Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Hornacek’

Pop (hmmph) picks up third Coach award

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The best of Gregg Popovich (2013 playoffs)

SAN ANTONIO — Even after coaching 217 playoff games over the last 17 seasons, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich embarked on another postseason Sunday with butterflies swirling.

“Heck yeah,” Popovich quipped 90 minutes before the Spurs began their 17th consecutive playoffs under the coach everybody knows as ‘Pop.’ “If you don’t get nervous, you’re dead.”

The gruff Air Force Academy graduate is maybe the only coach in U.S. sports who has to come to be as celebrated for his typically terse exchanges with the media — particularly for his now famous, one-word retorts to television sideline reporters — as he is for his enduring legacy with a single franchise.

On Tuesday, Popovich, 65, added yet another layer to his rich, sure-fire Hall of Fame career as the recipient of the Red Auerbach Trophy as the 2013-14 NBA Coach of the Year. He led the Spurs to a 62-20 record, the best record in basketball, made more impressive because it came on the heels of a devastating loss last year in the NBA Finals.

“I feel very honored for a whole lot of reasons,” Popovich said at the news conference announcing the award. “First of all because there were so many coaches who did such a great job this year. I think it was really unique. A lot of people were really special and to be singled out is pretty humbling. I know I’ve been very lucky for a good number of years and I know full well I just represent part of what goes on here.”

It’s his third Coach of the Year honor and second in the last three years. He joins Don Nelson and Pat Riley as the only coaches to win the award three times. Popovich totaled 380 points, including 59 first-place votes, from a panel of 124 sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the United States and Canada.

First-year Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek finished second with 339 votes, Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau was third, Charlotte’s first-year coach Steve Clifford was fourth and Toronto’s Dwane Casey finished fifth in the voting. (Complete voting totals here.)

Popovich also won the award following the 2011-12 season and also for 2002-03, the season in which Manu Ginobili joined Tim Duncan and Tony Parker to form the Big Three. They won their first of three championships that season. (Popovich won another title with Duncan and David Robinson back in 1999.) The Spurs entered these playoffs as the reigning Western Conference champions, boasting the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

That consistency is the hallmark of Popovich’s 18-year career in San Antonio. This season included a 19-game winning streak and only one losing streak of more than two games (three, back in late January). The Spurs extended their streak of winning at least 50 games to an NBA record 15 consecutive seasons.

The Spurs’ 62 wins is their second-highest total under Popovich, one fewer than the 2005-06 team. This team was an offensive juggernaut, ranking sixth in the league in offensive efficiency (points per 108.2 points per 100 possessions) and No. 1 in 3-point shooting at 39.7 percent. At the other end they ranked fourth overall in defensive efficiency and second in the Western Conference.

Popovich achieved it while masterfully managing his team’s minutes and particularly his two aging stars, Duncan, 38, and Ginobili, 36. Popovich limited every player on the roster to less than 30 minutes a game while nine players averaged at least 18.9 mpg.

“We saved minutes all year long so we could give those minutes come playoff time,” Popovich said.

Rick Adelman‘s announcement Monday that he was stepping down as coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves moved Popovich to the top of the list of career victories among active coaches — ninth on the all-time list — with a record of 967-443. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers (644-498) is second and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle (569-339), who is matching wits with Popovich in their first-round playoff series, is third.

“Pop’s the best coach in the game and for my money he’s the best coach in history because of what he’s been able to do over a period of almost two decades, keeping the same system and just plugging in different players,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s been phenomenal.”

Popovich is the longest-tenured coach with the same team in all four major professional U.S. sports.

Jeff Hornacek talks Suns’ 48-win season

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Suns’ Goran Dragic is a nominee for Kia Most Improved Player

DALLAS – The Phoenix Suns added their name to a very short list of teams to win 48 games and not make the playoffs. Their pleasantly stunning season has sparked increased debate about whether the NBA should look at ditching the conference model and put the 16 teams with the best record into the postseason.

Suns coach Jeff Hornacek vaulted to the top of the Coach of the Year discussion early on and, like his team, never faded. Phoenix was believed to be a team headed for major ping-pong balls come the lottery, a team constructed of journeymen and unproven parts expected to top out at around 25 victories.

The first-time head coach will have competition from Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Portland’s Terry Stotts, Charlotte’s Steve Clifford, Toronto’s Dwane Casey and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.

“Jeff is an awesome coach,” Suns point guard and team MVP Goran Dragic said. “He was a great player and he understands the game. As a coach, he sees things differently and he is always calm and gives us that extra confidence. He works hard with young players after practice and he gives us the strength to fight the whole season.”

Here’s how Hornacek views his rookie season on the bench:

Q: How did you manage to quickly establish a winning culture in a locker room with high turnover?

A: That’s the one thing going into this season we wanted them to do, just play hard, play together and for the most part they’ve done that. These guys care about each other, they’re a very close-knit team and that gives you an opportunity for success.

Q: How did Gerald Green, NBA.com’s choice as Most Improved Player, find success this season and bouncing in and out of the league?

A: Gerald is a guy who can get his shot off anywhere — and he does (laughs). He’s got great confidence in his shooting. He’s done a much better job of not just settling for the jump shot, but he’ll take it to the basket. If he gets a step and has a chance to jump, you know how good of an athlete he is, he usually gets the ball in the basket. He’s improved in terms of his consistency. It’s not where he’s jacking up 10 3s and making two of them. He realizes that if he’s not making them, he moves in and tries to take a different shot and that’s been big. I think that’s where a lot of his improvement’s come.

Q: It’s been said that you are the perfect coach for him and the system is a perfect fit. Do you agree with that?

A: He’s bought into what we’re trying to do, it kind of fits his style. We don’t mind running up and shooting quick 3s. I think his eyes light up when one of our point guards, Goran or Eric [Bledsoe], sprint down the court and he’s filling a lane. Guys have great confidence in him and they look for him now because they know he can get hot and make six, seven in a row. It’s a big part of what we do and he’s been great this year.

Q: You played for and coached under Hall of Fame Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. What aspects of his coaching style or philosophies did you incorporate into yours?

A: When we went into it I tried to take a little bit from all the coaches. With Jerry, it’s just go out there and try to play every play like it’s your last, that’s what Jerry always stressed and we’re constantly talking about that. We’re an inexperienced team in terms of playing games so those guys are learning on the fly of how to do that night in and night out, and then get to every play. You can’t have three or four plays that, ‘Oh I forgot,’ or ‘I spaced off’ or whatever it is because that’s going to be enough to cost you the game. Jerry was always on that: Play every play like it’s your last and we try to get that from our guys.

Q: Not sure if even you could have predicted the level of success the team had this season. What does it mean for the franchise when 20-something wins seemed to be the ceiling?

