Posts Tagged ‘Detroit Pistons’

Surprise: Dumars Fires Yet Another Coach


VIDEO: Cheeks is out at Detroit after only eight months

Mo Cheeks, the eighth coach to serve during Joe Dumars‘ run as president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons, lasted eight months before, as multiple media outlets reported and the team eventually confirmed Sunday, getting the ax.

Dumars is in his 14th season, six years removed from Detroit’s last .500-or-better season. And the Pistons’ lone championship on Dumars’ watch (2004) came so long ago, Yao Ming, Latrell Sprewell and Seattle still were in the league and Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and the Charlotte Bobcats weren’t.

That math no longer adds up.

In fact, with the clamor for advanced analytics to measure and dictate every motion and inclination of every player associated with an NBA team’s success or failure, the league is overdue for a concrete rating system for front-office executives. They’re the guys, after all, who are lauded or ripped by a new generation of sportswriter/analyst, depending on how avidly they embrace or eschew such calculations.

Or how ’bout this? A simple ceiling on the number of coaches a GM can hire or fire before it is his head on the chopping block.

Three would seem to be plenty, though four might be a reasonable number as well. If you spot the boss one for clearing the deck after he takes the job – the way Dumars did in 2001, replacing George Irvine with Rick Carlisle – two or three more ought to be enough, after which the scrutiny needs to shift from the sideline to the executive suite.

That would have only gotten Dumars to about the halfway mark in presiding over his personal coaches’ Boot Hill.

After Irvine and Carlisle, Dumars and the Pistons turned to Larry Brown, who did precisely what everyone expected him to do: he got Detroit to The Finals in his first season, steered its ensemble cast to the 2004 championship, then won another 54 games before his AWOL DNA kicked in and he was on the move.

Flip Saunders was brought in and did even better, in terms of victories, going 176-70 in three seasons. But he never had full control of the Pistons’ veteran-laden locker room – thanks, Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton – though Saunders’ non-confrontational style was well-established before Dumars ever hired him. The core of that Detroit team was in decline, anyway, so when Saunders was dumped in 2008, so was its trips to the Eastern Conference finals and, for that matter, days sniffing air above .500.

Saunders at least holds the distinction of lasting longest under Dumars. After him, Michael Curry, John Kuester, Lawrence Frank — and now Cheeks – have followed in rather rapid succession, each staying two years or less.

The Cheeks firing borders on Kim & Kris eye-blink brief, with the added touch that Pistons players apparently learned the news Sunday through media and fan postings on Twitter. Sure, they’re the ones allegedly responsible, underperforming at a 21-29 pace that most experts felt should have been flipped to 29-21 by now. But class is as class does, and while Dumars – always classy as a Hall of Fame player in Detroit – can’t be held responsible for every leak, it does add to the impression that there’s chaos and scapegoating going on in the Motor City.

The Pistons have been in or near the league’s bottom third both offensively and defensively. As of Sunday morning, they were ninth, out of the playoff picture, despite an East standings that from No. 3 down ought to be a land of opportunity. Detroit has been OK within its conference actually (18-14) but a 3-15 mark vs. the West has been killer, as was the Pistons’ 7-15 mark at home halfway through the schedule.

The inability to meld the work of big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, some reported rancor among the players over the rotation and the confrontation/aftermatch between the coach and guard Will Bynum – that’s all on Cheeks. The question, though, of whether 50 games was enough to decide his fate – after successive two-years-and-out terms of Frank and Kuester – was answered by Dumars and owner Tom Gores.

“Our record does not reflect our talent and we simply need a change,” Gores said in a team statement. “We have not made the kind of progress that we should have over the first half of the season. This is a young team and we knew there would be growing pains, but we can be patient only as long as there is progress.

“The responsibility does not fall squarely on any one individual, but right now this change is a necessary step toward turning this thing around. I still have a lot of hope for this season and I expect our players to step up. I respect and appreciate Maurice Cheeks and thank him for his efforts; we just require a different approach.”

Pinpointing where that approach begins or ends, that’s the challenge. And that’s the area – made up top in jest but maybe a real void in need of filling – to be addressed. There’s got to be a more concrete way of capturing Dumars’ successes and failures.

The talent of which Gores spoke is largely of the individual variety; there’s no one even casually familiar with the NBA who didn’t stack up as many or more “cons” on the right side of Brandon Jennings‘ and Josh Smith‘s ledgers as “pros” on the left. It was, in a sense, a higher risk/reward gamble on “me first” guys than Dumars had perpetrated in 2009 when he splurged on free agents Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to little positive effect.

The Pistons constantly tout their youth – their starting lineup ranks as the NBA’s most tender (23 years and change) – and the fact that their record is best among the league’s four youngest teams. But if that’s something to overcome in the short term, the W-L mark that the kids cobble together seems an odd thing to hold against Cheeks. He didn’t wave a wand and make them young.

More Dumars: Rodney Stuckey was going to be the Pistons’ future until he wasn’t, and only lately has done better in his new zero-expectations world. Then there was the Darko Milicic gaffe, a blown No. 2 pick in 2003 from which the franchise still hasn’t recovered. All while the No. 1 (LeBron James), 3 (Carmelo Anthony), 4 (Chris Bosh) and 5 (Dwyane Wade) picks will be at All-Star weekend in New Orleans.

Gores’ arrival as owner apparently was a reset button for Dumars, because new bosses need basketball people they trust the same as chaotic, distracted owners (the previous Pistons regime). But eight coaches in 14 years and, with whoever takes over on the sideline now, six in eight seasons goes beyond fickle toward feeble.

Even if, in formulating an analytic to apply to the GMs, some allowance gets made for the length of the exec’s reign, Dumars would seem to have exceeded an acceptable average for pink slips. The next one he hands out, he needs to be standing in front of a mirror.

Or better yet, he needs to take over as coach himself and demonstrate that his GM/president knows what he’s doing.

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 9



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Paul set to return Sunday | Grizzlies set record | Inconsistency plagues Heat | World Peace open to trade 

No. 1: Paul set to return Sunday – The Los Angeles Clippers battled through their last 18 games without All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who suffered from a separated right shoulder sustained on Jan. 3 at Dallas. The Clippers went 12-6 over the stretch to maintain their lead at the top of the Pacific Division. Thankfully for the Clippers, Paul appears ready to return today against the Philadelphia 76ers, as reported by Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

Chris Paul walked out to the Clippers’ practice court Saturday and stretched before he put on his practice jersey to get up some shots before practice started.

After practice was over, the team announced that Paul looked “great” in practice and that the All-Star guard would play Sunday night against the Philadelphia 76ers at Staples Center.

When the media met with Clippers Coach Doc Rivers before practice, he indicated there was a “50-50″ chance that Paul would play against the 76ers.

But all that changed once Paul went through some contact drills with his teammates.

Rivers did say Paul would play in the NBA All-Star game Feb. 16 in New Orleans.

With Paul having sat out about five weeks with his injury, there could be an adjustment period having him back on the court.

“I never thought I would hear that question, actually,” Blake Griffin said before practice. “But, yeah, it’s a great problem to add in the best playmaker, perhaps in the league, back to your team.”

Paul has said on many occasions that he wanted to play in the All-Star game.

By playing against the 76ers and against the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night, Paul will get in two regular-season games before the All-Star game.

“I like him playing in the All-Star game, personally,” Rivers said. “Whether he plays [Sunday] or plays the next game [Wednesday against Portland], I think this is a rare case where he’s ready to play and the All-Star game is probably the safest venue for him to play.”

Rivers said he thinks it’s going to take Paul “some time” to get adjusted to playing with his teammates again.

“I think it’s going to take Chris some time to get his rhythm back,” Rivers said. “So that’s why I’m hoping he is healthy and then we can play him Sunday, have a practice Tuesday and play him Wednesday. I think that’ll help. I think it’s going to take a couple of weeks for him to get his rhythm back. No doubt.”

***

No. 2: Grizzlies set record – The Memphis Grizzlies set an NBA record on Saturday against the Atlanta Hawks that seems like it will be difficult for another team to challenge: they shot only one free throw … and still won! That set a record for fewest free throws ever attempted in a game, besting the Cleveland Cavaliers who won a game with just two free-throw attempts against the Golden State Warriors in 1994. Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal has the report:

“In the second half, the game got physical and that’s how we want to play,” Griz guard Courtney Lee said. “It played into our favor. We got active. We competed. We turned it up defensively.”

In snapping a two-game losing streak, Memphis (27-22) held Atlanta to a season-low in points. That’s notable given how difficult points were to come by. The Griz became the first team in NBA history to attempt one free throw in a game.

“Wow. Can I say wow?” Griz forward Zach Randolph said. “Man, I should’ve shot that one.”

***

No. 3: Inconsistency plagues Heat – The Miami Heat have tried to improve their consistency over the last few weeks. At 35-14, they’ve fallen to 4.0 games behind the Indiana Pacers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and the Heat’s loss to the Utah Jazz on Saturday night certainly won’t help them catch the Pacers. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald reports:

There was a story in the local paper Friday suggesting that every victory by the Utah Jazz from here on out would actually be hurting the franchise.

That’s the team the Heat lost to 94-89 on Saturday, the maybe-it-should-just-tank Utah Jazz.

So, the inconsistency continues for the Heat this season despite coach Erik Spoelstra’s best effort to coax some sort of rhythm and consistency out of his lineup. Remember that winning streak that started after last year’s Super Bowl? Well, this year’s early February winning streak ended at three games.

“We figured it was going to be an ugly game,” Spoelstra said. “We just have to find a way when we’re not making shots the way we’re accustomed to. We never could get over that hump.”

“I thought we contested a lot of shots tonight, and they hit them like we weren’t even there,” Chris Bosh said.

Dwyane Wade missed a layup with 11 seconds left, and the Jazz began celebrating arguably its best victory of the season.

Streamers fell from the rafters at Energy Solutions Arena after the final buzzer. It was Utah’s first victory in five games.

LeBron James has turned in some masterful performances in Utah throughout his career, but the second game of this road trip was not one of them. James finished with just 13 points, going 4 of 13 from the field and 1 of 6 from three-point range. He settled too often for his jump shot, and that lack of energy permeated throughout the Heat’s lineup.

“We played well enough defensively to win the game,” James said. “Offensively, we didn’t shoot the ball well, like we are capable of doing. That is what it came down to.”

The Heat shot 43.3 percent from the field and 30.4 percent (7 of 23) from three-point range. It was Miami’s worst shooting percentage since Jan. 10 when it shot 42.5 percent in a loss at Brooklyn.

