Posts Tagged ‘Kevin McHale’

Linsanity lets Rockets keep heads

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Rockets top Blazers in Game 5 to stay alive

HOUSTON – In the end, it looked like every single reason that had pushed team owner Leslie Alexander to search around in the sofa cushions to find the $168 million and change to bring in a couple of big, big stars.

There was Dwight Howard going to work in the low post for nifty little jump hooks, powerful drives to the basket and also gobbling up critical rebounds coming down the stretch.

Here was the laboring James Harden at long last pulling a meaningful 3-point shot from somewhere out of his beard and coaxing it through the net just when the game was hanging in the balance.

At crunch time, for once in this compelling series, the Rockets didn’t get crunched.

But you’re crazy if you think Houston would have lived to play another day without a little ol’ dose of Linsanity.

It’s funny that Game 5 of this most compelling first round series should find Jeremy Lin in the role of fire-starter — and maybe season saver — getting the full-throated appreciation and roar from the Toyota Center crowd.

Before Sam Presti played Santa Claus and dropped Harden right down the Rockets’ chimney and before Howard had that ill-fitting season to live and die in L.A., this was going to be Lin’s team.

Flip the calendar back 21 months to the summer of 2012 and this was going to be his team. His face was ubiquitous on billboards that line the freeways, he could be seen smiling from the sides of buses.

Then Harden and Howard happened. Then Patrick Beverley arrived.

Things change.

They changed again dramatically from Game 4 to Game 5 as well. The last time Lin was seen was Sunday night when he shot just 1-for-6 from the field and made a critical turnover in the final minute of regulation that allowed the Blazers to go on tie and win in OT.

This time, Lin took the baton from Beverley, who has been sick and ailing for several days, and practically turned back the clock to those crazy nights when he became a worldwide phenomenon at Madison Square Garden.

He zigged when the Blazers’ defense zagged. He found the cracks that let him get into the lane and all the way to the basket. He found the openings and the nerve to pull up and stab in long jumpers just when the Rockets seemed ready to topple again.

“He had these two big 3-pointers at the end of possessions as the shot clock was ending,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “Those were big momentum plays for them and they took a little bit out of us.”

Lin finished with 21 points, four assists and two steals in the Rockets’ 108-98 Game 5 victory. But it was a six-minute span late in the third quarter and early in the fourth when Portland cut their lead down to a single point and he was practically a one-man roll of duct tape holding the Rockets together.

There was the unpredictable style, those unorthodox moves that take him from the baseline back out the top of the key in the wink of an eye and that unmatchable, often inexplicable verve that can pick up and arena and put it on his skinny shoulders.

“I felt like I needed to be more of a spark tonight,” Lin said. “I haven’t done a great job of that this series. After the last game, I was really upset and I just believed and focused,” he said.

That changed in Game 5 when the Blazers’ Wes Matthews said that Lin was a deciding factor in the game.

“It seemed like Jeremy Lin hit big shot after big shot,” said Matthews said. “He was attacking the rim, hitting shots. We have to do a better job defensively on him.”

He’s still like summer lightning. You never know where or when he’ll strike and the damage can be significant. But Lin now has to pick his spots and wait his turn in the bigger, grander hierarchy of the Rockets.

“Jeremy has had some very good games for us,” said coach Kevin McHale. We needed him. He had a great stretch there where he was able to break people down. They were trying to pressure him all over and he broke the pressure down and going in the paint and made a couple of floaters.

“When they’re putting that much pressure on us, it really is hard to run an offense. You’ve got to break people down.”

The Rockets will chalk it up as $168 million well-spent with Howard and Harden delivering at the end.

But when the season was hanging in the balance, it was that dash of Linsanity that kept them from losing their heads.


VIDEO: Lin and Parsons discuss Game 5 win

Hakeem to Dwight: It’s mind that matters

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: What does it take to come back from a 3-1 deficit?

HOUSTON — It was 20 years ago when I entered a Rockets locker room in Phoenix and got a lesson in mind games.

Hakeem Olajuwon was sitting at a stall in the cramped room for the visiting team, lacing up his sneakers. His Rockets had lost the first two games at home to Charles Barkley and the Suns, then won Game 3 in the desert.

Still the Rockets were the team in the hole just a little more than an hour before tipoff of Game 4 when I mentioned to Olajuwon that the heat and the pressure were again on his team.

He looked up, smiled peacefully and reached out to pull a folding chair up next to his.

“Sit down and let me explain,” Olajuwon said. “The pressure is all on Phoenix. Because they know if we go back home 2-2 they will have wasted having the advantage. The know we will win Game 5 at home. They will have to fight to survive in Game 6 and then they will not have a chance in Game 7 in Houston. That is why they will feel the pressure. They know they must win tonight.”

The Suns didn’t. The Rockets won in seven and the legend of Clutch City was born.

Fast forward to 1995. This time Barkley and the Suns built a 3-1 lead on the Rockets. This time Barkley and the Suns had home-court advantage.

This time I was sure I had Olajuwon backed into the corner when I approached him again about an hour before Game 5. Now the situation was reversed and the Rockets were the ones on the ropes. He saw me coming.

