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Morning shootaround — Feb. 5


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Feb. 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Ballmer: Griffin will face ‘consequences’ for fight | Ainge says no trades imminent | Report: Bucks willing to deal | Johnson fills in nicely for Pistons

No. 1: Ballmer says Griffin will face ‘consequences’ for scuffle — The Los Angeles Clippers are about a week into the four-to-six-week timeframe they’re looking at being without All-Star power forward Blake Griffin. He is out with a broken hand, suffered during an off-the-court fight with a team equipment manager in Toronto a few weeks ago. While the NBA is investigating the incident, team owner Steve Ballmer says there will be repercussions for Griffin, writes Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times:

In his first interview since Blake Griffin punched out the team’s assistant equipment manager, the Clippers owner sounded as if he was prepared to discipline his All-Star forward.

Asked Wednesday night if he felt it necessary for the Clippers to take the kind of action that would represent what they stand for, Ballmer didn’t hesitate.

“There needs to be consequences,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Citing a team investigation into the incident that resulted in a broken right hand for Griffin, Ballmer didn’t offer any details, so it’s not known whether the Clippers might add to whatever punishment the Kia pitchman receives from the NBA. Still, Ballmer made it clear that employee-on-employee violence would not be tolerated.

If his actions back his words, good for him.

Ballmer was measured when speaking of Griffin, condemning the player’s actions without tossing him under the proverbial bus.

“Just remember, Blake is a key part of his team,” Ballmer said.

At this moment, the courtside goofball in Ballmer emerged, as he extended his arms to mimic an embrace.

“We will welcome him back,” he said with a smile as broad as his shoulders.

This is something of a new experience for Ballmer. As the chief executive of Microsoft, he said there were times when key employees under-performed as a result of doing something stupid. However, he conceded, “We didn’t ever have a situation quite like this.”

Ballmer continued, “You know, everyone’s going to heal, and we’re going to have an opportunity to move forward. We’re going to finish our investigation, decide what needs to happen and move forward. Blake’s a key part of our team. There’s no question about that.

“He certainly has been remorseful, which is great, and we’ll find a way to move past it. That’s part of life. An important part of life is learning how to have consequences.”

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No. 2: Ainge says no trades imminent for Celtics — Yesterday we brought you news that the Houston Rockets were reportedly not going to try and deal center Dwight Howard, who was recently linked to a trade with the Boston Celtics. Does that mean Howard is staying put for sure? Who knows. But according to Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, Boston isn’t looking to make a trade just yet — although he is (as always) in talks with other front offices about possible deals. A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNewEngland.com has more:

Ainge, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations, spoke about the importance of trust in what was the biggest trade he has pulled off to date – landing Kevin Garnett from Minnesota in 2007.

“The biggest trade we made was with my best friend in the business, Kevin McHale,” Ainge said on 98.5 the Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich Show.

At the time, McHale was the General Manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“It wouldn’t have gotten done if not for Kevin and I, because there had to be so much trust going back and forth,” Ainge said.

But when it comes to evaluating players and their potential fit with the Celtics, Ainge leans on himself and his staff.

“The relationship is important but I don’t necessarily listen to their evaluation,” Ainge said.

That becomes quite topical now with the Celtics having had some discussions with the Houston Rockets about Dwight Howard who played for McHale in Houston prior to McHale being fired earlier this season.

While Ainge did not speak specifically about Howard and Boston’s level of interest in the former eight-time all-star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, there’s not a team in the NBA that Ainge hasn’t had a conversation with recently.

But does that means he’s close to making a major deal.

Nope.

“Most of the time, ninety-nine percent of the things talked about and discussed, don’t happen,” Ainge said. “This time of year there’s a lot of discussions. It’s really hard to predict if there’s any deals there. Usually they happen at the very end, the very last day.”

“I do feel like we need to make improvements on our team, but not necessarily at the trade deadline,” Ainge said. “We can’t force anything. Right now, there’s nothing on the table, there’s nothing imminent. We’ve just had a lot of discussions and hope that next week come trade deadline (Feb. 18, 3 p.m. EST) we’re prepared to make the right decisions.”

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No. 3: Report: Bucks willing to deal Carter-Williams, Monroe — The Milwaukee Bucks have been perhaps the most disappointing team of 2015-16, especially given their offseason splash. The Bucks added one of the biggest free-agent fish in the pond, center Greg Monroe, to a squad that surprised many and made the 2015 playoffs. A young core of Monroe, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and guard Michael Carter-Williams seemed poised for at least a repeat (if not an improvement upon) last season. Yet as the trade deadline nears and the Bucks fall further and further out of the playoff race, Carter-Williams and Monroe could be dealt, writes Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal Times:

Clearly, Bucks officials are deeply concerned. That’s reflected in their ongoing discussions with other teams about potential trades before the Feb. 18 deadline.

Based on conversations with several NBA execs from the Eastern and Western conferences, the Bucks are more than receptive to playing “Let’s Make a Deal.’’

And that includes possibly moving Michael Carter-Williams, who has been consistently inconsistent since joining the Bucks. Carter-Williams has had some dynamic games this season, like an 18-point, 13-assist outing against Sacramento and a 20-point, 12-assist showing against Chicago.

On the flip side, Carter-Williams had only two assists in 26 minutes against Portland on Wednesday night, one assist in 27 minutes against Memphis last week, and zero assists in 25 minutes against Miami two weeks ago.

But Carter-Williams isn’t the only frontline player the Bucks are apparently willing to move. A much bigger surprise is the Bucks have made it known that center Greg Monroe is available at the right price, according to some NBA officials.

Monroe has been a double-double machine, having recorded 26 this season. That ranks sixth in the league behind Detroit’s Andre Drummond (40), Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (33), Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins (28), the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan (28) and Chicago’s Pau Gasol (27) and just ahead of Washington’s John Wall (25), Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns (25) and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis (24).

But Monroe’s man-to-man and help-defense remain suspect. And he most definitely isn’t the rim protector the Bucks sorely need. He is averaging a mere 0.9 blocks per game this season, which ties him with L.A. Lakers forward Brandon Bass for 46th in the league.

Justified or not, Monroe is being targeted as one of the primary reasons for the Bucks’ defensive deficiencies this season. After being one of the elite defensive teams in the league last season, the Bucks are now one of the worst, giving up 103.3 points per game compared to 97.4 last season.

Clearly, the pieces to the Bucks’ puzzle aren’t fitting. Several league officials said they would be surprised if the Bucks didn’t make a major trade.

“From what I’m hearing is they (the Bucks) are willing to trade anybody not named Parker, Antetokounmpo or Middleton,’’ an NBA executive said. “I even heard they’d listen (to offers) for Parker and Middleton, but it would have to be some crazy offer.

“They want to do something; they know they have to do something. That group they have isn’t working.’’

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No. 4: Johnson fills in nicely for Pistons — A great number of folks were predicting big things for Detroit Pistons rookie Stanley Johnson after his solid showing at NBA Summer League. He was tops on our Rookie Ladder after Summer League and was a dominant force in the Orlando Summer League. Once 2015-16 got started, though, Johnson was more or less relegated to a reserve role. But an recent injury to third-year guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope opened the door for Johnson to start last night and he delivered with flying colors, writes Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

Stan Van Gundy said earlier this week he was looking for ways to get more minutes for Stanley Johnson. Losing Caldwell-Pope to a core muscle strain that will keep him out at least until the resumption of play following the All-Star break on Feb. 19 isn’t the desired method, but Johnson at least proved more than capable of shouldering greater responsibility in the 111-105 win over the Knicks.

