Posts Tagged ‘Jazz’

Summer Dreaming: 2014 Rookie Of Year

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HANG TIME, Texas — Maybe it’s the heat. Or the humidity. Or those icy margaritas that have been sipped by the pool.

The beginning of August gets the mind to wandering in all sorts of different directions. Sure, it’s tempting to start thinking about the season openers that are barely three months away. But why stop there? Let’s wander all the way out to next spring when the 2013-14 season is over and get a head start on candidates for all the awards.

Today we’ll look at my hot fun in the summertime top five picks for Rookie of the Year. Send me yours.

Victor Oladipo, Magic The No. 2 pick in the Draft showed in the Summer League that he has a long way to go to run an offense as a point guard. But that doesn’t mean Oladipo won’t get plenty of chances to shine as the young Magic just turn him loose. Arron Afflalo will have to move on in order to let Oladipo fully blossom. However, the nonstop, high-energy guy with the first-class defensive chops will thrive in the transition and find plenty of opportunities to get to the basket with the floor spacing in the NBA. In a Draft that seemed to jump the rails right from the first pick, Oladipo was the player the Magic targeted to be a star for the future. There’s no reason to think that he won’t get off to a fast start on a young team that craves a leader.

Ben McLemore, Kings He came out firing unconscionably and mostly missing in his first two Las Vegas Summer League games, but give him credit for not reacting by crawling into a hole and becoming shy. By the end of the his desert run, McLemore was as hot and flashy as anything on the Vegas strip. The long-suffering franchise wants him to run the floor, use his athleticism and fill up the basket. He’s got a sweet stroke, plenty of range and now that Tyreke Evans is gone to New Orleans, he should have plenty opportunity. The lesson learned from Vegas is not to paint himself strictly as a long bomber and work to improve the other areas of his game. It’s also about his attitude. There is a reason that some folks had him tabbed as the No. 1 pick and could be part of the road back for a Kings franchise that will celebrate staying in Sacramento.

Cody Zeller, Bobcats Zeller was a standout in Las Vegas, showing all the hustle, smarts and athleticism that made him a star at Indiana. Never mind that his arms are short and some think he’ll have trouble on the inside at the NBA level. Playing for the hapless Bobcats, Zeller is going to get all the time he needs to figure things out and find a way to get off his shot. This is the umpteenth time that Michael Jordan’s Bobcats are starting over and rookie coach Steve Clifford will be happy to plug the Zeller’s intelligence and skills into the lineup and let him complement free-agent signee Al Jefferson.

Anthony Bennett, Cavaliers There’s a chance the Cavs will bring the No. 1 pick in the Draft along slowly. That’s especially likely since he is a frontline tweener (6-foot-7) who will have to learn to maneuver around the bigger bodies in the NBA and learn how to get off his shot inside (since he’s not especially mobile). He’s 3-point range and while he may struggle to find his place in the offense, Bennett has a nose for rebounding and could make his presence felt by going to the glass. That’s a good way to make an impact, put up numbers, get attention and maybe even work his way off the bench by the second half of the season.

C.J. McCollum, Trail Blazers Can the Blazers go back-to-back on Rookie of the Year winners? After Damian Lillard practically went wire-to-wire to claim the award last season, Portland went out and almost drafted a clone. The conventional thinking is that McCollum will get stuck on the bench playing second fiddle to Lillard and that will limit his production. But there is really no reason to think the Blazers were drafting a sub at No. 10. They’re gonna find a way to get their pair of ball-handling scorers on the floor together as much as possible. There are plenty nuances of the game McCollum has to learn, but he’s got the swagger to take on anything thrown at him and find a way to shine.

Rudy Gobert, Jazz OK, he’s No. 6 and is a longer shot than a mule winning the Kentucky Derby. But give me a personal indulgence after watching the 7-foot-2 Frenchman with the 7-foot-9 wingspan and 9-foot-7 reach — that’s five inches below the rim — swat down everything that came into his airspace in the Orlando Summer League. He’s raw and must bulk up to eventually thrive in the NBA. But he’s only 21 and defensively has a nose for the ball that says he’s going after every shot. Of course, the shot-blocking Gobert will get time sparingly this season, but I’m telling you he’ll be fun to watch whenever he’s on the floor. Besides, you’ve got to love a guy who’s already picked up a classic nickname — the Stifle Tower.

