Posts Tagged ‘Dwane Casey’

DeRozan makes like Pierce to help Raptors even series

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan scores 17 in the fourth quarter to help the Raptors win Game 2

TORONTO – Game 2 of the first-round series between the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets was a lot like Game 1, except that the role of Paul Pierce was played by DeMar DeRozan and the role of DeMar DeRozan was played by Paul Pierce. Since they play for different teams, the series is tied at one game apiece following the Raptors’ 95-90 victory.

Down two with less than 30 seconds left in the game, the Nets ran a really nice play to get Pierce wide open in the left corner. But his shot went in and out, and they never got another chance to tie or take the lead. Pierce shot 2-for-11 for the game, missing all six of his 3-point attempts.

“Sometimes they fall,” Pierce said afterward, “sometimes they don’t.”

But that end of the floor wasn’t the problem for the Nets. They were up two to start the fourth quarter and scored 29 points in the final 12 minutes. The problem was that the Raptors scored 36, shooting 12-for-16 from the field and scoring on 18 of their 23 possessions. After playing seven quarters of good defense, the Nets couldn’t get the stops they needed to take a 2-0 stranglehold on the series.

“We can’t have 4th quarters like that,” Kevin Garnett said. “Thirty-six points. That’s too many points for anybody. Preschool, Little League, YMCA, Raptors.”

But this is who the Raptors are. They were the league’s best fourth-quarter team in the regular season.

“Early in the year, we said we wanted to be the Freddy Krueger of the NBA,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Not give up. Not give in. I think our guys have done that. We won against a very veteran team like Brooklyn, and that is a very difficult thing to do.”

On Tuesday, they found a way to finally break through the Brooklyn defense, scoring eight of those 12 fourth-quarter buckets (and drawing a couple of fouls) in the paint.

But those wouldn’t have meant anything if DeRozan didn’t do his best Pierce imitation in the fourth, shooting 3-for-4 on mid-range jumpers and drawing fouls on three more. Apparently, he only needed one game to look like a postseason vet.

He also needed some time to himself after picking up his fifth foul with 7:13 left in the game. In the next timeout, DeRozan sat alone at the end of the bench, away from his team’s huddle.

He gathered himself, reentered the game with 3:48 left, and couldn’t be stopped. He was more patient than he was in Game 1, waiting for the one-on-one matchups that he liked. And when the Nets did throw a second defender at him, it just opened the lane for Kyle Lowry to get a key basket down the stretch.

It lacked the herky-jerkiness, but it was as good of a Pierce imitation as you’ll see. DeRozan shot just 5-for-16 through the first three quarters, but came up big with the game on the line.

“For him to come through,” Casey said, “after a tough first game, everyone doubting him and that type of thing, I was really happy with that.”

The Nets got the one victory they needed out of the first two games, but they have issues to address. There were some defensive breakdowns mixed in with DeRozan’s tough baskets and they got absolutely killed on the glass, allowing Toronto to grab 19 offensive rebounds. It’s been an issue for them since they went to a small lineup and the Raptors know they can take advantage.

More important, DeRozan knows he can have big games in the playoffs. Maybe he’s the next Paul Pierce.

More Patterson in Game 2?

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets-Raptors Game 2 preview

TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors scored just 87 points on 92 possessions in Game 1 of their first round series against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday. They need to find a way to keep Joe Johnson out of the paint in Game 2 on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV), but most of all, they need to get more buckets themselves.

That could mean more minutes for Patrick Patterson, a floor-spacing big.

Jonas Valanciunas put up 17 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks in his playoff debut on Saturday, but was a game-low minus-17 (Nets 73, Raptors 56) in 35 minutes. He played well, but his teammates didn’t while he was on the floor.

One thing that can get All-Star DeMar DeRozan better shots is better spacing. And with Valanciunas and Amir Johnson in the game, the Raptors’ spacing is not optimal. DeRozan shot 0-for-8 (0-for-4 from 3-point range) when the two starting bigs were on the floor on Saturday.

That’s just one game, but since they acquired him in the Rudy Gay trade, the Raptors have been at their best offensively with Patterson on the floor. It’s not just that he can hit 3-pointers, but his presence makes it a little bit harder for the opposing defense to put multiple bodies between the Raptors’ ball-handlers and the basket.

In the three games they’ve had him against Brooklyn, Toronto has scored almost 120 points per 100 possessions in Patterson’s 75 minutes. DeRozan has scored 28 points in the 39 minutes he’s shared the floor with Patterson against the Nets, shooting 8-for-13 from the field and getting to the line 12 times.

Patterson’s mark of plus-50 against the Nets is, by far, the best mark of any Raptor this season (next is Chuck Hayes at plus-21). If you count a November game with Sacramento, he’s a plus-80 in 101 minutes against them.

Still, we might we see more of Patterson (who played 26 minutes on Saturday) in Game 2. It’s only been a few weeks since he returned from an elbow injury, but Raptors coach Dwane Casey says that there’s no limit on Patterson’s minutes. Casey just has to space them out differently.

“You got to give him a little more of a blow between his extended minutes,” Casey said. Patterson entered the game late in the first and third quarters on Saturday, and stayed in until late in the second and fourth.

Casey went five-deep with his bigs in Game 1, bringing Patterson, Hayes and Tyler Hansbrough off the bench. The combination of Johnson and Patterson could be the Raptors’ best option – Toronto was a plus-13.6 points per 100 possessions in 215 minutes with the two on the floor together in the regular season – but the pair didn’t play at all together on Saturday.

Pop (hmmph) picks up third Coach award

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The best of Gregg Popovich (2013 playoffs)

SAN ANTONIO — Even after coaching 217 playoff games over the last 17 seasons, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich embarked on another postseason Sunday with butterflies swirling.

“Heck yeah,” Popovich quipped 90 minutes before the Spurs began their 17th consecutive playoffs under the coach everybody knows as ‘Pop.’ “If you don’t get nervous, you’re dead.”

The gruff Air Force Academy graduate is maybe the only coach in U.S. sports who has to come to be as celebrated for his typically terse exchanges with the media — particularly for his now famous, one-word retorts to television sideline reporters — as he is for his enduring legacy with a single franchise.

On Tuesday, Popovich, 65, added yet another layer to his rich, sure-fire Hall of Fame career as the recipient of the Red Auerbach Trophy as the 2013-14 NBA Coach of the Year. He led the Spurs to a 62-20 record, the best record in basketball, made more impressive because it came on the heels of a devastating loss last year in the NBA Finals.

