Posts Tagged ‘Eric Bledsoe’

Morning Shootaround — April 15


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bright future in Phoenix | Kupchak still non-committal on D’Antoni’s future | Report: Knicks to add Odom? | Lillard inks big shoe deal with adidas | Raptors celebrate milestone victory

No. 1: Suns inspired about future despite tough loss — In the history of the Phoenix Suns franchise, the team has recorded 47 or more wins 23 different times. But perhaps this time of hitting that number of wins has been more rewarding than any others in the past. While Phoenix’s playoff dream died last night with a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, there’s no denying the Suns proved many experts (including those on this very web site) wrong all season long. Although the Suns will miss the playoffs for a record fourth straight season, there’s plenty of reason to look ahead in Arizona, writes Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic:

The franchise’s hard luck now lays claim to four of NBA history’s six winningest teams to not make the playoffs. A three-game losing streak in the final week leaves the Suns (47-34) out of the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season, the franchise’s longest postseason drought since 1971-75.

“If we had three All-Stars and don’t make the playoffs, then you go, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ but we had guys who proved they can play in this league and play at a high level,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “I thought we did the best we could.”

Memphis is the type of team that has given the Suns problems all season because it keeps them from their fastbreaking strengths with a physical, grinding method. The Suns went 3-13 this season against the NBA’s six slowest-paced teams, with Memphis being the slowest with a great half-court defense.

“It makes it tough on the executing part,” Hornacek said. “As a team, we’re not quite at that point where we can play in the half-court and execute plays over and over. Our strength is getting out in the open court.”

“It’s always tough when you finish the season and then you look back and you’re saying, ‘OK, the game against the Lakers (a 115-99 loss on at March 30), we should’ve won that, a game against Sacramento (lost twice in Sacramento),” Dragic said. “You have to take care of business home and away against those teams that are not so successful. It’s really tough when you have to play the last three games against San Antonio, Dallas and Memphis and we came out short.”

And as Coro points out in a separate story, Suns guard Eric Bledsoe has made a solid case for a long-term future in Phoenix, too:

The way Bledsoe has risen to the occasion over the past two weeks has shown the Suns and their fans — and, perhaps most importantly, Bledsoe — just how special he can be. Bledsoe is figuring out his stardom on the same timeline as the Suns and their fans.

He is only 24 years old, is in his first season as a starter, has lost 39 games to injury and is coming off knee surgery. He just posted his best three career scoring games in a span of nine nights when the pressure was on the most. Bledsoe came within an assist of his first triple-double, and within a free throw of three 30-point games.

And this is just the learning stage for him.

“His strength, his scoring, his defense, his facilitating stuff,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “I haven’t seen a point guard that strong at his size in a long time that can do all the things he can do. He’s a load to deal with.”

Bledsoe’s court vision was the first thing that surprised the Suns in the fall, and it only will improve, assuming his court acumen does. His perimeter shot already is turning around.

Coupled with his powerful driving ability, it has changed his career 43.1 shooting percentage into a 48.0 clip this season.

“When he needed to step up his game, he did,” Suns guard Goran Dragic said.

“The biggest thing we’re reminding him is to keep attacking,” said Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, who has teased Bledsoe about his conditioning, pointing out how often he walks the ball up. “If he can attack like a Monta Ellis does, he’s hard to stop. He gets through there, and he’s strong. I think he realizes he can become one of the best players in the league with hard work.

“He’s got that fire and drive.”

The Suns already knew they would match any July offer sheet that Bledsoe might sign in restricted free agency or even beat any team to it with the advantage of offering him an extra year with larger raises.

That might have been a mixed sell for an unproven player had he ended this season with no comeback or a shaky return from knee rehabilitation. To see the Bledsoe that has finished the season, it shows how advantageous it is to be a proactive front office that acquires a budding star in a trade rather than leaning on free agency.

“Hopefully, he’s capable of staying here another few years,” Suns power forward Channing Frye said. “That’d be nice. He’s just developing as a point guard. He was concerned about his turnovers, and I told him, ‘Dude, you’re passing. You’re ahead of the game.’ I’ve played with some of the best, and between him and Goran, I’m pretty excited about the future of the Phoenix Suns.”


VIDEO: Suns players react to Monday’s loss to the Grizzlies

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No. 2: Kupchak quiet about D’Antoni’s future — Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has one game left this season — a road game in San Antonio on Wednesday, the season’s final night. Could that also be the end of D’Antoni’s days as L.A.’s leader? The word out of the Lakers’ camp remains vague at best (last thing we heard from GM Mitch Kupchak was that Kobe Bryant wouldn’t have a say in D’Antoni’s coaching future). After last night’s victory in Salt Lake City over the Utah Jazz, Kupchak remains non-committal about D’Antoni, writes Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

Mitch Kupchak paused for several seconds. It wasn’t an easy question to answer.

What will be Mike D’Antoni’s fate?

Finally, the Lakers’ general manager spoke briefly about the Lakers’ coach.

“I’m not going to discuss Mike other than to say there is no timetable for any type of decision. So there’s really nothing to share,” Kupchak told The Times.

It represented a departure from his comments last month that D’Antoni was “doing a great job under the circumstances.”

That might still be true. The Lakers have lost a staggering 308 man-games to injury this season, making it hard to judge any coach.

But Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol aren’t fans of D’Antoni’s offense and most Lakers followers don’t support D’Antoni, even though he hasn’t had a healthy roster in his two seasons.

So there’s a lot to mull for the Lakers.

In D’Antoni’s favor, the Lakers owe him $4 million next season and are tired of paying people not to coach them. In the last 10 seasons, only Phil Jackson was not still owed money when he left the team.

Rudy Tomjanovich was paid $9 million when he abruptly resigned as the Lakers’ coach midway through the 2004-05 season. He was in the first season of a five-year, $30-million deal and later served as a consultant for the team.

The Lakers initially owed Mike Brown $7 million when they fired him five games into last season. They recouped about $2.5 million of that money, as per NBA rules, when Brown was hired to coach Cleveland this season.

The Lakers don’t want the reputation of a coaching turnstile.

D’Antoni declined to speculate on his job status Monday. Asked about his future, he said he was prepared for exit meetings with players Thursday and Friday. And he was eager for Easter.

He gave a typically self-deprecating answer when asked how he kept his sanity this season.

“What sanity?” he said.

