Posts Tagged ‘Dwight Howard’

Numbers preview: Rockets-Mavs


VIDEO: West Series Preview: Rockets – Mavericks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Southwest Division comprises more than half of the Western Conference playoff bracket. So two of them have to play each other.

The Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets both made changes to their roster in December, bringing the enigmatic Rajon Rondo and Josh Smith from the Eastern Conference. A month after they added Rondo to their mix, the Mavs were 30-13, a game ahead of the Rockets.

But things went downhill from there. The Mavs led the league in offensive efficiency at the time they traded for Rondo, but scored almost 10 fewer points per 100 possessions after the trade than they did before it. Their defense did improve some, but not enough to make up for the offensive drop-off.

The Rockets, meanwhile, survived a myriad of injuries to win the division and finish second in the West. They’re missing two starters and don’t have Dwight Howard at 100 percent, but have gotten by with a top-10 defense and an MVP candidate. That could be enough to get through an opponent that has had issues on both ends of the floor at one point or another.

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

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

Houston Rockets (56-26)

Pace: 99.3 (2)
OffRtg: 104.2 (12)
DefRtg: 100.5 (6)
NetRtg: +3.7 (6)

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

Rockets notes:

20150416_corner_3s

Dallas Mavericks (50-32)

Pace: 97.4 (9)
OffRtg: 107.2 (5)
DefRtg: 103.7 (18)
NetRtg: +3.5 (8)

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

Mavs notes:

The matchup

Season series: Rockets won 3-1 (2-0 in Houston).
Pace: 100.7
HOU OffRtg: 100.8 (19th vs. DAL)
DAL OffRtg: 97.9 (19th vs. HOU)

Matchup notes:

Report: Motiejunas out for season

Just when the Rockets were starting to feel good about having their starting lineup finally healthy and together as the playoffs approach, they keep getting bitten by injury.

The latest victim is forward Donatas Motiejunas, who played a key role in keeping the season afloat while Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones were on the mend.

Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle first reported the details:

Motiejunas has been out the past six games with lower back pain, but has not progressed with the rest. The team and Motiejunas have not decided whether a surgery or a more extended period of rest will be needed, the individual with knowledge of the situation said.

In his third NBA season, Motiejunas had gone from sitting out last season’s playoffs to become a key part of the Rockets’ rotation. He moved into the starting lineup when Jones went out after four games and could have been a starter again with Howard to provide spacing for Howard inside.

Motiejunas, 24, averaged 12 points and 5.9 rebounds in 71 games, 62 as a starter. Motiejunas has been the Rockets’ most reliable low-post scorer, making 50.4 percent of his shots this season, but also made 36.4 percent of his 3s. Only Motiejunas and Kevin Durant have made at least 50 percent of their shots and 36 percent of their 3-pointers while taking at least 100 of each.

The lineup of Howard, Jones, James Harden, Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry will start their third game Wednesday night at San Antonio, more starts together than any current and available Rockets players.

Blogtable: 2015’s biggest surprise and disappointment?

