Posts Tagged ‘Eric Bledsoe’

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.

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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.”

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 20


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 19

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Durant’s beautiful mind | Heat hunting for inspiration | Magic hit the floor to end skid | Dragic has to sustain his energy for Suns

No. 1: Durant’s got it between the ears, too – Seven straight games with 30 or more points from the greatest scorer in the game should surprise no one. Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant can do 30 a night with his eyes closed. And when you are a scoring genius and think through the game the way Durant does, eyes opened or closed … it doesn’t matter. At least that’s the way Thunder coach Scott Brooks explained (sort of) to Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman after Durant and the Thunder dismantled the Sacramento Kings:

Durant hit his scoring average, needing only 15 shots (and 10 makes) to score 30 points for a seventh straight game.

But his nine assists — the most he’s recorded in the last 25 games — was a more encouraging and revealing sign of the Thunder’s impressive night.

“I just love the way he thinks,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said of Durant. “He thinks about the team … He took 15 great shots and made 10 of them. Everybody else got involved and had an opportunity to score.”

The biggest benefactor was Serge Ibaka, who scored 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting. But he wasn’t the only one.

For the first time this season, OKC had six players in double-figures: Durant, Ibaka, Reggie Jackson (16), Thabo Sefolosha (10), Jeremy Lamb (10) and Nick Collison (10).

“When we move the ball like that,” Durant said of the Thunder’s 23 assists, “everybody touching it, that helps our defense as well.”

And so it did on Sunday night, allowing OKC to stifle every King not named Isaiah Thomas (a career-high 38 points), holding Sacramento under 100 points for only the third time in its last 16 games.

“They, for years, do a great job of turning you over,” Kings coach Mike Malone said, pointing to his team’s 20 giveaways. “But more importantly, (they) convert them.”


VIDEO: Check out Kevin Durant’s seventh straight 30-point outing for the Thunder

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No. 2: What’s Miami’s motivation at this point of the season? – The two-time defending champion Miami Heat have a problem. They cannot seem to locate the proper motivation at this stage of a regular season that they know means little if they don’t finish it off with another parade. They have the luxury of not being pressed about finding it immediately, courtesy of a weak Eastern Conference playoff field that includes just the Indiana Pacers and Heat at the top. But, as Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald points out, they still have to find something to motivate them, some sort of rallying cry for the second half of the regular season:

Last February, the Heat watched the Super Bowl in Toronto, listened to Shane Battier give a theatrically hilarious, yet poignant speech on the team bus, and then won 27 games in a row. The streak was such an important part of the Heat’s season that the team’s ownership inscribed the accomplishment on the championship rings.

Players have called that day in Toronto one of the most memorable of their careers, and Sunday in Atlanta was a similar experience.

Of course, up until now, little has been memorable about this season, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the Heat is 29-11 through the first 40 games of the season. Last season, before the streak, the team was 28-12 at this point, and on the way to 28-13.

On Monday, the Heat plays the grand finale of an unconventional six-game road trip that has dragged on for 11 days. Miami has played five consecutive games against teams with losing records and will end the road trip against the Hawks (20-19), who have the fourth-best record in the East, but are without their best player, forward Al Horford, for the remainder of the season.

The Heat’s overtime victory against the Bobcats on Saturday salvaged the six-game swing, which began with back-to-back losses to the Knicks and Nets, and gave Miami a chance to break even on a road trip that began with three consecutive losses.

“We haven’t lost three in a row in a very long time, so we got to put together a run and head into this All-Star break and this is the way to do it,” said Heat forward Udonis Haslem, who had 10 rebounds against the Bobcats. “You look at the two teams that we’ve beaten, they’re young, they’re energetic, and even though their record doesn’t say so, those are the teams we struggle with, the teams that are .500 and below, so for us to come out here and be professional and get this win says a lot.”

Of the Heat’s 11 losses, nine have been to teams currently with losing records. The Bobcats were in position to become the 10th team on that inglorious list, but a staunch defensive effort by the Heat forced overtime, and the Heat dominated the extra period for a 104-96 victory.

“We were really upset with ourselves and we had to be honest,” Chris Bosh said of the Heat’s first-half effort against the Bobcats. “Charlotte is a good team, but 60 points in a half is too much. I don’t care if you’re playing the best offensive team in the league, that’s too much.

“They just seemed to be scoring at will, and we wanted to change that. We didn’t do a very good job of defending in the first half, but we picked it up in the second and got the win.”


VIDEO: The top five plays from Sunday’s action around the NBA

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No. 3: Magic hit the floor to end their skid – When you are mired in a complete free-fall, any solution to get out of that mess needs to be considered. For the Orlando Magic, a team that endured a 10-game slide before ending it with a win over Boston Sunday, elbow and knee pads were the solution. Actually, they didn’t sport the elbow and knee pads, but they could have used them with the way they hit the deck repeatedly against the Celtics, according to Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:

After their losing streak reached 10 games, Orlando Magic players and coaches realized something fundamental needed to change. Not X’s-and-O’s, but something intangible.

Players and coaches talked together when they gathered for practice Saturday.

Whatever they had been doing during the first half of the season, and especially during their 10 consecutive losses, wasn’t working. They faced a choice: Either they would make a change and modify their collective spirit, or the second half of their season would devolve into a freefall of epic proportions.

They made that adjustment Sunday night. Magic players repeatedly dove to Amway Center’s parquet floor to collect loose basketballs. They covered for each other when they made defensive lapses. And that sustained intensity and improved cohesion, they said, played a direct role as they beat the Boston Celtics 93-91 and ended their losing streak.

“I could feel no personal agendas,” Arron Afflalo said after the win. “I could feel nothing but five guys who were on the court and the two guys who came off the bench really looking for a way to get a victory tonight.”

Afflalo scored 20 points, tied a career high by grabbing 13 rebounds and dished out six assists.

He also provided one of the game’s key baskets, tying the score 89-89 on a driving layup with 1:08 remaining.

After Rajon Rondo missed a jumper on Boston’s ensuing possession, Jameer Nelson drew a foul with 35.3 seconds left and hit a pair of free throws.

Boston’s Jeff Green countered a few seconds later, scoring on a layup as Afflalo fouled him. But Green missed the foul shot, and Victor Oladipo fell to the floor to corral the loose ball.