***

No. 4: World Peace open to trade – Metta World Peace was ecstatic to join his hometown New York Knicks this summer. But it seems World Peace is now open to a trade after he has found himself on the bench since returning from a blood-spinning procedure on Jan. 24. Marc Berman of the New York Post reports:

After spending his career wanting to be traded to the Knicks, the defensive forward, who has been in and out of the rotation since December, wouldn’t mind being traded from the Knicks.

“He didn’t sign up for this,’’ one person close to him said.

When asked about whether he wanted to get dealt at the Feb. 20 deadline, World Peace said: “That’s up to my agent. I don’t worry about it. I’m optimistic about my future. … I’m not going to complain.’’

Another source said the possibility exists that [Mike] Woodson was unhappy with World Peace after a recent practice, in which World Peace spoke up about his playing time, making a wisecrack. World Peace is a constant clown in the locker room, but Woodson took exception.

Agent Marc Cornstein said he hasn’t gotten a firm reason why World Peace has seen limited time after the Knicks gave the rest of their mid-level exception in signing the Queenbridge product in July. He has been relegated to mostly garbage time since returning from his platelet-rich plasma procedure. World Peace played the final five minutes of garbage time Friday night in the Knicks’ 117-90 rout of the Nuggets.

“I haven’t been given an answer,’’ Cornstein said. “Usually, I’ll get an answer, not always the one I want to hear. But I don’t have an answer for you on this.’’

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Ricky Rubio scored a career-high 25 points. … Goran Dragic also set a career-high with 34 points. … Ricky Davis is attempting to return to the NBA through the Development League. … Chris Kaman on a potential trade: “I don’t care.” … Golden State Warriors willing to trade anyone but Stephen Curry or Andrew Bogut. … Kevin Martin of the Minnesota Timberwolves is out indefinitely with a broken thumb.

ICYMI of the Night: It seemed like every player on the Detroit Pistons was hot last night as they scored a season-high 126 points to defeat the Denver Nuggets. The leader of their temperature rise was Brandon Jennings, who scored a season-high 35 points to go along with 12 assists. If he keeps playing like this, he may live up to the contract he signed with the Pistons this summer.


VIDEO: Nightly Notable: Brandon Jennings

Pistons Can’t Hit From Outside

The List

Lowest effective field goal percentage from outside the paint

Team FGM FGA FG% %FGA EFG%
Detroit 585 1,791 32.7% 44.4% 40.5%
Charlotte 757 2,139 35.4% 52.7% 41.9%
Chicago 722 2,044 35.3% 52.7% 42.2%
Minnesota 728 2,144 34.0% 50.6% 42.5%
Philadelphia 633 1,866 33.9% 43.2% 42.9%

%FGA = Percentage of total field goal attempts
Effective field goal percentage = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA

The Context

Who would have thought that the worst jump-shooting team in the league would be the one starting Josh Smith at small forward?

The Pistons rank 29th in mid-range field goal percentage (34.8 percent) and dead last in 3-point percentage (30.6 percent). They’re the third worst 3-point shooting team of the last 10 years, ahead of only last season’s Timberwolves (30.5 percent) and the 2011-12 Bobcats (29.5 percent).

It doesn’t help that the Pistons start the erratic Brandon Jennings and the inexperienced Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the backcourt. In fact, all 10 Pistons who have attempted at least 45 shots from outside the paint have shot them at a level below the league average.

But Smith is the main culprit, having taken 350 shots from outside the paint, with a brutal effective field goal percentage of 34.4 percent.

Pistons shooting from outside the paint

Player FGM FGA FG% %FGA EFG%
Brandon Jennings 139 420 33.1% 60.5% 42.9%
Josh Smith 101 350 28.9% 49.2% 34.4%
Rodney Stuckey 84 215 39.1% 48.2% 42.6%
K. Caldwell-Pope 67 211 31.8% 65.5% 41.7%
Kyle Singler 49 153 32.0% 49.8% 45.1%
Will Bynum 34 91 37.4% 44.4% 43.4%
Greg Monroe 25 84 29.8% 15.9% 29.8%
Gigi Datome 19 66 28.8% 82.5% 33.3%
Chauncey Billups 21 62 33.9% 82.7% 45.2%
Charlie Villanueva 12 45 26.7% 69.2% 36.7%
Others 34 94 36.2% 15.7% 47.9%
Total 585 1,791 32.7% 44.4% 40.5%
League Avg. 793 2,111 37.6% 52.8% 46.2%

The issues of playing Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond together have been addressed in this space before. Of late, the defense hasn’t been as bad as it was earlier in the season, and coach Mo Cheeks isn’t playing the three bigs together as much, but the Pistons still struggle to score with them all on the floor together.

Pistons efficiency with Smith, Monroe and Drummond on the floor

Months GP MIN MIN/G OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Oct.-November 16 300 18.8 100.2 106.7 -6.5 -29
December 17 331 19.5 102.0 111.7 -9.7 -50
Jan.- February 14 203 14.5 101.3 105.3 -4.0 -21
Total 47 834 17.7 101.2 108.3 -7.1 -100

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

So it seems clear that, with the trade deadline now only 15 days away, the Pistons should think hard about shaking things up. Reportedly, they’d prefer to move Smith, who’s in the first year of a four-year, $54 million deal. Obviously, they’d have an easier time finding a taker for Monroe, who’s in the last year of his rookie contract.

Any team trading for Smith would obviously do so with the intent of playing him (primarily) at power forward. But moving Smith to the four on a permanent basis (with the Pistons or some other team) isn’t necessarily going to keep him from shooting jumpers.

Smith has played 834 minutes with Monroe and Drummond. He’s played 97 minutes with *other combinations where you could say he’s the small forward. And he’s played 717 minutes at the four.

* Combinations of Monroe, Drummond, Josh Harrellson, Jonas Jerebko and Charlie Villanueva.

And in those 717 minutes, Smith has attempted about the same percentage of his shots from outside the paint as he has when he’s played the three.

Josh Smith shooting from outside the paint

Position FGM FGA FG% %FGA EFG%
At SF 48 193 24.9% 49.5% 30.8%
At PF 53 157 33.8% 48.9% 38.9%
Total 101 350 28.9% 49.2% 34.4%

In fact, in two of his last three seasons in Atlanta, Smith attempted more than half of his shots from outside the paint. When Smith was with the Hawks, a coaching change seemed to make the difference. In six seasons under Mike Woodson, Smith took only 37 percent of his shots from outside the paint. In three seasons under Larry Drew, he took 49 percent of his shots from outside the paint.

That’s the same rate as this season. The problem is that Smith’s shooting — both inside the paint and outside it — has been much worse than it was in his last few seasons in Atlanta. His defense has also regressed.

That all goes beyond what position he’s playing. The Pistons can improve their perimeter shooting by acquiring a small forward who can actually shoot, but (unless they somehow find a taker for that contract) they still need Smith to play better.

The Video

Here are Smith’s 20 shots in Miami on Monday, when he shot 4-for-4 in the restricted area and 1-for-16 outside it.

On the other hand, Smith had one of his best shooting games of the season a couple of weeks ago against the Clippers. He shot 6-for-8 from mid-range. Here are those eight shots, which aren’t exactly more pleasing to watch (he banked the first one in).

The bottom of the list

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the Golden State Warriors are the best jump-shooting team in the league, with an effective field goal percentage of 49.5 percent from outside the paint. What is a surprise is that Andre Iguodala has been nearly as good a jump-shooter (55.1 percent) as Stephen Curry (55.6 percent).

Next best are the Heat (49.4 percent), followed by the Hawks (49.4 percent), Spurs (49.2 percent) and Mavericks (49.2 percent).

Trivia question

Of the 166 players who have attempted at least 100 shots both in the paint and outside the paint, only one has shot better (we’re talking standard field goal percentage, here) from outside than inside. Who is he?

More jump-shooting notes

  • Smith isn’t the worst jump-shooter in the league. Of 223 players who have attempted at least 100 shots from outside the paint, Tyreke Evans has the lowest outside-the-paint effective field goal percentage at 25.2 percent. If you’ve ever watched Evans take one of his lazy-looking jumpers, you shouldn’t be surprised.
  • It should also be no surprise that Kyle Korver is at the top of the list, with an effective field goal percentage of 64.2 percent from outside the paint. No. 2 is Anthony Tolliver (62.9 percent).
  • Smith ranks 216th on the list, and no one below him has taken anything near 350 shots from outside the paint.
  • East teams have an effective field goal percentage of 45.4 percent from outside the paint. West teams: 47.1 percent.
  • Eight of the 10 teams with an effective field goal percentage of less than 45 percent from outside the paint also rank 20th or worse in offensive efficiency. The exceptions are Memphis (18th in offensive efficiency) and Minnesota (ninth). While they don’t shoot very well, the Wolves rank in the top 10 in offensive rebounding rate, turnover rate, and free throw rate.

Trivia answer

Damian Lillard has shot 41.2 percent in the paint and 42.4 percent outside the paint. On the opposite side of the spectrum is teammate Nicolas Batum, who has the biggest discrepancy between paint field goal percentage (71.7 percent) and outside-the-paint field goal percentage (36.3 percent).

Air Check: The King And Pop

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – For NBA fans like us, there’s nothing better than League Pass. Having the ability to watch every game every night (and then again the next day) is heaven.

Of course, with local broadcasts, you get local broadcasters, which can be good and bad. It can be good, because these guys know their teams better than most national broadcasters. It can be bad, because these guys love their teams more than most national broadcasters. And they’re usually not afraid to show that love.

Air Check is where we highlight the best and worst of NBA broadcasts.

Efficiency is in the eye of the beholder

After a timeout during the Pistons-Wizards match Saturday, the Washington broadcast came back with Steve Buckhantz saying “Two of the most efficient players in the NBA are playing here tonight.”

At that point, your mind races. Andre Drummond and Martell Webster? Both are near the top of the league in effective field goal percentage.

No, Buckhantz was talking about a couple of other guys…


VIDEO: Wizards’ broadcaster Steve Buckhantz has high praise for John Wall and Brandon Jennings

So, Buckhantz called John Wall and Brandon Jennings “two of the most efficient players in the league” because they ranked second and third in games with at least 10 assists and less than four turnovers. That’s an interesting definition of efficiency.

At the time, Wall and Jennings ranked 203rd and 229th in effective field goal percentage among 247 players who had attempted at least 150 shots from the field. Their true shooting percentage ranks among the same group were slightly better: 152nd and 222nd.

Oh, if you want to go back to assists and turnovers, Jennings and Wall ranked 18th and 29th in assist/turnover ratio among qualified players.

So yeah, that stat that the Wizards showed – in which Chris Paul was lapping the field, by the way – could have used some context. And to top it off, Wall threw the ball out of bounds on the first possession after they showed it.

