The funny part Friday was how Pau Gasol said Mike Brown being fired as Lakers coach sent a direct message to players that it’s time to step up now. Because losing four of five to the Thunder in the second round, then losing to the shorthanded Mavericks and undermanned Trail Blazers, then starting 0-3 for the first time in 34 years apparently wasn’t message enough.
Gasol is right about one thing: This just became a lot more about the roster and not the coach, especially if the almighty Phil Jackson is the successor to the man who succeeded him. It was about the players all along, really, only most people were in such a rush to pin the 2012 playoffs on newcomer Brown that they didn’t note master motivator Jackson got the same result a year earlier with the same sludge of poor focus and energy. Now, it really is time to step up.
What no one within the Lakers would – or could – say is that it just became about Jim Buss too. He is the son of the owner of the head of basketball operations as executive vice president of player personnel, with heavy input from general manager Mitch Kupchak. With his father no longer involved in day-to-day affairs, and rarely using veto powers on even major decisions like coaching moves, Buss is the one ultimately responsible for hiring Brown and then giving Brown five games to sort through many problems when it was obvious to all the 2012-13 Lakers would need transition time.
It doesn’t help that Buss is coming from a very unpopular place with fans, whether he cares or not. He is not Jerry Buss, beloved for bankrolling Lakers championships over decades, and he got into the front office of one of the marquee franchises in sports because of bloodlines, not a skill for talent evaluation. It was Jim Buss who was perceived as the driving force to rid the organization of any connection to Jackson and his domineering personality, including giving little consideration for Brian Shaw to become the successor because Shaw had been an assistant on Jackson’s staff, even though players openly hoped Shaw would get the promotion.
Fairness time, though. If Buss, the son, gets the blame for all that has gone wrong the last few years, and he has, then he gets the credit for what has gone right. Dwight Howard is a Laker. Steve Nash is a Laker. Jackson may be a Laker again. That’s a lot of improbable victories around the same time. Buss is also the exec who championed drafting Andrew Bynum out of high school in 2005, stayed the course when Bynum wobbled along with immaturity and injury, refused to budge when Kobe Bryant screamed for Bynum to be traded, and finally turned the investment into a better center, Howard.
The particulars of Buss’ actual role, compared to the work of Kupchak, will probably never be known. That is how it generally works – an owner or team president, sometimes with no basketball training, will push the button on a trade or a contract or a coaching hire and the GM will take the hit it the outcome is bad. This would be especially true in the case of Kupchak, as professional as they come. No way he ever outs one of the bosses for a decision gone wrong.
When Bryant tried to blast his way out of town, Kupchak took the grief. When the Lakers kept Bryant and got championship good again, Kupchak received little public credit. It’s a little like that now with the executive vice president of player personnel, with the obvious difference that he cannot be fired as a Buss. The son is essentially in the job as long as he wants it.
If the Lakers hire Jackson, and developments were clearly headed in that direction as soon as Kupchak said at the Friday press conference that it would be “negligent not to be aware he’s out there,” also known as “Of course we’ll be in contact,” then Buss will have made another popular decision. Brown out, Jackson closer to being in, a 101-77 win over the Warriors with an actual sustained effort – it was a nice Friday for fans and at least some corners of the locker room. It was a start on the recovery.
The Lakers’ front office does not do knee-jerk, so news Friday that Mike Brown has been fired as coach after a 1-4 start is a strong signal that management has been considering the drastic move for at least a few days, knowing that a replacement would have to be lined up. This isn’t the usual situation of a bad team that can promote an interim guy to get through the season. The Lakers still want to — need to — win this year.
This also has to mean Brown began the season wounded and that the Buss family – owner Jerry and his son, Jim, the head of basketball operations – has had doubts about Brown at least since the second-round loss to the Thunder in May.
Five games — with Dwight Howard still not at 100 percent after a serious back injury, with Steve Nash sidelined by a leg injury, with Kobe Bryant playing on a very sore foot, with the entire organization knowing this was going to take time — is not enough time to judge what Brown could have done with this title contender at full strength. The most heated Brown detractor in the panicking fan base — and there is about a million-way tie for the lead — could not disagree. The offense has labored badly, but Nash’s absence obviously slowed the development. The defense has regressed, but Howard had a limited preseason and is still recovering.