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No. 3: Report: Knicks, Odom nearing deal — The Knicks are out of the playoffs and have just two games left in their woebegone season. But it seems that new GM Phil Jackson isn’t about to wait until the offseason to start stirring up New York’s roster. According to Marc Stein of ESPN.com, Jackson is close to having a reunion with his former Sixth Man of the Year winner with the Los Angeles Lakers, Lamar Odom:

Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks are progressing toward a deal to sign veteran free agent Lamar Odom before the NBA regular season ends Wednesday, according to sources briefed on the situation.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Knicks are on course, barring an unforeseen snag, to formally sign Odom this week in a move that would put him on their roster immediately and, more importantly, include a team option for next season.

Structuring the deal this way, after a tumultuous 12 months for one of Jackson’s favorite players when they worked together with the Los Angeles Lakers, would give the Knicks two months before free agency begins July 1 to get the 34-year-old into their program and start working with him.

The Knicks, sources say, would want to use the extra time to see if they can get Odom to the point, physically and mentally, where the talented but enigmatic lefty is worthy of a roster spot next season.

Still recovering from a back injury that curtailed his recent stint in the Spanish League after just two games, Odom is not believed to be healthy enough to play in the Knicks’ season finale Wednesday night in Toronto even if he signs Wednesday.

Sources say this is viewed as a long-range play for the Knicks, who are banking on the notion that Jackson — in his new role as New York’s team president — can provide the guidance to get Odom’s career back on track.

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No. 4: Lillard inks huge deal with adidasIf you had any doubts that small-market superstars can’t get the kind of shoe-endorsement deals stars in cities like New York, Chicago and L.A. get, think again. Much like Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder and his lucrative deal with Nike, Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has signed the third-richest shoe deal in the league. CSNNW.com’s Chris Haynes has more on Lillard’s new agreement with adidas:

Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard and adidas have finalized a deal that makes it the third richest shoe endorsement deal in history, a source informed CSNNW.com.

The deal, according to another source, is an eight-year contract that has the potential to stretch out to 10 years if he reaches certain incentive clauses. We’ve confirmed Lillard’s new contract is slightly less than that of Derrick Rose.

“adidas has been great to me over my first two seasons,” Lillard said in the adidas release. “I’ve had the opportunity to wear a lot of great product, help design special versions of shoes, be a part of TV commercials and travel the world with the brand. I’m excited for what the future holds for me and adidas.”

CSNNW.com reported a few weeks ago that the deal was on the cusp of being finalized. The deal was actually signed in Los Angeles on April. 1 prior to the Trail Blazers defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 124-112 that evening.

Due to Lillard reaching certain performance incentive clauses in his adidas rookie shoe deal, he was able to opt out at the end of the season to pursue a long-term, prosperous contract with adidas, Nike or other major competitors. Instead of waiting, Lillard’s representatives gave adidas an exclusive 30-day window to renegotiate before checking out other offers. That 30 days was up on April. 1.

USA Today reported the deal is finalized.

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No. 5: DeRozan rests as Raptors set wins markThe Toronto Raptors, by any measure, have had a great season. If you measure what they’ve done on just wins and losses, though, they’ve had a season for the team record books. Last night’s drubbing of the Milwaukee Bucks lifted Toronto to its 48th win, the most in franchise history, and it was done while All-Star and go-to guy DeMar DeRozan took a well-deserved break before the playoffs get rolling. Doug Smith of the Toronto Star has more on the win:

Even with DeMar DeRozan reduced to a mere spectator enjoying a night of rest, the Raptors claimed their franchise-record-setting 48th win of the year, dumping the Milwaukee Bucks 110-100 at the Air Canada Centre in the penultimate game of the regular season.

“Guys came out with a total focus. We lost it there a little bit in the second half, but the start of the game, our guys were locked in, attention to detail was there on both ends of the floor,” said Casey.

DeRozan’s greatest impact on the game was his short speech thanking the fans for the just-completed home season as the banner recognizing the team’s division title was unfurled in an understated, quick ceremony.

“It definitely felt good to share it with (the fans) because they played a major part in it as well,” he said. “I’ve been here through the struggles and the tough times and our fans were still right there with us on this journey.”

And there is no certainty that DeRozan will play Wednesday when the Raptors wrap up the season in New York.

“We’ll see what we decide on that,” said Casey. “Amir’s had time off, Kyle’s had time off, he’s the only guy with big minutes that hadn’t had time off. I could just see a pep in Kyle’s step since he’s had his rest, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Amir Johnson, still working his way back from ankle woes, looked better Monday than he did Sunday in Detroit, chipping in 10 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes as Casey eases him back slightly.

He was proud to be part of the historic win.

“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “We set many franchise records and we are just going to keep pushing and see what’s next for us. We’re always looking for the next thing.”

Lowry and Johnson left to a prolonged ovation from the fans with less than 40 seconds to go.


VIDEO: Toronto raises its Atlantic Division championship banner before Monday’s game vs. Milwaukee

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire may play in Jerusalem once his contract runs out in 2015 … The Bucks secured the top odds in the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery last night … Does Damian Lillard‘s new deal with adidas mean the shoe giant has forgotten about Derrick Rose? … Former first-round pick Arnett Moultrie is trying to make an NBA impact before it is too late … The Lakers and Suns may look to make pass at Luol Deng in free agency this summer … George Hill had an interesting little chat with Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee on the Indianapolis Star‘s website …

ICYMI(s) of the Night: Trey Burke has had a pretty solid rookie season, but this move that Jordan Farmar put on him in the backcourt is sure to stick with him for a while. On a more positive note, we had two fantastic full-court dimes that lead to and-ones — one from the master (Kevin Love) of such plays and another from a pretty solid passer in his own right (Andre Miller)


VIDEO: Jordan Farmar breaks Trey Burke’s ankles in the backcourt


VIDEO: Kevin Love throws a full-court pass to Corey Brewer for the layup


VIDEO: Andre Miller throws a great full-court dime to Bradley Beal

Suns’ Cinderella season on the brink

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Suns are trying their best to make a frantic playoff charge

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Can the Phoenix Suns summon the energy to rise once more? Or will their improbable postseason hopes finally set?

Elimination day has arrived for the league’s season-long surprise team in Game 81. Phoenix (47-33) must beat the the Memphis Grizzlies (48-32) at home tonight (10 p.m. ET, League Pass) or the book will close on its Cinderella season, and the Grizzlies will clinch the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

It will take a Herculian effort. The Suns are picking themselves up from consecutive gut-punch road losses Friday and Saturday at San Antonio and Dallas in which they lost double-digits leads in both. Team MVP Goran Dragic is playing on a badly sprained left ankle. And then there’s this: Memphis, the antithesis of Phoenix’s fastbreaking style, is the lone Western Conference team the Suns have not defeated this season; they’re 0-3. The two teams last met on Jan. 10.