The King of Air Check returns

If you’ve been reading Air Check for the last couple of years, you’re familiar with the shots Scott Hastings takes at the officials. If you haven’t, see some examples here, here and here.

Let’s add this one to the list…


VIDEO: Scott Hastings demonstrates why he is the best

“I’m telling you,” Hastings says after Evan Fournier gets a bucket, “in a year or two, if he doesn’t get that call as an and-one, then officiating is as bad as I thought.”

That’s why he’s the King.

The fear of Pop

You’ve certainly seen Jeff Van Gundy‘s between-quarters “interview” with Gregg Popovich from a couple of weeks ago, probably the best broadcasting moment of the season…


VIDEO: Jeff Van Gundy and Gregg Popovich share a special moment

A week later, the Spurs were on ESPN again. And again, there was no sideline reporter. So play-by-play man Dave Pasch and analyst Jon Barry flipped a coin to see who had to do the interview. Pasch lost and got the standard Popovich treatment…


VIDEO: Dave Pasch loses coin toss and interviews Popovich

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 21


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Defensive woes plague Heat | Kobe vows to return as good as ever | ‘Melo: Knicks show no ‘fight’ vs. Nets | Cuban on his desire to be fined | Report: Wizards interested in Monroe

No. 1: Defensive woes plague stumbling Heat in defeat — Just yesterday, our own David Aldridge offered up three solid points in his Morning Tip column why Miami Heat fans shouldn’t fret over the team’s recent swoon. Still, the Heat’s falterings of late cannot be denied and after last night’s 121-114 loss on the road to the Atlanta Hawks, Miami has lost four of its last six games and is 5-5 in 2014. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald and Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com explain how defensive issues and a lack of overall energy may be at the root of Miami’s slide:

The midway point of the Heat’s season is here, and if one trend has emerged in recent games, it’s that the defending back-to-back champions aren’t interested in playing defense in the first halves of games.

Opponents are averaging 64.5 points in the first halves of the past four games against the Heat and, in Monday’s 121-114 loss to the Hawks, the Heat allowed a whopping 71 points before the break. The Hawks hadn’t beaten the Heat since Jan 2, 2012, a streak of nine games.

The runaway scoring led to some statistical oddities. For example, the Heat made 15 three-pointers and shot 45 percent from beyond the arc and somehow managed to lose to a team that is now just two games above .500.

“All across the board, ‘A’ through ‘Z’, there just was not a lot of pride [on defense],” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We tried to win on a shootout and then when our offense came up dry on the road toward the end … we weren’t able to secure a win.”

The Heat is now 2-1 against the Hawks (21-19) on the season and 9-2 against teams in the Southeast Division.

And here’s Arnovitz’s report on the Heat’s overall lethargic effort and poor defense against the Hawks:

It’s Day 13 of a six-game East Coast swing, and the Miami Heat are weary.

They’ve spent only five of the past 27 days at home, and the fatigue was apparent in the locker room pregame, as guys shuffled to and from the training room and on the floor against the Atlanta Hawks, where contests at the rim were late and half-hearted.

The Heat won’t say it publicly, of course, but they’re dog tired. LeBron James looks gassed. Dwyane Wade less so, but that’s only because he was on the bench in street clothes conserving his fuel. Chris Bosh’s eyelids were heavy as he offered explanations for the daze that surrounds the team. Even head coach Erik Spoelstra seems like he needs a double shot of espresso.

Whether it was exhaustion, a lack of focus, poor execution, iffy schemes or the lunar cycle, the result was defensive carnage at Philips Arena, where Miami fell 121-114 to Atlanta. The loss completes a lackluster 2-4 road trip.

“I can’t pinpoint what it is,” James said. “It was a little bit of everything. At some point we have to figure it out.”

That was the sentiment on Monday night as the team packed up to return home to face Boston on Tuesday. There was no specific diagnosis, no reference to pick-and-roll coverage or defending the point of attack or rim protection or defensive rotations. The Heat insist that the issues reside in the more general realms of focus, effort and accountability.

“We’re just not taking away much,” Shane Battier said. “Usually when our defense is clicking, we’re taking away a few things out of a team’s offense and living with other parts of the team’s offense. Right now, the other team has a full menu of what they want to get — paint shots, 3s, transition.”

When things are clicking, in Battier’s words, it’s not unusual to go 15 or 20 possessions without seeing a fundamental defensive mistake by Miami. Lately, the Heat are having trouble putting together consecutive stops. The Heat are failing NBA Defense 101. Simple angle pick-and-rolls — like the one the Hawks ran in the third quarter that yielded a wide-open 3-pointer for Williams — produce mass confusion with Heat defenders helping off the strong side perimeter (a major no-no).


VIDEO: LeBron James talks about Miami’s loss on the road to Atlanta

***

No. 2: Bryant sees ‘no chance’ of slowing down, sounds off on NBA today — Before the L.A. Lakers played the Chicago Bulls at the United Center last night, injured Lakers star Kobe Bryant gave a state-of-the-Mamba address of sorts. In a wide-ranging interview conducted before a throng of media (including our own Steve Aschburner), Bryant talked about his recovery from his left knee fracture, Derrick Rose‘s comeback attempt and more:

Kobe Bryant didn’t delve into negative numbers Monday night in a hallway at United Center, but that’s the level of doubt he felt about his next return from injury. The Los Angeles Lakers superstar, out since Dec. 17 with a fracture in his left knee, didn’t hedge or blink when asked about the likelihood that he’ll come back as the player he was before.

Not just before this latest setback but before the left Achilles-tendon blowout he suffered in April, cutting short his 2012-13 season.

“Zero. Zero,” Bryant said, repeating for emphasis his doubt about his playing future and the quality of his game when he gets there. “There was [doubt] before I came back the first time, because I didn’t know how my Achilles was going to respond to playing, to changing directions. The game in Memphis, I felt I had a pretty good feel for it. I felt like I was getting back to doing what I normally could do.

“So I feel pretty confident about it.”

This media opportunity, coming in Derrick Rose‘s gym, meant he was asked about the Bulls’ MVP, who also is sidelined by his second serious injury in two years (and isn’t expected back till October). While Bryant’s response dealt with Rose, it surely applied to him as well, a nod to the drive and will he long has been known for and the younger Rose still is developing.

“Really there’s not too much you can do about it,” Bryant said. “It’s unfortunate, but you have two options. One is to lay down. The second is get up and get to work. I think the second one is more appealing [to Rose] for sure.”

He made it abundantly clear that he won’t be joining Team USA in the 2016 Olympics, but teased that he’d be an eager spectator to watch Lakers teammate Pau Gasol play for Spain again.

The most noticeable change in NBA basketball since his arrival in 1996? “It’s more of a finesse game. It’s more small ball. Which, personally, I don’t really care much for,” Bryant said. Like so many from the old-school – even at 35, Bryant qualifies – he is befuddled at the soft stuff now that passes for physical play. “Makes me nauseous,” he said. “You can’t touch a guy.”

The rule against hand-checking has made it easier for players to shine offensively, Bryant said. “Nowadays, anybody can get out there and get to the basket – you can’t touch ‘em,” he said. “Back then, if you have guys putting their hands on you, you have to have the skills to be able to go both ways, change directions, post up and have that mid-range game, because you didn’t want to go all the way to the basket because you’d get knocked [down].”

He’s no fan of the NBA’s one-and-done arrangement with NCAA basketball, which no longer permits players such as Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James to turn pro immediately after high school. “I think it worked out pretty well for all three of us,” Bryant said. “The system really isn’t teaching players anything when you go to college. … I’m always a firm believer in us being able to make our own decision.”

***

No. 3:Melo says Knicks didn’t ‘fight’ against Nets — A 23-point loss at home is nothing any NBA team wants to stomach. But when a team like the up-and-down New York Knicks takes that in (before a national TV audience, no less), it becomes even harder to digest. Knicks star Carmelo Anthony was none-too-pleased after the game, telling ESPNNewYork.com’s Ian Bagley that what upset him most about the defeat at the hands of the crosstown Brooklyn Nets was the lack of desire New York showed in trying to keep the game close:

A frustrated Carmelo Anthony said the New York Knicks failed to show fight in their 23-point loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Monday.

“That’s the only thing that kind of bothers me: Today we didn’t even fight. I felt like we didn’t fight as a team,” Anthony said after the Knicks’ 103-80 loss. “Them guys from the jump ball just came in and it felt like they owned us.”

“We couldn’t get into defensive sets and [were] just scrambling and double-teaming and switching, basically just scrambling the whole game,” Anthony said.

The Knicks have lost four straight and enter play Tuesday tied with Cleveland for 10th place in the Eastern Conference. They are on pace to win just 30 games.

“I didn’t think we would be in this situation,” said Anthony, who is expected to test free agency this summer. “I don’t really know how to deal with situations like this. I’m learning. This is the first time for me.”

Tyson Chandler didn’t knock New York’s effort after the loss. Instead, he said the Knicks were “outschemed” by Brooklyn.

“I think we came to play. They outschemed us,” Chandler said. “They played to our defense as far their offensive scheme, knowing our rotations and knowing what we wanted to accomplish. Kind of putting us in vulnerable situations.”

Chandler’s words could be interpreted as a thinly-veiled shot at Mike Woodson and the coaching staff. The Knicks were caught switching frequently on pick and rolls and late on rotations, which allowed the Nets to find open shooters all over the floor.

“I don’t want to switch. I personally don’t like it. You come with a defensive plan and then every guy kind of mans up and takes his responsibility,” Chandler said. “I think switching should always be your last resort.”

Anthony believes the Knicks’ four-game losing streak has impacted the team’s confidence, which was at an all-time high after New York won five in a row earlier this month.

“It seemed like everything was just going for us [during the winning streak], offensively, defensively, guys felt good about themselves,” Anthony said. “There was a lot of confidence within the team, with individuals. Right now it seems we don’t have that.”


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the Knicks’ blowout loss at home to the Nets

***

No. 4: Cuban ready for Silver to ‘feel my wrath’Mavs owner Mark Cuban did little to hide the fact he wanted one last fine from soon-to-be-retired commissioner David Stern before he leaves office next month. Cuban got his wish earlier this week when the league levied a $100,000 fine against him for confronting officials after the Mavs’ loss to the Clippers last week. The owner doesn’t hold any ill feelings for getting the fine, of course, and told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s Dwain Price he’s looking forward, in a sense, to getting to know new commissioner Adam Silver in his own unique way:

In his first interview since the NBA fined him $100,000 Saturday, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he just wanted to have some fun before commissioner David Stern retired.“I love it,” Cuban said about the fine, before Monday’s 102-97 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. “It’s a business expense and it’s part of doing business.

