Posts Tagged ‘Heat’

Phil Jackson tension good for Knicks

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com




VIDEO: Knicks fans give new team president Phil Jackson a standing ovation

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The standing ovation was a given.

The hero’s welcome from that wild Madison Square Garden crowd on hand for the first official game of the Phil Jackson era was right off the pages of the script of a Broadway production. And the Knicks nailed the ending, knocking off the Eastern Conference leading (and reeling) Indiana Pacers to punctuate the night.

The Knicks have won seven straight and are giving legitimate chase for that eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, a last-dtich effort to put a little lipstick on a season gone awry. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they heated up around the time the Jackson rumors cranked up.

That same energy that was in the building last night is the same type of energy that fuels seasons in the NBA. A healthy dose of tension, the good kind that puts everyone on alert and drives a lackluster or average effort into an elevated state, can work for all involved. Think of it as the Knicks’ very own version of March Madness. If they can keep it going long enough, maybe they can find their way into the playoffs (something the new boss has mentioned repeatedly) against all odds.

Carmelo Anthony has played this way all season. He’s been relentless, even while some others wearing Knicks uniforms have not been on that same page, so to speak. He was relentless last night, as Knicks coach Mike Woodson found out during one timeout. Phil’s presence gives the rest of the Knicks, coaches and players alike, something to play for the rest of this season. Intended or not, his arrival gives this team a rallying point that can be used in whatever way is needed.

Watching Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. and even J.R. Smith all crank it up to that next level with Anthony shows us that the Knicks have had it in them all along.

If you listen to the men who have had the ultimate success with Jackson, this is what they insist he will bring to the Knicks. A championship-level attitude and energy might well be worth the $12 million a year Knicks owner James Dolan is reportedly paying the Zen master for his presence.

Kobe Bryant certainly believes it to be true. He told the “Dan Patrick Show” yesterday that the entire Knicks roster is in store for a type of wisdom they haven’t been privy to before Jackson’s arrival. And yes, Bryant thinks Jackson can do it from the president’s perch instead of the coaching fox hole:

“I just think his mentorship shifts,” Bryant said. “I think it goes from having a direct influence on the players themselves to having a direct influence on the coaching staff, which he’s accustomed to doing because that’s how he coached as well.

“He really had a great rapport with his coaching staff and he was really a great mentor for them, and I’m sure he’ll do the same thing and it will just kind of trickle down from there. It’s really no different from what Pat [Riley] has been able to do in Miami with [Erik] Spoelstra.”

There’s no need to go there right now with the Riley and Jackson comparisons. Riley has accomplished far more as an executive and it’s an unreasonable measurement at this stage of the game.

What should resonate, though, is the staunch support Jackson is receiving from all corners of the basketball establishment. You expect it from his former players. But I’ve spoken with several of his new competitors, executives who have every reason to root against him, that think his presence alone changes the game in New York.

“People talk all the time about changing the culture and reshaping a franchise,” a Western Conference assistant general manager told me, “but they don’t come through the door and command the respect of the people within the organization. And I mean the secretaries, the training staff, the folks in the ticket office as well as the coaches and players. Phil doesn’t have to worry about that. He’s got everyone’s attention. It’s his show now.”

Indeed it is. And if the first impression means anything, it’s going to be a wild ride for the Knicks and their fans.


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the Knicks’ streak and Phil Jackson’s potential impact

Hang Time Podcast (episode 152) featuring Joakim Noah and Steve Aschburner

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Phil Jackson‘s basketball roots run deep in New York, dating all the way back to his playing days with the Knicks, when he was a part of teams that won the franchise’s only championships, all the way up to his being introduced Tuesday as the Knicks’ new team president.

But there is no denying his connection to Chicago, the place where he enjoyed some of his greatest moments in the game, including the six titles he helped bring to the city along with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the dynasty Bulls.

And Phil and Chicago is where we go on Episode 152 of the Hang Time Podcast featuring Bulls All-Star center Joakim Noah and NBA.com’s senior writer and Chicago-area native and Hang Time bureau chief Steve Aschburner. Whether or not that championship connectivity comes into play for Phil Jackson and the Knicks (and right now, Carmelo Anthony and his current crew) remains to be seen, but if Jackson’s Knicks grind the way Noah and the Bulls do under Tom Thibodeau, Knicks fans would have plenty cheer about.

The bigger and perhaps better questions center around what kind of power, drawing and otherwise, Phil brings to the Knicks. Can Phil attract the other superstar needed to pair with Anthony so the Knicks can contend? Would LeBron James listen to a pitch from The Zen master if and when he becomes a free agent? And what does that mean for Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Pat Riley in Miami?

So many questions … and needed answers, plus this week’s edition of Braggin’ Rights, can be found here.

Check out all of that and more on Episode 152 of the Hang Time Podcast Featuring Joakim Noah and Steve Aschburner …

LISTEN HERE:


As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com,  Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand and the best engineer in the business,  Jarell “I Heart Peyton Manning” Wall.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

Suns hot pick in NBA March Madness

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The selection committee has done its job, the field is complete and now the intrigue starts all around the NBA — filling out those March Madness brackets.

But for a different kind of insanity, we thought it might be fun to go into a few arenas and locker rooms to ask one question: If the NBA playoffs were set up like the NCAA Tournament, who would be your Butler, a below-the-radar team capable of making a deep run?