A: Well, the whole part of the rebuilding is you’re going to have steps. From a team that was supposed to win maybe 20 games, we thought if we can get to 30, 35, start establishing things, maybe next year make a push for the playoffs and the year after that get in the playoffs, the kind of stepping stones that you have to go through. Maybe we just skipped a rung. I think it’s great.

Q: Why were you able to skip a rung?

A: I don’t know. It’s always tough in the NBA, especially the way guys switch teams nowadays. The chemistry part is big. And our guys, we had 10 new guys, you never how that’s going to come together, they’ve gotten along pretty well. We emphasized in the beginning, you’re a bunch of new guys, you’re a lot of guys that have contracts that end this year or they end next year, so that’s always kind of a recipe for disaster when guys try to get individual, worried about their contracts. I told them stories about some of our guys from the past, that when you’re on a good team that’s when teams want you, that’s when they’ll pay bigger bucks if you’re on a good team. And so if we’re a good team, all that stuff will come, don’t worry about it, just play and try to win games and that’s what they’ve done. They’ve put it all aside and just played.

Q: When did you first see signs that your team could be pretty good?

A: Early in the season we lost a couple of close games to San Antonio and Oklahoma City at their place and our guys; when you’re in a rebuilding mode a lot of times guys are talking about, ‘hey, that’s a moral victory. Hey look, we played well.’ Our guys were ticked off, they were mad about it. So, to me, as kind of a competitive player, I think, I took that as a sign that, hey, we could be OK this year because these guys care and they want to win.

Q: You paired two point guards, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, in the same backcourt. Why did you believe they could complement one another?

A: I just kind of envisioned it because I saw what Kevin Johnson and I went through way back in the day when you had two guards out there and we wanted to be an up-tempo team. We felt that the best way to do that is to have two guys you can outlet the ball to. We don’t need it in one guy’s hand when you can throw it to anybody. We just kind of, [general manager] Ryan McDonough, when we talked about if it could work, he said, ‘yeah I think it would be great getting them from one side to the other. Teams have to look at the mismatches. Someone’s going to have the advantage as good as those two guys are.

Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Gregg Popovich once again has the Spurs playing at a high level. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

Gregg Popovich once again has the Spurs playing at a high level. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

If you took a poll of their peers and asked them to name, year in and year out, the best coach in the NBA, the same name usually would show up.

Gregg Popovich.

That’s what happens when you spend 18 years establishing roots and a philosophy in a Spurs franchise that produces four NBA titles, 15 consecutive seasons of at least 50 victories and the best record in the Western Conference three of the past four seasons.

“I think for everybody in the league, you hope to get to that point where the established players, Hall of Fame type players, play in a system together for a long time,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “They know each other, know the amount of effort that it takes, know how to get ready for games and how to get ready for series and how to get ready to win championships. All those things come from some time. It’s been a phenomenal run. In my career in the NBA, it’s been the most sustained long run. It’s just amazing that Pop gets them to play the same way every year.”

But especially this year, when the pages on the calendar cry out that Tim Duncan is soon-to-be 38, Manu Ginobili is 36 and Tony Parker is 31. Especially this year when the Spurs have worn the scars of their devastating loss of a fifth championship that was in their grasp until the last 28 seconds of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. Especially this year when Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Parker and Ginobili all spent stretches of time on the shelf with injuries or assorted aches and pains.

“Even if you have talent in this league, it isn’t as easy as people think,” Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. “You have to get guys to come together and get them to buy in and find a way that they can play as a team.”

Popovich, the longest-tenured coach in any professional sport, has won Coach of the Year honors twice before in 2003 and 2012. But the work he’s done this season just might be his finest.

He is the first to tell you that the Spurs keep winning year after year because they have the talent, professionalism and unselfish nature of their Big Three to be committed to common team goals. But they continue to succeed again and again because Popovich has ingrained a system where the ball moves to find the open man and the best shot on offense and the defenders’ feet move to cut off open shots by their opponents.

The cast of supporting characters changes frequently, but what doesn’t is the requirement to stick to the same basic, demanding understanding of how the game is played. He won’t lower his own expectations, but will constantly raise your own.

This season Popovich has coaxed and nurtured the Spurs to 62 wins in the powerful Western Conference, all while carefully managing the minutes of his stars. Not a single player on the roster plays an average of 30 minutes per game. Parker is at 29.6, Duncan and Leonard at 29.2, Ginobili 22.8. Parker is the team’s leading scorer at only 16.7 per game, but the Spurs have nine different players averaging at least 9.1.

The Spurs are strong. They are deep. They are resilient and healthy going into the playoffs and ready again to drill into opponents what has been drilled into them — the sheer simplicity and brutal efficiency of playing one way.

Pop’s way. Which proved to be the best way. Again.

The contenders

Doc Rivers, Clippers — The veteran coach made the cross country hop and immediately changed the culture and the attitude of the franchise. He demanded and got more out of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and made a good team into a real playoff threat.

Jeff Hornacek, Suns — Getting his first chance as head coach, the last thing Hornacek wanted to hear was lottery talk. He took a disparate group of players and got them to share the ball and make the most of their ability. Nearly winning 50 games in the West is not to be undervalued.

Tom Thibodeau, Bulls — When Derrick Rose went down in the 10th game, he could have cursed the fates. When Luol Deng was given away to Cleveland, he could have thrown up his hands. Instead Thibodeau keeps grinding and now the Bulls are a fearsome matchup for anyone in the playoffs.

Steve Clifford, Bobcats — Another rookie head coach who gave the Bobcats what they’d been lacking for so long — an identity and a plan. He turned the worst defense in the league into one of the best (No. 6), made Al Jefferson the calling card of his offense and lifted Charlotte into the playoffs.

Executive of the Year: Ryan McDonough

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: McDonough answers questions from fans

Architects and general contractors hear all the oohs and aahs. Demolition crews just try to get in and get out, completing their gnarly but necessary work without soiling the carpet.

Phoenix’s Ryan McDonough figured to be one of the latter, doing a lot more tear-down than build-up in his first full year as the Suns’ general manager. Only he axed and crowbarred his way to something pretty impressive, winding up as the choice here at Hang Time HQ as the NBA’s 2013-14 Executive of the Year.

Technically, none of us in the media votes for the EOY — that’s done by executives from the 30 teams. But McDonough would get points from anywhere for helping turn the Suns into one of the league’s happiest stories from start nearly to end. Don’t put too much stock in that flameout in the final week. The Suns nearly doubled last season’s victory total (they won only 25 then) and became only the second team to win 48 and miss the postseason since the NBA went to its 16-team format. Their record would have tied for third in the East.