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


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



VIDEOThese guys might have been the League Pass team of 2014-15

> With one week left, what has been the biggest surprise of this NBA season? And biggest disappointment?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: No way, no how did I expect the Atlanta Hawks’ leap in the standings off of last season’s 38-44. Two of Atlanta’s big offseason moves were trading away Lou Williams and drafting Adreian Payne in the first round, so the help didn’t come from the outside. That’s development, building, bonding. My biggest disappointment: the rubble of Oklahoma City’s 2015 championship aspirations. It’s a bummer for the Thunder, the nasty West bracket is a little less head-spinning and it’s always tricky business propping open a window of contention to accommodate injuries. So often, either the time is right or it’s not, and OKC’s might be passing.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Everybody’s been waiting for the injuries to catch up with the Rockets all season, but James Harden’s MVP-level play hasn’t let them fall and could even produce the No. 2 seed in the West. We knew he was good. His play has been shockingly good. The biggest disappointment has been the long list of injured stars that have unfortunately made for more headlines off the court than on: Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard, DeMar DeRozan, Jabari Parker, just to name a few. But for sheer, jaw-dropping, oh-my-God-how-did-that-happen, awfulness, I can’t neglect to mention that huge hole in the ground at 7th Ave, between 31st and 33rd Sts. in Manhattan. Nobody expect that big of a crater from the New York Knicks.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The biggest surprise is easy: John Stockton, fresh off releasing a book, starring in insurance commercials, in costume and everything. Who is this guy? The Knicks will come back to make the playoffs on the last night of the regular season, then win the championship, and it still won’t top Stockton, who worked hard to avoid the spotlight as a player, as the king of all media. (If you’re going to insist on a surprise on the court, it’s anyone blowing away the field in the Western Conference standings. This was supposed to be a tight race, right? The Warriors have turned it into a non-race.) Biggest disappointment: Injuries. They happen every year, only this time fate ganged up on the Thunder, costing OKC the chance for a long playoff run, and on the rookies, costing everyone the chance to see three of the best newcomers for more than a portion of the season.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The Celtics might make the playoffs despite dumping their top two players (Jeff Green, Rajon Rondo) and watching another miss games because of injuries (Jared Sullinger). Yes, the East is so bad that somebody with a losing record was destined to make the playoffs, but still this rates as a surprise to a degree. Disappointing? Lance Stephenson bombing almost immediately in Charlotte and never recovering. I figured if nothing else, he’d be a pain off the court, not on it.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: The biggest surprise is the dominance of the Hawks and Warriors in their respective conferences. I had Atlanta eighth among East teams in my preseason Power Rankings and only two GMs picked them to win the Southeast Division. They were, by far, the East’s best team until it was time to ease off the gas pedal, beating a lot of Western Conference contenders along the way. The Warriors were projected higher than the Hawks, but I don’t think anybody saw them registering the best point differential since Steve Kerr was playing for the Bulls. The biggest disappointment is Oklahoma City suffering through a wasted season with Kevin Durant’s ongoing foot issue. The Thunder are a title contender when healthy and while they’re still in the mix for a playoff spot, their season really never got off the ground.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The biggest and most pleasant surprise has been the Atlanta Hawks and their improbable rise from an offseason filled with uncertainty. I don’t think anyone but the most die-hard of Atlanta fans would admit to believing the Hawks would put together the sort of season they have. How they finish the story in the playoffs remains to be seen. But there is no doubt the Hawks achieved the unthinkable finishing atop the Eastern Conference regular season standings. The biggest disappointment, and I don’t think we need to belabor the point, has been the bi-coastal dumpster fires that have consumed the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks this season. I knew they’d struggle mightily. But the Lakers and Knicks have been brutal this season. Just brutal.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: The Hawks have been the most inspiring team: They may be benefiting from the Spurs’ system, but they’ve been running it without Hall of Fame talent, and if their devotion to teamwork could produce a championship then it would be a huge breakthrough for the NBA. The biggest disappointment has been the physical breakdown of so many players: The Rockets, Clippers, Spurs, Cavaliers, Blazers, Bulls, Thunder, Pelicans, Raptors, Wizards, Bucks, Jazz, Pacers, Heat, Hornets, Pistons, Kings, Lakers, 76ers, Timberwolves and Knicks have all been diminished by meaningful injuries this season.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: You’re baiting me, right? How can I not go with the Atlanta Hawks, the team that was pegged by many to be a playoff team, but nobody, not in their wildest dreams, expected the Hawks to have the season they’re having. As for biggest disappointment, it’s hard to overlook the team right up I-85 from the Hawks, the Charlotte Hornets. I know they’ve had injuries throughout the season, but adding Lance Stephenson seems to have just made that whole situation into a mess.

Morning shootaround — April 5


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nowitzki was laughing as he said that last line.

***

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

Morning shootaround — April 4


VIDEO: All the highlights from Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Magic’s Vucevic planning to stay | Curry stung by ex-coach’s MVP pick | Spurs as NBA’s old, married couple | Bulls flirting with disappointment?

No. 1: Magic’s Vucevic planning to stay — So what if Minnesota, even at full strength, is far from an NBA powerhouse and on Friday happened to be playing without its three best big men. Nikola Vucevic didn’t have to apologize to anyone for his career-high 37 points and his 17 rebounds. More important, the Orlando center doesn’t want to have to apologize to Magic fans after saying goodbye in a few years, abandoning the franchise’s long-term plans the way Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard did. The big man spoke recently with Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel about loyalty and the vision he has for his career and his team’s future:

“Yeah, I’m here for the long haul. I hope to stay here my whole career,” he told me. “I love it here. I really love the city. I’ve improved here a lot as a player. I’d love to stay for a long, long time and make something special happen.

