Posts Tagged ‘LaMarcus Aldridge’

Time for 5 players to step up in playoffs

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Everybody feels the pressure in the playoffs. No more long six-month regular seasons to work out the kinks and to solve all the problems. No more roller coaster rides of peaks and valleys.

Each player is expected to bring their full energy, their best effort every night as elimination and another long summer looms.

But for different players and for different reasons, the glare of the spotlight is even brighter as their reputations and the expectations carry a heavier burden.

Here are five players who’ll really feel the heat to step up and deliver big in the playoffs:


VIDEO: Dwight Howard talks about his love for the game

Dwight Howard, Rockets — That 800-pound gorilla has been sitting on his back since July when he opted to dump the royal pedigree of the Lakers and move to Texas. Not only was Houston a better fit basketball-wise, with a young All-Star teammate James Harden waiting as a partner, but Houston, for all its heat and humidity, was a place where the media glare is not so hot. That is, until Game 1 of the playoffs when the ball goes up and Howard is expected to be the inside-dominating, rim-protecting workhorse that pulled Orlando’s wagon to the cusp of a championship in 2009. Can it really have been five years? Since that time, the similarly scrutinized LeBron James has been to The Finals three times and won back-to-back titles. While Howard has been happy, content, healthy and has led the Rockets into the top half of the tough Western Conference bracket through the regular season, now the real work begins. Will the happy-go-lucky persona that has resurfaced translate to the grit and grind and intense scrutiny of the playoffs? Will those improved free throws — all things are relative — fall when he’s being fouled intentionally and there’s a series on the line? This is his 10th NBA season, eighth as an All-Star, yet there is so much still to prove.

 


VIDEO: Paul George discusses the Pacers’ struggles

Paul George, Pacers — There’s no better up close witness and authority than James, who had this to say after George went by him like rolling thunder on his way to a slam dunk in Game 2 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals: “He is going to be a great player for a long time.” There has been little reason for anyone to change that opinion during George’s fourth NBA season and second as an All-Star. The question is will he be able to step up and score abundantly and consistently enough to get the Pacers all the way to The Finals? After all, this is an Indiana team that does not exactly pile up points and, having gotten very little out of the midseason acquisitions of Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum, will be challenged to put the ball into the hoop every time out. George forced his way into many of the MVP conversations early in the season with his raised level of play. He is also willing and able to take on the defensive challenge of matching up against the likes of James. But since the All-Star break when the fast-starting Pacers began to at least scrape against — if not run head-on into — the wall, George has not delivered consistently. Maybe it’s the physical toll. Or maybe his concentration drifts. But since the All-Star break, George has shot 50 percent only five times in 26 games and popped in 30 points just twice. Assuming that additional offense is not going to arrive out of thin air in Indy, he’ll have to get back to the production he show during the first half of the season for the Pacers to reach their stated goals.

 


VIDEO: LaMarucs Aldridge explains what Portland has to do down the stretch

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers – The question over the past several years has been whether the Blazers can put a good enough team around Aldridge to make him want to re-sign and stay to take them to the next level. But then the other side of the coin is whether the high-scoring slick forward is the one who can get them there. It’s been three years now since Brandon Roy was the main cog in the machine, Greg Oden was still a hope and Aldridge was the up-and-comer. While he’s cracked through the ceiling to become a member of the Western Conference All-Star team, it’s also true that he’s done most of his best work in the first half of seasons and faded at the finish, just like the Blazers as a whole. The old knock remains that L.A. is content to shoot turnaround jumpers rather than working to get to the hoop. He usually responds to the criticism for a time when it gets sharpest, then reverts to form and goes back to shooting jumpers. While Damian Lillard, another All-Star in the starting lineup, can hold his own among the class of elite point guards in the West, Nicolas Batum teases with his sporadic nights of all-around brilliance and Robin Lopez provides a solid defensive anchor in the middle, any success in the playoffs will require Aldridge to stand and deliver.

 


VIDEO: Are the Clippers a serious playoff threat?

Blake Griffin, Clippers — Four years into his NBA career, he’s a four-time All-Star and still only 25 years old. He’s become far less than just the sergeant at arms of Lob City, working on his mid-range jumper and the defense that had been rightly criticized in the past. New coach Doc Rivers has demanded more out of Griffin and he’s delivered, especially during the long stretch when Chris Paul was sidelined by a separated shoulder and the Clippers could have plummeted in the Western Conference playoff race and lost home court advantage in the first round. Now the challenge will be to maintain his level of improved play and concentration into the postseason. In the 2011-12 season, Griffin dropped from 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game to 19.1 and 6.9 in the playoffs. In 2012-13, he went from 18.8 and 8.3 to 13.2 and 5.5. Now even though he’s got a much improved DeAndre Jordan playing with him in the middle and Paul still orchestrating the attack as the game’s best ball handler, it is a raised level of play that’s expected and required to make the Clippers real challengers for the conference crown.

 


VIDEO: Nets poised to make noise in playoffs

Deron Williams, Nets — It’s easy — too easy — to pick on Joe Johnson and what’s left of that insane six-year, $119 million contract that he got from Atlanta and that the Nets are still paying and say he’s got to live up to it. For one, it was never going to happen. For another, Nets owner Mikhail Prokorov can probably find the loose change in his sofa cushions to pay it off and not break a sweat. On the other hand, the Nets forked over $98 million to Williams in the expectation that he would be the centerpiece to the championship construction project in Brooklyn. For all the moves that general manager Billy King did to add Johnson, trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and to sign Andrei Kirilenko, it was all predicated on Williams being the All-Star performer who was considered to be at the very top of the point guard class before everything blew up in Utah. After he started another season underperforming and underachieving due to ankle problems and eventually asking out of the starting lineup, Williams has come back since the All-Star break to lead the Nets back as they’ve made their charge up through the standings. But Prokorov did not endorse the highest payroll in the league to get the No. 5 — or even No. 4 — seed in the Eastern Conference. Williams is the one charged with the task of making sure there isn’t another first-round playoff flameout, especially at the hands of another undermanned Bulls team. There’s much to prove here.

