Posts Tagged ‘Kevin McHale’

Morning Shootaround — March 2


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Mar. 2

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Ariza’s huge game | McHale approves of age limit | Fredette joins Bulls | Jennings thinks Cheeks deserved more time | Cuban favors D-League over college

No. 1: Ariza’s huge game – Trevor Ariza took over in the first quarter of Saturday’s game between the Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers. He scored 24 points with six three-pointers to help the Wizards open up a 13-point first quarter lead against a sold-out Philadelphia crowd. Ariza finished with a career-high 40 points, with eight three-pointers, and helped teammate John Wall collect his own career-high of 16 assists. J. Michael from CSN-Washington has more on Ariza’s career-night:

Trevor Ariza left the floor early during warmups at Wells Fargo Center because it was too cold. An NHL game had taken place earlier and several players, including Andre Miller and Chris Singleton, could be seen blowing into their hands and rubbing their arms in an attempt to generate heat.

Ariza didn’t take long. He just went to the locker room and waited until the opening tip in Saturday’s 122-103 rout of the Philadelphia 76ers when he scored a career-high 40 points, 24 coming in the first quarter when he made his first six three-point attempts. A free agent after the season, each time Ariza swishes a three it should come with the sound effects of a cash register.

“It was cold early but the fans and the excitement and all the things that was going on here made me feel a little bit warmer,” said Ariza, alluding to the sellout crowd that was primarily there to witness the retirement of Allen Iverson’s No. 3 jersey at halftime. “The flamethrower was out there.”

“You want to see the guy that has put in work, doing the extra sacrifice to help our team, guarding the best players on any given night, to have one of those big nights,” said Wall, who tied a career high with 16 assists. “You try to reward him for that. That’s what I wanted, for him to get a 40-point game.”

Marcin Gortat had another double-double with 13 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. Even he wasn’t impressed by his own performance. He could only talk about Ariza.

“It was a one-man show,” Gortat said. “My rebounds and John’s assists, I don’t think they count.”

***

No. 2: McHale approves of age limit – Houston Rockets coach and Boston Celtics great Kevin McHale agrees with new NBA commissioner Adam Silver that the NBA should enforce an age limit to help avoid college one-and-dones. Sam Amick from the USA Today has more:

The Houston Rockets coach has a unique vantage point on this front. He spent four seasons at the University of Minnesota before beginning his Hall of Fame NBA career and later transitioning to a post-playing career as an executive (Minnesota Timberwolves) and head coach (Timberwolves, Rockets). McHale could see this situation from all sides, it would seem, and so it was that Silver went seeking his counsel leading up to his February ascension into former commissioner David Stern‘s seat.

The advice, which McHale reiterated this week in an interview with USA TODAY Sports, was to push hard for the end of the one-and-done era.

“I’m totally against it,” McHale said. “I understand (the argument) that it’s America and everybody has a right to work. I understand that. But the guys aren’t ready. (When) you’re 16 years old or 15 years old, they don’t put you into doggone smelting or anything. Man, the NBA is a man’s league, and I think a lot of these young guys come in early and their careers would prosper if they stayed (in college).

“I’d like to see us do the three years out of high school or 21 (years old), like football. I just think it would help the colleges. I think it would help the kids. And I know they don’t think so, because they want to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get in the market. I’ve got to make all my money and all that stuff.’ But you don’t make money if you have a three-year career, if you come in at 18, 19, and you’re not ready.”

As Silver said at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, the owners’ proposal to raise the league’s minimum age from 19 to 20 was negotiated with the players during the 2011 lockout but ultimately tabled as a B-list item to be resolved at a later time. Silver argued in a recent interview with USA TODAY Sports that owners and players alike would reap the benefits of increased profits as a result of raising the minimum age.

McHale, not surprisingly, agrees. What’s more, he thinks players would approve of the change in a vote.

“Why would a bunch of NBA players vote to say, ‘Yeah, I want guys coming in to take my job?’” McHale continued. “They would say (have a minimum age of) 28 if you’re an NBA player, you know what I mean? So 21? I just think it would make it a better product, and I think it would help the kids. I really do.

“I think they’d learn leadership. I think they’d learn more responsibility. … When you get in the NBA, this is your job and you have to be really professional. But a lot of guys who come in just aren’t ready for that. It’s hard to do a man’s job when you’re 19.”

***

No. 3:  Fredette joins Bulls – Jimmer Fredette has not experienced a smooth transition from college to the NBA. He struggled to find playing time in Sacramento and many have already written off the 10th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft as a bust. But after clearing waivers, he now has a chance to start fresh in a much more developed system in Chicago. Teddy Greenstein of The Chicago Tribune has more:

Fredette officially cleared waivers Saturday and has agreed to sign with the Bulls for a prorated portion of the veteran’s minimum contract, sources said. Fredette is shooting a career-best 49.3 percent from 3-point range and is expected to attend Sunday’s matinee against the Knicks.

The Bulls hope Fredette will provide them with what they desperately need: scoring.

“The more shooting you have, the more it opens up the floor,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We want to open things up to attack off the dribble, with our cuts, things of that nature. We feel that is an area of need.”

Fredette, seeking to revive his career heading into free agency, can point to how the Bulls helped resurrect D.J. Augustin, whom the Raptors dumped. Since joining the Bulls, Augustin is averaging 13.4 points and 5.5 rebounds in 30.6 minutes.

“There are a number of guys who are good, and sometimes, as you see with D.J., it’s an opportunity to step in and add to what a team may need,” Thibodeau said. “Whoever we sign, if we do sign someone, we want to play to their strengths and cover up their weaknesses.”

The 6-foot-2 Fredette is not a strong defender, but the last time he got extensive minutes, Feb. 12 at Madison Square Garden, he torched the Knicks for 24 points on 6-for-8 shooting from 3-point range.

Guard Kirk Hinrich said adding a top-flight shooter such as Fredette would make defenses “play honest.”

The Bulls entered Friday night 27th in 3-point shooting (34.1 percent), 28th in field-goal shooting (42.7 percent) and last in scoring (92.7 ppg).

***

No. 4:  Jennings thinks Cheeks deserved more time – The Detroit Pistons (23-36) have struggled this season after an offseason which saw them sign Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings to large contracts. Another part of their offseason overhaul was the hiring of Maurice Cheeks to be head coach. This job proved to not be secure as Cheeks was fired after just 50 games, which was not a decision Jennings agreed with, reports Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News:

Although there would certainly be some Pistons players who weren’t unhappy to see former coach Maurice Cheeks go, Brandon Jennings isn’t one of them — and Cheeks isn’t out of sight, out of mind for the starting point guard.

“I don’t have a problem with John (Loyer), just with the whole thing of changing coaches was one of the more difficult things for me,” Jennings said at Houston’s Toyota Center, while nursing a sore right big toe that caused him to miss the second half of Wednesday’s game in San Antonio.

“John was our assistant, so I know a lot about him. It was just a personal problem with Mo leaving.”

Jennings and Cheeks would often watch film together, and Jennings had a coach who could teach him the nuances of playing the position, given Cheeks’ stellar career.

Cheeks was fired on the morning of Feb. 9, mere hours after Jennings posted perhaps one of his best games as a pro, certainly atop the list in efficiency — 35 points and 12 assists with only two turnovers against the Denver Nuggets.

He echoed literally the thoughts of most folks who believe 50 games was nowhere near sufficient time to judge a coach, let alone one with Cheeks’ experience. It came as a shock to many around the NBA and Jennings’ head is still spinning.

“You give a coach half a season with new faces and new chemistry, that’s not enough time,” Jennings said. “I felt like he was in a losing situation. We were winning and now we’re playing like the old Pistons, in the beginning.”

Considering the Pistons have lost six of eight since Cheeks’ firing — albeit against better competition — Jennings doesn’t buy into the school of thought of Cheeks being the problem with their season.

“To be honest, I don’t think the team is tripping. It’s still the same,” Jennings said. “Not much has really changed, if you ask me.”

The two have talked a couple times since the firing, and Jennings hasn’t flourished under Loyer, although it doesn’t appear as if his responsibilities have changed too much. Aside from the first game following Cheeks’ firing, Jennings hasn’t shot over 40 percent in a game — and has three games where he hasn’t scored in double figures, including Wednesday, when he played only 13 minutes.

