Posts Tagged ‘Hornets’

The buzz is back in Charlotte (video)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Steve Clifford didn’t make any promises when he took the job. He didn’t make any public declarations about where he was going to take the Charlotte Bobcats this season.

He vowed to do whatever it took to make things better, to serve as an agent of change in whatever way he could. It’s a vow that resonated with his players. He won them over, one by one, with his belief that they could be better than what they had been before, with a belief in them individually and as a collective.

Al Jefferson bought in from the start. Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did, too. All of the Bobcats (and soon to be Hornets) believe now. They’ve already clinched the second playoff berth in Bobcats history, delivering on owner Michael Jordan‘s edict to restore the order in basketball-mad North Carolina, his home state.

There’s new life in Charlotte for the Bobcats and especially the Hornets. The buzz is back on Tobacco Road. But it has nothing to do with the storied college programs at Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest and North Carolina State.

March Madness is over. It’s playoff time and the Bobcats will take center stage in the days and weeks ahead …


VIDEO: There is new life in Charlotte thanks to the Bobcats (Hornets) grinding their way back to the playoffs

Rule Tweaks, ‘Hornets’ Buzz Busy NBA’s Board Of Governors

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LAS VEGAS – And in a matinee clash in NBA Las Vegas summer action, it was Vespines 1, Felines 0…

Actually, that’s just a fancy-schmancy way of saying that “Hornets” is back in Charlotte and “Bobcats” is the league’s latest amnesty casualty, in a reset-by-nickname approved Thursday at the Board of Governors meeting here. The Board also approved five rules changes – three involving the expanded use of instant replay, a tweak to the clear-path foul and a reminder to offensive players to stay within the boundaries of play.

The transfer of “Hornets,” made available when New Orleans opted for “Pelicans” earlier this year, is intended as a reminder of a different sort. The franchise granted to Charlotte nine years ago, after sputtering on the court and at the gate for nearly its entire existence, will try to reach back to happier times by reclaiming the nickname that got relocated with the original expansion team to the Big Easy in 2002. The Board unanimously approved the switch, which will cost the Bobcats an estimated $3 million or more in changeover expenses and take effect after the 2013-14 season.

What’s in a name? Apparently, “Juliet” and the Bard had it wrong. Charlotte team president Fred Whitfield said the costs and efforts involved in this switch will be worth it to his team and its fans. He said the club wants to “grab those fans that love the NBA and haven’t connected with us.”

“Being a former season ticket holder of the Hornets,” Whitfield said, “I understood the energy that came into that building every night. So as we look forward to the future, we’re thrilled that our Bobcats fans and our Bobcat corporate sponsors that have supported us to this point will be able to connect to the old Hornets fans and have that galvanize our community around our NBA brand, not just in Charlotte, but in the Carolinas.”

This has been a basketball operation and civic relationship in need of a fresh start. Whatever obligation the NBA might have felt in returning to Charlotte two years after unpopular owner George Shinn moved the Hornets to New Orleans wasn’t returned with a honeymoon period. The new owner in town, Bob Johnson, didn’t seem to connect with the public much better than Shinn, the Bobcats nickname was a vanity choice based on his first name and, oh yeah, the basketball decisions and performances were shaky at best.

In 14 seasons, the Hornets had led the NBA in attendance eight times, stringing together 364 sellouts, while going 542-574 (.486). They won 50 games three times and reached the playoffs seven times.

The Bobcats, er, have been less successful all around. They ranked 28th in home attendance in their inaugural NBA season (2004-05) and 24th last season, only once averaging as many as 16,000 fans. They have finished above .500 and made the playoffs just once, posting a 250-472 mark (.346) since their inception.

They have been Michael Jordan‘s problem since he purchased control from Johnson, but have more in common with his Birmingham Barons stint than his Chicago Bulls majesty. Insiders say that even NBA commissioner David Stern, after initially dismissing the “Hornets” diehards, began to sell Jordan and others in team management on the value of some nickname nostalgia.

“I sort of laughed at it initially – you know, it is what it is, get over it,” Stern said. “But no. It stayed there, bubbling below the surface, and there is something to it.”