“When you have a mindset of just playing hard from the jump, you just continue to play hard,” Oladipo said. “When your teammates have your back, when they’re positive throughout the game, it’s hard not to be involved and it’s hard not to be focused and locked-in all night.”

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No. 4: No slowing down for Dragic without Bledsoe – Goran Dragic doesn’t have the luxury of slowing down at the catalyst for the Phoenix Suns, not without Eric Bledsoe healthy and in the lineup. That means the veteran point guard has to keep his motor cranked constantly for a Suns team trying to stay afloat in the Western Conference playoff chase. Dragic’s ability to sustain his high level of energy could very well be the key to the Suns’ season. He has to hold up. Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic explains:

It is becoming taxing for Suns point guard Goran Dragic to take on more playmaking and more of the burden to score with more defensive attention on him. All the while, he is guarding the playmaker on the other side, a duty that usually fell to Bledsoe.

“I’m not thinking about that,” Dragic said. “If I’m going to think about how I’m tired, then it’s going to be even worse for me. I just try to battle. I try to be positive. I’m from Slovenia so back home it’s no excuse if you’re tired. Even when I was growing up, my father always said there’s going to be some hard days so you have to go through that. You can sleep after the thing that you do, if it’s work or a basketball game. Now, I’m feeling tired. But when the game is going on, I’m not thinking about it so much.”

Dragic had averaged 41.3 minutes over the previous three games entering Sunday night’s game against Denver. He does not back off his effort and now has a collapsing defense concentrating on him too.

“That’s always a concern, trying to keep an eye on a guy’s minutes and seeing if he’s getting worn out,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We’ve had a pretty tough stretch of games where they haven’t had a lot of rest. When we’ve had days off between games, we’ve limited them from really doing anything trying to get their legs back. As we move forward, it doesn’t get any easier but we’ve got to get through that time.”

Dragic gave the Suns control Sunday night with 15 rebounds and six assists and he got some needed rest in return, logging only 24 minutes.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Are there rotation changes coming in Denver? Could be … Jonas Valanciunas gets benched for not producing … The Bucks get yet another lesson, this time from the best in the business … Danny Ainge assess all things for the Celtics at the halfway mark of the season … LaMarcus Aldridge will go left if need be for the Trail Blazers

ICYMI(s) of The Night: DeMar DeRozan has blossomed into a potential All-Star and the scoring leader for the playoff-bound Toronto Raptors. But he’s still one of the league’s elite above-the-rim finishers, as he shows here:


VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan is what we call a finisher, especially above the rim

So … Who Wants To Be No. 1 In The West?

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – We’ve spent two months knee-slapping and belly laughing over the bumbling, stumbling (L)Eastern Conference while keeping nightly tabs on the Western Conference’s conquests over the feeble JV division. The divide’s grown so disproportionate it’s no longer worth counting.

And then something silly happens like Miami going on the road, and without LeBron James in uniform, drop-kicking West-leading Portland. Just like that, all the ribbing of the other side doesn’t seem all that appropriate — or wise. The West might be deeper, but the cream still rises in the East.

The Heat continue to find ways to remind us that they still rule the NBA. And the East, as exasperating as it is to look at teams No. 3-15, is delivering a stout two-team race: Miami and its lone challenger determined to prevent the Heat’s fourth consecutive Finals appearance — the self-assured Indiana Pacers.

The West is not the East. The West is entangled, wild and woolly; a shootout, a grudge match and pure survival every night. Think about this for perspective: The West’s 12th-best team, Memphis, would be fifth in the East. With so many capable teams, an injury here, a cold snap there, a trade down the road can tip the balance of power.

As we steamroll into 2014 and toward the mid-February All-Star weekend and then the trade deadline, these forces are already at work, making the West far more unpredictable than even what we thought at the beginning of the season.

No one team is pulling away. Several have key injuries. And all are not without a potential fatal flaw.

THE UPPER CRUST

Oklahoma  City Thunder (27-7): Russell Westbrook‘s combination of strength, power and speed makes him indispensable to a Thunder title charge. A third surgery in the span of eight months on his right knee is hardly optimum, but at least the last two were both arthroscopies and therefore far less invasive than the original April surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Judging by his rapid return last time and his explosive play, we’ll lean toward Westbrook again returning as if nothing happened (especially since early reports of his recovery already sound encouraging). OKC is better equipped than last season to survive a potential two-month absence. Reggie Jackson is having an excellent season, Serge Ibaka has All-Star credentials, the bench is deep and OKC is committed to elite-level defense. And then there’s that guy Kevin Durant. The Thunder, an impressive 17-5 against the West, remain my pick to be last team standing — as long as Russ can be Russ.


VIDEO: See why OKC’s Kevin Durant was named the Kia Player of the Month winner for December

San Antonio Spurs (26-8): Coach Gregg Popovich bristled at the notion that the Spurs’ win over the Chris Paul-less Clippers on Saturday night should go on the board as a win over a big-boy team. While the Spurs own the second-best record in the West, they’ve done it by rolling everybody but the teams closest to them in the standings. They’re 1-6 against the four other teams that have mostly made up the top five all season (0-1 vs. Portland; 0-2 vs. Oklahoma City; 0-2 vs. Houston; 1-1 vs. the Clips). They’re also 0-1 against Indiana. It certainly does raise eyebrows, but at the same time, it’s not like the Spurs don’t know how to raise their level of play when it counts. Popovich is thinking down the road, too, manipulating his deep roster and spreading minutes. Tony Parker is the only player averaging more than 30 mpg (30.8). San Antonio plays solid defense, Parker remains phenomenal, Manu Ginobili has raised his game and the Spurs can shoot the 3. It’s not quite time to worry that the Spurs are yet again too old to keep up with all of the West’s young bucks.

Portland Trail Blazers (26-8): No one predicted upper-crust status at this point and I even hesitated putting them here now with their recent slowdown. But with wins over San Antonio, Indiana, Houston, the Clippers and two over Oklahoma City (one without Westbrook), it would be unfair to deny this team what they’ve earned. Led by star-in-the-making point guard Damian Lillard and All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, they own the league’s most efficient offense and absolutely shoot the lights out from downtown, already hitting a franchise-record 21 3-pointers in a game twice. While they don’t possess a great defensive rating, they are certainly capable defenders and can surge at that end from time to time. They added nicely to a thin roster with center Robin Lopez and reserve guard Mo Williams, and rookie C.J. McCollum is on his way back. Yet, you have to wonder if they’re ultimately deep enough behind their starting five, and too reliant on the long ball when push comes to shove in the playoffs.


