Posts Tagged ‘Greg Oden’

Morning shootaround — Aug. 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Paul George starts long road back | Did Durant “withdraw” or “quit?” | Searching for USA’s sixth man | Wait till it’s your home, not Ray Allen’s

No. 1: Paul George starts long road back — Two weeks removed from the gruesome (sorry if we’re overusing that word, but it’s the best adjective available) injury that shut down Paul George‘s Team USA experience, wiped out his plans for the 2014-15 NBA season and had many onlookers worried about his pro career, the Indiana Pacers’ All-Star wing player met with media in Indianapolis on Friday. Through them, he spoke to the fans – not just to those who root for the Pacers and him but for the league and for dazzling young athletes of any kind who might endure such a cataclysmic mishap. And the 24-year-old put a lot of minds at ease with his optimism, as chronicled by Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star:

“A bump in the road,” he called it at one point. “I’ll be able to battle through this. There will be a story I can tell, a testimony I will have.”

And yes, he has seen the video.

“I watched it one time,” George said, “and that’ll be the last time.”

At what was largely a feel-good gathering at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, George even talked about playing again before the end of the coming season. That might have been emotions running ahead of the prognosis, of course, and no one’s holding him to it:

What remains, of course, is the cold reality: A metal rod was planted in George’s right leg, pins screwed in his knee and ankle to hold it in place. His coming season is all but lost. A rigorous road of rehabilitation awaits.

“I’m very aware of not being able to play this year; that’s a huge possibility,” George said. “[But] if I have the opportunity, I’d love to make a comeback.”

He firmly resisted doling out any blame — not to USA Basketball, not to the stanchion at the Thomas & Mack Center he fell on that originally appeared to be considerably closer to the court than one at a typical NBA game. This was nothing more than a freak accident, George said.

“It sucks I was on the bad side of it, but USA Basketball doesn’t deserve any criticism because of this,” he said, noting several times that after a successful recovery, he would still love to suit up for Team USA in the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.

***

No. 2: Did Durant “withdraw” or “quit?” — Words matter, and there currently is a little war of them going on as far as Kevin Durant‘s decision to end his participation with Team USA this summer in its pursuit of the 2014 FIBA World Cup title. Durant notified USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo on Aug. 7 that he felt too mentally and physically drained from Oklahoma City’s long 2013-14 season and his other activities to continue. Unfortunately, his decision came after Team USA laid its X’s & O’s foundation for this summer’s tournament in a week of workouts and walk-throughs in Las Vegas. That – and what some perceive as outside business interests creating a tail-wags-dog situation for Durant – has Chris Sheridan favoring the latter word on his SheridanHoops.com Web site (click through to Sheridan’s site for coach Mike Krzyzewski‘s intriguing assessment of Durant’s work while in the USA camp):

Yes, Durant quit the team.

It is semantics, but “withdrew” is reserved for players who told the federation before training camp began that they would not be attending. If you attended camp in Las Vegas, and if you called coach Mike Krzyzewski to ask for advice on how to be a “leader” when camp resumed in Chicago, and then you blindside Coach K and every other member of the national team, you have “quit.”

What Kevin Durant did was shameful.

And what I have discovered in talking to members of the U.S. federation over the past two days is this: Durant and his agency, Roc Nation, are more interested in cashing in on his MVP award and his expiring Nike deal than they are in having Durant keep his word to the people who were with him in 2010 in Turkey at the World Championship and in 2012 in London at the Olympics.

Team director Jerry Colangelo said he could see signs in Las Vegas that Durant was distracted. Krzyzewski reiterated Friday that Durant’s actions blindsided everyone.

“Looking back, if you could turn back time. you would like for him to make that decision before Vegas. We might have invited somebody different,” Krzyzewski said. “But saying that, that’s in the past, we’re forward, and it puts us a little behind, just like the injuries.”