Blogtable: The rest of the West

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Buying into the Spurs | Fixing Indiana | West 5-6-7-8



VIDEO: Shaquille O’Neal predicts the Mavericks will hang onto a spot in the West

> How do you see the final four spots in the West finally being settled? In what order? And how do you figure that?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: With Houston and Portland rasslin’ around at Nos. 4 and 5, and Golden State’s breathtaking overtime victory at Dallas Tuesday creating a little space, I’m thinking it’s three teams fighting for the final two spots. The Mavericks better not reel long from that loss Tuesday; they’re in the midst of a tough late trip, with even Sacramento and Utah looking scary when you have more at stake than they do. Memphis faces San Antonio and Miami a little more than 72 hours apart next week, and closes with games against Phoenix and Dallas. I’ve underestimated the Suns all season, but I’m not going to do it now. They could miss the postseason and still consider this an upbeat year. Dallas and Memphis? Not so much. I’m guessing Grizzlies in, Mavs out, decided on the season’s final night in Memphis.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: When you asked a version of this question several weeks ago, I said the scrappy, overachieving Suns would be the team left out.  Then they went and won six in a row.  However, I still believe Phoenix misses the playoffs.  The Suns have the toughest schedule — three at home and five on on the road to finish, including six games against West playoff teams.  In order, I’ll go with: Portland, Golden State, Memphis, Dallas.  The Blazers have weathered the storm, and with LaMarcus Aldridge back in the lineup, they have the easiest path to the finish with five home games and only one roadie at Utah left.  Of the Warriors’ final eight games, only two tough road games at San Antonio and Portland.  The Mavs and Grizzlies will battle it out for those last two spots and if it comes down to that final showdown game of the regular season, I’ll take Memphis at home.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: The Warriors’ injury situation makes this especially tricky. But this is how I see it shaking out: No. 5 Trail Blazers No. 6 Warriors, No. 7 Grizzlies, No. 8 Mavericks, No. 9 Suns. I still think Golden State has enough to hold onto the spot they’ve occupied for nearly the entire season. Memphis has the least threatening schedule of the remaining three teams. Dallas doesn’t have an easy path by any stretch — and they finish with Phoenix and Memphis — but the Suns, to me, have the roughest finishing kick. They’ll look back at their non-effort blowout loss at the Lakers on Sunday as a playoff killer.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Warriors, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Mavericks. I would have dropped the Rockets into that bottom four because of the health problems, but they have a pretty easy finishing schedule of three playoff teams the final nine games, albeit with some back-to-backs. The Warriors have tough road games against the Spurs tonight and the Trail Blazers, but look at the next four after San Antonio: Kings, Jazz, Nuggets, Lakers. If there’s a momentum-builder in the Western Conference, that’s it. I dropped the Suns because their next opponents are the Clippers, Trail Blazers, Thunder, Pelicans and Spurs. But Phoenix has been beating logic all season, so watch it happen again.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Portland is safely in the No. 5 spot, with a one-game edge in the loss column and only one road game (in Utah) and three (potential) playoff teams left on its schedule. Golden State looks good for sixth, with a two-game edge on the other three teams and six of their eight remaining games against the bottom six in the West. So it will (sort of) come down to the Dallas-Memphis-Phoenix round-robin on the 12th  (PHX @ DAL), 14th (MEM @ PHX) and 16th (DAL @ MEM). I think they’ll all go 1-1 in those games, but Memphis will pick up an extra win elsewhere (they have more remaining games against non-playoff teams) and the Mavs will win the Dallas-Phoenix tiebreaker thanks to a win in that April 12 game. So I’m sticking with what I wrote a month ago. The Suns will miss out because they have the toughest schedule of the group.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: As of today, Portland, Golden State, Dallas and Memphis are in the 5-8 spots, and they are each 6-4 in their last 10 games.  And Phoenix is right behind them, 8-2 in their last 10.  If I had to choose a team not to make it, and I guess that’s what you’re making us do here,  I’d go with Phoenix. They’ve been so good all season, but at some point their magic has to run out. Doesn’t it? And as far as the other four teams finishing, I’ll go Portland, Golden State, Memphis, Dallas, although you might as well just flip a coin and see how it all plays out.

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: I am counting Minnesota out of the race and think that Portland and Golden State will hold on to their fifth and sixth rankings irrespective of the remainder of the schedule. Those two teams have an adequate buffer on Memphis, Phoenix and Dallas. Of the Grizzlies, the Suns and the Mavericks, the latter two teams play five of their remaining games on the road compared to the Grizzlies’ four games away from home. All three teams have one set of back-to-back games. But Phoenix’s schedule is most daunting because other than playing Portland, San Antonio and Dallas on the road, the Suns also have to host the Clippers, Oklahoma City and Memphis in their last eight games. And Dallas and Memphis, with their veteran experience, would certainly be favorites ahead of Phoenix to maintain their composure down the stretch. So — in short — my final four spots would be Portland, Golden State, Memphis and Dallas.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: That’s a tough race, but I think it will end with Blazers, Warriors, Mavs and Grizzlies in this order. I’m sorry for the Suns, but they have the most difficult schedule and they lack a veteran guide. The Blazers got their mojo back with LaMarcus Aldridge and the Warriors are too far to surpass them. The final two spots are the most difficult to predict. Dallas, Memphis and Phoenix are in a tight race that will probably be decided only in the final days of the regular season, when each team plays against the other two. And once again, I’m sorry for the Suns.

With Aldridge back, so is Blazers’ edge

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Trail Blazers cruise past Bulls in Chicago

CHICAGO – LaMarcus Aldridge realized early that it wasn’t going to be his night offensively.

“My first shot, I took it quick but I saw Bulls coming baseline,” the Portland Trail Blazers All-Star power forward said. “And I remembered [in Portland in November] they doubled me the whole game. I’d had some good games versus them in my past, so I felt like they wanted to take me out. So I knew early I was going to try to be more active defensively.”

What mattered more to Aldridge was that it was going to be his night at all. He had missed seven consecutive games with a bruised lower back prior to Thursday, then got busy against the Hawks in Atlanta for 25 points, 16 rebounds and 32 minutes. The Blazers won, pulling up ever so slightly in what had been a nosedive (3-4 without Aldridge, nine losses in 15 games overall).

This game against Chicago, at the end of their five-game Eastern trip, was no time to start plummeting again.

“As long as I woke up and I could walk, I was going to play,” Aldridge said.

This wasn’t one for the portfolio – five points, 2-for-10 shooting – at the offensive end but he represented well on defense. Aldridge grabbed 13 defensive boards and had four steals, clogging up things inside against a Bulls team that was no threat outside (3-for-17 from the 3-point line).

And frankly, Aldridge’s mere threat, misfiring or not, drew extra defenders often enough to free up other Portland shooters. Free up and energize even. Hey, LaMarcus is in passing mode!

“They get more energy, and they get more happy of course,” Aldridge said after the Blazers hit 10 of their 22 attempts from the arc. “When teams double-team me, I feel like guys pull over to the ball faster, I think guys are more locked in. When I have the ball normally, I’m going 1-on-1 and I’m always shooting it. But I feel like tonight, my teammates were more engaged.”

Better now than never. Portland’s struggles over the past 10 weeks have been well-documented, notably by our guys Fran Blinebury and Sekou Smith here and here in the past few days alone. The Blazers’ freefall was all the rage as a media topic, certainly in Portland, and even though the players and coaches were on the road, they couldn’t escape it.

“Look, we all know where things are in the standings and the playoffs,” coach Terry Stotts said after a solid, assertive 91-74 victory at United Center. “Every game is critical. We let a couple get away on this trip but I didn’t have to say anything – the team knows where we are and what we need to do.”

