Posts Tagged ‘Gregg Popovich’

Spring and Spurs are back in the air

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Bill Land and Sean Elliott chat about the Spurs’ streak of 15 straight 50-win seasons.

It happens every year. After all the wind and sleet, the snow drifts and frozen highways, the crippling storms and blinding blizzards, spring arrives.

So do the Spurs.

The Heat cool off, the Pacers wobble and the Thunder roll in and out. But the Spurs simply hum. Electricity through a power line.

Every year they’re supposed to get older. Every season they seem only to get wiser. And better. About managing their minutes. About healing their aches and pains. About avoiding the lows and managing the highs.

The Spurs stepped on the necks of the Lakers on Wednesday night, for the second time inside of a week, pushing their win streak to 11 in a row, their longest of the season, heading into Friday night’s game at Sacramento (10 ET, League Pass).

Gregg Popovich (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

Gregg Popovich (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

They are 13-1 since the All-Star break and have extended their NBA-record streak of 50-win seasons to a mind-numbing 15 in a row. The Spurs even won 50 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, finishing 50-16.That is the real March Madness.

So while Phil Jackson gobbles up the headlines in New York, the Spurs keep their heads down and chins up. And now look who’s sitting on top of the standings with the best overall record in the league, 1 1/2 games up on slumping Indiana.

All of which is as surprising to coach Gregg Popovich as gravity.

“That’s what we usually do, right?” Popovich told Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News. “Historically, we’ve always tried to play our best ball after the All-Star break. This year it also coincided with everybody getting healthy, but we’ve done that before. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be the last team standing, but it’s what we usually try to strive for.”

It’s been a habit for nearly a decade to write off the Spurs. That seemed valid after they let the 2013 championship slip through their fingers in those final 24 seconds of Game 6 in Miami. The players have acknowledged that it’s still kicking around in the back corners of their minds. Popovich admits that it rides like an 800-pound gorilla on his back every day. Yet they don’t let it chase them into dark corners each time they step out onto the court.

That ability to stay in the present has been constructed from those 15 consecutive years of 50-win excellence.

“It’s better than losing 50 I guess,” Popovich said, “but we are thinking about other things. We’ve just had a great group of guys for a long time, I guess, and that is the reason we have been able to win. Records and that sort of thing, streaks, aren’t really on anybody’s mind.”

What’s on their mind is getting back to The Finals, though not with a sense of vengeance or redemption. It’s the only goal that matters.

These Spurs are deeper, more balanced, just plain better than a year ago. They have nine different players averaging between 17.6 (Tony Parker) and 8.3 (Tiago Splitter) points per game. There are eight players with a Player Efficiency Rating — ranging from 21.3 (Tim Duncan) to 15.2 (Marco Belinelli) — above the weighted average of 15.0. They have a deep bench led by Manu Ginobili, who is back to his former Sixth Man of the Year level,  and a corporate knowledge that allows them to assimilate new pieces into the mix easily.

Belinelli has been a perfect addition, hitting career highs in shooting percentage, rebounding and, soon, assists. Patty Mills has stepped into Gary Neal’s old backcourt role off the bench and has been at times a distributor, a spark plug and a basket filler. Over the past month or so, Boris Diaw has virtually turned back the clock years to his old Phoenix days.

All that comes on top of the continued under-the-radar growth of Kawhi Leonard, who can attack the basket, pull up and stab in shots from the perimeter, completely disrupt passing lanes with his long arms on defense and barely bat an eye or show a twitch of emotion when he puts the wraps on the likes of LeBron James.

There was a time earlier this season when the Spurs were 1-10 against all of the top level playoff contenders and yet there were no team meetings (a la the Pacers) and no talk of being in “uncharted territory” (the Heat).

When they embarked on their annual Rodeo Road Trip, starting shooting guard Danny Green was just coming back from an injured wrist. During the trip, seven other players missed games due to injury or, in the case of Parker, overall aches and pains. Yet they still came home 6-3. Since then, they haven’t lost a game.

“We stuck with it,” said Duncan. “Through ups and downs, we try to play as steady as we can. It helps that we’re back to full strength. We have all the guys out there. We’re starting to, I think, turn that corner.”

An annual rite of spring.

DPOY award pits big apples vs. on-the-ball oranges

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Starters discuss the leading candidates for the Defensive Player of the Year

Quick, pick your winners: Range Rover or Porsche 911? Golden retriever or Jack Russell terrier? Leonardo Da Vinci painting “Mona Lisa” or Nat King Cole singing “Mona Lisa?”

It’s an apples-and-oranges world when it comes to choosing “the best” this or that, certainly when the categories are so broad – vehicle, acting performance, piece of art – as to include wildly disparate entries.

And then there are those moments when the choice might as well be kumquats vs. lug nuts. That’s the case annually when voters stare at the three blank ballot slots for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award.

It’s difficult enough ranking candidates by criteria that essentially requires you to prove a negative. Great individual defense is … holding an opposing star under his scoring average? Denying someone the ball? Racking up big steal totals? Blocking, contesting or even altering shots?

Defensive statistics, even in this advanced age, still trail the offensive numbers in what they can authoritatively tell us. Then there’s the whole element of team defense – it is a team sport – and a player’s contribution to that in helping, rotating, diving to the floor or otherwise claiming the so-called 50/50 balls.

And in none of the league’s major awards does it get stickier to sort out the issue of size: Big vs. small. Rim-protecter vs. perimeter defender.

“Those are mutually exclusive concepts,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said on a recent stop in Chicago. “When you think MVP, most people just look at the points , and that’s a valid entity, I guess. But with defensive players, the big guys, they usually just look at blocks.

“There are some guys who block shots but can’t play a lick of D, but get credit for blocking shots. When I look at the bigs, I look at somebody like Joakim [Noah] who can guard ones, twos, threes, fours and fives. He can switch onto people and people can’t go by him. I watched him guard LeBron [James] the other day and, my gosh, it was pretty impressive.”

Impressive enough that two days later, Houston coach Kevin McHale – who has three-time DPOY Dwight Howard at his disposal – went public with his choice of Noah for the award this season. (For the record, media folks vote for DPOY and NBA coaches select All-Defensive teams.)

And yet James, in his interview with NBA TV’s Steve Smith, admitted that the vacant space on his trophy shelf cleared for the DPOY bugs him.

The basketball world knows why Miami coach Erik Spoelstra refers to James as “1-through-5″ as a defender – he can guard everyone from point guard Chris Paul to center DeAndre Jordan, and did just that when facing the Clippers this season. But over the past five years, James has finished second twice, fourth twice and ninth.

Nearly a decade has passed since anyone other than a big man has won the award. Metta World Peace wasn’t calling himself that back in 2004 when he earned the trophy with Indiana. Gary Payton was well-established as “The Glove” when he broke up in 1996 Dikembe Mutombo‘s stranglehold of three DPOYs in four years (1995, 1997, 1998).

Kevin Garnett in 2008 was a special case. By the time he picked up his lone DPOY honor, Garnett was – if not strictly a rim defender – pretty much a paint protector. That was the role he embraced in his first year in Boston and it’s likely the award went his way because, short of the MVP (Kobe Bryant), there had to be some acknowledgement of his impact on the Celtics.

Big men have won 22 of the 31 DPOYs, led by Mutombo and Ben Wallace with four each. Howard had a three-year run in Orlando (2009-11). Mark Eaton, Alonzo Mourning and Hakeem Olajuwon won two each, while Marcus Camby, Tyson Chandler, David Robinson, Marc Gasol and Garnett each won once.

