Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah Thomas’

Numbers preview: Cavs-Celtics


VIDEO: The Starters: Cavs-Celtics preview

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — LeBron James‘ quest to bring a championship to Cleveland begins again this weekend. James has been here before, but teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have not. Game 1 against the Boston Celtics on Sunday will be the first playoff game of their careers.

The Cavs have looked like the favorites in the Eastern Conference over the last couple of months, going 33-10 after James returned from a two-week break in mid-January. Their offense has been off the charts at times, and their defense has been improved with the additions of Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert.

The Celtics had their own renaissance by getting rid of two of their three highest-paid players. They traded Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green and finished the season on a 23-12 stretch. Two of those wins came against the Cavs, but James played just 26 minutes of the April 10 meeting in Cleveland and four of the Cavs’ starters sat out the April 12 meeting in Boston.

Here are some statistical notes to get you ready for Cavs-Celtics, with links to let you dive in and explore more.

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

Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29)

Pace: 94.8 (25)
OffRtg: 107.7 (4)
DefRtg: 104.1 (20)
NetRtg: +3.7 (7)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Boston: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Cavs notes:

  • Had the league’s best offense against its top five defenses, scoring 107.9 points per 100 possessions over 14 games against the Warriors, Bucks, Spurs, Grizzlies and Wizards.
  • Ranked 25th defensively through Jan. 11 (the end of LeBron James‘ two-week break), having allowed 106.0 points per 100 possessions. Ranked 16th defensively (102.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) after that. Overall, 20th is the lowest any James team has ranked in defensive efficiency, and no championship team has ranked that low in the 37 seasons since the league started counting turnovers.
  • Isolated on 11.4 percent of their possessions, the highest rate in the league, according to Synergy.
  • Kyrie Irving scored 1.09 points per possession on isolations, the best mark among players with at least 100 isolation possessions.
  • In his 24 games with the Knicks, 36 percent of J.R. Smith’s shots were 3-pointers. In his 46 games with the Cavs, 67 percent of Smith’s shots were threes.

Boston Celtics (40-42)

Pace: 98.4 (5)
OffRtg: 101.7 (20)
DefRtg: 102.1 (14)
NetRtg: -0.4 (18)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Cleveland: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Celtics notes:

The matchup

Season series: 2-2 (1-1 at each location)
Pace: 99.2
CLE OffRtg: 100.6 (17th vs. BOS)
BOS OffRtg: 105.1 (15th vs. CLE)

Matchup notes:

Blogtable: Ready for an East upset?

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: Spurs or Warriors out West? | Upset-minded East team? | Lasting moment of 2014-15?



