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Hang Time Podcast (Episode 238) Steph, Dwight, Playoffs and More!

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Stephen Curry is back. He told the crowd at the Moda Center exactly that Monday night, when he stole the show in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Portland Trail Blazers.

That was a day before he officially collected his second straight KIA MVP, the first player in NBA history to do it unanimously.

Let the debates begin about where he stands all time — best shooter ever, best scorer we’ve seen, up there with Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, etc. — even though he’s still just toe-deep into what is shaping up as a spectacular, future Hall of Fame career.

If Steph can keep up his current pace, there’s no question he’ll be in that conversation about the greatest players to grace the league. There was a tie a few years ago that the same things were being predicted for Dwight Howard. But that forecast got cloudy when he left Orlando for Los Angeles and then bolted the Lakers for Houston and … well, you know the story.

Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith dove into that conversation with Dwight on TNT Tuesday night in some must-see-TV, in case you missed it.

The point is, things change quickly in the NBA, the biggest name in the game today could find himself on the back burner if he’s not careful, as Dwight can attest. So it makes perfect sense that we celebrate Steph’s continued ascent while discussing Dwight’s looming huge free agent summer on Episode 238 of The Hang Time Podcast … Steph, Dwight, Playoffs and more.

We also shine the spotlight on Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and their 3-2 lead over the San Antonio Spurs with a chance to send the mighty Spurs fishing for the season and what that could mean for the remainder of this postseason.

Check it all out on Episode 238 of The Hang Time Podcast.

LISTEN HERE:

As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com, Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

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VIDEO: Stephen Curry is the NBA’s first unanimous KIA MVP

Morning shootaround — May 6

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors value Livingston’s contributions | Heat bemoan mistakes in wake of Game 2 loss | Lue fires back at Barkley | Why Vogel is out in Indiana | Report: Rockets to interview Hornacek

No. 1: Warriors appreciating Livingston even more now — The Golden State Warriors were hoping to have Stephen Curry back for Game 3 of their semifinal series with the Portland Trail Blazers. After practice yesterday, though, Warriors coach Steve Kerr says Curry ‘probably’ won’t play in Game 3. That means more heavy lifting at point guard for Curry’s backup, Shaun Livingston. It’s not surprising the Warriors have come to value Livingston’s contributions to the team even more during Curry’s absence, writes Ron Kroichick of the San Francisco Chronicle:

Kerr and team trainers want Curry to participate in practice, including at least a three-on-three scrimmage, before he returns to game action. This scrimmage might happen in the next few days, if all goes well, so it’s possible Curry could play in Game 4 on Monday night.

Still, his all-but-certain absence Saturday means it’s time, again, for Warriors fans to appreciate Shaun Livingston. He’s in line to make his sixth start of the playoffs when his team, already leading 2-0, meets Portland in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals.

“We’d be dead without him,” Kerr said.

Livingston brings a polar-opposite style — 4 inches taller than Curry and without similar lateral quickness or snazzy ballhandling skills. Curry does his best work away from the basket; Livingston prospers on the low post.

“Honestly, if you lose the MVP, you better have somebody capable to come in,” Kerr said. “Shaun is obviously more than just capable. He’s a great player in his own right.”

The Warriors looked lost at times without Curry on Tuesday night. Their offense grew stagnant as they fell behind 87-76 after three quarters.

But they rallied in the fourth quarter for a stirring victory, and Livingston was right in the mix. He re-entered the game with 6:07 remaining and the score tied 91-91. He had six points and two assists down the stretch as the Warriors pulled away.

He knows he won’t score 30 points a game, like Curry, but Livingston is trying to look toward the basket more often in his temporary role as a starter.

“We obviously don’t have the MVP out there, so my role is to be just a little bit more aggressive with my offensive game,” he said. “I’m trying to get guys involved but also keep attacking.…

“It’s a different game when Steph’s not out there. We don’t have the same spacing or the same shooting, or the same playmaking to a degree. So we have to rely on each other more, move the ball, just trust each other.”

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Hang Time Podcast (Episode 237) featuring Kristen Ledlow

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Extremely intense basketball is the main course of any NBA postseason. Always has been and always will be.

But the appetizer, side dish and everything else remains drama.

It might be on the court, could be off the court and could have absolutely nothing to do with the games being played. But this time of year you are guaranteed to get heaping helpings of the drama.

