played out publicly.

The reason there is a moratorium period is so the NBA can have an ample time to calculate revenue figures and deliver teams the exact figures on the next season’s salary cap. Still, it often left fans puzzled and angry and the fiasco of 2015 was evidently the last straw.

Simple solution: hire more accountants.

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 230) Featuring J.J. Redick

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — When Doc Rivers revamped his bench in the offseason he made sure the Los Angeles Clippers would be one of the most intriguing teams in the NBA this season.

Even now, after shipping both Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson out, the Clippers remain a team of intrigue. They have an elite coach in Rivers, superstars in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin (yes, he’ll be back), one of the league’s best rim protectors and rebounders in DeAndre Jordan, a super sixth-man in Jamal Crawford and one of the league’s deadliest pure shooters in J.J. Redick.

So what’s holding them back?

Why are they stuck in the fourth spot in the Western Conference standing?

It might have something to do with the reigning champions up in Oakland. The Golden State Warriors on a historic roll this season and the San Antonio Spurs aren’t far off the pace. And then there is the matter of that two-headed superstar monster from Oklahoma City.

So perhaps it’s understandable, the Clippers’ current predicament. Even as they continue to shine without Griffin in the lineup, they still have ground to make up in the standings.

We dig deep on the Clippers and much more on Episode 230 of The Hang Time Podcast featuring J.J. Redick.

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.

– 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: Clippers sharpshooter J.J. Redick put up a 20-spot in the first round of the Foot Locker Three Point contest during All-Star Weekend in Toronto

Morning shootaround — Feb. 20


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from busy Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

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

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

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

He felt like crud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lillard shot chart

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Playoffs?

Playoffs? Are you kidding me?

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

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

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

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

Yeah. That feels like an awfully long time ago.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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


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