VIDEO: Inside the NBA’s crew discusses Portland’s place among the West’s elite

THE TASTY FILLING

Los Angeles Clippers (24-13): Doc Rivers‘ team has been more inconsistent than many thought, and early on were downright awful defensively. It hasn’t helped that J.J. Redick has been out for five weeks with a fractured hand. Now, of course, comes the ultimate test with Paul sidelined for six weeks with a separated right shoulder. The Clips don’t have an athletic, playmaking wing and will need Jamal Crawford to help take pressure off of Blake Griffin, who will be targeted by every opponent. Bottom line is L.A. will really have to claw to remain in the top five or six in the absence of CP3, the league’s assist leader. L.A.’s defensive rating now ranks eighth and they’ll have to rely on that end of the floor to win games in the interim or else it could mean giving up homecourt advantage in what promises to be a difficult first-round matchup.


VIDEO: The GameTime crew discusses Chris Paul’s injury and its effect on the Clippers

Golden State Warriors (23-13): Early turbulence, namely a hamstring injury to glue guy Andre Iguodala, sent the Warriors into weeks worth of sketchy play. A nine-game win streak has made that slog a distant memory and now the Steph Curry-led Dubs look like the team everybody expected after last season’s playoff breakthrough. As always, this team will go as far as Curry and his fragile ankles (knock on wood) take them, plus the health of center Andrew Bogut, who has managed to play in 35 of 36 games and average double-digit rebounds and 1.74 bpg. The big issue with Golden State is exhaustion. With the reliable Jarrett Jack gone, Toney Douglas has averaged just 11.7 mpg in 21 games. Curry and Klay Thompson are averaging close to 38 mpg, a pace that could take a toll down the road.

Houston Rockets (22-13): We knew it would take some time for this team to come together and they’ve certainly had bouts of inconsistency marked by trouble closing out games. They’re also only 12-11 against the West, meaning they’ve gotten fat off the East. However, they’ve also dealt with injuries to James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley and have managed to hang tough. Dwight Howard (17.8 ppg, 12.9 rpg) has put up good numbers and on some nights he looks like the force he was before these last few years of perplexing indecision. Yet at other times, he still seems to be out of sorts. His presence in the middle hasn’t made the Rockets an elite defensive team, ranking in the middle of the pack.

Phoenix Suns (20-12): The Suns were headed for the next group on our list until some deeper thought got them in at the last second. With two wins against Portland, and wins over Houston, Golden State and a blowout on the Clippers’ home floor, plus a top 10-rated offense and defense, they belong here. The question is can a journeyman like Gerald Green (13.4 ppg, 39.0 3-point FG pct.) and a young, overlooked center like Miles Plumlee (9.9 ppg, 9.2 rpg) continue to produce at their current levels? More than a third of the way through the season, that appears more and more to be yes. Both Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic have been All-Star worthy and with blue-collar workers like P.J. Tucker and the Morris twins, the Jeff Hornacek‘s Suns possess the toughness to compete every night. The hallmark of this club has been one that doesn’t take a play off.


VIDEO: The Starters give Suns coach Jeff Hornacek some props

THE OUTER CRUST 

Dallas Mavericks (19-15): While the Dirk Nowitzki-Monta Ellis combo gained traction early, this team has perhaps irreparable flaws starting with a porous defense. Center Samuel Dalembert is proving unreliable and leaving Dallas severely outmanned in the middle. Point guard Jose Calderon, while being a smart and steady quarterback and an excellent shooter, has seen the West’s athletic point guards exploit his size and lack of foot speed. Even Nowitzki recently questioned his team’s playoff chances after it continues to blow leads.


VIDEO: NBA Action catches up with Mavs guard Monta Ellis

Minnesota Timberwolves (17-17): Perhaps the biggest mystery team of the bunch. Thought to be a playoff team for two seasons now, this time they can’t use injuries as an excuse. Even with Kevin Love putting up monstrous numbers, the Wolves can’t close out games and have lost a handful of games they seemingly had in their back pocket. That’s no way to do business in this conference. Perhaps most perplexing is point guard Ricky Rubio, who has not emerged as an All-Star candidate this season and seems to have little confidence in his shooting ability.

POTENTIAL FILLER

Denver Nuggets (16-17): It’s been a roller coaster season under first-year coach Brian Shaw. A slow start gave way to an impressive winning streak that crumbled into a rather stunning losing streak. More roster shakeup is on the way with disgruntled Andre Miller on the outs. At some point Danilo Gallinari will return from the ACL injury suffered late last season, providing 3-point pop and needed depth. They aren’t hanging their hat at either end of the floor right now, adding skepticism that they can improve enough to nab the final playoff spot.

New Orleans Pelicans (15-17): Anthony Davis is proving why he was the No. 1 pick in 2012, averaging a double-double (19.0 ppg and 10.1 rpg) while leading the league in blocked shots (3.2). Ryan Anderson missed the first part of the season and now is out indefinitely with a herniated disk.  You certainly wonder where this team might be if it had full health (Davis also missed seven games) from the jump. We’ve seen glimpses of how dangerous the backcourt of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans can be. The question is: can do it with consistency?


VIDEO: Inside Stuff catches up with Pelicans star big man Anthony Davis

Memphis Grizzlies (15-18): Under rookie coach Dave Joerger, the Grizz were wobbly before Marc Gasol went down with a knee injury after 13 games, but as he nears a return, there is optimism that he, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Zach Randolph can pull things together and make a run. That’s why they dealt Jerryd Bayless to Boston for a better 3-point shooter (Courtney Lee). If they don’t get things together, Randolph could be on his way out.

MYSTERY INGREDIENT

Los Angeles Lakers (14-20): Will Pau Gasol remain a Laker? Will Kobe Bryant be back sooner than later? Can Steve Nash return with anything left to offer?Can they steady the ship since their swift downturn after Bryant fractured his knee? If the answer to those questions is yes, then it’s possible — not likely — but possible the Lakers can make a second-half charge similar to last year when it appeared they were cooked, yet grabbed the No. 7 seed.

