Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Caplan’

Blogtable: Can’t miss this

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


BLOGTABLE: Memories | One to watch | A surprise champ


San Antonio's Tim Duncan has played in 211 playoff games in his illustrious career. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

San Antonio’s Tim Duncan has played in 211 playoff games in his illustrious career. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

> A quick look forward: Other than KD and LeBron, who’s your can’t-miss performer for these playoffs?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comTony Parker. No more resting, no more worries about point-guard rankings as individuals. None of that. Parker gets to quarterback the San Antonio push through the playoffs, and given his experience and the tools at his disposal, I think he’s going to remind people how valuable he really is.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comBlake Griffin.  He’s taken his game to the next level and forced his way into the MVP conversation.  If he keeps it up in the playoffs, the Clippers are a real threat in the West.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comChris Paul. He’s the rare superstar lacking a championship who doesn’t get hassled for having not won one. Think about that. That’s all we do is ask when so-and-so is going to finally win a title? CP3′s in his ninth season yet seems to stay removed from that discussion. He’s made it out of the first round only twice, in 2008 with New Orleans on a team with Tyson Chandler, David West and Peja Stojakovic that lost to San Antonio in Game 7 of the semis, and then his first season with the Clippers when they were swept by the Spurs. A run to the conference finals looks like it will take getting through Golden State and then Oklahoma City, a mighty task indeed, but it’s time for this superstar to get there.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comHyland DeAndre Jordan Jr., Clippers. Already putting up big rebounding numbers and on a hot streak with blocks, now he may get the gift beginning of a first round with the Warriors down Andrew Bogut and, still, Festus Ezeli. With the pace Golden State and L.A. play at, a 20-rebound game by Jordan is very realistic. And even if the Clippers open against someone else, Jordan will continue his regular-season impact anyway.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comTim Duncan. At some point, this ride has to end, and we should appreciate the best player of his generation as much as we can, while we can. As a whole, the Spurs are brilliant, but it all starts with Duncan’s leadership and play on both ends of the floor. It will also be fascinating to see if they can get back to where they were last year and somehow redeem themselves for Game 6 and, for Duncan, the missed bunny in Game 7.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: There are a number of players I’m expecting to show up and show out in the playoffs, the leading two candidates for MVP, of course, headline the list. But I’ve enjoyed watching Joakim Noah perform as much as I have any single player in the league this season. His playoff breakout came last year, when the Bulls surprised us with that epic effort in that seven-game series against Brooklyn. Noah’s a better player now than he was then and I can see him chasing a triple-double every night in these playoffs. No one brings more raw energy and effort to the party than the Bulls’ big man.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: It’s not exactly like he’s overlooked, but one player I traditionally love watching in the postseason is Chris Paul. The game slows down, offenses become more halfcourt-based, and having a floor general like Paul becomes essential. As great as Paul is during the season, he turns up in the postseason and finds another level. It’s the playoffs where Paul takes over games, threatening triple-doubles and commanding games. And that’s must see TV.

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: Blake Griffin. His mid-range game, his post play and his athleticism all make him compulsory viewing material. Also, Griffin — who has been at the receiving end of some really hard fouls right through the regular season — will have his patience tested, perhaps, more severely in the playoffs. It would be interesting to see how he responds in the pressure cooker environment that are the playoffs. Chris Paul is undoubtedly the nerve center of the Clippers, but Griffin has to play big if the Clippers are to have a great run.

Aldo Avinante, NBA Philippines: I think it will be fun to watch Dirk Nowitzki. He has been relatively healthy all-season long, and after the Dallas’ absence last year Dirk knows he only has a couple of playoff runs left in him. He will surely try to make the most out of it. And with that sweet stroke and unstoppable one-foot fadeaway, it will be fun to watch him torment defenders on the big stage again. DeMar DeRozan is another player to watch out for, the athletic swingman could use the playoffs as his spring board to stardom a la Paul George and provide the fans a showcase of his vastly improved skills.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: I don’t know how we should leave Paul George out of the equation. Especially after last year’s games against the Heat. Or Tim Duncan. He had a phenomenal regular season and it’s really interesting to see if he can carry on his second youth during the postseason.

Blogtable: A surprising champion

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


BLOGTABLE: Memories | One to watch | A surprise champ


A darkhorse? Maybe not, but the Clippers could still be a surprise in June. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

A darkhorse? Maybe not, but the Clippers could still be a surprise in June. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