Getting Aldridge back was their top priority – a big no-duh, frankly – because life without him was a double-whammy: the Blazers lost his production and opponents felt freshly enthused, eager to test Portland’s vulnerability.

But there was more, perhaps some unconscious acknowledgement that, with or without their big guy, they weren’t the same team that had blitzed the league in the first two months. “Maybe not sustainable,” Aldridge said of the swift start.

Every team has lulls, but the Blazers’ looked more like doubts.

“Other than us getting our best player back – which changes everything – our urgency has gone up after the loss in Orlando [Tuesday],” point guard Damian Lillard said. “You realize, ‘All right, it’s time to turn it around right now. We can’t wait. We can’t have one of these lackadaisical efforts.’ The last two games we’ve really defended and done everything together.”

The unity Portland has flexed at its best was there particularly on defense, where having the other man’s back is king.

“I think the biggest example I can give you,” Lillard said, “is how consistent we were [against the Bulls] chasing over ball screens and communicating and pushing the ball up and moving the ball. Just everything the coaches are telling us and constantly on us about, we’ve been able to execute those things on the floor consistently.

“We were really missing that over that tough stretch.”

Aldridge made sure not to rush back, lest his back pains reoccur and he miss more time even closer to the playoffs. The Blazers are 7-5 without him this season, 40-22 when he plays. They locked up a winning record on the road in 2013-14 (21-18 now) and are 12-7 on the tail end of back-to-backs.

Going through the hard times – with no guarantees they’re gone, of course – did put a chip back on the Blazers’ shoulders, if that’s any help.

“I think we’re at our best,” Lillard said, “when everybody starts to doubt us and says, ‘Oh, they might not be in the playoffs. They’re falling off.’ That’s when we come together. We want to prove people wrong.”

Mavs’ Kaleb Canales a true trail blazer

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

Kaleb Canales (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Kaleb Canales (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

If the name Kaleb Canales doesn’t ring a bell, it likely will soon. Think Erik Spoelstra. No one knew the two-time champion coach of the Miami Heat when he was living in the shadows of the franchise’s video room or as an assistant on the Heat bench.

Now everybody knows his name, as well as the fact that Spoelstra is the first Filipino-American to coach in the NBA.

Two seasons ago, Canales — born in Laredo, Texas and whose father is from Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas — became the first Mexican-American to lead an NBA team when he took over the Portland Trail Blazers as the interim coach for 23 games after the team fired Nate McMillan.

In the offseason, a month after his 34th birthday, Canales was one of two finalists to become the next coach of the Blazers. Despite the support of the players, the club passed on Canales’ youth for the experience of Terry Stotts, who had previously been a head coach and just celebrated winning the 2011 championship on Rick Carlisle‘s staff with the Dallas Mavericks.

Canales remained with the Blazers last season as a lead assistant and helped ease Stotts’ transition with his new players. When Mavericks assistant Jim O’Brien decided to step aside last summer, Carlisle hired Canales at Stotts’ recommendation.

The move ended a long relationship with a Blazers organization that gave him his shot and the tools to grow. But it also delivered Canales back to his home state, just a stone’s throw away from where his unique coaching ascension started on the ground floor as a student and then as a coach at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“So when I was in high school, I’m sure like every kid, I had a list of goals I made with a pen and pad — spiritual goals and professional goals and personal goals,” Canales said. “And one of my professional goals was to be a coach in the NBA. Obviously, when I told my friends that growing up in Laredo, it was like, ‘Yeah right,’ you know?”

What do those friends, most of whom live close enough to hop in their cars to come visit, say now?

“They all come to the games and ask me for tickets,” Canales laughed.

Paying his dues

How did a kid from Laredo, Texas, a heavily Hispanic-populated border city of a couple-hundred-thousand, make it to the NBA, and at such a young age? Those who know Canales say his boundless energy and enthusiasm, belief and perseverance paved the way.

“First of all, he has good spirit,” Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “He’s always into it with energy and he’s wholeheartedly always giving 100 percent. I think he put everybody in a good position and we loved him.”

Like Spoelstra — and, actually, with a little help from him — Canales accepted an internship in 2004 with the Trail Blazers to work in their video room. It was unpaid, but it counted as credit toward the Master’s degree he earned online from Virginia Commonwealth University while coaching at UTA.

“I started doing a lot of research on how coaches were getting opportunities to coach,” Canales said. “I read Erik’s bio, I read a bunch of assistant coaches’ bios, I read John Loyer from Detroit; I saw video coordinator in their background. I knew that was something I could attack. I had some video experience at UTA. My first interview was with the Miami Heat. I know Erik last year [in an article], he was kind of nice because he said I wrote him a letter every week for a year. I think it was almost like every day for a year.”

Canales got an interview with the Heat and nailed it, but they politely told him they decided to hire from within. Impressed with him though, some phone calls were placed and Canales got an interview with, and then an offer from, the Blazers. He would quickly advance from unpaid intern to paid staffer as Portland’s video coordinator. Canales would pore over game film until his bleary, reddened eyes watered.

By the 2008-09 season he was promoted to assistant coach while keeping his duties as video coordinator. And by the next season he was out of the video room and fully immersed in player development as a full-fledged assistant. He was 30 years old.

“It started with Damon Stoudemire and Nick Van Exel for me and became LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy,” Canales said. “And it became Jerryd Bayless, it became Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard.”

From the start, he earned a reputation for having an insatiable appetite for work, practically living at the Blazers’ practice facility.

“He would watch film and work guys out, and at odd times of the night,” Aldridge said. “He wanted to make sure that if anybody came there at any time he would be there, so he would literally sleep at the practice court all the time. So if you came in at 12:30 [a.m.], he would be there. All basketball.

“When you ask him who is girlfriend is, he always says, ‘Spalding.’”

Learning from the best

Whatever free time comes his way, he typically spends it seeking out and studying other coaches. While still with the Blazers he made it a point to contact Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and attend summer workouts. He visited University of Oregon football practices before Chip Kelly left for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.

“I love studying coaches because I love studying leadership,” Canales said. “Watching and studying the practices of coach Carroll or coach Kelly, you see the energy from them, you see how they interact with their players and then you see them playing on Sunday. I went to an OTA [Organized Team Activities] in the summer with the Seahawks. I said, ‘Coach, it feels like you have a game Sunday,’ how sharp they were.”

Not much has changed in Canales’ hundred-mile-an-hour approach in his first season with the Mavs, a team that has improved throughout the year and is in a dogfight for one of the final playoff berths in the Western Conference.

Giving back

Canales plans to return to Laredo for a couple of weeks during the summer to visit with his mother, Alicia, his father, Victor, and his sister, Chantall, all of whom have become accustomed to rearranging the calendar to fit Canales’ busy schedule.