“I thought he was tremendous,” Van Gundy said after Johnson logged 44 minutes and led the Pistons with 22 points plus nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and a blocked shot. “Second start of his career. Thought he played real well. We were even going to him down the stretch before Reggie hit the threes. We were running plays for him. Fearless. Getting better all the time. Not afraid to make plays.”

As impressive as it is for a rookie to shoulder 44 minutes and still have enough left to make a handful of the game’s biggest plays in the fourth quarter, Johnson’s play doesn’t really come as a surprise to his teammates. They’ve seen his readiness and his confidence since the early days of training camp.

“It’s awesome. He’s a really good player,” Tolliver said. “We’ve known it the whole season. He’s getting a great opportunity now with KCP out. He’s just really still learning the game. That’s a good thing for him because he’s going to have a bright future, as long as he keeps his head on straight and continues to work hard and play hard like he does.”

Jackson said he and Reggie Johnson discussed strategy on the plane ride back from Boston. What was it? Johnson wouldn’t say, but figures that when Caldwell-Pope comes back, the Pistons now have another tool in their belt to throw at teams.

“What me and Reggie did tonight was different,” Johnson said. “I think it helped a little bit, so I think when (Caldwell-Pope) gets back, having ways for guys who can do stuff like that is going to make it tough for (opponents) to play.”

“Amazing,” Jackson said of Johnson’s contributions. “We talked about it on the plane, the game plan coming in between us two, how we were going to approach this game. He did everything that he told me he was going to do. He’s definitely somebody who has the utmost confidence in himself and he’s one of those, he says he’s going to do it then he’s going to go out and compete. He came up tremendously big.”

Van Gundy sensed some of his veterans feeling the heat as the Knicks took big chunks out of the lead, but not his youngest player.

“We were struggling. I decided to start going to him,” Van Gundy said. “I thought some of our other guys maybe tightened up a little bit and that’s not him. Pretty amazing for a 19-year-old kid.”

Somebody said to Van Gundy, “He relishes the moment.”

“Yeah, he does. He and Reggie both. It’s good to have a couple of guys like that. … I think Stanley’s going to be a really good player. And he handled huge minutes tonight on the fifth game in seven nights, played (44) minutes and played real well. Nine rebounds, made some really good passes. Just played extremely well.”

“I knew I was going to walk into heavy minutes,” Johnson said. “For me going into the game, I was like, ‘How do I keep up (Caldwell-Pope’s) defensive intensity and offensively – we don’t play the same, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it in his way, but I thought I could help out on both sides.”

Yeah, you could say he helped out. Just a little.


VIDEO: Balanced Pistons hold off Knicks in Detroit

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Indiana Pacers executive and Hall of Famer Larry Bird has some pointed thoughts on the lifespan of NBA big men … ICYMI, a quick rundown of everyone who will be participating in the State Farm All-Star Saturday events, which includes the Verizon Slam Dunk Contest and the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest … NBA commissioner Adam Silver says the ‘Hack-A-‘ rule will soon be changing … The San Antonio Spurs will be without Manu Ginobili after he underwent testicular surgery … President Barack Obama had a lot of fun with the Golden State Warriors yesterday … Kind of a cool photo gallery — re-drafting the 2007 NBA Draft

Warriors Trio Headlines ‘Big’ All-Star Saturday Night

VIDEO: The Inside the NBA crew gives analysis.

NEW YORK CITY — All-Star Saturday night is going to be big. Literally.

Tonight’s announcement of the participants for All-Star Saturday night revealed a lot of familiar names and faces, but also a couple of intriguing players taking part in contests they haven’t been involved with in previous years. And while the Golden State Warriors have been nearly unstoppable on the court this season, on Saturday, Feb. 13, in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (8 p.m. ET, TNT), the Warriors’ big three will attempt to bring home several different kinds of hardware.

NBA All-Star 2016The evening will open with the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, which will be radically different this season. Last year, the event was populated entirely by point guards, with Houston’s Patrick Beverley winning over Brandon Knight. This season, Beverley is slated to return and compete against several guards, such as Portland’s CJ McCollum, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas and Jordan Clarkson from the Lakers.

But the twist here is that they will be in a field that includes several big men, including Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins and rookie Karl-Anthony Towns. It will also be interesting to see what kind of performance we get from New Orleans’ multi-talented center Anthony Davis, who played guard throughout high school before a growth spurt moved him to the post. And the leading contender among the big men participating must be Golden State’s Draymond Green, who currently leads the League in triple-doubles with 10.

VIDEO: Wolves’ Zach LaVine will defend his title.

We can also safely assume that the evening will close with a bang. Last year’s Verizon Slam Dunk was one of the most electrifying contests in years, as then-Minnesota rookie Zach LaVine completed a series of athletic jams. LaVine will return this season, and be challenged by a field that includes Denver guard Will Barton, who has had something of a breakout campaign in this his fourth NBA season.

LaVine and Barton will be joined by two big men, in a contest where big men have traditionally struggled to score highly. Second year Orlando forward Aaron Gordon has had plenty of athletic dunks in his short NBA career, and Detroit center Andre Drummond has also shown plenty of bounce and skill around the basket, as the NBA’s leading rebounder this season.

In between these events will be the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest, which in a league increasingly reliant on the three-point shot, is rapidly becoming the evening’s signature event. While last year’s three-point contest was recognized as having one of the sweetest-shooting fields in the history of the event, this year’s event appears to be equally star-studded:

VIDEO: Steph Curry will bring his sharp shooting to Foot Locker Three-Point Contest

Stephen Curry – Curry won last year’s event, then went on to win the NBA’s MVP award and an NBA title. Leads the NBA this season in three pointers made (232) by a wide margin (77 more than his Golden State teammate Klay Thompson).

James Harden – The Houston guard finished just behind Curry in last season’s MVP voting, and the Rockets have gotten off to a slow start this season. Still, Harden is third this season in total three-pointers made (140).

Klay Thompson – The other Splash Brother has a chance to outshine Curry. Thompson is making 43-percent of his three-point attempts this season.

Khris Middleton – The Bucks swingman is averaging a career-best two made three-pointers per game, and knocking them in at 41-percent clip.

Kyle Lowry – The Raptors guard will surely enjoy a home court advantage. Lowry is averaging a career-high 2.8 threes per game, and making them at a career-best 39 percent success rate.

JJ Redick – Clippers guard Reddick has always been known as a sharp-shooter, but this season has been his masterpiece. In 45 games for Los Angeles, Redick has made 120 threes, converting at a league-best 48-percent clip.

Chris Bosh – Why just have big men in the other two Saturday night contests? To be fair, the power forward Bosh has made himself into a good three-point shooter, and he’s relied on his long-range shot more than ever this season. Consider this: During Bosh’s first nine NBA seasons, he attempted a combined 228 threes; This season he’s attempted 213 threes in Miami’s first 50 games.

Devin Booker – Booker is the youngest contestant (he’s 19 years old) in the three-point shootout, but he’s already proven he’s one of the NBA’s best shooters, connecting on threes for the Phoenix Suns at a 42-percent rate this season.

State Farm NBA All-Star Saturday Night will be televised live exclusively on TNT on Saturday, Feb. 13, from the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Canada.