VIDEOGeorge Hill lifts the Pacers to a big win over the Wizards

> The Pacers, Celtics and Nets are all battling for the last two seeds in the East. Which of those teams has the best chance to pull off a first-round upset?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Indiana, of the teams you’re offering, has the best chance of a first-round upset – and it’s itty-bitty. I like the Celtics the best of that bunch but there is no way they’re getting past Cleveland in the 2-7 showdown. If Brooklyn gets in, that’s it, they’re done – while they have some big-name players who might ordinarily give Atlanta or potentially anyone else some tough challenges, there’s a lack of spine or fortitude in that team dating back to its Game 7 loss at home to undermanned Chicago that still is an issue, in my view. That leaves Indiana, which couldn’t crack 100 in its double-overtime slog vs. Toronto Wednesday but would have to keep up with Atlanta’s high-octane attack. So yeah, Pacers, itty-bitty.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The Pacers because of their roster loaded with veterans who have been through the playoff wars and because they are capable of playing elite level defense.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The actual answer is “Nobody.” But if I have to pick one, it’s the Pacers. They’re playing well now, the return of Paul George has been an emotional lift as well as an additional scoring punch despite struggling with his shot, coach Frank Vogel on the sideline is always a good thing, and defense, rebounding and playoff experience is a good place to start building an upset scenario.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The easy answer is “none of the above” but if I must choose, then it’s the Pacers. At least their core players know what playoff basketball is about, and there’s the Paul George factor. The basketball gods could repay the Pacers for all they’ve been through with George and take it out on the Hawks, which of course would confirm Atlanta’s status as the choking dog of all sports towns.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: None of them will win more than a game from the Hawks or Cavs, but Indiana is best suited to put a scare in ’em. They’re the best defensive team of the group, so they can keep games ugly and close. They’ve been the best team of the group (in regard to point differential) since the All-Star break and have gotten a boost from the return of Paul George. That being said, I don’t know if they’re even going to be playing this weekend, because they’ll need to win in Memphis on Wednesday to edge out the Nets for the No. 8 seed.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: These teams are doing whatever they can to claw their way into the playoffs and you want to talk about upsets? Actually, the Pacers have the best roster to pull an upset. They’ve got experience and size, decent depth and a star (Paul George, even on limited minutes) capable of going on a tear in a playoff series. They appear spent physically, which is not uncommon this time of year for a team that has been fighting uphill just to stay in the playoff chase. So they’d have to find a way to rest and recharge within the framework of the playoff schedule to even think about pulling off an upset. But again, for teams crawling into the postseason, an upset tends to be more pipe dream than reality.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.comLet’s start by acknowledging that the Nets and Pacers won’t be able to run or execute with the Hawks, who went 7-0 against them this year. The Celtics are going to have problems of their own finishing close games against Cleveland, but their small lineup, quickness and ball movement could scare the Cavs for 42 minutes. What coach Brad Stevens has done with young role players over the last two months (23-12) is no fluke: He has been doing for the Celtics what he did for Butler.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: None of them? Honestly, I don’t think any of those teams really have a chance to win a first round series against Atlanta or Boston. But if I had to pick one, which I guess is what you’re saying, I’ll go with the Celtics. Boston has played Atlanta pretty well this season, even beating them once just before the All-Star break. And they beat Cleveland (resting players) twice recently. Adding Isaiah Thomas has given the Celtics another scorer and ballhandler. Is he enough to help the Celtics beat the Hawks or the Cavaliers? That’s a horse of a different color. But what the heck, let’s give them the nod.

Morning shootaround — April 11


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Curry for MID award | Duncan hands Father Time first loss? | Cavs or not, Celtics can’t be choosy | Hawks’ Antic, NBPA talk N.Y. incident

No. 1: Curry for Most Improved Defender award — By now, most NBA observers expect Golden State’s floor leader and marvelous 3-point shooter Steph Curry to finish first or second in balloting for the league’s Most Valuable Player. But if you look closely at Curry’s performances on the other end of the court, listen to his coaches and study the Warriors’ numbers in thwarting the opposition, Curry might merit consideration for a wholly fictitious award: Most Improved Defender. Breaking down the components of good individual and team defense with Golden State assistant coach Ron Adams, ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss enumerated the many ways in which Curry has tightened up his game that way, and concluded:

The Warriors challenged their top player to get better, and it worked. They’re having the best regular season — in terms of point differential — we’ve witnessed since Jordan‘s Bulls.

The notion of Curry as defensive ace might be subversive, but perhaps not as subversive as the next statement: Curry got better not just because he wants to be the best player alive, but also because he thinks it’s within his reach.

“He wants to be the best,” [coach Steve] Kerr said. “He knew that to be the best he had to be better at that end.”

Even as Curry is favored to win an MVP award, the concept of a skinny, 6-3 point guard as league alpha strikes people strangely. That spot is usually reserved for physical freaks like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. It all just smacks of basketball heresy.

Curry’s star continues to rise in defiance of convention, though. He markets himself as “the patron saint of the underdog” for a reason. Curry doesn’t look like a good defensive player, but then again, he never looked like a Division I college player, he never looked like an NBA draft pick, and he never looked like an NBA superstar. But he has accomplished all of those things. If reputations are often based on appearances, Curry aims to forge a reputation as someone who transcends that expectation. And his aim is excellent.

