Posts Tagged ‘Greg Oden’

What The Contenders Could Use

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The trade deadline is Thursday afternoon, the race for the 2014 NBA championship is relatively wide open, and there are plenty of players available for the right price.

So, the league is seemingly ripe for a ton of action at the deadline. But the whole “the right price” thing could limit the number of deals that are made. Buyers may be hesitant to give up first-round picks for players that they’re only “renting” for a few months, and sellers may prefer to keep their guy if they’re not getting the assets they want in return.

But maybe a deal could be made that turns a contender into a favorite or a tier-two team into a contender.

Here’s a look at what those teams could use — from a numbers perspective – to put themselves over the top (in the case of the contenders) or in the mix (in the case of the next group).

OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions

Oklahoma City (43-12)

OffRtg: 107.6 (6), DefRtg: 99.3 (3), NetRtg: +8.3 (2)
The Thunder are the most complete team in the league, the only one that ranks in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency. And their bench has been terrific, even with Russell Westbrook‘s knee surgery forcing Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup over the last seven weeks.

The only lineup numbers that look bad are those of their original starting group, which has been outscored by 5.7 points per 100 possessions and which will be back together when Westbrook returns on Thursday. In 280 minutes, the lineup has scored just 97.5 points per 100 possessions, a rate which would rank 29th in the league.

In general, the Thunder have been much better playing small. In fact, they’re a plus-203 in 1,954 minutes with two bigs on the floor and a plus-204 in 694 minutes with less than two. Some added depth on the wings could make them even more potent.

Indiana (41-12)

OffRtg: 102.4 (18), DefRtg: 93.8 (1), NetRtg: +8.6 (1)
The Pacers are, statistically, the best defensive team since the league started counting turnovers in 1977. And that may be enough to win a championship.

But they’re a below-average offensive team and only seven of those have made The Finals in the last 30 years. The Pacers turn the ball over too much, don’t get to the rim enough, and aren’t a great 3-point shooting team.

George Hill is a key cog in that No. 1 defense and the starting lineup scores at a top-10 rate, but Indy could certainly use a more potent point guard, or at least a third guard that can create off the dribble. Their bench is better than it was last season, but it still struggles to score.

Danny Granger has a large expiring contract, but acquiring a player on a deal that goes beyond this season could compromise the Pacers’ ability to re-sign Lance Stephenson this summer.

Miami (38-14)

OffRtg: 109.8 (1), DefRtg: 103.4 (16), NetRtg: +6.4 (5)
Is the Heat’s defensive drop-off a serious problem of just a case of them being in cruise control most of the season? Their ability to flip the switch on that end of the floor will depend on Dwyane Wade‘s health and Shane Battier‘s ability to play more minutes than he has been of late. As much as rebounding is an issue, so is defending the perimeter. And if there was a way they could add another shooter/defender on the wing, it would help.

Rebounding is an issue. The Heat have rebounded better (on both ends) with Greg Oden on the floor, but he’s played just 78 minutes all season and compromises their offense to some degree. So he’s probably not going to neutralize Roy Hibbert in a matchup with the Pacers.

San Antonio (39-15)

OffRtg: 107.5 (7), DefRtg: 100.4 (5), NetRtg: +7.1 (3)
The numbers look good on the surface. Only the Thunder rank higher than the Spurs in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But their defense has failed them, allowing 111.5 points per 100 possessions, as they’ve gone 2-8 in games against the other teams over .600 (every team on this list, except Golden State). Last season, they allowed just 101.8 in 22 games against other teams over .600.

Injuries have played a role in their defensive decline and if the Spurs are healthy, they’re still a great team. But there’s no getting around that, going back to Game 3 of the 2012 conference finals, they’ve lost nine of their last 11 games against Oklahoma City and could certainly use more athleticism up front with that matchup in mind.

Houston (36-17)

OffRtg: 107.7 (5), DefRtg: 102.1 (9), NetRtg: +5.6 (6)
If there’s a fifth contender, it’s the Rockets or the Clippers, two more West teams that rank in the top 10 on both ends of the floor. Houston is actually the only team that ranks in the top five in both effective field goal percentage and opponent effective field goal percentage.

Their defense hasn’t been very consistent though, and it’s allowed 106.1 points per 100 possessions in 22 games against the other eight West teams over .500. And that’s why they might want to hold onto Omer Asik. One of their biggest problems defensively is rebounding, especially when Dwight Howard steps off the floor. Only the Lakers (15.8) have allowed more second-chance points per game than Houston (15.1).

Portland (36-17)

OffRtg: 108.7 (2), DefRtg: 105.7 (23), NetRtg: +3.1 (10)
Diagnosing the Blazers’ issues is pretty easy. You’re simply not a contender if you rank in the bottom 10 defensively. The worst defensive team to make The Finals in the last 30 years was the 2000-01 Lakers, who ranked 19th and who, as defending champs, knew how to flip the switch. They ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency in the postseason.

Not only are the Blazers bad defensively, but the their bench is (still) relatively weak. Lineups other than their starting group have outscored their opponents by just 0.2 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark among the teams on this list (even Golden State). So they’re going to be tested with LaMarcus Aldridge out with a groin strain. They’ve been outscored by 8.3 points per 100 possessions with Aldridge off the floor.

L.A. Clippers (37-19)

OffRtg: 108.7 (3), DefRtg: 102.2 (10), NetRtg: +6.5 (10)
The Clippers are very similar to the Rockets. They rank in top 10 defensively, but have struggled on that end of the floor against good teams. Furthermore, though Howard and DeAndre Jordan rank in the top four in rebounds per game, their teams rank in the bottom 10 in defensive rebounding percentage.

Blake Griffin and Jordan rank 2nd and 3rd in total minutes played, and the Clippers basically have no other bigs that Doc Rivers can trust for extended stretches in the postseason. Though the Clippers’ injuries have been in the backcourt, they’re more in need of depth up front.

Golden State (31-22)

OffRtg: 104.2 (12), DefRtg: 99.5 (4), NetRtg: +4.7 (7)
The Warriors and not the Suns (31-21) are the last team on this list because they have a much better defense and a higher ceiling. They also have a much easier schedule, which could allow them to get into the 3-5 range in the West, going forward.

Golden State’s issues are pretty simple. Their starting lineup has been terrific on both ends of the floor, but their bench … not so much. Things have been a little better with Jordan Crawford in the mix; They’ve scored 104.5 points per 100 possessions with Stephen Curry off the floor since the Crawford trade, compared to the putrid 86.7 they were scoring without Curry before the deal. But one of their most important defensive players – Andrew Bogut – is banged up and their D falls apart when Andre Iguodala steps off the floor.

Pacers Go From Hunter To Hunted




VIDEO: The Pacers overcome a long-standing issue of winning in Atlanta

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The first 41 games of any NBA season serve as simply the warm up, an appetizer if you will, for a team with legitimate championship aspirations. A seasoned crew like the Indiana Pacers know as much and prepare accordingly.

A tone is set, goals are started and the heavy lifting begins.

For the Indiana Pacers, switching the flip from those first 41 games to the next 41 and beyond requires another tweak to the system. Busting out of the gate in the first half of the regular season and setting a wicked pace shifts them over from the hunter’s side of the bracket to the hunted side.

They can continue to play with that collective chip on their shoulders and envision Eastern Conference finals scenarios against the Miami Heat all they want. But they also have to be prepared for a new reality: nearly every foe they face is taking that same approach against the Pacers themselves, who own both the East’s best record and the league’s best winning percentage.

Fatigue, mental or physical, is no longer an option.

A night off? Forget about it.

Now that the bar has been raised and set, the Pacers have to chase their own heightened expectations in addition to all of the other goals they’ve already set forth.

“We still haven’t played out best basketball and obviously we don’t want to play our best basketball right now,” Pacers forward and team leader David West said after Indana beat the Hawks Tuesday night at Philips Arena.

“We’re a motivated group and we’re able to adjust to whatever. Obviously, after All-Star break the games become that much more important. I think from our standpoint, we have enough guys and enough weapons in this room to handle whatever comes our way. Our bench is getting stronger. And we feel like whatever teams throw at us, we can handle it. But we have to be able to take some pressure off of [Pacers All-Star] Paul [George] and make sure he doesn’t feel like he has to do it all by himself.”

Aside from Lance Stephenson, who is having a true breakout season of his own and forcing coaches and opposing players to reconsider how they deal with him, no other Pacer but George has had to deal with more changing coverages and wrinkles being thrown at him.

The All-Star starter has blossomed into a legitimate MVP candidate. He’s also one of the league’s most difficult defensive matchups because of his ability to play basically all over the court on both ends. He’s seeing defensive schemes designed to stop him that he hasn’t in previous seasons as a result.

“That’s the best indication of what the postseason will be like,” George said. “We’re going to get teams that know everything we want to do and they’re going to be physical with us. I think it’s just great preparation.”