“I think I have been thinking too much,” Jennings said. “That’s with everything. Dealing with the coaching change and everything going on. Now, we keep slipping out the playoff race and you get worried.”

Jennings was open and candid about the high expectations that have given way to the disappointment surrounding the team to date. He thought his arrival in Detroit would mean the mediocrity from his days in Milwaukee was long gone, but clearly, there’s something missing with this team.

“If we don’t make the playoffs, it’ll be very disappointing and kind of embarrassing,” Jennings said. “The fact that myself coming here, Josh (Smith) coming here, we make these big moves and we don’t get it done — it’ll be real disappointing.”

***

No. 5:  Cuban favors D-League over college – Mark Cuban has rarely been afraid to speak his mind, so it’s no surprise he has a unique view on the age limit discussion. Unlike Kevin McHale, Cuban believes players would be better trained with a year in the NBA Development League over a year in college. Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas has more:

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes it’s in the best interests of elite prospects to play in the NBA Development League instead of spending one season in college.

“I think what will end up happening — and this is my opinion, not that of the league — is if the colleges don’t change from the one-and-done, we’ll go after the one,” Cuban said. “The NCAA rules are so hypocritical, there’s absolutely no reason for a kid to go [to college], because he’s not going to class [and] he’s actually not even able to take advantage of all the fun because the first semester he starts playing basketball. So if the goal is just to graduate to the NBA or be an NBA player, go to the D-League.”

Under the NBA’s current collective bargaining agreement, players must be one year out of high school and 19 years old to play in the league. However, the minimum age for the D-League is 18.

Cuban would like to see the NBA take steps to make the D-League a more attractive alternative to players who intend to spend only one season playing college basketball. While Cuban said he hasn’t analyzed the situation enough to make a formal proposal, he envisions the NBA working with nearby universities to provide straight-out-of-high school players an opportunity to pursue a college education while playing in the D-League.

Cuban suggests guaranteeing college tuition for such players, whether or not they pan out as NBA prospects, as an incentive.

“We can get rid of all the hypocrisy and improve the education,” Cuban said. “If the whole plan is just to go to college for one year maybe or just the first semester, that’s not a student-athlete. That’s ridiculous.

“You don’t have to pretend. We don’t have to pretend. A major college has to pretend that they’re treating them like a student-athlete, and it’s a big lie and we all know it’s a big lie. At least at most schools, not all. … But we can put more of an emphasis on their education. We can plan it out, have tutors. We can do all kinds of things that the NCAA doesn’t allow schools to do that would really put the individual first.”

Cuban’s biggest concern about one-and-done prospects is that they’re often not mentally, emotionally and psychologically prepared for the NBA after spending only one season in a college environment.

He believes the D-League could provide a better atmosphere for freshman-age players to develop on and off the court.

Mark Cuban believes it’s in the best interests of top prospects to play in the NBA D-League instead of spending one season in the “hypocritical” NCAA.

“You have to develop some level of maturity, and that has to be part of the process,” Cuban said. “You don’t want to bring kids in and just abandon them. That’d be the worst thing we could do.

“We’d have to make it so where there’d be very strict policies and rules so that, even if you’re not going to go to [college] class, there’s going be life [skills] classes — how do you deal with the world? — and you have to attend those. You have to keep up with those. We’d have very strict [rules] on why you’d be suspended if you didn’t live up to them. Things that should be done to student-athletes in college and are just not. Or not always.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Joakim Noah wasn’t happy with Tony Snell‘s celebration. … Yao Ming believes he would struggle in today’s NBA. … Isiah Thomas is reportedly being considered to replace Joe Dumars in the Pistons’ front office. … Derrick Williams continues to try to find his footing in the NBA.

ICYMI of the Night: It appears some of Chris Paul‘s passing ability may have rubbed off on teammate Blake Griffin. Example? This behind-the-back pass from Griffin to Matt Barnes:


VIDEO: Play of the Day – Blake Griffin

McHale, Saunders Face Off In Role Reversal

A hot Houston Rockets team will play the banged up-and-sputtering Timberwolves on a cold Monday night in Minnesota (8 ET, NBA TV). Three of the Western Conference’s 12 All-Stars will be on hand – Dwight Howard and James Harden for the Rockets, Kevin Love for the Wolves if he’s able to play through the thigh bruise that sidelined him Saturday. And the visitors who have won five in a row will challenge the hosts who have lost five of their last six.

Pretty straightforward stuff – except there will be a subplot in play, too, one that seems bounced off a funhouse mirror to those familiar with the history:

Kevin McHale, NBA coach vs. Flip Saunders, CBO (chief basketball officer).

“I don’t think anyone anticipated, 37 years out of college, that’s how it would be,” Saunders said.

Clear early path for duo

Minnesota Timberwolves

Ex-Wolves GM Kevin McHale (left) and ex-coach Flip Saunders led Minnesota to new heights of success in the 2000s.

For a decade – from 1995 to 2005 – the two were partners in the best stretch in Wolves franchise history, stringing together eight playoff appearances and advancing to the Western Conference finals in 2004. They traveled together to Kevin Garnett‘s first audition/workout in Chicago and walked out of the gym mapping their draft strategy.

McHale and Saunders pulled long hours on Draft nights, at least when they had their full set of picks – the Joe Smith salary-cap scandal in 2000 happened on their watch, costing the team three first-rounders as part of the penalties. And the pair, despite some differences in temperament and style, generally presented a unified front.

Always, though, it was McHale sitting upstairs, Saunders working the sideline.

McHale never had wanted to coach. Saunders never seemed to want to do anything but. The former, upon retiring in 1993 after his 13-season Hall of Fame career in Boston, served as color man on Wolves broadcasts until new owner Glen Taylor hired him as VP of basketball operations in 1995. McHale had done the day-to-day grind of NBA life. He had a family to raise, a lake home in Minnesota and an NBA team to run but at something less than a frenetic pace.

Saunders aspired to be a coach from the start, taking the job at Golden Valley Lutheran College right out of school – he was McHale’s point guard for a year (1976-77) at the University of Minnesota – rather than hold a clipboard on some other coach’s staff. He did spend a chunk of the 1980s as an assistant at Minnesota and the University of Tulsa but was in the CBA from 1988-95 in Rapid City (S.D.), La Crosse (Wis.) and Sioux Falls (S.D.). Saunders won two championships, two Coach of the Year awards and 253 games in seven seasons.

His hiring by McHale in 1995 was a foregone conclusion and the realization of a dream that flickered on about the time Minnesota got its expansion franchise. You get the VP job, I’ll come in as coach. Or I’ll hire you to coach when I take get my shot in the front office.

Either way, it was the the natural, logical order of things.

Until the Wolves slipped badly from their 2003-04 peak. On Feb. 12, 2005, at 25-26 after a lifeless loss at Utah the night before, McHale fired Saunders and took over as interim coach.

The move was a stunner but triggered a 19-12 finish and a narrow miss of the playoffs that Minnesota hasn’t had since. McHale went back upstairs for four years before doing the interim thing again in December 2008. This time – with less talent provided by architect McHale but an intriguing rookie named Love – the Wolves went 20-43.

When Taylor turned to David Kahn in spring 2009 to run the basketball operation – an odd hire that got worse from there – McHale was out.

Duo enjoys new life in new roles


VIDEO: Flip Saunders is introduced as the Wolves new GM

Saunders during all this time had kept landing on his feet, his thick offensive playbook accompanying him to Detroit and Washington. The Pistons won 176 games in three seasons for him, reaching the East finals each time before president Joe Dumars canned him. The Washington gig changed beneath him when Gilbert Arenas went outlaw in the locker room, and the Wizards’ plan of contending got turned by a swift purge of knuckleads into a rebuild.

That led to two more stunning moves: McHale returning to coaching and Saunders returning to the Wolves.

Both had strong elements of righting wrongs.

McHale’s wit and personality were serving him well as an analyst for TNT and NBA TV, but all the jokes and chatter felt like riding the team bus without any real games. Larry Bird came back this season with a competitive itch and that’s what his old Celtics teammate is scratching these days too.

“I think the years out of it, he missed the fight,” said Rockets assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who also was on McHale’s Minnesota staff in 2008-09. “He missed the competition. I think that pushed him. You sit in meetings with him, you hear the stories about what it was like competing for championships. And you can see it in him every day.”

