Posts Tagged ‘Josh Smith’

Free-Agent Barometer: Boom or Bust

Back in the hot fun of summertime, when there seem to be more dollars available than grains of sand, every free-agent signing is made to feel like a day at the beach.

Now, as we approach halfway mark of the season, it’s time to take the temperature:

GLOWING


VIDEO: Relive Dwight Howard’s signing with the Houston Rockets

Dwight Howard, Rockets — There are times when he is too passive and does not demand the ball enough from all of the inexperienced hands in the Houston lineup. But a healthy, happy Howard has been everything the Rockets hoped for when they forked over $88.5 million to lure him away from the Lakers. There is a bounce to his step and joy to his game that had been missing since the 2008-09 season in Orlando. With him in the middle and playing off James Harden, the Rockets are on track to eventually becoming a championship contender.

Andre Iguodala, Warriors — Don’t try to pigeonhole him or stick on a label as an elite defender or a greyhound that thrives in the transition game. He is simply a wonderful all around player that can do whatever is necessary in any situation. He was the spark that lifted the Nuggets a year ago to a franchise-best 57 wins and he’s moved to Golden State to become a difference-maker for the Warriors. For all of the (deserving) All-Star accolades to Stephen Curry and attention paid to Klay Thompson, Iguodala is the one that makes this fun and entertaining team truly dangerous.

Paul Millsap, Hawks — When it finally came time for the Hawks to cut the cord with Josh Smith, they went for his polar opposite. Not at all flamboyant, never trying to things outside his job description, Millsap comes to work every night and never leaves his team feeling shortchanged. His two-year, $19 million contract might have been the best free-agent bargain of the summer and he’s fit right in perfectly on the frontline in Atlanta. He’s blue-collar ways in the low post and on the boards has been needed even more since Atlanta lost Al Horford for the season.

Al Jefferson, Bobcats — One thing rookie coach Steve Clifford knew was that for the Bobcats to pick themselves up from their semi-permanent residence on the Eastern Conference floor, they needed a low-post presence to get some hard-fought points in the paint. He suffered an ankle injury in training camp and started slow, but once Jefferson got his legs under him, he’s averaged 16.8 points and 10 rebounds. It’s no coincidence that Charlotte (16 wins) is a sure bet to surpass last season’s 21-win campaign.


VIDEO: NBA Action catches up with Mavericks guard Monta Ellis

Monta Ellis, Mavericks — We won’t go as far as Dallas owner Mark Cuban to say that the jury is still out on whether Ellis or Howard is the free-agent catch of the season. After all, we’re pretty sure Cuban would make a 1-for-1 swap right now. As coach of the Warriors years ago, ex-Mavs coach Don Nelson called Ellis selfish. But the once shot-happy Ellis has reined some of his tendencies and found a comfortable home in Dallas. He’s averaging 5.8 apg and his upbeat production is keeping the Mavs alive in the West playoff race.

Kevin Martin, Timberwolves — Every team he’s played on throughout a 10-year NBA career has gotten efficiency and production. He’s one of those players who can give you 20 points a game on a minimum number of shots due to a knack for drawing free throws. There have been many things lacking for Minnesota during another underachieving run, but Martin has come through with the kind of numbers — 19.3 points per game — that were expected.

SUNBURNED


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses where Andrew Bynum may end up next

Andrew Bynum, CavaliersSigning him to a two-year, $24 million contract (that was only half-guaranteed in Season 1) was supposed to make it a no-brainer for the Cavs. Of course, the no brain place continues to be between Bynum’s ears as he quickly alienated teammates, the coaching staff and the entire organization. He had a pair of 20-point games with 13 and 10 rebounds. But his biggest positive effect was as a payroll-slashing trade chip that eventually brought in Luol Deng.

Josh Smith, Pistons — Don’t let Joe Dumars near your piggy bank. Four years ago, the general manager wasted a Brinks truck full of money to bring in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and put the Pistons into a deep hole. This time Dumars dug deeper with his idea that he could give $54 million for four years to Smith and put him into a super-sized front line with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Smith has clashed with coach Maurice Cheeks, found himself sitting on the bench at the end of games and still takes bad shots at a high rate. Is anybody surprised?

Chris Kaman, Lakers — The money spent by the Lakers — $3.2 million, one year — could probably have been scraped up out of the sofa cushions in the luxury suites at Staples Center. But no matter how you slice it, the thought that Kaman was going to return to L.A. and help the Lakers in their most trying season was laughable in hindsight. Kaman has never found a way into the rotation, has frequently expressed his displeasure with coach Mike D’Antoni and now spends more time lobbing verbal bombs in frustration than tracking down rebounds or shooting.

IN THE SHADE

Tyreke Evans, Pelicans — With Jrue Holiday out of the lineup indefinitely with a stress fracture in his leg and the team still reportedly trying to trade Eric Gordon, this would be the time when Evans can step up and really shine. He’s been far from a bust and doggedly fought to keep himself in the Pelicans’ lineup despite the fact that he keeps reinsuring a sprained left ankle. But that $44 million, four-year contract raises expectations for more than 12.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. At this point, the jury is still out.

Howard Had No Idea Shoestrings Incident With J.R. Smith Would Lead To This!




VIDEO: Knicks guard J.R. Smith has some issues with shoelaces, as Shawn Marion finds out

ATLANTA – What started as fun and games between old friends has morphed into a full-blown mess for New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith. A mess Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard never saw coming.

Long before his $50,000 fine and benching and all of the trade rumors cranked up, Smith was just messing around with Howard during a Jan. 3 game in Houston and playfully untied Howard’s shoe at the free-throw line. He would later get Shawn Marion‘s shoelace in a game against the Mavericks  and attempted to get Josh Smith‘s (he ended up settling for Greg Monroe‘s) in a game against the Pistons on Tuesday before Knicks coach Mike Woodson and the fun/foolishness police at NBA headquarters caught up with him.

Woodson unloaded on Smith Wednesday, saying he needed to “grow up” and stop the silliness and the league followed up with that hefty fine for “recurring instance of unsportsmanlike conduct.”  Woodson benched Smith for Thursday’s win over the Miami Heat and now the fallout and trade chatter is cranked all the way up heading into this weekend.

“It was just a guy trying to have fun,” Howard said Friday morning at Philips Arena before the Rockets faced the Atlanta Hawks. “I didn’t think it would turn into a big fine. It’s crazy.”

Howard, always a prankster, had plans for retaliation.

“I tried to get him back,” he said. “But I’m glad I didn’t … could have lost some money.”

It could wind up costing Smith a whole lot more than just cash.


VIDEO: The Inside crew discusses J.R. Smith and his future with the Knicks

Hang Time One-On-One … With Al Horford

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Al Horford‘s season came to an abrupt end on Dec. 26 when he reached for the ball and tore his right pectoral muscle, the second such injury in three seasons for the Atlanta Hawks’ two-time All-Star center.

Horford tore his left pectoral muscle in 2012 and missed four months recovering from that injury, coming back in the playoffs that season but missing all but 11 regular season games during the 2011-12 season. But the heat and soul of the Hawks’ franchise will not let this latest injury setback deter him. He’s vowed to return better than ever while continuing to serve as an influential voice and presence for his team during his recovery.

Just so we’re clear on the impact Horford had on the Hawks this season, his first playing alongside someone other than Josh Smith (now in Detroit) in the frontcourt, you need to consider what sort of company he was in as the Hawks’ leading scorer and rebounder.

At the time of his injury Horford was one of just six players – LeBron James of the Miami Heat, Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks, LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers and DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings were the others — leading his team in points and rebounds.

Now Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and guys like Elton Brand and Pero Antic are left to help fill the massive void left by Horford’s absence for a Hawks team that has overachieved this season.

Interestingly enough, those are the same guys Horford expressed extreme confidence in when I sat down with him before his injury for the latest installment of our Hang Time One-On-One series …



VIDEO: Al Horford opens up about his Hawks, his city, his journey and much more in this HT One-On-One

It’s Time For New Year’s Resolutions

VIDEO: The Starters review the year so far

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Ring out the old. Ring in the new. As the calendar turns, it’s time for resolutions throughout the NBA:

Atlanta Hawks — Look Back to the Future: This was supposed to be the start of a brand new era for one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises, and things were actually looking good until Al Horford tore a pectoral muscle. With their undersized big man done for the season, the Hawks will only stay afloat because they’re in the horrid Eastern Conference. But they’re going in the right direction under GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer, and will get the lottery pick of the sinking Nets, so there’s reason for hope out of a draft class teeming with talent.