Dealing with the bumps and bruises, that daily grind, is a part of the process for coach Frank Vogel‘s team. It’s what Vogel has been preparing them for the past few seasons, the physical and emotional toll of being an elite bunch day after exhausting day of the season.

“That’s just a part of our DNA,” George said. “There’s no pill we take. It’s just how we approach the game and how we approach the process. We do everything from a toughness standpoint.”

The fabric of the Pacers’ locker room — and their collective chemistry — will no doubt be tested as they add Andrew Bynum to their mix. The former All-Star big man comes with a hefty amount of baggage, not that his new teammates seem at all worried.

When asked how long it would take for Bynum to realize he is no longer in Philadelphia, Cleveland or even Los Angeles, where he was allowed to do basically as he pleased, George didn’t hesitate.

“I think the second he walks into our locker room he’ll realize that,” George said. “This team is as close as it gets. I don’t know how it is in other places and with the other groups [of players] he’s been with. The biggest thing is he’s probably just used to winning. He came into this league at 18 or whatever and to a team that was always a dominant team. And I’m not downplaying any other program he’s been with, but I think it’ll be a great atmosphere for him because we’re a winning program and we’re so close.”

That’s another thing that is sure to be tested for the Pacers now that they are on the other side of that dividing line. There’s no telling what sort of adversity that they’ll have to face the rest of the way. They need only look at the road traveled three years ago by the Heat team they’re trying to dethrone.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of Miami’s crew began their time together with unreasonable expectations. They were certainly humbled a time or two along the way to their back-to-back titles. It takes a certain toughness to weather the tough times and keep your DNA, as George put it, intact.

“I think our group has matured over the last couple of years to the point where we are good with setting goals for ourselves and handling that,” West said. “We want to obtain the No. 1 seed in the East, there’s no secret there, and we’re approaching every single game like it’s the most important game of our season. Because that could be the one game of the season that costs us what we want. So we’re going to remain focused, keep pushing one another, keep pushing on the defensive end and if we do that, we feel like we can win as many games as remain on the schedule.”


VIDEO: David West dominates as the Pacers take down the Hawks

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 3


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 3

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Suns exploring deal for Gasol | Allen gets Super Bowl title, NBA next? | Heat not worried about Bynum in Indy | Rockets have dynamic duo in Beverley and Lin

No. 1: Suns exploring possibilities for Gasol deal – Since the Phoenix Suns have already shown us that they don’t have any idea how to tank properly, they might as well swing for the fences in the Western Conference playoff chase. And that means exploring all of the possibilities for a potential trade for Los Angeles Lakers big man Pau Gasol. They’ve been searching for some big man help since trading Marcin Gortat, and Gasol is apparently available. The Suns have the assets to make the deal happen, as reported by ESPN.com’s Marc Stein:

One option for the Suns, by virtue of their $5.6 million in available salary-cap space, is swapping the expiring contract of injured big man Emeka Okafor for Gasol, even though Okafor’s $14.5 million salary this season falls well shy of Gasol’s $19.3 million.

The Lakers engaged in similar trade discussions in late December and early January with Cleveland in a proposed deal that would have sent Gasol to the Cavaliers for the partially guaranteed contract of ex-Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who then would have been waived to help L.A. save roughly $20 million in salary and luxury-tax obligations.

Those talks, though, broke down because of the Lakers’ insistence on receiving another asset of value in addition to the significant financial benefits, only for L.A. to see Cleveland successfully switch gears and trade Bynum to the Chicago Bulls for Luol Deng.

A trade for Okafor’s expiring deal would not save the Lakers as much as a deal for Bynum would have, but it would come with undeniable financial benefits. The $4.8 million difference between Gasol’s cap number and Okafor’s would immediately drop the Lakers less than $3 million away from the league’s luxury-tax threshold, meaning one more smaller deal before the Feb. 20 trade deadline could conceivably be enough to take them out of tax territory completely.

There would also be salary savings involved because insurance began picking up 80 percent of what remains on Okafor’s contract once Phoenix passed this season’s 41-game midpoint because of a long-term neck injury that has sidelined the nine-year veteran all season.

The Suns are known to be shopping Okafor’s contract aggressively in advance of the trade deadline as a means for whoever acquires the 31-year-old to potentially save more than $5 million in salary payouts thanks to the insurance coverage.

***

No. 2: Allen trying to double up on title this year?– It doesn’t get much sweeter than Sunday night for Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen, whose NFL team pummeled Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl in New York. Well, it could actually get a little sweeter for Allen if the Trail Blazers find a way to get to the same stage come June and get a shot at winning a Larry O’Brien Trophy. Don’t laugh. Because as Kevin Garnett famously told us in Boston, “anything is possible.” Seth Prince of the Oregonian poses the question and fans in Portland respond:

The fourth time was the charm for Paul Allen, who achieved his first world championship as an owner tonight as the Seattle Seahawks beat the Denver Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII.
He also led the Portland Trail Blazers to the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992, as well as the Seahawks to the Super Bowl XL in 2006. All of those seasons ended with Allen’s teams losing.
It raises the question, do you think he’ll be able to bring an NBA world championship to Portland with the Trail Blazers? Let us know in the comment thread below and share how you think he’s matured as an owner through the years.

***

No. 3: Heat not worried about Bynum joining the Pacers – If they are worried at all about Andrew Bynum joining an Indiana Pacers team that has already shown an ability to challenge them, the Miami Heat aren’t showing it. They’re acting like the Pacers’ acquisition of Bynum,  a player they reportedly pursued as well, means nothing in the chase for Eastern Conference supremacy. Perhaps it’s easy to feel that way when you still have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to lean on, not to mention Chris “Birdman” Andersen and even a getting-stronger-every day Greg Oden sharpening his skills. Whether they are just playing the role or not is a question that won’t be answered unless the Heat and Pacers square off in the playoffs. In the meantime, David J. Neal of the Miami Herald takes the temperature of the Heat now that Bynum is wearing blue and gold:

The Heat locker room publicly shrugged Saturday at the signing and likely did so privately aside from a few witty jokes. This is a team that believes, correctly, that while time and pain have improved Indiana, whether or not the Heat complete the championship hat trick relies largely on itself.

Can Dwyane Wade be Dwyane Wade again for an entire Eastern Conference final? The Heat can get through the rest of the East with Wade on a maintenance plan or having games where he’s an above average player. It will take an extra game here or there, which you never like, but that’s not a problem against any two teams not named Indiana put together.

Against Indiana, Miami will need six or seven games of the future Hall of Fame Wade to get the job done. Bynum neither helps nor hurts in that regard.

Can Chris Bosh continue to be that helpful omnipresence, having a hand in most wins even if that hand’s not doing what stat-minded fans and media wish it were? Bosh draws Hibbert and Bynum out of the middle with his range, then makes them work and getting up and down the floor.

The Heat knows it’s about the three-point line, both defending it and scoring from behind it. If the Heat’s snipers misfire, that lane gets packed like Miami Beach streets during Art Basel and those penetration-and-ones dwindle to not often enough.

Hibbert’s Metallo, the super-strong villain with the kryptonite heart. Great against Superman, not the most useful guy against the rest of the Justice League. Hibbert hurts no team more than he does the Heat, yet still, the Heat find ways around and over him. Bynum’s Hibbert Lite at this point.

Most ridiculous is the idea Indiana signed Bynum to keep him from the Heat. Although the Heat has nothing against height, it already has a big guy with unreliable lower limbs, one who showed tremendous determination just to get back to being able to take the floor. Greg Oden embodies the diligence, grit and good citizenship the Heat likes to think of as its franchise hallmarks. Oden might not be a problem for opponents the way it hopes, but the Heat knows he won’t be a problem for them in the locker room or after midnight.

***

No. 4: Rockets have their own dynamic guard duo in Beverley and Lin – Phoenix, Golden State and Oklahoma City aren’t the only Western Conference playoff teams that can boast of having guard rotations loaded with talented players at the same positions and making it work to their advantage. The Houston Rockets have their own version in Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin, a pairing that hasn’t been seen healthy and attacking like they were in the preseason until now. And it’s a sight to see for Rockets coach Kevin McHale, who has been looking for a spark from his point guards. They give the Rockets the sort of balance needed with All-Stars like James Harden and Dwight Howard on the other side of the scale. Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle discusses the finer points of the two-point guard system the Rockets are tinkering with:

Right from the start of training camp, Rockets coach Kevin McHale liked what he saw when guards Pat Beverley and Jeremy Lin were on the court together.

He saw them complement each other all through the preseason and was excited about what they would bring to the Rockets.

Then came the injuries. Beverley, 25, was hurt in the first game of the season (bruised ribs) and was sidelined. The two-point guard experiment was put on hold.

When Beverley came back, the two flourished, providing a mix of Beverley’s stifling defense and Lin’s attack-minded offense. Then came a knee sprain and back spasms for Lin, 25, then a fractured hand for Beverley.