“If it takes years, it takes years … I ain’t going anywhere.”

Vucevic is inspired by the loyalty displayed by Italian soccer superstar Francesco Totti. Totti, 38, has played his entire career for Roma.

“Totti could have gone to bigger teams, made more money, do whatever he wanted. He didn’t,” he said. “He stayed with that team. He’s pretty much a god to that team.”

Rather humbly, Vucevic doesn’t consider himself in the class of Shaq and Dwight – repeat All-Stars and No. 1 overall picks.

The list of great big men here is short, but Vooch is already the third-best center the Magic have ever had. Eight long years passed between Shaq’s departure and Dwight’s arrival. Vooch has cut the wait time considerably after Howard departed.

He gets it done differently. Although he’s nearly 7-feet and weighs 260 pounds, Vucevic isn’t as dominating and demonstrative as his powerhouse predecessors. But he is a rare double-double machine, running quietly and efficiently.

More steady than spectacular, he relies on finesse instead of force, having learned the game overseas in Montenegro. Vooch does have a shooting stroke that Shaq and Dwight would envy (and he can make free throws).

“Both Shaq and Dwight had great legacies while they were here. I want to achieve what they achieved,” he said. “When I’m done, I’d love to have people talk about me the way they talk about them. I hope to get to the same level.

“I want to get there.”

***

No. 2: Curry stung by ex-coach’s MVP pick — Unlike his team’s runaway atop the Western Conference, Golden State’s Stephen Curry likely is going to find himself locked in a tight race for the NBA’s Kia Most Valuable Player award. Some voters probably won’t submit their ballots until the deadline on Thursday, April 16, the day after the regular season ends. But that won’t stop others – those with votes and those without – from floating their opinions sooner, and one who did was ABC/ESPN analyst Mark Jackson, Curry’s former Warriors coach. Jackson’s choice of Houston’s James Harden caught Curry off-guard, as evidence by his reaction. But Golden State teammate Andrew Bogut rushed to his point guard’s defense vs. Jackson, as reported by ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss:

ESPN analyst and former Warriors coach Mark Jackson said Wednesday on the “Dan Patrick Show” that while Curry, Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder and LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, are all worthy candidates, he’d give his MVP vote to James Harden of the Houston Rockets.

“If you twisted my arm today, I would probably vote for James Harden,” Jackson said. “The reason why is because he single-handedly has put that Houston Rockets team in the position that they’re in today.”

The comments come as a stark contrast to the way Jackson had previously championed his former charge as a superstar in the league, while he was coach of the Warriors.

“It’s his opinion obviously,” Curry said. “He’s probably been watching the league. People are going to ask what he thinks, especially his ties to the Warriors organization and myself specifically. Surprised me he said that. But, it is what it is.”

Curry had been vocally supportive of Jackson prior to the coach’s dismissal last offseason, something the Warriors point guard made mention of Friday.

“Obviously I wasn’t shy about trying to defend him last year when things were rumbling outside of our locker room,” Curry said. “But for him to … it’s kind of a different situation, but it is surprising that he didn’t.”

On Thursday, center Andrew Bogut, who had a less friendly relationship with Jackson, made light of his former coach’s opinion.

“Well what’s his name said no,” Bogut joked. “What’s that guy’s name? Mark? Mark? I don’t remember his name.”

***

No. 3: Spurs as NBA’s old, married couple — If you’re an NBA fan of college age or younger, you probably can’t remember a season in which the San Antonio Spurs did not win at least 50 games in a season. Their remarkable streak at that level stretches 16 years now, a testament to the staying power of coach Gregg Popovich and his Hall-of-Fame-bound core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Our man Fran Blinebury wrote about the uncommon professional and personal relationships that have produced all that success, and here’s a taste to whet your appetite for more:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, half the marriages in the United States are over by the eighth year, which makes the union of the Spurs and consistent excellence — at twice that length — an accomplishment of tolerance, dedication and bliss.