 

Morning shootaround — Feb. 4


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Feb. 3

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Cufrry blisters Wizards for 51 | Nowitzki disagrees with Abdul-Jabbar’s assessment | Report: Rockets unlikely to deal Howard | Report: Dunleavy to return Saturday | Caldwell-Pope injured vs. Celtics

No. 1: Curry breaks out of his ‘slump’, torches Wizards — Entering last night’s road game against the Washington Wizards, reigning MVP Stephen Curry had 21 games of 30 points or more, but hadn’t broken the 30-point barrier in three games. Is that considered a slump when you’re averaging close to 30 points per game in a season? Who knows. What is certain is Curry showed he hasn’t lost his touch, abusing the Wizards for 51 points and 11 3-pointers (one off tying the NBA single-game record) writes, Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:

Stephen Curry just kind of left this hanging out there: “Maybe next time.”

That’s what he said after he made eight three-pointers in three quarters against the Lakers on Jan. 14, falling four shy of Kobe Bryant’s and Donyell Marshall’s single-game record.

His comment seemed innocuous until “next time” arrived.

On Wednesday at the Verizon Center, the arc opened up enough for Curry to hoist 16 three-point attempts, and because he often made the rim look the size of a hula hoop, he strutted away with 11 three-pointers in a 134-121 victory over the Wizards in front of a national TV audience.

“I missed one too many,” Curry joked. “At the end of the game, I knew I was within reach, and I was kind of searching, without trying to force it. You can’t mess around with the basketball gods, trying to chase records, if the game doesn’t call for it.”

If averaging 16.7 points on 37.9 percent three-point shooting in his previous three games constituted a slump for the MVP, his 51-point game — giving him four 50-point performances in his career — certainly constitutes a slump breaker.

“I didn’t know Steph was in a slump,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “Steph is never in a slump. He was just scintillating tonight.”

“I said, ‘Here he goes,’” interim head coach Don Newman said of Curry’s fast start. “I knew it, because that’s what they usually do. I mean, they come out and they just want to kill you.”

Curry thrilled the crowd, then his bench, and finally himself with a flurry of three-pointers in the first quarter. The fans got louder and louder as he made his first four three-point shots. Andre Iguodala bowed to him from the scorer’s table when he knocked down No. 5, and Curry didn’t really know how to react act following his sixth.

Curry swiped a dribble from Wall in the backcourt and corralled the ball about 25 feet from the rim on the right wing. Why not launch it? He tracked the arc of the ball like a baseball player enjoying a towering home run from the batter’s box, and then started spinning into a happy dance.

He finished the first quarter with 25 points — his seventh 20-point quarter of the season. He made 7 of 8 three-point attempts and was well on his way to his single-season record of 10 games with at least eight three-pointers. George McCloud previously held the record with six such games.

“The shots that you know feel good, they go in, and the shots that you think, ‘Oh, that’s off,’ they go in,” Curry said. “It’s a fun feeling, and you want to ride it until you can’t anymore.”

“We watch it on TV every day, and you’re like, ‘Ah, it’s not like that,’” Washington forward Otto Porter said. “But when he does it against you, it’s eye-opening for you.”

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Blogtable: Thoughts on the Rockets?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Thoughts on Rockets? | Player most likely to be traded? |
One player you’d love to see in Dunk Contest?



VIDEOGreg Anthony and Chris Webber discuss Dwight Howard’s suspension

> More concerning for Rockets fans: The team’s .500-ish record, or Dwight Howard’s on-court protests and propensity to irritate officials?

David Aldridge, TNT analyst: The Rockets have been universally disappointing and the record reflects that disappointment. Every time Houston looks like it’s turning the corner, the Rockets fall apart at one end or the other. The defense has been awful lately. Dwight isn’t going to change; neither are Chris Paul or Tim Duncan, and they complain a lot about calls, too. And: Howard does get fouled, a lot. It’s easy to say from a thousand miles away that Howard should keep his head. Either way, that’s not why the Rockets are, basically, .500. He’s a big reason why they have any chance if they hang on and get into the playoffs.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com The record, by far. Dwight has gotten a little sideways but it’s not anything that is chronic; this too shall pass. But the Rockets – after reaching the Western Conference finals last spring – have wallowed in mediocrity all season. Firing Kevin McHale was an impulsive dud of a move, and the team’s defense has fallen off precipitously. But Houston is right where it ought to be, in my view, because I don’t think a serious contender can have James Harden dominating the ball the way he does, any more than the Knicks could thrive when Carmelo Anthony was doing that.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The .500 record. Howard’s rash, temperamental behavior is just a symptom inside the overall breakdown and failure of the Rockets this season. A team that proclaimed itself to be a true championship contender got coach fired, doesn’t play defense and doesn’t come to play with the same level of professionalism every night.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The record. Dwight is Dwight. His personality has been an issue for other teams in other seasons. He is still producing at a decent level (though with a shrinking role in the offense). Potentially careening toward a losing record, though, and maybe missing the playoffs in the strange second half of the West playoff pack is everything. Players have proven what most people knew anyway, that coach Kevin McHale wasn’t the problem. The Rockets struggling to get any traction in the standings is a big deal for this season and will force management into hard decisions heading to the future.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com By far, the break-even record. It’s why the Rockets are the most disappointing team in basketball, ahead of the Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks. Yes, their big man has a history of acting like a fool and getting punished. That said, Dwight Howard‘s immaturity toward the refs isn’t the reason Houston is barely treading water, and anyway, I’ll go on a limb and say he’ll stay in check once the playoffs begin (provided the Rockets are in). The Rockets have issues — defense, Ty Lawson‘s chemistry with James Harden, spotty 3-point shooting — and Dwight’s behavior isn’t that high on the list.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: The 26-25 record. Last season, the Rockets went 27-14 without Howard, playing defense at a top-10 level whether he was in the lineup or not. This season, they’re 19-20 with him, playing at a bottom-10 level defensively whether he’s been in the lineup or not. Only one team (Milwaukee) has regressed more on that end of the floor than the Rockets, who consistently break down after two or three rotations. His lack of leadership is a problem, but Houston has bigger problems.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The .500 record in a landslide. No offense to the former best big man in basketball, but the Rockets are perfectly capable of competing without Dwight Howard fully integrated into the mix. Are they better when he’s at his best? Sure. But they don’t get the best from him on a regular basis anyway. They are the most disappointing team in the league for reasons that include Dwight’s performance … but that’s not the most glaring reason. Their inability to find any semblance of defensive consistency is the main culprit. And if they continue to struggle in that area, it could very well lead to them observing the playoffs from a distance this season rather than attempting to shock the world and make a return visit to the Western Conference finals.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com:  The team’s record is much more worrisome. Is Howard’s behavior any big surprise? Probably not – and his outbursts wouldn’t matter so much if he and his Rockets were playing better. They were finalists in the superior conference less than a year ago; now they’re on track to win 15 fewer games. The bigger question is whether the success of a couple of 50-win seasons went to their heads.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I’d be way more worried about the .500 record. Sure, Dwight’s relationship with the referees doesn’t seem to be great, but that’s nothing new for Dwight. What’s new is the Rockets not being anywhere near the team they were a year ago that went to the Conference finals. Besides, this isn’t Dwight Howard’s team: If I was a Rockets fan, I’d look at James Harden, who should be leading this team to the top of the Western Conference.