“We celebrate all the holidays in the summer,”  Canales said. “It’s like July 9 and we’re celebrating Thanksgiving or something. We try to get creative with that, understanding that this is a passion. It’s definitely a lifestyle and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

When he’s in Laredo, Canales runs a basketball camp for kids. It’s there he shares his stories and encourages the young campers, almost all of whom share a similar cultural heritage, to dream big. Canales said empowering Hispanic kids is a responsibility he takes seriously.

“You can’t be afraid not only to dream, but to dream big,” Canales said he tells the kids. “It’s a big-time responsibility, and I hope that kids can see my blessings and then see through faith and hard work that they can achieve their dream. It’s something I want them to really believe in.”

Before too long, much like Spoelstra’s rise from anonymity in the video room to the spotlight of the Heat’s lead chair, Canales may soon find himself making history.

“Obviously, looking down the road, I would love to have that opportunity again one day,” Canales said of getting another shot at an interview. “But that’s not where my concern is right now. I understand how blessed and fortunate I am, and I don’t take that for granted.”

Throughout the month of March, the NBA is celebrating Latin heritage through its Noches Ene-be-a program. For more information, click here

Blazers needing a big boost from Aldridge’s return to lineup

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: This all-access look inside the Portland Trail Blazers sheds some light on their season

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Stare at it long enough and you’ll get dizzy.

Those Western Conference standings that saw the Portland Trail Blazers among the best of the best for the better part of this season have suddenly flipped. Instead of tapering their way into the playoffs, the Blazers in the same boat as the Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks — sweating out their playoff prospects each night.

Not long ago, the reverse was true. LaMarcus Aldridge was playing at an MVP level. Damian Lillard was dazzling as he avoided the dreaded sophomore slump. Swingmen Wes Matthews and Nic Batum were shooting the lights out as underrated starters. Center Robin Lopez was the surprise pickup of the offseason.

Now, the Blazers are in a pressure-packed race to the finish.

And they know it. The sense of urgency surrounding this team is palpable with just 10 games left. The Blazers are the only team in the Western Conference playoff mix playing sub-.500 basketball (3-7) over their last 10 games. My colleague, Fran Blinebury, was spot on when he insisted that the Blazers are letting their season slip away during this post-All-Star swoon.

They need a lift in the worst way heading into tonight’s game against Atlanta at Philips Arena (7:30 ET, League Pass), losers of three straight games and nine of their last 13. Portland hopes to get a big lift in the form of Aldridge, who missed the past seven games with a lower back injury. The chances of him returning to his MVP form from earlier this season are slim. But at least they’ll have him back as the conduit to an offense that has been among the league’s best all season.

Even that doesn’t guarantee the Blazers will survive a wicked and rugged Western Conference playoff chase that is as good as it’s been in years. There’s no sense in examining the good or bad times now. There’s only these final 10 games and the need to get back into a playoff gear.

“You have to understand it for what it is,” Lillard said. “When you’re hot, you know you’re playing well but you have to stay focused. And when you hit that bump in the road and you lose some games, and we’re struggling right now, you have to stick with it. We have to keep grinding and keep playing. And that’s where we’re at right now. We had that high moment. We knew some adversity was going to come. And it’s come. We just have to keep playing and stick together.”

Aldridge, one of the veteran leaders on this team, was adamant about the tough times coming at some point. He didn’t know that they’d come at his expense, with the injuries. He knew they would be a part of the Blazers’ season, though. They always do.

“I’ve seen it before, we had one of those good teams back in the day and injuries hit,” he said. “You have one guy go down and you have a good team, and one injury to the wrong guy or somebody not being right can definitely change your season. That’s why earlier in the season I was stressing taking care of our business while we were hot and winning as many games as we could so we’d have that cushion when we needed it later in the season and guys were beat up. We’re not a lock for the playoffs now, but if we take care of our business, we should make it.”


VIDEO: Things looked good for the Blazers before the All-Star break

They certainly aren’t acting panicked. Thursday morning’s shootaround concluded with the requisite long-distance shooting contest (which was won by Thomas Robinson), an event you’d expect to see from a team confident it can hold onto the West’s No. 5 spot it occupies.

Looks, however, can sometimes be deceiving. Aldridge and Lillard know exactly what’s at stake as the leaders of this team. Portland coach Terry Stotts does, too. Adding extra pressure, though, makes no sense.

While Aldridge prides himself on analyzing every detail, Stotts has kept an even keel all season, digesting the highs and lows the same way.

But even he recognized there would be some upheaval at the All-Star break, when injuries set in and the rotation had to be tweaked accordingly.

“We’ve had to change how we’ve been playing,” he said. “LaMarcus has been in and out of the lineup. Joel Freeland, who was a big part of the rotation, got hurt right before the All-Star game. That was part of it. Integrating some other guys, C.J. McCollum got healthy right around then, so we had to integrate him. A big part of our success was how well we’d been playing offensively. We’ve improved defensively the last 25 games. Our defensive numbers have improved but offensively, for whatever reason … players are so good in this league that offensively, you have to trust that will work out for you. But right now, getting LA back, there was a little bit of a transition period getting back and we have to go through that. Time’s getting short, everybody knows that we have 10 games left, and we have to take care of business.”

No one knows that better than Aldridge, who has watched the Blazers bog down in his absence from the rotation.

“I definitely had a chance to watch,” he said. “But it’s not the same when you’re not out there. I’m not trying to be arrogant, but our offense just doesn’t flow the same when I’m not out there. It flows a little bit different when I’m out there. It’s hard to assess it when I’m not out there. I think everybody is looking in the mirror right now trying to figure out what the can do better.”

Lillard, who has endured an education on being opponents’ No. 1 defensive target in Aldridge’s absence, is convinced that the Blazers aren’t rattled.

“The confidence definitely is not shattered,” he said. “There’s just a different pressure in the West. You can’t just be good, you have to be outstanding. We’ve got 45 wins and the Clippers have 50 wins and the Thunder 52 and they’re top three in the West. They have five more wins, seven more wins than we do and we could drop out of the playoffs mix if we don’t handle our business. I think that speaks for itself. Six through nine in the West would all be third in the East. That says it all. We just can’t get caught up in what everybody else is saying about us. What matters is if we’re going to stay locked in and take care of our business until the very end.”

At this rate, it could take until the very end for the Blazers to lock down the playoff spot that looked like a sure thing just months ago.