“I feel very honored for a whole lot of reasons,” Popovich said at the news conference announcing the award. “First of all because there were so many coaches who did such a great job this year. I think it was really unique. A lot of people were really special and to be singled out is pretty humbling. I know I’ve been very lucky for a good number of years and I know full well I just represent part of what goes on here.”

It’s his third Coach of the Year honor and second in the last three years. He joins Don Nelson and Pat Riley as the only coaches to win the award three times. Popovich totaled 380 points, including 59 first-place votes, from a panel of 124 sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the United States and Canada.

First-year Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek finished second with 339 votes, Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau was third, Charlotte’s first-year coach Steve Clifford was fourth and Toronto’s Dwane Casey finished fifth in the voting. (Complete voting totals here.)

Popovich also won the award following the 2011-12 season and also for 2002-03, the season in which Manu Ginobili joined Tim Duncan and Tony Parker to form the Big Three. They won their first of three championships that season. (Popovich won another title with Duncan and David Robinson back in 1999.) The Spurs entered these playoffs as the reigning Western Conference champions, boasting the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

That consistency is the hallmark of Popovich’s 18-year career in San Antonio. This season included a 19-game winning streak and only one losing streak of more than two games (three, back in late January). The Spurs extended their streak of winning at least 50 games to an NBA record 15 consecutive seasons.

The Spurs’ 62 wins is their second-highest total under Popovich, one fewer than the 2005-06 team. This team was an offensive juggernaut, ranking sixth in the league in offensive efficiency (points per 108.2 points per 100 possessions) and No. 1 in 3-point shooting at 39.7 percent. At the other end they ranked fourth overall in defensive efficiency and second in the Western Conference.

Popovich achieved it while masterfully managing his team’s minutes and particularly his two aging stars, Duncan, 38, and Ginobili, 36. Popovich limited every player on the roster to less than 30 minutes a game while nine players averaged at least 18.9 mpg.

“We saved minutes all year long so we could give those minutes come playoff time,” Popovich said.

Rick Adelman‘s announcement Monday that he was stepping down as coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves moved Popovich to the top of the list of career victories among active coaches — ninth on the all-time list — with a record of 967-443. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers (644-498) is second and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle (569-339), who is matching wits with Popovich in their first-round playoff series, is third.

“Pop’s the best coach in the game and for my money he’s the best coach in history because of what he’s been able to do over a period of almost two decades, keeping the same system and just plugging in different players,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s been phenomenal.”

Popovich is the longest-tenured coach with the same team in all four major professional U.S. sports.

DeRozan needs to be quicker … to pass

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets-Raptors: Game 2 Preview

TORONTO – DeMar DeRozan is an All-Star who shot 3-for-13 in his first-ever playoff game. So that’s a story.

And for the Toronto Raptors to tie their first-round series with the Brooklyn Nets in Game 2 on Tuesday (7:30 p.m., NBA TV), they will need DeRozan to play better. But that goes beyond more of his shots going in the basket. More important is that DeRozan make better decisions with the ball.

DeRozan took some terrible shots in Saturday’s Game 1. But he also hurt the Raptors’ offense when he wasn’t shooting, because he was too indecisive. And it started with the Raptors’ second possession of the afternoon…

20140420_hard_hedge

Here, Jonas Valanciunas has set a high screen for DeRozan. Kevin Garnett has hedged out high (standard for Nets bigs defending the pick-and-roll) to stop DeRozan while Shaun Livingston is recovering back to his man. Paul Pierce is ready to help on Valanciunas’ roll to the basket, and Joe Johnson has to make sure that Pierce’s man – Amir Johnson – isn’t left alone under the basket. Deron Williams is shading off of Kyle Lowry toward the strong side of the floor.

At this point in the play, there’s an opportunity to find an open shot on the weak side. A quick kick back to Lowry could produce a swing pass to Terrence Ross, a pass to the rolling Valanciunas, or an entry to Johnson, who could seal his man under the basket.

But DeRozan was too slow in giving up the ball, allowing the Nets’ defense to recover and forcing Lowry into a contested, step-back, 21-foot jumper late in the shot clock. Watch the play here.

There were other examples of this, as well as examples of DeRozan trying to go one-on-one against the Nets’ long defenders, like here, here and here.

Cracking the Brooklyn defense won’t be easy. Whenever DeRozan is the primary option on a possession, he will see a lot of black and white jerseys between him and the basket…

20140420_zone

Getting clean looks off of pin-down screens isn’t happening either…

20140420_curl_double

“You can’t stand and hold the ball against them, because they zone in so well,” DeRozan said Sunday. “All five guys are going to focus in on you. Just so be more decisive, be quicker with our screens, everything we do.”

He said that one way to attack a hard hedge is to go right at it.

“Kyle did that a lot. Once they came out so high, he attacked that big, tried to get on that outside leg, tried to get to the middle. If we keep getting to the middle, we’re going to cause havoc for them, because it’s tough to guard us once we get to the middle of the floor.”

DeRozan did attack Andray Blatche on one possession late in the third quarter. He missed on the drive, but it was one of his better shots of the night. He also tried to get past Garnett, drove into a crowd, and committed one of his three turnovers. So he has to pick and choose when he attacks and when he gets rid of the ball.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey pointed to screening and spacing as things his team can do better in Game 2. The “spacing” part could mean more minutes for Patrick Patterson, who can spread the floor and punish the Nets for “zoning up” better than Johnson or Valanciunas. Toronto scored 57 points in Patterson’s 26 minutes in Game 1.

The Raptors could also make their All-Star the third option (like Pierce was for Brooklyn down the stretch) more often. Some of DeRozan’s best looks of Game 1 came when he was on the weak side as Lowry or Greivis Vasquez ran a pick-and-roll. With the Nets’ defense zoning up on the ball-handler, a quick ball reversal gave DeRozan more room to operate. Here and here are two examples where he was able to draw fouls in those situations.

He still saw a second defender on that last play. And DeRozan argued Sunday that attacking from the weak side isn’t that easy either.

“We really don’t catch them in rotations so much,” he said. “We got to get the ball in the middle of the floor.”

Getting the ball in the middle of the floor opens up more passing options, but it’s easier said than done against the Brooklyn defense. Initiating the offense through the high post, like the Raptors did on their first possession of the third quarter, may be a better way to open up some passing lanes.