“We are still going to fight until the end,” Dragic said following Saturday’s 101-98 loss at Dallas in which Phoenix lost a 13-point third-quarter lead. “We have two games left and hopefully we can win the next game against Memphis and if so, anything is possible.”

If Phoenix wins tonight, it will move into a dead heat in the standings with Memphis, but will still need help to get into the playoffs. The Suns play at Sacramento on Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass) and will likely know by tipoff or shortly thereafter if the game holds meaning. They’ll need to have Dallas to win at Memphis (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), where the Grizzlies have won 13 in a row.

“We’ve got to stay positive,” said guard Eric Bledsoe, who has put up 59 points, 15 assists, 15 rebounds, but also 14 turnovers in the last two games. “There’s still life out there. These two teams, Memphis and Dallas have to play each other, so we have to take our next two games real serious.”

Dragic sprained his ankle last Wednesday night at New Orleans, stayed in the game and played 39 minutes. He missed Friday’s game against the Spurs and returned Saturday at Dallas, heavily taped, and logged more than 40 minutes. His availability tonight could be in jeopardy.

“It’s not a good situation for me, not good timing,” Dragic said Saturday. “I twisted my ankle against New Orleans, played the whole game and after the game it swelled a lot. It’s tough. I mean, no excuses, a lot of NBA players have to go through those pains, so I have to try to help my teammates as much as I can.”

The Grizzlies, 35-15 since Jan. 1 after starting 13-17, can wrap up a fourth consecutive playoff berth with a victory tonight. That would set up Wednesday’s home game against the Mavericks, who locked up a playoff berth with Saturday’s win over Phoenix, as a fight for the seventh seed, with a remote chance at the sixth seed.

Golden State needs one more win to clinch the sixth seed and can do so tonight at home against Minnesota (10:30 p.m., ET, NBA TV).

The No. 8 seed will face the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the opening round. The No. 7 seed will likely face the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Los Angeles Clippers have an outside chance of securing the No. 2 seed.

Ellis delivers Dallas back to the playoffs

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Mavs knock off Suns to clinch playoff spot

DALLAS – Even as he’s reshaped his reputation through 80 games playing alongside a legend and for an offensive innovator, Monta Ellis at 7:35 p.m. Central Time on Saturday night still stood 48 minutes away from getting back into the playoffs.

Nearly three hours later, moments after a late collapse in which he missed two free throws in the final 20 seconds was narrowly averted, Ellis, smiling and surrounded by cameras and notepads, said his season-high-tying 37 points on 15-for-23 shooting, plus five assists against the equally desperate Phoenix Suns, was nothing personal.

It was all about the team, he said.

“This is nothing for me personally,” Ellis said. “I do everything for my teammates, I do everything for my organization that I play for and I leave it all on the court. That’s all.”

In an interview back in 2012, Ellis, wanting to emphasize that he is a complete player and not just a flinger, famously said “Monta have it all.” On Saturday night, with his team begging for it, he did it all.

He logged 43 minutes, 28 seconds of the 101-98 victory and every tick of the second half simply because coach Rick Carlisle couldn’t afford to take his headstrong gunner and virtuoso playmaker out of the game. When the NBA’s 10th all-time leading scorer, Dirk Nowitzki, couldn’t find a rhythm early — he scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half — Ellis attacked and never stopped.

He had 14 at halftime, the reason — with center Brandan Wright – why the Suns’ lead wasn’t bigger than 57-46. He scored 11 points in the third quarter, his back-to-back 3-pointers in transition slicing the Suns’ 11-point bulge down five. Then came 12 more in the fourth plus a strip of Channing Frye and a breakaway layup for a 94-89 Dallas lead with 4:03 to go.

“It was tough, man,” said Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who went toe-to-toe with Ellis for 29 points on 11-for-15 shooting and six assists, but with 19 seconds to go was blocked at the rim by Wright on a potential game-tying drive. “Monta is one of the premiere scorers in this league when he gets it going like that.”

Not personal? Ellis’ teammates weren’t buying it. This entire season has been personal.

“He’s missed the playoffs a whole lot, and I know he wanted it and you could tell he wanted it,” Devin Harris said. “You could tell he was engaged from the start. I’m just happy for him.”

Ellis is going back to the playoffs for just the third time in his career, and Dallas is going back after a one-year hiatus that interrupted a streak of 12 consecutive postseason appearances. For Ellis, this time is different. He’s happy. He’s counted upon.

“At the time we needed him most, he stepped up and played his biggest game of the year,” Carlisle said. “We had to play him the entire second half; we couldn’t get him out.”

Last season with Milwaukee, Ellis was miserable and has said so. So miserable he left $11 million on the table to get out. The Bucks backed into the eighth seed at 38-44 and were a first-round mop job for the Miami Heat. In 2006-07, Ellis was a second-year free-wheeler on a Warriors team that streaked into the playoffs as an eighth seed, upset the No. 1 Mavs in the first round and quickly bowed out to Utah in the second round.

This season Ellis, averaging 19.0 points on just 15.5 shot attempts, has won more games on the 49-32 Mavs than in any previous season. The irony is that in the stiff Western Conference, it will be good for only the seventh or eighth seed and a first-round playoff date against either Oklahoma City or San Antonio. When the Warriors won 48 games in 2007-08, the previous high in Ellis’ career, they failed to make the playoffs.

On Saturday night, it didn’t seem to make much difference to Ellis if Dallas had been locking up the top seed or that he needed to be near-perfect on his home floor just to secure the elusive playoff berth on the penultimate game of the regular season.

Ultimately, the season might still come to an end in short order once the playoffs begin next weekend. Dallas, which relies so heavily on old, but reliable legs — Nowtizki (35), Shawn Marion (35), and Vince Carter (37) — and their 28-year-old former chucker, has lost nine a row to the Spurs. Until taking two from Oklahoma City in the last six weeks, Dallas had lost 11 in a row to the Thunder, including the 2012 first-round sweep.

For now, Ellis was content to soak in this moment, his steely performance and what it meant for a franchise whose fans had practically come to take the postseason as a birthright to be a playoff team again.

“Ah man, it’s lovely,” Ellis said. “We set this goal at the beginning of training camp. Everybody doubted us and for us to come and be here in the playoffs, and then add our goal to get 50 wins, we got one more game to do that and get ready for the playoffs.”