If the Lakers were going to fire Brown now, they might as well have done it in the summer and avoided the in-season mess and transition. Nothing was going wrong (except for Nash going down) that the front office didn’t know could go wrong.
There is no way Jim Buss meant it when he gave Brown the dreaded vote of confidence after 1-4, telling ESPNLosAngeles.com that, “I have no problems with Mike Brown at all. He just works too hard and he’s too knowledgeable for this to be happening.” The Buss backing was either a historic level of non-truthing or there was a startling change of direction that would likely come only with the red phone ringing and Jerry Buss (who leaves day-to-day basketball ops to Jim and general manager Mitch Kupchak) on the other end. Indeed, TNT’s David Aldridge has reported that Brown’s people believe the decision came directly from Jerry Buss.
The timing is curious and filled with twists. One of the strangest is that Brown may ultimately have done himself in with the lone win.
Sunday night, the lid of Staples Center is about to be pushed off by the angst of an 0-3 start. The Lakers are up on the Pistons by 36 points. The lead is cut to 24 and Brown rushes Bryant, Howard and Steve Blake, Nash’s replacement as the starting point guard, back in with 8:55 left in the fourth quarter. Bryant had already been playing big minutes — and remember, only three players in the league put in more time than he did last season. His foot was an obvious problem. But in he went. It was 0-3 talking.
The rest of the Lakers were thinking about June, but Brown’s moves were being dictated by the first three games of the season. With a 24-point lead, with 8:55 remaining, against lottery-bound Detroit. That could not have sat well with management.
It’s as if the Buss family was willing to give Brown one last chance to see if the 108-79 win over the Pistons would spark a turnaround. But when that one last chance ended in a 95-86 loss to the Jazz on Wednesday, Brown was done. The announcement came Friday, even though it could have come in May.
Good luck getting that one past the discerning eyes of millions of basketball fans that know better.
The explanation for the league putting a stop to the three-team, Chris Paul-Lakers deal was disseminated via statement late last night, putting the final nail into what was clearly one of the most bizarre nights the league has seen in years.
From the decision itself to the theories behind why it happened, not to mention the most twisted piece of all, Dan Gilbert‘s terse email detailing his displeasure (and that of many other owners) with the proposed trade was, it all just felt wrong.
It felt wrong as it was going down, wrong during three or four hours of sleep were lucky to get here at the hideout and dead wrong this morning as we try to make sense of the senseless.
The league picked the wrong time to intervene for “basketball reasons.” That should have been done long before Hornets general manager Dell Demps engaged in trade discussions with the dozen or so teams that made serious inquiries about Paul. And even then it would have been the wrong thing to do.
Whoever owns the Hornets will have to deal with the reality that Paul has no intention of playing for the franchise longterm. So rather than making a fool of the franchise, a mockery of the process and a bigger mess than the 149-day lockout did with the fans, someone needed to do the right thing and find a deal that allowed for Paul’s departure without totally destroying the fabric of the franchise.
Jazz general manager Kevin O’Connor did it last season when he moved Deron Williams, his franchise’s most valuable asset at that time, before being backed into a similar corner. What Demps was attempting to do was in the very best interest of the franchise and would have been by most any reasonable standard a solid deal for the Hornets (you get three starters, two draft picks and save yourself from the ongoing saga that would have been CP3-watch for the next however many months … you have to take that deal).
Worse yet, the folks suffering the worst today are the players in all three cities that have to show up for training camp, if they show up for training camp, and answer questions about decisions that had nothing to do with them and they had no hand in making.
In Houston, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and Kevin Martin have to deal with the fallout. In Los Angeles a wounded Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol will be expected to hit the floor and act as if the night before had never happened. And in New Orleans, Paul has to decide if legal action is his best recourse for being allowed to do what we all know he will do at some point, and that’s leave the Hornets.