Ultimately, DeRozan may have to be more of a facilitator than a scorer in this series. But as long as he’s making quicker decisions — either to attack or get rid of the ball — the Raptors should get better looks at the basket.

Nets’ experience takes home-court advantage from Raptors

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets vs. Raptors: Game 1

TORONTO – The Brooklyn Nets just don’t care.

They don’t care about Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri saying “F— Brooklyn!” at a pep rally before Game 1 of their first-round series.

“I don’t even know who the GM is,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said when asked about it.

They don’t care about the raucous crowd at the Air Canada Centre.

“I really feed off the emotions of the crowd, especially on the road,” Paul Pierce said after scoring nine straight points to put the game away. “It’s fun when you go on the road and [win]. I think it’s more gratifying that winning at home.”

And they don’t care about how inconsistently they played in the regular season, because the switch has been flipped.

“We’re locked in,” Pierce added. “It’s the playoffs. We understand the moment.”

The Nets came to this series with experience (about 10 times as much postseason mileage as their opponent), while the Raptors had home-court advantage. After a 94-87 victory on Saturday, Brooklyn has both.

The experience showed in the fourth-quarter execution. Down one with five minutes left, the Nets went on a 13-5 run, getting two points each from Joe Johnson and Kevin Garnett before Pierce went on his run. He capped it with a vintage, back-his-man-down-to-the-elbow, turnaround jumper.

As he went to bench afterward, he told the crowd, “That’s why I’m here.”

Some shots go in and some don’t, but all six of the late buckets from the vets showed poise in the face of solid defense. On the other end of the floor, Toronto struggled to get good looks. After Brooklyn took back the lead, the Raptors were forced to rush shots late in the clock on three of their next five possessions.

Two of the Raptors’ starters with no playoff experience – DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross – shot a combined 4-for-17, dealing with early foul trouble and never getting on track.

“I thought we played a little bit as expected,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “It is our first playoff game.”

The Nets’ defense played a role in the Raptors’ struggles, closing off the middle of the floor and forcing Toronto into 19 turnovers and just 17-for-37 shooting in the paint.

In fact, until Brooklyn made its late run, both teams were scoring less than a point per possession. After making three of their first four 3-pointers, the Nets missed 19 straight. But their defense was good enough to let their experience take over down the stretch.

“You’ve been in those situations a number of times,” Pierce said. “I don’t get rattled in the fourth quarters, down the stretch of playoff settings.

“I just try to stay calm, bring my calmness to the game, and just try to influence the rest of the guys.”

Maybe Kidd was trolling Ujiri with feigned ignorance. Maybe Pierce was trolling the crowd with his post-dagger swagger. And maybe the Nets are better than a No. 6 seed with a 44-38 record.

After all, Pierce was the third option on most of those plays down the stretch, getting the ball on the weak side after Deron Williams and Johnson ran a pick-and-roll.

“I thought it was part of great execution,” Pierce said. “They took away our first and second option and I was able to fill in as a third option and make some plays.”

A guy with a championship ring and 136 games of postseason experience isn’t a bad third option to have.

Jeff Hornacek talks Suns’ 48-win season

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Suns’ Goran Dragic is a nominee for Kia Most Improved Player

DALLAS – The Phoenix Suns added their name to a very short list of teams to win 48 games and not make the playoffs. Their pleasantly stunning season has sparked increased debate about whether the NBA should look at ditching the conference model and put the 16 teams with the best record into the postseason.

Suns coach Jeff Hornacek vaulted to the top of the Coach of the Year discussion early on and, like his team, never faded. Phoenix was believed to be a team headed for major ping-pong balls come the lottery, a team constructed of journeymen and unproven parts expected to top out at around 25 victories.

The first-time head coach will have competition from Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Portland’s Terry Stotts, Charlotte’s Steve Clifford, Toronto’s Dwane Casey and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.

“Jeff is an awesome coach,” Suns point guard and team MVP Goran Dragic said. “He was a great player and he understands the game. As a coach, he sees things differently and he is always calm and gives us that extra confidence. He works hard with young players after practice and he gives us the strength to fight the whole season.”

Here’s how Hornacek views his rookie season on the bench:

Q: How did you manage to quickly establish a winning culture in a locker room with high turnover?

A: That’s the one thing going into this season we wanted them to do, just play hard, play together and for the most part they’ve done that. These guys care about each other, they’re a very close-knit team and that gives you an opportunity for success.

Q: How did Gerald Green, NBA.com’s choice as Most Improved Player, find success this season and bouncing in and out of the league?

A: Gerald is a guy who can get his shot off anywhere — and he does (laughs). He’s got great confidence in his shooting. He’s done a much better job of not just settling for the jump shot, but he’ll take it to the basket. If he gets a step and has a chance to jump, you know how good of an athlete he is, he usually gets the ball in the basket. He’s improved in terms of his consistency. It’s not where he’s jacking up 10 3s and making two of them. He realizes that if he’s not making them, he moves in and tries to take a different shot and that’s been big. I think that’s where a lot of his improvement’s come.

Q: It’s been said that you are the perfect coach for him and the system is a perfect fit. Do you agree with that?

A: He’s bought into what we’re trying to do, it kind of fits his style. We don’t mind running up and shooting quick 3s. I think his eyes light up when one of our point guards, Goran or Eric [Bledsoe], sprint down the court and he’s filling a lane. Guys have great confidence in him and they look for him now because they know he can get hot and make six, seven in a row. It’s a big part of what we do and he’s been great this year.

Q: You played for and coached under Hall of Fame Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. What aspects of his coaching style or philosophies did you incorporate into yours?

A: When we went into it I tried to take a little bit from all the coaches. With Jerry, it’s just go out there and try to play every play like it’s your last, that’s what Jerry always stressed and we’re constantly talking about that. We’re an inexperienced team in terms of playing games so those guys are learning on the fly of how to do that night in and night out, and then get to every play. You can’t have three or four plays that, ‘Oh I forgot,’ or ‘I spaced off’ or whatever it is because that’s going to be enough to cost you the game. Jerry was always on that: Play every play like it’s your last and we try to get that from our guys.

Q: Not sure if even you could have predicted the level of success the team had this season. What does it mean for the franchise when 20-something wins seemed to be the ceiling?