> Your definition, your choice, your reasoning: Your darkhorse pick to win the NBA title.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comDo the Clippers qualify as a dark horse? I’d argue yes and pick them, because that insta-champion business – last witnessed in Boston in June 2008 – is no simple thing. Doc Rivers might wind up as the link from the last one to the next one if his ability to manage both his roster and the unique challenges of the postseason mesh just so. The Clippers clearly have the talent, both to survive the West and to topple the three-peat-aiming Miami Heat.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: In the past, the Clippers were just Lob City and a bunch of nightly highlight reel dunks.  In his first season as coach, Doc Rivers has given them a sense of purpose and direction.  He’s demanded and gotten more out of Blake Griffin.  He’s gotten DeAndre Jordan to play with confidence and consistency.  Of course, he’s got the best point in the game in Chris Paul running the show.  A healthy J.J. Redick gives them the outside shooting to keep defenses honest and Matt Barnes defends on the wing.  They are deeper than ever with Jamal Crawford again making a run at Sixth Man of the Year and get help from Darren Collison, Jared Dudley, Glen Davis and Danny Granger.  Rivers knows what it takes to run the playoff gauntlet and his ability to inject a new sense of personal responsibility and commitment to the task has these Clippers looking and playing vastly different than the past few years.  They are a dark horse, but one that you wouldn’t mind saddling up for a ride.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Houston. The Rockets are remarkably young, but also remarkably talented. They’ve got the perimeter (James Harden) and the middle (Dwight Howard) covered by All-Stars, plus shooters all around. Omer Asik behind Howard provides 48 minutes of crucial rim protection. They can be their own worst enemy, especially defensively, but put it all together and they can give any opponent nightmares.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I don’t put the Clippers in the darkhorse category, but a lot of other people seem to, so that’s the pick. The Clips certainly aren’t sneaking up on anyone — Blake Griffin, CP3, Lob City, Doc Rivers — but I’ve gotten the question a few times the last couple weeks: Is it possible someone other than the Spurs or Thunder would win the West? Sure it is. The team that was a realistic pick from the start of the season.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I’ve wavered back and forth on whether to deem the Thunder a darkhorse or not. But my final answer is the Clippers. Their defense hasn’t really held up against good teams, but their offense is near unstoppable, especially if J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford are healthy.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Can we really call a team with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford and Doc Rivers as coach really be considered a “dark horse?” I hope so, because the Los Angeles Clippers are my pick. They have all of the ingredients — star power, depth, balance, experience, etc. – needed to make their way to the championship round and win it all. We’ll find out of they are tough enough to endure the grind of making it that far. But there is no doubt in my mind that all of the pieces are in place. Blake’s work this season while CP3 was out and the overall improvement to DeAndre Jordan’s game are the two wild cards for the Clippers. They had to come back with those guys having improved their respective games for me to believe in them. And they did exactly what they had to do.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: My definition of a darkhorse is a team nobody is picking. My choice, well, that’s more complicated. I would have mentioned Golden State, but to me the Andrew Bogut injury might take them out of the running. I’ll throw a team out there: Houston. The Rockets strike me as a team that haven’t hit their stride just yet. They have it all: scoring, a strong interior presence, a tough perimeter defender, depth. Every year, there’s a team that gets hot and goes on a run in the postseason. Perhaps this spring we’ll see the Rockets’ red glare.

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: I’ve been saying a lot lately that I think only five teams can win the title (two from the East and three from the West) so my selection probably won’t sound like a dark horse. Anyway, I’m going with the Clippers as the only team outside of the Spurs and Thunder who can win the West and then, challenge for a title. We all know about their credentials offensively and they have two top-10 players, but the aspect of their game that has impressed me the most this season has been their defence, the achilles heel of this team under Vinny Del Negro. Now, with Doc Rivers in charge, they have transformed into a top-10 defensive unit and thus, can challenge for a title.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: I think the Nets really have a chance to hug the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. They were out of contention after a 10-21 start, but Jason Kidd somehow transformed a bunch of great players into a team around January and now they have the momentum, the depth, the experience and the talent to upset both Indiana and Miami and made it to the Finals. They need to be healthy, but they have a chance.

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA Brasil: I guess the Clippers qualify as a dark horse contender. The major favorites have to be Miami, San Antonio and OKC, though not necessarily in that order, right? Indiana, the Clippers and Houston are the dark horses. I pick LA’s representative. Their defense still isn’t all that great, but it’s much better than it was when the season started. They have a coach who has won a ring – one of only four championship-winning coaches still in the tournament – they added key veterans with Finals experience via free agency late in the season, and I feel that Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have matured enough to absorb the punishment they will take from teams still questioning their toughness, especially Golden State, their opponents in the first round. Plus, it’s time for Chris Paul to take the wheels and lead a team past the second round, even if he has to beat Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to do it.

Blogtable: Fave regular-season moment

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


BLOGTABLE: Memories | One to watch | A surprise champ



VIDEO: Derrick Rose sinks the game-winner to beat the Knicks on Oct. 31, 2013

> A quick look back: Your favorite moment of the 2013-14 regular season.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: My favorite moment came way at the beginning: Derrick Rose’s high-arcing 12-foot game-winner from the right baseline over Tyson Chandler with 5.7 seconds left at United Center in the Bulls’ home opener. There was electricity and anticipation in the air that, alas, lasted only 10 games before the Chicago MVP candidate went down and out — again. Rose had looked good in October, leading Chicago in scoring (20.7 points a game) and hitting 44.4 percent of his 3-pointers, and everything seemed all right until … y’know. I’d also list the moments Greg Oden, Danny Granger and any other injured guy returned to action –- comebacks are a lot more enjoyable to cover than season-ending injury stories — and Shaun Livingston‘s continued ability to thrive in his revived career.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Pick a moment, any moment, in any game when Joakim Noah was hungrily, frantically, feverishly passing, rebounding, scoring, pushing, shoving, diving to the floor, doing anything to help the Bulls win the next possession and the next game in a season that he could easily have let go.  For someone who has covered the league for nearly 40 years, Noah has been pure joy to watch.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: I harken to a game I witnessed on the Kevin Durant Experience. Go back to Jan. 22 at Oklahoma City. The Portland Trail Blazers were in town with a 31-10 record. They led 95-90 with 3:45 to go. Looking good. Then Durant went MVP. A driving layup gave him 37 points and cut the deficit to 95-92. A 3-pointer gave him 40 points and tied it at 95. Reggie Jackson and Kendrick Perkins made it 99-95 OKC. Then on consecutive possessions, the first with 48 seconds to play and the second with 26 seconds left, Durant drilled killer 3s from straightaway, giving him 46 points and 11 in the final 3:45. Afterward, the dejected Blazers all but handed Durant the MVP right there and then. “MVP performance,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “He’s the MVP. He’s the MVP,” Blazers forward Nicolas Batum said. “I mean, six years I have been in this league, I have never seen a performance like that. Six years.”