LEFT OUT

Sacramento Kings (10-22): DeMarcus Cousins is putting up All-Star numbers, but the Kings’ poor start negated all the positive preseason momentum.

Utah Jazz (11-25): Rookie Trey Burke is looking good. But Jazz fans had already come to grips that the name of the game is patience as they wait on the youth movement.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 6


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 5

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Nets get good news on Lopez | Cavs have no deals for Bynum | Report: Nuggets trying to deal Miller | Report: Barbosa set for 10-day with Suns | Wade is back … to back

No. 1: Nets get good news on Lopez surgery – Not only are the Brooklyn Nets winning games in 2014, but the reeling franchise got some good news about Brook Lopez after he had surgery this weekend on his right foot. He’s still done for the season, but at least there is light at the end of the injury-filled tunnel for the Nets’ big man, according to Mitch Abramson of the New York Daily News:

For once, the Nets received a bit of good medical news when it comes to an injury. Nets center Brook Lopez underwent successful surgery to fix a fractured fifth metatarsal of his right foot on Saturday morning, and Nets general manager Billy King expects Lopez back for offseason workouts this summer, fully recovered. A second procedure — a first metatarsal osteotomy — was also completed on Saturday to “unload and protect the injured area” and to reposition the bone to lessen the strain and reduce the chance for another injury, according to a press release put out by the Nets. Lopez, who was injured on Dec. 20 at Philly, is out for the remainder of the season.

“With this procedure, we both fixed the broken bone (fifth metatarsal) in Brook’s right foot and repositioned another bone, so that his sole of his foot will bear weight more evenly than before,” said team medical director Dr. Riley Williams, one of three doctors who were involved in the procedure.

Still, despite the positive tone of the statement by Williams, King admitted before Saturday’s game to the uncertainty involved with a surgery such as this.

“They said it was going to be a successful recovery, so I mean, we can’t sit here today on Jan. 4 and say what’s going to be when he starts playing (again),” King said. “We can’t speculate and that’s what I’m not going to do.”

“Right now, he had(the surgery), and I expect him to have a full recovery and be playing next year,” King said.


VIDEO: Take a look at Sunday’s Top 10 plays

***

No. 2: Cavaliers running out of time with Bynum? – The countdown clock is ticking on the Cleveland Cavaliers and their attempts to make something of the mess that is the Andrew Bynum affair. They’ve engaged several teams (most notably the Los Angeles Lakers, for Pau Gasol) in trade talks about their disgruntled center in advance of Tuesday’s deadline, but still have nothing concrete to choose from in terms of options. They’ll obviously push it to the deadline, but there is nothing imminent, writes Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:

Any team that acquires Bynum must waive him by Tuesday in order for him to clear waivers in time to have his salary removed from their cap, but any players the Cavs acquire will have to first pass a physical unless the team agrees to waive it.

ESPN.com reported the Cavs and Lakers were hopeful of completing a deal Sunday for Pau Gasol, but that didn’t happen. Gasol played for the Lakers on Sunday night while the two sides continue negotiating. The Lakers are insisting on assets beyond luxury tax relief, but thus far Cavs General Manager Chris Grant hasn’t budged. The Cavs are offering tax relief and little else.

One source described the talks as stalled late Sunday night, but another source said talks have been off and on throughout the negotiations. No deal is considered dead until 5 p.m. Tuesday, when the deadline is reached for Bynum to be waived for cap relief.

Bynum’s agent, David Lee, said Sunday he has been told nothing by the Cavs. Wherever Bynum is traded, his stay will be brief. He is expected to be released, since only about half of his $12 million contract is guaranteed. Any team that acquires Bynum can waive him without paying him a dollar and shed $12 million off their cap. He will then be free to sign with any team in the NBA, likely for the league minimum.

Cavs coach Mike Brown didn’t want to discuss the trade talks prior to Sunday’s game against the Pacers.

“Those are great questions for Chris,” Brown said. “I’m coaching the guys in the locker room.”

Yahoo! Sports reported Sunday the Lakers were seeking Dion Waiters as part of the trade, but a league source said Sunday the Cavs weren’t interested in parting with Waiters for what will likely be a brief rental of Gasol.

***

No. 3: Report: Nuggets actively looking to deal Miller  – In a loss to the Sixers last week, Nuggets point guard Andre Miller blew up at coach Brian Shaw during the game in a vocal outburst that was witnessed by practically everyone in attendance. As a result of that outburst, Miller was suspended by the team for detrimental conduct, but the team rescinded that move on Friday. Miller was not with the team as he was granted leave to deal with a personal issue, but it seems more and more unlikely that Miller will ever suit up for the Nuggets once he returns, writes Christopher Dempsy of The Denver Post:

Andre Miller, who was excused from all team activities for four days, won’t be part of the Nuggets for long after he returns.

The Nuggets are actively trying to trade Miller, according to a league source. If accomplished, it would be the second time Denver traded him. He was traded in 2006 in a package that brought Allen Iverson to the Nuggets.

It has been a dicey few days for Miller, who had harsh words for Nuggets coach Brian Shaw during Wednesday’s game against Philadelphia. Miller was initially suspended, but then the suspension was rescinded, in part so Miller would be able to continue getting paid during his time off.

Miller has spent all or parts of seven seasons in Denver, in two stints, this latest one starting in 2011, when Portland traded him back to the Nuggets.

***

No. 4: Report: Barbosa set for a (10-day) return to Suns  – Eric Bledsoe‘s knee sprain could be the New Year’s blessing Leandro Barbosa was hoping for as he readies to sign a 10-day contract with the Phoenix Suns, according to a report from Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic. The Suns, who remain one of the surprise teams in the league this season, need the added depth in the backcourt and are turning to a familiar face in Barbosa:

Barbosa has not played in the NBA since Feb.11, 2013, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury while playing for Boston when Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough was the assistant GM there. Barbosa was part of a later trade to Washington but the torn ACL made him just a salary-slotting part of the Jordan Crawford deal while he was at home rehabilitating in Brazil.