PREVIOUSLY: Sixth Man of Year | Defensive Player of Year | Most Improved Player

Can Lakers Go California Dream Teaming?

ORLANDO, Fla. — Imagine it’s June 2014 and the Heat have managed to duck enough times to survive another championship parade with all of their heads still attached.

There’s a posh meeting room inside a swank Beverly Hills hotel and the heavily muscled security guard keeps stepping aside and opening the door for the guests who arrive one at a time.

Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

When they’ve settled into luxurious leather chairs and opened bottles of overpriced imported sparkling water, an NBA general manager arrives and points to a blank yellow legal pad in the middle of the conference table and five pencils.

“You guys divide it up anyway you want,” says Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.

The Lakers are back. Instant Dream Team.

OK, maybe it’s not quite that easy. Or maybe it is. After all, to paraphrase Chevy Chase from a long time ago, they’re the Lakers and you’re not. And always will be.

Having salary cap space in Milwaukee, Charlotte, Salt Lake City or maybe a dozen other places in the NBA is just that — space. In L.A. it’s a magnet.

Walk the sidelines and the hallways of the Amway Center as the rookies and long shots of the Orlando Pro Summer League pour their perspiration all over the practice court, and the consensus is that even in the wake of Dwight Howard’s departure, the return to prominence of the league’s most glamorous franchise is no sweat.

“Don’t even think about them going into a long period of losing or mediocrity,” said one NBA general manager.

“For other teams losing Dwight would be a crippling blow,” said another. “They’d have to retrench, rethink their position and go into a long-term rebuilding plan.”

That’s the Celtics, where boss Danny Ainge decided to move on from the era of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and brought in 36-year-old Brad Stevens as coach/midwife for a new incarnation.

The Sixers new GM Sam Hinkie is stripping his roster down to the bone by trading All-Star Jrue Holiday and letting Andrew Bynum walk. It will be at least a couple of years before the plan bears fruit.

The Jazz and GM Dennis Lindsey have made no secret that the payoff is over the horizon as they enter a season where youth will be served from the menu no matter how difficult it might be to swallow at times.

“You don’t do that if you’re the Lakers,” said yet another GM, “because you don’t have to. OK, everybody has to take a deep breath for next season, but then they’re right back in it in a year. And if you don’t think they can think big, big and bigger, then you haven’t been paying attention.”

Who thought Miami was going to be able to reel in all of James, Wade and Bosh in 2010?

Why would LeBron even give a thought to teaming up with Kobe? Because it would actually add to his legacy to resurrect the Lakers and to be clearly defined as the lead horse pulling the wagon.

Why would Kobe consider it? One word: rings. Especially after spending a difficult season literally getting his legs back under him following the torn Achilles’ tendon and having the Clippers’ glare becoming blinding and annoying.

Wade? Anthony? Bosh? Didn’t those gold medals glitter just as bright from the Olympic experiences?

All five of them could even wear their old Team USA jerseys.

Let everyone else plot and scheme and draw up their recruiting pitches for the free agent lollapalooza of next summer.

All Kupchak and the Lakers need is an empty room and a legal pad.

“You guys divide it up anyway you want.”

Jazz’s Burke Struggles With Start

ORLANDO, Fla. — Nothing at all that happened in a few rough days of summer league play suggests that Trey Burke won’t be the point guard of the future for the Jazz.

But a touch of the brakes were applied to the timeline when the No. 9 pick in the draft took a position on the bench rather than the starting lineup for Wednesday’s win over Brooklyn.

“It was just a case of wanting to get him a little rest and maybe a chance to watch things from a different perspective,” said Jazz assistant Sidney Lowe, the team’s summer league coach.

“He’s going to be a good player. There’s no need to worry about Trey Burke right now.”

However, in two games Burke struggled mightily with his shot, missing 21 of 27 attempts and he turned the ball over four times in Utah’s second game, a loss to the Rockets on Tuesday.

Burke took in the game from a seat next to assistant coach Brad Jones, exchanging observations and getting pointers.

“It’s funny how you can sit on the sidelines and see so much more than when you’re out there in the middle of everything,” Lowe said. “The idea was to get Trey to watch the flow of the game, try to see how everything fits together. It’s huge for him to just be able to sit back and watch.”