Chief among the Board’s other business Thursday were the rule changes that will take effect for the coming season. The first three involve expanded replay use:

  • When reviewing a block/charge play to determine whether the defender was inside or outside the restricted area, officials will be permitted to reverse or uphold the call based not just on the defender’s location but also whether he was set or not.
  • Replays can be used to determine whether an off-ball foul occurred before or after a player has begun his shooting motion on a successful shot attempt, or before or after the ball was released on a throw-in.
  • While reviewing a play, the officials will be permitted to assess penalties for unsportsmanlike and unnecessary acts that they spot during the reply.
  • Also, a clear-path-to-the-basket foul will not be assessed if at any point before the foul is committed the defender is positioned ahead of the offensive player in the frontcourt.
  • A team on offense will lose possession if one of its players leaves the floor and does not immediately return, unless he is injured, attempting to save the ball or in other extenuating circumstances.

As far as the application and effectiveness of flopping rules from last season, Stern said the NBA competition committee felt they were working well and warranted no changes.

Despite the commissioner’s label of “unremarkable” hung on this meeting in the desert, other topics came up either in the owners’ session or in the news conference that followed. Among them:

The CBA is working: Early indications after 18 months functioning under the current collective bargaining agreement suggest that NBA teams are navigating the rules, provisions and penalties in a way the owners had hoped. “Teams who are up against the tax level or even above it find themselves making hard decisions about what players are necessary to retain or not,” Stern said. “All of which strikes us as being pro‑competitive in terms of the league.”

Not only has the CBA led to shorter contracts and player movement for the coming season, it has boosted offseason interest in the league not unlike baseball’s “Hot Stove League” of winter.

“That’s a huge, huge builder of awareness and gets fans excited, teams excited and I think players excited about what their team reconfiguration is, so that’s all good,” Stern said.

Viva Las Vegas: The resort and gambling destination continues to loom large on the league’s radar. The summer league, a project of particular interest to NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver, Stern’s successor upon the commissioner’s Feb. 1 retirement date, has been a hit, they said, both for the basketball opportunities and its convention-like aspect. “What we’re moving to, in conjunction with Orlando, is a real sense of what baseball has in their winter meetings and where everyone gathers,” Stern said.

Added drug testing (eventually): Enhancements in the league’s anti-drug policy, particularly a “biological passport” concept and testing for human growth hormones, has been slowed by the National Basketball Players Association search for a new executive director. Stern said he expected that they could be added in time for the 2013-14 season.

Sacramento on track: The progress since Sacramento secured the Kings franchise continues with added season-ticket sales and an increase in sponsorship commitments. Reports on revenue sharing and the league-wide credit facility also were favorable. It all is part of what Stern called “another banner year for the NBA.”

Expansion spitballing: Silver said there has been no dialogue with Seattle and those behind efforts to restore the NBA to that market, and the deputy commissioner only acknowledged the potential for discussions about expansion “down the road,” be it in Seattle, Las Vegas or other possible cities.

But Stern, who enjoys dumping expansion questions on Silver, did note that plans for a new arena in Seattle are continuing, after mentioning similar plans in Las Vegas moments earlier. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Commissioner Silver was looking at strong applications from Las Vegas and Seattle in the coming years,” he said, “and I’m going to enjoy watching it.”

‘Bobcats’ On Chopping Block At Owners’ Meeting

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LAS VEGAS
– A town long known for its menagerie of snakes, weasels, fat cats and whales likely will be adding a new species Thursday: Bobcats.

Hey, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right? The NBA’s Charlotte franchise hopes to officially begin shedding its “Bobcats” nickname in a vote of the Board of Governors, switching back to the “Hornets” identity that served the city and the league so well from 1988 to 2002.

Actually the name change, if approved, probably won’t take effect until after the 2013-14 season, given the time and expense (estimated at $3 million or more) involved with signage, merchandise and other legal and marketing details. But with “Hornets” freed up by the New Orleans team’s recent switch to “Pelicans,” Charlotte saw a chance to revive a fan base that was the pride of the NBA for more than a decade.

A hit from the moment they entered the league in 1988 in Phase 1 of a two-year, four-team expansion, the original Hornets strung together 364 consecutive sellouts at the Charlotte Coliseum, packing 23,000 fans into what became known as “The Hive” and leading the NBA in attendance eight times in 14 years. With stars like Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson and popular role players such as Muggsy Bogues, the team got traction in the 1990s, reaching the playoffs four times and the conference semifinals twice in six years from 1993 to 1998.

But owner George Shinn‘s popularity headed in the other direction, after a sexual misconduct lawsuit and demands for public money to construct a new arena. Even with the Hornets three years into a stretch of five straight postseason appearances, attendance waned and Shinn moved the club – and the nickname – in 2002 to New Orleans.