By defeating Denver on Friday night, the Spurs have now won 50 games for 16 consecutive seasons, extending their NBA record half a decade beyond the next longest strings. The Los Angeles Lakers (1980-91) are in second place with 12.

“Think about it. There’s not many marriages that last 16 years,” said ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy. “Think about working that closely together in a relationship, under that pressure and scrutiny and still enjoying each other’s company.

“What they’ve done is sustained greatness. I think that’s much more telling than five championships. First of all, it’s something that nobody’s done before. Winning 50 and having a plus-.500 road record all that time, to me that’s incredible.

“I am totally against the whole mindset that everything is about championships when it comes to evaluating players, evaluating teams. ‘Did they win a championship?’ Really, is that all you’ve got? I’m telling you, sustaining greatness is much harder than a one-, two- or three-year greatness.”

The Spurs’ run has been much like their style of play — more of a steady hum than a loud roar.

***

No. 4: Bulls flirting with disappointment?Pau Gasol showed emotion near the end of the Chicago Bulls’ victory beyond his normal veteran’s range, yelling and mugging as a release after his offensive rebound and putback against Detroit’s formidable Andre Drummond secured a victory Friday at United Center. But it was Gasol’s more measured comments afterward that ought to get a rise out of Chicago fans, because he speaks from experience when talking about championship teams and the edge they need in the postseason. The Bulls, in Gasol’s view, still are searching, according to the report filed by ESPNChicago.com’s Nick Friedell:

The 14-year veteran, who earned two championships as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, knows what it takes to win a title, and that’s why he’s a little concerned by what he has seen from his new team, the Chicago Bulls, over the past couple of games. After a poor performance on Wednesday night in a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Bulls followed up by sleepwalking through the second half and almost blowing a winnable game against the Detroit Pistons on Friday night. Like the rest of his teammates, Gasol is still convinced the Bulls have time to turn around their bad habits, but unlike most of his younger teammates, the All-Star center understands that time is running out.

“There’s not a magic button here,” Gasol said. “What you see in the regular season is what you’re going to get in the playoffs. So we have to try to be more consistent in the last six games that we have and that’s going to determine what we’ll see probably in the playoffs. Now every game, it’s meaningful, and that we have to be aware of that because you can’t expect things to click when it’s crunch time, when everybody is on. So you just got to do whatever you have to on a daily basis to put yourself in the best place regularly so you get to the playoffs and maybe try to turn it up like everybody else.”

The good news for the Bulls is that they found a way to win on Friday night. So often during this up-and-down season they have found ways to lose games like this — to weaker teams that don’t have the same level of talent. But as the Bulls get set for what they hope is a long run in the postseason, veterans such as Gasol and fellow championship club member, Nazr Mohammed, know that the great teams have to play better than the Bulls are playing right now.

“We just got to keep getting better,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “We got to understand what we’re playing for. We’re playing for a lot at stake right now. It was good to see guys like Naz [Mohammed] and some of our veterans speak up tonight and understand how crucial this win was.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Portland guard Wesley Matthews long trek back from a torn Achilles is getting serialized by The Oregonian. … Minnesota’s Nikola Pekovic also is facing issues – and surgery – on his aching right foot, and sounds a little concerned about his future both on and off the court. … Hall of Famer John Stockton is helping as an assistant coach with Gonzaga Prep’s girls team, lending his hoops wisdom and getting valuable father-daughter time with Laura Stockton. … Kyle Lowry wants to play again before the playoffs, but the Toronto Raptors point guard also wants to be cautious with the back spasms that have sidelined him. … Boston’s Jared Sullinger came back Friday earlier than expected from a stress fracture, and he has lightened the load on that foot by 20 pounds. … Sounding more like part of the problem than part of the solution in Miami, Heat guard Mario Chalmers says he doesn’t know his role these days.

Morning Shootaround — March 30


VIDEO: Highlights from game played on March 29

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Morey confident Rockets win it all this season | Report: Mullin mulling St. John’s job offer | Lakers’ Davis unhappy about sideline stint | Report: Magic ready to extend Hennigan’s contract

No. 1: Morey confident Rockets win it all this season — The MVP and a NBA title? It could happen this season in Houston. James Harden is working on snagging that Maurice Podoloff Trophy. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey insists his team is working on the latter, sounding extremely confident that his bunch, with Dwight Howard back in the mix. Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com has more:

Morey’s team is currently the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with nine games remaining in the regular season. In order to reach the NBA Finals, the Rockets will have to overcome several health issues.