***

No. 3: Searching for USA’s sixth manCarmelo Anthony never got better reviews than when he voluntarily and affably accepted a reserve role for the 2012 USA squad that won gold at the 2012 London Olympics. The Knicks’ scoring star proved invaluable with his production, points and otherwise, off the bench. He showed, to some, how he might play if he had better talent around him than the rosters in Denver and New York have offered. Anyway, it’s time for some other top-tier talent on a roster full of stars to fill Melo’s sneakers as Team USA’s sixth man and spark plug. Our Steve Aschburner looked at possible candidates as Krzyzewski’s rotations begin to take shape now:

“I really think there are a lot of guys who would be willing to do it,” [Kyle] Korver said. “I don’t think it’s a hard thing. It’s one thing for a guy to be the sixth man on his NBA team, but there have been a bunch of guys [to do that for Team USA]. Every time someone’s done it, it seems that person has gotten a lot of praise and a lot of credit.”

Having a green light to shoot, at the urging of the coaches, at a rate that probably would lead the stellar squad in attempts-per-minute? Yeah, someone might raise his hand for that.
“We’ve got so many guys who can come in and contribute in any aspect of the game,” said [James] Harden, who might pick up some of Durant’s shots in Team USA’s reworked offense. “From Klay Thompson to Kyle Korver to Damian Lillard, so many guys who can be effective at what they do.”

Harden was the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2012 before getting traded to Houston and emerging as an All-Star the past two seasons. He knows a little about managing one’s ego from the bench.

“It’s all about your mindset,” he said Friday. “If you come in with the mindset that you’re going to impact the game, that as soon as you step out there you’re going to make your presence felt, then you’ll be more effective and your team will be better off. We won’t have that problem with this team – I’m sure guys will be ready and super-prepared at all times.”

***

No. 4:  Wait till it’s your home, not Ray Allen’s — The initial reaction of local authorities struck some of us as a tad too casual after the intrusion into longtime NBA sharpshooter Ray Allen‘s luxury home in Coral Gables, Fla. Overnight Wednesday/Thursday, seven males in their late teens entered Allen’s home while his wife and children slept (Allen was not home), waking and alarming Shannon Allen. After she shouted out, the intruders allegedly exited without incident and, when rounded up by police, were not charged with a crime. And that seemed disproportionately light to Allen and his family, who have sought legal representation in the matter and released a statement, carried by the Miami Herald, that included this harrowing description of a scene to which no one should wake:

“She heard male voices loudly discussing our personal property and sat up in a state of alarm to find at least five people inside our bedroom with large flashlights. She was immediately fearful for the safety of her own life, but more importantly the lives of our young children. When she screamed at them, the intruders quickly fled the scene and laughter was heard as they made their way out of our bedroom, down the stairs and out of our house.

“As these individuals were fleeing our house, Shannon immediately called security and the police for help. Shannon and I believe that a number of the public statements made through media outlets have mischaracterized certain important facts and what we believe to be the seriousness of this potentially devastating invasion upon our lives, home and family.

“The suggestion that anyone can unlawfully enter into someone’s locked home and then into an occupied bedroom in the middle of the night without consequences is unsettling…”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: DeMarcus Cousins‘ sore knee won’t let him play for Team USA against Brazil, but he’s on his way back Andre Drummond would love to pounce on the opportunity Cousins’ layoff opens for a big man. … Itinerary change for Team USA: Taking no chances with Ebola in Senegal. … Greg Oden, who once might have been a Team USA big man, gets a trial date instead.

Morning Shootaround — June 22


VIDEO: The Inside crew has another nuanced discussion about Carmelo Anthony’s future

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Carmelo weighing salary against winning with his decision | Love deal on hold, Thompsons smiling | Report: Bulls pursuing trade for Magic’s Afflalo | Embiid fits Lakers’ needs

No. 1: Carmelo weighing salary against winning — As cold and crass as it might sound, the fact is Carmelo Anthony‘s potentially career-defining decision about whether to opt in for another year in New York with the Knicks or to bolt in free agency is really about trying to win titles or trying to cash in on one last huge payday. Because no one is convinced he can do both by staying with the Knicks. His decision is due Monday, giving Anthony one final night of restless sleep to figure out his future. His options, as Benjamin Hoffman of The New York Times details, are set in stone both ways:

If Anthony does nothing with his contract and chooses to stay with the Knicks for the 2014-15 season, he will earn $23.3 million. If he opts out and signs a maximum contract with the Knicks, he can earn about $129 million over five seasons, depending on the final salary-cap ceiling. If he signs a maximum contract with a team other than the Knicks, he can get up to $95 million over four years. If he forgoes his rights to re-sign with the Knicks and wants to form a Big 4 in Miami with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it is hard to envision a way in which he could earn more than $58.8 million over four seasons.

It is that cold, hard reality that has Pat Riley, the Heat’s president, calling the idea of obtaining Anthony a “pipe dream” — even if he did not specifically use Anthony’s name.

The question now, with the deadline for Anthony to opt out of his contract coming Monday, is how much he values winning. The Knicks seem unlikely to contend next season, and Anthony will be voting with his own money if he chooses to walk away from the rebuilding franchise.

At 30, and with more than 800 games played, including the playoffs, Anthony will probably never again have as strong a case for demanding a gigantic payday. He just had one of his best all-around seasons, even if it came in a frustrating season for his team, and any team looking to sign him can reasonably expect the durable Anthony to be productive for the length of the contract.

The prospect of playing with the Heat’s threesome, all of whom he has shared time with on the United States men’s national team, would certainly be enticing, but the Heat’s ability to manipulate the salary cap can go only so far.

With nearly every contract on the roster involving some form of option, the Heat are currently committed to more than $80 million in salary next season, which is far in excess of the estimated $63 million salary cap. In a highly unlikely move, the team could reduce its salary commitments to $8 million if it declined all its team options and if every player eligible opted to become a free agent. That $8 million would have to fill 10 roster spots, leaving roughly $55 million to sign Anthony, James, Wade and Bosh. Split evenly, they would each earn less than $14 million next season. Anthony last made that little money in 2007-8 and would potentially be leaving $70 million on the table over the duration of the contract.

As good as the Big 4 would be, the Heat would need more than them to re-establish themselves as title contenders.

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Beasley says season in the background has changed him for the better

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

Indiana Pacers v Miami Heat - Game 6

Michael Beasley has yet to be active in The Finals and has been inactive in 10 of Miami’s 19 playoff games. (NBAE via Getty Images)

SAN ANTONIO – The Miami Heat’s main characters had taken their spots for media day at AT&T Center on the eve of the NBA Finals. Stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade entertained in the interview room. Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and other key cogs answered questions from behind podiums spaced around the perimeter of the floor.

Then there were the others, plopped down in the front row of seats along the corner of the court, just outside the sphere of the media’s interest. It was a fitting foursome: Greg Oden then Chris “Birdman” Andersen then Rashard Lewis then Michael Beasley. All four had signed with Miami within the last two seasons, eager to join LeBron and D-Wade for a championship ride, but also to seek a resurrection of sorts for careers that veered in different directions for differing reasons.

Only Beasley, the troubled, 25-year-old forward, sought something deeper: Salvation.

“I’ve seen him grow immensely, maturity‑wise, as a pro, on and off the court,” said Erik Spoelstra, the Heat’s rookie coach in 2008 when they drafted the 19-year-old Beasley No. 2 overall. “It’s really been ‑‑ it’s been cool to see.”

Even so, if judging solely by how Spoelstra has used him, it’s fair to wonder if Beasley, his disappointing career already dwindling by a thread, has failed in his pursuit. Some may have even forgotten he plays for the Heat. Few players are perceived so negatively by fans and media alike, with much of the scrutiny coming by way of his own missteps; a self-destructive path of poor decisions off the court and a sliding, seemingly increasingly lazy effort on it through his first five seasons spent with three teams.

Yet despite never realizing a rotation niche this season, and being inactive more often than not during the postseason, Beasley is adamant that this second stint with Miami has served as a vessel for personal growth.