Not even “basketball reasons” will keep that from happening at some point.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – In a matter of hours Monday, the NBA’s labor impasse went from maddening to certifiably ridiculous thanks to raging emotions on both sides of a nasty fight.
What’s that phrase Kobe Bryant uttered a few weeks ago? It’s the same one NBA Commissioner David Stern used yesterday in the aftermath of the union rejecting the league’s proposal for a new collective bargaining agreement and disbanding (read up on the details here), the first step in an anti-trust lawsuit being filed by the trade association formerly known as the union.
“The union decided in its infinite wisdom that the proposal would not be presented to membership,” Stern said. “Obviously, Mr. [union attorney Jeffrey] Kessler got his way and we are about to go into the nuclear winter of the NBA.”
Raise your hand if you’ve had enough of this already.
We spent 137 days waiting for something that could have come July 1. If this affair was going to end up in the courts with one side suing the other, we only wish it had come right away instead of months later, when it seemed the sides might be working their way to an uneasy alliance for the greater good of the game.
Instead, we’re left with the prospect of that aforementioned nuclear winter.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – You don’t need X-ray vision to figure out where the NBA’s labor impasse is heading this week (“straight past the ‘Dead End’ sign and over the cliff” is the way an agent put it to us early this morning).
The end of business Wednesday deadline issued by NBA Commissioner David Stern is a car wreck we’re all being allowed to watch from a distance far too close for comfort. The threats — of a considerably worse offer if this one is not accepted by the owners and of the dissolution of the union by the players if they ignore Wednesday’s deadline — only make for a yet another wicked twist to an already disturbing tale.
That doesn’t sound like a union ready to capitulate or compromise, as union attorney Jeffrey Kessler made clear in the aftermath of Saturday’s nearly nine-hour session. It sounds more like players, at least a faction of them, willing to stare the league down on deadline day and come out swinging the morning after. What that means for us, the true casualties of this lockout, is the loss of more games and potentially the demise of the entire 2011-12 season.
Ken Berger of CBSSports.com: In the end, the truest words spoken early Sunday morning came from Kessler, who said the owners’ tactics were “not happening on Derek Fisher’s watch. It’s not happening on Billy Hunter‘s watch. It’s not happening on the watch of this executive committee.” If the players successfully decertified, none of the aforementioned would be in power. A decertification petition requiring the signatures of 30 percent of union membership would put the union on approximately a 60-day clock before an election is held to disband it — and that’s only if the National Labor Relations Board authorizes the election. Typically, the agency does not when a union has an unfair labor practices charge pending. The mere signing of the petition by 30 percent of the union would not by itself cease negotiations since the union would remain in power until the election, which wouldn’t happen before January — if at all. That leaves two months for cooler heads to prevail. But really, the stopwatch has been set for four days — 96 hours to spare chaos. Of all the inflammatory words spoken after this latest fiasco, the words “best and final offer” were never among them. That’s legal mumbo-jumbo for this: There’s still time to end the ass-hattery, if everyone’s heads return to a place oxygen is available. The clock is ticking.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports: After reports that Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan had become one of the most vocal of hardline owners, union officials were anxious for him to speak up in Saturday night’s meeting. Union officials, just as they wanted to do back at the last labor meeting that Jordan attended on All-Star weekend, were determined to throw back at Jordan many of his old anti-ownership screeds from the 1990s. As one official said, “He never opened his mouth, not once.” The two sides didn’t spend a great deal of the 8½ hours engaging each other, but rather had the federal mediator shuttling back and forth between rooms, a source said. Stern’s ultimatum comes with the backdrop of player agents actively canvassing their clients to determine if there were enough votes to move forward with a decertification vote on the union, agent and player sources told Yahoo! Sports. Before proceeding, agents and players were waiting on the outcome of the weekend’s labor talks. Several agents and players believed support would grow for a vote on dissolving the union without significant progress on a deal. Agents and players took part in two conference calls this week on the subject of decertification. Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce has taken a lead in spearheading those discussions, sources said.