VIDEO: Terry Stotts talks about his team’s struggles after a loss to Orlando

Morning Shootaround — March 26


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 25

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook unsure if he’ll be on minutes limit | Report: Warriors to reassign Scalabrine | Aldridge hopes to play Thursday | Izzo quells Pistons talk | Kaman not happy with his role in Lakerland

No. 1: Westbrook unsure if he’ll face minutes limit in playoffs — It is understandable that the Oklahoma City Thunder would want to be careful with how much star guard Russell Westbrook plays as the season winds down. After all, Westbrook has had three knee surgeries within the last eight months and OKC knows it needs him healthy to make any kind of serious run at The Finals. As our Jeff Caplan reported last night, though, Westbrook says he’s unsure if he’ll be on a minutes/time limit once the playoffs get rolling:

Russell Westbrook returned to action Tuesday night for the first time since his knee scare four nights earlier in Toronto. He remains on a minutes restriction, up to 32 a game, a precaution he’s not yet sure will be lifted once the playoffs start in little more than three weeks.“I’m not sure,” Westbrook said prior to Tuesday’s game against the Mavericks. “Once I talk to the doctors, the coaches and the people I I need to talk to about that, then we’ll figure it out.”

“I feel great, but it ain’t about this year,” Westbrook said. “I’m 25 years old, you know? It’s not all about right now. You got to think about the future. I can’t just think about what’s going on right now. I’m still young, I’m trying to play as long as I can.”

Westbrook’s knee nightmare started 11 months ago in the first round of the playoffs when Rockets guard Patrick Beverley careened into him, tearing the meniscus in Westbrook’s right knee and ending his season. He underwent surgery to repair the meniscus days later and then required two subsequent, and unexpected arthroscopic procedures, one coming days before the start of training camp and another two days after he put up a triple-double at Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day.

The latest setback kept him out until Feb. 20. Tuesday’s 129-118 overtime loss to the Mavs was the first time since his return that he logged more than 31 minutes. He played 33, but Thunder coach Scott Brooks, in order to adhere to the minutes restriction, sat Westbrook for the first 2:57 of overtime. OKC fell behind 120-113 before he checked in.

Westbrook has averaged 26.3 minutes in the 12 games he played prior to Tuesday night. His career average is 34.0 mpg and he averaged 38.4 mpg in the 2011-12 playoffs when OKC advanced to the NBA Finals. Along with the minutes restriction, which has been bumped up from 25-26 minutes initially to 30-32, Westbrook will continue to be held out of one game of back-to-back situations.

That leaves Westbrook available for eight of the Thunder’s final 11 games. OKC wraps up the regular season on April 16 and will open the first round at home that weekend. How the team will handle his minutes at that point, Brooks said, is not yet a significant part of the discussion.

“I haven’t really focused on a lot of that because there’s plenty of time for us to talk about that,” Brooks said. “We’re just focusing on what we have in place and that’s just the regular season. We’ve had some small discussions about what we’re going to do moving forward, but right now we haven’t really locked up anything.”

“It’s just my mindset, how I think, how I get myself going,” Westbrook said. “I just think to myself, go out and try to compete, that’s it, go out and help my team win. I know when I’m on the floor my only thing is go out and play hard and try to win.”

Since his return after the All-Star break, he’s averaged 21.0 points, 7.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds. His shooting percentages — 45.2 overall and 41.3 from beyond the arc — are higher than his overall shooting percentages.

“I mean, I’ve been confident,” Westbrook said. “The training staff and the rehab that I’ve done has put me in a great spot to be able to come out and perform at a high level, how I want to perform. So I have confidence in my knee; just have to go out there and play and let the rest take care of itself.”


VIDEO: The Mavs win an OT thriller against the Thunder

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No. 2: Report: Warriors to reassign Scalabrine — A fan favorite during his playing days in New Jersey, Boston and Chicago, Brian Scalabrine has transitioned into a burgeoning coaching career in the NBA now. As a assistant coach in his first year on the Warriors’ staff, Scalabrine is working toward his long-term goal of becoming an NBA coach. His journey, however, may face a slight detour, writes Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, as the Warriors are expected to move Scalabrine into another role at the behest of coach Mark Jackson:

In what’s become an increasingly dysfunctional atmosphere, Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson has forced a reassignment of assistant coach Brian Scalabrine, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Ownership and management have been strong advocates of Scalabrine and his performance on the job, sources told Yahoo Sports. Nevertheless, Warriors officials decided that as long as Jackson is the head coach, he’ll have control of his coaching staff.

It is immediately unclear what kind of a role to which the Warriors will transition Scalabrine, but management has no intention of letting him leave the organization, sources said.

Over the past two years, Jackson’s difficulty with managing his coaching staff and creating a functional work environment has developed into one of the issues that threatens his future on the job, league sources said.

Scalabrine, who joined the staff in July, was Jackson’s choice as an assistant coach. For two straight years, Jackson has had issues with assistant coaches that he hired. Michael Malone and Jackson would go weeks without speaking to each other a year ago, league sources said. Malone left Golden State to become the head coach of the Sacramento Kings.

Jackson, in his third year at the helm of the Warriors, has one year left on his contract, but has come under increased scrutiny within the organization for how he has run the team and worked on the job. There have been no conversations about an extension for Jackson – nor are they expected to take place, sources said.

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No. 3: Sliding Blazers hope to have Aldridge back Thursday — As our Fran Blinebury pointed out yesterday in a post you may have missed, the Blazers’ reliance on 3-pointers that fueled their early success may be their undoing now. While that may or may not be true, one thing that’s hurting Portland’s chances at winning is LaMarcus Aldridge’s absence from the starting lineup. Aldridge has missed the Blazers’ last seven games with a back contusion, but told CSNNW.com’s Chris Haynes he hopes to play Thursday night in Atlanta:

The Portland Trail Blazers sunk to a new low when they got outplayed and outworked by the Orlando Magic, resulting in an embarrassing 95-85 loss Tuesday night in the Amway Center.“It’s probably the lowest point as far as being inconsistent, but it’s also the toughest,” Damian Lillard said postgame. “It’s getting down to that point where it’s time to make that push and get in the playoffs…We just got to tightened up and get it done.”

The Trail Blazers have shot 40 percent or lower in their last three games. Their lack of focus and energy level is clearly noticeable. On the defensive end, well, that continues to be a concern.

They need a savior, badly. And one may be on its way.

Slouched in his locker room stall after the game was a defeated-looking LaMarcus Aldridge who has sat out the team’s last seven games as he deals with a nagging back contusion. He looked helpless, wishing he could help his team.

The power forward spoke to members of the media for a few minutes and provided a ray of hope for the organization and the fan base.

“I say I’m trying to go no matter what [against Atlanta on Thursday] but if I look good enough to play [in Wednesday’s workout], then I’m going to play,” he said. “It’s up to the medical staff.”

Center Robin Lopez didn’t hold back about how he feels about Aldridge’s contribution to the team.

“We need L.A.,” Lopez said. “In order for us to be at our best, he has to be on the court with us. He’s our leader.”

Aldridge says he’s been getting better each passing day. The Trail Blazers are 3-4 since he took that hard fall in San Antonio on Mar. 12. He admitted that he didn’t think it would take this long. He wanted to play tonight, but the pain was too severe when he tried to run.