“I’ve learned a lot, not just from LeBron and Dwyane, but from Rashard, Udonis [Haslem], Birdman and Ray, a team full of veterans, a team full of future Hall of Famers,” Beasley told NBA.com from his front-row seat little more than a week ago. “Definitely a great move for my career, more on the mental side of things. I’ve learned a lot: How to do things the right way, how to have fun the right way, not to sweat the small stuff.

“I’ve worked. The thing I’ve learned above all else is how to win, what it takes to win, the attitude and dedication to work. You get tired, but once you get used to it, it’s like your body needs it.”

Those are words that might pique the interest of skeptical general managers as Beasley becomes an unrestricted free agent next month. Last summer, after an underwhelming first season in Phoenix, the Suns bought him out of his remaining two years and $12 million as legal issues swirled around him. It followed a flame-out with Minnesota, the team Miami traded him to for a couple of second-round picks two seasons after drafting him one spot behind Chicago’s Derrick Rose and ahead of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love.

After the Suns cut ties, Beasley signed a one-year, veteran’s minimum contract with the two-time champion Heat, a team with established leaders and where Beasley believed he would be afforded the chance to reset his career, and his life, while removed from the daily pressures of the spotlight.

“Who doesn’t have a past? Who doesn’t have skeletons?” Beasley said. “It’s just my skeletons are in the open, not in the closet. So have I been unfairly portrayed? I can say yes, I can say no. Did I bring it on myself? Most definitely. But it’s the growing process in life, maturing, a grown boy turning into a young man.”

Beasley has yet to be active in The Finals and has been inactive in 10 of Miami’s 19 playoff games. He’s played a total of seven minutes in three games. During the regular season, he appeared in a career-low 55 games and averaged career-lows in points (7.9), rebounds (3.1) and minutes (15.1).

Yet, Beasley said: “Honestly, this season has flown by faster than any other I’ve been in. I don’t know why, I don’t know how. I guess time really does fly when you’re having fun.”

The Heat had no fun in Games 3 and 4 in Miami and now head back to San Antonio for Sunday’s Game 5 in the unenviable position of trailing 3-1. After Game 4, Spoelstra was asked if Beasley could be an option in Game 5 to provide some much-needed scoring punch. While his playing time was sporadic, Beasley did record a career-high shooting percentage of 49.9 percent and 38.9 percent from beyond the arc, a better mark than only his rookie season.

Spoelstra didn’t give a direct answer, and in an indication as to how Beasley is still perceived, the questioner was roasted on Twitter by fans and also media covering The Finals for having even broached the subject.

“I shouldn’t say no. I do, but I’m not going to stress over it,” Beasley said when asked if he cares more now how others view him. “People who know me, my family, my kids, my closest friends, they know me. I’m not trying to get everybody to know that I’m a good guy, a great guy or whatever. At this point I’m just focused on playing basketball.”

Beasley has worked closely with Heat assistant coach Juwan Howard. Unlike past seasons, Beasley is said to arrive early for practice and stays late, cues he said he immediately gleaned from the team’s veterans. He is said to listen intently to coaches and teammates, and he hasn’t uttered a peep about being limited to an end-of-bench role.

He even pays more attention to nutrition when in the past a pregame meal of chicken strips and french fries from the concession stand would do.

“Everything that we’ve discussed privately, everything that we’ve been working on individually and also with other coaches, he’s been grasping it, and he’s been enjoying it and working hard at it,” Howard said. “That right there, that’s how I judge Michael.”

After he signed with the Heat, Beasley hired a new agent. Beasley said he is solely focused on finishing out this season and declined to answer if he’d be willing to sign a deal similar to his current one to remain with the Heat. His agent, Jared Karnes, said there have been no discussions yet with Miami president Pat Riley.

Beasley did make one declarative statement: He will be sticking around in the NBA.