Now that both have recovered from injuries and are back on the floor together consistently, McHale sees flashes of the preseason.

“I like those two playing together,” McHale said. “I thought earlier in the year, they were our best combination on the floor. Those two have a nice symmetry between them. They both enjoy playing with each other. They are very respectful for each other, and they work to help each other.”

When the two play together, the Rockets are 15-7. When they start together, the team is 5-1.

In the Rockets’ 106-92 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night, the two were balanced. Lin had his first career triple-double with 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists; Beverley went scoreless but had 10 rebounds, eight assists and a career-high five steals.

“Pat was unbelievable,” guard James Harden said. “Then Jeremy came off the bench and gets a triple-double. Those two are playing really good basketball together.”

Beverley averages 32 minutes per game; Lin plays 31. Much of that time they are on the floor together.

“I think we play really well together,” Beverley said. “We played together last year. We know each other well. We know each other’s games, and I think it works really well.”

Lin said when he and Beverley are in the game at the same time, they bring the Rockets the fast pace they seek.

“I think it just sets a tempo,” Lin said. “We push the ball hard. Just having two point guards out there definitely changes the tempo.”

That tempo and the mix of the two point guards’ strengths bring a different dimension to the Rockets.

“We have wanted to play them together all year,” McHale said. “I like that combination. With injuries, we haven’t been able to as much as we have wanted to.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kevin Durant showed off his otherworldly scoring abilities in January, but also shined as a facilitator/passer as well for the mighty Thunder  … Kings coach Mike Malone is still trying to coax his team into being a defense-first outfit … The Chicago Bulls are open for trade business but All-Star center Joakim Noah is what we in the business call untouchable … Pacers boss Larry Bird insists the signing of Andrew Bynum was about two things, “he’s big and he can help us.”

ICYMI of the Night: Celtics fans have been waiting all season for Rajon Rondo to look like, well, Rajon Rondo. With only one game on the slate yesterday, Rondo had a perfect opportunity to take the spotlight and he did so …


VIDEO: Rajon Rondo dominates against the Magic

Forever Linked By 2007 Draft Order, Durant, Oden Cross Paths Again

VIDEO: Kevin Durant has truly shown off his full talents this season

MIAMI – Kevin Durant and Greg Oden were on the same court again Wednesday for the first time in 1,549 days.

[We pause here while you insert your own obligatory cultural reference point – the price of a gallon of gas back then, for instance, or the top grossing Hollywood movie that weekend – but let's just all agree: It was a long, long time ago.]

You’ve got to go back to Nov. 1, 2009, to find an NBA game in which both Durant and Oden played — a road victory for Oden’s Portland team at Oklahoma City. He had 12 points and 10 rebounds. Durant scored 16. Five weeks later, Oden went down in a heap – again – and their paths split. Stayed split for more than four years, too.

Until Wednesday, when they at least warmed up at opposite ends.

Forever linked by their status atop the 2007 NBA Draft, Oden (No. 1 that night) and Durant (No. 2 to the then Seattle team) hardly could be at more divergent points in a basketball player’s career. Durant is a leading contender for 2014 Most Valuable Player, carrying the Thunder’s competitive load in injured teammate Russell Westbrook‘s absence while dazzling even casual NBA fans with a string of remarkable scoring performances.

And Oden? “Heh. For me, it’s just walking off the court not injured again,” he said about an hour before tipoff between Oklahoma City and Miami, his new basketball home.

Oden, 26, is trying to salvage his career after five knee surgeries and the Heat are giving him the chance. Their hope is that, as he builds him back into game shape and chisels off years of rust, he’ll eventually be durable enough to counter some of the big men they’ll face (a.k.a., Roy Hibbert) in a quest for a third consecutive NBA title.

So far so good – and so slow. Through Miami’s first 44 games, Oden had appeared in just five. He made his debut on Jan. 15 after a half season of work on the side and, in time, in practice. Oden hasn’t scored more than six points, grabbed more than five rebounds or logged as many as 13 minutes. Prior to Wednesday, he was averaging 3.4 points on 6-for-14 shooting with 2.0 boards and 8.4 minutes.

“His spirit is fantastic right now,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Just to think about where he’s been the last four years, just to be able to get back on the basketball court, for a team like this, there couldn’t be more gratification. It’s been a long road. There’s still a long ways to go.

“There isn’t a grand master plan – we put together a plan just to get him back out on the court and then from here, it’s got to be day to day. Ultimately we just don’t know.”

The unknowns of Oden’s comeback attempt are preferable, at least, to the alleged knowns of what preceded this. The 7-footer’s inability to endure the rigors of NBA play seemed to doom him individually and serve as another sad chapter in the Portland franchise’s history of hobbled stars (Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, Brandon Roy).

“It’s been so long where I can even walk on the court,” Oden told NBA.com. “If I can go out there, play a couple minutes, just do something, even be a presence out there and walk off healthy, for me that’s good enough.”

Is he pain-free? “I wouldn’t go that far,” he said. “Nothing I can’t handle.”

As for the rust and atrophy in his skills, Oden said: “Fundamentals, everybody has that. I definitely have that. For a lot of guys in this league, it’s confidence – once they play a year or two, they start to figure it out. So for me, it’s four years off. Just figuring it out yet. This is, what, game [6]? So it’s still going to take some time, but it’s going to come back.”

Much of the NBA is pulling for him, though Oden said he wasn’t really aware of that. “I don’t know. There’s been so many times when I’ve heard people not pulling for me,” he said. “So I just play and try not to think about it.”

His new teammates have his back, certainly, beyond any self-interest.

“One thing about trying to make a championship run is, everybody’s going to play a huge part, whether they know it or not,” Miami forward Chris Bosh said.  “With G.O., eventually we’re gonna call on him. He’s going to have to play big, consistent minutes for us, no matter how many there are. And he’s going to contribute and do a great job.

“We’re bringing him along slowly. He’s had to work out after years and years of rehabilitation, then he has to sit for weeks with us putting him in a little bit. But all that stuff is going to pay off for him.”

Oden needed to know, too, that his old friend Durant – the name critics never let him forget, for how differently things have gone for the No. 1 and No. 2 draft picks – has his back, too.

“As a friend, I’m excited he’s back in the league,” the three-time NBA scoring champ said after the morning shootaround. “He’s overcome a lot in his career. It’s a great story that he has – five knee surgeries, and he was thinking about retirement before [age] 25. But he came back and he’s out there playing extremely well. It’s fun to see him back.”

Oden could resent all of Durant’s success – and good health. Heaven knows he has been reminded of Portland’s folly, his lousy luck and the Thunder star’s ascension among the NBA’s elite, oh, about 1,549 times since they last played.

But the big fellow is polite and generous about the situation. Leave the ill will for Portland fans who wish the Blazers had drafted Durant – and for lingering Seattle NBA fans who wish the same thing, so that their relocated franchise might be the one stung by Oden’s fate.

“I’m beyond happy for him,” Oden said. “He’s one of the best players in this league. He’s one of the first guys who texted me whenever something had happened before, with my knee, and when I signed. He’s just a good dude and he’s playing amazing.”

As for the crossroads they hit in their careers and the separate paths since, Oden said: “I wish things would have worked out a little differently. But we’re both here. He’s doing his thing and I’m still trying to figure it out.”

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 17


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Celtics prep for Rondo’s return | Prokhorov defends self, Kidd | Knicks’ Smith plays, but Stoudemire, Martin hurt | Oden: Knee ‘fine’ after debut | Durant responds to James’ ‘jealous’ comment

No. 1: Celtics gearing up for Rondo’s return — The last time Rajon Rondo played in a game for the Boston Celtics, it was a 123-111 loss on the road to the Hawks on Jan. 25, 2013. Since then, much has changed around Boston, including the departure of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce as the team has undergone a complete roster overhaul. But barring any unforeseen setbacks this morning and afternoon, Rondo will make his 2013-14 debut for the Celts as they host the Lakers tonight (7:30 ET, League Pass). Marc D’Amico of Celtics.com has more on what to expect from Rondo tonight in terms of minutes played, his role and more:

Fifty-one weeks have passed since Rondo has walked onto the court as Boston’s starting point guard. That streak will finally come to an end tomorrow, but as team president Danny Ainge warns, we should not think that Rondo’s fight is over.

“What I’ve seen throughout my professional basketball career is that the ACL injury is something that every player has to overcome and come back mentally, not just physically,” Ainge told reporters on Thursday. “So I anticipate some adjustments and just getting used to playing and confident in playing and returning to the player that he was.”

As you might expect, Brad Stevens is on the same wavelength as his boss. Stevens views tomorrow’s game as the next step in Rondo’s rehabilitation.

“I don’t think we can expect him to be Game 7 Rajon Rondo tomorrow,” Stevens said. “This is part of this process to getting back to full go, and now the next step is to play a maximum number of minutes in a game.”