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comSan Antonio’s 19-game winning streak. The consistency, the dependability, the way players who weren’t on the roster the season before stepped up, the tying for the sixth-best run in NBA history while maintaining a tight hold on minutes. It was all so Spurs-like. Oh, and everyone else was counting along more than the San Antonio players and coaches. Also so Spurs-like. Also worth remembering: Doc Rivers’ heartfelt return to Boston, the purple-splashed celebration at the opening night in Sacramento that almost wasn’t, Jerry Sloan’s tribute night in Salt Lake City. I’m sure there are other moments worth remembering that I am just not remembering.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe reception Paul Pierce got in his first game back in Boston (Jan. 26) was very cool. There are not many guys that have played 15 years in one city, and it was great to how much that connection means to the player, the franchise and the fans. Though Pierce played pretty poorly that night, every player would love to have a moment like that.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: That’s a tough one. We’re talking about an entire 82-game season and countless highlights and jaw-dropping moments. Picking one is nearly impossible. But it’ll be hard for me to shake the memory of TNT’s Charles Barkley walking in on my Hang Time One-On-One interview with Milwaukee Bucks rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo. The rookie’s jaw dropped, literally, and his eyes lit up. It was a totally impromptu moment that none of us caught on video because everyone in the room was so surprised it happened. Barkley told Antetokounmpo he needed to “eat a sandwich” before telling him how much he enjoyed watching the youngest player in the league play. Antetokounmpo was in disbelief for the next 10 minutes. He couldn’t get over his chance meeting with one of his idols. “Charles Barkley is huge,” he said before breaking into a wide smile.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: How about a look back quickly: Perhaps it’s because it’s still fresh on my mind, but that Memphis/Phoenix game the other night with a postseason trip on the line was incredible. Not only because the stakes were so high — it was essentially win or go home. But it was also because the quality of play was terrific — guys were sinking shot after shot, and it felt like they were almost willing the ball into the basket. If the level of play in the postseason comes anything close to that, should be an amazing postseason.

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA Brasil: My favorite moment of the season is still the shock and amazement of seeing the Philadelphia 76ers win their first three games in a row, especially that season-opening win versus the defending champions Miami Heat that included Michael Carter-Williams’ coming out party. Despite all the losing the young Sixers had to suffer during this season — especially that 26-game streak — “The Hyphen” and his peers can look back at that stretch and draw inspiration for climbing higher next season. Also, I loved that amazing Jeff Green 3-point shot with 0.4 seconds on the clock to beat the Heat in Miami. That was just ridiculous. And my third favorite moment was Carmelo Anthony hanging 62 points on the Bobcats to break the Knicks’ and Madison Square Garden’s scoring records.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: Is it just me, or does everybody feel that you always miss the games with crazy endings? Therefore I’m super-glad that I did, in fact, watch the two Warriors-Thunder games live in which Andre Iguodala and Russell Westbrook hit game-winners. Intense games, playoff atmosphere, perfect endings.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: I pick an All-Star moment, when Marco Belinelli won the Three-Point Contest. It was an historic moment for Italian basketball, and Marco totally deserved it because he made his way up from an end-of-the-bench guy in his first 2 seasons with the Warriors to one of the key role players in a team that can win the title. Putting my role as editor of NBA Italy aside for a moment, my favorite moment of the season is the second Heat vs. Thunder game. Those first minutes in which LeBron played like a monster are unforgettable.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: OK, I cannot be objective about that. It’s not every day that you see a Greek player featured in the No. 1 of the NBA’s Top-10 highlight reel. So, my favourite moments were Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s coast to coast block-and-dunk against the Cetlics, and when he blocked twice Kevin Durant, forcing KD to call out the rookies’ skills.

Sixth Man Of the Year: Jamal Crawford

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Jamal Crawford has made a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year

There came a point this season where Jamal Crawford was starting so many games as an injury fill-in that it seemed impossible he’d be eligible to make another run at the Kia Sixth Man of the Year award.

He won it in 2010 with Atlanta and he thought he should have won it last season with the Clippers. Instead J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks — remember him? — took the prize. This season, the Clippers wouldn’t be in control of the Western Conference’s No. 3 seed and in line to nab the No. 2 seed with a bit of help (an Oklahoma City loss) before tonight’s season finale at Portland (10:30 p.m., ET, ESPN).

Whether Crawford was coming off the bench, where he’s averaged 17.2 ppg and 3.1 apg, or putting up 20.6 ppg and 3.3 apg in 23 games as a starter in place with either J.J. Redick or Chris Paul or both out, Crawford’s playmaking and shot-making have been invaluable. The lone blemish on his resume is the left calf injury that kept him out of all but eight games since the end of February.

Two games before the calf injury occurred on Feb. 26, Crawford scored 36 points in 40 minutes as a starter to help the Clippers win at Oklahoma City. It was his 11th game of 25 points or more and fourth of 30 points or more. Since, he’s made it five with 31 points in 35 minutes off the bench on March 26 at New Orleans.

“I don’t want to toot my own horn,” Crawford told NBA.com after that Thunder game. “I think I’ve been a professional, honestly. Starting, coming off the bench, being ready at all times, I pride myself on that.”

Crawford certainly faces stiff competition. Candidates include San Antonio’s resurgent Manu Ginobili, Chicago’s rugged Taj Gibson, Phoenix’s Markieff Morris, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Nick Young, Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson and even Dallas’ Vince Carter.

