HANG TIME, Texas — Apparently George Gervin had a golf date. So the Spurs picked up Tracy McGrady for their playoff run.
While T-Mac is only 33 years old, it’s been a long time since he gave coach Gregg Popovich nightmares with that amazing 13-points-in-35-seconds flash fire in Houston. Dec. 12, 2004, to be exact, back in the days when the 6-foot-8 McGrady was athletic, graceful, high-flying and could do virtually anything he wanted on a basketball court.
But since averaging 21.6 points for the Rockets in the 2007-08 season, McGrady has undergone microfracture surgery on his left knee, come back to earth with his game and was out of the NBA after sitting on the bench in Atlanta last season. Coach Gregg Popovich will likely use him in limited minutes to back up Kawhi Leonard at small forward after waiving veteran Stephen Jackson last week.
McGrady is eligible for the playoffs because he was not on an NBA roster at any time this season. His size can pick up a few rebounds and he’s always been a willing and adept passer. But the explosiveness that used to get him to the basket is gone and now he’s merely a jump-shooter.
McGrady averaged 25 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.6 steals in 29 games this season in the Chinese Basketball Association, but was not able to lift the Qingdao Double Star Eagles, who finished 8-24 and in last place in the 17-team league.
Joining the Spurs would seem to give McGrady the chance to fill that one glaring hole in his resume. He is currently the only NBA scoring champ in history to never win a single series and advance to the second round of the playoffs.
“I’m just glad to be part of this environment,” McGrady told Chris Broussard of ESPN via text. “Something I never experienced while being my best.”
San Antonio always been a no-nonsense organization that rarely makes excuses and McGrady’s has been a career full of them, leaving a trail of recrimination in his wake from Orlando to Houston to New York to Detroit to Atlanta.
With Manu Ginobili trying to make a playoff comeback from a bad hamstring, Tony Parker not up to form since he suffered a severely sprained left ankle in early March and Jackson now banished, the Spurs search for an offensive boost going into the playoffs is bordering on desperate.
OKLAHOMA CITY – The historic impact of the supremacy of LeBron James and Kevin Durant is impossible to ignore. Legends are being made before our eyes, and before All-Star weekend arrives, the NBA gives us the final regular-season meeting between two of the most uniquely gifted players compiling two of the most individually intriguing seasons ever.
No, it’s not a stretch to make such a pronouncement about two players dominating individually and who also have their teams positioned for ultimate goal: a potential NBA Finals rematch in June.
James, built like a bull at 6-foot-9 and 25o pounds and defying every traditional position on the floor, is averaging 27.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg and 6.9 apg. He’s shooting 56.5 percent overall and 42.0 percent from beyond the arc. The Heat (35-14) have won six in a row and lead the Eastern Conference by three games.
Durant is listed at 6-foot-9, but everybody knows his 235 pounds (probably a stretch) are spread out over a near-7-foot frame and boasts a ridiculously wide wing span. He’s averaging 29.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg and 4.4 apg. He’s shooting 51.9 percent overall, 43.2 percent on 3s and 90.4 percent from the free-throw line. The Thunder (39-13) own the league’s best point-differential at plus-9.1, although they trail San Antonio by one game in the loss column.
When it comes to LeBron and KD, no matter the era, the numbers don’t lie.
“They’re two unique bodies and two unique styles of play,” said former Atlanta Hawks great and 1986 scoring champ Dominique Wilkins. “Totally different, but with the same efficiency. The thing with these guys is you rarely see them take a lot of bad shots. That’s why they shoot the percentages they are. When guys have great shooting percentages, they limit their bad shot attempts. That’s what both those guys have done.”
James floats into Thursday’s game at Oklahoma City (8 p.m. ET, TNT) on a run for the ages as the only player in NBA history to reel off six consecutive 30-point games while shooting better than 60 percent in each. And forget about 60 percent, James is 66-for-92 in those games for a blistering, almost unbelievable, 71.7 percent.
It’s the kind of stretch that has practically assures him of joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to twice win consecutive MVP awards. And if he does win it this season, James and Bill Russell will be the only players named MVP four times in five seasons. Oscar Robertson – perhaps the player James most resembles — stopped Russell’s run at three in a row in 1963-64. Russell followed the next season by winning it again.