“These franchises are worth hundreds of millions of dollars and I literally feel that if I could impact it to have some improvement, they could be worth a lot more.”

Since Stern will retire on Feb. 1, Cuban said he wanted to get in one last fine as a lasting memory to the commissioner.

“I was just a little nostalgic for the commissioner,” Cuban said. “So I was trying to fund the donut fund.”

Asked if he thought Stern was happy to fine him one last time, Cuban said: “I think he was. They call you and make sure what you said is what you said.

“When I said yes, and then they say OK, here’s the fine. That’s the way it works.”

Adam Silver will take over for Stern on Feb. 2. Will Cuban have a present waiting for the new commissioner?

“We’ll see,” he said. “It depends on how things are handled.

“But there’s plenty to come. Now it’s time to let Adam feel my wrath.”

***

No. 5: Report: Wizards interested in Pistons’ MonroeFollowing their 107-99 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers last night, the Washington Wizards got to .500 for the fourth time this season. One player who had a big impact on the win was center Marcin Gortat, who finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds and helped set the tone for Washington’s interior play. But as the Wizards look to build on this newfound .500 mark and, surely, try to climb well over it, they could be looking to further upgrade their interior play. According to Alex Kennedy of BasketballInsiders.com, the Wizards are interested in acquiring Pistons big man Greg Monroe, either via free agency or trade:

The Detroit Pistons find themselves in a difficult position at the halfway point of the 2013-14 season.

After a big offseason that brought Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and Chauncey Billups (as well as playoff expectations) to Detroit, the team is currently 17-24 and barely holding onto the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference. Detroit has dropped 10 of their last 14 games and, according to multiple league sources, the organization isn’t sure what to do as the Feb. 20 trade deadline approaches.

One player who has been mentioned in trade rumors throughout this season is Greg Monroe, the young power forward who will be a restricted free agent this offseason since he couldn’t agree on an extension with the Pistons. It’s no secret that Josh Smith is better at the four, and it’s possible that Detroit moves the valuable Monroe to upgrade another position and slide Smith over to power forward.

One team that is interested in Monroe is the Washington Wizards, according to multiple league sources. It’s becoming clear that Washington is planning to pursue Monroe, either through trade or free agency.

Prior to joining the Pistons, Monroe starred at Georgetown for two seasons so he’s no stranger to Washington. The Wizards have $41,458,760 in guaranteed commitments for next season, since Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza among others are in the final year of their contracts.

The Pistons are certainly a team to keep an eye on over the next month. Rival executives have said that there is “turmoil” within the organization and that they haven’t decided what to do as the deadline approaches.

How the team performs in the coming weeks could determine what the front office does next, similar to what’s occurring with the Toronto Raptors right now. If the team plays well, the team will likely remain intact and the Pistons will try to make a postseason run. If the team continues to struggle, it’s very possible that Detroit makes a trade between now and the deadline.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Knicks reserve guard Beno Udrih has reportedly requested a trade … A little news nugget from Sam Smiththe Celtics might want to trade Jeff Green … Bucks guard Gary Neal might be having some second thoughts about signing with Milwaukee in the offseason … The Hawks are building something worth watching in Atlanta

ICYMI(s) of The Night: The Clippers and Pistons, two of the dunking-est teams in the league, put on quite a show above the rim yesterday. And since (around here, anyway) there’s no such thing as too many dunks, here’s a great one from Jan Vesely, too, for good measure:


VIDEO: The Pistons and Clippers get dunk-happy in Monday’s matinee


VIDEO: Jan Vesely gets way up to finish off the alley-oop vs. the Sixers

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 9


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Roundup of thoughts on Kobe’s return | Report: Sixers a favorite to land Asik? | James offers praise for Drummond | Kings take risk in dealing for Gay | Celtics keep division lead in perspective

No. 1: Bryant returns to action, scores nine points in L.A.’s lossThe story of the morning is Kobe Bryant and his season debut with the Los Angeles Lakers last night against Toronto. Opinions, as you’d expect, on his return were somewhat varied, but the overall theme isn’t surprising: Bryant is rusty and is still working himself into his familiar form. We’ll go around the web and see what some notables have to say about his comeback …

First, here’s Ramona Shelbourne of ESPNLosAngeles.com, on how Kobe’s return gives L.A. some new hope:

For most of the day, Kobe Bryant was quiet. The magnitude of what he was about to do, after everything hed been through these past eight months, was too big to be thinking about in the hours before the game.He just needed to stay centered. Focus on the Toronto Raptors or on finding his shot and feelings his legs beneath him again. Just put the jersey on again like he has for every other game in his 18 NBA seasons. Play the game, table the emotion.

But in the final few moments before tipoff, as Bryant stood near midcourt and awaited his first game action since rupturing his Achilles tendon on April 12, it all caught up to him. The emotion, the fear, the hard work, the gratitude, the appreciation for the game that many thought he might never be able to play again.

His lip quivered. He had to steel his jaw to trap the emotion from spilling out.

“You try to control it as much as you can,” Bryant said. “But you can’t help but think of all the support and the hard work. I really, really worked my butt off this entire summer to try to get to this place.

He was decidedly rusty. He was noticeably nervous in the beginning. His passes were sloppy, his timing was off. His shot was tentative. His chemistry with his teammates was shaky.

“I don’t feel normal at all,” Bryant said afterward. “I couldn’t wait to start watching film and criticizing every little thing. I’ll go home tonight and watch the game. But thats the exciting part. You’ve got a challenge, you’ve got some improvements to make.

“I felt good that I was able to get into the lane … then once I got into the lane, I didn’t make the proper reads most of the time. But was the fact that I was able to get in there.

For the Lakers it was a win in every place but the standings. Because for the first time in eight months, it felt like a Lakers game inside Staples Center again. No disrespect to the plucky performances this seasons team had churned out to keep the team hovering around .500 as they awaited Bryant’s return, but the Lakers are about sizzle, not steak.

It was great theater, as only the Lakers can deliver. Vintage Showtime. And for the moment you forgot the Lakers are really just a .500 team hoping Bryant can give them a punchers chance to do something unexpected with this season. That he came out and looked a little rusty only dulled the narrative a bit. Yes, it would’ve been nice if hed dropped 30 and delivered a game-winning dagger. I’m sure there were people who expected him to leap a tall building on the way in, too.

But the fact he made it back at all, as quickly as he did, and showed enough in those 28 uneven minutes to leave everyone with some hope for the future is enough for one night.

The show came back to Staples Center on Sunday night, and it’ll be worth watching.

The venerable Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times provides his view on Kobe’s return:

There were 19 seconds left in the first half when the Staples Center crowd rose to its feet and roared. It’s been nearly eight months, but everybody remembered what was happening next.

Kobe Bryant had the basketball. His teammates stepped out of the way. This was his moment. This was his memory. This was his comeback.

Well, sort of.

Bryant’s driving shot was partially blocked by Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, with Bryant crumpling to the floor and limping away as frightened fans gasped.

“I was even scared myself,” said Bryant.

It was a night of basketball immortality and human frailty. It was a night of loud cheers and quiet shudders. It was a night when the perception was as torn as Kobe Bryant’s Achilles tendon last spring, an injury from which he returned Sunday amid both undaunted hopes and unsettling fears.

He gritted his teeth and pumped his fist and shouted inspiration as the fans chanted both “Ko-be” and “M-V-P.” Yet he also missed seven of his nine shots, committed eight turnovers, and rarely left the ground on offense.

And, oh, by the way, a makeshift six-win Toronto Raptors team that had just traded away leading scorer Rudy Gay beat the clearly distracted Lakers, 106-94.

“I guess it’s a start,” said Bryant afterward with a weary sigh. “A start is good.”

Midway through the fourth quarter, with Bryant resting on the bench, fans began chanting, “We Want Kobe.” Even though the team had played much more freely and effectively without him, Coach Mike D’Antoni relented and put him in the game with the Lakers trailing by six.

Bryant missed a three-pointer. He made two free throws. He missed a layup. He threw away a pass. He made two of three free throws. He missed a wild three. The Lakers lost by a dozen.

“It’s going to take a while,” said D’Antoni. “I know everybody thought he could, but there’s no way you can come out and be in midseason form. It’s just going to be a little while to get his legs and get his timing back.”

The Lakers now have the rest of this season to hope that his hops return and his quickness resurfaces and he becomes a rebuilt version of the old Kobe instead of being, well, an old Kobe.

They are so confident of this happening. Jim Buss and the crew gave him the new deal after only watching him for a couple of practices.

Yet here’s guessing after Sunday night, they officially began holding their breath.

Bryant, meanwhile, exhaled with relief and resolve.

He was so emotional about returning to the court nearly eight months after a potential career-ending injury, he took the floor with a tight jaw as if fighting back tears, and later admitted he was feeling it.

“You try to control it as much as you can, but you can’t help but think of all the support, all the work…. It makes you appreciate this franchise and this city, it certainly brings a mortality to everything,” he said of his emotion.

Last, we have Phil Collin of the Los Angeles Daily News, who discusses how Bryant’s return impacted the rest of the team:

Amid a tangible buzz normally reserved for playoff games, Lakers fans were standing from the time Bryant walked onto the court for pregame warmups. It had been eight months since he ripped his Achilles tendon on the Staples Center court.

Let’s just say the Lakers seemed to play at the same level as Bryant, who was coming off a devastating injury and couldn’t be expected to rebuild Kobe in a day.

“I felt good I was able to get in the lane,” Bryant said. “I felt like I could penetrate and get into the corner, which was a big question mark for me. Once I got in there I didn’t make the proper reads most of the time. But the fact I could get in there means I can improve. The explosiveness you can’t.”

Physically, that’s the good news. Team-wise, it wasn’t pretty. None of the starters scored in double figures, but all five reserves did.

Now come the adjustments.

Nick Young scored 19 points for the Lakers and Xavier Henry scored 17, making 6 of 8 shots. But when the stretch run arrived, D’Antoni brought Bryant in for Henry.

But they realize the season just changed for the Lakers (10-10).

“We have a lot of things that are different,” Henry said. “We have point guards that are out so I have to play backup point guard. We have Kobe coming back, so everything shifts. Everybody just has to find their way and we’ll figure it out in due time.

“Before long we’ll know what we’re doing, for sure.”

Bryant’s return, of course, came with concerns other than his health or conditioning level. The Lakers had to wonder how his infusion into the lineup might gum up the works.

And at the same time keep the eye on the prize.

“To win and start building a team that hopefully we can start driving to the playoffs and do something,” D’Antoni said, asked what he expected. “There’ll be a little bit of a sorting-out process to see what we need to adjust, and he needs to adjust to the team and vice versa and go from there.