After going unsigned this season, Barbosa began playing for Pinheiros in Brazil to try to get his body ready for a NBA opportunity. Barbosa averaged 20.8 points, 3.1 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals in eight games while making half of his 3-pointers.

Barbosa is expected to join the Suns in Chicago, where they begin a five-game road trip Tuesday and where Barbosa made a game-winning shot for the Suns in 2007. The 10-day contract is pending a physical. Barbosa was recently considered by the Lakers, who later signed ex-Suns point guard Kendall Marshall.

Barbosa played the first seven of his 10 NBA seasons with Phoenix, playing a key bench role for the winningest era in franchise history. Barbosa was the 2006-07 Sixth Man Award winner, when he averaged a career-high 18.1 points per game. He averaged at least 13 points for four consecutive Suns seasons and is a 39.1 percent career 3-point shooter.

Barbosa last played with the Suns in 2009-10, when he was bench teammates with current Suns starters Goran Dragic and Channing Frye.

NBA teams can begin signing free agents to 10-day contracts Monday. Signing Barbosa will put the Suns roster at the 15-man maximum.

***

No. 5:  Wade goes back-to-back, ready for the grind? – Dwyane Wade chose the first weekend of the New Year to test himself and his knees to see if he was ready for the grind of the remainder of this NBA regular season. Wade played on back-to-back nights for the first time this season, gauging his own progress from July shock-wave knee therapy, a process that Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel points out, is believed to take six months to recover from. The two-time defending champs can afford him all the time he needs (it’s easier to do with LeBron James and Chris Bosh healthy and rolling) but Wade is ready to push it now. The Heat, by the way, are 4-4 in games Wade has missed this season:

“I just want to be able to go,” he said of Sunday’s start. “I got a good workout in. It felt OK. There’s no guarantees. But there’s got to come a point where I feel comfortable with trying it. So I thought this would be a good time.” …

“It’s getting better,” he said. “I feel like it’s less sore now in the beginning of January than it was in the beginning of December.

“So, it’s all about continuing to progress. So hopefully it’s better as the months go on.”

He wound up playing 35 minutes in Sunday’s 102-97 victory, after playing 36 in Saturday’s victory over the Magic. He closed with 14 points, nine assists and four rebounds, making a pair of critical late free throws.

“He was competitive, particularly in that fourth quarter,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “His legs were live and he had to make some defensive plays at the end.”

Wade has missed eight games this season, seven as part of his knee maintenance program.

The last time Wade played both games of a back-to-back set was Nov. 15-16 against the visiting Dallas Mavericks and at the Charlotte Bobcats. He said he felt compelled to play in Charlotte because of the suspension of starting point guard Mario Chalmers due to a flagrant foul the night before. He scored just four points in that game in Charlotte.

Wade later said he regretted playing on those consecutive nights, sitting out the next two games, inactive for six days.


VIDEO: A career night for Reggie Jackson worked wonders for the Thunder

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kobe Bryant doesn’t want your All-Star votes, and get off his lawn while you’re at it … The Warriors did their best to break the scoreboard Sunday night … Russell Westbrook speaks about his three surgeries since last spring and where he goes from here … The Colts are following the Pacers’ postseason lead in Indianapolis … The Nuggets care, they really do!

ICYMI(s) Of The Night: J.R. Smith continues his weird ways with the New York Knicks, this time checking into the game and promptly going to work on Shawn Marion‘s shoelaces. At least the Knicks won this game without Smith’s antics interrupting their flow …


VIDEO: JR Smith unties Shawn Marion’s shoes at the free throw line

Morning Shootaround – Jan. 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 31

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Suns willing to pay Bledsoe | Raptors react to Gay trade | Raptors rolling | Malone tutors Thomas

No. 1: Suns willing to pay Bledsoe – The Phoenix Suns and Eric Bledsoe have a good thing going this season. With Bledsoe at the helm, Phoenix is off to a surprising 19-11 start and would be the fifth seed in the Western Conference if the playoffs started today. The Suns realize it will cost them to retain Bledsoe during free agency this offseason. But, according to Ramona Shelburne of ESPLA.com, they are willing to spend:

“What he’s done so far is what we thought he could do,” [GM Ryan] McDonough said.

But they just didn’t know for sure.

That’s why when it came time to lock Bledsoe into a contract extension, the Oct. 31 deadline passed without a resolution, making Bledsoe a restricted free agent this summer.

“Sometimes that works out and both parties think it’s a good deal for them. Other times it doesn’t,” McDonough said. “Obviously we don’t have a whole lot of money committed for the future, we don’t have a lot of long-term contracts on our books. So we’ll have no problem stepping up and paying Eric whatever it takes to keep him.”

Whatever it takes?

“Correct,” McDonough said. “Any reasonable offer.

“We have some advantages. We’re able to give him another year, five instead of four if we choose. We’re able to give him higher-percentage increases than other teams too. And then if another team does make an offer, we can always match that. So we feel like we’re holding the cards with Eric, and more importantly, I think Eric’s had a good experience here so far. He’s played well and the team has played fairly well. I think he kind of likes what we’re doing.”

For his part, Bledsoe said he’s fine with the situation.

“I was telling [my agent] over the summer, if the contract doesn’t happen I’m ready to play a full season,” Bledsoe said. “I was confident because I’d worked hard all summer, and I knew that I was going to play a lot more than I did the last three years, so I was ready.”

When that came to bear, Bledsoe said he put the situation out of his mind.

“I’ve just got to play,” he said. “I’m focused. I need to keep moving. I’m not worried about [the contract]. If I get worked up about it, I won’t be focused on the game.”

***

No. 2: Raptors React to Gay Trade — Mostly every NBA player realizes that this league is a business and trades happen. Still, this knowledge does not make receiving the news of a trade any easier for players to hear. NBA-TV Canada offers us a rare look at how the Toronto Raptors reacted to the news of a trade on a recent episode of their series Open Gym (reaction starts around the 10:00 minute mark):

***

No. 3: Raptors RollingThose same Raptors who were shocked to hear about their friends being traded have bounced back just fine. They’ve won five of their last six games and appear to be a rare team in the Eastern Conference who can actually win. And they’re doing it with toughness, a word rarely used to describe the Raptors in recent seasons, writes Doug Smith of the Toronto Star:

Once again turning up the intensity, the attention to detail, the effort and the toughness when it came down to winning time, the Raptors rolled in another excellent fourth quarter, holding the Bulls to just four field goals on 24 shots in the final 12 minutes of an 85-79 victory.