“Where’s your chair?” he asked with that impish grin.

I sat down and he was immediately off making twists and turns of logic and faith and resolute determination.

“Phoenix must win tonight,” he said. “If they don’t end the series, they know we will go back to Houston and win Game 6. Then we come back here and the pressure to win Game 7 will be so great. They will be tight. They will be tense. They will be afraid to fail and that often leads to failure.”

Which it did. And the Rockets went on to win their second consecutive NBA championship.

Mind games.

That’s where the Rockets are today, trailing the Trail Blazers 3-1 with their toes and their season dangling over the edge.

That’s where Olajuwon comes back in. The Hall of Famer didn’t just work with Dwight Howard on his post moves at practice Tuesday. He worked on his head.

“It is deceiving if you look at the situation as 3-1,” Olajuwon said. “I told Dwight, I told all of them, that the situation is just one game and then everything changes around.”

Three of the first four games have gone to overtime, every Blazers win by five points or less.

Let Kevin McHale and his coaching staff worry about the X’s and O’s, the juggling of the playing rotation, the tweaks to the lineup, how to corral LaMarcus Aldridge. The greatest player in franchise history says all the Rockets have to do is have the right attitude.

“This is the Rockets’ chance not just to win a game, but to dominate, to take control of every play, every possession at both ends of the court and take over the series,” Olajuwon said. “If you think about it, this should be the most free, the most easy game the Rockets have played in the playoffs. Play that way and everything changes.”

That’s how the great ones from Bill Russell to Larry Bird to Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan to Hakeem always climbed the ladder. They played to thrive, not just survive. They never felt their backs were against the wall, because they simply refused to acknowledge the very existence of the wall. The problem is never theirs, but one that belongs to the other guy.

“Portland is feeling good about themselves right now,” Olajuwon said. “They have won three times and they have a chance to close it all out in Game 5. But they better, because if you think about it, this next game is their best chance. If they lose this game, if you punish them, dominate them, you plant that doubt.”

Those Rockets of 1994 and 1995 were a veteran bunch. From Hakeem to Otis Thorpe to Vernon Maxwell to Clyde Drexler to Kenny Smith to Mario Elie, they had been around more than a few basketball blocks. By the second time around, even the youngest bricks in their wall — Robert Horry and Sam Cassell — had lived through the crucible of the first experience.

These Rockets, as far as playoff pedigrees, mostly couldn’t be more wet behind the ears if you tossed them into the ocean.

“That’s why I told Dwight that it’s up to him to set the pace,” Olajuwon said. “He and James Harden are the veterans. But he is the center. He is the one the game goes around, on offense and on defense. Set the pace. Come out strong.

“I am excited about what I see from Dwight since the beginning of the season. I watch and I see many of the things that we’ve worked on coming out in his game. I see moves. I see a jumper that could be a bigger weapon in the future. I see aggressiveness in him that is becoming more consistent.”

What he wants to see, what he needs to see now, is a team leader that doesn’t recognize the current predicament as anything but an opportunity.

Two decades later, a seat in another folding chair and another lesson, for me and for Howard.

“Like I told him,” said Olajuwon, “3-1 is just going out and having fun.”

Mind games.

Blazers, Stotts plan to stick to Hack-a-Howard strategy

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Dwight Howard talks after the Rockets’ practice on Monday

HOUSTON — This being the NBA playoffs, there were pre-game fireworks, flames roaring up almost to the ceiling and canned music cranked to absurd levels.

But by far the loudest sounds to come out of the Rockets’ 122-120 overtime loss to the Blazers in Game 1 were: Clank! Clank! Clank! Clank!

Yup, Dwight Howard shooting free throws.

His team down by nine points with 4 1/2 minutes left in regulation time, Blazers coach Terry Stotts needed a dramatic shift and there are few things fraught with more raw thrills than the sight of the eight-time All-Star at the foul line in the fourth quarter.

So one of the key subplots to watch as the series continues will be Stotts’ willingness to intentionally hack Howard and he says he won’t be shy.

“If I think it’s in our best interest to do it, we will,” he said. “I had no qualms about using it going into the game, and I feel the same way now.”

Stotts instructed his team to intentionally foul Howard on three consecutive possessions. Howard made the first two free throws to the howling delight of the Toyota Center throng. But then he missed four in a row as Portland went on a 7-0 run that turned around the game and could ultimately turn the series.

Howard was a 54.7 percent foul shooter during the regular season and made 26 of 40 (65 percent) in four games against the Blazers. He managed just 9 of 17 in Game 1.

“That changed (the game) somewhat,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said of the strategy. “We missed some free throws. They came just pushing it down and we didn’t defend…then we were kind of back on our heels. They pushed it up on us.”

More important, the Blazers pushed the Rockets over the edge.

Ten years into his career, free-throw woes remain an old, familiar tale with Howard.

The Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, just named Coach of the Year for the third time, has often said he hates the “Hack-a-________” tactic and would be in favor of eliminating it with a rule change. But even Popovich readily employs it to help his team.

Stotts is not so dismissive and refuses to buy into the notion that fouling Howard (or any other inept foul shooter) somehow taints the game.