Naturally, some of the leading candidates for Defensive Player this season play center or power forward, including Noah, Jordan, Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis.

But it wasn’t always so. Seven of the first nine DPOYs went to guards or forwards. Average size: 6-foot-4, 190 pounds. Milwaukee’s Sidney Moncrief was downright spindly when he won the first two in 1983 and ’84. The Lakers’ stopper, Michael Cooper, was even skinnier (6-5, 170) as the 1987 recipient. And Dennis Rodman was undersized and frenetic when he won seven rebounding titles and the DPOY in 1990 and ’91.

Among the perimeter defenders deserving of DPOY consideration are Memphis’ Tony Allen, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Indiana’s Paul George, Boston’s Avery Bradley and James.

But they’re swimming upstream in a league where specialists such as Bruce Bowen, Raja Bell, Shane Battier, Joe Dumars and Scottie Pippen never won the award. The DPOY probably was created too late to catch the likes of Bobby Jones, Dennis Johnson or Norm Van Lier and other worthy choices in their primes.

It’s almost tempting to suggest two separate awards – one for rim protection, one for the on-the-ball guys – until you hear Popovich boil down NBA defense:

“A defender to me is somebody who can defend the ball, can rebound and can react, weak side to strong side, whether he’s small or whether he’s big.”

Size matters, but not just in physique. Everyone in the Grizzlies’ locker room, for instance, knows of Allen’s heart and defensive hunger. And Memphis is one of those teams blessed with elite versions of both types of defender.

“I would have not won that award, probably, with any other team in the NBA,” Gasol said recently. “Without having TA, without Mike Conley on my team. Having the teammates I have and the system we have allowed me to defend the way I do. As soon as I won it, I told them, [it was] Tony’s hands, Mike’s legs and kind of like my brain, that’s the way I broke it down.”

The Memphis center finished with 30 first-place votes to James’ 18, a 212-149 points spread. Gasol benefited from some advanced analytics tracked by NBA media folks, but felt he was helped more by the familiarity on the Grizzlies’ roster and in former coach Lionel Hollins‘ system.

“We’ve been playing for so long together, I’m behind them so I know their tendencies defensively so I can help,” Gasol said of teammates. “This is not boxing, where it’s only one guy. If the team benefits and feels confident with you, that’s what matters. Some days TA is gonna be the guy who shuts somebody down. Sometimes it’s gonna be Mike Conley or me.”

Said Allen: “You get beat on the perimeter, Marc Gasol has it in his memory bank to know ‘I’m the last line of defense and all I have to do is either take a charge or jump up and not get the foul.’ He’s big, he’s long and he’s good at blocking shots. I’m pressuring the perimeter and digging at the same time.

“We just feed off each other defensively. We understand the court is only so big, and we play off each other.”

Given their druthers, most NBA coaches would start their defense with a towering master of verticality like Hibbert or, maybe better, a versatile, mobile big man like Noah.

“Your bigs organize your defense,” said Jeff Van Gundy, ABC/ESPN coach-turned-analyst. “They’re asked to make multiple efforts, because so much of this game now is pick-and-roll defense, not post defense. So you need a guy who is intelligent enough to recognize situations, athletic enough to defend them and has the energy to make multiple efforts. That’s why today you need a big guy who can be the captain of your defense.

“But you also need the guys who can keep the ball in front of them…”

Which puts us right back where we started, trying to rank Marlon Brando‘s Don Corleone vs. Meryl Streep‘s Sophie. Now that’s a real Sophie’s choice.

Award races head into stretch run

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Four weeks from today the regular season is over. All eyes will be on the playoffs. And that means the final push is on for the 2013-14 awards.

The duel for MVP honors has been a match race all season between Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Michael Carter-Williams jumped out of the pack early as the one to beat for Rookie of the Year. But the other races have been wide open.

Here’s one man’s view as we head into the home stretch:

Most Improved Player

Anthony Davis, Pelicans — This is why the Pelicans were so happy to make him the No. 1 pick in the 2012 Draft. This is what coach Monty Williams says Davis probably could have shown last season if the coach hadn’t kept a tight rein on his prized rookie, limiting his minutes and his exposure to getting overpowered while he built up his slender body. When Davis erupted for 40 points, 21 rebounds, three assists and three steals against the Celtics, it was the culmination of a spectacular sophomore year. He’s been steady and breathtaking at both ends of the court all season, enough to beat out the likes of worthy candidates Goran Dragic and Lance Stephenson in a crowded field of contenders. Also getting votes: DeAndre Jordan, Trevor Ariza.


VIDEO: Anthony Davis was nominated for Kia Player of the Month for March

Sixth Man of the Year

Manu Ginobili, Spurs – Following an injury-plagued 2012-13 season that saw him enter the playoffs last spring looking bedraggled, the player who puts the jolt into the Spurs attack is back playing like a live wire in his 12th season. His field-goal percentage is up and his he’s back to doing all the things at both ends of the floor that make him a disruptive force and a difference maker. Jamal Crawford is the closest contender and has done many of the same things for the Clippers. The deciding factor has to be overall team performance. L.A. is in the top half of the Western Conference standings, but that’s once again the Spurs at the top. The return of Manu to his old form is a prime reason. Also getting votes: Reggie Jackson, Markieff Morris.


VIDEO: Manu Ginobili talks about the Spurs’ season and his play

Rookie of the Year

Michael Carter-Williams, Sixers — He was the sixth guard selected (11th overall) in 2013 and wasted no time showing he never should have lasted that long. He’s put up big numbers even as the Sixers have suffered through what is a historically inept season. If all of general manager Sam Hinkie’s decisions turn out so well, the pain will be worth the price. The fun could just be starting when MCW gets to team up with a healthy Nerlens Noel next season. It’s a long way back to the No. 2 man in the voting for this category, but we’re jumping the more likely pick and going with Tim Hardaway Jr. His hard-charging style has been one of the few reasons to watch the Knicks all year. Also getting votes: Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke. Kia Rookie Ladder


VIDEO: At the All-Star break, Michael Carter-Williams talks about his season

Defensive Player of the Year

Joakim Noah, Bulls — The Pacers spent the early part of the year polishing their reputation as the league’s top defensive team, with center Roy Hibbert starting to clear room on his mantle as the pre-eminent rim protector in the game. But it is no coincidence that the Pacers’ struggles fit with a slippage in Hibbert’s game. The truth is, when you get him just a little bit away from the basket, he’s not so dominant. Meanwhile the Bulls have shrugged off the loss of Derrick Rose and Luol Deng because Noah simply won’t let them stop working and scrapping and competing. He’s the heart and soul of the team, especially that ferocious defense as Chicago charges late and the Pacers try to regain their equilibrium. Also getting votes: Serge Ibaka, Dwight Howard.


VIDEO: Rachel Nichols talks with Joakim Noah about his surge in play of late

Coach of the Year

Gregg Popovich, Spurs — The first instinct is to say that Jeff Hornacek has taken a Suns team that everyone assumed was diving for the lottery — and the Las Vegas wise guys had pegged for 21.5 wins — and turned them into an uplifting story and playoff contender, and that’s worthy of consideration. The next instinct is to say that Tom Thibodeau is like the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, virtually getting limbs chopped off and yet ignoring the wounds and keeping right on with the fight. But when you get right down to the meat of things, it’s all about winning games and some how, some way, Popovich keeps doing that better than anybody else. Never mind that Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are practically senior citizens. Never mind that an assortment of injuries has forced the Spurs to use two dozen different lineups. Never mind all of those lingering mental scars from The Finals last June. Popovich expects the best and his team keeps producing it. Excellence should be recognized and rewarded. Also getting votes: Frank Vogel, Dwane Casey, Steve Clifford.