From the Cleveland Cavaliers setting 3-point shooting records to injury issues surrounding the reigning KIA MVP Stephen Curry to Kyle Lowry‘s late-night shooting sessions to Larry Bird‘s ridiculously blunt explanation as to why Frank Vogel will not return as coach of the Indiana Pacers, we’re on top of it all on Episode 237 of The Hang Time Podcast featuring the great Kristen Ledlow.

And that’s not even taking into account the craziness that is the San Antonio Spurs/Oklahoma City Thunder Western Conference semifinal, what with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook doing whatever they can to derail the Spurs’ postseason plans.

Check it all out on Episode 237 of The Hang Time Podcast featuring Kristen Ledlow.

LISTEN HERE:

As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com, Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

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VIDEO: Larry Bird explains why it was so tough to decide not to renew Frank Vogel’s contract as coach of the Indiana Pacers

Frank Vogel out as coach of Indiana Pacers

HANG TIME BIG CITY — Frank Vogel is out as coach of the Indiana Pacers, team president Larry Bird announced today.

Vogel’s contract expired, and Bird announced they would not be renewing Vogel’s contract.

“I just thought it was time for the guys to hear a new voice,” said Bird, who described Vogel as “the best” and “a great man.”

“My experience has been, good coaches leave after three years,” Bird said. “I played for Bill Fitch and I seen it happen first hand.”

“[Vogel] will do fine,” Bird added. “He’s looking forward to his next job, and… he’s the real deal.”

In just over five seasons as coach of the Pacers, Vogel compiled a regular season record of 250-181. Vogel became the coach of the Pacers midway through the 2010-11 season, serving as interim coach after Jim O’Brien was fired before being named permanent coach that summer.

Vogel led the Pacers to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons, including trips to the Eastern Conference finals in 2013 and 2014. The Pacers lost to the Miami Heat in both of their trips to the conference finals, and after their All-Star forward Paul George broke his leg playing for USA Basketball in the summer of 2014, the Pacers missed the playoffs last season. This season, with George back at full strength, the Pacers returned to the playoffs, losing a first round series to Toronto in seven games.

Pacers president Larry Bird has been vocal about wanting to see the Pacers improve offensively. This season, the Pacers averaged 102.2 points per game, good for 17th overall in the NBA. The Pacers’ offensive rating of 102.4 ranked them 23rd in the NBA.

Morning shootaround — May 5

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Waiters: ‘One guy can’t beat us’ | Carroll says Lowry must ‘man up’ now | Report: Celtics in pursuit of Butler | Hawks shell-shocked by barrage of 3s | Report: Bickerstaff pulls out of consideration for Rockets’ job | Vogel awaits fate today

No. 1: Waiters says Aldridge alone can’t be Thunder — The San Antonio Spurs are more than getting their money’s worth out of free-agent addition LaMarcus Aldridge in the Western Conference semifinals. The newest Spur has been on fire in the series, averaging 39.5 points and shooting 75 percent in the first two games of the series. But to Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dion Waiters, the numbers that matter are 1 and 1. That’s the state of the series despite Aldridge’s heroics and, to Waiters, things are looking down for the Spurs as a team if Aldridge continues to sizzle. ESPN.com’s Royce Young has more:

“One man can’t beat you,” Thunder guard Dion Waiters said Wednesday. “So we’re fine with that. If they want to continue to get out of their offense and throw the ball down there to him, we’re fine with that. One guy can’t beat us, no matter how much he scores.”

“We’ve just got to make adjustments, try to make it tough on him,” Waiters said. “He’s a great player in this league, an All-Star. He’s going to make shots. He’s playing tremendous right now. But we’re fine with one guy just beating us. We’re fine with that. At the end of the day, Serge [Ibaka] and Steven [Adams] got to continue to do what they’ve been doing, but guys are going to make shots in the NBA and as long as they’re not running the offense and dropping it down to them, we’re living with that.”

Aldridge was asked by reporters in San Antonio if he’s putting pressure on himself to not cool down after his two big games in the series.

“I’m just playing basketball. I’m not trying to go do it [have a huge game],” he said. “You know, honestly, I didn’t think that I’d do it again after the first game. It’s just I’m going with the flow of the game out there.”

The Thunder primarily stuck with single coverage on Aldridge, with coach Billy Donovan saying they were mostly happy with the defense on the Spurs power forward. In the series, Aldridge is 17-of-26 on contested shots.

“We’re making him take the shots that we want, and he’s just making them,” Adams said. “That’s the only thing that’s kind of bumming us out right now. … We’re making him take similar shots [as in the past] and he’s just making all of them. And it sucks.”