This is a tale of the Suns rising in the West and the role McDonough played. In this year of (cough) “tanking” — more accurately described as avowed rebuilding — Phoenix was supposed to be bottom and center. McDonough made moves to clear the roster, open up salary-cap space and stockpile draft picks, rounding up a coaching staff fresh and upbeat enough to endure the losing without fraying.

Double their victories? Bah. Las Vegas oddsmakers pegged the Suns’ over/under at 21.5, a swoon from last season.

It didn’t take long for Phoenix to make the experts look silly. They won five of their first seven and were 17-10 by Christmas. They topped last year’s victory total before the end of January and were in sixth place a day after the All-Star break.

How did this all come together? Let us count the ways in which McDonough transformed-not-tanked:

  • He hired Jeff Hornacek as a rookie head coach, getting someone who, true, faced no pressure to win and brought a temperament suited to taking the expected lumps. But the former NBA shooting guard had played for and learned from some of the game’s most-innovative coaches – Jerry Sloan in Utah, John MacLeod and Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix, Doug Moe in Philadelphia — synthesizing a strategy from them. Hornacek didn’t need to hitch himself to a franchise/superstar player, getting plenty of whole from the sum of Suns parts. His players feel ownership in the surprising results, while he hasn’t had to wrangle any massive egos.
  • Trading for Eric Bledsoe, though, was a big-time move, worthy of the most ambitious contender. McDonough liked Bledsoe’s rookie contract, sure, but he also liked the prospect of sticking him alongside Goran Dragic in the backcourt. That gave Phoenix maximum playmaking options and the tandem clicked — the Suns were 23-11 when the two started together.
  • Acquiring Bledsoe brought along veteran forward Caron Butler, who was so leery of suffering through a dreary season that he lobbied for and got a trade to … Milwaukee? Worked out OK for Butler eventually (he ended up in Oklahoma City), worked out better for the Suns, who got back backup guard Ish Smith. Smith has been a valuable and speedy reserve.
  • Let’s not forget the future first-round draft pick McDonough got for veteran Luis Scola, another fellow who preferred a backup role on a good team to a starting job with a projected loser. But wait, there was more: the Pacers also sent Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee to Phoenix. Plumlee has been a helpful big, but Green has been reborn — or sold his soul to ol’ Lucifer. The much-traveled wing with the rarely harnessed skills is a top contender to be voted 2013-14′s Most Improved Player.
  • Gifting center Marcin Gortat to Washington, along with Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee for injured Wizards big man Emeka Okafor and a future first-rounder. Everyone knew the prognosis for Okafor — out all season with a herniated disc in his neck — so nothing screamed “tank!” more than McDonough swapping healthy for hurt a few days before Opening Night. Washington has been thrilled with Gortat but you’d have to say he’s been valued there more than he’s been missed in Phoenix. Plumlee has plugged in fine and Gortat’s erasure — along with Jared Dudley‘s, a disappointment with the Clippers — has enabled the Suns to play faster.

McDonough didn’t have his fingerprints on all Phoenix improvements. Dragic is getting all-NBA attention, Markieff Morris earned himself a bunch of Sixth Man votes and Channing Frye might be Comeback Player of the Year if the league hadn’t replaced that with the MIP. All preceded McDonough in Phoenix.

But McDonough has served competing masters, positioning Phoenix well with picks and with money to woo free agents. Shouldn’t be long before our Exec of the Year puts down his crowbar and picks up a scalpel to tweak a team well past the tear-down stage.

The contenders:

Daryl Morey, Houston. Landing Dwight Howard, despite the once-glamorous Lakers’ advantages, was a biggie unto itself. But this darling of the analytics crowd has been wheeling and dealing creatively all along. The Rockets are a playoff handful for any opponent, any round, and might be set up best to take a real run at Carmelo Anthony should the Knicks scorer actually consider leaving New York.

Rod Higgins, Charlotte. Hiring Steve Clifford, another COY contender, was a move that smacked of the Bulls tapping Tom Thibodeau in 2010. Signing Al Jefferson proved to be a bigger win-win, dropping Big Al into the Bobcats’ culture to be a leader and an anchor, while eliciting the best performance of his career.

Neil Olshey, Portland. Did you know that Robin Lopez was going to have a breakthrough season? Or that Mo Williams would prove so effective off the bench behind Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews? The biggest benefit of those Olshey moves was calming LaMarcus Aldridge, the All-Star power forward who no longer makes noise about exiting.

Danny Ferry, Atlanta. Letting Josh Smith walk while opting instead for Paul Millsap, at a much better value (two years, $19 million vs. Smith’s four years, $54 million), was a heist for Ferry. So was the easy decision to match Jeff Teague‘s offer sheet from Milwaukee at a reasonable price — four years, $32 million — for a full-service point guard without most of Brandon Jennings‘ (three years, $24 million) flaws. Ferry also hired Mike Budenholzer, Gregg Popovich’s former right-hand man with the Spurs.

Masai Ujiri, Toronto. Sometimes it’s addition by subtraction, moving Rudy Gay to Sacramento to get the bump every team apparently does when unloading the skilled forward. And sometimes it’s the move you don’t make at all: Dwane Casey had one of those “expiring contracts” that don’t have much allure among coaches, and the guy who hired him (Bryan Colangelo) got deleted last summer. But Casey’s defensive bent and calm, mature approach were given enough time to pay off in the Atlantic Division crown.

 

Grizzlies deserve praise for grit, grind and playoff perseverance

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Grizzlies scratch out a crucial win against the Suns

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – You’ll have to forgive the Memphis Grizzlies for scoffing at the idea of a short NBA regular season.

For a team that suffered through a tumultuous 15-19 start to 2013-14 after making the 2013 Western Conference finals, the Grizzlies 34-14 finish (which includes Monday night’s playoff-clinching win over the Phoenix Suns) is a testament to the power of the grit-and-grind movement the that has been cultivated in Memphis the past few seasons.

We counted them out early, there’s no shame in admitting it now.

But they persevered, kept the playoffs in their sights and battled their way through for that final playoff spot. The Suns are being praised for fighting their way into the playoff mix in a season that most of us assumed would end exactly where it did … in the lottery. It’s the way the Suns went about their business, though, that captivated the basketball-loving public.

This season, they were surprising, exciting and as entertaining to watch as any team in the league. Even though it goes against everything I believe in, this is one of those rare times where I would advocate a change to the traditional playoff structure, if only to watch the Suns play four or five more games.