VIDEO: GameTime delves into how deeply Gregg Popovich’s influence is felt around the NBA

Most Valuable Player

Kevin Durant, Thunder — It’s been a two-horse race between Durant and LeBron James almost from the opening tip. You can almost never go wrong picking James, who still reigns as the league’s best player with his ability. It looked like James might be making a late charge for an MVP three-peat with his 61 point game a couple of weeks ago. But an ensuing slump by both LeBron and the Heat took the steam out of that charge. Durant responded and has raised his game even higher over the past 1 1/2 weeks. We also have to go back to Durant’s body of work without Russell Westbrook for 30 games — and counting — as he keeps the Thunder in the hunt for best overall record and heads toward what should be the first of multiple MVP wins. Also getting votes: Joakim Noah, Blake Griffin. Kia Race to the MVP Ladder


VIDEO: Chris Webber and Greg Anthony debate and discuss the MVP race

Spurs’ Big 3 top Showtime in stability

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

San Antonio's Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

San Antonio’s Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

SAN ANTONIO — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

For a dozen seasons, coach Gregg Popovich has been able to walk into the locker room and write those names into his lineup.

Earth, wind and fire. Like the fundamental elements, we just expect them to be there. The years have practically blended them together into one multi-syllabic name with a single identity.

TimTonyManu. Working, playing, synchronizing and simply moving on, the basketball version of a Swiss watch.

Tick, tick, tick.

In a sport where knees tear, tendons break, tempers snap and egos explode, only two other trios in NBA history have stayed bound at the hip for so long and experienced such success.

Gregg Popovich (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

Gregg Popovich (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

When Duncan, Parker and Ginobili take the court for tonight’s game at the AT&T Center against the Lakers (8:30, NBA TV) for their 664th game together, they’ll pass the “Showtime” Lakers trio of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper as the second-mot durable trio in NBA history. Their 490 wins currently ties L.A. Holding down the No. 1 spot is the Celtics combination of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

“Being a human, sure, one takes it for granted when you don’t stop and think about what those guys have done and how long they’ve been together and what they’ve gone through listening to me for all these years,” said Popovich. “One does have to stop and really think about what that’s meant to our program and how consistent those three guys have been. Because that doesn’t happen that often in the league. We all probably need to appreciate it more around here in San Antonio, for sure.”

When Ginobili was first learning to throw his body all over the hardwood in his hometown of Bahia Blanca, Argentina, the only way to see the high-flying act of Magic, Kareem and Coop was on snippets from highlight tapes. “We were not watching those games live,” he said. “It was not easy to watch the NBA then. You could get tapes and things like that.

“Of course, I remember. The Showtime thing — [James] Worthy flying for dunks, great defense and Magic flying to find open guys in the lane. Bryon Scott to Kareem. I never watched a full game. But I saw plenty of highlights and for sure they were an inspiration and those games against the Celtics were legendary.”

They are as disparate a trio as one might find and yet symbolic of the NBA’s globalization in the quarter-century since the Lakers were winning five championships from 1980-89. A lanky swimmer from the U.S. Virgin Islands, a Belgium-born Frenchman and an Argentinian whose games possesses all the hot passion of the native tango.

Most games played together
729 — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish (Celtics)
711 — Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson (Pistons)
663 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper (Lakers)

663 — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili (Spurs)
632 — Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Satch Sanders (Celtics)

Most victories by an NBA trio
540 — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish (Celtics)
490 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper (Lakers)

490 — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili (Spurs)
468 — Bill Russell, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones (Celtics)
463 — Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Satch Sanders (Celtics)

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili won a championship in their first season together in 2003 and added another in 2005 and one in 2007.

“A great run and it feels very special,” Parker said. “I feel very blessed to play with Timmy and Manu and I feel very lucky and privileged to be named next to Magic Johnson and Kareem and Michael Cooper. I grew up watching them and never thought in my wildest dreams that my name would be next to them. It’s crazy just to think about it. Once I retire, I can look at it and enjoy it. Now I try to stay focused on the season, but it’s unbelievable.

“Growing up in France, soccer’s the main sport and they’re changing all the time. You go and buy [players] and stuff like that. In basketball, it’s a little bit harder to trade guys. But it’s still rare to have the same guys, us three for all those years, and the same coach.”

Toss in Popovich as the only coach that any of them have ever played for in the NBA and the stability and constancy of the Spurs is a little more understandable, yet it remains unprecedented. The Lakers were coached by Jack McKinney, Paul Westhead and Pat Riley during their run in the ’80s. The Celtics were led to their three championships in that decade by Bill Fitch (1981) and K.C. Jones (1984 and 1986).

“It is remarkable,” Ginobili said. “I guess we’re going to win a few more [games]. But even if you didn’t tell me about that stat, we know we are in a very unique position and situation having played together for 12 seasons with the same coach.”

Parker plays without his teammates during summers for the French national team.

“So sometimes I’m used to it,” he said. “But in a Spurs jersey, they are both gonna retire before me, so it’s definitely going to be weird. Hopefully it’s not anytime soon.”

It takes durability, compatibility, a shrewd front office plan and just plain good luck for three players of All-Star caliber to last so long together. In this era of free agency, LeBron James and Chris Bosh can choose to bolt for Miami to chase titles, Carmelo Anthony can go from Denver to New York and maybe have his sights set elsewhere this summer. Even Shaquille O’Neal, the most physically dominating player of his era, bounced to six different teams.

Then there are the debilitating injuries that this year alone have taken down Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have never seriously looked to leave San Antonio.

The once-proud Lakers team staggering into San Antonio tonight, potentially the worst team in the Western Conference this season, demonstrates how long the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili combo has endured and prospered. It’s bad enough in L.A. that the Spurs have sympathy for their long-time rivals — especially Bryant.

“It’s very odd, very unusual after so many playoff games and a very tough, great rivalry,” Ginobili said. “They’ve had so many injuries and, of course, you have two of your best players — Nash and Kobe — out for so long. I’ve never been been through anything like that. Achilles is as bad as it gets.”

Said Parker: “I don’t wish that on anybody. I wish everybody was playing. I wish D-Rose was playing. I hope [LaMarcus] Aldridge is OK. I don’t like injuries. I wish everybody was healthy and we are competing against each other.

“We definitely miss the Lakers. When the Lakers are good, it’s great for the NBA and it’s great for everybody. I love that rivalry — Spurs-Lakers. I miss that a little bit. We definitely are gonna miss Kobe (tonight) and hopefully he’ll be back 100 percent next year.”

The fundamental elements — Duncan, Parker and Ginobili — will be waiting.

Noah sears his way into MVP talk

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

JoakimNoah_March13_575x275

CHICAGO – When Joakim Noah switched on screens a couple times Sunday to find himself against LeBron James, the world saw the Chicago Bulls’ adrenalized, frenetic 6-foot-11 center seizing the moment, squaring up and – wait, no, really? – clapping his hands almost in James’ face.

Here he was, isolated against the NBA’s three-time MVP, who had the ball in his hands, the rim 20 feet away and a game to win. Noah might as well have been throwing rocks at a grizzly bear or wading into traffic on the Kennedy.