That maximum, according to Stevens, will be approximately 18-20 minutes per game. Ainge stated that Rondo would play about five minutes a quarter, but it sounds as if Stevens and Rondo will have the final say as to how those 18-20 minutes will be used throughout the game.

…“I think it’s just guys feel more comfortable in where they are, the position they’re in,” said Stevens. “I think people will be in position to take advantage of their best strengths, and hopefully that continues as Rondo gets into games, but in practice, it’s clearly shown itself true that he kind of lifts everybody around him.”

Come Friday, Rondo will finally have an opportunity to make those adjustments in live game action. He will play 18-20 minutes, and he’s bound to make an enormous impact on the game.

That being said, we all need to temper our expectations for Rondo in the immediate future. This is a guy who hasn’t played a basketball game in a year, and he plays what could easily be described as the most challenging position in the NBA.

There will be some moments in which Rondo will not look like his old self. That’s an inevitable part of this process. If you’re in Ainge’s boat, though, you don’t expect those struggles to last for very long.

“I anticipate him coming back quicker than any of us think,” Ainge confidently stated. “He’s a guy that I think will fight through the adversity.”


VIDEO: Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge discuss Rajon Rondo’s return to the Celtics’ lineup

***

No. 2: Prokhorov defends himself, Nets coach Kidd — Since taking over as owner of the Nets franchise back in 2010 when he bought the team for $200 million, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has been outspoken about his team, taken a couple of shots at the crosstown New York Knicks and gone as far as to promise Nets fans a title before too long. But Prokhorov also maintains a mostly hands-off approach to the team — at least in terms of being visible at every game — and has taken flak for that in the media. He addressed that complaint, as well as the barbs that have directed at coach Jason Kidd this season, as he met with the media in London before yesterday’s Nets-Hawks game at the O2 Arena. Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News has more on what Prokhorov had to say:

The Russian billionaire, making his first appearance around the Nets since the season opener, predictably backed coach Jason Kidd and threw in his usual witty one-liners during his first session with Nets reporters since July. But Prokhorov changed his tone, if only briefly between jokes about a Soviet author and carrier pigeons, when asked about whether he’ll attend more games in Brooklyn. The Moscow-based businessman went to several games last season after being a no-show for the entire 2011-12 campaign.

“Frankly speaking, there’s a lot of criticism that I am not in Brooklyn. But I just have a question for you: Do you really think you need me sitting in the arena to see a game?” said Prokhorov, noting that he has been busy preparing for the Winter Olympics in Sochi as the president of Russia’s Biathlon Union. “My friends, we are living in the 21st century. And in spite of the fact I have no computer, I still have a subscription for NBA games and, for me, it’s like enough to even have a look on the stats so you can understand what is going on. …So like I’m full in, I’m all in for this team and I think it’s the only way how to reach championship.”

Despite the team’s high expectations and abysmal start, Prokhorov said he never thought about making a change – a contrast to last season, when he fired Avery Johnson after a 14-14 start. Prokhorov hinted again that Johnson lost the locker room, while Kidd has maintained control in the midst of a 15-22 record before Thursday’s game against the Hawks.

“What is more important is that Jason Kidd is becoming more and more comfortable. And what is important is he has the support of the players,” Prokhorov said when asked about the difference between coaches. “And that’s the only way how we can conduct together. So everything is okay because, of course, we can’t make any excuse with injuries. And what I’m glad to see is the players stepping up in the situation. Now everything is more or less okay.”

Prokhorov said he even called Kidd after a bad loss, urging him to ignore the critics in the media.

“I told him about a very famous Russian writer is Mikhail Bulgakov, who said, “Don’t read Soviet papers before breakfast,’” Prokhorov said. “In other words, so don’t pay any attention for what they are writing about. So just keep doing your job.”

On Friday, Prokhorov was more cautiously optimistic than brazen, though clearly encouraged by the stretch of five wins in six games before Thursday. He also seemed to back away from his light-hearted guarantee that he’ll get married as punishment if the Nets don’t win a championship by 2015, saying, “Time will tell. We’ll see in a year.”

“Of course at the beginning (of this season), I wasn’t jumping over the moon. But it’s a sport. It’s a procedure. And now the team is playing much better. So we’re on the right way,” he said, adding later about his championship guarantees, “I still think we have a chance to be a championship, if, of course, stars align. I think we like sport because, of course, it is unpredictable. So it’s unpredictable, but possible.”

***

No. 3: Smith back in Knicks’ lineup; Stoudemire, Martin injured vs. Pacers — The latest turn in the well-documented J.R. Smith/Mike Woodson saga in New York wasn’t much of a turn at all. Smith, who has been in out of the coach’s rotation for the last week or so, played 27 minutes in the Knicks’ blowout loss to Indiana. He had previously been benched during New York’s loss to Charlotte days earlier. Bigger news for the Knicks, though, may be more injuries: forwards Amar’e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin both suffered them in last night’s game, writes Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

J.R. Smith’s one-game benching ended on Thursday, but while he returned, the Knicks may have lost three others. Amar’e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin both sprained their left ankles during the 117-89 loss to the Pacers, and neither forward will be available for Friday’s home game against the Clippers. There is a strong possibility that Stoudemire and Martin will miss multiple games.

Also, rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. re-injured his surgically repaired left wrist but indicated that he will play Friday. X-rays came back negative.

The more immediate concern is the health of Stoudemire, who has played well over the last three weeks, and Martin, one of the Knicks’ top defenders.

“Amar’e sprained his ankle really bad,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Kenyon said his ankle felt different than it did before. We lost two of our big guys. We’ve got a couple other big guys out there that we’re going to have to utilize.”

Early Thursday, Woodson indicated that Smith would likely play.

“There’s nothing (that) needs to be said,” Woodson said. “I expect J.R. to be a pro and concentrate on playing basketball. That’s why he’s wearing a Knick uniform. That’s any guy on this team. It’s a privilege to play in this league. You got to do all the necessary things, the right things on and off the court to be a pro in this league.

“I don’t take coaching for granted. I don’t think any player should take it for granted. When he’s in uniform, his job is to play. When he’s out of uniform, his job is to concentrate on being a pro and playing basketball. It’s as simple as that.”

***

No. 4: Oden says knees are ‘fine’ after first game actionThe top NBA story Wednesday night and into Thursday, perhaps, was the successful (albeit brief) return Heat big man Greg Oden had in Miami’s loss to the Washington Wizards. Oden was playing in his first game since 2009 and although he was on the court for just eight minutes, most around the league were happy to see the oft-injured former No. 1 pick playing healthy again. He took part in yesterday’s Heat practice and says his knee is doing well after seeing some full-speed NBA action, writes Michael Wallace of ESPN.com:

Miami Heat center Greg Oden emerged from his first NBA regular-season game in more than four years with no significant pain or swelling in his troublesome knees, and will be re-evaluated before his status is determined for Friday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Oden, the No. 1 draft pick in 2007, was back on the court Thursday, a day after his productive and encouraging seven-minute stint during the Heat’s blowout loss to the Wizards in Washington. The Heat had a lengthy film session before players took the court for individual workouts at Temple University on Wednesday. Oden wasn’t involved in any scrimmage work, but did participate in some light conditioning and shooting drills.

After the workout, Oden said his knees responded “fine [with] no swelling” from his first meaningful game action since Dec. 5, 2009, when he suffered his second season-ending knee injury as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. Oden finished with six points and two rebounds in eight minutes in the 114-97 loss to Washington. He started the second half after initially entering late in the second quarter.

“It’s nothing I can’t manage,” Oden said Thursday of the minor soreness he attributed to general wear and tear from playing in a game. “I’m just looking forward to playing in the next game. I got to play in a game. That’s what it really is, when you’re able to battle and be out there. I would have loved for us to win and say I was able to give us a spark. But you just move on to the next game, and hope I can play.”

Oden’s performance Wednesday provided a bit of a spark for the Heat, who trailed Washington by as much as 34 points in the first half before they cut the deficit to nine. However, they couldn’t get any closer on the way to their third straight loss. With the Heat trying to search for answers to their recent poor play, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Oden was a bright spot.

“We were all very happy that he was able to get out there and compete, even for a short period of minutes,” Spoelstra said Thursday. “We know the struggle that he’s been in, and just to see the smile … we allowed one guy to have a smile on his face after [Wednesday's game], and that was Greg.”

But Spoelstra also said it’s too soon to know what, if any, role Oden will have in the rotation at this point. Oden remains on a specific training regimen designed to improve his conditioning as well as to strengthen his hips and the leg muscles around his knees.

He paused for a few seconds when asked Thursday if he’s reached the point where he can trust his knees to hold up in his latest and most extensive comeback.

“Honestly, when I was out there [Wednesday], I didn’t even think about my knees,” Oden said. “So it’s just a matter of if they feel good. I’m not worried about what’s going to happen. I’m worried about just getting out there and playing.”