As the collegiate national player of the year and the guy the Jazz traded up for on draft night to be the last piece in their starting lineup puzzle with their so-called “Core Four” of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter, Burke’s every move will be under the microscope by Jazz fans.

“I told him there’s a target on him,” Lowe said. “The expectations are there off and on the court. People are gonna come after you. All you can do is play hard execute.”

While Burke has struggled, two other rookies have had their moments to shine. Rudy Gobert has been effective at the defensive end. The 7-foot-1 French center has blocked seven shots in 58 minutes of playing time, changed others and has been effective on the boards. Brazilian guard Raul Neto, drafted in the second round and acquired in a trade from the Hawks, saw his first playing time Wednesday and in an often frantic 18 1/2 minutes, hit 2-for-3 from the field, scored seven points and also had four rebounds and three assists. Dionte Christmas, a summer league star a year ago with the Celtics, is making another bid for a training camp invitation with 10 points.

But those are all subplots to Burke, who said on draft night that he expected to be in the Jazz starting lineup in October and might be pushing himself a bit too hard and too fast to be effective right now.

“I’ve told him that the highs are not as high and the lows are not as low as you think they are,” Lowe said. “The thing is, he cares. I didn’t know that about him. He’s a serious young man. He’s got that side of him where he really wants to be good. It’s good to see that he cares.”

It will be better to see that shot start to fall.

The Non-Dwight Action Of The Night



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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Dwight Howard made the biggest splash of the day, night and probably the entire free agent summer of 2013 by choosing the Houston Rockets. And you are free to weigh in on his (in)decision and where it ranks in recent memory among summer spectacles.

But he wasn’t the only free agent to firm up his future Friday.

Plenty of his contemporaries were busy solidifying their respective futures with teams around the league. Keep in mind none of these deals become official until July 10, when the league’s moratorium on signing new contracts and finalizing proposed trades is lifted.

Some of the other notable activity from the first and likely wildest Friday night of free agency:

Orlando Summer League Tips Off Sunday

HANG TIME, Texas — You’ve got rookies often trying to wildly impress, second-year players who have a better understanding of what is expected and a few veterans who are hoping to get another taste of the big time.

The Southwest Airlines Orlando Pro Summer League tips off Sunday with some familiar names from the 2013 Draft and plenty of other hopefuls trying to crack an NBA roster.

NBA Summer LeagueNine first-round picks — led by No. 2 Victor Oladipo, No. 8 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and No. 9 Trey Burke – will take part in the six days of competition that will take place on the Magic’s practice court at Orlando’s Amway Center. The games are not open to the public and will only be attended by media and league personnel. All games will be shown on NBA TV.

A new format will be added this summer with two extra teams and one extra day added to the schedule. Under the new format, each team will play five games over the six-day event, concluding with a championship day. Standings will be based on a seven-point system for each game — three points for a win and one point for winning each quarter.

Here’s a quick look at roster highlights of the 10 teams that will participate:

Boston Celtics — It’s a whole new ballgame for the Celtics’ rebuilding program and there would seem to be plenty of room for new faces to earn a ticket to Boston now that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers are all gone. New coach Brad Stevens will be on hand to observe, but leading the team will be assistant coach Jay Larranaga. First-round pick Kelly Olynyk, obtained by trade from Dallas, will be the biggest name on the roster, though last year’s draftee Fab Melo is physically bigger. Avery Bradley is being given a rest from duty and Jared Sullinger is still recovering from back surgery.

Brooklyn Nets – The remade and reloaded Nets will have first round pick Mason Plumlee suiting up for the first time along with a pair of last season’s veterans Tornike Shengelia and Tyshawn Taylor. But all eyes during the week will surely on the rookie on the sidelines. After a 19-year playing career that will surely send him to the Hall of Fame, Jason Kidd is taking no time off and going right to the bench. It will be most interesting to see if Kidd is as good in this transition as he was on the court.

Detroit Pistons — Andre Drummond arrived in Orlando a year ago with something to prove to the doubters and then went back to Detroit and showed that he was not merely a summer fling. Drummond will return, but is not expected to play the full slate of five games. The Pistons will have their entire rookie class of 2013 — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tony Mitchell and Peyton Siva. New coach Maurice Cheeks may have his work cut out resurrecting the Pistons at the NBA level, but the summer roster is quite capable.