Acknowledging the raw deal Charlotte fans got, after so embracing the NBA in the heart of college basketball, the league returned in a one-team expansion in 2004. But the nickname “Bobcats,” spun off from original owner Bob Johnson‘s name, never inspired much excitement – and neither has the team. In nine years, it has made the playoffs just once and is dragging a 28-120 record over the past two seasons.

Current boss and NBA legend Michael Jordan is eager to return pro basketball to its standing-room, deafening levels. Restoring “Hornets” is a step, depending on what follows on the court, as former Charlotte players Bogues and Kenny Gattison recently told Charlotte Observer columnist Scott Fowler:

“It’s the right move,” Gattison said. “The fans are still there. They just have to wake up the sleeping giant.”

“I’m in favor of changing the name to Hornets,” Bogues said. “That name belongs to the city of Charlotte. It will help. But I’m also quite sure the Bobcats know that a name change alone isn’t going to do it. It’s never going to be exactly the same, but you have to make people feel that relationship again. You have to reach out in the community. But, most of all, you have to win.”

Among other agenda items Thursday afternoon, the Board of Governors are expected to hear reports on the collective bargaining agreement, revenue-sharing and the Sacramento Kings’ new ownership. Also, a vote related to a recent competition committee report, possibly expanding the use of instant replay and tweaking the interpretation of clear-path fouls might be held.

Game 7: Legacy On The Line For Wade?

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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – One game doesn’t make a legacy.

One play, one moment, in one game, in one season does not make or break a career.

So why does it feel like there is so much riding on Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals for Miami Heat superstar Dwyane Wade? The growing mob of skeptics is writing him off as too old and battered to rebound from the struggles that have plagued him throughout this postseason and this series in particular. They’re ready to stick a fork in him and declare what had been the “Big 3″ the “Big 1 and 3/4.”

Sure, there is much riding on this game for the other stars involved — LeBron James and Chris Bosh from the Heat and the Indiana Pacers’ trio of Paul George, Roy Hibbert and David West. The coaches, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Indiana’s Frank Vogel — and their respective franchises — have much on the line as well.

It goes deeper than that, however, for Wade. This game is about his legacy and whether or not he can bandage that busted right knee of his up tight enough to dial-up a throwback performance and help carry the Heat to victory on Monday night at AmericanAirlines Arena (8:30 ET, TNT).

Does he have the energy and intestinal fortitude to play through whatever pain he’s in and give the Heat more than the pedestrian (at least by Wade’s own lofty standards) 14.5 points on 44 percent shooting, 4.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds he’s delivering through the first six games? Can the Heat still “Call Tyrone” (Wade’s middle name) or do they need to look elsewhere for salvation, not to mention help for LeBron, in one of the biggest games of the Heat Big 3’s run together?

Wade says he and Bosh need bigger roles to help the Heat advance. They need more touches. And they need someone, presumably LeBron (even though he didn’t mention him by name in his locker room comments after Game 6), to facilitate this process since neither one of them has been able to do it on his own.

“We’ve got to do a good job of making sure me and Chris have our opportunities to succeed throughout the game,” Wade said. “That’s something we’re going to have to look at as a team.”

We’ve got guys individually who want to play better,” Wade said. “But we’ve got to try to help each other out in this locker room and not leave it up to the individual to self-will it.”

It’s hard to tell if that’s a plea for help or just a proud man stating the obvious. The Pacers have clamped down on anyone in a Heat jersey not named James. That’s why we have a Game 7, which is the ultimate proving ground for Wade and Bosh.

For the folks fortunate enough to make it through a conference finals Game 7, it changes lives in some instances. For superstar and future Hall of Famers like Wade, one championship secures your place in history. Two makes you a living legend. Three puts you in that rarefied air that only a select few occupy.

This stage is that great. Wade knows because he’s been here before. The reward carries a world of opportunities with it, a bevy of exposure that would not otherwise be available. Wade knows this better than most, having thrived in the Game 7 spotlight as early as his rookie season with the Heat back during the 2004 playoffs.

It was his star turn during the first round against New Orleans, back when Wade operated as the Heat’s point guard and wasn’t wearing all of the aches and pains that a decade’s worth of superstar work in this league that he does now.