“Obviously, this is a boost and we’ll try to get him back to a level that he left.”


VIDEO: NBA TV’s GameTime crew breaks down Kobe’s return vs. the Raptors

***

No. 2: Report: Sixers a viable destination for Asik — As of Friday afternoon, word got out, via ESPN.com’s Marc Stein, that the Houston Rockets are actively looking to deal disgruntled center Omer Asik within the next 10 days. Over the weekend, talk may have heated up between the Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers, who have become a viable destination for the defensive-minded big, writes Stein:

Pinpointing a front-runner in the Omer Asik trade sweepstakes is still tricky at this juncture.

It’s tricky even with the Houston Rockets, as reported here Friday, aggressively trying to find a trade partner for Asik within the next 10 days.

Yet there are a few things we can say about the current state of the Asik trade market:

1. Keep your eye on Philadelphia. Front-runner would be overstating it, but the notion that the Sixers are a viable destination for Asik is increasingly making the rounds. And that certainly makes sense given (A) Philly’s front office is run by a certified Asik fan in former Rockets exec Sam Hinkie and (B) Philly has a frontcourt player to send back to Houston in Thaddeus Young, whose skill set can click with Dwight Howard‘s, albeit not as well as seemingly unattainable dream target Ryan Anderson; and (C) there really isn’t an Asik for Philly to draft with the high pick it’s likely to snag in the 2014 lottery.

***

No. 3: James heaps praise on Pistons’ Drummond — A quick, cursory look at the NBA.com/Stats leaders page finds Pistons center Andre Drummond among the league-leaders in rebounding (13.0 rpg) and him in first place in field goal percentage (63.5 percent). The case can be made that Drummond is the best center in the Eastern Conference and his growth on the court as a player hasn’t been missed by his contemporaries, most notably reigning MVP LeBron James, writes Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News:

If there’s one player who can relate to Andre Drummond’s plight — if you want to call it that — of being a big kid in a man’s body and a man’s game, LeBron James would be the clearest example.

But even James, who entered the NBA out of high school in 2003, said he can’t relate to knowing what it’s like to have such massive size and facing the task of adjusting to it on the fly during an 82-game regular season.

“I don’t know, I haven’t had that experience (laughs),” said James, who’s listed at 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds but could be taller and heavier than that. “He’s much bigger than I am. He’s much more comfortable than even the beginning of last year and that’s good for him.”

“Each and every game he continues to grow. His confidence is building,” James said.

James made perhaps the biggest statistical leap from his rookie season to his second year, while a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2004-05. His scoring jumped from 20.9 to 27.2, his rebounding from 5.5 to 7.4 and assists from 5.9 to 7.2, so he knows the value of familiarity, seeing the league the second time around.

Drummond is averaging 18.4 points, 16.8 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and two steals in his last five games, and the Pistons have gone 4-1 in that stretch.

“He’s a huge, huge guy and every game he continues to build that confidence,” James said. “He rebounds at a high level. The more and more basketball you play, the more situations you see and the more you’re growing. He’s definitely doing that.”

***

No. 4: Kings take risk in trading for Gay — Just a mere 12 days after the Sacramento Kings were a part of the first trade of the 2013-14 season, they are busy again, reportedly agreeing to work a trade with the Toronto Raptors to pick up Rudy Gay. In its first deal of the season, Sacramento got former No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams from the Minnesota Timberwolves for Luc Mbah a Moute in a move that gives Williams a chance to show what he can do with consistent minutes. Now, with the move for Gay (which has yet to become official), the Kings are gambling again that adding star power will help their young team grow up fast, writes our own Scott Howard-Cooper:

The Kings made a risky reach for immediate credibility and agreed to acquire Rudy Gay, his bloated contract and his ever-declining shooting from the Raptors in a seven-player deal Sunday that is mostly a salary dump for Toronto.The Raptors will get Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes, with only Hayes ($5.9 million) and Salmons (a $1-million buyout on his $7 million guaranteed) on the books next season. Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy are also headed to Sacramento as the new management team continues to follow through on plans to aggressively pursue deals, so aggressive that the Kings just countered two moves made in the five months since Pete D’Alessandro was hired as general manager.

The Kings got Vasquez from New Orleans as part of the three-team deal that sent Tyreke Evans to the Pelicans in a sign-and-trade, started him at point guard, and now traded him 18 games into the season, returning Isaiah Thomas to the opening lineup. And, the Kings traded for Derrick Williams on Nov. 26, said they were committed to him as the starter at small forward, and now bring in Gay four games later, unless they have another immediate deal in place for Gay.

Gay is a name, has an active run of six consecutive full seasons of averaging at least 18 points a game and, whether with Williams or in place of Williams, addresses what had been the biggest position need for the Kings. But it says something that he has been traded twice in 10 1/2 months, including when the Grizzlies were willing to break up a lineup with a proven history of long playoff runs and now by a Toronto team trying to build something.

Gay will make $17.8 million this season and has a player option worth $19.3 million for 2104-15 that he almost certainly will exercise. After mostly shooting between 45 percent and 47 percent earlier in his career, though, the 6-foot-9, 220-pounder dropped to 41.6 percent last season with the Grizzlies and Raptors and is all the way down to 38.8 the first 18 games of 2013-14.

The deal will not become official until a trade call with the league on Monday, but Gay, Acy and Gray were all out of uniform Sunday night as the Raptors played the Lakers in Los Angeles, indicating the terms of the move that could save Toronto some $12 million next season were set.


VIDEO: Kings, Raptors reportedly agree to Rudy Gay swap

***

No. 5: Celtics, Stevens keeping start in perspective — Before the season began, the Knicks were thought of by most analysts and NBA followers as contenders for the Atlantic Division title while the rebuilding Celtics were viewed as a team setting itself up for future glory. Yet 22 games into the season, Boston stands atop the (albeit weak) division after yesterday’s 41-point drubbing of New York at Madison Square Garden. While an early lead in the division and a big win over a rival might be enough to get most underdog teams excited, the Celtics — thanks to coach Brad Stevens‘ leadership — aren’t going there, writes Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com:

Shortly after Jeff Green hit a buzzer-beating winner in Miami last month, Brad Stevens’ wife, Tracy, sent him a text that said, “Congratulations, you beat the Heat. Now you have to beat human nature.”
The insinuation was that Stevens had to find a way to keep his team focused despite stunning the world champs on their home turf, and Stevens himself had begun worrying about Boston’s next game from virtually the instant Green’s 3-pointer ripped through the twine.

One month later, in New York, with the Celtics playing their best basketball of the season, Stevens watched his team flat-out demolish the Knicks as part of a 112-73 thrashing at Madison Square Garden.

Human nature, of course, would be to celebrate, to puff out your chest and bask in the glow of a 41-point triumph over a team that was supposed to be in the mix for the Atlantic Division title. Human nature would be to celebrate being 6-2 over your past eight games and enjoy having a small cushion atop the division you weren’t supposed to have any business competing in.

“I’m not doing cartwheels,” Stevens said. “[Celtics players] know I’m not going to do cartwheels … I just said, ‘Keep being a team and keep playing together.’ The other thing is that we need to keep building off the good things we are doing.”

Stevens paused a moment to consider what he had revealed about his postgame speech, then smiled.

“It was boring as heck,” he added. “It was boring as heck.”

Make no mistake, the Celtics enjoyed the heck out of Sunday’s win. Rehabbing point guard Rajon Rondo wore a permanent grin on the Boston bench, bouncing out of his seat with each of Mike Woodson’s exasperated timeouts to greet his teammates and celebrate their efforts.

“Never as good as you think you are, never as bad as you think you are, and you’re never far from either,” Stevens said. “It’s one of those days in a lot of ways. But, also, we played pretty well. Can we play like that every day? Probably not. But can we bring the same intensity level and be as much of a team as we were today? Hopefully.”

The Celtics played infectious defense, particularly Brandon Bass – who again embraced the challenge of guarding Anthony and excelled on both ends of the floor (he finished with 16 points, eight rebounds, three steals and a block over 32:22). Stevens said he just couldn’t bring himself to pull Bass off the floor the way he was playing.

Bass was so locked in that he picked up a rare technical while barking at an official late in the third quarter for not getting a whistle while registering a putback in traffic. The Celtics were up by 37 at that point.

Stevens probably loved that sort of intensity. The Celtics hadn’t put together a full 48 minutes this season, but rarely let off the pedal on Sunday. The emotion Bass showed is exactly what Stevens wants from his team every game, every quarter and every possession.

Alas, a win is a win is a win. And it doesn’t matter if it’s by 41 or one. They all count the same. So Stevens downplayed the significance of the lopsided final.

“I’ve already learned in this league, you can be on the good end or the bad end of [games like this],” Stevens said. “We were lucky today to be on the good end. Everything we did will get over-exaggerated, everything they did will get over-exaggerated, but the bottom line is, we just played better today for 48 minutes.”


VIDEO: Celtics.com’s crew breaks down Boston’s victory at MSG

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Over the weekend, a young Cavs fan tried to make sure Kyrie Irving knew that Clevelanders want him to stick around … The Knicks don’t see their orange jerseys as a bad-luck charm

ICYMI Of The Night: As this sequence shows, Rockets big man Terrence Jones is doing a nice job of providing some brawn in the post aside from Dwight Howard


VIDEO: Terrence Jones gets the block and the nice bucket vs. Orlando

Morning Shootaround — Nov. 29

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers’ West more concerned with wins than stats | Drummond could become an elite defender | Westbrook mired in a shooting slump

No. 1: Pacers’ West not fretting stats plunge — There’s only one number that matters to Pacers forward David West: Indiana’s win-loss record. With the Pacers off to an NBA-best 14-1 start, he’s not too concerned that many of his individual numbers are at all-time lows, writes Curt Cavin of The Indianapolis Star:

The 11th-year pro is averaging just 12.2 points — 24 percent off his career average — and 30 minutes played, and he couldn’t care less. His team is 14-1.

“We talked about at the beginning of the year that everyone was going to have to make sacrifices, so it’s no big deal,” West said as the Pacers prepared for tonight’s game against Washington at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “That’s just the way this team is built.

“We’ve got multiple guys that can produce at a high level, five guys averaging double figures. We’re being productive. That’s how our offense is geared this year.

“So, I focus on other things.”

After games, he rarely checks his scoring total until he has gone through the categories he considers significant to team success.“Rebounding, field goal percentage,” he said of his routine of box score reading. “Defensively, what did we hold the other team to?”

Not flashy, but it draws praise.

“He’s selfless,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “He doesn’t care about his own numbers.”