A: Well, the whole part of the rebuilding is you’re going to have steps. From a team that was supposed to win maybe 20 games, we thought if we can get to 30, 35, start establishing things, maybe next year make a push for the playoffs and the year after that get in the playoffs, the kind of stepping stones that you have to go through. Maybe we just skipped a rung. I think it’s great.

Q: Why were you able to skip a rung?

A: I don’t know. It’s always tough in the NBA, especially the way guys switch teams nowadays. The chemistry part is big. And our guys, we had 10 new guys, you never how that’s going to come together, they’ve gotten along pretty well. We emphasized in the beginning, you’re a bunch of new guys, you’re a lot of guys that have contracts that end this year or they end next year, so that’s always kind of a recipe for disaster when guys try to get individual, worried about their contracts. I told them stories about some of our guys from the past, that when you’re on a good team that’s when teams want you, that’s when they’ll pay bigger bucks if you’re on a good team. And so if we’re a good team, all that stuff will come, don’t worry about it, just play and try to win games and that’s what they’ve done. They’ve put it all aside and just played.

Q: When did you first see signs that your team could be pretty good?

A: Early in the season we lost a couple of close games to San Antonio and Oklahoma City at their place and our guys; when you’re in a rebuilding mode a lot of times guys are talking about, ‘hey, that’s a moral victory. Hey look, we played well.’ Our guys were ticked off, they were mad about it. So, to me, as kind of a competitive player, I think, I took that as a sign that, hey, we could be OK this year because these guys care and they want to win.

Q: You paired two point guards, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, in the same backcourt. Why did you believe they could complement one another?

A: I just kind of envisioned it because I saw what Kevin Johnson and I went through way back in the day when you had two guards out there and we wanted to be an up-tempo team. We felt that the best way to do that is to have two guys you can outlet the ball to. We don’t need it in one guy’s hand when you can throw it to anybody. We just kind of, [general manager] Ryan McDonough, when we talked about if it could work, he said, ‘yeah I think it would be great getting them from one side to the other. Teams have to look at the mismatches. Someone’s going to have the advantage as good as those two guys are.

Executive of the Year: Ryan McDonough

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: McDonough answers questions from fans

Architects and general contractors hear all the oohs and aahs. Demolition crews just try to get in and get out, completing their gnarly but necessary work without soiling the carpet.

Phoenix’s Ryan McDonough figured to be one of the latter, doing a lot more tear-down than build-up in his first full year as the Suns’ general manager. Only he axed and crowbarred his way to something pretty impressive, winding up as the choice here at Hang Time HQ as the NBA’s 2013-14 Executive of the Year.

Technically, none of us in the media votes for the EOY — that’s done by executives from the 30 teams. But McDonough would get points from anywhere for helping turn the Suns into one of the league’s happiest stories from start nearly to end. Don’t put too much stock in that flameout in the final week. The Suns nearly doubled last season’s victory total (they won only 25 then) and became only the second team to win 48 and miss the postseason since the NBA went to its 16-team format. Their record would have tied for third in the East.

This is a tale of the Suns rising in the West and the role McDonough played. In this year of (cough) “tanking” — more accurately described as avowed rebuilding — Phoenix was supposed to be bottom and center. McDonough made moves to clear the roster, open up salary-cap space and stockpile draft picks, rounding up a coaching staff fresh and upbeat enough to endure the losing without fraying.

Double their victories? Bah. Las Vegas oddsmakers pegged the Suns’ over/under at 21.5, a swoon from last season.

It didn’t take long for Phoenix to make the experts look silly. They won five of their first seven and were 17-10 by Christmas. They topped last year’s victory total before the end of January and were in sixth place a day after the All-Star break.

How did this all come together? Let us count the ways in which McDonough transformed-not-tanked:

  • He hired Jeff Hornacek as a rookie head coach, getting someone who, true, faced no pressure to win and brought a temperament suited to taking the expected lumps. But the former NBA shooting guard had played for and learned from some of the game’s most-innovative coaches – Jerry Sloan in Utah, John MacLeod and Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix, Doug Moe in Philadelphia — synthesizing a strategy from them. Hornacek didn’t need to hitch himself to a franchise/superstar player, getting plenty of whole from the sum of Suns parts. His players feel ownership in the surprising results, while he hasn’t had to wrangle any massive egos.
  • Trading for Eric Bledsoe, though, was a big-time move, worthy of the most ambitious contender. McDonough liked Bledsoe’s rookie contract, sure, but he also liked the prospect of sticking him alongside Goran Dragic in the backcourt. That gave Phoenix maximum playmaking options and the tandem clicked — the Suns were 23-11 when the two started together.
  • Acquiring Bledsoe brought along veteran forward Caron Butler, who was so leery of suffering through a dreary season that he lobbied for and got a trade to … Milwaukee? Worked out OK for Butler eventually (he ended up in Oklahoma City), worked out better for the Suns, who got back backup guard Ish Smith. Smith has been a valuable and speedy reserve.
  • Let’s not forget the future first-round draft pick McDonough got for veteran Luis Scola, another fellow who preferred a backup role on a good team to a starting job with a projected loser. But wait, there was more: the Pacers also sent Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee to Phoenix. Plumlee has been a helpful big, but Green has been reborn — or sold his soul to ol’ Lucifer. The much-traveled wing with the rarely harnessed skills is a top contender to be voted 2013-14′s Most Improved Player.
  • Gifting center Marcin Gortat to Washington, along with Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee for injured Wizards big man Emeka Okafor and a future first-rounder. Everyone knew the prognosis for Okafor — out all season with a herniated disc in his neck — so nothing screamed “tank!” more than McDonough swapping healthy for hurt a few days before Opening Night. Washington has been thrilled with Gortat but you’d have to say he’s been valued there more than he’s been missed in Phoenix. Plumlee has plugged in fine and Gortat’s erasure — along with Jared Dudley‘s, a disappointment with the Clippers — has enabled the Suns to play faster.

McDonough didn’t have his fingerprints on all Phoenix improvements. Dragic is getting all-NBA attention, Markieff Morris earned himself a bunch of Sixth Man votes and Channing Frye might be Comeback Player of the Year if the league hadn’t replaced that with the MIP. All preceded McDonough in Phoenix.

But McDonough has served competing masters, positioning Phoenix well with picks and with money to woo free agents. Shouldn’t be long before our Exec of the Year puts down his crowbar and picks up a scalpel to tweak a team well past the tear-down stage.