“I was thinking about this because I was kinda anticipating the question,” Stotts said. “There were over 1200 NBA games played this season. How many times was it used in over 1200 games? Ten or 20 times in over 1200 games, 48-minute games?

“So to change the rule for something that isn’t used that very much? I think it adds excitement to the game, to be honest. When he made his first two, the crowd erupted. It adds interest. It adds interest whether we’re going to foul him or not. It adds interest whether he’s going to make them or not.”

Howard at the foul line in the fourth quarter is like seeing a member of the Wallenda family on a tightrope, with so much hanging in the balance.

From Wilt Chamberlain to Shaquille O’Neal to Howard to any player who has ever stood there with his knees knocking, arm wobbling and tossing up bricks with a game on the line, it has always been a silly debate.

How is hacking Howard any different than intentionally walking Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera? And in the case of baseball, Cabrera doesn’t even get a chance to swing the bat. All Howard has to do is learn to make his free throws and everybody will leave him alone.

The fact is there are prime time players and those who say they are.

Watch Howard at the end of a Rockets’ practice. He’ll stand there and calmly stroke them in eight, nine, 10 in a row without a flinch.

Now watch him the next time the Blazers, or anybody else, puts him on the spot.

“I think it adds a little drama,” said Stotts with a grin.

The loudest noise in the room: Clank!

Sometimes you can hear a win drop.


VIDEO: Shaquille O’Neal and the Inside the NBA guys discuss the ‘Hack-a-Howard’ strategy

Sixth Man Of the Year: Jamal Crawford

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The contenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howard, Beverley make Rockets whole

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Harden leads way as Rockets end 2-game skid

HOUSTON — Kevin McHale hadn’t planned on using Dwight Howard and Pat Beverley for long and so late.

So much for plans.

With the Rockets knocked onto the ropes by the undermanned Pelicans and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs in danger of slipping away, Howard and Beverley made their returns count.

In the final two minutes, Beverley sandwiched a pair of 3-point bombs around a huge blocked shot by Howard that sparked the comeback for a 111-104 win over the Pelicans.

More than just a win, it was a much-needed tourniquet for a Rockets team that had been losing games, confidence and a sense of purpose.

Howard (ankle) and Beverley (knee) both were coming off injuries that had forced them to miss eight straight games and the past two weeks while the Rockets defense went AWOL. While the pair of starters were sidelined, Houston had limped to a 3-5 record and surrendered an average of 115.9 points a game.

“We’re not playing hard,” said McHale. “We’re not getting the 50-50 balls. We’re not playing every possession. We’re playing selectively.”

Though the Rockets still dug themselves an alarming 15-point hole and had to close fast to overtake a Pelicans’ team that was playing without its top seven scorers, the fact that Howard and Beverley were back on the court with the start of the playoffs just a week off was the biggest takeaway.

The Rockets’ magic number to clinch the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference is just one and they will likely open the first round against the Trail Blazers.

Howard played 29 minutes, shot 5-for-8 for 13 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked two shots.

“I think the first quarter I needed an oxygen mask,” he said. “I was pretty tired. But I just kept playing, kept trying to get a rhythm. First games are always tough to come back. But I think Pat had an excellent game. He started hitting shots late in the game. At the beginning of the game he was rushing a lot of his 3s. In the second half, he calmed down and was knocking them down. I was happy to see him back and being aggressive and the knee held up for him and that was a great thing.

“It’s important that we come out better and we hold teams on the defensive end. We’ve got to do a better job on the pick and roll. With me and Pat coming back, we’ve got to get our rhythm going, especially on defense. Everything will come together. We’ve got to continue to be patient with our bodies. We’ll be fine.”

Beverley finished with 20 points, hitting 4-for-8 from behind the arc, in 33 minutes and said his sprained right knee was not a problem.

“I was kinda hesitant on it first half,” he said. “I hadn’t really played in a game situation. But I got warmed up and it felt good.

“I was in a groove. I asked coach not to take me out. He kept me and Dwight in a little bit longer than we expected. But we needed this win.

“No swelling at all. I feel good, man. All praise to God. I heal unbelievably fast for some odd reason. It’s not a bad thing.”

It’s also not bad that Howard and Beverley have two more regular-season games to work on their timing and rhythm before the playoffs begin and the Rockets have a week to shore up the holes in that defense.

“Taking two starters out for the last two weeks, you’re switching everything around. It’s tough,” Beverley said. “We’re kinda of rusty this game, but we were able to chip that rust off and get that win. We’re gonna be all right.”

Morning shootaround — March 29



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Beverley tears miniscus | LeBron wowed by mega-baseball contract | Not just L.A. on Love’s mind | Curry buries the Grizzlies | Wolves eye Hoiberg

No. 1: Rockets point guard out indefinitely — Houston Rockets starting point guard Patrick Beverley, the man who collided with Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook and tore his meniscus in last year’s first-round playoff series, is out indefinitely after tearing the meniscus in his right knee Thursday against Philadelphia. The Rockets will now have to make do without their top perimeter defender. Our own Fran Blinebury details how Beverley’s absence will affect Houston’s title aspirations:

For a team that has ridden the All-Star exploits of James Harden and Dwight Howard to the No. 4 spot in the Western Conference playoff race, Beverley plays a critical role.