Boston Celtics — Move Fast on Rondo: According to the old saying, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. When Rajon Rondo is finally able to get back onto the court and prove that he’s close to his old self, rookie coach Brad Stevens and GM Danny Ainge have to find out right away if he’s mentally ready to anchor the rebuilding project. If not, the Celtics could reap a windfall in new pieces ahead of the trade deadline.

Brooklyn Nets — Fuhgetaboutit: OK, it was a nice little pipe dream to think that a couple of old codgers like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could shuffle up and down the court in slippers and robes to tangle with the Heat and Pacers. Fortunately, team owner Mikhail Prokorov can afford their salaries with the kind of change he finds in his sofa cushions. Pay them off, send them away and get back to building around Brook Lopez and Deron Williams with players who aren’t signing up for Medicare.

Charlotte Bobcats — Keep Him: For the first time in who can remember how long, Michael Jordan won’t have to spend next summer looking for a coach. The merry-go-round can stop. Steve Clifford has given Charlotte a sense of purpose, respectability and a solid identity on the defensive end. Now they’ve got to work on boosting production out of that woeful offense. One thing at a time.

Chicago Bulls — Play Derrick and the Dominoes: Even Layla couldn’t have knocked the Bulls off their feet like the second straight significant injury to their All-Star, MVP guard Derrick Rose. It might be time to reshuffle the bones on a club that hasn’t even won a conference title and already has significant money locked up in Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson before re-signing Luol Deng to a big contract.

Cleveland Cavaliers — Stop Winning the Draft Lottery: Of course, that would require the Cavs to actually make the playoffs and not qualify for the lottery. This is a team that was supposed to be on the rise with enough young talent to make LeBron James think about returning, but instead has Kyrie Irving trying to do everything, Dion Waiters angry and Andrew Bynum maybe ready to give up the game. Time for an adult to take control here, coach Mike Brown.

Dallas Mavericks — Embrace Reality: It’s a bit ironic that a guy like Mark Cuban that has made a name for himself in the world of reality TV shows rarely faces up to it with the Mavs. He’s fun. He’s entertaining. He’ll say anything, such as there’s no telling whether Houston getting Dwight Howard or Dallas getting Monta Ellis was a better free agent signing last summer. Now go get yourself some defense, Mark, before Dirk Nowitzki winds up running on his tongue trying to outscore everybody.

Denver Nuggets — Respect Yourself: There shouldn’t be a decent team that breaks camp without a solid sense of its identity. A year ago with George Karl pulling the strings from the sidelines and Andre Iguodala setting the pace on the court, the Nuggets had that. Now they are often just a bunch that is stuck in the middle of the pack on offense (18th) and defense (16th) and too often can’t defend its home court.

Detroit Pistons — Say It Ain’t So, Joe: A few years ago, it was signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva as big-money free agents. This time GM Joe Dumars figured it would be a good idea to upgrade the Pistons by tossing the combustible Josh Smith onto the fire to light up the frontcourt. So, Smith is already calling out coach Mo Cheeks and the Pistons are backsliding from the .500 mark. Things are getting ugly early again in the Motor City. And, oh yeah, nobody is coming to watch the Pistons, who are last in the league in attendance.

Golden State Warriors — Do the American Hustle: Like the hit movie, was last year’s magical little run through the playoffs by Mark Jackson’s team just one glorious con job? Yes, they’ve played a tough schedule, but something is missing. Lack of last year’s bench? A failure to take care of the ball? You get the sense that the Warriors were just trying to pick up this season right where they left off without putting in all of the gritty groundwork.

Houston Rockets — Rebound, Then Run: Everybody loves watching the Rockets run like methamphetamine-fueled hamsters on a wheel. But for a team that has Dwight Howard in the middle, they are horrible at giving up second-chance points to opponents and it has often proved costly. It’s nice to run, but better not to turn your back and head down the court while the other guy is dropping another put-back into the net.

Indiana Pacers — Don’t Stop Believing: The Pacers came into the season convinced that they could live up to the old axiom of playing them one game at a time and that grind-it-out method would eventually deliver the best record in the league and home-court all the way through The Finals. With Paul George tossing his hat into the MVP ring and Roy Hibbert making opponents ears ring with his physical style, it’s working quite well for coach Frank Vogel’s team.

L.A. Clippers — Say Goodbye to Hollywood: The sooner the Clippers can get rid of all the extraneous things in their game — yes, you, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — and get down to the serious business of playing some real defense around the basket, the sooner we’ll take them seriously as real contenders in the Western Conference. At this point, despite all the good work by Chris Paul, the Clips are still one of those acts that gets eliminated early on “American Idol.”

L.A. Lakers — Lock Up Kobe: Yes, we know he’s the Black Mamba. We know that he’d be the guy standing out in the rain with a fork and still believe he’d quench his thirst. But the Lakers aren’t going anywhere this season and it doesn’t help their cause for next year if Kobe Bryant returns and pushes himself to the limit again in a debilitating run that winds up far short of the playoffs. It’s time to think about the limited — and high-paying — future he has left. Oh yeah, and trade Pau Gasol.

(more…)

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 29


VIDEO: The Daily Zap, a quick rundown of the 12 games played Dec. 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bosh rises to sink Blazers | Smith lashes out at Cheeks | Clippers interested in Bynum? | Wolves back to .500

No. 1: Bosh rises to sink Blazers — On a night the Miami Heat were looking to avoid consecutive losses for the third time this season, LeBron James sat out with a groin injury and Dwyane Wade didn’t have it going. But there was the often overlooked member of the Big Three, Chris Bosh, an All-Star in his own right, standing by to save the day. The Heat’s power forward outplayed LaMarcus Aldridge, posting 37 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds to beat the Portland Trail Blazers, the West’s No. 1 team. In the final huddle Heat coach Erik Spoelstra drew up a play, but Bosh overruled it, wanting to take the 3, and Spoelstra smartly rolled with it. After Bosh drilled the shot, the Heat bench, including James, erupted and showered Bosh with a wild celebration that revealed how big that win was and how much Bosh’s teammates enjoy seeing him succeed.
Ethan Skolnick of Bleacher Report provides the details:

“My call at the end of the game was much more conservative,” Spoelstra said, after the Heat’s 108-107 victory. “I drew something up to get him on the move, and he said no, I want it for three.”

Bosh wanted the extra space, especially since he knew his momentum would take him away from the hoop anyway.

He wanted the extra point too.

“I told him I wanted to go for the jugular,” Bosh said.

“So he overruled it and became a prophet,” Spoelstra said. “Why did I even diagram something else for him? I mean, he already hit two threes. He was feeling it, he wanted it, and as soon as he said it, I said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ It was much better than what I had planned.”

It was. So much better.

Norris Cole inbounded to Dwyane Wade from the left side, with Mario Chalmers running Damian Lillard down the baseline from right to left, while Ray Allen occupied Mo Williams‘ attention on the left wing. It was similar to the previous play, in which Allen’s screen freed Wade for a slam.

Bosh set a brush screen—and this time, Aldridge left him to help Nicolas Batum chase down Wade.

“My job was to drive his man to me,” Wade said.

It went just as they planned.

“It didn’t really go exactly like that,” Wade said.

OK, it didn’t. Wade lost the handle briefly, before chucking the ball behind him on one bounce, fortunate that Williams didn’t budge.

“He threw a crazy pass a little bit, I’m not going to lie,” Bosh said. “But I was able to see it, nobody was in the vicinity, so I didn’t have to rush, and I was able to lock into the goal the whole time.”

Bosh collected it with his left side touching the three-point line, backing up, stepping in and launching from 26 feet with 2.6 seconds left.

With 0.5 seconds left, it fell through.