Derrick Rose‘s awesome 2010-11 MVP season stopped James at two straight and Rose could ultimately prevent him from being the first player to ever have won it five consecutive seasons.
Still, a fourth MVP would already give LeBron, at age 28, more than the three won by Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Moses Malone, while tying him with Wilt Chamberlain andmoving him one away from matching Michael Jordan and Russell at five. A sixth would put LeBron with Abdul-Jabbar on the mountaintop.
In any other season, Durant would be the frontrunner for his first MVP. As it is, he’s locked in a battle with Carmelo Anthony for a fourth consecutive scoring title — both lead the league at 29.0 ppg. Only Wilt (1959-66) and Jordan (1986-93), each with seven consecutive scoring titles, have won more than three in a row.
Durant is one of just five players to claim three straight: Jordan (1995-98), George Gervin (1977-80), Bob McAdoo (1973-76), Neil Johnston (1952-55) and George Miken (1948-51).
If Durant — who is also on pace to notch the ultra-rare 50-40-90 season (50 percent field goals, 40 percent 3-pointers, 90 percent free throws) – claims the scoring title, he will tie Allen Iverson and Gervin — the player Durant is most often compared to because of his slender frame and cool demeanor — with four.
Even if Durant doesn’t pick up his fourth in a row, at only 24 years old, he’s still lined up to threaten Jordan’s unprecedented, and once thought to be untouchable, 10 scoring titles.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – With all due respect to Warriors coach Mark Jackson and his view of basketball history, we have to pick a bit of a fight with him about the subjectivity of his ranking of the NBA’s greatest shooting guards.
“When you take Michael Jordan and you take Kobe Bryant out of the discussion, he’s as good as any two-guard that has ever played the game.”
While I was lucky enough to witness some of Miller’s best years with the Pacers and have a deep appreciation for what it takes to play at the level he did for so long, I’m not sure I can abide by Jackson’s assessment when presented with the long list of distinguished shooting guards that have graced the game.
Let’s see … (and these names are no particular order) George Gervin, Jerry West, Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade, Clyde Drexler, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Ray Allen, Joe Dumars and “Pistol” Pete Maravich are names that certainly come to mind when the discussion turns to the top shooting guards of all time.
Miller is no doubt an all-time great and everything you’d ever want in a Hall of Famer.
Occasionally, Smith would push open the door to let the sounds of dance music come and poke his head inside.
“Hey, Charles!” he would call out. “Look, it’s Mark Madsen! And Zan Tabak! Oh, Charles, look! It’s Jack Haley! Can you believe it? Jack Haley!”
It was a fantastic skit and all Barkley could do was shake his head and laugh, because, of course, after 16 often-mind-blowing seasons, he left the NBA ringless.
So here we are just hours from the start of the 2011 NBA Finals that feature LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki as unfulfilled stars, pondering again the question for the ages: Does greatness require a ring?
Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes 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.
Ray Allen: Best pure shooter the NBA has ever seen? If not, who’s your favorite?
David Aldridge: I never thought I’d say anyone was a better pure shooter than Dale Ellis — when Dale was on, the net didn’t move — but Ray is. Reggie was a great, great shooter but I think Ray has him beat, too. Everyone has their favorite spots on the court but it seems like Ray is more comfortable in more places than anyone I’ve seen (and I didn’t see the likes of Jerry West or Sam Jones in person).
Steve Aschburner: I’m always leery of superlatives in a public forum, because the moment you proclaim anyone or anything to be the “-est” in some category, someone or something pops up whom you neglected. Also, our culture’s collective memory goes back approximately 37 minutes, so it’s easy to forget or underrate someone from way back when. I can’t say with certainty that there’s anyone who was a better pure shooter than Allen, but I can produce a list of fellows who’d be in the discussion. Such as: Drazen Petrovic, Jeff Hornacek, Peja Stojakovic, Glen Rice, George Gervin, Ricky Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Rick Barry, Chris Mullin and of course Reggie Miller. Then there’s my favorite, especially as the stakes went up: Larry Bird.