Chris Sheridan of Sheridanhoops.com: The owners, Kessler said, had been the ones who brought an abrupt halt to the proceedings. After 3 weeks of preconditions that were levied and then removed and then levied and removed again, the owners circled back to basically the same place they have been all along while giving the players a take-it-or-leave-it offer that for all intents and purposes would max out at 50.2 percent of revenues going to the players, 49.8 percent going to the owners. The players had dropped to 51 percent, or as Kessler termed it: “Fifty plus one,” with the extra one percent ($40 million) being earmarked for improved pension benefits for both current and retired players. “These are professional basketball players,’’ Kessler said. “They are the finest athletes in the world. How do you think they feel about threats? How do you think they feel about efforts at intimidation? Who negotiates in good faith when they say it’s this proposal or (back to) 47 percent? Take it or leave it. This is not good faith to the fans. ‘’ Big, bad Michael Jordan had become Paul Allen 2.0 during the meeting, Kessler said, barely uttering a word. Arbitrator George Cohen’ suggestions, Kessler said, had been hijacked by Stern and turned into the owners’ official offer. The money quote from my news story, after the 8 1/2 hours of meetings and 60 minutes of dueling news conferences had ended: “The story here is they want it all,” Kessler bellowed. “They want a win, win, win, win. We wanted a compromise. Our 51 percent offer was based on a fair system. They would have to come to us on the system, but they did not.”
Howard Beck of the New York Times: This latest negotiating session, the 21st of the lockout, lasted for eight and a half hours, ending around 1:30 a.m. Sunday. Under the guidance of George Cohen, a federal mediator, the parties actually narrowed the gap on some crucial items before the talks collapsed. The players — who had vowed not to accept less than 52.5 percent of league revenues — proposed a 51 percent share, with 1 percent devoted to aid retired players. That moved them within 1 percent of the league’s longstanding proposal. On Saturday, the owners proposed a “band” that would pay the players 49 to 51 percent, depending on revenue growth. But the union said it amounted to a 50 percent offer, because the threshold for growth was so high that the share would never get to 51. Jeff Kessler, the union’s outside counsel and chief negotiator, called the 49 to 51 band “a fraud.” Yet it was ultimately the mechanics of a new system, not the revenue split, that killed the talks. The league’s standing proposal would eliminate spending options for teams that pay the luxury tax, by banning them from sign-and-trade deals and the use of the midlevel exception. At Cohen’s suggestion, the league proposed a “mini-midlevel” that would start at $2.5 million — half the value of the full midlevel — and would be limited to two-year deals. The N.B.A.’s proposal also called for an additional penalty — a so-called “repeater tax” — on teams that exceed the tax threshold three times in a five-year span. The union is open to the concept, but not at the steep rates proposed by the league. The net effect of the N.B.A.’s proposal, the union said, would be to eliminate the highest-spending teams from acquiring top talent — thus devastating the free-agent market.
Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News: The owners have not threatened to impose a flex-cap since last summer. But it’s a sign that they’re running out of patience with the players, who continue to hold out for more of the same soft-cap features that were part of the last collective bargaining agreement. “We want our players to play and we’d like to have a season and these are the terms upon which we’re prepared to gear up and get in as many games as possible,’’ Stern said. The league has already cancelled all of its November schedule. With the players already rejecting the owner’s latest offer, it seems fairly certain that December games will soon start to go up in smoke, too. In addition to the split of revenue, owners in this latest proposal want players to accept a decrease in the mid-level exception, from five years to two years for teams over the luxury tax. There would also be reductions in the terms of the exception for non-tax paying teams. The deal would also penalize taxpayers by not allowing them to work sign-and-trade transactions. Jordan is one of nearly 12 owners who don’t want players to get above 47%. But Stern said that he would have enough votes to get the deal for the players allowing for them to get upwards of 51%. That’s because Jordan, Charlotte majority owner, and other small- and mid-market owners who lost $300 million last season do not have enough votes to kill a deal. To ratify a deal, Stern needs a simple majority of 16 votes. “This is not good faith to the players or to the fans,’’ said union counsel Jeffrey Kessler. “The players will not be intimidated. That’s what the league is doing in presenting an ultimatum to us.’’