***

No. 2: Smith lashes out at Cheeks — The Detroit Pistons were on the verge of hitting .500, but have now lost four of five and two in a row, blasted on back-to-back nights by Orlando and then at Washington on Saturday. And now the Pistons have the first signs of internal conflict brewing with big free-agent acquisition Josh Smith unhappy about being benched for the entire second half and suggesting that coach Maurice Cheeks called him out for not playing hard. As David Mayo of MLive reports:

Josh Smith didn’t play the second half of a 106-82 blowout against the Washington Wizards, the second time head coach Maurice Cheeks has made that decision this season.

This time, Smith suggested Cheeks called him out for not playing hard, and that he took “real offense” to the accusation.

Smith also was benched the second half of a Nov. 12 game at Golden State.

“Like I told y’all before when we had this conversation, when you hit adverse times, characters are gonna be tested,” Smith said. “It’s either that we’re gonna come closer together and make it all one team, or are you gonna use a scapegoat to get away from what’s really at hand?”

What’s really at hand is the Pistons (14-18) have lost four of five, bombed in a two-game road trip against sub-.500 teams this weekend, and now have their first hint of internal upheaval.

How long it lasts remains to be seen.

Asked if Smith will start Monday’s home rematch with the Wizards, Cheeks replied, “I assume he will. I don’t know why he wouldn’t. We’ll wait until that next game gets there.”

Smith said he isn’t inclined to have a personal discussion with Cheeks about their disagreement before the next game.

“To me, it’s over with,” Smith said. “But you know, some people hold grudges longer than others. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m not saying that he (Cheeks) does. I don’t know.

“But I’m not the type of person that really likes to go all the time in the coach’s office and have one-on-one sitdowns. I’m more of a team morale guy, worrying about what we can do, as far as teammates are concerned, to make ourselves more successful.”

***

No. 3: Clippers interested in Bynum?The former Lakers big man, troubled by knee injuries and possibly a lack of desire to play at the highest level, was suspended indefinitely by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday for conduct detrimental to the team. Reports have the Cavs eager to deal Andrew Bynum. The Clippers, in need of frontline support behind center DeAndre Jordan and power forward Blake Griffin, could be one team interested in trying to make it work with the troubled 7-footer who had not long ago put himself in the discussion alongside Dwight Howard as the league’s top center. Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times breaks it down:

The Clippers would have interest in Bynum if he was released by the Cavaliers, according to several NBA executives who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

But according to one Eastern Conference executive, the Clippers would have competition for Bynum because the Miami Heat also would have interest in the seven-footer.

The Clippers have the NBA-maximum 15-player roster and would have to waive a player if they were to sign Bynum, who is still only 26.

The Cavaliers signed Bynum to a two-year, $24-million deal over the summer. But only $6 million of Bynum’s $12.2-million contract for this season is guaranteed if he is waived before Jan. 7.

The Eastern Conference executive said it’s possible Bynum will be released by the Cavaliers in early January if they can’t trade him so the team is not on the hook for the last $6 million Bynum would be owed.

Bynum has averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds in 20.0 minutes in the 24 games he has played with the Cavaliers. He had 18 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes when he started for the Cavaliers against the Clippers on Dec. 7

.***

No. 4: Wolves back to .500It had been since Dec. 10-11 that the Minnesota Timberwolves had won consecutive games. A team expected to make the playoffs this season following last year’s disastrous injury problems, the Wolves have yet to find any consistency and have lost late leads in multiple games. On Saturday night, they avoided a letdown on the second night of a back-to-back, blowing out woeful Milwaukee to get back to .500. They haven’t won three in a row since starting the season with three consecutive victories. They’ll get the chance to match their season-high win streak at home on Monday against the Dallas Mavericks, a team they handled twice in November. Kent Youngblood of the Minnesota Star Tribune has the story:

The message, at halftime, was something like this: Don’t let it happen again.

The Timberwolves were winning against the lowly Bucks on the road Saturday night, but Milwaukee was getting too many easy baskets and points in the paint. This was feeling a bit too much like last week’s game against the Lakers. Or the week before in Boston, when the Wolves had followed an impressive win with a listless loss.

Not to worry.

With Kevin Love leading the way, the Wolves scored the first 14 points of the third quarter and built their lead to as much as 31 late in the quarter at Bradley Center. That was enough to withstand some shoddy play by the bench to start the fourth quarter. The result was a 117-95 victory that ended a three-game road losing streak and put the Wolves (15-15) back at .500 with five of their next six games at home.

“We haven’t played great in the second night of back-to-backs,” said Love, who scored 33 points with 15 rebounds. He made four of six three-pointers and had six assists. It was his 10th consecutive game with 25 or more points, most in the league this season, and his fifth game with at least 30 points and 15 rebounds.

The Wolves, who won Friday against Washington, have won two in a row, sweeping both ends of a back-to-back for only the second time in eight tries this season. Love and center Nikola Pekovic (19 points, 11 rebounds) took advantage of a Bucks lineup missing 6-11 John Henson. Kevin Martin added 20 points and Corey Brewer had 12.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Deron Williams‘ season keeps getting uglier as Nets get crushed by superior Pacers … Knicks hope to get Carmelo Anthony back for tough Texas road swing. … Bradley Beal makes welcome return 24 hours after limping off the floor and helps Wizards rout of Pistons … Nets center Brook Lopez will undergo foot surgery next Saturday

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 23


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 22

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Sometimes Love isn’t enough | Stephenson spoils Indy return for Stevens | Pistons ride roller coaster | Wade’s Holiday surprise

No. 1: Timberwolves get monster effort from Love and still lose – Kevin Love has been toiling like this now for a while. He puts up monster numbers, epic numbers often, only to see his Minnesota Timberwolves come up short in seemingly winnable games. Sunday night was no different, with Love posting just the fourth 45-points on 65-percent shooting, 15-rebounds and 5-assist game since the NBA/ABA merger and the Timberwolves found a way to fumble away a late lead in regulation and lose to the Los Angeles Clippers in overtime.

It makes you wonder if the Timberwolves are ever going to figure things out with this particular group … Rick Adelman in charge, Love and Ricky Rubio leading the way and Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and others as role players.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com ponders the thought:

It’s getting harder and harder to believe in Minnesota, even for those among us who were ready to anoint them as this season’s Warriors. It all looked so promising six weeks ago. The Wolves were quickly mastering Adelman’s read-and-react offense from the high post and perimeter, but could also bully opponents down on the block.

The defense wasn’t half-bad either. Through the end of November, the Wolves ranked 9th in defensive efficiency. They didn’t have a legitimate rim protector on the roster, but they had good size, Ricky Rubio’s pressure up top, Corey Brewer’s skills as a stopper on the wing, and a very large man in Pekovic who nobody wants to encounter in the paint.

The December schedule hasn’t been terribly friendly, but the Wolves have been terrible, their big home win over Portland last Wednesday the one strand of hope. The offense looks nothing like anything Adelman has ever presided over. Half-court possessions are labored affairs, slow grinds into post isolations for either Love or Pekovic.

Martin has battled a knee injury for much of the month and hasn’t looked like himself. As a linchpin of the corner offense, Martin is often a bellwether for Adelman offenses, and if he’s not producing, chances are the offense is dragging.

The Wolves’ 3-and-D guy, Brewer, is shooting 17.1 percent from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, defenses willingly slough off Rubio, practically begging him to shoot. With his confidence waning, Rubio is still racking up assists, but is less a playmaker than a reversal machine, swinging the ball to the second side without truly challenging the defense.

Speaking of defense, the Wolves have given up 106.6 points per 100 possession, a mark that would rank 28th in the NBA. Asked to identify the specific problem prior to the game, Adelman said, “We’re not guarding anybody.” Those big bodies now just look slow. Whether it’s Martin or J.J. Barea alongside Rubio, the Wolves don’t get much defensively at the 2. Brewer has conceded that his wayward shot is affecting his defense.

***

No. 2: Stephenson’s triple double trumps homecoming for Stevens – So much for that storybook homecoming for former Butler and now Celtics coach Brad Stevens. The Indiana Pacers, particularly Lance Stephenson, were having no part of the Holiday cheer. Stephenson collected his league-leading third triple-double of the season as the Pacers trounced the Celtics. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t help but dance a little bit (something Pacers coach Frank Vogel could have done without) on his way to yet another stellar performance.