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Morning shootaround — April 5


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Streaking Celtics adopt ‘win now’ approach  | Grizzlies in fight for playoff positioning | Blazers must shore up their D | Dirk gives Shaun Livingston a pass for low blow

No. 1: Celtics make convincing playoff push — They very easily could justify missing the playoffs this season and then cashing in on their growing cache of draft picks, but the rebuilding Celtics have evidently decided to go for it. When Marcus Smart dropped a buzzer-beater Saturday night against the Raptors, it only confirmed as much. Boston entered Sunday with the No. 8 spot in the East, a half-game lead over the Heat, and to hear the players and brass, the playoffs are where this young team belongs. It’s a rather refreshing tone considering how much tanking has dominated the conversation in the NBA this season. Zach Lowe of Grantland did a study on the Celtics during this playoff push and here’s some of what he found out:

“The playoff-chasing Celtics of 2015 are a cute feel-good story — and little more. The rebuild is moving faster than expected, with a surprise run at the no. 8 seed in a dreadful conference, but there is a giant chasm separating this plucky, starless group from what it aspires to be.

“The important thing to remember about us,” coach Brad Stevens said in a sit-down with Grantland last week, “is that we have a long, long way to go.”

It says everything about the difficulty of rebuilding that Boston has absolutely nailed Phase 1 and yet has no clear path to 50 wins. Multiple rival executives described Boston’s trading spree of the last two years as “a masterpiece” in rebuilding. Contract timetables, injuries, and other variables made it impossible for Boston to deal its aging stars at peak sell-high times, and yet Danny Ainge still nabbed great value for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo. The Celtics have as many as six extra first-round picks1 coming and oodles of cap space, they’ve drafted solid players across the first round, and they just acquired a dynamic young point guard — Isaiah Thomas — on the cheap.

But they have no stars and no clear path to getting one outside a major break in free agency or the trade market. The Celtics have made the leap to mediocrity so fast that they may have no easy way out. They’re still not good, but they’re not bad enough to get an early first-round pick — to get a clear shot at a star, in other words. Even if they lose this season’s slap fight for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, they will likely pick in the late lottery — a range that looks like their draft ceiling for the next few seasons. “That’s a concern for all 30 teams,” Ainge says of being stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity. “It’s the nature of our league. You definitely need good fortune.”

The Celtics discussed holding off on the Thomas deal to deflate their win total, but decided after some debate that they could lose out — or pay a higher price — if they waited until the summer. “Ideally, he might have been someone you pick up in the summer,” Ainge says. “But someone else might trade for him. You might be in a bidding war. You have to move while the iron is hot.”

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No. 2: Grizzlies in fight for playoff positioning — The most intriguing April drama in the West is about playoff positioning near the top. The Rockets now hold a half-game lead over the Grizzlies for the No. 2 spot, and why is that so important? Well, the No. 2 team will most likely get the Mavericks and avoid the suddenly-smoking Spurs in the first round. Memphis had successfully fended off all threats for the No. 2 spot until now. And while the race is hardly over, the contest between Memphis and Houston will only intensify, especially with Dwight Howard back in the mix for the Rockets (though on a minutes restriction). Here’s Michael Wallace of ESPN on the Grizzlies, who lost a tough game to the Wizards on Saturday:

“I don’t think it’s the toughest division in our league; it’s the toughest division in all major leagues,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. “Year in and year out, it’s ridiculous. So for our guys to get rewarded for their hard work, it would be positive.

“It’s what’s important to you. You hear about San Antonio, right? They don’t care about a division title. They don’t care about seeding. Well, we’re not them.”

While it’s all about the end game for the Spurs, who are going for their second straight championship and sixth in the past 16 years, the Grizzlies are still focused on the intermediate steps toward success. Winning an NBA championship remains the top goal for Memphis, but hanging the franchise’s first division banner in the rafters of the 10-year-old FedEx Forum along the way is a major priority.

The last time every team from an NBA division made the playoffs was in the 2005-06 season, when the Pistons, Pacers, Cavaliers, Bulls and Bucks advanced. That’s never happened in the NFL or Major League Baseball, although it’s occurred in two different divisions in the NHL over the past five seasons.