Howard appreciates the Top 50 big man who tutored Love and Al Jefferson. “He’s been through the battles,” Howard said. “He understands the grind of an NBA season. So when we have those games where we’re not making shots, he doesn’t come in and off on us. He says what we need to do.”


VIDEO: Kevin McHale talks with GameTime about the challenges of coaching

Said McHale: “It’s more taxing but it’s more fun. You live and die it when you’re a GM, too, really. Now you’ve got more control. I really enjoy it. We’re having a great time in Texas. I really enjoy the guys.”

In Minnesota, Saunders’ return in essentially McHale’s old job – with a sliver of minority ownership – came through his skill in never burning bridges and, frankly, Taylor’s desperation to bring in someone he knew after the Kahn debacle. The Wolves owner was on the brink of selling before Saunders convinced him they should recommit together.

This job isn’t what he loves most about basketball – Saunders often has said of coaching, “There are no highs that are as high and no lows that are as low” – but it’s one that suits him now. And it has way better job security, as Dumars continues to demonstrate in Detroit.

“What makes this more frustrating is that you really don’t have control,” Saunders said, offering the, er, flip side of McHale’s comment. “The coach is the one who watches the film and decides, ‘What do we have to do to get better?’ People ask if I miss it. What’s happened is, we’ve had so many things since I took over to change our vision.”

Friendship frays over the years

Saunders inherited a Hall of Fame-worthy coach, Rick Adelman, with his own proven system and a team still relying on three McHale acquisitions: Love, Nikola Pekovic and Corey Brewer, the 2007 draft pick back for a second stint. Saunders’ own first draft went sideways when the players he eyed at No. 9 were off the board; in an audible, he picked and shipped Trey Burke to Utah for what became Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, neither of whom have shown much in limited roles.

Injuries (Love, Pekovic, key free-agent addition Kevin Martin) are a problem lately, and at 24-27 in the West, the goal of a postseason berth looks lofty, even as Love’s 2015 opt-out makes it urgent.

Saunders’ and McHale’s paths crossed a few times when they were in their previous positions – McHale upstairs, Saunders in Detroit or Washington – and once with both on the sidelines. The Rockets beat the Wizards at the Verizon Center, 114-106, a week before Saunders’ got fired and turned to an ESPN TV job for a spell.

At Target Center Monday, besides the role reversals, there will be another big change: the loss of their friendship. Maybe it’s as simple as what can happen when one pal becomes another pal’s boss, but little or no niceties pass between them anymore.

“We talk,” Saunder said earlier this season. “When I got the job, he reached out and congratulated me. [The friendship] is not the same, more than anything else, because of where we’re both at. It’s an awkward istuation for someone in my position to be calling and talking to another team’s coach. Even though I talk a lot to Doc [Rivers].”

Asked about it over the weekend in Milwaukee, McHale shrugged.

Two friends who came a long way together have grown quite a ways apart, doing what they love in the other man’s role.

Rockets Getting Some New ‘Lincertainty’


VIDEO: Jeremy Lin has 18 points and four assists off the bench as the Rockets beat the Bucks

MILWAUKEE – Before Linsanity – those heady few months in the winter of 2012 that turned Jeremy Lin into a near-household name and helped the NBA heal from the rancorous lockout that delayed its season – there was uncertainty.

And after it, too.

About a week before his basketball world blew up (mostly) in a good way, Lin was praying just to keep his job. At a pregame chapel session in Miami on Jan. 27 that season attended by some players from both teams, Lin asked: “If you could say a prayer for me that I don’t get cut.” Fellows such as Landry Fields and Jerome Jordan, Lin’s Knicks teammates, and Heat forward Udonis Haslem heard a fringe guy sweating out the deadline date that year for contracts to be guaranteed.

Then Lin scored 25, 28, 23 and 38 points from Feb. 4 right through the Feb. 10 deadline, then kept going. In 11 games, the undrafted Harvard guy averaged 23.9 points and 9.2 assists while shooting 50 percent and helping New York win seven in a row and nine of 11.

Life hasn’t been the same since: a frenzied “15 minutes” of fame as a pop culture icon, massive All-Star vote totals inspired at least in part by Lin’s Asian-American heritage and a three-year, $25 million contract from Houston in free agency.

But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been uncertainty.

In a season and a half with the Rockets, Lin has established himself as a solid NBA rotation player but not that meteor streaking across the middle of 2011-12. He started 82 games last season but dipped in production (13.4 ppg, 6.1 apg, 44.1 FG), then got pancaked in Houston’s playoff series against Oklahoma City (4.0 ppg, 6-of-24 shooting, as many turnovers as assists).

This season, Lin has been in and out of the starting lineup, due partly to injuries (10 games missed with a knee sprain or back spasms) and partly to other injuries and combinations in the Rockets’ deep backcourt (James Harden, Patrick Beverley, Aaron Brooks). Mixed results and dissatisfaction among fans even fueled some Lin trade rumors, though his $15 million “balloon” salary in 2013-14 likely doesn’t have clubs beating down GM Daryl Morey‘s door.

But a light of sorts went on for Lin on Jan. 28 against San Antonio when he subbed as a starter for Harden, and it stayed on since he moved back to the bench. Beginning that night, Houston has won five straight and Lin has been in attack mode, averaging 16.0 points, 6.2 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 33.3 minutes, while shooting 50 percent (38.9 from the arc). His numbers prior to that were down across the board, in reserve or starting.

“Just trying to be aggressive, just trying to play free and trying to be myself out there,” Lin said after the Rockets’ 101-95 victory over Milwaukee Saturday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. “That’s the biggest thing, just embrace whatever role they give me, big or small.”

Lin scored his 18 points in the first 19 minutes he logged against the Bucks, shooting 8-of-15 with four assists and a pair of steals. He played the entire fourth quarter and posted one particular roundabout highlight feed to Dwight Howard. He ran the offense up to a point, but kept his offense as a priority too.

“I still am responsible for getting other people going,” Lin said, “but I just think for me, whether I’m at the one or the two, I want to try to be very aggressive and attack a lot. Some nights it’s getting other people involved and some nights it’s getting myself involved.”

Houston coach Kevin McHale wants nothing less. “He needs to be aggressive,” McHale said recently. “Jeremy plays his best when he’s attacking, and when we have some pace in the game it really helps him.”

Lin has 19 appearances in reserve so far and 24 as a starter, so he needs to stick with the bench if he wants to get into the discussion for Sixth Man balloting. Harden is somebody who knows a little about that role, filling it to hardware- and conference-winning effect for the Thunder before his trade to Houston.

“He’s doing a great job,” Harden said of Lin. “He’s getting a feel for the game before he checks in, and once he checks in, he’s being aggressive and making the right plays. The more games he can get used to coming off the bench, the better off he’ll be.”

Playing the game mentally before actually playing in the game is the key, Harden said. “It’s the first six or seven minutes of the game,” said the Rockets’ leading scorer. “Knowing how the game is played, knowing who’s hot on the other team, knowing who has it going and who doesn’t have it going, and then just going out there and having an impact.”

Space, Speed And 3s Is The NBA Way


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew breaks down why 3-point shooters like Kyle Korver are valuable

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Kevin McHale insists there’s little difference between how he coaches his Houston Rockets today and how his Boston Celtics played 30 years ago.

“We do play the same,” the towering Hall of Fame power forward said. “It was a different game, but we ran up and down, we shot a lot of shots in the first six, seven seconds of the shot clock because we ran it down, threw it in the post and shot it. Look at the early ’80s, we were averaging 115, 116, 117 points. You usually don’t get that by walking it up and down.”

The 1983-84 champion Celtics averaged 112.1 ppg, yet in those glorious run-and-gun, team-oriented days, all that scoring ranked just seventh in a 23-team league. Imagine the offensive explosion then had those teams known what we know now about that strange 3-point arc.

“We all looked at it,” said McHale, a rookie the season after the NBA implemented the arc, “and thought, ‘Why the hell do they have a line way out here?’ “

A low-post machine, McHale attempted 157 3-pointers in his career. Larry Bird took 194 of the 393 taken by the 1985-86 champion Celtics. In the first 49 games this season, the Rockets’ tandem of James Harden and Chandler Parsons have combined for 463. The Rockets have launched 1,279.