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Morning shootaround — May 3

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Thompson dominating on glass again | Bird won’t commit to Vogel as coach | Warriors back Green’s star status | Batum wants to re-sign with Hornets

No. 1: Thompson breaking Hawks’ hearts again — Thanks in large part to a monstrous performance in the 2015 playoffs, Cleveland Cavaliers big man Tristan Thompson netted himself an $82 million payday last summer. His work on the offensive glass against opponents during that 2015 run was something to behold. He averaged 11 or more rebounds in every round from the semifinals on and in the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta, he averaged 4.3 offensive rebounds alone. As the Cavs took a 1-0 lead in their East semifinals series with Atlanta last night, Thompson was up to his old tricks writes Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com:

While LeBron James (25 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds, 5 steals), Kyrie Irving (21 points, 8 assists) and Kevin Love (17 points, 11 rebounds) occupied their regular starring roles against Atlanta, Thompson kept setting them up with opportunities to succeed.

“When teams play great defense for 24 seconds and he comes up with those rebounds, it’s just demoralizing to a team because now they have to come out and guard us again,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue of Thompson. “That’s what he’s done for us the last two years. We know what he does and we know what he brings and he knows who he is.”

Thompson let the basketball world know who he is last spring, filling in for the injured Love as the undermanned Cavs made it all the way to the Finals. He was particularly effective against Atlanta in last year’s conference finals — averaging 11.8 points, 11 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the series while racking up a plus-46 over the four games — and only continued that effort to begin the conference semifinals this year.

Atlanta, which led the league in defensive field goal percentage this season, is used to getting stops. But those stops become watered down if Thompson keeps generating possessions.

“If you help, then he’s active on the boards,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I know it’s more important that we make them miss first. That’s our priority and then we have to have all five guys in there competing, getting after it. Credit to him. He’s a good player. He plays off their penetration and shots well.”

Is it something about the Hawks that unleashes Thompson’s game?

“Every series is different,” Thompson said following the game as he shared the podium with James after adding eight points, two assists and two blocks to his rebound total. “Against the Hawks, in terms of [Paul] Millsap and [Al] Horford, we kind of weigh about the same amount, the same active bigs — for me it’s just staying with it on the glass.

“The first half I only had two offensive rebounds, but I’m just going to keep hitting the glass every possession, and as the fourth quarter, third quarter hits — that’s when I try to use my technique to be able to create second possessions for my teammates.”

Thompson, at 6-foot-10, 238 pounds, is indeed in the same size range as Horford (6-10, 245) and Millsap (6-8, 246), prompting teammate Richard Jefferson to suggest that Atlanta had “two Tristans” when previewing the series. It wasn’t lost on anyone that Jefferson was comparing two of the Hawks’ best players to someone considered to be a bit player for the Cavs.

“Just take the challenge,” Thompson said. “Horford and Millsap are both All-Stars and two terrific players, very good players in our league, so for me as a young guy I want to take advantage of an opportunity. I guess it’s extra motivation just because you’re playing against guys who are All-Stars and very talented. Just try to come with my hard hat and make it tough for them.”

James, who passed Michael Jordan in career postseason wins on Monday with 120, was asked if Thompson serves as the Dennis Rodman to his MJ as he sat beside him.

“I think what Dennis did for the Bulls — on the floor, make sure we note that part — Double T does for our team,” James said, referring to Thompson’s nickname.

While surely Rodman might have picked feather boa over Stetson as his flashy fashion choice, there weren’t rebounds just falling from the sky into his hands, either.

“Just giving us extra possessions, defending guys that are sometimes bigger than him, defending guys that are sometimes smaller than him,” James continued. “We know that every night he’s going to give us everything that he got, and a lot of it sometimes doesn’t show up in the box score. But what he does on the glass is huge for our team.”

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Hang Time Podcast (Episode 228) Featuring Klay Thompson and Arash Markazi

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — History will determine where these Golden State Warriors rank all time.

They have to finish the deal, of course. None of it will matter if the Warriors don’t break the NBA record for wins in the regular season (the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls still own the top spot at 72 wins)

But Klay Thompson and the Warriors are not intimidated by the task. Thompson told us during All-Star Weekend that the chase for 73 wins is on. And the Warriors are currently ahead of the pace, 50-5 and counting.

Where will the Golden State Warriors rank all time?

Ahead of those outlandish Michael Jordan-led Bulls? Certainly alongside them and the Showtime Lakers, the Larry Bird-led Celtics, the Shaquille O’NealKobe Bryant-led Lakers and others.