The 25-year-old Chicago native who was drafted and cut by Heat, then toiled overseas in Russia, puts significant bite into the face of the Rockets’ defense.

Jeremy Lin can step back into the starting lineup and give the Rockets offense, but he is not the tenacious, in-your-face type defender that the Rockets will need in the playoffs to go against elite level point guards such as Westbrook, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Mike Conley.

While Lin is flashy and creative and can fill up the basket with points when he gets on a roll, it is the just plain down-to-earth toughness of Beverley that often stands out, especially in a backcourt where Harden does not especially like to play defense.
Coach Kevin McHale said it would be 7-10 days before the Rockets would know a timetable for Beverley’s return.

Beverley has played in 53 of the Rockets’ 71 games, missing time with a hand injury. He has averaged 9.9 points in 31.3 minutes while taking over the starting role from Lin this season, but it’s that defensive bite and overall toughness that the Rockets would miss most. Sometimes it’s the littlest pieces of the puzzle that are hardest to replace.

***

No. 2: LeBron would take Cabrera deal — Major League Baseball does not have a salary cap and that means some mighty contracts never even imagined in the NBA become reality. Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera was the latest example Friday when he inked a contract that will pay him $292 million over the next 10 years. It makes LeBron James‘ $19 million this season seem like charitable donation. ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst puts it into context:

“I said ‘wow,’ ” James said before the Miami Heat played the Detroit Pistons on Friday. “I wish we (the NBA) didn’t have a salary cap.”

James will earn $19 million this season with the Heat, tied with teammate Chris Bosh for the ninth-highest in the NBA as part of a six-year, $109 million deal he signed in 2010.

“He’s the best player in baseball, and the best players in each sport should be rewarded,” James said. “It’d be nice to sign a 10-year deal worth $300 million.”

James earns about $40 million per year off the floor in endorsements, most of that coming from his deal with Nike, which reportedly is worth $19 million per year.

***

No. 3: Not only L.A. on Love’s mind? — If Timberwolves double-double machine Kevin Love, set to become a free agent in 2015, makes it clear to management he won’t re-sign, Minnesota president Flip Saunders might be forced to look for a trade. The former UCLA Bruin has long been rumored to be headed for the Lakers, but Los Angeles might not be the only big city suitable to arguably the game’s top stretch power forward. ESPNLA.com’s Dave McMenamin has more:

After the league endured the “Dwightmare” and “Melodrama,” get ready for “Lovesick.”

The six-year veteran, only 25 years old, is the apple of just about every team set to have cap space in the summer of 2015’s eye.

Timberwolves president Flip Saunders will do everything he can to keep Love, who is fourth in the league in scoring at 26.3 points per game and third in rebounding at 12.6 per game this season. And Minnesota will have the advantage of being able to offer a five-year extension, versus a four-year deal from any other team.

But if Love makes it clear that he has no intention to re-up with the Wolves, Saunders will be forced to shop Love or risk seeing him walk for nothing in return.

Which is where the Lakers come in.

Love’s ties to L.A. are undeniable. He went to college at UCLA. His father, Stan, played for the Lakers — and coincidentally was on the 1974-75 team, a.k.a. the worst team in Lakers history up until this season, so his son could help make up for that. And Love was born in Santa Monica, to boot.

“You know, my parents live there and they had me there,” Love said of L.A., after his Wolves beat the Lakers for the third time in four tries to win the season series Friday. “It’s not my fault. So, I don’t really care about that right now. I just go out there and play and don’t think about it.”

While Love downplayed his interest, the Lakers clearly could use a player of Love’s caliber to jump-start their rebuilding process. Especially with Kobe Bryant recently putting the screws to management to turn things around as soon as possible so he can contend for another championship in the twilight of his career.

ESPN.com’s Marc Stein reported Friday the Lakers would be willing to trade their upcoming pick in the heralded NBA draft — likely to be in the top half of the lottery — to land Love.

While Minnesota could certainly decide to go that route and hit the restart button, there is no assurance that the Lakers are truly Love’s most desired destination.

A source familiar with Love’s thinking told ESPNLosAngeles.com that it’s not just L.A. that is appealing to Love; he’s enamored with the idea of being “big time in a big city,” and that list of potential places he’d seek includes New York and Chicago, as well.

Love himself told GQ in February that his situation in Minnesota might be better than L.A. could offer anyway.

***

No. 4: Curry’s 33 fends off Grizzlies — The Golden State Warriors were minutes away from the No. 6 seed they’ve held for the majority of the season slipping away to the visiting and hard-charging Memphis Grizzlies. Then Stephen Curry came to the rescue yet again. The All-Star swished a 3-pointer and dropped in a scoop shot as the Warriors, playing without forward David Lee and center Andrew Bogut, who left the game in the first quarter, closed out the Grizzlies with a 14-0 run in the 109-103 win. It sent the Grizzlies from the verge of the 6-seed to No. 8. Diamond Leung of the Oakland Tribune was there:

“We’ll never quit and understand we have the weapons to pack a heavy punch at any given time,” Curry said.