That’s because West works, doing everything that makes a teammate happy. It’s no coincidence that the former Xavier standout recently scoffed at a question about individual goals.

“I don’t have them,” he said with a hard stare.

West elaborated on that this week with the same intensity.

“I’ve never played the game that way; my mind doesn’t work that way,” he said. “The goal is to win, to try to win games.

“Maybe some nights I have to do a little bit more offensively; some nights it’s not required. That’s fine either way, but the effort has to be there defensively; it always has to be there. Beyond that, it’s whatever.”

Pacers President Larry Bird said that mentality is what “changed everything” with the organization when West was signed as a free agent in 2011.

“It’s his seriousness,” Vogel said. “Guys act up a little less when David West is in the room because they understand we’re here for business.

“He gives everybody else on the basketball court some swagger and confidence, some edge that we’ve got one of the baddest power forwards in the game on our side, and we’re going to go out and win the physicality battle most nights.”

***

No. 2: Cheeks has big expectations for Drummond — Pistons big man Andre Drummond is leading the NBA in field goal percentage and ranks among the NBA’s top 30 in blocks per game with a 1.2 average. Much of those stats are due to an increase in playing time in his sophomore NBA season and his coach, Maurice Cheeks, sees the tools in Drummond that could make him a top-flight defender, writes Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press:

As Drummond practiced his shot a few feet away at the Auburn Hills practice facility, Cheeks spoke about the potential he carries inside the free-throw line — as a defender.

“I think it’s just learning how to do it,” he said. “I hate to always say he’s a young player, but he is a young player and there are going to be peaks and valleys of him in control in the paint.”

Some days Drummond will be good. Some days he won’t be so good.

“There have been a lot of big-time shot blockers in the game, and I don’t know how they got to that level. But big-time shot blockers, they’ve been doing it a long time,” Cheeks said. “I think he will get to that point. I just think he has to learn how to do it.”

Cheeks doesn’t foresee a need to feed Drummond offensively.

“He used to tell me he touched the ball by rebounding the ball,” Cheeks said. “And he does a great job rebounding the ball. He does a good job offensive rebounding the ball. But I don’t think he’s that kind of player that needs to touch the ball to be engaged.”

***

No. 3: Westbrook struggling to find his shot — In the 10 games since Russell Westbrook returned to the Thunder’s lineup, OKC has gone 8-2, scoring wins over Spurs, Nuggets and Clippers (among others). But Westbrook is shooting a career-low 38.8 percent overall and 29.3 percent from 3-point range, and has struggled to make shots pretty much since his return to the lineup. But as Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman notes, Westbrook might be ready to snap his skid tonight as the Warriors come to town (8 ET, NBA TV):

Through 10 games, Westbrook is shooting just 38.8 percent. He’s connected on only 29.3 percent of his 3-point tries. Even his free throws aren’t dropping at the rate he’s accustomed to, as he’s shooting 69.7 percent from the foul line.

Wednesday’s win against San Antonio stands as Westbrook’s low point.

He made just two of 16 shots, missed all five of his 3-pointers and scored a season-low six points.

You’d have to go all the way back to April 16, 2012, to find the last time Westbrook was held to single-digit scoring in a regular-season game in which he played at least 10 minutes. That came in a 15-point road loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

But these are the sporadic struggles the Thunder expected out of Westbrook.

While rehabilitating his surgically repaired right knee, Westbrook was forced to sit out all basketball activities. Prior to making an earlier-than-expected return on Nov. 3, Westbrook hadn’t stepped on a court for a game since April 24.

“It’s going to take time,” Westbrook said. “Your legs got to get stronger, your body, all your muscles got to get used to working and getting back going.”

Oddly enough, Westbrook got off to a similarly slow start shooting the ball when healthy last season. Through his first 10 games of the 2012-13 season, Westbrook shot an identical 38.8 percent and just 27.9 percent from 3-point range.

But it’s clear this season that rust is a real factor.

Westbrook is missing more easy looks than ever before. He’s shooting 41.5 percent on 2-pointers, which matches the career-low output from his rookie season. In each of the previous three seasons, Westbrook hovered between 45 and 48 percent on 2-pointers.

Surprisingly, it hasn’t been his patented pullup jump shot that’s been a problem. He’s maintained his rhythm and accuracy from that distance and even improved from midrange. He’s made 18 of 29 pullup attempts, or 62 percent, according to nba.com/stats.

But where Westbrook has struggled most is in the paint and at the rim, a sign that, while his explosiveness has returned, his timing just isn’t quite there.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Miami’s Big Three are all averaging less minutes per game than usual … Kings center DeMarcus Cousins considers it a ‘compliment’ when foes try to get in his head

Morning Shootaround — Nov. 22


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Nov. 21

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Brown won’t panic over Cavs’ start | Dolan opens up on Woodson, Stoudemire | Pistons focus on pick-and-roll defense | ‘Foreign Legion’ fueling Spurs’ solid start

No. 1: Brown not about to overreact to Cavs’ slow start — The Cavs remade their roster in the offseason, bringing in center Andrew Bynum, stable veteran guard Jarrett Jack and versatile forward Earl Clark as the highlights of their free-agency remodel. With those moves on the dockett, plus having an All-Star guard (Kyrie Irving) in the fold and the return of rebounding maven Anderson Varejao from injury, Cleveland was thinking a playoff run was a near sure-thing. Yet the Cavs awake this morning with a 4-8 mark, second-worst in the Central Division, and haven’t looked anything like a postseason contender. Despite the early struggles, coach Mike Brown isn’t about to hit the panic button on the season, writes Bob Finnan of The News-Herald & Morning Journal:

Even though there’s panic running rampant throughout the fan base, Cavaliers coach Mike Brown isn’t about to follow suit.

His team has lost four of its last five games and is embarking on a rugged two-game trip this weekend.

The Cavs (4-8) are 1-6 on the road this season.

His biggest obstacle is getting his team to compete.

Playoff projections seem almost absurd after the way the Cavs have started the season.

But Brown isn’t about to overreact.

“It’s too early for that,” Brown said after practice on Thursday at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “Don’t get me wrong — we want to win games while we’re going through this process. Nobody likes to lose. But I don’t know if I’m a guy who would panic, anyway. What does panicking do for you?

“I’ve got a job, and my job is to help this team get better and try to win games. If I panic, they’re going to panic, and it would just be chaotic. I don’t care where we are. I’m not going to do that.”

“There should be a lot of expectations,” he said. “I didn’t take this job to just say, ‘I’m OK getting 10th, and that’s an improvement from last year.’ I took this job because I think we can get to the playoffs. Is it going to be a process? Yes. Is it going to happen overnight? No.

“I didn’t take the job to hope that there wouldn’t be expectations placed upon us, because that’s what you play for. You play to compete. We’ve just got to bounce back.”

After their 98-91 loss to Washington on Wednesday, Cavs guard Jarrett Jack said the coaches shouldn’t have to nudge players to compete.

“There’s no remedy to effort,” he said. “That’s the one thing you control. It’s nothing Coach can do. Nobody should have to ask anybody to play hard.”

“You can’t buy into anything if you don’t put forth the necessary effort for it to be successful. At this particular point, that’s our biggest problem. One through 15, it’s something we all have to get control now, or we’re going to lose control of this before it’s too late.”

Jack said playing hard is not an acquired taste.

“We’ve got to grasp a hold of that concept, because playing hard is a skill,” he said. “It’s not anything anybody can teach you, but bringing it each and every day is a learned skill that you have to have in this league in order to be successful.”


VIDEO: Mike Brown isn’t about to panic over Cleveland’s slow start

***

No. 2: Dolan gives Woodson a vote of confidence – The Knicks, much like the Cavs, haven’t lived up to their lofty expectations so far this season. A 3-8 record and talk of panic from one of the team’s better players are proof that things aren’t going so hot in New York. When things start this slowly — especially in a media fishbowl of a town like the Big Apple — talk turns to the man leading the troops, in this case Mike Woodson, and whether or not he’s lost the team. Knicks boss James Dolan, however, answered that question (and many others about the future of the Knicks) in a wide-ranging interview with the New York Post‘s Mike Vaccaro:

MV: I’m sure you heard the chants that have already started to fire Mike Woodson, which comes with the territory, naturally …

JD: Yeah …

MV: How patient will you be with him? He understood when he took the job the expectations that go with it. Will you give him a long rope?

JD: I have a lot of confidence in Woodson, and one thing I can say about Mike is he has the respect of all the players. They all respect him. And he treats them fairly and relatively equally, and that’s part of where the respect emanates from. And those are hard things to get from a coach. When a coach loses a team … that’s when a coach is kind of done.

MV: The Knicks started 18-5 last year and it didn’t end the way you wanted it to; at this point I assume you’d flip that script?

JD: You know what? I wouldn’t take last year’s team for this year’s team, because this year’s team is more designed to be a playoff team, whereas last year’s team was 18-5 but look who was playing: we had Rasheed Wallace who was doing everything for us, right? And we just started losing player after player … by the time we got to the playoffs that 18-5 team wasn’t the team that was playing in the playoffs. If they were I think we would’ve beaten Indiana.

MV: So this bad start …

JD: It’s going right according to plan (laughs) …

MV: Do you think you’re a good owner?

JD: Yeah. I do.

MV: Why?

JD: I think I watch out for my fans. I try to give them a good product. I care for the teams. I’m emotionally involved and intellectually involved. I think an owner needs to be present. When an owner is not present that’s when things tend to go awry. The players, the coaches, the fans know there’s somebody in charge. They may not like what I’m doing but it’s much better than having nobody there. Nobody there just leaves you in despair.

MV: For Knicks fans there’s one word that riles their passion more than any other: Isiah.

JD: Amazing, isn’t it?

MV: And you surely know the panic that ensues when a Glen Grunwald gets fired and people wonder, “Is Isiah coming back?”

JD: I can’t control what’s in other people’s minds. I can tell you that he’s a friend of mine. We speak, but not as often as we used to because he’s really involved in other things now. We’ll message back and forth once in a while. We used to talk a lot more often. He seems to be moving into another phase of his life, he’s not as basketball-centric, he’s doing a lot of charity work, he got his masters [in education, from Cal-Berkeley], he actually uses me to bounce business ideas off of …

MV: Do you still consult him, too, about basketball ideas?

JD: Not really. For Isiah, I don’t know that he’ll ever be able to work in New York. I just don’t know that he’ll ever get a fair shake, going forward in New York?

MV: If you could take a mulligan on the $100 million Amar’e contract …

JD: Nope.

MV: Because the first year was that important?