Wade’s career record in Game 7s is 2-2, with each of those four games serving as defining moments throughout his career. (more…)

Sixth Man Of The Year: J.R. Smith

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The oddest part about this season’s race for the Sixth Man of the Year Award is that there are probably a half-dozen candidates worthy of consideration.

A voter could close his eyes and take a stab anywhere on a quite worthy list of J.R. Smith, Jamal Crawford, Jarrett Jack, Ryan Anderson, Nate Robinson and Kevin Martin.

So does that mean if we put an entire team of second unit standouts onto the court, somebody would have to get bumped to a starter?

In that case, we’re elevating and giving our vote to Smith, who has ridden in the shadow of Carmelo Anthony’s season-long brilliance, but has been no less vital to the Knicks winning their first Atlantic Division title since 1994.

How does that sync with the image of the mercurial guard who had taken his ready-to-shoot game from New Orleans to Denver to China before landing in New York 15 months ago?

How strangely does it stumble off the tongue to say that from the start to the finish of this regular season, Smith has become the Knicks most dependable player night in and night out?

For while you obviously give great credit to Anthony for the performance that will likely win the scoring title and earn him a high place on some MVP ballots, Smith has been the Knicks’ second-leading scorer, averaging 18.1 ppg and the player that coach Mike Woodson has been able to rely on at both ends of the court.

There is no questioning Crawford’s credentials as a big-time scorer off the Clippers’ bench and an ability to take over a game offensively whenever he steps out on the floor. For much of the season, the Sixth Man Award hardware seemed to be his for the taking. He helped the Clippers beat the Knicks to 50 wins as L.A. earned its first division title in the history of the franchise that dates back to its infancy in Buffalo.

The difference is that Crawford is a one-trick pony galloping behind Chris Paul who makes virtually no contribution at all on the nights when the ball is not going into the basket. While the Crawford lobby will point to a higher field goal percentage, it’s only slightly better, 43.6 to 42.2. The same goes for 3-point shooting, where Crawford has 37.0 to 35.6 edge.

At the other end of the floor, Smith has hardly become a stopper, but he tries and is credible, which is all that Woodson has asked. Crawford, meanwhile, couldn’t guard a cadaver.

At 27, Smith has finally inched closer to becoming the complete player that George Karl tried to squeeze out of him during four seasons in Denver and when the Knicks are winning, his assists and steals, as well as his shooting, are up. What’s more, he is literally the only player to show up every night, having played in every game this season, helping hold up the tent when Anthony was injured.

Oh, it’s not like J.R. has traded in his initials, his off-court silliness or his penchant for me-first offense. You still have to live with the times when he tries to win by himself and the can-you-believe-that shots. But they are part of a bigger package now, one that gives the Knicks a real reason to believe in the East.

The top contenders:

Jamal Crawford — He’s bounced back from a horrendous one-year stint in Portland to play a key role in the best Clippers season ever. Not many teams can back up a Chris Paul with another scorer this dangerous. But when it comes down to splitting hairs in a very close race, defense has to matter. You can make the argument that Crawford is the worst defender on the floor any time that he plays.

Jarrett Jack — The veteran has three games of 25 points and 10 assists off the bench, making him the first reserve in NBA history to do that in a single season. He’s provided leadership, defense and helped get the Warriors into the playoffs for only the second time in 19 seasons.

Kevin Martin — It was not an enviable task to step into the role of last year’s runaway Sixth Man winner (James Harden) on a team whose only goal is a return to The Finals. He doesn’t have all the skills of Harden and contributes nothing on defense, but is a high-efficiency scorer with a knack for getting to the foul line.

Ryan Anderson — He’s having the highest-scoring season — by a tick — of his career and has had to carry the offensive load plenty in the frequent absence of Eric Gordon. But it has to count against you when your team has spent the entire season floundering near the bottom of the West.

Nate Robinson — What is he? Who is he? When will he ever figure it out? He’s come off the Bulls’ bench to have his best year since his days in New York and certainly played a big part in ending the Miami win streak.

Playoffs Snapshot — April 12

Here’s a look at some of the more important playoff implications in Friday night’s games:

LAKERS (vs. Golden State, 10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): With the battle for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference down to the final three games, the Lakers (42-37) face a Golden State team that is currently seeded sixth, just a half-game up on the Rockets … A Lakers win and a Jazz loss to the Timberwolves would put L.A. up two games with two to play … Kobe Bryant scored 47 points while playing all 48 minutes in Wednesday night’s 113-106 win in Portland … The Lakers are up 2-1 in the season series.