We debate that and so much more on Episode 228 of The Hang Time Podcast featuring Thompson and Arash Markazi of ESPN.com, a Los Angeles native who provides a local perspective and also schools us on Echo Fox (owned by our very own Rick Fox).

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LISTEN HERE:

As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com, Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

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VIDEO: The Starters discuss the Golden State Warriors historical chase for 73 wins

Morning shootaround — Feb. 22


VIDEO: The Fast Break — Feb. 21

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors beef up big man ranksVan Gundy takes blame for Pistons’ surrender to Davis | Lakers to start Russell the rest of the way | Was Lebron was right about Waiters?

No. 1: Warriors beef up big man ranks — What do you get the (championship) team that seems to have everything? Another big man, if you are the Golden State Warriors. They’ve added former Cleveland center Anderson Varejao, a LeBron James favorite during their time together with the Cavaliers, who helps bolster their big man ranks with both Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli ailing. Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle provides the details on the Warriors’ big man insurance policy:

The Warriors went without a center in their starting lineup out of necessity in Saturday night’s victory over the Clippers.

The team, however, didn’t consider that a long-term option, and on Sunday, it reached an agreement to sign free-agent center Anderson Varejao to a veteran minimum contract, league sources confirmed.

The Warriors cut forward/center Jason Thompson to clear roster room for Varejao and complete the move, which first was reported by the website, the Vertical.

Varejao, who’s 6-foot-10, had spent all of his 12-season career with the Cavaliers before being traded last week.

He was averaging career lows in points (2.6), rebounds (2.9), blocked shots (0.2) and minutes (10) for Cleveland before being sent to Portland in a trade-deadline deal Thursday. The Trail Blazers immediately cut him in a salary-cap move, and the Warriors expressed interest in the 33-year-old. They beat out other playoff teams who tried to ink him once he cleared waivers Sunday.

“I have not been notified of that, but it makes perfect sense, right?” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Friday night when told that his team’s interest in Varejao had been reported by ESPN. “I don’t even know if I am allowed to even mention his name. I can get fined by the NBA. I don’t even know what the rule is.”

The interest increased when starting center Andrew Bogut was forced to miss Saturday’s win at Staples Center because of a sore right Achilles tendon. Backup center Festus Ezeli is on the shelf after undergoing left knee surgery and is expected to miss at least another month.

With Bogut and Ezeli out, it was thought that Kerr might give either Marreese Speights or Thompson a start in the middle against the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan, who’s 6-11.

Instead, the Warriors went small with 6-6 swingman Brandon Rush joining the starting five. That moved Harrison Barnes to power forward and shifted 6-7 Draymond Green to the center spot. Green responded with his league-leading 11th triple-double in the Warriors’ 115-112 win.

Varejao twice averaged double-doubles in his career (2011-12, ’12-13), but his numbers have fallen considerably since then. He didn’t play in the Cavs’ six-game loss to the Warriors in last season’s NBA Finals.

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 No. 2: Van Gundy takes blame for Pistons’ surrender to DavisAndre Drummond had no chance. Neither did Tobias Harris or anyone else the Detroit Pistons tried to throw at Anthony Davis Sunday, when Davis dropped a NBA season-high 59 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in the New Orleans Pelicans’ win at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy didn’t blame his players, though. He owned up to this one, pointing the finger at the man in the mirror after Davis etched his name in the history books with his monster performance. John Niyo of the Detroit News explains:

There was no voiding Sunday’s result, though, and rather than ripping his team, the Pistons coach ripped himself for the effort against Davis, who finished 24-of-34 from the field to post the NBA’s single-game high for the season and the best ever at the Palace, topping LeBron James’ 48-point outburst in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals. Davis had 51 points in the final three quarters alone, and later shrugged, “After a while, you feel like any shot you put up is going to go in.”

“That one’s on me,” Van Gundy insisted. “You’ve got to come up with something. A guy can’t get 59. That’s terrible coaching. Terrible.”

Whomever you want to pin it on, the Pistons have now lost eight of their last 10 games to fall two games below .500 for the first time all season — and two games out of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference.

And before you blame this latest skid solely on new faces and changing roles, remember the Pistons are 5-11 since that roof-rattling win over Golden State in mid-January.

They’re 6-13 in the last six weeks, with a road game at Cleveland on tap.