Houston Rockets — After all their maneuvering and salary cap gymnastics to try to land free agent Dwight Howard, the Rockets did not have a first-round pick this year, but may have gotten first-round quality in point guard Isaiah Canaan. Terrence Jones, a No. 1 from a year ago, will be on the team and continuing to show that he’s a keeper and this Houston bunch is also loaded with Patrick Beverley and Greg Smith.

Indiana Pacers – It seems like much longer than just four years ago that Jonny Flynn was the No. 6 pick in the 2009 draft and maybe that’s because he’s mostly been on the outside everywhere he’s gone, trying to justify that selection and prove that he belongs. Now he’s back from playing in Australia and trying to get that third guard spot with the Pacers, who are also bringing in Donald Sloane. This year’s first round pick Solomon Hill will join holdovers Miles Plumlee, Orlando Johnson and Ben Hansbrough from last season’s roster.

Miami Heat — After winning back-to-back NBA titles, the Heat aren’t taking the summer off. In fact, they’re working overtime, the only franchise to be fielding teams at both Orlando and Las Vegas. Miami didn’t have a first-round pick — remember, it was traded for that LeBron fellow. The rosters will be led by last season holdover center Jarvis Varnado and second-round pick James Ennis, a swingman out of Long Beach State. A couple of high profile college guards, Larry Drew II of UCLA and Myck Kabongo of Texas will play for the Heat. Joining the team in Orlando only are Cedric Jackson, Ian Clark, Dewayne Dedmon and D.J. Stephens.

Oklahoma City Thunder — While three rookies Steven Adams, Andre Roberson and Grant Jerrett will be on hand for their Thunder debuts, most eyes of the coaching staff and back in OKC will be on holdovers from the main roster Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones. Jackson dazzled with his play in Orlando last summer, giving the first hint that he’d be ready to step into the point guard job when Russell Westbrook went down.

Orlando Magic — When it looked like everybody was losing their minds at the top of the draft a week ago, Magic GM Rob Hennigan kept his eye on the prize and simply chose his man Victor Oladipo. Is he a point guard or a shooting guard? Or is he just ready to do anything the Magic ask in the backcourt? Forward Romero Osby, a second round pick, has a lot of folks saying he’s a sleeper. Second-year men Maurice Harkless and Andrew Nicholson are also on the roster.

Philadelphia 76ers —
While many Sixers fans are still reeling from the draft night trade that shipped out the young All-Star and favorite Jrue Holiday, this will be everyone’s first chance to see how his successor measures up.  Michael Carter-Williams will be given the keys to the offense in Philly when the season starts in October, so consider this his going out to take the test for his driver’s license. Nerlens Noel, the prize that came in the trade for Holiday, will not play as he’s still rehabbing his knee injury.  But Justin Holiday, Jrue’s brother, will be back to see if he can stick with the Sixers again.

Utah Jazz – Top draft pick Trey Burke said on draft night that he hopes to be the Jazz’ starting point guard on opening night next season. So he’ll start to press his case by running the summer show. Rookie center Rudy Gobert hopes to get in a few runs maybe by the end of the show in Orlando. He’s currently trying to work out a buyout of his contract with his French team and will need FIBA clearance. Center Enes Kanter is still recovering from shoulder surgery and neither Gordon Hayward or Derrick Favors will play, because they’re both part of the Team USA camp in August. Jazz fans will get to see a Stockton back in uniform. Hall of Famer John Stockton’s son Michael is a free agent signee.

Six Sensible Picks For Coaching Success



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HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Raise your hand, you twisted souls, if you’re ready for another episode of the Dwight Howard-Stan Van Gundy show.

Even Hawks fans, a group starved for both star power on the roster and stability with the coaching staff, are wary of the potential pairing of these former Orlando Magic stalwarts in the ATL. Their deteriorating relationship marred their final season together in a situation that was anything but magic in Orlando.

But when the coaching carousel kicks up this time of year, and a half-dozen or so different teams are picking over the same small pool of elite coaching candidates, all things are possible.

Van Gundy, and his brother, Jeff Van Gundy, are going to be on short lists everywhere, along with Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan, Larry Brown and whoever the assistant coach(es) du jour might be.

What looks good on paper and sounds sweet in theory, however, doesn’t always hold up in reality. Multiple reports of Stan Van Gundy being pursued by the Hawks, who have announced that they will explore all options in determining who replaces Larry Drew (if they replace him), make perfect sense. Hawks GM Danny Ferry is in the process of rebuilding his roster and needs a coach on board before the Draft.