Jeff Hornacek will get the love he deserves in the Coach of the Year balloting, just as Goran Dragic and Gerald Green will get their due during awards season. Their accomplishments will be appreciated in the end.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph talks after the Grizz top the Suns in Phoenix

The Grizzlies, whose style isn’t nearly as pleasing to the flash-and-dash crowd, are just as worthy of our attention. So while it’s fine to bemoan the Suns just narrowly missing out on the postseason, we should spend just as much time heading into the postseason appreciating the fine work of new coach Dave Joerger as well as Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony AllenCourtney Lee, Mike Miller and the rest of Memphis’ relentless crew.

“This is a culmination of not just this week or not just March or April, this is a culmination of everything we’ve been through since December,” Joerger said after the clinching win over the Suns. “For these guys, it’s a happy locker room, a relieved locker room and just a bunch of very proud guys with great chemistry.”

A Grizzlies front office that was second-guessed repeatedly (here and beyond) throughout the course of this season for replacing Lionel Hollins with Joerger (and other decisions) should be feeling good that their calculated risks paid off.

In a business notorious for the what-have-you-done-lately belief to determine a franchise’s success, the Grizzlies’ brass went against the grain and proved the haters wrong. They beat back every theory that said they shouldn’t finish the season with a playoff bid, and that includes the in-house data model constructed by vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger 

The folks who should be really worried about the Grizzlies grinding their way into the postseason live in San Antonio and Oklahoma City. The Spurs and Thunder are the ones who’ll have to deal with Randolph, Gasol, Allen and Conley by the weekend. They’ll be someone else’s headache in a few days and that’s an issue that every other team in the Western Conference playoff mix would admit to not wanting to deal with.

“No one wants to play Memphis in the first round,” an assistant coach for a Western Conference team told me weeks ago, long before the final spot was locked up. “With Z-Bo and Gasol you’re going to get your big men beat up right away. That’s not a good look for anybody. They’re attacking you in the middle and with that physical style. You have to survive them in a playoff series.”

The Grizzlies have added weapons this year in Miller and Lee, guys who can stretch the floor in ways the Grizzlies have not been able to in the recent past. Had Gasol not missed 22 games with injury, there’s no telling how high the Grizzlies might have finished in the standings.

With everyone healthy and the Grizzlies’ collective playoff experience, there isn’t a more dangerous team in the entire postseason landscape. They might not be the darlings that the Suns were all season, but the Grizzlies are certainly the sort of team anyone should be able to appreciate this time of year.


VIDEO: Zach Randolph scores 32 in the playoff-clinching win over the Suns

Morning Shootaround — April 15


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bright future in Phoenix | Kupchak still non-committal on D’Antoni’s future | Report: Knicks to add Odom? | Lillard inks big shoe deal with adidas | Raptors celebrate milestone victory

No. 1: Suns inspired about future despite tough loss — In the history of the Phoenix Suns franchise, the team has recorded 47 or more wins 23 different times. But perhaps this time of hitting that number of wins has been more rewarding than any others in the past. While Phoenix’s playoff dream died last night with a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, there’s no denying the Suns proved many experts (including those on this very web site) wrong all season long. Although the Suns will miss the playoffs for a record fourth straight season, there’s plenty of reason to look ahead in Arizona, writes Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic:

The franchise’s hard luck now lays claim to four of NBA history’s six winningest teams to not make the playoffs. A three-game losing streak in the final week leaves the Suns (47-34) out of the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season, the franchise’s longest postseason drought since 1971-75.

“If we had three All-Stars and don’t make the playoffs, then you go, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ but we had guys who proved they can play in this league and play at a high level,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “I thought we did the best we could.”

Memphis is the type of team that has given the Suns problems all season because it keeps them from their fastbreaking strengths with a physical, grinding method. The Suns went 3-13 this season against the NBA’s six slowest-paced teams, with Memphis being the slowest with a great half-court defense.

“It makes it tough on the executing part,” Hornacek said. “As a team, we’re not quite at that point where we can play in the half-court and execute plays over and over. Our strength is getting out in the open court.”

“It’s always tough when you finish the season and then you look back and you’re saying, ‘OK, the game against the Lakers (a 115-99 loss on at March 30), we should’ve won that, a game against Sacramento (lost twice in Sacramento),” Dragic said. “You have to take care of business home and away against those teams that are not so successful. It’s really tough when you have to play the last three games against San Antonio, Dallas and Memphis and we came out short.”

And as Coro points out in a separate story, Suns guard Eric Bledsoe has made a solid case for a long-term future in Phoenix, too:

The way Bledsoe has risen to the occasion over the past two weeks has shown the Suns and their fans — and, perhaps most importantly, Bledsoe — just how special he can be. Bledsoe is figuring out his stardom on the same timeline as the Suns and their fans.

He is only 24 years old, is in his first season as a starter, has lost 39 games to injury and is coming off knee surgery. He just posted his best three career scoring games in a span of nine nights when the pressure was on the most. Bledsoe came within an assist of his first triple-double, and within a free throw of three 30-point games.

And this is just the learning stage for him.

“His strength, his scoring, his defense, his facilitating stuff,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “I haven’t seen a point guard that strong at his size in a long time that can do all the things he can do. He’s a load to deal with.”

Bledsoe’s court vision was the first thing that surprised the Suns in the fall, and it only will improve, assuming his court acumen does. His perimeter shot already is turning around.

Coupled with his powerful driving ability, it has changed his career 43.1 shooting percentage into a 48.0 clip this season.

“When he needed to step up his game, he did,” Suns guard Goran Dragic said.

“The biggest thing we’re reminding him is to keep attacking,” said Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, who has teased Bledsoe about his conditioning, pointing out how often he walks the ball up. “If he can attack like a Monta Ellis does, he’s hard to stop. He gets through there, and he’s strong. I think he realizes he can become one of the best players in the league with hard work.

“He’s got that fire and drive.”

The Suns already knew they would match any July offer sheet that Bledsoe might sign in restricted free agency or even beat any team to it with the advantage of offering him an extra year with larger raises.

That might have been a mixed sell for an unproven player had he ended this season with no comeback or a shaky return from knee rehabilitation. To see the Bledsoe that has finished the season, it shows how advantageous it is to be a proactive front office that acquires a budding star in a trade rather than leaning on free agency.

“Hopefully, he’s capable of staying here another few years,” Suns power forward Channing Frye said. “That’d be nice. He’s just developing as a point guard. He was concerned about his turnovers, and I told him, ‘Dude, you’re passing. You’re ahead of the game.’ I’ve played with some of the best, and between him and Goran, I’m pretty excited about the future of the Phoenix Suns.”


VIDEO: Suns players react to Monday’s loss to the Grizzlies

***

No. 2: Kupchak quiet about D’Antoni’s future — Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has one game left this season — a road game in San Antonio on Wednesday, the season’s final night. Could that also be the end of D’Antoni’s days as L.A.’s leader? The word out of the Lakers’ camp remains vague at best (last thing we heard from GM Mitch Kupchak was that Kobe Bryant wouldn’t have a say in D’Antoni’s coaching future). After last night’s victory in Salt Lake City over the Utah Jazz, Kupchak remains non-committal about D’Antoni, writes Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

Mitch Kupchak paused for several seconds. It wasn’t an easy question to answer.