Morning shootaround — Jan. 24


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Jan. 23

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Cavs lose in Lue debut | Stan Van Gundy rips Blatt firing | Kerr, Myers find support in pain | Scola the Explorer

No. 1: Cavs lose in Lue debut Just hours after replacing David Blatt as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Tyronn Lue made his head coaching debut at home in a nationally televised game against the Chicago Bulls. And while Lue talked about wanting to make the experience more fun for his players, as Chris Haynes writes for Cleveland.com, that turned out to be easier to talk about than actually make happen, as the Bulls won 96-83…

The Cavaliers showed energy, but lacked any efficiency — showing no shooting touch on the floor or at the foul line. They missed beyond the arc — making just four of 24 attempts — and at the foul line, where they were 9-of-22. By game’s end, they left the floor to boos from the home crowd.

During Lue’s pregame presser, he said one of the problems was that his team needed to start having more fun post David Blatt.

“I don’t think they’re enjoying it,” Lue said. “That was a part of our speech today. The game will pass you by. No matter how great LeBron is, Kyrie, Kevin, the game will pass you by. … I want them to just enjoy the moment now.”

To help cater to a new pleasurable basketball experience, before the game the Cavaliers did something they haven’t done since mid-November: they participated in the starting lineup introductions. Before, the players would just stand in a huddle as the public address announcer announced each starter.

That was the full degree of Cleveland’s (30-12) fun.

Initially into the contest, it looked as if the Cavaliers were energized and full of life by jumping out to a 7-2 lead. But that vigor slowly evaporated and old habits of isolation ball crept back in. They went scoreless in the final 6:26 of the opening quarter, missing their last 16 shots.

Ball movement could have been better, but for the most part Cleveland just couldn’t hit a shot. It was brutal to watch as they shot a horrific 37 percent from the field for the night.

When the buzzer sounded for halftime and the Cavaliers were down five, a frustrated LeBron James slammed the ball to the floor as he headed to the locker room. He had missed all three of his first half free throws. By game’s end, the Cavaliers were 9-of-22 from the charity stripe — and that required an 8-for-11 stretch to finish the game. Chicago capitalized on those missed opportunities, expanding its lead to 17 with 42 seconds remaining in the third.

An exasperated sellout crowd booed the home team, which trimmed the deficit to nine on a James layup plus free throw with 2:55 left in the game. A pair of free throws by Smith chipped it to eight seconds later.

But the Bulls found Taj Gibson for a difficult layup with a foul on James, pretty much ending any suspense. There was no overcoming that margin on this cold shooting night.

James was an assist shy of claiming his his first triple-double of the season. He finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds, but was 11-for-27 shooting. Smith put in 18 points on 17 shots. Love was the only player to make half his shots, finishing with 14 points and five boards and Kyrie Irving registered 11 points on 16 shot attempts.

Lue informed the media at morning shootaround that he would go with a 10-man rotation in order to develop an identity with the second unit. Veteran James Jones, who was out of the rotation under Blatt, was the first to sub in. Mo Williams, who hadn’t played in 10 of his last 13 games, soon after entered. The surprising aspect is that Lue used 10 players in the first quarter, showing how serious he is about improving his bench.

The results didn’t prove beneficial. Chicago’s bench outscored Cleveland’s 22-8.

With the franchise invested in Lue for the long haul, his objective is still to win games, but he also wants to restore his team’s passion.

“I’m not really worried about, right now this early, about the games, I really just worried about the spirit is more important than anything,” he said. “Getting our spirit right, getting our spirit together and I think everything else will take care of itself because we got a lot of great players.”

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All-Star Starters Announced

VIDEO: Lakers forward Kobe Bryant gained the most votes for the 2016 All-Star Game.

HANG TIME BIG CITYThe 2016 NBA All-Star Game will showcase several players who have battled back from injury to return to All-Star form. It will also likely serve as a farewell to the leading scorer in All-Star Game history, Kobe Bryant.

And if the starting lineups are any indication, NBA fans appear ready to embrace small ball.

Bryant, in his 20th NBA season, announced in November that this will be his final campaign. Though he missed the last two All-Star games with injuries, Lakers guard Bryant led all NBA players in voting this season through the first three voting updates. In each voting update, Golden State’s Stephen Curry, last year’s leading vote-getter, was second behind Bryant. Bryant finished with 1,891,614 votes, ahead of Curry’s 1,604,325.

NBA All-Star 2016After missing significant time last season, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Paul George have all had terrific first halves to the season, and fans rewarded their excellence with All-Star starting spots. While Durant was the leading vote-getter in 2014, injuries last season relegated him to a reserve role in the All-Star Game. Anthony started last season’s All-Star Game in New York, but had season-ending knee surgery shortly after the game. George missed most of last season recovering from a broken leg. This season, all three have produced at an All-Star pace and have their teams in playoff contention.

Anthony (567,348) edged Chicago’s Pau Gasol (566,988), who started last season, by only 360 votes for the final starting position in the East frontcourt.

For the second year in a row, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry made a late charge into the Eastern Conference starting five. Last year, with help on social media from Canada’s prime minister and hip-hop star Drake, Lowry made up a 100,000 vote deficit in the last two weeks of voting to pass Dwyane Wade for a starting spot. This season, Lowry again received a late endorsement on Instagram from Drake, and Raptors fans voted often via Twitter, helping Lowry (646,441) tally enough votes to leapfrog Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving (580,651) and start in the Eastern Conference backcourt with Wade.

Alongside Bryant and Durant in the Western Conference frontcourt, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard will make his All-Star debut as a starter. Golden State’s Draymond Green, who leads the NBA in triple-doubles this season with eight, held a 12,000 vote lead over Leonard for the final spot in the Western Conference frontcourt in the most recent voting returns. The Warriors (39-4) and Spurs (36-6) have the two best records in the NBA this season. Dallas center Zaza Pachulia also made a late push, from eighth to fourth in voting for the West’s frontcourt, thanks to a concerted effort to get out the international vote. Pachulia ended up falling just 14,000 votes short of winning a starting spot, finishing ahead of Green.

Green’s absence from the starting lineup also means there are no All-Star starters who regularly play center for their teams. While both Pau and Marc Gasol made the starting lineups last season, James and Durant would seem to be the most likely candidates to start at center for their teams, or at least the tallest starters available.

Besides Green and Irving, several players are noticeable by their absences. In the Western Conference, Houston’s James Harden scored 29 points in last year’s All-Star game and finished second to Curry in regular season MVP voting. Harden finished fifth among Western Conference guards with 430,777 votes, behind Curry, Westbrook, Chris Paul (624,334) and Klay Thompson (555,513). Clippers forward Blake Griffin has been an All-Star in each of his five NBA seasons, and was voted in as a starter last year, but injuries this season have meant he’s played in just 30 games thus far. Anthony Davis was voted a starter a year ago, but an injury-riddled start to the Pelicans’ season likely hampered his chances. Davis finished ninth among Western Conference frontcourt players.

In the East, Washington’s John Wall was voted to start a year ago, but hasn’t been in contention for a starting spot this season in any of the voting updates, as the Wizards have stumbled to a 20-21 start. Wall (368,686) finished sixth among Eastern Conference guards.

The 65th NBA All-Star Game will be exclusively televised on TNT from the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Sunday, Feb. 14.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Frontcourt

LeBron James, Cavaliers — After James took the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals last season, he has led the Eastern Conference in voting this season. An 11-time All-Star, James is shooting a career low 29-percent from the three-point line, but has also averaged 25.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg and 6 apg for the 29-11 Cavs, who are in first place in the Eastern Conference.

Paul George, Pacers — After suffering a compound fracture of his right leg during a USA Basketball scrimmage in the summer of 2014, George missed most of last season, before returning for the final six games. This season, the two-time All-Star George has played in all 42 of Indiana’s games, averaging a career-high 23.7 ppg, along with 4 apg and 7.4 rpg.