The contenders:

Daryl Morey, Houston. Landing Dwight Howard, despite the once-glamorous Lakers’ advantages, was a biggie unto itself. But this darling of the analytics crowd has been wheeling and dealing creatively all along. The Rockets are a playoff handful for any opponent, any round, and might be set up best to take a real run at Carmelo Anthony should the Knicks scorer actually consider leaving New York.

Rod Higgins, Charlotte. Hiring Steve Clifford, another COY contender, was a move that smacked of the Bulls tapping Tom Thibodeau in 2010. Signing Al Jefferson proved to be a bigger win-win, dropping Big Al into the Bobcats’ culture to be a leader and an anchor, while eliciting the best performance of his career.

Neil Olshey, Portland. Did you know that Robin Lopez was going to have a breakthrough season? Or that Mo Williams would prove so effective off the bench behind Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews? The biggest benefit of those Olshey moves was calming LaMarcus Aldridge, the All-Star power forward who no longer makes noise about exiting.

Danny Ferry, Atlanta. Letting Josh Smith walk while opting instead for Paul Millsap, at a much better value (two years, $19 million vs. Smith’s four years, $54 million), was a heist for Ferry. So was the easy decision to match Jeff Teague‘s offer sheet from Milwaukee at a reasonable price — four years, $32 million — for a full-service point guard without most of Brandon Jennings‘ (three years, $24 million) flaws. Ferry also hired Mike Budenholzer, Gregg Popovich’s former right-hand man with the Spurs.

Masai Ujiri, Toronto. Sometimes it’s addition by subtraction, moving Rudy Gay to Sacramento to get the bump every team apparently does when unloading the skilled forward. And sometimes it’s the move you don’t make at all: Dwane Casey had one of those “expiring contracts” that don’t have much allure among coaches, and the guy who hired him (Bryan Colangelo) got deleted last summer. But Casey’s defensive bent and calm, mature approach were given enough time to pay off in the Atlantic Division crown.

 

Morning Shootaround — April 10


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Vogel’s gamble pays off | Casey unhappy with Raptors’ defense | Brown: Sixers need a ‘star’ in Draft | Cavs look ahead to next season

No. 1: Vogel’s gamble plays off for Pacers — The NBA world was abuzz yesterday afternoon after word came that Pacers coach Frank Vogel was benching his entire starting five of Paul George, Lance Stephenson, George Hill, David West and Roy Hibbert to give them some rest against the Bucks. Milwaukee gave Indiana quite a fight, but thanks to a late shot from little-used reserve Chris Copeland, the Pacers took home the win. That, coupled with Miami’s loss in Memphis last night, gave Indiana the No. 1 spot in the East again and may have proven Vogel’s move to be worthwhile. Our Steve Aschburner was on the scene in Indiana and has more on the game:

This was a risky move, risky on the verge of panic, for coach Frank Vogel to sit down – to rest, en masse – the five guys who have defined the Pacers’ largely successful season. But there they sat: Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson and George Hill, from beginning to end, mere spectators and cheerleaders Wednesday night at BMO Harris Bradley Center.After multiple consultations between Vogel and the players, among Vogel and President Larry Bird and the coaches — and a heads-up courtesy call to NBA headquarters in hopes of avoiding any fines — the Indiana coach shortened his bench by whacking his starters. He did, from the rationale he gave, what he should have done in February or March, if only the alleged wear, tear and fatigue from season’s first five months had shown itself before the sixth.

“We accomplished the purpose,” said George, who spent the game in warm-ups after getting in some conditioning and shooting. “We felt very comfortable with the group we had, that they were going to go out there and get us a win. It wasn’t like we were sacrificing the game. We game-planned. Coach really drilled and worked hard with the unit he put out there.”

Copeland missed just one of his eight shots, scored 18 and was good for four of the Pacers’ 11 3-pointers. Backup point guard C.J. Watson returned after missing 13 games, and his impact shouldn’t be understated; Indiana is 47-14 when he plays, 7-11 when he doesn’t. The Pacers outshot the Bucks and had 26 assists to 11 turnovers.

“Served the purpose,” said Vogel. “We got the starters the rest that hopefully will help them find their rhythm, and we let our bench guys get extended minutes so they could get comfortable. Evan Turner hasn’t been that comfortable in a Pacers uniform.”

How badly have the starters needed a breather? The math says very: the five Pacers have averaged 2,521 minutes, which might not seem excessive (32.8 per game). But compared to the deftly managed San Antonio Spurs, the difference is considerable. The five Spurs who have played the most have averaged 1,934 minutes. That gap of 587, doled out 30 minutes at a time, is nearly 20 extra games’ worth.

“It was a weird feeling, sitting out a game,” Hibbert said. “But I was really happy for those guys. They’ve been working extremely hard the whole season. To see them go out and play, and not have to worry about making mistakes and having the starters come back in, I was really happy for ‘em.”

Hibbert said getting the game off was both a physical and mental health day, and none of them seemed to need it more. The big fella hit some sort of wall Sunday against Atlanta, playing just nine minutes, going scoreless with no rebounds, then languishing on the bench through the second half in some sort of bad body-language funk. He was way more engaged in this one, encouraging the reserves, snarling toward the crowd a few times.

When Indiana visits the Heat on Friday, its starters will have gone five days – more than 120 hours – between games.

“We probably haven’t had that since the season started,” Stephenson said. “Any rest can help us right now.”


VIDEO: Pacers score a close win in Milwaukee

***

No. 2: Casey fretting over Raptors’ defense — No team has been more of a surprise in the Eastern Conference this season than the Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors. The team is just one win away from both clinching the franchise’s second-ever division crown and also tying the record for wins in a season. Despite all the good feelings of the season, though, coach Dwane Casey is a bit concerned about Toronto’s defense as it barrels toward the playoffs. Doug Smith of the Toronto Star has more:

They are a game away from matching two historic moments in franchise history; a win away from a division title, a victory away from equalling the win total of the best Raptors team ever — and the anticipation is building all around them.

But having watched his team scuffle through another bad defensive night against a vastly inferior opponent, coach Dwane Casey is more worried than celebratory.

“My whole goal now is to get better defensively going into the next couple of weeks because if we don’t, it’s going to be a short ride,” Casey said after the Raptors beat the Philadelphia 76ers 125-114 at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday, Toronto’s second straight stinky defensive performance.

“Collectively, our defence has to step up. We can’t expect to outscore people 125-114 and have a game like that,” he said.