What will be Mike D’Antoni’s fate?

Finally, the Lakers’ general manager spoke briefly about the Lakers’ coach.

“I’m not going to discuss Mike other than to say there is no timetable for any type of decision. So there’s really nothing to share,” Kupchak told The Times.

It represented a departure from his comments last month that D’Antoni was “doing a great job under the circumstances.”

That might still be true. The Lakers have lost a staggering 308 man-games to injury this season, making it hard to judge any coach.

But Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol aren’t fans of D’Antoni’s offense and most Lakers followers don’t support D’Antoni, even though he hasn’t had a healthy roster in his two seasons.

So there’s a lot to mull for the Lakers.

In D’Antoni’s favor, the Lakers owe him $4 million next season and are tired of paying people not to coach them. In the last 10 seasons, only Phil Jackson was not still owed money when he left the team.

Rudy Tomjanovich was paid $9 million when he abruptly resigned as the Lakers’ coach midway through the 2004-05 season. He was in the first season of a five-year, $30-million deal and later served as a consultant for the team.

The Lakers initially owed Mike Brown $7 million when they fired him five games into last season. They recouped about $2.5 million of that money, as per NBA rules, when Brown was hired to coach Cleveland this season.

The Lakers don’t want the reputation of a coaching turnstile.

D’Antoni declined to speculate on his job status Monday. Asked about his future, he said he was prepared for exit meetings with players Thursday and Friday. And he was eager for Easter.

He gave a typically self-deprecating answer when asked how he kept his sanity this season.

“What sanity?” he said.

***

No. 3: Report: Knicks, Odom nearing deal — The Knicks are out of the playoffs and have just two games left in their woebegone season. But it seems that new GM Phil Jackson isn’t about to wait until the offseason to start stirring up New York’s roster. According to Marc Stein of ESPN.com, Jackson is close to having a reunion with his former Sixth Man of the Year winner with the Los Angeles Lakers, Lamar Odom:

Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks are progressing toward a deal to sign veteran free agent Lamar Odom before the NBA regular season ends Wednesday, according to sources briefed on the situation.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Knicks are on course, barring an unforeseen snag, to formally sign Odom this week in a move that would put him on their roster immediately and, more importantly, include a team option for next season.

Structuring the deal this way, after a tumultuous 12 months for one of Jackson’s favorite players when they worked together with the Los Angeles Lakers, would give the Knicks two months before free agency begins July 1 to get the 34-year-old into their program and start working with him.

The Knicks, sources say, would want to use the extra time to see if they can get Odom to the point, physically and mentally, where the talented but enigmatic lefty is worthy of a roster spot next season.

Still recovering from a back injury that curtailed his recent stint in the Spanish League after just two games, Odom is not believed to be healthy enough to play in the Knicks’ season finale Wednesday night in Toronto even if he signs Wednesday.

Sources say this is viewed as a long-range play for the Knicks, who are banking on the notion that Jackson — in his new role as New York’s team president — can provide the guidance to get Odom’s career back on track.

***

No. 4: Lillard inks huge deal with adidasIf you had any doubts that small-market superstars can’t get the kind of shoe-endorsement deals stars in cities like New York, Chicago and L.A. get, think again. Much like Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder and his lucrative deal with Nike, Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has signed the third-richest shoe deal in the league. CSNNW.com’s Chris Haynes has more on Lillard’s new agreement with adidas:

Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard and adidas have finalized a deal that makes it the third richest shoe endorsement deal in history, a source informed CSNNW.com.

The deal, according to another source, is an eight-year contract that has the potential to stretch out to 10 years if he reaches certain incentive clauses. We’ve confirmed Lillard’s new contract is slightly less than that of Derrick Rose.

“adidas has been great to me over my first two seasons,” Lillard said in the adidas release. “I’ve had the opportunity to wear a lot of great product, help design special versions of shoes, be a part of TV commercials and travel the world with the brand. I’m excited for what the future holds for me and adidas.”

CSNNW.com reported a few weeks ago that the deal was on the cusp of being finalized. The deal was actually signed in Los Angeles on April. 1 prior to the Trail Blazers defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 124-112 that evening.

Due to Lillard reaching certain performance incentive clauses in his adidas rookie shoe deal, he was able to opt out at the end of the season to pursue a long-term, prosperous contract with adidas, Nike or other major competitors. Instead of waiting, Lillard’s representatives gave adidas an exclusive 30-day window to renegotiate before checking out other offers. That 30 days was up on April. 1.

USA Today reported the deal is finalized.

.***

No. 5: DeRozan rests as Raptors set wins markThe Toronto Raptors, by any measure, have had a great season. If you measure what they’ve done on just wins and losses, though, they’ve had a season for the team record books. Last night’s drubbing of the Milwaukee Bucks lifted Toronto to its 48th win, the most in franchise history, and it was done while All-Star and go-to guy DeMar DeRozan took a well-deserved break before the playoffs get rolling. Doug Smith of the Toronto Star has more on the win:

Even with DeMar DeRozan reduced to a mere spectator enjoying a night of rest, the Raptors claimed their franchise-record-setting 48th win of the year, dumping the Milwaukee Bucks 110-100 at the Air Canada Centre in the penultimate game of the regular season.

“Guys came out with a total focus. We lost it there a little bit in the second half, but the start of the game, our guys were locked in, attention to detail was there on both ends of the floor,” said Casey.

DeRozan’s greatest impact on the game was his short speech thanking the fans for the just-completed home season as the banner recognizing the team’s division title was unfurled in an understated, quick ceremony.

“It definitely felt good to share it with (the fans) because they played a major part in it as well,” he said. “I’ve been here through the struggles and the tough times and our fans were still right there with us on this journey.”

And there is no certainty that DeRozan will play Wednesday when the Raptors wrap up the season in New York.

“We’ll see what we decide on that,” said Casey. “Amir’s had time off, Kyle’s had time off, he’s the only guy with big minutes that hadn’t had time off. I could just see a pep in Kyle’s step since he’s had his rest, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Amir Johnson, still working his way back from ankle woes, looked better Monday than he did Sunday in Detroit, chipping in 10 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes as Casey eases him back slightly.

He was proud to be part of the historic win.

“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “We set many franchise records and we are just going to keep pushing and see what’s next for us. We’re always looking for the next thing.”

Lowry and Johnson left to a prolonged ovation from the fans with less than 40 seconds to go.