Carmelo Anthony, Knicks — Last season, shortly after appearing in his 10th NBA All-Star Game, Anthony had season-ending knee surgery. This season, Anthony is averaging 21.7 ppg in 40 games, and last night passed Larry Bird for 31st place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Anthony has assumed a leadership role for the rebuilding Knicks, who after winning just 17 games a season ago, are currently 22-22 and in contention for a playoff appearance.

Backcourt

Dwyane Wade, Heat — At 34 years old, Wade is a 12-time All-Star. After missing significant chunks of the last few seasons with various injuries, this season Wade has played in 40 of Miami’s 43 games. Wade is averaging 18.1 ppg for the Heat, who are 23-20.

Kyle Lowry — Thank the north. After making his All-Star debut last season and leading the Raptors into the playoffs, Lowry has been even better this season. Through 42 games, the 29-year-old Lowry is averaging a career high 20.9 ppg and 5 rpg, along with 6.5 apg.

WESTERN CONFEERENCE

Frontcourt

Kobe Bryant, Lakers — For the first time in his career, Bryant was listed among frontcourt players, and he ran away with the vote. A 17-time All-Star, this season has turned into an extended farewell tour for Bryant and the Lakers, who are 9-35 so far this season. Bryant is averaging 16.3 ppg in 36 games this campaign.

Kevin Durant, Thunder — Durant missed most of last season after suffering a foot injury, and underwent several foot surgeries. But this season the 27-year-old Durant has returned to form, averaging 26.5 ppg through 37 games for the Thunder, who are 32-12 under first-year coach Billy Donovan.

Kawhi Leonard, Spurs — The San Antonio Spurs have won five titles during the Gregg PopovichTim Duncan era, and while they’ve usually employed an understated form, it’s been hard to overlook them this season, as they’ve racked up a gaudy 36-6 record to start this season. The 24-year-old Leonard has been sensational for the Spurs, averaging a team-high 20.1 ppg as well as playing arguably the best on-ball defense in the NBA.

Backcourt

Stephen Curry, Warriors — Last season’s NBA MVP has been even better this season. A two-time All-Star, Curry has helped the Warriors get off to a 24-0 start while averaging a career-high (and NBA-leading) 29.9 ppg. Remarkably, Curry has done this while playing just 33.9 mpg, while shooting 51 percent from the field, 45 percent behind the three-point line, and 91 percent from the free throw line.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder — Westbrook scored 41 points in last season’s All-Star Game, winning the All-Star Game MVP. This season, the 27-year-old Westbrook has been as dynamic as ever, averaging 24 ppg, 9.8 apg and 7.1 rpg, along with a league-leading 2.5 steals per game.

Morning shootaround — Dec. 30


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Dec. 29

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Reports: Knicks’ Early shot in robbery | Payne steps up for OKC | Pistons know playoffs are long ways away | Rockets keep on struggling

No. 1: Reports: Knicks’ Early shot in early morning robbery — According to the New York Daily News, New York Knicks forward Cleanthony Early was shot in the leg as he was leaving a strip club in Queens. According to the report, Early was riding in an Uber cab when his vehicle was boxed in by three other cars. He was then surrounded by four to six people who robbed him of his jewelry and other items before shooting him in the leg. Here’s more information from Thomas Tracy, Rocco Parascandola and Dan Good of the Daily News:

New York Knicks forward Cleanthony Early was shot in the leg in an early-morning attack after leaving a Queens strip club, police sources told the Daily News.

Early was surrounded by four to six people wearing ski masks and robbed of his items and jewelry — including a gold necklace and gold caps on his teeth, sources said.

The shooting happened after Early left CityScapes gentlemen’s club on 58th Street in Maspeth Queens.

Early was reportedly in an Uber cab, about a mile away from the club, when three cars boxed in the vehicle.

He was shot once in the knee, police sources said. He was taken to Elmhurst Hospital in stable condition.

Employees with the gentlemen’s club declined to comment when contacted by the Daily News.

The New York Post‘s Larry Celona and Natalie Musumeci also reported on the news, too:

New York Knicks forward Cleanthony Early was shot just after he left a Queens strip club early Wednesday, police sources said.

Early, 24, was held up by six thugs wearing ski masks just after walked out of the CityScapes gentleman’s club on 58th Street in Maspeth with a woman and got into an Uber cab, sources said.

The cab drove a short distance to Maurice Avenue before three cars boxed in the vehicle at around 4:20 a.m., sources said.

That’s when the band of ski mask-wearing men ordered everyone out of the Uber car and robbed Early of some jewelry and an undisclosed amount of cash.

During the stick-up, Early was shot once in the right knee, sources said. He was taken to Elmhurst Hospital in stable condition.

*** (more…)

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 26


VIDEO: Top plays from Christmas Day games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors beat Cavs, believe they can play even better | James wants clarity from Cavaliers | Rockets leave coal for Spurs | Kobe surprised at huge lead in early All-Star voting

No. 1: Warriors beat Cavs, believe they can play even better You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, even the most rabid Warriors fan, who truly thinks the Warriors have underperformed this season. After all, after last night’s 89-83 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the highly anticipated NBA Finals rematch, the Warriors moved to a ridiculous 28-1 on the season, which included a 24-game winning streak. That is, it’s hard to find criticism unless you talk to the actual Warriors players themselves, as our Scott Howard-Cooper did, where you find that the Warriors believe despite all the W’s, they aren’t playing all that great and still have room to grow

“Look,” center Andrew Bogut said, “we haven’t played great the last 10 games. That’s something that we’ve addressed in this locker room.”

“I don’t think we’ve played well,” power forward Draymond Green said. “Even tonight. We did some good things, but I still don’t think we’ve played well.”

“I’m really impressed with our defense the last two games,” interim coach Luke Walton said. “Before that, our defense was struggling.”

Help is on the way, if only the Warriors can hold it together another couple weeks and avoid the all-out panic that will come if they slump all the way to, say, 75-win pace and only break the single-season record by three games as opposed to the current tracking to 79 victories. Good news is on the horizon for a change.

Coach Steve Kerr, out since the early days of training camp while recovering from the effects of two back surgeries in the offseason, is nearing a return. He stepped in for an ill Walton to run practice Tuesday, the interim to the interim, watched the Cleveland game from the coaches’ office in Oracle and plans to accompany the team on the Dallas-Houston back-to-back that begins Wednesday while Walton continues to lead. While the Warriors continue to avoid targeting a return date, the increased activity raises the possibility Kerr could be back as soon as Jan. 2 against the Nuggets in Oakland.

Forward Harrison Barnes, out the last 12 games with a sprained left ankle, was in some of the scrimmage Tuesday and Thursday participated in three-on-three drills with the team. Being listed as doubtful for Friday showed there was at least the thought he could play against the Cavaliers, so Monday against the Kings at Oracle or the two games in Texas are all possibilities.

The next week or two, depending on the actual return dates and how long Barnes will need to work back into game shape, could become an eventful time in the season of a defending champion, and that just doesn’t happen very often in early-January. Golden State will be whole again, assuming no one else gets hurt in the meantime, with Barnes an important piece as the starting small forward and also one of the triggers to the successful small-ball lineup when he moves to power forward.

It would have been impossible on opening night to imagine the Warriors would stand at 28-1 under any circumstances, let alone 28-1 with a coach younger than several players around the league and stepping in with two previous seasons as an assistant, with a concussion costing Bogut six games and Barnes’ absence. Now imagine the Warriors at 28-1 and thinking they will start to play better in the future.

