Posts Tagged ‘Elton Brand’

Feeling Lucky? Try 7 GMs With Decisions

HANG TIME, Texas — The clock ticks down, the trade deadline draws near and all 30 NBA general managers are burning up their phones with possibilities realistic and absurd.

Some need to make deals to solidify playoff teams, others simply can’t bear the thought of sitting still. As Thursday gets closer, here are seven GMs with big decisions to make:

Danny Ferry, Atlanta Hawks

Is it finally time to give up on the hope that Josh Smith can be more than a numbers-gatherer in Atlanta? Ferry, the first-year Hawks’ GM, wasted no time in moving out Joe Johnson’s big contract. Part of the decision was that J-Smoove would blossom without Iso-Joe taking up a big part of the offense. Instead he’s averaging 1.4 fewer points and one rebound less than a year ago, his efficiency rating is down from 21.14 to 19.90 and he’s shooting only 50 percent from the free-throw line. The sense is that it’s “just time.” Still, that doesn’t mean Ferry has to move him. He’s positioned the Hawks so that they could afford to keep Smith and still sign a pricey free agent next summer. But that won’t stop the likes of the Bucks, Suns, Celtics, Wizards and Sixers from making a run. The Rockets have long had eyes for Smith, but might be more inclined to wait to make their moves in free agency.

Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics

Despite their 8-1 record since Rajon Rondo’s season ended due to torn knee ligaments, it’s too hard to see the Celtics making a serious and deep playoff run on the aging legs of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The obvious move would be with the 36-year-old Garnett and making that long-rumored deal to the Clippers (Eric Bledsoe). The challenge is getting K.G. to waive the no-trade clause in his contract. Can Ainge appeal to Garnett’s own best interest to get another ring or his loyalty to the Celtics organization to help them start over? Even if Rondo’s knee injury isn’t as severe as first thought and he’s able to get back on the floor for the start of training camp, the rebuilding in Boston has to start sometime. It might as well be now.

Billy King, Brooklyn Nets

If King could know for sure that Deron Williams will shake off the injuries and inefficiency and return to the All-Star form he showed in Utah, then he’d be more inclined to sit back and put his feet up. Or maybe not in the realm of Mikhail Prokhorov. The Russian billionaire owner is willing to shell out big bucks, but also expects immediate results and does not handle mediocrity well. See Avery Johnson, who was fired with a 14-14 record, a Coach of the Month title pinned to his resume. The Nets will likely try to get Paul Millsap from the Jazz and could be in the running for the popular Josh Smith. Last year’s All-Rookie team member MarShon Brooks is on the block. Would Charlotte’s offer of Ben Gordon for Kris Humphries be enough? The Nets have been so inconsistent that with the possibility of a first-round bounce due to a bad matchup looming, you have to believe King won’t sit still.

Donnie Nelson, Dallas Mavericks

“The Bank of Cuban is open.” That was team owner Mark Cuban’s declaration last month, but what must be determined is in which direction the Mavericks are headed right now. They enter the post-All-Star stretch six games under .500 and 4 1/2 games out of the last playoff spot in the West. If the Mavs decide they’re better off reloading with a fully-recovered Dirk Nowitzki next season, they certainly have a good trade chip in Vince Carter, who’d be a wonderful addition to any playoff contender. He could also bring in future assets for Shawn Marion, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand.

Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets

You put him in this slot just because Morey lives with an itchy trigger finger and might be inclined to make a deal just because he can. But with the James Harden steal under his belt and the free agency hits on Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, the Rockets will probably strike only if it’s a chance at a home run. With the youngest team in the league, a position in the West playoff race and a payroll that could make them big, big players in free agency, next summer is probably when they’ll make their move. But Houston is now big-game hunting for talent to play with Harden. If a chance to scoop up a true All-Star comes their way, Morey won’t hesitate.

Mitch Kupchak, L.A. Lakers

It’s almost obligatory to put the Lakers on any potential trade deadline list, despite Kupchak saying publicly that he’s not at all interested in dealing Dwight Howard or breaking up his All-Star group of underachievers at this point. He can’t trade Pau Gasol as long as the possibility exists that Howard walks as a free agent next summer — which it does. Besides, the Lakers problems are not about needing more players but getting the ones they have to play every night with passion.

Dennis Lindsey, Utah Jazz

Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson? Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap? With the contracts of both of the frontcourt veterans expiring, it was assumed since Day One of this season that the rookie GM Lindsey would have to deal one of them by the deadline, if for no other reason than to make room and more playing time for Derrick Favors. It would seem to make sense, but only if the Jazz can get a bonafide star in return. That’s what the 30-24 team lacks right now. But there is no reason to make a deal just to make a deal. The future is based on a young core of Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks. Millsap is the more likely one to go, but maybe only for another expiring contract in return. Salt Lake City is not a desired location for free agents. But as the effects of the new collective bargaining agreement are felt and big names teams try to avoid the increasingly punishing luxury tax, players will want to simply get paid. Don’t expect a panic move here.