VIDEO: Toronto raises its Atlantic Division championship banner before Monday’s game vs. Milwaukee

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire may play in Jerusalem once his contract runs out in 2015 … The Bucks secured the top odds in the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery last night … Does Damian Lillard‘s new deal with adidas mean the shoe giant has forgotten about Derrick Rose? … Former first-round pick Arnett Moultrie is trying to make an NBA impact before it is too late … The Lakers and Suns may look to make pass at Luol Deng in free agency this summer … George Hill had an interesting little chat with Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee on the Indianapolis Star‘s website …

ICYMI(s) of the Night: Trey Burke has had a pretty solid rookie season, but this move that Jordan Farmar put on him in the backcourt is sure to stick with him for a while. On a more positive note, we had two fantastic full-court dimes that lead to and-ones — one from the master (Kevin Love) of such plays and another from a pretty solid passer in his own right (Andre Miller)


VIDEO: Jordan Farmar breaks Trey Burke’s ankles in the backcourt


VIDEO: Kevin Love throws a full-court pass to Corey Brewer for the layup


VIDEO: Andre Miller throws a great full-court dime to Bradley Beal

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.

Morning Shootaround — March 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 6

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Leonard delivers against LeBron, Heat | James open to talking with Pacers’ GeorgeNoah has sprained thumb | Raptors to use retro unis next season | Hornacek proud of Suns’ improvement

No. 1: Leonard proves difference against LeBron, Heat — Third-year Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard has only been back in the San Antonio lineup since Feb. 26 after missing a couple of weeks with a broken hand. Since his return, the Spurs have gone 5-0 and won four of those games by 10 points or more. Last night, in the Spurs’ 24-point romp of the Miami Heat, Leonard proved crucial in frustrating star LeBron James all game long. Our own Fran Blinebury was on the scene and has more on Leonard’s impact on the victory:

Hitting the runway in his league-mandated attire, James clanked open jumpers, had layups roll off the rim and missed a dozen of the 18 shots he attempted.

Or just maybe it was the 6-foot-7, 230-pound Kawhi Leonard that he had to wear like an annoying hair shirt up and down the AT&T Center court all night long.

“He’s a good young player,” James said.

Yes, and Kate Upton would make an acceptable prom date.

Long, larcenous and learning how to assert himself in an orbit just outside the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili triangle, Leonard is exactly the kind of disruptive force that would fit perfectly into the Heat’s attacking, pressuring, blitzing defense.

These finally are the Spurs as they hoped they’d be back when training camp opened with the scars still fresh from the painful seven-game loss to Miami in The Finals last June.

This is the Leonard that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich once labeled “the future face of the franchise” and yet the same Leonard that Popovich says still defers too much at times to the three veterans that anchor the lineup.

“I tell him, ‘The hell with those other guys. Just play your own game and forget about them,’ “ Popovich said. “He is just growing day by day. He is starting to feel confident in his role and taking pride in being a defender and a rebounder first. Then, [he needs to work on] letting his offense come naturally and not thinking about it too much.”

Leonard missed 14 games with a broken bone in his right hand before returning to the lineup a little more than a week ago and it’s since then — with improved health of the entire roster — that the Spurs have begun to look like a team that not only has an ax to grind, but is capable of swinging it deep into another playoff run. He officially got credit for five steals, but there were so many other times when he changed shots, altered passes, forced the Heat to try to go around him, effectively disrupting their rhythm.

“He was a pest,” said Duncan. “That’s what we need him to be. He stuck his hand in there, knocked some balls away, got some steals. He contested shots…So we need him to be that kind of guy.”

The guy who makes LeBron James rip off his uncomfortable mask in frustration and point a finger of blame at those form-fitting short sleeves on his jersey.

A tailor-made hair shirt for the occasion.


VIDEO: Kawhi Leonard talks about his play in the Spurs’ win over the Heat

***

No. 2: LeBron open to chatting with Pacers’ George — As we mentioned in this space yesterday, Pacers swingman Paul George told BasketballInsiders.com recently that he hopes to one day talk with Heat star LeBron James about a variety of topics. Would James be interested in having such a conversation? According to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, LeBron has an ‘open door’ policy with other players on such a thing:

LeBron James would be open to mentoring rival Paul George this summer if he’s asked by the Indiana Pacers’ star, James said Thursday night.

In an interview this week with BasketballInsiders.com, George said he hoped he could spend some time talking to James this summer to get some advice.

“It would be great to be able to pick his brain, pick his mind and just talk about the game because I think he’s a player that can help me get to the next level and continue to keep going to the next level,” George said. “I wish some day we have that relationship where he is someone I can talk to — not during the season because I’m too competitive during the season — but maybe in the summertime.”

James’ Miami Heat and George’s Pacers have faced off in the playoffs in each of the last two seasons and currently are in a heated race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. James has worked out with rivals during past summers, notably the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant.

“Pick [my brain] like Hannibal Lector?” James said jokingly. “You know me, I don’t mind it at all. I don’t mind giving guys [advice], whatever he wants to ask. Guys know I have an open door/phone policy.”

***

No. 3: Noah has sprained thumb — All-Star center Joakim Noah suffered a thumb injury against the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night and his status going forward may be in question. Nick Fridell of ESPNChicago.com has more on Noah’s injury, which is being termed a minor one:

UPDATE: Noah is expected to play tonight vs. the Grizzlies per coach Tom Thibodeau

Initial tests run on Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah’s injured right thumb revealed a sprain, according to a league source.

It is unclear whether Noah will have to miss any time or will be available to play Friday night against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Noah injured the thumb during Wednesday night’s win against the Detroit Pistons. He didn’t want to go into detail about the injury after the game, calling it just a “boo-boo,” but he did wear a protective brace on it as he headed out of the Palace of Auburn Hills.

The Bulls have to be extra cautious with the injury. Noah has become their most valuable player and is in the midst of the best stretch of his career. He racked up his second triple-double in three games in Wednesday’s win as a focal point on both ends of the floor. More importantly, Noah tore ligaments in the same thumb during the 2010-11 season and had to miss two months after having surgery to repair it.

The key for the Bulls will be to see how he responds to treatment. He has shown a high pain threshold in the past, having played with the ligament tear for almost a month before having surgery in December 2010.


VIDEO: Bulls.com takes a look at Joakim Noah’s impact on the team this season

***

No. 4: Raptors to wear original jerseys for select games next season — Over on the All Ball Blog, our own Lang Whitaker has kept track of any and all possible uniform changes for the Toronto Raptors, with talk of a black-and-gold number the most common topic of discussion. While we have no idea if or when the Raptors will change their colors, one thing is certain: they are going back to the purple “dino” jerseys for select games next season. Raptors.com has more:

The Toronto Raptors announced today the return of the team’s original purple jersey for select home games during the 2014-15 season. The throwback uniform will be worn as the franchise celebrates its 20th Anniversary in the National Basketball Association.