Michael Pointer of the Indianapolis Star explains:

Stephenson finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists and looked very much like a player deserving of his first All-Star berth. No other player in the NBA has more than one triple-double this season.

“I’m happy I did it,” he said. “It was in the flow of the game. My teammates helped me out. We played smart. It was easy because I know my teammates are going to knock down shots.”

Stephenson did get plenty of help, most notably from Paul George, who scored 18 of his game-high 24 points in the second half. Danny Granger, playing in his just his second game after returning from a calf strain, was 4-for-5 from 3-point range and had 12 points. Roy Hibbert had 15 points and 12 rebounds.

But his teammates acknowledged afterward that Stephenson provides them an emotional lift like no one else.

“He’s just starting the game off more aggressively,” George said. “In practice, he’s been great. We’ve seen it develop over time. Now, when he gets into the game, it’s second nature to him.”

Added veteran forward David West: “One of the biggest things for young guys in the NBA is that once you work your way into the rotation and you become a guy we rely on, that just fills you up. We give him a lot of room to go out and play his game. … He definitely keeps us on our toes and keeps things light. He’s able to just do something we’ll talk about on the plane. It’s just who he is.”

Vogel wasn’t thrilled with a couple of celebration dances Stephenson did after baskets, but didn’t have much else to complain about.

“He’s such a gifted passer and playmaker for us and a huge part of our team success,” Vogel said.

STEVENS‘The emotions are in coming back and seeing friends’

Stevens, the former Butler coach who left the school in July to join the Celtics, got a warm ovation during pregame warmups and his team kept it close for one quarter.

But after that, the Pacers (22-5) showed why they have the Eastern Conference’s best record. They outscored Boston 50-22 in the paint, got 40 points from their bench and held the Celtics to just 38.1 percent shooting (32-for-84) en route to an easy victory.

As the game ended, Stevens shook hands with Vogel, a rarity at the end of a NBA game. He also shook the hand of several Pacers players.

“It was just because we’re friends and we know each other well,” said Vogel, noting they also shook hands after the Pacers’ 97-82 victory in Boston last month. “I came down and told him he was doing a great job with that team.”

***

No. 3: Pistons’ roller coaster season confounds – If Maurice Cheeks had the answers he’d have pushed those buttons already. But he doesn’t and he hasn’t. And therefore, the curious ride of the Detroit Pistons continues as the coach and his staff try to figure out how to stop the roller coaster ride that is their season and stabilize things. That’s a lot easier said than done, however, as Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News points out:

The last two home games, losses to the Houston Rockets and Charlotte Bobcats on consecutive nights over the weekend, is a clear example of nobody knowing which team will step on the floor on a given night.

“You know we’re still trying to get better,” Cheeks said. “As I said to our players, there’s going to be some good nights and bad nights. Last night (Friday) and (Saturday) was not our best.”

Cheeks believes the Bobcats loss led to the poor showing against the Rockets. The Pistons blew a 20-point lead to Charlotte on Friday and looking almost apathetic on Saturday.

“I believe there could’ve been some carryover,” Cheeks said. “I can’t discount that because it was a tough loss.”

Losing five of six at home is an unexpected circumstance, although there isn’t much shame in losing to the Miami Heat in a game where the champions were intent on sending a message.

But blowout losses to the Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves are combined with come-from-ahead losses to the Bobcats and Portland Trail Blazers, mixed in with a win against the Brooklyn Nets that was tougher than it needed to be.

“I don’t know, I don’t know. I guess that’s determined when we go up and down the floor a few times,” said forward Josh Smith, when asked about getting a pulse on the team’s energy before games.

.***

No. 4: Wade surprises Union with Holiday ring – Heat guard Dwyane Wade has no problem mixing business with pleasure. He used Heat boss Pat Riley‘s annual Holiday party as his impromptu engagement party after officially popping the question to longtime girlfriend Gabrielle Union before they arrived at Riley’s affair. The surprise engagement was announced via social media. But Union showing up with a huge diamond ring on her finger added an extra dash of flair to the festivities, upstaging Riley at his own gig in the process, not that anyone was complaining about that. In fact, Wade popping the question was a bit of a team effort, so says Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald:

Wade proposed to Union before the party at his home and then announced the engagement on Twitter and Instagram.

Wade said his children helped him pop the question.

“We asked her to marry all of us, not just me,” Wade said. “It was a package deal.”

Wade and Union have dated since 2007.

“She was ready,” Wade said. “She had the ‘yes’ in her back pocket.”

At the holiday party, Wade then surprised his teammates with green custom-made sports coats commemorating their 2013 championship. The blazers featured the players’ jersey numbers on the sleeves and white Heat logos on the front pockets.

Wade said his inspirations for the unique mementos were the Masters golf tournament and Rasheed Wallace. Wallace famously had pro wrestling-style replica championship belts made for his Pistons teammates for winning the 2004 NBA Finals. Wade liked Wallace’s idea but wanted something a little classier.

Said Wade: “You know me, I’m always trying to do something different and out of the norm, and I started thinking about what have previous champions done … and then it came to be me, because of fashion and because of the Masters and how amazing it is when they win the green jacket and all the previous winners come back and take pictures with the green jackets and how prestigious it is … so I got with my stylist and created this Masters kind of feel.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Thunder fell victim to the red-hot Raptors and the schedule in their first home loss of the season Sunday … Much like their NFL counterparts, the Dallas Mavericks are having no problems scoring. It’s the defense that they are struggling with these days … The Hawks have brought big man Lucas Nogueira to Atlanta for treatment of his ailing knees.

ICYMI Of The Night: Kevin Love put up the stat line of the night and delivered the elbow of the week, but Blake Griffin got the win, the knot on his forehead and the shine on Nightly Notable …


VIDEO: Blake Griffin gets the shiner (on his forehead) and the shine in the end

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 17


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 16

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Woodson takes blame for Knicks’ loss | Oden’s status remains a mystery | Brown impressed with Trail Blazers | Johnson is Nets’ unsung ironman

No. 1: Woodson botches final seconds, shoulders burden for loss – A public vote of confidence from Carmelo Anthony won’t make things any easier on Knicks coach Mike Woodson today. As if things could get any crazier for Woodson and his beaten down team, Monday night’s Manhattan Meltdown against the Wizards left Woodson on the hook for a late-game mistake. ESPNNewYork.com’s Ian Begley delivers the goods on Melo defending his coach after the curious late-game tailspin that might ultimately cost Woodson his job:

Some will be calling for Mike Woodson’s job in the wake of the New York Knicks’ disastrous one-point loss to the Washington Wizards on Monday.

But Knicks star Carmelo Anthony believes his coach is safe.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s secure right now. I haven’t heard anything,” Anthony said Monday night after initially declining to answer a question about Woodson’s status. “There’s nothing to discuss. He’s our coach, and we’re rolling with him.”

Woodson’s job security has come into question in recent weeks with the Knicks (7-17) playing well below expectations. Woodson and the Knicks’ late-game errors Monday will only put more heat on the coach.

New York had a one-point lead against the Wizards with 24 seconds to play and a foul to give.

Instead of using the foul, the Knicks allowed Bradley Beal to drive for an uncontested layup with 6.9 seconds to play.

Then, Woodson and his players did not call timeout to set up a final play. Instead, Anthony dribbled the ball across half court and took a 25-foot off-balance shot that fell short as time expired. The Knicks had three timeouts to use.

“I probably should have taken a timeout there at the end, but you know, Beno [Udrih] grabbed it [to inbound] and the ball is in Melo’s hands before I could even react, and I should have reacted a lot sooner once the ball went through the bucket. So, that’s on me,” Woodson said. ” …. I didn’t call the timeout so I’ve got to take the heat for that.”

There is plenty of blame to go around in New York, more than enough for Anthony, Woodson, Spike Lee and anyone else to get in on the action. But Woodson’s seat is the hottest.