Ray Allen, Heat: “In an NCAA format, one game and advance, anything is possible. Charlotte’s a team that would be dangerous. They can get hot. They’ve developed confidence. They play hard. They’re running a new system. Atlanta is a team that’s running a San Antonio offensive system and they play good defense. Both of those can really play defense. So if you put them in win-or-you’re-out format, teams like those that always play hard and don’t care about who their opponent is, they’re gonna be capable. There would definitely be more drama in that kind of a playoff system. Obviously, it would never get to that because of all the money that’s at stake over the long playoff series. But as players, you would appreciate it. You’d have to leave it all out there on the line. And every night — with the best players in the NBA going at it — it would really be madness. There would be some true grudge matches. Oh, that would be interesting.”

Mario Chalmers, Heat: “Dallas. That’s a team with weapons and can score.”

Roy Hibbert, Pacers: “In the East, I could see Toronto and Charlotte doing that. Even Chicago. In the West, Phoenix has played great a surprise people all year. Phoenix has a style of play that’s fast-paced and they have guys that are built for that.”


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses the Suns’ solid season to date

Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN analyst: “Memphis. Because of the style they play. Who else plays like Memphis? Who else has those two big guys like Z-Bo (Zach Randolph) and (Marc) Gasol to beat you up and wear you down. That’s a team that could walk into a tournament setting, get on a real roll and just start knocking people out. And in the East I’d say Chicago for a lot of the same reasons. They don’t have those two big bangers in the low post, but with Noah and the middle and the aggressiveness and the ferocity that they play with, the Bulls could make a tournament very interesting and tough on everyone.”

Chandler Parsons, Rockets: “I like Phoenix as my Butler in the West, because they’re so explosive offensively. In transition they’d get out and they’d beat a lot of good teams. In the East, I like Chicago. They’re playing really well. Joakim (Noah)has been unbelievable for them. He’s doing everything, getting triple-doubles. Plus they’re such a good defensive team. Those are definitely two teams you don’t want to see in the NBA playoffs and in an NCAA Tournament type scenario with sudden-death, no way. Even Memphis, if they sneak in at No 8 in the West. That’s a team that could do a lot of damage. Us? We’re above that Butler level. We’re Florida. We’re Duke.”

Matt Bonner, Spurs: “Phoenix. It’s about style of play. It’s about scoring points from a lot of different places. It’s about playing at a fast pace. Definitely Phoenix.”

Shane Battier, Heat: “Who is that dark horse team? Really, still no one is talking about Houston. They have played fantastic and the Rockets would be a buzz saw to play in any single game or even a seven-game series. You know they’re gonna shoot 30 3s. If they get hot, that’s an amazing number to try to match offensively. And no one is really talking about them. The hubbub is OKC and San Antonio and the Clippers to a large extent. People are talking about Golden State and the Splash Brothers more than they are about Houston. I think Houston is a legitimate team.”

Michael Beasley, Heat: “Miami. That’s the only team I’m worried about, the only team I think about. I don’t even want to imagine nobody else making a run, nobody else doing nothing.”


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the Bobcats and Al Jefferson’s play

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers: “I think every team in the West is capable of being that Butler type team. It’s so close, so many good teams. It just depends which week or two you’re talking about. We’ve seen that all season long. Remember how Memphis came in and beat San Antonio in the playoffs a couple of years ago? Golden State over Dallas a few years earlier. I think everybody is close and there are so many good teams in any matchup that in the NCAA Tournament arrangement, you might be able to play it three or four times and get a different team out of the West every time.”

Paul George, Pacers: “I think Phoenix. I think the Suns could do it because that’s a consistent team. They don’t rely on just one or two players to get most of their offense. They really spread things around. They really get after you all the time. They always play hard and bring it to you. They always want to attack. And in a tournament setting, they’ve got enough guys to make shots and make plays. They would just have to get hot at the right time, which we’ve seen from them this season. They’ve taken down tough opponents. They beat us twice, OKC. So that’s a team that could be very dangerous if it was tournament time.”

Dwight Howard, Rockets: “The Rockets. Despite anything that we’ve done and any games that we’ve won, I think in general we’re still a team that nobody’s looked at as a real contender. But you know, I like being the underdog. We’d like to keep ourselves being overlooked as much as possible through the end of the season and going into the playoffs. In a tournament, in the playoffs, we’re that kind of team that I believe and rise up and surprise people.”

Dwyane Wade, Heat: “I guess if look at the West, I’d say Phoenix could be a bracket-busting Butler. That’s a team that could get hot. Lot of weapons, lot of different people and ways to score and they don’t seem to let up. That style they play, they’re always going. In the East maybe the Bobcats. They play very well together. They’ve got a big man in Al Jefferson that can go 1-on-1 and can score. That’s a team that’s also been playing hard all year, been really gaining in confidence. So if you tossed them into a tournament setting, I’d say, yeah, they could go on a run.”

Danny Green, Spurs: “Phoenix. I was watching them play and they’re very dangerous at home. You know they don’t back down from anybody. They beat Indiana and OKC. We’ve lost to them this season. They love to get out and run. They move the ball fast and they don’t ever let up. If they’re healthy, they’re gonna come after you nonstop and they could do something like go on a run through a tournament. That pace of play is tough to deal with. Another team you’d have to watch out for is Dallas. They’ve got weapons and you’d always have to watch out for Dirk getting on a roll.”

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers: “Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that. But if you want a dangerous team that maybe nobody would pick, I’d say Sacramento. They got a lot of weapons — Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, now Reggie Evans over there with some experience. Derrick Williams. They got a lot of pieces they can throw out there. If they get going, they could beat some people and go far. That’s a capable team.”