“I have great appreciation and respect for Larry and how he led our team this season,” Ferry told Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Saturday. “At the same time, it is my responsibility and in the best interests of the Hawks organization to consider all of our options, and talk with other potential head coaches before making a decision about who will lead our basketball team. Larry and I have had open communication about this approach. If Larry and I continue to work together, we ultimately will be a stronger organization because of our discussions and this thorough process.”

That’s an eloquent way of stating the obvious: that the Hawks plan on moving on from the past nine years (Drew was an assistant under current Knicks Mike Woodson during his six seasons with Atlanta before Drew spent the last three season its coach). And it’s understandable. No one will blame Ferry for making a clean break from the Hawks’ recent past, provided he upgrades the coaching situation and the roster with all of that $33 million in cap space and the four Draft picks the Hawks will be armed with this summer.

The burning question remains, then, is Stan Van a legitimate upgrade?

He did take the Magic to The Finals in 2009, the Miami Heat to the Eastern Conference finals (2005) and did the same with Orlando (2010). But he was shown the door in both places after his star players grew tired of his grinding ways. Weighing the pros and cons of Stan Van being the face and voice of your franchise heading into a huge free-agent summer is a risky proposition for the Hawks, one that Ferry is surely aware of as he continues to sort through the process of finding the right coach.

There are five other current openings around the league, with another one (Los Angeles Clippers … ?) still looming. With a bevy of candidates, we take a look at who fits best where and why …

Atlanta Hawks: Mike Malone, assistant coach Golden State Warriors

In a realm where it’s often who you know as well as what you know, Malone can check those boxes with the Hawks. He’s done stellar work with the Warriors, helping guide them into a prime time position this postseason under Mark Jackson. He also worked under Mike Brown in Cleveland when Ferry ran that franchise. Malone is a nuts-and-bolts coach who won’t come with the baggage of some of the more recognizable candidates for the job. He’s universally respected and will likely be on the interview list for every opening out there.

Brooklyn Nets: Jeff Van Gundy, ABC/ESPN analyst

No available coach has a better handle on the rigors of guiding a team in the New York area. Van Gundy’s Knicks history, along with his work on ABC and ESPN broadcasts, has kept him in the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. He’s got the coaching chops required to manage a complex and talented roster that clearly needs a guiding force to reach its potential. His former partner in the booth, Mark Jackson, has done wonders in his first coaching stint in Golden State. Van Gundy could work similar magic with a Nets team that underachieved this season.

Charlotte Bobcats: Larry Drew, coach Atlanta Hawks

Drew worked alongside Bobcats owner Michael Jordan when they were both in Washington, so there is plenty of familiarity there. He also impressed many around the league with the work he did in an impossible situation in Atlanta the past three seasons. Even with constant changes on the roster and in the front office, Drew coached the Hawks to three straight playoff appearances. He would walk into a situation in Charlotte that looks a lot like the one he walked into with the Hawks nine years ago. That blueprint for thriving in the face of adversity could come in handy for the Bobcats.

Detroit Pistons: Jerry Sloan, former coach Utah Jazz

The Pistons have a roster filled with talented young players in need of guidance and direction. That’s the idea fit for a disciplinarian like Sloan, who could work wonders with bigs Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond in particular. Sloan’s Jazz teams were known for being the model of consistency. He won with superstar talent (Karl Malone and John Stockton) and kept on winning after they retired. The Pistons have had their greatest success in recent years under another veteran coach, Larry Brown, and could return to relevance under Sloan.

Milwaukee Bucks: David Fizdale, assistant coach Miami Heat

With the Big 3 in Miami, most of the attention has been strictly on the players. But Erik Spoelstra‘s key hire since taking over as coach in Miami was luring Fizdale away from the Hawks. He’s considered one of the brightest up-and-coming coaching candidates in the league and has done fantastic work with the continued development of both Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Luring him away from a championship situation in Miami won’t be easy for the Bucks or anyone else. But Fizdale has designs on running his own team and working with Bucks GM John Hammond would be a good place to get that first shot.