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No. 3: Blazers must shore up their D or else — If you’re a Blazers fan you, must be thrilled with the way the team has hung in there in the rugged West despite missing Wesley Matthews and an inconsistent season from Damian Lillard and with LaMarcus Aldridge playing through a thumb that’ll require surgery in the offseason. Portland once again is in position to do damage in the playoffs (ask the Rockets, who are still stinging from Lillard’s series winner last spring), but not if they don’t clean up their biggest issue first: defense. Oregonian writer John Canzano, still stung by the Blazers surrendering 126 to the Clippers last week, discusses:

But on the other hand, Chris Kaman was willing to address the biggest issue that coach Terry Stotts whiffed on — atrocious team defense by the Blazers. The biggest problem for Portland if any of this should come to a Clippers-Blazers playoff series.

Decide for yourself which guy had the worse post-game peformance. I’m not up in the air. Kaman settled it when he said, “We scored 122 points. That’s not stopping anybody. And we didn’t stop them either, they had more points (126) than we did. We got hurt on transition and on threes.” He was only saying what everyone could obviously see at Moda Center.

I like Stotts. I championed his hiring. I banged the drum for his contract extension even before the end of last season. I like where he’s headed with this rig, but if he’s unable to get real about the deficiencies of this team and remains in denial, I’m concerned about the short-term prognosis for a team that has fought to this point.

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No. 4: Dirk gives Shaun Livingston a pass for low blowDirk Nowitzki is usually a cool customer except when threatened with severe physical pain, as anyone else would (see Chris Kaman last week regarding Chris Paul). So at first, he was taken aback when he was whacked in the private area by Shaun Livingston. But when these things happen, you must take into account the history of the offending party. Livingston doesn’t exactly conjure up memories of flagrant assaults. And so, while Mark Cuban wasn’t in a forgiving mood Saturday, Dirk gave Livingston a pass. Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News has some golden quotes from Dirk:

Livingston, trying to defend Nowitzki in the post, was using his right hand to hand-check Nowitzki in the back. Somehow, his hand got in between Nowitzki’s legs and clearly caught Nowitzki in the groin area.

For the rest of the game, the AAC crowd booed Livingston every time he touched the ball and in the fourth quarter, Livingston and coach Rick Carlisle exchanged words briefly after a foul was called on J.J. Barea against Livingston.

Things escalated after the game when owner Mark Cuban talked to Golden State coach Steve Kerr and Livingston, then assistant coach Alvin Gentry, as they left the court.

Nowitzki had this to say about the play, which was reviewed and ended up with Livingston called for a flagrant foul, penalty one.

“Well, I give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s really not that type of player,” Nowitzki said. “He hasn’t been his entire career. I’m not really sure what he was trying to do there, if he was trying to get to the ball through my legs or anything. But like I said, he’s not a dirty player.

“But I really enjoyed his tight grip he got. I really enjoyed that.”

Nowitzki was laughing as he said that last line.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul Millsap’s shoulder injury should be defined a bit better today. The Hawks forward suffered the injury Saturday against the Nets and did not return in that game. … Boston’s Evan Turner has joined exclusive company: One of only 5 Celtics with 3 or more triple doubles in a season … All systems go for Paul George in his return tonight.

Morning shootaround — March 27


VIDEO: Highlights from game played on March 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

James Harden makes MVP case | Pacers clinging to playoff hopes | Crawford says he’ll be back | Amar’e to stick with Dallas?

No. 1: James Harden makes MVP case With the season nearing an end, the MVP talk around the MVP race is heading up. Stephen Curry? Russell Westbrook? LeBron James? Anthony Davis? Or what about in Houston, where James Harden has been perhaps the best offensive player in the NBA this season? USA Today‘s Sam Amick caught up with Harden, who made his case for why he deserves your MVP vote…

“I think if you look at what I’ve been doing all year, only missing one game all year because of the situation (with seemingly-endless injuries to teammates), basically having to carry a load all year, being consistent from the first game of the season,” Harden said. “That should show it right there. But like I said, (the focus is) for me to go out there and continue doing what I’m doing, being consistent, is all I can do.”

And getting to the free throw line at an unmatched rate. Harden — who has converted on 86.6% of free throw attempts — is on pace to lead the league in free throw attempts for the second time in three seasons (10.1 per game). Last season’s leader in that category was the Thunder’s reigning MVP, Kevin Durant (9.9).