Fran Blinebury: Jerry West, Rick Barry, Pete Maravich, Bob McAdoo, Freddie Brown, Dale Ellis, Reggie Miller and Ray Allen are one helluva hallelujah chorus when it comes to making the nets sing. But front man will always be Larry Bird — for the form, the clutch makes, for the cold-blooded confidence. At the 1988 All-Star Weekend in Chicago, he walks into the locker room prior to the 3-Point Shoot-out and asks: “Who’s going to finish second?” ‘Nuff said.
Art Garcia: Since I can’t include Jimmy Chitwood — the question does specify NBA — I’ll go through some of my favorite marksmen over my years watching the grand game. In no particular order other than rough chronology, I’d throw these guys into my list of faves: Larry Bird, Dale Ellis, Mark Price, Steve Kerr, Allan Houston, Glen Rice, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Peja Stojakovic. But above all, I’m going with Ray Allen. The release, the timing, the fundamentals, the temperament. All pure.
Scott Howard-Cooper: I’m not sure he’s even the best in the game now, never mind ever. Part of the debate is defining “pure shooter.” Does that mean strictly a catch-and-shoot guy? Dirk Nowitzki is a special talent, but with a repertoire that spans from the dangerous range of a spot-up shooter to fall-aways. Steve Nash is historically good as a perimeter threat, but never will never be among the scoring greats because so much of his focus has been getting the ball to other people. Allen definitely has the pure-shooter element, though, with the lightning release and feathery, arcing shot. He’s definitely very high in the discussion, along with Reggie Miller and others. I’m just not sure he’s ahead of Larry Bird.
Shaun Powell: Strictly from a visual standpoint, Allen’s form is so perfect, it should be a logo. The levitation, the soft yet secure grip, the fingertip release and follow through, so velvet. Best pure shooter? Best I ever saw. I notice you didn’t say best all-around shooter, though. While Ray could probably knock a tangerine through a loop earring, give me Steve Nash, whose career numbers are 90 percent from the line and 43 from 3-point, all the more impressive because of the added burden of ball-handling. And his hair often obstructing the view.
John Schuhmann: When I was covering the Heat-Celtics series last April, I showed up a few hours early for one of the games at American Airlines Arena. When I got there, I walked out to the court and encountered the Heat dancers warming up to my right and Ray Allen shooting to my left. And when it came to deciding which of the two to sit down and watch, the former NBA.com Dance Team Bracket champions were no match for the greatest shooter ever. His form is perfect, he’s shooting better than ever, and he’s been ridiculously clutch since arriving in Boston.
Sekou Smith: I’d love to hand Ray the crown since I’ve watched his entire (future) Hall of Fame career play out. But someone I know and trust, someone who has seen roughly 40 more years of basketball than I have so far in my life, warned me against calling anyone the “best ever” without careful examination. It’s easy to hand Allen the title right now because all of the other contenders can’t make a live impression upon us, since they’re no longer playing in the league. Allen is no doubt the best pure shooter of his era and certainly in the conversation for the best pure shooter the league has ever seen. And there is no doubt that he will finish his career as the most prolific 3-point shooter in NBA history. But I think this is a question that requires more than just a casual conversation. We’d need to slice and dice this topic in so many different ways (best from distance, best from the mid-range, best off the dribble, on the run, etc.) before we could come close a conclusion. There have been too many great pure shooters to come through the NBA for me to hand the title to Ray Allen, or anyone else, right now. As far as my favorite, I’ve always felt like Larry Bird’s stroke was sweeter than anything I’ve seen.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Getting a glimpse of Tim Duncan‘s first NBA basket reminds you of many of the nearly 8,000 other shots he’s made during his Hall of Fame career.
No flash or anything extra, just a man doing his workmanlike best to get the job done. It’s a shame we need to be dazzled to take notice of greatness.
It pains us that we only step back and appreciate Duncan’s exploits when he passes a milestone the way he did Friday night in Utah, becoming the leading scorer in Spurs’ NBA history with 20,810 points — to old school hoops heads Duncan is still 2,792 points behind “The Iceman,” George Gervin, who dropped 23,602 points during his Hall of Fame career that three seasons with the ABA Spurs.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich summed it up best:
“There’s no flash, no beating the chest. Just go up and down the court, go home and get a sandwich.”