Rose Might Benefit From D-League Rehab


D. Rose. In the D League. In Des Moines.

The marketing opportunities would be enormous. And it might just help Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls in their long, arduous process of getting the 2011 NBA MVP back onto the court for a real playoff push.

Rose has been painstakingly working his way back through the demanding stages of recovery and rehabilitation from ACL surgery on his left knee. Meanwhile the Bulls have been waiting patiently and playing without excuses – coach Tom Thibodeau would tolerate nothing less – for what most have pegged as a late February or early March return.

Rose finally returned to practice last week, the last stage before he’s on the floor in a Bulls uniform on game night. But it potentially is a lengthy stage for reasons beyond his control, as the team’s executive vice president John Paxson told listeners of a sports talk show on the Bulls’ flagship station.

“We don’t have the defined plan yet because Derrick is still progressing,” Paxson said Friday on “The Waddle & Silvy Show” on ESPN 1000. “The way he feels and what his body tells him is going to dictate how we do things. But I can tell you one thing – and this is for certain – he’s going to have to have a high volume of practices and contact, and where he’s comfortable on the floor doing things that he used to do naturally. And that takes some time and he’s just starting that process now.

“We can’t sit here today and say he’s going to be back in three weeks or after the All-Star break.

High volume of practices. Paxson knows as well as anyone that the notion is an oxymoron at this stage of an NBA season – particularly for his club in its current condition. Beginning Saturday at Atlanta, the tail end of a back-to-back, they have six games in 12 days before the All-Star break. Upon their return, they play six in the final 10 days of February.

And now the situation is complicated by injuries to others on the roster. Center Joakim Noah sat out Friday in Brooklyn and informed reporters afterward he is suffering from plantar fasciitis in his right foot; the same condition in his left foot cost Noah 18 games in 2009-10. The first-time All-Star might not play again until that showcase event in Houston.

Forward Carlos Boozer might miss his third straight game Saturday with a lingering hamstring strain. The manpower drain has shifted heavier workloads onto Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler, leaving the Bulls not only with a number problem but with tuckered-out players. That’s not conducive, either, to 5-on-5 scrimmaging in the practice gym.

So what’s a fella like Rose to do? How does he get the game conditions he needs? Where does he find teammates fresh enough for near-full-speed practices, the elixir most necessary to his ultimate comeback step?

Go west, young man. Only not too far west, just as far as Des Moines, where the Iowa Energy has a full schedule and players with a different sort of NBA ambition.

Injury rehab assignments are common in baseball, most often used for pitchers trying to work their way back in game conditions. But there’s no reason that NBA players – if their teams are fighting fatigue or ailments – couldn’t do the same thing.

The Bulls could send whatever medical personnel they chose (short of head trainer Fred Tedeschi) to supervise, and a strict minutes limit could be imposed against the Austin Toros or the Sioux Falls Skyforce the same as if it were Philadelphia or Indiana.  Easier, in fact, since Energy fans probably would be thrilled just to have Rose in the building. Folks at United Center will almost instantly begin to weave postseason dreams and bracket possibilities as soon as Rose takes the court, and pulling him out after a prescribed 16 or 22 minutes could mess with those. In Des Moines, every minute would be a hoot.

There’s nothing inherently more risky about playing in the D League – chances are, those opponents might yield a little bubble of safety and respect to Rose that he won’t get against NBA defenders. The idea been brought up on occasion in the past – Elton Brand offered to play for Anaheim in March 2008 while rehabbing from a torn Achilles.

Now the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players allows for such stints for veterans, with their consent. It was suggested in December, for example, that Washington’s John Wall might benefit from testing his knee injury in the D-League.

Look, if the D-League is all about prepping players for the NBA and strengthening rosters, that’s precisely what some brief rehab visits might produce.

Mavs Owner: ‘Bank Of Cuban Is Open’

DALLAS — Talk about your public offerings. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban didn’t need Facebook to inform the rest of the NBA that everybody not named Dirk Nowitzki on his makeshift roster is officially on the trading block.

“We’re letting everybody know that the Bank of Cuban is open,” the billionaire owner announced Monday night before his Mavericks beat the Minnesota Timberwolves for a third consecutive victory to climb to 16-23. “If it’s the right deal, we don’t mind taking back money. But we’re not going to do a trade just to do a trade. It’s got to be worthwhile.”

Cuban’s declaration came two nights after he said there is a “100 percent chance” that the Mavs will aggressively pursue trades — either as a main trade partner or as a facilitator in a multi-team scenario — as the weeks and days count down to the Feb. 21 trade deadline.

It’s perhaps the Mavs’ best chance to upgrade a unit that last week dropped to 10 games under .500 for the first time since Cuban bought the team in 2000. The Mavs, five games out of the eighth spot in the West, are in jeopardy of not making the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons.