“I’m enjoying the whole process of these last (few) games, just trying to win games,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing since Dwight has been out. I don’t really keep track of the other (MVP candidates) or what they’re doing. Obviously everybody knows that Russ is going on a triple-double rally. He’s playing extremely well and they’re fighting for the eighth spot. But all those guys you named (Curry, Westbrook, James, Davis and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers) are very good players, or very talented players. For me, I just focus on what I can control and going out there and doing the best I can do every single right.”

In trying to explain his own MVP-caliber campaign, Harden said his comfort level in the not-so-new surroundings have been key. It’s his third season in Houston, where he came via trade in October 2012 and has progressively found his way as a leader ever since.

“All I needed was time,” he said of the Houston experience. “All I needed was to know what I had around me. And now that I know it, I’m comfortable with it and I can be a great leader. I think that’s probably one of the reasons I’m so successful is that I’m comfortable. I think if you’re comfortable in any situation, and you know what’s going on and you know what you’re going to get, you’re going to be successful.

“It’s about having a good time, about enjoying it, enjoying the grind. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably not doing good.”

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Morning shootaround — Feb. 24


VIDEO: Highlights of Monday’s action from around the NBA

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Some Kevin-on-Kevin love | Commish misses Bosh, too | Rondo consults Dirk’s shot doc | Kirilenko heads back home

No. 1: Some Kevin-on-Kevin love — No, not that Kevin Love. We’re talking Kevin love, as in Kevin McHale‘s admiration for Kevin Garnett, the straight-outta-high school gamble who paid off big for McHale when he was starting out as VP of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Garnett was the face of Minnesota’s franchise for most of his 12 seasons there and, on the eve of his return to the Wolves in practice and a welcoming press conference Tuesday, one Hall of Famer – before coaching in Houston against his former employer – talked about the Hall of Famer-to-be, as chronicled in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

“I’m happy for the Timberwolves organization,” McHale said Monday. “For a lot of years, he was, of course, the face of the franchise. It sounds like they’re happy. He’ll do a good job with those guys.”

McHale was asked Monday if it seems right that Garnett return to his NBA beginnings.

“That’s up to Kevin,” McHale said. “So many people do different things. I’m happy for him if he’s happy. He’s a good kid. I spent a lot of time with him. I think it’s great when that can work out if it really works out for both parties. It’s great for the Timberwolves, and Kevin must have felt good about it, otherwise he wouldn’t have signed off on it.”

Garnett waived a no-trade clause minutes before Thursday afternoon’s NBA trade deadline. He arrives Tuesday not the player he once was, but rather a man who has seen it all, done it all and can help team a young Wolves team mature.

“Kevin loves basketball,” McHale said. “He’s competitive. He always has been. He has a wealth of knowledge. He has played a lot of big games, won a championship and he’s not afraid to talk. He’ll say a lot of things.”

Rockets veteran forward Corey Brewer thought he’d hear many of those things when McHale drafted him to play for the Wolves in 2007. But Garnett was traded just weeks later.

“It’s great for the franchise,” said Brewer, who like Garnett was brought back to the Wolves but traded for a second time in a December deal that sent him to Houston. “KG, he’s the face of the franchise, still to this day even though he left for a while. I’m happy for the franchise. I’m happy for him to go back. I think he’ll have a great impact. Those guys need a guy like KG. They’re young. They’re all getting better. They need that voice, that leadership.”

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Sun has set on Phoenix’s Dragic era

dragic

After averaging 20.3 points and 5.9 assists last season with the Suns, Goran Dragic’s numbers have dipped to 16.2 and 4.1 and seeing less time with the ball in his hands. (USA Today)

A day earlier, it was only the stuff of “reports.” By midday Wednesday, though, and with about 24 hours left before the NBA trade deadline, Goran Dragic‘s desire to be dealt from the Phoenix Suns was cold, hard fact.

The seventh-year guard made his dissatisfaction with the Suns clear when he talked with reporters Wednesday. These differences sound irreconcilable, per Paul Coro‘s story in the Arizona Republic:

“I don’t trust them anymore,” Dragic said following Wednesday’s practice session. “It happens too many times. Two, three times.