JAZZ (vs. Minnesota, 9:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): The Jazz (41-38) have lost control of the race with the Lakers for the No. 8 seed and can’t lose focus in the first of consecutive games against the wounded Timberwolves … Utah leads season series 2-0 … Utah needs to win out and hope for an L.A. loss … A short bench missing Enes Kanter, Marvin Williams and Alec Burks was costly in Wednesday night’s loss to OKC … This could be the final home game for Jazz free-agents-to-be Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.

THUNDER (at Portland, 10 p.m. ET, NBA TV): Thunder (58-21) show no inclination to take their foot off the pedal in the fight for No. 1 seed in the West … Holding tie-breaker over the Spurs, they now control the race … After whipping the Warriors on Thursday night — and getting plenty of rest for the starters — OKC wraps up a back-to-back and closes out road schedule … Thunder are 3-0 against the Blazers this season, who went flat in a loss to the Lakers on Wednesday night … Three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant (28.3 ppg.) says he’s OK giving up title to Carmelo Anthony.

SPURS (vs. Sacramento, 8:30 ET, League Pass): Even if the Spurs (57-21) win out, they need OKC to stumble once to reclaim the top spot in the West … But do they really care? Tony Parker is in a tug o’ war with coach Gregg Popovich over whether he’ll play … Parker sat out Wednesday’s loss at Denver with a sore neck and other assorted ailments and Pop says that championship teams must be able to win on the road anyway … Boris Diaw’s back injury puts DeJuan Blair back into the rotation and could slide Kawhi Leonard into minutes at power forward … They lead series with Kings 3-0. (more…)

Hornets Get Mixed Medical Updates

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. – This was finally the night the Hornets would get encouraging news on the injury front, a positive update in the moment and for the future. Eric Gordon was playing both ends of a back-to-back for the first time in almost exactly one year, he was passing the important test with a good showing, and it was about time New Orleans caught a medical break.

Enter Anthony Davis.

Wednesday night at Sleep Train Arena, one of the team’s centerpieces of the future, Gordon, went 34 minutes with a bounce in his second game in as many nights. But that gave way to the uncertainty of the centerpiece, Davis, limping out of the locker room and headed for the flight back to New Orleans and a likely MRI exam on his left knee.

The initial diagnosis was a sprain, the result of Sacramento’s Marcus Thornton landing hard on Davis’ knee when Davis was on the court after challenging a Thornton drive under the basket in the fourth quarter of the 121-110 Kings victory. Davis, walking under his own power, left the arena with security and was not talking.

“I think he’s OK,” coach Monty Williams said. “I don’t want to jump the gun. I didn’t see the play yet, but he said Marcus landed on his knee. He said he’s a little sore. I’m just glad it wasn’t a buckle or a ligament or anything like that. We don’t know that for sure. But usually when somebody lands on it, it could be a contusion. It’s probably more scary than anything else. We’ve got to let the doctors check him out and make sure. He’s walking around. He’s got ice on it.”

Williams added that “I’m pretty sure we’ll rush him right over to our people” after the team lands in New Orleans to get an MRI.

Gordon supplied the encouraging update of the night. Working his way back from the injured right knee that caused him to miss the first 29 games of the season, he went from the 33 minutes Tuesday against the Lakers in Los Angeles to the 34 in Sacramento while contributing 23 points and seven assists, both team highs.

“It felt fine,” Gordon said after playing on consecutive nights for the first time since April 6-7, 2012. “It felt better, overall. It was good to get a back-to-back in before the end of the year, just to see how it works out for me. It worked out pretty well for me.”

Said Williams: “Eric’s fine. This is what we had planned on. We knew we were going to take a hit this season by keeping him out and the minute restriction with the hopes that he’d be a hundred percent this summer. We plan on him having a great year next year because he’ll be healthy.”

The Hornets close the season with home games Friday against the Clippers and Sunday against the Mavericks and then a trip to Dallas for the finale.

All That Jazz Puts Heat on Lakers

HANG TIME, Texas — As Dean Wormer might have once said to Flounder in “Animal House”: “Losing nine out of 11 games is no way to make the playoffs, son.”

But here are the Jazz, back up and dancing like Otis Day & The Knights are playing at a toga party, suddenly the owners of a three-game winning streak and… wait for it… a road win.