They did it in what is becoming typical Raptors fashion: Turning the screws when the game got tight.

“These are the kinds of games you have to play if you’re going to be serious about being a playoff team,” coach Dwane Casey said after the Raptors won for the fifth time in the last six games and seventh time in the last nine.

“We have to play with that kind of toughness, that physicality, if we’re serious about being a playoff team.”

Toughness was the buzzword of the night for a game that at times was barely watchable. There were no moments of sustained offensive flow, no fast breaks or transition baskets; it was tough, hard-nosed, beat-’em-up basketball and the Raptors never retreated an inch.

Digest that for a moment: A team that used to have a reputation for softness more than anything, hit first, hit often, hung around and beat a veteran team at its own game.

“You have to meet their force with force if you’re serious about winning,” said Casey. “We did that and we have to continue to do that and I’m not going to let up. I’m not going to relent from that because that’s who we are, it’s who we’ve got to be. I know, to win in this league you have to be a physical, bad-behind team.”

[Demar] DeRozan was, for one of the few times this season, a non-factor offensively because every time he got near the ball, a second or third defender was there to harass him.

“If I have to be the decoy and that helps the next person on this team get an open shot, I’m all for it,” he said. “It’s at the point now where I know I can score the ball whenever I want, but if they don’t need me to do that at that point in time, then I will do whatever I can, whether it’s rebounding, creating a shot for a teammate or whatever it is to get us a win, that’s what I’m going to have to do.”

That attitude is all-encompassing with this group right now.

“I think the guys in this locker room believe — we believe in each other, we believe in what we’re trying to do,” said Lowry. “I think we know we have a chance to do some things and we can take care of business when times are tough. We’re showing the team camaraderie and spirit that we have, we’re all happy for each other.”

.***

No. 4: Malone Tutors ThomasSacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas has proven so far this year that his strong play last season was not just a fluke. He’s averaging 19.2 points, 6.1 assists and 1.4 steals per game on an impressive 46.5 percent shooting from the field and 42.5 percent from three-point. He credits a lot of his success to the relationship he’s established with new head coach Michael Malone. Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee has the lowdown:

The partnership between Michael Malone and Isaiah Thomas continues to develop as the coach consults the point guard on the best ways to improve the Kings.Malone said fixing some of the Kings’ late-game problems comes down to him calling better plays, and that’s where his relationship with Thomas can help.

“Those things take time,” Malone said. “And one thing I like about Isaiah is we’ve had a lot of conversations, a lot of dialogue, and he’s open, wants to learn and he’s trying to figure it out. It’s not a lack of effort. It’s just a matter of going through it and picking the spots for when do I attack.”

Thomas has referenced Malone and himself more often when talking about plays the Kings should run and the best way to get the ball to players. He and Malone spend a lot of time talking about the Kings.

“On flights sitting together, before practice, after practice, we’ve had a lot of conversations,” Malone said. “Before games where we’ve sat and spent whether it’s been 20 minutes, 45 minutes just talking about the game, players, where guys are most effective, where he can pick his spots. We’ve had a number of conversations.”

Malone’s goal is to create synergy between himself and Thomas because he plays most of the minutes at point guard.

“Isaiah’s got to be an extension of me on the court,” Malone said. “He’s got to make sure he’s getting guys looks, know what plays to call, now what matchups he’s going to exploit and how to get those guys going where they’re most effective, and that’s part of his maturation of going from being a scoring guard off the bench to being a playmaking guard.”

Malone said consulting with Thomas or any other player is part of his job and he wants his players’ input.

“I preach trust a lot, and if I don’t trust my players, it’s just a hollow word,’ Malone said.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kyle Korver has now hit a three-point shot in 101 straight gamesKevin Garnett went without a field goal for just the second time in his careerKyrie Irving will undergo an MRI on Wednesday after feeling a ‘pop’ in his left knee

ICYMI of The Night: Paul George decided to end 2013 on a strong note with this dunk toward the conclusion of yesterday’s game against the Cavaliers:


VIDEO: Play of the Day: Paul George

Injuries Open Spots, But Picking All-Star Guards Won’t Be Easy


VIDEO: Russell Westbrook will be out until after the All-Star break

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Kobe Bryant is going to win a starting job on the Western Conference All-Star team. A second round of returns has the Lakers star well ahead in votes among the West’s legion of worthy backcourt candidates. Bryant has played in just six games and although he could return from a fractured knee in time to play in the Feb. 16 All-Star Game at New Orleans, let’s assume that he will not play.

NBA All-Star 2014Oklahoma City’s injured point guard Russell Westbrook was well on his way to a fourth consecutive selection as one of seven reserves to be picked by Western Conference coaches until Friday’s stunning announcement that he underwent a third surgery on his troubled right knee. Westbrook will not be back in time for the All-Star Game.

That leaves (potentially) two backcourt spots up for grabs.

But first, ink Chris Paul in as the starter at point guard. He’s second in fan voting and in all likelihood won’t come close to relinquishing that spot as an automatic starter. Golden State’s Stephen Curry, last season’s sympathy case as the most notable snub, is third in fan voting and should start at shooting guard.

Now comes the difficult part for the West’s coaches: There’s so many worthy point guards — just point guards — that you could select an All-Point-Guard All-Star team even without Westbrook. Check this out:

PG: Paul

SG: Curry

SF: Damian Lillard

PF: Eric Bledsoe

C: Ricky Rubio

Bench: Tony Parker, Ty LawsonMike Conley, Jrue Holiday

OK, so it takes some of imagination there, but you get the idea how deep the West is at the quarterback position. Then you’ve got the shooting guards to consider. James Harden figures to be a lock for a second consecutive selection. And what about Klay Thompson, Monta Ellis, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Wesley Matthews and Jamal Crawford, who felt he got dissed last year? Even 36-year-old Manu Ginobili can make a compelling case.

There’s plenty of basketball to go before fan voting ends on Jan. 20 (the starters will be announced on Jan. 23) and until the reserves are announced soon after, so selections could become more crystallized by then. But probably not.