That might explain why Van Gundy had little interest Sunday in talking about the pending trade or the depleted lineup or the possibility changing roles might have something to do with his team’s disjointed performance at both ends of the floor.

Davis lighting up The Palace scoreboard certainly wasn’t the only issue Sunday. Marcus Morris, whose duties were altered the most by the trade with Orlando for Harris, finished with a season-low two points in 34 minutes. He and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — coming off a core-muscle injury — are a combined 10-for-45 from the field in the two games since the All-Star break.

“Why would the trade set it back?” Van Gundy countered, when asked about Morris. “He’s struggling. I don’t know if it’s with the multiple roles or if he just can’t get the ball in the basket. No excuses, though.”

But answers? We’ll see, especially now that Anthony Tolliver’s status is in limbo as well. In his second game as a starter following the trades — a place-holder for Harris as he gets adjusted to his new team — he limped off the court following a collision with Andre Drummond in the first half Sunday. Tolliver was headed for an MRI after the game, another troubling sight for a team that’s headed the wrong direction in the standings.

“I think everybody’s frustrated,” Van Gundy said. “Nobody likes to lose. Of course everybody’s frustrated. We’ve just got to keep playing through stuff.”

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No. 3: Lakers to start Russell the rest of the way — After a nearly three-month stint coming off the bench, Los Angeles Lakers rookie point guard D’Angelo Russell is back in the starting lineup and apparently there for good. Russell and Lakers coach Byron Scott have had their issues this season, but with the team’s season headed for an ugly finish of the Kobe Bryant farewell tour, it’s time to let the rookie go. Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com has more:

“It was just time,” Scott said when asked why he moved Russell back to the starting lineup, where Russell spent the first 20 games before being moved to the bench in December.

“Each month he has seemed to get better,” Scott continued. “He’s really starting to understand what this game is all about. He still needs to pick it up at times. Obviously on both ends he needs to continue to work, but I like what I saw [Sunday], and I like what I’ve been seeing from him over the last couple months.”

Russell’s playing time — and lack thereof at times — has been the biggest hot-button issue surrounding the 11-46 Lakers in what is on pace to be the worst season in franchise history. Scott has often benched Russell in the fourth quarter or, in one instance, pulled him for “trying to take over the game.”

“I get this question asked all the time. I don’t really care,” Russell said of starting versus coming off the bench. “I just want to play the right way. If that’s coming off the bench or starting, I just want to make an impact right away. I wish we could’ve won, just so I could feel better about it. But I trust coach’s decision and go with it.”

What does Russell hope to accomplish in the final 25 games?

“I just want to get better,” Russell said. “Coach always said, you’ve always got something to play for no matter how many games we’ve got left. However many games we’ve got left, I feel like I’ve still got something to prove.

“And I don’t want anybody to take it the wrong way, but you feel like your best players are your starters. And I feel like I’m going to keep the confidence and say that I’m one of the best players, so I feel like I just want to keep proving that I deserve to start, deserve to be out there and play crunch time minutes.

“With these last few games, I want to show that I have to be out there, like build that trust with my coach that he has to put me on the floor.”

Russell said being in the starting lineup along with guard Jordan Clarkson and forward Julius Randle will allow the trio of promising young players to build even more chemistry together.

“We can grow. We can play a lot tighter,” Russell said. “There’s a time when you can learn from each other as far as when one or them or myself mess up, we can figure out how to grow or we can watch film together. We should’ve done it earlier in the year, but I guess we were caught up in different ways. We can really take this time to grow together.”

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No. 4: Was LeBron right about Waiters?Dion Waiters wasn’t a good fit in Cleveland once LeBron James decided to bring his talents home to northeast Ohio. So when the Cavaliers traded Waiters and went instead with J.R. Smith, much was made of the move. People wondered if LeBron and Cleveland had given up on Waiters too soon. But maybe LeBron was right, per Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman, who highlights the struggles of Waiters against his former team after the Cavaliers thumped the Thunder Sunday:

Waiters was awful for the second straight game. He followed a pointless Friday night game against Indiana with an equally fruitless game against his former team.

Waiters made LeBron the General Manager look incredibly wise. Waiters famously was traded by the Cavs to the Thunder 13 months ago because LeBron preferred to play with the mercurial J.R. Smith. The same J.R. Smith who made five of eight 3-pointers Sunday for Cleveland.

Meanwhile, Waiters missed his first seven shots, including an air-balled 3-pointer and a wild drive in which the ball bounced off the backboard 13 feet off the ground. Waiters made only his last shot, a 16-footer with 3:40 left in the game. That basket came with the score 109-88.