Noah, though, didn’t see it that way. For an instant on the court at United Center, in some recess of his mind, he was back in Teaneck, N.J., a dozen years ago. James was a high school underclassman from Akron, Ohio, already having his every movement scouted and stalked as the NBA’s next big thing. Noah? He was the gawky kid with the frizzy hair shagging rebounds for James.

LeBron James, Joakim Noah (Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

LeBron James, Joakim Noah (Issac Baldizon/NBAE)

“I was a ball boy,” Noah said after a Bulls practice this week, asked about the famous Adidas ABCD basketball camp he first attended as a sophomore. He hadn’t done enough to earn a spot as a player, so he went with his high school coach and rebounded for James, Lenny Cooke, Sebastian Telfair and other phenoms.

Every once in a while, you hear about an NBA player who spent time as a ball boy, helping and staring a lot while navigating wet towels and giant men in locker rooms. This was different, though.

“At least they’re fetching things for guys who are in the NBA,” Noah said. “I was fetching things for guys who were my age. I didn’t have my own bed – slept on the floor.

“I could have been in France with my father [tennis star Yannick Noah], I could have been traveling with my mom [Cecilia Rodhe, Miss Sweden 1978] in the summertime. But I knew that was where I needed to be if I wanted to make it. My dream was to play at that camp, to play in college and to play one day in the NBA.

“Y’know, I think it gives me my underdog mentality. I cherish those times because those are the sacrifices I had to make. Even as a ball boy, it wasn’t humbling – I just knew I had to be there, because it gave me an opportunity to see where I needed to get to.”

James, Noah said, has not mentioned their initial brush in the years since and probably doesn’t remember it.

“I wasn’t ready,” Noah said. “Physically I was a late bloomer. Y’know, I was 6-5 and 140 pounds. They used to call me ‘Stick Man.’ “


VIDEO: Noah’s All-Star journey

> Bringing it every night

James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Miami Heat might have called Noah a few other things Sunday, after he helped Chicago beat them 95-88 with 20 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks in 42 matinee minutes. The Bulls outworked Miami, getting 27 second-chance points, and Noah outworked everyone else in the building.

In fact, with his father beaming along with other family member in the stands, and with the red meat of the team he “hates” most as the opposition, the ever-emotional Noah seemed about to boil over a few times. He picked up one technical foul in the third quarter for playing keep-away on a dead ball with Miami guard Mario Chalmers. But the dude abided after that, with help from his friends.

“Sometimes I talk to him because you don’t want him to get another tech,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “But he knows his limit. He’s been doing that for years. You really can’t tell him much. He’s ‘Joakim Noah.’ He’s going to do it regardless. But he knows his limits.”

Most of the time, anyway. There was the game at Sacramento Feb. 3, when Noah got bounced in the third quarter after arguing a phantom foul whistled against him. The anger seized up on him and he appeared to drop an F-bomb on each of the three officials before he was hustled off the floor. Noah apologized after the game, but it still cost him a $15,000 fine. It at least gave Noah the distinction of being the first player penalized under new commissioner Adam Silver.

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, before Tuesday’s game at United Center, was asked if his roster of adults could accommodate a player who runs as “hot” as Noah.

“I think so,” Popovich said. “He is a highly emotional guy, but he brings it every night. It’s something that infuses the whole team. He sets a standard on the court for the team. Each of us is different, our personalities. He’s like the opposite of Timmy [Duncan] in that respect. Tim is the most introspective and non-emotional guy on the court, but the fire’s burning, just in a different way. … As long as it’s directed for the good of the team, which it obviously is 100 percent, I think it’s great.”

So does the Bulls’ marketing department, which sells the “heart of Chicago basketball” with a commercial that’s nothing more than super-slo-mo video of Noah in full emotional eruption. All spasm and gyrations, sweat and spittle, primal scream, arms pumping, body quaking.

“Does it sometimes go over the edge? Yeah,” former coach-turned-ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said over the weekend. “But would you ever ask him to tone it down? Absolutely not. You have to accept that 99 percent of the time it’s a positive. The 1 percent of the time it’s a negative, you don’t overreact to that. Him and [Tom] Thibodeau, they’re both intense, passionate people. That’s why I think they’re perfect for each other.”

Thibodeau, who signed on as Bulls coach four years ago, had watched Noah from afar and seen the same frenzied guy. Then he went to work with Noah.

“You never want to take that away from a player,” Thibodeau said. “That’s his make-up. It’s who he is. When we were in Boston with Kevin Garnett, Doc [Rivers] once talked to him about [toning down his intensity]. By halftime, Doc was screaming, ‘Go back to being who you are.’ Whatever it is that makes you go, that’s what you’ve got to stay with.”

Noah’s game used to run on emotion and little else. He was a glorified energy guy chosen No. 9 by Chicago in the 2007 Draft, picked after Al Horford and Corey Brewer, his teammates with the Florida Gators. They had won NCAA titles together in 2006 and 2007, but Horford’s and Brewer’s games allegedly translated better to the NBA.

What people didn’t grasp was that Noah, a slow hoops learner in high school and college, would have the same trajectory as a pro. In his sixth NBA season, he became an All-Star. In his seventh, he did it again and has heard his name dropped in MVP and Defensive Player of the Year conversations.

“I think Noah is the best ‘non-scorer’ in the NBA,” Van Gundy said. “He’s not ever going to average 16, 17 points, but you have to take into account his defense, his rebounding, his passing. Tom’s not trying to force him to be something he’s not by scoring in the low post. He’s got him in the high post, initiating offense. It opens up the basket area for the rest of the guys, which really helps.

“Let’s face it, the special teams have those guys who can force double-teams. Chicago doesn’t have that. But you want hard-playing, unselfish, low-maintenance players, too, and that’s exactly what Noah is.”

> Learning to play smart

For someone whose game isn’t best measured by numbers, Noah, 29, has put up some stellar ones. With three triple-doubles in the last month, he became the first center to post three in a season – with assists as one of the categories – since David Robinson in 1993-94. Noah is averaging 12.2 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists – 7.1 in his last 16 games – and is trying to join Garnett (six times), Charles Barkley (three) and Anthony Mason (once) as the only players since 1990-91 to average 12.0, 11.0 and 4.5 over a full season.

His knack for facilitating the offense and finding cutters has earned him a “point center” reputation of late, and Noah has gone beyond that.


VIDEO: Noah notches a triple-double against the Knicks

“He’s just playing smart,” Thibodeau said. “He’s playing from the high post a lot and when people get up on him, now he’s reading: Are they sitting on the pass and backing off? If they are, he’s going to make another play. So I think you have to play him honestly. If you try to take the pass away, he’s going to score. That’s what I like, he’s making quick decisions, that’s probably the most important thing.”

Thibodeau said that, contrary to some elite players who add particular moves or skills each summer, Noah has ratcheted up his game across the board. After four years of continuity with Thibodeau’s system, he has blossomed.

“He’s not getting a lot of iso’s or plays where he gets on the block and gets post-ups,” said San Antonio forward Boris Diaw, Noah’s teammate in international competition on France’s national team. “He’s getting points a different way, which is hard. But he’s a hard roller [on pick-and-rolls], he’s getting in the slots all the time. He’s smart, getting always in the right place at the right moment. And getting a lot of offensive rebounds and second chances.”

Said Noah:

“I’m just being myself. I’m working on my game. I’ve never felt so confident as a basketball player. Derrick [Rose] gives me a lot of confidence, too, always telling me what I need to work on, what type of shots I’ve got to take for when he comes back.”

It is a long way off, but Thibodeau and Noah are eagerly awaiting the day Rose returns from his second season lost to knee injuries. Maybe, Rose can throttle back some of his explosive fury thanks to facets added this season by Noah.