“We are excited to bring back a piece of team history as part of our 20th Anniversary celebration,” said Masai Ujiri, President and General Manager of the Raptors. “Our fans have shown affection for the original purple uniform and I think our players will enjoy the chance to wear them next season.”

The front of the uniform top features the unique Raptors font in silver with the team’s dinosaur motif in action with basketball in hand. The uniform showcases the original team colours of Raptor Red, purple, black and Naismith Silver, the latter in honour of Dr. James A. Naismith of Almonte, Ontario, the multi-faceted Canadian who invented basketball in 1891. The uniform also features the unique jagged pinstripe design.

The club will announce details at later dates regarding 20th Anniversary events to be held throughout the 2014-15 campaign.


VIDEO: Raptors will go back to the ‘dino’ unis for select games next season

***

No. 5: Hornacek proud of every player’s improvement on Suns — As another week of the NBA is nearly in the books, the standings continue to sport the Phoenix Suns in the middle of the Western Conference playoff chase. That something few thought we’d be able to say in early March about this Suns team, but Phoenix has taken pride all season in exceeding expectations. From new coach Jeff Hornacek to a rag-tag bunch led by Goran Dragic and Co., the Suns seem to have improved in every way imaginable from last season. As Paul Coro from The Arizona Republic notes, Hornacek has trouble picking any one player who has improved most:

When you are arguably the NBA’s most improved team, singling out which player has improved the most is like choosing a favorite child.

Suns coach Jeff Hornacek can’t do it.

“They’ve all done something more than they’ve done last year,” Hornacek said.

The Suns are vying for most improved team with Portland but with a completely different dynamic. The Suns had three players who were on the active opening-night roster for each of the past two seasons. They had a first-year head coach with a new staff. The canvas was blank for roles and reputations, creating an environment for many players who were still trying to prove themselves in their careers to advance as Suns.

As the sage veteran, Channing Frye was just trying to rediscover his game after a year away from basketball. He has seen the maturation in teammates around him and gives credit to that environment created by Hornacek and the front office.

“They felt like this year they’re going to get a real opportunity,” Frye said of his teammates. “We all do something different and so they’re flourishqing in that role. When you have a coach like Jeff, even though you make mistakes, you’re still going to get opportunities if you put in work outside the court. With some teams, they go in as the one piece and that piece is interchangeable and they don’t feel like they’re important. But everybody on this team is important. Everybody is doing the best they can and staying ready every night.” The reason we’ve been successful is, at any moment, somebody could get their chance so they’re staying ready. That is really the pressure for everyone to constantly get better and be ready and to really embrace what we’re trying to do.”

Frye calls it a tie for most improved Suns player between Gerald Green and Markieff Morris.

Green, on his seventh NBA team, was coming off two seasons in Russia and a season in Indiana that ended with him out of the rotation and on the trade block. Now, he averages more than 15 points, increasing his 3-point shooting percentage from 31.4 last season to 38.1 this season, entering Thursday night’s game, with 6.3 attempted per game.

“The coaches have really done a great job of putting us in places to be successful,” Green said. “Everybody gets an opportunity to go out there and play. Jeff has confidence in everybody. A lot of coaches don’t do that. He’s just so positive and has so much energy and faith in us.

“I still feel like I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to prove. I still have so much that could get better.” I could get better at my ball-handling. I could get better at my defense. I could get stronger. I feel like my decision-making could get better. My pick-and-roll could be better. I’m blessed to have the season we’re having but to me, if we don’t make the playoffs, this season means nothing to me.”

Yet, each one of the three veterans has improved.

“You learn the game a little bit more,” Hornacek said. “The young guys learn more with their skills and adjustments to playing every night and more minutes whereas the veteran guys learn the little things, things that maybe they couldn’t score on in their first three or four years, they’re now knowing the little nuances of the game that they’ve seen over and over and over and they feel comfortable and maybe more relaxed.”

Dragic’s rise has been more celebrated because he turned into a star in the absence of Eric Bledsoe, who might have been a Most Improved Player frontrunner had he not been hurt twice this season to only play 24 games. Dragic’s perimeter shooting has been the vast improvement but he also has better command of the team in half-court offense and draws fouls more than ever.

“Goran has stepped his game up to another level,” Hornacek said.


VIDEO: Gerald Green and the Suns discuss their upset win over the Oklahoma City Thunder

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: LeBron James has been given the OK by the Heat to attend Zydrunas Ilgauskas‘ jersey retirement ceremony on Saturday … Great feature on everyone’s favorite Milwaukee Buck: Giannis Antetokounmpo … The Wizards are reportedly ‘likely’ to sign forward Drew Gooden to a second 10-day contract … Wolves center Nikola Pekovic is being kept on a strict minutes limit … Blazers All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge says he’s been forcing shots of late

ICYMI of the Night: With two blowouts in the books last night in San Antonio and Los Angeles, we figure it’s a good time to give Gerald Green some shine after his 41-point night against the Thunder …


VIDEO:Gerald Green scores 41 points as the Suns top the Thunder

Blogtable: Writing An Ending In Phoenix

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.


Getting Evan | Defensive showdown | The story of the Suns



VIDEO: Phoenix Suns Top 5 Plays of the Week

The Suns have been a great story. Do you see a happy ending in Phoenix?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: The Suns already have locked up a happy ending to this season, regardless of playoff positioning. They already have won more games than last season, have significantly improved both offensively and defensively (from 29th and 23rd in 2012-13, respectively, to 8th and 14th now), are above .500 on the road and, in Jeff Hornacek, have a keeper and a leading candidate for Coach of the Year. They won’t win their last game unless it’s No. 82 (and they miss the postseason entirely), but Phoenix is way ahead of schedule in the happy department.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: A couple of weeks ago I thought they were cruising toward the most surprising playoff berth in years.  But the Warriors have stopped their free fall and, more critically, the Grizzlies have quietly turned around a bad start.  They’re 18-7 in their last 25 games and gaining fast on the last playoff spot in the West. As long as the Marc Gasol-Zach Randolph combo stays healthy, the Grizzlies will be the team that squashes the fairytale ending in Phoenix.