By the third quarter, Billy Donovan was designing plays for Waiters to boost his confidence, the Cavaliers were letting Waiters shoot and he wanted no part of it, preferring to drive and pass and keep the embarrassment to a minimum.

Seemed clear that Waiters was pressing to produce against the Cavs, who discarded him. Just as he did back in December, when Waiters scored four points on 1-of-7 shooting and the Thunder lost 104-100.

“Nah,” Waiters said. “Shots I normally make, I just missed. It’s going to come around. I ain’t worried about it.”

You can’t blame Donovan if he’s worried about it, though the Thunder’s first-year coach stood by his man.

“I’ve got confidence in Dion,” Donovan said. “When a guy’s not shooting the ball well, to me, that’s when you gotta really trust him. Obviously Dion hasn’t shot the ball great, but the guys in that locker room still believe he can help us.”

Donovan is right. He has no choice but to trust Waiters.

Not in the starting lineup. As soon as Andre Roberson is healthy, he needs to get back to opening games. The Thunder starting lineup with Roberson has been fantastic two years running, so even when Waiters is hitting, Roberson should be the starter.

But the Thunder has to have Waiters contributing offensively. His defense is solid. And who else off the bench is doing anything? Anthony Morrow can’t defend, and he’s made just 5-of-20 on February 3-pointers. Kyle Singler? Newcomer Randy Foye is available, but he’s 32 and on the downslope.

Waiters has to play and play well for the Thunder to prosper. The Cavs proved that.

“They were loading up on Kevin and Russell quite a bit,” Donovan said. “I thought our offense was OK in the first half. But when we did move and share the basketball, and found Dion or found different players, we didn’t make enough shots. For Dion, I thought he had some good looks tonight and it didn’t go down.

“I think maybe pressing’s probably a good word. Maybe he was a little bit. I don’t think it had anything to do with Cleveland as much as it had to do with probably coming out of last game.”

Maybe. But I don’t buy it. Looked like Waiters desperately wanted to prove LeBron wrong and instead proved him right.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Pistons are still waiting to get clearance on their trade for Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus ThorntonKobe Bryant never shied away from the legacy of Michael Jordan in Chicago … Tonight’s Warriors-Hawks matchup (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV) at Philips Arena lacks the sizzle of last season’s tilt between the best of the best … The Indiana Pacers’ gamble on Myles Turner continues to pay off handsomely for Larry Bird … Dallas coach Rick Carlisle is looking forward to adding a quality veteran in David Lee today

Morning shootaround — Jan. 16


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from Friday night

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Noah’s shoulder jeopardizes his, Bulls’ fates | Thunder getting overlooked, underloved? | Bird unhappy with Pacers’ style slippage | Long trip leaves Cavs in good place

No. 1: Noah’s shoulder jeopardizes his, Bulls’ fates — Your first instinct was to look around for Boston’s Kelly Olynyk. He was the culprit involved in the NBA’s previous most notable shoulder injury, locking up Cleveland’s Kevin Love in the first round last spring and sending the former All-Star forward off to surgery, done for the rest of the playoffs. This time, though, it was Dallas’ JaVale McGee getting tied up with Chicago’s Joakim Noah, with Noah suddenly pulling away and running off the court while shouting anguished expletives. Noah’s left shoulder dislocation was a significant re-injury of the same shoulder he had sprained before Christmas, and according to Bulls beat writer K.C. Johnson, it has the frustrated center and his teammates rattled while awaiting the outcome of an MRI exam. Meanwhile, any plans by Bulls management to explore the trade market for Noah, an impending free agent, probably have been diminished:

A Saturday MRI will produce an official prognosis and whether surgery is needed, but the injury likely will have major ramifications for the franchise — and for Noah. The Bulls have gauged the market for Noah in advance of next month’s trade deadline, an option that is in serious jeopardy now.

More powerfully, the Bulls waited two weeks to clear Noah for contact practices and officially rule out surgery for his last injury, which involved a small tear. If surgery is needed this time, could Noah, an unrestricted free agent, have played his last game for the franchise that drafted him in 2007?

“It didn’t look good,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.

“It’s devastating,” Derrick Rose said. “He’s a big piece.”

No two injuries are the same, but [Love] took more than four months to return to basketball activity after dislocating his shoulder in last season’s playoffs.

“I’m frustrated for him,” Taj Gibson said. “He felt so good coming into this game. We don’t know the severity of it but the look on his face was just crazy. He had put so much work in to get back to the team.