VIDEO: Heat center Greg Oden talks after his season-debut vs. Washington

***

No. 5: Durant responds to James’ comments — Earlier this week, ESPN.com published a story in which Heat star LeBron James said he is at times ‘jealous’ of the offensive freedom that Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant enjoys on offense. Last night, Durant took the time to briefly address James’ comments — which he had heard — and didn’t seem too worried about what James can or cannot do in Miami, writes Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:

Kevin Durant tried to act as though he hadn’t seen or heard LeBron James’ latest comments about him.”What he say?” Durant asked, rhetorically.

“How can I not see it? It’s been on CNN. It’s been on ABC, FOX Sports. Man, it’s been everywhere. Ya’ll blowing that out of proportion, man. I mean, I’m pretty sure, matter of fact, I’m 100 percent sure LeBron can do whatever he wants.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Apparently, not even the Rockets themselves knew just how awful they were in the second half of their loss to OKC on Thursday night … Ex-Hawks big man/tough guy Ivan Johnson, who has been toiling in the Chinese Basketball Association, is drawing interest from Atlanta … Celtics assistant coach Jamie Young plans to run in the Boston Marathon … ICYMI yesterday, the NBA unveiled the All-Star Game uniforms for this year’s contest. Our own Lang Whitaker breaks ‘em down … Should the Pacers try to sign Andrew Bynum if for no other reason than to ensure the Heat don’t pick him up? …

ICYMI(s) of The Night: Pacers fans (and Knicks fans) surely have their own good (or bad) memories of Carmelo Anthony driving to the rim for a dunk in the 2013 Eastern Conference semis and Roy Hibbert stopping it. But, in case that moment was foggy for anyone, there was a nearly identical recreation of it last night:


VIDEO: Roy Hibbert denies Carmelo Anthony at the rim

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 16


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 15

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Rondo to be on minutes limit in debut | Oden happy to make season debut | Cuban wants one last fine from Stern | Noel progressing, can do some on-court workouts | Howard won’t be in Dunk Contest

UPDATE — 11:39 a.m.: Celtics president Danny Ainge says Rondo, barring any setbacks today, will play Friday vs. the Lakers

No. 1: Rondo expected to play Friday vs. Lakers — From yesterday’s trade (which sent de facto point guard Jordan Crawford to Golden State) to an assignment (and recall) to the NBA D-League, things are clearing in Boston for Rajon Rondo to make his season debut. Coach Brad Stevens said Rondo enjoyed his (albeit) brief stint working out with the Maine Red Claws and, according to A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com, Rondo is expected to play between 18 and 20 minutes when he does debut. ESPNBoston.com’s Chris Forsberg reports that Rondo was actually active for last night’s game against Toronto, but didn’t log a minute:

Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo is still expected to play Friday against the Los Angeles Lakers, although he would be limited to 18-20 minutes according to coach Brad Stevens.

Stevens, who would not say if Rondo was in fact going to play Friday, did have Rondo on the bench dressed in uniform on Wednesday night.

However, Stevens made it clear after Boston’s 88-83 win over Toronto that there was never any plan to play Rondo against the Raptors.

Not even when the game got tight in the fourth quarter and the Celtics were in desperate need for someone to do what Rondo does best – pass the ball.

Up by three points with less than a minute to play, Boston had to call its final time-out because Jeff Green could not in-bound the ball immediately.

Coming out of the timeout, there was never any thought about putting Rondo out on the floor in that situation.

When asked if Rondo would have played if it were an emergency, Stevens quickly shot that down as something considered.

“Well we were up three points with no timeouts trying to get the ball in-bounds and one of the best passers in the world sitting right next to me, so, no,” Stevens said. “He would not have been. I told [assistant coach] Jay Larranaga he was next, and [assistant coach] Walter [McCarty] was right after him, depending on what we needed. So that’s the way we were going to roll tonight.”

And here’s Forsberg’s report on Rondo as well:

Thin on bodies, the Boston Celtics activated Rajon Rondo for Wednesday night’s game against the Toronto Raptors, but the point guard did not play and is still targeting Friday’s visit from the Los Angeles Lakers for his 2013-14 season debut.

“[Rondo is] going to go through and do some [pregame] shooting, and there is a chance that he would suit up tonight,” Stevens said before the game. “But I don’t see a chance that he would play tonight, that it would be more about getting back into that rhythm of pregame activity.”

“I think [Rondo] enjoyed it because they kept score. His team usually won,” Stevens said. “But it was more about getting up and down the floor more than anything. I got asked the other day, if and when he comes back, if there would be a minute restriction, and the answer is yes. We’ll cross those bridges with exact numbers when we get there. And go from there. But he looked pretty good.

“[The D-League workout] accomplished what we wanted to accomplish. I have not talked to anybody, including Rondo, since the workout was over. I watched it for a few minutes, and then I left. Because I needed to — obviously, we’ve got a lot going on around here, but we have a game tonight.”


VIDEO: Brad Stevens talks before last night’s game about Rajon Rondo’s D-League work

***

No. 2: Oden happy to get his first NBA minutes — You’re probably already well aware that Greg Oden got his first NBA regular-season minutes since 2009 in the Heat’s blowout loss to the Wizards last night. And, as our own Sekou Smith framed it after the game, this is the first of several big baby steps for the former No. 1 overall pick. But what you might not know is all the details leading up to Oden’s activation and debut last night, which ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh details below:

Greg Oden was smiling about basketball again.

It took him four years to get back to this place. Four years, two microfracture surgeries, a broken knee cap and a battle with alcoholism later, Oden sat at his locker grinning in front of a pack of reporters. The former No. 1 pick in 2007 had played in a regular-season game again, the first time in 1,503 days.

No one really saw this coming. On the morning of Wednesday’s game, the Heat didn’t even know that Oden would make his season debut. They didn’t even think he’d be activated on the roster.

But around noon, a spot opened up for Oden. The Heat traded long-time reserve center Joel Anthony to the Boston Celtics along with two draft picks.

Toney Douglas, the former Golden State Warriors point guard whom the Heat traded for, would not arrive in the nation’s capital in time for the game.

So, Oden’s time had come. The Heat players found out about the trade over lunch and shortly after, Oden got word: he’d dress for the game.

“I didn’t know if I was going to play or not,” Oden said. “But I got out there and I did. And I’m happy I got the chance.”

Why bring Oden in then?

“We were down by 30,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.

As if there weren’t enough Heat surprises, Oden came out in the second half with the rest of the starters, subbing in for Shane Battier who watched the third-quarter’s opening minutes from the bench. The aggressive approach ensured that Oden wouldn’t get stiff like he did after four minutes of action in the preseason game in New Orleans. Oden rode a bike during halftime and Spoelstra gave him the nod.

Oden’s final line in eight minutes of action: six points on two dunks and a pair of free throws along with two rebounds. Not captured in the box score were several altered shots and screens.

“It felt good, just being able to be back out on the court,” Oden said. “Honestly, the big thing is, to be able to have now that connection now with my teammates. I’ve been here, I’ve been around, but when you’re not playing, sometimes deep down you don’t really feel part of the team as much. I’m happy I can do that now.”

LeBron James said he didn’t even know that Oden was playing until he saw his fellow No. 1 overall pick lacing up his basketball shoes just before the game.

“Oh, you active?” James recalled asking Oden. “I had no idea.”

James assisted on Oden’s second dunk of the game out of a pick-and-roll, something we’ll probably see many times again if Oden can stay healthy. But it was Oden’s first dunk that James couldn’t believe.

“How is this possible that every time you sit out long periods of time, you decide to come back and you keep getting a dunk on your first attempt?” James said. “That’s pretty cool, man. Hopefully he can continue to stride, getting three minutes a half to five minutes a half to 12. He can be a big plus for us. Obviously in the short amount of minutes tonight, he was pretty good for us.”


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew talks about Greg Oden’s impact on the Heat

***

No. 3: Cuban wants one last fine from Stern — Since becoming owner of the Dallas Mavericks in 2000, Mark Cuban has racked up plenty of fines from the NBA for his outspoken nature regarding officiating, the league office and, at times, commissioner David Stern. With Stern set to retire from his post in about a month, Cuban told ESPN.com’s Marc Stein that he wants to get one last fine from the outgoing league boss if for nothing more than old times’ sake. (Worth noting: Cuban may get his wish sooner than he thinks. He walked on the court to berate the officials after the Mavs’ loss to the Clippers last night … fast-forward to the 2:08 mark to see what we mean.):

In an interview with ESPN.com this week to reflect on David Stern’s 30-year run as NBA commissioner, which ends Feb. 1, Cuban said he has been telling Stern for months that he is determined to get dinged one last time before his longtime foil leaves his post.

“We talk about it all the time,” Cuban said. “I’m going to have one final fine before he leaves.”

The outspoken owner made the comments in a lighthearted manner before the Mavericks went to Los Angeles on Wednesday night and suffered a disappointing 129-127 defeat to the Clippers that prompted a heated Cuban to walk onto the floor after the final buzzer at Staples Center and chastise the referees who worked the game.