Yet none electrify a game and their team with scoring outbursts quite the way Crawford can. Boasting one of the game’s great handles, the 14th-year guard can still live up to his nickname and Twitter handle, @JCrossover, defying foes with tremendous moves off the bounce to get to the rim. He splashes 3-pointers with a rainbow release from virtually any distance, connecting on the 3-ball at a 36.2 percent clip.

His 18.4 scoring average, significantly higher than any of the other candidates, would rank as the third-highest by a Sixth Man of the Year Award winner in the last 20 years behind only Jason Terry (19.6 in 2009 with Dallas) and Ginobili (19.5 in 2008). Crawford would become the oldest player to win the award and he’d join Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce and Detlef Schrempf as two-time winners.

“Growing up, it wasn’t like I wanted to be a sixth man,” Crawford recently told Ramona Shelbourne of ESPN Los Angeles. “It only happened because I got to this point where I just wanted to win more than anything. When you bring one of your top scorers, your top players off the bench, it really gives your team balance.”

The contenders

Manu Ginobili, Spurs – A year ago it seemed the Argentine might have come to the end of his rope after a glorious NBA and international run. He looked slow and out of sorts, particularly in the NBA Finals. But he came back to the Spurs, 36 years of age, and put together an inspiring bounce-back season, averaging 12.4 ppg, 4.3 apg and 3.0 mpg in 22.8 mpg.

Taj Gibson, Bulls – There should be an award for the entire Bulls team, maybe the Perseverance Award or something. Gibson continues to get better and often pushed Carlos Boozer off the floor in the fourth quarter. His larger role pushed his minutes per game up by five and he responded with 13.1 ppg, a five-point increase from last season, and 6.8 rpg, up 1.5.

Markieff Morris, Suns – Also a Most Improved Player of the Year candidate, averaging career-highs by a wide margin with 13.8 ppg and 6.0 rpg. He’s transformed himself into a dangerous mid-range shooter, making 48.6 percent of his shots, up from 40.7 percent last season and 39.9 percent as a rookie. Morris was vital to the Suns’ 47 wins with one game to go.

Reggie Jackson, Thunder – He got his training on the fly during the 2013 postseason. Since then, he’s provided the Thunder with stability and scoring off the bench as well as in the starting lineup during Russell Westbrook‘s absences. Jackson is averaging 13.1 ppg, fourth on the Thunder, 4.2 apg and 3.9 rpg in 28.5 mpg. He averaged 5.3 ppg and 14.2 mpg last season.

Vince Carter, Mavericks – Carter has kept himself in tip-top physical condition and, at 39.5 percent, has transformed himself into a dangerous 3-pointer shooter. No player in the league has come off the bench and dropped more than Carter’s 145. He’s played in all but one game this season, averaging 12.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg and 2.7 apg in 24.3 mpg.

Nick Young, Lakers – Swaggy P had his swaggy moments, like celebrating a 3-pointer that didn’t drop, but the L.A.-born sixth man was mostly money for the injury-riddled Lakers. He led the team in scoring with a career-high 17.9 ppg while hitting 38.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, his highest percentage since 2010-11.

Mills ready to fire away for Spurs

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Patty Mills hangs 26 points and six assists on the Mavs on April 10

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Meet Patty Mills, the latest once-anonymous, low-minute man to thrive as a meaningful member of the San Antonio Spurs.

In a game last week at Dallas, a bad back sidelined All-Star point guard Tony Parker. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has typically started Cory Joseph in these instances to keep Mills firing off the bench. On this night, with the Mavericks desperate for a win as they chased a playoff spot, Popovich surprised the 6-foot Mills by starting him at point guard for just the second time this season.

Mills responded by destroying Dallas’ backcourt with six 3-pointers and a game-high 26 points, six assists, a couple steals and not a single turnover in 36 minutes. If you squinted, it almost looked like the jitterbug wearing No. 8 was really Parker’s No. 9. The Spurs won the game, going on to sweep the regular-season series 4-0 against a Mavs team they might see again this weekend when the playoffs begin.

The first-round matchup will be determined Wednesday when Dallas plays at Memphis (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). The loser will assume the eighth seed and head for San Antonio. The Grizzlies are also 0-4 against the Spurs.

After the big victory over Dallas, Mills was asked if he finds himself looking ahead to the playoffs considering he’s headed for his first postseason as an integral part of a rotation.

“No, no, and obviously it’s not easy to do,” Mills said in a softly spoken Australian accent. “You really need to focus on the job at hand and we’ve got games like tonight we’ve still got to play which are going to develop us and give us a good opportunity to get better against playoff teams.”

He quickly added: “I think whether we won or lost tonight’s game, I think it was a matter of how well we played that we came out of this game, you know, better.”

It reminded of the line Popovich delivered earlier this month to his club during TNT’s timeout peek into the Spurs’ huddle at Oklahoma City:

“I could care less whether we win or lose this game. I’d rather win but I want to win the right way.”

Mills, told he sounded much like Pop, said with a grin: “I’ve been around him for a while now, so…”

Hailing from Canberra, Australia, Mills, 25, played two seasons at Saint Mary’s in Northern California and was the 55th pick of the Portland Trail Blazers in 2009. During the 2011 lockout he returned to Australia and went to China briefly. San Antonio signed him in March 2012 and re-signed him the ensuing summer. In his first full season with the Spurs, Mills averaged 11.3 mpg and 5.1 ppg in 58 games.