Coach Mark Jackson demanded that Curry have the ball in crunch time, and the star guard delivered with the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:21 left and a subsequent scoop shot to pad the lead. Memphis could not muster a response, missing its final seven shots.

Marreese Speights added 15 points and eight rebounds in his first start with the Warriors while replacing an injured David Lee (right hamstring strain). The Warriors were still able to grab a 43-33 rebounding edge without their top two rebounders for most of the game, pleasing Jackson with the way his team competed in difficult circumstances.

Bogut was injured after getting kneed and ran the court with an obvious limp before checking out of the game for good with 7:59 left in the first quarter. He did not return and was scheduled to undergo an MRI exam Saturday, according to Jackson.

Jermaine O’Neal had 10 points and six rebounds in 34 hard-fought minutes. Also off the bench, Draymond Green had 12 points and nine rebounds, hitting two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and providing strong defense on Memphis leading scorer Zach Randolph.

“There’s a guy that came into this league, and people probably said, ‘Why is he shooting threes? He should stop shooting threes,’ ” Jackson said. “And he’s winning ballgames with us, knocking down shots and making huge plays on the defensive end. The guy is a tremendous warrior.”

The Warriors would have taken a tumble down the standings with a loss but instead kept pace with the rest of the Western Conference and remained 1½ games ahead of No. 7 seed Phoenix. The win also evened up the season series 2-2 with Memphis, which dropped to No. 8 with the loss.

***

No. 5: A return to the Timberwolves? — Speculation is growing that Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman will invoke his right to opt out of his contract this summer. If he does, the franchise is expected to go after one of its former executives and current Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein provides the background:

If Adelman indeed walks away this time, at 67, there are two natural courses for the Wolves to pursue.

The obvious response is [Flip] Saunders, part-owner as well as team prez, heading downstairs to reclaim his old floor seat to see if he can be the guy who finally brings a halt to the league’s longest postseason drought, which dates to the Wolves’ 2004 Western Conference finals team coached by Saunders.

But that might be too obvious.

There have been no clear-cut signals that Saunders is prepared to leave the executive suite to return to coaching.

There is also another textbook candidate out there for Minnesota to chase with long-standing Wolves ties: Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.

Widely regarded as the most NBA-ready college coach in the game, Hoiberg was a Wolves executive for four years before leaving the pros to coach the Cyclones. It should be noted that Saunders is close with Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, as well, but the rumbles out of Sota are getting louder that the Wolves are going to court Hoiberg hard if they, as expected, have an opening.

An opening, rather, that Saunders declines to fill himself.

And all of that makes Friday one of the more pertinent days left on the 2013-14 calendar for long-suffering Wolves fans.

That’s because Hoiberg will be coaching Iowa State against UConn in a Sweet 16 game at Madison Square Garden … and because Saunders will be there watching.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Lakers make (the wrong kind of) history again in epic loss … Anthony Davis leaves game in first quarter with a left ankle injuryVince Carter thinks he’s earned the right to re-sign with DallasKevin Durant scores 29 and streak creeps closer to overtaking Michael Jordan … TNT analyst Steve Kerr is the frontrunner to coach the Knicks under Phil JacksonShane Battier reiterates that he will retire after this seasonDirk Nowitzki‘s mentor and personal coach believes he has three or four high-level seasons left.

Beverley loss would bite the Rockets

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Patrick Beverley tears his right meniscus in Thursday’s win over Philly

HOUSTON – Spend $78.78 million for an All-Star shooting guard who might be the best in the business at closing games?

Check.

Spend $87.59 million for an eight-time All-Star center and elite rim protector to give yourself a potent 1-2 offensive punch?

Check.

Have all your best-laid plans for a below-the-radar run as a championship contender come undone because the player with the 13th-highest salary on the team goes down with a knee injury?

Uh-oh.

An MRI showed that Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley tore the meniscus in his right knee Thursday night against the 76ers.

The injury was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

“He has a torn meniscus, we’re not 100 percent sure how  bad it is or what action we will take,” his agent Kevin Bradbury told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “We’re going to get to the docs and determine what’s best for Pat and for the organization. We should have some clarity early next week.

“I would say out indefinitely until we know more.”

In a worst-case scenario, Beverley is through for the season. If the injury is not so severe and the rehab process can be sped up, he could return if the Rockets are playing in later rounds of the playoffs.

It was just 10 1/2 months ago when Beverley collided with Russell Westbrook in Game 2 of a first-round series at Oklahoma City. The result was a torn meniscus in Westbrook’s right knee that required surgery and eventually derailed the Thunder, who lost in the second round to the Grizzlies. Westbrook is still working to fully recover from that injury.

For a team that has ridden the All-Star exploits of James Harden and Dwight Howard to the No. 4 spot in the Western Conference playoff race, Beverley plays a critical role.

The 25-year-old Chicago native who was drafted and cut by Heat, then toiled overseas in Russia, puts significant bite into the face of the Rockets’ defense.

Jeremy Lin can step back into the starting lineup and give the Rockets offense, but he is not the tenacious, in-your-face type defender that the Rockets will need in the playoffs to go against elite level point guards such as Westbrook, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Mike Conley.