Marc Stein of ESPN.com: Bear in mind that there’s a big difference between rounding up the 130 players needed to sign a petition to vote on decertification and finding a 50 percent-plus-one majority in a union of roughly 450 members amenable to actually voting for decertification. Because decertification is “risky and messy,” as established above, there is undeniable skepticism around the league about how many players would be willing to go all the way through with it. And maybe that’s why some ownership sources insist that the decertification process won’t have nearly as much impact as its supporters contend. But if it merely gets as far as a vote — no matter what would happen when decertification ballots are passed out — that’s when you’ll know that there’s really no hope for a 2011-12 season. If the union ultimately does decertify fully, there won’t even be time at that point to do what NBA commissioner David Stern does not want to do and stage another 50-game season. The reality, though, is that we’re still some distance removed from that crossroads. Wednesday is the deadline announced by Stern for the union to take the deal as currently constructed, but this sad saga can rumble on for at least another good month — and probably longer — unless Stern can convince the union that they better take Saturday’s offer because he’s serious about canceling the rest of the ’11-12 season before Thanksgiving.XX
Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times: Player reaction to Stern’s take-it-or-leave-it offer was swift on Twitter. ”U gotta love an ultimatum,” tweeted San Antonio Spurs guard Steve Novak. “How does basketball ever even get to this point?” … All 29 owners gathered early in the day Saturday for a meeting among themselves, and Cohen met separately with players and owners before collective negotiations resumed. Small-market owners in attendance included Charlotte’s Michael Jordan and Portland’s Paul Allen, believed to be among those wanting to hold the players’ share of revenue to 47%. Among large-market owners were the Lakers’ Jerry Buss and Miami’s Micky Arison, the latter of the recent $500,000 tweet claiming he wasn’t the reason the lockout was lingering. The discussions lacked star power on the players’ side. Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who had attended earlier negotiating sessions, announced via Twitter that he had landed in Sydney for the start of an exhibition tour. ”Got off the plane in my jordan sweat suit,” Wade wrote, “but as soon as I walked out the airport it felt like Miami.” Clippers teammates Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan exchanged trash tweets regarding their alma maters’ Big 12 Conference football game in Norman, Okla. Tweeted Jordan: “Sorry but Texas A&M is going to smack OU today!!!” Final score: Oklahoma 41, Texas A&M 25. Jordan wouldn’t find a happy ending with the proceedings in New York either.
Alan Hahn of Newsday: Stern said that the league would spend Sunday writing up two formal proposals, one as outlined above and another based on a less appealing offer that would come if Wednesday’s deadline passes without an agreement. That deal, Stern said, would have two ominous parts: a 47-53 split of league revenue in favor of the owners and a “flex” cap system that would replicate the NHL’s hard cap. ”We hope that this juxtaposition will cause the union to assess its situation and accept the deal,” Stern said. If they don’t take the deal, the union is faced with one option: to decertify the union and fight the league in court. That, of course, would take up the kind of time that would essentially kill any chance of having a season. Neither Fisher nor Kessler would address decertification, which has been promoted by several agents. Union executive director Billy Hunter did not speak to reporters after the talks because, according to a union spokesman, he was under the weather. It was yet another long day for everyone involved, as the owners met early Saturday afternoon to discuss their strategy going into the meeting with the players. Michael Jordan, the Charlotte Bobcats owner who is the marquee name among a faction of hardlining small market owners, was in attendance, along with Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen and Heat owner Micky Arison, who last week was fined $500,000 for a few candid tweets about the lockout. On the players’ side, Knicks guard Chauncey Billups, one of the most respected veteran players in the league, made his first appearance at the talks at the request of the union’s executive committee, mainly vice president Mo Evans. But it was Kessler who had the strongest voice after the meetings, as he continually charged the owners with having no interest in making a deal. ”Who negotiates in good faith and makes an ultimatum?” he said. Later he added, “The big story here is they want it all.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Your anger is understandable.
Mostly because the actions of so many are indefensible.