Bledsoe plans to rejoin Suns within days

OAKLAND – Injured guard Eric Bledsoe said he expects to return to the Suns lineup on Monday against the Clippers or Wednesday against the Cavaliers at the latest, a critical roster addition for Phoenix that adds another layer of intrigue to the Western Conference playoff race.

Whether Bledsoe can go from missing nine weeks with a knee injury that required surgery to having close to the same impact he had in the first 24 games before he was hurt — 18 points and 5.8 assists while shooting 48.6 percent — now becomes one of the storylines of the season’s final quarter. The Suns, at 36-26, are the team success story of the league and are tied with the Grizzlies for eighth place in the West, a game behind No. 7 Dallas and five ahead of No. 10 Minnesota. Whether Bledsoe struggles to regain his rhythm or quickly assimilates could tilt the standings.

While the Suns said they expect a return Wednesday at home against the Cavaliers, Bledsoe has not ruled out Monday against the Clippers, his former team, in Los Angeles. The decision, he said Sunday before the Suns lost to the Warriors at Oracle Arena, will probably come Monday afternoon.

Eric Bledsoe

Eric Bledsoe has been out since Jan. 2 with a right knee injury.

“I can definitely look forward to it, see how I’m feeling at shootaround or whatever to see how it goes,” Bledsoe said. “If it’s there, I’ll go.”

Whether it happens Monday or Wednesday, coach Jeff Hornacek said Bledsoe will come off the bench “the first few games.” After that, Hornacek added, “I would guess at some point he might be back in that starting lineup because when he and Goran [Dragic] were in there we were pretty good.” But Hornacek publicly left open the possibility, however unlikely, that Gerald Green could remain a starter.

Bledsoe hurt his right knee Jan. 2 and underwent surgery to repair cartilage on Jan. 10. The Suns are 17-15 since then, plus 3-3 when he missed six other games with a bruised shin.

“It’s been tough to sit there and watch for two months now,” Bledsoe said. “It’s definitely been tough. But at the same time, it’s been exciting to watch. The guys go out there and fight every night.”

Stars rose up as key players went down

A lot of the credit for the Suns' success goes to Goran Dragic. (Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)

A lot of the credit for the Suns’ success goes to Goran Dragic. (Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – One injury to the wrong player can be devastating to a team’s aspirations. See the Thunder during last year’s playoffs once Russell Westbrook went down.

The Lakers weren’t winning the title this season with or without Kobe Bryant, but they certainly aren’t dragging up the rear in the Western Conference with him.

But this post isn’t about sob stories. This season’s injury stories, three in particular — OK, four, keep reading — are about inspiration and not desperation, about three young stars (no, four!) rising to the occasion and pushing their teams when the receding tide could have drowned the whole thing in the deep blue sea of lost seasons.

Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin made history in February, along with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, as the first quintet to average 30 points or more in any month going back to 1962. Durant, Love and Griffin rose to extraordinary heights as their teams lacked a key component due to injury, and in Love’s case two.

In good conscious we could not limit this discussion to three. Yes, the Spurs were terrific without Tony Parker after the All-Star break, but that’s just the Spurs being the Spurs. And Portland did a fine job recently without LaMarcus Aldridge. No. 4 is the Phoenix Suns’ non-All-Star point guard Goran Dragic, who was playing fabulously before backcourt mate Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee injury, and he’s been downright nasty ever since.

How Dragic isn’t in the MVP discussion even as a footnote is criminal. A team destined for 25 wins already has 35 and is in the heat of the ferocious West playoff chase, and Dragic is the reason why. The West coaches couldn’t give The Dragon his due. It’s the least we can do.

So here’s how the three superstars — and Goran — did it:

Love’s Quest

The skinny: First, let’s not kid ourselves. The Timberwolves are nowhere near out of the woods. Their inability to win close games during the first couple months of the season and overall inconsistent play sabotaged their hopes of finally contending for a playoff spot. Then injuries dropped their second- and third-leading scorers, 3-point-bombing shooting guard Kevin Martin (on Feb. 7) and low-post monster center Nikola Pekovic (on Jan. 27), respectively. Stick a fork in ‘em? Not exactly.

What happened?: Love went nuts. In February, he averaged 34.0 ppg, a franchise record for any month. He grabbed 14.1 rebounds to lead the league. He became the first player since Moses Malone in March 1982 to average 34 and 14 in one month. Without Pekovic, who missed 13 games, and Martin in the lineup, the Wolves went 4-3. Whole again, the they’re 2-0 in March to get back over .500 at 30-29 just when it seemed like they were sunk.

The outlook: It might not be sunshine and daffodils, but the storm clouds are parting. Minnesota enters Wednesday’s home game against stumbling New York 4.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot. It’s a lot of ground to make up, but the Wolves have an upcoming schedule that should make them salivate: the Knicks, Detroit, Toronto and Milwaukee at home, then at Charlotte and back home for Sacramento before things turn decidedly tougher against West foes. Take care of the six in front of them and who knows?

Banking on Blake

The skinny: The Clippers were 23-12 even though they hadn’t played terrific basketball adjusting to new coach Doc Rivers and meshing in new players. But my oh my, what would they do now without point guard and floor leader Chris Paul? On Jan. 3 at Dallas, Paul went down in a heap and came up with a separated right shoulder. The prognosis was negative: four to six weeks. He missed 18 games.

What happened: Griffin when nuts. In Paul’s absence, the power forward from Oklahoma averaged 27.5 ppg on 55.4 percent shooting. He grabbed 8.2 rebounds and dished out 4.4 assists. He became a vocal leader on the floor, taking over a role that Paul had dominated, a development that should aid the evolution of this team. The Clippers emerged from their CP3-less stretch with 12 wins and six losses to get to 35-18. They maintained position to seize a top four seed. Griffin didn’t miss a beat once Paul returned on Feb. 9, averaging 30.0 ppg and 10.7 rpg for the entire month.

The outlook: The Clippers are 7-2 since Paul’s return and have won five in a row to get to 42-20. They’re in a virtual tie with Houston for the No. 3 seed. The schedule plays out pretty favorably throughout March, and if L.A. continues to come together and avoids any more injuries, they could make a serious run over the next three to four weeks.

Overserved on KD

The Skinny: The Thunder were rolling along and put a Christmas Day whipping on the Knicks behind a triple-double from Russell Westbrook. Then came the stunning news that he needed a third surgery on his troublesome right knee. OKC had just racked up 21 wins in 25 games with Westbrook, and now this. OKC announced he would be out all the way through the All-Star break. Now the question was whether the Thunder could hold onto a top-four seed?