While Lin is flashy and creative and can fill up the basket with points when he gets on a roll, it is the just plain down-to-earth toughness of Beverley that often stands out, especially in a backcourt where Harden does not especially like to play defense.

Coach Kevin McHale said it would be 7-10 days before the Rockets would know a timetable for Beverley’s return.

Beverley has played in 53 of the Rockets’ 71 games, missing time with a hand injury. He has averaged 9.9 points in 31.3 minutes while taking over the starting role from Lin this season, but it’s that defensive bite and overall toughness that the Rockets would miss most. Sometimes it’s the littlest pieces of the puzzle that are hardest to replace.

Asik insurance works like a Dream

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Omer Asik blocks Luc Mbah A Moute at the rim

The video clips are almost comical, like a string of bad dancing outtakes on YouTube gone viral.

There is 51-year-old Hakeem Olajuwon spinning and whirling and rolling though the lane with the ball in the palm of one hand, moving as graceful as a swan.

Here is Omer Asik looking more than just a little bit like an ugly duckling as he tries to simulate those steps in 1-on-1 workouts following a Rockets practice.

But after having his feathers ruffled by the pursuit and capture of free-agent Dwight Howard last summer, Asik has at long last stopped splashing and is helping keep the Rocket afloat.

After averaging a double-double a year ago in his first season as a starter, this is not the role Omer Asik wanted to play. But it’s the one the Rockets need him to play as Howard has sat out the past three games to rest a strained left ankle.

It’s the reason why Daryl Morey never rushed to deal away Asik during the offseason and why the general manager refused to hit the panic button when the 27-year-old eventually demanded a trade. Morey even went so far as to sit on his hands through a self-imposed deadline to trade his discontented big man back in December.

In short, the sizable Asik is too big an impediment in the middle of the Rockets’ defense and much too huge an insurance policy.

That’s what coach Kevin McHale had maintained all along, even when a failed experiment to play Howard and Asik together in the starting lineup ended after just eight games.

Now, with Howard sidelined and again a game-time decision to play Monday night at Charlotte, Asik has filled in admirably, averaging 11 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.3 blocked shots and 2.3 assists as the Rockets have won three straight games.

“He’s a big part of what we do,” McHale told reporters. “He’s so good defensively, rebounds. He’s right on point with all of his calls defensively. Dwight gets a chance to rest a little bit and Omer gets a chance to play a little bit more. They’re probably both good things.”

There is no reason to think Asik will have a change of heart for the long term benefit of his career. Following his consistent play last season, the 27-year-old has proven that he can be a full-time starter in the league and that is the path he wants to pursue. The Rockets could trade him — and the $15 million he has due on the last year of his contract — this summer, especially if they are trying to clear out salary cap room to pursue Carmelo Anthony.

For now Asik is not only a capable fill-in while Howard mends, but can give the Rockets considerable front-court depth in the playoffs. With a pair of rim-protecting 7-footers in the rotation, the Houston defense can consistently stop opponents from attacking in the paint.

“People are afraid to go in and challenge both of them,” point guard Jeremy Lin told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “I don’t think anyone thinks of Omer as, ‘Oh, we’re going to pick on Omer tonight.’ Or if they do, they’re dumb. I don’t think anybody is that dumb.”

And Morey wasn’t dumb enough to acquiesce to Asik’s demand for a trade and move what is literally his biggest insurance policy without getting a significant return. Word was that he was seeking a first-round draft pick for Asik. What the front office and the coaching staff counted on was that, after recovering from from thigh and knee injuries that kept him out of action for two months, Asik could be convinced that he’d play a significant role in the Rockets’ drive for the playoffs and hoped-for success in the postseason.

That’s finally come to pass and is the reason why the 7-foot Turk with the often lumbering moves can be seen listening, nodding and taking in pointers from the balletic Olajuwon after practices. They’d never make much of a comfortable dance pair, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits.

“Look at him and look at me,” Asik says with a laugh. “I can never do those things that made Hakeem one of the all-time great players. But he is helping me a lot. He is showing me basic moves and how I can do things to improve.

“He is the best fundamentally, I think, in NBA history. I can’t be like him, but I’m trying to learn something from him.”

DPOY award pits big apples vs. on-the-ball oranges

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Starters discuss the leading candidates for the Defensive Player of the Year

Quick, pick your winners: Range Rover or Porsche 911? Golden retriever or Jack Russell terrier? Leonardo Da Vinci painting “Mona Lisa” or Nat King Cole singing “Mona Lisa?”

It’s an apples-and-oranges world when it comes to choosing “the best” this or that, certainly when the categories are so broad – vehicle, acting performance, piece of art – as to include wildly disparate entries.

And then there are those moments when the choice might as well be kumquats vs. lug nuts. That’s the case annually when voters stare at the three blank ballot slots for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award.

It’s difficult enough ranking candidates by criteria that essentially requires you to prove a negative. Great individual defense is … holding an opposing star under his scoring average? Denying someone the ball? Racking up big steal totals? Blocking, contesting or even altering shots?