JD: We would not be where we are today without Amar’e. That summer, the summer of “The Decision,” there were a whole bunch of free agents, and the guys put their thing together in Miami, and Amar’e agreed to come to the Knicks, gave us a launch pad by which we could convince the other guys like Tyson [Chandler] to come, and ultimately Carmelo to come play with us. Do I think Carmelo would have come if we didn’t have Amar’e? No, I don’t think he would’ve. These free agents, when you get to this level of player — the Carmelos, the LeBrons, the Durants — the first thing they want before the money or anything else is to be on a winning team. They’ve got to believe they have a shot.

MV: So does it sadden you to watch him in a diminished state?

JD: I still have hope. You cannot ask for a guy to be more dedicated, more disciplined, than Amar’e. He does his rehab, he does his workouts, he does everything, he’s on it every day, and that’s worth a lot, too. If there’s justice in this world, his knee will heal up to the point where he can play more minutes and make the contribution he wants to make.

MV: What are your impressions of Mikhail Prokhorov?

JD: I don’t get to see him much but he clearly wants to win, which is a good thing. He’s the only guy paying more taxes than we are which is a club I wouldn’t necessarily want to be part of with him (laughs). I think he wants to win, I know he wants to win, he wouldn’t be putting the resources in that he is otherwise. But, I mean, he’s still my competitor. As a person I kind of know him, I’ve had lunch with him but other than that I don’t really know him well.

MV: One thing you share is that you’ve both expressed belief your teams can win a title this year. Do you really believe the Knicks can or was that just a usual declaration of high expectations?

JD: I think this team can win a championship.

MV: As presently constituted?

JD: I think there are a lot of teams that could win the championship this year. I think the Clippers can win. Are they going to? I hope not. I hope we win the championship. I think we have the pieces in place to do it. The skill level is there but there’s so much more to the game than that, and it’s really in the hands of the players. They have to believe in themselves, they have to put in the work, the effort, the discipline, they have to listen to the coach, they have to execute a strategy and put an effort in every game. And they have to get themselves to be the best team they can be at the end of March. It’s OK right now not to be the best team you can be. Last year by the end of the year we were struggling. I’d rather see it go the other way. I’m not happy, believe me, about the record where it is now. But the warts that are showing up now are things you can work on, things you can fix. Now you test the character of your team to see if it’s willing or able to do that, if the coach is able to do that, to make those fixes. Can they win the championship? Yes. They definitely can win the championship. There have been other championship teams that weren’t nearly as talented as this one. But they had something that this team needs to develop.

***

No. 3: Pistons working to improve pick-and-roll defense — A quick jaunt over to the NBA.com/Stats tool reveals that the Pistons have struggled to keep opponents from scoring in the paint, which may be coming as a direct result from Detroit’s problems slowing down the pick and roll. After a 93-85 loss to the Hawks in Atlanta, Detroit’s big names say locking down the defense on that play has become a top priority from here on out, writes Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free-Press:

Josh Smith says the Detroit Pistons need a little more physicality.Maurice Cheeks and Greg Monroe say the Pistons are physical enough.

But all three agree the Pistons must get better at guarding the pick-and-roll. That was theme yet again in the Pistons’ latest loss — a 93-85 loss Wednesday to the Atlanta Hawks in Smith’s return to his hometown.

The Hawks shot 50.7% from the field, and the Pistons’ defense is last in the NBA in allowing opponents to shoot 48.5%.

The Hawks’ very first play featured a pick-and-roll from Hawks point guard Jeff Teague and power forward Paul Millsap. Millsap set the pick and rolled to the basket without any resistance where Teague found him for an easy lay-up. Andre Drummond was way late to provide help.

“It’s multiple things,” Monroe said. “I think we have to guard it with more than two people.

“In this league, there will be a lot of plays where they might beat those two people, but it’s the second line of defense that we’re having a little bit of trouble with.”

Cheeks pointed out it’s tough to provide another defender when you are concerned with spot-up three-point shooters such as the Hawks’ Kyle Korver.

But maybe things should be simplified. The team can try to adjust to personnel, but maybe they should just have a couple coverages to eliminate confusion.

***

No. 4: ‘Foreign Legion’ working wonders for Spurs – The Spurs, like last season, find themselves at the top of the Southwest Division thanks to the play of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, right? Well, not exactly. San Antonio has surged to the top of the division standings and is among the West’s best because of that star trio most know, but moreso because of their bench play, which has affectionately been dubbed the ‘Foreign Legion’ by Dan McCartney of the San Antonio Express-News:

Depth has long been a Spurs hallmark, particularly during their recent ascent back among the league’s elite.It isn’t just a luxury. With Tim Duncan approaching 40, Manu Ginobili not far behind and Tony Parker coming off a grueling summer of international hoops, having a strong bench capable of providing an assortment of options is absolutely essential in their quest to capture another championship.

“It’s something we depend on,” head coach Gregg Popovich said after the Spurs beat Boston going away on Wednesday, 104-93. “We’ve got a good, focused second group. They play very aggressively. We look for that and we need it.”

They certainly got it against the Celtics, dominating the battle of the bench 34-16 to account for the winning margin and more. It was another strong performance from a unit that ranks fourth in bench scoring (39.7 points per game), total production and production differential.

The bulk of that output is provided by the Foreign Legion of Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills, who have combined to break open numerous games already. Not just a collection of cool accents, they have the No. 6 plus-minus, at 16.6 points per 100 possessions, among 20 four-man lineups that have played at least 30 minutes together, and the second-best among units that do not include either Duncan or Parker. Their collective offensive rating of 117.2 points per 100 possessions is 14 points higher than the team’s average.


VIDEO:
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich praises the team’s reserves

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Dirk Nowitzki is donating $20 for every 2-pointer the Mavs make this season to help fund research on a rare disease called Hunter syndromeMike Dunleavy is the new starter in Chicago while Jimmy Butler is on the shelf … Magic swingman Arron Afflalo may be making a quiet push for an All-Star spot

ICYMI Of The Night: Kenneth Faried, aka “The Manimal”, has always been a favorite around these parts …


VIDEO: Kenneth Faried finishes off the nice Ty Lawson alley-oop

Morning Shootaround — Nov. 21


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Nov. 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Blazers use defense to stay hot | Smith ‘panicking’ after Knicks’ latest loss | Nowitzki, Ellis spoil Howard’s night | J-Smoove makes his Atlanta return

No. 1: Blazers turn to defense to keep rolling — If you missed it yesterday, our own John Schuhmann had a tremendous breakdown piece using NBA.com/Stats that delved into the Blazers’ hot start and how formidable Portland truly is. One of the key points of the piece is how the Blazers are using a Pacers-type defensive philosophy and that seemed to be apparent last night in Milwaukee. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian has more details on the Blazers’ eighth straight win, their defense and more:

The Blazers continued their improbable early-season march Wednesday night, defeating the Milwaukee Bucks 91-82 before 11,789. It was the Blazers’ eighth consecutive win, including their sixth in a row on the road, and moved their record to 10-2.

What’s more, the victory delivered the Blazers a rare sweep of four-game trip through Boston, Toronto, Brooklyn and Milwaukee — the franchise’s first sweep of a trip at least four games long since January 2003.

And, in a change of pace, the Blazers won Wednesday with what most consider their Achilles heel: Defense.

“We didn’t really shoot the ball well,” Damian Lillard said, smirking. “So we had to do something to win the game.”

No one would mistake Wednesday’s game for a work of art, as play was sluggish and sloppy throughout. Neither team generated consistent offensive momentum and rhythm and a sparse, dormant crowd created a lifeless, uninspiring environment. But in the middle of the muck — at least in the second half — was a Blazers defense that was physical, effective and stingy.

In the second half, the Blazers limited the Bucks to 31 points, 14 field goals and 37 percent shooting, while forcing 13 turnovers. Only one Milwaukee player — reserve John Henson — scored more than five second-half points, and he had six.

The Blazers’ offense has been so good during their hot streak — ranking second overall and third in offensive efficiency in the NBA over the previous seven games — that it was bound to have a hiccup. But they had enough to win ugly against the reeling Bucks (2-8).

The national media has started to take notice of the Blazers’ sizzling start, and multiple publications and websites have poked around at this team and what it’s doing. Most have noticed the Blazers’ offense is dynamic and fun to watch, while the defense is average at best. But the team sees things differently.

“We’ve won a lot of games shooting under 45 (percent),” Matthews said. “It’s got to be something.”

The Blazers have feasted on teams with losing records this season as eight of their 10 wins have come against teams with sub-.500 records. The popular question to ask: Are the Blazers for real? The answer could surface by the end of the week.

The Blazers host the Chicago Bulls (6-3) on Friday and travel to the Golden State Warriors (8-3) on Saturday as part of a challenging home-and-away back-to-back.

“That’s going to be a huge test,” backup big man Joel Freeland said. “It’s really going to show us where we’re at. We’ve been playing great, and hopefully we can keep going with the flow and ride it into these next games.”

***

No. 2: Knicks’ Smith says he’s ‘panicking’ on court — It’s doubtful things could be going much worse for the Knicks of late as they have lost four straight games and have the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference. Last night against the East-leading Indiana Pacers, New York held the lead for much of the game, but made several mental errors down the stretch and ended up falling in OT. What’s worse is that shooting guard J.R. Smith tells ESPNNewYork.com’s Ohm Youngmisuk that he is often panicking on the court during games:

J.R. Smith said the New York Knicks are mentally “frustrated” and that he personally is panicking after they lost their fourth straight game.The Knicks’ 103-96 overtime loss to the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday was the team’s sixth in a row at Madison Square Garden.

“We’re frustrated,” Smith said of where the team is mentally, despite most saying it’s too early to panic. “Like you say, it’s too early to panic, but me personally, I’m panicking. I don’t like this.

“I don’t want to play 3-8 basketball,” Smith continued, in regard to the Knicks’ record. “I don’t want to play 50-50 basketball. If we’re going to be a championship-caliber team and call ourselves that, then we’ve gotta play like that. It can’t be no other way.”

The Knicks are 2-5 since losing Tyson Chandler to a fractured right fibula. Carmelo Anthony had 30 points and 18 rebounds, and the Knicks led by three with 9.2 seconds left. But Iman Shumpert was called for a foul on a Paul George 3-point attempt, and George (35 points) made all three free throws to force overtime.

The Knicks put forth effort Wednesday night, but it hasn’t always been there this season. And that has been frustrating for Smith.

“Lack of intensity,” Smith said. “I hate to say it, but our defense’s backbone is on Tyson and Tyson’s not here right now and we know that and he’s not going to be available for a few weeks now, so we’ve gotta step it up individually. It’s team game but individually we’ve got to take pride in guarding the ball, guarding our man. We have to enjoy stopping the other team.”