Wesley Matthews, Trail Blazers: “In the West anybody can beat anybody. You’ve got four or five teams with over 40 wins at this point in the season. You’ve seen teams go on runs with different styles. Houston went on a run recently. We went on a run earlier. Pick a day of the week. Anybody could be Butler.”

Francisco Garcia, Rockets: “I would say Phoenix, because they score in so many ways. I think everybody would take them lightly at the beginning of a tournament since they’re young and they don’t have a team filled up with All-Stars. It’s easy from the outside to overlook them. It’s only when you get out there on the court and see how hard they play and see how they are so good at moving the ball around and getting offensive from a lot of different places that you find out how good they can be. So if you put them in that kind of situation, where you get to play them only once, they could have a lot of success and make a run.”


VIDEO: The Starters talk about teams primed to make noise in the playoffs

Morning Shootaround — March 17


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING

OKC’s latest collapse cause of concern | Jackson’s ways should work in N.Y. | Wade’s historic shooting season | Davis puts on another show for Pels | Thompson works with a heavy heart

No. 1:  Repeated defensive collapses cause for serious concern — Forget about who was in street clothes (Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins) or who was in uniform but did not play (Russell Westbrook). The Oklahoma City have legitimate cause concern these days because they have apparently lost their defensive mojo since the All-Star break, struggling yet again to defend the way you expect an aspiring championship outfit to work on that end of the floor. What once looked like just a temporary glitch in the Thunder’s matrix is starting to look like something much more serious, as Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman detailed after the Dallas Mavericks worked the Thunder over:

Dallas 109, OKC 86, the Thunder’s worst home loss (23 points) since April 2009, the franchise’s inaugural season in the metro.

“The timeouts…well we didn’t need them at the end of the game,” Brooks joked.

Once again, as has been the case during this recent tailspin, the problems started on the defensive end.

Whether it was a lack of energy, lack of effort or lack of proper personnel — with three starters sidelined — the Thunder just couldn’t get nearly enough stops.

Dallas scored 29 points in the first quarter, 30 in the second and 32 in the third, grabbing and building what was a 21-point lead heading to a meaningless fourth.

Overall, the Mavericks shot 53 percent from the field and a scorching 13-of-24 from deep. Countless perimeter breakdowns led to uncontested jumpers and slow rotations allowed an array of easy buckets at the rim.

And as the steady flow of Maverick points piled up on Sunday night, the Thunder’s timeout huddles grew increasingly more animated. But that genuine displeasure didn’t translate to the court. When the ball was in play, there seemed to be a general disinterest.

“Seemed like we wasn’t there. We just coasted,” Kevin Durant said. “No excuse. None. We gotta figure it out. We’re pros. We gotta learn on the fly. All of us. We gotta act like we care.”

It’s déjà vu for a Thunder team that looked like it had solved its defensive woes the past two games, but instead reverted back to the plodding form that now has OKC 5-6 since the All-Star break.

“Just an overall theme of not good enough on the defensive end,” Nick Collison said. “I’d like to see us be a lot more consistent here finishing up the year.”


VIDEO: Thunder coaches and players discuss OKC’s home loss to the Mavericks

***

No. 2: Phil’s winning ways will work in New York, so says Scott Williams – If Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant spoke up on Phil Jackson‘s behalf, no one would be surprised. Alpha dogs sharing fond memories about the man who helped them to some of their greatest success  would be nothing out of the ordinary. But Jackson’s is routinely praised by all of who have played and worked under him, stars and role players alike. Milwaukee Bucks assistant and former Chicago Bulls big man Scott Williams is a staunch believer in Jackson’s powers, and he witnessed that power before the word Zen was ever used in relation to Jackson. While everyone waits to see what Jackson will do his his first days in charge of the Knicks, Williams is predicting big things, writes Kevin Armstrong of the New York Daily News:

“I knew Phil before he was the Zen Master,” Williams said. “Everyone sees the big, beautiful skyline of a career that he has, 11 (coaching) championships and all. I was there when they were still digging out the foundation, frustrated that they couldn’t get past the Pistons. We were hell-bent on getting the one seed in the conference just to get home court.”

Jackson, the architect of dynasties in Chicago and Los Angeles, will bring his towering legacy to midtown Manhattan Tuesday when he is introduced to his former city as president of the Knicks.

Once a free-spirited cog in Red Holzman’s wheel, Jackson will come full circle as he searches for answers to a riddle that has baffled all executives and coaches in recent years: How will he fix the Knicks?

Former players like Williams believe he will bring in smart basketball people who understand his system and vision.

“His championship pedigree, his intelligence, his creativity is a fresh approach to the game,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.

Williams recalled the early days of Jackson in Chicago, and noted that Jackson gained more confidence in his coaching as the Bulls became more comfortable with the triangle offense and the idea of “playing on a string,” a unique structure to the team that depended not only on Michael Jordan’s talents but the consistency within the moving parts.

“The game’s evolved now, there’s more banging now, but it was fun,” Williams said. “He gives you a lot of those tips from a guy who played 10 years in the league.”

There will be stress that comes with the job and dealing with Dolan, but Williams noted that Jackson’s willingness to study philosophy and psychology helped him build relationships.

“Ahead of the curve, not just barking at guys,” Williams said.