“Maybe a little bit,” Bogut said.

Maybe more than a little bit.

“There’s part of it that [makes me mad] and there’s part of it that makes me very, very happy,” Green said. “I think we’ve got a lot of improving to do, and we will.”

Mad because the Warriors are not happy with how they have played lately. The happy: “Because what are we? Twenty-eight and one? You’re 28-1 and you’re not near playing well, that’s exciting. We know we know how to get to that point and we know we’ll reach that point. And when we do, I think that’s trouble because if we’re 28-1 and we’re not playing well, imagine where we are. That’s why it excites me.

***

No. 2: James wants clarity from Cavaliers Meanwhile, the Warriors’ vanquished Christmas Day foe, the Cleveland Cavaliers, drop to 19-8. That’s still good enough for the lead in the Eastern Conference, but with the Cavs getting more players back from injury and healthy, including Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert, the Cavs have more options available than ever before. And after the loss to the Warriors, as Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon writes, LeBron James would like to see the Cavs discover a rhythm going forward

After the Cavs lost 89-83 to the defending champion Warriors on Golden State’s home court, where it’s now won 32 in a row during the regular season, dating back to last year, James repeatedly mentioned the lack of continuity the Cavs had on the court and suggested that at least some of it had to do with David Blatt‘s rotation.

“It’s going to take some time to get back into rhythm, and all of us, not just the players, but everyone, to get back in rhythm,” James said.

The lineups and the newness need some context, and what James said about them was nothing like the cool attitude he directed toward Blatt at times last season.

In fact, James didn’t name his coach specifically on Friday, but the bottom line was James called for Blatt and his staff to gain perhaps a clearer sense of who they want to play, and when, now that the entire team is healthy.

“For us to have a full unit, we’ve got to practice, we’ve got to play some games where we know what we want to do, what lineups we want to play out there,” James said.

“It’s an adjustment period, it’s not just going to happen – you plug a guy in there, plug two guys in there and it automatically happens,” he continued. “It’s going to be an adjustment period, but we’ll be fine. We’ll be fine toward February and March.”

This was just the second game this season that the Cavs had all 15 players available, due to season-long injuries to Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert.

That’s not Blatt’s fault, but, it was the head coach who placed James, Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, and Tristan Thompson on the court to start the fourth quarter. It was the first time all season they’d all been on the court at the same time.

When Irving and Kevin Love subbed in for James and Smith with 10:06 left in the quarter, the Cavs still had a lineup that had never played together. Those are just two examples.

Richard Jefferson did not play at all against the Warriors. Mo Williams logged 4:39, and James Jones, a favorite of James, played just 1:34.

James led the Cavs with 25 points and contributed nine rebounds, but shot 10-of-26 and was a brutal 4-of-9 from the foul line. He took the blame for that, saying “I wasn’t very good, inefficient, and it trickled down to everybody else.”

The Cavs’ 83 points, 31.6 percent shooting from the field and 16.7 percent shooting from 3-point range were season lows. Irving (13 points) shot 4-of-15 and Love (10 points, 18 rebounds) was 5-of-16. Cleveland assisted on just 12-of-30 baskets.

“For the first time, for a long period of time we had some different lineups out there,” James explained, talking about the woes on offense. “And against a championship team like this, it’s kind of hard to do that on the fly. We’re not making no excuses, we still got to be a lot better, still got to move the ball, got to share the ball, get it moving from side to side, but offensively we were all out of rhythm.

“You credit to their defense, for sure, and then the lack of detail.”

***

No. 3: Rockets leave coal for Spurs While the Warriors have romped through the NBA this season, the San Antonio Spurs have quietly put in work as well, and entered yesterday’s Christmas game against the Houston Rockets with a sparkling 25-5 record. Their opponent, the Houston Rockets, have struggled to find an identity, firing a coach (Kevin McHale) and getting inconsistent play from their superstars, James Harden and Dwight Howard. But on a big stage yesterday, the Rockets turned to their defense to grind out an 88-84 win over the Spurs, and as our Fran Blinebury writes, Houston got a present from their veteran reserve guard, Jason Terry

Jason Terry is long past the days of being the shiny new toy. He has stockings that have hung from chimneys far longer than some of his teammates have hung around the planet.

So even after the Rockets had spent most of the night standing toe-to-toe and going push-to-shove with the Spurs, there came a time to seal the deal and the closer had to come out of the attic.

It wasn’t just Terry’s nine points and three steals in the last 10½ minutes of the bone-jarring 88-84 victory Friday night at the Toyota Center. It was the way he did everything. Like he owned the place.

Ever since the shocking 5-10 start to the season that got coach Kevin McHale fired, the Rockets have been trying to convince everybody, including themselves, that they’re really a very good team, capable of getting back again to the Western Conference finals.

Trouble is, since the opening tip back in October, every time the Rockets have put another stake in the ground with a signature win over the Thunder, at Dallas or sweeping a pair of duels from the Clippers, they have also put a stake or a half dozen into their own foot. A combined 0-5 record against the lowly Nuggets and Nets. A whipping in Sacramento. A comeback that came up just short in Orlando.

You don’t get to call yourself a real contender until you stop pretending to show up consistently and take the job seriously every night. Dwight Howard and James Harden talk the talk.

“The Jet” puts his arms out at his sides and takes flight on the wings of drive and emotion that have carried him into a 17th NBA season.

“That’s what I’ve prided myself on, being ready, always stepping up to the moment,” Terry said. “In big moments like tonight when my team needed me most, I want to show up and be effective.”

He buried a big 3-pointer. He hit a mid-range jumper from the wing. He stepped into the San Antonio passing lanes to snatch away three balls to get the Rockets headed in the other direction.

But now, more than being the fire-starter in a big holiday event — the first time the Rockets hosted a home Christmas Day game since moving to Houston in 1971 — Terry’s task and bigger challenge will be to instill a sense of every day urgency that goes from the locker room out onto the court. Even in too many of their wins this season, the Rockets have started games lazily and had to come scrambling back from double-digit holes. Which is why this latest so-called statement win lifts their record back to just 16-15.

Harden’s pair of fourth-quarter 3-pointers were big and it’s good to know that you’ve got that arrow in your quiver, but it can’t be enough to think he’ll be able to bail you out game after game with offensive heroics. And it was Terry’s spark that ignited the flame.

Terry had been inserted into the starting lineup for the first four games after J.B. Bickerstaff took over the team. But as the team kept struggling, the interim coach began to shuffle his guards like a casino dealer until finally he turned Terry back face up in this one. In fact, the veteran has played less than 15 minutes in 11 games this season and also has six DNPs, including the previous game, which the Rockets lost at Orlando. That’s now likely to change.

“I just feel like we need him on the floor,” Bickerstaff said. “There’s times where he needs the rest, obviously. But big moments in big games, he’s one of the guys that I trust the most. I trust not only that he’ll do the right thing, but I trust that he’ll perform and then I trust that he’ll carry his teammates in a positive direction.

“You can’t speak enough about him. He’s a class guy. He’s a winner. He’s a champion. He’s a leader. He’ll sacrifice, whatever it takes to win. That’s what he does. That’s who he is. Every since I’ve known him he’s been that way.”