What happened: Durant went nuts. In 27 games without his sidekick, Durant racked up 35.0 ppg on 52.7 percent shooting overall and 39.9 percent from beyond the arc, plus 7.5 rpg and 6.3 apg. He was so good as OKC won 20 of those games and took over the top spot in the West that he was widely considered the clubhouse leader for the MVP trophy. And why not? At 43-12 when Westbrook made his return on Feb. 20, nobody was doing it better.

The outlook: A return to the NBA Finals. The team is built for it barring anything else going wrong with Westbrook’s right knee. His triple-double in 20 minutes Tuesday night revealed an explosive player at his best. He’s regaining his shooting touch and continues to talk of being a smarter player after having sat out all but two of 11 playoff games last season and a large chunk of games this season. Any notion that Westbrook somehow detracts from Durant should finally be dead and buried.

Fire-breathing Dragic

The skinny: Remember when the Suns traded Marcin Gortat to Washington like a week before the season started and everybody rolled their eyes at the obvious tank job taking place? Recent times have gotten a bit ragged for Dragic and his mostly unknown teammates, castoffs from other clubs, but nothing can take away the effort that’s propelled them to a 35-25 record and the eighth seed in the hotly contested West. And to be there with Bledsoe out with a knee injury since Dec. 30 is beyond amazing.

What happened: Dragic went nuts. Since Bledsoe left the lineup, Dragic has averaged 22.3 ppg on 52.9 percent shooting overall and 46.3 percent from deep. He’s become one of the game’s premiere rim attackers, either running the break or capable of getting to the basket coming off screens seemingly at will. He takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Without him, the Suns would be where we all thought they’d be: deep in lottery position.

The outlook: Bledsoe is practicing and could be back soon to give this club a real boost headed into the final 20 games. The Suns’ playoff hopes are on life support, but if they can survive the next three games against Oklahoma City, Golden State and the Clippers, they’ve got a favorable 11-game stretch through the end of March that includes eight East teams (none against Indiana or Miami), plus the Lakers. The Orange can still crush this.

A 5-Horse Race For West Seeds 6 – 8?


VIDEO: Kevin Love has 33 points and 19 rebounds to lift the Wolves over the Nuggets

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – A five-horse sprint to capture playoffs seeds 6 through 8 could be the most heated Western Conference race of the stretch run.

At the top of the standings, Oklahoma City and San Antonio are battling it out for the top seed while the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston and Portland are jockeying for seeds 3 through 5.

At the bottom it’s an ever-tightening battle for survival, not just to get into the playoffs, but if at all possible to seize the No. 6 seed and go for broke against anybody other than the Thunder or Spurs.

Entering Tuesday night’s games, No. 6 Golden State and No. 7 Phoenix both have 24 losses and are separated by one game in the win column. No. 8 Dallas and No. 9 Memphis both have 25 losses and are separated by two games in the win column. Dallas has the same number of wins as Golden State  and Memphis has one fewer win than Phoenix.

Got it?

In simple terms, seeds 6 through 9 are separated by 1 1/2 games.

And don’t totally dismiss the No. 10 Minnesota Timberwolves just yet. Fueled by Kevin Love‘s breathtaking February and the return of Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin, the Wolves are making a desperate attempt to get back into playoff contention, but still remain five games behind Dallas.

All five teams have 23 games or fewer remaining. All have attractive stretches where they can potentially make up ground in a hurry, but all also have pitfalls where the dream can just as quickly come to a crashing halt.

Below is a breakdown of the five teams in contention. How many home games does each have? How many games against the West? The East? Against Indiana and Miami? Where must each team take care of business? And where must each simply survive?

Take a look:

No. 6 Golden State Warriors (36-24)

> Games left: 22 (13 home, 9 road)

> Next game: Tonight at Indiana (7 p.m. ET, League Pass)

> vs. West: 15 (7 vs. current playoff teams)

> vs. East: 7 (1 vs. Indiana, 0 vs. Miami)

> vs. winning teams: 11 (Indiana, Phoenix, Dallas 2, L.A. Clippers, Portland 2, San Antonio 2, Memphis, Minnesota)

> Moving time: Five-game homestand from March 18 – 30 (Orlando, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Memphis, New York)

> Must-haves: March 9 vs. Phoenix; March 11 vs. Dallas; March 28 vs. Memphis, April 1 at Dallas

> Must survive: March 9 – 16 (vs. Phoenix, vs. Dallas, at L.A. Clippers, vs. Cleveland, at Portland)

> Wild card: The offense has struggled, but can they rely on their No. 1 defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) in the West to win pressure games?

==========================

No. 7 Phoenix Suns (35-24)

> Games left: 23 (9 home, 14 away)

> Next game: Tonight vs. L.A. Clippers (9 p.m. ET, League Pass)

> vs. West: 14 (10 vs. current playoff teams)

> vs. East: 9 (0 vs. Indiana, 0 vs. Miami)

> vs. winning teams: 12 (L.A. Clippers 3, Oklahoma City 2, Golden State, Toronto, Minnesota, Washington, Portland, San Antonio, Dallas, Memphis)

> Moving time: March 12-21 (vs. Cleveland, at Boston, at Toronto, at Brooklyn, vs. Orlando, vs. Detroit)

> Survival time: March 9 at Golden State, March 23 at Minnesota, March 28 vs. New York, March 30 at L.A. Lakers

> Wild card: Eric Bledsoe is practicing. Will he return and, if so, can he and Goran Dragic recapture their early-season magic?

==========================

No. 8 Dallas Mavericks (36-25)

> Games left: 21 (12 home, 9 away)

> Next game: Wednesday at Denver

> vs. West: 18 (9 vs. current playoff teams)

> vs. East: 3 (1 vs. Indiana, 0 vs. Miami)

> vs. winning teams: 12 (Portland, Indiana, Golden State 2, Oklahoma City 2, Minnesota, L.A. Clippers 2, San Antonio, Phoenix, Memphis)

> Moving time: First four of a season-long eight-game homestand March 17 – April 1 (Boston, Minnesota, Denver, Brooklyn)

> Must-haves: March 11 at Golden State; March 12 at Utah; April 1 vs. Golden State; April 12 vs. Phoenix; April 16 at Memphis

> Survival time: Wednesday – March 16 (at Denver, vs. Portland, vs. Indiana, at Golden State, at Utah, at Oklahoma  City) and March 25 – April 3 (vs. Oklahoma City, vs. L.A. Clippers, vs. Sacramento, vs. Golden State, at L.A. Clippers)

> Wild card: Dirk Nowitzki, 35, will be solid, but can Monta Ellis, in the playoffs just twice in his career, elevate his game another rung?