Forwards Terrence Jones (lung) and Donatas Motiejunas (lower back pain) have been out recently, and Morey expects them to return before the end of the regular season.

Starting center Dwight Howard has played the past three games under a minutes restriction after missing nearly eight weeks with swelling in his right knee. Howard will not play in Monday’s game at the Toronto Raptors.

Starting point guard Patrick Beverley has a torn ligament in his left wrist and is contemplating surgery. Morey said the team will make a final determination on Beverley’s status on Monday, but if they don’t have him, it won’t deter the team’s goal of trying to win a championship.

“We think we can win the title with or without Beverley,” Morey said on ESPN Radio’s Basketball Insiders show. “Obviously it gets more challenging without Beverley; he’s the key to our ability to guard a lot of these very good point guards in the West.”

Morey said the Golden State Warriors, who own the NBA’s best record and swept the season series against the Rockets this season, should be the favorites to win the title.

“We won’t go in as the favorite,” Morey said. “I think Golden State, deservedly so, gets to be called the favorite. They’ve had a very historic season. I think the Golden State training staff hasn’t been talked about enough this year. That team has been healthy and really that showcased everyone in Golden State. Coach [Steve] Kerr has done a great job. We won’t go in as the favorite. We do feel like we can beat anybody in a seven-game series, and we’re pretty excited to get going with the playoffs.”

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Morning shootaround — March 28


VIDEO: All the highlights from Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Hawks clinch Eastern Conference | Mavericks lose Ellis | What’s next for Thunder, Durant? | Shaq would have stayed in Orlando

No. 1: Hawks clinch Eastern Conference — Coming into this season, the Atlanta Hawks were dealing with an underwhelming free agency period, a GM on an indefinite leave of absence, and an ownership group that wanted to sell the franchise. And then the season started, which the Hawks used as a terrific reminder that all the off the court noise ends there, and what really matters is the results on the floor. Friday night, with a win over the Miami Heat, the Hawks moved to 55-17 on the season and clinched the Eastern Conference championship. Yet despite the incredible season and improbable title, as Jeff Schultz writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Hawks acted like it was no big deal …

The Hawks clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs Friday night and they acted as if they had just beaten Milwaukee on a Tuesday in November.

That’s probably a good thing.

“Maybe we’ll do a little, ‘Hip-hip, hooray’ on the plane,” Kyle Korver said.

“I mean, it’s great,” Paul Millsap said. “But we really haven’t been focusing on it. We’ve got bigger goals ahead. We haven’t been looking at the scoreboard or looking at other teams. We’ve been looking at ourselves, trying to get ourselves right.”

The Hawks (55-17), playing the best defense they had in a few weeks, led Miami by 18 points at halftime (55-37) and cruised to a 99-86 win over the remains of the Heat.

Miami isn’t the same team without LeBron James (Cleveland) and Chris Bosh (injured), and with Dwyane Wade seemingly playing on one leg. The Heat’s bandwagon fan base, which used to fill Philips Arena, also appears to have shrunk, or at least morphed into Cleveland fans. Funny how that works.

But the Hawks’ win, combined with Cleveland’s loss to Brooklyn, officially clinched the East, even if it was a bit anti-climactic. It almost seemed fitting that when coach Mike Budenholzer walked into the locker room minutes after the game to tell his players that the Cavaliers had lost, half of the team was in the showers.

“Bud found out, came in and there were only like five guys in here,” Korver said. “He was like, ‘Good accomplishment, we won the East.’”

***

No. 2: Mavericks lose Ellis — The Dallas Mavericks have made several changes this season — trading for Rajon Rondo, signing Amar’e Stoudemire — and despite the growing pains involved they have managed to remain in the playoff picture. But a calf injury last night to Monta Ellis not only got Mark Cuban fired up on Twitter, but without Ellis on the floor, as Tim McMahon writes for ESPNDallas.com, the Mavericks offense was a “hot mess” …

The Dallas offense didn’t exactly look healthy without its leading scorer. The Mavs scored a grand total of 22 points in the final 18:43 without Ellis, finishing with their second-lowest point total of the season.