***

No. 4: Kobe surprised at huge lead in early All-Star voting The first 2016 All-Star voting results are in, and while there are still several more rounds to go, at least for now, Kobe Bryant has a huge lead over everyone else in the NBA, including Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Considering Kobe’s global appeal and previously announced retirement plans, it shouldn’t come a complete surprise that fans want to see him on the NBA’s big stage one final time. But as ESPN’s Baxter Holmes writes, the numbers apparently shocked at least one person: Kobe Bryant.

Bryant has 719,235 votes — well ahead of Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry (510,202), the next-highest vote-getter, and more than twice as many as Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James (357,937).

After the Lakers’ 94-84, Christmas night loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, Bryant said he was more than a little surprised he had such a wide lead.

“Listen, I was making a little coffee run this morning, got some gas and decided to just go on Instagram and peruse,” he said, “and [I] saw the damn votes, and I was like, ‘What the hell?’ Shocked doesn’t do it justice.”

He added, “It’s exciting. What can I say? Just thankful.”

The 2016 NBA All-Star Game, to be held in Toronto, would be Bryant’s last, as he has announced his plans to retire after this season, his 20th in the NBA. His 17 All-Star selections are second all-time behind former Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had 19. Bryant, 37, is the leading scorer in NBA All-Star history (280 points).

This year marks the first time that the 6-foot-6 Bryant is being listed as a member of the frontcourt in All-Star voting. In previous years, he has been listed as a guard. The second-highest vote-getter among Western Conference frontcourt players is Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant (349,473).

Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before Friday’s game that Bryant deserves a spot on the All-Star team.

“A lot of people disagree with me on that. That’s fine. I have my opinion. I think Kobe should be on the All-Star team,” Rivers said. “I don’t care if he’s a starter of if they figure out a 13th spot for him. [With] what he’s done in his career, he should be on the All-Star team, and I don’t see any debate in that. You can have one, but I’m not hearing it.”

But what if someone else were left off, such as one of Rivers’ players?

“It would be awful, but Kobe should be on the All-Star team,” Rivers said. “I think they should have a special exception and put 13 guys on if that’s the case if he wasn’t in one of the top 12 as far as voting or whatever. But I just believe he should be on it. Magic [Johnson] was on, Michael [Jordan] was on with the Wizards. I think certain guys earn that right, and unfortunately for other guys who can’t make it, they have to earn that right too.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Chicago Bulls may have turned a corner with their win over the Oklahoma City Thunder yesterday … Steph Curry doesn’t think he’s “hurting” basketball, regardless of what his former coach Mark Jackson says … Chris Bosh punctuated Miami’s win over New Orleans yesterday by talking trash to Anthony Davis down the stretchEvan Fournier has broken out of his slump in Orlando … You can ask him questions, but doesn’t have to answer them …

Stats preview: Spurs at Rockets


VIDEO: Dennis Scott and Greg Anthony preview the Spurs-Rockets matchup

NBA.com’s John Schuhmann gets you ready for the league’s five-game Christmas Day slate with a key stat for each team, along with an explanation of what it means. Here’s a look at the day’s fourth game, San Antonio at Houston (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), the first meeting between the two teams that have shown dramatic improvement as the season has gone on.

San Antonio Spurs (25-5)

The stat: The Spurs rank first in both offensive and defensive efficiency in the month of December.

20151224_sas_december

20151224_sas_basicsThe Spurs have had the league’s best defense since the third week of the season. They’ve allowed 9.2 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average, the biggest differential since the league started counting turnovers in 1977.

On the last day of November though, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “We are not good offensively, and may not be until March.”

Well, he lied.

After scoring 102.5 points per 100 possessions through November, the Spurs have scored 114.2 this month, 116.4 over their last 10 games. The Spurs have shot much better this month, and have also grabbed a greater percentage of available offensive rebounds, turned the ball over less, and gone to the free-throw line more often.

With the league’s No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense in December, the Spurs have outscored their opponents by 22.2 points per 100 possessions in their 12 games, a mark that’s more than seven points per 100 possessions better than any other team.

Going back to 1996-97, the best NetRtg a team ever posted in a month in which it played at least 10 games was plus-16.9 by the Chicago Bulls in November of ’96. With four more games this month (all against teams that are .500 or below), the Spurs are set to crush that mark.

More Spurs notes from NBA.com/stats

Houston Rockets (15-15)

The stat: The Rockets have been the most improved team since Thanksgiving, 11.6 points per 100 possessions better than they were through Nov. 25.

20151224_hou_impr

20151224_hou_basicsBefore Thanksgiving, the Rockets were 5-10, with the league’s 27th ranked offense. Since the holiday, they’re 10-5, ranking fourth offensively.

James Harden has seen a small bump in how well he’s shot, but the biggest jump has come from the Houston role players. Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Ty Lawson and Marcus Thornton all have a post-Thanksgiving effective field goal percentage that’s at least eight percentage points better than what they shot before Thanksgiving.

The schedule has been a factor in the Rockets’ improvement. Before Thanksgiving, the Rockets played six games against teams that are currently under .500 and five against bottom-10 defenses. Since, they’ve played 10 games against teams currently under .500 and nine against bottom-10 defenses. So it’s not quite time to believe that they’ve found all the answers to their problems or that they’re looking good for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

In the next nine days, the Rockets will face the Spurs (twice), Hawks and Warriors. After this stretch, we’ll know if they’ve truly turned the corner.

More Rockets notes from NBA.com/stats

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Data curated by PointAfter

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 24


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Dec. 23

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Nowitzki moves up, Mavs get win | Suns throw in towel against Denver | Hawks starting to soar | Butler wants to lead Bulls

No. 1: Nowitzki moves up, Mavs get win Wednesday night the Dallas Mavericks visited Brooklyn, which meant the return of Deron Williams to the borough where he formerly played. But with Williams out injured, leave it to the 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki to post a performance worthy of the Big Apple. Not only did Nowitzki pass Shaquille O’Neal for sixth all-time in scoring in the NBA, but he also hit the game-winner in overtime to give the Mavericks the victory. And as Eddie Sefko writes in the Dallas Morning News, in some ways it was business as usual for Nowitzki

“Way back when I was a skinny 20-year-old, bad haircut, bad earring, not the most confident guy,” he said, before stopping, clearly thinking about the enormity of having only five players ahead of him on the all-time scoring list.

“Sounds pretty good, huh?” he said. “It’s a dream come true.”

And the way he passed Shaquille O’Neal on Wednesday couldn’t have been more fitting. He nailed a midrange jumper early in the second quarter against Brooklyn, took congratulatory hugs from teammates and coaches, then, a couple hours later, slipped to the basket for the winning layup in a 119-118 overtime victory that the Mavericks needed a lot more than Nowitzki needed any milestone.

Along the way, the Mavericks needed a lot of help from a guy who’s only 23,607 points behind Nowitzki on the scoring list.

J.J. Barea had a career-best 32 points, including several key 3-pointers, paying big dividends for coach Rick Carlisle starting him in place of the injured Deron Williams.

“I think the coach threw me in there early to give us a little energy early and I got in a rhythm and was able to help my team out big time,” Barea said. “I wanted to get to 30 (points in a game) before I finished my career.”

But even he knew this night was not about him, even though he’s never had a better statistical night. He hit his first eight shots and finished 13-for-20 and also dished out 11 assists.

“I’ve been through all the battles with him and seen him break all kinds of records,” Barea said. “But this one is amazing.”

Nowitzki started fast with six points in the first six minutes. Early in the second quarter, he got the ball on the left wing and wasted no time, pulling up and nailing an 18-footer for the record.

“It was a special moment for me,” he said. “I saw the whole team getting up and everybody gave me a hug and I’ve obviously been blessed in this organization for a long, long time.