Defensive statistics, even in this advanced age, still trail the offensive numbers in what they can authoritatively tell us. Then there’s the whole element of team defense – it is a team sport – and a player’s contribution to that in helping, rotating, diving to the floor or otherwise claiming the so-called 50/50 balls.

And in none of the league’s major awards does it get stickier to sort out the issue of size: Big vs. small. Rim-protecter vs. perimeter defender.

“Those are mutually exclusive concepts,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said on a recent stop in Chicago. “When you think MVP, most people just look at the points , and that’s a valid entity, I guess. But with defensive players, the big guys, they usually just look at blocks.

“There are some guys who block shots but can’t play a lick of D, but get credit for blocking shots. When I look at the bigs, I look at somebody like Joakim [Noah] who can guard ones, twos, threes, fours and fives. He can switch onto people and people can’t go by him. I watched him guard LeBron [James] the other day and, my gosh, it was pretty impressive.”

Impressive enough that two days later, Houston coach Kevin McHale – who has three-time DPOY Dwight Howard at his disposal – went public with his choice of Noah for the award this season. (For the record, media folks vote for DPOY and NBA coaches select All-Defensive teams.)

And yet James, in his interview with NBA TV’s Steve Smith, admitted that the vacant space on his trophy shelf cleared for the DPOY bugs him.

The basketball world knows why Miami coach Erik Spoelstra refers to James as “1-through-5″ as a defender – he can guard everyone from point guard Chris Paul to center DeAndre Jordan, and did just that when facing the Clippers this season. But over the past five years, James has finished second twice, fourth twice and ninth.

Nearly a decade has passed since anyone other than a big man has won the award. Metta World Peace wasn’t calling himself that back in 2004 when he earned the trophy with Indiana. Gary Payton was well-established as “The Glove” when he broke up in 1996 Dikembe Mutombo‘s stranglehold of three DPOYs in four years (1995, 1997, 1998).

Kevin Garnett in 2008 was a special case. By the time he picked up his lone DPOY honor, Garnett was – if not strictly a rim defender – pretty much a paint protector. That was the role he embraced in his first year in Boston and it’s likely the award went his way because, short of the MVP (Kobe Bryant), there had to be some acknowledgement of his impact on the Celtics.

Big men have won 22 of the 31 DPOYs, led by Mutombo and Ben Wallace with four each. Howard had a three-year run in Orlando (2009-11). Mark Eaton, Alonzo Mourning and Hakeem Olajuwon won two each, while Marcus Camby, Tyson Chandler, David Robinson, Marc Gasol and Garnett each won once.

Naturally, some of the leading candidates for Defensive Player this season play center or power forward, including Noah, Jordan, Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis.

But it wasn’t always so. Seven of the first nine DPOYs went to guards or forwards. Average size: 6-foot-4, 190 pounds. Milwaukee’s Sidney Moncrief was downright spindly when he won the first two in 1983 and ’84. The Lakers’ stopper, Michael Cooper, was even skinnier (6-5, 170) as the 1987 recipient. And Dennis Rodman was undersized and frenetic when he won seven rebounding titles and the DPOY in 1990 and ’91.

Among the perimeter defenders deserving of DPOY consideration are Memphis’ Tony Allen, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Indiana’s Paul George, Boston’s Avery Bradley and James.

But they’re swimming upstream in a league where specialists such as Bruce Bowen, Raja Bell, Shane Battier, Joe Dumars and Scottie Pippen never won the award. The DPOY probably was created too late to catch the likes of Bobby Jones, Dennis Johnson or Norm Van Lier and other worthy choices in their primes.

It’s almost tempting to suggest two separate awards – one for rim protection, one for the on-the-ball guys – until you hear Popovich boil down NBA defense:

“A defender to me is somebody who can defend the ball, can rebound and can react, weak side to strong side, whether he’s small or whether he’s big.”

Size matters, but not just in physique. Everyone in the Grizzlies’ locker room, for instance, knows of Allen’s heart and defensive hunger. And Memphis is one of those teams blessed with elite versions of both types of defender.

“I would have not won that award, probably, with any other team in the NBA,” Gasol said recently. “Without having TA, without Mike Conley on my team. Having the teammates I have and the system we have allowed me to defend the way I do. As soon as I won it, I told them, [it was] Tony’s hands, Mike’s legs and kind of like my brain, that’s the way I broke it down.”

The Memphis center finished with 30 first-place votes to James’ 18, a 212-149 points spread. Gasol benefited from some advanced analytics tracked by NBA media folks, but felt he was helped more by the familiarity on the Grizzlies’ roster and in former coach Lionel Hollins‘ system.

“We’ve been playing for so long together, I’m behind them so I know their tendencies defensively so I can help,” Gasol said of teammates. “This is not boxing, where it’s only one guy. If the team benefits and feels confident with you, that’s what matters. Some days TA is gonna be the guy who shuts somebody down. Sometimes it’s gonna be Mike Conley or me.”

Said Allen: “You get beat on the perimeter, Marc Gasol has it in his memory bank to know ‘I’m the last line of defense and all I have to do is either take a charge or jump up and not get the foul.’ He’s big, he’s long and he’s good at blocking shots. I’m pressuring the perimeter and digging at the same time.