As Mavs owner, Cuban has been assessed 19 league fines that were made public, 13 of which were triggered by either criticizing referees or interacting with them in ways the NBA deemed inappropriate.

Cuban has paid in excess of $1.8 million in fines during his 14 years of Mavs ownership. The most expensive of those sanctions was the infamous $500,000 that Cuban was docked in January 2002 for declaring he wouldn’t hire then-NBA head of officiating Ed Rush to manage a Dairy Queen. The most recent was a $50,000 fine assessed in January 2013 after Cuban responded to a home loss to New Orleans by tweeting: “Im sorry NBA fans. Ive tried for 13 years to fix the officiating in this league and I have failed miserably. Any Suggestions ? I need help.”

Yet Cuban has mostly praise for Stern with slightly more than two weeks to go before Stern’s longtime deputy Adam Silver takes over and the longest tenure of any commissioner in North American professional team sports comes to an end.

“One reason that I truly respect David is that he followed the rules,” Cuban said. “He didn’t want to be king. He wanted to be successful and make the NBA successful. He was less concerned with his legacy than with creating results for the NBA. He knows that the results will stand the test of time and define his legacy.”

Cuban said he would give Stern “an 85 to 90″ out of 100 when grading his three decades in charge and said his only bone of contention with the commissioner during his time in the league — besides the state of officiating — was the amount of money invested in China at Stern’s behest in the continued pursuit of globalizing the NBA brand.

“He’s always been receptive [to me]. We kind of have two relationships. There’s the public relationship about the officiating. And then there’s the business side. On the business side, we get along great.

“On the officiating side, that’s probably the one thing I’d say he’s failed miserably on, but I understand where he’s coming from, because he doesn’t have a horse in the race. Win, lose or draw, as long as the business of the NBA is good, he’s happy. I obviously have a completely different perspective, and that’s where we clash. He doesn’t care who wins. That’s the difference, because I do.

“But on the business side, we’ve agreed far more than we’ve disagreed.”

***

No. 4: Sixers’ Noel OK’d for ‘limited on-court work’The last thing we told you in this space about Sixers rookie Nerlens Noel, it was that Philly’s coaching staff was working on a ‘total rebuild’ of his shot. In addition, Sixers coaches were warning fans that Noel may not even take the court this season. Some of that news has changed, however, as ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman reports that Noel has been cleared by the team for some on-court work and he could play within 4-6 weeks:

The Philadelphia 76ers have cleared rookie center Nerlens Noel for “limited on-court work,” but several benchmarks remain before he can return to game action, the team announced Wednesday night.

“After careful consideration and numerous discussions with our medical and performance teams, the consulting physician and rehabilitation staff, and Nerlens’ representatives, some of the restrictions on Nerlens have been lifted and he is now able to participate in limited on-court work,” 76ers president and general manager Sam Hinkie said in a statement.

“There are several benchmarks Nerlens still must meet, and during that time we will closely monitor his progress and regularly evaluate his status. Our goal remains the same, which is to give Nerlens every opportunity to ensure a long, productive NBA career.”

Noel, who suffered a torn ACL in February while playing for Kentucky, visited Dr. James Andrews in Florida last week.

“He is doing excellent, and the team is taking good care of him,” Andrews told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Andrews said he was unable to provide more information because of privacy laws, but sources told ESPN.com that Noel, the No. 6 pick in this past June’s NBA draft, could return to game action within the next four to six weeks barring a setback.

“He tested really well, and his knee looks great,” one source said. “Dr. Andrews suggested he be cleared to do on-court drills, but the team still has to clear him.”

CSNPhilly.com reported that Noel was seen playing one-on-one against assistant coach and former NBA big man Greg Foster on Tuesday.

***

No. 5: Howard won’t participate in Dunk Contest — Back in 2008, a young Dwight Howard — then with the Orlando Magic — burst onto the national scene with his performance in the Dunk Contest during All-Star weekend in New Orleans. Since then, Howard’s star has risen and fallen, and with the All-Star weekend being back in the Big Easy, there was some thought that Howard might give the Dunk Contest another try. That’s not going to happen, writes Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

Howard, who won the 2008 dunk contest at New Orleans Arena, said the NBA invited him to dunk again this season in New Orleans, but he declined.“Couldn’t do it,” Howard said.

Howard, 28, said he would participate again, “If I wasn’t so old. I’m getting up there in age, man, I tell you. I got a lot of years.”

Howard, however, said he had thought about that night just because with the return to New Orleans.

“It was a night to remember,” Howard said. “It was probably one of the best memories of me being in the NBA being in the dunk contest here in New Orleans. The fans were amazing here. Every time I come in this building, I get chills thinking about it.”

“I remember that whole experience,” Howard said. “Being here, the fans were amazing. I saw in past years, nobody tried to really engage the crowd. I like to entertain. I tried to really engage the fans, give them something they’ll remember.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Veteran guard Keith Bogans has been ‘excused’ from team activities with the Celtics … In an interview with an Italian media outlet, Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari isn’t sure when or if he’ll return this season … Fantastic read about Blazers guard Wesley Matthews and the strained relationship he has with his dad … Clippers coach Doc Rivers can’t help but marvel at Dirk Nowitzki‘s career … Ex-Spurs forward Richard Jefferson sounds a little bitter about all the hype Kawhi Leonard is getting in San Antonio

ICYMI(s) of The Night: On a 12-game night, it’s tough to find the best plays because so many of them stand out. But today, we’re going with a pair of nice backdoor alley-oops — one from Nicolas Batum to Damian Lillard and another one from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Larry Sanders:


VIDEO: Damian Lillard skies high on the baseline to finish off Nicolas Batum’s alley-oop


VIDEO: Giannis Antetokounmpo finds Larry Sanders for the reverse alley-oop

Baby Steps For Heat’s Oden




VIDEO: The Game Time crew discuss Greg Oden’s long awaited return to the court

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Baby steps.

Big, giant baby steps.

That’s all the Miami Heat can and should expect from Greg Oden now that he’s made his long-awaited return to NBA action as a reserve for the two-time defending champions.

Oden’s dream became a reality Wednesday night in Washington, when the former No. 1 overall pick played his first minutes since 2009. As they say, you cannot coach size. And Oden leaves a huge footprint on the court, even in limited minutes. Oden recorded an offensive rebound, a dunk and personal foul in his first 30 seconds of action. He played 8 minutes and 24 seconds altogether, finishing with six points on 2-for-3 shooting from the floor, 2-for-2 from the free throw line, and grabbed two rebounds in the Heat’s 114-97 blowout loss.

It’s been a long time coming for Oden, who missed what should have been his rookie season with a knee injury and then endured three more microfracture surgeries on his knees.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before the game that Oden’s appearance was in the master plan and based on months of hard work by the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 Draft. Plus, the Heat need a bruiser now that former starting center Joel Anthony has been traded away.

“He’s been working very diligently,” Spoelstra said of Oden. “It’s been all part of the plan. He’s made great progress. He’s getting stronger. He’s getting healthier. He’s getting his core right. Everything without skipping steps. We’re very patient with him.”

Like I said, baby steps … big, giant baby steps!


VIDEO: Greg Oden talks about his regular-season debut with the Heat

Hang Time One-On-One … With Al Horford

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Al Horford‘s season came to an abrupt end on Dec. 26 when he reached for the ball and tore his right pectoral muscle, the second such injury in three seasons for the Atlanta Hawks’ two-time All-Star center.

Horford tore his left pectoral muscle in 2012 and missed four months recovering from that injury, coming back in the playoffs that season but missing all but 11 regular season games during the 2011-12 season. But the heat and soul of the Hawks’ franchise will not let this latest injury setback deter him. He’s vowed to return better than ever while continuing to serve as an influential voice and presence for his team during his recovery.

Just so we’re clear on the impact Horford had on the Hawks this season, his first playing alongside someone other than Josh Smith (now in Detroit) in the frontcourt, you need to consider what sort of company he was in as the Hawks’ leading scorer and rebounder.

At the time of his injury Horford was one of just six players – LeBron James of the Miami Heat, Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks, LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers and DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings were the others — leading his team in points and rebounds.

Now Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and guys like Elton Brand and Pero Antic are left to help fill the massive void left by Horford’s absence for a Hawks team that has overachieved this season.

Interestingly enough, those are the same guys Horford expressed extreme confidence in when I sat down with him before his injury for the latest installment of our Hang Time One-On-One series …



VIDEO: Al Horford opens up about his Hawks, his city, his journey and much more in this HT One-On-One

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 21


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Granger returns | Kobe-less Lakers beat Wolves | Deng off trade block? | Oden still a ways away? | Hotel New York

No. 1: Pacers crowd welcomes back GrangerDanny Granger played just five games last season due to a knee injury and a calf strain has kept him out all of this season — until Friday night. The small forward made a triumphant return in front of a home crowd that serenaded him with chants of “Danny! Danny!” as he headed to the scorer’s table to check in with about 4 1/2 minutes left in the first quarter. Granger played 22 minutes, scoring five points on a rusty 1-for-7 shooting with two assists and five turnovers. But for an already loaded Pacers team, the return of Granger provides just one more weapon.