When Utah won at Portland for its first victory on the road since Feb. 13, it jumped the Jazz over the Lakers and back into the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.

According to Bill Oram of the Salt Lake Tribune, the chatter was back in the Jazz locker room after they rallied from nine, 14 and nine down again in the fourth quarter on Friday night.

“Winning does that,” Mo Williams said. “Winning puts you in a good mood, especially when you care. Top to bottom, people care here, when you lose you feel down. It’s not so jolly, it’s not so loose.”

Earlier in the evening, Williams was far from happy. The 30-year-old point guard, in his second stint with the Jazz, was benched by coach Tyrone Corbin in the second quarter. In the final minutes of the game, Williams carried the Jazz to the win, scoring 14 of his game-high 28 points in the fourth quarter and spearheading a 25-6 run in the final six minutes.

“You get pissed off,” Williams said. “Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, you come out and be aggressive.”

The Jazz come home to close out a back-to-back tonight against the Nets and there is light again after it had appeared for weeks that Utah was going to do everything except lift the Lakers up onto their shoulders and carry Kobe Bryant & Co. into the postseason.

Now the two teams are in the stretch run and for the first time in a while, the Jazz might have a leg up in getting to the finish.

Let’s break it down for final nine games:

Jazz

Home — 6

Road — 3

Vs. playoff teams — 5

Back-to-backs remaining: 0

Tonight — vs. Nets

Mon. — vs. Blazers

Wed. — vs. Nuggets

Apr. 7 — at Golden State

Apr. 9 — vs. Thunder

Apr. 12 — vs. Timberwolves

Apr. 15 — at Minnesota

Apr. 17 — at Memphis

The Jazz hold the tiebreaker over the Lakers and if they can take care of business at home, where they’re 26-9 on the season, will be tough for the Lakers to beat out.

Lakers

Home — 6

Road — 3

Vs. playoff teams — 5

Back-to-backs remaining — 1

Tonight — at Sacramento

Tues. — vs. Mavericks

Fri. — vs. Grizzlies

Apr. 7 — at L.A. Clippers

Apr. 9 — vs. Hornets

Apr. 10 — at Portland

Apr. 12 — vs. Warriors

Apr. 14 — vs. Spurs

Apr. 17 — vs. Rockets

Of the 14 players on the Lakers roster, seven are listed on the injury report for tonight at Sacramento, though Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Antawn Jamison are probable, with Steve Nash questionable and Metta World Peace and Jordan Hill out. Of the Lakers’ three remaining road games, they won’t have to leave their own building to play the Clippers and that next-to-last game against San Antonio could catch them another break if the mercurial Gregg Popovich decides to rest up his veterans for the playoffs.

Defense Grew Rockets’ 22-Game Streak

 

HOUSTON — As far as seismic shifts in the landscape go, there was no tremor, no low rumble of an earthquake’s warning and it never hit with the fiery blast of a volcanic eruption.

When the Rockets went 49 days — seven full weeks — without a single loss in 2008, it grew quietly for the longest time like an oak tree’s roots growing up through the cracks in a sidewalk until one day it was busting apart the concrete.

The 22-game win streak, second-longest in NBA history, is the outlier in the record book, the one that nobody, even themselves, saw coming, and many, even in hindsight, can still not comprehend.

Before the defending champion Heat, led by the three-headed juggernaut of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, joined the club, only three teams in history had won 20 in a row. The 1971-72 Lakers with their record of 33 consecutive wins and a star-studded roster of Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich went on to win the NBA title. The 1970-71 Bucks, led by Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, ran off 20 straight on their way to win it all.

In fact, of the top eight win streaks ever in the NBA before the Heat, five of those teams won championships. Only the Rockets did not get out of the first round of the playoffs.

“Our names will be mentioned with Hall of Fame people,” said point guard Rafer Alston. “We have something to tell our kids.”

Shane Battier, now with Miami, has called the Rockets’ streak “organic,” part of a process that evolved over time.

It wasn’t often flashy or pretty, but it was effective, like seeing a boa constrictor slowly squeeze the life out of its prey.

The Rockets were led by Tracy McGrady’s bundle of offensive skills, but they survived the loss of Yao Ming and they won and won with a growing confidence and surging defense. During the 22-game streak, they held 19 of their opponents under 100 points and 13 under 90. They won 14 games by double figures, an average margin of 12.36, and had only three games decided by fewer than six points. They won 15 games at home and seven on the road.