“There have been a lot of great players who didn’t score as many points because they were cut short by injuries. I’ve been lucky. And we got the win. It would have felt really salty flying home with a loss.”


VIDEO: Arena Link — Dirk Nowitzki

***

No. 2: Suns throw in towel against Denver The current Phoenix Suns feel light years removed from just two seasons ago, when they unveiled a small ball lineup that raced through the Western Conference and nearly earned a playoff berth. These days they are in flux, with forward Markieff Morris recently assigned to the bench. Last night the Suns lost at home to an undermanned Nuggets team, as Paul Coro writes in the Arizona Republic, while Morris evoked Robert Horry … and not in a good way…

In one of their more advantageous scenarios of the season, the Suns posted another dreadful loss with play so frightful and no signs of stopping. The bow on Wednesday night’s stocking of coal came when Markieff Morris added to a season of distraction by harkening back memories of Robert Horry’s towel toss at Danny Ainge by tossing a towel toward coach Jeff Hornacek in Wednesday’s fourth quarter.

The Suns lost 104-96 at Talking Stick Resort Arena to a Denver team playing a night after losing at home to the last-place Los Angeles Lakers and was missing five players (two starters) with no backup point guard available.

That is not all that surprising any longer for a team that has gone 5-14 since Nov. 22. How the Suns fell behind by 22 points, rallied to lead by three, started each half with new lineups and lost is now of less interest than Morris’ towel toss.

Much like Horry on a 10-21 Suns team in 1997, Morris was upset about being pulled from the fourth quarter from a 12-19 Suns team. With 9:47 to play and Denver leading 84-75, Morris was taken out of the game and he threw the towel while barking at Hornacek. Hornacek picked up the towel and threw it back Morris’ way with his own upset words for him.

“He’s mad about not playing,” Hornacek said. “I look at the stat sheet. He’s a minus-13 in 12 minutes. So there, I took him out. … He thinks he’s better than that. Show me.”

Hornacek said the Suns staff will discuss possible discipline for Morris, who has created a stir since the offseason when he asked to be traded after his twin, Marcus, was dealt. Markieff did not arrive in Phoenix until it was required for training camp. He lost his starting job earlier this month.

In January, Marcus also engaged in a shouting match during a game with Hornacek. He apologized publicly and to Hornacek after the game.

“That’s between me and ‘H’ (Hornaceck),” said Markieff, who made 2 of 8 shots and had one rebound Wednesday. “It’s not for media. It’s something between me and him that happened. We’ll talk about it.”

***

No. 3: Hawks starting to soar They won 60 games a season ago, including a 19-game win streak, but thus far this season, even with a winning record, the Hawks have mostly flown under the radar. That may be changing now. Wednesday night the Hawks got their fifth win in a row with a convincing home victory over the Detroit Pistons, and the Hawks are now in second place in the Eastern Conference. As Brad Rowland writes for Peachtree Hoops, the Hawks hacked Andre Drummond and got a big night from Jeff Teague to get the win…

The game was highly competitive early on, with Detroit taking an 18-14 advantage after a 7-0 run. That momentum would not last particularly long, however, as Mike Budenholzer employed the aforementioned “Hack-a-Drummond” strategy freely from that point forward, and that seemed to turn the tide. Dennis Schröder exploded for seven straight points to end the opening quarter (11 in the period), and in a flash, the Hawks were in control.

The “big” spurt was yet to come, though, and it appeared to close the second quarter. Atlanta raced to a 26-9 run to end the half, with Jeff Teague taking things over, and he finished with 13 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds before the break. That big run netted the Hawks a 61-45 lead, and on the defensive end, Atlanta was quite effective in holding the Pistons to just 33% shooting (27% in the second quarter) in addition to the poor free throw shooting from Drummond.

To begin the second half, the Hawks quickly increased the lead to 22 points, but the margin settled into the mid-teens for much of the remainder of the contest. In truth, Atlanta didn’t play particularly well down the stretch, including a third quarter in which they allowed 50% shooting to Detroit, but the Pistons were never able to seriously challenge on the scoreboard until the closing minutes.

Detroit managed to climb within an 8-point deficit within the final two minutes of game action, using an 11-4 run to force a timeout from Budenholzer with 1:52 left in the game. Though it wasn’t pretty, the Hawks managed to salt the game away for good using a Jeff Teague basket (that was actually a goaltend from Andre Drummond) to push the lead back to 10 with 41.1 seconds remaining and that was the end of the threat. From there, Atlanta put away a 7-point win and the winning streak reached five games in pleasing fashion.

It was a big night from Teague, and that was the biggest individual story. He has struggled, at least relatively, to this point in the season, but this may serve as a “breakout” from the 2015 All-Star, as he finished with 23 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds while keying everything Atlanta did offensively. In support, Paul Millsap added 18 points and Al Horford chipped in with 15 points in his own right, but this night was about Teague and a strong team effort on the defensive end.

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No. 4: Butler wants to lead Bulls As the Chicago Bulls try to right the ship and find some offense to go along with their defensive prowess, reports of unrest continue. According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, as the Bulls consider roster moves, some players aren’t thrilled with Jimmy Butler‘s attempts to position himself as the leader of these Bulls…

While Jimmy Butler won the self-appointed leadership role unopposed, not everyone associated with the Bulls is a supporter.

One source told the Sun-Times that there are several players that often simply laugh when told of Butler’s latest thumping-of-the-chest leadership proclamations, and while Derrick Rose seems to be completely detached from the situation, his camp is very annoyed by all things Butler these days.

A veteran that is behind the Butler push, however? Well, it just so happens to be the one player in the locker room with two championship rings.

“I don’t mind those comments,’’ big man Pau Gasol said, when asked about Butler declaring himself the leader throughout this season. “I think those comments are positive. Those comments and attitudes don’t raise my eyebrows. I think it’s good certain guys want to take ownership and say, ‘Hey let’s go.’ ‘’

Gasol said that Butler worked his way into that role of leader, and was obviously paid like it this offseason, when the Bulls gave him a five-year, $92.3 million contract extension.

“I don’t disagree with it,’’ Gasol said. “I think Jimmy is obviously one of the main guys here.’’

He’s more than that. He’s the future. His deal is guaranteed through the first four years, with a player option of $19.8 million following the 2019-20 season.

Basically, last man standing of all the veterans on the roster.

Gasol has a player option at the end of this season, and there continues to be more whispers that he’s done with the Bulls experiment, while Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks each come off the books when this season comes to an end.

Rose and Taj Gibson are free agents after next season, while the Bulls own the $5.175 million option on Mike Dunleavy for the 2017-18 season.

The likes of Gibson, Noah and Gasol might not even see the end of their current contracts, as several sources indicated that the Bulls are taking calls on all three players as the trade deadline draws near.

Noah’s value has taken a hit this week with a small tear in his left shoulder, and the center told reporters on Wednesday that he is looking at a two-to-four week window now. Not the best news for a player that was starting to look like his old self.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The NBA debuted a new public service announcement campaign against gun violenceSteph Curry says he’s the best player in the worldKobe Bryant and Kevin Durant exchanged shoes after playing against each other … Mark Cuban says Rick Carlisle’s threat to trade players was a motivational moveAlan Anderson looks to be out for a few more weeks. Meanwhile, John Wall has his own set of injury issuesNik Stauskas says he’s the hardest working guy on the Sixers … The Houston Rockets are trying to help former players stay on top of their health


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