When the Spurs didn’t re-sign long-distance shooting guard Gary Neal  last summer, the 180-pound, quick-footed Mills ascended into the rotation.

“He can score,” Popovich said. “He’s not afraid to shoot it, that’s for sure. That’s how he plays, he’s always aggressive, that’s what he does. He’s not going to get a whole lot of rebounds or stop a whole lot of people, but he’s going to shoot it, that’s what his skill is.”

Logging a career-high 18.3 mpg in 80 games this season, Mills, making $1.1 million in his final season under contract, is averaging 10.2 ppg and converting 42.5 percent of his 3-point attempts (134-for-315) — both better marks than Neal produced last season.

Mills’ effective field-goal percentage (eFG%, adjusted for 3-pointers being more valuable than 2-pointers) is 59.4 percent, the highest in the league among reserve guards who average at least 15.0 mpg.

However, he’s entering an all new ballgame now. His postseason experience consists of scarce minutes, a total of 79 in his career. Is he prepared to produce as he has during the regular season in his first playoff pressure-cooker?

“I don’t doubt him,” Manu Ginobili said. “He’s very young and doesn’t have that much experience, but he’s played big games for Australia, and in the Olympics. The guy can score. The guy is a scorer and I don’t see a scenario where pressure can really bother him. We trust him and rely on him, too.”

Mills is fully indoctrinated in the San Antonio way. Popovich last week provided his seal of approval.

“He’s ready,” Popovich said. “He’s not a 21-year-old rookie. He’s played all over the world in all kinds of situations. He’ll be fine. I’m not worried about him.”

Suns’ Cinderella season on the brink

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Suns are trying their best to make a frantic playoff charge

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Can the Phoenix Suns summon the energy to rise once more? Or will their improbable postseason hopes finally set?

Elimination day has arrived for the league’s season-long surprise team in Game 81. Phoenix (47-33) must beat the the Memphis Grizzlies (48-32) at home tonight (10 p.m. ET, League Pass) or the book will close on its Cinderella season, and the Grizzlies will clinch the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

It will take a Herculian effort. The Suns are picking themselves up from consecutive gut-punch road losses Friday and Saturday at San Antonio and Dallas in which they lost double-digits leads in both. Team MVP Goran Dragic is playing on a badly sprained left ankle. And then there’s this: Memphis, the antithesis of Phoenix’s fastbreaking style, is the lone Western Conference team the Suns have not defeated this season; they’re 0-3. The two teams last met on Jan. 10.

“We are still going to fight until the end,” Dragic said following Saturday’s 101-98 loss at Dallas in which Phoenix lost a 13-point third-quarter lead. “We have two games left and hopefully we can win the next game against Memphis and if so, anything is possible.”

If Phoenix wins tonight, it will move into a dead heat in the standings with Memphis, but will still need help to get into the playoffs. The Suns play at Sacramento on Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass) and will likely know by tipoff or shortly thereafter if the game holds meaning. They’ll need to have Dallas to win at Memphis (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), where the Grizzlies have won 13 in a row.

“We’ve got to stay positive,” said guard Eric Bledsoe, who has put up 59 points, 15 assists, 15 rebounds, but also 14 turnovers in the last two games. “There’s still life out there. These two teams, Memphis and Dallas have to play each other, so we have to take our next two games real serious.”

Dragic sprained his ankle last Wednesday night at New Orleans, stayed in the game and played 39 minutes. He missed Friday’s game against the Spurs and returned Saturday at Dallas, heavily taped, and logged more than 40 minutes. His availability tonight could be in jeopardy.

“It’s not a good situation for me, not good timing,” Dragic said Saturday. “I twisted my ankle against New Orleans, played the whole game and after the game it swelled a lot. It’s tough. I mean, no excuses, a lot of NBA players have to go through those pains, so I have to try to help my teammates as much as I can.”

The Grizzlies, 35-15 since Jan. 1 after starting 13-17, can wrap up a fourth consecutive playoff berth with a victory tonight. That would set up Wednesday’s home game against the Mavericks, who locked up a playoff berth with Saturday’s win over Phoenix, as a fight for the seventh seed, with a remote chance at the sixth seed.

Golden State needs one more win to clinch the sixth seed and can do so tonight at home against Minnesota (10:30 p.m., ET, NBA TV).

The No. 8 seed will face the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the opening round. The No. 7 seed will likely face the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Los Angeles Clippers have an outside chance of securing the No. 2 seed.

Most Improved Player: Gerald Green

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Suns forward Gerald Green has provided plenty of highlights this season

No question, the Kia Most Improved Player Award is the most difficult of the awards to choose, and consequently the most debatable. It can keep the picker tossing and turning for nights on end.

What exactly are the parameters here? And, frankly, whatever the parameters, there’s a sizable group of guys who certainly seem eligible.

Should Kevin Love, already an All-Star, be under consideration because he missed the majority of last season with a twice broken hand and has come back with the best statistical season of his career? Or is such improvement expected from an establishled All-Star?

What about New Orleans’ second-year forward-center Anthony Davis. What a season he’s had. Except, do we also expect such improvement from the No. 1 overall pick?

Should Suns second-year center Miles Plumlee get a serious look? He’s been a solid starter from Day 1 after sitting for 68 of 82 games as a rookie with Indiana. There’s simply no data for comparison. Or, is that the ultimate comparison?

Electrifying dunk artist, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, has past data to compare, and this season compares remarkably favorably. Then there’s Oklahoma City point guard Reggie Jackson, Indiana’s Lance Stephenson, Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins and Pheonix’s Goran Dragic.

Speaking of Phoenix, it realistically has four candidates — Plumlee, Dragic, Markieff Morris and Gerald Green.