“They give promises, OK. It’s hard. But at the same time, I wish them all the best. They were great to me the past five years. I’m always going to have a good memory about Phoenix fans and the city. I just hit that point of my career that it’s better for me and my family to move on.”

The relationship between Dragic and the Suns melted down over the team’s commitment to a three-guard backcourt that has required him to adjust his style and minutes to fit in Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas. Last season, Dragic was named to the all-NBA third team after averaging 20.3 points, 5.9 assists and 35.1 minutes. This season, his numbers have dipped to 16.2, 4.1 and 33.4, and he has significantly less time with the ball in his hands.

Now a team that was one of the league’s happier stories in 2013-14 has serious drama and a potential setback on its hands. As unhappy as Phoenix fans might be over this, at least Dragic has made his decision over basketball reasons, rather than seeking out a more lucrative market for off-court income or to team up with particular buddies.

Dragic has mentioned New York, Miami, Indiana and the L.A. Lakers as destinations in which he has interest, but Boston, Houston and others may have interest in acquiring him and persuading him to stick around long-term.

If Dragic isn’t traded by the deadline, he intends to sign elsewhere as a free agent this summer. More from Coro:

“I don’t feel comfortable with my situation,” he said, adding, “It’s just different. Standing in the corner, it’s not my game. I see that we’re not going in the right direction. That’s why I take action and try to put myself in a better position.”

Morning shootaround — Nov. 27


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played Nov. 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Stephenson not a star yet | Suns point guards slow to adjust | Butler has risen against the odds | Lopez a perfect fit in Portland

No. 1: Stephenson not a star yet — With a 4-12 record and the second longest losing streak in the league, the Charlotte Hornets have been the most disappointing team outside of Cleveland. The arrival of Lance Stephenson was supposed to give their offense a boost, but they rank 25th on that end of the floor and have regressed defensively. Stephenson is still starting, but has seen his playing time drop quite a bit in the last week. After he logged just 23 minutes in Wednesday’s loss to the Blazers, Hornets coach Steve Clifford provided a dose of reality regarding his team’s new “star,” as Michael Wallace of ESPN writes:

Hornets coach Steve Clifford believes Lance Stephenson’s problems adjusting during his first season in Charlotte are partly due to the guard’s struggles to live up to external expectations.

“To be fair, one of the things that’s made it more difficult for him is that he came here and people proclaimed him as the next superstar,” Clifford said Wednesday. “He’s not a star. He’s a guy that has talent to become a star. To be a star in this league, you have to do it over years.”

Clifford’s comments came after Stephenson was left on the bench for the entire fourth quarter for a second consecutive game, this time during Wednesday’s 105-97 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers that extended the Hornets’ losing streak to seven straight games.

A combination of preseason injuries and struggles since then to find his rhythm and a consistent role in Clifford’s offense has made Stephenson’s transition much more difficult than some anticipated.

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No. 2: Suns point guards slow to adjust — At 10-6 after a win over the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, the Phoenix Suns are in a playoff spot in the tough Western Conference. But they’re still trying to find their way, especially offensively, where they’ve taken a small step backward. One adjustment is the addition of point guard Isaiah Thomas, who joins Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in an unconventional backcourt. Though the team is winning, it’s impossible for all three to get their deserved playing time every night. As Thomas tells CBS Sports‘ James Herbert, that can be tough to deal with:

With the Kings, he was shuffled in and out of the starting lineup, especially in his first two seasons. He watched Tyreke Evans, Aaron Brooks, Greivis Vasquez and Jimmer Fredette play the point in front of him. Thomas has learned that he can’t worry about the things he can’t control. Still, this is challenging. Thomas has proven he’s capable of producing like an All-Star, and so have Dragic and Bledsoe.

“It’s a tough situation,” Thomas said. “But you’ve just got to be ready for whatever circumstances coach puts you in. You gotta be ready when your name is called, but I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s tough.