The Rockets even won the last 10 without their All-Star center Yao, whose season was ended by a stress fracture in his left foot on Feb. 26.

“Every time a team gets a chance to come close, the streak comes up,” said forward Luis Scola, now with the Suns. “It was a great stretch. It was a good team. If we lose any of those games it wouldn’t change that fact. But maybe that team wouldn’t be as remembered.

“You know we were playing well. It was a fun team to play with. The momentum that we had going. We were playing very well. We were beating teams just because we were good…That month and a half was great. I remember it was a lot of fun.”

The Rockets were 15-17 on Jan. 2 and 24-20 when they beat Golden State 111-107 on a night when Yao was dominant with 39 points and 19 rebounds. They were fighting for their playoffs lives, sitting precariously as the seventh seed in the Western Conference. Two nights later, they went on the road to win at Indiana 106-103 and ran off seven straight wins where they never gave up 90 points.

“What we’re developing is a great team like the Pistons,” said McGrady. “A great defensive team going out there and playing together and not relying on one or two people to score the rock.”

No. 8 was their narrowest escape, needing Steve Novak to come off the bench to hit a 3-pointer — his only field goal of the game — with two seconds left to rescue an 89-87 win over the Kings.

The streak continued through trades. On the afternoon of No. 10, they sent Bonzi Wells to New Orleans and Kirk Snyder to Minnesota, yet didn’t miss a beat in thumping Miami. They attracted real notice around the league when they whipped the No. 1-seeded Hornets in New Orleans.

When the Rockets took the floor on Feb. 26, the word was out that Yao was lost for the season and the fears inside Toyota Center were palpable. But with 41-year-old Dikembe Mutombo blocking shots, waving his finger and filling the middle, the streak rolled on.

“You could probably check this, but I’m thinking all the way to the 17th or 18th game of the winning streak we still were in the eighth spot or the ninth spot or something like that,” Scola said. “It was a really tough year for the West. The playoffs were in jeopardy.” (more…)

Does Kobe Have One Foot Out Door?

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HANG TIME, Texas – There’s never a shortage of funny stuff being tossed around on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” But Kobe Bryant didn’t seem to be joking when he told the host and that he would be retiring “soon.”

Of course, that’s only natural talk for a 34-year-old who has literally spent half his life playing in the NBA.

Yet it didn’t stop the loud groans of displeasure coming from the studio audience in Hollywood.

Bryant grinned and reminded that it would be nearly two decades of competing — and in his case, that means running, jumping, dunking and trying to chew the legs off his opponents — by the time his current contract expires after next season. He laughed and noted that he entered the league 1996 with a full Afro and now couldn’t grow one if he tried.

Certainly we all seem to understand that he can’t keep up the Black Mamba routine forever. Then along comes a night like Wednesday in New Orleans, when he makes 14 of 21 shots and finishes with 42 points,12 assists and seven rebounds in leading the Lakers back out of a 25-point hole to beat the Hornets.

After all, he still does rank third (27.6 ppg) in the league in scoring, behind only Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony and, perhaps more impressive, tied with the 24-year-old Durant in total minutes played (2,370).

We keep watching him push the boundaries, test his own limits and try to drag this collection of disparate Laker parts into the playoffs sometimes with the sheer force of his own will and tend to forget that he might have logged more miles than some of the now-retired space shuttles.

Bryant says he will not play for any team other than the Lakers, which would force major concessions or restructuring of his salary (and maybe the entire Lakers organization) if he decides to continue on beyond 2013-14. The club is intent on lowering payroll below the luxury-tax plateau and Bryant’s contract calls for $30.4-million next season. How much of a discount would he give the Lakers to keep chasing championships alongside or maybe without Dwight Howard?

Even if he got his sixth NBA title sometime by June of 2014, how hard would he chase No. 7 in order to pass Michael Jordan?

Then again, the driven man who has modeled so much of his on-court aura around Jordan surely understands that he will never again be able to come close to feeding his competitive fire the same way again once he steps off the court for good.

You know that Bryant surely read Jordan’s recent interview with Wright Thompson in ESPN the Magazine where the 50-year-old said: “Man, I wish I was playing right now. I would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball.”

Maybe he is much closer to the end than we realize after watching all that he still can do in driving himself for 42 minutes to keep the Lakers’ playoff hopes alive in a critical game in New Orleans.

The only other question left is who’ll miss Kobe more when he’s gone: his fans or the ones who root against him?