Wait, stop right there: Green.

Yes. The, lanky 6-foot-8 wing debuted in the league in 2005. Eight years later, he’s rocketed straight out of the blue. That’s improvement.

Green, 28, was the 18th overall pick of the Boston Celtics. After two seasons he was traded to Minnesota, then traded to Houston, waived by Houston, signed by Dallas and out of the league before he turned 24. Out of options in the NBA, he played in Russia for two years and another in China. He came home, played in the NBA D-League and finally got another shot in the NBA in the second half of the 2011-12 lockout season with the Nets.

He played well enough to sign a three-year contract with Eastern Conference power Indiana. He fell out of the rotation last year, and just prior to this season got traded, along with Plumlee and a first-round draft pick, to rebuilding Phoenix.

Poof. Green is legit.

Once a freakish athlete that lacked court awareness, Green still isn’t exactly a textbook on fundamentals, but he is more mature and more in control as he mixes gravity-defying dunks with dribble drives, high-rising mid-range fallaways and deep, deep daggers.

“Gerald Green, if he’s hot, he can score with the best of them in this league,” Mavericks sure-fire Hall-of-Famer Dirk Nowitzki said.

How’s this for scoring: Since the All-Star break, with every game mounting in importance as Phoenix still guns for a playoff spot entering Monday night’s crucial Game No. 81 against Memphis, Green is averaging 19.1 ppg on 45.4 percent shooting overall and 43.1 percent from beyond the arc in 29.6 mpg. His effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) — adjusted to account for 3-pointers being more valuable than 2-pointers) in that span is 54.8 percent.

Green’s season scoring average (15.9 ppg) is more than double what it was last year with the Pacers (7.0). He’s played in all 80 games, starting 47 times in injury situations. In Indiana’s slower, halfcourt-based offense, Green shot 36.6 percent overall and 31.4 percent from beyond the arc. Unleashed in first-year coach Jeff Hornacek‘s up-tempo attack, he’s blistering opponents from deep at 40-percent clip, while shooting 44.5 percent overall.

Hornacek has proven to be the perfect coach for Green, patient through mistakes and poor decisions, and always keeping the shooting light green.

“We wanted to go up and down [the floor], and try to make the team younger and more athletic and shoot a lot of 3s,” first-year Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said earlier this season. “And Gerald checked all of those boxes.”

Check.

Five contenders

DeAndre Jordan, Clippers – The sixth-year center has come of age, leading the league in field-goal percentage (67.5 percent) and rebounds (13.7 per game) — practically doubling his total rebounding from last season (7.2). He’s also averaging a career-best 10.4 ppg.

Goran Dragic, Suns – “The Dragon” has had a brilliant season after making room for fellow point guard Eric Bledsoe. Dragic easily could have been a Western Conference All-Star as he’s been the Suns’ MVP, 20.4 ppg and 5.9 apg while shooting 50.6 percent overall and 41.5 percent from deep.

Markieff Morris, Suns – Also a Sixth Man of the Year Award candidate, averaging career-highs by a wide margin with 13.7 ppg and 6.1 rpg. He’s transformed himself into a dangerous mid-range shooter, making 48.3 percent of his shots, up from 40.7 percent last season and 39.9 percent as a rookie.

Lance Stephenson, Pacers – Who had Stephenson pegged as the league-leader in triple-doubles or the Pacers leading rebounder at 7.2 rpg? He notched his fifth triple-double with Sunday’s 17-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist effort to knock of Oklahoma City to break a triple-double tie with All-Stars Stephen Curry and Joakim Noah.

Reggie Jackson, Thunder – He got his training on the fly during the 2013 postseason. Since then, he’s provided the Thunder with stability and scoring off the bench … and as a starter during Russell Westbrook‘s injuries this season. Jackson is averaging 13.2 ppg, 4.2 apg and 3.9 rpg in 28.5 mpg. He averaged 14.2 mpg last season.

Ellis delivers Dallas back to the playoffs

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Mavs knock off Suns to clinch playoff spot

DALLAS – Even as he’s reshaped his reputation through 80 games playing alongside a legend and for an offensive innovator, Monta Ellis at 7:35 p.m. Central Time on Saturday night still stood 48 minutes away from getting back into the playoffs.

Nearly three hours later, moments after a late collapse in which he missed two free throws in the final 20 seconds was narrowly averted, Ellis, smiling and surrounded by cameras and notepads, said his season-high-tying 37 points on 15-for-23 shooting, plus five assists against the equally desperate Phoenix Suns, was nothing personal.

It was all about the team, he said.

“This is nothing for me personally,” Ellis said. “I do everything for my teammates, I do everything for my organization that I play for and I leave it all on the court. That’s all.”

In an interview back in 2012, Ellis, wanting to emphasize that he is a complete player and not just a flinger, famously said “Monta have it all.” On Saturday night, with his team begging for it, he did it all.

He logged 43 minutes, 28 seconds of the 101-98 victory and every tick of the second half simply because coach Rick Carlisle couldn’t afford to take his headstrong gunner and virtuoso playmaker out of the game. When the NBA’s 10th all-time leading scorer, Dirk Nowitzki, couldn’t find a rhythm early — he scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half — Ellis attacked and never stopped.

He had 14 at halftime, the reason — with center Brandan Wright – why the Suns’ lead wasn’t bigger than 57-46. He scored 11 points in the third quarter, his back-to-back 3-pointers in transition slicing the Suns’ 11-point bulge down five. Then came 12 more in the fourth plus a strip of Channing Frye and a breakaway layup for a 94-89 Dallas lead with 4:03 to go.