Duncan’s big night was celebrated appropriately, they won in Utah for the first time since April 2009 and improved to 10-1 for the first time … which was perhaps the most surprising development of the night.
And history will be much kinder than we are to one of the game’s truly all-time great talents. Whatever Duncan lacks in sizzle he makes up tenfold in substance.
When you pass up the likes of Gervin and David Robinson on the career list for anything, you know you’re in elite company. And that’s why we’re going to spend the 24 hours after Duncan’s fabulous Friday night celebrating him the way he should be celebrated. Why wait until he’s done to show him the proper respect he deserves?
So we’re officially declaring this Duncan Appreciation Day here at the hideout (we make up our own holidays around here), a day when we sit back and enjoy a guy while he’s still getting it done.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS –Phil Jackson doesn’t have to say anything.
We already know.
The Lakers continue to struggle on the road and their head coach, superstar (Kobe Bryant) and fan base (Laker Nation) realize that the aura of dominance most of us assumed was on the way after they won the title last year seems to have evaporated this season, especially when the Lakers take their show on the road.
Being taken down by a (Chris Paul-led) Hornets team that has been out of playoff contention since Christmas does not inspire championship confidence this close to the playoffs.
The Lakers’ 22-15 road record isn’t anything to dismiss. It’s the teams they’ve lost to that have most of us raising eyebrows. Since Christmas the Lakers have dropped games in Phoenix, Portland, San Antonio, Cleveland, Toronto, Orlando, Miami, Charlotte, Dallas, Memphis, Oklahoma City and now New Orleans.
Only the Cavaliers and Magic could be considered equals.
“Bryant obviously didn’t like what he saw unfolding in front of him. He had 31 points and Pau Gasol had 26 points and 22 rebounds, but there was almost nothing else to appease the Lakers’ superstar, in case the brief postgame transcript didn’t prove the point.
What’s happening out there in games such as this one and last Friday in Oklahoma City?
“Just didn’t play well,” Bryant said.
He seemed upset at the end. What was going through his mind?
“Just didn’t play well,” he repeated.
How quickly can the Lakers turn it around with the playoffs starting in fewer than three weeks?
“We don’t have a choice,” he said.
Is he frustrated? Disappointed? He answered no to both.
What needed to be done Monday to get a victory?
“Had to play better,” Bryant said.
On offense or defense?
“A combination of all.”
Why so few words?
“For my own good,” he said.
He was asked whether he would provide more insight Tuesday and walked away from a semicircle of reporters.
In the final minute of the game, Bryant was called for a foul on Paul in the backcourt and yelled at referee Mark Lindsay. A timeout was called with 38.1 seconds to play, which is when Bryant punched the chair as he approached the Lakers’ bench. After the game, he briefly hugged Paul and walked directly to the locker room.
“Nobody likes to lose,” Gasol said. “He’s our leader, he’s our main guy and we hate losing. I’m sure that’s part of his frustration, that’s where it’s coming from.”
They’ll get a chance to fix whatever ails them Wednesday night just blocks from the hideout here when they invade Philips Arena to face the Hawks.
We will be there to see for ourselves if hey can right their wrongs on the road.
Jean-Jacques Taylor of the Dallas Morning News: “Few big games exist in the monotony known as the NBA’s regular season. But the Mavs’ game against Denver on Monday qualified as one. The Nuggets, who eliminated the Mavs in five games during the playoffs last year, entered the game trailing Dallas by a half-game for the second seed in the Western Conference. No more. The revamped Mavs delivered a butt-kicking to Denver as they should have, 109-93, and claimed the season series in the process, which means they own any tiebreakers. These teams don’t like each other, in part because Denver tries to punk the Mavs at every opportunity. The ink-stained wretches – the Nuggets must have more collective tattoos than any other NBA team – love to bully and intimidate their opponents. They didn’t get a chance to do it in this game because the Mavs seized control in the first quarter and led by as many as 17 in the third quarter. The Nuggets made a run as NBA teams do, closing within three, but the Mavericks held on until they found their offensive flow again. Actually, they let Dirk Nowitzki take over. Nowitzki made a season-high four 3-pointers and finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds and – get this – 10 assists for his second career triple-double. We shouldn’t be surprised about the blowout. Not really. After all, the Nuggets don’t have coach George Karl, who’s taking an extended leave so he can fight cancer. And they’re without former Bryan Adams star Kenyon Martin, who gives Denver much of its nasty disposition in addition to being its best defensive player. Martin is out indefinitely with a balky knee. The Nuggets were also playing on the second day of a back-to-back, having played at Orlando on Sunday. Now do you understand why the Mavs should’ve whipped Denver? Psychologically, a loss would’ve been crippling. Still, more important than the win was the way the Mavs won. Last season, the Mavs didn’t have the length, athleticism or attitude to beat Denver. That’s all changed with the addition of Shawn Marion and the Josh Howard trade. Marion scored 21 points and harassed Carmelo Anthony into a sub-par night with just 10 points on 3-of-16 shooting. Marion’s athleticism also allows him to get easy buckets. “The story of the game was Shawn’s defense on Carmelo,” Rick Carlisle said. “He accepted the challenge.”