Philadelphia 76ers: Stan Van Gundy, former coach Orlando Magic

After the emotional roller coaster that was the Doug Collins experience, Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and the rest of the Sixers’ young core need a savvy veteran to deal with, not a first-time coach who would have to transition to a new gig in a city known for chewing up the strongest of personalities.  Stan Van gives the Sixers a bold personality to lead the way and an absolute technician of the game to help push the right buttons for a team that needs the sort of stewardship he tried to provide in Orlando.

Are Warriors Just Happy To Be There?

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HANG TIME, Texas – Coincidentally, it was Feb. 2 when the Warriors hit the high mark of their season — 13 games over .500 — and were making surprising noise as legitimate contenders in the Western Conference, hanging with the big dogs in Oklahoma City and San Antonio.

Alas, “Groundhog Day”. Queue up any one of the scenes with Bill Murray rolling over his bed as Sonny & Cher sing “I Got You Babe.”

Over the past 8 1/2 weeks the Warriors have gone a piddling 15-17 and are dropping faster than a safe off a rooftop. Where once they were considered a possibility for the No. 3 seed, now they are perilously close to falling to No. 7. Golden State is only a half-game up on Houston and the Rockets hold the tie-breaker.

While there is reason to celebrate around the mere fact that the Warriors will be making their second playoff appearance in 19 seasons, it would be better if they were playing down the stretch like they’ll just be happy to get there.

As the battle of the final three spots in the West came down to the last three weeks of the season, it appeared the Warriors had the advantage in the schedule. But over the past seven games they have lost three times, including at home to the lowly Kings and the struggling Jazz. Even Thursday night’s loss to the No. 1 seeded Thunder, while understandable in outcome, was hardly even competitive.

Now the Warriors have lost center Andrew Bogut to another ankle injury and face a key road game tonight against the Lakers, where they have lost 25 of 27 games all-time at the Staples Center. This is no time to be messing with the awake and desperate Lakers.

Coach Mark Jackson had said from the start of the season that his team was going to make its improvement and its mark by playing defense. But over the past two months, the Warriors have lost that spark and now are often mediocre as they slide toward the middle. On both offense and defense, Golden State ranks 13th in the league.

While it is a valuable weapon and makes them dangerous to be the NBA’s top 3-point shooting team, the Warriors have come to rely too much on making long range shots. Stephen Curry needs 17 3-pointers to break Ray Allen’s record for most in a season. But when they don’t fall, the Warriors simply do.

The beginning of the downward spiral began in the game after the Warriors topped out at 30-17. It was Feb. 5 in Houston when they were hammered 140-109 by the Rockets. It was an embarrassing performance where they gave up 23 3-point buckets to the Rockets and ended farcically and ugly as Jackson had has players intentionally foul Houston shooters so they could not break the NBA record for 3-point made in one game.

Jackson and the Warriors vowed that the Rockets would pay a week later when they came to Oakland. But Houston won again and from that time seemed to plant a seed of doubt that has grown into a redwood.

A loss to the Lakers would have Golden State reeling into its final two games, at home against the Spurs and at Portland on the last night of the season.

A fall into the No. 7 spot won’t wipe out the rare thrill of the Warriors making the playoffs, but it could make the experience short and not so sweet.

Playoffs Snapshot — April 12

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

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

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

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

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

Thunder Road To Finals Is Clearing

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HANG TIME, Texas — There were just over two minutes gone in the fourth quarter when the door seemed to swing open, the red carpet rolled out and Kevin Durant was all but ushered down an empty aisle through the San Antonio defense for a slam dunk that practically screamed out.

It’s still our house and it’s still our Western Conference.

Maybe more than ever. As the days dwindle in the regular season, the inevitable rematch in The Finals with Miami seems more, well, inevitable.

It’s been more than two months now since anyone has looked capable of taking down the defending champion Heat. But it’s been thought all season that the West half of the bracket was going to be a minefield fraught with peril.

When Tony Parker limped up and down the court and finally had to be removed from the game Thursday night by coach Gregg Popovich, the path became clearer for the Thunder. It not only enabled OKC to finish off a 100-88 win and essentially take over the top spot in the conference, but could show the cracks that could eventually crumble highly successful regular season for the Spurs.

There had been a sense for much of the season that the Spurs were a more complete, more capable all-around team than the Thunder this season. That was in part due to the absence of James Harden in OKC and the development of the Spurs supporting cast of Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green.

But San Antonio is still a wheel that turns around the aging Big Three axis and Manu Ginobili is already sidelined for the start of the playoffs with a strained hamstring. If Parker’s problem (ankle? shin?) can’t be solved in short time, the Spurs could have problems in the first two rounds, let alone a conference finals showdown with the Thunder.