So don’t discount Cuban’s comments as a crafty PR move. Cuban needs to keep a fan base that has provided a league-best 449 consecutive sellouts going back to 2001 engaged in a team that has had massive turnover the last two seasons and has underperformed since claiming the championship. Consider it also a warning shot to the current players. Since Cuban’s initial comments on Saturday, the Mavs have blown out the Grizzlies and Timberwolves.

Dallas is in position to take on salary because of Cuban’s controversial financial maneuverings following the 2011 championship when he dismantled the title team. Under the more rigid guidelines and more punitive tax of the new collective bargaining agreement that begins to truly bear its fangs next season, Cuban altered his spend-at-all-costs philosophy. Instead, he went for scaling back salary to create cap space, allowing for the pursuit of high-dollar free agents (a move that bombed this summer when Deron Williams re-signed with Brooklyn) as well as the flexibility to make a blockbuster trade (including, and perhaps most importantly, sign-and-trades in the summer that will be off limits to teams above the luxury-tax apron — the point is $4 million above the tax level, which is $70.3 million this season).

Cuban’s belief is that good players with big contracts will become available as teams seek ways to get under the luxury tax for this season and beyond. An example is Rudy Gay, who is reportedly being shopped by the Memphis Grizzlies. Front offices are also keenly aware of the repeater tax that will be levied on teams that chronically spend over the luxury-tax line.

Cuban said he’s been busy poring over rosters, watching players and making suggestions daily to president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson.

Dallas has few assets on the roster capable of netting a major acquisition in a two-team swap. The big question is if Cuban can swing a deal that not only improves his team this season, but also makes long-term cap sense. His club is loaded with players on expiring contracts such as O.J. Mayo, a 25-year-old shooting guard that Dallas wants to pan out for its long-range plans. Guards Darren Collison, Dahntay Jones and Roddy Beaubois, center Chris Kaman and forwards Elton Brand and Brandan Wright are also on one-year contracts.

Veterans Vince Carter (owed $6.3 million through 2013-14) and Shawn Marion (owed $17.5 million through 2013-14) could be of interest to a contender.

Going nowhere, the owner has made clear, is Nowitzki. And that’s not because the sweet-shooting 7-footer is believed to be the only player in the league other than Kobe Bryant with a no-trade clause in his contract.

Cuban said flatly that he won’t trade the 15-year face of the franchise.

Nowitzki, whose four-year, $80 million contract expires after the 2013-14 season when he will turn 36, has been consistent in saying he wants to remain with Dallas until he decides to retire. He did recently express skepticism toward Cuban’s plan and went so far as to wonder if it would be in Dallas’ best interest to trade him if it fails to land a star player to build around before next season.

Stay tuned. Plenty of intrigue to come as the Bank of Cuban is officially open for business.

With Fisher Out, Heat Rises On Collison

DALLAS — With Derek Fisher out at least the next three games with a right knee strain, the stage is again yours, Mr. Collison.

That’s Darren Collison, the point guard the Dallas Mavericks traded for in the offseason to take over as their starter and then benched after just 14 games.

Fisher, signed a month into the season, suffered a right patellar tendon strain in the Mavs’ Tuesday night win over Philadelphia, a game he almost sat out because of the flu. But he didn’t and five minutes in Fisher was on the floor grasping his right knee. The Mavs announced Thursday that he will miss tonight’s game against the Miami Heat and at least through the following two-game road trip at Memphis on Friday and San Antonio on Sunday.

It clears the way for Collison to get back in the starting saddle (although coach Rick Carlisle would not confirm his starter at shootaround with Dominique Jones being an option), and that means in a national television showcase against the defending champs (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT). Carlisle benched Collison after an often reckless, turnover-tinged start and with the Mavs sitting at 7-7 during their favorable portion of the schedule. That’s when the veteran Fisher came abroad to deliver a rudder to Dallas’ listing, Dirk Nowitzki-less ship.

Now they’re 12-13 and embarking on a most daunting six-game stretch that also includes a road game at Oklahoma City after Christmas, followed by home dates with Denver and the Spurs again.

How well the Mavs close out 2012 could well depend on how reliable Collison, who has averaged 5.3 assists and 2.6 turnovers, can be as the starting point guard as the competition level significantly rises.

“Right now we’re trying to figure out how not to turn the ball over 17 times a game,” Carlisle said Wednesday. “And then, yeah, these are all good teams coming up. Nothing’s ever easy, particularly this year. It’s been tough. We’re going to prepare hard and team’s got to deal with us, too.”

Nope, nothing easy, particularly in the turnover department. Dallas coughed it up on an average of 21.4 times in three consecutive road losses, with a high of 28 in the double-overtime loss at Boston. Against Philly, they did a better job, limiting the turnovers to just 11 that the 76ers turned into six points. Collison had just one turnover in more than 30 minutes.