Last year they shot it from everywhere and at any time, 2,369 in all, second-most only to the New York Knicks, who set the all-time record with 2,371 attempts. New York also made 891, the most all-time.

Today’s game is different. It has shifted 180 degrees from the plodding, back-it-down offenses spanned in the 1990s and does draw back more to the freewheeling 1980s, only with a new set of philosophies. Today’s offensive style is dictated by a slew of predominant words and phrases: Analytics. Pace. Ball movement. Spacing. Speed. Stretch-4. Small ball. Drive-and-kick. Corner 3.

Do-it-all point guards are at a premium. Floor-spacing, sweet-shooting big men are coveted. Three-point shooting is king.

“I’m not surprised because statistically everybody is going to that kind of metrics,” said Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who introduced the league to this stream of unconventional offensive tactics when he took over the Phoenix Suns more than a decade ago.

“We did it before, but I think you can measure even more now, and I think that shows you if you want to win, that’s the way you should go. And then Miami tops it off by winning two championships by doing it.”

West among best at quick way to play

Many of D’Antoni’s concepts, considered radical at the time, are commonplace now to varying degrees in nearly every NBA coach’s playbook. They are prevalent especially among Western Conference clubs powered by dynamic, often ultra-athletic point guards — from Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook to Tony Parker to Damian Lillard to Stephen Curry — who play fast, penetrate, pass and shoot from distance. The Heat, of course, are led by de facto point guard LeBron James.

“Without penetration you don’t get those uncontested 3s, so you have to have people who penetrate and create shots for other people,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “That’s how it happens. Without the penetration it would all be contested, percentages would go down and people wouldn’t be shooting very well. But most of them are uncontested.”

Nine of the league’s top 10 teams in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes) and 12 of the top 16 play in the West. The top five teams in 3-point attempts, and nine of the top 12, also play in the West, the far superior conference this season.

When the Memphis Grizzlies meet the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight (8 p.m. ET, League Pass) in a rematch of last season’s Western Conference semifinals won by Memphis, it will again be a battle of contrasting styles. OKC, even without their injured three-time All-Star Westbrook, is athletic and fast. The Thunder pushes the pace, currently ranking seventh in the league, averaging 97.84 possessions per 48 minutes.

The Grizzlies boast talented point guard Mike Conley, but run their sets through skilled, low-post big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. They rely on those interior size mismatches (and gritty defense) to compete in an expanding era of fastbreaking, 3-point-shooting, “small-ball” lineups in which a power forward serves as a center and a traditional small forward plays the “4″ and “stretches” the floor.

Memphis, although moving the ball with more vigor and shooting slightly more 3s during their January hot streak, is the conventional NBA offense that has been made unconventional.

The need for 3s

Memphis’ management team is heavy into analytic data, and first-year coach Dave Joerger was eager to quicken Memphis’ offensive pace, but it hasn’t happened. They rank last in the league in pace, averaging 92.15 possessions. They’re also last in 3-point attempts (14.3 per game) and 3-pointers made (5.1 per game).

Houston has outscored Memphis from beyond the arc by a staggering 618 points; Golden State and Portland, tied for No. 1 with 450 made 3s, by 651. Memphis and last-place Utah, 24th in made 3-pointers, are the only teams in the West that average fewer than 100 points per game.

“It’s almost like if you don’t shoot 3s you can’t win,” Popovich said. “So many players are good at it, shots get off so quickly and are so numerous that it’s a huge part of what almost everybody does. It’s just tough to score and to win without making 3s.”

Desperate for it, Memphis traded slump-ridden Jerryd Bayless to Boston for Courtney Lee, who has provided a jolt, knocking down 44.1 percent of his 3-point shots. He, along with Gasol’s return from injury, helped spark Memphis to 11 wins in its last 13 games and a return to playoff contention.

The Grizzlies recently beat Houston twice in back-to-back games. They limited the Rockets to 87 and 81 points despite taking 40 fewer 3-pointers and being outscored by 36 points from beyond the arc. But can the Grizzlies survive with size over speed and scoring 2-pointers instead of 3s?

“I don’t know whether we can or we can’t,” Joerger said. “The league is being ruled by playmakers, shooting and IQ right now. Teams are playing multiple — forget about shooters — they’re playing multiple playmakers now. A lot of centers are, let’s just say, fairly strictly pick and rim-run, and [you] play four [players] around those guys and stretch it out, and then let guys just play against a [defensive] close-out.”

Time marches on … and pace picks up

D’Antoni says Don Nelson‘s Mavs in the early and mid-2000s, with Steve Nash as point guard, were first to empower the “stretch-4.” Nelson didn’t try to turn 7-foot forward Dirk Nowitzki into a back-to-the-basket player. He granted him free range to shoot 3s.

Popovich recognized the coming wave earlier than most through those early battles against Dirk and then D’Antoni’s Suns.

“San Antonio has been a top 3-point shooting team for probably seven, eight or nine years now,” said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, whose “Flow” offense, led by smart, selfless players and talented passers and shooters, produced the 2011 championship. “They jumped on it early on and other teams have followed suit.”

The Spurs won three championships with stifling defense and methodical halfcourt execution in the mid-2000s. But Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford knew they had to evolve around their Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Parker with a roster based on pace and perimeter shooting. On their way to the 2013 Finals, San Antonio ranked sixth in pace, seventh in 3-pointers made and fifth in 3-point percentage.

In his typical gruffness, Popovich said of the style, “I hate it; if you want to win, you got to do it.”

In 2002-03, the Spurs attempted 1,270 3-pointers en route to their first title. Each year after their 3-point attempts increased. They shot 1,561 in 2006-07, the year of their third title. Last season they shot a franchise-record 1,764, which they might surpass this season.

“It was gradual, I remember that,” Ginobili said. “When I got here [in 2002-03], it [the offense] was very slow. Every possession had to feed the post and play from there. But then it slowly started to shift to a faster pace. At the beginning, he [Popovich] wanted it, but we were just not used to it, so that’s why it took a couple years until we really started doing it.”

Back in Houston, the Rockets keep running and spreading the floor even with the addition of traditional-type center Dwight Howard. Their pace (97.94) ranks seventh in the league, down slightly from last season, as is their 3-point attempts (26.1, almost three fewer a game), because of the ability, and necessity, to feed Howard in the post.

Meanwhile, everybody else continues to pick up the pace. The Rockets were No. 1 in the league last season at 98.64 possessions per 48 minutes. Now five teams average at least 99 and Philadelphia is over 102. Twelve teams average at least 97. In 1996-97, the first year advanced statistics were recorded, only two teams finished with more than 93 possessions per game.

What does the future hold? The Rockets’ NBA Development League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, are launching 3′s at a stunning — or alarming, depending on your perspective — rate of 48.5 per game. Fourteen of the 17 teams are operating at a pace of 100 possessions or better per game.

Yet leave it to Howard, with four career 3-pointers to his name, to lend some perspective to all these supersonic numbers.

“Once the playoffs start, it’s a halfcourt game and you’ve got to be able to execute in the halfcourt on offense,” Howard said. “We have to learn how to do both — be able to play fast, get up and down the court, get some easy shots. But we also got to learn how to slow it down and get a good shot every time.”

Perhaps some things never change.

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 3


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 3

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Suns exploring deal for Gasol | Allen gets Super Bowl title, NBA next? | Heat not worried about Bynum in Indy | Rockets have dynamic duo in Beverley and Lin

No. 1: Suns exploring possibilities for Gasol deal – Since the Phoenix Suns have already shown us that they don’t have any idea how to tank properly, they might as well swing for the fences in the Western Conference playoff chase. And that means exploring all of the possibilities for a potential trade for Los Angeles Lakers big man Pau Gasol. They’ve been searching for some big man help since trading Marcin Gortat, and Gasol is apparently available. The Suns have the assets to make the deal happen, as reported by ESPN.com’s Marc Stein:

One option for the Suns, by virtue of their $5.6 million in available salary-cap space, is swapping the expiring contract of injured big man Emeka Okafor for Gasol, even though Okafor’s $14.5 million salary this season falls well shy of Gasol’s $19.3 million.