So of five guards to get a 2014 All-Star nod, here’s my early locks: Paul and Curry as the starters with Harden as a reserve. That leaves two spots open.

Let’s begin with the power of elimination. As strong as they’ve been, apologies to Martin, Dragic, Matthews and Crawford. Holiday was an East All-Star last year and benefited from Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose being hurt, and even though he’s a hometown Pelican, I’m not seeing it. Rubio has gone from the magician everybody wants to see up close to standing in the back of the line.

Onto the rest. This is going to be tough and there could be not one, not two, not three … but even more deserving guards taking the snub.

Here’s a brief comparison of a few of the backcourt candidates that I don’t consider to be locks (in no particular order):

>Parker, Spurs – Scoring (17.8 ppg) and assists (6.0) are down, but he’s the irreplaceable team catalyst, San Antonio is rolling and it’s hard to see him not making it

>Lillard, Blazers – As clutch as any player going, the reigning Rookie of the Year is averaging 21.1 ppg, 5.8 apg and is shooting 43.1 percent on 3s for a team that’s taken the league by storm

>Bledsoe, Suns – A fearless competitor, has meshed beautifully with Dragic while averaging 18.4 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.3 rpg and is shooting 49.2 percent overall for arguably the most surprising team in the league

>Ellis, Mavericks – He’s turned analytics on its head, averaging an efficient 20.7 ppg — highest since 2007-08 — and 5.8 apg, and he’s as exciting swooping to the cup as anyone

>Lawson, Nuggets – He’s slowed a bit as the team has struggled recently, but still putting up 17.5 ppg, 7.9 apg and 3.4 rpg in a new, slower-tempo system

>Thompson, Warriors – The other half of the Splash Brothers, he’s scoring 19.6 ppg on 43.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc, plus 2.7 apg and 3.3 rpg.

>Conley, Grizzlies – He’s been garnering greater respect for a few seasons now and while the team has struggled, especially without fellow All-Star Marc Gasol, Conley’s averaging 17.0 ppg, a career-best, and 6.2 apg

Making A List, Checking It Twice …

We’re making a list, checking it twice. On Christmas Eve, it’s time to remember who’s been naughty or nice in the first two months of the 2013-14 season:

Naughty — Nets — There isn’t enough coal in Newcastle to fill up the deservingly drooping stocking that hangs over a forlorn and underachieving mantle in Brooklyn. Why would anyone think it would make sense to trade for 37-year-old Kevin Garnett, 36-year-old Paul Pierce, 36-year-old Jason Terry as part of $102 million-payroll and put the whole thing in the hands of a guy who had never coached a game in his life? Then Jason Kidd gets extra naughty by intentionally spilling a drink when he doesn’t have a timeout against the Lakers. They have a mediocre offense and the 29th-rated defense. Now they lose Brook Lopez to a broken foot. So it won’t be a Happy New Year either, Billy King.

Nice — LaMarcus Aldridge — From Damian Lillard to Nicolas Batum to Robin Lopez to coach Terry Stotts, there are many contributors to the rousing start to the season by the surprising Trail Blazers with the best record in the league. But no one has done more to elevate his game and his team to the elite level than Aldridge. He labored faithfully through seven seasons with a roster that virtually fell apart around his ears, listened to so much talk of trades and has come back to deliver a magnificent season that has him firmly in the MVP conversation.

Naughty — Knicks — Remember when they used to play basketball in New York? The Manhattan edition of the NBA can’t shoot, doesn’t rebound and Carmelo Anthony is saying the Knicks’ troubles are all in their heads. Would that be the heads of the players and the coach who can’t think to call a timeout in the final seconds to set up a shot? If things don’t turn around fast, Mike Woodson’s going to be the fall guy even though there have been enough injuries to fill an ER and the myth of the Knicks as true playoff contenders entering the season was no more real than a team of flying reindeer pulling a sleigh across the sky.

Nice — Suns — If you went to a Las Vegas sports book during training camp and plopped down a sizable lump of cash on the Suns to beat the over/under prediction of 21.5 wins, you’d probably be only a week or two away from returning to book a penthouse suite with your winnings. First-year coach Jeff Hornacek has his club riding the backcourt pairing of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic with a rotating cast of other contributors to a 17-10 record and a spot right in the thick of the tough Western Conference playoff race. When the Spurs were in town last week, the entire Phoenix roster had played the same number of NBA games in their careers combined as 37-year-old Tim Duncan.

Naughty — Ricky Rubio — Sure, it’s fun to sit in front of the big screen TV and keep hitting the rewind button on the DVR to replay all of those behind-the-back, no-look, over-the-shoulder, through-the-opponent’s-legs, thread-the-needle, oh-my-gosh, how-did-he-do-that, head-on-a-swivel, slicker-than-a-greased eel passes that get his teammates easy layups and dunks. But come on, two years plus into your NBA career, you’ve got to be able to knock down a wide open jump shot when teams give them to you. Which they do and which you don’t. Which is a big part of the reason why your Timberwolves are healthy and still underperforming.

Nice — Kevin Love — After missing 91 games over the past two seasons to injury, Love’s return to good health and a nightly spot in the lineup has been a sight sweeter than sugar plums dancing in the Timberwolves’ heads. How does a guy who is always a threat to score 30 points and pull down 20 rebounds get better? He becomes a better passer, nearly doubling his assists to 4.2 per game. Outside of The King down in South Beach, there’s just nobody in the league you can count on more every night.

Naughty — Grizzlies — There are more excuses than places to hear the blues in Memphis. But the bottom line is that even before Marc Gasol was sidelined with a knee injury, the Grizzlies were going south. They simply haven’t bought into new coach Dave Joerger, still can’t shoot from the perimeter and Zach Randolph seems to have lost his inspiration. The Grind House was a fun place while it lasted.

Nice — LeBron James — Maybe the only thing that stops him from winning MVP No. 5 — and third in a row — is boredom. Not his. Ours. He’ll never completely win over the entire public the way Michael Jordan did simply because of the times in which we live. The age of social media allows critics to throw stones and pick nits. There has simply never been anyone this big and this strong and this fast and this complete with still such a large part of the meat of his career ahead of him.