JAZZ BUST UP KNICKS, TAKE LEAD IN NORTHWEST
Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune: “With a victory that was equally entertaining and disturbing, the Jazz took over the Northwest Division lead, improved their draft status and moved up in the Western Conference playoff standings Monday night. That’s nice, but nothing about this 103-98 win over the New York Knicks at EnergySolutions Arena was as easy as it should have been. What passed as an achievement was mostly a case of finding the finish line and avoiding a devastating loss at this point of the proceedings. “We just stuck with it, man,” said Jazz forward Carlos Boozer, hardly sounding dissatisfied. Winning did beat the alternative, anyway. That’s especially true considering how every New York loss will help the Jazz in June, when they exercise the Knicks’ first-round draft pick (currently in the top eight). There was some mixture of emotions among Jazz followers recently when New York knocked off Dallas and Denver, aiding the Jazz in the standings but lowering them in the draft order. No such dilemma existed Monday, when Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni knew the Jazz had multiple incentives in play. Before the game, D’Antoni labeled the situation “kind of weird.” And then a bizarre contest unfolded, with the Jazz barely spared from having to answer how they could lose after making 19 of their first 22 shots. Among the oddities: The Jazz scored 44 first-quarter points. They made their first seven three-point attempts, then missed the next seven, before Mehmet Okur’s shot launched a 10-2 run midway through the fourth quarter. Kyle Korver went 1-for-9, all on two-point attempts, while not jeopardizing his shot at an NBA record for three-point percentage. Just for practice, apparently, the Jazz played a Frank Layden Bear mascot video skit with the theme of “Never quit” – when they led by five points with 8.2 seconds left. Well, Layden was a Knicks consultant after spending 20 years with the Jazz.”
RAPTORS WON’T GO AWAY
Eric Koreen of the National Post: “Apparently, there is no figuring out these Toronto Raptors. Losers of 13 of 17 games prior to last night, the Raptors have rightfully been labelled soft. And with the team’s well-paid off-season acquisition, Hedo Turkoglu, butting heads with the club over his conduct and work ethic, the Raptors were given another reason to fold. And yet, they defeated the Charlotte Bobcats 103-101 last night at Time Warner Cable Arena on the second night of a back-to-back set of games. So, yeah: who knows? “I told you,” swingman Antoine Wright bellowed, his ankles in ice water after the game. It is true, kind of. Before the game, Wright told reporters to not bother talking to him if his team should lose. It was not quite a guarantee, but given how much Wright loves to talk, there was something on the line. And that was the case for Wright’s team, too. Despite the Turkoglu saga becoming a distraction — he did not play Sunday against the Heat after being spotted out late Friday night in Toronto despite being ruled out of action because of a stomach virus–the Raptors have now played three solid games in a row. All the talk was about how the Raptors, now a full game up on ninth-place Chicago, were heading for a missed playoff spot. But if not for a pair of poor fourth quarters against Denver and Miami, the talk around this team could be very different right now. Fourth quarters, of course, count. A lot. But still, for the majority of the last three games, the Raptors have been a tougher team than their reputation assumes. Finally, despite an ugly final few minutes to the game, they got a reward for that work. “In the huddle, we didn’t hang our heads,” guard Jarrett Jack said. “Everybody was into it. The guys on the bench, everybody. We were just saying, ‘Stay together.’ This is the time where we really have got to show that team unity, that camaraderie we have been building all season. This is the time where it counts the most.”