“Definitely,” Beasley said. “There’s still some immaturity about me, but that’s what keeps it light. I’m a goofy, fun-loving guy, I like to think so myself anyway. But you’re definitely going to see a different me.”

It’s up to Beasley to make believers.

24–Second thoughts — May 20

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Dwyane Wade has LeBron’s back at crunch time … they’re not done yet, folks

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Born Ready?

Not yet.

Not Lance Stephenson and the Indiana Pacers, who made it interesting until the very end of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.

Born Ready?

Not ready. Not yet.

Not when LeBron James (12 points) and Dwyane Wade (10) own the floor at crunch time in the fourth quarter.

The Heat have never trailed 2-0 in a series since they joined forces. They still haven’t. James and Wade 22 in the fourth quarter, Pacers 20!

Game 3 is Saturday in Miami.

The Heat are taking their talents and that always crucial 1-1 series split back to South Beach!

:1

LeBron and Wade either scored or assisted on every single basket in the fourth quarter for the two-time defending champs. Real Champs wore black!

:2

LeBron with the sick bounce pass to Wade for the reverse baseline jam and essentially the game!

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Morning Shootaround — May 10



VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played May 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

League appoints CEO to run Clippers | Pacers rediscovering groove | Westbrook brilliant again | Magic: Clippers won’t play for Shelly Sterling

No. 1: Richard Parsons takes over Clippers — The NBA announced on Friday that former chairman with Citigroup and Time Warner Richard Parsons was appointed interim CEO of the Los Angeles Clippers. Parsons will represent the team as the franchise goes through the process of finding a new owner, following the decision by NBA commissioner Adam Silver to ban team owner Donald Sterling for life. Broderick Turner of The Los Angeles Times caught up with Parsons to discuss his role:

“I am going to be the interim CEO of the team. In terms of the management of the team, I’ll be the owners’ representative, in terms of the relationship of the team for the NBA and its ongoing function.”

What he’ll do:

“The team from a business perspective is leadership. Now [Coach] Doc [Rivers] is the man on the basketball side. Thank goodness for him. But in terms of operation of the team, well, you don’t have an owner who can be present and you don’t have a CEO who is running the shop. And you have probably hundreds of employees, a score of players, you have advertisers, fans and ticket holders who are saying, ‘Who’s in charge here? Where is this thing going?’ We’re going to try and answer that question for them and settle things down and get things stabilized and make sure that this franchise does not lose value. We want it to continue to move in an ascending direction as it has been.”

How long does he plan to be around?

“Hopefully we’ll get things in order. I know that the NBA and Commissioner Silver are committed to moving forward ideally with cooperation with Mr. Sterling to change ownership, a transition ownership. So my initial thought is I would be there through the period of transition. A, to get things in order, and B, to keep things in order.”

His reaction to the news that Shelly Sterling wants to keep the team.

“That is really between the Sterlings and the NBA. My job is to really be a conservator of the assets, to manage the assets so it runs properly, we keep the momentum, we build the value while that question of ownership is being bought out in another arena, an arena in which I’m not standing.”

“I plan to run it until we A, restore order and then B, maintain it and hopefully through a transition process.”

When does he start?

“I’ll be out next week.”

***

No. 2: Pacers act like contenders again — For the first time in these playoffs, the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed played like a No. 1 seed. The league’s top defense during the regular season squashed the Washington Wizards, holding them to just 63 points. Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz was there and shares the details of a team that just might be rediscovering its groove:

For the first time in this postseason, the Pacers imposed their considerable will on an opponent, did it on the road against the up-and-coming Washington Wizards, played to the smash-mouth identity they forged in the first 60 games of this regular season.

After getting punched in the grill in Game 1 and barely surviving at home in Game 2, the Pacers finally looked like a team with NBA Finals aspirations, pounding the Wizards 85-63. In the process, they took back home-court advantage and grabbed a 2-1 lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal series.

These were the Pacers of November, December and January.

These were the Pacers who inspired the Miami Heat to go out and sign Greg Oden in order to match up with Roy Hibbert.