“It’s a mindset. You can’t look at their records, whoever we play. New York (Toronto’s next opponent) will be a little different but the other teams (minnows Detroit and Milwaukee also remain on the Raptors schedule) that are not in the playoffs, we can’t look at that. We have to play our game and look to improve.”


VIDEO: Raptors coach Dwane Casey discusses the team’s win over the Sixers

***

No. 3: Brown: Sixers need a ‘star’ in the Draft — As a former longtime assistant coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers first-year coach Brett Brown knows how drafting a go-to superstar can shape a franchise. He saw what Tim Duncan has done for the Spurs over the years and now that he’s leading his own crew, Brown knows that Philly needs a star in the 2014 Draft if it hopes to keep its rebuild project moving along quickly and smoothly. He talked with Tom Moore of the Bucks County Courier-Times about that, Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and more:

“I think it’s important,” Brown said during a 10-minute interview after Tuesday’s practice. “I think it’s really important.

“Stars want to play with stars. And it’s too early to say anything about Michael (Carter-Williams) or what you can project Nerlens (Noel) out to be. Just because somebody’s chosen high in the draft doesn’t mean they’re going to be a star, either.”

The Sixers, who are likely to finish with the second-worst record, would have a 19.9 percent shot at the No. 1 overall pick and a 55.8 percent chance to choose in the top three. They also own five second-round selections.

One potential top-three pick, talented Duke freshman forward Jabari Parker, who said he might come back to school after an early NCAA tournament exit, has arranged housing for his sophomore year, according to a Duke source. While that doesn’t mean he’ll stay, it shows he’s seriously considering remaining a Blue Devil for another season.

Brown is eager to see rookie center Noel, who sat out the year as he recovered from a torn ACL, play one of the Sixers’ two summer leagues. Noel and Carter-Williams won an AAU national title as members of the Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC).

The Sixers acquired Noel with the No. 6 pick in last June’s draft from the Holiday deal and Carter-Williams went No. 11.

“They have had such a great history together in their Boston AAU days,” said Brown, a Maine native. “I can see how they have a bond, a connection, a relationship. Those things are priceless.

“I think it’s ‘hoop karma.’ To get two young players that are used to playing with each other at such a young age as our first-round draft picks last year and my own experiences in Boston — maybe something’s aligned where we can pull off something special together.”

Brown is adamant that Carter-Williams, who leads all first-year players in scoring (16.7 points), assists (6.3), rebounds (6.1) and steals (1.9), should become the Sixers’ first NBA Rookie of the Year since Allen Iverson in 1996-97.

“Absolutely zero (doubt in my mind),” Brown said. “And forget my opinion — look at his game and look at the stats. You can easily say — some people will — it’s because he played on a poor team or he played with the fastest (offensive) pace in the league or he got 34 minutes a night to do his thing. Those are true facts.

“But when you go a layer deeper and you say look at his game. Look at what he actually does. Project him out.”

***

No. 4: Cavs try to look forward to next season — The Cleveland Cavaliers tried to make a big splash in the offseason, signing center Andrew Bynum, guard Jarrett Jack and swingman Earl Clark months after drafting Anthony Bennett with the No. 1 overall pick. The thinking was adding those pieces to a core that included All-Star Kyrie Irving and budding frontcourt player Tristan Thompson would equal a playoff berth. The exact opposite happened as Cleveland sputtered out of the gate, dealt with Bynum drama mid-season, fired its GM and, in short, failed to live up to every expectation. The Cavs’ playoff hopes officially ended last night and as Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal writes, being home for the playoffs stings a little more this time for the Cavs:

It seemed almost poetic in this season of uncertainty that one of the Cavs’ finest performances would be tarnished by their ultimate demise.The offensive efficiency was brilliant Wednesday, the ball movement was electric and the outcome was emphatic. Only none of it matters anymore, since the Cavs’ 122-100 victory against the Detroit Pistons was washed away 36 minutes later by the Atlanta Hawks’ victory over the Boston Celtics, thereby officially eliminating the Cavs from postseason contention with exactly one week left in the season.

“It’s an empty feeling you have now that your chances are done,” Kyrie Irving said. “You think about the things you could’ve done, should’ve done — it’s inevitable.”

“That type of basketball, the stuff we saw out there tonight, that’s the way we want to play most of the time,” Mike Brown said. “We’ve played that way quite a bit. We’ve taken our lumps at times, but our guys have gotten better and it shows.”

Only it all came too late to save their postseason lives.

The Cavs will be haunted this summer by their 4-12 November that included losses to the woeful Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. They lost twice to the Boston Celtics and were embarrassed at home by the injury-ravaged Los Angeles Lakers.

Those are the types of losses that ultimately will deny the Cavs their first trip to the postseason in four years.

“One of the things that eats at me is the first couple of months, the transition we went through just not being able to win a few more games,” Brown said. “It’s tough and you have to play almost perfect basketball. It puts a lot of pressure on you as the year goes on. You wish you had some of those games back so we could experience playing past April.”

The Cavs were mathematically eliminated from the postseason before March concluded last season, and while a huge assist for their extension this season is the woeful Eastern Conference, the fact remains the Cavs played meaningful games in April and remained in the hunt until exactly one week remained.

That is progress from a team that won only 24 games last season …

“I feel good about the direction we’re going,” Brown said. “We have to keep understanding that every time we step out we have to grow and get better. … There will be times we’re going to take some steps backwards, but hopefully we don’t take too many steps backward these last few weeks of the season.”


VIDEO: Kyrie Irving talks about the win and missing out on the playoffs

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Bulls are reportedly close to signing former reserves Mike James and Lou Amundson to deals … Pau Gasol confirms it is unlikely he’ll play again for the Lakers this season … NBA commissioner Adam Silver sees ads on jerseys as both a “viable” source of revenue and an “inevitable” thing … The Bobcats’ Michael Kidd-Gilchrist talks about his ex-high school teammate Derrick Gordon, the UMass basketball player who recently came out as gay … Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman knew that Bulls center Joakim Noah was primed for a big game last night … Aaron Brooks has enjoyed his time in Denver and wouldn’t mind re-signing with the team

ICYMI of the Night: The Bulls’ Taj Gibson is one of the better finishers around the rim in the NBA, but Ronny Turiaf of the Wolves was having none of that last night … 


VIDEO: Ronny Turiaf gets up to deny Taj Gibson’s dunk … and his follow-up attempts

 

 

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 28


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 27

NEWS OF THE MORNING

CP3′s return date still unknown | Nash suffers ‘tweaked’ back in practice | Report: No extension talks for Casey | La La Anthony thinks ‘Melo will stay in N.Y.