Smith, who scored 21 points but missed an open 3 with 57.1 seconds left and a tip at the end of regulation, said the Knicks can’t just talk about putting forth effort. They have to do it if they want to be a contender.

“We play too up and down,” Smith said. “When we are on the highs, we are great. When we are on the lows, we are terrible. We got to have that steady pace throughout the whole year.”


VIDEO:
J.R. Smith talks about New York’s OT loss to the Pacers

***

No. 3: Nowitzki, Ellis spoil Howard’s big nightThrough three quarters in Dallas last night, it looked like Dwight Howard was going to have the last laugh against Mavs owner Mark Cuban and Co. Cuban, who famously said this season that Howard made a mistake by not signing with Dallas over the summer, got the last laugh as his free-agent addition, Monta Ellis, and his go-to star, Dirk Nowitzki, powered the Mavs to a thrilling win, writes our own Jeff Caplan:

This was Dwight Howard‘s big night, a made-for-national-TV highlight reel. His coming-back party.

The big man couldn’t miss from the floor, flushing alley-oops at will and swooping through the lane for lefty hooks as if he invented it. He made his first 11 shots, not missing until three minutes deep into the fourth quarter. He was even on fire, as much as Howard can be on fire, from the free throw line.

Through three quarters, Ellis was putting on a show to be sure, but it was Dwight truly announcing his presence and taking names.

Until Ellis, the erratic shooting guard Cuban signed with his leftover free-agent cash, and the venerable all-timer, Dirk Nowitzki ended the party. The duo hijacked Dwight’s night with one of the great two-man performances of the season — and in recent memory — in a rousing 123-120 win, rallying all the way from 93-75 late in the third quarter when the capacity crowd actually started to file out.

In the fourth quarter it all ground to an inexplicable halt for Howard and Houston, which officially has a closing problem. It left coach Kevin McHale bleary eyed and exasperated.

Nowitzki and Ellis outscored the Rockets, 22-19 on 9-for-11 shooting. Heck, Nowitzki and Jose Calderon outscored them 21-19. Howard suddenly couldn’t buy a bucket, going 1-for-5 in the quarter, and he got stripped late by Nowitzki in the paint as everything fell apart. Harden missed shots and hopelessly chased foul calls. Chandler Parsons, 4-for-5 from beyond the arc and playing beautiful basketball with 11 assists through three quarters, didn’t take a 3 or dish a dime in the final 9:17 he played.

In the first three quarters, Houston scored 40, 28 and 33 points. Then poof. Again. Rockets fourth quarters are becoming as collapsible as a rickety lawn chair. One reason they’re now 8-5 and looking up in the standings at the surprising 8-4 Mavs.

“It’s growing pains,” Howard said afterward. “Something we have to learn from. We’re a young team. We’ve got to realize what we have in the locker room and what we can do as a team when we play the right way on both ends. We didn’t do that at the end of the game.”

***

No. 4: No tearful reunion for Hawks, J-Smoove — After recording more than 10,000 points, 1,400 blocks, 800 steals and (to the chagrin of Hawks fans) 900 3-point attempts, Josh Smith returned to Atlanta for the first time as a foe. Although Smith’s new team, the Pistons, ended up losing to the Hawks 93-85, Smith wasn’t getting overly emotional about his comeback. Our own Sekou Smith, who was around for much of J-Smoove’s rise and fall in Atlanta, has more on his return:

Wednesday night was supposed to be his moment, the first time homegrown star Josh Smith walked into Philips Arena as a member of the “other” team.

His first steps down that hallway he’d walked so many times was supposed to be cathartic, a chance for Smith to finally put his near-decade with the Hawks behind him. It was also a chance for the fans who endured that roller coaster ride from the impetuous, sky-walking teenage J-Smoove to the matured husband, father and veteran that is today’s Smith to either pay their last respects or bid him farewell in a not-so-special way.

The hype was better than the actual event itself. Smith was introduced to an equal smattering of cheers and boos, which is pretty much the way he was greeted throughout his tenure here. Few players in my years covering the league have inspired such a spirited split from the home fans, love and … hate is such a strong word, perhaps “loathe” is better, for the way they play the game.

The mixed bag is also what Smith expected, “a few cheers and a few boos,” he said. “But it’s all good.”

It certainly seems that way. There’s nothing to see here anymore. The time for holding grudges or being upset, on either side, is over. The moment has passed for Smith and for the Hawks, who chose to move on from their homegrown star in free agency this past summer when they allowed Smith to sign a four-year, $54 million contract with the Detroit Pistons without so much as making an offer to him.

Smith didn’t offer up any colorful soundbites. He noted that it was a bit surreal, the whole homecoming thing, and insisted that he wouldn’t let any of it affect him or his approach to the business at hand (his 5-for-15 shooting effort, 0-for-4 from beyond the 3-point line, much to the delight of the Hawks’ partisans in the crowd, would suggest otherwise).

He’s focused on the Pistons  now, on making them better and on making sure he does whatever he can to enjoy the second chance he’s gotten in Detroit.

“I have to admit, it’s been humbling to play in front of those fans [in Detroit] with the way they support the home teams,” Smith said. “To play in a first-class organization that has the championship history that we have in Detroit, it’s something I had to experience to appreciate. It’s from the ownership level to the front office and coaching staff all the way down to the last man or woman in the organization. It’s just a different feel, and something that I never understood since I spent my entire career in one spot.”

The most surprising part for me, having covered Smith from his rookie season through his the trials and tribulations that preceded the Hawks’ six-year (and potentially counting, based on what we’ve seen from coach Mike Budenholzer‘s team so far) playoff run, was seeing the way the fans eased up on him from the start.

It was a pleasant surprise. One that you wish Smith’s father, Pete Smith, had been in his customary baseline seat closest to the Hawks’ bench to witness himself. He wasn’t able to do so since he was home battling off the ill effects of the flu.

It would have been nice for him to see that not everyone in this town holds his son in contempt now that everyone has moved on. I know deep down both father and son feel that Josh has never been properly appreciated for what he did to help revive the hometown franchise.

“I just hope they show my son a little love,” the elder Smith said by phone before the game. “I think he earned it, he deserves that much.”


VIDEO: Josh Smith talks about his return trip to Atlanta

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Lakers big man Pau Gasol is donating $1,000 for every point he scores Friday to the Typhoon Haiyan relief fund … The Bobcats, after last night’s win over the Nets, are looking more and more like a solid squad

ICYMI Of The Night: Pacers star Paul George got a nice chasedown block in the season-opener against the Magic and recorded another solid one last night at the expense of Iman Shumpert


VIDEO: Paul George hustles back to swat Iman Shumpert’s shot

Moment Has Passed For Smith, Hawks




VIDEO: Josh Smith talks about the surreal feeling of his first trip home as a Detroit Piston

ATLANTA – Wednesday night was supposed to be his moment, the first time homegrown star Josh Smith walked into Philips Arena as a member of the “other” team.

His first steps down that hallway he’d walked so many times was supposed to be cathartic, a chance for Smith to finally put his near-decade with the Hawks behind him. It was also a chance for the fans who endured that roller coaster ride from the impetuous, sky-walking teenage J-Smoove to the matured husband, father and veteran that is today’s Smith to either pay their last respects or bid him farewell in a not-so-special way.

The hype was better than the actual event itself. Smith was introduced to an equal smattering of cheers and boos, which is pretty much the way he was greeted throughout his tenure here. Few players in my years covering the league have inspired such a spirited split from the home fans, love and … hate is such a strong word, perhaps “loathe” is better, for the way they play the game.

The mixed bag is also what Smith expected, “a few cheers and a few boos,” he said. “But it’s all good.”

It certainly seems that way. There’s nothing to see here anymore. The time for holding grudges or being upset, on either side, is over. The moment has passed for Smith and for the Hawks, who chose to move on from their homegrown star in free agency this past summer when they allowed Smith to sign a four-year, $54 million contract with the Detroit Pistons without so much as making an offer to him.

The outcome of the game, a 93-85 Hawks win, wasn’t on anyone’s mind as Smith stood among a crowd of reporters in the hallways outside of the Pistons’ locker room before the game.

All anyone wanted to know was how strange it was for Smith to walk into this building on the wrong side? What was it like coming “home” but no longer being a member of the family? What would it be like going against former teammates like Al Horford and Jeff Teague, guys he called his “friends and brothers” when it was all over, for the first time in his career?

Smith didn’t offer up any colorful soundbites. He noted that it was a bit surreal, the whole homecoming thing, and insisted that he wouldn’t let any of it affect him or his approach to the business at hand (his 5-for-15 shooting effort, 0-for-4 from beyond the 3-point line, much to the delight of the Hawks’ partisans in the crowd, would suggest otherwise).

He’s focused on the Pistons  now, on making them better and on making sure he does whatever he can to enjoy the second chance he’s gotten in Detroit.

“I have to admit, it’s been humbling to play in front of those fans [in Detroit] with the way they support the home teams,” Smith said. “To play in a first-class organization that has the championship history that we have in Detroit, it’s something I had to experience to appreciate. It’s from the ownership level to the front office and coaching staff all the way down to the last man or woman in the organization. It’s just a different feel, and something that I never understood since I spent my entire career in one spot.”

That spot had to seem awful familiar Wednesday night.

Smith got a bigger rise out of the crowd with his attempts and misses from deep than anyone other than the Hawks’ Kyle Korver, whose streak of games with a made 3-pointer was stretched to 85, which is just four shy of the NBA record. That’s the beauty and the curse Smith has been blessed with. He has the ability to get fans out of their seats, for reasons good and bad.

The most surprising part for me, having covered Smith from his rookie season through his the trials and tribulations that preceded the Hawks’ six-year (and potentially counting, based on what we’ve seen from coach Mike Budenholzer‘s team so far) playoff run, was seeing the way the fans eased up on him from the start.

It was a pleasant surprise. One that you wish Smith’s father, Pete Smith, had been in his customary baseline seat closest to the Hawks’ bench to witness himself. He wasn’t able to do so since he was home battling off the ill effects of the flu.

It would have been nice for him to see that not everyone in this town holds his son in contempt now that everyone has moved on. I know deep down both father and son feel that Josh has never been properly appreciated for what he did to help revive the hometown franchise.

“I just hope they show my son a little love,” the elder Smith said by phone before the game. “I think he earned it, he deserves that much.”

They did, show him just a little love. And yes, he earned it. Smith does rank in the Hawks’ top 10 in games played, points, rebounds, steal and blocks. Yes, he deserved it.

But now it’s time for everyone to move on.

The moment has passed!


VIDEO: Josh Smith with the steal and slam against the hometown Hawks