At the same time, a Nuggets team that has already lost its blasting cap in Ty Lawson to a torn plantar fascia in his right heel sees Danilo Gallinari go down with what could be a torn ACL in his left knee.

Yes, George Karl was the Western Conference Coach of the Month in March and will certainly manipulate his lineup to keep it from jumping completely off the track. But the beauty and the effectiveness of the Nuggets all season long has been the fitting together of so many different pieces to excel in a league usually built around individual stars. Take away one piece and you’ve got a challenge. Take away two and the entire structure begins to teeter.

Despite ringing up their first 50-win season in franchise history, the Clippers have fallen from grace since their 25-6 start. Whether it’s Vinny Del Negro’s coaching, Blake Griffin’s moodiness, DeAndre Jordan’s immaturity or Chris Paul’s carping at his teammates, there is unrest in Lob City and less a sense that the Clippers are a championship contender.

There is no reason to believe the Warriors, Rockets or Jazz are capable challengers. Even if the Lakers were to hang onto the No. 8 spot, does anyone have faith that this uneven, turmoil-filled season will suddenly take a path straight up for six or eight weeks once the playoffs begin?

That leaves the rock ‘em, sock ‘em get, get-up-in-your-face Grizzlies as perhaps the only solid, healthy challengers to the reigning Western Conference champs. If you think back two years ago to the contentious seven-game series between Memphis and OKC, there is most definitely potential for the Thunder to be tested.

But what was supposed to be round after round of roadblocks and difficult obstacles is starting to clear out like Durant’s path to the basket for a slam dunk.

Griner Wouldn’t Be Longest Draft Reach

HANG TIME, Texas – Never underestimate Mark Cuban’s knack for attracting attention. And who could blame him if the idea was to draw it away from his underperforming team that is ironically keeping a team of barbers on hold at the same time they’re about to cut off their string of consecutive playoff appearances at 12 years?

Should the Mavericks draft Brittney Griner?

Let cranky Geno Auriemma be outraged and throw bricks. Let former greats of the women’s game Nancy Lieberman and Ann Meyers Drysdale offer their words encouragement to the Baylor star. Let Griner give even the most outrageous hope and dreams to any little girl who has ever dribbled a basketball.

Let’s face it. The Mavs selecting Griner wouldn’t be the first unusual pick in the history of the NBA draft. And before you snicker, remember that somebody took Pervis Ellison, Greg Oden, Kwame Brown and Michael Olowokandi No. 1. Here’s a reminder of a few others off-beat choices down through the years:

JIM BROWN (Syracuse Nationals, 1957 ) – The Nats didn’t have to reach outside the city limits to take a flyer on the guy who would become perhaps the greatest player in NFL history. Brown played four college sports — football, basketball, lacrosse and track — at Syracuse. He even averaged 15 points a game for the basketball team in his sophomore year. But even though there was little doubt that Brown was bound for a career on the gridiron, the Nats made him a ninth-round pick.

Other notables in draft: “Hot Rod” Hundley (No. 1 overall by Cincinnati, traded to Minneapolis); Sam Jones (No. 8 by Boston).

FRANK HOWARD (Philadelphia Warriors, 1958) – It wasn’t just his physical stature at 6-foot-8, 275 pounds that caught the attention of the Warriors in the third round. He could really play and was an All-American in basketball at Ohio State. But baseball was Howard’s first love and he signed with the Dodgers and had a 15-year career in the majors, hitting 382 home runs with 1,119 RBIs.

Other notables in the draft: Elgin Baylor (No. 1 overall by Minneapolis); Hal Greer (No. 13 by Syracuse).

BUBBA SMITH (Baltimore Bullets, 1967) — Long before he became known for playing the role of Moses Hightower in the Police Academy movies and starring in Miller Lite commercials, the 6-foot-7 Smith was an All-American defensive end at Michigan State. His height attracted the attention of the Bullets in the 11th round of the NBA draft, but Smith was the No. 1 overall pick of the NFL Colts and a champion in Super Bowl V.

Other notables in the draft: Earl Monroe (No. 2 overall by Baltimore); Walt Frazier (No. 5 by New York).