The eight-year vet was asked if a return on Thursday has anything to do with the team losing, and he replied saying it factors into it, though he reiterated that it’s ultimately the call of the team’s medical staff.

“It (losing) makes me want to play even worse, yes it does,” Aldridge answered in frustration. “But it’s not about me, it’s about the medical staff and them saying I can play. I’ve been wanting to play but obviously if you can’t move, you can’t play.”

Wednesday’s practice will be the first time since the injury that he’ll experience some body contact and try to go all out.


VIDEO:
Blazers coach Terry Stotts talks about Portland’s loss in Orlando

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No. 4: Michigan State’s Izzo quiets NBA talk – As most NBA observers know, the Detroit Pistons are in a state of unrest in many ways. They fired coach Maurice Cheeks just 50 games into this season in a move that owner Tom Gores recently told the Detroit Free Press that he felt good about in retrospect. General manager Joe Dumars is thought to be on thin ice and could lose his job this offseason and Gores might have an eye on a local name — Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo — as the man to steer the Pistons in a winning direction. However, Izzo, in an interview with ESPN yesterday, seems fairly content in East Lansing, Mich.:

Tom Izzo has a message for the NBA should it come calling again: He’s still happy in college.

“There’s been so many rumors over the years,” the Michigan State coach said on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” on Tuesday. “I look at people I used to recruit against years ago [that] said that I’d be gone, but I’m still here and some of those schools have had three different coaches.

“I’ve always said I’d never say never to anything because you never know what it brings. But I got so much more work to do here. I have a great president, a great AD and a football coach that I really get along [with]. So this is a pretty good place for me right now. We’re in a pretty good spot. Program’s in pretty good shape.

“Ain’t broke, so why fix it?”

Izzo’s comments come after a USA Today report stated the Detroit Pistons, enduring another disappointing campaign, could make a play for Izzo after this season.

The Pistons are expected to be in the market for a new coach. Maurice Cheeks was fired during the season, and interim coach John Loyer likely won’t be back.

Izzo said after Tuesday’s practice that he hasn’t talked to the Pistons or Detroit owner Tom Gores, adding that he has never met Gores, a Michigan State graduate.

“I swear to you, I have not talked to one soul from the Pistons,” Izzo said.

Izzo, 59, flirted with the NBA in the past, nearly taking the Cleveland Cavaliers’ job in 2010. He is 467-186 in 19 seasons, and his teams have reached six Final Fours. The Spartans have made the NCAA tournament 17 consecutive seasons and won the title in 1999-2000.

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No. 5: Kaman unhappy in Lakerland, sounds off — Center Chris Kaman, a former All-Star, hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers. Part of his struggles can be attributed to a foot injury that cost him to miss several patches of the Lakers’ first 69 games. But Kaman also hasn’t been happy with how he’s been used by coach Mike D’Antoni and expressed his frustration to the media before last night’s victory over the visiting New York Knicks:

Chris Kaman can’t wait until his miserable season with the Los Angeles Lakers finally ends.

Until then, he’s just trying to salvage something out of this wrong turn in his basketball career.

Kaman was the Lakers’ starting center Tuesday night against the New York Knicks with Pau Gasol sidelined by vertigo, but it was his first game action in March. The former All-Star 7-footer had watched the previous 10 games from the sidelines, unable to carve out any role in coach Mike D’Antoni’s system.

“It’s been a long season,” Kaman said. “I can’t wait until it’s over, I’ll tell you that.”

Kaman, an 11-year NBA veteran, called it the most frustrating season of his career “by far. Tenfold.”

Although he is averaging 9.9 points per game when he plays, Kaman is at career lows in rebounds (5.6) and minutes per game (18.4).

Kaman’s frustration has been palpable since shortly after he signed a one-year deal with the Lakers as a free agent in July. He appeared in just 34 of the Lakers’ first 69 games this season, with a foot injury hindering him much less than his inability to click with Los Angeles’ coaching staff.

“I was surprised the way we started the first preseason game,” Kaman said of his inability to crack D’Antoni’s rotation. “My bad on my part not doing due diligence enough to look into (D’Antoni’s) style of play.”

Kaman said he hadn’t spoken to D’Antoni since the Lakers were in Portland on March 3. The center doesn’t necessarily think that’s weird, but he leaves little doubt he doesn’t sync with D’Antoni’s style of coaching or management.

“I’m not at peace about it,” Kaman added. “I’m (ticked) about it, but I can’t control it. … It’s tough, but the best thing to do is play and try to stay positive and finish on a strong note.”

After spending his first eight NBA seasons with the Clippers, who made him the sixth overall pick in the 2003 draft, Kaman was traded to the New Orleans Hornets for one season.

He was similarly frustrated last season after signing with the Dallas Mavericks, struggling to get off coach Rick Carlisle‘s bench and chafing at his lack of involvement. He also missed time with a concussion.

Kaman said he can’t stay in game shape without playing in any games, and he expected to be rusty in his first game back. His foot injury is nothing that would prevent him from playing, and he’s still hoping he’ll get some time on court in the Lakers’ final 12 games of what’s likely to be the franchise’s worst season since moving to Los Angeles.

Kaman, who turns 32 next month, said he’ll “just do my job, make this go as quick as possible, and go from there.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Feels like we’ve heard this from Kobe Bryant before, but he told the New Yorker that Shaquille O’Neal was “lazy” …Spurs forward Matt Bonner will miss the next two weeks with a calf strain … Cavaliers forward Luol Deng doesn’t like not being in the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09 … Jazz rookie point guard Trey Burke says Utah fans are being ‘selfish’ when they root for the Jazz to lose to increase their Draft lottery chancesChris Bosh opened up on “The Dan Le Batard Show” on South Florida radio about his nickname, his best friends on the team and more

ICYMI of the Night: Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters had himself quite a game last night against the Raptors and nailed this pretty little layup, too …


VIDEO: Dion Waiters sinks the crafty reverse layup against Toronto

Blazers letting season slip away

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron, Bosh come up big against the Blazers

So it’s come to this for the Trail Blazers.

“It was a fine line,” said Terry Stotts.

When coaches and players start talking about fine lines, we usually know what side they’re standing on.

This time it was Chris Bosh getting a piece of Damian Lillard’s layup that resulted in a 93-91 loss at Miami on Monday night. It was the second straight defeat to open another critical five-game road trip for the Blazers. It was their eighth loss in the last 10 games. It was one more black mark on an awful road record — 6-13 — since Jan. 1.

Yes, the Blazers are playing without injured All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who will miss his seventh straight game with a back contusion Tuesday night in Orlando ( 7 ET, League Pass) with no word yet on a return. Just as important, the Blazers have been playing without a sense of urgency or purpose, especially at the defensive end for more than a month, collectively shrugging their shoulders and figuring they’ll be able to shoot themselves out of their funk with the next barrage of 3-balls. Whenever that happens.