DID MAGIC MAKE THE RIGHT CALL ON TURKOGLU?
Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel: “Is Hedo Turkoglu the biggest free-agent bust in the NBA this season? And has Turk become a jerk? They are certainly starting to think so in Toronto, where former Magic player Hedo Turkoglu signed a $53 million contract during the offseason and has been a colossal flop. You know what means? Time once again to bow down before a statue of Orlando general manager Otis Smith and start reciting the mantra of Magic fans: “In Otis we trust! In Otis we trust! In Otis we trust!” All that consternation about Smith letting Turkoglu go during the offseason and bringing in Vince Carter seems silly now, doesn’t it? In case you haven’t heard, Turkoglu has been benched in Toronto and is being castigated by fans and management. It started late last week when he said he had a stomach virus and was too sick to practice or play in Toronto’s devastating loss to the Denver Nuggets. After the game, Turkoglu was seen out on the town by fans in Toronto. The Raptors, in the midst of a push to make the playoffs, benched Turkoglu for the ensuing loss to the Miami Heat Sunday night. Here’s an excerpt from a story in the Toronto Globe and Mail after the Heat game: “Turkoglu was acquired in the off-season to provide the Raptors with a perimeter creator in crunch time, but he was benched — a new low point in a disappointing season for the $53-million (U.S.) off-season free-agent signing. ”Dressed for action after missing half of one game, all of another and two practices with a stomach virus, Turkoglu was never summoned by head coach Jay Triano. “I told them I want to play,” Turkoglu said before the game. He declined the opportunity to comment afterward, and Triano shed no light on the situation. Asked if he was sitting out for health or discipline reasons, Triano said only: “Both.” Turkoglu returned to the floor and hit a key 3-pointer in Monday’s victory over the Bobcats, but he was a sub and not a starter. Which is not really all that surprising when you look at his stats for the season. Turkoglu is averaging just 11.8 points and has one of the worst shooting percentages (.410) on the entire roster. It’s looking more and more like the Raptors made a serious mistake by signing Turkoglu to a longterm deal. It’s looking more and more like the Magic made prudent decision by not signing Turkoglu to a longterm deal.”
Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post: “Sometimes, what’s being attained isn’t always obvious. Monday night at American Airlines Arena felt that way. A playoff tiebreaker was at stake, and the Mavericks collected it and gained distance in the race for the No. 2 spot in the West with a 109-93 win over the Nuggets, who suddenly find themselves in the fifth spot but are trying to keep a brave face in the wake of a 1-4 road trip. “It was a tough trip for us as far as games go,” Carmelo Anthony said. “But we’re OK. There’s nothing to panic about. We’ll be all right. I know what type of team we have. I know what type of guys we have. We’re a good team.” Getting a tiebreaker wasn’t the whole story. Not even close. There were revenge undertones in the arena. The Mavs were a little more spirited, the crowd a little more hostile, the entire atmosphere a little more electric. And maybe it should have been. The Nuggets haven’t played in this building since they nearly eliminated the Mavs here in last season’s playoffs. Then, they took Dallas down in five games in such a physical, dominating fashion that it had the Mavs’ organization ready to make significant changes to become a contender again. And it did just that. Those new faces — Shawn Marion, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood chief among them — proved how powerful the Mavericks have become. Defensively, Marion handcuffed Anthony, holding him to just 10 points on 3-of-16 shooting. He left the game with 2:42 left with blurriness in his right eye, which he said got gradually worse after he was poked in the first quarter. “I guess it’ll be all right by the next game,” Anthony said. Coach Rick Carlisle was asked if the Mavericks had stopping Carmelo in mind when they acquired Marion last summer. “It certainly is one of the good reasons to pursue Shawn, for sure,” Carlisle said. “Athleticism, length, experience, defensive ability. Let’s not forget the guy had 21 points.”