The Lakers engaged in similar trade discussions in late December and early January with Cleveland in a proposed deal that would have sent Gasol to the Cavaliers for the partially guaranteed contract of ex-Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who then would have been waived to help L.A. save roughly $20 million in salary and luxury-tax obligations.

Those talks, though, broke down because of the Lakers’ insistence on receiving another asset of value in addition to the significant financial benefits, only for L.A. to see Cleveland successfully switch gears and trade Bynum to the Chicago Bulls for Luol Deng.

A trade for Okafor’s expiring deal would not save the Lakers as much as a deal for Bynum would have, but it would come with undeniable financial benefits. The $4.8 million difference between Gasol’s cap number and Okafor’s would immediately drop the Lakers less than $3 million away from the league’s luxury-tax threshold, meaning one more smaller deal before the Feb. 20 trade deadline could conceivably be enough to take them out of tax territory completely.

There would also be salary savings involved because insurance began picking up 80 percent of what remains on Okafor’s contract once Phoenix passed this season’s 41-game midpoint because of a long-term neck injury that has sidelined the nine-year veteran all season.

The Suns are known to be shopping Okafor’s contract aggressively in advance of the trade deadline as a means for whoever acquires the 31-year-old to potentially save more than $5 million in salary payouts thanks to the insurance coverage.

***

No. 2: Allen trying to double up on title this year?– It doesn’t get much sweeter than Sunday night for Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen, whose NFL team pummeled Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl in New York. Well, it could actually get a little sweeter for Allen if the Trail Blazers find a way to get to the same stage come June and get a shot at winning a Larry O’Brien Trophy. Don’t laugh. Because as Kevin Garnett famously told us in Boston, “anything is possible.” Seth Prince of the Oregonian poses the question and fans in Portland respond:

The fourth time was the charm for Paul Allen, who achieved his first world championship as an owner tonight as the Seattle Seahawks beat the Denver Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII.
He also led the Portland Trail Blazers to the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992, as well as the Seahawks to the Super Bowl XL in 2006. All of those seasons ended with Allen’s teams losing.
It raises the question, do you think he’ll be able to bring an NBA world championship to Portland with the Trail Blazers? Let us know in the comment thread below and share how you think he’s matured as an owner through the years.

***

No. 3: Heat not worried about Bynum joining the Pacers – If they are worried at all about Andrew Bynum joining an Indiana Pacers team that has already shown an ability to challenge them, the Miami Heat aren’t showing it. They’re acting like the Pacers’ acquisition of Bynum,  a player they reportedly pursued as well, means nothing in the chase for Eastern Conference supremacy. Perhaps it’s easy to feel that way when you still have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to lean on, not to mention Chris “Birdman” Andersen and even a getting-stronger-every day Greg Oden sharpening his skills. Whether they are just playing the role or not is a question that won’t be answered unless the Heat and Pacers square off in the playoffs. In the meantime, David J. Neal of the Miami Herald takes the temperature of the Heat now that Bynum is wearing blue and gold:

The Heat locker room publicly shrugged Saturday at the signing and likely did so privately aside from a few witty jokes. This is a team that believes, correctly, that while time and pain have improved Indiana, whether or not the Heat complete the championship hat trick relies largely on itself.

Can Dwyane Wade be Dwyane Wade again for an entire Eastern Conference final? The Heat can get through the rest of the East with Wade on a maintenance plan or having games where he’s an above average player. It will take an extra game here or there, which you never like, but that’s not a problem against any two teams not named Indiana put together.

Against Indiana, Miami will need six or seven games of the future Hall of Fame Wade to get the job done. Bynum neither helps nor hurts in that regard.

Can Chris Bosh continue to be that helpful omnipresence, having a hand in most wins even if that hand’s not doing what stat-minded fans and media wish it were? Bosh draws Hibbert and Bynum out of the middle with his range, then makes them work and getting up and down the floor.

The Heat knows it’s about the three-point line, both defending it and scoring from behind it. If the Heat’s snipers misfire, that lane gets packed like Miami Beach streets during Art Basel and those penetration-and-ones dwindle to not often enough.

Hibbert’s Metallo, the super-strong villain with the kryptonite heart. Great against Superman, not the most useful guy against the rest of the Justice League. Hibbert hurts no team more than he does the Heat, yet still, the Heat find ways around and over him. Bynum’s Hibbert Lite at this point.

Most ridiculous is the idea Indiana signed Bynum to keep him from the Heat. Although the Heat has nothing against height, it already has a big guy with unreliable lower limbs, one who showed tremendous determination just to get back to being able to take the floor. Greg Oden embodies the diligence, grit and good citizenship the Heat likes to think of as its franchise hallmarks. Oden might not be a problem for opponents the way it hopes, but the Heat knows he won’t be a problem for them in the locker room or after midnight.

***

No. 4: Rockets have their own dynamic guard duo in Beverley and Lin – Phoenix, Golden State and Oklahoma City aren’t the only Western Conference playoff teams that can boast of having guard rotations loaded with talented players at the same positions and making it work to their advantage. The Houston Rockets have their own version in Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin, a pairing that hasn’t been seen healthy and attacking like they were in the preseason until now. And it’s a sight to see for Rockets coach Kevin McHale, who has been looking for a spark from his point guards. They give the Rockets the sort of balance needed with All-Stars like James Harden and Dwight Howard on the other side of the scale. Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle discusses the finer points of the two-point guard system the Rockets are tinkering with:

Right from the start of training camp, Rockets coach Kevin McHale liked what he saw when guards Pat Beverley and Jeremy Lin were on the court together.

He saw them complement each other all through the preseason and was excited about what they would bring to the Rockets.

Then came the injuries. Beverley, 25, was hurt in the first game of the season (bruised ribs) and was sidelined. The two-point guard experiment was put on hold.

When Beverley came back, the two flourished, providing a mix of Beverley’s stifling defense and Lin’s attack-minded offense. Then came a knee sprain and back spasms for Lin, 25, then a fractured hand for Beverley.

Now that both have recovered from injuries and are back on the floor together consistently, McHale sees flashes of the preseason.

“I like those two playing together,” McHale said. “I thought earlier in the year, they were our best combination on the floor. Those two have a nice symmetry between them. They both enjoy playing with each other. They are very respectful for each other, and they work to help each other.”

When the two play together, the Rockets are 15-7. When they start together, the team is 5-1.

In the Rockets’ 106-92 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night, the two were balanced. Lin had his first career triple-double with 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists; Beverley went scoreless but had 10 rebounds, eight assists and a career-high five steals.

“Pat was unbelievable,” guard James Harden said. “Then Jeremy came off the bench and gets a triple-double. Those two are playing really good basketball together.”

Beverley averages 32 minutes per game; Lin plays 31. Much of that time they are on the floor together.

“I think we play really well together,” Beverley said. “We played together last year. We know each other well. We know each other’s games, and I think it works really well.”

Lin said when he and Beverley are in the game at the same time, they bring the Rockets the fast pace they seek.

“I think it just sets a tempo,” Lin said. “We push the ball hard. Just having two point guards out there definitely changes the tempo.”

That tempo and the mix of the two point guards’ strengths bring a different dimension to the Rockets.

“We have wanted to play them together all year,” McHale said. “I like that combination. With injuries, we haven’t been able to as much as we have wanted to.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kevin Durant showed off his otherworldly scoring abilities in January, but also shined as a facilitator/passer as well for the mighty Thunder  … Kings coach Mike Malone is still trying to coax his team into being a defense-first outfit … The Chicago Bulls are open for trade business but All-Star center Joakim Noah is what we in the business call untouchable … Pacers boss Larry Bird insists the signing of Andrew Bynum was about two things, “he’s big and he can help us.”

ICYMI of the Night: Celtics fans have been waiting all season for Rajon Rondo to look like, well, Rajon Rondo. With only one game on the slate yesterday, Rondo had a perfect opportunity to take the spotlight and he did so …


VIDEO: Rajon Rondo dominates against the Magic

Happy Dwight Thwarts Hack-a-Howard

VIDEO: Dwight Howard and his Rockets beat another Texas team, downing the Mavs Wednesday

DALLAS – Smiling, singing and dancing, a carefree, 6-foot-11, muscle-bound and shirtless greeter welcomed reporters into the winning locker room as if they were coming in for an after-work Happy Hour and drinks were on the house.