“That’s the plan,” Noah said. “I feel like I can affect the game in a lot of different ways. And I think Derrick can as well. I’m not worried about none of [the doubts about Rose's future], because I know his mind is in the right place and he knows my mind is in the right place. All the other stuff – the accolades and all that – it’s bigger than that.”

> Getting his due

The MVP talk – even if he’s destined to be no higher than No. 3 on anyone’s ballot, slotting in somewhere after Kevin Durant and James – makes Noah uncomfortable. He’d welcome the DPOY, though he’d never campaign for it, nor for all-NBA center status that will focus both on him and his matchup Thursday against Houston’s Dwight Howard.

Howard told NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan that he was looking forward to the matchup and planned to have fun against Noah when the Rockets and Bulls clashed. Noah talked about Howard as a guy he has known since high school, too, and who finally looks happy and healthy in Houston.

Noah, while healthier than he’s been in years (mostly avoiding plantar fascitis foot issues), isn’t quite ready to be happy. Not the way he’ll be if he, Rose, Thibs and the rest – minus friend Luol Deng (a midseason blow emotionally when he was traded) – get someday what Miami has.

In the meantime, he’ll get low in his defensive crouch and, whether it’s against point guards, centers or the best player on the planet, clap excitedly in the other man’s face. So what if he is risking the most glaring sort of embarrassment in those moments? (For the record, Noah and James split their little showdowns, Noah getting a stop and triggering a fast break once, James cutting by him for a left-handed layup on the other.)

“It’s the life we choose,” Noah said smiling. “Being in the public eye, playing basketball in front of a lot of people who are watching. I’m an emotional guy, that’s who I’ve always been, if there were 10 people at an AAU game or now. I’m not going to change who I am.

“I feel lucky. There’s not a lot of jobs where you can just make a play and scream as loud as you can. There’s nobody sitting at the office who’s going to stand up and scream. It’d be like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ “

It’s all going on for Noah these days, and he can’t help but share it.

Beverley dirty? Not according to Pop

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Rick Fox and Chris Webber discuss Patrick Beverley’s defense

SAN ANTONIO — Dirty or aggressive?

Tom-AY-to, tom-AH-to.

Little Pat Beverley gets into a couple of dust-ups in back-to-back games with Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook and suddenly he’s a combination of Jack the Ripper and Hannibal Lecter in high-tops.

Oh, the horror!

Where are the days when the Bad Boys of Detroit roamed the earth? When John Stockton to Malone was two guys from Utah who used their elbows like meat axes? When the Washington Bullets front line included Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn, aka McFilthy and McNasty? You figure out which was which.

While social media buzzes and the entire state of Oklahoma gets apoplectic at the mere sight of Beverley stepping one foot onto a basketball court, it should be noted that not everyone who isn’t wearing a Rockets jersey doesn’t he’s crossed a line of decorum or fair play.

“I haven’t noticed him being dirty. I’ll say that,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

“When the name Beverley comes up, the first thing that comes to my head is he’s a monster defender and really gets into people and does one helluva job. Maybe he’s done things that I haven’t seen. But I have never thought of him as dirty. I’ve always thought of him as physical and really good at it.”

When asked about the play in Game 2 of the Houston-OKC series last spring when Beverley’s lunge for a steal wound up taking Westbrook out of the playoffs, Popovich shrugged.

“I thought it just happened,” he said. “I don’t think that was purposeful from what I saw.”

According to Pop, it’s intent that makes the difference.

“I just think that probably shows itself in the necessity of the action as far as whether it’s a blatant movement,” he said. “Whether it’s an elbow or a kick or a head-butt or whatever, it might be for no reason whatsoever that doesn’t have anything to do with playing as opposed to physicality. You know, getting up into somebody, touching somebody, blocking out, making hard cuts and making great picks and that sort of thing. That’s an aggressive player. Or somebody who’s always trying to get to the rim. Or somebody who’s always ready to block out and put their body on you. That’s all aggressiveness.

“Dirty is cheap. Cheap stuff that doesn’t really have anything to do with the game. And you can tell the difference pretty easily.”

And before you hurt yourself shouting, the subject of Bruce Bowen did come up. The veteran of eight seasons and three championships with the Spurs was often labeled as dirty for all of the little “tricks” he used on defense.

“Brucie weighed about 83 pounds,” Popovich said. “The guys that guarded him weighed 220 or 200 or something like that. He was a like a gnat. But he was a persistent gnat that drove them crazy with what he could do. But it wasn’t because he was overly physical or anything like that. He had a great understanding of space and had good, quick feet and had a huge desire to be a pain in the neck. He’s still a pain in the neck.”

Perspective matters. Chicago fans didn’t think much of Bad Boy Dennis Rodman’s antics in the paint and under the basket until he switched sides and pulled on a Bulls jersey for those three championships.

Dirty or aggressive?

Tom-AY-to or tom-AH-to?

Bowen or Beverley?

“Hell, yeah,” Popovich said. “I hated Danny Ferry until he was on our team. Bill (Laimbeer) was easy for other fans to hate. But you’d love him on your team. He’d help you win.”

Which is, after all, the point.

Pop’s lesson to Thibs: Coach healthy stars


VIDEO: San Antonio wins its seventh straight game by toppling Chicago

CHICAGO – Gregg Popovich walked onto the court at United Center Tuesday night with a minute to go before the horn that sets everything – anthem, intros, tip-off – in motion. The San Antonio Spurs’ coach headed toward the far end and was met just past mid-court by Tom Thibodeau, his Chicago Bulls counterpart. The two men shared a quick, manly embrace, a few words and a couple of quick smiles before retreating to their respective benches.

There, Popovich huddled up with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, each one ready to go. Thibodeau glanced down the way at Derrick Rose, on the bench in a suit again.

The Spurs and Bulls coaches share a lot: gruff exteriors, no-nonsense expectations for their teams and highly watchable end-of-quarter interviews during network games. But they don’t share championship rings – Popovich leads 4-0 – and they don’t share good fortune in the availability of their best players.

“I was stunned the other day, I didn’t realize – I think it was the Miami game – someone said he had coached more games without Derrick than he had with him,” Popovich said before the Spurs’ breezier-than-the-score 104-96 victory Tuesday. “That just threw me back in my chair. I couldn’t believe it. I can’t imagine coaching more games without Tony and Tim and Manu.”

Yeah, well, he hasn’t had to. No coach in NBA history has had a trio of players for as many games (662) as Popovich has had Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.

Three teammates in Boston (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish), in Detroit (Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson) and in Los Angeles (Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper) actually  have logged more games together – 729, 711 and 663, respectively – but they did so for multiple coaches.

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili all are shoo-in or likely Hall of Famers, and, in regular-season games in which all three participate, they are 489-173, a .739 winning percentage. Compare that to Popovich’s 463-266, .635 mark when he has to get by with two, one or none of this Big Three. (And frankly, of the relatively few times none of the three has played – just 14 times since they’ve all been teammates – Popovich usually played a role by resting them. They’ve gone 4-10, per NBA.com statsmeister John Schuhmann.)

Just with Duncan alone – the best of the bunch – the numbers are telling. The Spurs’ two-time MVP and two-time Coach of the Year have been lashed together for nearly 17 seasons, with Duncan playing in 1,238 of the 1,391 games Popovich has coached. That’s 89 percent.