“It was tough, man,” said Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who went toe-to-toe with Ellis for 29 points on 11-for-15 shooting and six assists, but with 19 seconds to go was blocked at the rim by Wright on a potential game-tying drive. “Monta is one of the premiere scorers in this league when he gets it going like that.”

Not personal? Ellis’ teammates weren’t buying it. This entire season has been personal.

“He’s missed the playoffs a whole lot, and I know he wanted it and you could tell he wanted it,” Devin Harris said. “You could tell he was engaged from the start. I’m just happy for him.”

Ellis is going back to the playoffs for just the third time in his career, and Dallas is going back after a one-year hiatus that interrupted a streak of 12 consecutive postseason appearances. For Ellis, this time is different. He’s happy. He’s counted upon.

“At the time we needed him most, he stepped up and played his biggest game of the year,” Carlisle said. “We had to play him the entire second half; we couldn’t get him out.”

Last season with Milwaukee, Ellis was miserable and has said so. So miserable he left $11 million on the table to get out. The Bucks backed into the eighth seed at 38-44 and were a first-round mop job for the Miami Heat. In 2006-07, Ellis was a second-year free-wheeler on a Warriors team that streaked into the playoffs as an eighth seed, upset the No. 1 Mavs in the first round and quickly bowed out to Utah in the second round.

This season Ellis, averaging 19.0 points on just 15.5 shot attempts, has won more games on the 49-32 Mavs than in any previous season. The irony is that in the stiff Western Conference, it will be good for only the seventh or eighth seed and a first-round playoff date against either Oklahoma City or San Antonio. When the Warriors won 48 games in 2007-08, the previous high in Ellis’ career, they failed to make the playoffs.

On Saturday night, it didn’t seem to make much difference to Ellis if Dallas had been locking up the top seed or that he needed to be near-perfect on his home floor just to secure the elusive playoff berth on the penultimate game of the regular season.

Ultimately, the season might still come to an end in short order once the playoffs begin next weekend. Dallas, which relies so heavily on old, but reliable legs — Nowtizki (35), Shawn Marion (35), and Vince Carter (37) — and their 28-year-old former chucker, has lost nine a row to the Spurs. Until taking two from Oklahoma City in the last six weeks, Dallas had lost 11 in a row to the Thunder, including the 2012 first-round sweep.

For now, Ellis was content to soak in this moment, his steely performance and what it meant for a franchise whose fans had practically come to take the postseason as a birthright to be a playoff team again.

“Ah man, it’s lovely,” Ellis said. “We set this goal at the beginning of training camp. Everybody doubted us and for us to come and be here in the playoffs, and then add our goal to get 50 wins, we got one more game to do that and get ready for the playoffs.”

Spurs get a scare; 3-team race tightens

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Spurs post ninth straight win against Mavs.

DALLAS – Gregg Popovich said it all happened so fast he didn’t have time to fear the worst. Manu Ginobili said the players looked at each other, gritted their teeth, and got a little worried. Patty Mills, the Spurs’ hero Thursday night, flat-out called seeing Tim Duncan on the floor clutching his right knee, a full-on panic.

“I panicked. I felt like my heart skipped a beat,” said Mills, who poured in a game-high 26 points that included six 3-pointers as injured starter Tony Parker‘s body double in the San Antonio Spurs’ 109-100 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. “I wanted to run back and see if he was all right, but then I was trying to foul someone so play could stop.”

The silence that surely enveloped the entire city of San Antonio could be sensed 270 miles to the north in Dallas. And why not? Even Duncan, who hyperextended the knee only to be just fine moments later after a brief stop to the training room, deemed it “very, very scary.”

“I was trying to get my bearings after it happened,” Duncan said. “The pain wasn’t that bad, but I knew it felt kind of weird; it went at kind of a weird angle. I just wanted to make sure everything was fine.”


VIDEO: Duncan admits he was scared by tweaked knee.

Was it ever. The ageless Duncan, two weeks removed from his 38th birthday, quickly returned and bludgeoned Dallas for 20 points and 15 rebounds in 39 minutes, 17 seconds — 51 seconds shy of his season high. Kawhi Leonard was brilliant with 16 points, 16 rebounds and five assists, and Mills and Danny Green combined for 11 of the Spurs’ 16 3-pointers as San Antonio kicked its one-time rival, and potential first-round playoff opponent, for a ninth consecutive time.

San Antonio (61-18) now virtually has the No. 1 seed locked up. One more win in the Spurs’ final three games or an Oklahoma City loss will do it.

“We want to end it as healthy as possible and we want to lock it up,” said Duncan, who described the regular season as dragging following last season’s heartbreak in the Finals. “We’ve come this far and we’ve worked this hard, we want to get it locked up, so another great step.”

Meanwhile for the Mavs (48-32), Thursday night continued a string of frustrating home losses. They went 4-4 on their recent franchise-long homestand, then followed it up with four straight road wins to seize the driver’s seat in the fight for the final two spots in the Western Conference with Phoenix and Memphis.

Now they’ve slipped back into eighth, behind Phoenix (47-31), while No. 9 Memphis stayed alive with Wednesday’s rousing home win over the Heat. The Mavs, Suns and Grizzlies all play each other starting Saturday night.

Thursday’s combo of the Mavs’ loss and Duncan’s massive minutes only increases the intrigue for Friday night when the rested Suns play at San Antonio before coming to Dallas for a Saturday night showdown.

Asked about playing against the Suns, Duncan said he’d go 45 minutes.