VIDEO: The GameTime crew discusses what Phil Jackson must fix with the Knicks

***

No. 3: Where does Wade’s historic shooting season stack up? – No one is touting Dwyane Wade for postseason honors, not with his maintenance program garnering more headlines than his actual play this season. But Wade is putting together a historic season, nonetheless, one that has been largely overlooked … until now, thanks to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. Jackson highlights Wade’s shooting performance this season, the best by a shooting guard in 3-point shot era. The fact that he’s doing it in the Heat’s Big 3 era makes it perhaps even more impressive:

Wade is shooting 55.1 percent from the field –– something Michael Jordan never did over a full season. Jordan’s high: 53.9 in 1990-91.

And if he stays above 54 percent, it would be the highest by a shooting guard since Atlanta backup Mike Glenn shot 58.8 in 1984-85. The highest field-goal accuracy by a starting shooting guard in the three-point era was Otis Birdsong, at 54.5 percent in 1980-81.

What’s more, Wade is on pace to lead all shooting guard in accuracy for the fifth time in the past six seasons. (He was beaten out by Wilson Chandler in 2009-2010). Wade has topped 50 percent only once before – 52.1 last season.

Shooting 54 percent, let alone 55, “is something I’ve never done before, so it would be great,” he said. “I take pride in my field-goal percentage, have always cared about it. I was 49.6 percent in college. I wanted to be at 50. I try to take good shots.”

For perspective, only one other NBA guard has shot better than 50 percent this season: Phoenix’s Goran Dragic at 50.8.

So what’s the biggest difference? Wade said he worked on his mid-range game and post game during the offseason, and the results are dramatic.

Consider that Wade is shooting 53 percent from 3 to 10 feet, well above his 46.4 career mark. From 10 to 16 feet, he’s at 47.5 percent, a huge jump from 38.1 in his career.

He’s shooting 55 percent when he posts up, up from 48 percent last season: “I’m pretty good on the post game. I added that. I didn’t have it in college.” He also has diversified his game by polishing his Eurostep move and adding a hook shot.

Wade has taken only one heave at the end of a quarter after shooting 17 over the past five seasons. Will he avoid those shots to keep his percentage high?

“I haven’t been in that position [to take them],” he said, with Wade usually on the bench at the end of the first and third quarters. “It depends on how I’m going. Sometimes, I’ll want to shoot. Sometimes, I’ll dribble it out.”

It also helps his percentage that he shoots three-pointers sparingly (he’s 9 for 27), after launching 243 in his final season playing without James. Wade noted the Heat already has enough three-point shooters without him lofting a lot of them. But Indiana coach Tom Crean, his friend and former coach at Marquette, said last summer that it’s a part of his game he will need to polish as he gets older.


VIDEO: Dwyane Wade delivers in Miami’s win over Houston

***

No. 4: Davis shows off his brains as well as his talent on career night – Pelicans big man Anthony Davis has made a fantastic transition from college star to NBA All-Star. But it’s been more than just his raw talent and physical gifts. As was on display during his career-night against the Boston Celtics Sunday, Davis beats you as much his with his mind and his sky-high basketball IQ as he does anything else. Nakia Hogan of the Times-Picayune has the details from Davis and Pelicans coach Monty Williams, who has been instrumental in the development of the young star:

Davis, playing a career-high 48 minutes, scored a career-high 40 points and had a career-high 21 rebounds, marking the first time in franchise history anyone has ever reached that statistical feat. He also had three blocks, making him only the eighth player in NBA history to have at least 40 points, 20 rebounds and three blocks in a game.

“When you go for those kind of numbers that’s a lot of God given talent,” Williams said.

And maybe even more important, Davis didn’t have any mental lapses down the stretch.

In fact, in the closing seconds of the game, Davis had the ball and an open lane to the basket. But instead, he pulled the ball out and passed to Anthony Morrow, who passed to Brian Roberts, as the Celtics tried to foul in an attempt to stop the clock.

It was a heady play, and the Pelicans ran out the clock to snap their two-game losing streak.

“That’s the kind of play that a younger guy probably would go and dunk the ball just to get two more points,” Williams said. “But we don’t need that. We don’t need to stop the clock.”

Immediately after the final buzzer, Davis looked to Williams and pointed his right index finger at his head, acknowledging to his coach he knew he had made the smart choice.

“I was letting him know that I have a little bit of basketball IQ,” Davis said jokingly. “Not much, just a little bit. Alexis (Ajinca, Pelicans center) was trying to tell me ‘I thought you were going to go and dunk it.’ But I know a little bit.

“I just know I wanted the game to be over with. I didn’t want to give them a chance to get another look off. So even if they would have fouled or I would have made the basket, they would have had probably three or four seconds to try and get a shot.”


VIDEO: Pelicans big man Anthony Davis had a career night in a win over the Celtics

***

No. 5: Emotional Thompson lifts Warriors at the end The Splash Brothers were on their mark throughout their unbelievable comeback win over Portland. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 64 points and two clutch 3-pointers (from Thompson) in a game that the Warriors trailed by 18 points before staging their furious rally. While it was a showcase for all involved and certainly for those who watched, it was an emotional night for Thompson, who worked with a heavy heart after attending the funeral of his grandfather before coming up with those late-game heroics. Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle has more:

Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson high-stepped toward halfcourt and greeted Draymond Green with a leaping shoulder bump.

“I’ve never seen him that emotional,” Warriors power forward David Lee said. “I even saw him actually pump his fist one time, which is more emotion than I’ve seen in two or three years combined.”

Thompson had plenty of reason to break from his usual stoicism, having left his grandfather’s funeral just in time to make the game and then knocking down two three-pointers in the closing minute to clinch a 113-112 victory over the Trail Blazers on Sunday at the Moda Center.