“We just feed off each other defensively. We understand the court is only so big, and we play off each other.”

Given their druthers, most NBA coaches would start their defense with a towering master of verticality like Hibbert or, maybe better, a versatile, mobile big man like Noah.

“Your bigs organize your defense,” said Jeff Van Gundy, ABC/ESPN coach-turned-analyst. “They’re asked to make multiple efforts, because so much of this game now is pick-and-roll defense, not post defense. So you need a guy who is intelligent enough to recognize situations, athletic enough to defend them and has the energy to make multiple efforts. That’s why today you need a big guy who can be the captain of your defense.

“But you also need the guys who can keep the ball in front of them…”

Which puts us right back where we started, trying to rank Marlon Brando‘s Don Corleone vs. Meryl Streep‘s Sophie. Now that’s a real Sophie’s choice.

Turnovers trouble for contenders?

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: James Harden and the Rockets commit a lot of turnovers but force many as well

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Turnovers. Can’t get rid of all of them. But how many can a contender live with?

“There are some you’re going to have and there’s a lot that we have that we work hard on not getting those type of turnovers,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale, whose club coughs it up more per 100 possessions than only the woeful Philadelphia 76ers, and just barely. “The careless turnover, the no-look [pass] when there’s no reason, I mean, that’s silly turnovers.”

The Rockets turn it over 16.7 times per 100 possessions (16.5 times per game) and surrender 18.7 points per 100 possessions off of them, more than only the Bucks, Lakers and Sixers. The lazy pass up top, the poorly placed entry feed and the forced bounced pass through traffic, all Rockets mainstays, can be avoided, or at least reduced. Of the total points Houston has allowed (101.7 ppg), 18.1 percent can be chalked up to their own turnovers. In a playoff series, such miscues can be fatal.

“Aggressive turnovers — you’re running, you’re moving, you’re passing, you’re attacking the basket — yeah, you’re going to have a few of those turnovers,” McHale said. “Our live-ball turnovers are something that we really try to harp on.”

Among teams with lofty postseason aspirations, turnovers are not Houston’s problem alone. Oklahoma City (16.1 turnovers per 100 possessions, 27th in the league) continues to fight it as does Indiana (15.9, 26th) and Golden State (15.5, 18th). Houston and OKC rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in allowing the most points off turnovers per 100 possessions. Golden State is 13th and the Pacers are an impressive 26th considering their turnover rate. That’s where live-ball turnovers (when the ball remains in play) versus dead-ball turnovers (when the clock stops and the opponent inbounds the ball) comes into play.

The Rockets (53.0 percent of turnovers are live-ball), Warriors (52.0 percent) and Thunder (53.7) have a much higher percentage of live-ball turnovers than the Pacers (46.9 percent). Live-ball turnovers are typically far more devastating, with the likely result being a transition basket the other way. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle labels such giveaways as “catastrophic turnovers.” Dead-ball turnovers, while they waste an offensive possession, at least allow for the defense to get set.

Teams that play at a quicker pace, like the Rockets, Warriors and Thunder, are also natural candidates for more turnovers than more plodding teams like the Pacers, which should also greatly concern Indiana. Higher pace teams possess the ball more each game and playing a faster style lends itself to the potential for more mistakes, particularly of the live-ball variety.

The primary ball-handler for the Rockets (James Harden, 3.7 turnovers per game), Warriors (Steph Curry, 3.8) and the Thunder (Russell Westbrook, 4.0) all rank in the top four in the league for most turnovers per game (per 100 of their own possessions, Westbrook ranks 10th, Harden 15th and Curry 23rd among players averaging at least 30 mpg). Thunder superstar Kevin Durant (3.6 turnovers per game) is fifth. LeBron James (3.5) is eighth.

“It seems like all the top-10 turnover guys are the best players in the league,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.

Yet not seen in the top five or 10 or even 30 is Clippers point guard and league assist leader Chris Paul. As a team, the Clippers are one of the best at taking care of the ball. They rank sixth overall, turning it over 14.2 times per 100 possessions (13.9 times per game). All in all, the Clippers have turned it over 141 fewer times than the Rockets, 98 fewer than the Warriors and 94 fewer times than the Thunder, equating to more opportunities to score, about two more a game than the Rockets, a potentially critical stat in a seven-game playoff series.

“Russell does turn the ball over, KD does turn the ball over, but they have the ability to make plays and they create so many opportunities to get other guys easy shots,” Brooks said. “We’d like those to be a little lower and we’re working on ways to get those lower.”

But, Brooks cautioned, as much as he preaches decision-making, he’s not going to constrict the natural athletic abilities and instincts of his two stars in the name of reducing turnovers by one or two a game.

“I do not want Russell to play like I played. It would not look good,” joked Brooks, a fundamentally sound, 5-foot-11 point guard who carved out a 10-year career with six teams. “We want Russell to be aggressive. We’re a good team when he attacks, we’re a good team when Kevin attacks.”

All turnovers are not equal, and all surely cannot be avoided. But when push comes to shove starting next month, a game, a series could come down to the careful versus the careless.