“File in everybody, come on, file in,” Dwight Howard said merrily, waving his arms and directing the throng inside.

Life is good when you make your free throws and Howard had just dropped seven of them on eight attempts in a span of 59 seconds midway through fourth quarter. He thwarted the Dallas Mavericks’ Hack-a-Dwight strategy and the points likely saved the Rockets from another embarrassing last-minute collapse.

“I looked like Reggie Miller tonight from the line,” Howard boasted after the 117-115 victory in which he scored nine of his 21 points from the free-throw line on 11 attempts. That’s 82 percent for a 53-percent foul shooter.

“We’re 6-1 when they Hack-a-Dwight,” Howard boasted. “Look it up. The only one we lost was to the Lakers.”

That stat remains unofficial, but it has merit. With 4:20 to go and Houston leading Dallas, 107-97, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, desperate to stop Houston blow-bys to the rim, ordered the hacks. Howard made the first two. Hacked again. He split the next two. Hacked again. He made both as the crowd groaned. The Rockets led 112-101, a plus-1 advantage through the 59 seconds of hacks.

Carlisle called off the dogs. Yet on Houston’s next possession following a Vince Carter 3-pointer, Howard was fouled in the act of shooting. Two-for-two — 114-104.

“He made enough that Rick [Carlisle] quit doing it,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “That’s the key. He made 9-of-11. Believe me, if you make enough, the other team quits doing it.”

He made so many that he stole the spotlight from 35-year-old Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki, who had 38 points and 17 rebounds as he awaits a possible 12th All-Star berth Thursday night.

On Tuesday against San Antonio, Dwight went 9-for-14 during a third-quarter Hack-a-Howard phase. The Rockets won the quarter, 33-18. Dwight still only managed to go 13-for-25 from the line in the 97-90 win.

“Dwight’s making his free throws. He made them last night, he made them tonight,” McHale said. “I guess I’ll take the points if you’re standing there and you don’t have to do anything to get points. It does muck up the game and it does slow things down, but I mean I’ll take the points if all you got to do is stand there and shoot free throws all night.”

That’s not typically a great image of Howard: stiff-legged and flicking bricks.

But, give the man credit, he’s making the pressure free throws, for whatever reason, but he still struggles so mightily on so many trips to the free throw line, for whatever reason. He offered a familiar refrain about his success on this night, yet still no explanation for why it can’t happen more often than not.

“I just stepped up, I didn’t think too much, I just went up there and shot ‘em,” Howard said. “And when I do that I’m a lot better than getting up there and thinking what’s going to happen, the outcome, so I was a lot better tonight.

“It gives them [his teammates] more confidence in me and also the coaching staff. They see how much I work on it every day in practice. So, to get in the game and knock ‘em down when we need it is key for our team.”

Yes, life is good when you make your free throws.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 19



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Cuban docked $100,000 | Beverley return set | George’s All-Star choices | Blazers romp to top spot | Durant in a zone
No. 1: Cuban gets his wish — Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for weeks touted his desire to be fined one last time before commissioner David Stern steps down on Feb. 1. Stern granted his wish Saturday night with a hefty $100,000 fine for confronting officials on the court and directing inappropriate language toward them at the conclusion of the Mavs’ intense, 129-127 loss Wednesday night to the Los Angeles Clippers. Cuban’s team blew a 123-106 lead with 4:30 to go amid a storm of turnovers and fouls. The fine came down moments after Cuban had spoke to reporters as he typically does prior to games. Cuban beat the league in announcing the fine, using his Twitter account to let everybody know his pleasure: “I couldnt let the commish go without a proper farewell. Its been a fun 14 years of trying to create change and donating to the donut fund !” ESPNDallas’ Tim MacMahon has the details:

He added in another tweet that he would donate an equal amount to a charity.

Cuban’s latest outburst occurred after the Mavs blew a 17-point lead and Clippers guard Jamal Crawford scored the go-ahead points on free throws after a controversial foul call against Dallas forward Shawn Marion.

Cuban has said several times this season that he planned to draw the final fine of Stern’s 30-year tenure as commissioner. Cuban reiterated that intention to ESPN.com this week before his outburst Wednesday night.

This is the 20th time the league has publicly assessed a fine against Cuban since he bought the Mavs in Jan. 2000, including 14 fines that were the result of criticizing officials or interacting with them in ways the NBA deemed inappropriate.

Those fines have cost Cuban a total of $1.9 million, plus matching donations to charities of his choice.

***

No. 2: Beverley back Monday — The Rockets’ backcourt is about to get its starting point guard back. Patrick Beverley is expected to return to action Monday night at home against the Portland Trail Blazers roughly four weeks after he broke his right hand. Beverley went through the team’s full shootaround Saturday night and will practice Sunday as his final tune-up. Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle has more:

“I’m back now,” Beverley said. “I went through shootaround. We’ll see how it goes. I went through the whole shootaround like I did before, ran some drills, got a lot of shots up and went over the other team’s game plan.”

Though he prepared as if he was going to play against the Bucks, Beverley was held out to allow him one practice with the team before returning. He said he has been working out enough that he was “not rusty at all. Rockets coach Kevin McHale said the plan is to have Beverley return Monday pending that day’s final medical evaluation.

“I’ve been getting a lot of shots up the last past days,” Beverley said. “ I think our training staff has done a great job with my conditioning, helping me being ready when my number is called.”

Beverley said it is difficult to simulate the energy and intensity of actual games, but said he has made up for lost time with Rockets performance and rehabilitation coach Joe Rogowski.

“It was Camp Rogo,” Beverley said. “Went on like a hell week where just got after it, got stronger and quicker, more explosive. I think it’s going to pay off. Hard work always pays off.

“I felt I could have played last Thursday. I feel I could have played a couple days before that. Something with my body I just heal fast. I’m able to endure a lot of pain. I’m just happy to be back on the court and happy to mix it up with these guys.”

***

No. 3: All-Star choices for George — Pacers wing Paul George is all but set to become a first-time starter in next month’s All-Star Game in New Orleans, and the NBA can’t get enough of the emerging superstar. George has been asked to participate in the 3-point shootout, the dunk contest and the skills competition. What are the chances he soaks up the entire weekend as a participant in one, two or all three events? Scott Agness of the Indianapolis Star has the odds:

The chances of him competing are slim, as he would prefer to rest and enjoy the weekend in The Big Easy. But he said that he hasn’t declined and was still open to the idea of taking part in at least one event. He plans to decide in the next few days.

When asked whether he had declined the offers, George said, “No, I haven’t declined. I’m keeping my options open.”

You know a player is at an elite level when he is considering turning down these invitations because All-Star weekend is typically a time where lesser-known guys or an up-and-coming player can be noticed.

George knows.

He has been actively involved at the past two All-Star weekends. In Houston last year, he played in the big game and was in the 3-point contest. The year before, George and his glow-in-dark-uniform placed third in the dunk contest and he played in the ‘Rising Stars Challenge,’ the same game he was left out of as a rookie.

Frank Vogel and his staff will be down there to coach the Eastern Conference team, which should have at least three members of the NBA’s best team. Lance Stephenson, the flashiest player on the Pacers, said he won’t be involved in any of those events, but he does have a message for his teammate.

“I ain’t got no dunks like that,” he said. “Paul, that’s the guy that needs to be in the dunk contest.”

***

No. 4: Hot Blazers soar again — For anyone thinking Portland’s recent slowdown signaled the start of a permanent trickle back to the pack in the Western Conference, the Blazers say believe what you want. One night after winning at San Antonio, 109-100, Portland went into Dallas and destroyed the Mavs with a near-flawless performance through three quarters. Led by LaMarcus Aldridge‘s 30 points and 12 rebounds, the Blazers led 104-70 after three quarters. Winners of five in a row, they’re now 31-9 and reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the West. Are they for real? Mike Tokito of The Oregonian has the latest:

Portland fans might hope the Blazers are truly one the league’s best teams, critics might suggest they’re interlopers in the elite class. Guess what? They don’t care.

“We just take it day-by-day and game-by-game,” forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “We don’t get caught up in all the hype. We just focus on doing our things that we need to do. Getting better defensively, staying focused on us.”