No. 1: CP3 works out, but return still unknown — The Los Angeles Clippers have done an admirable job of keeping things together since star point guard Chris Paul injured his shoulder on Jan. 3. L.A. has gone 10-3 during that span to remain in thick of the chase for the Pacific Division title. Paul continues to rehab and workout, but his return date remains largely an unknown, writes Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

Chris Paul got in a good, strong workout before the Clippers played the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night.

Paul got in a good sweat shooting jumpers and runners. He got in a good sweat running up and down the court after he shot.

But Paul still is a ways away from playing because of a separated right shoulder.

The original timetable had Paul out up to six weeks, meaning he would be out another three weeks, returning sometime in mid-February.

“No one said there were any changes or a deadline or anything,” Coach Doc Rivers said. “But he feels great. I still think it’s All-Star break, in that area. I don’t think that changed.

“But he feels good. I know he’s shooting a little bit now. The fact that he can run and do the conditioning is great. But other than that, it still has to heal.”

Rivers said the final decision on when Paul will return will be up to the Clippers’ team doctors and head athletic trainer Jasen Powell.

And, Rivers said, Paul won’t be able to say he’s ready until he’s fully healed.

“On this one, this is one of those injuries where no matter how he feels, you still have to let it heal,” Rivers said.


VIDEO: Coach Doc Rivers talks about Chris Paul’s rehab work and more

***

No. 2: Nash ‘tweaks’ back, can’t practice yet — The good news for Los Angeles Lakers fans? Steve Nash‘s workouts in Vancouver with a trainer went well and he is healing up nicely from the nerve root irritation that has bothered him since Nov. 12. The bad news — if you want to take it as such — is that Nash tweaked his back in an unrelated injury and still isn’t able to practice. Trevor Wong of Lakers.com has more on the Lakers’ injury situation concerning Nash and others:

According to team spokesman, John Black, everything “went well” for Steve Nash in Vancouver while working with his trainer/physical therapist during the team’s 12-day road trip. Nash was expected to go through practice on Monday, but unrelatedly “tweaked his back,” and thus, did not participate.

“The plan for him is to have a practice on Thursday and he’s basically day-to-day,” Black said. “We’ll update you on whether he’ll play Friday based on how Thursday’s practice goes.”

Nash has been sidelined since Nov. 12 with nerve root irritation. Coach Mike D’Antoni remains hopeful the two-time MVP can return to the court again this season.

“I hope so,” D’Antoni said. “I hope for him. If anybody can do it, he can.”

Both Steve Blake (elbow) and Jordan Farmar (hamstring) have not been cleared for full practices yet, but are able to participate in basketball-related activities, as the two went through today.

“They’ll continue to ramp up through the week as they progress,” Black said. “Neither will play Tuesday or Friday, but the plan on them is to ramp up practices this week and we’ll update both of them at the end of this week.”

Blake was diagnosed with a torn collateral ligament in his right elbow and has been out since Dec. 13. Farmar, meanwhile, has been out since Jan. 3 after suffering a tear in his left hamstring.

“It was great,” he said. “I’ve been bored. That’s been the hardest thing. With this injury, you don’t feel too injured. It’s not painful; you don’t feel hurt. Just having to sit down, be patient and wait your turn, especially seeing them struggle, I just want to be out there and contribute.”

Xavier Henry (knee strain) went through some on-court work in Miami and was expected to be out another 10-14 days, but visited with a doctor today. There is no new update regarding his injury.


VIDEO: Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni talks about the team’s various injured players

***

No. 3: Report: Raptors not discussing Casey extension yet — When Dwane Casey took over as coach of the Toronto Raptors before the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, he was dealing with a team in the midst of a rebuild following Chris Bosh’s departure to the Miami Heat a season earlier. As such, the on-court product often struggled to show progress throughout his first two seasons on the job. But the Raptors appear to have turned the corner under Casey as they are 16-9 in their last 25 games and lead the Atlantic Division. Casey, despite winning his first Coach of the Month honors in December, is in the last year of his contract and is in position for an extension, but those talks haven’t happened yet with Toronto’s brass, writes Sean Deveney of The Sporting News:

With a 16-9 record in his last 25 games, a Coach of the Month award for December on his mantle and a legitimate opportunity to get the Raptors to the playoffs for the first time in seven years, Dwane Casey could hardly be blamed for pestering the Toronto front office for a contract extension.

But, as a source told Sporting News, that hasn’t been the case—there have been, “no really significant discussions,” on extending Casey’s contract, which runs up at the end of this season.

Instead, it appears that Casey and the Raptors will finish out what has been a decidedly strange year in Toronto, and re-evaluate. That’s perfectly fine with Casey, who would have no problem returning to his home in Seattle and focusing on lures and casts rather than Xs and Os.

“I never worried about having a job,” Casey said. “I say that with all sincerity. I never worried about losing a job, getting a job. Because I learned a long time ago how to fish.”

Casey says concern over his next contract has no bearing on how he is handling his team now. When the Raptors hired a new general manager, Masai Ujiri, in the offseason, there was speculation that Ujiri would immediately make a coaching change. But after meeting with Casey—the two have known each other for years—Ujiri decided to stick with the coach, for at least one more year.

“I tell players every day, whatever happens, happens,” Casey said. “I am going to get up and approach my job the same way every day, 6:30 till whenever, midnight or whatever it is, every day, regardless of how things are going, whether we are winning or not. My job is to get the ship ashore. That’s the best way for me to approach it.”

Ujiri said Casey would not be sized up by wins and losses, but by development. Oddly enough, though, development has coincided with a revival in the standings, with the Raptors playing much better on both ends of the floor, getting themselves above .500 and into first place in the Atlantic Division.

The Raptors are still developing. The winning is just an unforeseen side effect.

“It’s difficult,” Casey said. “The question has come up quite a bit. It’s the most difficult thing in sports, is have two second-year guys as our starters and trying to win and win the division at the same time. So we talk about the process, getting better every time we play or practice, moreso than wins or losses. The development of our young guys is just as important, believe it or not, for the organization as winning is.”