“It’s not what I expected,” Thomas continued. “But coach has a tough job. Putting all of us on the floor and trying to mix up the minutes, it’s tough for him. So it’s not just tough for us as players, we just gotta be ready when our name’s called and just know, I mean, coach is trying to do what he thinks is best for the team to put us in a position to win. But the key word is it’s a tough situation. For all of us.”

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No. 3: Butler has risen against the odds — The Chicago Bulls have one of the most improved offenses in the league, despite the fact that Derrick Rose has played just 6 1/2 of their 15 games. One reason is the continued development of Jimmy Butler, who has the best field goal percentage of the five players in the league averaging at least 20 points, six rebounds and three assists. Butler was the 30th pick in the 2011 Draft out of Marquette, where most teams didn’t see much talent in the 6-7 guard. ESPN’s Nick Friedell profiles Butler and his path to becoming a big piece of a title contender:

Jimmy Butler isn’t supposed to be here.

He’s not supposed to be in the NBA. He’s not supposed to be a key member of a Chicago Bulls team that has championship aspirations. He’s not supposed to be in the midst of an All-Star type season — the best of his career — in which he has carried the Bulls on both ends of the floor at various times. And he’s certainly not supposed to be on the verge of cashing in on a contract offer at season’s end that will likely pay him well over $50 million over the next four seasons.

The odds have always been against Butler. His path to the NBA is as unlikely as anyone who plays in the league given that his backstory (of being homeless at 13 before moving in with a friend’s family) reads like the basketball version of “The Blind Side.” No matter how many ups and downs Butler endured in his journey to the precipice of NBA stardom, the 25-year-old never stopped believing in himself. The same drive that helped get him out of Tomball, Texas, and into Marquette University is the same fuel that’s pushed him to average over 20 points a game early this season.

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No. 4: Lopez a perfect fit in Portland — The Portland Trail Blazers made a 21-win leap from Lottery team to the second round of the playoffs last season, and have continued rolling with a 12-3 start this year. They’ve gotten improvement from all of their high-profile players, but the key to the transformation was the addition of a low-profile center. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian details the importance of Robin Lopez to the Blazers’ success:

After 96 regular season games and one memorable playoff series victory, it’s become clear that Lopez was the missing link for this franchise. A city that has watched the downfall of the beloved yet brittle Bill Walton, and the depressing breakdowns of Sam Bowie and Greg Oden, finally has a stabilizing force at the NBA’s most important position.

And while Lopez’s made-for-Portland personality and rugged, hustle-infused game have made him a Rip City fan favorite, it’s the things you don’t notice — the unselfishness, the unassuming disposition, the way he connects the Blazers’ chemistry — that have made the towering 7-foot, 265-pound center so important.

LaMarcus Aldridge is the Blazers’ best player. Lillard brings the big shots and big plays. Matthews provides defense, leadership and heart. And Batum is the glue, offering a touch of everything.

But Lopez is perhaps the most important piece, the linchpin to one of the most cohesive and talented starting lineups in the NBA. When general manager Neil Olshey shrewdly snatched Lopez in a trade for next to nothing, he didn’t just nab a starting center entering his prime, but also the 21st Century version of Buck Williams, a player plugged into an established core at just the right time that helped catapult the Blazers to the next level.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Carmelo Anthony doesn’t know how long back spasms will keep him out of the Knicks’ lineupThe Thunder waived Sebastian TelfairThe Lakers are close to signing Earl ClarkDavid West hopes to make his season debut on FridayMarcus Smart started, but couldn’t finish practice on WednesdayThe Celtics are going to EuropeMark Cuban wants to join the Eastern ConferenceSome trash talk from Philly fans motivated Kevin GarnettKyrie Irving wants to guard the league’s best point guards … and The New York Times profiled TNT’s “Inside the NBA.”