The short-handed Mavs, obviously still without Nowitzki, who practiced for the first time on Wednesday, have other injury issues as well heading into tonight’s game against Miami, which is just 4-4 on the road. Forward Elton Brand (groin) is listed as day-to-day as is reserve center Brandan Wright, who turned his ankle late in the Philly game.

Collison, who wasn’t happy with the demotion at the time, has come off the bench the last 10 games and will need to play big during this stretch. As a reserve, his playing time dropped by only three minutes a game and his stats have remained relatively the same with the exception of his assists dropping from 6.3 a game to 3.8. His scoring dipped from 12.9 to 11.1, but his overall shooting percentage rose to 46.7 percent from 43.3 percent (although his 3-point percentage has plummeted to 21.1 percent).

His turnovers have tapered off some with two or fewer in five of the 10 games, although he’s had three games with four or more, including seven in the Boston loss.

Come tonight’s tip, Collison will be eager to show the basketball world that he is what Dallas brought him in to be — a starter.

Is Marion NBA’s Most Overlooked Stat-Stuffer?

DALLAS — It took 12 seasons and one remarkable championship run butting heads with three of the game’s greatest scorers in succession — Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James — for Shawn Marion to get his just due as a lean, mean, defensive machine.

Yet into his 14th season, and as he aligns with a super-elite group of men — all of either considerably more height or girth than he — with at least 16,000 points (which Marion surpassed Monday), 9,000 rebounds (which he surpassed last week) and 1,500 steals, is the 6-foot-7, 228-pound Martix still one of the great overlooked all-around players of his time?

The group he joined? Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Kevin Garnett. The first three are Hall of Famers and the fourth will be.

“I’ve got over a thousand blocks, too,” Marion chirped.

Indeed you do. Marion is one of five players with at least 1,500 steals and 1,000 blocks along with The Dream, The Mailman, The Doctor (Julius Erving) and Garnett, who, in his 18th season, is obviously the only other active player with Marion to have earned a spot among those legends.

“It’s hard to do; it ain’t easy,” Marion said. “You got to pride yourself on certain things and be that complete player to make it happen.”

As the Miami Heat visit Marion’s Mavericks tonight in Dallas (9:30 p.m. ET on TNT), the Matrix’s defensive assignment will be front and center as it typically is, the spotlight matchup against LeBron, the player Marion helped suffocate in the 2911 Finals.

And while that feat might have come as news to some, Marion’s done it his entire career. Overshadowed in Phoenix by the Suns’ high-powered offense, he continues to get it done it in Dallas. According to the Mavs’ stats maven known on Twitter as @mavstats, Marion over the last four seasons has held opposing starting small forwards to a 40.5 field-goal percentage, the lowest of any forward in the NBA (Boston’s Paul Pierce is second at 41.4 percent).

“You know what?” Marion said. “I work hard every summer, playing this game and learning this game. My whole career I’ve tried to make myself the best basketball player I can be and make my teammates better as well, and I have. I reached the ultimate goal in winning a championship, I’ve done it. Personal accolades, they come along as you walk on the journey you travel and obstacles you incur during your NBA career. This is my 14th season; I’m fortunate enough to be playing 14 years and I’ve just never taken anything for granted. It’s hard work to do this, to sustain this energy and this effort and this level for this long to do the things I’ve done.”

More often when Marion’s asked about the numbers he’s amassing, accomplished by so few yet seem to fly under the radar, he tends to get defensive for a moment, then shrugs, smiles and says, “You know what? It is what it is.”

But on this day, with his latest milestones still fresh, the four-time All-Star who last was one in 2007, seemed more determined to reflect on the rare versatility required to accrue numbers of such magnitude as his career totals for points and rebounds and steals and blocks and assists, too — another 90 dimes and he’ll have 2,000 — were rattled off.

This time he didn’t shrug and blow it off. Instead he bowed up with a vertebrae-stiffening, darn-right kind of pride.

“It’s hard, and especially at 6-7,” Marion said. “I commend myself, and I push myself. I challenge myself to do things that other guys don’t want to challenge themselves to do and I’m truly blessed to do it and be able to do it over a long period of time. I think some of that stuff is on you and some of that stuff is how; it’s determination. I’m a competitor. When you’re truly a real competitor, you’re going to go out and compete on both ends of the floor and do whatever you got to do to win.”

Marion, 34, has missed seven games this season with a knee sprain and a groin strain, and he’s played through pain to try to keep Dallas’ head above water until Dirk Nowitzki finally returns. He’s producing at a near-double-double level at 10.6 points and 7.9 rebounds a game. In his last four games, he’s averaging 14.0 points and 10.8 rebounds with 14 assists, five steals and four blocks.

As he was last season, Marion is again Dallas’ leading rebounder despite playing with 7-foot center Chris Kaman, 6-foot-9 forward Elton Brand and 6-foot-10 reserve center Brandan Wright.