Of course, the Mavs didn’t quite light it up in the first half with a healthy Ellis, either. Dallas scored only 41 points in the first half, shooting 38.6 percent from the floor. But the Mavs closed the first half with a 10-2 run, capped by Ellis speeding through the Spurs for a coast-to-coast layup, and opened the second half with a 13-4 spurt to slash the Spurs’ lead to four.

Then Ellis limped off the floor with 6:43 remaining in the third quarter, a little bit after he got kneed in the calf while defending Manu Ginobili, and took the life out of the Mavs’ offense with him. Dallas didn’t score for the next 3:03 and managed only 15 points in the fourth quarter.

Forwards Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons failed to pick up the slack with Ellis out. They both failed to score in double figures, combining for only 16 points, none of which came in the fourth quarter.

Was that hot mess a preview of the Mavs’ offense minus Ellis?

“We’ll find out,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said before correcting himself. “Hopefully, we won’t have to find out.”

The Mavs will know more about Ellis’ status on Saturday, but his streak of playing in 237 consecutive games is certainly in jeopardy. The Mavs’ next game is Sunday night in Indiana.

“We just have to wait and see what the doctors say and how he feels tomorrow,” Nowitzki said. “Hopefully, he will be OK. We all know he plays injured and sick and he is always there for his team.”

It could be painful to watch the Mavs without their best creator by far, but it also might be in everyone’s best interest if Ellis misses some time. The Mavs have no hope of making a playoff run if Ellis isn’t at his best.

Ellis’ toughness can’t be questioned. He has proven repeatedly that he’ll fight through pain and play through injuries. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, particularly with the playoffs weeks away.

Ellis refused to even consider missing any games after straining his left hip two games before the All-Star break. The injury bothered Ellis for weeks, a major factor in an extended slump he finally busted out of with his 38-point performance in Tuesday’s home win over the Spurs.

“Our trainers will evaluate the situation, and we’ll communicate with him,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t see us putting him out there if he’s not feeling good. You can’t underestimate his ability to bounce back from things. He’s a fighter, he loves to compete and he hates missing games. That said, we aren’t going to put him in harm’s way.”

***

No. 3: What’s next for Thunder, Durant? — The Oklahoma City Thunder have had bad luck with injuries, but even as Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have missed time the last few seasons, Kevin Durant was able to carry the load, logging heavy minutes and scoring hundreds of points. But after winning the MVP a season ago, this season Durant hasn’t been able to shake the injury bug, and after having two surgeries on his right foot since the summer, the Thunder announced yesterday that Durant will need a third surgery on that right foot that will keep him out four to six months. The bone graft procedure Durant is in for should give Durant his best shot yet at fixing his troublesome right foot. And with free agency for Durant looming in the summer of 2016, as Royce Young writes at Daily Thunder, there are plenty of questions left to answer …

The big question I’m seeing a lot is, “Did Durant come back too quickly?”

The answer is, yeah, probably, in hindsight. But also what you have to understand is the team is in constant consultation with specialists about this. And sometimes, things don’t go as anticipated. It’s not like they were just saying, “I don’t care, get Durant back out there before we lose more games.”

In these situations, it makes everyone feel better to assign blame. Point a finger at someone, lash out, yell, gripe, whatever. And in truth, it probably is someone’s fault in there. Maybe it’s Durant’s. Maybe it’s Sam Presti’s. Maybe it’s the medical team. Maybe it’s your fault, ever think of that?

What’s necessary to keep in mind, though, is no one was being irresponsible here. If Durant did return earlier than he should of, it’s only because he was cleared to do so. The team and Durant can only operate off of what they’re being told, and up until literally a week and a half ago, this thing was healing the way it was supposed to. The thought was that the screwhead had created a severe bone bruise from the constant rubbing, and Durant just couldn’t shake it off without significant time off. That’s what everyone thought. I was told by someone that’s pretty close to it all that he was going to play against the Celtics two weeks ago. That’s how unexpected this turn of events became.

Durant practiced on that Saturday before, doing some 3-on-3, then he played 1-on-1 in Dallas on Monday. And after that, he walked out of the arena with a severe limp, and pretty deflated. It wasn’t improving the way it was supposed to with the increased activity and at that point, the writing was really on the wall.