==========================

No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies (33-25)

> Games left: 23 (9 home, 14 road)

> Next game: Wednesday at Brooklyn

> vs. West: 14 (6 vs. current playoff teams)

> vs. East: 9 (1 vs. Indiana, 2 vs. Miami)

> vs. winning teams: 13 (Chicago, Portland 2, Toronto, Miami 2, Indiana, Minnesota 2, Golden State, San Antonio, Phoenix, Dallas)

> Moving time: Saturday – March 19 (vs. Charlotte, vs. Portland, at New Orleans, at Toronto, at Philadelphia, vs. Utah)

> Must-haves: March 15 at Philadelphia, March 19 vs. Utah,  April 13 at L.A. Lakers, April 14 at Phoenix, April 16 vs. Dallas

> Survival time: March 19-30 (at Miami, vs. Indiana, vs. Minnesota, at Utah, Golden State, at Portland)

> Wild card: Assuming 3s aren’t going to start falling from the sky, can Memphis keep turning up its defensive intensity? Overall, the Griz’s D ranks just behind the … Timberwolves?

==========================

No. 10 Minnesota Timberwolves (30-29)

> Games left: 23 (14 home, 9 road)

> Next game: Wednesday at New York

> vs. West: 13 (7 vs. current playoff teams)

> vs. East: 10 (0 vs. Indiana, 1 vs. Miami)

> vs. winning teams: 12 (Toronto, Dallas, Houston 2, Phoenix, Memphis 2, L.A. Clippers, Miami, San Antonio, Chicago, Golden State)

> Moving time: Wednesday – March 16 (vs. New York, vs. Detroit, vs. Toronto, vs. Milwaukee, at Charlotte, vs. Sacramento)

> Must-haves: March 19 at Dallas, March 23 vs. Phoenix, March 24 at Memphis, April 2 vs. Memphis, April 14 at Golden State

> Survival time: March 31 – April 11 (vs. L.A. Clippers, vs. Memphis, at Miami, at Orlando, vs. San Antonio, vs. Chicago, vs. Houston)

> Wild card: Can everybody stay healthy down the stretch run?

Butler’s Reported Addition To OKC Provides Boost To Durant, Thunder

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Caron Butler has sidestepped the King and a three-peat bid to serve the noble cause of delivering Kevin Durant title No. 1.

The veteran forward, bought out by the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday, had been speculated to join the Miami Heat, the team that drafted him 10th overall in 2002 and, in ’04, traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers in a package for Shaquille O’Neal. Instead, the 6-foot-7 Butler intends to play for the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder when he clears waivers, multiple news outlets have reported.

Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, who was among the first to report the news, has more:

Caron Butler has chosen to sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder over the Miami Heat, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Butler informed teams of his decision on Friday morning, a league source told Yahoo Sports.

After securing a contract buyout from the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday morning, Butler is expected to clear waivers on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET, and will sign for the rest of the season to play with Thunder stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Despite close relationships and history with the Miami Heat, Butler decided that his best opportunity to make an impact and chase a championship belonged with Oklahoma City. Miami has lost out on the top two free-agent buyout players in Danny Granger and Butler.

The fact that Oklahoma City stopped pursuing Granger several days before his Los Angeles Clippers commitment led many in the NBA to believe the Thunder were confident of securing Butler as a free agent.

Butler, who turns 34 on March 13, will be a significant veteran pick-up for the youthful Thunder, who will benefit from Butler’s rugged, perimeter defense in isolated matchups. His addition allows Durant to occasionally lessen his defensive load, and Butler is a capable shooter from mid-range to the 3-point arc.

OKC is light on wings with starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha being a defensive-minded player and reserve Jeremy Lamb only his second season and first as an integral part of the Thunder’s rotation.

Butler won a title with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, knocking off James’ Heat in their first Finals as the Big Three, but Butler was inactive for the entire playoffs after suffering a gruesome knee injury on Jan. 1 during a game at Milwaukee. The Mavs, inspired by Butler’s commitment to work his way back, although ultimately he could not, dedicated their postseason run to him.

He signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Clippers for the 2011-12 season and broke his hand early in the playoffs. He manged to continue playing, saying he wasn’t going to allow another injury to take him out of a second consecutive postseason.

After last season’s first-round exit, the Clippers traded Butler to the Phoenix Suns along with guard Eric Bledsoe. The Suns, more interested in a youth movement, moved Butler to the Bucks, allowing him to play close to family and friends in his hometown of Racine, Wisc.

But the Bucks have been awful and agreed to buy him out of the final year of his contract that pays him $8 million. Butler has been nicked up throughout the season and has played in 34 games with 13 starts. He’s averaged 11.0 ppg and 4.6 rpg in 24.1 mpg. He’s shot just 38.7 percent overall, but a healthy 36.1 percent (53-for-147) from beyond the arc.

Butler is no longer the high-minute, All-Star-type small forward he was a few seasons ago. But in spurts off the bench, he can bring the Thunder the toughness and scoring punch they need.

Meanwhile, the West continues to get even more competitive with Butler headed to OKC and former Indiana small forward Danny Granger committed to joining the Clippers after being bought out by the Pacers.

Blogtable: Writing An Ending In Phoenix

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


Getting Evan | Defensive showdown | The story of the Suns



VIDEO: Phoenix Suns Top 5 Plays of the Week

The Suns have been a great story. Do you see a happy ending in Phoenix?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: The Suns already have locked up a happy ending to this season, regardless of playoff positioning. They already have won more games than last season, have significantly improved both offensively and defensively (from 29th and 23rd in 2012-13, respectively, to 8th and 14th now), are above .500 on the road and, in Jeff Hornacek, have a keeper and a leading candidate for Coach of the Year. They won’t win their last game unless it’s No. 82 (and they miss the postseason entirely), but Phoenix is way ahead of schedule in the happy department.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: A couple of weeks ago I thought they were cruising toward the most surprising playoff berth in years.  But the Warriors have stopped their free fall and, more critically, the Grizzlies have quietly turned around a bad start.  They’re 18-7 in their last 25 games and gaining fast on the last playoff spot in the West. As long as the Marc Gasol-Zach Randolph combo stays healthy, the Grizzlies will be the team that squashes the fairytale ending in Phoenix.