VIDEO: The Game Time crew breaks down the Knicks’ Manhattan Meltdown

***

No. 2: Oden’s status remains a mystery for Heat-Pacers and beyond – Greg Oden had to watch the first chapter of the Heat-Pacers drama in street clothes last week. His status for Round 2 Wednesday remains one of  South Florida’s biggest mysteries. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra isn’t tipping his hand. And Pacers big man Roy Hibbert probably doesn’t care, even after his woeful performance in the Pacers’ first home loss of the season to Josh Smith and the Detroit Pistons Monday night. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald does his best to uncover the secretes surrounding Oden’s status:

The Heat plays the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night in the biggest home game of the first two months of the season, and the topic of Oden and his playing status (or lack thereof) will once again be a point of discussion.

Last week, Oden watched from the bench in Indianapolis as Pacers center Roy Hibbert dominated the paint both offensively and defensively. After the game, Hibbert said he was looking forward to Oden joining the rivalry.

But exactly when Oden will begin playing games for the Heat remains a mystery. He made an appearance in the preseason but hasn’t suited up for a regular-season game. Oden, who was in street clothes against the Jazz, has been inactive for the first 24 games of the season.

As a follow up to a question about his rotations, Spoelstra was asked about how to efficiently incorporate Oden into the Heat’s system once he is ready to play.

“We’ll get to that when we get to that,” Spoelstra said. “It will be no different than when we had to incorporate Michael [ Beasley], when we’ve had to incorporate Shane [ Battier]. We incorporated Norris [Cole]. When we get to that point, we’ll deal with it the way we always do.”

Spoelstra was then asked whether he thought adding Oden midstream would be the biggest challenge of the season.

“You can’t ever pinpoint what the biggest challenge will be in an NBA season, really,” Spoelstra said. “They come daily, they come weekly because of the schedule, but they will arrive on your doorstep.”

Oden hasn’t played in regular-season game in more than four years.


VIDEO:
Did the Pacers get caught looking ahead to Wednesday’s showdown with the Heat?

***

No. 3: Brown sees much to like (maybe even love) about the Trail Blazers – Don’t judge Cleveland coach Mike Brown for being envious of Terry Stotts and the machine he’s presiding over in Portland these days. All coaches wish they could get off to the early season start the Blazers have. So while Brown has the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week (Kyrie Irving) at his disposal, he’d love to have the NBA’s team of the first two months (arguably, the Pacers want in on that as well) to work with, as Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer explains (oh, and that point guard matchup tonight between Irving and Damian Lillard should be as good as any we’ve seen thus far):

Ask Cavaliers coach Mike Brown what makes the Portland Trail Blazers so good and his long, long list of compliments starts with coach Terry Stotts and goes through LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews all the way to Mo Williams.

It’s no wonder, either, since the Trail Blazers come into The Q on Tuesday with a shiny 21-4 record, best in the Western Conference. After an overtime victory at Detroit on Sunday, they’re even better on the road — 11-2 — than at home.

“Terry is a good coach first of all, but if you look at their roster, they have veteran guys on that team or guys in their prime,” Brown said after the Cavs practice on Monday at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “They have very few young guys they’re asking to run or lead the ship. They’ve got a lot of veteran players on their team who know how to play the game the right way on the floor. A lot of those guys have had success. Maybe not last year, but LaMarcus has won before, Batum has won before, Matthews has won before there and even in Utah.

“I thought the Lopez kid was the right fit. They needed a big body that doesn’t need to score or anything like that who will do the dirty work because they have enough scorers when you look at the guys they rotate in and out of the game. Then on top of that you’ve got a veteran like Mo Williams who can shoot the 3, who can come off pindowns,  who can play pick and roll. He’s fast with the ball, can play in transition, can make plays for himself and his teammates.

“That’s a nice mix of players they have who know how to score the basketball. Because they have size and because in my opinion they added a guy like Lopez, that makes them bigger. Lopez has great feet, so that makes them even better defensively than what they might have been in the past. Then you have Batum and Wes Matthews, too, on the perimeter. Those are two big guards who know how to defend.”

***

No. 4: Low-key Johnson serves as Nets’ unsung ironman – His record-tying shooting night thrust Joe Johnson into the national headlines. But he’s been the Nets’ unsung ironman all season, writes Filip Bondy of The New York Daily News. Through all of the trials and tribulations this team has faced this season, Johnson has been the one constant. And whether Nets fans and others realize it or not, that could very well be the one factor that saves their season:

Of all the remarkable season stats for Joe Johnson, the most impressive one right now rests directly below the “G.”

There, you will find the number 24, which means that Johnson is one of only four Nets, and the only one who really matters, not to have missed a single game this year due to injury. It is a wonder how he has remained in one piece, while all around him his teammates have been felled like Christmas trees in early December. “I love to come out and play,” Johnson said after he had done something remarkable on Monday night. “I just try to be here for the guys.”

Johnson wasn’t merely there for the guys at Barclays Center, he was ablaze. Johnson went on a record-tying 3-point streak that suddenly made a lopsided game worth watching, at least for a period. In that third quarter, he scored 29 points and buried eight of 10 threes, including an impossible bomb from the left corner with defender James Anderson draped all over him — while drawing a foul.

“I got a good look, got separation,” Johnson insisted. “I just let it go. I was in the right spot a lot of times, at the right times, catching the ball with the seams every time in the right place.”

It was all more than enough to bury the Sixers, 130-94, and to demonstrate again how Johnson has become the rock on a team largely comprised of delicate sand pebbles. “Got to keep giving him the ball, keep giving it to him,” Andray Blatche said.

Johnson finished with 37 points and 10 3-pointers, and all around him his teammates were shouting, “Just keep shooting.” But Johnson had been battling a bug these last couple of days, skipping practice, and so he took a seat on the bench while watching the fourth quarter of this laugher. He had earned the rest, averaging 34 minutes per game while shooting .433 from 3-point range. “He’s been the one horse, been consistent for us,” Jason Kidd said. “A guy who never complains.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Heat’s Dwyane Wade insists the average fan just doesn’t understand the anatomy and physiology of an NBA star … Joe Johnson wasn’t the only former Hawks star to have a good night. Josh Smith is working on back-to-back monster nights for the Pistons … Contrasting styles were on display in the Clippers-Spurs game last night, Gregg Popovich’s way vs. the unique approach that Doc Rivers employs … Derrick Rose is worried about the Bulls’ future? (while most everyone else is worried about his!)

ICYMI(s) Of The Night: Forget about the Bulls’ struggles for a minute and just enjoy Taj Gibson‘s finishing touch on this pick and roll  …


VIDEO: Nik Vucevic is a HT fave, but he’s on the wrong end of this dunk by Taj Gibson

Cheeks Wants Jennings To Step Up On ‘D’


VIDEO: Detroit at New Orleans, Dec. 11, 2013

NEW ORLEANS — Brandon Jennings filled up the hoop with 25 points, grabbed five rebounds and dealt out four assists.

As usual, that wasn’t the issue.

The Pistons have now lost three consecutive games and went down on back-to-back nights in large part because the middle of their defense might as well be a landing strip.

Brandon Jennings

Brandon Jennings (Dan Lippitt/NBAE)

On Tuesday night, the Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio ransacked The Palace by doing almost anything he pleased. Barely 24 hours later it was Jrue Holiday along with Tyreke Evans (on a tender ankle) who took apart the Pistons with dribble penetration.

There is room for all of the routine excuses — the Pistons are the fourth-youngest team in the NBA, they have so many different new parts still learning about each other and how to play together. But Wednesday night they played a Pelicans team that was without its best player in Anthony Davis and overcoming a horrid 6-for-18 shooting night from Ryan Anderson – and they still found a way to get past Detroit.

Mostly that way was straight down the middle.

A Pistons team that should have a stifling front line of the sizable Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith has a defense that is ranked 19th in the NBA for a variety of reasons. Much of the problem begins at the top where opposing guards are usually able to run as free as colts in a meadow.

It’s enough to make Detroit fans long for the days of the Bad Boys and a couple of good forearm shivers.

That’s why coach Maurice Cheeks is looking for his point guard, Jennings, to take on his share of the defensive burden.

When he was asked whether he might “hide” Jennings in a run of three straight games against high powered point guards Holiday, Deron Williams (Nets) and Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) by switching the assignment to rookie Kentavious Pope-Caldwell, Cheeks threw down the gauntlet.