Wesley Matthews (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE)

Wesley Matthews (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE)

“There’s no reason to panic or start to worry about the season getting away from us,” Wesley Matthews said a couple of weeks ago after the Blazers lost in Houston. “We all know what we’re capable of doing. We all know how to play. It’s just a matter of us playing our game.”

That would seem to be the biggest part of the problem. While the Blazers have the No. 1 rated offense, they rely far too much on outscoring their opponents rather than trying to stop them. They’re careless with the basketball, slinging around difficult or careless passes and telling themselves that somebody will make a shot when they need it.

The Blazers were the surprise of the first month of the season. Nobody, even the Blazers, expected that to hold up in the face of the consistent play of the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers. Yet on March 1, after beating the Nuggets at home, Portland was 41-18 and firmly in the battle for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Now the Blazers, as the fifth seed, are only a game up on Golden State at No. 6 and only three games from dropping all the way behind Dallas and out of the playoffs completely.

Portland’s last extended road trip was a 1-4 disaster, bottoming out when Aldridge crashed to the floor in San Antonio, landing hard on his back. Then the Blazers flew to Charlotte to open another five-game set — and it looked like the entire roster had simply missed the flight. They lost in to the Bobcats 124-94 on Saturday before Monday’s loss to Miami.

With a schedule that is fast getting late — 11 games left — and a season of goodwill that is slipping rapidly through their hands, there is a combination of denial about what’s happening and a refusal to change. Nic Batum continues to ride the roller coaster offensively, even in the absence of Aldridge and the need for him to step up. Matthews and Dorell Wright are careless handling the ball. And when the bombs-away approach isn’t working, they’re in deep, deep trouble.

“I don’t think it’s a larger issue,” Matthews told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian after the disaster in Charlotte. “We played bad. They played well.

“If you kill us, you’re gonna look dumb come next game. Because we’re going to be a whole new team, we’re going to be the team we’re supposed to be. So go ahead and kill us. And you’re going to have to come back and see us in the locker room and be like, ‘Aw shoot.’ So I’m just going to save you. Write that. Write it all.”

Yes, write it down. Portland went into Miami on Monday night and took the Heat to the edge. But LeBron James made the bucket to win the game, Lillard didn’t and the Blazers came out living in that gray area of relativism.

In and out. Make or miss. A fine line where teams in trouble seem to spend too much time tip-toeing on the wrong side.

“We’re tired of losing close games,” Stotts said. “But you can’t help but be proud of the way we competed.”

It’s come to this for the Blazers. Moral victories instead of real ones.

Film Study: Blazers’ shooters burn Wizards from 3-point range


VIDEO: The Blazers hit the Wizards with a barrage of 3s in the third quarter

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Thursday night in Portland, the Washington Wizards shot 12-for-27 (44 percent) from 3-point range.

Those are good numbers. Prior to Thursday, teams were 353-180 (.662) when they hit 10 or more threes in a game. The Wizards themselves were 28-10 when shooting better than 36 percent from beyond the arc.

It’s also impressive that the Wiz were able to generate so much perimeter offense without Marcin Gortat (who hurt his back warming up), one of the most prolific pick-and-roll bigs in the league. They’ve been much more efficient offensively with Gortat on the floor this season, but they scored 103 points on just 91 possessions (113 per 100) on Thursday.

The problem was that the Blazers shot 14-for-35 from 3-point range and scored 116 points on 91 possessions (127 per 100). The Wizards ranked ninth defensively when Nene went down with a left knee injury on Feb. 23, but rank 21st since then, having allowed 108.0 points per 100 possessions over the last 12 games.

Nene might not have been the difference maker on Thursday, because even with the players the Wizards had, some of Portland’s threes were avoidable.

Second chances, then 3 points

The Blazers rank second in offensive rebounding percentage and lead the league with 88 second-chance 3-pointers.

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Three of those 88 came Thursday …


VIDEO: The Blazers hit three of their league-leading 88 second-chance 3-pointers

Foes pay for doubling the post

Those first two second-chance 3-pointers came directly off the offensive rebound. But on the third one, Nicolas Batum found himself wide open when John Wall double-teamed Wesley Matthews in the low post.

That was also the third three that the Blazers got directly off a Matthews post-up. On the first two, either Wall or Bradley Beal initially fronted Matthews in the post, and when the Blazers were still able to get Matthews the ball, Trevor Booker came to help from the baseline.

From there, the Wizards’ defense was scrambling and there was an open three one or two passes away …


VIDEO: The Blazers get open threes out of double-teams in the post

Matthews is a pretty good post-up guard, but there shouldn’t be a need to send a double-team when he’s being defended by the 6-foot-4 Beal or 6-foot-4 Wall. That idea is especially true when the Blazers have an extra shooter on the floor.

Wright kind of mismatch

The Blazers are now 7-2 without LaMarcus Aldridge, having scored an efficient 112.0 points per 100 possessions in the nine games. Aldridge is thought of as Portland’s best player, but of their five starters, he has, by far, the lowest true shooting percentage. His abundance of mid-range shots (he still leads the league by 139 attempts) makes him a relatively inefficient scorer.

And while the Wizards will still start two bigs when Nene and/or Gortat are injured, the Blazers have gone small without Aldridge, starting Dorell Wright at the four.

On Thursday, Wright was matched up with Booker, who got one bucket on a tip-in and another on a post-up, but who wasn’t able to consistently take advantage of the size discrepancy.

Wright didn’t burn Booker all night from the perimeter, and the Wizards were a plus-2 in 16 minutes with Booker and Kevin Seraphin on the floor together, but there were a couple of times when Booker couldn’t keep up with the shooter …


VIDEO: The Blazers take advantage of Trevor Booker on the perimeter

The Wizards’ schedule gets a lot easier from here on out. Thursday was their last road game against a team with a winning record. But their 3-point defense needs to be better, because three of their next five games are against the three teams — the Lakers (32), Suns (36) and Hawks (32) — who have the most games with 10 or more threes.

Suns hot pick in NBA March Madness

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

The selection committee has done its job, the field is complete and now the intrigue starts all around the NBA — filling out those March Madness brackets.

But for a different kind of insanity, we thought it might be fun to go into a few arenas and locker rooms to ask one question: If the NBA playoffs were set up like the NCAA Tournament, who would be your Butler, a below-the-radar team capable of making a deep run?

Ray Allen, Heat: “In an NCAA format, one game and advance, anything is possible. Charlotte’s a team that would be dangerous. They can get hot. They’ve developed confidence. They play hard. They’re running a new system. Atlanta is a team that’s running a San Antonio offensive system and they play good defense. Both of those can really play defense. So if you put them in win-or-you’re-out format, teams like those that always play hard and don’t care about who their opponent is, they’re gonna be capable. There would definitely be more drama in that kind of a playoff system. Obviously, it would never get to that because of all the money that’s at stake over the long playoff series. But as players, you would appreciate it. You’d have to leave it all out there on the line. And every night — with the best players in the NBA going at it — it would really be madness. There would be some true grudge matches. Oh, that would be interesting.”