ANTHONY AT CENTER OF HEAT SURGE
Michael Wallace of the Miami Herald: “Think you know the hottest player on the Heat’s roster amid Miami’s most productive stretch of the season? Think again. Dwyane Wade? Nope. Despite an impressive string of performances that has seen him rack up points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, Wade plays second fiddle. Udonis Haslem? Guess again. Even with tying his career high of 18 rebounds Friday in Milwaukee and scoring 23 points Sunday against Toronto, Haslem doesn’t quite stack up, either. When it comes to basketball perfection, only one Heat player can lay claim to that distinction over the past two games: Joel Anthony. “Absolutely,” coach Erik Spoelstra quickly responded when asked if he has noticed the offensive exploits of the defensive-minded Anthony. “This probably shows his versatility as much as anything.” Anthony made all eight of his field goal attempts and all five of his free throws over the weekend in wins against Toronto and Milwaukee. Whereas the Heat has come to expect a solid defensive presence from Anthony, the hot streak on offense has been a pleasant surprise from the third-year post player. Anthony, 6-9 shot-blocker, made his 11th start of the season Sunday when he filled in for injured center Jermaine O’Neal. It turned out to be one of Anthony’s most complete efforts of his career. In addition to making all six of his shots for a career-high 13 points, Anthony hounded All-Star Chris Bosh into an 8-of-20 outing from the field. The Heat rallied from a 17-point deficit to complete its biggest comeback of the season in the 97-94 victory. It was another breakthrough for Anthony. He has gone from receiving harsh glares from teammates for his struggles to catch the ball to becoming a far more reliable finisher in the lane. “I’ve been plugging away,” said Anthony, averaging 2.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 15.7 minutes. “I’m keeping myself ready for whenever I have to help my team by doing more than I’ve been originally asked.”
DURANT ON THE VERGE OF SUPERSTARDOM OR ALREADY THERE?
Stephen A. Smith of the Philadelphia Inquirer: “He’s skinny. That’s the thing that jumps out at you first: this frail frame in a 6-foot-9 body, inviting elbows and forearms. Then you see Kevin Durant play. Suddenly, the purity of his game comes shining through. It’s a sweet-looking jump shot one minute, silky moves to the basket the next, ultimately convincing basketball aficionados that the next superstar is blossoming before our very eyes. If LeBron James isn’t the primary topic of discussion for MVP honors in the NBA this season, then there’s Durant. And if another player is even considered, commissioner David Stern needs to demand an investigation. At age 21, Durant is the league’s second-leading scorer (29.6 points per game) behind King James. He has scored 30 or more points 39 times this season, which is the most in the NBA. His squad, the Oklahoma City Thunder, is the youngest team in the league (averaging under age 25), boasting a 44-28 record, already in the thick of a playoff hunt in the Western Conference. One should wonder why they even have to play the moribund Sixers tonight at the Wachovia Center. In the interest of fairness, if nothing else. “I knew that he was capable of [a season like this] because of the work that he puts in every day,” said Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, minutes before his Thunder flew to Philadelphia yesterday. “[Durant's] work is top-notch. All summer long he worked on his game. He did everything we asked, and then more. His practice habits are all about winning basketball. His shooting habits are incredible. I’ve never seen a guy work so hard with shooting drills in my life. Of course, he has the skills. But the work ethic is what gets him over the hump to the level he’s on.” Congratulations to Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks, the Sixers’ former coach, who Brooks says is one of the guys who has helped Durant excel. Scott couldn’t stop praising Cheeks, mainly for the relationships his aide has cultivated with Durant and Oklahoma City’s young players. But, truth be told, you don’t teach the sort of skills the former University of Texas star possesses. You can’t coach that wingspan. Neither Scott nor Cheeks can teach someone as lanky as Durant how to jump, dribble, and shoot the way he does. Since Christmas Day, Durant has averaged a league-high 30.8 points, shooting 48 percent from the field and leading the Thunder to a 20-7 record in that span. Along the way, Durant has been mentioned in the same breath as Dirk Nowitzki one minute, George “Iceman” Gervin the next. “About the only thing I have not seen him do is finger roll,” Gervin, famous for the finger roll and being a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, told me weeks ago. “I can honestly say I’ve never felt like anyone’s game emulated mine until this kid Durant came along. He’s a special, special dude.”