“Yeah he’d be up for the challenge,” Cheeks said of the rookie. “But if you’re going to be good, and I’m going to say this again, a good point guard, I don’t like the word ‘hide’. I want the guy who’s guarding the ball, who’s running my team, to guard that guy, if you’re going to be good.”

Since he popped in 55 points as a rookie with the Bucks, Jennings has been all about his offensive ability. But in a league where point guard skill is more abundant than ever, if Jennings is going to get back into the headlines and crack the upper echelon, he’ll have to stop relying on his big men to cover up for his mistakes and lack of commitment on defense.

Cheeks, who was one of the best on-the-ball defenders during his 15-year NBA career, wants his point guard to take the challenge personally.

“I think Jennings has a chance to be very good,” Cheeks said. “I keep talking about steps. “You take steps, you get better at defending your position. That’s how you become one of those elite players. You don’t become elite by having someone else guard your guy.”

Morning Shootaround — Nov. 22


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Nov. 21

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Brown won’t panic over Cavs’ start | Dolan opens up on Woodson, Stoudemire | Pistons focus on pick-and-roll defense | ‘Foreign Legion’ fueling Spurs’ solid start

No. 1: Brown not about to overreact to Cavs’ slow start — The Cavs remade their roster in the offseason, bringing in center Andrew Bynum, stable veteran guard Jarrett Jack and versatile forward Earl Clark as the highlights of their free-agency remodel. With those moves on the dockett, plus having an All-Star guard (Kyrie Irving) in the fold and the return of rebounding maven Anderson Varejao from injury, Cleveland was thinking a playoff run was a near sure-thing. Yet the Cavs awake this morning with a 4-8 mark, second-worst in the Central Division, and haven’t looked anything like a postseason contender. Despite the early struggles, coach Mike Brown isn’t about to hit the panic button on the season, writes Bob Finnan of The News-Herald & Morning Journal:

Even though there’s panic running rampant throughout the fan base, Cavaliers coach Mike Brown isn’t about to follow suit.

His team has lost four of its last five games and is embarking on a rugged two-game trip this weekend.

The Cavs (4-8) are 1-6 on the road this season.

His biggest obstacle is getting his team to compete.

Playoff projections seem almost absurd after the way the Cavs have started the season.

But Brown isn’t about to overreact.

“It’s too early for that,” Brown said after practice on Thursday at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “Don’t get me wrong — we want to win games while we’re going through this process. Nobody likes to lose. But I don’t know if I’m a guy who would panic, anyway. What does panicking do for you?

“I’ve got a job, and my job is to help this team get better and try to win games. If I panic, they’re going to panic, and it would just be chaotic. I don’t care where we are. I’m not going to do that.”

“There should be a lot of expectations,” he said. “I didn’t take this job to just say, ‘I’m OK getting 10th, and that’s an improvement from last year.’ I took this job because I think we can get to the playoffs. Is it going to be a process? Yes. Is it going to happen overnight? No.

“I didn’t take the job to hope that there wouldn’t be expectations placed upon us, because that’s what you play for. You play to compete. We’ve just got to bounce back.”

After their 98-91 loss to Washington on Wednesday, Cavs guard Jarrett Jack said the coaches shouldn’t have to nudge players to compete.

“There’s no remedy to effort,” he said. “That’s the one thing you control. It’s nothing Coach can do. Nobody should have to ask anybody to play hard.”

“You can’t buy into anything if you don’t put forth the necessary effort for it to be successful. At this particular point, that’s our biggest problem. One through 15, it’s something we all have to get control now, or we’re going to lose control of this before it’s too late.”

Jack said playing hard is not an acquired taste.

“We’ve got to grasp a hold of that concept, because playing hard is a skill,” he said. “It’s not anything anybody can teach you, but bringing it each and every day is a learned skill that you have to have in this league in order to be successful.”


VIDEO: Mike Brown isn’t about to panic over Cleveland’s slow start

***

No. 2: Dolan gives Woodson a vote of confidence – The Knicks, much like the Cavs, haven’t lived up to their lofty expectations so far this season. A 3-8 record and talk of panic from one of the team’s better players are proof that things aren’t going so hot in New York. When things start this slowly — especially in a media fishbowl of a town like the Big Apple — talk turns to the man leading the troops, in this case Mike Woodson, and whether or not he’s lost the team. Knicks boss James Dolan, however, answered that question (and many others about the future of the Knicks) in a wide-ranging interview with the New York Post‘s Mike Vaccaro:

MV: I’m sure you heard the chants that have already started to fire Mike Woodson, which comes with the territory, naturally …

JD: Yeah …

MV: How patient will you be with him? He understood when he took the job the expectations that go with it. Will you give him a long rope?

JD: I have a lot of confidence in Woodson, and one thing I can say about Mike is he has the respect of all the players. They all respect him. And he treats them fairly and relatively equally, and that’s part of where the respect emanates from. And those are hard things to get from a coach. When a coach loses a team … that’s when a coach is kind of done.

MV: The Knicks started 18-5 last year and it didn’t end the way you wanted it to; at this point I assume you’d flip that script?

JD: You know what? I wouldn’t take last year’s team for this year’s team, because this year’s team is more designed to be a playoff team, whereas last year’s team was 18-5 but look who was playing: we had Rasheed Wallace who was doing everything for us, right? And we just started losing player after player … by the time we got to the playoffs that 18-5 team wasn’t the team that was playing in the playoffs. If they were I think we would’ve beaten Indiana.

MV: So this bad start …

JD: It’s going right according to plan (laughs) …

MV: Do you think you’re a good owner?

JD: Yeah. I do.

MV: Why?

JD: I think I watch out for my fans. I try to give them a good product. I care for the teams. I’m emotionally involved and intellectually involved. I think an owner needs to be present. When an owner is not present that’s when things tend to go awry. The players, the coaches, the fans know there’s somebody in charge. They may not like what I’m doing but it’s much better than having nobody there. Nobody there just leaves you in despair.

MV: For Knicks fans there’s one word that riles their passion more than any other: Isiah.

JD: Amazing, isn’t it?

MV: And you surely know the panic that ensues when a Glen Grunwald gets fired and people wonder, “Is Isiah coming back?”

JD: I can’t control what’s in other people’s minds. I can tell you that he’s a friend of mine. We speak, but not as often as we used to because he’s really involved in other things now. We’ll message back and forth once in a while. We used to talk a lot more often. He seems to be moving into another phase of his life, he’s not as basketball-centric, he’s doing a lot of charity work, he got his masters [in education, from Cal-Berkeley], he actually uses me to bounce business ideas off of …

MV: Do you still consult him, too, about basketball ideas?

JD: Not really. For Isiah, I don’t know that he’ll ever be able to work in New York. I just don’t know that he’ll ever get a fair shake, going forward in New York?

MV: If you could take a mulligan on the $100 million Amar’e contract …

JD: Nope.

MV: Because the first year was that important?

JD: We would not be where we are today without Amar’e. That summer, the summer of “The Decision,” there were a whole bunch of free agents, and the guys put their thing together in Miami, and Amar’e agreed to come to the Knicks, gave us a launch pad by which we could convince the other guys like Tyson [Chandler] to come, and ultimately Carmelo to come play with us. Do I think Carmelo would have come if we didn’t have Amar’e? No, I don’t think he would’ve. These free agents, when you get to this level of player — the Carmelos, the LeBrons, the Durants — the first thing they want before the money or anything else is to be on a winning team. They’ve got to believe they have a shot.

MV: So does it sadden you to watch him in a diminished state?

JD: I still have hope. You cannot ask for a guy to be more dedicated, more disciplined, than Amar’e. He does his rehab, he does his workouts, he does everything, he’s on it every day, and that’s worth a lot, too. If there’s justice in this world, his knee will heal up to the point where he can play more minutes and make the contribution he wants to make.

MV: What are your impressions of Mikhail Prokhorov?