Wait, there’s more: Duncan has played in 885 of Popovich’s 952 career victories. That’s 93 percent. Their record together: 885-353, good for a .715 winning percentage. Popovich’s record without Duncan: 67-86, .437. Of course, that includes the 1996-97 season in which Popovich took over for Bob Hill, steered the David Robinson-sidelined Spurs to a 17-47 mark the rest of the way and put them in position to get lottery-lucky for … Duncan. Brilliant!

In the 17 years since Duncan arrived as a ready-made franchise anchor from Wake Forest, he has missed just 89 games. Popovich’s and the Spurs’ record without him: 50-39, .561.

Compare that now to Thibodeau, who took over in Chicago in time for the 2010-11 season. He and Rose clicked immediately and remarkably, producing a 62-19 record for the Bulls and the NBA MVP award for the 22-year-old Rose, its youngest winner ever.

But Rose suffered through a variety of ailments in 2011-12, followed by the torn ACL injury to his left knee that wiped out 2012-13. Followed 10 games into this season by a torn meniscus in his right knee and another season down the tubes.

Bottom line: Thibodeau has had Rose in only 130 of his 294 games as coach. That’s only 44.2 percent. The Bulls’ franchise guy has played in 99 of Thibodeau’s 192 victories. That’s 51.6 percent.

Rose’s and Thibodeau’s record together: 99-31, .762. Thibodeau’s record without him: 93-71, .567.

Thibodeau isn’t one to make excuses, but he did acknowledge some of the benefits of having your best player(s) available. Heck, he, Popovich and the other smart guys in the league understand that’s No. 1 on the list of keys to coaching success.

“There’s no question,” Thibodeau said. “It’s funny – Pop is always tweaking things – but the core of what they do has been the same for a long, long time. You can see, when you have the same players over and over, the different options that they get to. And how they play off plays. A lot of it is a split-second decision where you know what the other guy is doing and you know what he’s good at.”

Popovich said a lot of nice things about Thibodeau, too, in terms of being consistent, even “persistent,” in his approach and setting standards. But the Bulls roster has swirled around its coach in ways San Antonio’s has not, from Rose to Luol Deng to parts such as Omer Asik, Kyle Korver, Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson, C.J. Watson and others.

Center Joakim Noah, on board through Thibodeau’s tenure but an evolving player in that time, said after Tuesday’s beating that the Spurs’ experience, stability and continuity remain huge advantages.

“They play for each other,” Noah said. “The way they cut, the way they screen, the way the ball moves. Thibs is right, the way they play the game, you can learn a lot from them.”

And you can win a lot with them.

Spurs, Leonard unmask LeBron and Miami

VIDEO: Spurs dominate Heat

SAN ANTONIO — Maybe it was the mask that is supposed to be protecting his broken nose. LeBron James ripped it off early in the first quarter and tossed it disdainfully toward the Miami bench.

Originally, it was a black mask that made him look like Batman with more hang time. That is, until commissioner Adam Silver decided to also become the fashion police. James had said before the game that he didn’t think the clear replacement was going to be around much longer and perhaps a couple of missed 16-footers moved up the schedule.

“I got a message from my wife at halftime,” he said. “She told me to put the mask back on, so I guess I’m gonna be in trouble when I get home.”

Maybe it was the tight-fitting short sleeve jersey that he and all the rest of the players had to wear as part of the NBA Noche Latina celebration.

“I’m not making excuses,” James said, “but I’m not a big fan of the jerseys. Not a big fan of them. So I have to figure something out the next time I have to wear the short-sleeved jerseys. Every time I shoot it feels like it’s pulling up right underneath my arm. I don’t have much room for error on my jump shot anyways, so it’s definitely not a good thing.”

Hitting the runway in his league-mandated attire, James clanked open jumpers, had layups roll off the rim and missed a dozen of the 18 shots he attempted.

Or just maybe it was the 6-foot-7, 230-pound Kawhi Leonard that he had to wear like an annoying hair shirt up and down the AT&T Center court all night long.

“He’s a good young player,” James said.

Yes, and Kate Upton would make an acceptable prom date.

Long, larcenous and learning how to assert himself in an orbit just outside the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili triangle, Leonard is exactly the kind of disruptive force that would fit perfectly into the Heat’s attacking, pressuring, blitzing defense.

These finally are the Spurs as they hoped they’d be back when training camp opened with the scars still fresh from the painful seven-game loss to Miami in The Finals last June.

The Spurs are at last healthy and whole, their full contingent available now for just the past three games and yet they looked like a thresher going through a wheat field. They owned the first quarter, played keep away for the rest of the game and with a 111-87 stamp handed the Heat their biggest loss of the season and their worst thumping since a 36-point smack down right here in Game 3 of The Finals.

Of course, for all the celebratory din that happily bounced off the walls of the arena, it came about nine months and 24 seconds too late.

That’s the thing, timing does matter. There will be much made in the two off days before Miami steps back onto the court in Chicago on Sunday afternoon of the first back-to-back, wire-to-wire losses in the Big Three Era of the Heat. But remember it was just earlier this week when James dropped in 61 points on the Bobcats and the “three-peat” parade floats were starting to warm up their engines.

“The league is fragile, things can change very quickly,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.

In the two games since the 61-point bomb, James has shot just 15-for-36 from the field, 0-for-6 from behind the arc and scored a total of just 41 points. He looked flat worn-out and exhausted in Houston, but exasperated over an inability to get himself out of the reach and the clutches of Leonard, who tosses around words as if they were manhole covers.

“I’m just playing, man,” he said.

This is the Leonard that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich once labeled “the future face of the franchise” and yet the same Leonard that Popovich says still defers too much at times to the three veterans that anchor the lineup.

“I tell him, ‘The hell with those other guys. Just play your own game and forget about them,’ “ Popovich said. “He is just growing day by day. He is starting to feel confident in his role and taking pride in being a defender and a rebounder first. Then, [he needs to work on] letting his offense come naturally and not thinking about it too much.”

Leonard missed 14 games with a broken bone in his right hand before returning to the lineup a little more than a week ago and it’s since then — with improved health of the entire roster — that the Spurs have begun to look like a team that not only has an ax to grind, but is capable of swinging it deep into another playoff run. He officially got credit for five steals, but there were so many other times when he changed shots, altered passes, forced the Heat to try to go around him, effectively disrupting their rhythm.

“He was a pest,” said Duncan. “That’s what we need him to be. He stuck his hand in there, knocked some balls away, got some steals. He contested shots…So we need him to be that kind of guy.”

The guy who makes LeBron James rip off his uncomfortable mask in frustration and point a finger of blame at those form-fitting short sleeves on his jersey.

A tailor-made hair shirt for the occasion.

Morning Shootaround — March 5


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kobe: ‘Revenge is sweet and quick’ | Clips unsure when Redick will return | Brown won’t focus on Sixers’ slump | Chandler mulling N.Y. future | Popovich talks offense

No. 1: Kobe has a message for Lakers’ doubters — Point guard Steve Nash, who hasn’t played since Feb. 11, may or may not return to the Lakers’ lineup next season. Star shooting guard Kobe Bryant has appeared in just six games this season and hasn’t played since Dec. 17. Power forward Pau Gasol has been in and out of the lineup with injuries all season. That’s all lead to the Los Angeles Lakers bringing up the rear in both the Pacific Division and the Western Conference. But, the uber-confident Bryant has a message for the Laker doubters out there, according to ESPN.com and Lakersnation.com:

Kobe Bryant plans to use the Los Angeles Lakers’ dismal 2013-14 as motivation for next season.

And he’s hoping his teammates will do the same.