From Michael Pointer of the Indianapolis Star:

He got a standing ovation when he officially checked in with 4:05 remaining. He made his presence felt on the defensive end, coming from the weak side to block a shot by Houston’s Dwight Howard.

“It felt good,” said Granger, who played in just five games last season because of a knee injury. “When you haven’t played in a long time, you want to do something defensively to get into the flow of the game. The crowd went crazy. It was exciting. And we got the win by 33 points (Granger’s uniform number). Kind of ironic.”

The love continued throughout the night for Granger, who played 22 minutes — two more than coach Frank Vogel estimated he would — and scored five points on just 1-for-7 shooting. The numbers weren’t great. He had two assists while committing five turnovers.

But with his teammates playing so well around him, that hardly mattered. It was a rousing success.

“It’s exactly what I thought we would see,” Vogel said. “I think he’s going to have an adjustment period, and it’s going to be a process with his shot-making and his ability to finish plays.

“But what I liked about it is the way he impacted the game on the defensive end. For all the questions about if he was going to fit in, he shared the basketball every time he had an opportunity to. He shot the open shots in the rhythm of the offense, which we asked him to do. And he went out and he guarded. He played a strong defensive game.”

Granger led the Pacers in scoring for five consecutive years before the knee injury virtually wiped out his entire 2012-13 campaign. Hibbert and Paul George have emerged as team leaders in his absence. He was heartened by the response he got from the crowd, which also chanted “Danny, Danny” when Vogel removed him from the game for the final time with 2:28 left in regulation.

“It was awesome,” he said. “Couple of standing ovations when I was out there. Just to play in front of the home crowd again was kind of a breath of fresh air. … Just got to keep building up my legs and my wind.”

***

No. 2: Lakers can smile againXavier Henry, Nick Young and Pau Gasol didn’t let the bummer news of Kobe Bryant‘s fractured knee get in the way of the team stringing together consecutive wins for just the third time this season. Back at home after a 2-2 road trip, L.A. tripped up the disappointing Minnesota Timberwolves, 104-91. With Bryant out for six weeks and the point guard crew of Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar all still out with injury, Henry, a shooting guard, assumed those duties and merely poured in 21 points with four assists. Gasol continued his resurgence with a near triple-double: 21 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists. Young jumped off the bench for 25 points, including a long 3-pointer with 1:59 to go that put the Lakers up by nine. The Lakers were 10-9 without Kobe as he recovered from the Achilles injury, went 2-4 with him back and now will look for their first three-game win streak of the season Saturday night at struggling Golden State.

From Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

Something funny happened on the way to the memorial service for the Lakers’ 2013-14 season.

They won a game.

The Lakers, finished for the season? Not yet.

“We’re not done,” Gasol said. “This team is ready to continue to compete and continue to have fun and is not going to fold just because we’re facing some injuries and adversity.”

This being the Western Conference, where 10 teams are .500 or better — exactly seven more than the East — it will be very difficult for the Lakers (13-13) to make the playoffs.

If the Lakers wanted any inspiration, they knew they went 10-9 without Bryant until his return from a torn Achilles’ tendon. It’s not quite rallying-cry material, but they again face a long chunk of time without him because of his fractured knee.

“I think they’re excited about disproving people like they did the first time and we’ll do it again,” Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni said earlier Friday.

***

No. 3: Bulls pull Deng off market? — The Chicago Bulls, despite their season falling apart since Derrick Rose suffered a second knee injury, want to hold on to small forward Luol Deng, who is averaging 19.6 ppg and 7.0 rpg. That’s what sources have told ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst. Deng will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. The two-time All-Star is currently out until at least next week nursing an Achilles injury:

Teams are inquiring about Deng’s status with the Bulls, who continue to sink in the standings in the wake of the knee injury that wrecked another season for Derrick Rose.

Deng told the Chicago Sun-Times this week that he’s been preparing for the possibility of being traded, but sources said that’s not in the team’s plans.

Despite failing to come to terms on a contract extension before the season, the Bulls remain optimistic they will re-sign Deng next summer.

Having spent his entire 10-year career with Chicago, Deng has consistently said he wants to stay with the Bulls, though the sides were far apart on contract talks before they were tabled.

Deng is in the final year of a contact that will pay him $14 million this season, and the Bulls are facing a luxury-tax bill that could exceed $13 million. Some league executives believe that the Bulls, who’d never incurred a luxury tax until last year, may have an interest in offloading payroll ahead of the trade deadline. For now, though, that will not include Deng.

The Bulls (9-16) lost their fourth consecutive game Thursday night and have dropped eight of their last 10 in falling to 10th place in the Eastern Conference.

***

No. 4: Oden getting antsy to play? — Miami center Greg Oden hasn’t played an NBA game in more than four years and the big man from Ohio State who continues to work himself back from multiple knee injuries appears to have the playing itch. He was inactive for the 26th consecutive game during the Heat’s breezy home victory over the Sacramento Kings Friday night. Miami Herald beat reporter Joseph Goodman reports that Oden could be getting frustrated with all of the pine time:

Dwyane Wade said before the Heat’s game against the Kings that Greg Oden has “gotten down” and “a little frustrated” while waiting to join the team on the court. Oden was in his business attire and inactive for the 26th consecutive game this season Friday.

At the same time, Wade said Oden “has been great” and the Heat’s co-captain said he was proud of Oden’s patience. The Heat’s reserve center, who hasn’t played in a regular-season game in more than four years, went through his normal pregame routine Friday. He worked out on the court before shedding his knee brace and practice attire for a sport coat and a spot on the bench.

Still, Wade’s tone seemed to acknowledge the widely held belief that Oden is still a long way from being cleared to play.

“His attitude has been great,” Wade said. “I’m sure at times he has gotten down and got a little frustrated, but he’s giving himself a chance. He is listening to the guys who know the bodies very well — way more than us athletes.

“He is doing everything they ask him to do, so it’s giving him an opportunity to get back on the court whenever that time comes. He’s not rushing it, so as someone who has been through injuries before, I’m proud of him being patient, and I know he’s frustrated because he wants to get out there and play with us. I know if he keeps doing what he’s doing, his time will come.”

***

No. 5: Knicks’ hometown hotel — The New York Knicks play their third home noon game Saturday against Memphis, and after the first two ended as the team’s most lopsided defeats of the season, coach Mike Woodson decided he wasn’t taking any chances with his team not being prepared yet again for the early tip. So the coach decided to put the team up in a hotel Friday night. Here’s the story from Peter Botte of the New York Daily News:

“Yeah, we’ve had those troubles and you know, we’re going to all get together tonight and huddle together,” Woodson said after practice Friday in Greenburgh. “I’m not going to let them hang out.

“We’re going to all get together, ourselves, as a team.”

Asked if he felt the need to “baby-sit” his players — after the Knicks were blown out on their home floor by 31 points by San Antonio on Nov. 10 and by 41 by Boston on Dec. 8 — Woodson replied, “Well, we’re going to be together. Put it that way.”

Carmelo Anthony said he was “hearing” that curfew would be 10 p.m. The All-Star forward indicated the Knicks (8-17) also stayed together at a hotel before the Celtics debacle earlier this month, but it certainly appears they will be more closely monitored before facing the Grizzlies.

“We’ve done that plenty of times where we stayed at a hotel together, the night before a game. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it works. We’ll see about that tomorrow,” Anthony said. “We didn’t do it the San Antonio game. Sometimes it works — early games. Sometimes it don’t.

“It’s just a matter of us coming out the gate and establish that early. I don’t think it has anything to do with us staying in a hotel or not. That’s what Coach wants to do and we’re going to do it.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Duke star and potential top three Draft pick Jabari Parker likes comparisons to Knicks star Carmelo Anthony … Injured Trail Blazers rookie C.J. McCollum has been cleared to practice, but his career debut could still be a ways away … LeBron James says the Heat’s shooters are concerned about how the Christmas Day sleeved jerseys will affect their stroke.

ICYMI Of The Night: The Sixers’ surprising early season success is a thing of the past, but guard Evan Turner helped bring some joy to the City of Brotherly Love with a last-second overtime basket to cap a wild 121-120 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.