“He just keeps going, man, he’s going strong and he’s been one of our horses this year,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “And he’s played through injury and without him, we would be, I don’t know where we would be.”

Dirk Practices, But Return Still Likely More Than A Week Away

DALLAS — Dirk Nowitzki returned to the practice court Wednesday for the first time since undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee two months ago, but he still couldn’t pinpoint a return to game action beyond some time after Christmas.

“This is the first day stopping, pushing off, moving. We’ll see how it reacts,” the Dallas Mavericks’ all-time leading scorer said. “I’m going to do that a couple times, and do some contact for a while. Maybe any time after Christmas, that’ll be fun.”

He did lament that Dallas won’t have many practice days the rest of the month with three games in four nights before Christmas and then three games in four nights after the holiday.

Nowitzki said he was pleased with how he felt shortly after Wednesday’s short team practice that included only light contact work in preparation for Thursday’s home game against the Miami Heat, the start of a grueling six-game stretch to end 2012. He followed up the team workout with a 2-on-2 session with low-minute teammates Roddy BeauboisBernard James and Jae Crowder.

“I thought I played decent. Obviously, my legs are pretty shot,” Nowitzki said. “The first time running and shooting and jumping, so it’s going to take awhile for me to get back in halfway game shape. You can run in the pool and do some elliptical all you want, but it’s not like a 7-foot guy, 250 [pounds], leaning on you, pushing around and you still got to make a move and jump and then concentrate to make a shot. So I think it’s going to take a while to get in halfway decent shape. But for the first day, I think it felt pretty good.”

At 12-13, the Mavs now face the most rigorous stretch of their season, and they will be down more than just Dirk. Starting point guard Derek Fisher (right knee strain) won’t play against Miami, and forward Elton Brand (groin) and center Brandan Wright (right ankle sprain) will be game-time decisions.

After the Heat, Dallas plays Friday night at Memphis and finishes the pre-Christmas schedule at San Antonio on Sunday. After Christmas, Dallas plays at Oklahoma City on Dec. 27, then at home the next night against Denver, followed by the Spurs again at home on Dec. 30.

The road back to recovery has been a much longer one than Nowitzki anticipated, and he’s made that clear for weeks now. On Wednesday, he said that chronic swelling during the first couple weeks after surgery set him back “two or three weeks.”

The initial prognosis from the team’s medical staff was that Nowitzki would return to basketball activities after six weeks. About a month after surgery, Nowitzki hoped to make his season debut by mid-December. He’s already missed 25 games, 16 more than his previous high in any season when he sat out nine games with a sprained right knee in the 2010-11 season.

Nowitzki said at this point he sees no point in returning until he’s 100 percent and joked that in his case “rushing back” is no longer even a legitimate term.

“It’s almost, what, nine weeks? I mean we’re not rushing it anymore, it’s as slow as you can get unfortunately,” Nowitzki said. “The swelling at the beginning was just so bad, and we don’t really know why. Maybe I was trying too early to do something, nobody really knows. People react to surgery I guess different and mine was just really swollen and that really set me back two or three weeks.”

Rubio’s Back And So’s His Magic

– At first, it looked like a double-wicket shot. It truly appeared – in real time – as if Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio had delivered a perfectly executed, improbably conceived bounce pass through his own legs AND through Dallas defender Elton Brand‘s legs too.

Only in replay, slowed down, was it clear that Rubio’s pass had gone just past Brand’s left leg rather than behind it, not that the Mavericks forward noticed. The basketball reached its destination right about the time the Target Center crowd realized what it was seeing, and Greg Stiemsma finished off with a simple layup for a very unsimple highlight.

“Playing with Rajon [Rondo] last year, I’ll say it was kind of similar, where you almost have to expect the ball every time you roll, every time you dive,” Stiemsma said of playing his first game with Rubio, the Wolves’ clever and, finally, available point guard.

“We’ve been running through some drills with him the last couple weeks, some pick-and-roll stuff. Even there, Ricky’s going between his legs, behind his back, all that in the drills.”

That one was Rubio’s piece de resistance (that’s Spanish, right?) in his first game in nine months. But there were others: Rubio shoveling a pass to J.J. Barea as they crisscrossed for a reverse layup. Rubio sticking a long arm into O.J. Mayo‘s passing lane, switching defense into offense in an instant as his dark eyes immediately searched for an open man. Rubio working the baseline like Gretzky behind the net, finding Luke Ridnour 18 feet out for a jumper.

With Rubio running the point, there’s always the risk for his four teammates of snuffing another of the kid’s wonderous assists and snuffing a video treasure. Worse, there’s the risk of getting hit in the head or the face by the ball if one is caught unaware. And so it was a risky night in downtown Minneapolis Saturday, where Rubio continued his comeback from knee surgery.