With this latest breakdown in talks between the two sides in the NBA’s labor madness comes a sobering truth about this entire process. It’s never been about saving the game or even preserving it for the fans. It’s about two sides fighting over a billion dollar pie and each one wanting the biggest piece. Someone has to win and someone has to lose, compromise be damned!
We knew as much when this thing started, but we seemed to lose sight of that in the past few months with all the details tossed into the fray to deflect our attention from the fundamentals of this dispute. Our confidence has been betrayed by the men who have asked for that very thing from us, the basketball loving public,. And here we stand, just days away from what should have been the start of a season, staring at a potential season on the brink.
When the federal mediator both sides agreed to let dive into the middle of this battle packs up his stuff and heads for the door after three days of listening to everyone talk, it’s clear the “gulf” between the positions NBA Commissioner David Stern spoke of last week is greater than most of us imagined.
Unlike many of my less cynical colleagues here at the hideout and beyond, I wasn’t expecting a resolution to this process this week. I did (foolishly) assume that some tangible progress this week could lead to a deal sometime in the very near future.
But not after reading these words from NBPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler after the Board of Governors meeting:
“This meeting was hijacked. Something happened at their [owners] meeting. This is not the move where the owners were yesterday. We were making progress, as you heard.
“They came back, they came without the commissioner. They came with Paul Allen. We were told Paul Allen was here to express the views of the other members of the Board of Governors. And that view was: ‘Our way or the highway.’
“That’s what we were told. We were shocked. We went in there trying to negotiate, and they came in and said, ‘You either accept 50-50 or we’re done. And we won’t discuss anything else.’ “
Point fingers in whatever direction you like. Both sides are doing the same now without hesitation.
BEVERLY HILLS — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul were among the All-Star contingent arriving at a Beverly Hills hotel for Friday afternoon’s meeting between the league and the players.
“I’m worried about the league,” Wade said. “It’s not just about myself, it’s the future of the NBA. We want to be able to be sure this game can continue to grow and prosper. We want this game to go on for many, many years.”
The union was also represented by executive director Billy Hunter, executive committee president Derek Fisher, treasurer James Jones, and vice presidents Roger Mason, Theo Ratliff, Keyon Dooling, Etan Thomas and Paul. All-Stars in attendance included Kevin Durant, Amar’e Stoudemire, Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Al Horford.
“We understand that a deal has to be done,” Wade said. “Both sides have to come to an agreement and neither side is going to agree until we meet halfway. Me being one of the ‘faces of the league,’ it’s just coming in and learning more and trying to understand what both sides are going through. That’s the biggest thing.”
The league negotiating team here is headed up by commissioner David Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver and labor relations chairman Peter Holt, owner of the San Antonio Spurs. Among other owners in the room were Michael Jordan (Charlotte Bobcats), Jerry Buss (L.A. Lakers), Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks) and Donald Sterling (L.A. Clippers).
The union is expected to hold a press conference after the meeting in downtown Los Angeles. Stern will hold one Saturday.
The acquisitions of Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff were made to bolster to two-time defending champs, Buss said. It wasn’t a response to LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh joining forces with the Heat.
“Our intentions were to sign those players prior to Miami coalescing all of the talent that was left over,” Buss said with a laugh. “I don’t think we reacted to them. Once the season is over, we look backwards on the season and say, ‘Were there any weaknesses? Could we do something to improve this team?’
“And we did that quite independently of Miami or Orlando or Chicago, all of who are going to be very good. I think Denver will be excellent this year. Utah is always good, always tough for us. So I think we just prepared ourselves for the general war, not specifically for anyone.”
When you’ve got Kobe Bryant leading the troops — no offense Phil — you’re going to feel good about your chances in battle and for a threepeat. Oh yeah, the Lakers still have Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum.
So how good can this version of the Lakers be?
“When I look at this team, every single individual on that team seems to me capable of playing a very important role next year and as of now, I feel there’s a good chance this could be the best team we’ve ever had,” Buss said.
Buss admitted to watching the “The Decision” and thought LeBron let a few people down. The recent Hall of Fame inductee can’t help but be juiced by the haul former employee Pat Riley pulled off in Miami.