***

No. 4: ‘Melo’s wife expects him to stay in New YorkKnicks All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony has said he plans to opt out of his deal to test the free-agent waters this summer. He’s also said in previous interviews that he both wants to try out the free-agent wooing process and that he wants to retire in New York. So which one is true? His wife, La La Anthony, says she thinks her husband will ultimately choose to stay with New York. The Associated Press has more on the story, as does ESPNNewYork.com:

The wife of All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony says she thinks he will be back with the New York Knicks next season.Anthony has said he intends to become a free agent this summer. The Knicks can give him an extra year and some $30 million more than any other team, but their 17-27 record has created speculation he would consider leaving the team.

Speaking on “Watch What Happens Live” on Bravo on Sunday night, La La Anthony said she “definitely” thinks Anthony will stay in New York. She said he wants to stay and she supports him “where ever he wants to go.”

Anthony is averaging a team-high 27.2 points for New York, which acquired the Brooklyn native from Denver in a three-team trade in February 2011.

And here’s ESPNNewYork.com’s take on the story:

“I definitely think he will stay,” La La Anthony said in an interview with Bravo TV’s “Watch What Happens Live.” “I know that he wants to stay, and I support him wherever he wants to go.

“Listen, I used to live in Denver with him. If I can live in Denver, I can live anywhere. I just want him to be happy.”

La La Anthony playfully mocked those who speculate that she will have a heavy influence on her husband’s decision.

“I get blamed for everything. No matter what happens, it’s my fault,” she said. “[There are] all these talks if he’s staying in New York or not, [and] I’m somehow the mastermind behind if he stays or not.”

One potential destination is Los Angeles. The Lakers are among several teams, including the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks, that may have the requisite salary-cap space this summer to sign Anthony.

Kobe Bryant, a friend of Anthony’s, said Sunday that he will not be actively recruiting the Knicks forward to join the Lakers.

“Well, everybody wants to play in Los Angeles,” Bryant said when asked about Anthony’s potential interest in joining the Lakers. “I mean, New York is a beautiful place, don’t get me wrong, but it is colder than s— out here. You know, palm trees and beaches obviously are a little more appealing.

“All jokes aside, I think that players, when that time comes, will have to make the best decision for them and their families. I try not to think about it too much. If he wants to call me for advice later as a friend, I will be more than happy to give it to him.”

Anthony, who is in his 11th season, said Monday that his sole motivation is to win an NBA title.

“That’s the only thing I care about. Anything else is irrelevant to me when it comes to basketball,” he said. “Championship is the only thing that’s on my mind, is the only thing I want to accomplish, I want to achieve, and I’m going to do what I got to do to get that. That’s my motivating factor. Nothing else even motivates me anymore, just that.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: This was a bit of an early-afternoon publish on NBA.com, but our own David Aldridge delivers a solid oral history of Commissioner David Stern’s life and times in the NBA … A group of scientists are trying to determine if “team chemistry” is quantifiable … Bucks GM John Hammond gives his view on the state of the worst team in the NBA … Raptors swingman Terrence Ross gave the ball from his 51-point game to his mom … Sixers rookie Lorenzo Brown took part in an odd day-night double header — NBA D-League game during the day, and an NBA game at night

ICYMI of The Night: The Brooklyn Nets were more or less one inbounds pass away from closing the gap in the standings on the Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors. Then the Raptors’ Patrick Patterson stepped in the passing lane and put that notion to rest …:


VIDEO: Patrick Patterson caps off a must-see finish in Brooklyn

Ujiri The Ultimate Chemistry Teacher




VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors are on a roll right now, winners of four straight games

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Masai Ujiri‘s front office peers around the NBA should pay close attention to the way the Toronto Raptors’ star goes about his business. While some franchise architects like to work their so-called magic with the public watching intently, Ujiri has done a masterful job (first in Denver and now in Toronto) tweaking chemistry and getting results.

In fact, Ujiri has proven himself to be the ultimate chemistry teacher these days in terms of knowing how to tweak a roster just right. The reigning NBA Executive of the Year, an honor voted on by his peers, Ujiri is making a strong push for repeat honors with the way the Raptors are playing since the Rudy Gay trade went down.

They are 9-3 and winners of eight of their last 10 games since moving Gay to Sacramento Dec. 9. It was a move designed to give the Raptors long-term flexibility and not necessarily an immediate jolt that has helped them climb all the way up to the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

But Ujiri has a way of studying a roster, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and then being fearless in his attempts to change things for the better. Since Gay was jettisoned, the Raptors have scored huge wins over the likes of Dallas and Chicago, and most recently in Oklahoma City (where they handed the West-best Thunder their first home loss of the season) and kicked off 2014 with an impressive home win over the East-best Indiana Pacers.

As much as this is about the fine work being done by Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his staff, and of course, the contributions of a roster full of grinders like DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Greivis Vasquez and others, this is about the man who put it all together.

Ujiri just happens to have the magic touch right now. And if you don’t believe it, just look at the hard times his former team has fallen upon in his absence. The Denver Nuggets have lost eight straight games, their longest such skid since the end of the 2002-03 season. Veteran point guard Andre Miller turned the heat up even more by ripping first-year coach Brian Shaw after Wednesday’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, making matters worse in Denver while Ujiri has his new team soaring.

A boss like Ujiri keeps those dustups contained, as best can be, or at least at a minimum and away from the public. You don’t have to worry about those sorts of altercations when working conditions are at a premium. And Ujiri has freed up virtually every key rotation player on the Raptors’ roster to do what he does best after the Gay trade.

DeRozan and Lowry in particular are allowed to play more to their natural strengths on the perimeter, while Valanciunas has become more of a focal point as well. Role players like Johnson, the ridiculously underrated Vasquez, who came over from Sacramento in the trade, and young journeyman forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Patrick Patterson have become critical pieces in the Raptors’ current run.

“No one on this team is selfish; everyone accepts their roles,” Patterson told reporters after the Raptors outslugged Paul George, Roy Hibbert and the Pacers to kick off the New Year. “No one wants to get more shots, no one wants to do more of this, no one is jealous of another player … we all understand what we have to do in order to make this machine keep rolling smoothly.”

The man responsible for making sure that machine runs without a hitch, of course, is Ujiri. He understands, as well or better than most right now, that team chemistry trumps just about everything else that goes on inside a team’s fabric in this day and age. Even the Miami Heat needed a year (and a Finals defeat at the hands of a Mavericks team that had off the charts chemistry) to figure that out.


VIDEO: The Raptors took it to the Pacers, kicking off 2014 in style before the home crowd