The third-year guard missed a game Friday for the first time in his career, snapping a franchise-record 214-game streak, and then took three flights from the Bahamas to get to Portland between 1 and 2 a.m. Sunday.

He certainly appeared fresh by the fourth quarter, when he scored 15 of his 27 points to complete the Warriors’ comeback from an 18-point deficit. With the score locked at 107-107 and 54 seconds remaining, Thompson drilled one three-pointer, and with the Warriors trailing 111-110 and 11.9 seconds left, Thompson hit another for the game-winner.

“We wanted to get this one for him,” said Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, who had 37 points and joined Thompson in combining for 51 of the team’s 69 second-half points. “We understand that he’s been through a lot this week and traveled a lot of miles. He compartmentalized it for about two hours to come out and play, and that was big for us. We needed every play he made.”


VIDEO: Klay Thompson saves the day for Golden State in its win over Portland

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Mavericks have had enough of home after the longest home stretch any of them can remember … No one, and we mean NO ONE, does 50-win seasons like the San Antonio Spurs … Blake Griffin‘s game just keeps getting better, and that includes more than just his shooting touch and aggressiveness … The return of Eric Bledsoe has been great for the Suns, they’ve won two of three since he came back. But will it be enough to save their playoff hopes?  …

ICYMI of the Night: Jazz big man Derrick Favors is playing on a team that is struggling this season, but that hasn’t kept him from turning in his best season as a pro. He was particularly impressive in defeat against the San Antonio Spurs last night …


VIDEO: Derrick Favors shows off his goods against the Spurs

Hall of Fame debate: KJ vs. Hardaway


VIDEO: The Hardaways through the years

 

They played the same position (point guard) at the same time (late-1980s to early-2000s) at the same high level (All-Star appearances) and were teammates for a summer, so it’s easy to see the 24 anonymous voters stacking Tim Hardaway against Kevin Johnson among the Class of 2014 decisions, even if it isn’t actually a balloting one-on-one. Both could make it to Springfield, Mass., or both could miss. Neither outcome would be a surprise in a year with the opening of several credible candidates — but no automatic — among the eight finalists from the North American committee.

Johnson, on the ballot since 2011, made it out of the initial round of voting for the first time, forward progress that can equal optimism for candidates in the search for hints in a secret election process. Hardaway, meanwhile, can find hope in the sustained support of being a finalist for the second year in a row.

But head-to-head, as part of the analysis by the 24 voters?

Johnson: Played 1987-88 through 1999-2000 with the Cavaliers and Suns, with 1998-99 spent in retirement. Averaged 17.9 points, 9.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds. Finished in the top five in assists four times, the top 10 six times. Second-team All-NBA four times, third-team once. All-Star three times. No NBA titles, 105 playoff games. Most Improved Player in 1988-89. Won a gold medal with the United States at the 1994 world championships.

Hardaway: Played 1989-90 through 2002-03 with the Warriors, Heat, Mavericks, Nuggets and Pacers. Averaged 17.7 points, 8.2 assists, 3.3 rebounds. Finished in the top five in assists four times, the top 10 eight times. First-team All-NBA once, second-team three times, third-team once. All-Star five times. No NBA titles, 56 playoff games. First-team all-rookie. Won a gold medal with the United States at the 2000 Olympics and the 1994 world championships.

Johnson: Sixth all-time in assists per game. The five ahead of him are either in the Hall of Fame now (Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas) or will be (Chris Paul). Among the rest of the top 10, No. 8 Jason Kidd and No. 9 Steve Nash also will be, with No. 7 Deron Williams needing a big turnaround and No. 10 Rajon Rondo needing more time. Hardaway is 12th. That is a big boost to the KJ campaign, with the counterweight that Mark Jackson was third in total career assists and received so little support three years in a row that he dropped off the ballot.

Hardaway: In a historic time in NBA history for guards — Michael Jordan, Magic, Stockton, Gary Payton, with Kidd coming fast — Hardaway was the only one to get a first-team All-NBA. That was 1996-97, when he joined Jordan at the top, with Payton and Mitch Richmond, another finalist this year, second-team and Stockton and Penny Hardaway on the third tier. The one time they both made the honor role, 1992-92, Tim Hardaway was second-team, Kevin Johnson third-team. (The three years before that, KJ made second when the only guards ahead of him where Magic and Jordan. Ranking high on the Best of the Rest level in that era has always been one of the unique selling points for Kevin Johnson in the Hall.)

Same position and same era — that’s a great compare and contrast for the Hall panelists heading toward the April 7 announcement of inductees, with 18 of 24 needed to join David Stern (Contributor), Sarunas Marciulionis (International), Bob Leonard (ABA), Guy Rodgers (Veterans) and Nat Clifton (Early African American Pioneers) as previously disclosed members of the Class of 2014. Spencer Haywood, Alonzo Mourning, Richmond and college coaches Nolan Richardson, Eddie Sutton and Gary Williams are the other finalists from the North American committee.

LeBron fatigue … it’s real!




VIDEO: LeBron James and Jimmy Butler get tangled up on the baseline Sunday

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Like most anyone with eyeballs and a remote control, I took in the career-high 61-point performance from LeBron James and wondered if the energy and effort expended on a night like that was worth the wear and tear it takes to deliver it.

A week and four interesting performances later, I’m still not sure.