It doesn’t look good that Durant has had three surgeries on his foot. One is plenty. One is supposed to do the job. With what happened last season with Russell Westbrook, there’s good reason to wonder what’s going on. But I’d look at it this way: The Thunder’s conservative approach opens the door for them to get egg on their face. They didn’t mess around with Westbrook, taking a chance to let him play on a swollen knee. They pulled the plug, and made the decision to scope and deal with the consequences and fallout.

And then they did it again. They knew there would be skeptics and critics, questioning what the hell they were doing. But instead of delaying for the offseason to address it, they prioritized the long-term health of Westbrook and made the decision with only that in mind.

I’d say it worked out pretty well for them, and Westbrook.

The Thunder could’ve taken a different measure here with Durant. They could’ve rested him the next few weeks, then put him back on the practice floor and tried to ease him back on the floor for the postseason. That option was absolutely on the table.

But in collaboration with literally three of the top foot and ankle specialists in the world, the consensus was to go ahead and take the steps to end Durant’s season and do the bone graft. Instead of risking anything in his future, they’re going to just take advantage of the coming offseason which should let him completely heal, and then start over next season.

***

No. 4: Shaq would have stayed in OrlandoShaquille O’Neal began his pro career with the Orlando Magic, and he lasted four seasons before leaving Orlando in bitter circumstances and signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. But time heals all wounds, or at least it does in the Magic Kingdom, and last night the Magic welcomed Shaq back and inducted him into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame. In his remarks during the festivities, as Josh Robbins writes in the Orlando Sentinel, Shaq said if he could do it over again, he would have played out his seven-year contract in Orlando and handled things differently …

Flanked by Penny Hardaway, Horace Grant, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, the mammoth center led Orlando to the 1995 NBA Finals, where the Magic lost to Hakeem Olajuwon‘s Houston Rockets in four games.

The next year, the Magic fell to Michael Jordan‘s Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals in four games.

O’Neal never played for the Magic again.

The Magic initially made him a low offer, and the Lakers swooped in with a $121 million offer and the lure of Hollywood.

The Magic eventually offered O’Neal a deal that eclipsed the Lakers’ offer, but it was too late. Restricted free agency didn’t exist in those days, so the Magic were powerless to prevent O’Neal from leaving.

And he left.

“We came back later and beat the Lakers’ offer at the closing minutes,” said Magic co-founder and Magic Hall of Famer Pat Williams. “But, emotionally, Shaq was gone.”

O’Neal was 24-years-old when he spurned the Magic in favor of the Lakers.

“It was all business,” O’Neal said. “Do I regret it? I never fully answered. I regret it sometimes. This is where I started, where I should’ve stayed. I actually wish that they [had] made it a law that whoever drafted you, you’ve got to stay there your whole career. No trades. No nothing. No free agency. No anything like that. Do I regret it? I regret it only because the DeVos family, they deserve a couple [of NBA titles].”

As it turned out, he didn’t finally win a title with the Lakers until 2000 — four years after he left the Magic.

“I just wish I would’ve had more patience,” O’Neal revealed. “It was all about I wanted to be protected from the bashing. What I mean by that [is] I wanted to win then. Even when I got there [to L.A.], I still got bashed and it still took four years to win. But I was very impatient. I was very young, and I thought that if I go there with those guys out there, that I could win right away. And that wasn’t the case.

“So now that I’m older now, I wish as a youngster, I wish I had had more patience.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Former Jazz player and announcer Hot Rod Hundley has died at 80 … Warriors big man Draymond Green has launched a line of t-shirts poking fun at Clippers coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers … The Rockets got Dwight Howard back from injury and now lose big man Donatas Motiejunas for a few weeks with a back injury … The Heat hope to get Hassan Whiteside back by the playoffs … The Nets have signed Earl Clark to a 10-day contract

Morning shootaround — March 26


VIDEO: Highlights of the games played March 25

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bulls secure winning road record | Howard’s return a boon for Houston | Could Love-LeBron rift force Love to sign with Knicks?