It is continuing, for al the excitement and the instant results. Rubio was on a minutes leash of (cough) 16-18 minutes Saturday and will build up his participation time gradually, coach Rick Adelman said. He probably won’t play in both ends of the Wolves’ back-to-back trip to Orlando Monday and Miami Tuesday. And after all the inactivity and rehab from surgery to repair the ACL and MCL ligaments torn in his left knee in March, Rubio’s performance curve figures to have a few ripples, maybe even reversals, in it.

Still, he electrified the crowd of 18,173 (the Wolves sold an extra 1,750 tickets in the hours before tipoff) and seemed to make them forget that All-Star Kevin Love was a late scratch due to the flu (Love hoped to play through his bruised right thumb, before the Wolves sent him home as a sickie). Rubio certainly animated Adelman, who lavished praise on his team afterward and even saved a little for himself.

“When he has the ball in his hands,” Adelman said, “I’m a lot better coach.”

If Houdini had come back from surgery, he would have started with a few card tricks. But Rubio came back sawing the lady in half, only from behind his back.

His first shift began with 1:47 left in the first quarter and ended at 6:16 of the second. In that 7:31 stint, he had four points, four assists and a steal. The Target Center had its second lineup thrill of the season – Love surprised them all with his sudden comeback from a broken hand the night before Thanksgiving. Folks boomed “Rubio! Rubio!” for him just for trotting to the scorer’s table.

“I can’t say with words how it felt,” the 22-year-old said.

Derrick Williams could. The disappointing No. 2 pick in 2011 scored 12 points with five rebounds in the first half, Rubio’s return applying paddles to his game. “That’s the best I’ve felt since I’ve been here, honestly,” Williams said.

Rubio’s second shift started at 4:37 of the third quarter and ended 7:15 minutes later. That pushed him to 14:46 for the game, Adelman holding back a few of Rubio’s rationed minutes just in case. And sure enough, when the Wolves’ 15-point lead dwindled to one with 3:16 left, Rubio came back in.

Key moment this time? A pile-up near the sideline with Dallas’ husky Derek Fisher. Fisher already was coming on like a Grinch trying to swipe Christmas, scoring nine points in the fourth. Now he was tangled up on the floor with the Spanish unicorn. But two men went down and two got up, both fine, Fisher tapping Rubio on the chest.

“Once guys come out there, everything’s free to go,” Fisher said. “But you’re obviously never trying to hurt a guy. I just asked him if he was OK real quick.”

Rubio’s third shift ended with regulation, his shot from out top bouncing off, same as a couple of Minnesota tips. Adelman showed great restraint in sitting him through the overtime. There was the minutes limit and, besides, Rubio was tired.

“That kills me inside,” Rubio said, smiling as always, “but we did a great job.”

Officially, Rubio was a mere +1 in plus/minus. But his impact had been more contagious to the other Wolves than Love’s flu. Andrei Kirilenko dominated the 12-4 overtime with five points, three boards and an assist.

“We’re going to do big things with this team this year, just showing how we played in overtime, getting that 10-0 run,” Rubio said. “It was amazing … They gave me a great gift, that W in overtime.”

Only fair for a guy who dishes so many gifts himself. As Dallas’ Dahntay Jones said of Rubio’s impact: “You have people flying down the court, because they know he’s looking for them. He’s special.”

Kirilenko ticked off the names of the great playmaking point guards with whom he has played: John Stockton, Mark Jackson, Deron Williams. “Ricky is one of those guys because when he sees opportunity, he goes there. I learned from the best how to get open – and how not to get hit on the back,” Kirilenko said.

“It’s always a privilege to play with those kind of guys. Especially if you can play without the ball – you know if you get open, you’re going to get the ball.”

Rubio changes the whole dynamic of playing without the ball – no one is without the ball for long when he’s on the floor. Rubio’s back, and defenders’ heads are swiveling again.

Smart Trying To Refine Cousins’ Game

DALLAS — Call DeMarcus Cousins what you will — lazy, uninspired, hot-headed — and maybe Spurs analyst Sean Elliott did. But Sacramento Kings coach Keith Smart has no choice but to view Cousins as an undeniably skilled, high-reward project.

It’s why Smart recently introduced the fifth overall pick in 2010 to the jump hook. Cousins has got to find something to perk up his 42.4 shooting percentage that droops to an abysmal 28 percent in the key — the painted part outside the “restricted area,” which is the area within the arched line located below the rim.

The hook didn’t go down for Cousins Saturday night in a win over Portland when he went 6-for-17 from the floor, but still finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds. Afterward Cousins was discouraged with the hook.

“That’s new territory for him because after that he said, ‘I’m probably not going to work on that shot any more,’ ” Smart said. “I said, ‘You’re right at the middle of the rim. You can’t get anything better than that.’ It looked like a real NBA shot of a big man trying to put the ball in with a jump hook. And now we’ve just got to refine that.”

Cousins followed up Monday with one of his best shooting nights of the season, going 10-for-17, although there was no sign of the jump hook. He scored 25 points, but it was inconsequential after the Kings fell behind the Dallas Mavericks by 28 points in the second quarter and lost 119-96 to end a three-game win streak.