My Monday sparring partner on almost every debatable topic — NBA TV research ace Kevin Cottrell, who usually helps me make a mess of our production meetings for The Beat with Vince Cellini, David Aldridge and yours truly every Monday on NBA TV — did what you’d expect a research expert to do with the topic. He dug even deeper and formulated an interesting theory on a phenomenon we’ll call LeBron Fatigue … turns out it might actually be real:

Statistically speaking, LeBron James is on track to become one of the greatest players to ever play in the NBA. However, his most recent stretch of games are troubling.

After scoring a career-high 61 points against the Charlotte Bobcats, LeBron scored a total of 58 in the following three games. For many players, 19.3 ppg would be their best week ever. For LeBron, it was a cause for panic, a shedding of the face mask and complaining of a wardrobe malfunction. Worst of all, that average coincided with a season-high three-game losing streak.

61 point Game vs 3 Game Slump

vs Bobcats​          Next 3 Games

61        POINTS      58

22/33      FG           23/59*

8/10       3P            1/9

*3-for-27 FG outside the paint

LeBron’s 3-for-27 shooting outside the paint is good for 11.1 percent, the worst three-game stretch of shooting (outside the paint) in his career. To be clear, it’s not the percentage that is cause for concern, but his unwillingness to get to the free-throw line.

In his last two games — against Chicago and Washington — LeBron did not attempt a free-throw, which had not taken place in back-to-back games since his rookie season. Furthermore, he’s only had 10 instances in which he did not attempt a free throw in his 824 game career.

LeBron is in search of many more rings and realistically speaking, Michael Jordan‘s six-ring total is obtainable. At the conclusion of his Bulls’ first three-peat, Jordan was 29 when he completed his ninth season (before retiring for 18 months) and winning three more. However, MJ did miss 64 games in his second season after breaking his foot. So there were resting periods prior to both his title runs.

James and the Heat have already appeared in three straight Finals. James, 28, concluded his 10th season having never missed more than six games in a season. The Miami Heat are trying to become the first team since the 1983-87 Celtics to reach four consecutive Finals, but it will be tough with a banged-up James. He’s battled back soreness and, most recently, a broken nose.

Will this maintenance plan cost him the MVP award? Maybe, but there was no guarantee he’d win it anyway. Besides the Heat rely on LeBron to be their best scorer, rebounder and passer not to mention their best defender on a nightly basis. Remember, Jordan had Scottie Pippen to defend the opposition’s best player, the Heat will rely on LBJ to shut down the Pacers’ Paul George. On Monday, Miami clinched a playoff berth defeating the Wizards 99-90. That’s the first step in winning a third straight title.

So rest up LeBron, you have enough MVP awards and regular-season feats. Years from now, we won’t discuss how you came out of a three-game midseason slump, but how you did (or didn’t) win three consecutive titles.



VIDEO: LeBron and the Heat shake off their funk and clinch a playoff bid with a win over the Wizards

Danger rears its head for OKC, Indy




VIDEO: The Beat crew talks about the concerns facing some of the league’s elite teams

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – That small market NBA Finals you were daydreaming about is in jeopardy based on what we’ve seen from the likes of the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and even the Portland Trail Blazers recently.

Early-season visions of say the Pacers and Thunder squaring off in The Finals and restoring the faith of the fans in the hinterlands have faded since before All-Star weekend.

The Pacers’ struggles are real. You don’t lose four straight games, and five of your last 10, and allow 106 points in your past four games and maintain your aura as the defensive juggernaut that we assumed you were based on your work up until now. No matter how much coach Frank Vogel insists that his team is capable of navigating these bumps in the road, we have no idea how they will recover from this stretch because they’ve never been in this position before.

The Thunder’s issues are tangible as well. You don’t lose five of your past eight games, give up 121 points in consecutive games and get torched for 40-point games by the likes of Gerald Green and Jodie Meeks without two of your top defensive players (Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins) and expect us to just chalk it up to a temporary hiccup. Even if all that happens as Russell Westbrook is transitioning back into the mix after missing nine weeks recovering from knee surgery.

Contenders tend to show their teeth this time of year, embrace statement games and remind the competition that what they see now is merely a glimpse of the fury to come in the postseason. But these current struggles, particularly for the Pacers and Thunder, constitute a clear-and-present danger to their big-picture plans.

We are nit-picking at the highest level here, I understand that. But vetting championship contenders is a tedious, season-long process that requires us to examine each and every little tidbit of information gathered. While I don’t agree with the wilder sentiments like this one (of course, the Thunder aren’t trying to get Scott Brooks fired), I do think a contender’s February and March performance is a much better indicator of what’s to come in the playoffs than anything accomplished before then.

And the Pacers and Thunder, two teams that would appear to have as good a chance as any to unseat the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, respectively, have both shown signs of vulnerability in the past few days and weeks.

In addition to locating their defensive punch, the Pacers need Paul George to regain the form he showed earlier in the season, when he was being mentioned in the MVP conversation with Kevin Durant and LeBron James. The playoffs are looming and a quality team like the Chicago Bulls will identify your weakness and attack it in a best-of-7 series … the same way the Pacers did to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals last year.

UPDATE:



VIDEO: Pacers coach Frank Vovel talks about Andrew Bynum maing his debut against the Celtics

The Thunder have to worry as much about getting their own house in order as they have to worry about the neighbors. The Spurs, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers all appear to be as up to the task of winning the Western Conference crown and representing their side in The Finals.

The Spurs have enough corporate knowledge to navigate these rough waters for a second straight season. The Rockets have two stars in James Harden and Dwight Howard, who have just as much experience in The Finals as Durant and Westbrook. And the Clippers, when healthy, have what is arguably the deepest and most balanced roster in the league with one of the game’s best button-pushers (coach Doc Rivers), especially at playoff time, leading their charge.