JD: I don’t get to see him much but he clearly wants to win, which is a good thing. He’s the only guy paying more taxes than we are which is a club I wouldn’t necessarily want to be part of with him (laughs). I think he wants to win, I know he wants to win, he wouldn’t be putting the resources in that he is otherwise. But, I mean, he’s still my competitor. As a person I kind of know him, I’ve had lunch with him but other than that I don’t really know him well.

MV: One thing you share is that you’ve both expressed belief your teams can win a title this year. Do you really believe the Knicks can or was that just a usual declaration of high expectations?

JD: I think this team can win a championship.

MV: As presently constituted?

JD: I think there are a lot of teams that could win the championship this year. I think the Clippers can win. Are they going to? I hope not. I hope we win the championship. I think we have the pieces in place to do it. The skill level is there but there’s so much more to the game than that, and it’s really in the hands of the players. They have to believe in themselves, they have to put in the work, the effort, the discipline, they have to listen to the coach, they have to execute a strategy and put an effort in every game. And they have to get themselves to be the best team they can be at the end of March. It’s OK right now not to be the best team you can be. Last year by the end of the year we were struggling. I’d rather see it go the other way. I’m not happy, believe me, about the record where it is now. But the warts that are showing up now are things you can work on, things you can fix. Now you test the character of your team to see if it’s willing or able to do that, if the coach is able to do that, to make those fixes. Can they win the championship? Yes. They definitely can win the championship. There have been other championship teams that weren’t nearly as talented as this one. But they had something that this team needs to develop.

***

No. 3: Pistons working to improve pick-and-roll defense — A quick jaunt over to the NBA.com/Stats tool reveals that the Pistons have struggled to keep opponents from scoring in the paint, which may be coming as a direct result from Detroit’s problems slowing down the pick and roll. After a 93-85 loss to the Hawks in Atlanta, Detroit’s big names say locking down the defense on that play has become a top priority from here on out, writes Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free-Press:

Josh Smith says the Detroit Pistons need a little more physicality.Maurice Cheeks and Greg Monroe say the Pistons are physical enough.

But all three agree the Pistons must get better at guarding the pick-and-roll. That was theme yet again in the Pistons’ latest loss — a 93-85 loss Wednesday to the Atlanta Hawks in Smith’s return to his hometown.

The Hawks shot 50.7% from the field, and the Pistons’ defense is last in the NBA in allowing opponents to shoot 48.5%.

The Hawks’ very first play featured a pick-and-roll from Hawks point guard Jeff Teague and power forward Paul Millsap. Millsap set the pick and rolled to the basket without any resistance where Teague found him for an easy lay-up. Andre Drummond was way late to provide help.

“It’s multiple things,” Monroe said. “I think we have to guard it with more than two people.

“In this league, there will be a lot of plays where they might beat those two people, but it’s the second line of defense that we’re having a little bit of trouble with.”

Cheeks pointed out it’s tough to provide another defender when you are concerned with spot-up three-point shooters such as the Hawks’ Kyle Korver.

But maybe things should be simplified. The team can try to adjust to personnel, but maybe they should just have a couple coverages to eliminate confusion.

***

No. 4: ‘Foreign Legion’ working wonders for Spurs – The Spurs, like last season, find themselves at the top of the Southwest Division thanks to the play of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, right? Well, not exactly. San Antonio has surged to the top of the division standings and is among the West’s best because of that star trio most know, but moreso because of their bench play, which has affectionately been dubbed the ‘Foreign Legion’ by Dan McCartney of the San Antonio Express-News:

Depth has long been a Spurs hallmark, particularly during their recent ascent back among the league’s elite.It isn’t just a luxury. With Tim Duncan approaching 40, Manu Ginobili not far behind and Tony Parker coming off a grueling summer of international hoops, having a strong bench capable of providing an assortment of options is absolutely essential in their quest to capture another championship.

“It’s something we depend on,” head coach Gregg Popovich said after the Spurs beat Boston going away on Wednesday, 104-93. “We’ve got a good, focused second group. They play very aggressively. We look for that and we need it.”

They certainly got it against the Celtics, dominating the battle of the bench 34-16 to account for the winning margin and more. It was another strong performance from a unit that ranks fourth in bench scoring (39.7 points per game), total production and production differential.

The bulk of that output is provided by the Foreign Legion of Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills, who have combined to break open numerous games already. Not just a collection of cool accents, they have the No. 6 plus-minus, at 16.6 points per 100 possessions, among 20 four-man lineups that have played at least 30 minutes together, and the second-best among units that do not include either Duncan or Parker. Their collective offensive rating of 117.2 points per 100 possessions is 14 points higher than the team’s average.


VIDEO:
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich praises the team’s reserves

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Dirk Nowitzki is donating $20 for every 2-pointer the Mavs make this season to help fund research on a rare disease called Hunter syndromeMike Dunleavy is the new starter in Chicago while Jimmy Butler is on the shelf … Magic swingman Arron Afflalo may be making a quiet push for an All-Star spot

ICYMI Of The Night: Kenneth Faried, aka “The Manimal”, has always been a favorite around these parts …


VIDEO: Kenneth Faried finishes off the nice Ty Lawson alley-oop

Morning Shootaround — Nov. 21


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Nov. 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Blazers use defense to stay hot | Smith ‘panicking’ after Knicks’ latest loss | Nowitzki, Ellis spoil Howard’s night | J-Smoove makes his Atlanta return

No. 1: Blazers turn to defense to keep rolling — If you missed it yesterday, our own John Schuhmann had a tremendous breakdown piece using NBA.com/Stats that delved into the Blazers’ hot start and how formidable Portland truly is. One of the key points of the piece is how the Blazers are using a Pacers-type defensive philosophy and that seemed to be apparent last night in Milwaukee. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian has more details on the Blazers’ eighth straight win, their defense and more:

The Blazers continued their improbable early-season march Wednesday night, defeating the Milwaukee Bucks 91-82 before 11,789. It was the Blazers’ eighth consecutive win, including their sixth in a row on the road, and moved their record to 10-2.

What’s more, the victory delivered the Blazers a rare sweep of four-game trip through Boston, Toronto, Brooklyn and Milwaukee — the franchise’s first sweep of a trip at least four games long since January 2003.

And, in a change of pace, the Blazers won Wednesday with what most consider their Achilles heel: Defense.

“We didn’t really shoot the ball well,” Damian Lillard said, smirking. “So we had to do something to win the game.”

No one would mistake Wednesday’s game for a work of art, as play was sluggish and sloppy throughout. Neither team generated consistent offensive momentum and rhythm and a sparse, dormant crowd created a lifeless, uninspiring environment. But in the middle of the muck — at least in the second half — was a Blazers defense that was physical, effective and stingy.

In the second half, the Blazers limited the Bucks to 31 points, 14 field goals and 37 percent shooting, while forcing 13 turnovers. Only one Milwaukee player — reserve John Henson — scored more than five second-half points, and he had six.

The Blazers’ offense has been so good during their hot streak — ranking second overall and third in offensive efficiency in the NBA over the previous seven games — that it was bound to have a hiccup. But they had enough to win ugly against the reeling Bucks (2-8).

The national media has started to take notice of the Blazers’ sizzling start, and multiple publications and websites have poked around at this team and what it’s doing. Most have noticed the Blazers’ offense is dynamic and fun to watch, while the defense is average at best. But the team sees things differently.

“We’ve won a lot of games shooting under 45 (percent),” Matthews said. “It’s got to be something.”

The Blazers have feasted on teams with losing records this season as eight of their 10 wins have come against teams with sub-.500 records. The popular question to ask: Are the Blazers for real? The answer could surface by the end of the week.

The Blazers host the Chicago Bulls (6-3) on Friday and travel to the Golden State Warriors (8-3) on Saturday as part of a challenging home-and-away back-to-back.

“That’s going to be a huge test,” backup big man Joel Freeland said. “It’s really going to show us where we’re at. We’ve been playing great, and hopefully we can keep going with the flow and ride it into these next games.”