ICYMI of The Night: Tyson Chandler helped the Mavs to an overtime victory over his old team with 25 rebounds, an NBA high for the season:


VIDEO: Nightly Notable: Tyson Chandler grabs 25 boards

Report: Dragic prepping for ‘open’ free agency

ALL BALL NERVE CENTER — One of the NBA’s biggest surprises last season was Phoenix point guard Goran Dragic. In his sixth NBA season, the 6-4 Slovenian averaged a career high 20.3 points per game, leading the Suns to a 48-34 record and narrowly missing out on a playoff berth. Dragic was named to the All-NBA third team as well as selected the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

This season, however, the Suns haven’t burned quite as hot. Phoenix is off to a 6-5 start, and while the offseason signing of Isaiah Thomas from Sacramento has given the Suns an embarrassment of backcourt riches, having Thomas, Dragic and point guard Eric Bledsoe on the same roster has triggered some growing pains. As Dragic recently told the Arizona Republic, part of the reason the offense has not clicked is because “there’s only one ball and we’re all point guards.”

Dragic has an option to exit his contract next summer, and while he previously signaled his intentions to stay in Phoenix long-term, the future may not be as clear as it once seemed. According to a report from The Sporting News, Dragic now intends to hit the open market and see what other options are available, which might mean exiting the valley of the Suns.

In September, Suns point guard Goran Dragic told a reporter during the FIBA World Cup that it was his intention to opt out of the final year of his contract this summer and become a free agent — but that he would only do so with the intention of quickly re-signing with Phoenix.

While that might have been the idea at that time, that’s not the case now, as Dragic will have an “open” free agency, league sources told Sporting News. When Dragic opts out and becomes a free agent next July, he will be a sought-after commodity, and while Phoenix would get the first hearing, Dragic will have options.

Among those options, according to sources, would be Houston — the team Dragic left in order to sign with Phoenix in 2012. The Rockets are well-stocked with point guards, but nearly all, including starter Patrick Beverley, can become free agents next summer.

The Lakers also figure to be a potential landing spot for Dragic, a source said — though, to be clear, the Lakers have only about $36 million committed next season with needs at just about every position, and thus are expected to pursue multiple big-name free agents.

Suns try lineup with three point guards


VIDEO: Suns look to build on momentum from last season

It was probably inevitable the Suns would go there eventually, and exhibition games are the time to push the envelope, so push away. The details just happened to be Thursday night, US Airways Center in Phoenix, 3:12 remaining in the second quarter against the Spurs.

Point guard Goran Dragic, point guard Eric Bledsoe and point guard Isaiah Thomas were used together for the first time and probably not the last. There is no indication it will be a common sighting, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise if coach Jeff Hornacek opts for microball in situations during the regular season, depending on the opponent and whether Phoenix simply needs a burst of energy at that time of the game.

The appeals and drawbacks are obvious: The Suns could force the tempo they like, but would risk getting turned into little more than speed bumps on defense by going 6-foot-3 (Dragic), 6-foot-1 (Bledsoe) and 5-foot-9 (Thomas), not to mention risking injury from getting stepped on. They would have to counter by staying in scramble mode the entire time, trying to force turnovers or get the opponent horribly out of rhythm since playing straight up wouldn’t be much of an option.

The immediate feedback Thursday was an 11-2 run with the Bledsoe-Dragic-Thomas grouping, although that doesn’t really count as evidence of anything, not when it’s against the pseudo-Spurs with three starters and sixth man Manu Ginobili getting the night off or nursing injuries. Coach Gregg Popovich didn’t even make the trip to Phoenix. The actual value for Phoenix was the chance to take the unique lineup out for a test drive to see how all five Suns on the court played off each other, especially the three, in something other than a scrimmage setting.

“We were small but everybody got in and rebounded and we pushed the tempo and the lead just went up,” Bledsoe, who had three defensive boards during the run, told Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic. “We definitely was having fun out there. Everybody was sharing the ball. I know Isaiah did a great job.”

It’s an adjustment period for all three, and not just if they’re on the court together. Thomas is coming to a new team as a free agent and making his first move as a pro after three seasons with the Kings, Dragic is learning how to play with him, and Bledsoe is back for his first full season after missing 33 games in 2013-14 with a knee injury, with added expectations after re-signing at five years and $70 million. It worked with Dragic and Bledsoe then and it can work with IsaiahDragsoe now, with the same starters as before and Thomas winning Sixth Man of the Year.

Phoenix has three more exhibition games before opening the regular season Oct. 29 at home against the Lakers.