These were the Pacers who were once viewed as a candidate to reach the NBA Finals.

Question: Where’s this team been since the All-Star break?

Answer: Beats me. Beats Frank Vogel and Larry Bird and Pacers’ fans, too.

***

No. 3: Westbrook battles Paul toe-to-toe — Clippers point guard Chris Paul is regarded as the best point guard in the league. His counterpart with the Oklahoma City Thunder Russell Westbrook is giving the slighter Paul all he can handle in a semifinal series the Thunder now lead 2-1. Westbrook followed up his efficient triple-double in the Game 2 win with 23 points on 50 percent shooting, 13 assists and eight rebounds. Paul had 21 points and 16 assists, but it wasn’t enough. Anthony Slater of the The Oklahoman has more:

Kevin Durant continued his MVP play, scoring 36 points and nailing a lethal late-game fadeaway to help seal it. Serge Ibaka played his best offensive game of the playoffs – scoring 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting.

But it was Westbrook, again, who masterfully captained the ship.

He finished with 23 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds, coming up just short of what would have been his fourth triple-double of the playoffs and second in a row, something that hasn’t been done since Jason Kidd in 2002.

But more than the numbers, it was the calm aggression he played with and the smart decisions he continues to make. He had only two turnovers and made seven of his 14 shots, with only three of those 3-pointers.

Dating back to Game 6 against the Grizzlies, Westbrook looks like a different player, dynamic as ever but under control at all times.

And that was particularly true in the game’s biggest moments on Friday night.

With the Thunder clinging to a 106-103 lead with three minutes left, Westbrook whirled in for an important layup. A minute later, after two big Clippers shots had cut OKC’s lead back to one, Westbrook rose for an in-rhythm three. He knocked it in, continuing his smart and potent long-range shooting in this series (6-of-12 overall in the three games) and capped it off with his patented 3-point holsters.

***

No. 4: Magic says Clippers won’t play for Shelly SterlingMagic Johnson said Clippers players won’t stand for Shelly Sterling retaining 50 percent of her ownership stake in the team and that if she does, the players will not play. Eric Prisbell of USA Today has more:

“Those guys are not going to play for anybody (named) Sterling,” Johnson told USA TODAY Sports and two other reporters at the Omni Dallas Hotel. “It’s just how it is. It’s hard to separate the two. … It’s going to be hard for them to sell that to the fans and definitely to the players.”

USA TODAY Sports reported on Thursday that Shelly Sterling intends to remain a 50 percent owner of the Clippers, even though the NBA banned her husband for life in the wake of his racist remarks that were tape recorded and released by the website TMZ. Shelly Sterling said she would remain a passive owner and does not want to be involved in running the team.

But Johnson said it is impossible to separate Shelly Sterling from her husband, even though her voice was absent from the audio recording. He noted past allegations about deplorable living conditions by tenants who lived in properties owned by the Sterlings.

“When they accused them of (being) slumlords, that was both, it wasn’t one person,” Johnson said. “It was both of them. … They will never recover from this. All the sponsors pulling out, they will pull out for good if she is owning it. It’s not going to be the same.”

When asked to characterize his level of interest in buying the Clippers, Johnson said he wanted to wait until the team is officially up for sale before he states his interest level. Johnson has said that he one day wants to own an NBA team.

“First of all, we have to all remember that that is a long way away,” Johnson said. “The board of governors first has to vote him out. Donald Sterling is going to fight it. You know that. It is going to be a long time.

“I have other things to do before I just say my level of interest. The team has to be up for sale. And I think that is going to be eight months to a year. Once it’s official, that it’s really up for sale, we’ll take a look at it.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Sacramento arena deal complete, heads to City Council for historic vote … Warriors latest expected to explore the availability of Tom Thibodeau?LeBron James is not thrilled his favorite NFL team passed on Johnny ManzielGreg Oden: “I know I’m one of the biggest busts in NBA history

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.

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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.

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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

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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.”

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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.”

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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

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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.”

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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