“At least 45,” he added, tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Popovich said he planned to enjoy the victory for a half-hour before delving into lineup possibilities against the Suns.

It would be highly surprising if Duncan suits up. Parker is also not expected to be back. Ginobili, who played Thursday despite a sore left calf, said he felt fine after the game and would wait to see what Popovich decides for Friday night. Whoever’s in or out shouldn’t enter the Suns’ minds. This is the Spurs. This is what they do.

Meanwhile, Memphis figures to stay in the hunt Friday with a home date against Philadelphia. The Grizzlies have won 12 in a row at the Grindhouse.

Dirk Nowitzki, who two nights ago celebrated moving into 10th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, lamented another lost opportunity at home. He finished 8-for-14 from the floor for 19 points, but managed just two points on two shot attempts in the fourth quarter when Monta Ellis finally heated up after a ragged 5-for-16 shooting start through the first three quarters.

Nowitzki, a season-long League Pass subscriber, said he’ll be tuning in for Suns-Spurs.

“I’ll probably come back tomorrow night [to the arena] a little bit and shoot, get a little rhythm, but I’m definitely going to catch the second half,” Nowitzki said. “I’ll tune in, we’ll see what happens. San Antonio’s got No. 1 locked up as far as I know, so who knows what they’re going to do.”

Westbrook keeps charging ahead

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Dennis Scott and Jerry Stackhouse discuss Russell Westrbrook and the Thunder’s defense.

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – It ain’t easy being Russell Westbrook.

On the same night LeBron James essentially conceded the MVP race to Westbrook’s more affable, more approachable and all-around great-guy-of-a-superstar teammate, Kevin Durant, Westbrook went full bionic mode on Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers.

He delivered the goods on a night Durant couldn’t drop it in the nearby Pacific. Mr. Efficiency went 8-for-26 and 1-for-7 from beyond the arc, although his one long ball was a drop-dead killer late in the fourth quarter.

Westbrook’s 30 points on 12-for-24 shooting, 11 rebounds — including two superhero-style, swooping offensive boards during the tense, final two minutes — six assists, two steals and one turnover in 33 minutes essentially sealed the 107-101 victory and locked up the No. 2 seed for the Thunder.

It’s a good thing Westbrook — he who shoots too much, facilitates for Durant too little, drives to the rim too wildly, coughs it into the first row too often and generally runs the offense with the court IQ of a Gatorade cooler — churns critics’ persistent negativity into fuel.

Can’t win a title with Westbrook … Durant deserves a pass-first point guard … Doesn’t he get it? He’s Pippen, not Jordan!

It’s not that some criticism is not without merit. Yet, with Westbrook as his point guard, Durant is on his way to a fourth scoring title in five seasons. Had he not eased off the gas a year ago to allow Carmelo Anthony his only crown, it’d be five in a row since Westbrook’s second season.

When Westbrook’s third surgery on his right knee in eight months sidelined him from Dec. 26 through the All-Star break, Durant averaged 35.0 ppg on 22.4 shot attempts per game. Since Westbrook’s return on Feb. 20, Durant has averaged 32.0 ppg on 20.6 shot attempts.

From Westbrook’s debut in the third game of the season following a second surgery, until he would unsuspectingly need a third surgery after his Christmas Day triple-double, Westbrook averaged 17.3 shot attempts in 32.9 mpg. In 18 games back, he’s averaging 16.0 shot attempts in 27.5 mpg.

Westbrook’s numbers in 43 games played are 21.7 ppg, 6.9 apg and 5.7 rpg. From his first stint to his second, Westbrook’s scoring average and shooting percentage are up; his shot attempts and turnovers, albeit slightly, are down (and so, too, are his minutes by design). The ferocity with which he attacks the rim and sacrifices his body for loose balls never waned even when it only seemed natural that it should.

Yet that courageous aspect to his rudely interrupted season seems more often swept aside.

If the Thunder don’t win the championship come June, or worse, they don’t get out of the ruthless Western Conference, anvil-weighted blame will undoubtedly land in the lap of whichever pair of chaotic-print chinos Westbrook will be wearing.

It doesn’t seem to matter that at age 22 he was the Thunder’s point guard when they advanced to the Western Conference finals. Or that at 23 he was the point guard when the Thunder fell to the Year 2 Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Or that a season ago he was the point guard of a 60-win Thunder team, one favored to give the Heat a rematch before Rockets guard Patrick Beverley undercut him in the first round and ripped his meniscus.

Now 25, the same age as the ever-evolving Durant and the ever-improving Serge Ibaka, Westbrook’s critics seem to judge him as if a finished product: a delightfully athletic specimen, but one lacking the intellect or desire or selflessness, or all three, to mature, to refine, to gain perspective, to make better on-court decisions. It doesn’t seem to matter that he’s an eyelash shy of averaging at least 7.0 apg in four of his six seasons, or that he’s twice averaged more than 8.0.

For years the rumbling has been that he and Durant aren’t made for each other, that Westbrook’s flinging will ultimately drive Durant crazy enough to seek a more deferential running mate. Durant, of course, has only professed admiration and joy for his partner.

They are of differing personalities to be sure — Durant being the silky smooth operator and Westbrook the unbroken mustang — but nevertheless capable of winning titles, plural, together. Durant is signed through 2016; Westbrook through 2017.

Yet if these two stars ever do part, championship or not, it will likely be Westbrook, and not Durant, who forces the split, weary of the scrutiny and subsequent blame or lack of recognition for whatever happens from here on out.

For now, by all accounts, they eagerly and willfully, and thankfully so for basketball fans, chase glory together.