“Suddenly there’s this juggernaut out there that we have a chance to play against and that excites me, that really excites me because, quite honestly, I think we can beat ‘em and I’m looking forward to playing them,” Buss said. “So some of it was kind of an excitement, saying, ‘Oh boy, here’s a team that everybody put together. This is our next big opponent.’”
But don’t reserve L.A. and Miami hotel rooms in June just yet. Buss expects Boston and Orlando to have plenty to say in the Eastern Conference.
“I don’t think it’s automatic that Miami will be our biggest opponent come the end,” he said, “but on the other hand, I must admit they have the world’s attention and that means we’re going to be on center stage when we get a chance to play ‘em.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Both the Celtics and Spurs served notice Sunday, they will not exit the stage without a fight.
They won’t go quietly.
Not this season.
Both teams were impressive in upending the top seeds in their respective conferences. The Celtics held on to defeat the Cavaliers while the Spurs became the latest team to undress the reigning champion Lakers, this time on the champs home floor.
We’ve been pounding on the Celtics relentlessly around here, and mostly with good reason, as they appeared to be a team riding on Hall of Fame fumes for much of the season. But they showed the one critical element a big time team has to at this point in the season, and that’s an ability to attack when there is an opening.
They went after the Cavaliers from the start and certainly put on a convincing show, that is until LeBron James led his crew all the way back in the final seconds before missing a shot that could have made this a one-team passage.
The end of the game silliness that saw James stand in the middle of the Celtics’ huddle was just more gamesmanship from two teams that swear they hate each other (yawn).
“In the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers win in Cavaliers win a month ago in Cleveland, James could be seen in replays referring to the Celtics with a pointed expletive after making the lay-up and getting the foul on one of several three-point plays as the Cavs buried the Celtics late.
Sunday afternoon was just a continuation.
“They don’t like us, we don’t like them,” James said. “So there’s a lot of things that go on on the court.”
Doc Rivers echoed the sentiment.
“It’s two teams that I don’t think love each other,” Rivers said. “I can say that, and there’s two teams that want to beat each other. And I think in Cleveland’s case early on, we were having our way, so they got frustrated. In our case late, they were having their way. And then we got frustrated.”
“Somewhere between Tony Allen trash-talking in his face and Kevin Garnett grabbing his crotch while issuing LeBron James a sort of invitation Sunday afternoon, James decided he did indeed want a rematch with the Celtics in the postseason.
He didn’t say it exactly in the locker room after the game but his point was clear. You could see it in his eyes and in his body language. In a way, LeBron may have even been OK that the Celtics won the game.
The Cavs certainly have some issues to deal with but it didn’t take the Celtics to remind him. It just gave something for Boston to chirp about and it seems LeBron is welcoming it.
“This game has lost a little bit of that over the years,” LeBron said, “All the talking and teams not liking one another. That is what I figured out last year when I walked off the court in Orlando. People were mad that I didn’t shake hands. Why should I be happy? I’m disgusted that I lost. That is what the game has lost.”
Translation I: “I look forward to seeing these gentlemen again and getting into it with them full bore.”
Translation II: “While I’m pounding my chest, I’m still not sorry about bolting the floor in Orlando.”
LeBron, it seems to me, has never felt in a better place with the Celtics than after this game. That may seem weird, the Cavs lost and free throws were a problem and so was poise. You know, the stuff that bites back in the playoffs? But LeBron didn’t care…at all.
The Cavs were just 2-2 against the Celtics this season after having a winning record against all the East contenders and most of the West ones.
But that doesn’t seem to concern LeBron in the least. Why? Because he averaged 36.5 points in the four games against the Celtics this season and he completely imposed his will on this game on an afternoon when he wasn’t even playing well. He knows he can beat Boston’s defense when he wants to and he knows that he’s got more help than he’s ever had.