Momentary hiccups are one thing. All teams, even the great ones, deal with them at one time or another.

Cracks in the foundation, though, require more and immediate attention.

Time will tell which of these the Pacers and Thunder are dealing with …

Morning Shootaround — March 10


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Jackson to decide on Knicks’ offer today | Report: Sixers’ Noel wants to play this season | Bynum ready for action, too | Durant could score more | A J-Smoove/Rondo reunion?

Update, 1:31 p.m. ET: From the looks of things (literally) per a report from ESPN.com’s Chris Broussard, Phil Jackson seems headed for a front-office job with the New York Knicks:

All indications are that Phil Jackson will accept the New York Knicks’ offer to join the club’s front office, according to a league source.

“The Knicks have a sense of what’s going to happen,” the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “And as of right now, it looks like Phil’s taking the job.

“There’s always the possibility of something falling apart at the last minute, but the Knicks’ sense is that he’s joining them.”

The two sides are still working out all the details, including what Jackson’s title will be, how much time he will spend in New York, and when in the next few months he will start his job.

Jackson’s answer is expected to become official within the next day or so. The Knicks have not yet scheduled an announcement.

Jackson will not be a mere consultant for the Knicks, as he was recently for the Detroit Pistons. Whatever his title, he will be an integral part of the club’s basketball operations. Jackson will definitely not coach the team.

And here’s our earlier entry from this morning about the Knicks and Jackson expected to reach a deal sometime today …

Report: Knicks expect decision from Jackson today – New York Knicks fans are nervously awaiting word from Phil Jackson today, wondering and many of them hoping that the legendary coach will join the organization in a front office position that will help lift their team out a season-long (and some would say decade’s old funk). It’s unclear whether or not Phil’s presence alone will change the fortunes of the franchise. Frank Isola of the New York Daily News details the countdown to the latest decision:

According to an NBA source familiar with the negotiations, the Knicks expect to have a decision on Monday, approximately two weeks after Jackson turned down an offer to coach the club. The 68-year-old Hall of Fame coach is considering a lucrative deal to join the Knicks’ front office and be placed in charge of the basketball operations.

The possibility of Jackson returning to the franchise that drafted him would give the Knicks instant credibility since Jackson has won 11 NBA titles as a coach and two as a player.

The downside, of course, is that Jackson has never been an executive and, at this stage of his life and career, on-the-job training could be a risky proposition for both sides. Jackson, though, believes he can make the same transition that Pat Riley made nearly 20 years ago when he left the Knicks to run the Miami Heat.

The Knicks have not commented on Jackson’s potential hiring and have not even acknowledged that an offer has been made. In recent interviews, Jackson has made it clear that he has no interest in coaching and instead prefers a consultant’s role similar to the one Jerry West has with the Golden State Warriors.

Whether Jackson wants to live full-time in New York or would be required to do so remains unclear. Jackson splits his time between his Montana ranch and his beach house in Playa Del Rey, Calif. Jackson is not enamored with traveling, which is crucial if he takes the job. In fact, with all the college basketball tournaments starting, it would be essential for Jackson to be on the road scouting. However, Jackson has no appetite for that aspect of the job and is not a big fan of college basketball. Friends say his true passion is following the NHL.

In that case, perhaps Dolan will give Jackson the same freedom he gives to Rangers president Glen Sather, who lives in both California and Canada. Whether that arrangement works with the Knicks, considering the club’s current state, is debatable.

It is also unclear if Jackson is sincere about joining the Knicks or perhaps leveraging James Dolan’s offer to return to the Los Angeles Lakers in some capacity. Jackson’s girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, is a club executive and the daughter of the onetime Lakers owner, the late Jerry Buss.


VIDEO: Isiah Thomas talks about the challenges of fixing the Knicks

***

No. 2: Report: Noel wants to play on April 4 – Nerlens Noel has every intention of making his rookie debut with the Philadelphia 76ers before this NBA seasons ends. Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that  Noel has been preparing himself for a action all season and believe he’ll be ready to make his first appearance in a Sixers uniform in his hometown of Boston:

The sources said this is just a wish that he had not disclosed to the Sixers as of Sunday afternoon.

Noel has been sidelined this season due to the anterior cruciate ligament tear he suffered in his left knee in February, 2013 during his lone season at Kentucky.

The 6-foot-11, 228-pounder is slowly increasing his activity on the court and has yet to participate in five-on-five scrimmages. Minor back spasms held him out of Sunday’s open practice for Sixers Camps participants and their families at Haverford College.

There’s a thought that the franchise doesn’t want him on the court and would be content if he missed the entire season. In October, Sixers coach Brett Brown said Noel was not likely to play this season, something the team has stood by ever since.

***

No. 3: Bynum ready for work next week – The Indiana Pacers are mired in a slump right now, losers of four straight even though they are still sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings this morning. Could there be a remedy for their woes in the form of Andrew Bynum, the former All-Star center who has yet to suit up in a game with the Pacers? Could be. But he has to get on the court first. And Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star explains the Pacers’ plans regarding Bynum:

On Sunday, Bynum said that he hopes to be “cleared to play next week,” believing that he could be on the floor by Friday, March 14 when the Pacers play in Philadelphia. Pacers coach Frank Vogel said the team planned to re-evaluate Bynum after the road trip.

“We’ll see after (Sunday’s) game goes and then we’ll probably meet about it (Monday),” Vogel said, “and try to come up with a firmer plan.”