Jeff Hornacek, Goran Dragic (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

Jeff Hornacek, Goran Dragic (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Even if they slip out of the playoffs by the end of the year, the big picture view can only be seen as a happy ending. Remember, no one thought this team would win 25 games. I do think, however, the Suns will hold on and make the playoffs. It looks like Eric Bledsoe will return soon and that will give the club a big boost heading into the final month of games.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: It’s pretty much impossible not to see one. Barring an epidemic of serious injuries or a 25-game losing streak, the Suns will have accomplished more in about three-fourths of the season than anyone could have imagined. It’s late-February and they’re on pace for the playoffs. The attitude, a big concern for new GM Ryan McDonough when he came in, has been great. A lot of players, some carryovers and some newcomers, improved. Trades and free-agent signings paid off. Jeff Hornacek as coach and McDonough were rookies on the job who performed like veterans. Phoenix would have to work very, very hard to turn that into an unhappy ending.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: If you’re talking about a playoff berth, the answer is no (as much as I’d love to see them in the postseason). They have the toughest remaining schedule of the four teams competing for the last three playoff spots in the West, with an absolutely brutal April. And they’re now just a game in the loss column ahead of the Grizzlies, who would have the tiebreaker thanks to a 3-0 head-to-head record so far. Eric Bledsoe’s return would help them defensively, but there’s still no indication of when that return will be. The Suns will have three or four first round picks in this year’s Draft, though. And that could certainly produce a different kind of success.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comIt depends on what we’re talking about when the words “happy ending” in this case. If it’s simply making the playoff field, yes, I think a “happy ending” is in the offing. That said, the Suns will have to fend off Memphis and Minnesota to hold on to that eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference playoff chase. The best part is the Suns seem built for the grind that will come over the next couple of months. They won’t shy away from the fight that is sure to come with trying to hang on to one of those playoff spots. But as long as they remain reasonably healthy, I think they have as good a chance as any team in the mix for that eighth and final playoff spot. The only problem is what you get for bagging that prize … a date with the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: For the Suns, isn’t any ending other than finishing at the bottom of the West a happy ending? Going into this season, I don’t think anyone predicted the Suns would even be hanging around the postseason race, much less in the thick of it with just weeks to go. Hopefully Phoenix fans can appreciate that even if the Suns don’t make the playoffs, they’ve shown that they can win and play hard even when undermanned and outmatched. They’ve still got salary and roster flexibility to play with down the road, but for now, let’s just appreciate what a great ride it’s been for Phoenix this season.

Karan Madhok, NBA India: It depends on the subjective definition of ‘happy’. In many ways, this is already a happy ending for the club: instead of being last in the conference, they have surprised everyone and are currently holding a playoff spot. Their future is secure with young players to build around like Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, the Morris twins, Miles Plumlee, and rookie Alex Len. They have an expiring contract of Emeka Okafor that will clear up cap space and they could have a number of first-round picks in the loaded 2014 draft. As for this season, I see them making the playoffs but losing in the first round. For a team that finished bottom in the West last year, I would consider that and their exciting future a happy ending.

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: If the definition of happy ending is making the playoffs then yes, they’re a good shot to make it. Currently they’re two games clear of Memphis. If the definition is winning a playoff series then no, I don’t think they can touch any of the top four teams in the West.

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 13


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 12

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron’s game-winner takes Heat into break | Wade’s All-Star status in the air | Rose not thinking about a return | Another scare for Gasol, Grizzlies | Knicks hit another low point

No. 1: LeBron’s game-winner takes Heat into break — The Miami Heat seemingly cruised through the first 50 games of the season, but as they head into the All-Star break, they’re very much in striking distance of the Indiana Pacers, thanks to Dallas’ win in Indy on Wednesday and LeBron James‘ fadeaway, 3-point game-winner in Oakland. It was one of the more incredible shots of the season so far, and it sent the Heat into the break on a high note. Ethan Skolnick of Bleacher Report was there:

As Andre Iguodala, defiant defender, would say after the 111-110 defeat, “There’s nothing I would change. He just made a tough shot.”

But, for the James and the rest of the Heat, so few words would not suffice. This was a shot to savor, a shot that sent them into the All-Star break on a serious sugar high, with another sweet road win against a strong Western Conference squad. This was a shot by someone who has never made one like this from this range in this circumstance since joining Miami, or at least none that he or his teammates could remember.

This was a shot — this step back 27-footer just before the buzzer — that really shouldn’t have happened, not if the Heat had held a large lead, and not if Erik Spoelstra had stuck with his plan.

***

No. 2: Wade’s All-Star status in the air — That win came without Dwyane Wade, who was a late scratch with a sore left foot. Wade was voted in as an East starter for the All-Star game, but has missed 15 games this season and wasn’t sure what was wrong or if he could play on Sunday. Marc J. Spears of Yahoo!Sports has the story:

The 10-time All-Star said he had numbness in his left leg in warm-ups before the game after “the nerve kind of shut down” and kept him from having feeling in his left foot. Wade said his injury was “drop foot,” also known as foot drop, which causes an inability to lift the front part of the foot.

“It’s one of the most bizarre things…,” Wade said. “Hopefully, the numbness wears off more and more as it started to do throughout the game and throughout the rest of the night. By [Thursday] hopefully it subsides and we will go from there.”

Wade was still expecting to take the Heat team plane that arrives early Thursday morning in New Orleans for NBA All-Star Weekend rather than return to Miami. Wade, who described himself as day-to-day, plans on getting treatment from the team’s trainer in New Orleans in hopes of remedying the injury before Sunday.

***

No. 3: Rose not thinking about a returnDerrick Rose spoke to the media at a charity event on Wednesday. And while he didn’t say anything to absolutely rule out a return this season and Joakim Noah seemingly left the door open on Tuesday, Rose said that he’s just taking his knee rehab step by step. K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune was there with the story:

Bulls’ doctors, management and confidantes of Rose ruled him out for the season following surgery to repair the meniscus he tore in his right knee on Nov. 22. But speaking for just the second time publicly since the injury, Rose again couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge that as reality.

“I haven’t even had a chance to think about it,” Rose said Wednesday night at the Bulls’ charity gala at the United Center when asked if he’s done for the season. “I’m just worrying about my next stage in this process and that’s running right now. I’m on the AlterG (an anti-gravity treadmill). Hopefully be running without it pretty soon.

“I’m not keeping (a return) open. I just said right now I’m not thinking about it. I’m not running yet. When I get off the AlterG, that’s when I’ll consider coming back or not.”

General manager Gar Forman reiterated the Bulls have no plans for Rose to return this season.

Rose did say that he’d like to play for USA Basketball this summer.