He finds it comical that Garnett will run his mouth when LeBron scored over him routinely in the fourth quarter when Garnett was supposed to be defending the basket. He finds it reassuring that it took the Celtics have one of their best games in weeks to barely beat the Cavs at home without Shaquille O’Neal and Anderson Varejao. Varejao, by the way, is the hardest player for the Celtics to deal with after LeBron.
And LeBron, which he showed by his mood after the game, knows that any fear he had of TD Garden is gone after the two games here in the last month.”
You smell that? It’s the playoffs in the air.
We love that aroma around here. Love it!!!!!
Friends in different uniforms is overrated anyway, especially when a championship is on the line.
TURMOIL IN LAKER-LAND?
Lakers fans from here to Shanghai left nasty messages for the Hang Time staff last week after we questioned the Lakers toughness in the hours following a loss to the Hawks, which helped Kobe Bryant‘s crew finish a road trip with a 2-3 record.
Maybe we weren’t so crazy after all, huh?
Something is not right with the Lakers. And it didn’t take a nasty beating from Manu Ginobili and the Spurs for us to see it. The fire that fueled them this time a year ago is missing.
“Little as any Laker wanted to talk about it, that was a shocking 100-81 loss they suffered to San Antonio, the old rival they’d beaten in 10 of the last 15 meetings before Sunday when the Spurs turned the mismatch around.
In the really bad news for the Lakers, they approached it like a big game, as they have recently … while losing four of six … as they, quote, gear up for the playoffs.
This raises a question:
What happens if you dial it up, and you’re even worse than when you lacked urgency?
“Well, it doesn’t bode well for the playoffs or building momentum, but we can’t seem to put together a good game from one opponent to the next,” said Coach Phil Jackson.
“Maybe if we have one single opponent for seven games, we’ll be able to do that.”
Entertaining as Jackson is, there aren’t a lot of adherents to his Don’t Worry, Be Happy Theory left.
Actually, from the language Jackson used in the dressing room before coming out to reassure the media, I don’t think he’s so happy, or unworried, either.
Friday’s solid victory over Utah seemed to end the latest “crisis” that had prompted owner Jerry Buss to make a rare visit to practice, General Manager Mitch Kupchak to pronounce himself “very concerned,” and Jeanie Buss to plead for calm on talk radio.
Sunday was supposed to be the Lakers’ second step back against the gallant but recently overmatched Spurs, with a win locking up No. 1 in the West.
Before the game, Gregg Popovich, the free-wheeling Phil of San Antonio, acknowledged looking at the standings and wondering who they might play … like the Lakers in the first round if they fall to No. 8.
That, of course, made him the first coach ever to admit it.
“They’re full of it,” said Popovich, laughing.
“They’re the ones that say, ‘We don’t care who we play.’ They’re full of baloney too, because we’re all trying to hide from the Lakers in the first round. I mean, really, who do you want to play in the first round? ‘Oh, the Lakers.’ What an idiot you’d have to be.”
To that point, things seemed normal, with the Spurs acknowledging their underdog status.
Then the game started and they kicked the daylights out of the Lakers.”
That first round series pitting the Lakers and Spurs could be a thing of beauty if it actually happens.
Again, the playoff grill smoke floating through the air is almost as sweet as the action will be itself. And the party will be even better if the old heads show up ready to bust a move the way they did Sunday.
A TIP OF THE CAP TO NELLIE
We owe Warriors coach Don Nelson some love today. Yeah, we know his team has struggled the past two years.
But there’s something to be said for milestones, and Nellie is one win away from sitting atop the NBA career wins chart.
Now all he has to do is get another one in the next week.
WHILE WE’RE PASSING OUT PROPS
The Magic, still sizzling since the All-Star break, became the only team in the league to defeat every other team in the league (I know, we’re reaching a bit here, but it is pretty remarkable). For the record, the fact that this accomplishment came at the expense of Hang Time’s Grizzlies won’t be held against the Magic, who once again appear to be flying under the radar of many of the so-called pundits as the playoffs approach (that’s the same way people played them last year and they didn’t stop firing until the NBA Finals).
We didn’t make that mistake last season and we won’t do it now. This Magic team is a force to be reckoned with in postseason basketball. Mark it down, take a picture …