Mario Chalmers, Heat: “Dallas. That’s a team with weapons and can score.”

Roy Hibbert, Pacers: “In the East, I could see Toronto and Charlotte doing that. Even Chicago. In the West, Phoenix has played great a surprise people all year. Phoenix has a style of play that’s fast-paced and they have guys that are built for that.”


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses the Suns’ solid season to date

Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN analyst: “Memphis. Because of the style they play. Who else plays like Memphis? Who else has those two big guys like Z-Bo (Zach Randolph) and (Marc) Gasol to beat you up and wear you down. That’s a team that could walk into a tournament setting, get on a real roll and just start knocking people out. And in the East I’d say Chicago for a lot of the same reasons. They don’t have those two big bangers in the low post, but with Noah and the middle and the aggressiveness and the ferocity that they play with, the Bulls could make a tournament very interesting and tough on everyone.”

Chandler Parsons, Rockets: “I like Phoenix as my Butler in the West, because they’re so explosive offensively. In transition they’d get out and they’d beat a lot of good teams. In the East, I like Chicago. They’re playing really well. Joakim (Noah)has been unbelievable for them. He’s doing everything, getting triple-doubles. Plus they’re such a good defensive team. Those are definitely two teams you don’t want to see in the NBA playoffs and in an NCAA Tournament type scenario with sudden-death, no way. Even Memphis, if they sneak in at No 8 in the West. That’s a team that could do a lot of damage. Us? We’re above that Butler level. We’re Florida. We’re Duke.”

Matt Bonner, Spurs: “Phoenix. It’s about style of play. It’s about scoring points from a lot of different places. It’s about playing at a fast pace. Definitely Phoenix.”

Shane Battier, Heat: “Who is that dark horse team? Really, still no one is talking about Houston. They have played fantastic and the Rockets would be a buzz saw to play in any single game or even a seven-game series. You know they’re gonna shoot 30 3s. If they get hot, that’s an amazing number to try to match offensively. And no one is really talking about them. The hubbub is OKC and San Antonio and the Clippers to a large extent. People are talking about Golden State and the Splash Brothers more than they are about Houston. I think Houston is a legitimate team.”

Michael Beasley, Heat: “Miami. That’s the only team I’m worried about, the only team I think about. I don’t even want to imagine nobody else making a run, nobody else doing nothing.”


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the Bobcats and Al Jefferson’s play

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers: “I think every team in the West is capable of being that Butler type team. It’s so close, so many good teams. It just depends which week or two you’re talking about. We’ve seen that all season long. Remember how Memphis came in and beat San Antonio in the playoffs a couple of years ago? Golden State over Dallas a few years earlier. I think everybody is close and there are so many good teams in any matchup that in the NCAA Tournament arrangement, you might be able to play it three or four times and get a different team out of the West every time.”

Paul George, Pacers: “I think Phoenix. I think the Suns could do it because that’s a consistent team. They don’t rely on just one or two players to get most of their offense. They really spread things around. They really get after you all the time. They always play hard and bring it to you. They always want to attack. And in a tournament setting, they’ve got enough guys to make shots and make plays. They would just have to get hot at the right time, which we’ve seen from them this season. They’ve taken down tough opponents. They beat us twice, OKC. So that’s a team that could be very dangerous if it was tournament time.”

Dwight Howard, Rockets: “The Rockets. Despite anything that we’ve done and any games that we’ve won, I think in general we’re still a team that nobody’s looked at as a real contender. But you know, I like being the underdog. We’d like to keep ourselves being overlooked as much as possible through the end of the season and going into the playoffs. In a tournament, in the playoffs, we’re that kind of team that I believe and rise up and surprise people.”

Dwyane Wade, Heat: “I guess if look at the West, I’d say Phoenix could be a bracket-busting Butler. That’s a team that could get hot. Lot of weapons, lot of different people and ways to score and they don’t seem to let up. That style they play, they’re always going. In the East maybe the Bobcats. They play very well together. They’ve got a big man in Al Jefferson that can go 1-on-1 and can score. That’s a team that’s also been playing hard all year, been really gaining in confidence. So if you tossed them into a tournament setting, I’d say, yeah, they could go on a run.”

Danny Green, Spurs: “Phoenix. I was watching them play and they’re very dangerous at home. You know they don’t back down from anybody. They beat Indiana and OKC. We’ve lost to them this season. They love to get out and run. They move the ball fast and they don’t ever let up. If they’re healthy, they’re gonna come after you nonstop and they could do something like go on a run through a tournament. That pace of play is tough to deal with. Another team you’d have to watch out for is Dallas. They’ve got weapons and you’d always have to watch out for Dirk getting on a roll.”

Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers: “Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that. But if you want a dangerous team that maybe nobody would pick, I’d say Sacramento. They got a lot of weapons — Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, now Reggie Evans over there with some experience. Derrick Williams. They got a lot of pieces they can throw out there. If they get going, they could beat some people and go far. That’s a capable team.”

Wesley Matthews, Trail Blazers: “In the West anybody can beat anybody. You’ve got four or five teams with over 40 wins at this point in the season. You’ve seen teams go on runs with different styles. Houston went on a run recently. We went on a run earlier. Pick a day of the week. Anybody could be Butler.”

Francisco Garcia, Rockets: “I would say Phoenix, because they score in so many ways. I think everybody would take them lightly at the beginning of a tournament since they’re young and they don’t have a team filled up with All-Stars. It’s easy from the outside to overlook them. It’s only when you get out there on the court and see how hard they play and see how they are so good at moving the ball around and getting offensive from a lot of different places that you find out how good they can be. So if you put them in that kind of situation, where you get to play them only once, they could have a lot of success and make a run.”


VIDEO: The Starters talk about teams primed to make noise in the playoffs

Blazers get double dose of injury news


VIDEO: LaMarcus Aldridge suffers a back injury in last night’s loss to the Spurs

From NBA.com staff reports

The Portland Trail Blazers have been one of the clear surprises in the Western Conference standings this season, at times finding themselves in the upper crust of the league thanks to the play of All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge and a somewhat-improved bench that boasts sixth man Mo Williams. But the Blazers, who are working on a 2-5 record in March and have lost four straight, now will see their depth considerably sapped.

Aldridge, who suffered a back injury in last night’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs, will miss at least two games with a back contusion while Williams, who hurt his hip in Tuesday night’s loss to the Grizzlies, will be out two weeks with a right hip strain.

Aldridge’s injury was particularly frightening for Blazers fans. He had to be helped off the court and did not return. Williams missed last night’s game in San Antonio.