It would seem difficult for a 6-foot-11, 270-pound man not to shoot a high percentage from so close to the basket, especially inside the “restricted area.” Yet entering Monday’s game, Cousins only made 71 of the 124 shots (57 percent) there, in part because he loves to take his man off the dribble from the elbow like a dynamic wing player might. But his big body gets caught in the air and he’s left to toss up an off-balance scoop shot or finger roll.

A couple of those attempts Monday against Mavs center Chris Kaman flew over the rim and hit the other side of the backboard. Another time, though, he spun beautifully around Elton Brand to the baseline and got fouled.

“The player at the moment doesn’t see himself as a big man,” Smart said of Cousins. “This guy can handle the ball just as well as some guards in our league. I don’t like him to do it a lot, but he can do those things and he doesn’t see himself in that frame of mind [as a big man].”

Push him out of the “restricted area,” but still in the key, where a jump hook might come in handy, and that’s where Cousins is shooting an almost impossible 28 percent (14-for-50). Take him out of the paint and out to the 3-point arc where he fancies himself a jump shooter and is especially fond of his fadeaway, and he’s shooting 31 percent (26-for-85).

Still, he’s the Kings’ leading scorer at now 17.2 points a game. And averaging 9.9 rebounds, he’s a would-be walking 20-10 player if only the Kings could post him up more. Smart is trying to get Cousins to commit to a go-to move that “you can count on every single night.”

It’s a daily struggle. But one Cousins must commit to. He said he had a back-to-the-basket game, but that he’s drifted farther and farther out during his time in the league.

“It’s just getting back to it,” Cousins said. “I’m basically kind of re-learning it again.”

His poor shooting percentages are not new and he’s made little progress from his first two seasons when his percentages in the paint were 29 percent and 30 percent, respectively. His best overall shooting percentage was last season’s 44.8.

“We’ve got to spoon feed a few of them [post-ups] down there for him to keep growing,” Smart said, “so we can keep that film in front of him to show him that along the line we can continue to develop other parts of his game as well.”

Smart said Cousins wants to be great, but that he wants it all to happen overnight, just like his frustrations when the jump hook didn’t immediately drop. Smart said, contrary to the beliefs of some, that Cousins is also willing to be coached.

“He’s coachable. You know, you might have to spend a little bit more time coaching him, but it’s good because he’ll take criticism,” Smart said. “He and I have a good relationship because I can come at him pretty hard and then he’ll respond and not talk for a day, and then we’ll come back around again. I think he respects me and he understands that I’m trying to get him to become one of those guys that he wants to become.”

Collison, Brand Benched In Mavs’ Loss

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle looked to send a clear message and jump-start two starters Tuesday night by benching Darren Collison and Elton Brand in a game with personal meaning for both.

For Collison, it was his first chance with his new team to go head-to-head against former UCLA teammate and emerging Philadelphia 76ers star Jrue Holiday. The two were drafted four picks apart in 2009, Holiday taken 17th, and Collison 21st.

The veteran Brand played the last four seasons in Philly before the club amnestied him in the summer to wipe his $18.2 million salary this season off their books.

Early on, neither player has met expectations in Dallas. Collison has struggled with turnovers and porous defense, and Brand has struggled to do much of anything. After Saturday’s appallingly sluggish 115-89 home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Carlisle sought a solution with a lineup shakeup, and Collison and Brand paid the price.

Both players responded Tuesday with mostly solid efforts, although Dallas still lost 100-98, its seventh defeat in the last 10 games to fall below .500 (7-8) for the first time this season.

As the Mavs head to Chicago to face the Bulls on Wednesday night, the benchings would appear to be one-game statements, at least in the case of Collison, a young player Dallas would love to develop into its long-term point guard.

“He’s our starting point guard, but tonight he came off the bench,” Carlisle said during his post-game interview. “Jason Terry was our starting 2-guard, but he came off the bench for four years. So it’s not that big a deal. The big deal is that we’ve got to quit doing the things that are making us shoot ourselves in the foot. That’s where it’s at.”

Collison finished with 12 points, six assists and five steals in nearly 30 minutes. But he was still dogged by four turnovers, including consecutive blunders in the fourth quarter, the type of mishaps that shoot teams in the foot and drive coaches crazy. Philly went on a 12-0 run to take a 91-81 lead.

Carlisle immediately yanked Collison after the second turnover, then subbed him back in 88 seconds later.

Collison did provide an immediate jolt off the bench after the starters got down 21-13 after just six minutes. He quickly converted two backcourt steals into layups and put up eight points, five assists and four steals in his first nine minutes.

“I love the way he played, and he impacted the game immediately with quickness and energy,” Carlisle said. “So I thought he was terrific.”