Bryant, speaking this weekend during an appearance to promote his new Nike Kobe 9 Elite shoe at Westfield Culver City mall, told Power 106 radio in Los Angeles that he’s looking forward to getting revenge on all those doubters next season.

“This year, we all know it’s been a real tough year for us, right?” Bryant told Power 106, according to Lakersnation.com. “So what I’d like everybody to do is to really just sit back and just absorb this year. Take it all in. Sit back and watch and listen and hear all the hate that’s being thrown at us and remember every person that’s kicking you when you’re down, because next year it ain’t gonna be this way.

“Appreciate it now. Let it sit in now, because revenge is sweet and it’s quick.”

Bryant told Power 106 that proving those who had a lack of faith in the Lakers and his recovery wrong is what fuels the five-time NBA champion now.

“You’ve got to appreciate that and enjoy that and use that as fuel as motivation to basically just shut everybody the hell up,” Bryant told the radio station, according to Lakersnation.com. “It’s that challenge, that challenge that drives us all, I think, and definitely keeps me going.”

***

No. 2: No timetable yet for Redicks’s return to Clips — Clippers shooting guard J.J. Redick has not played for the last 11 games as a bulging disk in his back has reared its ugly head. While L.A. has tried to offset Redick’s absence with the recent signing of Danny Granger as another player to use on the wings, the team is growing increasingly concerned about when Redick will actually play again. Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times has more:

It is still uncertain when starting shooting guard J.J. Redick will return to the court for the Clippers.

Redick is sidelined by a bulging disk in his lower back. He has missed the last 11 games, including Tuesday’s game at Phoenix. When the Clippers disclosed the nature of the injury on Feb. 18, Redick had already missed four games with what the team had been calling a hip injury.

There still is no timetable for his return, and Clippers Coach Doc Rivers was asked Tuesday night if he feared that Redick could be out for the rest of the season.

“I don’t know,” Rivers said before the game against the Suns. “I haven’t had that fear yet. I don’t want that fear, maybe would be a better way of putting it. But I don’t know. I just keep getting updates.

“I’m sure there is some thought of that. He’s been out for so long. But we’re just hoping for the best.”

On Monday in Los Angeles, Redick did some shooting before the rest of the team practiced.

But there are only 20 regular-season games left, and the Clippers are unsure how Redick will respond to treatment.

“He’s doing a lot better,” Rivers said. “He’s shooting a little bit. I don’t know what that means, but at least he’s moving around shooting. But there’s been no update. I don’t think he’s improved to the point we thought he would, so far. We had anticipated him being back almost [by now].”


VIDEO: Clippers coach Doc Rivers talks about L.A.’s victory in Phoenix

***

No. 3: Sixers’ Brown won’t harp on Philly’s skid to playersWith last night’s 125-92 defeat on the road to the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder, the Philadelphia 76ers have a 15-game losing streak. While Philly is clearly in a rebuilding mode and has struggled to find any kind of stable footing all season long, coach Brett Brown has preached that 2013-14 is about learning the game and developing good habits, not so much wins and losses. That continues to be his point of emphasis as the Sixers’ losing streak goes on and on, writes Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News:

Coach Brett Brown’s personality is one that makes him approach things head-on. There is little wiggle room in what he says. It comes from the heart, it is the truth and it is without filter.

So bringing up the current losing streak, which reached 15 games with last night’s 125-92 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, is expected by the first-year coach of the 76ers. He talks openly and honestly about it. And he charges at it just as he would a 15-game winning streak. He just doesn’t bring it up to his team.

“I don’t even think I’ve mentioned it, this streak,” Brown said. “We talk candidly about having to make sure we share the ball, don’t play in a crowd, get back in transition. Everybody talks about us not winning for the rest of the year, or whatever they say. And that’s all true. We have to focus on sharing the ball, playing together and not playing in a crowd because we drive the paint all the time and we don’t have great perimeter shooters right now, and we better get back in transition.

“The beat-down thing doesn’t really rear its head because it’s [losing] 12 games or 14 games or the month of February. We don’t quantify it like that. I really try to sell it and I think these guys have bought in. Keep getting better, keep getting better. Winning is not our report card this year. I hope that that is good enough. I hope they believe the truth. That is how we’re approaching that and that is all we’ve got as this season plays out.”

“I really like being on the court with the players,” Brown said. “I like coaching the guys and trying to find ways to inspire them or help them get better. We’ve said from Day 1 [that] I feel the one thing that will help me connect all the dots is if they genuinely know that we care about their development. [Even though] somebody is going to trade them or somebody isn’t going to play them as much as they hoped, that they know they have a coaching staff that comes to the gym and really pays attention and cares.

“We want them to play well. Oftentimes I feel so naked where you’re playing in the NBA and teams are getting better, yet not only are we young and have been losing, we’re getting new faces in. We want to practice and we want to do those types of things where we can continue to develop. That’s what keeps me motivated.”


VIDEO:Sixers coach Brett Brown talks after Philly’s loss in OKC

***

No. 4: Chandler unsure of role with Knicks — Just two seasons ago, Tyson Chandler was on his way to winning his first Defensive Player of the Year award for the playoff-bound New York Knicks and a season ago, he was the defensive anchor for an Atlantic Division-winning Knicks team, too. Even as New York has fallen into the pits of the Eastern Conference this season, Chandler has remained a stalwart defender — perhaps the only one on the Knicks that can claim that. But as Marc Berman of the New York Post reports, Chandler is tiring of all of New York’s losing and whether or not he wants to be a part of the team long term:

Knicks center Tyson Chandler is so disillusioned, he isn’t sure he wants to be part of the team’s long-term future.

With the Knicks in chaos, owner James Dolan is going to look to rebuild or reload at season’s end. Whether Chandler, who is starting to show signs of age, is part of the blueprints is unclear. And Chandler may not want to stick around either.

“That’s something I have to visit during the offseason,” Chandler said. “We’re all going to have a lot of decisions to make.”

“For me, it’s important regardless [to finish out strong],” Chandler said. “I got a lot more pride than this, coming in night in, night out losing, and not putting forth the type of effort it takes to win. At this stage of my career and what I’ve established, I refuse to let it put a blemish on it.”


VIDEO: Tyson Chandler talks after the Knicks’ loss in Detroit

***

No. 5: Popovich talks secrets to offensive success — A cursory glance at the stats reveals that San Antonio is second in the league in field goal percentage (48.8 pct), first in 3-point percentage (39.1 pct), ninth in points (104.4 ppg), seventh in offensive rating (107.4) and second in both effective field goal percentage (53.7) and true shooting percentage (57.2). In short, the Spurs — despite injuries this season to standouts Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker — remain a solid offensive group. In a brief Q&A with Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News, coach Gregg Popovich shares a couple of insights into his offense’s success:

Q. Can you explain the concept of “good-to-great?”

Popovich: “There are a lot of good shots, but if you can turn that into a great shot, percentages go through the roof. Contested shots are really bad shots. People’s percentage goes down almost by 20, almost without exception. All those things in an offense are things a coach is always trying to develop. It takes time to get everybody to the point where they all buy in and understand how it’s good for the group to do things.

“You want to penetrate not just for you, but for a teammate. Penetrating because I want to make things happen. It could be for me. It could be for a teammate. It could be for the pass after the pass I make. As people start to realize that, then you get a flow and people start playing basketball rather than just running the play that’s called or making up their minds ahead of time.”