No. 1: Bulls lock up winning record on road — The Chicago Bulls, as is their wont during the coach Tom Thibodeau era, have held things together nicely and stayed in the tick of the upper crust in the East despite a multitude of injuries. Things are getting better in Chicago as Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup earlier this week, Joakim Noah is playing more and healing up and superstar Derrick Rose said he hopes to rejoin the team before the season’s end. And, oh yeah, the Bulls won in Toronto last night to secure a winning record on the road — a rarity in franchise lore. K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune details that feat and other positives for Chicago:

Michael Jordan never experienced it. Neither did Scottie Pippen. Not even Phil Jackson accomplished the feat.

With their 116-103 victory over the Raptors Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre, the Bulls guaranteed their fifth straight winning road record for the first time in franchise history. Overall, the Bulls improved to 113-79 away from the United Center under Tom Thibodeau.

That’s a .589 road winning percentage. And that, plus the eventual addition of Derrick Rose, who said earlier in the day he would be cleared for contact “sometime this week or next,” is the kind of stuff that gives the Bulls confidence moving forward. That confidence is there regardless of their playoff seed, whether or not they have home-court advantage.

*** (more…)

Rockets gain one, could lose another


VIDEO: Howard return to get back on the court

Dwight Howard returns tonight in New Orleans for the Rockets after a 26-game injury layoff, which is welcome news for a team that somehow stayed among the top-4 in the West without him. Credit their defense, the addition of Josh Smith and of course, those MVP fumes James Harden is inhaling.

“I wish we had more time for him to practice,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “You need practice and rhythm. He’s going to have to do that during the game.”

Howard will help with rebounding and badly-needed interior offense but he can’t play point guard, too, which is a bit troublesome for the Rockets, since they could be without Patrick Beverley until … when, exactly?

Houston won’t know the extent of Beverley’s left wrist injury for another week. Initially diagnosed a sprain, it’ll be up to a specialist to get a more accurate reading on his time off and required treatment. Yahoo reported he could miss the rest of the season although the Rockets weren’t saying Wednesday, saying they needed additional information.

Beverley was the Rockets’ starting point guard although, in a sense, that’s a bit misleading. The ball mainly belongs to Harden in the Rockets’ offense and he dictates what happens next. Still, Beverley’s toughness on defense will be missed and the Rockets must now turn to a committee of replacements to do the job.

But Howard’s return is paramount. His swollen knee is no longer an issue and suddenly, the Rockets have size and a presence near the rim. The Rockets were out rebounded in 16 of those 26 games he missed. Depending on how well Howard adjusts — and he’ll be on a minutes ration initially — he could be the difference-maker for Houston in the playoffs. Especially against the Warriors, who don’t offer much inside.

Remember, in the playoffs last year, Howard was the best player on the floor for Houston. And yes, Harden played that first-round series against the Blazers, which the Rockets lost in heartbreaking fashion when Damian Lillard dropped a buzzer-beating catch-and-shoot 3-point dagger that remains an all-time playoff highlight. Howard averaged 26 points, 13.7 rebounds and almost three blocked shots in those six games.

“I’m just ready to play,” he said. “I haven’t played for a while … anytime you miss a lot of games, you’re anxious to get back on the floor.”

Houston is No. 3 in the West, just ahead of the Blazers, and went 17-9 without Howard. That’s likely where they’ll stay; they’re only 2 1/2 games behind the Grizzlies but there’s just 12 games left. They could be staring at an all-Texas first-round matchup, either against the Mavericks or Spurs.

 

Rockets’ Howard to return tonight


VIDEO: Dwight Howard is itching to get back on the court

From NBA.com staff reports

The Houston Rockets have managed to get along just fine without center Dwight Howard over the last two months. But they will gladly welcome him back into the starting lineup — and luckily for Houston, Howard will be back in action tonight.

“Sitting on the sidelines wishing you could play, it’s tough. It’s kind of new for me to be sitting on the sidelines in a suit instead of being on the floor. It was an adjustment, but it makes you miss the game a little bit more,” Howard said.

According to Rockets coach Kevin McHale, Howard will start as Houston travels to face the New Orleans Pelicans (8 ET, League Pass), but will be on a minutes restriction. Howard said he will play about 16 minutes a game and is looking to get into rhythm for the postseason, where Houston currently holds the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.

The All-Star center has missed the last 26 games to mend a nagging knee injury that took him out of the lineup on Jan. 23. During his absence, Houston went 17-9, a record due mostly to the MVP-level play of shooting guard James Harden.