***

No. 4: Another scare for Gasol, Grizzlies — Speaking of knee injuries, Marc Gasol reinjured his left knee in Wednesday’s win in Orlando. The early feeling is that this isn’t as bad as the injury that kept Gasol out 23 games earlier in the season, but the knee will be checked out on Thursday. The Grizzlies won 14 of their last 18 games heading into the All-Star break, but are still on the outside of the playoff picture in the West. Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal has the story from Orlando:

Griz center Marc Gasol left the game midway through the third quarter after aggravating a left MCL injury that cost him 23 games earlier this season. Gasol returned to the locker room after he banged knees with Magic point guard Jameer Nelson.

The 7-foot Spaniard didn’t return for the Grizzlies’ second straight victory heading into the NBA’s All-Star break. Gasol downplayed the situation after the game.

He will, however, have an MRI test during the break to determine the seriousness of his injury. There is swelling and Gasol walked with a limp.

“It’s scary when it happens, but I think we’re going to be OK,” Gasol said. “We’re going to get it checked to make sure everything is OK. But it feels a lot better than it did the first time.”

***

No. 5: Knicks hit another low point — While the Heat went into the break on a high, the New York Knicks don’t have much to celebrate. They blew a 12-point, second-half lead and lost to the Kings at home, a result that will only fuel more speculation about Mike Woodson’s job status. Peter Botte of the New York Daily News was at MSG with the story:

No one should have been surprised that the Knicks appeared to have a collective eye elsewhere for most of a game that Carmelo Anthony had declared a must-win heading into All-Star weekend.

Certainly not owner James Dolan, who sat slumped in his front-row seat along the baseline watching Mike Woodson and the Knicks suffer yet another brutal home loss on Wednesday night, falling, 106-101, in overtime to lowly Sacramento at the Garden.

The Knicks’ fifth loss in six games can’t do much to alter the perception that Woodson’s job is in serious peril — or lead anyone to believe that this team magically will be able to turn around its tumultuous season when it reconvenes Tuesday in Memphis.

“I am not thinking about that at this point,” Anthony said of Woodson’s job status. “That has been an ongoing issue, ongoing story. Every day is a new story so he is still here and that is what we are dealing with.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo details Chris Grant‘s mistakes in Cleveland … Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal has some good notes about the Cavs’ turnaround since Grant’s departureAvery Bradley suffered a second ankle sprain last week and the Celtics aren’t sure when he’ll play again … Eric Bledsoe is making progress toward a post-break returnThe Knicks still want Kenneth Faried … and Pierre the Pelican has a new look (video).

ICYMI of The Night: James Harden beat the Wizards with a Eurostep around Kevin Seraphin:


VIDEO: Harden Seals the Deal.

All-Star Snub Adds Spice For Dragic


VIDEO: Dragic’s big night

Keep an eye on Goran Dragic and see if he happens to put a little extra spicy salsa on those shots and passes in the Taco Bells Skills Challenge on All-Star Saturday Night.

After all, the fact that he isn’t playing on Sunday with the West All-Stars might be harder to swallow than a plate of jalapeños.

The Suns’ point guard is 16th in the league in scoring (20.4 points a game), 17th in assists, (6.1), sixth in true shooting percentage (61.5), and his PER of 22.8 is 12th in the NBA. He is tied for 10th in win shares (7.0) with Chris Paul.

When new boss Adam Silver made his first public move as commissioner to add a dash of home-cooking by naming New Orleans’ forward Anthony Davis as a replacement for injured guard Kobe Bryant, it was just one more elbow nudge in the ribs.

“Oh yes, I was full of emotions,” Dragic said. “I was a little bit mad, angry, disappointed. All of those words. There it is. I think I did my job.

“If it happened it would have been a dream come true. It would mean a lot because I would know that I worked hard and it is way to be told I am on the right track.”

Not that the 27-year-old from Slovenia has done anything but barrel down the track like a locomotive in his sixth season in the league and his second as a full-time starter in Phoenix. While the Suns are a varied and interesting mix of young talent under first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek, there is no question that Dragic has been the spark to their offensive engine with his scoring, passing and running of the offense.

Even in the absence of injured backcourt partner Eric Bledsoe, Dragic has kept the Suns going forward as the surprise team of the league. Picked by Las Vegas oddsmakers to win 21.5 games and thought by most as a club that was getting into position for a high lottery pick, the Suns have already won 30 to hold down the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference going into Tuesday’s home game against the defending champion Heat (9 p.m. ET, League Pass). That’s more wins than every team in the entire Eastern Conference except for Indiana and Miami.

And the Suns don’t have a single representative in the All-Star Game.

All the talk about winning be the only real stat that counts, yet Kevin Love of the disappointing Timberwolves was voted into the starting lineup by the fans and then Dragic was overlooked as a reserve, first by vote of the coaches, and then by Silver.

“I don’t want to complain or put myself ahead of any other player,” Dragic said. “I am trying not to think about what happen and just trying to concentrate and win as many games as we can and hopefully make that push for the playoffs. That will be my statement.”

Yet the incongruity and, well, hypocrisy of it all is something that all of the Suns have trouble digesting. The snub had been extended to the rest of the roster until Miles Plumlee was a late replacement added to the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night of the All-Star Weekend schedule.

“When a team has a guy make the All-Star team, it’s not only a testament to what that guy does, but also his teammates,” Hornacek said. “You don’t become an All-Star if you don’t have any good teammates. Someone’s got to throw you the ball. Someone’s got to help you out. The fact is, if he made it, it ought to be a sign that, hey, we’re a team that’s above .500 and weren’t supposed to be and that reflects on the whole team. I still think we’ve got a pretty good team.”

It’s been a dramatic rise for Dragic just 2 1/2 years after he entered the 2011-12 season in Houston No. 3 on the Rockets depth chart at point guard. When Kyle Lowry was injured, he got his chance to start 28 games, and that laid a foundation for what Dragic is doing now.

“It was my first year that I got a lot of minutes,” he said. “Now it’s so much clearer, so much easier for me because I know how the game is going to go and when I have to take my shot. I’m not rushing. It’s just a good fit and I’m just happy that I’m back and part of the Phoenix Suns organization. They did a lot for me. I’m never going to forget that they drafted me and give me my first chance in the NBA.”

And there’s a part of him that won’t forget being overlooked for the All-Star team.

“I can’t be angry now,” Dragic said. “I must let that go. But what I can do is to focus on finishing the season strong, help get our team into the playoffs, then see what we can do there. That would be the best way to talk.”