“It just makes my stomach sick. You’ve been going to war with this guy all kind of different circumstances over eight years, a guy you pride yourself with, especially with practice and he’s one of the emotional leaders, it hits you in the heart. Seeing him on that table like that, I kind of got flashbacks to when Derrick got hurt. You don’t want to see your man go down like that. It’s frustrating.”

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No. 2: Thunder getting overlooked, underloved?— No one would welcome additional, legitimate championship contenders for the Larry O’Brien Trophy this June than the NBA. It just so happens that the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors, are as good as or maybe better than they were last season. The San Antonio Spurs have a history of success unrivaled for duration since the Bill Russell-era Boston Celtics. And the Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James, who has taken his team to five consecutive Finals. Outside of those three franchises, though, the league’s other 27 teams have more skeptics than supporters when assessing their shot at a spring ring. Royce Young of ESPN.com took a hard look at where the Oklahoma City fit among the top contenders, and wound up re-visiting a familiar topic – media disrespect – with former MVP forward Kevin Durant:

A couple of hours before the Oklahoma City Thunder squared off against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night, Michael Wilbon said on “Pardon The Interruption”: “There’s only three teams in the NBA, right now from where we sit, who can win the championship, who can even play for the championship.”

Those three: the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers. “That’s it,” Wilbon said. “That’s the list.”

The Thunder went on to effortlessly roll over the young Wolves 113-93, as expected, improving to 29-12. At the midway point of the season, that puts the Thunder on a 58-win pace, which in the past 10 seasons on average is good for the second seed in the Western Conference, and has been good for the No. 1 seed twice. With a robust margin of victory of +8.2, on paper, the Thunder look like a surefire contending power.

But plenty of people around the league seem to share the same sentiment as Wilbon. It’s Warriors, Spurs and Cavs, and then everybody else.

The question is, where are the Thunder?

“Man, the [media and experts are] always trying to nitpick us,” Kevin Durant told ESPN.com. “I mean, they don’t like us. They don’t like how Russell [Westbrook] talks to the media, they don’t like how I talk to the media. So obviously, yeah, they’re not going to give us the benefit of the doubt.

“Especially since we’ve been together so long. Some of these teams are new, except for the Spurs, who have won. But we haven’t won and we’ve still got the same core, so they don’t expect us to win. It is what it is, who cares about them. They don’t mean nothing, the critics. Their opinions, everybody has one, but we don’t really care about them. Every day we’re just going to keep grinding this thing out. We feel like we can compete with anybody.”

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No. 3: Bird unhappy with Pacers’ style slippage — Change is hard, especially when the state from which one is departing worked so darn well. The Indiana Pacers committed to a pace-and-space attack over the summer, shedding the “smash mouth” style built around center Roy Hibbert and power forward David West that had produced consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals. There were growing pains early – Paul George didn’t like the idea of being stuck as a “power forward” – but George, his teammates and coach Frank Vogel worked out the kinks for a satisfying start. But Indiana has dropped nine of its past 15 games since starting 16-9 and whether in response to opponents’ tactics, George’s sputters after his early MVP form or just lapsing into old habits, the Pacers have slowed down and gone bigger. That had Larry Bird, the team’s president of basketball operations, displeased when he spoke to Nate Taylor of the Indianapolis Star:

“I just can’t get a handle on it right now because these guys are up and down,” Bird said in a telephone interview just hours before Friday’s game against Washington. “I can’t tell you what is best for us right now. We’ve had success with the small lineup, but we’ve had success with two big guys in there. It’s going to take a little bit more time, but I would like to have won more games up to this point. I don’t think any of us feel comfortable with how we’re playing and the way things are going.”

What Bird does not want the Pacers to do is waver from the new offensive philosophy they developed in the offseason.

“I’d like to see teams match up with us instead of us worrying about who certain guys are going to guard on the other teams,” Bird said. “Let’s see if they can guard us. If you’ve got good ball movement and you’ve got guys hitting shots, it makes it pretty easy.”

After talking with Bird after Thursday’s practice, Vogel returned to the spread lineup to start Friday’s game for the first time since Dec. 31. The results were not what Bird desired. The Pacers fell behind early to the Wizards and struggled throughout in a 118-104 blowout loss. The Pacers missed 14 of their 17 3-pointers and were outrebounded by the Wizards 54-35.

Bird and Vogel have talked almost every day throughout the season. Vogel said their conversations have not changed much, but he mentioned before Friday’s game that every aspect of the team is in flux, from which lineup should start to which players should be on the court in the final minutes of games.