BOB BEAMON (Phoenix Suns, 1969) – Who could blame the Suns for taking a flying leap? After all, they were coming off a 16-66 record in their expansion season in the league and Beamon had just shattered the world long jump record by more than a foot at the Mexico City Olympics. Beamon had grown up playing street ball in New York, but was strictly a track and field athlete in college at Texas-El Paso. The Suns picked him in the 15th round of the draft, but he went back to school and graduated with a sociology degree from Adelphi University.

DENISE LONG (San Francisco Warriors, 1969) — The 18 year old out of Union-Whitten High in Iowa was the first woman ever drafted in the NBA, taken in the 13th round. She had averaged 69.6 points and had a single game high of 111 points in her senior year. NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy voided the pick, calling it a publicity stunt by Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli and also noted that high school players weren’t eligible at the time. Mieuli brought Long and other female players in to play before Warriors home games.

Other notables in the draft: Lew Alcindor (No. 1 overall by Milwaukee); JoJo White (No. 9 by Boston); Mack Calvin (187th by L.A. Lakers).

DAVE WINFIELD (Atlanta Hawks, 1973) – It wasn’t just the Hawks who were trying to get their talons on one of the greatest all-around college athletes ever with their fifth-round pick. He was also drafted by the Utah Stars of the ABA and the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, but went to baseball when the San Diego Padres chose him as a pitcher. In college at Minnesota, Bill Musselman once called him the best rebounder he ever coached. But Winfield did quite well in baseball, a 12-time All-Star with 465 career homers.

Other notables in the draft: Doug Collins (No. 1 overall by Philadelphia); Kermit Washington (No. 5 by L.A. Lakers).

BRUCE JENNER (Kansas City Kings, 1977) — Before face lifts and the Kardashians, there was a time when Jenner was known as the “world’s greatest athlete” after taking the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and the Kings made him a seventh-round draft pick. He never played in college and the closest Jenner ever got to basketball stardom was when he sank a shot during the singing of YMCA in the 1980 movie Can’t Stop the Music, which starred the Village People.

LUSIA HARRIS (New Orleans Jazz, 1977) – Here’s the real forerunner to Griner. A 6-foot-3 pioneer of the women’s game who led Delta State to three consecutive national titles, Harris was the second female ever drafted by an NBA team when the Jazz made her a seventh-round pick. Just imagine the show if she had been given a chance to team up with Pete Maravich in the backcourt. Harris showed little interest in her selection and declined a tryout invitation from the Jazz. It was later revealed that she was pregnant at the time.

Other notables in the draft: Bernard King (No. 7 overall by New York Nets); Jack Sikma (No. 8 by Seattle).

TONY GWYNN (San Diego Clippers, 1981) — After he set the San Diego State assist records for a game, season and career, he was hardly a reach for the Clippers in the 10th round of the draft. Gwynn said that dribbling strengthened his wrists and helped with bat speed and his on-court quickness made him a better base-runner. It all added up to a Hall of Fame baseball career with 3,141 hits and eight N.L. batting titles.

YASUTAKA OKAYAMA (Golden State Warriors, 1981) — Tallest player ever drafted by an NBA team? Not Yao Ming or Gheorge Muresan or Manute Bol. Try Okayama, who was 7-foot-8. He earned a second degree black belt in judo in his native Japan and began playing basketball at age 18 at Osaka University of Commerce. Okayama attended the University of Portland (Ore.), but did not play there. He was a member of the Japanese national team from 1979 to 1986. He never signed with the Warriors or attended a camp.

Other notables in the draft: Mark Aguirre (No. 1 overall by Dallas); Isiah Thomas (No. 2 by Detroit).

CARL LEWIS (Chicago Bulls, 1984) — It might have been the year when Michael Jordan earned his first gold medal, but Lewis was definitely the biggest star of the L.A. Olympics, tying Jesse Owens’ record of four track and field gold medals. Though he never played basketball in high school or college, a West Coast scout recommended drafting Lewis in the 10th round because he was “the best athlete available.” That same year the Dallas Cowboys drafted him in the 12th round as a wide receiver. Lewis stayed with sprinting and the long jump to become arguably the greatest track and field athlete ever.

Other notables in the draft: Hakeem Olajuwon (No. 1 overall by Houston); Michael Jordan (No. 3 by Chicago); Charles Barkley (No. 5 by Philadelphia); John Stockton (No. 16 by Utah).