Q. How do you get players to take ownership of the offense? Is it a confidence thing?

Popovich: “That’s a good question. A lot depends on the competitiveness and the character of the player. Often times, I’ll appeal to that. Like, I can’t make every decision for you. I don’t have 14 timeouts. You guys got to get together and talk. You guys might see a mismatch that I don’t see. You guys need to communicate constantly — talk, talk, talk to each other about what’s going on on the court.

“I think that communication thing really helps them. It engenders a feeling that they can actually be in charge. I think competitive character people don’t want to be manipulated constantly to do what one individual wants them to do. It’s a great feeling when players get together and do things as a group. Whatever can be done to empower those people …

“Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I’ve got nothing for you. What do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times. Everybody’s holding the ball. What else do you want me to do here? Figure it out.’ And I’ll get up and walk away. Because it’s true. There’s nothing else I can do for them. I can give them some bulls—, and act like I’m a coach or something, but it’s on them.

“If they’re holding the ball, they’re holding the ball. I certainly didn’t tell them to hold the ball. Just like, if they make five in a row, I didn’t do that. If they get a great rebound, I didn’t do that. It’s a players’ game and they’ve got to perform. The better you can get that across, the more they take over and the more smoothly it runs.

“Then you interject here or there. You call a play during the game at some point or make a substitution, that kind of thing that helps the team win. But they basically have to take charge or you never get to the top of the mountain.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins took to Twitter to say he wasn’t impressed with LeBron James‘ 61-point game … Good feature from the Indianapolis Star that takes a look back at Jermaine O’Neal‘s glory days with the Indiana Pacers … Suns rookie Alex Len got his first start of the season last night … Pelicans coach Monty Williams shuffled the lineup as New Orleans topped the L.A. Lakers

ICYMI of the Night: Pacers guard George Hill hits an amazing over-the-head, no-look, and-one shot against the Warriors last night that you’ve just got to see …


VIDEO: George Hill sinks an amazing over-the-head layup against the Warriors

Driving Oscar To The Hoop


VIDEO: The Starters pick movie roles for some of the NBA’s biggest stars

It was just last week when LeBron James had to disappoint fans in the basketball and cartoon worlds by shooting down rumors that he was getting ready to star in “Space Jam 2″.

Oh, what heartbreak not to have LeBron and SpongeBob SquarePants go toon-on-toon against Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny to settle the G.O.A.T. debate once and th-th-th-at’s all, folks!

But with the Oscars ready to tip off Sunday night, it occurs to us that there were plenty of movies released in the past year that could use a slam dunking NBA touch:

Monuments Men — Who needs a fourth stone head to construct a Mt. Rushmore in Miami when more than enough in their own granite-hard trio to chase a third consecutive NBA title? Everybody from Indiana to OKC and points all around are trying to steal away with the priceless Larry O’Brien Trophy, but LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are counting not one, not two, not …


VIDEO: LeBron James makes his famous ‘Mt. Rushmore’ comments to Steve Smith

Frozen — After winning the MVP award in 2011, Derrick Rose has the next two seasons of a budding superstar career put on ice with major injuries to both knees. A hopeful city of Chicago that was ready to usher in the post-Jordan championship era has turned cold.

American Hustle — When Rose went down on Nov. 22 and was once again lost for the season, everyone expected his teammates to roll over. They even traded away a big offensive gun in Luol Deng, but producer Tom Thibodeau has done a combover and is pulling off the greatest con since ABSCAM with the Bulls sitting at No. 4 in the East with home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference.

The Lego Movie — First-year general manager Sam Hinkie arrives on the job in Philly and promptly locks himself in his room, where he spends all hours of the day and night trying to fit together dozens of little pieces into something that will one day look like a competitive basketball team. Or a rocketship.

Almost Human — He’s almost tall enough to bump his head on the backboard, but has 3- or even 4-point range from practically anyplace on the court. Not since the menacing Gort touched down in “The Day The Earth Stood Still” has anyone appeared as unstoppable as box-office smash Kevin Durant.


VIDEO: Kevin Durant has simply been on fire in February

Vampire Academy — The front office in Brooklyn hatches a plan for world domination by forming an army around the walking undead creatures of 36-year-old Paul Pierce, 36-year-old Jason Terry and 37-year-old Kevin Garnett. But rather than biting opponents on the neck, they were mostly toothless, ineffective and scared nobody.

Paranormal Activity — It was one to thing leap over a Kia at All-Star weekend and turn every game into a slam dunking highlight reel. But Blake Griffin eventually tired of being typecast and under new director Doc Rivers has worked on his shot, expanded his repertoire and now does unearthly, inexplicable things that nobody thought possible just a couple of years ago.

Dallas Buyers Club — For all the money, all the bombast and all the talk about positioning the Mavericks to be big players in the free-agent market and getting Dirk Nowitzki a superstar playmate after dismantling his 2011 championship, Mavs owner Mark Cuban struck out on Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. Right now, he’s where he used to be: stuck in the sale aisle at Sam’s Club.

Gravity — He’s 35 years old, has played 17 full NBA seasons, has more miles on his odometer than a hand-me-down pickup truck and is trying to come back from a torn Achilles tendon and a fractured knee. Yet, 16-time All-Star Kobe Bryant simply won’t acknowledge what Isaac Newton learned sitting under the apple tree — what goes up, must come down.


VIDEO: Kobe Bryant talks during the All-Star Game about being a spectator this season

Philomena — When the losingest, ugliest, most painful season in modern team history finally and mercifully limps to the end, executive VP of player personnel Jim Buss fires Mike D’Antoni and at a star-studded Hollywood news conference. Buss then introduces a 68-year-old Irish widow with a vaguely reminiscent limp, wearing a gray wig and with a familiar twinkle in “her” eye and says Phil-omena is back to put everything right with the Lakers.

I, Frankenstein — Team president Larry Bird wasn’t happy enough with having the best record and the most fearsome, downright scary defense in the league that was sewn together with Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West and Lance Stephenson. He performs more surgery in his lab by adding Evan Turner to bolster his Pacers bench and now thinks he’s ready to take down that other monster: the Miami Heat.

The Nut Job — Everybody in the world thought Dwight Howard was out of his mind for the way he slow-walked his ugly departure from Orlando and then bolted out the door of the royal Lakers, leaving $30 million on the table. But who’s crazy now as Howard rides tandem with James Harden and has the Rockets looking like one tough nut to crack in the playoffs?

Despicable Me — As if he hadn’t done enough already to polish his reputation as someone who cannot be trusted as the cornerstone of a franchise and leader to take the Kings back to the playoffs, DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t even bother to get one of his minions to slug Patrick Beverley in the stomach and just does it himself, earning a fine and one-game suspension.

Endless Love — Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager team up for a buddy movie where they criss-cross the country in an old VW bus, stopping at thrift shops to buy old horse blankets and bedsheets while exchanging long hopeful questions and grumpy one-word answers.


VIDEO: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has some good-natured fun with Craig Sager

The Wolf Of Wall Street — He bats his eyes at the Lakers. He flirts with the Bulls. He head fakes in the direction of any other would-be suitor that will glance his direction and then, Carmelo Anthony decides he’s got the world on a string living the high life … and hungrily signs on for a repeat performance of his lone wolf act. Then, the reviewers in the New York media give him a standing ovation and immediately declare the Knicks contenders.

Pompeii — After Isiah Thomas and Jerome James and Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton and Andrea Bargnani, a massive volcanic eruption like the one that came from Vesuvius in 79 A.D. hits Madison Square Garden. The past is finally buried under a blanket of lava, giving away at last to a new beginning.