VIDEO: Turner saves the day for Philly

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 18


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron to sit against Pacers? | “Silent assassin” strikes again | Henry a solid investment for Lakers | Woody’s code red in New York 

No. 1: With or without LeBron, Heat need to beware of the Pacers – LeBron James might not play in tonight’s rematch between the Heat and Indiana Pacers thanks to that sore ankle he injured Monday night. But Linda Robertson of the Miami Herald is convinced that the Heat need to be on red alert with or without James against this upstart Pacers team that has designs on the Heat’s crown. And since they are the only two teams in the Eastern Conference that are legitimate title contenders, every single time they meet this season will serve as a referendum, of sorts, on both teams:

Heat players rolled their eyes. Asked when he circled the date of the matchup on his calendar, Chris Bosh deadpanned, “Yesterday.”

“What is a rivalry these days?” James said, dismissing the notion that Heat-Pacers qualified as one. He was the King ignoring the serfs as they girded for revolution.

Perhaps Heat players are taking the jaded, realistic view. Who cares about December hothouse flowers? The Heat blooms in June.

Phase One of the long NBA season is for warming up and preserving body parts, not peaking, according to the two-time defending champs. Part of the problem with a league in desperate need of tinkering is the soullessness of so many games. The schedule starts to look like a vast wasteland with mediocre teams plodding from one inconclusive skirmish to another. Realignment and relegation deserve study if the NBA wants to awake.

In the meantime, we have Heat-Pacers II, to be followed by Heat-Pacers III on March 26, Heat-Pacers IV on April 11 and presumably Heat-Pacers Apocalypse in the Eastern Conference finals.

So the Heat better pay attention. As coach Erik Spoelstra is fond of saying, championship habits are ingrained during the regular season. Heat players, who beat the Pacers in seven games in last year’s playoffs, have a right to act superior, but the Pacers won’t be any worse for wear by stockpiling confidence. While the Heat conserves energy, the Pacers hone their ability to exploit Miami’s flaws — skills that will come in handy in five months.

Roy Hibbert is perfecting how to become a 7-2, 300-pound thorn in the Heat’s side.

The center dominated the paint in Indy and made a season-high 10 baskets — almost all from close range as the Heat failed to prevent him from catching post passes. David West added 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists.

The Heat has no answer for their size and muscle. The Greg Oden Project continues, in secret, with no sign that the big man’s knees will be ready anytime soon. If and when he does return — and Hibbert said he’s looking forward to it — Oden has to make up for a lot of lost time. He hasn’t played in a regular-season game in more than four years.

Paul George is making the most of valuable on-the-job training against Miami. The emerging superstar had a harried first half against the Heat’s double teams last week, but he figured out how to unlock himself and sank three crucial three-pointers, finishing with 17 points.

James was the unselfish distributor with his balanced contribution of 17 points, 14 rebounds and six assists, plus feverish defense of George, but if James’ ankle will cooperate, he needs to be a more aggressive scorer Wednesday. At Indy, he made only 3 of 11 field goals in Miami’s anemic second, third and fourth quarters.

… Miami believes it can make do without a center — and has two titles to prove it. But the rebounding bugaboo almost doomed the Heat against Indiana last year and again against San Antonio in the NBA Finals. Even against Utah on Monday, Miami gave up 17 second-chance points in the first half.

“It’s always a point of emphasis for us,” Bosh said. “It keeps teams in it against us.”


VIDEO: LeBron James is hopeful he’ll be in the lineup against the Pacers

***

No. 2: Big Shot Lillard? Nah! Silent assassin mows owns Cleveland Damian Lillard is developing a reputation around the league in just his second season as one of the true big shot artists in the game. He drained his second game-winner of the week Tuesday night in Cleveland, outdueling All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving in the process. Uncle Drew met up with the “Silent Assassin” Tuesday night and the ending was even better than the show that preceded it, writes Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. The Trail Blazers’ Houdini act makes for spectacular visuals that even the King approves of:

After Damian Lillard bludgeoned the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night, swishing a game-winning three-pointer before the final buzzer to carry the red-hot Trail Blazers to another victory, the superlatives flowed as free and effortless as a shot off Lillard’s right fingertips.
“Cold blooded,” Cleveland’s Dion Waiters said of the game-winner.
“Incredible,” Joel Freeland said of the dominant individual performance.
“He’s like a silent assassin on the court,” Earl Watson said of Lillard. “He’s deadly when he shoots the ball.”
Lillard was certainly a last-second marksman for the Blazers on Tuesday, calmly and confidently nailing a 30-foot step-back three with 0.4 seconds left to lift them to a 119-116 victory over the Cavaliers before 15,689 at Quicken Loans Arena. It was thesecond consecutive game-winner for Lillard — who hit a fadeaway jumper to beat the Detroit Pistons Sunday — and provided another remarkable moment in a season that continues to amaze.
“It’s crazy that we’re pulling off wins like this,” Freeland said of the Blazers, who possess the NBA’s best record at 22-4.

… Afterward, in another muted celebration, Lillard coolly flexed, flashed a menacing glare and bumped chests with Aldridge as teammates gathered around.

“There is nothing to break down,” coach Terry Stotts said, when asked to dissect the winning play. “Damian had it going … he had a special night. I thought it was appropriate that he finished it like that.”

VIDEO: Fan Night Top Ten featuring the vocal stylings of Beau Estes!

***

No. 3: Henry investment produces solid returns for Lakers – Kobe Bryant‘s return to action was a foregone conclusion for the Los Angeles Lakers and in turn the men who toiled in his place during his absence. But that sliver of opportunity provided one-time Memphis Grizzlies lottery pick Xavier Henry with the opening he needed to prove himself to the Lakers and the rest of the league. It was an investment that has delivered solid returns for the Lakers, writes Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. It’s an investment that has worked out well for all involved:

Keeping faith When he set foot in this city nearly 3½ years ago, Xavier Henry was considered a highly touted draft prospect that could help the Memphis Grizzlies toward a deep playoff push.

Henry, whom Memphis selected with the 12th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, never did that. A right knee injury sidelined him for 35 games his rookie season. The Grizzlies then traded Henry the following year to New Orleans, where overlapping injuries buried him on the depth chart. “I was just faithful to God and stayed true to the Bible,” Henry said. “I perservered through it. I’ve been doing that so far in my career. It hasn’t been easy,”

The Lakers signed Henry to a one-year deal this offseason with a partially guaranteed contract worth $884,293, and the move became a good investment.

Henry only posted five points on 2 of 8 shooting in the Lakers’ win Tuesday against Memphis. But he has averaged a career-high 9.8 points on 44 percent shooting in 20.1 minutes per game. He has also shown marked improvement from November (6.8 points on 37.9 percent shooting) to December (13.9 points on 50 percent shooting).

“I’m trying to solidify myself and have a great career,” Henry said. “But it doesn’t happen in a day. I can’t have too many highs or lows. It’s about pushing through the whole season.”

***

No. 4: Next few days critical for Woodson – Time out controversies, mixed up injury updates and eroding confidence in the locker room and front office, could things get any worse for Knicks coach Mike Woodson? Well, if you let Frank Isola of the New York Daily News tell it, these next few days are critical for Woodson and the prospect of him holding on to his job through Christmas. Fall apart against the Milwaukee Bucks tonight and … well, that lump of coal will arrive a few days early:

According to a source, [Amar'e] Stoudemire “flipped out” when he learned of Woodson’s medical update and quickly took to Twitter to inform the fans ‘IM NOT INJURED.” He also said that his body and knees “feel great!” Of course, Stoudemire didn’t make the trip to Milwaukee, so Woodson isn’t entirely wrong. The Knicks don’t play again until Saturday, so technically Stoudemire is out for “a while.”

Now, whether Woodson is still coaching the Knicks by Saturday is anyone’s guess. [Knicks owner Jim] Dolan is the X factor, of course. Anything and everything is possible. If he woke up in October believing the Knicks were championship-ready, he could just as easily decide tomorrow that Allan Houston or Herb Williams should lead the team for the remainder of the season.

But Dolan likes Woodson and may be willing to give him a chance to salvage the season now that Tyson Chandler is expected back from a broken leg. Chandler’s presence is huge in so many areas but he’s also limited. He’s not a big scorer and he’s injury-prone.

The whole roster is injury-prone despite the Dolan narrative that only Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace were medical risks who all had to go. Kenyon Martin has an abdominal strain and is expected to be out two weeks. Pablo Prigioni is also out two weeks with a broken big toe. Raymond Felton, strained hamstring, two weeks.

(Do you get the feeling that the medical staff is under fire and instead of giving a four-week prognosis is now listing everyone at two weeks?) In Dolan’s defense, he only claimed this roster was built for the playoffs. He never promised it would get there.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Warriors finally get Andre Iguodala back in the lineup and at just the right time … Forget the analytics when it comes to Russell Westbrook, numbers just don’t do him justice … Underrated point guard Ty Lawson is the key to the Nuggets’ season and future … Celtics and Sixers ready to battle it out for Rockets big man Omer Asik?

ICYMI(s) Of The Night: You owe it yourself to take one more look at the work Damian Lillard put in against the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night, young fella is a BEAST …


VIDEO: Damian Lillard should get the key to the city after his work in Cleveland Tuesday night