Jeff Hornacek, Goran Dragic (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

Jeff Hornacek, Goran Dragic (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Even if they slip out of the playoffs by the end of the year, the big picture view can only be seen as a happy ending. Remember, no one thought this team would win 25 games. I do think, however, the Suns will hold on and make the playoffs. It looks like Eric Bledsoe will return soon and that will give the club a big boost heading into the final month of games.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: It’s pretty much impossible not to see one. Barring an epidemic of serious injuries or a 25-game losing streak, the Suns will have accomplished more in about three-fourths of the season than anyone could have imagined. It’s late-February and they’re on pace for the playoffs. The attitude, a big concern for new GM Ryan McDonough when he came in, has been great. A lot of players, some carryovers and some newcomers, improved. Trades and free-agent signings paid off. Jeff Hornacek as coach and McDonough were rookies on the job who performed like veterans. Phoenix would have to work very, very hard to turn that into an unhappy ending.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: If you’re talking about a playoff berth, the answer is no (as much as I’d love to see them in the postseason). They have the toughest remaining schedule of the four teams competing for the last three playoff spots in the West, with an absolutely brutal April. And they’re now just a game in the loss column ahead of the Grizzlies, who would have the tiebreaker thanks to a 3-0 head-to-head record so far. Eric Bledsoe’s return would help them defensively, but there’s still no indication of when that return will be. The Suns will have three or four first round picks in this year’s Draft, though. And that could certainly produce a different kind of success.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comIt depends on what we’re talking about when the words “happy ending” in this case. If it’s simply making the playoff field, yes, I think a “happy ending” is in the offing. That said, the Suns will have to fend off Memphis and Minnesota to hold on to that eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference playoff chase. The best part is the Suns seem built for the grind that will come over the next couple of months. They won’t shy away from the fight that is sure to come with trying to hang on to one of those playoff spots. But as long as they remain reasonably healthy, I think they have as good a chance as any team in the mix for that eighth and final playoff spot. The only problem is what you get for bagging that prize … a date with the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: For the Suns, isn’t any ending other than finishing at the bottom of the West a happy ending? Going into this season, I don’t think anyone predicted the Suns would even be hanging around the postseason race, much less in the thick of it with just weeks to go. Hopefully Phoenix fans can appreciate that even if the Suns don’t make the playoffs, they’ve shown that they can win and play hard even when undermanned and outmatched. They’ve still got salary and roster flexibility to play with down the road, but for now, let’s just appreciate what a great ride it’s been for Phoenix this season.

Karan Madhok, NBA India: It depends on the subjective definition of ‘happy’. In many ways, this is already a happy ending for the club: instead of being last in the conference, they have surprised everyone and are currently holding a playoff spot. Their future is secure with young players to build around like Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, the Morris twins, Miles Plumlee, and rookie Alex Len. They have an expiring contract of Emeka Okafor that will clear up cap space and they could have a number of first-round picks in the loaded 2014 draft. As for this season, I see them making the playoffs but losing in the first round. For a team that finished bottom in the West last year, I would consider that and their exciting future a happy ending.

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: If the definition of happy ending is making the playoffs then yes, they’re a good shot to make it. Currently they’re two games clear of Memphis. If the definition is winning a playoff series then no, I don’t think they can touch any of the top four teams in the West.

All-Star Snub Adds Spice For Dragic


VIDEO: Dragic’s big night

Keep an eye on Goran Dragic and see if he happens to put a little extra spicy salsa on those shots and passes in the Taco Bells Skills Challenge on All-Star Saturday Night.

After all, the fact that he isn’t playing on Sunday with the West All-Stars might be harder to swallow than a plate of jalapeños.

The Suns’ point guard is 16th in the league in scoring (20.4 points a game), 17th in assists, (6.1), sixth in true shooting percentage (61.5), and his PER of 22.8 is 12th in the NBA. He is tied for 10th in win shares (7.0) with Chris Paul.

When new boss Adam Silver made his first public move as commissioner to add a dash of home-cooking by naming New Orleans’ forward Anthony Davis as a replacement for injured guard Kobe Bryant, it was just one more elbow nudge in the ribs.

“Oh yes, I was full of emotions,” Dragic said. “I was a little bit mad, angry, disappointed. All of those words. There it is. I think I did my job.

“If it happened it would have been a dream come true. It would mean a lot because I would know that I worked hard and it is way to be told I am on the right track.”

Not that the 27-year-old from Slovenia has done anything but barrel down the track like a locomotive in his sixth season in the league and his second as a full-time starter in Phoenix. While the Suns are a varied and interesting mix of young talent under first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek, there is no question that Dragic has been the spark to their offensive engine with his scoring, passing and running of the offense.

Even in the absence of injured backcourt partner Eric Bledsoe, Dragic has kept the Suns going forward as the surprise team of the league. Picked by Las Vegas oddsmakers to win 21.5 games and thought by most as a club that was getting into position for a high lottery pick, the Suns have already won 30 to hold down the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference going into Tuesday’s home game against the defending champion Heat (9 p.m. ET, League Pass). That’s more wins than every team in the entire Eastern Conference except for Indiana and Miami.

And the Suns don’t have a single representative in the All-Star Game.

All the talk about winning be the only real stat that counts, yet Kevin Love of the disappointing Timberwolves was voted into the starting lineup by the fans and then Dragic was overlooked as a reserve, first by vote of the coaches, and then by Silver.

“I don’t want to complain or put myself ahead of any other player,” Dragic said. “I am trying not to think about what happen and just trying to concentrate and win as many games as we can and hopefully make that push for the playoffs. That will be my statement.”

Yet the incongruity and, well, hypocrisy of it all is something that all of the Suns have trouble digesting. The snub had been extended to the rest of the roster until Miles Plumlee was a late replacement added to the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night of the All-Star Weekend schedule.

“When a team has a guy make the All-Star team, it’s not only a testament to what that guy does, but also his teammates,” Hornacek said. “You don’t become an All-Star if you don’t have any good teammates. Someone’s got to throw you the ball. Someone’s got to help you out. The fact is, if he made it, it ought to be a sign that, hey, we’re a team that’s above .500 and weren’t supposed to be and that reflects on the whole team. I still think we’ve got a pretty good team.”

It’s been a dramatic rise for Dragic just 2 1/2 years after he entered the 2011-12 season in Houston No. 3 on the Rockets depth chart at point guard. When Kyle Lowry was injured, he got his chance to start 28 games, and that laid a foundation for what Dragic is doing now.

“It was my first year that I got a lot of minutes,” he said. “Now it’s so much clearer, so much easier for me because I know how the game is going to go and when I have to take my shot. I’m not rushing. It’s just a good fit and I’m just happy that I’m back and part of the Phoenix Suns organization. They did a lot for me. I’m never going to forget that they drafted me and give me my first chance in the NBA.”

And there’s a part of him that won’t forget being overlooked for the All-Star team.

“I can’t be angry now,” Dragic said. “I must let that go. But what I can do is to focus on finishing the season strong, help get our team into the playoffs, then see what we can do there. That would be the best way to talk.”