The Blazers were very good defensively and focused like a laser Saturday as they put on as impressive a performance as they’ve had all season, running the Dallas Mavericks out of American Airlines Center for three quarters in a 127-111 victory. The fourth quarter was a different story, but more on that later.

First the dominance: One night after putting San Antonio away with a strong fourth-quarter stretch, the Blazers took that sharp play and extended into a dominant first half, when they outscored Dallas 71-52, then revved things up further in the third, when they outscored the Mavericks 33-18.

The Blazers (31-9) have a reputation of a team that relies heavily on three-pointers and tries to outscore the other team, but on this night the catalyst was defense as they held Dallas to 39.4 percent field goal shooting in the first three quarters.

“Having the lead at halftime and coming out with that defensive focus in the third quarter was a really good sign for us,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.

***

***

No. 5: Durant in a (right) zone — Thunder forward Kevin Durant is again leading the league in scoring and he’s doing so with remarkable efficiency. No game highlighted this quite like Friday’s 54-point performance on 19-for-28 shooting. During a one-minute stretch of that win over the Warriors, Durant scored nine points all from the same zone on the floor. Which zone? And why is that important? Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman explains:

Kevin Durant was stuck on 41 points for more than three minutes of game action. And on Friday night, that stagnation felt like an eternity.

So he called for the ball on the right wing, got it, and immediately rose for an in-rhythm three. Swish.

Then, on two of the next three possessions, he did the exact same thing.

Nine points in less than a minute. All from an increasingly more comfortable spot on the floor.

“I’ve been working on that shot, the right wing,” Durant said. “It used to be the shot I missed the most.”

But now, it has just become another lethal option in his unguardable arsenal.

Of Durant’s career-high 54 points on Friday night, 10 came near the rim, 11 came at the free-throw line and 12 came from that right wing, the zone in which he produced the most damage. Overall, he was 4-of-6 on that shot.

And in the grand scheme, that only continued an upward trend that Durant has clearly identified and worked to produce.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Dwight Howard says he was promised a trade from Magic to Nets … Clippers center DeAndre Jordan wants All-Star invite, not (necessarily) dunk contest … Nets finalizing trades to open roster spot; Bulls give up on Marquis Teague

Might Saunders See Timberwolves’ Answer In Mirror?


VIDEO: Wolves coach Rick Adelman talks about disappointing loss to Kings

Sometimes it’s the malaise that gets you, not the disaster.

When things go haywire for an NBA team – when the losses come four or five in a row, the locker room sours and both parties in the coaching/playing relationship hit the mute button – grabbing at a fix is relatively easy. You change up everything, or as close to that as possible, turning whatever dials and pulling whatever levers are available. Downside is minimal because desperation equals justification, and the alternative to trying anything is doing nothing, at which point a wink-wink about tanking becomes the last refuge of scoundrels.

Malaise is trickier. Malaise is less the presence of awful than the absence of OK. It’s that pervasive uneasiness, that general sense of something lacking in the strategy, on the roster or in their hearts. It is sputtering along two games below .500 almost halfway through the schedule, and burrowing back down each time they break the surface. It is the lack of legit winning streaks, and awkward losses to losers.

Malaise is offense without defense, talent without leadership, instructions without inspiration, velvet glove without iron fist. It is the Minnesota Timberwolves right about now.

Losing at home to Sacramento and slipping to 18-20 Wednesday night was merely the latest symptom of a season gone sideways. And as the Wolves face another challenge Friday in Toronto against the resurgent Raptors (7 p.m. ET, League Pass) and former coach Dwane Casey, the bright spot is that at least they’re not at home, where Minnesota has dropped four of its last six and, according to Andy Greder of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, things have turned – worse than hostile – apathetic.

Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic dribbled the ball a couple of times between free throws Wednesday night; the bouncing ball seemed to echo throughout Target Center.

“Wake up!” one fan yelled from behind the Wolves’ bench between those free throws in the fourth quarter.

The Wolves started the night by hitting the snooze button and trailed the rebuilding Sacramento Kings by 10 points entering the fourth quarter.

“It was dead,” Wolves guard J.J. Barea said. “Couldn’t hear anything out there.”

Flatlined is as flatlined does, and the Wolves are kidding themselves if they think a raucous home crowd is going to save them. If it’s cause-and-effect they’re seeking, it’s going to have to start with them rather than the fans. In the mirror rather than in the stands.

What was billed as a breakthrough season has been anything but. The purging of David Kahn as chief basketball executive was followed almost immediately by a bungled draft night that played almost as homage (the No. 9 pick parlayed down for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng). The guy the Wolves took and traded to Utah, point guard Trey Burke, has been better than both of them, and the equal of zestless Ricky Rubio, who has been playing as if his dog is lost, shrinking in lockstep with his shooting percentage.

A season in which Kevin Love‘s commitment to the franchise and to the market was supposedly reaffirmed, to hear new Wolves president Flip Saunders tell it, mostly has ground on, leaving Love in an emergency-exit row, window seat, for 2015. The roster is full of nice guys without much bark, never mind bite – despite Pekovic’s oft-noted “Bond villain” appearance – and the saltiest guy on board, the smallish Barea, wouldn’t scare a chessmaster.

As a result, the Wolves have been wandering through the hinterlands in January, jumper cables in hand, the battery in their jalopy pretty much dead. If head coach Rick Adelman has said it once – “I don’t know who we think we are” – he has said it a dozen times, a reasonable guess given his team’s 0-11 record in close games (four points or less).

The malaise, mind you, is starting to stick to Adelman, too. His methods haven’t noticeably changed any more than his postgame material, making him appear more detached from the situation than he might be. Benchings? A revised rotation? Less adherence to corner-3 tactics? A heightened commitment to defense – not just from Corey Brewer or Luc Mbah a Moute but by all five on the floor at any time, including two Kevins (Love and Martin)?

Adelman has more NBA know-how in his proverbial little finger than the Wolves franchise had for several years prior to his arrival in 2011. But his ongoing frustration – “It almost takes an act of Congress for us to go out and foul somebody. You have to get after people in this league,” he said after the Kings loss – is reminding folks that he re-committed late to this team last fall (after his wife’s illness last season). Adelman will turn 68 in June and the longer the Wolves bump along, the more out of sync they’ll look with their head coach’s timeline.

Which gets us to the elephant that recently squeezed through the door.

Adelman is one of the most accomplished coaches in NBA history. He has 1,020 victories and has taken his teams to the playoffs 16 times in 25 seasons. But he happens to have a boss in Saunders who won 638 games and took 11 of his 16 teams to the postseason. When Saunders was hired last spring, he said he no longer craved the sideline and he can argue persuasively that he not only has a better, safer job now but a less consuming one as well.

From the start, Saunders has said the right things: “I will be the general manager that most coaches want. Because I understand what it is like to sit in that seat.” But he also has a distinctly different, more enthusiastic personality than Adelman. Saunders isn’t big on confrontations or conflicts but he’s a closer when it comes to confidence. His willingness to sell, sell, sell came through in a recent Q&A with MinnPost.com’s Britt Robson:

Part of coaching is managing frustration. Unfortunately that’s we have to do. We have to continually get ourselves up the next day and present a front to the players, a very confident front, a front that we are not in a panic situation.

Until they are, anyway.

So Minnesota finds itself in a predicament that is more than vaguely familiar. Nine years ago, a Wolves team desperate to improve on its prior year’s performance meandered through the season’s first half. A skid of seven losses in eight games left them one game under .500 (25-26), at which point the team’s general manager (Kevin McHale), with owner Glen Taylor‘s blessing, reluctantly fired the head coach and took over on the bench himself. Minnesota went 19-12 under McHale the rest of the way but it wasn’t enough; the Wolves finished ninth in the West and still haven’t been back to the playoffs.

Back then, Saunders was the coach. This time he’s the “GM that most coaches want,” but with a tiny sliver of minority ownership and an impatience with what’s playing out right now.

It might not happen and, given the pitfalls inherent in breaking down that today vs. tomorrow wall between administrating and coaching, it probably shouldn’t. But it has to be tempting in the midst of a malaise.

Rockets Marking Time, Not Progress


VIDEO: The Inside the NBA crew break down Dwight Howard’s play vs. OKC

HOUSTON — Cross that off their bucket lists.