Through his career, Bynum, a 7-0 center, has shown flashes of dominance but has also been limited with knee problems. Bynum, 26, began his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and started alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol when the team won its second consecutive NBA championship in 2010.

Last season, Bynum was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers then signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Cavaliers over the summer. In 24 games this season with the Cavaliers, Bynum averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds. Through Bynum said that he was “probably at 90 (percent)” at the end of his time in Cleveland, the team traded him to the Chicago Bulls.

After being waived by the Bulls on Jan. 7, Bynum took several weeks off before deciding to sign with the Pacers as a backup to Roy Hibbert.

Bynum has worked with the team’s training and medical staff to build up his knee strength. Over the past weeks, Bynum has slowly picked up more work on the basketball court and on Saturday he participated in a full practice that included 5-on-5 action.

“He looked good,” Vogel said about the Saturday practice, “and he looked like he can give us some short bursts.

***

No. 4: Durant could score more if needed – The Oklahoma City Thunder’s recent woes don’t include any individual struggles from Kevin Durant, who continues to light it up, win or lose. He could score more, according to Thunder coach Scott Brooks, if he wasn’t so focused on the team. Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com has the details:

“Let’s face it: If he wanted to score a bunch of points or more than he’s scoring now, he really could do that,” Brooks said before the Thunder played the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday. “His assist level has gone up, he impacts the game. Defensively, he impacts the game. He can guard 1 through 5. So a lot of things that he does (are) all about the team.”

Durant entered Sunday’s game averaging a career-high 31.8 points per game, but his 5.5 assists per game are also a career-best mark for the seven-year veteran.

On Sunday he had a triple-double through three quarters and finished with 27 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in the Thunder’s 114-110 loss to the Lakers.

While Durant leads the league with 10 games of 40 or more points this season, Brooks said the rangy forward really stood out with his all-around game while Russell Westbrook was sidelined with a knee injury for two months.

“When he was out, (Durant) definitely had to continue to lead us,” Brooks said. “Not only on the court, but off the court. Just from the emotional standpoint of losing Russell, he had to wrap that type of stress around his game and continue to work our way as a team through that. It’s not easy losing players, (especially) a dynamic player like Russell is. But Kevin came in and led us.

“He improved his defense and his playmaking, the ball was in his hands and the decisions were more so in his hands and he did a good job with that. With adding Russell now, it gives us two dynamic players, and that’s better. That’s better for us because you can’t load up on one. The thing about KD, he knows that he has the ability to impact the game on both ends and he does it every night. The consistency level that he has, it’s remarkable that he’s so consistent every night.”


VIDEO: Kevin Durant records a triple-double in OKC’s loss to the L.A. Lakers

***

No. 5: J-Smoove is dreaming of a reunion with Rondo – As seniors at Oak Hill Academy, Josh Smith and Rajon Rondo formed one of the most dynamic duos in the history of the boarding school/basketball factory. A reunion at the NBA level is not in the offing, but it’s also not impossible. Smith admitted to fantasizing about it, never mind that he plays for the Detroit Pistons and Rondo is under contract for at least one more season after this one in Boston. Dan Feldman of ProBasketballTalk.com connects the dots for you:

They watched film together. They walked to the gym together for extra workouts together. They played games together.

Could they team up again in the NBA?

“The conversation comes up,” Smith said. “We always tell each other how surreal a moment that would be, for us to be able to reconnect again in that realm. With the different free agencies that we both have, it could be far-fetched, but it could be possible, too.

“I’m always optimistic. I’m always thinking different scenarios. It could happen, but who knows?”

Smith said he and Rondo talk frequently and vacation together, but he adds, he’s happy with the Pistons and Rondo is still making his mark with the Celtics.

But if it were to happen, what would work?

The Pistons have previously shown interest in Rondoand there also has been Smith-to-Boston buzz. So, either player could swap teams.

If they were to join forces in Boston, how about Smith for Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace this summer? Then, the Pistons should have the cap room to make that deal, accepting Wallace’s toxic contract as a tax for upgrading – in age, fit and contract status – from Smith to Green.


VIDEO: Rajon Rondo and the Celtics dispatch Josh Smith and the Pistons

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Carmelo Anthony has not been consulted on the Phil Jackson business and has been kept in the dark about the Knicks’ future plans … Eric Bledsoe is ready to come back to the Suns … The Nets are down to just two (of their six) All-Stars and somehow, someway they keep winning … Are the Rockets the best team in the league right now? Our Fran Blinebury tackles that one

ICYMI of the Night: Move over Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Make room for in the annals of the Los Angeles Lakers for Jodie Meeks …. that’s right, Jodie Meeks, who showed up and showed out with 42 points in a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder …


VIDEO: Jodie Meeks shreds the Thunder for 42 points

MVP Ladder: LeBron and KD to the finish!



VIDEO: The Fan Night crew debates LeBron or KD for MVP

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — They can see the finish line from here, both LeBron James and Kevin Durant, the headliners in an epic battle for MVP honors this season.

And it’s at the finish where this race will be decided. It’s that close between two of the league’s truly elite, transcendent talents. They are essentially deadlocked at the top of this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder … LeBron has the slightest of edges thanks to that career-high and franchise-record 61 points he scored Monday night in a win over Charlotte.

Blake Griffin, James Harden and Paul George round out the top five of the Ladder this week with the Big Fundamental himself, Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs, joining the party at No. 10.

Dive in here for more on who made the cut on this week’s KIA Race To The MVP Ladder!


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.