Vogel said he has favored the big lineup because it has a strong defensive rating of 89.4, a statistic that measures points allowed per 100 possessions, entering Friday’s game. The spread lineup’s defensive rating is 106.3.

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No. 4: Long trip leaves Cavs in good place — Fatigued yet fulfilled, the Cleveland Cavaliers returned home in the wee hours Saturday from a long road trip that may have positioned them just right for another push to the Finals. The mood of their leader, LeBron James, was evident in a Tweet James posted upon getting home:

It also was clear in James’ comments after a breezy 20-point victory at Houston to conclude the trip that Cleveland might just be revving up to keep playing for another five months. Here is an excerpt from Dave McMenamin‘s piece for ESPN.com:

After traveling nearly 6,000 miles over the course of a six-game, 12-day trip — enough distance to go from New York to Los Angeles and back again — the Cleveland Cavaliers walked out of the Toyota Center on Friday night having picked up five wins on the journey and a boost of confidence to take into the second half of the season.

“The only thing I care about is how I lead these guys every single night, and I know we can compete with any team in the league and it doesn’t have to be a regular-season game,” LeBron James said afterward when asked if it bothered him that some were judging the Cavs because of that Spurs loss [Thursday]. “I know, you give us four games and it’s time to lock down in a playoff series, we can play and we can beat any team in this league. So that’s my feeling and that’s what I know.”

The certainty in James’ words was significant, as the 5-1 trip seemed to solidify the notion that his Cavs had indeed turned the corner. They won in just about every imaginable fashion — blowing it open late in Washington; thoroughly dominating in Minnesota; toying around with the competition in Philadelphia; coming from behind in Dallas and making big plays down the stretch; and then, in Houston, shooting only 39.1 percent as tired legs resulted in missed jump shots, but determined defense wouldn’t let them lose as the Rockets shot even worse at 35.1 percent.

They’ve now won nine of their past 10 games, heading into a home date with the Golden State Warriors on Monday, and are starting to look like the team that became a juggernaut in the second half of last season through the playoffs, until injuries derailed them in the Finals.

“I think just being on the road, just together for 12 days just brought us together more,” Cavs big man Tristan Thompson told ESPN.com. “And you can see it on the court. There’s more flow. Guys are understanding where guys are going to be at.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Byron Scott is talking about playing the Lakers’ young guys more over the second half of the season, though it’s hard to imagine Kobe Bryant‘s Farewell Tour yielding to any sort of organizational-development agenda. … We can understand why the Brooklyn Nets would be interested in Tom Thibodeau to bail out their dismal operation, but we’re unclear as to why Thibodeau would be interested in the Nets. … San Antonio has been so good for so long, it’s kind of unfair to the rest of the league, according to USA Today. … The first priority with Nene always seems to be, getting him healthy .The second is keeping him that way, because his impact on the Washington Wizards is considerable. … This Miami Heat teams lacks some of the self-assurance and self-awareness that the Big Three edition owned, says one insider. … There are Bulls fans who wish that Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose got along as famously as Butler and his Hollywood buddy Mark Wahlberg.

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 223) Featuring Dominique Wilkins

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Comparing NBA eras, be it individuals or teams, is often a painstaking process that relies more on your intuition and sharp eye than it does any real science.

That’s one reason why Hall of Famers like Dominique Wilkins, do their best to stay away from the ghost chasing many of us do when we try to rate the basketball legends of the past and present. So when Larry Bird is asked to assess his vaunted 1986 Boston Celtics and the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors, there’s really not a right or wrong answer.

There is only his perception of what those teams accomplish in their respective eras and the fantasy of what it would be like to see Bird, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson match up against Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

Same goes for any glorified rankings of the top players in league history at any position (#ESPNrank is stirring up fantastic debates these days) or any other attempt to reflect the current crop of superstars and teams against their historical counterparts. Too many of the dynamics have changed from say 30 or 40 years ago to now. There are fare too many variables to get a handle on anything other than a theory about who would come out on top in any hypothetical equation.

None of that stopped us from quizzing Wilkins about these very topics, and so much more, Episode 223 of The Hang Time Podcast. Just because there are very few easy answers doesn’t mean you don’t ask the question.

So see if you can make sense of it all on this week’s episode.

LISTEN HERE:

As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com, Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

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VIDEO: Dominique Wilkins talks about competing with Larry Bird in their collective primes


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