***

No. 2: Knicks’ Smith says he’s ‘panicking’ on court — It’s doubtful things could be going much worse for the Knicks of late as they have lost four straight games and have the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference. Last night against the East-leading Indiana Pacers, New York held the lead for much of the game, but made several mental errors down the stretch and ended up falling in OT. What’s worse is that shooting guard J.R. Smith tells ESPNNewYork.com’s Ohm Youngmisuk that he is often panicking on the court during games:

J.R. Smith said the New York Knicks are mentally “frustrated” and that he personally is panicking after they lost their fourth straight game.The Knicks’ 103-96 overtime loss to the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday was the team’s sixth in a row at Madison Square Garden.

“We’re frustrated,” Smith said of where the team is mentally, despite most saying it’s too early to panic. “Like you say, it’s too early to panic, but me personally, I’m panicking. I don’t like this.

“I don’t want to play 3-8 basketball,” Smith continued, in regard to the Knicks’ record. “I don’t want to play 50-50 basketball. If we’re going to be a championship-caliber team and call ourselves that, then we’ve gotta play like that. It can’t be no other way.”

The Knicks are 2-5 since losing Tyson Chandler to a fractured right fibula. Carmelo Anthony had 30 points and 18 rebounds, and the Knicks led by three with 9.2 seconds left. But Iman Shumpert was called for a foul on a Paul George 3-point attempt, and George (35 points) made all three free throws to force overtime.

The Knicks put forth effort Wednesday night, but it hasn’t always been there this season. And that has been frustrating for Smith.

“Lack of intensity,” Smith said. “I hate to say it, but our defense’s backbone is on Tyson and Tyson’s not here right now and we know that and he’s not going to be available for a few weeks now, so we’ve gotta step it up individually. It’s team game but individually we’ve got to take pride in guarding the ball, guarding our man. We have to enjoy stopping the other team.”

Smith, who scored 21 points but missed an open 3 with 57.1 seconds left and a tip at the end of regulation, said the Knicks can’t just talk about putting forth effort. They have to do it if they want to be a contender.

“We play too up and down,” Smith said. “When we are on the highs, we are great. When we are on the lows, we are terrible. We got to have that steady pace throughout the whole year.”


VIDEO:
J.R. Smith talks about New York’s OT loss to the Pacers

***

No. 3: Nowitzki, Ellis spoil Howard’s big nightThrough three quarters in Dallas last night, it looked like Dwight Howard was going to have the last laugh against Mavs owner Mark Cuban and Co. Cuban, who famously said this season that Howard made a mistake by not signing with Dallas over the summer, got the last laugh as his free-agent addition, Monta Ellis, and his go-to star, Dirk Nowitzki, powered the Mavs to a thrilling win, writes our own Jeff Caplan:

This was Dwight Howard‘s big night, a made-for-national-TV highlight reel. His coming-back party.

The big man couldn’t miss from the floor, flushing alley-oops at will and swooping through the lane for lefty hooks as if he invented it. He made his first 11 shots, not missing until three minutes deep into the fourth quarter. He was even on fire, as much as Howard can be on fire, from the free throw line.

Through three quarters, Ellis was putting on a show to be sure, but it was Dwight truly announcing his presence and taking names.

Until Ellis, the erratic shooting guard Cuban signed with his leftover free-agent cash, and the venerable all-timer, Dirk Nowitzki ended the party. The duo hijacked Dwight’s night with one of the great two-man performances of the season — and in recent memory — in a rousing 123-120 win, rallying all the way from 93-75 late in the third quarter when the capacity crowd actually started to file out.

In the fourth quarter it all ground to an inexplicable halt for Howard and Houston, which officially has a closing problem. It left coach Kevin McHale bleary eyed and exasperated.

Nowitzki and Ellis outscored the Rockets, 22-19 on 9-for-11 shooting. Heck, Nowitzki and Jose Calderon outscored them 21-19. Howard suddenly couldn’t buy a bucket, going 1-for-5 in the quarter, and he got stripped late by Nowitzki in the paint as everything fell apart. Harden missed shots and hopelessly chased foul calls. Chandler Parsons, 4-for-5 from beyond the arc and playing beautiful basketball with 11 assists through three quarters, didn’t take a 3 or dish a dime in the final 9:17 he played.

In the first three quarters, Houston scored 40, 28 and 33 points. Then poof. Again. Rockets fourth quarters are becoming as collapsible as a rickety lawn chair. One reason they’re now 8-5 and looking up in the standings at the surprising 8-4 Mavs.

“It’s growing pains,” Howard said afterward. “Something we have to learn from. We’re a young team. We’ve got to realize what we have in the locker room and what we can do as a team when we play the right way on both ends. We didn’t do that at the end of the game.”

***

No. 4: No tearful reunion for Hawks, J-Smoove — After recording more than 10,000 points, 1,400 blocks, 800 steals and (to the chagrin of Hawks fans) 900 3-point attempts, Josh Smith returned to Atlanta for the first time as a foe. Although Smith’s new team, the Pistons, ended up losing to the Hawks 93-85, Smith wasn’t getting overly emotional about his comeback. Our own Sekou Smith, who was around for much of J-Smoove’s rise and fall in Atlanta, has more on his return:

Wednesday night was supposed to be his moment, the first time homegrown star Josh Smith walked into Philips Arena as a member of the “other” team.

His first steps down that hallway he’d walked so many times was supposed to be cathartic, a chance for Smith to finally put his near-decade with the Hawks behind him. It was also a chance for the fans who endured that roller coaster ride from the impetuous, sky-walking teenage J-Smoove to the matured husband, father and veteran that is today’s Smith to either pay their last respects or bid him farewell in a not-so-special way.

The hype was better than the actual event itself. Smith was introduced to an equal smattering of cheers and boos, which is pretty much the way he was greeted throughout his tenure here. Few players in my years covering the league have inspired such a spirited split from the home fans, love and … hate is such a strong word, perhaps “loathe” is better, for the way they play the game.

The mixed bag is also what Smith expected, “a few cheers and a few boos,” he said. “But it’s all good.”

It certainly seems that way. There’s nothing to see here anymore. The time for holding grudges or being upset, on either side, is over. The moment has passed for Smith and for the Hawks, who chose to move on from their homegrown star in free agency this past summer when they allowed Smith to sign a four-year, $54 million contract with the Detroit Pistons without so much as making an offer to him.

Smith didn’t offer up any colorful soundbites. He noted that it was a bit surreal, the whole homecoming thing, and insisted that he wouldn’t let any of it affect him or his approach to the business at hand (his 5-for-15 shooting effort, 0-for-4 from beyond the 3-point line, much to the delight of the Hawks’ partisans in the crowd, would suggest otherwise).

He’s focused on the Pistons  now, on making them better and on making sure he does whatever he can to enjoy the second chance he’s gotten in Detroit.

“I have to admit, it’s been humbling to play in front of those fans [in Detroit] with the way they support the home teams,” Smith said. “To play in a first-class organization that has the championship history that we have in Detroit, it’s something I had to experience to appreciate. It’s from the ownership level to the front office and coaching staff all the way down to the last man or woman in the organization. It’s just a different feel, and something that I never understood since I spent my entire career in one spot.”

The most surprising part for me, having covered Smith from his rookie season through his the trials and tribulations that preceded the Hawks’ six-year (and potentially counting, based on what we’ve seen from coach Mike Budenholzer‘s team so far) playoff run, was seeing the way the fans eased up on him from the start.

It was a pleasant surprise. One that you wish Smith’s father, Pete Smith, had been in his customary baseline seat closest to the Hawks’ bench to witness himself. He wasn’t able to do so since he was home battling off the ill effects of the flu.

It would have been nice for him to see that not everyone in this town holds his son in contempt now that everyone has moved on. I know deep down both father and son feel that Josh has never been properly appreciated for what he did to help revive the hometown franchise.

“I just hope they show my son a little love,” the elder Smith said by phone before the game. “I think he earned it, he deserves that much.”


VIDEO: Josh Smith talks about his return trip to Atlanta

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Lakers big man Pau Gasol is donating $1,000 for every point he scores Friday to the Typhoon Haiyan relief fund … The Bobcats, after last night’s win over the Nets, are looking more and more like a solid squad

ICYMI Of The Night: Pacers star Paul George got a nice chasedown block in the season-opener against the Magic and recorded another solid one last night at the expense of Iman Shumpert


VIDEO: Paul George hustles back to swat Iman Shumpert’s shot