Naughty — Westbrook critics — Now that Russell Westbrook has recovered from two surgeries, returned to the Thunder lineup and shown not the slightest loss of his swagger, is there anyone who still thinks Kevin Durant and the OKC franchise would be better off without him?

Nice —Kendrick the Bouncer — It had to bring a smile to the face — if not a tear to the eye — of every old school scrapper who’s ever laced up a pair of sneakers and just gone after it when Kendrick Perkins unceremoniously ran Joakim Noah out of the Thunder locker room. That’s enough of the 21st century touchy-feely, we’re-all-buddies atmosphere that persists these days. Not enough get-outta-my-face growling between rivals. A team’s locker room is its castle and the only thing that could have made it better is if Perk dumped him into a moat.

Naughty — Omer Asik — Let’s see. For two seasons in Chicago you were averaging just 13 minutes per game and getting relative peanuts. The Rockets signed you to a free agent contract that pays $25 million over three years and last season you started all 82 games and averaged a double-double. That’s nice. But then they signed All-Star Dwight Howard in July. He’s much, much better. You’re still getting your $25 million. Didn’t you read the line about you better not pout? So we’re making our list, checking it twice and — ho-ho-ho — you’re definitely on it.

Blogtable: How High For The Suns?

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.


Suns’ ceiling | The NBA’s Top Two | Kobe and the Lakers



VIDEO: The Beat: Ryan McDonough talks Suns

Suns: Great story. But how far can this team go?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: C’mon, it’s early. The Suns have done a number of impressive things so far. While no one should be surprised that a Jeff Hornacek-coached squad can shoot (46.5 FG%, sixth best) and score (sixth in offensive rating, 105.8), it is worth noting Phoenix’s 13-5 record when not playing the second of back-to-back games. And its 11-7 mark within the West (2-1 vs. Portland). Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe drive that team, and contributions have come from unheralded sources. Still, there’s miles to go – now sixth in the West, they’re only 4 ½ games from 13th. They’re a feel-good story that Phoenix fans haven’t embraced (last in the league in attendance) but they still don’t seem like a playoff team in that conference.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The Suns are a nice story.  Coach Jeff Hornacek has them getting the most out of the abilities and driving hard against all of the preseason expectations about being last in the Western Conference.  But they still lack size, inside presence and formidable defense.  At this point it’s not out of the question that they could sneak into the playoffs, but that’s counting on the Timberwolves, Lakers and Grizzlies to all remain lost.

Eric Bledsoe (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Eric Bledsoe (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: They’re 25 games in so this is not a mirage. They quickly built a nice foundation on defense and head-down hustle that keeps them in most games. The backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic has been terrific. Channing Frye has heated up after a slow start to his feel-good return. Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green are co-candidates for Surprise Player of the Year. The Morris Brothers and P.J. Tucker never stop working. How far can they go? They’re not going to win the title, but for a team predicted to fall short of 25 wins, yeah, they can stay in the playoff hunt.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comThe playoffs are realistic. I wouldn’t say it’s a clear path to the postseason, but the Suns have blown every other expectation to bits, so why not that one as well? They’re pretty good on defense and efficient on offense, especially considering it’s a lot of new players adjusting to a new system while dealing with some injuries and comebacks. I won’t say they win a playoff series, so getting to the final eight in the West will be the (huge) accomplishment. But, again, it’s been proven Phoenix doesn’t care much about predictions

John Schuhmann, NBA.com:  I thought they were the worst team in the league after the Gortat trade, and I’m willing to admit to my mistakes. But I’m not yet willing to say that they’re a playoff team in the Western Conference. Right now, they rank sixth offensively and 17th defensively. The offense doesn’t seem sustainable, because 14 of their 23 opponents have been bottom-10 defensive teams and both Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic are both shooting well above their career marks. The defense, meanwhile, has regressed quite a bit; It ranks 27th over the last month, having allowed 106.7 points per 100 possessions. So, while I love watching them play and think Jeff Hornacek deserves a ton of credit, I’m leery of their success and I think these next five games – against the Parker-less Spurs, the Nuggets, the Mavs, the Lakers and the Warriors – could go a long way in determining where they stand.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comUnlike that fellow surprise story in Portland, I’m not convinced the Suns are built for a deep playoff run or anything like that. They are indeed a great early season surprise. And they are plenty fun to watch, with Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic playing lights out in the backcourt and Jeff Hornacek making his case for Coach of the Year honors. But I’m still a bit hesitant to crown these guys without seeing them finish five games above .500 in their 23-game stretch of the season. That said, I absolutely love the scrappy nature of this bunch and the way they go after teams. The fearlessness they’ve shown night after night helps dispel the notion that teams and players that are pegged for the lottery don’t care about winning. The Suns are making a mockery of all those folks who mocked them heading into this season. And that’s a feel-good story I’ll enjoy for as long as it lasts.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: Isn’t the real question: How far do they want to go? I’m being generous here, but there are many teams in the NBA this season who seem to have winning buried deep somewhere on their list of primary goals for this season. I know that many people thought the Suns would fall into this category, but as it turns out, if you play hard for 48 minutes, you can win some games! To be clear: Even at full strength, they are not going to challenge for a title, but they could mess around and contend for the eighth spot in the playoffs or at least mess up what some other quality teams are trying to do. I think the real sign of their intentions this season will come when Emeka Okafor gets healthy and cleared to play. Will they use him and continue winning games, maybe more than they want to win? Or will they trade him for future considerations and basically say that the future outweighs the present?

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: The West is way too strong to have a surprise team making it to the playoffs. So, despite how much I really like what the Suns are doing right now and their awesome Bledsoe-Dragic duo, I think it’s going to be really hard for them to reach the postseason. Teams like the Warriors, the Timberwolves and even the new Kings (not to mention the Lakers) could eventually overcome them. Unless they are willing to give up one of their 2014 first round picks to get instant help …

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: We’re still only in December and therefore should not get too ahead of the calendar. But even if Phoenix does manage to maintain its solid start, I wouldn’t have them going any further than the first round of the 2014 playoffs. The postseason is about All-Stars and Phoenix is lacking on that count. Remember, the Nuggets were the third best in the West last season and yet they lost to the more talented Golden State Warriors in the first round of the 2013 playoffs.