However, with shooting guard O.J. Mayo struggling from the floor and scoring just 11 points, the Mavs’ backcourt was again badly beaten on the defensive end with Holiday and Evan Turner combining for 40 points on 15-for-25 shooting, and 11 assists.

Brand came through with a season-high 17 points, eight rebounds, a block, a steal and no turnovers despite logging only 19 minutes, three below his already depressed season average. Rookie forward Jae Crowder got the starting nod at small forward with Shawn Marion moving to power forward.

Dominique Jones, mostly a bench-warmer in Dallas during his first two seasons, made the second start of his career in place of Collison. Jones has become Collison’s primary backup mostly by default because Rodrigue Beaubois has failed to step up.

The Mavs reportedly tried to trade Jones before the start of the season, but found no takers. The unpolished combo guard is a non-threat to unseat Collison and proved it Tuesday by missing all five of his shot attempts and committing four turnovers in less than 18 minutes.

Mavs Begin Grueling Stretch As Nowitzki Helplessly Watches

DALLAS — As a giddy new father, Elton Brand returns to Philadelphia Tuesday night excited to be able to hold his baby daughter. As a struggling newcomer to the Dallas Mavericks, he’s coming back to Philly looking to gain a firm hold on this awkward start to the season.

The 76ers amnestied Brand and his final-year, $18.2 million salary. The Mavs eagerly scooped him up for just $2.1 million of his total cost. So far, he’s been barely worth that much.

Brand, 33, is averaging dramatic career lows: 5.5 points on 34.2 percent shooting, 5.8 rebounds and 22.0 minutes a game. His sagging defensive rating (106.3, according to is nearly four points worse than a slumping offensive rating ravaged by a mid-range jumper that has all but abandoned him.

Brand’s dropoff says a lot about where the erratic, made-over Mavs stand today. At 7-7 and with the so-called “easy” portion of their schedule out the door with Saturday’s 115-89 home pummeling by the Lakers, the question is which direction the team will go amid a grueling road slate and 34-year-old Dirk Nowitzki out until at least mid-December.

Since its attention-grabbing 4-1 start, Dallas is 3-6 and the franchise, in a very real sense for the first time in Mark Cuban‘s 13th full season of ownership, stands at a crossroads.

The unexpected 2011 championship planted a flag on the mountaintop of distinguished consistency that included 11 consecutive seasons of at least 50 wins. Only Bill Russell‘s Boston Celtics, Magic Johnson‘s Lakers and currently Tim Duncan‘s Spurs can claim such a streak.

That run came to an end with last season’s lockout-shortened, quasi-title defense. A roster Cuban purposely left devoid of Tyson Chandler and other key title contributors went 36-30, falling well short of the 61-percent equivalent of 50 wins.

After the summer’s free-agent chase of maxed-out Deron Williams failed, and now saddled with a leaky defense that can’t stop dribble penetration and ranks 28th in scoring and with Nowitzki out three more weeks, is it possible Dallas’ streak of 12 consecutive playoff appearances is in jeopardy?

For Nowitzki, helplessly watching the ups and downs — including a franchise-first loss to Charlotte and home losses to Golden State and injury-ravaged Minnesota — has been distressing.

“They’ve had some great outings, we’ve had some subpar outings,” Nowitzki said last week when he disappointingly laid out his recovery timeline. “I think a little bit of the consistency is missing and it’s tough. We’ve always said that if a good player or a great player goes out, you can always hold the fort down for a couple of games. But for a long period of time, that’s usually when you start showing that the player is out. That’s exactly what’s happened here. I think the boys played well at the beginning. We had lots of energy, we picked up full court, we made shots. Then after the first thing wore off a little bit, we had some tough outings. But the guys keep fighting and Rick [Carlisle] is going to do everything he can – throw different lineups out there, throw fresh guys out there, try everything he can to hopefully win some games.”

That’s what Carlisle has done, too, basically opening up every position (with the exceptions being starters Shawn Marion at small forward and O.J. Mayo at shooting guard) for competition.

Of course, until Nowitzki returns, gains confidence in his knee and familiarizes himself with nine new teammates (he played one preseason game), it’s too early to predict the season’s fate. At this point, he can’t yet predict how quickly he will return to his 11-time All-Star form following the first surgery of a career impatiently waiting to start a 15th season.

“We’re going to see once we get to that bridge. I have no idea now what it’s going to be like,” Nowitzki said. “I don’t even know what it’s going to be like tomorrow, so it’s tough to say what’s going to be in two or three weeks, especially once I start running and jumping and shooting in practice again, so all that, it’s far away from now.”

That has to be nerve-wracking for the Mavs, who play 16 of their next 23 games on the road, including at: Chicago, Los Angeles Clippers (twice), Boston, Minnesota, Memphis, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Miami. Denver, San Antonio and Miami are among the visitors for just seven home games through Jan. 10.

Yes, 68 games remain starting tonight in Philly. Yet, with Dirk out and the schedule turning nasty, the Mavs must place a premium on every opportunity to win.