Now the Rockets know what it’s like to step into an empty elevator shaft. Or out of a moving jet. Or off the roof of a tall building.

The last time anything went over an edge this fast, it was an anvil that wound up landing on the head of Wile E. Coyote.

The rootin’ tootin’, fastest-shootin’ bunch in the NBA filled up the hoop for a season-high 73 points in the first half Wednesday night against the Thunder. Then scored 19 in the second half.

For the anomaly inclined, it was the largest point disparity (54) between halves in league history.

Ordinarily to see such a rapid reversal from feast to famine, one has to go out for double cheeseburgers with one of those bony supermodels.

In the end, what we have is a clear line of demarcation between an honest-to-goodness Western Conference title contender and a team that just likes to flex in front of the mirror.

After a middling 5-5 record since Russell Westbrook underwent another surgery on Dec. 27 — including five losses in the span of eight games and three in their last four — the Thunder may have been tempted to write another one off after Houston’s dozen first-half 3-pointers.

Instead, coach Scott Brooks took them to the movies at halftime, showing video replays of the horror show defense that led to almost every single one of those 3-pointers.

Some were from gaps in the defense. Some were the result of switches. Some were just lazy. But no matter what, the Thunder decided they’d had enough.

“Hell yeah, it was a statement win,” crowed Westbrook above the through that had gathered around Kevin Durant after his 36-point game.

The kind that said even without one of the twin engines to their offense, Thunder have the know-how, the wherewithal and the grit not to simply throw up their hands and write another one off as a bad night.

“We just stuck with it,” Durant said.

It was also a statement about the Rockets in the 41st game of a season that hasn’t seen much difference or overall improvement from the 11th, 21st or 31st.

When the Rockets are raining 3-pointers and using the gaps created to also attack the basket, as they did in the first half, they are virtually unbeatable. But when the shots stop falling –  as they did in the second half — the Rockets can be unwatchable and don’t seem like a bunch that could navigate the marathon of a deep postseason run. Or even the first round of the playoffs.

It’s an act they’ve got memorized like the lines of a long-running Broadway play.

Coach Kevin McHale shakes his head and talks about the ball “sticking” in the offense and bemoaning the fact his team can’t play with consistent energy all game.

James Harden, the supposed closer who did not score a point in the second half, churlishly challenges the notion that anything at all went wrong except a couple of shots not falling.

Dwight Howard, after five-point second half, sits in front of his locker mumbling responses to questions, as if the whispering lets the outside world know that, by gosh, he’s taking this one seriously. That’s after another night of Howard reverting to form as the frustrated, stifled big man who can’t score and falls back into pushing, shoving and getting slapped with double technical fouls.

“We’ve got to play the right way if we want to win,” Howard said. “Once we figure it out, we’ll be fine.”

It wasn’t even a week ago when the Rockets blew a 25-point lead to the lowly Wizards, but had enough to fight back and win. The difference, of course, is that the thoroughly mediocre Wizards of the laughably horrid Eastern Conference are not in the same class as the Westbrook-less Thunder.

So while they have shown a propensity for often making a bunch of shots, the Rockets have not shown an inclination or an ability yet to reach for the next level of concentration and execution.

Whose fault is that? Howard’s? Harden’s? McHale’s?

“We’re good, Harden said. “We missed layups, a couple of errant turnovers that we could have converted in transition,” said Harden. “Just small things.”

Like that first step off the rooftop.


VIDEO: Is Dwight Howard still a great player in the NBA?

Rockets Still Adjusting To Expectations




VIDEO: Ahmad Rashad goes one-on-one with Rockets superstar Dwight Howard

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Kevin McHale has been at this long enough to know that “title talk” in July, even when you have all the ingredients seemingly in place, is delusional.

So many things can happen between winning the free-agent sweepstakes and winning a Larry O’Brien trophy that banking your season on winning the NBA’s summer title (last summer it was wooing the top free agent on the market, Dwight Howard, to Houston) means next to nothing to the Rockets’ coach. A Hall of Famer and champion during his playing days with the Boston Celtics, McHale that once the reality of the regular season sets in, none of that summer hubbub matters.

And make no mistake, the Rockets are in the midst of adjusting to that new reality. The expectations haven’t changed, the ultimate goal is still trying to get on par with the rest of the best in the Western Conference. They’re still aiming for that No. 1 spot and a chance to play for that title trophy … but it just may not be as soon as many Rockets fans hoped.

Injuries to key players (it’s not an excuse, it’s a fact), growing pains, significant off-court drama (Omer Asik) and general inconsistency throughout the season’s first two months have the Rockets sitting outside of the top four in the Western Conference standings in advance of tonight’s matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

“I think we’re still in the searching mode,” McHale said recently. “We had so many injuries that it’s hard to get any symmetry. We’ve had two or three main eight or nine guys out for stretches. So where are we at? We’re still searching, trying to find ourselves. And at a certain point, if you never do find it, it’s called lost. But I assume we’re going to find it at a certain point. We’re in that phase where I think we’re getting a lot better in some areas, but it just seems like it’s the two steps forward-one step back phase right now.”

James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lin and Asik have all missed games with injuries since the start of training camp, squashing any chance the Rockets had of developing the chemistry McHale knew Houston would need in order to try and live up to its summer and preseason hype.

Howard is the only Rocket to have played in all 39 games this season, which is an impressive bounce back from the tumultuous season he had alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol with the Los Angeles Lakers last season.

In fact, Howard is the one certainty the Rockets have been able to count on this season.

His work ethic, attitude and spirits are at all-time highs. The petty chatter and foolishness that marked his lone season playing alongside Bryant in the L.A. fish bowl have dissipated with the change of scenery.

“From what I understand he’s been fantastic in every way imaginable,” said a former Eastern Conference executive now working as a scout. “He’s back to the Dwight he was before the past two years changed so many people’s perspective on him. He’s back to working without all that added stress and it shows. He’s playing with that energy we used to see from him in Orlando.”

McHale confirmed as much about Howard’s transition and fit with the Rockets.

“That’s the positive,” McHale said. “Dwight’s playing a lot better. I think we’re figuring out how to get Dwight the ball a lot better. We’re not missing him as much. We’re starting to figure out the angles we have to get at to get him involved more and to get easy baskets and stuff. We put in some different stuff offensively and defensively that works, because I don’t know if you knew this or not but everything works on paper. So I just think everybody, the staff and this entire group, is getting more accustomed to each other and how we’re going to have to operate. You know, hopefully, in the future you can bring back the entire core group healthy and then you can know what works and what doesn’t work.”

The dynamic inside-out duo of Howard and Harden definitely works. It is the Rockets’ answer to what the Oklahoma City Thunder (with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – when healthy), Los Angeles Clippers (Chris Paul — when healthy — and Blake Griffin) and San Antonio Spurs (Tony Parker and Tim Duncan) boast. The Rockets’ stars have found a way to thrive without either star having to subjugate their game for the other to flourish.

Harden is the league’s fifth-leading scorer (24.6 points) and Howard is a walking double-double with his customary perches among the best rebounders (4th in the league, 12.7) and field goal percentage leaders (5th in the league, 58.0 percent). But they’re also still in the midst of getting comfortable playing off of one another.

“It takes time,” Harden said. “We knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight. But we’ve got a good team. When you get new faces, though, you have to give it time, you have to adjust.”

That’s not a problem for Howard. No transition could be tougher than the one he tried to make in Los Angeles last season. He never fully embraced the change of working in coach Mike D’Antoni‘s system and the Lakers’ faithful never seemed to fully embrace him as the future of the franchise. That made for a messy breakup totally understandable to anyone paying attention to the details of what went down.

Whatever hiccups he had playing with Kobe, Howard is working hard to avoid with Harden. They’re developing some synergy and continuing to explore the boundaries of what they can do.

“It’s getting better,” Howard said. “We talk every day. We try to find ways to get better between me and him, pick and roll situations, where he likes the ball and where I like the ball and stuff like that. It takes a while. This is our first games together. But we should have it by the time the end of the [regular] season comes.”

Whether or not that’s in time to pave the way for a deep playoff run remains to be seen.

Then again, those plans have been adjusted, right along with the Rockets’ championship expectations.


VIDEO: Chandler Parsons joins the Inside the NBA crew to talk all things Rockets